Saturday, April 12, 2014

Anime Review #4: Akuma No Riddle

First Impressions of Akuma No Riddle

Akuma No Riddle starts out following Tokaku, top of her class, 16 year old assassin in training.  It seems that there's some sort of Lee Harvey Oswald School for Girls out there and she's rocking socks there.  We then find out that she's being transferred to some elite mega school to kill one of her soon to be classmates.  Other than the target, the rest of the class is also comprised of Mr. Oswald's little achievers.  So it's an anime about a high stakes game of kill the guy with the ball.

Artistically, the anime is above standard.  They do a good job using different lighting to capture the mood pretty nicely.  The quality is pretty consistent and they manage to properly blend the characters into the scene so there's nothing that strikes you as being jarring or out of place.  The only thing that I can honestly say that bothered me was that the irises of the characters seem to come to a point at the bottom making them look hexagonal. 

The character designs are about average, the assassin girls have some variations of the standard female character tropes so common to anime but there's already a promise of a bit of depth to them that I'm hoping will be brought out in later episodes.  Tokaku, if anyone, is the one most guilty of being a stereotype by having the militant hard-ass personality that is almost standard issue to female assassins in anime.  To be fair, it's hard to escape using tropes since there's so many of them.  Some of the costuming isn't quite what I would have thought of, particularly since they're all supposed to be wearing the same school uniform, but that doesn't stop a few of the characters from sporting this year's latest in street walker chic. 

The plot starts out strongly waving its mind games flag, promising lots of psychological shenanigans and dark secrets to follow.  I'm perfectly okay with this, that means that the characters are going to have depth and development and will at least try to feel human instead of everyone simply being a soulless walking weapon rack.  Already by episode two there's some nice character growth and exposition being shown and some hints at what makes all of these girls tick.  I'm liking where this is heading so far.

I'm giving this one a B+, losing its chance at higher because there's some things that are a bit overused, in particular I don't like the assassin school headmaster cum deathgame master, he just oozes cheese and the character archetype is beginning to become overused and worn.  I will keep watching this one and am kind of excited to see where they take it.  Watch it, it's pretty good.

Anime Review #3: Atelier Escha & Logy

First Impressions of Atelier Escha and Logy

I came at this title cold, zero background information whatsoever.  First thing I noticed was that it was just oozing kawaii, which isn't necessarily a bad thing but it raises my suspicions.  We start out with a child getting a bedtime story from a clockwork nanny and then by the time the intro is over she's 15.  She probably had a boring childhood, so I can appreciate the fast forward.  It's her first day on the job as an alchemist, though!  Sounds exciting, eh?  She gets tarted up in loli gear and skips off  through kawaiiville to the town's R&D workshop.

Artistically, this is a very cutesy world, the girl, Escha is cute, the town is cute, the raccoon-cat-things are cute, and even the male character Logy is cute.  Mostly, it's not poorly done, but the art in some places just seems too plain and feels somewhat of a rush-job.  It's got a pretty nice looking opening sequence to go with it's theme song, which had me intrigued at first.

The voice acting feels like it's done by the same four people who voice almost every other anime ever since each of their voices are instantly recognizable as at least two other characters from other series.  Severe typecasting, is all I'm saying.  If it's not the same people then they've worked tirelessly to ensure that their mannerisms and speech patterns match identically with work done in other anime. 

Plot-wise, oh boy.  I was a little ways in before I had the distinct taste of RPG anime in my mouth.  A quick trip to Wikipedia and sure enough this is an anime derived from the 15th game in the Atelier series.  From the looks of it, they didn't even try to do anything but have some dude playing the game while somebody was sitting next to him taking fastidious notes to then scamper off and whip up an anime.  Perhaps they made this anime by throwing a few scraps of metal, an otaku, and a lolita complex into a vat and waiting thirty minutes, because I kid you not, that seems to be how they do everything else in the show.  From sciencing up an apple tart, to sciencing back together a part from a windmill, you just throw crap in the magic vat and, "hey presto!" Everything's hunky dory!  For an RPG game, this works, and it's fine because of massive technical restrictions; in an anime, it's just lazy. 

I'm giving this anime a D rating.  It's just shallow and promises very little, even the floating ruins that they shoehorn in at the end of the episode fail to intrigue.  I'd try the RPG, but I won't continue to watch through this anime.  If you're a massive fan of the series and just have to consume every bit of media associated with it, watch this.  Otherwise, just play the game.

Short Story #1: Godslayer


Fred Slawson

Jack 3792 was born to be a soldier. Not that there was anything special about his physiology that made him a better warrior than your common man. The difference was, when they decided to pop his embryo into the incubator, he was part of a batch of cauldron-born that were to be used for military service.

His earliest memories were of fighting and the abuse used to make him do so. The cauldron-born were never treated as humans, more of biomechanical killing machines. They grew up cold and unloved, having no affection from any save one another.

Humans were never meant to live in such a way, and Jack was the first to raise his fist in mutiny against the program managers. In their striving to create perfect warriors, they created badly damaged people. Once Jack started fighting, the rest of the cauldron-born in his company joined him in rebellion.

A brigade of regular volunteers was routed in the attempt to protect Major General Telwin, the project lead, from the vengeful cauldron-born. When Jack finally lynched the general from the main post flagpole, he followed the body with a white flag; life had no further objective.

Jack and the surviving cauldron-born were put on trial but their mutiny was justified by the abuses they had endured. The state could not risk a potential civil war spurred by action against the cauldron-born, whose very existence was evidence of crimes against humanity.

They were drummed out of the military as no commander would have them. They were given a pension and a discharge, before being sent into the incomprehensible world of civilians. Unable to integrate with the rest of society, many took their own lives, others ended up in prison for subsequent crimes. Others became mercenaries.

Jack and a few survivors of his company volunteered to join a colonial fleet as defense advisors. Sixty years frozen in transit and about as many light years away, Jack was awakened to go fight for the colony on some god-forsaken hell world for a few thousand tons of uranium.

His contract did not specify that he was to fight, but the call of battle was a siren’s song to the cauldron-born. They were used as a special mission team carrying out all of the jobs that the conscripts and regulars could not handle. This had been the routine for almost a year when his team was called up to hunt a walker that had infiltrated behind the front lines.

His team’s mission was to kill a walker that everyone had been calling “Banshee.” The pilot of banshee, not without a sense of the dramatic, had rigged extremely high powered directional speakers to his machine to play ancient recordings of what once passed for music among some people in the 21st century. From recordings Jack heard, it sounded like screaming, percussion, and harsh static that barely had a melody. Played at around 200 decibels, it was like being struck by the blast wave from an artillery round, unprotected personnel died horribly from internal hemorrhaging. Banshee had been raiding outposts and supply routes behind their main lines; generally spreading fear and chaos across a good fifty kilometers of ground.

Using seismic gear, they’d finally triangulated a fix on the Banshee’s location. They planned to hit him in a canyon that would provide them plenty of cover and restrict the walker’s movement. Pictures of the Banshee told Jack that he was looking for a modified five meter tall class 2 freight loader. The plan was to use a drone convoy as a decoy to draw the Banshee into their kill zone and then pound it into scrap with anti-anti armor penetrator charges.

