Sunday, October 26, 2014

In Between Days

Yesterday I got so old, I felt like I could die.  Possibly that’s because I finally noticed Facebook’s alert that my best friend from high school had to have a cardiac ablation.  No, I didn’t know what it meant either.  On the plus side, I pay so little attention to emails from Facebook that, by the time I noticed that my friend was scheduled for this scary procedure, he had already returned home, safe and sound.  So that’s some suspense saved.  But, on the other hand, it’s a bit sobering to realize that people you went to school with are now old enough to be getting strange ailments you never heard of.  How old does that make you?

By which I mean me, of course.

This weekend is the one between National Heroscape Day and Halloween, and two weekends before my birthday.  It’s the first full weekend of Scorpio Season ... a surprising lot of my friends are fellow Scorpios, including the aforementioned best friend from high school and my best friend from my last job.  Also another of my best friends from just-after-high-school, and my best friend from just-before-moving-to-California.  Also a former business partner, a former office manager, and any number of roommates, friends of roommates, friends of my brother, former workmates, former employees.  I suppose it makes sense, if you think about rationally: one-twelfth of all the people you meet in your life are going to have the same zodiac sign as you.  Of course, my feelings towards astrology (which I touched on ever-so-briefly when discussing balance and paradox) are anything but rational.  Rationally, it’s probably not particularly meaningful that four out the five people I’ve considered my best friend at various times have been Scorpios.  Still, I continue to see a bit of meaning in it.  I know I was wrong when I said it was true ... still ...

So this week is a little bit of in between days.  A bit of a respite from the busy schedule, but not so much that I really have enough time to devote to a full blog post.  I rather thought I would have enough time, but after going down a couple of blind alleys and not really making any progress with anything, I ended up here.  And now I’ve drug you along with me.

Halloween will likely be fun this year.  Our littlest is two and a half and is planning to be a unicorn with pink wings.  I didn’t know unicorns had pink wings, but apparently they do.  The the Smaller Animal (who gained that moniker, recall, when he was the younger of two) will be Tree Rex, which is a thing from a video game—if you have an eight-year-old, you probably know what I’m talking about.  The demonspawn (that is, our eldest, who gained his nickname before he was even born) is of course too old and jaded to be trick-or-treating, but he has a costume for attending parties: sort of an evil jester thing.  When he was the only potential trick-or-treater, Halloween was a very meh holiday.  He’s mildly anti-social and not particularly motivated by candy, so he never had much patience for the whole thing.  OTOH, the Smaller Animal is completely motivated by candy, and the newest one is motivated by anything edible (or anything she can perceive as edible, which is a disturbing distinction to have to make) and she’s very social on top of that.  This year I’m imagining that we’ll have to drag the two of them back home kicking and screaming.  Almost made me shudder just now, thinking about it ... I got so scared I shivered like a child.

And then another birthday.  I’ve reached the age where, when people ask me how old I’ll be, I have stop and do math.  The Mother keeps asking me what I want to do for my birthday ... I dunno.  I don’t want to have to be in charge of thinking about anything, mainly.  Holidays in general are so stressful for us, because everyone has expectations, and they’re generally conflicting, and we get ticked off at each other when we keep the other folks from fulfilling their expectations because we’re so busy trying to fulfill ours.  And in the end it’s not worth it.  I think we spend too much time trying to plan life, but we always seem to be happier when we just let life happen.  Too much time worrying about trying to have a perfect birthday—it froze me deep inside.

Anyway, that’s my completely long-winded excuse for why I didn’t write a full blog post this week, when most likely you couldn’t care less.  But feel free to ignore me.  Go on, go on, and disappear ... see if I care.  Other than the fact that it would mean I now owe all that royalty money to Robert Smith for nothing.  Ah well.  Maybe I can owe him a battle against Mecha-Streisand or something.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

National Heroscape Day 2014

It’s been a busy weekend for us, since it was once again National Heroscape Day.  So I can’t say that I have time for a proper post.  But here’s some references to what the hell I’m talking about:

And some references that may only make sense if you actually play the game:

You may recall (from very recently if you just read through some of those links up there) that, two years ago, I brought my eldest, his analogue in our Sister Family, and the Smaller Animal (although he and I played together as a team).  Last year, the Smaller Animal was sick, so I brought the eldest, his analogue, and two of his other friends (these four don’t have a formal name yet, but I often refer to them as the Merry Men ... which I suppose you could consider sexist of me, since one of them is female, but that’s not intended, I assure you).  This year, it was all those people, plus the Smaller Animal’s sister family analogue as well—they played together as a team, but without any adult supervision, which I consider a major advance.  So I provided 6 of the 10 participants in the tourney, and provided all the armies for 7 of the 10, which on the one hand makes me feel like I’m almost single-handedly keeping the game alive in our area, but then again I’m glad it’s still alive no matter how.

