Review- Dune: House Atreides

Dune: House Atreides is the first of the Prelude to Dune Series, a trilogy of prequel novels set in the Dune Universe about the origins of the characters from House Atreides, Harkonnen and Corrino in the original novels, by co-written Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.  The sequels will be discussed briefly as well, while avoiding spoilers.

It is a challenge to write prequels and make them fit, and House Atreides and the rest of its trilogy do not meet it.  The characters I knew from Dune seem like strangers, the entire tone of the trilogy is heavy handed and feels off from the subtleties and moral complexities of the original book, and it is implausible that the events of the trilogy would not be referenced in the later books.  I understand the difficulty in weaving the vague hints given in Dune about the past into an entertaining prequel, and none of these things would be a deal breaker if House Atreides were not in the Dune series, inviting unfavorable comparisons with the original novel.

While we are given more time with some interesting characters that we saw too little of in Dune, the characterization feels off, contributing to a sense that the tone of House Atreides and its sequels doesn’t fit with the rest of the series.  In some cases this is understandable- Duncan Idaho and Leto Atreides are children and have not yet become who they are in Dune.  Yet the Old Duke, who is described as a hard and stern man in Dune, is instead a genial man of the people.  The Harkonnens and Emperor Shaddam  are reduced to caricatures, committing atrocities for their own sake or out of sheer stupidity. Even where the differences in how the characters act are plausible, it robs House Atreides of the interesting character interactions that were so important to Dune.

Dune was a novel about showing rather than telling- the world is introduced in fleeting references and the actions of the characters, slowly and tantalizingly painting a picture of the world in which the novel is set.  Herbert and Anderson instead far too often choose to tell us about the world in House Atreides instead of letting it speak for itself- too much information from the narrator and not enough from character dialogue and actions.

The dialogue is much less tight- Dune features tense conversations where life hangs on the possible interpretation of every word, such as the hunt for the traitor in the Atreides compound and the internal intrigues on Geidi prime.  House Atreides never reaches the same level of attention, and some of the early conversations are especially bad, with characters vomiting exposition at each other instead of having a conversation.  In particular the scene between the Emperor and Pardot Kynes in one of the first chapters   made me cringe and I almost stopped reading the book.  The structure of the dialogue is butchered to introduce the world and Pardot Kynes’ mission to the reader; Kynes’ lines are obviously a pretext to get exposition on the page and Emperor Eldrood harps on how he hates the falseness of the court, a sentiment that is never mentioned or shown again.  The rest of the opening scenes are not much better.

Contributing to the off characterization is this is a novel in the Dune series without much Dune.  Frank Herbert embedded reasons in the setting for technology to be unusable with purpose- it puts the focus on the human elements of the story and gives an interesting contrast to the setting, with spaceships and battles with bladed weapons plausibly coexisting.  Moving away from the planet Dune undermines these strengths, and the machine planet of Ix in particular does not seem like something that should exist in the Dune Universe, where religion is based on a crusade against machines.

Things improve marginally in House Harkonnen and the trilogy finally finds it feet at the end of House Corrino, but it’s too late at that point.  The ending of the trilogy was good but if I had known what it would take to get there I would not have purchased House Atreides or its sequels.  It is not clear for whom this book is written- the Dune chapters have little interaction with the rest of the story and thus will not be meaningful for first time readers, but House Atreides and it sequels clash with both the tone and continuity of the previous books.  We discover that characters from Dune had children, long lost friends, and familial ties with each other that are never mentioned in Dune- it stretches plausibility and ultimately many of the gaps filled in by the prequels were more interesting as mysteries.  The original Dune portrayed a harsh world that raised uncomfortable questions- would you break down your dead for their water?  Are you willing to change yourself into something worse to win?  The prequel trilogy attempts to outdo Dune with planetary genocide, and torture; it feels like its trying too hard and doesn’t have the same impact.

If Dune had never been written House Atreides would have been the first entry in a decent pulp science fiction trilogy.  Indeed, this book is more enjoyable if you have never read Dune- the exposition dump won’t be as glaring since its new information, and the continuity errors will be invisible.  Everything taken together- the differences in tone, the small continuity errors, a pulpy writing style- create a book that is not bad but feels out of step with the original novel; I wasn’t able to enjoy it.  Maybe I’m being too hard on House Atreides, maybe it wasn’t meant to channel the same feelings as original, and I’m picking too hard at the continuity, but Dune is the dominant word on the cover, larger than the title, and House Atreides does not deliver on the promise implicit in that word.

