So I’m scrolling through my comments today, all of which are in my spam folder. I guess that in and of itself that should say something, but I don’t listen very well. Ask anyone who knows me. Go ahead. Back now? See? I told you. Anyway, the spam filter has caught about a dozen comments begging me to try out an online SEO tool because the spam tells me I have no on-site SEO to speak of, and without it I can’t “monetize” my site.

Look! I monetized the picture!

Look! I monetized the picture!

What? How can this be? I saw a cartoon about it, so I should know what I’m doing!

Okay, so I didn’t read a wiki, or a book, or a set of clay tablets with cuneiform advertising help, or anything like that. I’m lazy. Didn’t the people tell you that, too?

For those of you not in the know, SEO stands for “Search Engine Optimization”, and it is a way of writing things which is supposed to make it easier for random people, organizations, websites, or cybernetically-enhanced troglodyte/duck mating mishaps find your website and become your number one fan or some such. SEO is the lifeblood of using your website as a marketing tool, you see. If you write about monkeys, you’re gonna want search engines to point to your site when people type “monkeys” in that Google search bar, right? Well, I guess without some magic wand, anyone looking for “T. Mike McCurley” is going to redirected to a recruitment site for the Renegade Legions, and wind up behind the yoke of a beat-to-shit grav tank dodging mass drivers. I do know that a search will often link you to the works of a Texas-based attorney who happens to share most of the name. Hi, Mike! Hope things are going well down there.

Get ready for the surprise, folks and Folk. It’s gonna be a doozy. Ready? Here it comes:

I don’t know jack shit about SEO in the real world. I know, I know. You’re all in the floor now, and you spilled your mocha chai hookybooky drink all over your feet. My bad. I did warn you, though. See? Look up just one paragraph!

I have looked into it to see what it is all about, but the concepts and jargon that get thrown about make it about like reading stereo instructions…In Japanese…In the dark…In the midst of a 3-day bender. There are folks who specialize in advertising that speak this like a second language, and to them I say, “You go, girl. Do your thing.” Believe me, I’m not coming down on these people. Firearms people speak in ballistics charts and windage. Mechanics speak of torque and fuel injection systems. Dispatchers speak in ten-codes. Every group has its own jargon. If you’re an advertiser with a great knowledge of SEO practices and the ability to put them into play and bring a ton of money into your pockets or those of your clients, then hell, yeah! I’m proud of you! That is an accomplishment.

Me? I’m a writer. I write, and I do it mostly for fun. Yeah, I have stuff for sale as well, but if you just want to read some things, come on in! There’s plenty of free words here. Read, enjoy, and come back now and then. Hell, sign up for the newsletter thing that comes out whenever I pull my head outta my butt long enough to type one up, and you’ll get stuff others might never see. I’m not gonna sit here and claim to be in the ranks of the lofty as far as authors go. I’m not the multi-million-selling master of suspense or horror or science fiction or whatever. They might well employ those SEO masters mentioned above to optimize their site and make it pop up whenever someone types in some random-ass word into a search engine. I don’t know. I do know that it says “superhero stories” up there somewhere, and if you search for that phrase, somewhere on the three quadrillionth page of Google search results, you might get a hit for me.

Face it: most people who read these words are already digging my stuff for one reason or another. To y’all I say, “Thank you! You’re the reason this is still fun.”

So, back to the original point (Yeah, I tend to wander from topic to topic, huh?): I don’t need a magic online SEO tool. I don’t need a team of advertisers. All I need is some words to flow, and some people to smile when they read them. If that means that I’m not selling a million copies of my books every eleven seconds, then so be it.

End trans.

 

Ten swung the axe in a hard overhead arc, snapping it down at the last second to intensify the force of the strike. The log split cleanly and fell into pieces beside the stump she was using as a platform, each half dropping into a large pile of split stock. She grabbed another log and balanced it atop the stump. A few seconds later, and this one snapped apart as well, joining the dozens before it.

She stopped when her count told her she had split one hundred logs into quarters. A gentle flicking motion sent the axe head into the stump to secure it as she began the task of gathering the quarters four and five at a time for the trek back to the woodshed. It was dull and repetitive work, and with every step, with every load of wood, she thanked Tole for the simple nature of the task at hand exactly as she had with each swing of the axe. She reminded herself again and again what an opportunity she had been given here. Every step, every swing was good healthy exercise. The grass beneath her toes reminded her that Tole had provided for her. The pale grey wood of the thick-boled trees, while dense in composition, was easier to carry than the weight of her sins.

Fifty paces to the shed. Fifty paces back to the piles. Nearly a hundred trips back and forth, half the time carrying a load of wood in her arms. When she got to the shed with each load, she stacked it carefully in the bins she had made. Soon split wood sections lined the interior walls to a height that made her stretch. This was not her first day stacking wood.

She returned to the stump and slipped the axe free of the scarred wooden surface. She held the blade up toward the sky, letting the evening sun tell her what she needed to know. There were minor scratches and a tiny chip in the blade near the tip, but nothing that couldn’t be filed out. That would happen before she went back into the house tonight.

She had yet to step away from the stump when the feeling swept over her like icy water poured down her back. Adrenaline flowed through her veins in response and she felt a sort of electricity take hold, stiffening all her hairs.

“No, please,” she whispered.

Her answer came in the form of a stinking, fleshy hand that wrapped around her face as a heavy body slammed into her from behind. The hand sought to cover her mouth, and Ten let it. There was no one here to overhear, anyway.

Old reflexes took over and she dropped a shoulder while shifting her weight. The thick furry form behind her slid over her right shoulder and crashed to the dirt for a second before righting itself and jumping once more to its feet.

The rat was average size for its breed, although a little fatter than she had previously seen on any combat force. He wore some kind of mottled brown coverall that was not much different than the sections of fur she could see on him. A belt and suspenders rig held equipment and a scabbarded knife hung low on his left hip. His eyes were glittering beads set wide in his face, and radiated hostility.

“I am sorry,” she said, striving to recover her calm state. “I did not mean to hurt you, but you struck me unannounced.”

“Well, this time, I’ll tell you,” he responded. “Stay quiet and I’ll make it quick.”

The knife slid free and he led with it, the tip held out and up. Ten sidestepped, spinning the axe in her grasp. The wide, flat head rang as it impacted against the knife, sending the smaller blade spinning away into the dirt. Laughter erupted from behind Ten as the rat looked with surprise at his tingling hand.

“Thought you said you could take her,” said a voice. Ten cursed in silence at her own failure to notice that he was not the only foe. She was obviously slipping.

Master Shear had hands like iron, and his use of them left bruises. Ten knew better than to sidestep the blow, however. She had earned it by not paying attention to her surroundings. His paw took her across the cheek, spinning her to the side.

“Your eyes see ahead but there is more to your world than what lies before you! Use your ears, your nose, whatever you must. If your opponent can arrive undetected, you will surely die!”

Her ears rang with pain, but Ten digested his words as the gospel they were. From that day, she became adept in situational awareness, using reflections to see behind her, sounds and smells to assess her surroundings, and growing to trust more and more that nagging feeling inside that told her she was being observed.

She paced to the side, turning her body away from the rat who had held the knife. Her movement brought her closer to the place where it lay in the dirt and, as he circled to maintain space, increased his distance from it.

They came into view in her peripheral vision. Nearly a dozen of them, all armed and prepared to do battle but currently laughing at their comrade and his discomfort at having been bested by a skinny-looking raccoon. In their ranks she saw rifles carried by all of them, and more than a few handguns of different sizes and styles. None had come into play yet, as this was a crew made for stealth. They would not want to expose themselves so far from their target by shooting a farmer.