Jack watched the updates from the seismics on his data feed. Banshee was making for the decoy. Glancing over at the raw data feed from the seismics, Jack’s heart nearly stopped.

“Christ kissin’ Krishna... Guys, this thing we got comin’ ain’t Banshee! It’s huge! Stephen, with me. The rest of you start aiming those charges to where they’ll hit at about eight and a half meters,” Jack said as he grabbed his pack and started running.

“Shit! Jack, you’re still going through with this? If that thing is double the size of banshee, we don’t have enough charges!” Stephen 2421, yelled after him as he tried to catch up.

“We don’t have a choice, if we lose the convoy we’re stranded, by the time we get back within comms range on foot, a warning will be too late,” Jack reasoned.

“Even if the walker doesn’t kill us immediately, it’ll hunt us down and make sure we can’t report. We can scatter the convoy, load into one of the trucks and head back.” Stephen said, putting his hand on Jack’s shoulder.

“That’s just the animal in you telling me it’s afraid of the dark,” Jack said harshly.

“After all this time, you’re still quoting General Telwin” Stephen answered.

“Daddy issues,” Jack joked without laughing. He was watching the approach to the rock formation through a pair of binoculars, “There it is. Class four, maybe five. It’s not a hack job either. This bastard is a battle strider. Get on the radio and tell them that they need to reverse the angle on those penetrator charges. We’ll have to hit it from behind to stand a chance at knocking it out.”

Jack uploaded the visuals of the battle strider to his data unit and received an identification match, this one was called ‘Tiamat.’ Jack wondered if all walker pilots had such delusions of immortality. They always seem to be named after a spirit or god.

Tabbing over to the seismics, Jack saw that the convoy would soon be within range of the walker. He sent one running wide to see if it would follow the bait and delay the walker to give the rest of the team more time to reset the charges. If they stopped the walker, they’d still have to ride back, there was no assurance that the rest of the convoy wouldn’t be damaged in the fight, so he kept that truck moving away from the main convoy as a reserve. Seismics confirmed that the walker was staying on an intercept with the lead vehicle.

Normally, on a straight shot, a convoy of trucks could outrun even a large walker, but the path in this area was winding and rough, so the walker had the advantage. Luckily, a truck convoy is not something to waste ammunition on, so the walker should be aiming to just stomp them all into scrap.

Jack and Stephen headed back to their posts above the kill zone. The others had already managed to redirect the penetrator charges to strike at the back of the walker. Jack worried that this attack angle would mostly hit the arms since they were now striking at a diagonal. Destroying the arms would remove a great deal of firepower, but just its bulk and weaponry mounted to its central chassis it would be more than a match for the rear security elements this far away from the front line.

The penetrators operated on a very old design that used an explosive charge to form a molten metal spike that would zip through metal armor like paper. The walker was still a very large machine that had composite ceramic and alloy armor along with multiple redundant systems which could absorb considerable punishment and remain combat effective.

Jack knew Stephen was right, the charges they prepared for Banshee would not be enough to bring down a true battle strider unless somehow a lucky hit managed to knock out the pilot. It didn’t matter if it it was here today, or next week when they found Banshee, or even ten years from now on another rock fighting something else, Jack accepted long ago that he would someday find his end in combat. There was only one way to ensure a killing hit on the pilot.

In less than two minutes their target would be in the kill zone. The charges were set up so that they would be inert until armed by Jack and his crew. They were rigged with infrared sensors that were mostly blinded off so that there was a very narrow corridor in which they could detect movement, this meant they could aim and fire the charges with a surprising degree of accuracy. The only worry was being able to land a killing blow with them.

Stephen watched silently as Jack removed one of the penetrators from a four charge array and then hoisted it up to their observation point. Jack pulled a piezoelectric command detonator out of his pack and wired it to the blasting cap.

“You’ll never hit it. It moves too much,” Stephen said, assuming Jack was going to try to score the lucky shot by himself. Then Stephen saw that there was only about a meter of wire from the charge to the detonator, “Suicide? It’s just one walker, we can evade it and go report. They’ll bring in the air support and pound it into the ground.”

“With its defenses they’d never get close. We have to stop this thing here. We were born to die in battle, might as well be today,” Jack explained, he knew that the natural borns in the militia forces would be slaughtered if they ever came into contact with a battle strider. He looked on natural born soldiers almost as children, which triggered a strong protective urge in him. A part of his mind knew that the enemy were all natural born soldiers too, but he stuffed that awareness down to keep it from interfering with his job of killing them. Jack had been told all of his life that natural borns would only fight under duress and that a cauldron-born was the only organism that belonged on the battlefield.

“You’re wrong, Jack--,” Stephen started to argue before looking back towards the canyon approach, “It’s almost here.”

The trembling in the ground meant that the walker was upon them. The convoy was in a cul de sac that they could not escape from. This also meant that the walker would have to somehow manage to turn around to escape as well.

The walker began his charge on the convoy and tripped the sensors on the charges spraying it with molten copper spikes travelling at nearly 6000 meters per second. The charges had torn up the arms pretty badly but because of the approach angle, none of them had managed to hit the main torso.

The pilot was panicked by the attack and had no idea what had hit him. He started thrashing about in the narrow canyon trying to get some sort of visibility on the threat that had nearly crippled his arms. Raymond 7895 charged out from the cul de sac and started spraying rifle fire at the walker, he was trying his best to aim for the pilot’s canopy. Moving like it was, there was no chance for just one man to punch through the several centimeters of crystalline steel alloy, but with enough hits he could make it nearly impossible for the pilot to see through.

Stanley 3245 started filling the area with smoke canisters and then laid into the damaged walker with his heavy machine gun. Stanley’s weapon was basically the big brother to the M238 rifle that Raymond carried and fired a round that was three times the grain weight. It still wasn’t quite enough to take down a battle strider of this size, but it could do severe damage given enough time on target.

Through the smoke, Jack saw the rocket pod on the walker’s shoulder begin to track. He sent out a call over the radio for Raymond and Stanley to take cover. A rippling salvo flew out and carpeted the entire cul de sac with clusters of airbursting submunitions. There was no answer from Raymond or Stanley. The convoy vehicles were armored against anti personnel weapons, there may be slight damage, but Jack figured they should still be functional.

Jack turned to pick up his charge only to see Stephen running with it towards the edge of the cliff overlooking the wounded walker. Jack cursed him and yelled for him to come back.

“You saved us all once,” Stephen yelled as he leapt onto the walker and planted his feet on either side of the cockpit canopy, “You deserve to be a happy old man some day!” Stephen held the charge to his chest with one arm and aimed it at the pilot’s canopy with his body before detonating it with his free hand. He couldn’t just put the charge down and set it off, it needed space between the penetrator and the target for the spike to properly form.