TL,DR:  A passable pulp science fiction novel that doesn’t really fit with the series it is set in.  Your time is probably better spent on other books, unless you are a fan of Brian Herbert or Kevin Anderson’s works.


Review: Lord of the Isles Series, by David Drake

Rather than reviewing the nine books piecemeal I decided to do a spoiler-free overview of the whole.  This is a series started in the 90s and finished in 2008 that seems to have flown under the radar, but its a good read especially if you are a fan of Greek myths or military fantasy, both of which Drake is well versed in.

David Drake’s Lord of the Isles series is a low magic heroic fantasy saga set in a Greek-influenced archipelago.  The central tension is the rise of the setting’s inherently chaotic magic and the four protagonists, Garric, Sharina, Cashel, and Ilna must rebuild the Kingdom of the Isles to prevent the collapse of all civilization due to rampant magic.

As in his Republic of Cinnabar Navy Series the plots of each novel are self-contained and Drake catches up first time readers in a timely fashion, so readers can begin anywhere without confusion, though I would encourage you to start at the beginning.  Cover blurbs refer to Lord of the Isles as an epic fantasy, but their isn’t much of an overarching plot in the first six books, just a series of adventures featuring the same characters- books 1 and 2, The Lord of the Isles and The Queen of Demons are the only two to share an antagonist or problem beyond the rise of magic, and they are stronger for it.  It is more a series of heroic fantasy stories with the same cast than the unified plot one expects with epic fantasy.

The Greek influences, taken from both daily life and myths, are an interesting change from standard fantasy, as is the reliance on naval travel.  Drake’s use of islands and magical pocket worlds makes the structure quite similar to his Hammer’s Slammers and RCN works with a variety of distinct and clearly defined set pieces, taking the place of planets in his science fiction works.  The frequent use of time travel, other worlds, and references  gives the series a distinctly sci-fi flavor, something that continues throughout the series.

Drake’s focus on gritty military life in other works appears here as well, with an emphasis on the day to day life of a soldier.  The attention to detail in the gear and tactics of the soldiers’ of all factions helps breath life into the world.  Despite the grit the series still feels hopeful in contrast to A Song of Ice and Fire or The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Magic is present but presented as inherently dangerous and unpredictable, more likely to cause problems than solve them.  Drake’s writing makes magic an important aspect of the story without being a Deus Ex Machina.

Character development is excellent when it happens- which is mostly the first two books.  Past this point the starting quad of Garric, Sharina, Ilna and Cashel are mostly set in stone, with supporting characters providing variety when they are introduced.  Make no mistake, the characters are showcased in every book but the price of being able to start anywhere is it becomes repetitive after several books.  I repeat my complaint from RCN here- the characters are fun and interesting when something new happens- but the heroes have largely assumed their mantles by the end of book 2, The Queen of Demons.  This is a refreshing change at first from exceedingly long heroes’ journey plots, such as in The Wheel of Time, but Drake rarely provides opportunities for growth past this- he seems unwilling to introduce complexity that requires reading the previous books or just unwilling to disturb a winning formula.

Supporting characters can carry the weight of character development; for example Chalcus and Carus are the high points of books three, Servant of the Dragon, and four, Mistress of the Catacombs, respectively, when they get the spotlight, but they soon fade into the background again, and no one steps forth to replace them.

The lack of development changes abruptly in the 7th book, and the relationships between the heroes are called into question- it’s interesting and breathes new life into the series and I wish Drake shook things up more often; in my opinion the conflict ends too soon, though the ending trilogy is strong and enjoyable despite this.  Honestly I might recommend skipping some books between two and seven unless you love heroic fantasy- the books are all good but read one after another the repetitiveness is obvious.  The plots are different but we don’t see the characters grow in response to them.

However, the ending is fantastic and in hindsight Drake sets up for it from the beginning. Its part of what makes the ending trilogy feel like epic fantasy, because it is so satisfying and clearly fits with everything that came before it, but I would have liked to have had more hints on where things were going.  In my opinion, Drake has tried too hard to make the Lord of the Isles accessible- nothing feels like it matters since consequences rarely carry over between books beyond the first two and last three- he even shys away from connection within books; the adventures of the four heroes often seem like separate novellas in the middle books.  His permanent characters are interesting but as in RCN, Drake seems too scared of changing things to let them act on each other or let the world act on them in a meaningful way, despite the fact that the series is at its absolute best when he does.  Plenty of new characters and antagonists appear in each book, but they are usually expended or window dressing- all of this is fine in the Hammer’s Slammers or Drake’s standalone novels where we are introduced to new protagonists with each story but in the Lord of the Isles it feels like reading the same book over and over again from book 3 until things shift fast enough to give you whiplash at the end of book seven.