The only constants among them were the uniform they wore and the malicious looks in their eyes. Of course, as was standard with the rats, the crew was exclusively male. While the vast majority of Empire Rodentia had no trouble mixing sexes in their armies, the rats themselves did not. Their females were scientists and inventors first. The Emperor had commanded that they be kept from the front lines and protected. The rapid breeding cycles and growth of the rats was what made them the most fearsome of opponents. They never seemed to stop. No matter how many were put down, others would flood to fill their place.

“Clearly you are an insertion force,” Ten said. Her voice was calm and flat. “I beg of you, turn back now. Do not do this.”

“I’ll show you an ‘insertion force’,” one of the rats called out, grabbing obscenely at himself.

“We’re coming through, ringtail,” declared another. He was larger than the others – not fat, but muscled and broad chested. Both his hands clutched rifles, one of which Ten guessed would belong to the one who had tried to tackle her.

“My land leads to nothing of strategic value,” she protested. “You will take longer to achieve your goals if you pass through here.”

“Bargain. Plead. Keep them talking. Take them off their aggressive front. Get them to relax their guard, even for a moment, and you will have the edge. Never let their numbers affect you, for no matter how many they are, you are from the Academy. Your life will not be cheaply traded.”

“You wear a Tolean amulet,” the big rat said. “You are no threat. We will restrain you and leave you alive. No harm will come to you.”

“Tole has put me on the path to a righteous life, it is true,” she said. She made a sniffing sound and looked up through eyes made wide. When she spoke, she forced herself to sound weak and looked past the leader to the rat who had groped himself. “You promise no harm will befall me?”

“None,” the leader said. He turned to glare at the subordinate, and all eyes went to the expected battle of wills.

Master Shear would have been proud.

The moment of distraction was at its peak, and the axe whistled up and out. It described a dramatic arc coming across from left to right, and the sound it made as it impacted the rat at the base of the skull was only minimally different than that it had made when she struck the logs. The heavy blade plowed through and emerged from the other side in a spray of blood. Before the others could react, the axe shifted and spun in her grip and two more rats fell to its bite.

She was in among them now, ducking and weaving as clawed hands reached for her. Long jagged blades sought her flesh, and more than one claimed a quick kiss as she continued to ravage their ranks with the axe. A diving roll across the blood-soaked ground, and she rose with one of the knives in each hand. The brutal axe was lodged in the sternum of a soldier, and her count put their ranks reduced by half. One of them was not mortally injured, but the missing hand was going to be an issue. She could feel the air on her back, and the fact that it felt cold told her that she had been opened there. The sticky wetness of her blood would be a sensation for later.

“Kill her!” shouted one of the rats, and they went for their rifles. The flurry of action gave her another few precious seconds, and Ten did not disappoint. She moved through them like a whirlwind, blades slashing and stabbing in a frenzy. A rifle came up and she spun to her right, slipping a blade under the barrel and stroking down across the metal. Fingers flew free from the rat’s support hand and he squealed. Six rounds thundered from the weapon as he gripped the trigger, but their intended target was no longer there.

“Never stand still. You are no tank. Your armor is your speed. Once the engagement begins, it must not stop until your foes are down.”

Her feet ached and bled as she danced her way through obstacles and across sharp-edged rocks, simultaneously dodging swinging poles that began as slow obstacles of their own but after weeks of practice became aimed stabbing attacks and brutal, bone-breaking slashes. She and her classmates learned the hard way that failure to avoid them was no laughing matter.

Sprints became longer and more frequent, with completion times that would frighten many a runner. At any point during the day, an instructor would point and yell, “Run!” The students who were pointed to ran. One hundred paces away and one hundred back, as hard and fast as could be managed. Those that were too slow were subject to a whip stroke, and the target was often far more sensitive than the student’s back. If two students were selected to run, the slower got the stroke automatically.

The class became faster and more agile with every passing day, and while some questioned how much value to ascribe to what they considered a daily torture, others recognized that there were times when the lessons learned would keep Academy graduates alive.

Her ears ached from the proximity to the rifle burst, but Ten kept going. A reverse plunge drove the left-hand blade through the paunch of one rat, the jagged edge catching on what she figured was his spine. She let it go and snatched the rifle from his hands as his voice rose in a keening shriek.

The next shot took her in the left shoulder, but the three additional rounds in the burst ripped through one of the rats that was still grasping at the fountain of blood that was erupting from his neck. She stumbled and went down, allowing the force of the impact to carry her into a gut-wrenching roll that put her body weight directly on the fresh injury. Unconcerned with hitting friendly forces, she triggered the rifle in a roaring full-auto string. Shining cases spat from the ejection port as flame jetted from the barrel. Her arm felt on fire but she managed to swing the weapon around in a lateral arc, slashing a line of bullets across the lower legs of her foes.

She thrust her hand forward, releasing the empty rifle to smash into the face of one of the rats. She stabbed down with the knife in her right hand, driving it between the shoulder and the neck of another, and then using the grip as leverage to spring back to her feet even as she severed the arteries that ran up along his neck. Caught up now in her frenzy, she snapped her teeth onto his face and ripped as her hands scrabbled to take his rifle from his grasp. She felt two more rounds strike her in the lower back and her world became a feverish agony.

Her surroundings were beginning to blur when she managed to wrest the rifle free from her opponent. Another bullet blew her right femur apart as she jammed the weapon back behind her and depressed the trigger with her thumb. Smoking cases bounced from her skin and slipped into her clothes, melting her fur and sticking to her flesh. She could not feel them, so lost was she in the fiery pain that was eating at her.

Her leg gave out beneath her and she fell to the ground, rolling onto her back in time to have the last rat who had shot her fall atop her. She battled out from under him, sweeping her gaze left and right in a desperate search for any remaining rat. The rifle came up and barked twice as she settled the sights on those that had been injured but not killed. She was not in the habit of leaving her foes alive to strike at her back, and even now that reflex was in full swing.

Finally satisfied that she had succeeded, Ten leaned back against the bloody corpse of the leader. The sky above her was slowly darkening, and she wondered if it was because of the hour or her injuries. Were she prone to gambling, she would have bet on the latter. She laid the rifle along her leg, pointing the barrel at one of the dead, twitching rats, and pulled the trigger again. After a minute, she did it again. She had fired a fourth round when she saw them.

The badger named Zeke was in the lead, his claws wrapped around a short little needle-nosed automatic carbine. Two more ArCorp mercenaries were visible behind him, but she did not immediately recognize them. She had spoken once to the badger at the Exchange, and she generally did not forget a face.

“Miss Bray!” Zeke shouted. His words seemed to come from a long distance. “ArCorp Security! Drop the rifle!”

She smiled around teeth tinted scarlet and let the weapon fall. Her eyelids closed as it struck the ground.

She finished the blink, letting her lids flutter open, and her surroundings were entirely different. It took her four full seconds before her brain processed that she was in a hospital bed, and her mouth protested the feel of the hard plastic tube down her throat. She tried to swivel her eyes around more, but they began to flutter closed once more and she felt darkness envelop her.

The next time she knew what to expect and she took a quick glance around the room, committing the layout to her hazy memory in case it should prove necessary. As she fell back to sleep, she willed the images to stay in her mind, that she might explore them in her dream state.

On the sixth occasion of opening her eyes, she realized that the tube was gone, replaced by a cannula that fed raw oxygen up her nose. She smacked her lips and looked around her.

“Would you like some water?” asked a voice. She tried to answer but her own voice was nothing more than a croak. It was apparently enough, as a copper-toned paw slipped from her right and into her vision, holding a small squeeze bottle. He dripped water into her mouth and she fought the urge to gulp it down. Instead, she held it in her mouth and let it moisten the tissues there before finally swallowing. He repeated the action twice more and then she managed to speak.

“Thank you.”

