Chapter 7: Dark

Amy opened her eyes to the sound of a hacking cough. Heavily phlegmy, it emanated from deep in the owner’s chest and told of a raw throat and stomach sore with the racking convulsions. The sound of sickness; infection.

The cough was followed by a series of throat clearing noises that unnerved and nauseated Amy, causing her to cringe away before she even realized the import of what she was hearing.

Suddenly, it set in, and she was on her feet in an instant, flipping over in a tangle of blanket and jacket while searching the ground desperately for her backpack and the rifle. Neither were in sight.

Seeking an alternative route to safety, she scrambled to the opposite side of the fire to the point of origin of the coughing sounds, and sprinted away, putting a few trees between herself and her assailant.

The darkness consumed her quickly, and she found a large tree to hide behind and gain her bearings while she figured out how to get her backpack back.

No sound. No one is following me.

‘No sound’ wasn’t totally accurate. The fire was a good bit bigger than the one she remembered building before going to sleep, and it crackled and popped noisily with the heat. But there were none of the crashing and scrambling noises one might expect with a night-time chase through a dark forest.

Unable to ignore her curiosity, Amy peeked around the tree. Nothing doing: too many trees blocked her vantage point, so she crept closer to the small clearing in which she’d built her fire, padding as lightly as she could manage across the dark, wet, snow and leaf-covered forest floor.

Gradually, the fire came back into view and Amy thought she could make out the shape of a person on the other side. The fire, burning a healthy three feet high both obscured the person with its flames and blinded Amy to the relative darkness on the other side. Amy drew still closer, stomach in her throat as her heart pounded loudly in her chest.

“It’ll be a lot easier to talk if you just come over here,” came from across the fire.

Amy just about fell over from the shock of spoken words after so long with nothing but her own running commentary. Literally speaking, she took two quick steps backward but caught herself and dug deep within her personal well for the courage to stand her ground and reply.

“Who are you? How did you find me?” Amy replied.

“You shot a gun and went charging off into the woods. Then lit a campfire. Stealthy, you were not.”

The voice was gravelly from disuse and inflected with sickness, but unavoidably familiar. Amy edged her way around the fire.

“Okay. Fair point. But what are you doing here? What do you want with me?”

“Oh, I was just wandering around. Enjoying all that nature has to offer. And,” he said, as Amy stopped dead in her tracks, stunned into silence.

“I wanted to see my little sister.”

Tears began to flow down Amy’s cheeks as she stared at his face in the flickering light. All of the emotional torment and the horror of the past couple days bubbled to the surface at the sight of her brother’s face. Her one connection to the past and the world she lost. He was here. Right in front of her. Jake

She rushed to her brother’s side, but the hug she was prepared to give died on her arms as Jake completely failed to react to her movement. Jake had a large haunch of meat in his hands, and sat still, chewing slowly as he stared into the glowing embers at the base of the fire. A bit of juice dripped slowly down from both corners of his mouth and darkened the chest of the ragged black t-shirt he was wearing. 

It was a shirt she remembered well from years ago. SOUNDGARDEN was emblazoned across the chest with the distorted figure of a singer below: the distinct front artwork of Jake’s favorite album, Superunknown. Jake had won the t-shirt in a radio trivia contest in junior high and wore it often, and reverently in the years that followed.

That album had been blaring that night, and Amy shivered at the memory of Jake screeching to a halt at the sight of Amy, dead-eyed and swaying on her feet at the curb in front of a massive house party. As he rushed around the side of his battered Nissan, she came back to herself slightly and fell into his arms, shaking. He helped her into the car gently and quieted the music with a swipe of his hand as he pulled away toward home.

“You owe me big time!” he said, laughing. “Dad would lose his mind if he knew his precious little girl was stumbling drunk at a massive party. And Cara–unbelievable. The balls on her to throw a party like that with neighbors so close by. You’re lucky I got there before the cops did.”

He was right about that, as they both later found out. Police showed up shortly thereafter and sent kids running into the night, with mixed results. Cara herself had got stuck with community service and a mandatory series of alcohol counseling sessions, as well as something of a parent-imposed exile at home for most of that school year. Amy considered the outcome little more than a slap on the wrist for Cara considering the way the night had gone.

“How much did you have to drink, anyway?” he asked, glancing over at her.

Amy just stared at the dash. Jake decided to try another tack.

“It’s gonna be fine, though. Dad will never find out; he thinks you were at Rebecca’s anyway… And I’m sure mom went to a party or two in her time, she would…”

“Understand,” he’d meant to finish, but he trailed off and looked over after a hitch in Amy’s breath. Jake had been only 7 when Helen Riker died in a brutal car accident. Her car had slammed into a tractor-trailer at 60 mph after failing to stop at a red light. Everything inside the car had been destroyed, including Amy’s car seat, mercifully empty on that occasion, as she and Jake were at home with her dad, Billy. Jake and Amy had never been privy to all of the details, but he had guesses based on stories he’d heard about her lifestyle and mental state. 

Jake’s road to recovering from the grief of this loss had been long, windy, and full of potholes. But he had made good progress in moving on as his formative teenage years rolled around, and he was able to talk rationally about her now. Amy, meanwhile, had never quite moved on. Despite being only two years old at the time of the accident, she deeply felt the absence of a female authority figure in her life in a house with two boys.

Realizing his mistake, Jake reached over and rubbed Amy’s shoulder. 

“Hey. You know, I…” he trailed off again, and blew a sigh through his nose. “I love you.”

Amy clenched her shoulders hard and turned to look out the window, unable to bear her brother seeing her emotions on her face.

Amy took a step back from her brother, letting her proffered hug drop to her sides as another fit of coughs struck Jake and he hunched over with the effort of clearing his airway. The coughing failed to subside, seeming to gain intensity until Jake was wheezing and choking.

Finally, after what seemed like minutes, Jake wiped at his mouth and turned to her, grinning lopsidedly. Amy started to mirror him, scraping at her brain for a joke to downplay the obvious distress he was in, when she frowned suddenly. Jake’s teeth, once perfectly straight and blinding white, were a jagged mess of yellow chips covered in glistening blood.

Amy took two more steps backward, mouth agape, as Jake smiled more broadly and began to stand, dropping the haunch of meat he’d been gnawing at. It hit the ground with a cold thump, and Amy looked at it in horror as she realized what it was: a human arm, torn free at the shoulder. The stumps of two white bones hung out just below the elbow, where Jake had been slowly working at it.

On his feet now, Jake took a step toward Amy, eyes wild. As he came closer, Amy could see the same green mottling splashed across his face that she had observed on the boy in the house. His black t-shirt was covered in dark spots that looked suspiciously like blood stains, and as he moved she could see a score of rips and holes across its surface. His forearms were covered in lacerations, scabby and tinged with the same pickle green as his face. Amy cringed back from him, feeling like she was moving in slow motion, unable to escape his inevitable pursuit.

“Where’s my hug, Amy? I just want to hold my sister again. Hold you clooose.” Jake motioned a lover’s embrace as he lurched toward her steadily.

A dozen more steps of backpedaling, and Amy’s back hit a tree. She scrambled to get past it and her heel caught a thick root, sending her sprawling, unable to find her balance on the slick, icy leaves.

In an instant, Jake was on top of her, his breath fetid and heavy. His eyes were bloodshot with red and green as he looked down on her eagerly, smiling wide.

He leaned in close, then whispered in her ear, “We’ll never be apart again.”

A low, throaty chuckle escaped his lips and washed over her in foul odor. Pinning her painfully to the ground he lifted her shirt from her waist, licked his lips, and dug viciously into her stomach, laughing as he pulled her intestines loose with his teeth.

Book Review: Starship Troopers

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

sstroopers

Title: Starship Troopers

Author: Robert Heinlein

Published: 1959

Pages: 263

Genre: Science Fiction

Kid Friendly Rating: 13+ The inner workings of outer space warfare might be a little advanced for younger readers, but Heinlein goes easy on the gory details.

Synopsis:

In a flimsily-justified effort to “be his own man,” Juan “Johnnie” Rico turns his back on his father’s successful business and joins the Federation military for a contractual two-year term of service. However, as tensions mount between the Federation and the “Bug” species, Rico finds himself drawn further into military life than he ever intended.

Final Thoughts:

Most people today are probably more familiar with the 1997 movie of the same name… Oh, god. I’ve just had a thought. That was almost 20 years ago. Are you younger Millennials out there even aware of this movie? That is depressing.

Anyway, it was a movie directed by Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Robocop, Basic Instinct), starring Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, and Dougie Howser Barney Stinson Neil Patrick Harris. I saw it in theaters at an outrageously inappropriate 11 years old, and it was completely full of swearing, blood, violence, and nudity. It was incredible.

Fast-forward 19 years, and I still remember it fondly, although I do respect that it is not the masterpiece of modern cinema that I once believed. It’s got sort of a small cult status now. I see memes and gifs pop up periodically, ironically or not.