Jack knew better than to watch the charge detonate at this range and took refuge behind a formation of rocks. When he came out there were only a few grisly traces of Stephen scattered about. The walker was still and pouring black smoke. Jack grabbed his rifle and ran over to where Stephen had last stood. The canopy had not been punched through, but it looked like the impact from the charge had caused some of the inside of the canopy to spall shards into the cockpit. There was movement inside. The ejection alarm rang and Jack dove back to the cliff edge to get away from the propulsion wash from the rockets on the ejection pod.

He watched the pod fly up and then the explosive bolts popped to free the heavier parts of the ejection system. What would come down would be the pilot’s seat and a parachute. Jack estimated where the pilot would land and ran to intercept.

When Jack reached the landing site the pilot was barely standing. Jack suddenly felt a rage come over him for the loss of his team which sent him charging wildly at the wobbly-legged pilot. He tackled the pilot to the ground and after an extremely feeble attempt to resist Jack was mounted on top of the pilot who was pinned in a supine position. Jack raised his rifle and brought the butt down into the pilot’s visor, breaking it open. It was then that Jack saw the pilot. He looked like a teenager, he had a shaved head and a delicate face. Jack was suddenly ashamed, the better part of his soul knew that this kid was in no condition to keep fighting. The pilot was passed out and his jumpsuit was soaked through with blood.

Jack began to strip the pilot out of his clothing to get to his wounds when he discovered that the pilot was female. He pulled out a can of aerosol stitches and began to seal her wounds before giving her an IV pack to combat the blood loss. Thinking about the nature of her wounds, it was likely that there were still shards of crystalline steel alloy in her body which would require a hospital to remove lest they continue to slice up her insides any time she moved.

He brought as many of the drone vehicles that were still operational over to him and loaded her pilot’s chair into one of the trucks. He securely strapped it in after disabling the emergency rescue beacon. He then gently placed her in the chair and using cord from her parachute tied her securely to the chair to immobilize her as much as possible. He loaded the route home into the trucks and rode in the back with her.

She awoke after dark moaning in pain, there was no lighting other than a few status LEDs on the equipment. There is a topical anesthetic in the aerosol stitch foam that would help some, but the internal wounds and some of the bruising caused during her capture would be hurting her. She realized she couldn’t move and started to panic, bawling that she could not move or see.

“Stop! You’re making it worse!” Jack yelled over her terrified wailing. He continued calmly once she stopped, “I tied you down to keep you still. If you fight, the shards inside you are going to move around and cut up your insides until they nick a major blood vessel or your intestines. If that happens, I can’t do shit for you.”

“Why?” She asked with tears in her eyes.

“Why what?”

“Why didn’t you kill me back there?”

“It’s complicated,” Jack answered, in truth he was tired of killing kids, but he was not about to bear his soul to an enemy soldier.

“What are you going to do with me?”

“You’re a prisoner. I’m turning you in,” Jack explained.

“They’ll hang me,” She said despondently.

“Who’ll hang you?”

“We’ve never had a pilot come back,” the girl replied.

“Bullshit, you’re too valuable for intel and prisoner exchanges,” Jack argued. Being back in contact with the strategic network, Jack accessed the records to check out her claim. Six walker pilots had been captured throughout the war, and as she said, six were hanged for war crimes. Because of Jack’s position as a defense advisor, the had full access to the entire strategic network. He said nothing to her about what he found. The thought brought back memories of an old friend who was murdered under orders after being injured in a training accident. Jack continued to do research in silence.

“What’s your name?” The pilot asked.

“Jack Numbers,” He replied, ‘Numbers’ was the common surname that cauldron-born gave to the natural born. Normally, it would be a bad idea to tell an enemy prisoner one’s name, but Jack was in an odd place inside his own mind at the moment.

“I’m Lydia,” She replied weakly, “Lydia Corwell.”

“How old are you?” Jack asked, he wasn’t sure if he was prompted by boredom or curiosity.


“Christ. Really? What are they doing putting kids into a goddamn battle strider?”

“I’ve ran a loader suit in the freight yards since I was fifteen. They asked for anyone who could pilot a walker to volunteer.”

“Why the hell would you do that?” Jack asked in total disbelief. He always believed that he was created because people were afraid to fight and unwilling to send their family members to war. He did not understand those who were natural born ever choosing to fight voluntarily.

“My little brother, he got drafted to be in the infantry. I thought I could protect him if I joined.”

“Jesus, How old is your brother?”

“Fifteen,” Lydia started to cry, “I’m scared for him. I want to see him again.”

Jack, for the first time in his life had met a natural born that he understood. The other cauldron-born were his brothers, he knew what she was going through. He would fight as long as any of his brothers were still in danger.

“What’s his name?”

“Matthew,” she said with a snuffle.

Jack accessed the data link again and searched the records for a Matthew Corwell. Her brother was listed among those killed in an engagement three weeks ago. He kept this to himself as well, she was not in any condition to receive such news.

“I’m sure he’s fine, the lines have been pretty quiet lately. There’s talk of an armistice coming soon,” Jack said, it was a lie, but if they were resorting to arming the kids, the conflict would soon be coming to a close.

“Jack, you didn’t kill me, will you let them do it?” she asked.

“Godammit, just go to sleep. You’re a prisoner, it’s none of my business,” Jack growled. She had him where he was weakest. No matter the conditioning he had gone through, Jack’s instincts were those of protector, not a killer.

“I can’t sleep. I… um… have to--,” she started to say.

“Not stopping. Go in your suit. The uniform is trashed anyhow,” Jack interrupted. He didn’t want to say that, but he would not allow her to get into his head. If he was an ass she’d stop trying to be friendly with him. It would be easier on his own nerves if she’d stop talking.

“You really are a cauldron-born,” She replied almost inaudibly.

“What was that?”

“You’re heartless,” Lydia answered louder.

“Yep. Cold and dead inside.” Jack said dispassionately, she was tearing him apart.

The rest of the trip passed in silence. Jack had already issued his report across the data link once they had come into range of the network. When they arrived at the gate Jack’s convoy and prisoner were expected. Normally, he would have dropped a prisoner off with the security forces and let them deal with it. This time he guided the truck to the combat support hospital. He cut Lydia free from her chair and picked her up. She started to speak but he made a shushing sound.

The orderly at the front desk saw he was carrying a wounded enemy soldier, “Sir, you need to have a security element and we’ll need the authori--.”

Jack had placed her on a gurney and had his rifle hefted at the low ready instead of leaving it to rest at his side on it’s sling, it was an authorized carry, but still a clear threat. “Corporal. You’re going to shut your goddamn mouth and ready a trauma pod,” Jack said cutting him off.

“Down that hall, take a right third door on the left, pod number seven,” The orderly rattled off with a shaking voice.

“Good, thank you. I’ll be back to fill out all the paperwork once the bot starts to work on her. Sorry, I’ve had a rough day, I lost some guys out there,” Jack said trying to smooth over the situation. He was technically doing something that could get him in a lot of trouble, but having just lost teammates nobody would dare say anything to him. It was understood that you give somebody space and stayed out of their way when they were decompressing from a mission.