“You are welcome,” the voice said. Moving with a slow precision, he stepped fully into her sight. He was a setter, she noted, and his eyes were kind behind the thin eyeglasses he wore. The high-collared shirt of cerulean blue marked him as an acolyte of Tole.

“My name is Sean,” he said. “Sean Goodwin.”

“I’m Ten.”

“Sergeant Sharn saw your amulet and asked me to come and speak with you.”

She remained calm, although her heart was pounding faster than she could remember. Everything around her felt cold, and she recognized the symptoms of adrenaline dump. Her fight-or-flight instinct was going into overdrive. At her side, her hand had clenched the sheet in a grip tight enough to crush.

“You do not attend sermons in the church,” Sean said. She looked at the wall rather than meet his gaze.

“Tole tells us that violence is pointless,” he continued. “That it creates a neverending cycle of more violence that escalates.”

“I remember. ‘Be not as the beasts who lose themselves in rage.’ I know.”

“From what I was told, that scene was an abattoir.”

“Will He forgive me?” she asked.

“Of course He will. The question of the moment is, will you?”

“I reacted, Father. It was not something I wanted to do. It is ingrained in me, and it is why I came here.”

He gave her some more water as he watched her eyes. He managed a smile.

“You are running from a violent past,” he said, and her silence was the answer he expected. He turned, and a scraping noise preceded the chair that he dragged over to her bedside. He sat and reached a paw out to take her hand.

“He understands, cub. He knows that not everyone comes from a place of purity, and that the darkest souls often shine the brightest when they have joined his light.”

“You will find none darker in this colony, Father,” she told him.

“Who are you, Ten?”

She made a sound that could have been a chuckle, despite the shudder it sent down Sean’s spine.

“In the grand scheme of things, I’m no one,” she said. “A hand gripping a sword. The finger on a trigger. A blade in the dark. All these and more, and you tell me that Tole can forgive me?”

“Any who turn away from the ways of the blade can see the truth He speaks.”

“I can’t understand. I am a monster.”

“He sees beyond that, Ten. He sees the part of you who wishes never to be violent again. Give that part to Him, and He will help you push beyond the past that ensnares you.”

“That’s exactly why I came here,” she repeated.

“Tell me what you are escaping. Together we shall stand with Him and I will speak your repentance to His divine ears.”

She settled her head on the pillow.

“I was five years old when I was chosen,” she began.

 

<<<END>>>

Meet the New Boss

 

Maera wasn’t deaf, but she was certainly dancing on the edge. Her hearing loss was no big concern to the Folk with whom she worked, who recognized it as decades of working with various forms of explosive. The only time any of them complained was when the earbud for her chip player wasn’t seated properly and the rest of the crew was exposed to the horrific tones of what she liked to call music. At the volume she was forced to listen to it, the sound could easily be heard by those nearby.

The other hazard was Maera’s speech. She had no concept of how loud she was speaking. In field operations she often stayed silent rather than chance making too much sound, but at the moment she was not in the field. The massive desk that separated her from the chimpanzee behind it was buried in forms that seemed almost to vibrate in response to her voice.

“So he says, ‘make it a double’,” she shouted, breaking into a cackling laugh. Across from her, the chimp chuckled and then laughed with her. His head bobbed as he laughed, and the pen that was tucked behind his right ear slipped free and bounced from the edge of the desk before falling to the floor.

“You should tell that to the Folk down at Four Winds,” he said when the laughter subsided. He bent to retrieve the fallen pen.

“Them idiots can’t appreciate good jokes,” she responded.

As she did so, the door opened and a pair of Folk entered. One was a cheetah in standard casuals. His carbine was slung on his back across his body, barrel-down, and he had a friendly grin that displayed his shining teeth. The other was a snow leopard female in a stylish black-and-blue wrap. Her eyes flitted about the office, trying to take in every detail.

“Misha said to come straight in,” the cheetah began, pausing as he saw that Maera was seemingly alone in the office. He raised his voice a notch and called her name.

Maera wheeled and her lips stretched back in a happy grin. “Kurt!” she shouted. Both of the new arrivals winced at her volume.

“We’re supposed to meet with the Team Leader,” Kurt explained. Maera nodded and jerked a paw over her shoulder.

“Taffy!” she shouted. The chimpanzee raised his head back from beneath the desk. He smiled when he saw the arrivals. He gestured to the chairs in front of the desk.

“Please have a seat,” he prompted. He stood from the desk and made his way around it with a limping gait. It was when he cleared the desk that the reason for his limp became clear. His left leg was a prosthetic. It was a simple piece of plastic and metal, rather than the exotic fibers and motorized replacements that had been popular for the past few years.

“Who’s your friend?” Maera asked of her compatriot. She scanned the snow leopard from head to toe, and while her ears might have been damaged, her eyes were perfectly precise. Her brow furrowed.

“This is Vikki Duris,” Kurt introduced. When he fell silent immediately after, Maera knew that asking further questions would not benefit her.

“Here ya go,” she said instead, rummaging in one of the wide-mouthed pouches at her waist and emerging with a long piece of colorful material. She looked for just a moment at the snow leopard, cocking her head to the side by a few degrees as, at her waist, her paws twisted and shaped the material. A moment later, she extended a braided circlet. The ends were bent to allow them to slip through the loop at the other end.

Vikki took it, a nervous smile splitting her muzzle.

“Thank you,” she said, though her voice was barely heard even by Kurt. Maera had heard the words often enough to recognize the motions of the muzzle and her teeth flashed again.

“My pleasure,” she said. She turned back to see the chimpanzee leaning against the front of the desk. She winked down at the shorter Folk.

“Private, I take it?” she asked. When he nodded, she reached out with a paw and took his hand for a second. The shake was a relaxed one, with no vigor. “See you tomorrow then,” she told him.

“Bring that clacker in and I’ll take a look at it,” he said. The sleek dog turned at the door and waved at him before slipping out and closing the portal behind her.

There was a moment of silence, as was common when Maera left a room. It was that reflexive second when everyone recalibrated their ears and voices to more appropriately deal with one another in her absence.

“I met Maera on the way out,” the Team Leader said. He stroked at the outer rim of his ear in thought. “She and I became fast friends.”

“She is an interesting one,” Kurt agreed.

“She has a very discerning eye,” Vikki said. Her arms were up and she had clasped the choker around her neck. It was just loose enough to not interfere with her throat, but tight enough to remind her it was there. “She got my size right just by looking.”

“Maera is our demolitions expert,” Kurt said. “Estimating length of fuse cord is kind of second nature.”

“Fuse… You mean… She made…” Vikki gasped and made to jerk the circlet off her neck. Kurt laughed and waved a paw to show her she was okay.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “We’ve all got something. Necklaces, bracelets, shoelaces. She just compulsively makes things for people. The primer cord is harmless as it is. You have to match it to a blasting cap to fire it.”

“Gara’s tail,” Vikki said, swallowing. She pulled her paws away from her neck with an obvious effort.

“If it goes boom, she’s the one you want dealing with it. Now, if she cooks something for you, that’s when you need to run.”

“Most definitely,” the chimpanzee added, nodding in an exaggerated manner. He chuckled once again and then moved to stand in front of Vikki. The snow leopard was a head and a half taller than him, but he had no difficulty looking her in the eyes.

“My name is Tafiri,” he introduced, shaking her paw. “I’m sure you’ve heard virtually nothing about me, since very few Folk deal with me directly. Kurt, here, is my liaison to the security forces, including Captain VonHogan. I believe you’ve already met him?”

Vikki nodded. “He seemed…intense, I think is the word I would use.”

“He has been tasked with not only providing all necessary security for the colony, but also for scouting the surrounding area and securing an entirely new objective. One can excuse him for appearing focused.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean it as a bad thing!”