I think everyone had a great time.  The Smaller Animal (and associate) came in ahead of his older brother, which he was pretty jazzed about, especially since that came about primarily because they were paired together in the second game of the tourney and the two younger boys beat the older—I think he got cocky and played a bit too recklessly.  My middle child isn’t terribly competitive yet, certainly, but he’s no fool either, and he knows how to capitalize on any bit of luck that swings his way.  I myself had a bit of luck in my second game, when I was paired with the fellow I thought sure would win the day.  The dice weren’t going his way, definitely, but I was able to capitalize on that by playing very conservatively and forcing him to come to me while I shored up my position and shot him from afar.  In the last game, I lost on points by a measly 7 (that’s out of 520) to the other guy who was a real contender, thus securing him the tourney victory.  But I came in fourth, which is the best I’ve ever done.

The real Cinderella story here, though, is my eldest’s close friend.  This was his third tourney, and only his third time playing the game: he hasn’t been playing outside of our once-a-year event at all.  By being very low-key and seeming like he wasn’t a threat at all, but playing smart and fairly conservative and going for small gains instead of big flashy moves, he won 3 out of 4 games (including one against me, where he beat me far more badly than the fellow I considered the bigger threat) to place second overall.  It was seriously cool to see a relativele newbie do such fantastic work.  He did have a bit of luck, but I’d say his skill was the more decisive factor.

After the tourney was done, my eldest and another friend played one more game of Heroscape.  She had done decently (seventh out of 10) with her elf wizard pod and never touched her backup army (which was a Wolfpack build), so she wanted to try it out.  In turn, the demonspawn hadn’t done that well with either of his armies (as mentioned above), so he took her elves to see if he could beat her with her own army.  She dismantled her former champions with brutal efficiency, having the wolves take out the offensive powerhouse first, and then immediately slicing up the defensive bulwark.  In the end it came down to two figures on either side, just beating each other senseless back and forth, but finally the elves were able to eke out a phyrric victory.

Then we moved on to Monty Python Fluxx, where the second game went on so long and we were all drawing so many cards at once that I had to reshuffle the discards 3 times.  Finally someone won pretty much by accident and we had to head off to get everyone home.

As always, we must thank our gracious host, whose apartment complex’s rented-out rec room has served as our headquarters for the past 4 or 5 years, and the folks who brought and assembled the rest of the maps we played on, and everyone who participated in making this one of our best and most fun tournaments in quite a while.  Some of our normal diehard fans couldn’t make it this year, but I hope that doesn’t turn into a trend.  And I hope that our newer players are all firmly hooked on this great game.  And, finally, I hope we don’t end up waiting a whole ‘nother year to get together and play.  There’s no excuse for that.  This is just too much fun.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Chapter 21 concluded

Johnny tightened his grip on the railing, and he saw Aidan do the same.  Welly and Larissa hustled over to join them, and Bones gave an unholy squawk and shot back towards the rear of the ship.  Johnny’s brain was still trying to figure what to be most afraid of when there was a jarring thud as they hit the beach.  The Sylph didn’t stop when it hit the sand though—there was a grinding scratching that vibrated the hull and the great wooden airship just drove itself right out of the water.  Johnny waited for the wailing of metal that would indicate that the ship’s rudder was scraping along the sand, but he never heard it; Roger must have done something to hoist it up out of danger.

Their momentum could only carry them so far, of course, and there was only about five feet of torn up beach behind them when The Sylph gave a final shudder and came to a sudden stop.  Roger appeared almost immediately afterward.  “How long do we have?” she demanded of Aidan.

Aidan shook his head as if to clear it.  “Hard to say,” he admitted.  “I couldn’t get a definite fix on it while you were bouncing us around like juggler’s pins.  But I’m guessing no more than two or three minutes, if that.

Roger spat.  “Goats’ bollocks!” she cursed.  “Bones!  Get yer ass up that thar tree!”  She pointed to the obligatory palm tree in the center of the barren island.  Bones magically appeared from somewhere and lept off the forward edge of the flying bridge, gliding all the way to the trunk of the palm, where he scampered around it in an upward spiral until he reached its leaves.  Once there, he shaded his eyes with one hand and looked out over the water behind them.  Johnny could hear his beak clicking furiously.

