An invitation to the party

The next book in my current favorite series was coming out today.

The fact that it was being released today wasn’t news, the release date had been announced several months ago. But the fact that I’d finally get my chance to find out how the protagonist would solve the problem he’d faced at the end of the last book meant I wanted to pick up a copy as soon as I could.

An ebook? Don’t make me laugh. I’m one of those old knuckle-draggers who has to hold an honest-to-gods book in their hands for a story to be worth reading.

Order online? That would mean I couldn’t walk past all the other books, possibly missing a new story because my eye hadn’t been caught by the cover art, or the intriguing title. That’s how I got hooked on this series, after all.

So I was happy to drive half an hour to the local chain bookstore to buy my copy. What I hadn’t planned on were the aftereffects of the questionable burrito I’d gotten delivered the night before. So here I was, occupying one of the two stalls in the store’s men’s room, wondering if my insides were about to come squirting out of my backsides.

That’s when I heard the first pop. It wasn’t terribly loud, and I wasn’t sure what it was until I heard two more quick pops, followed by screams, that I understood it was someone shooting a gun. I’ve heard people say they were ‘scared shitless’, but until that moment, I’d never believed it was real. As my insides clenched up, I found out it was.

I started cleaning myself, hoping that perhaps I could find a way to sneak out of both the restroom and the store.

Then I heard the door open.

It didn’t slam open. No, the only clue that it had opened as the hinges creaking ever so slightly. In that moment, I feared I’d die in a toilet stall with my jeans around my ankles, and that the stink of my own shit would be the last thing I’d smell.

A kid’s high-pitched whimper, followed by a slightly deeper shush, let me know there wasn’t an armed madman waiting outside the stall to shoot me. I finished wiping and cautiously peeked out.

A boy clutching a colorfully illustrated copy of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” crouched with a tiny girl who shivered like she had an electrical current running through her body behind a woman. All of them had their eyes fixed on the door into the bathroom.

I cleared my throat, and as all three scramble around to face me, I raise my hands to show I’m not armed or dangerous. It works, they don’t scream or rush towards the door, but the tension that had kept them frozen and staring at the door doesn’t go away. I take a step towards them, then drop to a knee to get closer to their height. I look towards the door, then back at them. I do what I can to keep my voice calm as I whisper. “Can you tell me what’s going on? Is someone robbing the store?”

The boy and girl say nothing, they just stare fixedly at me. As the moment of silence stretches on, I fear the woman will remain silent too. Then she starts talking, a low but urgent stream of words pouring out of her mouth.

“No, it wasn’t a robbery. We were waiting for a chance to pay for his book when this guy in one of those hunting jackets, you know, the ones with all the different colors, slams open the door. I didn’t think much of it, just some self-important guy making an entrance. Then I heard him say something about making us all pay. I heard the first shot, I don’t know who he shot, because I grabbed my kids and ran for this bathroom.”

Maybe it was hearing his mother speak that broke the spell of silence over the boy. He pointed at me “Are you gonna go get him Mister Soldier?”

It took me a moment to understand what the kid was suggesting. I’d never been in the military, but a few months ago, I’d picked up a dark green tee shirt on sale. Over the course of a few washings, it had faded to something approaching the color of an Army uniform. I opened my mouth to tell him I was no soldier, and found I couldn’t. I couldn’t say those words and kill the hope I saw beginning to grow in those young eyes.

“Sure will, kid. I need you to do something for me. Can you stay here with your mom and sister and make sure they stay safe?” At his nod, I looked towards his mother. I could see her doubts in me as clearly as if she’d been wearing them on a sign. I could understand why. I’m not fat, but the only place I might look like a real soldier would be in the imagination of a scared kid. “Miss, I’m going to go out there and see what I can do. I might find other folks trying to hide and send them over to hide with you.” I pointed towards the garbage can beside the sink. “I think that if you put that thing under the door handle, it will stop it from swinging down and keep the door closed. I’ll tell anyone I send over here to knock three times, okay? If you hear that, could you move the can and let them in?”

She gives me a slow nod, like she can’t believe what she’s hearing. I don’t blame her, because I can hardly believe I’m saying it. I know I’ll die if I try to confront an armed attacker, but I stand up anyway and head towards the door. I hear the woman following behind me, the scraping of the garbage can giving her movements away.

Part of me wishes there were a lock on the inside face of the door, but there isn’t. I ease the latch open and bless the architect who put both bathroom door at the end of small alcoves. All there is to see as I look out is the closed door to the woman’s bathroom opposite me, and the end of the bookshelves beyond the broad opening that leads to the rest of the store. I close the door as quietly as I can, and the last thing I see as it does are the scared eyes of the woman I’m protecting without knowing her name.