“No worries,” Tafiri said, shaking his head. “It’s the new objective I wanted to talk to you about. I’ve seen in your chart that you had a very narrow field of specialty before you threw away everything and came with us to Z262.”

“Contract law,” she said.

“Now, I’ll admit, the curiosity of what caused you to abandon everyone and everything you were familiar with in order to come try life as a farmer is driving me positively insane, but I’d like to think we will have time to talk about that later. We will be spending quite a lot of time around one another if you accept the offer I’m about to make.”

Her arms crossed over her chest and she stepped instinctively away from Kurt and Tafiri, taking a step backward. Eyes narrowing, she looked down at the chimp. Her tone was icy when she spoke.

“What kind of offer?”

“Not what you’re thinking, I assure you,” Tafiri said, raising his left hand. “I need your expertise.”

“As a lawyer?” she asked. Her tone changed to incredulity. “I don’t do criminal justice.”

“Oh, we cover that,” Kurt interjected.

“You will recall, I mentioned a new objective that Captain VonHogan is securing for us,” Tafiri continued, unaffected by the interruption.

“Yes.”

“ArCorp regulations require a great many things from us as corporate citizens, Vikki. Not least among them is to continue looking for new ways to increase the holdings of the corporation. You are aware of our mining operations, of course. What has not been discussed with any but a handful of Folk is what I brought you here to discuss.”

“Well, my curiosity is piqued,” she admitted.

“I need to be assured of your absolute discretion, Vikki.”

“I am capable of that.”

“I am aware,” he said. His hand slipped into a pocket of the tailored vest he wore and emerged holding a thin coin of hammered gold. “I am placing you on retainer as my attorney,” he said.

“You have me mistaken for – “

“No mistakes,” he said. “I am fully cognizant of what your specialty is and where your talents lie. That is precisely why I am ensuring that I am the first to hire you.”

“You have contracts in mind?” she asked. She glanced down at the proffered coin.

“I do. I need you to write them. Make them airtight. Help our colonists. Do your job, Vikki, and we will all be wealthy beyond avarice.”

“We’ll all what?”

“Take the coin,” Tafiri urged. “Be my attorney.”

Her paw moved forward in slow motion, as if she had no control. In a moment the coin was nestled in her palm. Tafiri grinned widely as she took the money.

“Take a seat, Vikki,” Tafiri said. “Let me tell you a story about a scouting mission that has gone incredibly well.”

<<<END>>

It’s April,, and that means a great many things to people. To me, it’s time for Camp NaNoWriMo!

A more relaxed and casual setting than the balls-out novel creation that is November’s NaNoWriMo, Camp is much more mellow. It is still a place to focus on your writing, and to create something new and exciting, but it also is more encouraging of interaction. Camp NaNo has “cabins”, virtual hangouts for up to a dozen authors in each to co-exist for the month. This allows people to chat and get to know one another, to learn about tricks others might have, and to encourage other writers in their efforts.

My cabin this year consists of some friends from former Camps (Hi, Gwendlyn! If you’re reading this, I’m waving!) and some folks that are part of a NaNo support group on Facebook (Hello to you all as well!). Phyl, Erin, and Lisa all conspired to keep me on my toes last November. The hourly sprints to add content they organized and took part in made NaNo infinitely more fun. Lisa is also a Pen and Cape Society member, as is Nick — our last current member. I am in great company, folks!

I decided that this year, I will focus on stories from Z262. You should start seeing them pop up from time to time, most often as soon as I have completed one and can quickly format it for the blog page. I am doing a quick read on each one to check spelling and the occasional bit of grammar, but I am not making these a polished third draft kind of thing. When Z262 tales drop, they’re a little raw, a little more organic than other things I might scribe, and some times that means they’re a bit sharper in tone. I should also note that the Z262 stories are a bit more ‘adult’ in tone than some of my other work. Frequent graphic language and violence pervades them, and sexual undertones can sometimes become overtones in short order. So, you know, trigger warnings and yep. Uh-huh.

Anyway, welcome to April, and happy camping to those of you who are taking part!

TMM

“Harper!” Chino hissed. His attempt at quiet was nearly deafening in the small room. Harper turned to him, an expression of alarm creasing his face. The big elephant was standing by a door that should not have been open.

“Be quiet!” Harper said, holding the pads of his paw toward the floor.

Chino nodded, lifting a limp body into the air for Harper to see. “I think I broke him,” he said, managing to stay relatively quiet. In his arms, the mob guard lolled loosely, head rolling and legs dangling toward the floor.

“What the –“

Harper dashed across the room, abandoning the safe he had approached, and laid his paw on the elbow of the big Shepherd. He gave Chino a glare as the elephant opened his mouth to speak. After a moment of concentrating, he took a long breath and nodded.

“He’s alive,” Harper reported. “What did you do?”

“He came in and saw us, then he went for his gun. I tapped him.”

In Chino-speak, Harper knew, tapping was code for ‘I slapped him in the head with a crowbar’, and it rarely ended well for the party being tapped. When you were strong enough to bench-press a ground car, swinging a couple feet of thick steel was a devastating attack. On the plus side, the elephant had heard the approaching guard and dealt with him before anything happened, and for that Harper was glad.

Rather than belittle his partner, Harper simply removed the guard’s gun belt and wrapped it around his own waist. It hung loosely, as the rangy coyote was nowhere near as solidly built as the Shepherd that Chino was even now laying onto the floor.

“Watch the door,” he said. He returned his attention to the safe, throwing the scope into place and spinning the dials with an expert touch. In moments it was open, and Harper was stuffing piles of cash into a bag. Gems and jewelry went in as well, and although he wouldn’t keep the printed material inside the safe, he took it with him. It could always be shredded later. Certificates of ownership and stock would be problematic in the real world, so proper disposal was important. Money was money, though, and the cash was in fat stacks. Bag in hand, he made his way back to Chino’s side and patted his partner on the back.

“Time to go,” he said.

They slipped out through the door they had used to enter and once more stayed in the shadows as they passed a guard shack. Soon, they were in the clear and broke into a run until they reached the car they had parked behind a stand of wide-leafed trees.

Chino took the driver’s position and Harper leaped into place beside him. The engine rumbled to life and they sped into the night. A half mile later Harper pointed to a telecom booth and Chino pulled over. Harper stepped out and slipped a coin into the machine, using the tip of a claw to punch in a series of numbers and then fitting a scrambling device over the mouthpiece.

“There’s gonna be a hit tonight,” he said when someone answered. His voice was distorted by the scrambler, becoming deep and mechanical. “Blackie’s crew is gonna take down one of yours. He’s saying you owe him money and he’s gonna collect.”

He hung up before anything else could be said or asked, and then reclaimed his seat in the car. Chino drove them away from the booth in a leisurely fashion. Now that it was all done there was no need for speed.

Within the hour, the Rincon Crime Family discovered the theft and assault of the guard. Calls were made, and Blackie Biggs ended the evening with a price on his head.

“I thought we was going straight?” Chino asked as Harper finished counting the money. The pair had made it back to their apartment unscathed. Orderly stacks of bills took up space on the kitchen table beside an open bottle of beer.

“We are. I mean, soon. We needed a little seed cash for this trip to the Colony, right? So we’ll go straight when we get there. Meantime, just consider us slightly curved.”

Hello again, Cats and Kittens! Peel your eyes and check out what I managed today – an interview with Nick Piers, the one and only author of the Armadillo Mysteries.

Nick! Welcome to the place. Digging the outfit, man! Make yourself at home. Avoid the recliner with the cat on it, though. She’s in a mood. Tell ya what, just sit over here at the table and we’ll get this started. Got you a nice cold Keith’s Pale Ale waiting.

 

nick-superman

Now then, the mic is all yours, sir. Tell us a little about yourself and your background.