Ultimately, there is a lot that’s good in the Lord of the Isles, but it’s spread thinner than I would like- it holds up well as a series of heroic fantasy novels but only the 1st two and last three books feel like a cohesive series.

Image source and purchase link.

There are some good deals for this book on Amazon; I picked up my former library copy of book three for $4 for a hardback including shipping and handling.

TL,DR:  A fun series of pulpy heroic fantasy with heavy influence from Greek myths, science fiction, and military sci fi.  Pick it up if you like fantasy but aren’t a fan of the vast overarching plots of The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, and other epic fantasy novels or the grimmer stories in the genre.

Review: Dungeon World

Dungeon World, by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel, is a tabletop role-playing game that focuses on storytelling and ease of use.  One game master and 3-5 players collaborate to tell a low fantasy story.  Anyone who has played some flavor of Dungeons & Dragons (aka DnD), or really any RPG, will recognize most of the tropes but the system is highly streamlined.

Character sheets are simple, with 1 to 2 pages containing all information so the players don’t have to refer back to the book.  There is no skill list, all players instead sharing a list of common moves that use their attributes without training modifiers.  All outcomes are determined by rolling 2d6 as opposed to a d20, with an added wrinkle- only the players roll for actions.  Players failing a roll is the main opportunity for the opposition to make moves, and also the main generator of experience.  It creates an interesting and spontaneous game, where the players are the primary movers of events.  Failed rolls giving experience also acts as a good equalizer and takes some of the sting out of failure.  Dungeon World emphasizes failing forwards, so the story keeps evolving instead of coming to a grinding halt when a roll fails.

The downside is that the GM needs to be very comfortable adjusting scenes and encounters on the fly or simply making them up as they go along.  Collaborative world building is encouraged, but in my experience players react poorly to being put on the spot- if they offer something it can be integrated but the bulk still falls on the game master.  The game master’s section offers some excellent instructions on this and running a game in general but you still need to be comfortable improvising.

In the same vein, combat is much simpler than in most games- no battle mat required, which helps keep things fast.  Hit point pools are small so things don’t drag on.  This makes things more lethal for the players as well but the simplicity of the rules makes it simple to adjust encounters on the fly.  There is no recommended monster budget for encounters as in DnD, in part because not all the classes are balanced for combat- the game master will need to create situations where the more utility focused classes shine, assuming they are being played.

Conversely, if you are coming from another Powered by the Apocalypse Game, Dungeon World will have longer and less lethal combat than you are used to.

Something to be aware of with the system is how quick the leveling is; not a problem itself but players start to gain access to game-breaking abilities around level 7 or 8, which can quite easily be reached in 10 sessions.  At this point players will be able to one shot even the toughest monsters in the book, teleport unlimited distances, succeed on most roles involving their main attribute, and in general trivialize any challenge thrown their way.  You’ll need to plan campaigns to end at or shortly after 10 sessions to keep power creep from making things boring.  I just wrapped up a 13 session campaign and my players dealt with the worst the book had to offer without too much difficulty.

The games themselves are also shorter- I’ve always tried to keep my sessions to four hours, as have most of the people I’ve played with.  Pathfinder and DnD always strained against this, especially 4th edition DnD, where you can really only do one combat encounter in a session.  Dungeon World’s simpler rules let you run numerous combats in a session with plenty of time for exploring and character development as well, something I love about the system but people who enjoy tactical combat may not.  There is also no set initiative- I tried to give everyone turns and only making GM moves on failed rolls but ended up having to play a little loose and fast with the monster’s actions to keep things interesting

Price wise its no contest, $10 for a Dungeon World PDF, or twice that for the paperback, which includes all the playbooks and, gamemaster material, and bestiary, vs at least $30 for even a player’s handbook for more popular systems, and you need several hardback books to run 5th edition DnD.  Obviously if you pirate the books this isn’t an issue, which is a fairly common practice in the RPG community, but I like having books to hold and they aren’t much cheaper used.

TL,DR:  A light on rules & story focused system.  Ideal for newer players but the game master needs to be able to improvise.  The price is right so give it a try if it sounds interesting to you.

Picture source and paperback purchase, or you can purchase the PDF.

The Dark Tower Movie: It is Happening

If you haven’t heard, Stephen King’s epic fantasy series The Dark Tower, is officially getting a movie adaption, due out January 17, 2017.  Idris Elba has been cast as Roland and Matthew McConaughy will be the man in black.

