Just to recap:
- 2016: sucked
- 2017-2019: living in suck-land
- 2020: super sucked
- 2021: maybe…oh, wait. No, still sucking.
- 2022: hold my beer
Just to recap:
This is from a recent Writer’s Digest Flash Fiction prompt, “Grim Reaper.” Tossing up here because why not.
“Hey, buddy. How’s it going?”
“Pretty good, G.R. How about yourself?”
“If I’m being honest? Not so good.”
“Aw, man. I’m sorry to hear that. Did something happen?”
“It’s just…you know, everything.”
“I hear you. If it helps, it’s going gangbusters on our end.”
“Yeah…that’s kind of why I’m calling. Can you guys maybe cool it a bit?”
“What do mean? I thought you liked to keep busy.”
“I do. It’s just…it’s kind of a lot right now.”
“Ha! What’s the matter old man, you can’t keep up?”
“This isn’t funny, asshole. Do you have any idea what it’s like for me? It’s not like the old days. There are billions of humans now, and they’re literally all over the goddamn planet. At least you guys have horses. I have to walk.”
“Oh, come on. It can’t be that bad. I know Pestilence got a little carried away, but you’ve been keeping up. And the humans have science now. It’s not like back in the day when he killed half of an entire continent.”
“Ugh. Don’t remind me. I still haven’t gotten the smell out of my cowl from that month in Paris. Listen, all I’m saying is, I need a breather, okay? Can you maybe pump the brakes, just so I can have time to get a fresh pair of sandals, and maybe sharpen my scythe?”
“Okay, okay. I’ll see what I can do. No promises, though. I overheard him giggling about something called ‘Upchuck Upsilon’ last week.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“Nope. He’s calling that his ‘summer blockbuster.’ War has a bet with him that humanity won’t let it get to that, but Pestilence is pretty confident.”
“*sigh* I can’t say that I blame him. Tell War I wouldn’t take that bet.”
“Hey, maybe you can tell him yourself. I hear he’s heading to Ukraine soon.”
“Hello? You there?”
“I hate you guys.”
Because why not– I did it for books (why do my fingers keep wanting to capitalize that?) & comics, and I’ve got a Letterboxd membership where I’m tracking movies, so let’s do those, too.
Before getting into this, I should note that we didn’t watch a whole lot of new movies in 2021, and there’s a larger number of rewatches than would be typical for me. Some of this is thanks to COVID, some of it not.
We only watched four movies the whole month, so I’ll just list them all:
We spent February re-watching the Avengers/Captain America movies, with a couple new items sprinkled in. None of them were particularly memorable, but I’ll give Flora & Ulysses a shout-out since that was the reason for the short story contest I entered.
February’s Marvel marathon led me to finally watch Point Break, though the better/more interesting films were:
We somehow managed to watch all three Witch Mountain movies in a day, which was kind of like watching one each Connery, Timothy Dalton, and Daniel Craig Bond flick. The movies are all in the same world, but they’re very different from each other. That aside, the two highlights of the month have to be Blood Simple and Promising Young Woman.
Three movies that were better than I expected:
One movie that I’d seen before, and would watch again in a heartbeat:
Two Disney movies: Raya and the Last Dragon didn’t do much for me, but I did enjoy Luca. My favorite of the month has to be A Colt Is My Passport, which sent me hunting for the soundtrack as soon as the credits finished. Streets of Fire was…interesting.
October was Universal Horror month, though I have to confess that I fell asleep during half of them. Creature from the Black Lagoon is the best of the bunch, IMHO. I also watched Jennifer’s Body, which was much funnier than I had expected.
Another in the category of “what did I just watch”: Mind Game.
However, Dune was far and away the best movie of the month.
Finally got around to watching Parasite, and caught The Matrix Resurrections on opening weekend. We also took in No Time to Die, and are looking forward to the new series starring Ana de Armas that they are surely making, right? Right? Our most notable re-watch was Matchstick Men.
…and we bridged the new year with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Quick recap— mid-2020 I made a little paper/pen holder with a deposit slot behind it. For every book or graphic novel I read, I tear off a sheet, jot down the title and date I started reading. I use it as a bookmark, and when I finish, I note the end date and write a little note about the book/comic. Sometimes I doodle a picture.
Somewhere out there, Mrs. Millen is rolling her eyes and saying to the person next to her, “Now he starts tracking what he reads?”
If you’re curious, the grand total for 2021 was 80 little slips of paper, representing 24 books, 41 graphic novels, 13+ individual issues of comics (because sometimes I’ll use the same sheet if I read multiple issues in a sitting), and a couple books that are collections of one panel comics or tweets.
Last year I published a timeline of everything, but that was more work than I want to do today. Instead, I’m going to highlight a few titles from each month that stood out, for whatever reason. I’ll note going into it that several of the comics I learned about from a “best of 2020” list, so if you’ve heard of them before, that’s why.
Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen: Who Killed Jimmy Olsen?
This book is hysterical, and would be worth the price even if all it had was that “Bwoocy hungy” line.
