Archive for June, 2013

Demo Day! Sleeping Beauty Revisited

Posted in films, Mythology, one-shot on June 26, 2013 by David N. Brown

Though I have done many stories featuring mythology, the one thing I haven’t done anything with is traditional “fairy tales”. But, I have thought intermittently about taking on the genre for years, to the point of developing a concept for a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty”. That’s still on the shelf, but I recently did a different take on it as part of a well-received romance film fan fiction series, which I believe will suffice as proof that I am even more brutal in that genre than I am in military/ SF. The following is the resulting story-within-a-story, as narrated by a character to a child:

Once upon a time, there was a brave knight. He was strong, and brave, and he did many great deeds, but he wasn’t that smart. Actually, he was pretty dumb. He even said no to a beautiful lady who offered him her hand, when everyone knew a good knight should say yes, even if it wasn’t very ladylike for her to offer. But the lady still loved him, and she helped him as much as she could. She held celebrations when he came back in victory, and she tended to his wounds when he came back defeated. She even helped him in a quest to win another Lady- not just any lady, but the Fairy Queen.

The knight had loved the Fairy Queen since he was a young squire. He had gone out with his lord and a band of knights to fight a fierce dragon. It was a terrible battle, and in the end, only he was left to face the wounded dragon with his master’s sword. But by his courage, he stood his ground as the dragon charged, and just as the dragon threw back its head to devour him, he drove the blade into its open mouth. Even in death, the dragon struck him with its poisonous tail. He would have perished, but for the Fairy Queen. She watched the battle, and she was so moved by the squire’s valor that she came to him and with her own hands she bandaged his wounds and poured into his mouth the elixir that would cure the dragon’s sting.

The Fairy Queen wished only to save the brave squire’s life, but when he beheld the Queen’s immortal beauty, he thought he could not live unless he had her for his lady. So he devoted himself to becoming the greatest of all knights, and at every chance, he sought for the Fairy Queen, though she fled from him. Then the lady who loved the knight learned of a secret place where the Queen feasted with her subjects. To show her love for the knight, she told him the place, and then begged him not to go. But he went forth, and burst into the Queen’s feast.

At last, the Queen was truly angry, and she cast a spell upon the knight to put him to sleep forever, and decreed that he should be taken to the Forbidden Castle, which was surrounded by a forest of poisonous thorns and guarded by an army of goblins and a dragon greater than the one that had almost slain the knight. But then the lady came forth, confessed to telling of the Fairies’ gathering place, and begged the Queen to let him go, even to punish the lady in his place. So the Fairy Queen lifted her spell and cast it on the lady instead.

The knight awoke not knowing what had happened, and returned to his castle. At first, he did not miss the lady, and he pressed on with his quests, even his quest to find the Fairy Queen. But without the lady to help him, he was lost. Twice, he failed, and once he nearly died. Then the Fairy Queen came to him, and told him what had become of the lady. When he learned what the lady had done for him, he knew at once that he loved her, and begged the Fairy Queen to release her, even to let him take her place. Then the queen told him that there was one hope: That, if he could win his way to the Forbidden Castle, and place true love’s kiss on the lady’s lips, the spell might be broken.

Then the knight made for the Forbidden Castle, and he showed more courage and might and devotion than he ever had. And the Fairy Queen herself gave him aid: A magic salve to protect him from the poison of the thorns, an enchanted Fairy sword, and a magic rope to scale the walls of the Forbidden Castle. With the salve and the sword, he hacked a path through the thorns, and the goblins who came forth to oppose him fell or fled in terror. The magic rope lifted itself to the top of the Castle’s unscalable wall, and the knight climbed up quickly, hoping that by stealth and speed, he could avoid the dragon. But when he reached the top, he found the dragon waiting in ambush. He knew he was doomed, and cried out that he had always loved his lady. Then, just when it seemed all was lost, the Fairy Queen appeared and cast a spell of blindness on the dragon, and the knight drove home the mortal blow.