I’m a little concerned; epic fantasy movies-and shows- don’t have a good track record.  I would like to see more serious attempts- the TV movie made to hold onto the Wheel of Time rights doesn’t count– but I understand why studios aren’t doing so.  The Inheritance Cycle books sold well but the absolute butchery that was the movie Eragon put an end to any further movies from that franchise.  It didn’t do the genre any favors either- the Lord of the Rings was the only epic fantasy franchise that had been adapted to movies for a long time.  If both the upcoming Warcraft movie and The Dark Tower are flops it could put an end to epic fantasy movies in the near future.  Game of Thrones is doing well but I feel like the stakes are high for The Dark Tower, for me as least.  I want to see a Mistborn movie eventually so I’m rooting for things to go well but this will be a difficult adaptation.  The special effects requirements won’t be as high as for some series since magic in The Dark Tower tends to be subtle, and there are no real mass battle scenes; but the series is far more surreal than either Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, most notably when Roland pays Stephen King a visit in Maine.

Roland was white in the books, and some of the people in the reddit thread are not happy about the switch to a black lead.  While Roland’s ethnicity was a plot point in some of the books I’m supportive of the move, because Mr. Elba seems like he has the gravitas to pull it off and a lot of material is going to have to be cut to make this manageable as a movie series, especially since there is no current news on the hybrid movie and TV show format that was floated last year.  The Dark Tower is literally three times longer than the Lord of the Rings, which only fit into three movies by cutting material.  Harry Potter got away with eight movies but its much more of a cultural touchstone than The Dark Tower.  The racial tension between Roland and Detta is probably a good cut to make to get the film to a wider audience.

I think making a good movie is more important than being true to the source material, and certainly better than doing neither as in the case of Eragon, and I hope the movie does what it needs to succeed, including taking more time- the January 2017 release date seems either optimistic or sabotage.  Overall I’m cautiously optimistic.

TL,DR: This could be a very good movie or a huge disappointment- fingers crossed- but its finally happening.  Hopefully a good showing will encourage more movie adaptations of epic fantasy.

Review: The Road of Danger, by David Drake


The Road of Danger, 9th entry into David Drake’s Republic of Cinnabar Navy series, delivers a solid military science fiction read:

  • Visceral and realistic combat
  • An authentic look at military life
  • Decent scientific grounding
  • Thrilling espionage
  • Backwater planets getting blown to hell

with just one flaw.  Nothing has really changed for Captain Leary or his signals officer and master spy Adele Mundy in this book or the previous 7, so while I am disappointed someone who has never read the series should be able to pick up The Road of Danger without issue and enjoy it.

Road of Danger is a military space opera, set in a time of tenuous peace between The Republic of Cinnabar, and oligarchic republic, and the Alliance, an overpopulated totalitarian state, with the majority of inhabited human space split between them.  Captain Leary is dispatched along with his ship the Princess Cecile to catch a rebel who the Alliance claims is a Cinnabar citizen.  He dutifully sets off into a set of fringe worlds riddled with corruption and smuggling tied to the rebellion.

Drake’s time in Vietnam is a clear influence in the novel, expressed in colony worlds blanketed with rice patties, ruled by corrupt and incompetent locals, and the incompetent superiors Leary is saddled with.  The crew of the Princess Cecile rises to its mission, cutting through red tape and human beings with satisfying ease; action and character interaction are well written, and the plot has plenty of twists and turns from conspiracies and local interference.

All of these things are what make the Hammer’s Slammers series, also by Drake, a great read- the issue here is that in the Slammers we never stay with one character for long, and get to know new ones with each story.  For some reason Drake isn’t doing the same here-any character development is largely a rehashing of things established in the first book. He hasn’t been shy about killing important characters in his other works; maybe he’s trying to strike a more hopeful tone for his space opera.  Perhaps he likes writing these characters and relationships as they are, but the result is that all the major characters are in equilibrium, which I think hurts the book a great deal.  We are robbed of the excitement of getting to know new characters, and of any interesting wrinkles in the relationships Drake writes well.  Maybe I just don’t get it.

TL, DR:  Buy it at a decent price if you like pulpy military sci-fi.

Credit for picture:

No Space

This is a combination of Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction prompt from and an an idea I’ve been kicking around for roughly six months now.

It ended up being much longer than I expected.  I may continue it at some point, though most likely with major changes.


Marco stretched and resettled himself under the overhang, flat against the wall.  Shoppers rushed past, trying in vain to keep dry as rain and gutter drains sprayed their legs.  Water trickled down grey rubber boots Marco had bought because they were cheap- like his frayed jeans, garish yellow raincoat and head-enveloping filtration mask.  On the smart goggles, he had splurged- they had to be able to block drone cameras, no cutting corners.

