Archive for July, 2013

Demo Day! The Man of Macedonia

Posted in one-shot with tags on July 18, 2013 by David N. Brown

Here’s another excerpt from “XX Exotroopers” in progress.  I have tried to use more self-contained vignettes that don’t tie directly into the main storyline, but I decided this chapter was worth making an exception.  I did write this in the spirit of a “demo”, to introduce the villain of the story.  The character is based in part on a Marvel comics character, the Purple Man.

It was a mixed and motley force, even by the standards of the Balkans.  There were two dozen men, most of whom would under any other circumstances be shooting at each other: Six were in the uniforms of Serbia, six in the uniforms of Albania, and the rest were Kosovar irregulars.  The men in Albanian uniforms looked almost as uncomfortable to be in the company of their kin as they did in the company of the Serbs; they stood well apart, speaking in the Tosk dialect that dominated Albania.  The Kosovars were more amiable, joking in the northern Geg dialect, but a number of them were eying clan crests sewn on each others’ uniforms, and remembering blood feuds that had claimed more Shqiptar lives than all of Albania’s wars combined.  All looked up at the approach of clopping hooves.

It was no ordinary horse that descended down the mountain trail.  Its build was unusual, more like a mule than a horse, and its head was covered by a gas mask.  Its hide, where it was not covered by a fabric skirt, was a pale and unwholesomely mottled gray.  The rider was clearly even less ordinary, dressed in a biohazard suit.  A clear visor in the hood revealed white skin but features that were subtly African, especially a large nose.  “I am Dr. Nibeaux,” said the rider.  “I am chief of bioweapons development for the Republic of Serbia.  By the order of General Rausch, I am commander of this operation.”

He drew a five-barreled miniature rocket launcher.  “At this moment, the most battle-hardened squad of Serbia’s exotrooper corps is closing in on a location a short distance from here where the individual known only as the Man of Macedonia is in hiding.  As you are all too aware, the Macedonian has crossed the line from opposing Serbia’s occupation of Kosovo to setting himself up as warlord of the municipality of Prizren. His reign of terror has claimed hundreds of lives, most of them fellow Shqiptars.  He has made himself a threat to all sides of the current conflict, and his activities threaten to destabilize Macedonia as well.  That is why our respective superiors approved a joint operation to neutralize the Macedonian.

General Rausch’s express orders are for the Macedonian to be taken alive. That responsibility is in the finbacks’ more than capable hands. Your assignment is to clear a safe passage through the warlord’s territory, and neutralize any attempt to rescue the warlord. However, you must be prepared for the eventuality of an encounter with the Macedonian.  No one has seen the Macedonian’s face, but his appearance is well-known: An improvised mask, usually a scarf, a traditional plis cap and fustanella, all purple.  If contact is made, your express orders are as follows:  Insert the earplugs you are provided with, and fire concussion and gas grenades, in that order. Do not approach the Macedonian.  Do not attempt communication with the Macedonian, or respond to any attempt at communication.  If you see any individual speaking with the Macedonian, terminate that individual on sight.  If you fail to follow these orders, I am authorized to terminate you immediately.  Are these orders clear?”


The building had obviously been built as an Ottoman mosque, complete with minaret and dome.  It had not been built for easy access.  The dome almost directly abutted a mountain crag, and the rear of the mosque looked almost directly over a one-hundred meter drop.  A front couryard extended around the left side to the base of the minaret, ending at a somewhat less sheer drop. The only connection to the outside world was a stone bridge across a chasm to a narrow mountain road, currently covered liberally with snow and ice.

There was a faint jingle as Dreadlocks leaned out from beneath the arch of the bridge.  He himself did not hear it.  The only sound he heard was a hint of a hum.  The finbacks’ safety systems included cut-outs in their inner helmets, which normally engaged in the event of an explosion or other sound sufficient to damage the human ear.  The cut-outs not only disengaged audio sensors, but created white noise that theoretically could dampen the effects of a concussive blast. Dreadlocks was sure it was giving him a headache.  He looked up, drew back, and tapped a message on a texting pad added to his left forearm grenade launcher: UIJN POSIKTRION.  “Piece of kaka,” he muttered to nobody but himself.

A new message appeared: 70 M FLEA NOT MUCH HIGHER.  It was from the Tick.

CLOS 2 TOP W8TNG 4 LRDRS.  That was the Flea.

