Monday, September 20, 2010

In The Playground Of The Fire Kings

(To celebrate the release of "Clash of the Geeks", the Wil Wheaton / John Scalzi fan-fiction chapbook for the Lupus Alliance of America, I thought I'd finally share my entry for the fan-fic competition. I don't know how it went so dark, but as they say, this is the story that needed to be told and who am I to disagree with the story? :-) I'm mostly happy with this, apart from the paragraph about the clown sweater. I think I could have made it more relevant to the story, but that's hind-sight for you!)

(For every critique I get on my writing blog, up to a maximum of 50, I'll donate a dollar to the LAA (that's not just critiquing "In The Playground Of The Fire Kings", but any of my published writing). The final amount will be rounded up to the nearest $5. There's no time limit, apart from how long UnicornPegasusKitten.com and the PayPal link are available for.)

Schring! Schring! shrilled the blade as the whetstone ran along its length, the song of the steel filling the chamber. The cold, grey stone blocks and the high, almost fossilised oak rafters were a silent audience, watching the man hunched over his task, sweat beading on his bared back. His skin told a saga of savage skirmishes, criss-crossed with scars and welts, from old and healed to fresh and open. The rawest and angriest of these was a long, open gash in his side, which made him wince when he forgot and reached too far. He'd done that every day in the five days since he'd received the injury. Dark lines of decay radiated out from the wound, toxic tendrils spreading their creeping corruption.

He sat up, wiping his arm across his brow, sweat stinging in his eyes. Turning the spear in his hand, he inspected his work, testing the keenness of the blade with the pad of his thumb. A thin line of deep crimson swelled, a single tear-drop of blood trickling forth. He nodded. It would do. He stared, his jaw as firm as the steel. It would have to do.

Idle fingertips touched the throbbing wound and he was rewarded with the familiar sharp, stabbing pain. He knew he was in no danger of dying, at least not for another two days. If he fought every seven days, the Fire Kings would heal his wounds and cure the Curse's corruption for another week. That was the rule and the Fire Kings had never lied to him. As long as he played his part, he would survive, perhaps even leave this gods-forsaken place and return home to his family. His family...

Rolling waves of emotions crashing upon him, one after the other, bringing the memories with them. Butternut squash soup dripping from the kitchen cupboards while she gave him The Look. Sharing his favourite past-times with his sons, watching them enjoying themselves as much as he was, seeing himself reflected in their souls. A night of Rock Band, surrounded by a crowd of his people, throwing the goat as he sang loudly, leading the throng in a joyous celebration of self. The memories pounded him until he was on the floor, pain-wracked sobs filling the chamber, beating the flagstones with fists. He stayed there until there were no more tears in him.

He wiped his face and glanced up, seeing the face of the clown staring down at him from its vantage point on the chest of the red and white knitted sweater. It had been in as much danger as its owner and it was torn and tattered at the hems, frayed and pulled everywhere. Its threads had been embued with the strength of the Fire Kings, which they told him would make it impervious to any man-made weapon that was wielded against it. He had soon found that it was little help; only magical and supernatural weapons could survive in this place, against which the ensorcelled sweater was little better than the leather armour that lay scattered throughout the Playground. The clown sweater gave poor protection, but he was glad to have it.

A low purr rumbled through the stronghold and he stood, brushing dust and dirt from his distressed jeans. Fluffy was stirring and she'd be hungry for warm, blood-soaked flesh. She always was. He would be the first to admit that he was not a cat person, but any ally in the Playground was welcome, even if it was one that gazed at your neck with a unsettling, unswerving and, above all hungry, stare. He padded into the next room, where a make-shift stable filled half the space, Fluffy's immense, furry form curled up on the floor. He smiled. It had taken more food than he'd wanted to part with to lure her here, but it was worth it. She would swing the war in his favour. Finally.

Green, feline eyes flicked open and gazed at him, although he was sure she was watching his pulse pounding along his jugular. As if to confirm his fears, she yawned, revealing a fearsome set of sharp, shiny teeth. He reached into her pen, stroking her fur while avoiding the point of her horn. Fluffy stood, stretching out her wings, beating them twice to chase away the strain imposed by her sleep. He reached down and tossed a scrap of unnamed meat to her. She snatched it out of the air and swallowed it whole, the resulting purrs echoing from the walls. He stepped away as she curled into a ball and lay down. She needed to rest, for soon he had to face him. No, not him. It.