Three quick pops, now easily recognizable as gunshots, ring out. I move to the opening to the store and ease my head around the corner. There’s an old man with white hair crouching beside two teenagers crouching behind a bookshelf not ten feet from me. They’re all facing away from me, looking towards the main part of the store.

“Quit hidin’ you fuckin’ libs! Show your fuckin’ faces so I can shoot you in them!”

It isn’t quite a shout, but the voice is more than loud enough to carry through the whole store in the still air following those shots. That silence also makes it easy to tell where the voice is coming from. My head turns towards the sound, and I see a guy standing near where I know the information desk is. All I can see is the shoulders of his camo jacket and the top of his bald head. He’s looking away from me, and as I watch I see his body jerks. Another shot rings out, followed by a scream.

“Fuckin’ dyke bitch! Did you think dressin’ up like you was a man would make you one? And givin’ me a snotty goddamn answer when you should be showin’ me respect! I’m gonna plant a lot of your kind today, oh yes I will.”

He’s not looking my way, so I grab a book from the rack beside the entrance to the bathrooms. Part of registers the title, “The Black Socks: A Case History of Corruption in Professional Sports” as I slide it across the carpeting past the people hiding in front of me.

They all jerk away from the passing book like its on fire, the old man nearly falling against the bookshelves they’re hiding behind. The muffled shifting doesn’t seem to be enough to draw the attention of the gunman, but it does get them to turn towards me. I drop to my hands and knees, crawl to them, and motion for them to bring their heads close to mine.

“There’s a woman and her two kids hiding in the men’s room. She’s got the door blocked, but if you rap three times on the quietly, she’ll let you in. If you crawl over there, he shouldn’t be able to see you. Get in with her and help her keep that door closed if this guy tries to get in. Okay?”

All three of them nod and begin making their way to the bathroom and, hopefully, safety. I watch them go wondering how I managed to sound so calm. Like a voice whispered it in my ear, I know the answer. You know you’re going to die, and you don’t want your death to be as miserable a failure as your life has been. The realization brings something to me I hadn’t had since that first shot: clarity. I have to do whatever it takes to stop this man from killing or hurting more people. But how do I do that?

I hear another voice, one that even choked with pain I recognize. It’s Marsha, the manager of the store. She always wears her hair short, and its a different color of the rainbow every time I see her. “Why are you doing this? I never did anything to you.”

“Shut the hell up, you damned dyke bitch. You and the rest of these damned libs. Always lookin’ down on me, sneerin’ at me for the books I buy. Bill O’Reilly’s a damn good writer, an you people act me like I’m buying a kid’s colorin’ book when I buy one of his novels. You’re gonna be my bird dog before I kill you. I want them to hear you scream, to flush them out and try to run like the cowards they are. So come on, bitch, scream some more for me.”

The gun bangs, and I hear Marsha scream again. I need to stop this. I know that, but I don’t know how. I don’t have anything to fight back with.

No gun.

No knife.

Nothing.

I don’t even know enough about boxing or self-defense to try overpowering this guy.

My eyes dart around, hoping to find something, anything I can use against this shooter. I see nothing. As I begin to despair, my eyes cross the book I’d used to get the attention of the three who’d been hiding where I now am. My hands remember the mass of my own hardback books, and I know I have weapons nearby.

A quick scan of the shelf in front of me and beside me yields nothing big enough to be dangerous to a good-sized cat, let alone a human. So I make my way around the end of the bookshelf and sweep my eyes over its contents. Nothing shows any promise until I’m scanning the bottom row of books and see a truly massive hard-backed tome. I haul it out, and the weight of it strains my arm. Easily ten pounds, it’s going to have to do.

Marsha’s crying now, just a weak whimpering noise like some child too frightened to actually cry out loud. I slip off my shoes, hoping that in stocking feet I’ll be silent enough to get close to the gunman before he notices me. Then I rise up and do my best to rush down upon him.

His back is towards me as I approach, and I begin to hope I will surprise him.

I’m five steps away, and he’s still not paying attention to anything but tormenting Marsha.

Then I’m four steps away.

I raise the book above my head, and as I do, his head swings towards me.

I’m two steps from him, and he begins to turn towards me.

One more step, but the gun rises to point towards me. I see the shooter face for the first time, and remember seeing him here before. I also remember how he always seemed angry about something.

My arm swings downward, all the mass of the book driving it down fast. But not fast enough. I see a flash from the barrel of the gun. I feel something hitting my chest, and at almost the same instant, the impact of the book with the shooter’s head.