Well, “yourself” is a pronoun used to refer to the person addressed as the object of a verb or preposition. And my desktop background regularly shifts between pictures of armadillos, Superman, Order of the Stick, and various Darwyn Cooke DC pictures.

Ummm… Say what?

Oh! Wait, no. I heard that question wrong. Round 2!

So hi! I’m Nick Piers: Canadian writer, comic book guru, urban cyclist, and DDP yoga enthusiast. My name to fame – what little fame there I have – is The Armadillo Mysteries: a series of hard-boiled superhero novels. I like to describe it as Mickey Spillane meets Ninja Turtles.

So, you know. It’s high, hoity-toity literary stuff.

Well with a combination like Spillane and TMNT, I’ve gotta know: Which writers inspire you?

Oh geez, how many can I list? As many as I want? All right, it’s your funeral.

Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Daniel Keyes, Jim Butcher, Robert J. Sawyer, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Chuck Palahniuk, Mary Shelley, and of course, Mickey Spillane.

My biggest inspirations – certainly for Dill – are Simon R Green and John Zakour. Green, especially, for his fantasy-detective Nightside series. After reading those, I dreamed of writing my own series in a similar vein.

Oh, and Jim Henson’s “DOG CITY”.

 I remember “Dog City”! With the crime lord bulldog dude. Fun stuff right there! So, tell us about your books. The things near and dear to you. Come on. Put ’em up on the table and I’ll take a quick pic of them while you talk about them and what other writing you’ve got floating around out there.

Books

 

The two biggies are THE CITY OF SMOKE & MIRRORS and THE DAME WAS A TAD POLISH, published by Pro Se Press. Pro Se also published some of my short stories, which can be found in RAT-A-TAT: SHORT BLASTS OF PULP and WRITE TO THE COVER VOLUME 1. I’ve also been published in the quarterly, A THOUSAND FACES, as well as magazines such as OPEN MINDS QUARTERLY and THE COUNTRY CONNECTION.

Oh! And a first for me: I wrote the script for Gaming Wildlife’s IF WWE WERE 100% HONEST YouTube video.

 

 

I also post irregularly on my blog.

 Sweet, Now as to the books, where can we buy or see them?

Rather than give a slew of links, I’ll link directly to my blog’s book links. They’ll have any links someone should need.

The City of Smoke & Mirrors

and

The Dame was a Tad Polish

Speaking of The Dame was a Tad Polish, give us an insight into your main character. What does he do that is so special?

Dilbert Pinkerton a five-foot-nothing mutant armadillo private detective. He’s the shoot-first-ask-questions-while-shooting type. He’s a chain smoker, a booze hound, and enjoys leaving take-out go bad in his Hovel Office so he can have a buffet of cockroaches. He’s kind of a dick and kinda trigger happy, but he also gives a crap about people wronged or injustices. Especially with this new case involving Lily Pad. She’s a fellow homoanthropomorphic (aka: mutant animal). And Dill can’t help but empathize with her struggles to fit in with society.

Hollywood seems to love characters like this, especially lately. If it came up and you could choose, which actor would you like to see playing Dill?

Actually, I think the best way to portray Dill is like the live action Ninja Turtles movies: animatronic puppetry! That’s the only way I picture Dill being done. I couldn’t imagine him properly done as a computer-generated character.

Awwww, yeah! That's what I'm talking about!

Awwww, yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!

 

As for actors, this will sound strange but there’s a relatively unknown actor, Ed Lieberman. He made a small appearance on “Big Bang Theory” as a man Sheldon meets on the bus. Except Sheldon is hallucinating, seeing Isaac Newton as an armadillo. Don’t ask, I don’t really get it, either. And for a moment, the man is shown as a walking, talking armadillo in a trench coat and fedora. Lieberman only says the line of “Yeah well, women. What’re ya gonna do?”

https://youtu.be/u71ODfRiVOw?t=1m22s

But what’s funny is that THE CITY OF SMOKE & MIRRORS had been out for two years when that episode aired and I was already starting to hype THE DAME WAS A TAD POLISH. I tweeted a joke about it, that I’d already cornered the market on armadillos in trench coats and fedoras. I don’t know if someone on the show has read Dill. I highly doubt it, but it’d be amazing if they had and threw him in there like this.

Anyway, the more I obsessively watched that clip, I started really digging Lieberman’s voice behind that badly rendered Dill. So if I could get an animatronic Dill, voiced by Lieberman? That’d be perfect for me.

And while we’re at it, I’d do the same with Lily Pad (animatronic) and have her voiced by Anna Akana.

You’re writing about anthro characters, and I know sometimes folks can get mighty picky about details. How much research do you do?

 For a silly, pulp adventure starring a mutant armadillo? Oddly more than I expected.

I talk about this more in my Joys of Writing blog entry, Research, but for one thing, I basically become an armchair expert on armadillos. I picked up this great book, The Nine-Banded Armadillo: A Natural History, by WJ Loughry and Colleen McDonough. It’s become a constant companion while writing anything involving Dill.

Usually, I’ll do research on the fly, in the middle of writing a scene or just before writing it. I’ve picked up many books on crime scene investigations, forensics, criminology, mythologies, and even some science-related books. I talk about this in more detail in my Joys of Writing blog entry called Research (http://nickpiers.com/2013/11/22/the-joys-of-writing-research/).

When I try to research on the fly, I end up watching cat videos, so you’re doing good there! When did you decide to become a writer?

 After Grade 2, if you can believe that. I don’t know when I wanted to be a published writer, but as far as just being a writer and storyteller? After Grade 2. I started writing stories in crayon about Gizmo from the film, Gremlins. Over time, my writing improved and my stories became more complicated. I don’t know when I wanted to actually publish. I’ve dreamed of walking into a bookstore – any bookstore – and see my work on the shelves.

Why do you write?

Boy, that’s the quintessential question, isn’t it? Do I do it for potential fame? The (preferably positive) feedback? The money? The money would be nice, I suppose. Make a living off it.

But really, my answer is simple: I write because I need to. Ideas, stories, characters, and moments constantly enter my head. The only way I stay sane is to write it out, to put them on the page, and get them out of my head. Otherwise, I’ll go absolutely batty.

I can dig that. So do you have a special time to write? How is your day structured?

I wish. To be honest, I’m horribly inconsistent with my writing. I’ll putter on down to Starbucks for a spell, hoping that I’ll bang out around 1,000 words, which is my average for a writing session. Sometimes, I’ll crack out less. Sometimes, I’ll be on a role and crank out two, three, even four thousand words in one sitting. I think my record is around 8,000 words in one session.

That’s a decent session. So when it comes to being on track, do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?

 Usually, I’ll have a rough roadmap in my head. This usually includes some rough notes I’ve either written down or typed out. For Dill, I try not to plan too much, especially on what he’ll do. I’ll try to weave the mystery as best as I can and then throw Dill into the pot and see how he deals with it.

Really, for me, my writing process is very free-writing. I don’t think much about what I’m writing while writing. There’s a broad roadmap, but I let my characters do most of the work; especially with Dill. Growing up, I’d hear other authors talk about how a character took over, doing things they didn’t expect. I never understood that until I started writing Dill. I wrote the first two chapters of The City of Smoke & Mirrors on a whim, to see if I could feel comfortable writing that kind of book. And Dill just took over. I’d throw him into a situation without a clue of how he’d get himself out of it. I’d end chapters on cliffhangers and a friend of mine would ask, “How’s he gonna get out of that?!” I’d say, “I dunno, I’ll let Dill figure it out.”