Jack followed the other medics with her and watched as she was loaded into the trauma pod. It was a self contained full function trauma suite with a robotic surgeon. It was a miraculous life saver with almost double the success rate of a human surgical team under similar conditions. There was no better care on-world than a trauma pod. He returned to the front desk and filled out the paperwork. The orderly was quiet and sullen the entire time, he probably felt bad that he had obstructed Jack in the first place, a lot of the rear echelon types feel a mixture of awe and shame when around those who do the actual fighting.

After filling out the paperwork, Jack returned to the room where the trauma pod was working on Lydia. The orderly started to say something but swallowed his words after opening his mouth. Jack knew that he wasn’t supposed to be back there, let alone with a weapon, but it just didn’t matter right now.

The pod was doing fast and thorough work. The technical team managing the pod room gave Jack a wide berth. One of them approached him, “Sir, Colonel Wynar is looking for you up front.”

Colonel Wynar was the executive officer for the base commander, General Skallard. Jack knew the Colonel was going to be questioning his abstractions of protocol. He went to the front to meet the colonel.

“Mister Numbers, this isn’t like you. Why are you taking such personal interest in your prisoner?” The colonel asked.

“I want to make sure things are done correctly, Sir,” Jack replied.

“Have there been problems before? The security have always handled prisoners, you are expected to debrief the battle control officer on duty when you return.”

“I would have made it there,” Jack answered as he yawned, it was not a purposeful slight, he was really exhausted.

“I’m going to let this slide this time, you’re tired and you’ve just had a hell of a mission. That pilot had better go to security right after the hospital clears her for the cage,” The colonel demanded.

“Tell me, what do you plan to do with her?” Jack asked.

“What right do you have to ask?”

“The other pilots we’ve captured have all been executed. I didn’t bring a prisoner back to be lynched,” Jack replied.

“It’s none of your concern, you’re a soldier, you do your duty,” the colonel answered.

“I’m a defense adviser in my contract, I’m actually more of a mercenary. I’m not technically under you. In fact, I have the right to choose the replacements for my lost team members. I’ll be taking the pilot.”

“Enlisted or not, I’ll have you shot for treason, nobody gives a damn about a corpse with a contract.”

“Colonel, I’m going to forward an excerpt of my military service record from the North American Commonwealth to your data link,” Jack said, uploading the details of his mutiny.

“Killing me won’t get you what you want, and before, you had an entire company of cauldron-born on your side.”

Jack pulled his sidearm and fired it next to the colonel’s head. It was an old style cordite automatic chambered in 10mm. The colonel cupped his hand over his ear and winced in pain. Jack had likely ruptured his eardrum.

“Jesus Christ, Jack you’ve lost your goddamned mind!”

“There was a sniper. Allow me to deploy the security drones and set the facility to defensive stations,” Jack said, the sirens blared and a sortie of VTOL strike drones took to the air a few hundred meters away. This was a raw show of power. Jack had been given full access to the drone command server while preparing the convoy and left himself an accessway for the sake of future convenience. There wasn’t so much as a coffee maker on the entire base that he couldn’t directly control. “I’m invoking my rights to equip my team from salvage and will be commandeering Tiamat and inducting Lydia Corwell into my advisory team. Furthermore, I will fulfill my contractual duties from orbit aboard the command ship,” Jack declared as if it were a spell and saying it would make it so. He had no intention of putting Lydia back into the battle strider, but such a piece of hardware is worth a small fortune.

“What makes you think it’s going to be so simple?”

“Because you’re going to sign the authorizations and keep your mouth shut or you’re going to die for a stupid reason,” Jack growled.

“Sir! Combat stations have been ordered! We need to get you inside, we heard shooting close by!” The orderly called out from the doorway.

The colonel looked at Jack, then the gun, then the orderly, and finally back to Jack, “I’m coming,” he said with resignation in his voice.

Jack uploaded the authorization orders he needed to the printer in the orderly office and printed off the appropriate number of copies. The colonel muttered under his breath as he signed them and handed them back. Jack uploaded a copy to the strategic network and disseminated it to all necessary stations.

“Why Jack? Why this one? Why now?” The colonel asked.

“It’s complicated, just let it go,” Jack answered. He gave the all clear command to the drone server and walked back into the trauma pods to check on Lydia.

She was resting from her surgery. Jack settled down to go to sleep in one of the chairs in Lydia’s room. He told the colonel if the data feed from his unit went dead the drones would rampage. It was mostly a bluff, the drones would only kill the colonel.

The colonel’s questions still rang in his head as he waited for sleep to overtake him, he didn’t know why he’d done it, perhaps it was instinct, or maybe because she was the only link he had left to all of humanity. He dreamt of General Telwin, it was a nightly thing, so many years ago and he still re-lived it in his dreams. He killed the man, but would never be free of his ghost.

“Jack, is that you?” Lydia asked from her bed, waking him up. There was daylight coming in from the skylights. Jack realized Lydia had not been able to really see him until now.


“You look younger than I thought you would. Why are you here?”

“It’s complicated,” Jack answered.

“You use that a lot, don’t you?”

“Only recently. Usually, what I do makes sense.”

“The staff have all been really cautious around me, and really nice. What did you do?”

“I hired you.”

“You did what?”

“I hired you onto my team. I don’t expect you to fight, or even follow me, but they can’t touch you as long as you’re on my crew.”


“I told you, it’s complicated,” Jack said. He stood up and found a tray of food laid out, there was another one at her bedside that she apparently had been working on. He picked up the “fruit” paste packet and bit off the end.

“So what happens now?”

“We go to the command ship and wait out the end of the war. I’ll do my job advising and you’ll make coffee or something. After the war, I’ll sell Tiamat and split the profits with you, then you do what you want,” Jack answered, it was one of the few things from the past several hours that he had figured out.

“Will that work? Will they just let you do that?” She asked.

“I have insurance,” Jack replied.

“I don’t understand, why you’re doing this for an enemy?” Lydia wondered aloud.

“Did you join to kill me or to protect someone?” Jack asked her as he massaged a bit of fruit flavored paste out of the packet.

“I did it to protect somebody,” She replied thoughtfully.

“Me too, but they’re all gone,” Jack said through his food.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

“War is hell,” Jack said after a few moments of thought. He tossed the half eaten packet onto the tray. There was a lot more he could have said, but philosophy lectures were not his way. He kept his feelings on the matter to himself. In a way, she had freed them, they were going to keep fighting until they died in battle, regardless of when it happened. Because of her, they had finally found the peace they had always deserved. Jack’s eyes watered and a tear rolled down his cheek, he turned his back to Lydia and stared out the window. He didn’t believe in gods, but he said a prayer to Stephen and the rest, “Wherever you are, I hope it’s not too dark.”