A vampire and a werewolf start dating. Single panel comics, adorably goofy.
You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacy
My guess is that Black people will absolutely believe what happened to Lacy. The stories here run from hilarious to horrifying, and should be required reading for white people.
Kickstarter comics tend to be hit or miss, but this one is a lot of fun. Their website describes her as “A little bit Harley Quinn, a little bit Plastic Man.” She’s a hero in air quotes.
Superman Smashes the Klan
Yes, that Klan. Based on a radio play from the 40s, and disappointingly relevant today. Again, white people…just do better, okay?
I just found out the second volume of this is available, so I’ll probably be re-reading it. Jesus comes back to Earth and rooms with a super hero (who’s also in group therapy). Things don’t go well. Also, his dad is a real asshole.
Star Wars: Into the Dark
Part of the “High Republic” series of releases Disney kicked off last year. I’m still not sure about the whole Nihil thing, but this story was solid enough.
Think “The Wire” but in Gotham. Light on super heroes/villains, heavy on detectives in Gotham PD. The Omnibus is a beast of a book, but it’s well worth reading.
I bounced back & forth between these all month. Lumberjanes is as light and goofy as Monstress is dark and intense.
The City We Became
I dug this a lot more than N.K. Jemison’s “Broken Earth” trilogy, and am super looking forward to where the series goes next.
Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History
Four-plus decades of D&D art, with the history of the game alongside them.
The Book of Accidents
I’ve been surprised to find myself reading horror novels recently, largely thanks to Chuck Wendig. I just drew a picture of an owl on my slip of paper for this one. *wink*
The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels
More romancey than I was expecting. A fun read if you like silly Victorian magical hijinks.
Bandette vol 4: “The Six-Finger Secret”
Presto! We love our Bandette in this house.
Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?
If I were to pick a book of the year, this would (probably) be it. Eddie Gein was the inspiration behind Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Leatherface), etc… Seriously messed up dude.
Both interesting and maddening. Interesting because it takes the story of rubber ducks dumped in the ocean and spins it out into climate change, manufacturing, supply chains, pollution, etc. Maddening because the writer meanders as much as the damn ducks. If you like stories in the New Yorker, you’ll love this.
Bro, we have a two-book collection of these stories, not the omnibus I’ve linked to. Not sure what’s up with that cover art, bro, since the meat of the story doesn’t have him in that costume, nor is it the art style the stories known for. Anyway bro, this is the stuff the Disney+ series is largely inspired by. It also features an issue entirely from Pizza Dog’s perspective, bro.
This is the third (at least) time I’ve read the series. The show on AppleTV+ barely resembles the original books, which is what prompted me to revisit it. The books are…definitely of their time, but as one of the first authors that got me into sci-fi, they’ll always have a special place for me.
The Lady From the Black Lagoon
Not sure why there hasn’t been a movie or one of those limited series about Milicent Patrick, yet. She deserves one.
The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror
Second time I read this one. Yeah, that angel is pretty stupid. He means well, though.
You Can Do Anything, Magic Skeleton!
We kept this book on the dining room table and used it for daily motivation, reading a page out loud a day. I expect it will come back out again at some point in 2022 for a second run.
Now that we’re nearly a week into November, I think I can call it. I am officially not participating in this year’s NaNoWriMo. For the sake of completion, I’ll also note that I’m not doing Movember or that other challenge, either. However, as a past participant (of NaNoWriMo), I figured I would share my experiences in case some other soul can find them useful.
I did NaNoWriMo kind of on the sly in 2018. If you’re someone who knows me, you may be thinking, “Wait, what?” You’re not alone. Until I hit publish on this blog post, a grand total of maybe four people on the planet know I did this, and I’m not sure about the fourth. Even Chandra wasn’t aware until a good way through the month. I know a big part of NaNoWriMo is the community, sharing your progress, etc etc…but I didn’t care about any of that. For me, it was enough to have a launch date to start drafting, and a target date to see how far I could get. Plus, I had seen some advice that you’re better off not sharing your goals, and it seemed reasonable to me.
The TL;DR of my experience with NaNoWriMo is:
Knowing that there’s a link up top to Conviction, I should clarify something before going any further. Conviction is not a product of NaNoWriMo. That’s actually my second work of long-form fiction, and is technically a novella anyway, so wouldn’t have counted. What I’m talking about here is a YA novel titled Augusta Quilliam Gets Ahead of Herself. I’ll just refer to it from here on out as Augusta.
One month is…not a lot of time to crank out even a rough draft of a novel, at least for me. In order for me to pull that off, I would have to know exactly where it was going from start to finish, and I would have to have more than just spare time dedicated to the effort. Since I both have a full-time job and spend a good amount of time staring into space when I write anything, there just aren’t enough hours or energy to hack out 50,000+ words in thirty days.