There’s a moment late into The Dame was a Tad Polish where I needed to get Dill from Point A to Point B. Except I didn’t know how to get him there. As I was writing the scene, Dill suddenly did something totally unexpected. I sat there in Starbucks, stared at the screen, and suddenly said to him, “What the hell are you doing, Dill!?” Then I stopped and thought, “No, wait. You’re a dick. This works.” And I wrote the rest of the scene (and subsequent chapters) accordingly.

What was the hardest thing about writing your latest book?

The mystery. It was my first time writing a murder mystery, so I was reading articles from other writers on how they concocted a murder mystery. Eventually, I got so frustrated, I took a little notebook and started writing question after question after question about the mystery. Who did it? Why them? Why did they do it? Why did they leave or set up the body like that? What’s their end goal for all this? What will they do if this plan falls through? What happens when Dill gets involved? What if they get caught?

Some answers created more questions, so I kept answering those until finally, I had what I thought was a pretty solid mystery. But good lord, it was a slog to get there. I don’t know how the best mystery writers do it on a regular basis.

Well, since we covered the difficult part, what was the easiest thing about writing it?

I guess writing Dill himself. I became very comfortable with him after the first book and I really got a grasp on him. As I mentioned before, I basically free-write, so Dill taking over makes things easy.

Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?

 Absolutely, though like my writing (and other things), it’s not very consistent. This year, I’m trying to finally clear out some of my backlog. Any book lover knows what it’s like to have a backlog of unread books. It’s like gamers who have a backlog on Steam. So far this year, I’ve read Robert J Sawyer’s Rollback, Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Restaurant at the End of the Universe (first time reading those, I’m ashamed to say), and Whipping Girl by Julia Serano. I’ve just started reading Quiet by Susan Cain. I’m trying to switch between fiction and non-fiction for each book.

As far as favorites? Too many to list them all, but here are some: Greg Rucka, Neil Gaiman, Robert J Sawyer, Simon R Green, and John Zakour. Green and Zakour, I’ve mentioned before.

You have unique covers for your books. Who designed them?

The City of Smoke & Mirrors’ cover was done by Chris Sheehan, who I found on the Digital Webbing forums. The cover was designed by Sean Ali.

The Dame was a Tad Polish’s cover was drawn by Larry Nadolsky. Its design is actually a parody of the cover for Mickey Spillane’s The Killing Man. The book was designed by Percival Constantine.

Original Spillane cover:

1094935

Cover image found here: http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1283738293l/1094935.jpg

 

It’s been a busy day, and you’ve been hard at work. How do you relax?

 Lately, it’s been either spending time with my girlfriend or playing video games. I recently finished The Witcher 3. I also greatly enjoy urban cycling and DDP Yoga. BANG!

Let’s take a look at some of your favorites. What is your favorite book and why?

I think it’d be Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. Its writing is absolutely brilliant how it shows Charlie’s intelligence gradually increasing. And it’s just a really solid story, overall.

A close second is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I remember reading it in high school, which helped me think more about race within society. When I re-read it only a few years ago, I fell in love with the book all over again.

Same basic question: Favorite film and why?

The Shawshank Redemption. I can’t really put my finger on why it’s my favorite, though. The acting is phenomenal, the story is deceptively simple on the surface, and it has one of the best payoffs in film. I never get tired of the big “ah ha!” moment. It has probably my favorite example of poetic justice.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

The same advice one of my oldest and best friends gave me: write. Just write. Don’t think about it. Just write. Even if you think it’s crap, write. Writing crap is better than not writing at all. Don’t be that person that has a great idea, points to their head, and says, “I have it all up here.” Stop thinking about it and WRITE IT.

Ok, so nobody gets out of one of my interviews without a lemur question. It’s traditional, man! With that in mind, if you could see any one of your characters as a lemur, which one would you choose and why?

Screw one of my characters! Why don’t I create a whole new character that’s a mutant lemur? Hell, I just google image searched lemurs and my first thought was making some kind of seedy informant that Dill rustles up sometimes.

Don’t expect him to show up any time, but the idea is my head now and it won’t go away any time soon. Thanks a ton for that. Jerk.

Ha! My pleasure. Giving people incomplete characters is even better than singing a part of a song and haviing it haunt them all day long.

Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t included?

 Two things:

1) I think I’ll know I’ve made it when someone in a Dilbert Pinkerton cosplay comes up to my table at a convention.

2) If there’s one thing I fear more than anything else, it’s discovering that someone has written Dill slash fanfic. Especially once they start getting weird. You have the obvious ones like Dill/Tony or Dill/Komodo. But some sick bastard will inevitably include Mickey (Tony’s dog) in one of those. Whoever you are, you future sick bastard, I hate you already.

Yeah, I can imagine that would…what? No, I’m not writing that idea in my notebook! That would be wrong.

Nick, thanks for dropping by, man. We gotta do this more often. Next time, we’ll make it a party!

So there you have it, folks! Dig on Nick’s stuff. I’ve added the links below. Just click ’em and enjoy the magic computer linky thing taking you to the cool places.

Website/Blog: http://nickpiers.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nickcpiers/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/NickPiers

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nick-piers-a17611b6

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/nickcpiers

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/ThatNickGuy

 

 

 

 

 

The bell rang just as Alice managed to seat the tip of the microdriver in the slot of the screw. Her muttered curse did not go unheard, and the strong voice of Brother Vincent scolded her for the slip.

“Sorry, Brother,” she said. She wormed the driver back from inside the tangled wiring harness and set the palm-sized device she had been working on aside. Brushing at her robe, she stood and moved to the door.

On the other side of the portal waited Kress Mrrr, her arms burdened with a large box. The cat grinned past perfect teeth.

“Hey, Sister,” she said, her tone respectful but also that of a friend. Kress always said ‘Sister’ as though she was addressing an actual family member, and not as the title it was. Of all Folk, Alice was the least likely to be offended by such conduct.

“Kress. Please, come in. Be welcome,” Alice said, stepping aside and beckoning the beautiful young cat into the temple. Her fluffy white tail came last, nearly brushing Alice’s muzzle as Kress walked near her.

“So there was a group of security Folk that went out and among other things they rescued a crawler that had taken a toothie rocket. Wasn’t much left but I scrapped the parts. I figured you and Brother Vincent could use some spare bits.”

Her voice was high and energetic as she practically danced into the temple, a snow-furred cheerleader poured into short shorts and a grease-marked shirt that barely contained her ample curves. Alice had often wondered what the secret was that let a mechanic of Kress’s talents crawl into and all over the dirtiest, greasiest machines and still come out brilliantly white.

“Spare bits?” she asked, the smile on her face mirrored in her voice.

Kress looked back over her shoulder and threw a wink at the coyote. “I find things,” she said.

“What kind of things?”

Kress stopped and slowly turned, letting her gaze linger on Alice. Her voice took on a slightly deeper edge. A tiny bit of pink tongue darted out to moisten her lips.

“For you? Oh, that’s gonna be a big list.”

Alice could feel the color creep into her cheeks as she met the appraising stare of the cat. She wasn’t able to keep the eye contact and opted to gesture at the box.

“So what did you find?” she asked.

Kress tilted the open top toward Alice, flashing an image of assorted bits of machinery and electronics beneath an expanse of cleavage. For a moment the coyote was caught up in the softness above the box, but her gaze eventually fell to the piles of metal and circuit boards, and then her expression became one of raw delight.

“Brother Vincent!” she called, using the tip of a claw to hold the box in her range of vision.

“To the cog apply oil, Sister,” said the deep voice of Brother Vincent. The aged leopard shuffled out from a door and began the walk across the room, his staff tapping on the floor as he moved. He flashed a toothy grin on seeing their guest.

“Kress Mrrr,” he said in booming tones. “As always it is a pleasure to see you here. Welcome, child, to the home of Gara.”

“Why, Brother, don’t you look wonderful,” she said. “Your spots are awful shiny.”