 

 

In the interest of rounding out this review, I watched the movie again this week, and I did not feel let down. Possibly the single most remarkable thing about this movie, nearly twenty years on, is that the special effects actually hold up pretty well. Many sci-fi movies from the 90’s are burdened by an over-reliance on under-developed CGI effects, but this movie, either through the use of scale models and animatronics, clever lighting, or just well-thought-out usage of CGI, has largely managed to avoid that.

This is not to say you’ll think you’re watching a movie that was released yesterday. Scene transitions and some effects, particularly those used for outer space scenes, do show a bit of their age. I’d put the effects about on par with a well-produced HBO show, like Game of Thrones.

This should also go without saying, but please don’t go into this movie expecting an Oscar winner. This is a fun sci-fi action movie. Full stop. It does have a little tongue-in-cheek social and political commentary to class up the place, but the thrust of the movie is Man vs. Bug. If you can get behind that, you’re in.

If I were to register a single complaint, it would be, man, Casper Van Dien was the best they could come up with for Johnnie Rico? His acting is a little, ah, wooden. To be completely fair to Van Dien, I think the script somewhat calls for it. Johnnie Rico is a painfully earnest and rah-rah character, very much in the vein of Chris Evans’ Captain America. And boy, Van Dien sure is purdy to look at.

Now, as for the book. I did not know this book existed until a few years ago, and even after learning about it, I was not especially interested. I liked the movie. Why should I need to re-hash it in literary form? I could just watch the movie that I like again. Well, much like the lark that took Rico into military service, I finally gave it a shot, and found a surprising number of differences.

The movie was not a standard book-to-script adaptation. The love triangle between Rico, Carmen, and Dizzy which provides the narrative thrust of the movie is really nowhere to be found. Carmen exists, but only as a distant friend rather than a love interest, and Dizzy is merely a fellow male boot camp cadet who plays a minuscule role.

The movie is largely an action movie split between the perspectives of Rico and Carmen, but the book is entirely Rico’s first person narrative, and combat scenes, while present, account for a very small percentage of the book. Much of the novel focuses on Rico’s various experiences in boot camp and beyond that serve to shape him into the person and soldier he will become. The novel really doesn’t read like an action story, or even a largely sci-fi story, despite the exotic settings. With the detailed descriptions of boot camp proceedings and how infantry rankings are assigned either by recommendation, officer training, and necessity in the field, it reads almost like a real historical war account.

The book manages to be remarkably prescient for a book authored in 1959, although it is also a book of its times. One of the most strikingly dated things about the book is the treatment of female characters, along with Rico’s general viewpoints on women. Heinlein manages to be both forward-looking and endearingly chivalrous. On one hand, he has placed the majority of the female characters in his book in leadership roles within the military. By Rico’s words, women have faster reflexes and reaction times, and their superior scores in math make them prime candidates for space naval pilot and officer positions. On the other hand, Heinlein did not write a single female character placed in the Mobile Infantry, the implication being that it is the job of strong men to stand on the front lines and sacrifice themselves to protect the women. It’s sort of a dichotomy, right? Of course, one could also argue that Rico made it clear that the M.I. was his absolute last choice for military assignments, so if there were no women there, perhaps it was because they simply scored out of it.

The film treated men and women soldiers as equals without fanfare or commentary, both in the navy and within the mobile infantry, although it should be said that the majority of M.I. troopers remained men. One thing even more interesting to me about the book’s gender setup is another sharp departure from the movie. In the book, the M.I. enters combat zones within fully equipped power armor, which more or less renders the wearer’s physical strength moot (although it is reinforced several times that a soldier who is compromised physically through sickness or weariness is of no use to his fellow soldiers, power armor or not). It is interesting that even though this power armor should have theoretically leveled the playing field for all body types, the film’s depiction of lightly armored traditional ground troopers had far more diversity.

The book also seems a bit dated in its conception of soldier motivation, as Rico at one point opines that there is no greater motivation for a group of M.I.s than knowing that on every combat drop, a ship full of women is waiting behind, both depending on them and watching their backs. The idea of a female M.I., or even an M.I. who is not particularly interested in the affections of a woman, is really not even contemplated.

But, when I read a book from another time period, I believe that it is healthier to both a) accept that the book exists as a manifestation of the time period in which it was written, and b) the author’s view points are not my own, and that is OK. I understand that this particular book was controversial even when it was released for some social ideas suggested throughout the narrative, including military sovereignty in government and the nobility self-sacrifice for the betterment of society. I take these ideas as the suggestions of the characters in the book, nothing more.

In other small negatives, some readers may turned off by relatively dry passages explaining the complexities of Federation military organization and the operation of the M.I. power armor. I personally found the military rankings a bit dense hard to follow, and I consider myself somewhat interested in the subject (although I am also fairly unschooled in general real-world military rankings and procedures).

In sum, I think this was a really interesting read. I give it 4/5 stars!

Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

 

Chapter 6: Breaktop

Amy was nearly in a blind panic.

Her freedom from the four dogs, so recently earned, was purchased with exhaustion. She’d found refuge from the dogs, but even after a night and change of solid sleep, her nerves felt frayed and her thoughts came through quickly, disjointed and out of order.

Noises. I have my backpack again. But no carrots. Noises. So tired. My gun. Which gun?

This house, the onetime bastion of safe refuge, was no longer secure, and Amy mourned for its loss.

Harsh, thumping and scrabbling noises from above. Amy could feel the hair on both arms raised as her heart pounded uncomfortably through her chest. Her lungs felt small and closed, and she gasped as if the very oxygen had left the room.

Get a hold of yourself. Breathe. Breeeaathe.

Her shoulders lowered slightly as she caught her breath, but her body still felt tense, tight, alert.

What the hell was that?

Amy tried to marshal her mind and push it forth into rational analysis of the situation. The sounds had a weight to them. Too heavy for a raccoon, but she couldn’t discount the possibility of a slightly larger animal, like a dog.

It could just be a door, swinging on its hinges in the wind. You did see at least one broken window upstairs.

Amy shook her right hand awake and grasped at the zippered hip pocket of her jacket, where the .32 resided, loaded and waiting. She was less than confident in the integrity of the gun. The hammer seemed to work fine when she pulled the trigger, unloaded, but she’d been reticent to fire a test shot, both for the noise and attention it might bring, and the possibility that the thing might literally blow up in her face.

She had no idea how old the bullets were, for one. They might not even fire. The gun had nickel plating that was worn off in several places, which did not give her great vibes about the structural integrity of the steel. On top of all of that, the gun was an ancient-looking breaktop revolver. I small button on the top of the gun made the whole thing pop up and open for easy loading. Convenient, yes, but she wondered how this technology would be viewed in terms of modern safety standards.

Well, good luck finding a gunsmith out here, girlfriend.

Kicking herself one final time for being too afraid to test out the gun, she crept away from the front door and started to make her way toward the maroon-carpeted staircase on her left, right hand outstretched and ready with the revolver.

The staircase came down from the second floor in a wood-banistered U shape. Two steps led up to a wide landing. Turn to the right and seven more steps led to a second landing with a picture window. Turn right again and several more steps led to the second floor. Unfortunately, as Amy drew close to the lower landing, she could see that the upper set of stair was blocked by a large desk and a sofa, jammed together into the passageway. Amy walked up to the second landing to examine the odd configuration of furniture.

There was a small gap on the lower left hand side of the desk through which Amy could see up into the dark interior of the second floor hallway, but it looked barely large enough for a small dog to slip through. A quick nudge with her toe told Amy all she needed to know about the weight of the objects blocking her path.

Maybe there’s another way up.

With a last, distrustful glance at the small gap beside the desk, Amy backed down the staircase. She held out the gun in front of her as she moved back down toward the entryway. She thought this was how they did it on Cops, and she hoped she wasn’t leaving out some crucial detail like remembering not to lock your elbows, or holding your breath when you pull the trigger.

She turned left at the entryway, easing down a hallway that bisected the house on the first floor. Blue and pink floral patterns surrounded her.

This wallpaper: horrific.

A formal dining room appeared through a doorway on Amy’s left. She glanced in, but the two other doorways in the room both opened along the right side wall, along the direction of the hallway. Amy moved back to the hallway. on the other side of the hall were three doors. The first opened into a large bathroom. The second was a closet. The third opened into a black staircase, descending into the bowels of the house.

No thanks.

Amy continued down the hallway and arrived in a kitchen. It was dated, but with several pleasant-looking sets of built in shelves, cabinets, and doorways that looked original to the old house. In the far right corner, a door with a window looked out into the back yard. In the left far corner, there was a refrigerator inset in the wall beside a walk-in pantry.