He could see his target out of the corner of his eye- a gaudy electronics storefront.  It was tiny, five feet according to the range finder in the goggles, most of it devoted to displays; the average consumer might be able to fit through sideways.  The VR headsets that dominated the storefront were obvious counterfeits, done in the bright primary colors of a cheap 3-D print.  A large poster for InterX, the intersex DJ, done with a completely different color scheme, served only to highlight the attempted deceit.   But they still worked and a branded DJ InterX headset cost $2000.  More importantly it was nowhere near where Marco usually worked.  He didn’t have to bother with any legwork.  Leaning back, he used his power.

The headphones disappeared, one into each ‘pocket’, leaving the gaudy red stands forlorn.  Minor Persistent Dimensional Folding, the doctor had called it.  That failed to describe how it felt- They had no specific location, and weighed nothing, but still Marco was aware of them through a pressure they exerted. The backing poster blocked the cashier’s view of the display case, and the mall camera couldn’t see in the window.  It could be hours until the theft was noticed.  By which time he would be long gone.

Marco turned and walked off into the rain, auto cars silently adjusting to let him pass as he cleared the first row of parked cars, a spring in his step.  Past the second row he ran into a car.  The driver door popped open.  It was a manual model; those had been phased out twenty years ago, deathtraps with seats in the front!  Good feelings evaporated at the sight of the driver.  He was a rare man indeed, pale white with orange hair and thin as a vid screen.  An armory hung at his waist- flashbangs, dartgun, at three net guns among them; everything was legal with a class B firearms license:  bounty hunter.  The driver kept the brick-sized Taser with a rifle stock steadily pointed at Marco’s chest as he exited the car.

“Nice goggles.  You buy military surplus?”  If the man reacted, it was only behind the massive lenses over half his face. Marco’s eyebrow raised behind the goggles as he looked at the Taser.  “Compensating for something?”

“You are under arrest grand larceny.”  Marco acted before the man could finish pulling the trigger.  Stunning someone and dragging them to a bounty office was not technically legal, but that small flaw in standard operating procedure was usually overlooked if the person brought in had any evidence against them.  Nothing could be proved against Marco, but all powers were on public record, and assumption was enough to get him on a high priority surveillance list- making life very hard.  So Marco compressed the seven of the twenty-one ‘pockets’ he wasn’t using, and opened them all right in front of the hunter’s face.

The resulting vacuum jogged the blaster up and sucked away the holder’s breath as Marco dove left.  A shot went wide and struck a parked car in the first row of the strip mall’s lot.  Within a second every car in the lot registered weapons fire and began moving to whisk their owners to safety.  Sensing his movement, the tide of cars abandoning their spots left a narrow corridor for Marco.  Mr. Manual Car, bent over and gasping, was not so lucky.  Manuals didn’t transmit a drive plan, so the autos assumed it wasn’t going anywhere, boxing it and the driver in within seconds.  With protective shutters deploying over windows, there was no possible way to even see Marco.

Networked cars would clear the jam in only a few minutes, but Marco slowed to a brisk walk as he entered the skyway.  The walkway above and paralleling the street gave an excellent view in addition to moving all pedestrian traffic.  His abeulo had always grumbled about how sidewalks had been better, but Marco didn’t understand the appeal.  He also didn’t understand what had turned the bounty hunter on to him.  People had been talking about a bounty hunter named Torch, one of the last men with orange hair.  He’d brought quite a few people in, even Can-opener.  Not that his power was… had been good for fighting.

Distracted, he glanced right.  The window walls of the skyway offered stunning view of the city.  Only three stories up, buildings and roads easily topped it, but not to the point that the skyline was hidden, dazzling in the ever present rain, condensed exhaust from the spaceport.  Video-boards and faux-neon covered every available surface, advertising for businesses on every level and for larger corporations.  Light refracted by the water that coated the window, the mystic gem of a city blazed and shifted.  A scupper clung to the outside of the skyway, insectoid body translucent except for the pollution in its gut, a patch of darkness on a blazing background.  Hard to believe that a creature of another world had become an ordinary part of life, a sub-human janitor faded into the background.    He left the stream of pedestrians, partly for a closer look and partly to avoid being trampled.