Then, there is a moment of nothingness. Not blackness. Not me passing out. Just….nothingness. I don’t feel any pain. I don’t hear anything. For a moment, it’s like I’m alone in a void. Then I hear something.

“Hey, buddy, you okay?”

The voice sounds like a stereotypical New York accent, but it’s not put on. None of the struggling to replace one accent with another. I try opening my eyes, and find I that while I can see, but what I see makes no sense. A slender young man with coal black hair is standing over me, offering me a his hand. He himself isn’t amazing, but what he’s dressed in is: a complete set of Marine dress blues, but not modern blues. No, I recognize these from my reading of history books. These are the dress blues a Marine would have worn during World War Two.

“Hey, you hear me Mack?”

What is going on? Am I hallucinating? I need to get up, so I take the offered hand. That’s when I notice my own hand. It isn’t the flabby hand of the shut-in bookworm I am now. No, it’s a hand like what mine looked like when I was a teenager. The Marine grabs my hand, and with a surprisingly strong grip, drag me to my feet. He gives me what can only be described as a rakish smile before letting go of my hand to slap me on the back.

“Good to have you on board, kid. You ready for the Big Party?”

He emphasizes those last two words, like I’m supposed to know what he’s talking about. I don’t. But as I shift my gaze from him, I see I’m standing in the bookstore, and that the gunman is lying before me atop the information desk. His head is twisted at an angle I know it shouldn’t be at, and more to the point, his eyes are open, but already glazing over. He’s dead, I know that, and that I’m the one who killed him.

That’s when I notice the other still form.

It’s me.

The front of my shirt isn’t a faded green anymore. No, it dark. Dark with blood from the hole in the center of my chest. And like the gunman, my eyes are also open and glazed over already.

“Kind of spooky, ain’t it?”

That voice breaks my concentration, and my amazement, at seeing my own dead body before. But the voice keeps talking.

“You’re kinda lucky. Now when that old dough boy came to collect me, hell, there weren’t hardly enough of me left to know what was left had been a person. I guess that’s what I get for grabbing three Jap hand grenades and wrapping myself around them.”

I look towards the Marine. “You died too?”

“Hell yeah I did, kid! And who’d a thought a Dago like me from Hoboken would end up dyin’ a hero saving the folks who always called me a ‘dirt whop’? The world sure is a strange place, ain’t it kid?”

“Where did…”

“Iwo, kid. I was in a slit trench, waiting with my squad for the order to attack a Jap pillbox when they got the drop on us and started lobbing grenades. Next thing I know, I’m standing with this guy who told me he bought it in the Meuse Argonne taking out a Kraut machine gun nest by himself, looking down at something that looked like a bad batch of hamburger.”

I look at my hands again, then at the Marine, and realize if we were both still alive, I’d be older than he appears to be. Whether he can read minds, or that he’s been asked the question before, he answers the question I was framing.

“You look the way you do for the same reason I look like this: it’s how we looked in the photo somebody’ll put with our obituary. Some of the older guys, well, they look kinda strange cause they don’t have a picture like we do. But you’ll get used to it after a while at the Big Party.”

There was that term again, and this time, I got the question out before he could answer it. “What’s this ‘Big Party’ you keep talking about?”

The Marine smiled. “It’s the Big Party, kid! The one all the folks who died savin’ someone else are asked to attend. And before you ask, yeah, you can refuse to attend. But I got to tell you, if you do, you’re gonna miss one wild shindig! All the food you can eat, more booze than you could ever drink, and it’ll never stop until we get The Call.”

He said the last words with a seriousness unlike everything before them. A possibility occurred to me. “You mean, your party is something like Valhalla? And you’re part of the hero band that will face Ragnarok?”

The Marine cocked his head and stared at me for a long moment. “Rag-nor-what? Kid, you and me have been offered the chance to ride beside the Heavenly Host in the battle at the end of the world. At least that’s how the dough boy explained it to me. Whether it’s what he said, or what you said, the only alternative is you go to whatever’s waitin’ for you in the afterlife. So, which would you rather do? Go face the music? Or would you rather party to the music until we have to fight?”

It wasn’t a hard choice to make. I held out my hand to my new brother-in-arms. “Let’s go check out this Big Party, shall we?”

“The Three Body Problem”, a review

“The Three Body Problem”

by Liu Cixin

translated by Ken Liu

A few weeks ago, I read Liu Cixin’s “Ball Lightening” and was struck by the story. I found it to be a complex, but at the same time relate-able, novel. I could understand what drove the characters to do what they did, and even sympathize with them when they made decisions I didn’t agree with.