The kitchen, and really the house as a whole, were in remarkably good shape considering the end of the world. But for the layer of dust dulling the shine of the counters, the kitchen looked ready for the next meal. Amy couldn’t help imagining some cute middle-aged couple preparing dinner and dancing to whatever music old people listen to. Something doo-wop-y.

It was so strange that the one significant thing out of place in the house was the only apparent passageway up to the second floor, where she’d heard a noise. But she didn’t see any way an adult could have fit past the desk, and the furniture looked like it would have taken a tremendous amount of strength and effort to push into place.

Amy crossed the kitchen, hovering briefly in front of the refrigerator before the remembered the smell with which she was assaulted back in her own home a few days ago.

No more fridges.

She turned instead to the pantry door beside the refrigerator, hoping that she might find some supplies before she looked outside at the back of the house for a way up. To her surprise, she found not a room packed with dry and canned goods, but a narrow staircase, twisting steeply up to the second floor.

Amy’s gun, which had drifted toward the floor during her exploration, was pointed up the dark staircase with renewed vigor. She could not see the top of the stairs, though. The staircase was very dark and twisted around to the left. Amy figured there must be another door shut at the top of the staircase.

Please don’t be blocked.

Amy crept slowly up the stairs, feeling her way, and cringing at every tiny creak. Finally, after what seemed to her like an hours long journey, she arrived at a door. She grasped with her empty left hand for a handle and found one. Applying careful force, she was surprised to find that the handle relented easily and the door slid open silently under her gentle control.

Amy eased into a dim hallway lit by one small curtained window beside her, looking out at the back yard. Looking down the hallway toward the front of the house, Amy thought she made out more ugly wallpaper with an odd large floral pattern. On the right side of the hall, she could see the outline of the sofa and desk jammed into the staircase. It still seemed bizarre, given the rest of the house, to see the furniture positioned thus, as if it was blocking off entry to the first floor from the second, or vice versa.

Amy turned to the window and drew the curtains so she could better see the desk and sofa, and the other doorways lining the hallway, which she planned to examine for the noise she’d heard. She had no heard a thing since she crashed back through the front door, and she was beginning to think that her frayed nerves had merely played a cruel trick on her mind, but she was devoted now to the idea of getting to the bottom of the mystery. She turned back to the hallway to pick the first door to open.

Her heart immediately leaped up to her throat.

All along both walls of the hallway, what Amy had mistaken in the dim light for ugly wallpaper was actually messy handwriting in a dark brown ink. The wall was absolutely covered, from ceiling to floor, in the letters.

Amy felt the hallway closing in around her as she broke out in a cold sweat and found it suddenly hard to breathe. Her legs felt weak and she backed into the wall below the window, and stared, wide-eyed and slack-jawed.

On the portion of the wall closest to her, she tried to pick out a few words amid the madness. At first she thought she was looking at a foreign language, but after a few moments of focusing on the characters, a few of them resolved into words. But the words were madness. Just random words jumbled together in no particular order. A select few words seemed to jump out with more frequency: fear. dark. mad. bomb. queen. water. There was just no discernible pattern.

Curiosity momentarily conquering her fear, Amy roused herself from the wall and took a few steps down the hallway. Now that she knew what she was looking at generally, she began to realize that there was one pattern in the writing. A group of large lines on the left side of the hall that she’d initially taken for a series of scratched out words were actually letters overlaying the wild ramblings on the wall. Amy took a few more steps to get a closer look. TRUHSUSKAMRETAWKABOGRVEN.

Amy was disappointed at first. She’d hoped to find some message, a clue about what she could hope to find when she reached Pittsburgh and the remainder of local civilization. She almost dropped it completely and moved on, but something was tickling the back of her mind. She was suddenly thinking of high school and the stupid games that she and her friends used to play. Find the grossest eater in the cafeteria. Who has worn the same clothes a few days in a row. How many ribbons of tape can we stick in the new girl’s hair.

It was embarrassing, thinking about the person she’d been. Amy shuddered at herself and said a silent prayer of apology to anyone who might still be around that she’d hurt. She never considered herself a bad person, even then, but peer pressure was a hell of a thing, even subconsciously. It was amazing the situations you could find yourself in before you so much as realized how you got there.

But no, this was something more innocent. A game she’d played for her own enjoyment. She read the letters again.

TRUHSUSKAMRETAWKABOGRVEN. What is that? There is something there.

Suddenly, it hit her.

It’s backwards. How many times did you sound out words backward in your head back in school? You used to think you were so damn clever spouting them off to people.

After a few seconds of puzzling over it, she tried saying it aloud.

“Nev-rgo-bak-wat-erm-aks-ush-urt. Nevrgobakwatermaksushurt. Never go back. Water makes us hurt. HA!”

In the excitement of the mystery, Amy had forgotten her true mission on the second floor and spoken a little louder than she intended. Not a half second after she uttered, “HA!” she heard a sudden rustling movement from down the hall. Amy froze, muscles tensed for what seemed like the hundredth time in the past hour. And as she focused again on her mission, the dark theme behind the writing on the wall impressed itself upon her. Never go back. Water makes us hurt. Never go back to what? Never go back to the room in this house? The desk and couch wedged into the stairway suddenly seemed so much more ominous.

Should I go back? WHAT DOES IT MEAN?? No. I have a gun. I can do this. If it’s a wild animal, maybe I have fresh food.

As if she’d ever cooked a wild animal. Still, she figured there couldn’t be too much to it. Build a fire. Heat it up. The end, right?

The sound had come from the left hand side of the hallway. There were two doors on that side, side by side. Amy slid stealthily up to the first, and gently turned the door handle with her left hand, right hand outstretched and ready to shoot. She let the door swing open while she ducked behind the wall. Stealing a glance into the room, she found that it appeared to be completely empty. Pink walls. A small bed. Surprisingly vibrant cream carpet.

Now there was no doubt. Whatever, or whomever was in this house was behind the second door. Amy looked doubtfully down her arm again at the .32 and its fragile-looking break top. She prayed it would hold together if need be.

Amy moved as silently as possible to the neighboring door, sweating out each minuscule creak of the floorboards beneath her.

I’m going in hot. Surprise is on my side.

Amy grasped the doorknob, and with one swift movement and a bloodcurdling scream, she turned the doorknob and flung the door into the room, flying in after it.

She could not have been more shocked to find a handsome yet odd looking young pale boy with a green-mottled face blinking back at her, and she paused, mentally disarmed by the unexpected sight. But in that brief moment, the boy’s countenance changed completely. Suddenly, he was red with rage, teeth bared and rushing at her.

Amy’s gun was still held at arm’s length, finger tense on the trigger, and she pulled it, more as a reaction to the sudden thing rushing toward her than out of fear, although of that there was plenty. The shot was deafening, and Amy dropped the gun instantly, surprised beyond belief that the ancient bullets had fired, and afraid that the noise was the gun blowing up in her hand.

The boy looked down himself, felt for holes, found none, then glanced behind himself, where he spotten a small hole in the wall where the bullet had punctured. Truthfully, it had not come close to hitting him.

Amy was still wincing at the ringing in her ears as she observed the boy checking himself for wounds. She looked down for the gun. It had bounced several feet away toward the interior of the room. She was just beginning to move to recover it, but the boy was on her in a flash, bashing her from all sides, with hands and arms and shins and feet and teeth and who knows what else. The strikes were coming fast and forcefully, but not especially painfully. Just enough to get her moving backward out of the maelstrom. The boy was small but he seemed irrationally powerful with sinewy strength. He quickly backed Amy out of the room with a series of quick shoves and blows.

Presently, Amy found herself nose-to-door in the hallway, wondering just what the hell had happened. She wanted the gun back, but there was no way she was going back in the room with that… thing. Nor was she going to stay in the house with it. She raced down the hallway toward the back stairwell, back down through the kitchen, down the lower hallway, and out the front door, pausing only to grab her backpack and bolt action rifle.

Amy ran through the snow for as long and hard as she could, turning randomly so as to lose herself and anyone who followed. Eventually, she found herself in a forest, leaning against a fallen tree and gasping for breath. Night was falling, but Amy had no particular desire to find shelter.

To hell with houses. Seriously.

Amy looked about the fallen tree and began gathering some sticks for a fire. She didn’t really want to draw any attention to herself or her whereabouts, but she wasn’t about to spend all night out here, freezing to death, either. She’d take her chances with a fire. After a few frustrating attempts with her lighter, Amy finally caught fire to some dried birch bark, and pretty soon she had a respectable fire going.

Amy opened a can of Hormel chili and set it in the fire to warm up. After a few minutes, she rubbed her fingers in the snow, then pulled out the can as quickly as she could and set it down. Dipping her fingers in, she found that the Chili was barely lukewarm in the center although the can itself seemed unbearably hot. It was just as well seeing as she had no silverware. After scarfing down most of the can, Amy made a bed of bark and leaves, and was just leaning back on her backpack as a pillow when she heard a stick crack nearby.