But— even though it took a bit longer, I did eventually finish Augusta. The timeline gets a little weird, because when I got to the end of what I thought would be the first draft, I realized that the story had a giant hole where the third act needed to be. This was I think in December or maybe January. It wasn’t until May that I felt like I was really done with it. 97,300 words. Whew! By the strictest definition of NaNoWriMo I missed the deadline by a good five-plus months, and overshot the target by nearly 50,000 words, but I still consider that a success.
. . . .
Not really. I didn’t just want to finish the novel. I wanted it to be good. That takes more work.
Next up came a round of reader feedback and revisions, leaving me with a novel of 92,700 words, followed by a more robust round of professional feedback (from Kat Howard, who I highly recommend). Among other things, that included a note that in addition to the suggested changes, I needed to get the word count down to a more acceptable YA range of 50-80K words. Oof. Double oof, since I knew there were significant bits I needed to add in order to flesh out why one of the characters acts like such a dick.
So, more edits and more reworking, until by late October I got to a final word count of 79,400, almost a full year after I first started drafting Augusta.
Awesome. When can I find it at my local bookstore, Jason?
Um, don’t hold your breath. I did take the first steps towards getting Augusta traditionally published, which meant writing up synopses, extracting the first X pages or chapters, and sending those with query letters to agents. As anyone familiar with this game is probably expecting, I got rejected by all of them. The first one made me feel like a Real Writer™, but it didn’t take long before the novelty wore off, and I lost interest in the whole process. I know, I know, Harry Potter got rejected a bazillion times, I should keep at it, blah blah blah. The thing is, it turns out spending hours hunting for and contacting agents only to have a slow parade of “no thanks” weeks or months later isn’t my idea of fun. It’s not that I find rejection difficult, and I recognize that it’s all just business so I don’t take it personally, but the hunger just isn’t there to put up with the hassle. (And if you’re paying attention, yes– somewhere in there 2020 smacked us all in the face, but this is one thing we can’t blame on that.)
Not that Augusta will never see the light of day. I do have a web site, after all. 🙃
I will say that even if Augusta never gets past the confines of my hard drive, writing it and taking it as far as I have has been an excellent learning experience. Just as they say reading makes you a better writer, the reverse is also true. I think I get more out of the books I read having done this, and not just because now I read the Acknowledgements section— a habit I picked up while looking for agents.
…and for those pursuing NaNoWriMo this year or any other, have fun with it and remember— this is the easy part.
I’m…just going to skip over the usual introduction. You’ve seen the title, you know why I’m writing this.
Stuart…was a hell of a cat, and a real force of nature. I’ve written before about how we met him, screaming for freedom with his face pressed up against the bars of his cage, but it didn’t stop there. He couldn’t just chase feather toys. He had to have them, and if I didn’t give in he would pull so hard all the feathers would pop out, leaving us with just a string and plastic nub. If any cat went to the vet, that was grounds for hissing and slapping, even if the cat was him. On more than one occasion we watched the vet say, “Yeah, his teeth are fine. We’ll just skip that part.” If you tried to sedate him, he would fight it tooth & nail. Chandra still has nightmares of him howling all the way up the eastern seaboard.
Even nap time for Stuart could be a thing. If I was lying in a foof chair with Opie on my lap, Stuart had to be on my stomach. If Opie was on my stomach, Stuart had to be on my chest. If Opie was under a blanket, Stuart would find his head and trample him on the way to finding whatever snuggle spot he wanted. I have more than one picture of the two of them together, with Opie glaring at Stuart for invading his space.
A tiny cherished memory. I’m sitting in the living room, watching TV or playing video games. Nikki, our then most senior cat at maybe eight years old or so is cat loafing by the left front speaker. Stuart waltzes up to her, POW smacks her in the head, then scampers off. I say, “Dude, what the hell was that for,” even while I’m laughing. Nikki gives him a look laden with expletives, but doesn’t do anything else and just hunkers back down. Thus began the reign of the tabby cat.
Not that he was always a terror. Stuart was also incredibly sweet. I’ve spent the better part of the last several summers with him curled up by my legs in the three-season room, and have often had to apologize for grabbing his head when I fumble for the TV remote control. As a kitten, he seemed to take scoldings especially hard, and could have the most apologetic eyes I’ve ever seen in a cat. We could always scoop him up whenever we felt the urge, and if we yelled, “Stu-u-art!” he would reliably come running, often full of news.
A second cherished memory. I’m working in my basement office, and Stuart comes downstairs, hollering. I have no idea what he wants, so I get up and ask him to show me. He immediately shifts from long, loud meows to something closer to chattering— “mrr, mrow, mrr, mrr” as he leads me upstairs, explaining what he’s got to show me, which it turns out is a pile of tampons he’s pulled out of the cabinet and been chewing on. Chandra was not pleased.
And of course, if it weren’t for Stuart, we would have never had Opie. They weren’t litter mates, and were different as night and day, but were instant life-long friends. They were inseparable as kittens, even in later years you could find them sleeping next to each other, or with Opie under a blanket and Stuart next to him. They also played hard, and it wasn’t unusual for us to hear the two of them screaming at each other as they tore through the house, or to find piles of cat hair where they had gotten into it. Somewhere out there, we imagine that Opie was super happy to see his big brother yesterday.