“The Three Body Problem” is a very different story. In it, Liu takes the reader into some of the darkest corners of modern Chinese history before bringing humanity face-to-face with its end. That humanity’s end might be at the hands of an alien invader is not new science fiction idea, but that that end might be aided and abetted by humans disgusted with the course of human development is.

As the story progresses, the reader gains some insights into why humans would wish for the end of humanity, but what is revealed speaks less to humanity’s failings than it does the character failings of the individuals helping the alien invaders. They see human beings as greedy, ignorant and power-grasping, unworthy of continuing to exist. Even when faced with humans who aren’t, they’re seemingly without the ability to see that there are humans who aren’t all the things that disgust them.

As the story progresses, it paints a bleak picture of humanity’s chances of escaping its impending end. Humanity’s sciences are hobbled by the aliens through an ingenious method most people would not imagine possible. Humans in the story are also, as they are in the real world, divided in their attitude towards each other and the threat being faced. As the story progresses, hope drains away from the reader, and it appears that humanity is doomed. But in the last chapter, the story opens the possibility that the odds might not be as bad as they appear.

This is the first of a three-volume series, and that final chapter opening the door to hope a crack offers the reader the chance that the humanity’s story is not over. In that moment, Liu successfully set the hook in this reader’s mind, and I look forward to seeing where the story, and it’s main characters, go from here. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get my hands on the next book, “The Dark Forest”, but I intend to buy it.

“Ball Lightening”, a review.

I recently finished reading Liu Cixin’s novel “Ball Lightening”. To call it impressive would be an understatement. It opens with a teenage boy sitting across the table from his parents preparing to blow the candles out on his birthday cake as a thunderstorm rages outside. But before he can, Fate plays a cruel trick on him: his parents are incinerated by a ball lightening discharge.

They say that one moment in a child’s life can set their path in life, and so it is for Cixin’s protagonist, Chen. Seeing his parents killed by a terrible and mysterious force sets his path into the future. It lead him to study weather, and by extension, lightening and the deadly phenomena that took his parents. In turn, that decision leads him into the world of weapons development, a world where this deadly natural phenomena is seen as a possible breakthrough in weapons technology.

His introduction into the world of weapons research is through a chance meeting with the beautiful yet deeply disturbed Lin Yun. He soon discovers that she is an officer in the Chinese army involved in the development of new weapons, and that to her, ball lightening isn’t just an odd and potentially deadly atmospheric phenomena, but possibly the next great weapon technology.

Cixin takes his characters on, as the song says, one long, strange trip. After a brilliant success using their technology to deal with a group of terrorists, their fortunes fall when their new weapon is counteracted by an attacking military. Chen, disillusioned with weapons work, moves back to what he sees as purely civilian research, only to be pulled back in when some of his research is weaponized.

Through it all, the one constant is the ambiguous relationship between Chen and Yun. Chen is both attracted to Yun, and repelled by her single-minded focus on developing new weapons. That obsessive focus leads her to what appears to be a tragic end, but is it? Cixin give some interesting hints that death might not be the end, and that those we are deeply connected with are always with us, but like the quantum state of a particle, what conclusion the reader makes depends on what they observe in the story.

This is an outstanding story, and Cixin admits in his afterwords that this story is almost a prequel to his more famous “The Three Body Problem” trilogy. I have yet to read the series, but if it is as good as this novel, then I think I will enjoy reading it immensely.

Your wish

Granted a single wish

A wish that can be anything

What would you wish for?

Would you wish for fame

So your name and accomplishments

Might echo through all of eternity?

Or would you ask for wealth

Money enough to buy

Anything in the world?

Or would you wish

For peace to spread

Across the whole of the world?

What would I wish for?

I would not ask for fame

Nor would I ask for fortune

No, I would ask for the rarest of all

I would ask for love

Not universal love

But the simple love

Of two people

Who share a life to the end.

Lines

They stand in the rain

They stand in the sunshine

They stand in the warmth

They stand in the cold

They wait outside schoolhouses

They wait outside of courthouses

They wait on the sidewalks

They wait in parking lots

All of them

No matter where they are

No matter the weather

No matter their surroundings

They wait to fulfill their duty

A duty handed down to them

Paid for in blood

Paid for in sacrifice

By their forefathers

By their ancestors

They will not fail

A Walk in the Park

I knew what I was looking at, but staring down the barrel of the thug’s M1911 still gave me pause. I’d used them often enough back when I was still in the Rangers, but I’d always been on the other end of the gun, not looking down that tunnel-like opening.

“Are you deaf, old man? I said give me your damned wallet.”

Loud and to the point. Not a man who was going to walk away without something to show for his efforts. “Oh, I heard you. I was just wondering if you really want to do this.”