At last, the knight made his way to his lady, and placed true love’s kiss upon her lips. But the lady did not awake. For days, the knight wandered despondent in the corridors of the Forbidden Castle, wondering why the Fairy Queen’s promise had failed. Then he remembered that the Queen had not promised that the first kiss should break the spell, only that a kiss might break the spell. So he returned to his lady, and kissed her again. When she did not awake, he sat beside her, telling her of the quests he had won because of her help, of the times she had feasted with him at her table and the times she had tended him at his bedside, and always of his love for her, and his regret that he had not returned her love before.

And every day, the knight kissed her, and told her the stories, and he found that each day he loved her more. And he knew that one day, his love would be great enough to waken the lady to his love. And then they would live… not happily ever after, but doing their best to make each other happy, one day at a time.

Pyramid Power! The Curious Case of the Bosnian Pyramid

Posted in Balkans pop, Forteana, Mythology, prehistoric on June 24, 2013 by David N. Brown

The lands of the Balkan peninsula are and presumably always have been a melting pot (or, to use an unfortunately more apt analogy, a tectonic collision zone) of diverse people groups. Predictably, the genuine complexities of ethnicities and history have generated an even murkier tangle of partisan theories ostensibly related to anthropology and archeology. Out of the hodgepodge of theories, one would be hardpressed to find one more (polite pause) offbeat than that of the “Pyramid of Bosnia”.

In brief (mainly per Bad Archeology, source for the photo above), around 2005, local media and then some international sources picked up reports claiming that a structure in Bosnia was a man-made pyramid, by strikingly disparate estimates between 230 and 722 feet in height. The principle propagator of these claims was one Semir Osmanagic, a professor of anthropology at a local undergraduate college. Osmanagic evidently theorizes that the pyramid was built by the Illyrians, a known people group of antiquity believed to be the ancestors (or at least the cultural precursors) of the Albanians, and mentioned dates as early as 12,000 BC. He cited various authorities as supporting his views. Unfortunately for him, when said authorities were contacted for comment, they consistently either disavowed any association with him or presented very different interpretations. Among the latter were Dr. Robert Schoch, who recounted a trip to the scene thus: “Osmanagic and I were apparently seeing different things, perhaps viewing an entirely different world. Where he saw concrete blocks and human intervention, I saw only perfectly natural sandstones and conglomerates… For a week and a half this seemed to be the dominant theme: Osmanagic and others who worked with and for him insisting that this or that feature can never occur in nature, and thus must be artificial and human-made, versus me finding a perfectly reasonable geological explanation for each of the same features.” The one favorable aspect of Schoch’s report was that he claimed “evidence of Neolithic occupation of the hill, dating back perhaps 5,000 years.” Less kind critics have turned to such evidence in support of efforts to deny Osmanagic permits for further excavation

Thus, the “Pyramid of Bosnia” presents itself as a typical pseudoarcheological crank theory, and it is hard to disagree with those who discount it as media-generated pseudoscience. Yet, there is just enough in the story to give the thoughtful pause. While Osmanagic has been exposed to some criticism for occultic leanings, he presents a more creditable figure than the typical crank or outright charlatan: He is legitimately credentialed, reportedly holding a doctorate in sociology and university positions in archeology and anthropology, and by all indications sincere and thorough in his efforts to find evidence of his theories. I consider it especially noteworthy that, in contrast to far too many examples of Balkans pseudo-scholarship, there is no sign of ethnic partisanship in his theories: The only obvious way his ideas could be twisted to contemporary political purposes would be to maximize the already compelling claims of antiquity for the Albanian people-group, which he is not a part of.

Then there is the pyramid itself, which all but invites the thoughtful to second-guess common sense: Even taking it as a given that it is entirely of natural origin (as I certainly would), it is certainly a very odd shape, and it is not easy to discount the possibility that human activity had some role in bringing it to its current shape. Then there is the ample evidence of ancient and prehistoric human activity, which suggests that, if nothing else, the hill may well have held special interest to ancient peoples. What is entirely ironic is that Osmanagic’s critics have been placed in the position of arguing certain points for him. The evidence of settlement as early as the Neolithic can be said to satisfy the bare minimum of prior plausibility for the existence of an ancient monument at the scene. Even the charge that Osmanagic’s own excavations may have shaped the hill’s appearance lends some credence to the possibility that ancient humans reworked the natural features of the hill into a pyramidal shape. What is truly unfortunate is that there are little if any signs of anyone else taking an interest in the hill, and maneuvers to block Osmanagic may do far more to deter more orthodox investigation than to protect anything there to be found.