“Welly!” Roger barked.  “Yer the opener, ain’t ye?  Get ta openin’!  Right in front of the boat, mind, so I don’t have too far to chuck crates.  I hope it don’t come to that, but I ain’t yet sussed out how we’re gonna get my girl unbeached.”  She turned back to Aidan.  “Priest!  Sorry to have to ask this, but I need ye down on the beach.  Ye’ll have to hold it off singular while we get supplies through.  Elsewise we’ll end up just as cadaverous on the other side as if we stay here to be monster chum.”  Aidan nodded and scrambled aft where the rope ladder was.  Roger turned to Johnny and Larissa.  “Swabby and missy!  We need to start shuffling around crates.  Prioritize food and warm clothes, and get ’em all up in the bow and clear of any lines or beams.  Hop to, like yer life depended on it, ’cause by damn it just might.”  She turned and strode off to the crates, whipping out her knife to cut lines.  She never bothered to look back and see if any of her orders were being followed; she knew they were.

As he started pulling crates towards the bow, he could see Welly down on the sand below.  He was tilted at an impossible angle, like a mime walking against the wind, but motionless.  Johnny couldn’t see why he didn’t just fall over.  His hands were in front of him, back to back, fingers stiff, as if he were trying to force open invisible elevator doors.  From the rear of the vessel, Aidan’s liquid chanting began to drift towards them; he must really be belting it out if they could hear him with the bulk of the ship between them.  Johnny glanced back and discovered that Aidan wasn’t directly behind them, though: he was facing the lagoon, with his back to the rear corner of the deckhouse.  The ship had hit the beach at a bit of an angle, Johnny saw now, and it looked like the sea monster was cutting across the corner their path made when they’d changed course while trying to outrun it.  Assuming Aidan knew where it was and was facing in that general direction, that is, which Johnny felt confident was true.  Roger caught him woolgathering and flicked his ear.

Johnny went back to lugging crates.  Larissa wasn’t a lot of use in pushing the large boxes around, but she had a knack for knowing exactly where each box had ended up and could reel off the contents of anything Roger pointed at, which Roger somehow knew and was taking full advantage of.  Once Roger had everything identified, she sent Larissa back to the deckhouse for “paraffin caulk” (which Larissa promptly objected was neither paraffin nor caulk, but she knew where it was, so she did her objecting while walking away).  It seemed like it must have been more than three minutes at this point; Johnny paused again to check on his shipmates.

Welly actually did have his fingers in the crack of a door, it seemed: a glowing blue line had appeared in the air in front of him, and he was trying to widen the crack, his muscles straining with the effort.  Aidan’s chants were booming out over the water and rolling around the island.  As Johnny watched, it actually got darker, for the first time since he’d stepped through the strange round door into the swampworld.  Startled, he looked up.  The clouds overhead were getting thick and menacing.  It was impossible to guess if they were blocking out some of the light, or absorbing it, or not reflecting as much ... without knowing where the light source was, there was no way to know.  But it was definitely darker—not much darker, but the difference was noticeable.  A wind was starting to swirl around too: just a slight breeze so far, but it was gaining momentum.  Aidan was standing with his staff upraised in one hand, his other flung out to the side, his back ramrod straight, and his voice continued to peal those liquid syllables.  “Shallédanu,” Johnny heard, and “tisharallein” and “loralleilaray” and “whellenaisharenn.”  And not only were the clouds and the wind responding, but the usually calm lagoon was growing choppy, and waves began to form off the coast of the island.  Then Bones gave out a high-pitched shriek and Johnny’s eyes were drawn out to the water, where he got his first glimpse of the creature that had chased them here.

Johnny’s first fleeting impression was that it looked like a huge puddle of dirty milk.  But the dark streaks were too regular; they almost seemed to make a pattern.  As it oozed toward them, the image suddenly clicked for Johnny: it was something like cerebral grooves, only barely peeking above the surface.  In fact, now that he had seen it this way, the whole thing looked more like an alabaster brain coral that had somehow melted into a gelatinous ooze, like that old monster movie The Blob, and it was now slowly coming to eat them.  And, indeed, when the first long, white limb shot out, Johnny could see that it was less tentacle and more pseudopod.

That limb went straight for Aidan, and Johnny felt his breath stop in his throat.  But Aidan merely flicked his staff out to meet it, and, where they touched, blue sparks shot out.  The feeler diverted course and floated toward the ship.  Another pseudopod came at Aidan, but he deflected that one as well, and it too moved towards The Sylph.  Once they reached it, they attached to either side.