Whirling around and grabbing the rifle from the ground, Amy hopped to her feet and pointed the gun in the direction of the sound. At first she saw nothing, but then she detected a low, loping form coming at her from the dark. Her nerves frayed, Amy nearly pulled the trigger, but something stayed her hand. She would find out later that she had not properly cocked the rifle even if she’d wanted to shoot.

As the form came closer, Amy started to laugh with relief. It was the Pit Bull. She’d nearly forgotten it among the events in the house, but it must have followed her when she left. She grabbed the remaining Chili and offered it to the dog. The dog did not pause to consider. It jogged happily over to the can and chowed down, tail wagging vigorously.

Amy laid back down on her makeshift bed as the dog licked the can clean. She was just beginning to drift off when she felt the dog draw close and lay down beside her. Amy beckoned the dog closer, patting the ground by her midsection, and the dog nestled in. And for the first time since she’d gone underground, Amy felt just a little bit happy.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

Game Review: Vault-Tec Workshop (Fallout 4 DLC)

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

fallout_4_vault-tec_workshop_add-on_packaging

Title: Vault-Tec Workshop (Fallout 4 DLC)

Developer: Bethesda Game Studios

Platforms: PS4, XBox One, PC

Release Dates: July 26, 2016

Genre: Action RPG

Players: Single player

ESRB Rating: M

Kid Friendly Rating: 17+ Ultra-violence, gore, swearing, sadistic activities.

Personal Rating: 3/5

vault1 vault2 vault3 vault4 vault5

 

 

Synopsis:

Bethesda’s Fifth DLC for Fallout 4 is an interesting one. Once the wastleland wanderer reaches Level 20, they detect a new radio beacon. Tuning to this frequency triggers the start of the DLC. The beacon draws the wanderer to a vault buried beneath Quincy Quarries.

Upon arriving at the Quarries, the wanderer must fight their way through a horde of Raiders and heavy rads before arriving at the underground vault entrance for Vault 88. Once inside the vault, the wanderer meets Overseer Barstow, a ghoul who claims she was appointed overseer of Vault 88 long ago, but due to a series of mishaps and delays, the vault never properly got underway. In the intervening years, the Vault caverns have become overrun with all manner of wasteland creatures, including feral ghouls, mirelurks, molerats, and deathclaws.

Barstow tasks the wanderer with clearing out the vault caverns so that the vault can be inhabited and put to its original purpose, which was (according to Barstow) to conduct “experiments” on the vault dwellers.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a handful of story missions included in this DLC, as I was expecting nothing more than a brief “Hello,” and “Here are your vault tools. Have fun!” All told, there are eight missions here:

  • Vault-Tec Calling
  • Better Living Underground
  • A Model Citizen
  • Explore Vault 88
  • Power to the People
  • The Watering Hole
  • Vision of the Future
  • Lady Luck

Unfortunately, only the first four missions include what I would regard as substantive content (i.e. missions involving core gameplay action, like shooting bad guys and looting containers). The final four missions basically boil down to teaching tools for how to run the “experimental” vault facilities.

There’s no getting around the fact that this DLC contains, in large part, a bunch of “fluff,” as one of my co-wrkers would put it. For longtime Fallout gamers who have been turned off by the extensive people-managing and crafting found in Fallout 4, this will be disappointing overall. It contains a lot of it, and even the core gameplay pieces are mixed in with some tedious bits.

My gameplay falls somewhere in the middle. I enjoy the crafting, and I take a perverse pleasure in stripping down a settlement to its bare bones in a materials-gathering frenzy. The building of things, not so much. So why strip things down if I don’t like building much? BECAUSE I HAS SO MUCH MANY MATERIALS.

There is plenty to tear down in the vault tunnels, so lots to scratch that itch, and along the way, the wanderer encounters a fair amount of high-level foes, like legendary ghouls, a mirelurk queen, a deathclaw king, etc. That stuff is fun if you like the game overall. But, the DLC tails off in a collection of Sims-like activities, until finally the wanderer is presented with the vault, to use as sort of a blank canvas. This is where it loses me. And I’m not sure I’ll go back. But it was fun while it lasted!

A quick tip… The wanderer will find Vault 88 equipped with a pretty hardcore amount of power, but there is no obvious way to access it. Bethesda is amazing at not explaining things. They’re pretty much the best at it. The power is in the vault walls. All you need to do is install a vault conduit in the wall to access it. HOWEVER, in their infinite wisdom, the level designers did not provide power to wall pieces already installed in the vault. So you’ll need to strip down everything in the atrium and rebuild it before you can use it. Notice I said atrium. You can’t conduit the walls in the vault entrance, even though they have lights. Don’t ask me why.

Short Story: Mordred

When first I arrived, they made believe at being happy. Living meaningless lives, doing trivial deeds for small moments of levity. Truly loving no one but themselves. In their vanity, they all looked right through me, as if I were nothing more than metaphysical dust, sprinkled far and loose in the dark unseen spaces.

So I took away the sun.

Their reaction was swift, yet impotent. And how could it be anything more? They cannot fight what they do not see. What they do not even truly believe.

They came in droves with their war machines, wasting away their precious fuels in search of a cosmic Kraken. They found only death. Of course, they did not need me to serve it. I merely laughed at their impudence.

Such pathetic creatures, with their weapons of carbon and metal. What are these to me? A joke. Nothing more.

But I was merciful. I left them light, though it was a dark, bleak memory of sunshine. And I left them heat, though it was a faint cousin of warmth.

Their world grew cold, dark, and withdrawn.

For a time, there was respect. And for respect, properly shown, I do grant small favors. I am not unkind. A precious few became my blessed ones. I gave them far-seeing eyes, with which to enjoy the slow death-march of their kind.

But in others, there remained discontent. After several centuries, they adapted their infantile technology in an absurd attempt to master their lessened world. For them, their achievements were remarkable. Their lives approached a past normalcy and I was nearly forgotten.

So I took away the rest of the fuel.

How amusing, as the once-proud masses huddled in their once-proud homes for some last vestige of warmth. Seeking refuge from an unforgiving landscape in the only way they remembered how. Many did not remember. Their hands and their minds were too soft, and they withered away on the vine of their former lives.

But I am not unforgiving. I left them their wind. How amusing to watch their futile attempts to capture its energy, to warm themselves by the very thing making them cold.

For a time, their fear sustained them. A few blessed ones again found small favors of my affection. To them I granted heightened hearing, so that they could delight in the death-rattle of industry.

For a millennium, the tales of my power rang strong and true. Until an insolent few found their errant courage again. Though they did not know my name, they sailed out in massive ships of wood to lay me low, with vague ideas of recapturing their pathetic former glory. They screamed at the skies and stabbed with their knives. How silly they are. I stagnated the wind, but they rowed on. In search of what? Death? I was happy to provide it. But only on my terms.

So I poisoned the great seas.

I watched with rapturous delight as their boats slowly sprang leaks, disintegrated by the acidwater. They sank as they rowed to nowhere, and their cries of anguish turned to shrieks of pain and terror as their flesh melted away into the once life-giving water.

Those left behind on the shores were mostly the young, the weak, the infirm. Driven by the stagnant, fetid air and the evil waters, they sought shelter, cowering in the deep crypts of the world. There, they felt safe. Protected from the soured world by their comforting walls of dirt. So there I left them, minds and bodies rotting while they repented.

And I am merciful. I did not sentence them to death. I left them their underground aquifers.

For a time, there was respect. To a blessed few I granted unnatural sense of smell, so that they may sniff out the last gasps of civilization, and watch as it crumbled.

After two millennia, they again forgot my lessons. A few dug deep into the ground, hoping to find me unawares. They had not lost their senses of humor. I let them dig for a long time, enjoying the show as they dug tunnels deep, far, and wide. Rudimentary tools and conviction they had, but it was a slow affair, with thousands of meaningless deaths. At length, I grew bored of their pointless display.

So I sent the worms.

Great monstrous beasts of slime, hair, and scales, they woke from the depths and swallowed everything in their paths. The degenerates were driven from their precious earthen holes and back into the fetid air from which they’d sheltered. They found the air thick, and impenetrable. Many perished, lungs unable to cope with the prolonged effort.

But I am not unmerciful. I left their bodies intact, with which to enjoy the bleak, poisoned world that I allowed them to keep, in my generosity. To properly take in the fruits of their foul efforts against me.

But still some looked with disdain on the landscape. Unable to appreciate the world I had left them. They were blind to the brilliant gift of life that I allowed.

So I took their eyes.

How hilarious their dead, milky orbs looked, gazing aimlessly about. They would see no more. Do not think me unkind. I left them their ears, with which to hear each other speak to my glory.

But still some spoke out against me. Seeking to do with words what their creations could not. To defile my aura.

So I took their tongues.