Games to Play in the Dirt #2: RPG

Games to Play in the Dirt #2: RPG

A role playing game (RPG) is basically a collaborative story with each player being assigned to dictate the actions of a character. One of the players serves as a narrator to tell the story and arbitrate the rules. Generally, these games are played on a tabletop and require a few hours of initial setup and somewhat intense record keeping. This is a quick and dirty RPG system that can be used when short on supplies or lacking the collection of books that most RPGs require. This can be played at home or anywhere the mood to play a game happens to strike. Expect to play for several hours as resolving an entire story can take some time.

Ages: 8+
Players: 3-6 (may be played with more, but some players may feel left out if the group gets too large.)

-Writing materials, one sheet of paper and one pencil/pen at the very least.
-Dice one to five, the more the better. In lieu of dice, a hexagonal pencil with numbers written on the sides may be used. For a dice-less variant see below.

The Narrator

Among the playgroup, first see who is willing to narrate. The narrator should have a basic idea of a setting, an antagonist, and an objective for the players to interact with. If no one player has an idea, then vote amongst the group for these elements of the plot. The narrator will then define what types of characters will fit into the story being played out. The player with the most experience in RPGs or storytelling would normally be a good choice to be the narrator, but the desire to perform as a narrator is often more important than experience. The narrator should be ready to answer a player's questions about the setting and current scene. If asked something that is not part of the predetermined plot, the narrator can arbitrate immediately or assign responses to a die roll and leave it to chance.

Character Setup

Characters will have three governing statistics, a job, and a hobby to determine that character's strengths. The statistics are mental, physical, and social. The job may be any money making activity that the narrator permits given the setting. The hobby may be any special area of interest the character has that the narrator permits. Normally a hobby is much more specific than a job.


Players will write the letters M, P, and S on their paper standing for mental, physical, and social, respectively. After each letter, the player will assign a number between one and five to each statistic, the total of all three added together cannot be more than ten. These numbers represent the number of dice that are rolled by the player in order to determine success or failure, so it's unwise to have lower than a two in any of the statistics and a three provides a good chance of success.


The job is whatever a character primarily does for a living. This job will give a bonus to the character whenever it attempts to perform an action using skills associated with that job.


The hobby is something that a character does frequently, often for entertainment, but not as a primary means of making money. The hobby will give a lesser bonus than a job to a character whenever it attempts to perform an action using a skill associated with the hobby.

Items and Equipment

A standard feature of many RPGs collecting items and equipment that will aid the character throughout its adventures. It is up to the narrator to dictate the effects of any items or equipment that are collected by the characters. The players should write down any items they find that they wish to keep. Depending on the type of storyline for the game, the narrator may allow the players to freely equip themselves during character creation, or the narrator may require the players to roll an unopposed mental check for some equipment that does not seem like the character would normally have. The difficulty for an item check is dependent upon how unlikely the character is to have such an item.


The narrator will introduce the story and explain how the characters have come together. Using non player characters, the narrator can interact with the players to give them objectives, hints, or assistance on their way. The narrator will go first by describing the location and then dictating the actions of the non player characters involved of the scene. Turns will proceed clockwise from the narrator's position giving each player a turn to act. When every player has taken a turn a new round begins with the narrator.


Just as in a novel, the flow of time is dependent upon the amount of action taking place at that point in the story. If the group is in a situation where they will be safe for a relatively long period then they may perform actions that take advantage of that extended period of safety. If there is a lot of action going on, then each turn is what can be done within a few seconds. In combat a turn is generally a short move and a single attack. All actions in a round are considered to be performed simultaneously, therefore if a character is attacked and incapacitated that character may still perform its action for the round.

Holding an Action

If a character is not ready to act on its player's turn then the player may declare hold. If hold is declared then the player may wait until the end of the round to choose an action for the character. This is valuable in allowing a character to better react to a developing situation.

Resolving Actions

Whenever a player elects for his or her character perform an action for which there is a reasonable chance of failure, the player will roll a check. There are two types of checks, opposed, and unopposed.

With either type of check players will roll a number of dice equal to the acting character's stat value for the stat that the narrator judges is most appropriate to the action. Under normal circumstances a result of five or greater on a die counts as one degree of success. Sixes are counted as a degree of success and get to re-roll, this is repeated so long as sixes continue to be rolled. If the action is in line with the character's hobby, fours are also counted towards degrees of success. If the action is in line with the character's job, threes or better are counted as a degree of success. When the roll is completely resolved the player will report the total degrees of success to the narrator.

Opposed Check

An opposed check is any time a character is attempting to perform an action while another character is actively trying to interfere with their chance to succeed. Most often this kind of check is seen in combat, however it is not limited to physical contests or even contests using the same stats. Each character will roll a check based on the narrator's judgment of which stat is most appropriate to the action. If one character has more degrees of success than the other, then that character's action is resolved if there were enough degrees of success to complete that action as an unopposed check. If both characters have equal degrees of success neither action is completed. A character can only oppose one other character's action per round as all actions are considered to be simultaneous unless they use their primary action as well to oppose.

Unopposed Check

An unopposed check is made against the inherent difficulty of a task. The narrator will classify the difficulty of an action requiring a check as simple, average, difficult, hard, or nearly impossible. The narrator is free to arbitrate differing difficulty levels for the same task depending on the circumstances surrounding the performance of the task. A simple action requires one degree of success, two for average, three for difficult, four for hard, and five degrees of success for nearly impossible.


Fighting between characters is resolved as a variant of an opposed check. As all actions are simultaneous which character goes first does not normally matter. The exception is the very first round in which combat happens. If a character is not capable of detecting an attacker before the attack is declared then the attacker may strike with impunity on that first round.

As a character fails to protect itself from hostile actions there will of course be negative effects on that character. Damage is dependent on the difference in the degrees of success between the hostile actor and the target.

-1: The target is disrupted, meaning their next unopposed action will require an additional degree of success, or if an opposed check, the first degree of success for the next action will not count.

-2: Target character is controlled, meaning that the character is both disrupted and may only act in reaction to attackers in the next round.

-3: The character is hurt, not only suffering disruption and control, but also the narrator will roll a die to determine which stat is reduced by the injury, that stat will remain reduced by one point until the end of the combat.

-4: The character is injured, the effects are similar to being hurt, however the narrator rolls twice to assign stat reductions. Also an injury persists until the end of the scene instead of the particular combat session in which it occurred.

-5 or more: The character is wounded. This has the same effects of being hurt, however the narrator rolls three times plus one for each degree of success difference beyond five in order to assign stat reductions. Wounds do not heal until the end of the game session.

If one of a character's stats is reduced to zero that character is incapacitated, meaning it is either unconscious, crippled, or in such pain that further resistance is impossible. Until the damage that caused the stat loss is healed, an incapacitated character may not declare an action or oppose an action. If all of a character's stats are reduced to zero, that character is dead.