Regardless of the nature of the Pyramid of Bosnia, the Balkans remain an area of interest for pyramid architecture. A number of pyramid-like structures are known from the Balkan Peninsula, the most well-known being the “Greek pyramid” of Hellenikon. Based on the best evidence, this structure may have been closer to an Egyptian mastaba, and the interpretation of the structure of the tomb has been rejected based on the presence of a door locked from the inside. (Though there are ominous ways to explain such a feature in a burial site!) Also of interest are a number of tumulus mounds, the largest accepted form of ancient monuments, and especially tholoi tombs such as the “Treasury of Atreus”. These “beehive” structures represent a striking combination of the features of a burial mound and a pyramid, having a core structure of stone which is then covered in earth. It would also seem very possible, in the event that the original entrance was obliterated or buried, to miss such a structure entirely, giving cause for pause when considering where a natural landscape ends and possible human activity begins.

Demo Day! Zed Gets Bombed

Posted in Exoskeletons, one-shot with tags , on June 11, 2013 by David N. Brown

As a follow-up to the first Demo Day, here’s another self-contained entry in the “XX Exotroopers” project. This is a scene I wrote out this weekend, which represents my original idea for an opening chapter for the story. Since writing out “Zed Fights A Girl”, I have been debating whether to use this scene at all. Still, I felt like it deserves to be written and read, and I would welcome feedback on both demos.

It was the beginning of the third year of the war between the alliances of Serbia and Montenegro and Albania and Kosova. Serbia had seized almost half of its former province of Kosovo, nearly splitting the remaining territory in three pieces, and occupied a part of Northern Albania, while the world gnashed its teeth even as the thousands of Shqiptars (as ethnic Albanians called themselves) took the side of the Serbs. Through it all, Serbia’s greatest champions had been its hercegs, known to the wider world as finbacks, the latter-day knights who wore the angular armor of the world’s first and, for practical purposes, only exotrooper corps.

But the shoe was well and truly on the other foot. Bulgaria had made an alliance with the Albanians, for the transparent purpose of reclaiming historic territories in southeastern territories. Bulgars and Shqiptars had overrun southern Serbia from either side, aided by ethnic insurrections and even uprisings of disgruntled Serbs. Even so, Serbia had held on stubbornly to occupied Kosovo, especially to the enclave of Kosovo Polje, mere kilometers from the Kosovar capital of Prishtina. The municipality was holy ground to the Serbs, named for a shallow basin between the rivers Lab and Sitnica where the Serbs (and, per their persistent and plausible traditions, Shqiptars too) had fought their most celebrated battle against the Medieval invasion of the Ottomans. It was Jerusalem and the Alamo rolled into one, studded with graves, monuments and churches. It was on the bank of the river Lab at the far end of the ancient battlefield that Serbia now made its last stand, with a full-strength platoon of forty exotroopers. So great was the Shqiptars’ respect for the ground and the fearsome finbacks that a fighting force of forty tanks and more than five hundred mechanized infantry stood at bay across the river Sitnica rather than pressing the attack.

In the heart of a UN museum and administrative center, the leader of the finbacks stalked. This was Zaratustra, aka Zed. A crown of steel rebar rods upon his pyramidal helmet marked him as commander, and the wing-like radiators that earned the finbacks their name gave him the look of a prince of fallen angels. Even without the crown, none could have beheld his bearing or that of the other troopers without knowing his station. They would have known that what his men felt, first and foremost, was fear, tempered only by the sure knowledge that it was safer to fight at his side than without him, much less against him.