Heat kissed the back of Marco’s neck.  From the corner of his eye, he saw a Taser blast striking the man who had been behind him in the face.  At least three hundred pounds, the thump of his landing could have carried for miles in the sudden dead silence.  Torch, ahead of Marco in the buffer, growled gutturally.  He rose from a kneeling position, clearly preparing another shot.  Shock consumed Marco; only instinct drove him to use his power.  The thirteenth pocket, filled with raw car exhaust and a dozen other smogs blended and compressed, burst on Torch’s head.  Without the constraint of a dimensional pocket it expanded rapidly, triggering environmental sensors.  Filtration masks provided some protection to most of the pedestrians, but Torch stood among the minority bent double and coughing.  Marco dove back and crawled to the right, passing through the deploying emergency exit.  The window swung up and out, allowing Marco to roll onto the deploying hyper-compressed slide.  Torch simply stared out the window, unable to work his way through the crush of bodies to the slide.

Marco didn’t wave mockingly or give any sign of acknowledgment as he scurried into the one of the buildings along the street- a continuous mall on the first three floors with office space above.  No, Marco hunched down, hands in pockets and mind lost in rumination.  How had Torch caught up with him, much less found him out the first place?  He had always been careful, spacing out uses of his power and planting stolen goods on store employees and more common thieves, always a suspect or faulty record keeping easily at hand to blame.  But researching the opposition?  That had been beneath him.  Had.  Now it was time to rent a spot at a cyber café for a few days, lay real low while looking up registered bounty hunters and supers.

He had a real advantage- red hair was a recessive gene and the list of people with it expressed in the melting pot of the Florida metro area was a short one.  With his investments Marco could afford to focus on this Torch- who walked in on the far side of the building, red hair clearly visible. Marco broke right, deeper into the mall and towards the food court.  Sweat beaded under the smart goggles as Torch followed at a leisurely pace- arrogant in his nonchalance, not even wearing a mask against bacterial infection.  How had he gotten one street over so quickly?  Any number of powers or devices could have allowed it- all reserved for military use, and he wasn’t coughing.  No medical booth could give that fast of a turnaround.

Blood pounded in Marco’s eardrums as he slipped into a Spacey’s, using a cloud of tourists as cover.  Gaudy murals clashed with Greco-Roman columns- the Apollo missions, the moon sensor station, bridge of the Mars colony ship, and a view of New Plymouth springing up around said ship.  Supers left on earth were largely ignored, novelty and potential both long gone.  Had he somehow drawn attention to himself?  Overplayed his hand, the consequences delayed until now?  Several close shaves came to mind- the gold bullion siphoned from the armored car, fresh from the space port.  Shaking his head, he quickly jogged past the hostess, weaving between tables and booths.  Unbidden, his thoughts turned to the fourteenth pocket.  It almost certainly was bugged with a tracker, but too valuable and delicate to have it removed.  But he had never used it, hadn’t even taken it out in years.  Marco took the stairs to the upper dining level two at a time, slamming into a table at the top.  Wrapped silverware danced over the dockyards at the top of the Ted Kennedy Space Elevator, depicted beneath acrylic at the blessedly unoccupied table.  A glance back revealed not a red hair in the restaurant- and then Marco rushed the second floor exit, caution thrown to the wind. Torch stood on the platform outside, between the escalators down to the sidewalk and up to the skyway, swinging his Taser rifle as if it were a spike.

Marco began to scream before the electrified barrel connected- the raincoat blunted the shock, but he still went down hard against Spacey’s external exit.  Torch leveled the gun barrel with an air port on Marco’s mask. He only stared for a moment, then spoke.  “Resisting arrest and assault are added to your charges- will you come quietly?”

His whole body hurt, though his shallow breathing had more to do with fear than injury.  “One questions first.”  Torch remained still as a corpse while Marco took a shuddering breath.

“Did the navy send you?”  At this, Torch’s face showed an expression besides indifference or anger.  Confusion, only for a moment; and that was all he needed.  Marco felt a weight lift from his chest as he emptied the fourteenth pocket.  The crude freeze-ray now in his hands looked more like a do-it-yourself birdcage than cutting edge technology- curved rods extended haphazardly from a tangled mess of wires covered in permafrost.  He shot Torch with no visible projectile or effect, which was the point.

Crude for maker tech, the freeze ray was still the product of a super whose power let them create things that defied physics; whether in quantity as with Smother’s conjured asteroids, complexity with Heavenly Serpents’ navigation programs or both in Atlas’ ability to produce spaceships from piddling amounts of sheet metal which had launched the Earth Navy.