A crooked-tooth smile appeared on the bearded face. “What? Am I supposed to be worried about an old fart like you? Seriously? Old man, you should shut up, because if you keep talking, I’m gonna be real tempted to just shoot you so I don’t have to listen to you anymore. I can do that and take your wallet without having to put up with your crap.”

I did my best to not give in to my impulse to kill him. He’d moved closer, no doubt thinking having the gun nearly against my head would intimidate me. This close, I could flip the safety on and take the automatic away from him before he knew I was attacking him. I just didn’t need the hassle. “Oh, I don’t expect you to be intimidated by me. You’re right, I’m just an old man, so you’ve got nothing to worry about. No, you should be worried about my coworkers.” I grinned, letting the thug see how laughable I found him. “You see, I train covert operatives for the CIA, and something tells me none of them are going to be terribly pleased if you rob me.”

The thug’s smile slipped a little, then his eyes hardened. “Yeah, sure. Like some CIA spook is going to take a walk in a park after dark.”

I couldn’t help it, I started laughing. “When else could I take a walk? What better time to come out here and get away from everything I have to put up with?” I fixed him with my eyes. “Let me explain things to you. Right now, you have two choices. Option 1 is you walk away, and maybe my colleagues won’t visit hell upon you. Or, you can pick Option 2 and shoot me before robbing my body and running away. I’ve got something like twenty-three dollars in cash, but no credit or ATM card. How far do you think that will get you? Hell, I could have twenty three million dollars on me, and it wouldn’t be enough. You shoot me, and there’s not enough money in the world to buy you a hole to hide in where my friends won’t be able to find you.” I leaned forward, letting the cold steel of the gun press against my forehead to give him an idea of how little he intimidated me. “And when they do find you, you can be sure they will take the time to make you beg for death before they kill you.”

The smile had disappeared from the thug’s face as I’d spoken. His eyes darting around like he expected someone to appear out of the shadows, but he made one final, half-assed attempt at bravado. “You’re shitting me! You’re just trying to talk your way out of this.”

I spread my arms. “If you really believe that, then go ahead and shoot me. God knows how many people I’ve killed, or how many have died because of my actions. Who knows, maybe you killing me would be God’s way of balancing the scales.” I let my arms drop. “But if you shoot me, don’t expect God to protect you from what will happen next. Hell will come for you if you do. Know that. Believe that. Know it in your heart. Kill me, and you sign your own death warrant.”

The muzzle had begun to shake when I’d started speaking. As I said the last words, the thug dropped his arm. He was no longer a threat. I walked past him, and as I came even with him, I whispered. “You can run now.”

A half dozen more steps, and the .45 barked once. I didn’t have to look. At this range, he couldn’t have missed me unless he was legally blind. I pull out my phone and tap the emergency call button.

“Alexandria 911, please state the nature of your emergency.”

“Yes, I’d like to report a suicide. I was out for a walk on the Meridian Park walking path when I heard a gunshot. I found a dead man with a gun in his hand about halfway from the Sixth Street entrance. I’ll wait here with my phone on until your officers to arrive.”

No need to call the agency. The local police could deal with the trash who lay behind me, and the asphalt walking path would retain no telltale marks to contradict my story. Would they test the gun to find the trace DNA from when I’d pressed my head against it? I looked back. The thug had stuck the gun in his mouth before pulling the trigger, so even if they did look, his DNA would overwhelm any sample that might have been picked up from me.

“So nothing to do now but wait.”

More Okatu with more anime

I thought, what with all the negative ongoing in the world, now would be a good time to add to my ”Occasional Okatu” series. Two of the following anime have just recently finished, one is still ongoing, and the fourth is kind of a two-for-one special case. So here goes.

Reading the title of the first one, “Rent-A-Girlfriend” (“Kanojo, Okarishimasu”), you might be tempted to think one thing, but in this case, the truth is completely different. Evidently in Japan, it’s not uncommon for people to ‘rent’ an individual to go to a social event with them, even ones that involve their families. In Kazuya Kinoshita’s case, a heartbroken college student who’s just been dumped by his first girlfriend. When he sees an ad for an agency offering rental girlfriends, he decides to try one as a way to take his mind off his break-up. The girl who shows up is a stunning young woman called Chizuru Mizuhara, and she makes one thing clear from the start: if he was hoping for anything beyond company, he’s out of luck. The date doesn’t come close to what Kazuya had hoped for, leading him to write a bad review of Chizuru, the first one she’s ever gotten.

As you can imagine, she is not happy, but things are about to take a turn into the strange for this unlikely pair. Kazuya’s grandmother is hospitalized, and when he goes to visit her, he discovers two things: she’s not terribly sick, and she has another woman sharing her room with her, who happens to be Chizuru’s grandmother. Unable to conceal their reactions upon seeing each other, the two begin spinning a series of lies about how they know each other. Things spiral further and further out of hand from there.