Only one person ventured to stay by Zed’s side as he paced, wearing lighter armor. This was Martinez, a squire support trooper. “Sir,” said the clearly female squire, “Flank team has visual confirmation of engineering vehicles, including a bridge, approaching the bank to the north of their present position. They need your confirmation to engage.”
“I give no confirmation,” Zed said in a deep but rasping voice. He jabbed the air with a fist whose third finger had been replaced with a rigid metal prosthesis. “On the contrary, I order Flank to withdraw to the far side of the Lab. We know the game already. They mean to strike against the flank, and perhaps cut off our retreat. But they know full well that they must also effect at least one crossing of the Lab. Then they shall make themselves doubly vulnerable, and we shall let them.”

Zed’s full name Albert Zaratustra Schwartz. He was not a Serb, or even a Slav, but a German national who had gotten himself incarcerated in Serbia for murdering a fellow member of a neo-Nazi cult known as the Ophites. His mental state was one of schizoid psychosis so profound and pervasive that interested clinicians had published learned dissertations for the purpose of classifying what was wrong with him. His physiological state, from his strange build to his evident obliviousness to pain, was no less unique, inspiring some to speculate of either evolution in action or some secret program of genetic engineering. It had been enough to inspire his captors to take him for an otherwise-disastrous attempt to train convicts for the exotrooper corps, and they had been increasingly alarmed as he not only succeeded but rose to the highest ranks. Martinez was kept as much as possible by his side, officially as his aide, but in truth his handler and overseer for the Serbs and the Ophite order that had insinuated itself at many levels of their government.

Martinez stepped to one side at a hail from her superiors, one which would not be heard over the squad channel. The voice that came was clearly male, but high and slightly nasal. “Martinez, what is your status?”
“Dr. Nibeaux,” she said, “I am with Zaratustra in the administrative building. So far, his battle plan is effective. The Kosovars are pursuing a flank attack rather than an engagement on the polje. Zed has already devised a strategy to hold them off. It will be enough to cover a withdrawal, or even a counterattack. Call the Lieutenant. Dreadlocks’ platoon is in Novo Brdo; they can reach Sitinica within the hour!”

“Zaratustra is under express orders to make no move to retreat, and Lt. Princip and Sergeant Mihan are under express orders not to divert additional forces to relieve him,” Nibeaux said. “Kosovo Polje is strategically vital, but no less so than other theaters.”

“Sir, respectfully, the only thing Kosovo Polje is good for is making dead Serbs!”
“That will be all, Overseer. You are to assist Zaratustra with any request. You are not to counsel him on strategy, nor will I discuss it any further with you. Remain in the center, and await my orders.”
A cry came from Point Squad: “Incoming aircraft!”

At Novo Brdo, four finbacks and their squires stood impatiently around their encampment. A sergeant with a headdress of chains on his helmet was making another query whether to do something, anything. Two other finbacks, one with a tire belt around his pelvis and the other with a toilet seat around his neck, were playing cards. A fourth finback in the heavier armor of a tank destroyer was cutting a road wheel from an APC into a distinctly floral shape that matched similar trophies already arrayed in ornamental patterns on his armor. The finback with the tire around his waist paused from collecting his winnings to check a chirping smartphone. “Guys, hey guys!” he said. “Zeds being bombed by Bulgarians!… Say, that sounds like it should be funny.”

The finbacks’ Russian-built 311A combat exoskeleton had originally been designed with fully mechanized mounts for their weapons. Trials had quickly established that the armatures were useless under virtually all combat conditions, prone to jam or break down in routine use, even more easily discombobulated by hostile fire, and impossible to calibrate for accurate fire with a recoilling firearm. But the concept had been salvaged for a special piece of equipment, which Zed bore on his back as he stepped forth into a rain of fire from the skies.

From either shoulder, a mechanical arm unfolded, each one supporting a pair of surface-to-air missiles. Each missile’s targeting system was hooked in to a miniature radar dish that Zed bore on his forearm shield. Exhaust scorched the ground as Zed fired two missiles after a pair of ground-attack jets banking for a second pass against Flank. The hindmost lost half its tail to a direct hit, and made a marginally-controlled dive for the Lab, while its partner made a rapid ascent. Zed strode forward, pivoting back and forth to search the skies. He ignored a circling helicopter, but locked in on a trio of distant needles.