I observed their sightless stumbles and as their shapeless cries of anguish faded into shapeless resigned mumbles, I knew that they had finally learned.

Then, they knew me as Mother.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

Chapter 5: Hold Steady

Amy’s relief at her escape from the dogs was palpable, but the tears making hot smears of grime down her face were not out of relief, not really.

She had seen so much in the two days since she’d left her shelter, and she’d barely made it anywhere. It is so hard to push onward. What is the goddamn point? She had yet to find a single soul with whom to share this miserable existence. Everywhere she turned, she found only death, drabness, and decay. And what was waiting for her at the end of this journey? Some vague belief that she might find her brother, alive and well in West Virginia?

What evidence had she seen of that? Not a solitary living person so far and she expected to find her own brother, of all people? Amy had known Jake to be a resourceful person in everyday life, but Bear Grylls he was not.

And as if the landscape weren’t bleak enough, now she had to be faced with a pack of rabid dogs. And who knows what else she was likely to encounter. There was no guarantee she would ever make it to Charleston. Right now, even Pittsburgh felt unfathomably far away.

She grimly wondered what horrors might await her in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, but the prospect of finding help and some semblance of civilization were too great to pass up, especially considering that Pittsburgh was situated in the correct direction and might offer her the best chance of finding passage across the Ohio River. Amy was not optimistic about the state of the infrastructure that she, and everyone else, had long taken for granted.

But she couldn’t possibly be the last person left alive on this depressing rock, could she? Wasn’t that even more unrealistic than the idea of finding her brother alive and well?

She was dead whether she stopped or whether she kept moving. Would it be something so simple and sad as hunger, or a valiant death at the hands of the radioactive spawn of Beelzebub? One sounded a little more interesting than the other.

So she decided to believe. To believe in her own untested ability to survive. In what she might find at the end of her journey. In the power of humanity to survive. She would keep moving on.

Amy took a deep breath, wiped the tears from her face, and shoved herself up away from the door, where she’d collapsed a few minutes earlier. Her legs were shaky, and, as the adrenaline from the encounter with the dogs was wearing off, it was replaced with an intense weariness. It was approaching dusk, and Amy had already subconsciously settled into the idea of spending the night here. She did not have the energy to go back outside, nor was she eager to find the next pack of dogs in her path.

She looked around at the inside of the old Victorian, the carpeted staircase to the left, the traditional parlor to the right, a hallway between them leading deeper into the house, and dusty hardwood floors beneath all. Common sense told her she should further investigate her current dwelling, but she was just so tired. Every limb felt as if it weighed 200 lbs. Her back ached, and her legs were barely holding her off the ground. Her utter exhaustion went most of the way toward convincing her to give it a rest. Any remaining doubt in her mind was put to rest by the complete quiet within the house. So quiet she could have heard a mouse fart.

With little conscious thought and darkness closing in, both in the world and under her heavy-lidded eyes, which were still swollen and bleary from her tears, Amy shuffled into the parlor across the dusty hardwood floors. She slumped heavily onto a large antique floral-patterned settee, grabbing an old blanket from the edge of the seat as she did do. Amy eased her tired legs up onto the cushion beside her, and laid down, covering herself haphazardly with the blanket.

From the settee where she lay, Amy could see out a large picture window overlooking the porch. As the light faded, she wondered if she’d seen the worst of her troubles for a while. She was unconscious before she settled on an answer.


She woke with a start, warm light splashed across her eyes. It was morning, and she could tell it was no longer early.

I must have slept for at least 12 hours, she thought. She’d never been a heavy sleeper, 6-7 hours being the norm, so this was certainly an anomaly for her, particularly given the fitful and nervous way she’d spent the previous few nights.

Amy groaned as she sat up, taking inventory of herself. Her arm was scraped and red where the Golden Retriever had gotten a hold of her, but it appeared the skin was unbroken. Legs and lower back felt stiff and brittle from the adventure of the past several days. And she was sore all over. So, so sore. She wondered if she’d ever walk again.

But after a few moments to compose herself and rub her eyes, Amy was on her feet. The soreness was going nowhere fast, but she could feel a small amount of stiffness dissipating as she forced herself to move.

Amy reached for her shoulder and grabbed the leather strap of her rifle. She’d slept with it on all night. Lucky she was a side sleeper. It would have been less than ideal to wake up with her back split by a three foot long piece of wood and steel. Pulling the gun over her shoulder, she glanced around the room for her backpack, but saw it nowhere. It was gone. Amy began to panic.

She did not believe the pack was critical to her survival deep down, but it contained all of her treasures in the world. Her food, the ammunition for the rifle. The contents of this pack were what saved her from having to constantly explore death-defiled houses. They’d been dearly paid for, and she was not ready to give them up. Amy walked over to the parlor window to look out across the porch and front yard, half expecting to see a pack of dogs laying in wait for her.

The backpack was laying right below the porch stairs, looking slightly bloodied, but really no worse for wear than it had before her ordeal yesterday. A multitude of scuffled footprints and pawprints surrounded the pack and ranged across the front yard of the house, but of the dogs themselves, Amy could see no sign.

She did not want to go back outside with the dogs, but she would have to eventually. Might as well break the seal before her fully awake mind could talk her out of it. Gripping the stock of the rifle tightly with her right hand, she grabbed the doorknob with her left and eased the door open. She stepped quietly through the doorway and unconsciously shut the door behind her, a now-meaningless remnant of polite behavior.

Amy brought the rifle to her shoulder and quickly glanced left and right, searching the yard and the surrounding buildings for hidden threats, but finding none. She slowly made her way down to the backpack, nudging it with her toe, as if the backpack itself could be hiding a dog within its small confines. To her relief, the bag did not move. Most backpacks tend not to.

Amy bent over, grabbed the pack, and shouldered it as she continued to scan the yard and back her way up the porch stairs to the front door.

She grabbed the doorknob and turned it to go back inside. At least, she tried. The doorknob was unrelenting.

“Goddammmitsonuvabitchareyoufuckingseriousrightnow,” she muttered. She would have screamed it, if not for her ongoing fear of the dogs. There was nothing she needed in the house, strictly speaking, and yet, it was hers, wasn’t it? The house had given her a safe night of sleep and little trouble. She was not quite ready to depart it, this adventure notwithstanding. Amy set down the rifle and grabbed the knob with both hands. Still nothing.

Amy let go, shook out her hands, and prepared to jerk the doorknob as hard as she could, setting the weight of her right shoulder against the door as she did so. At first, it seemed as thought the doorknob was going to continue standing fast, but, as she continued to pull and leaned harder into the door, it suddenly gave way, and opened into the house with a bang and a crash as the door flew wildly into a wall just inside the entryway.

Amy fell headfirst into the room, with an “Oof.” and an “Ughhh.”

“There is something very wrong with that freaking doorknob,” she told herself. “Either the lock isn’t working, or that thing is horrifically misaligned.”

Amy made a mental note to find another door to use if she went outside again. She scooted over to the door, reached out for the rifle, and set it inside, then moved out of the way of the door.

It was just as she was again shutting the demented door that she heard the noise coming from the second floor.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

Chapter 4: Bad Dogs

Amy grasped desperately at the right hip pocket of her jacket as she shuffled backward from the dogs.

Her mind was frantic as she drew up blank after blank in a vain attempt to search herself for some type of expertise on violent dogs. Instead, she found only unhelpful fear-filled memories, like the time she was ten and she was cornered by a Rottweiler on the way home from her neighbor’s tennis court. Every time she tried to move past it, the dog growled and tracked her, until finally, miraculously, the dog was called home by its out-of-sight owner.

But she was an innocent, unarmed child then, not the hardened road warrior that she now imagined herself when she waxed romantic in quiet moments. Well, her romanticism was draining quickly as the four dogs continued their slow approach and Amy’s shaking, icy fingers failed to find purchase on the tiny metal zipper.

“Fuck these fucking zipper pockets,” Amy muttered.

The growling, blood-speckled Retriever took a slow, yet eager step forward as it observed Amy’s growing frustration. With his reddened, mangy coat, bared teeth, and raised hackles, it was an intimidating sight, in stark contrast to the playful, obedient Retrievers Amy had fed years ago under friends’ kitchen tables. She almost had to laugh at the juxtaposition, and she wondered, dumbfounded at what must have befallen the dog to render it thus.

The Shepherd and the Lab continued to slowly work at flanking her to her left and right, respectively, while the Pit Bull held back slightly, between the Shepherd and the Retriever, appearing to wait for Amy to make a move before springing into the attack.

Amy gave up on the revolver and began to work her left shoulder out of the strap of her backpack, which was inconveniently slung over the old .22 bolt action rifle she carried across her back. That was a mistake she told herself she’d never repeat.

Just as she worked her shoulder free, the Retriever lunged at her right leg with a snarl.