Jebanje kaka,” Dreadlocks hissed.  He tapped keys using a pin: END TXT FIN APRCH LASR SIGS.  As soon as the message was sent, he smashed his text pad against the bridge.  Then he anchored a cable in the stone and let the line drop down into the chasm.  Two squires climbed up from below.  On the other side of the bridge, two more squires came into view on a ledge 10 meters lower and set up a power winch.

A masked, angular visage peered furtively around the corner of the minaret.  A toilet seat collar identified him as the Tick.  He hefted a 3cm automatic grenade launcher and pointed into the air.  A laser beam shimmered in the falling snow, giving the signal that he was in position.  A second beam flashed from halfway up the other side of the minaret, and the Flea leaned out to give a thumbs up.

A sentry on the entrance portico looked up at an odd whiffing sound.  He saw his counterpart on the other side of the entrance, slouched against the wall as usual, but starting to slump.  He was reaching for his weapon when he took two darts in the chest.  Dreadlocks waved a compressed-air dart gun, flashing a signal with the laser sight on the far side of the chasm.  Then he and one of the squires started climbing up the portico columns to the roof.

The squires on the ledge put more power into the winch.  At last the load came into view: Sunflower, in full armor with some especially large burden on his back.  The squires hauled him onto the ledge, then pulled him after as they retreated from the crumbling edges.  Sunflower handed off parts of his load, including two wheels and halves of a gunshield, and then they ventured up a marginal path to the road.

The Flea pulled himself up over the stone railing of a balcony that marked the second tier of the minaret.  He had stripped down his armor more than usual, leaving even the outer helmet behind.  A footbridge ran from the balcony to the roof ot the main building, but his goal was the spire, just seven meters above the balcony. After a moment’s thought, he stood up on the rail, and leaped.  In the highest chamber of the minaret, a gauntled hand barely caught hold of the sill.  Metal claws dug in, and the Flea  hauled himself up and in.  He was halfway in when he looked up and froze.

A beautiful woman stood before him, smiling. Her eyes were a piercing green, her dark hair was tied up in a kind of topknot,  and she wore what looked like a pleated purble skirt under her coat.  She smiled and spoke.  The Flea shook his head and pointed to the cymbal-like shock absorber in the side of his helmet.  She gave a sweet, pleading smile, and the Flea disengaged the cutouts.

Please, sir,” the woman said, “can you help me?”

I’m here to catch a warlord,” the Flea said.  “He’s really, seriously bad news.  Say, are you a prisoner?”

The woman nodded. “Yes, I am his prisoner,” she said.  “He has complete dominion over me.”

Is he here?” the Flea asked.  “You should probably get out of here, if you can.”

Yes, he is very close,” said the woman.  “But I can go soon.  I just need a little help.  You want to help, don’t you?”  The Flea nodded
enthusiatically.  “Good.  Now hold this, give me that, that’s right, now just wait here while I get myself out of the way.”

The woman disappeared.  After a moment, the Flea looked down at the object in his hand.  It was a hand grenade, minus pin.  “Aw, man…”

The Tick was vigilantly watching the footbridge when he heard a blast from the top of the minaret.  He immediately raced around the base, in time to see a rain of debris that included his partner.  He cast his weapon aside and leaned over the rail, just in time to catch the Flea with both arms.  Then he guesstimated the momentum of a 180-kilogram exotrooper dropped from a height of more than 10 meters. “Oh, jeban!

Dreadlocks circled around the right side of the dome, leaving his squire to take the left under the cover of the Tick.  He dropped to a crouch as he reached the other side, dart gun at ready.  He started to say to sound off, but caught himself.  When his companion did not appear, and he saw the damage to the minaret, he became alarmed.  His headache was getting worse.  After a moment’s hesitation, he deactivated the cut-outs, just for a moment.

He heard the voice almost in his ear, androgynously soft but transfixingly authoritative.  “Dreadlocks.  Go to the edge of the roof.  Look for your men.”

It will be a good view,” Dreadlocks said.  He walked to the very edge, where the rear wall jutted out to form a semicircular alcove.  The view was spectacular.  He could see mountains and valleys and poljes for tens of kilometers.  He could also see the Flea and the Tick lying crumpled on a ledge 20 meters below the base of the minaret.

You must help them,” the voice said.

How do I reach them?” he asked.  His headache was back.


Get-” He whirled around, dart pitol drawn, just in time to catch a 4 cm grenade in the breastplate. His curse echoed through the mountains as he hurtled over the edge and straight down.