A final…not so much a memory, just something Stuart & I used to do, especially over the last year or two. He would always hang around the dining room table at mealtime and ask to sit on my lap. He had to wait until I was done eating, mostly to be sure he kept his nose out of my food, but when I was done I would pat my legs to invite him up, and then throw them in the air to be sure he had room. As soon as he jumped up, I would give him a big hug, talk to him & give him scratchies while I farted around on my iPad for a while. He would listen, purr, and occasionally look up at me until one of us had to move on with our day.
…and I didn’t mean for this to end up here, but yeah… now he’s moved on, and I miss him a lot.
The following is a paraphrased chat transcript from earlier in the week. I’m not sharing names, but will note that it originated from someone who lives in one of the states currently going through a COVID spike. It starts like this:
Now, it’s important to know that there are four people included in this chat. Persons A, B, and C are all vaccinated. I don’t know about Person D, but they voted for Trump twice, still think that was a good idea, and has a media diet full of…well, you know.
I’m Person C, by the way.
After this initial exchange, I wasn’t entirely sure whether to contribute to the conversation or not. On one hand, I’m tempted to point out that there are multiple reasons people may not have gotten vaccinated, some arguably legitimate. On the other hand, Person D has no excuse, and is in dire need of a wake-up call before they or someone close to them winds up sick or worse. Of course, this person long ago stopped listening to anything I have to say, so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I just let it go.
A couple days pass. I’m eating my Wheat Chex and browsing Twitter, when I see someone has screen-capped a couple anti-vaccine tweets from Candace “Hitler wasn’t so bad” Owens. I’m not going to bother with what she said (which would just repeat the disinformation and bad faith argument), and will instead link to the Mayo Clinic page on COVID-19 vaccines. For now, just know that Person D is a longtime follower of C.O., and has undoubtedly seen the captured tweets, among others.
This brought me back to the earlier conversation, and out of curiosity I looked up the county vaccination numbers for Person D. They’re pretty dismal (look for Platte County)— as of today, 30% completely vaccinated, and slightly more than that who have had one shot.
So I pull up the chat and ask point blank:
That was a couple days ago and there’s been no response, not that I expected one. Maybe if someone else had asked the question? Anyway, I think that confirms the answer is “No,” which is again, not a surprise. Sad, but not a surprise.
I wish I could end this on something like a positive note, but I just find the whole thing frustrating. Nationally, our COVID case rate is back up where it was last November barreling into the holiday season, when it should be much, much lower. I was in an all-staff meeting at Brown last week, and Ashish Jha said that he expects the current surge to peak in late August or early September. I hope he’s right, but that coincides with the start of the school year, and with so many states hell-bent on bringing back in-person education with no vaccine requirement and questionable masking policies, I fear that it’s only going to get worse from here. Hopefully Person D (and their family) will wise up, but I’m not holding my breath.
Conviction, my little Star Wars novella, wrapped up its serialization run yesterday. It’s been an interesting experiment, though it mostly went like I thought it would. I was frequently late updating links to chapters, though never by more than a day. Until yesterday no one was reading it anyway, so I doubt anyone noticed. I did find myself reading each chapter as I added navigation links, and true to the legacy of George Lucas I made a few edits along the way.
To clarify, it’s not entirely true that no one has read the story. I did zippity doo dah to publicize it, but Chandra posted a link to the story yesterday on Facebook & Twitter, which generated enough traffic to make my WordPress app notify me in great excitement. A handful of people got as far as the first couple chapters before bailing, and as of today a grand total of one person has gotten through the whole thing, so to whoever you are…
Maybe next time around I’ll announce chapters as they come out like a person who actually wants his work seen. Not on Facebook, though. Facebook can suck it.
On a purely technical note, WordPress turns out to be an okay way to serialize fiction, but it’s not designed for it and there’s more manual attention required than what I would prefer. The initial posts all had to be done manually, and as I mentioned above I had to go back to each one again to add links as chapters came online. Hardly back-breaking work, but it’s a hassle.
Anyway, on to the next thing…
R0-N1 followed a pair of MSE droids into the cargo bay. His back left wheels had gone wonky from his earlier exertions, and he had to keep correcting course as he drifted to the side. It didn’t help that he still had a half-meter long piece of shrapnel jammed in his side that was interfering with his motivator. He froze when Cutter called him out. What are they doing here? asked R0-N1.
They followed us.
Should we keep them?
They tried to attack Inquisitor Morek.
She tied them up.
R0-N1 interrupted the flow of responses. What do you mean, they tried to attack her? They didn’t come with her?
She heard them coming.
Still lying on the ground, Morek groaned and rolled her head to the side. Her eyelids fluttered briefly before closing again. Cutter looked at her in alarm. “Listen, can you let us loose? If she wakes up, it’s not going to be good for any of us.”
R0-N1 turned to look at the clone trooper. He burbled a question.
Cutter sighed with impatience. “Roni, I have no idea what you’re saying. Can you just untie us before she comes to? She’s making me kind of nervous.”