It wore his face, it spat hate-filled words with his voice, but it was not him. Not any more. Now it called itself the ScalzOrc and its one desire was to destroy him. The Fire Kings had made it clear to him; if he was to leave this place and return to his normal life, he had to defeat the ScalzOrc, every seven days, or he would perish from the Curse. If he was victorious enough times, they would free him. His task was mighty; the ScalzOrc was tough, born of the elements, with skin like steel. He had faced it fourteen times so far, every battle ending in a painful defeat, the ScalzOrc roaring with triumph as it stood above his battered, bleeding body. It would raise its axe high above its head, ready to deliver the final blow. The world would disappear in a blinding burst of light and he would be back in his fortress of solitude, safe for another seven days, though wracked with the agony of his latest injury and the dull, throbbing ache of the Curse as it turned his body against itself, a pain he was forced to relive week after week after week.

He stooped to pick up the spear, a steel-edged smile sliding across his lips as the light of the fire glinted on the metal. Why wait? Why not end this all, right now? He grabbed the clown sweater and strode to the stable.

Far away, along the deep, volcano-lined valley, a tall, stone tower stood on a precipice, overlooking a raging river of molten magma. From a lit, slit window at the very top, a fear-lined face looked out, watching, waiting. Within was a round, spartan bedroom, although it was almost deceptive to call the hay-filled sack a bed, even though it was covered by the torn, ragged blanket. He sat on a low stool, a sharp-bladed axe laid protectively across his knees. A sturdy, wooden shield with thick bands of steel stood against the wall, scored with strikes from the monster's spear. Gazing out of the window, he wondered when it would come again, whether he would have two full days before he would have to fight for his life or if it would come early this time. The screams and howls that floated on the stinking, sulfurous wind from the lair of the beast sent tremors of terror along his spine.

He sighed, knowing that he would soon have to see the face of his former friend, now worn by the monster that called itself the WheatonDrow. Skin as dark as the final, night-chased moments of the day, bright, white eyes that speared into the soul and a face twisted in hatred, as the cruel mouth spat violent, vicious invective. This would be the fifteenth time that he would have to defend himself from that evil entity, fighting for his life as the Fire Kings had told him he must. He had to hope that he would yet again find a weakness in the creature's defences and strike a crippling blow, as he had been fortunate enough to do so far. But he knew his luck couldn't, wouldn't hold.

He looked up, eyes wide, as the howling came on the wind. The WheatonDrow was on the move, but there was something new in the animal anguish that assaulted his ears; the cries of a ravenous, raging unicorn pegasus kitten.

He hefted the axe, preparing for the conflict that was coming ever closer. He prayed to whatever was listening to let his luck to hold out. If he fought and won one more time, he would be free of the Curse and free to leave the Playground, to return to his normal life. Those were the rules and the Fire Kings had never lied.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

While I’ve Been Writing 5,000 Tweets

I’ve made it to 5,000 tweets. That in itself is an achievement, given that almost all I say from day to day is “hello” and “going home”. I’m surprised it only took three years and three months! Seeing as how I realised this milestone was coming up, I thought I’d get introspective and see how my life’s changed since I started tweeting. Also, if you’ve started following me recently, I hope this makes a neat little introduction to me.

I am so glad and lucky to have the continued love of my wonderful wife, Nicola. She lets me be my geeky self, which is all I ask. We celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary last year with a weekend trip to Las Vegas, which is quite an achievement considering we live in Basingstoke, deep in the south of England. I’m still working on getting her to San Diego Comicon and / or PAX.

Our first dog, Blue, died right before Christmas 2008 and we gave a home to another dog soon after that same Christmas. Those four weeks of coming home to an empty house were horrible. Laddie is a wonderful hound, despite his barking, and he even manages to tweet considerably more than me at http://twitter.com/laddiethemutt.