A purring chuckle slipped from his throat. “Perhaps a little too much grease of late,” he said.

“Now don’t be like that. I like shiny.”

The chuckle erupted into a full-throated laugh. “My child, I am far too old for your wiles, although I do appreciate the flattery.”

“Shot down before I even got out of the hangar this time,” Kress said. Another wink, slower this time.

“If you are nice, I shall let you be the first to see my new creation,” he said, dangling the kind of bait he knew she could not resist. Her eyes flashed and her lips peeled back in a grin.

“Oh, now, you know I’ll be nice for a chance to see your toys,” she said. “Did you get that resonator fixed?”

“Purrs like a mechanic now,” he shot back, his casual flirtation delivered over his shoulder as he walked from the room. Kress handed the box of parts to Alice and jogged after the older cleric. Alice blushed as she caught herself watching the hindquarters of the cat in motion.

“I’ll inventory these,” Alice called, placing the box atop a small table. She pulled items out of the box and documented them one at a time as Kress and Brother Vincent examined his latest device. From time to time, she could hear an excited meow come from the shop as Brother Vincent demonstrated some new quality of the thing. Alice had scarcely been made privy to the details of whatever Brother Vincent was constructing. It was of no concern to her, however. Her paws were being guided by Gara in her own manner, and as she slipped the control module from a targeting system from the box, her eyes twinkled.

“This will certainly make the aiming easier,” she muttered. The possibility existed that she might not be granted the module once Brother Vincent went through the list of requested items, but she recorded its presence nonetheless. She would never advance as a servant of Gara if she falsified the records in order to keep a part for herself.

She had finished the inventory for more than half of the small pieces in the box when Kress returned to the room. The cat sidled up to Alice and bumped hips with her.

“Hey there, Sister. How you doing?”

“I am making headway. There were a lot of parts in here.”

“Well, you know me. I like a nice full box.”

“I see that.”

“One day maybe you’ll help me fill it?”

“I would be delighted,” Alice said. She looked up to see Kress shaking her head.

“Right over your head,” the mechanic mumbled. She glanced around the temple and then leaned forward to gently kiss Alice before pulling away and bounding for the door.

“See you next time,” she called.

“I hope to have my teleporter finished by then,” Alice replied, waving to her friend. Her lips tingled and she wondered what the kiss meant for their friendship. It had been warm and soft, and more than just a pleasant goodbye gesture.

The temple door closed and she picked up a circuit board, logging it into inventory. She shrugged, and after a moment, her attention was riveted on the box of supplies. Still, though, she could taste the lip gloss of the mechanic.

 

So I’m talking to someone the other day (no names — you know who you are) and I got asked what my favorite superhero films were. I hadn’t really thought to put any time into it, I just like the movies, and that was my basic answer.

“But you write superhero stuff!”

“And?”

“So you’re the kind of person that needs to review them!”

Yeah… I don’t review movies very well. I’m more of a, “Holy shit, that was fun! When old dude jumped out of the coffin I nearly peed!” kind of guy. You’ll never see me on TV sitting in a balcony fawning over a piece of celluloid and comparing a fight scene to the cinematography of a Bergman film, or discussing the similarities and contrasts between The Fantastic Four and Chariots of Fire. That ain’t me.

But I thought on what had been said, and I figured, “Why not make a little list? I can tell people some of what made it fun, and why I like it.”

Some disclaimers up front:

1: Your favorite(s) may or may not be on the list. Sorry. This isn’t to denigrate your choice or say you have no taste (unless you don’t, in which case WHOO! I got it right!). I’m putting ten of my favorites up.

2: Spoilers. This list will probably have a few. That being said, I’m not going to just come right out and say, “Wow, that chick in the movie is really a dude and that’s the surprise ending!” That’s a total dick move (which apparently she can also make). But if you don’t know that Steve Rogers gets a scientific Super-makeover and becomes Studly Guy, well, then, sorry. I just ruined that for you.

3: I’ll say it again for the folks in the upper rows: I am not a professional reviewer! No film classes, no director’s training, no comparative cinema internet course, nothing. Just a mook who watches movies for fun. When you read it and think, “This guy is a lame-ass. How can you not see the Kurosawa influence in scene 7 when Crusader-Man is silhouetted in the shattered doorframe with the burning city behind him,” remember that I told you this here.

4: I think Thundercats should be a live-action film. If that tells you something about what you’re stepping into with this article, then cool. You understand this is no highbrow, in-depth analysis of the films in question. Also, if you think Jason Statham would make a good Tygra, then yay! We can be friends!

Ok, on to the list, in no particular order (click the image to be taken to the IMDB page for that particular film):

 

 

The Avengers

cover

The incomparable Joss Whedon put together a superhero ensemble that blew audiences out of their seat. Featuring Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, the Hulk, Hawkeye, and S.H.I.E.L.D. squaring off against Loki and a bunch of creepy-ass aliens, The Avengers was a tour-de-force of action and one-liners.

Asgardian gods, legendary soldiers, the sand worms from Dune with some upgraded rims, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. What’s not to like?

Related: Sections on Captain America and Iron Man.

 

Deadpool

poster

Ah, Deadpool. Always on the periphery of film, but never quite picked up. It seemed no one would do justice to the character, and fans across the world rejoiced and feared in equal measure when it was announced that Ryan Reynolds would be slipping into the red-and-black to be the wisecracking assassin.

The trailers — at first “leaked” and later crafted to showcase some of the funnier moments of the film — served to unite fans behind Reynolds’ performance, and soon the waiting became almost unbearable.

Protests erupted that the film was given an “R” rating by the MPAA, and that this would preclude children from attending a film featuring a popular superhero. Although certainly not the first superhero film to feature the red-and-black “R” image (a coincidence of color, Deadpool? Or another subtle breaking of that fourth wall?), Deadpool star Reynolds and fans worldwide ran with the controversy, creating advertisements, social media postings, and graphics that explained why the “Merc with the Mouth” should remain out of reach of those tiny little kiddies. Here’s a hint, folks: the language alone met the MPAA requirements. Add in the violence, nudity, and suggestive nature of many a comment or action, and yeah…leave little Timmy at home for this one.

 

Watchmen

Cover

Alan Moore’s seminal work on the topic, Watchmen was always “in the works” somewhere. This person or that one fought to acquire the rights and make it come to life, but it always seemed to fall through for one reason or another.

Finally, in 2009, director Zack Snyder dropped his monumental film onto the world, and the results were incredible. At times a nearly frame-by-frame adaptation of the graphic novel, Watchmen was a shining example of what can be done with the right patience, crew, cast, and budget. Its extended release, complete with the Tales of the Black Freighter sequences intact, stands in my mind as quite probably the most “true to the source material” adaptation of a comic or graphic novel ever made.

I laughed at the folks in the theater on this one that brought their kids and sat there watching Nite Owl and Silk Spectre obliterate a street gang. They watched the opening fight where the Comedian is thrown out a window. They watched every act of violence with absolute glee and rapt expressions, but as soon as Malin Akerman shed that Silk Spectre suit and her nude body showed on screen, “Oh no! Gotta pack up the young uns, Marge!” They grabbed those kids and dragged them out of the theater as if there was a fire. Shattered arms and dead heroes are cool, but boobs? Can’t have that!

 

Blade

poster

Blade – the Daywalker. Dusting vamps with the ferocity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the precision-tuned weaponry of Abraham Whistler.

Wesley Snipes strode on screen as the half-vampire out to destroy pointy-toothed ancients and their more modern descendants (Stephen Dorff tore it up as Deacon Frost). With his razor-edged sword and silver spikes, shotgun, and converted MAC-11, Blade ripped his way through the ranks of the undead and left the audience grinning.