The freeze ray was returned to its pocket as soon as it was used. Anyone watching surveillance footage of the event wouldn’t even notice it. Torch did not move as Marco slowly got up, using the door as support.  Nor did he so much as twitch when Marco began to walk away, turned back and methodically relieved the bounty hunter of his possessions, dropping them off the platform and suctioning them up before they hit the ground.  He left him standing there- the ray would probably wear off in an hour or two.  The thief descended to ground level and summoned a cab from one of the many kiosks, riding in silence after giving the nav computer his destination.

Chuck’s Pawn was a hole in the wall store in a part of town where cars could still backfire and grunge held the scuppers at bay.  Here the neon and advertisements were the only light, mildew stains dominating the bare patches on the buildings.   Bare walls space was usually a privilege for the rich; not many people wanted to advertise here.  It had no name, only a number- 333rd street.  The store itself appeared to be of even poorer repute than the one Marco had just robbed, though it was larger.  ‘PAWN’ hung above the door in real neon- Chuck refused to say where he had gotten it or how many regulations he had broken doing so.  No displays hung behind the bullet-proof and laser-grounded glass.

Inside, a thin corridor ran between counters of either side of the room, with racks mounted above and behind them.  Plain fluorescents lent an air of gravitas of the shop; only the most serious of business shunned colored lights.  A menagerie of objects occupied them- ornamental body parts, jewelry, paper displays and VR headsets, bone hilt knives, stuffed alligator heads, even old-timey Rolex watches. The only unifying element among them was value- Chuck didn’t deal in small ticket items.  The man himself sat pooled in a wheezy old hover chair, looking at a book through a magnifying glass.

“Chuck, I need to use your burn room quick-like.”

“You usually do that at your place, Pockets. What’s wrong?”  Chuck’s face looked inquisitive rather than concerned beneath a gleaming bald dome.

“It’s not for merchandise; I had to use my freeze ray.”

“Shit-“ Chuck muttered ”get in there right now!  And don’t come out till I fritz the cameras!”  Marco strode the corridor and smoothly vaulted the counter next to Chuck, passing through the curtain to the back.  Boxes of bulk goods alternated with pawned items on steel shelves.  He stripped and shoved his clothes- except the goggles, Chuck would reskin them- through a panel into a faux fireplace on one of the walls.  It incinerated them, piping the fumes away.  By the time Marco had helped himself to clothes from a box just for the purpose- a Miami dolphins t-shirt, jeans and bright orange sandals- the fireplace showed no evidence that it was in any way functional.  He skipped the box of masks and head coverings- not subtle enough- and stepped into a heavy rusted cabinet next to the fireplace.  It buzzed; Chuck kept it back here because any phone within five feet when it turned on got fried.

Chuck was standing in the back room when Marco got out of the cabinet.  “How much do I owe you?”

“Just tell me what happened Pockets.”

“Torch was on me- he’s a teleporter, Chuck, and he’s read my file.”

“What?  A hopper?  That shouldn’t be a problem for you-“

“No, he was doing whole blocks at a time, multiple jumps.”

“Bullshit!  He would have been drafted.”

“Maybe he dodged, all I know is he is a teleporter.”

“Do you really think that, P?  Would any super turn a draft down?  I know you still have that letter in one of your pockets.”  Marco had the letter in his hand before he realized what he had done, fifteenth pocket empty.  Earth navy letterhead, a Goode-Homolsine projection emblazoned across the top in gold.  Real tree paper, not electronic or that environmentally friendly crap.  As usual, only one line stuck out to Marco.  Power:  Minor Persistent Dimensional Folding.  Insufficient power to warrant service.  It whipped from his hand with a crackle, returned to its hiding place.

“So what are you going to do now?”

Pockets looked at Chuck and clicked his tongue.  “Can you handle some VR counterfeits if Torch is looking for them?”

“Since they won’t have serials, yes, but I’ll still need a discount for the heat-“

“What about for store credit?”

“I could do that Pockets, but do you want me to?  When have you ever bought anything besides food?”

“Things change.  I want to look at the weapons Chuck; I’m going hunting.”

Hidden Fees

This is my response to the flash fiction prompt posted by Chuck Wendig on July 26

I chose road sign, animal skull, leather mask and iron horseshoe.  Posting a little late, but I only found the prompt 3 days ago, been sitting on what I wrote for 2.  Enjoy.

Wet needles slapped Frank as he ran.  The rain slid off him but the plant matter clung, forming a second sodden jacket over his windbreaker.  And still the fire burned, its glow leaving the sky the color of strong sunlight through eyelids.  Copper tang filled the air as the blood pines were charred; over the roar of the flames and creaking of the spindly trees Frank could not hear what followed, but he could feel it.  Thump, thump, thump, the ground announced its coming.  Air like a gas soaked rag, wet and acrid from smoke, punished Frank for every gulped breath.  But he could not stop.  He did not run so much as fall forward, and in every moment he could continue his unbalanced lurch forward or face plant.  So he ran through another fire already blazing in his lungs and legs.