The needles rapidly grew into long, dart-like crafts with wings and tail joined in a single triangle. As they closed, it decelerated rapidly, from Mach .7 down to 0.5 in a split second. Zed waited for the wings of the first to swing forward before he fired again. The leader rolled to dodge the missile handily, but the second was caught by a proximity detonation while its wings were still in motion. The damaged wing jammed halfway, and a wild effort to regain control only sent the plane in a wild tumble into a distant hill.

An insect-like squatter drone rolled to Zed’s side, with four 23 mm cannons blasting and eight anti-aircraft missiles ready to fire. The leader veered off, its wings returning to delta position as it soared upward, while the hindmost rushed in. Zed fired his last missile at the same moment that the jet started blasting away with a pair of 3 cm cannons on either side of the fuselage. Its passage cut two lines of fist sized divots with Zed precisely between them. “Three blind mice!” Zed shouted. “Three blind mice!” But the pilot was obviously past hearing, even if it had been possible to hear. The guns still blazed, but the plane’s flight path was as blind as a ghost ship, and in a moment it went into a ponderous yaw that drove its shredded fuselage straight into the polje’s hallowed earth.

The squatter dropped into a static position on the axles of its six wheels and began launching missiles at another wave of incoming ground-pounders, while a squire dismounted and ran to Zed’s side with more missiles. Martinez’ voice sounded in Zed’s ear: “The Kosovars have fallen back from the Lab, but it looks like it was as much from friendly fire as from us. Flank took five casualties, and Point lost their squatter. When we engaged the Kosovars’ engineering group, the Bulgars came in and started firing indiscriminately. We have visual confirmation of at least one hypercopter.”

“Flank is to withdraw immediately. All available mortars are to fire on main Kosovar force. Rook Squad and Bishop, advance with highest possible speed. Rook shall engage in a frontal assault with area suppression fire, and Bishop shall strike for the flank with point-target weapons fire. Concentrate fire on support and logistics targets, and close to minimum range.”

As he spoke, he jabbed his prosthesis and then raised the dish on his left arm toward a particular point in the air, just before an aircraft seemed to materialize with a thunderclap in the air above them like a starship might emerge from hyperspace. The effect was exactly why the Bulgarians’ supersonic lifting-body helicopter was known as the hypercopter. The lozenge-shaped craft came barreling down with its broad rotor blades rigid, until it lost enough speed for the blades to spin in hovering flight. Accepted wisdom dictated that the hypercopter could blast a target and then return to high speed before any effective weapon could be directed against it. Two missiles straight into the cockpit proved that common wisdom had not accounted for Zed.

Even as the 10-million Euro terror dropped out of the sky, the full onslaught ensued. Ground pounders swooped down like vultures, strafing the squads that advanced across the polje. A second hypercopter swept in from the flank, launching a salvo of missiles. Two made a crater where the drone squatted, and two more streaked straight for Zed, until they crashed together in midair. The helicopter then streaked away, just in time to dodge Zed’s missile. That was when the jet returned, decelerating even more dramatically than before and finally rearing back momentarily on vertical-takeoff jets to hover at a thousand meters’ range. A huge cannon in the nose of the plane blew holes half a meter wide on either side of Zed, at virtually the same moment that his last shot blew the plane in half.

Zed looked over his shoulder, and gave no indication or surprise to see that his squire was gone. Martinez lunged for the door, with a missile tube under each arm, when she froze at the voice in her ear. “Martinez,” said Nibeaux, “your orders are… go.”

“Yes, slay a thousand at my right hand, and ten thousand at my left!” Zed shouted. “But I shall stand, for you are but men, and it is decreed by the Will of all Wills that no hand of man shall slay me. And woe to you, and woe to the world for that! And woe to me as well!”