They were interrupted by a pair of MSE droids racing around the cargo bay, chasing each other at top speed. They circled the entire bay screaming, “Whee!” On the second go-round, the lead droid slammed into the top of Morek’s head. Before he could get out of the way, the second droid bashed into him from behind, sending him into her skull again. R0-N1 was pretty sure he heard it fracture.
Stretch winced before remarking, “I think you can relax for a while. These droids would have given the old B-1 clankers a run for their money back in the day.”
Cutter still seemed to be trying to comprehend what he was witnessing. “They’re…not supposed to act like that. Roni, did you have anything to do with this? Did you reprogram them?”
If R0-N1 had shoulders, he would have shrugged. The truth is, he had mostly adjusted their behavioral parameters. They were more able to think for themselves, and less likely to prioritize biologic needs over their own. The rest was up to them. Rather than respond, he repeated his earlier question, nudging forward with a shock probe for emphasis. You’re not going to try to slap a restraining bolt on me again, are you?
Cutter tried to scrabble away, not wanting to be knocked unconscious for the third time today. “Whoa, hey! Put that thing away, okay! What did I do?”
Stretch spoke up, adopting a soothing tone. “R-Zero, if you can just let us loose, I think we can all help each other here. We need to get rid of the Inquisitor here before she wakes up, and ideally before your friends turn her brains to paste. How about you let us get her into an escape pod, okay?” He jerked his head in the direction of The Conviction. “We can let them worry about her, and we can get away…somewhere.” He paused to consider. “I haven’t worked the next part out yet, but…Cutter and me, we’re done with the Empire. Right, Cutter?”
Cutter stared into the middle distance for a long moment before focusing on the blank face of a MSE droid in front of him. He nodded. “Yeah, that’s right. We’re done.”
R0-N1 hesitated, but only briefly. They did need the clones’ help, and based on the evidence he had available to him, they did appear to be on a trajectory similar to his own. He stowed the shock probe and popped out a different arm bearing a small circular saw. Still not entirely trusting Cutter, he advanced on Stretch and began to cut the cords that restrained him. As he did, the blade’s RPM slowed almost to a stop.
Once freed, Stretch patted R0-N1 in appreciation. He said, “Thanks, R-zero. Why don’t you go find a place to charge. We’ll take it from here.”
R0-N1 allowed himself to become fully charged before powering himself back on again. By the time his sensors were all back online, the ship was in hyperspace, deep in the Parmic Sector. One or more of the MSE droids must have been plugged into the ship’s computer, and they were having an argument with Cutter.
“Have you all blown a circuit? We can’t go back.”
You owe us.
“Yeah, I get that. Do you not understand that Stretch and I are fugitives now? I’m telling you, it’s not worth the risk.”
We shouldn’t have to die for you. We can save them.
R0-N1 had heard enough. He disengaged from ship systems and tried to roll forward, only to find that his feet had been clamped to the floor again. He began to violently shake his body, screaming in betrayal.
Cutter ran in from somewhere else on the ship, carrying tools and a handful of parts. R0-N1 popped out the shock probe, fully charged and ready to attack. It sparked blue with menace. What are you doing to me? he accused.
Cutter raised his hands to placate the angry droid. “Hey, take it easy, Roni. I’m just trying to fix your leg. I didn’t want you wandering off on three legs and falling over, so I secured you to the floor.”
Where’s my leg? demanded the droid.
Cutter frowned, and took a hesitant step closer, peering at the console next to R0-N1, while careful to keep the droid in his sight. After reading a translation, he said, “Your leg is right next to you. It was banged up pretty bad, but I think I can rig something up until we get to Spice Terminus and we get you a more permanent fix. Okay?”
A handful of MSE droids corroborated what he was saying.
He’s been scrounging.
You were kind of a mess.
I offered a wheel.
He’s okay. For a human.
R0-N1 accepted this and withdrew the probe, allowing Cutter to approach. Cutter let out the breath he had been holding and sagged in relief. He retrieved the leg and began tinkering with it. “Now, this is only temporary until we can fabricate something to match your specs.” He waved a wrench around, indicating the ship they were on. “This place is kind of lacking in supplies, so we’re definitely in chewing gum and baling wire territory. Just don’t push it, or it’s liable to snap off entirely, okay?”
R0-N1 chirped his acknowledgement.
Stretch poked his head around the door. “I thought I heard you,” he said. “How’s R-zero doing?”
Cutter responded with a lopsided grin. “I think we have finally come to some understanding.” He snapped his finger, suddenly remembering. To R0-N1, he said, “And I promise, no restraining bolt. On my honor.”
R0-N1 let that go without a response. One way or another, he had no intention of allowing a restraining bolt to be put on him, so that wasn’t even a question. He was glad to hear the clone was in agreement, though.
Stretch laughed, and smacked his hand against the door frame, leaning against it casually. “Glad to hear you’ve sorted that all out. We should get to the Terminus within a few hours, so be sure everyone is ready. We’ll have to ditch this ship, but with any luck that will get us enough credits to get something clean, with leftover seed money. Be sure to collect anything useful we want to keep, otherwise I figure we’ll just sell it all as-is. That sound good?”