Dreadlocks looked down. Sunflower advanced to the bridge, pushing a newly-assembled motorized gun carriage like a lawn mower.  Gunfire from the portico was met by machine gun fire from the trailing squires and a burst of 20 mm tracer shells from the coaxial gun on the carriage.  Then Sunflower stepped to one side and fired the main weapon, a 107 mm recoilless gun.  A backblast flash-boiled the snow, and a huge shell crashed through the front door.  A cloud of gas flooded the main chamber of the mosque, rising from the top of the dome in milky puffs.  But a heavy machine gun opened up from the spire of the minaret, cutting down a squire, and a missile launcher fired from a door in the base.  The carriage was smashed, and Sunflower and his remaining squire went sprawling.

The squire on the portico returned fire, but was overwhelmed when gunmen in gas masks came rushing out of the front.  The lone squire was surrounded, and guns were emptied point-blank.  The machine gun in the minaret opened fire again, riddling a squire with bullets as he twitched, then turned belatedly on Sunflower as he lunged for the recoilless gun. Armor-piercing rounds pounded his helmet, smashing a monocle-like radar scope in his visor, too late.  With one heave, the tank destroyer wrenched the gun from the wreckage of the carriage and fired.  An explosive shell all but obliterated the spire of the minaret, sending tons of rubble down on the heads of the gunmen below.  Then Sunflower rolled himself off the road, to drop to the ledge below.

Only twenty troops reached the bridge, with Nibeaux in their midst.  He took one glance at the devastation and said, “Insert earplugs!”  Most moved to comply, but gunfire erupted from the portico, and all but the few who had their earplugs in already grabbed for their guns or dived for cover instead.  Fire was met with fire, and Nibaux himself took out a machine gun entrenched on a balcony above the portico with a volley of rockets before his horse bucked and tried to run the other way. Eighteen fairweather allies survived to secure the portico.  Four Serbs, five Albanians and nine Kosovars surveyed the bodies, and then gazed into the haze beyond the doorway.  All of them loaded grenades in under-barrel launchers and reached for their earplugs, when a voice called down from above in Serbo-Croatian:  “Serbs.  Kill Shqiptars.”

For a moment, all stood and stared as if incredulous.  Then three of the men in Serb uniforms moved as if hypnotized, so bizarrely that even their ancient enemies hesitated to do more than call out in vain for explanation as they raised their guns.  Three Kosovars and an Albanian fell in a single volley, and one more of each became collateral damage in the storm of fire that cut the Serbs down.

Footsteps descended a narrow staircase on one end of the portico.  Eight men looked up to see a figure swathed in purple, from a conical plis cap to the swathed face, to a fustanella, the traditional Albanian version of the kilt.  “Tosks,” the figure said in perfect southern Albanian dialect, “kill Gegs.”  The men in Albanian uniforms raised their guns robotically, and the Kosovars had the presence of mind to return fire.  Two Kosovars survived, one badly wounded.  The Man of Macedonia paused to examine their clan patches.

Haradinaj,” the Macedonian said as the upright Shqiptar drew a handgun, “kill the Dusan.”  The wounded man sat up and drew his own sidearm, and the two men emptied their guns at each other before both collapsing. The Macedonian looked into the recess of the portico where one man in Serb uniform had had the presence of mind to dive for cover.

The lone survivor stared into piercing green eyes.  “What are you?” came the imperious query.

Romani,” he answered.

Well, kill yourself.”  He drew his gun and obliged.

The Man of Macedonia rode down the steps of the mosque.  Then a voice called out, “Macedonian, you will come with me.”  The warlord looked back to see Nibeaux, dismounted on a ledge overlooking the road.

The scarf could not hide the smile on the Macedonian’s face:  “You, and what army?” Then the motorcycle accelerated away, just ahead of a concussion rocket, and Nibeaux watched the Maceonian ride away.


RVs of the Apocalypse, Part 8: The Ultra Van!

Posted in Cars with tags , on July 17, 2013 by David N. Brown

Ultra Van
While the annals of motorhome history are full of minor or short-lived brands that achieved some measure of fame and/or notoriety (as in the Daystar saga), very few can be said to have inspired the enthusiastic loyalty of a true “cult following”. One vehicle that surely meets this description is the Ultra Van. The story of this odd motorhome reportedly began with an aircraft designer named Dave Peterson being frustrated by having to choose between towing a Spartan trailer or a boat on his outdoor excursions. In 1960, he hit upon the solution of a custom-built creation on the then-new Chevrolet Corvair chassis. The design saw production of fifteen units through 1963, and then was licensed out to the Prescolite Corporation, a manufacturer of fiberglass. Rechristened the Ultra Van, the vehicle was manufactured in modest numbers from 1964 to 1970. Peterson tried to revive the brand in 1972-1973. While often characterized as a camper van, the Ultra Van’s entirely original body fully warrants the description of a true, purpose-built motorhome. The ovoid hull and aluminum and fiberglass construction converged strikingly with the Dodge Travco, and even its 22-foot length was competitive with contemporary motorhomes. The vehicle’s most unique features were a heating system that reused thermal energy from the rear engine and a mindboggling gas mileage of 15 to 17 mpg, a still-impressive figure that for its time was 50% better than competitors and comparable to a standard car.