But there was no answer from the skies, for even the roar of the ground-pounders was receding. Then sound came anew from the Sitnica, gunfire, and shouts of surprise and terror, and the dull boom that accompanied a lazy red fireball of an exploded fuel tanker. Zed jogged for the administrative center, even as he waved for his men to come forward. “Come to me, my people!” he shouted. “It may seem all is lost, and perhaps it is. Yet stay by my side, and you may live, for it is not in the measure of my destiny that I should die this day!”
Then hercegs and squires rushed forward, some smashing through the very walls. Zed waved them forward from the steps of the center, shouting instructions. At last, Martinez jogged forward to join them. That was when she heard the sound of the jets, returning.

Zed pivoted on his heels, just as the first bombs fell. There were half a dozen planes, with about 2500 kilos of explosives each. The administrative center toppled like a sand castle hit with a stick of dynamite, and Zed faced the falling ruin with his fists thrust into the air.

Within an hour, there were no more sounds of battle. Then there was a hum, that proved to be a single squatter drone. Sgt. Dreadlocks drove, and the tank destroyer known as Sunflower hung from the back. Dreadlocks halted at the edge of the rubble that had been the administrative center, and Sunflower dismounted to plunge into the rubble alone. Blocks of 500 kilos and more were flung carelessly aside, and looser debris flung away like handfuls of sand. At last, Sunflower emerged again, carrying the bedraggled but breathing Martinez.

The sound of the drone quickly receded, and silence prevailed again. Then there was a faint sound, like a rat under the floorboards, from the thickly-piled front of the debris field. The sounds grew louder, and the debris began to shift and stir visibly. At last, there was a veritable eruption, a cloud of dust and a cascade of chunks of concrete, all from a fist that burst forth with a metal central digit thrust to the skies.

RVs of the Apocalypse, Part 7: House Trucks!

Posted in Cars with tags , on June 5, 2013 by David N. Brown

So far in this feature, we’ve plumbed the history of motorhomes back to the 1950’s, but one key piece of the evolution of the RV has so far gone unmentioned: The house truck. Before commercial RVs, before their custom precursors, even before the advent of aluminum trailers, people were mixing automotive engineering and carpentry to build antediluvian motorhomes that were literally houses (or at any rate shacks) on wheels. Part Class C motorhomes, part wood shop projects, these improbable experiments are the subject of my all-time favorite RV-related site,

The evolution of the house truck undoubtedly began in the earliest days of the automobile itself, when a fair number of people took advantage of the modular, wood-intensive nature of early designs to produce customized camping cars. As a rule, however, camp cars did not differ radically from the stylings of more conventional, contemporary vehicles, probably because they were primarily professional creations and also truly designed for short-term camping trips. It was with the advent of larger, all-metal vehicles and (over)ambitious homebuilders that the house truck came into its full, incongruous glory. Predictably, the provenance of a house truck is especially hard to nail down, but typical specimens are built on trucks from the 1940s and 1950s, and it seems likely that this was indeed the historic peak of production. Interest clearly continued through the 1960s and 1970s, as attested by a specimen based on the iconic VW Bus. Given the predictable problems of preserving their wood construction, it is fairly probable that many if not most extant house trucks were built in the 1960s or later, even if the chassis is of an earlier date.

House trucks were equally predictably a mixed bag of styles and techniques. The least technically ambitious appear to fit the description of a slide-in camper better than a motorhome. Some of the most visually interesting appear to be influenced by gypsy wagon design. The example pictured here, for example (courtesy, is clearly based on a bowtop vardo. Undoubtedly the most significant vehicle of the house truck description is one built in (ca.) 1952 by Wendell and Edna Turner, credibly nominated as the “first RV”. The “Turner motorhome” is certainly among the oldest whose history can readily be ascertained, and the complete conversion of the chassis to a custom hull fully satisfies the retrospective description of a Class A motorhome. At the same time, the methods, materials and especially the overall design clearly place it in the line of the house trucks. It is, in fact, the perfect blending of the motorhome and house truck, a true “missing link” in the evolution of the RV.