You could consider this a comedic take on the ‘star-crossed lovers’ stories, and by the time it reaches the ending (which was just telecast), the story has gone in a direction you would never expect at the beginning. I liked it, and I hope you will too. It’s available on Crunchyroll at: https://www.crunchyroll.com/rent-a-girlfriend

The “Sword Art Online” anime franchise has it’s fans who love it, and an equal number of people who can’t stand it. I happen to be in the former camp, and the “Alicization” story arc, which started with “Sword Art Online: Alicization” and recently finished with “Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld” was quite enjoyable. Kirito, the hero of the entire story line, nearly dies in real life at the start of the first half of the current anime. He is saved, but to do this, he is placed in a medical device known as a “soul translator”. If that wounds ominous,, it should. His conscious enters a new virtual world, one run by a government research organization with the aim of developing a true universal artificial intelligence. In this virtual world, the non-human characters have all the aspects of real humans, including free will. Kirito must not only navigate this new and far more complex reality, he must also save a particular artificial intelligence so it can be moved outside the virtual world.

Kirito does his best, and nearly succeeds, but fails. That’s how the first part of the arc ends. The second half opens with him trapped in the game, reduced to a near-vegetative state, in the care of the artificial intelligence he had meant to free from the game. Things are going badly for the artificial intelligences in the game, and Kirito’s only hope of escape rest in the hands of his fiance and former in-game partner Asuna.

I won’t ruin the ending, but I will say that she rides to the rescue, and the ending closes the arc out well. You can find the entire Alicization” arc on Hulu at: https://www.hulu.com/series/sword-art-online-alicization-c22224e3-93c0-40ab-895d-1475d94a6688

I mentioned a series that is still ongoing, and that is “Appare-Ranman!”. A brilliant Japanese mechanical engineer from the Meji era and a samurai tasked with guarding him end up in America by accident. They’re both penniless, but the engineer find a way they might be able to get home: a cross-country race from San Diego to New York. He resolves to put his engineering talent to use and enters a vehicle in the race, with his bodyguard as his reluctant sidekick/crew.

I can’t tell much about what happens without spoiling the show, so I’ll move to my conclusion. On it’s surface, the anime is made up of one ridiculous bit of suspension-of-disbelief on top of another. But the story it tells, of striving to win no matter how long the odds, is worth keeping in mind. That, and many of the gags in the story are funnier than all get out. This one is also available on Hulu at: https://www.hulu.com/series/appare-ranman-2d84b975-ecb1-41e4-8bef-5edc003ea2b8

Late last year, “Violet Evergarden I: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll” came out, and if you haven’t seen it yet, do. It’s just as visually stunning as the original anime was, and the story it tells will tug at you with the same force Violet’s original story did. The final piece of the “Violet Evergarden” story was released on Sept 16, “Violet Evergarden: The Movie”. Unfortunately, it’s currently only out in movie theaters in Japan, and no streaming release date has been announced. That said, the new entrant into the story made more money in it’s first three days in the theaters than “Violet Evergarden I: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll” did. All the reviews I have seen agree it is another amazing piece of animation, and that it continues the heart-wringing story telling that has been the hallmark of the franchise. Netflix has both the original anime series and “Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll”, so I would hope it will be the outlet where the new movie becomes available to those of us who aren’t in Japan. “Violet Evergarden I: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll” is available at: https://www.netflix.com/title/81208936/

That’s it for now, and I hope you find these anime as enjoyable as I did.

The Wheel of Fate

They came from the dark beyond.

No one expected them, there was no sign that they existed.

Then, one day, observatories began reporting a sudden flare of light in the sky. And it wasn’t a nova, or even a one of the rarer supernovas. No, this light, while intense, had none of the energy signatures of those massive explosive events.

But what was more worrying was the fact that it was moving. The light, when broken down by spectrometers, was discovered to have the characteristics of a fusion reaction. It also demonstrated the blue-shifted characteristics of an object travelling at near light speed, and headed towards the observers. In short, it was headed towards the Earth.

Scientists around the world were thrilled. Finally humanity had discovered proof of an alien civilization, and they were coming to visit us.

A week after the first light appeared, a second one bloomed in the sky. A week after that, a third. Then a fourth. A fifth.

When the last appeared, and people realized that eight blazing torches of fusion fire were headed towards the Earth, even the most optimistic scientist began to have doubts. To send one ship on a voyage of exploration, they reasoned, would be a minimum. Two would double the chances of the mission succeeding. But eight? No one could imagine any scenario beyond invasion for such a massive group of ships.