Dice-less Variant

If dice or a hexagonal pencil cannot be acquired an alternative is for the player and the narrator to each to write down a number between one and six for each die that would be rolled for the check, including those to be rolled by another character attempting to oppose the check. The player and narrator should do this in secret from one another and make sure to be clear as to which set of numbers is for which player's roll. The numbers written by the narrator and the player are then added together. The sum of the two numbers is divided by six and the remainder plus one is the result of that particular die roll. As before sixes will continue to re-roll.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Cyberpunk Plot and Setting Concept

A Tower to the Heavens

In the early 2010's carbon nanotubes opened up a new chapter in materials research which stood to rewrite the books on engineering and what feats of construction were possible.  One of the most ambitious projects, and one considered necessary to the long term survival of our species was the space elevator.

It was well into the 2040's before many of the central technologies came to a maturity to be implemented on the industrial scale which would be required for a space elevator.   By 2050 the groundwork had begun near Manokwari, Indonesia.  Almost immediately, the problems caused by a snarled and convoluted language barrier dragged the project to a near halt.  There were some thirty languages local to Manokwari, and another dozen tongues imported by the various engineers and scientists from around the globe.  It was rare that more than two or three people on a work team could understand each other.

To overcome this obstacle, a system was developed that could interpret the desired meaning of a speaker and then transmit that data to the listener to be translated into the listener's own language.  It was not a perfect system, as some idioms and other abstractions used in language did not translate very well.   However, for the simple giving and receiving of instructions, the system saved the project.   Soon those equipped with the devices changed their speech patterns to purge out any of the untranslatable phrases and concepts.

Within twenty years, progress on the project moved forward at a fantastic pace and the entire region had been equipped with the translation system from the age of four.  There were some, however, who despised the loss of culture from language and were fearful of the results of a critical failure in the space elevator system.  They started with protests and eventually there was violence.

Fifty years into the project and the space elevator was well into its final stages.   Around its base had grown an international community of people who had three or four generations living together inside a militarized exclusion zone to protect the project from terrorist attacks.   Due to political pressures and their estrangement from their native peoples, Indonesia was forced to declare the new city to be an autonomous protectorate in order to ensure continued benefits from the project.

The feared terrorist attack finally came, but was aimed at an unforeseen target not within the city.  The corporation that had been administering the translation system was the target.  A swarm of economic, physical, and electronic attacks crippled the company and finally a virus pushed a forced update to the firmware of every single implant.  The virus scrambled the translation system into undecipherable gibberish.

The population had become so dependent upon the system that every single person had their own dialect of what was once a common language among their people.  As there was no need to correct the linguistic errors of children equipped with the system, nobody ever had.  Everyone assumed that their children were speaking as they were, but instead, each individual spoke in a severely mutated form of their mother tongue.  The terrorist attacks destroyed the equipment already implanted and lacking the specifications for the system, it was nearly impossible to replicate without the research documentation that was destroyed by the attacks on the defunct corporation.

With the breakdown of communication, so too came the break down of logistics, people went hungry, many starved.   Riots broke out, and gangs formed from people who could somewhat understand one another in order to protect themselves and secure vital resources for their families.
The security forces in the autonomous zone were some of the absolute best trained and equipped in the world since there was so much at stake in the project.  They refused to allow any international intervention into the situation as they feared to lose their stake in the profits of the completed elevator.  Not only were they fully ready to defend the autonomous zone, they also held the world economy hostage with the fate of the space elevator.  Were the project to fall into catastrophe, the quadrillions of dollars, yen, yuan, rubles, and euros that had been invested would vanish overnight, bankrupting every single first world country, which would then cascade across the globe.

Intelligence agencies and mercenaries from around the world began flocking to the area in order to cash in and protect the interests of their home nations. The stakes are the world and the future of mankind.  In the autonomous zone, life has lost its value and bitter turf wars are fought without media coverage on the streets every night.  The problem has spilled out from the autonomous zone with the fires of war and insurrection being lit across the planet.  Civil order has decayed due to the uncertainty over the project which has already started to send world markets into a sharp decline.
The cynics laugh bitterly at the hubris of those who named this project.  It is called Babel.

Anime Review #2 Knights of Sidonia

Knights of Sidonia: First Impressions

I'll have to admit, I was a little dubious of this one when I first saw that it had an anime.  I'd tried the manga and found the pacing and action nearly impossible to follow.  What I got from the anime was a massive improvement.  While it seems to keep with the story told in the first issue of the manga, it does so in a much more cohesive way and I found it pretty enjoyable. 

The art style is sort of a flattened 3D animation for the characters in full 3D environments, the visuals at times seem like they may be a bit dated, but it seems to work for this project.  There wasn't a massive amount of showing off the animators did in the first episode, but there were some well composed sequences that were visually appealing. 

Story-wise, it's a deep space mecha vs. tentaclebeast setup with the Sidonia from the title being the supermassive ship that the characters live on.  The main character seems to be a bit of a stereotypical chosen one from a strange land, but they seem to make it fit into their story somewhat comfortably. 

Character design does leave a little bit to be desired, there's the shy, quiet type main character, then there's the privileged fancy boy with the long hair that seems like he will be the rival, a couple of hermaphrodites with bowl cuts, and about thirty girls with pink hair.  It's actually a bit difficult to differentiate them at this point. 

Overall, I'm actually interested in going forward with this series, I found it much easier to follow than the manga and it managed to leave me wanting to see more.  Hopefully the pink hairs and the bowl cuts will grow personalities that set them apart, or I'll get used to the minor differences in how they're drawn.  Time will tell whether this one is going to be an enduring entry into the mecha genre, but I'll give it a watch for awhile.

I give this anime a C+ ranking, but that could change as the series develops.  There were points where the story seemed to rush by too quickly, he's discovered and then thrown into one of the most revered mecha on the ship within the span of a day.  So far, character development hasn't been much of a consideration, it's only the first episode, but I'm having difficulty feeling anything for the main character.  Finally the series has little to appeal to non mecha fans, this was the key element that lowered it from a B- to the C+ it has.  We'll soon see how well this one holds up.  Watch it if you're into mecha and space battles, otherwise, you'll have difficulty connecting with this one. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Anime Review #1: Blade and Soul

Blade and Soul

This is a new anime that is only on its second episode so far.  It's based on Korean game developer NCsoft's MMORPG that shares its title.  There is no need to be acquainted with the game in order to follow the anime. 

The show follows Alka, a Sword Clan assassin who is, curiously, not armed with a sword.  She does have daggers, and she's pretty slick with them.  The combat sequences are nicely done and though they avoid lobbing entrails at the screen, the animators aren't afraid of a little red spray.  There's much ado made by the other characters about her always slashing throats as it seems this is a technique only known to the sword clan.  Eh, sure fine okay, we'll go with it.

The art style is quite competent and there is a good degree of detail put into the world and the character designs.  I immediately felt that the world tastes very Final Fantasy in that there's a blend of industrial age weapons with a mostly medieval technology base.  The voice acting is well done and the voices do seem to fit the characters decently.

Back to the character designs, they do feature heavily in the fan-service department on the costume designs for the female characters.  One of the mercenaries Alka meets is rocking a skimpy bikini top.  The merc seems to know she's doing, so it's certainly being worn for its top of the line protective qualities.  There's several minutes of the first episode dedicated to shots of Alka's tush under somewhat dubious pretenses.  Eventually, another lady sees to it that she is properly attired in a bustier and thong, thus Alka is ready for action.  The battle lingerie seems adequate until she gets to the desert, whereupon she is sold a napkin on credit to cover her shoulders.  Sunburn don't play, y'all.  I get it, it's aimed at young men, 'nuff said there. 