Amy jumped backward as she let the right shoulder strap slide down her arm, and in one single motion, she grabbed the pack with both hands and swung upward at the dog with all of the force she could muster.

She missed the direct hit she’d hoped for, but the backpack was heavily weighted with several bottles of water, cans of soup and vegetables, and other miscellaneous supplies. It clipped the dog’s snout with enough force to snap its mouth shut with a whimper. The dog shook its head and stared intently at the snow, briefly dazed.

The Shepherd, Lab, and Pit Bull froze, apparently startled by the sudden turn of events, and all three watched the Retriever for its reaction before moving.

Amy didn’t wait for more action. She was already turning with her swing, tromping up the street through the sickly, grey snow with as much speed as she could muster.

It was only a few seconds before the Retriever gathered its senses and launched itself after its prey with vigor, now incensed by Amy’s attack. The other three dogs followed suit, a bit more cautiously.

Though Amy’s escape was hindered by the snow, the dogs also had difficulty building any momentum over the terrain, as their small paws frequently broke through the top layer of snow and dropped them nearly face-first into the wretched substance. Still, Amy’s agility was no match for the dogs, and they were closing ground quickly.

Amy ran for the nearest door without thinking. To her right, just 15 feet away, was a glass storefront under a sign that read, CJ’s Smoke Shop. It was one of those pillars of community that showed its great respect for its customers by virtue of a steel-cage lined display.

She yanked at the handle on the front entrance. Locked.With no hope of breaking into the store through the front windows, Amy immediately turned left, up the street, away from the direction from whence the dogs had appeared.

CJ’s storefront ended abruptly in this direction; the severe two-story retail building and sidewalk giving way to an open yard and a weather-beaten red Victorian with white and green trim. There were several broken windows in the the wide second story, but that was fine. She didn’t need it to be airtight and well-insulated, she just needed to keep the damn dogs out. The ground floor looked secure, as far as Amy could tell. A slight depression in the dirty snow indicated a sidewalk leading up to a three wide steps and a covered porch. The house was set back from the street roughly 30 feet: A small-ish yard under ordinary circumstances, but it seemed like a mile in Amy’s current, frantic state.

Amy’s ongoing fear regarding houses, birthed at the Bauers’ house and reinforced by a handful of subsequent grisly discoveries, was momentarily quelled. She began struggling toward the house without hesitation.

Her departure was not a moment too soon. Just as Amy lurched toward the house, the Shepherd chomped hard at her left leg, but it found only air, and skittered past her into the storefront with a crash.

Amy whipped around, backpack flying in a low arc aimed to keep the dog on the ground. Instead of finding the Shepherd, the backpack caught the oncoming Lab in the left shoulder just as it was rounding around toward her at the Shepherd’s heels. The impact and the dog’s already-compromised center of balance launched the dog sideways, directly into the Shepherd.

The two dogs struggled to untangle themselves from each other as Amy spun back toward the house. As she did so, she glimpsed both the Retriever and Pit Bull working their way toward her. The Retriever was in the lead, fangs bared in a deadly grimace.

Amy shuddered as she turned back toward the house. She pushed her out of shape body as hard as it was capable, but she simply wasn’t going anywhere fast. It was her worst nightmare: caught in a deadly chase but unable to make any speed.

15 feet to go. The door still seemed so far away. Amy’s legs were burning unfairly as the blood-crazed dogs chased her. She could hear the Retriever’s ragged breath as it drew nearer. Close now. Too close.

Ten feet. Her legs were numb, running only on fear and a depleting measure of adrenaline.

Five feet. She was almost there. I’m going to make it, she thought. Please, God. Let it be unlocked.

The thought was barely out of her head when she heard the Retriever’s jaws snap shut just inches from her left ankle. With a scream, she half-jumped sideways while she stumbled forward the remaining distance to the stairs. But she was off-balance now, and she had neither the time nor the presence of mind to right her ship, and she went crashing sideways into the steps.

In an instant, the Retriever was on top of her, lunging at her face. Amy shoved her forearm at the dog in an act of self-preservation, and the dog clamped down on it, harder than she thought possible. It whipped its head back and forth, and with a tearing sound, the arm of Amy’s jacket was loose, and the dog stumbled a half step away from her. Amy kicked at it and scrambled backward up the steps, crab-style.

Suddenly, her back was at the door of the house, and she fumbled at the doorknob. It wouldn’t budge.

With growing horror, Amy looked back at the Retriever, who knew his prey was trapped, and approached slowly. Just on the other side of the Retriever, she could see the Pit Bull rushing in to join the fight, and beyond it, the Lab and Shepherd closing in as well.

Amy couldn’t believe she’d survived the end of the world, only to be offed by some fucking domestic dogs off their leashes. She scrunched up her eyes as she heard the Pit Bull growl its threat at her.

A second later, she heard snarls and scuffling from the Pit Bull and the Retriever, but the noises were not drawing any closer.

Amy opened her eyes, and was surprised to see the Pit Bull and Retriever locked in combat. Shaking, she rose to her feet, and shook the door knob in earnest, trying in vain to get through the door.

After a moment of resistance, Amy felt the knob slide in her grip, and, to her amazement, the door admitted her into a dark interior. Amy whipped inside and slammed the door shut behind her, throwing the deadbolt as she did so. She turned and fell backward against the door, gasping and sobbing with relief.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

Book Review: Metro 2033

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

metro-2033

Title: Metro 2033

Author: Dmitry Glukhovsky (translated by Natasha Randall)

Published: 2005 (Russia); March 28, 2010 (U.S.)

Pages: 460

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Metro 2033

Kid Friendly Rating: 13+ Features some swearing, but mostly a read for young adults due to themes. The book is not nearly as violent as the video game series, but the situations are equally tense and twisted. Also contains some dense passages that may be difficult to navigate for younger readers.

 

Synopsis:

Artyom is a member of the last vestige of the human race. Following World War III, residents of Moscow have taken refuge from the radioactive and chemically defiled landscape in the labyrinthine caverns of the Moscow subway system. While horrific beasts patrol the lands, humanity lives on in utter darkness below ground, scraping together a meager life from mushrooms, rat meat, and a handful of farm animals taken underground. Artyom was just a small boy when the world ended. Now 20, his life and countless others have been spent almost entirely underground in the various stations of the Metro.

After a mysterious man named Hunter blackmails Artyom and hands him a mission allegedly vital for the survival of the human race, Artyom embarks upon an odyssey that thrusts him through several unforeseen and extremely dangerous adventures.

This book was the inspiration for the well-received Metro 2033 (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS4) andMetro: Last Light (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4) video games.

metro-last-light-21-1 metro-last-light-1

 

Final Thoughts:

I confess I am guilty of over-confidence in books that have been translated into different forms of media. As my thinking goes, there must be something great in the story if someone thought it worthy of the time and effort to put it in a new form. Generally, I’ve found this to be a good formula for finding fun reading material. Most often, the stories turn out to be engaging and fast-paced, if not particularly deep.

As an unapologetic PlayStation loyalist, I’ve not had the opportunity to play Metro 2033, which apparently follows the plot of this novel very closely (with considerably more shooting), but after playing Metro: Last Light on PS3, I felt strongly that I was looking at only a small part of a complex larger picture, and I wanted to know more about this world, in which the entire human race lives underground.

In this respect, I was not wrong. Glukhovsky has essentially created an entire miniaturized society to fill the Moscow metro system, filled with haves and have-nots, Neo-Nazis, socialists, religious zealots, soldiers, civilians, farmers, prostitutes, monsters, ghosts, and many things in between. The book is a remarkable piece of world-building, and for many readers, this may be enough to satisfy.

Unfortunately for myself, I am typically not this kind of reader, and though I patiently worked my way through the book, I largely felt that the narrative was missing something to pull it all together and drive the story forward.

I’m not sure how to go about further discussion without getting into spoilers, so for anyone who would like to tune out now, here is my rating: 2.5/5 stars. In world building, I give it a 5. In the context of a compelling narrative, I’ll give it a 2. Obviously, I’m weighting one of those much more strongly than the other.

** SPOILERS AHEAD  **

Artyom’s journey begins in a poor station unfortunately situated near to a hive of so-called “dark ones,” a race of human-like monsters who are feared for their ability to drive humans mad and to their death. After a man Artyom doesn’t really know convinces Artyom to confess a deep secret, he uses the secret to blackmail Artyom into undertaking a dangerous mission. Artyom must journey through the metro system to Polis in order to deliver a message that may save the human race.

Each subsequent chapter begins essentially a new “episode,” as Artyom finds his way through one unlikely predicament after another. One episode includes a broken pipe through which voices are heard that hypnotize the listener. In another Artyom is captured by the “Fourth Reich” and sentenced to death. In another Artyom is sold into a year of servitude cleaning shit pots in the wealthy area of the metro. In another Artyom is forced to go above-ground and meet the horrors there in order to rescue an artifact for religious zealots. In another, Artyom encounters a group of cannibals who worship “the great worm” who truly carved out the metro tunnels.