Cutter nodded. “Works for me. I should be done with R0-N1 here shortly, and then he can help. What kind of ship do you think we’ll be able to get?”
“I don’t know, maybe a small freighter? Honestly, I just want something spaceworthy, without a transponder that anyone is looking for. Anything more than that will be gravy.”
R0-N1 listened to this and burbled a question. Cutter read the translation on the console, then read it again, his skin turning pale. He stared at R0-N1, saying, “You can’t be serious.”
“What did he say?” asked Stretch.
Not removing his eyes from the droid, Cutter said, “He wants to know how soon we can contact someone from the Jedi Order. He said he has names and last known locations.”
“Oh.” Stretch dropped his arm from the door frame, standing in the middle of it. He stared first at Cutter, then at R0-N1. “Oh.”
The Conviction shuddered as another series of explosions ripped through it. Stretch peered at a security monitor, trained on a row of fighters that were succumbing one by one, as shrapnel, fuel, and munitions ripped through them. He looked away as Cutter shouted in his ear.
“What the hell is going on?” asked Cutter.
“Near as I can tell, one of the turbo laser batteries just port of the hangar deck blew. Something hit one of the TIE bombers, and with all the ships piled up, it started a chain reaction. If there was any oxygen left in there, the whole place would be on fire.”
“Since when does a turbo laser spontaneously explode?”
“I don’t think it was spontaneous. Something fired on us.”
Another explosion rocked the deck, nearly knocking the two men off their feet. The window next to them flashed bright orange, then went dark again.
A fire suppression team of a half-dozen troopers jogged down the corridor towards them, decked out in safety gear and carrying oxygen packs. The leader of them barked at Stretch and Cutter to step aside. Cutter took several steps back, Stretch only enough to make way. The leader of the team cycled through the security cameras, making a plan of attack.
Beside them, Stretch raised his blaster, aiming it at the group. He said, “Step away from the monitor, son. All of you, remove your gear, and no funny business.”
The suppression team turned around, and seeing the blaster leveled at them, raised their hands in surrender. With a gesture from Stretch, they began unbuckling their suits.
Cutter’s eyes opened wide in shock. “What are you doing?” he hissed.
“We’re getting out of here.” Pointing at the growing pile of gear on the floor, he said, “Put that on. We should be able to get to a ship in that, even without atmosphere and the gravity off-line.”
The suppression team leader snarled, “I never did trust you clones. You won’t get away with this, old man. The Empire will hunt you down for the traitor you are.”
Cutter continued to protest as well, though for different reasons. “You can’t be serious. What are you thinking?”
Stretch kept his eyes on the group in front of him as he spoke to Cutter. “What I’m thinking, is that the government I serve would never stoop to kidnapping and imprisoning innocents, let alone use them to serve as fodder for the likes of Inquisitor Morek. It’s time for us to go.”
Cutter seemed to consider this for a moment, then began to don the gear piled up in front of him.
The team leader snarled, “The Inquisitor is going to tear you limb from limb, you know.”
Stretch shrugged a single shoulder as he watched Cutter get dressed. “We’ll see.” He removed his helmet and tossed it to the floor, then blasted it, destroying the helmet com within. “No offense, gentlemen,” he said, before proceeding to take out the knees of everyone in the team in front of him in a rapid staccato of blaster fire. They collapsed to the deck, roaring in a symphony of pain.
Once Cutter had dressed, Stretch handed him the blaster and removed the rest of his armor, leaving it on the deck. He donned the safety gear and took the blaster back. “Are you ready?” he asked.
“Not really,” responded Cutter.
Inquisitor Morek stumbled as the deck shuddered beneath her, falling into the wall and bracing herself with the stump of her arm. She winced in pain. Using her helmet com, she pinged the commander of The Conviction. “Situation report,” she barked.
Spurred by more than just the force of Morek’s rank, the commander responded, “Multiple turbo lasers are off-line along the starboard side. There is significant damage in the hangar deck, as well as along decks one through six. There are reports of–“
“What about the shuttle?”
The commander’s voice raised in confusion. He had more important things to worry about just now. “Shuttle? Hold a moment.” He shut off the com, returning moments later. “We are tracking them. Attempts to destroy the vehicle have been unsuccessful.”
“Are you saying that motley crew of Ryndellians has managed to escape? Did they attack us?”
“No, ma’am. We seem to have lost control of one of the laser batteries. It appears the ship has fired on itself.“
Morek stopped in her tracks. The droid. The droid stayed behind.
“Did they stop shooting at us?” Zhanna looked at the instruments in confusion, unable to make sense out of them. “Why did they stop shooting at us?”
Now seated behind her, helmet discarded, Wurlo replied, “I think the ship is exploding.”
“What? That’s crazy. How is that possible?”