*deep breath* I’ve sold a short story to a magazine (”End of the Trail”, published in My Weekly as “Will There Be Ducks”, under the name David K. Paterson) and I’ve got a longer short story into an anthology (due out later this year). I’ve performed my work in front of 30 to 40 people on a couple of occasions, something I thought I’d never be able to do, given how shy I usually am. I really enjoyed it and I can’t wait to have another go. I’ve completed NaNoWriMo once and Script Frenzy three times.

I’ve started gaming again, playing Hero System with a cool group of people and I’m in the process of getting a D&D 4E game going with some guys from work. There’s a warm, fuzzy comfort in rolling dice again. My computer gaming has dropped right off the radar, though, and both the Wii and DS are gathering dust. Saying that, I did manage to drive from the south side of Oahu to the north in a Lambourghini Gallardo, in around 18 minutes, thanks to Test Drive Unlimited. I also got quite good at driving way too fast in a Mercedes SLR. I hope that TDU 2 will re-light that fun-fueled flame.

On the culture front... well, the word is most definitely “W00tstock”. I’ve been contributing to the wiki and I made a blog to drum up interest in some shows in the UK (still hoping!). Thanks to W00tstock, my iPod is full of Paul and Storm. Molly Lewis ended up in my iTunes because of her brilliant version of “Pokerface” and I finally got my copy of Wil Wheaton’s “Happiest Days of Our Lives: The Special Edition”, which was most definitely worth the wait.

By the time I hit 10,000 tweets, I’m hoping that:
* I’ve been to W00tstock in the UK.
* I’ve been to W00tstock in the US.
* I’ve been to San Diego Comicon.
* I’ve been to PAX (East or Prime).
* I’ve run a fun D&D campaign.
* I’ve had a novel published.

I can’t wait to see how much of that I achieve.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Star Wars Day

(Back in 2005, I got to attend the Star Wars Marathon, which consisted of all five movies (at the time), in release order, and the premiere of Episode 3. We started with A New Hope at 7.30am and staggered out of the cinema after Revenge of the Sith at around 11.30pm. It was, quite simply, the second best day of my life so far. And if it hadn't been for my wife, I wouldn't have been there.)

The anticipation leaped up a notch as the cinema darkened. The familiar fan-fare filled the auditorium, the shivers running up and down my spine as they had since the first time I'd felt them, back in 1980. The 20th Century Fox intro gave way to the smoky-green Lucasfilm logo, before the screen faded to black. Thirteen hundred Star Wars fans held their breath.

"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."

This was it. The movie we'd been waiting for since 1984. The reason why we suffered Episode One: A New Whiney Brat (also known as Oh, So Now We Know Where Luke Gets It From) and Episode Two: The Whiney Brat Strikes Back, which at least had Yoda going medieval on Count Dooku's ass to make it bearable, even if it was so full of loveydovey-ness that it ought to have been set on a sinking, Edwardian ocean liner.

"Episode III: Revenge of the Sith." The crawl began its march into infinity, bold yellow letters on the twinkling star-scape.

But we all know how that story ends. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, closely followed by limbs, boy becomes more machine than man, twisted and evil, girl has twins, who won't know they're twins when they meet again, so they have that kiss that we don't like to watch now, girl dies. You know, all the usual cliches. This is not about that story. This is about how I got to be sitting there, watching the final piece of the story unfold.

A late April shower was sending raindrops racing down my window. I sat at the computer, my finger hovering over the mouse key, waiting to hit the cinema website and buy my ticket for the Star Wars Marathon. The clock ticked over. 9 AM. My finger tapped once and I watched the colour ooze into the progress bar, creeping along the bottom of the browser until it reached half-way.

And stopped. Time ticked on. I held my breath, heart pounding somewhere up in my throat. A page flickered into view.

"Please select your cinema."

I found the option and clicked.

"Please select your film."

"Star Wars Marathon."

I held my breath as the site crawled, the page dribbling down to my computer as if it were 1996.

"Choose your seat."

Oh. My. God. This was happening. I was going to see all five Star Wars movies, in release order, and the premiere of Episode 3. I clicked on a half-way decent seat and pressed the button.

The hourglass span on.

"Please enter your payment details."