The tale begins to follow a predictable pattern of predicament-solution-escape, and at times Artyom makes it out alive through no ingenuity of his own. At times, the circumstances of Artyom’s survival feel just a little too convenient, or the manner of his rescue arrives from such a sharp left turn that it feels cheap. Not much connects the episodes apart from the fact that Artyom exists in them. New characters fade in and out, but few have any importance except to provide Artyom, through discussion, new theories on the purpose of his adventure, and of life in general.

The pacing of the story is a problem throughout, but on this point I hesitate to criticize too heavily, noting that the original work was written in Russian. In any translation, you have to wonder if some of the heart, humor, and wordplay that may have helped to make the story readable has been lost in the retelling. The book seems to have been a remarkable success in its native language, so it is possible some aspect of it was unfortunately left behind, despite a faithful translation.

Artyom ultimately succeeds in delivering his secret message to the proper recipient. It turns out there is an intact missile facility dating back to before the apocalypse, and if they can find a man who knows how to fire the missiles, they may be able to destroy the hive of the “dark ones” and cease their incursions. If such a solution seems overly simplistic at first blush, it probably is. There are a variety of threats both above-ground and below in this world, and while the “dark ones” may be the scariest to the inhabitants of the Metro, they do not especially feel that way to the reader. The “dark ones” seem to have the ability to create insanity and fear of impending doom in their human counterparts, but they still feel like only an abstract threat, in that they make few incursions to the Metro. There are far more terrifying creatures that Artyom encounters throughout his adventures, including demonic librarians, wolf-like creatures in the city, an amorphous blob deep underground that convinces people to sacrifice themselves to it, and humans themselves.

At various times during his journey, Artyom gethers the vague sense that he is on the precipice of greater understanding, of the world, of his fate, etc., but Glukhovsky chooses not to develop this idea in any appreciable way. At the end of the story (literally the last few pages of the book) Artyom finally has an epiphany that the “dark ones” were only trying to communicate with the humans, and the greater understanding that he’d felt on the edge of during his journey was that he was their “chosen” one to deliver the message to the rest of the Metro and enable a new age of understanding between humans and “dark ones.” It feels rushed, and though the theme had potential, the ending is ultimately unsatisfying.

Bottom line, if you want to know more about the Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light video games you loved, or if you’re curious to see this underground world in action, it is a perfectly acceptable adventure, but you may feel that there was a missed opportunity for a greater story.

Chapter 3: Dinty Moore is a Delicacy

Amy was moving slowly and there was nothing she could do about it.

The topography of the Pittsburgh area is notable for its makeup of hills and trees, broken up only by virtue of the progressive efforts of civilization. Navigating Pittsburgh roads is known to be a hazardous winter activity in the best of times, between the blind turns around hillsides, the steep grades, and the pothole-stricken pavement.

Mercifully, Amy was not currently beset by the pothole issue, but this was only because the legion of area potholes, divots, and other imperfections were filled in with a foot or more of snow and ice.

To her credit, Amy was wearing a good, sturdy pair of duck boots that kept her feet dry in the deep snow, but she was woefully out of shape from her time spent underground, and the snow and ice and landscape meant a difficult passage. Good boots or not. Good shape or not.

It was snow in spirit, if not in appearance. Nowhere was the pure white snow that Amy loved playing in as a kid. Snow so brilliant she had to shield her blue eyes every time the sun peeked through the clouds and lit up the landscape in a cold fire of white light. Amy had loved to grab handfuls of snow and much on it, even though her dad once melted snow on the stovetop to show her how dirty it sometimes was. She didn’t care. It looked good and it tasted good. That was enough.

This snow was a depressing shade of gray, pockmarked as if diseased by dark spots. It didn’t look entirely dissimilar to the accumulation of snow she saw often by the side of a busy roadway in winter, after plows have churned up the silt of the road and leagues of cars have sprayed muck and gray-brown fumes in their wake.

Amy felt she was making painfully slow progress. Literally painfully slow. Her breath came in hard raspy gasps and she stopped frequently to deal with her burning quads and lungs. As she stared at the sickly looking snow, she wondered again what, exactly, was filling her lungs during these fits and gasps.

She tried to push these thoughts out of her mind as soon as they entered. Unfortunately, the landscape, diseased and radioactive as it may be, had not yet bestowed on her any special breathing abilities or weird neck gills to filter the air.`And unless she’d missed some critical part of adulting, she didn’t expect to find a plethora of breathing masks to protect her every time she ventured outside, Metro: 2033-style.

Truthfully, Amy was more comfortable outside than in at the moment. She was haunted by what she’s found at the Bauers’ house; the image of the rats seething around the Bauers’ desiccated bodies flickered before her eyes every time she thought of moving indoors, even for brief jaunts to warm up, rest, and root for supplies.

In the two days since she left home, Amy guessed she made roughly 4 miles, although she’d never been great with distances, and the intensity of effort required by the snow and her poor conditioning skewed her viewpoint. She was following US-19 because she knew that it, generally speaking, led directly to Pittsburgh.

An intersection with I-279 southbound had forced Amy to make a decision on this count. I-279 flowed more directly toward Pittsburgh, but US-19 would take her through more housing areas where she thought she could scavenge for supplies, or, even better, find someone to help her figure out what in the hell was going on.

The thought of finding help was both painfully appealing and outright terrifying, which was another reason why she ultimately decided to steer clear of I-279, with its broad lanes and wide open sightlines. She had no idea what to expect from the living when she finally encountered them.

Amy had already encountered countless dead bodies, though she tried as well as she could to block them out. They filled stalled and wrecked cars all over the roadways, and more than once Amy thought she’d stepped on suspicious lumps under the snow. She was sure that anyone out there had been through quite an ordeal.

Even with these endlessly disconcerting discoveries, Amy felt a growing awareness that something was off, even in the context of a possible cataclysmic event. She’d found more bodies in a few houses, yes, but she’d also found houses that appeared to be not just empty, but abandoned. Standing cold and lifeless, but untouched, as if their owners expected to return at any moment but never did.

The cars, too. There were snow-covered lumps of cars strewn all across the roadways, in various states of disrepair and abandonment, but Amy thought there should be many more cars around, especially given the empty homes. It seemed like either people were missing, or she was being actively avoided.

Amy felt so incredibly alone. During her extended period underground, Amy was by herself, but she always harbored a fantasy in the dark recesses of her mind that she might open the vault door and find the world exactly as she left it, or  maybe slightly altered. A few bombed out city centers, perhaps. She wasn’t ready for this. Now, after seeing the complete absence of humanity in the world, she felt a despair unlike any she had ever known. It was only her hopes of reaching her brother in West Virginia, and of miraculously finding someone willing and able to help her, that kept her pressing forward with a purpose.

This afternoon, though, Amy had begun to feel a presence.

It didn’t come on all at once, nor was she quite aware of her dawning perception. Call it a latent instinct, or premonition, woman’s intuition; take your pick of miraculous 6th senses. Perhaps she’d heard a series of noises, and her brain logged the information even as Amy’s thoughts were divided between the road ahead and her internal dialogue. But slowly, Amy found her pace slightly quickening, and she began to make out shapes moving in the sides of her vision.

Every time Amy turned to look straight on, she saw only a beat up trash can, or mailbox, and she mentally chided herself for losing her senses in the face of extraordinary stress.

Amy was now looking down a street lined on both sides by old Victorian and Craftsman-style houses, along with the occasional dark storefront. The typical small-town storefront on the ground level of two stories of weathered brick, with an upper floor devoted to an apartment or store offices. Since she was a kid, she’d always wondered about streets like this. Wondering how different the neighborhood had been in times of greater prosperity. Pittsburgh was a re-defined city in the late 2010’s, trading the dying steel industry of the 20th century for technology and medical advancement, but some areas had yet to fully recover.

Families are always rising and falling in America. Hawthorne, I think. I wonder if the same can be said of cities. It was the type of quote Amy memorized to make herself feel smarter, though truthfully, she’d never read The House of the Seven Gables. Never even opened it, actually. But she’d seen The Departed, and wasn’t Scorcese just as good? She thought so. Anyway, it seemed to fit. What is a city, anyway, but a group of people who have decided to live together, and whose fortunes generally rise and fall together by their collective efforts and divine providence? Amy wondered if Pittsburgh was rising or falling now.

Maybe the more important question is whether the human race is rising or falling.

Jesus. That’s enough with the waxing philosophic for now, Amy. My internal dialogue gets depressing as fuck.