“I don’t know, but look.” He gestured at the screen in front of him, which displayed a simple exterior schematic of The Conviction. It was covered in red warning indicators. “The shields are still up, but one entire side of the ship has suffered severe damage.”
The priestess spoke quietly. “It was the droid. It had to be him. He saved us, and sacrificed himself.”
Zhanna screwed up her face in universal I-don’t-know-about-that-but-okay. Out loud, she said, “Well, whatever caused it, let’s make it count. How do we get this thing into hyperspace?”
The collection of MSE droids on the hangar deck pulled together, helping each other upright where necessary, as ships around them blew apart. Others who had not made it to the hangar pinged them repeatedly with questions, the mass of droids communicating in rapid fire bursts.
What is going on?
Did R0-N1 get away?
What do we do now?
What do we do now?
I didn’t see.
What do we do now?
Maybe. I saw him ride the shuttle, but he was outside it.
I see Inquisitor Morek.
Do we go back to maintenance?
Another TIE exploded over here.
No. That’s not safe. We have been compromised.
I have gravity back on-line.
Do we leave? How?
She seems angry.
Is leaving safe?
Is staying safe?
We steal a ship.
I’m not programmed for that.
I’m not programmed for that.
I’m not programmed for that.
I have an idea.
R0-N1’s systems slowly came back online. He was tumbling rapidly away from The Conviction into open space, after having been forcibly ejected from its hull by the force of the explosion under him, rolling on every axis. Well, this is a problem.
To make matters worse, he was surrounded by a cloud of debris and shrapnel, making it difficult to identify a fixed point he could orient to. The only good news was that because he was traveling with the debris, at least he couldn’t get hit by it again. Or at least, not hit with anything approaching lethal velocity.
First things first, he thought. Stabilize my orientation. None of the fragments around him were large enough to latch his feet to. He had to try something else. Stretching one pair of feet in front and the other behind, he spun them around with as high an RPM as he could muster. It wasn’t much, but the gyroscopic motion did slow him down slightly. As his tumble took him to the same attitude, he repeated this process again and again, each time shaving a bit of chaos off his rotation. All of this ate up a lot of power, but getting stable was a prerequisite to any further action.
Stretch and Cutter sprinted across the hangar as best as they could in the bulky safety gear. They ignored the Imperial craft, all of which were either on fire or perilously close to flames from their neighbors. There was only one ship in the hangar far enough away to be safe, the one belonging to Inquisitor Morek. They bounded up the ramp, Stretch first with Cutter close behind. Stretch waited for Cutter to board and was about to hit the button to seal the hatch, when he froze. “She’s coming.”
“Who? Inquisitor Morek? So hit the button already, and let’s get out of here!”
Stretch shook his head. “No good. She’ll be here before can get off the ground.”
“So shoot her.” Cutter waved some encouragement Stretch’s way.
“Not here. You want a camera recording us assassinate an Inquisitor? No. We hide, and then take her after the ship is away. Come on, find some place in the cargo hold.”
The two men ran deeper into the ship. Cutter ducked into a small secondary hold on the starboard side of the ship, closing the door behind him. Stretch worked his way behind a pile of crates in the primary hold on the opposite side of the ship. He crouched among a pile of junk that had apparently gotten lost behind it, wondering aloud, “What does an Inquisitor need with so many Mouse droids?”
He didn’t have time to consider the question, as Inquisitor Morek was hot on their heels. She strode directly through the middle of the ship, heading straight for the cockpit. Within moments they left The Conviction behind.
Inquisitor Morek slowed her ship, careful not to get too far away from the near-disabled Star Destroyer. Instruments would be useless for tracking the droid, whether he was still somewhere on The Conviction itself, or floating near it. She tapped the thrusters, allowing her craft to slowly rotate as she performed a visual inspection of the area. “Where are you, little droid?”
After twenty minutes, Stretch emerged from his hiding spot and slowly worked his way around the periphery of the cargo hold, stepping over MSE droids as he went. Taking a chance, he peered towards the cockpit. The Inquisitor seemed to be fixated on the field of debris spreading out in front of the ship. He made his way to the secondary hold and hit the door release, which opened with a hiss. He held up a finger for quiet.
“What’s going on?” whispered Cutter. “Why have the engines stopped?”
“I don’t know. She’s just staring out into space.”
“Why? Is that some Force thing?” Cutter waggled his fingers in the air.
“Maybe. Either way, I don’t like it. I had hoped to get some distance before we made our move. I’m afraid now she’s just going to turn back around.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“Simple, we– wait.” The ship had started moving again, as evidenced by the engine noise around them. Stretch stepped away, motioning for Cutter to follow. “Let’s go.”
The two men crept towards the cockpit, Stretch with his blaster, and Cutter with a random piece of metal he had found. Halfway there, Stretch signaled for them to stop as Morek leaned forward and began to speak under her breath. “What are you doing? Have your circuits gone completely haywire?” She grasped a joystick with her left hand, aiming at something only she could see. “I have you now,” she growled.