The writing for the characters does make them feel like they're all pigeonholed into standard anime archetypes.  Alka, the laconic militant is the worst offender in this and her character comes off as being extremely flat.  Laconic is a great word, look it up.  Other characters follow suite by being the cruel and cold imperial lady, or the boisterous scamp of a mercenary who is down on her luck, etc...

Plot-wise, it's been okay so far, we're still too early in the season to really get a feel for it, but we've got the standard expansionist empire thing going on and they are pretty adamant about killing or capturing Alka, for some naughtiness or other.  The animators are not afraid to show bad people doing bad things, as most of the characters from the first episode don't seem to have survived disappointing their local empire.  I'm a gloomy type of fellow, I suppose, because I do like my villains to be villainous. 

Overall, I think this one could be interesting, sure the costume design for the ladies is a little over the top and the characters are all stereotypes, but that's a hard to escape in the genre.  The plot flows well enough to stay interesting and I'll probably keep watching, if I can remember to check back as more episodes come out.  The production quality is up to standard, minus some visual continuity issues, such as when a 2D character is suddenly switched out with a paper-ized 3D figure.

I'm taking points away for potty jokes, a thoroughly recycled world, slathered on fan-service, and various other wholly arbitrary reasons such as the number of beers I've had while writing this.  It still comes away with a 'B-' average so far.  Watch it, it won't hurt you.

Games to Play in the Dirt #1

Games to Play in the Dirt:  Army
This is a game that can be taught to kids in order to get them interested in things like probability, measurements, sportsmanship, and strategy.   Eight years old is a good age to introduce this game, though younger kids might have no problem picking up on its rules, their attention span might not keep up with the length of the game.  It's also a game that can keep the interest of adults, particularly by using house rules to increase the complexity of the game.  Given the short list of needed materials and simple rules, this game can be played on the kitchen table or even while camping.

-Objects to represent each side's soldiers.  Plastic army men work fine, but so do different colored rocks.
-One to five coins, the more the better.
-A string of about one foot in length. 
-Sticks or other linear objects to represent cover.
-An object to represent the flag.
-Objects to represent groups of soldiers that have already gone this turn.

Players will move and attack with their soldiers in the play area in an attempt to wipe out the opposing army or capture the flag in the center.  Regardless of how many soldiers a player has lost, if the flag is returned to their side of the board they are the winner.

Play Area Setup
You'll want an area to play on that is roughly twice the length of the measuring string.  Split that area down the middle so that each player has half the area  in front of them.  Players will take turns placing the sticks on their side of the board.  The sticks represent cover that the soldiers can hide behind so placing them strategically is important.  In the dead center of the board place the flag token.  The game will grind a bit if there's too much cover, so be careful not to overdo it.

Players will take turns placing their soldiers in groups of five along their edge of the play area.  These groups of five are called "teams" and the members need to be touching each other at all times to show they are a team.  There can be as many teams as the players would like, however, more than four would cause the game to bog down.  Determine who deploys first by a coin toss. 

Each turn is broken up into two parts which may be done in any sequence.  The first player to deploy will be the second player to go.  The turn consists of the movement and attack for a single team of soldiers.  Once a team has moved and attacked, mark that team as having already gone this round, this ends the moving player's turn.  The opposing player then takes a turn in the same way.  After all teams on both sides have been marked as having gone, then the tokens are all removed and a new coin flip determines who starts the new round.  If a player has more teams than the opponent, that player gets to continue moving the extra teams until every team has moved on both sides. 

When it is a player's turn they will select a team that does not have a marker indicating that it has already moved and may move it up to half the length of the measuring string.  A unit may move less than the allowed distance and may sit still.

If the team being played is close enough that the measuring string can reach from any of its soldiers to at least one soldier of an opposing team it may attack.  To attack, take one coin per member of the attacking team and flip all of them.  Count the number of "heads" results and remove that many soldiers from the targeted team. 

A soldier has cover if it is touching a piece of cover that is in any way between the soldier and any member of the attacking team.  If a soldier has cover from an attacker, the attacker must flip the coins that landed on "heads" again before removing soldiers from the target team, only the "heads" results from this second flip will be counted to remove soldiers in cover.  Soldiers in the target team that are out of cover must be the first ones removed as the result of an attack.

Capturing the Flag
During a team's movement if a soldier can touch the flag then the flag may be picked up.  Picking up the flag does not stop a team's movement.  The soldier holding the flag cannot fire so if attacking with the team carrying the flag, flip one less coin.  If the flag carrier crosses within a half length of the measuring string from a player's starting edge, that player has captured the flag and is declared the winner. 

House Rules
Feel free to modify these rules and come up with different objectives to keep the game interesting.  There's nothing to say that some special weapons don't flip more coins, or that there aren't three flags and the first team to capture two is the winner.  This is just a basic skeleton of a game that players can take and make their own. 

FIRST! (is that right? or is that for comments?)

Hello World,

I think that's how you're supposed to start these things.  At any rate, I'm Fred Slawson, and this is my writing blog.  I'm one of those hopeful idiots who wants to turn his skills at an art form into some form of income. 

I'll be posting all manner of things here, such as: reviews, opinion pieces, short stories, and random musings.  The purpose is not entirely to inflate my own ego with delusions of grandeur, but to build a collection of work that I can use as a portfolio in order to get work as a freelance writer. 

So far, I've been writing on textbroker, but with the payouts available to get, it's more of textbroke (rim shot).  I've also been doing all sorts of other writing projects for my own amusement, and while that's fun and all, it doesn't put ramen in the cupboard. 

Since I'm introducing myself, I'll take some time to write out a quick biography.  As I said, I'm Fred Slawson, and I'm the third Fred down.  That doesn't make me Fred Slawson III or anything so fabulously regal as to require roman numerals, it makes me "Ryan" to my friends and family.  Different middle names, you see.  I'm sure you're fascinated.

I was born and raised, but that's the boring part of the story and I refuse to tell it.  I started writing when I was 15 years old.  I wanted to write a sci-fi fantasy epic that was like the love-child of Robert Jordan and George Lucas.  Tragically, it really did look like such an improbable genetic disaster.

The biggest problem with writing a sci-fi fantasy epic something something, etc... at the age of 15 is that, first, I was 15, and second, I was the type of 15 year old who spent all of his time trying to write a SFFESS, etc... and I knew it.  Every six months or so, I would go re-read from the beginning of my story. I would feel so utterly stupid about my work that I would totally rewrite it.  I didn't get discouraged, I had a friend who was in her twenties who helped me with it.  She kept my spirits up, and since she enjoyed it, I felt I had something worth working on. 