Ohmigod, ohmigod. I was bouncing in my chair, which made typing in my card number really, really difficult. I hit the submit button and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

The hourglass stopped. I held my breath.

"Request timed out."

With a frustrated, strangled gasp, I hit F5. The hourglass began spinning again. I could almost feel the bytes bleeding down the Cat 5 cable into the computer.

The page appeared. "Please select your cinema."

Well. Fuck.

I grabbed the telephone and tapped the number in a single fluid move that wouldn't have been out of place in the Matrix. At that moment, I was the goddamned One. Receiver shoved against my ear, I listened to the ringing, patience wearing thin. I had my seat number. I'd paid; the website had said so. I just had to confirm it with someone real.

"Click. Brrrrrrr."

In a single fluid move, the handset slipped from my hand and fell to the floor, bouncing on the cheap carpet tile. They'd cut me off. I deflated, sagging in my chair.

I called again. This time the call was answered after just a couple of rings.

"Thank you for your interest in the Star Wars Marathon. Unfortunately this event is now sold out. Next time, why not try booking online?"

I glanced at the clock. 9.04 AM.

Well. Fuck.

When I finally got through to someone, they confirmed the bad news. If I didn't see a confirmation page on the website, the booking had failed. I went through the five stages of grief in short order.

"I'll get an email in a moment, saying I've booked."

"No email. Bastard cinema, never going to them ever again."

"Perhaps I can find a ticket on eBay? There's bound to be someone who's realised they can't actually go."

"Starting bid of £1,000? Arse."

"Well, I guess I'll be doing the ironing on May 16th, rather than watching Star Wars movies all day."

"Why don't you complain?" my wife asked, when I'd finished telling her the whole sorry story that evening. I still had enough residual anger from when I'd been browsing eBay earlier, where I'd found more than a few people who were selling all their allocated tickets. I'd lost out to a bunch of money-grubbing, opportunistic ticket touts who were only interested in making money out of true fans?

Well. Fuck.

I wrote a letter and sent it to the cinema, 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm. It was, in a word, cathartic. As a rule, the English don't complain. We tut. Or glance. We're even known to do both at once, which means things are seriously screwed up. Anyway, I bucked the trend and I felt a helluva lot better for it. I got on with grown-up things and put the Star Wars Marathon behind me. It would just be another one of those things that other people, the cool kids, got to do.

A few days later, I got a reply from cinema. "Due to unforeseen demand...". Let me get this straight. The most popular film franchise in Hollywood history. A movie series which has taken around $4.3 billion in box office revenue over 28 years. A franchise with more than a few dedicated, die-hard fans. A once-in-forever opportunity to see the movies on the big screen, in the order they were released. The premiere of the last fucking Star Wars movie. Ever. How the hell was the demand "unforeseen"?!? Did they really think all the fans would be sat at home going, "oh no, I don't need to go the Star Wars Marathon, *I've* got my Special Edition video cassettes. I mean, who cares if George Fucking Lucas is going to be in the building?"

And that was that, until the Saturday before the Marathon. I was somewhere under a duvet cover, failing to fold it single-handed, when the telephone rang. I heard footsteps as my wife headed downstairs to answer it. There was some muttering, followed by quick footsteps pounding on the stairs.

"I'll get him for you. David!" The phone appeared inside the duvet.

"Who is it?" I pinched the handset between thumb and fingers, not wanting to have to deal with another sales call.

"Uhh." She lifted the corner of the duvet. She was smiling. "It's someone from Twentieth Century Fox."

Well. Fuck.

The very apologetic lady from Fox was very sorry for my experience with the cinema's website and eBay. She'd heard what had happened, as someone at Lucasfilm had forwarded my letter to her. Less than five minutes later, I had an appointment to meet her outside the cinema at 6.45am, to collect my complimentary ticket for the Star Wars Marathon. Needless to say, this was followed by a "squee" heard around the world. Or at least my house.

So I say to you, for goodness sake, complain! Tell the world when you're hard done by, when the haters and the nay-sayers and the money-grubbers spoil things for you. Shout it from the rooftops, to all the corners of the world. State your case and stand your ground.

You never know. You might just get to spend a day doing something once-in-a-lifetime.