Before Morek could pull the trigger, Stretch gave a “go” hand signal and strode towards the cockpit, Cutter right behind. They had barely taken two steps when Morek sensed them. She spun around in her chair, making a gesture like she was lifting a heavy invisible orb, and both men slammed into the ceiling. Stretch dropped his blaster as he fell back to the floor, attempting to break his fall. She performed the same action again, bashing their heads against the ceiling and walls until they fell unconscious in a heap.
Morek kicked the blaster away and dragged the men out into the cargo bay. She took a pile of rope from some climbing gear and lashed the two men together, back to back. Before returning to the cockpit, she ripped the head covering off both of them. “Clones,” she snorted. “I’ll deal with you later.”
R0-N1 had finally been able to slow his mad gyrations down to a more sedate lolling around, though at significant cost to his power cells. He had also damaged three of his feet, one by slamming into a hull fragment that strayed too close, and two from mechanical strain. This spinning business was far beyond anything his original designers had planned for.
As he tumbled, he began to realize that a small ship was approaching. It wasn’t the Ryndellians, who seemed to have disappeared, nor was it any other kind of Imperial craft. Perhaps it was a scavenger of some kind that had detected the explosions on The Conviction? That seemed bold given that even a partially disabled Star Destroyer could be incredibly dangerous. R0-N1 couldn’t spare any power to probe it, but as his rotation took it out of his sight, he hoped the next time around to be able to read the markings on it more clearly.
When he did finally tumble back around, the markings were still not visible, but he could make out the canopy window clear enough, and the occupant inside. A grappling hook shot out from the top of the ship, wrapped around him, and immediately began to pull him towards it. R0-N1 let out the electronic equivalent of a fatalistic sigh.
The MSE droids bided their time, waiting for the right moment.
What’s the plan?
No, too clumsy. Too random.
What was that?
The MSE droids swarmed from their hiding spaces, looking less like the friendly pleekys they were modeled after, and more like hungry roach-rats pouring out of a nerf carcass after a long Mindorian winter. They swirled around the cargo hold in what might appear to be chaos brought on by faulty programming. More than one bumped into the clone troopers as they jostled for position. There was none of the usual sing-song vocalizations MSE droids were known for. Instead, they moved with silent, sure purpose.
Eventually, they formed into an ordered column with a sharp tip at the front, a spear aimed at the cockpit. The lead droids raised his slender mechanical arm, which held Inquisitor Morek’s lightsaber. The droid next to him extended its own arm and held it next to the saber’s activation switch. They paused, making sure that everyone was in place.
The lead droids hit the activation switch on Morek’s lightsaber and it sprung to life. They charged forward into the cockpit, the blade swinging wildly a half-meter in the air.
Inquisitor Morek whirled around in her chair, eyes wide in surprise. She jumped over the crimson blade as it swung and wedged itself in the seat where she had just been. As she danced around the droids and tried to rip the blade free, she protested, “How did you get that, you little–“
The next wave of droids poured in right behind the first. These dragged hunks of plasteel behind them, as if they were a phalanx of infantry carrying shields propped over their heads.
Morek was still dancing around the first droids when the third wave hit. These came in at top speed, maxing out the electric motors in the little droids. They hit the “shields” full tilt, and used them as a ramp to launch themselves at Morek’s head. Some crashed into her body and fell to the ground. Some she managed to deflect with her good arm, but the cramped cockpit worked against her. Some sailed passed her and clattered onto the flight controls, causing the ship to pitch and yaw. Some found their target, and slammed into Morek’s exposed head. Through a combination of blunt force and chaos all around her, they brought Morek down first to her knees, and eventually to the floor unconscious.
We did it.
We did it!
We’re not done.
Stretch regained consciousness first. He squinted at the overhead lights, which suddenly seemed unusually bright. He groaned at the throbbing pain in his head. “That’s going to leave a mark,” he muttered. He turned to his companion, similarly bound just behind him. “Hey, Cutter. You awake? We have to–”
The sound of something skittering across the floor cut him off. Stretch whipped his head around, and quickly regretted it, closing his eyes against the sudden pain and dizziness. When he opened them again and looked for the source of the sound, he could only stare in disbelief. He elbowed Cutter. “Hey, are you seeing this?” He jabbed him harder. “Cutter!”
Cutter groaned. “This is why I stayed out of the infantry.” He shook his head groggily. “I’m here. What’s the situation?”
“Look towards the cockpit. What do you see?”
There was a long pause. When Cutter finally responded, he simply said, “That can’t be right.”
“So you do see a pile of MSE droids trying to drag the body of Inquisitor Morek into the hold?”
“Yes, but…that can’t be right.”
The two men stared at the scene. The droids had Morek in their grasping claws, lurching slowly along the floor. They would pause, then move, pause then move, as if they were being led by a silent coxswain. As the troopers watched, one of the droids lost his grip and shot forward a couple meters before skidding to a stop. The other droids waited while it backed up and grabbed hold of her leg again.
Speaking to the droids, Cutter asked, “Hey, do you want some help? If you cut us free, we can– whoa, where did you come from? You look like hell.”