But what could humanity do? The closest we had come to harnessing the power of our Sun were hydrogen bombs, crude engines of mass destruction next to these controlled uses of that vast power. And as the objects drew closer, the scale of what was coming became clear to humanity. Their size became clear in the reflected light of their engines. The objects were all cylinders, each spanning tens of kilometers, and stretched for ten times that length. Any one of them had enough interior space to hold a dozen of Earth’s biggest cities. Taht’s when the futility of humanity’s situation began to sink in. Even if Earth were to unite and attack the visitors with it’s massed armory of nuclear weapons, together they might be enough to destroy one of the objects.

But humanity’s governments didn’t unite, they broke into two camps.

One group, seeing the size and power of the alien ships approaching us, thought our best path was to seek to find a way to live with the aliens. In their minds, we might over time learn the secrets of this advanced species, perhaps even earning ourselves a place among the stars.

The other group argued that there was no path forward but resistance. We must strike as soon as the first of the craft approached close enough for our rockets to reach it. We must show the aliens that we would not be conquered without a fight, that we would resist even if the odds were hopeless.

And the average human? Most of them doubted that the aliens even existed. After all, they reasoned, why would aliens come to such a small and unimportant world as ours? No, there were no alien ships approaching. It was a hoax, a fraud meant to scare average people into giving governments more money, more power, more obedience. The governments wanted to take our freedoms, or limit them, or limit them even more than they already did. There was no need to act against what many of them called the ‘fake threat’. And so they went about their daily lives in the surety that nothing bad would happen to them.

The first object swung down, slipping into our solar system, slowing down by using the Sun’s gravity to pull them closer while stealing their momentum. A final burst of intense light from it’s engines, visible to the naked eye anywhere outside of a city, and their engines ceased to fire. They didn’t need them, at least not the massive amounts of power they’d expended to slow themselves down in order to be captured by the Sun’s gravity. Only twice more did the lead ship fire it’s giant engine, and by tracking those, and by watching the gigantic objects via radar, their destination became clear: Earth.

The other objects followed behind it, mimicking it’s flight path, but no one really paid attention. Now, even the most confirmed doubters had trouble disbelieving the threat. The object came into orbit around the Earth, closer than the Moon and bright enough to be seen on a clear night anywhere on the surface.

Earth’s governments faced the greatest crisis of their existence. The mass of humanity could no longer ignore the threat hanging over it’s head. And in that moment, panic ensued. People who had scoffed at the idea of aliens visiting the Earth now demanded that Something Be Done. Those governments that thought peaceful coexistence could be achieved broadcast greetings on every frequency that could penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere. They beamed strings of numbers up. Mathematical formulas. Images of humans.

And in response? Nothing.

The second object dropped into orbit around the Earth and remained as uncommunicative as the first. Every week, another one of the giant ships took up orbit around the Earth. And in the silence, that lack of communications, fear grew beyond control. When the sixth ship took up orbit, the nations that had called for action broached their plan: they would mass their weapons, attack, destroy one of the giant ships. Even if humanity couldn’t drive the invaders away, we would make it clear to the aliens that we were not to be taken lightly. The governments that hoped for peace spoke out against the plan. They were overruled, or overthrown, by their frightened citizens.

But which of the ships should they attack? Many argued for attacking the first ship. Others spoke of destroying the next ship as it moved into orbit, to accomplish a show of our strength by wiping out one of their great machines as it came into range. In the end, those who called out for the first ship to be destroyed carried the day. Using secure links, the plan was laid. The time was set, a moment in its orbit when the majority of the Earth’s nuclear arsenal would be in range of the first ship.

The time approached, came, and across the world, the orders were given. Buttons were pushed, keys turned, and from submarines and missile silos around the world, humanity’s mightiest weapons were launched against the invaders.

People stood in public squares, watching great projections of the attack as it took place. They cheered as images of missiles arching through the sky appeared. They slapped each other on the back, sure that the aliens would soon feel the wrath of humanity. Telescopes, and even ordinary TV cameras with long lenses, focused on the targeted ship, waiting for nuclear fire to bloom around and on it.

But none did.

Earth’s most fearsome weapons just disappeared. Scattered radar tracking reports came through of the fleet of missiles rising about the Earth’s atmosphere, only to vanish without a trace. What unimaginable power had caused this to happen, no one could guess. Another salvo was fired, a last reserve that had been kept in case it were needed to defend each nation against it’s supposed allies. It too vanished from the skies. And when the last rocket disappeared, the invaders showed no more sign of interest in humanity than they had at the beginning.