Stinging grass and pear cactus clung insistently upon jeans and boots in the wide space between the pines as if they too hoped to escape the coming blaze, the draining tilt of the hill, his own coarse hair swept into his mouth and eyes, the swinging backpack a thousand small annoyances drowned beneath one thought:  I need a new job.  Frank checked his windbreaker’s pocket with every step.  Mercifully the horseshoe and sugar cube were dry- he could not have bagged them, he would not have had the time to remove them.  Lightning split the sky as Frank crested the hill, revealing forest, slash pine stretching forty feet and scattered oak higher.  The red needles and alabaster bark gave the pines an alien air; if not for the few oaks peeking up it would have seemed a coral forest.  Fire already blazed on the left and right edges of the depression ahead.  Almost simultaneous thunder drove spikes into his ears, but Frank did not care.  There, at the base of the incline, stood the clearing and the way out.

Pitching even more wildly now, he passed over the crest of the hill and began to descend even faster, trees whipping past and undergrowth crushed underfoot.  If pines had low branches they would have scourged Frank raw, yet he heard them snap as the footfalls behind him became audible.    And then he was in the clearing, tripping over the rocks strewn throughout it.  A carpet of pine needles broke his fall and Frank immediately struggled to all fours and lunged forward.  In a strange hunching run Frank made it to the center of the clearing, banging his shins to hell and back on limestone and cinderblock.  Clang.

He had almost walked past it!  Another bolt of lightning lit the clearing as he stepped back.  The yellow diamond road sign and the deer skull affixed above it on the metal shaft were both blackened with char, black horns obvious against the burning umber sky. “Road closed?  We’ll see about that!”  Frank felt a bubble of relief as he fished the sugar cube from his pocket, holding it with his palm down so the rain did not wet it.   The bubble popped as trees shook behind him.  The time had come to leave, and to hell with everything else!  He looked back anyway.

It had a human face.  Stretched taught over a crude wooden frame, strapped to its head as a mask.  Its arms hung to its knees, as massive stained rock clutched in one hand.  Brown fur the same shade as Frank’s hair covered a body at least ten feet tall, the top of its mask brushing a branch overhead.   A whole deer hide was tied around its waist by the rear legs, forming a rough loincloth with the deer’s head almost touching the ground.  The smell of rotting meat wafted from it to Frank, gagging him as he slammed the sugar cube into the skull’s mouth.  Red light from a setting sun poured from the sign.

“Road’s open baby!” Frank yelled as he fell back through the sign.  The sasquatch roared and knocked a massive chunk from the pine beside it as it flailed wildly, blinded by the sun in its eyes.  The needles Frank landed on were blessed brown, not red, and the pines he looked up at from his back were brown with green needles.

“You fell on the eggs!”  Professor Astor wrung his hands, glasses almost flying off his face in agitation.

Frank sprung to his feet.  “I told you to wait at your car!” He lurched around the sign post, wincing as his legs began a thousand years of revenge for what they had been put through.  Though the landscape had changed, the sign and skull remained charred and out of sight of any actual road, though it now read ‘Road Open’.  He levered open the jaws of the skull and began fishing for the horseshoe.

“If you have any less than a dozen, you can forget about payment-“  The professor broke off as the last ten feet of a ghastly white pine tree in mid-fall appeared above the sign and slammed home, the tips of the top needles brushing the man’s face.  He stood there, jaw open, pristine outdoorsmen khaki vest and shorts now covered in blood red sap.  Frank flinched as a roar sounded from the sign and slipped the horseshoe into the deer’s mouth, holding his breath as he let the mouth close.  The sign rippled, returned to its closed state.  Disappointment radiated from the skull at the lack of sugar- experience had taught Frank he was not imagining it.

Roughly shedding his pack, Frank riffled through it, pushing aside plastic bags of sundries until he found the thermos.  Walking over to the professor, he popped it open.  “Passenger pigeon eggs- unharmed, as asked.  I take no responsibility if their origin in another plane causes them to long for the flesh of humans.”

“Ah- perfect!”  The professor shifted from shock to delight Frank wanted to ask if he had whiplash.  ”And you got samples from the blood pine and some sort of primate!”

Frank looked over his shoulder at the severed hand of the sasquatch laying on top of the tree.  Close shave there Frank.  “Those’ll cost you extra.”