“Bloody hell!” Roger grated.  “Bloody priest is going to let that thrice-damned goatsucker pull my bloody boat right off the bloody beach!”

But when the monster finally managed to move the ship, they actually pushed forward a notch.  Roger’s mouth fell open.  Johnny blinked.  “I don’t get it,” he said finally.  “What’s ... ?”

Roger’s voice started out as a whisper, the words coming slowly, but they rapidly increased in both volume and speed.  “Our ... mad ... priest ... is getting ... the bloody monster ... to DELIVER THE SHIP FOR US!”  She whooped and pounded Johnny on the back, knocking the wind out of him.  “Forget the crates, Johnny me boyo, just get everything that might go overboard tied back down.  If Aidan can pull this off it’s like to be a bumpy ride.”  She strode over to the forward rail and leaned down to call to their opener.  “Welly, my lad, ye’d best open yer openin’ a mite faster, else ye’re liable to get a ship up yer backside.”  She cackled with glee and headed back to the wheelhouse.  Bones was back on the ship now, and Larissa had reappeared with a wooden box about the size of a large cigar box.  She looked around for Roger, and gave Johnny a raised eyebrow when she couldn’t locate the captain.  Johnny shrugged, and he could feel the stupid grin returning to his face.  Bones settled the issue by snatching the box out of Larissa’s hands and scrambling off with it.

Then it was just tying knots and pulling ropes taut while Welly Banks ripped an ever-widening hole in the air and Aidan de Tourneville mentally wrestled a giant sea monster into submission.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Chapter 21 continued

After that, they couldn’t do much other than hang on.  Welly disappeared back into the deckhouse.  Johnny rejoined Aidan; they held fast to the rails and tried to keep a lookout for further monstrous tentacles.  Roger didn’t reappear, but her voice continued to issue colorful pirate curses through the speaker.  Bones appeared to be scrambling around, running errands for Roger.  Only Larissa seemed calm: she stood, near the railing but not holding it, swaying easily with the motion of the ship, absently stroking the snake around her wrist and just ... observing, Johnny supposed.

Johnny’s mind was working desperately.  “Maybe the flare gun again ... ?” he asked Aidan.

Aidan shook his head.  “Trust, me: that thing is much too big to care about a little flare in its guts.  Even if you could hit its guts.”

Well, Johnny thought, you wanted some excitement.  He bit back a laugh, which he felt sure would contain more than a note of hysteria.  “Can’t you do something?” he asked Aidan.

“Not at this speed,” Aidan returned, maintaining his grim hold on the rail.  “As long as we’re moving this fast, I can’t stay stable enough to do anything significant.  Of course, if we were to slow down, then I might not have time to do anything significant.  So I fear we’re parched either way.”  Johnny’s brain translated “parched” as “screwed.”

“Just a tick,” buzzed Roger’s voice from the speaker.  “I think we’re gaining a bit of headway.  Aidan, can you still feel the bugger back there?”

Aidan rolled his eyes, but didn’t bother to complain.  “Johnny, come help me.”  He turned around to face out over the water again as Johnny stumbled the few steps to join him and regrabbed the top rail.  “This is an uncomfortable thing to ask,” he said apologetically, “but I need you to put your arms around me, grab the railing on either side, and press me up against it.  Tight, so I can let go and still not jostle about too much.  Can you do that?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Sure,” he said.  He didn’t think it was that uncomfortable, actually.  Although once he tried it, he could see Aidan’s hesitation: like riding behind someone on a motorcycle, it was practically impossible to do without inadvertently grinding your crotch into the other person’s butt.  But, compared to getting eaten by a sea monster, that didn’t seem all that worrisome.

Once Johnny was in position, Aidan let go and leaned out, and Johnny knew that his grip was all that was keeping the water priest on the ship.  With one ear pressed against Aidan’s back, he could hear the man’s breathing and his heartbeat, and he could see Larissa staring at them in that dispassionate way she had.  As Aidan started to chant once again, Johnny felt a buzzing vibration settle into his bones, and the sounds from Aidan’s lungs began to sound more like waves crashing on the beach.  Aidan seemed like he was glowing, in the same way that the door into the swampworld had seemed to glow—there was no visible light, just a perception in Johnny’s other sense that seemed to connote glowing, somehow.  It was warm, and oddly comforting.  Rocketing along an ocean-like lagoon in a giant wooden flat-bottomed boat, in danger of being eaten by an unknown monster while they ferried a blue-skinned boy-man who spoke in corny comedy routines and sighs to an unknown location so they could retrieve a mystery object, Johnny still couldn’t help but feel like everything was, suddenly and unexpectedly, okay.  He closed his eyes and breathed more slowly.  “Shallédanu lei shonta,” he said softly, almost unaware he was doing so.