As you’ll note through a lot of these review things, the cast made this movie what it is. Snipes, Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, Donal Logue, and a host of others combined to make this a gritty and dark anti-vampire romp.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy

poster1

One of the most anticipated films of 2014, Guardians featured the story of a ragtag group of criminals thrown together and facing off against an evil alien overlord.

A talking tree, a raccoon with a penchant for weapons, a powerhouse with no understanding of the subtleties of language, and an assassin seeking redemption join forces with a Terran expatriate thief. What follows is a rollicking romp through space, with lots of action and humor, and even the occasional tear. Well, you know, from some people. Not me, of course. Never.

Production is underway on the sequel, and I, for one, can’t wait.

 

Captain America: the First Avenger

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The First Avenger. Captain America, created as part of the United States Super Soldier program and unleashed upon the forces of the Third Reich. The living embodiment of the American ideal, striding fearlessly into a hail of bullets, with his Vibranium shield bouncing slugs left and right. These are timeless images.

I will admit that when I first saw the ads for this one, I commented that Chris Evans had already portrayed Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four and they should go with a different actor.

I was wrong.

Read it again, folks. I admitted it. I was wrong!

Chris Evans makes the role come alive. He is Captain America.

 

 

Iron Man

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Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark was the best casting decision the studios for Marvel made in years. Between that one and putting J.K. Simmons in as J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man franchise, they hit an absolute home run. This is one of those roles where I see the actor for the first few minutes and then after that he is the character, through and through.

Returning home after spending some vacation time in a cavern in the friendly embrace of some desert-dwelling terrorist-types, Tony is now the proud possessor of a new energy source and a desire to build bigger and better suits of armor in order to redeem himself for the sins of his past.

As always, the cast blows away even the tech in this tale. RDJ, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Jon Favreau (who also directed), all are great in their roles and bring their incredible skills to bear, making an origin story a lot of fun. It is also here that we meet S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson for the first time, and his popularity only grew after his beautifully casual performance.

 

Superman

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The year was 1978 and I was just a little critter, but I went to the theater and took in the spectacle that was Superman. This was a turning point film for me. Christopher Reeve made Superman feel more real than George or Steve Reeves ever had. His delivery — so soft-spoken and friendly as Clark Kent and so decisive as Superman — was a wonderful thing. The second film was a beautiful thing, with Terence Stamp and the positively stunning Sarah Douglas, but this one holds a special place in my heart, as it is the first superhero film I can remember seeing.

And that score! Thank you, John Williams, for creating a score that will always resonate with us. Face it, when you hear those chords, you know all too well what they mean. Your spirit soars in the same way that Superman did.

 

 

The Dark Knight

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Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is a wonderful trio of films, and The Dark Knight is a masterpiece.

Heath Ledger’s inspired depiction of Joker draws the lion’s share of praise from most critics reviewing this film, but if you look at the overall package it is a beast. Aaron Eckhart turns in one hell of a performance as Harvey Dent / TwoFace. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne / Batman and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox just knock their roles out of the park. Don’t even get me started on Gary Oldman as Commissioner Jim Gordon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Oldman muff a role. If that wasn’t enough, toss Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth onto the pile of names.

The film is a wonder from start to finish, and sets the stage nicely for the coming of Bane in the third film of the trilogy. Batman finds himself in over his head with the expansion of operations by the Joker, and soon ends up as a wanted man on his own.

Filled with the glorious gadgets one expects from a Batman film, but also with the well-thought script from Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight is one of those you definitely don’t just turn off.

 

 

X2 — X-Men United

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Wait! X2? What about X-Men? Dude, you skipped one!

I did indeed.

X2, I find, is that little bit better than its predecessor. With viewers having already been introduced to most of the major players, X2 was able to simply advance the plotlines. Allusions are made to upcoming movies here, some subtle and some really not.

The use of Nightcrawler as a tool of assassination seems to make sense from a “why didn’t anyone think to do this sooner” point of view. So now the mutants from Xavier’s school have something to look for, right? Plus, the government is ramping up the anti-mutant measures. Add in a military-style raid of the school by agents working for William Stryker and now you’ve got muties running loose all over the place!

By the way, for a fun superhero connection: The mansion used for Xavier’s school is also the Luthor home in Smallville, the WB network’s highly successful coming-of-age Superman series.

 

 

So there you have my top ten list (at least for this week). Narrowing the list to just ten was tougher than I expected. I could have included another ten without breaking stride. Here are a few that came damned close:

Constantine

Captain America: the Winter Soldier

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Iron Man II

Hulk

Spider-Man 2

The Punisher

Hellboy

Hellboy 2: the Golden Army

 

Folks, I won’t run away from a showing of any of the above, and in general, you’re safe throwing a series of superhero films up onto screen any time I’m around.

Also, since I mentioned it at the first of this article, here are my suggestions:

Lion-O: Travis Fimmel

Panthro: Booker-T

Tygra: Jason Statham

Cheetara: Katee Sackhoff

Jaga: Edward James Olmos

WileyKit and WileyKat: No clue. Those are kid actors and I have zero knowledge of those. Last kid actor I knew was Chloe Grace Moretz back when she played HitGirl on Kick-Ass, and she’s not a kid any more.

Snarf, of course, would be a CGI construct of some kind. I’m thinking Zooey Deschanel for the voice.

Mumm-Ra: Willem Dafoe

Monkian: Bruce Campbell

VultureMan: Steve Buscemi

JackalMan and Slithe are up for grabs. Any suggestions?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Images obtained through IMDB search for movie posters of the film in question.

Mark your calendars: February 29 is the date! Jericho is back and he’s brought Hell with… Oh wait, someone already made that line famous. Anyway, it’s probably a little more accurate to say he’s trying to keep Hell from coming. Either way, Phantoms of Phoenix is up and running, and on February 29, it will be available for full order. You can get in early, though, just by clicking the picture below!

Rolling into Arizona following a rumor about the Surgeon, Jericho finds himself facing the denizens of the local graveyard, raised from their slumber as the invading army of a necromancer bent on revenge. Jericho will need his quick wits and lightning gun hand as he teams up with a local preacher and a spectral restaurant owner to save an entire city from a legion of the dead.

Intrigued? Don’t wait! You can pre-order it at Amazon. Click the pic and reserve your copy for only $0.99!

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“It’s the third time it’s shown up, and I’m worried about what’s coming.”

“It’s a tarot card reading, Anna. It isn’t real.”

“Not real for you, maybe, but I’m not you.”

“Damn right you aren’t. That’s a big part of your charm.”

“Ha, ha. Very funny.”

“I thought so.”

“Think again.”

“Fine. Tell me about it, then. Why is it bugging you?”

“You can’t keep an open mind, Derek. Don’t even bother.”

“I will! I promise. If I don’t, then – “

“If you don’t then you and I are going to have a problem.”

“Indeed. So spill.”

“It’s the Tower. It signifies disaster and sudden change.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. That’s the scary part. It could be physical, or spiritual, or anything.”

“So it’s not something you can anticipate, right?”

“Not necessarily.”

“Then why worry? Put on a kettle and sit back. Whatever it is, it’ll happen. After that, we can adjust as needed.”

“Right. That’ll work. Let’s look at it: I go broke ‘cause it was a financial disaster. What then? The house burns down. What then?”

“A meteor hits, Anna. What then? You can’t prepare for everything. If it’s financial, we hawk some of those paintings you’ve been hoarding. That Pickman guy’s been dead a while, right? His stuff’s gotta be worth more than the cotton it’s painted on.”

“It’s canvas, and no. I’m not selling.”

“You’re creating your own nightmares, then. If you can’t adapt to the coming circumstances, you better believe that that Tower card is coming for you.”

“You’re a lot of help, Derek.”

“I’m a realist.”

 

Elements: tower, kettle, hawk, charm, cotton