At 18 years old, I wanted life experience so bad, particularly military experience, that I joined the Army.  It was the absolute best thing I could ever have done as a writer.  I was what they call a Human Intelligence Collector, HUMINT for short.  Damn, was I proud of that.  The thing was, I was book smart, but people dumb.  Thankfully, over time I applied the lessons on dealing with people from the books into my own actions and personality.  Living through it, and looking back on some of the awkward and silly things I did and said, the transformation took longer than I'd like to admit.  It's surely not done to this day in all honesty. 

The stories though!  I met some of the most amazing people who had done some of the most amazing, and sometimes amazingly idiotic things imaginable.  I could go on for days telling you about some of these folks, and you'll see parts of them in my stories, because they're just people who deserve to be told about.  I miss them, dearly.

I was sent to school in California to learn Arabic, and I did very well at it, it seems my brain is wired for language.  Someday, I'll send in the paperwork to turn that into an associates degree.  Right out of Arabic school I was sent to the 3rd Infantry Division in Fort Stewart Georgia, from where I was promptly sent to Iraq. 

All the cool kids had already deployed when I arrived, so the collection teams were already formed and I was not to be one of them.  I did however end up working for a brilliant, yet menopausal chief warrant officer four who set me up as one of her night time reports quality control monkeys.

All HUMINT reports from the units working under the division got sent to my section where we checked them for readability, grammar, and formatting.  I don't know if you're aware of the difference between a chief warrant officer three and a specialist in the army, but I, the specialist, pissed off that chief warrant officer three on a semi-regular basis.  SPC Slawson, soon learned not to be such a prick when returning reports for looking like they were written in crayon on a bar napkin. 

The amount of vicarious experience on the mean streets of Baghdad that I gained from reading all of those reports was something that I consider myself lucky to have.   Particularly lucky in that I never had to be under threat of being shot, mortared, or struck by improvised explosive devices to get it.  Sure, they could reach my relatively comfy division headquarters building with mortars and rockets, but that was assuming they were using something more sophisticated than a pile of dirt as an aiming mechanism, they weren't. 

Before I went home they gave me some stripes and I was so thankful for them that I reenlisted for another three years.  Part of that reenlistment package was an assignment to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX.  This was a brand new battalion of HUMINT soldiers specifically designed to be staffed by non-commissioned officers who had deployed as HUMINT collectors, it wasn't.  It was a unit designed with the abuses at Abu Ghuraib hanging over the national conscience.  Regardless of whether it was HUMINT collectors or national guardsmen serving as prison guards that had performed the abuse, it was the HUMINT community that took the rap. 

I deployed again and this time I got to spend a lot of time personally interviewing Iraqi detainees.  There was a lot of drudgery and plenty of "By God I don't know" to go around, but I cranked out reports like a fiend.  There were also people who I'll never forget among both the soldiers and the detainees, at least one of the latter I would call a friend if ever again I see him. 

Without getting into details, I'll just say I lost a lot of faith in what we were doing in Iraq during that time.  We served our tour honorably, but seeing first hand what war does to people and their families takes a lot of the fire out of your belly. 

The stories though!  Things you'd never believe unless you were there.  I had experiences that, despite how badly they sucked, I knew one day I could proudly tell my grandkids.  I was part of something special and I had a privileged seat to a world that so few can ever know. 

They gave me another stripe for my work out there, a rocker technically, and then put me in charge of a crew of my fellow soldiers.  Again, I found myself in charge of report quality control.  I was determined to make sure that if one of my guys learned something from the need-to-know list, that a report was going up about it.  I only regretted that I had very little time left to conduct interviews myself.

When I came back from Iraq, I intended to serve the last year or so of my contract, and then move on to something that would never send me to Southwest Asia again.  During that time I managed to talk my way into a special assignment where I wrote training scenarios and dialogue for mock interviews to be used for a sister battalion that was soon to deploy and staff the facility we had held.  I was hoping to be able to keep that gig until I got out of the Army, I didn't.

The Army decided they wanted me to teach a new batch of HUMINT soldiers the ropes at the training post where I first learned the trade.  I had the option of reenlisting to go teach, or have my contract extended involuntarily to deploy a third time.  I reenlisted. 

It was so bizarre being back at my old stomping grounds as an instructor, instead of a trainee.  I remembered so vividly the experience and was taken aback at how radically it had changed.  As a private there I had watched the news footage of the "Shock and Awe" bombing campaign on the TV in the barracks day room.  Now as a veteran, I was here to teach a soldier's trade to kids who were only nine years old on that fateful day when jetliners were used as cruise missiles.  Many of them barely understood what had happened that day, let alone why. 

When I was a private, there was half of a training company dedicated to my specialty.  Before I left the army there were three training companies dedicated to it.  What was once a small tight-knit community was being trained on an industrial scale.

I only served as an instructor for one class rotation before the battalion asked if anyone wanted to be a platoon sergeant for native born linguists of Arabic and the languages indigenous to Afghanistan.  I was an Arabic speaker, I thought I'd put in for it.  I'll never forget the moment I realized the First Sergeant I was reporting to was one of my basic training Drill Sergeants.  The army is a very small world. 

I have never worked longer hours at a more thankless job in my entire life.  I met some amazing people in that job.  I don't know how well I remember them through some of the weeks where I would work nearly 100 hours with stints of up to 36 hours without sleep.  I still feel a bit queasy when I think about the flavor of sugar free NOS energy drinks, which were basically the only thing that kept me moving. 

As my enlistment neared it's end and my health started to fall apart my first sergeant put me out to pasture, as sort of a 'thanks for nearly killing yourself to make this whole thing work.'  By that I mean he sent me back to the instructor cadre without enough time left in the Army to be certified to instruct.  So my duties were to show my face and prepare for life after the Army. 

The Iraq war, my war, was all but over.  Nine years of my life were entirely dedicated to fighting that single conflict.  It ended simultaneously with my military career.  I can't express how satisfying it is to know that I fought my war to its finale.

I had been wanting to run a tabletop game shop ever since I thought I was going to get out of the Army the first time.  I had made irreplaceable friends in the local community and was sick to death of moving away every few years.  I decided to carry out my plan in the small town adjacent to the post. 

It was a three year thrill ride that I've only just recently stepped off of.  Not that I quit through my own desires, mind you.  The pay was literally nothing, but the people I got to hang out with all the time were great.  I didn't once have to yell at somebody about their uniform or ask some poor sap where his neighbor hid all the explosives. 

As I write this, I'm unemployed.  Some lawyer stuff is going down on a broken contract to buy a competitor, so I'm currently without a shop.  I've had a lot of time to think, and write, and generally do nothing for the first time in several years.  It was the writing and the freedom that got me thinking.  It's not a bad job, writing, I've done a lot of it. 

Maybe you'll look at this and want to read some of those stories I promised I'd write.  Maybe you'll look at this and like the way I use my words.  Stick with me then, there's more to come.  If you want me to write or edit for you, let me know.  I'm not necessarily in a pro bono situation, but I'm a reasonable enough monkey.  I will, of course, trade work for work; if you're willing to edit for me, I'll pick your fleas too.