Then all that was drowned out by a freezing blast of cold that nearly froze his otherworldy sense solid.  He gasped, and he actually saw steam coming out of his mouth.  Larissa opened her mouth, no doubt to tell him that it was condensed water vapor and not actually steam, but he didn’t wait.  “Go tell Roger we’re almost there!” he shouted at her over the rushing of the wind.  “Tell her to turn just a bit to the right ...”  Johnny stopped as he realized he couldn’t point without losing his grip on Aidan.  “Like two marks past one o’clock,” he said finally, hoping Larissa would know what he meant.

Apparently she did.  She strode over to the speaker, thumbed the brass button, and said “42 degrees to starboard.”

“Aye, aye,” came Roger’s reply.

The boat turned ever so slightly, and now Johnny felt like his heart had been replaced by a large chunk of ice.  It hurt to breathe, and he began to shiver.  Aidan stopped chanting and turned around, which was good because Johnny’s grip was slipping.  He slumped into the priest’s arms, and he heard Aidan whispering to him, but it was hard to make out over the howling winds blowing through his core.  He looked up at Aidan’s face, and he realized the man wasn’t whispering—he was shouting.  Johnny couldn’t hear anything, but he could almost read his lips ...  Off? he thought disjointedly.  Is he saying “off”?  Oh, yeah ... turn it off.  That’s probably a good idea, now that you mention it.  Only ... how do I turn it off?

Aidan was shaking him now, but it was very distant.  Then he felt the older man grab his head between both hands, index fingers pressed into his temples, and a strange sensation, like warm water trickling over him, started at the top of his head and slowly seeped over his entire body.  The arctic winds began to quiet, and he didn’t feel so cold any more.  Gradually his shivering stopped and he unclenched teeth he just now realized he’d clamped shut to stop them chattering.  Aidan was staring into his eyes, chanting quietly.  He stopped as Johnny exhaled and blinked up at him.  “Better now?” he asked, smiling.

“Yes,” Johnny tried to say, but found that his mouth was completely dried out, like he’d been holding it open in a blizzard.  “Um hmm,” he managed finally, rubbing his tongue back and forth to try to work some spit back into his mouth.

When he got back to his feet, he found that Welly had returned to the deck and was eyeing him speculatively.  “You look like a talent scout for a cemetery,” he said, but his gaze was weighing Johnny.

“Henny Youngman,” Larissa said under her breath, as if she knew no one really cared but couldn’t stop herself from saying it anyway.

“Thanks,” Johnny said to Aidan.

“You have to learn to control it,” Aidan said, still holding him by the shoulders and looking into his face.  “It’s not like seeing or hearing.  It’s more like touch: you can choose how much pressure to apply.  When you get this close to something this big, you need to just barely brush it with your fingertips ... you follow me?”

Johnny nodded.  “Dial it down a notch,” he said, still a bit shaky.  “Check.”

Aidan grinned and clapped him on the shoulder.  “Yes, exactly.  Otherwise it’s going to overwhelm you, like it did just now.  Are you okay now?”

Johnny massaged his chest to try to get some bloodflow back into it.  “I think so.  What did you do?”

Aidan smiled.  “All I did, son, was to quiet your mind.  That made it easier for you to ‘dial it down,’ as you say.  Or turn it off altogether ... is that what you did?”  Aidan moved his head, as if trying to get a better angle to see into Johnny’s mind through his eyes.

Johnny nodded.  “Yeah, I guess I did.  Not consciously, but ...”  Johnny stopped, then shook his head, losing whatever tenuous grasp he had on how to complete that thought.

Aidan squeezed his shoulder.  “Don’t worry.  We won’t need it again for a while, I’m thinking.  Seems like we’re pretty close at this point ...”

“Land ho,” Welly said, deadpan.  All eyes turned to him.  “That’s the proper expression, right?”  He pointed directly ahead.  Another cartoon desert island had sprung up out of the distant mists.  They were headed directly for it.

“Shit,” Johnny said.  Aidan’s comment was not in English, but it sounded very similar in character.

Larissa thumbed the speaker.  “Island, twelve o’clock.  Sandy beach, no visible rocks.”

Roger’s voice sounded grim.  “Well, better hang on to something, then, missy.  ‘Cause we canna stop now.”