If fear had been growing before the attack, now it exploded across the Earth’s surface. People fled cities hoping to hide in the countryside. Others flocked to self-appointed prophets who claimed to know what the invaders truly sought. In some places, mass suicides became a daily event. And through all of it, the fear continued to grow. And it turned out, the fear was justified.

In a single night, every major city on the Earth disappeared. There were no explosions, no flashes of hellfire light. The cities just ceased to exist. There were no ruins. No smashed infrastructure. Bodies were left piled high. Everything in the cities just disappeared, leaving nothing but vast expanses of bare dirt to witness the fact that something had once been there.

Was this how humanity’s mightiest weapons had been defeated? Had they too simply ceased to exist? No one had time to venture a guess, because the next night, more cities vanished. Like the first time, nothing was left but bare dirt. No one saw anything. The cities, with everything and everyone in them, were just gone.

To say that panic ensued would be an understatement. Those who had lived in cities that hadn’t disappeared fled, seeking ever smaller cities, villages, any place they could hide from the anonymous terror that had claimed so many. But modern civilization had made even these small concentrations of humanity dependent on the wider world. Without power, food, fuel or any of the other things that had become modern necessities that came to them from the outside world, even the smallest and most remote villages descended into chaos.

So people who could fled further, into the most remote parts of the Earth. They found them inhabited by those they would once have thought of as primitives, uncivilized people who knew nothing of humanity’s great achievements. Now, they pleaded for shelter from the people they once scorned. They told them of the terrors they had seen. Of the unknown conquerors who could not be resisted, creatures who swept aside any effort made to resist them.

The primitive people listened to the stories, nodding their heads as they did. And when these tales were told, they told their own stories. How they had once owned the land. How their people had flourished, and how their ancestors had built great places. They told of their memories of unknown invaders who had come to their lands. How no matter what their ancestors had done, they could not resist. How their society had been destroyed, their great places laid low, and how the scattered remains had been driven to places like this.

And before sending the new refugees on their way, they reminded them that it had been their ancestors that had done this, and that was why they had no place among the survivors of that long-ago horror. As those survivors had, they could find their own place to survive. Or they could die, as far too many of their ancestors had. It made no difference to them, but leave they would, whether they wanted to or not.

“Righteous Might”, a review

“Righteous Might”

by Keith Conrad.

Publisher: Eckhartz Press

Available in both conventional and electronic format. ~81K words, 260 pages (epub format)

Release date: June 22, 2020

So, have you ever had one of those ideas that, when you looked back at it, you wish you’d kept to yourself? If you have, then you probably have a good idea how Rebecca Lasky feels as the events in “Righteous Might“ unfold.

Rebecca is one of the main character among an ensemble of characters the reader meets as the story progresses. In her case, the idea she has is for a way to make an object the size of an aircraft carrier invisible to radar. The fact that she works for DARPA, the Defense Department’s in-house research arm, means she’s in a position to try her idea out in real life.

That’s how Rebecca, her boss, and a team of technicians end up on the Gerald R. Ford as it and it’s battle group steam out of Pearl Harbor. The equipment that she hopes will make her idea a reality has been installed on the Ford, but her task has expanded: it is now hoped that her experiment can hide the entire battle group from radar.

As far as the crew of the Ford are concerned, the test is nothing but an annoyance. They’re on their way to the continental US and their home port after a long deployment, and all the tests are little more than a delay to them. What none of them know is that their delay is going to be much longer than they thought.

The experiment works, but as the equipment is being shut down, things go terribly wrong. Everyone is rendered unconscious, but once they wake up, they find things have gotten much stranger. None of their satellite-based systems, from GPS to communications, is working. Even their normal communications channels are silent. It’s only when they dispatch a reconnaissance flight to Pearl that the magnitude of how much trouble they’re in becomes clear: Battleship Row is no longer an empty memorial, it’s filled with the ships that will be sunk on December 7, 1941.

“Righteous Might” delves into one of the most fundamental problems such a situation would present to ti’s protagonists: what do you do when you can literally rewrite the future you know? Do you try to change history, or do you stand back and let the timeline develop as you remember it? Keith Conrad spins a good yarn, examining that problem through the eyes of his characters. He makes his main characters come alive, and it’s a story that’s easy to get lost in.

Does that mean the story is without fault? No. Maybe you have to be an aviation nerd like me to know (or even care) about the fact that no American fighter has been armed with machine guns since the F-86’s built in the early 1950’s. Yet Keith Conrad repeatedly speaks of the ultra-modern F-35’s that make up the majority of the Ford’s air wing firing their machine guns. There are a few other, minor points that niggle at the writer in me, but in the end, the story has enough drive to carry it through those problems.