Amy was exhausted, and she had ignored the growing pangs of hunger in her stomach for about as long as she felt capable. Scoping a rare dry area next to a trash can under the awning of a storefront nearby, she decided it was as good a time as any to make a stop. A dingy and weather-beaten wooden sign above the awning informed her that this was home of Mike’s TV and Radio Repair.Wonderful, she thought. A store that was useless even before the apocalypse. Amy didn’t want to take the chance of another gruesome discovery just for a taste of stagnant indoor air and some overpriced A/V cables. She aimed for the dry spot next to the trash can.

Amy unslung her backpack from her shoulders and dropped it on the ground next to the store. She leaned back against the trashcan with her antique .22 bolt-action rifle still hanging over her shoulder. It was uncomfortable, but she was too tired to really care. Reaching into her backpack, Amy grabbed a can of Dinty Moore beef stew she’d been saving for a special occasion. The special occasion being that she was really hungry and wanted some damn beef stew.

She had to laugh a little bit inside at the change in fortune. Three months ago, Dinty Moore beef stew was a step above dog food. Now, gourmet masterpiece.

Amy cracked the pop tab and breathed in the luscious aroma of cold, metallic, salty, processed stew. She half-drank and half-scooped the contents into her mouth with two fingers, trying in vain to savor the taste and fight the urge to scarf it down within minutes. She had a spoon buried somewhere in her backpack, but why exercise modesty? Not like anyone was watching her to make sure she abided by proper European-style table etiquette.

So singularly focused was she on her feast, that she nearly didn’t notice the sharp crack of a twig breaking roughly 100 yards away. It took her a moment, but suddenly she was on her feet, backpack in her left hand and can of stew unconsciously remaining affixed to her right.

Amy nearly cried, she was so happy about what she saw. Making its way toward her slowly, hopping here and there roughly along Amy’s footprints in the dull mounds of snow, was a Golden Retriever.

Its fur had lost the bright sheen attended by constant brushings and an indoor life; its golden coat was stained, dark, matted, and mangy from weeks or months of living outdoors, but as it made its way closer, she could see it was still wearing a collar and tags. This was someone’s pet! Or it had been, anyway.

Amy was about to put on her best sing-song voice to draw the dog closer, even though she felt it probably wasn’t necessary, when two more dogs, and then a fourth appeared from around the side of a distant house from the direction she had come. There was a Black Lab and a German Shepherd, and what looked like a Pit Bull mix with a mottled brown coat bringing up the rear. All were wearing collars of various types, just like the golden retriever in the lead. The Lab and Pit Bull both sported nylon straps, while the Shepherd wore a stainless steel chain.

Amy’s right hand, which had been holding the can of stew toward the golden retriever in a welcoming gesture, unconsciously lowered to her side as she considered her growing group of friends.

They must be half-starved. Just let them have the stew and I’m sure they’ll be friendly enough, or they’ll run off, having sated their hunger a bit.

Amy set down the can of Dinty Moore and took several paces backward as she watched the dogs continue to draw closer. The can was extra-large, and though she’d eaten a fair amount already, there was enough for each of the dogs to get a small morsel.

The Retriever’s eyes never left Amy as it made its way closer. Amy could see that it was wet around the mouth, so it had been eating or drinking something recently. She hoped that the dogs weren’t too hungry and wouldn’t fight each other for the food. The Retriever paused as it reached the can, and sniffed the contents thoroughly. It took a single lick of the stew, and then stepped past, in Amy’s direction.

Amy looked on in fascination at the dog’s decision to leave the stew for its fellow companions. Now only 25 feet or so away, Amy could see the sad state of the dog’s fur much more clearly. It was even more matted than it had looked from afar, but the myriad spots she’d taken for mange at a distance appeared to be ugly scarred and scabbed flesh, torn by what looked like both the serrated edges of bite marks and some smoother lines that looked like possible knife wounds.

The Shepherd and Lab passed the can without pausing and began to fan out slightly from the Retriever in the lead. Amy looked with awe at the Lab, who was similarly scarred and missing his left eye, and the Shepherd, who appeared to be relatively unscathed, apart from a shortened tail. The Pit Bull sniffed at the can and whimpered at the others for a moment, then thought better of it, and moved between the Shepherd and the Retriever to Amy’s left.

Amy was involuntarily moving further backward now, but the dogs were drawing closer. Now roughly 15 feet away, Amy could see that she was mistaken about the Retriever’s muzzle. It was wet, but not due to water. Stained in splashes and specks across its mouth and chest was the unmistakable red-brown of drying blood.

Amy began to move backward more quickly as the dogs continued to fan out and move closer. As she fumbled with the zipper of her right jacket pocket, where she kept her .32, a low, sinister growl erupted from the Retriever’s throat.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

(Bad) Movie Review: San Andreas

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

TLDR: Watch for irony only.

sanandreas

Title: San Andreas

Director: Brad Peyton

Release Date: May 29, 2015

Genre: Action/Sci-Fi

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 114 minutes

Starring:

● Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

● Carla Gugino

● Alexandra Daddario

● Paul Giamatti

Kid Friendly Rating: 14+. The movie features a violent earthquake and all of the associated blood, death, and otherwise scary scenarios. Click here for the Parent Rating Guide!

Personal Rating: 1/5

Synopsis:

In the latest mega-budget apocalyptic movie, a massive earthquake has struck the San Andreas fault and laid waste to California from San Francisco to Las Angeles. Will The Rock save his marriage, his daughter, and the WORLD? Can you smell-el-el-el-el-el what The Rock is cooking?

Pictures:

sanadreasdaddario sanandreas-giammatti sanandreasrock sanandreasteens

 

Final Thoughts:

Brad Peyton is the latest in a long line of directors to bring your real-world worldwide disaster fears to the big screen. These types of movies have a checkered past. From the historically-based (A Perfect Storm, Apollo 13, The Impossible) to the freaking crazy (2012, The Core, The Day After Tomorrow) to the vaguely plausible (Twister, Armageddon… everyone knows roughnecks make the best astronauts, Independence Day …we all agree aliens are real and will attack us, right?), these movies range from great to historically bad.

Fortunately, the viewer usually does not have to be terribly discerning to separate the decent movies from the utter, complete crap. Aaron Eckhardt was great in Thank You for Smoking and The Dark Knight, so The Core must be pretty good, right? No? Crud. Well, all children of the 80’s know John Cusack does great movies, so 2012 was a can’t-miss. Right? Foiled again!

Fortunately, patient reader, you have knauff13 to guide you through this minefield of turds.

Might as well start with the director who guided this slag heap through the finish line. Brad Peyton was the obvious choice for a big-budget action thriller, based on his overwhelming success with such vaunted flicks as, um, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012), and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (2010). Not a joke. I could probably stop right there. Seriously, everyone, someone in Hollywood is making these spending decisions. Why can’t it be you, instead? It’s hard to really tell whether the story faltered by Peyton’s ham-handed touch, or at the direction of an unforgiveable script, but either way. This is the man that put it all together for ya.

***Spoiler Alert*** I especially liked the part at the end, where a gigantic American flag materializes and gets unfurled above San Francisco in a shameless attempt to manipulate American pride in place of quality storytelling. Peyton, however, decided the viewers might not quite get the symbolism and decided to smash them across the face with it once more, as Carla Gugino asks The Rock, “What will we do now?” The Rock gazes across a ravaged landscape and solemnly intones, “Now, we rebuild.” HA! The Rock will fix everything! USA! USA!

Dwayne Johnson (I’ll give him the benefit of his chosen moniker from here out because I don’t actually dislike him) is mostly likeable as a leading man, but placing him in a role requiring some dramatic range does expose his limitations. I think somewhere in his stoic demeanor, I was supposed to detect hints of alarm for a daughter in grave danger, sadness over a long-deceased second child, and wistful regret over a marriage that failed in the wake of said lost child. Did I say Johnson is good at being stoic? The scenes requiring Johnson to act the conquering hero were believable, occasionally, but if the viewer wants any sign of emotion from a father in extreme distress, it’s not here.

And, last, but not least, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out this movie’s painful objectification of women. Look, I know it happens, even sometimes subconsciously, but this is bad even by Hollywood’s low standards. Within the first few frames of the movie, we see Alexandra Daddario in a bikini, for absolutely no narrative reason whatsoever. Later, as Daddario and her companions fight their way through the wreckage of San Francisco she literally strips off her clothing to fight through the earthquakes. Not making that up. Look at the pictures above for the before and after. The kid has managed to keep his jacket AND shoulder bag. The young man’s shirt has come untucked to show that he’s been through a scuffle. Daddario has lost two different tops in the same time. Weird. It really is a shame, because Daddario’s character is written as a remarkably savvy survivor who often puts her fellow male companions to shame.

I like Carla Gugino as an actress a lot. She’s better than this movie allows. That being said, there is a scene involving Gugino as the lone survivor of a collapsing building. She scrabbles madly and across shifting concrete and girders, finally jumping to her safety in a helicopter. In HEELS! Why??

All told, if you’re looking for a big blockbuster-type movie, you can do far better. Go rent The Martian instead.