Ultra Van’s estimated production run was 370 units, of which more than 200 survive. The impressive number of extant specimens is surely a testimony to the loyalty of owners, a number of whom have reportedly collected multiple units. Unsurprisingly, the legendry of the vehicle includes efforts to assign blame for its demise, mainly to some combination of the discontinuation of the Corvair and the energy crisis of the 1970s. In my opinion, the controversies surrounding the Corvair (itself surrounded by energetic loyalists) can be discounted as a red herring: The use of the Corvair in the first place was by all accounts dictated by what was available at the time, and several alternatives were tested. Dave Peterson himself reportedly held variants using the engine of an Oldsmobile Toronado to be far superior to the original Corvair-based design. The role of the energy crisis, which certainly devastated the RV industry as a whole, also appears to be a red herring: While oil supplies were undoubtedly strained throughout the early ’70s, the outright shortages that defined the “crisis” did not occur until late 1973. The truly obvious culprit in the demise of the Ultra Van is its price tag, which consistently approached $10,000 at a time when Winnebagos were being offered for $5,000. The culminating irony of the Ultra Van story is that the energy crisis was, if anything, the one thing that could have turned the vehicle’s fortunes around if it had survived. Instead, the brand was decisively defunct at precisely the time when consumers might have considered its unique fuel economy as enough to make up for its price tag.

Image (rear interior) and information courtesy of The Ultra Van Page.

Demo Day! Exotroopers FAQ

Posted in Exoskeletons, one-shot with tags on July 16, 2013 by David N. Brown

For today, here’s a couple excerpts from “XX Exotroopers” in progress.  One of the things I have been doing for this project is fleshing out or simply writing down details of the finbacks’ technology, tactics and philosophy that in large part were always in my mind, but that I never took the time to lay down explicitly.  So, here goes:

Here,” Zed announced sonorously, “are the doctrines of the exotroopers corps.

First: The best way to stop a bullet is to shoot the other man first:

Second: The best way to cover your rear end is with someone else’s front.

Third: Practice makes perfect, or perfectly imperfect.

Fourth: If you had to fight your way in, it is time to get out.

Fifth: Even a magic bullet is still one bullet.

Sixth: A bad can opener is better than a good Swiss army knife.

Seventh: If all your eggs are bad, they might as well  be in one basket.

Eighth: Never bring a gun to a tank fight.

Ninth: Given effective range, an axe beats anything.

Tenth: Never go into battle with someone who cannot carry you back.”

The Flea and the Tick were unmistakably nervous as they stepped out into the center of the common room in full armor.  The three women candidates were seated on folding chairs.  “It just so happens,” Martinez announced, “that we have in here today our two most experienced hercegs.  Both of these men have literally logged more time in combat than any other member of the corps, virtually all of it together.  If you have any questions about our technology, weapons and tactics, feel free to ask them now.”

After a moment of silence, Dragon raised her hand.  “There’s just one thing I want to know,” she said.  “When you’re in all that armor… what do you do to pee?”

The Flea and the Tick looked at each other, clearly uncomfortable notwithstanding the toilet-seat collar around the Tick’s neck.  It was the Flea who finally ventured to say, “Do?”


The session went downhill from there.  “What do we do when we have to stop tanks?” the Tick repeated rhetorically.  “We die.  Law of averages, we jebanje die, it’s jebanjetanks!”

All right, here’s how it works,” the Flea said.  “No, you can’t really run faster in an exosuit, because the exo legs are only as long as your legs.  We have leg extensions, these stilt things, that let us go really fast just by taking longer steps, but mostly they just left us way up high when everybody’s shooting at us.  What you can do if you rig it right is go fast for longer, by letting the suit take some of the load off your muscles.  It’s like being able to sprint through a long distance race.”

The fins are radiators, they give us infrared stealth,” the Tick said. “Ceramic in the armor absorbs infrared radiation, but it can be saturated by heat from our bodies and the suit components.  There’s tubing running through the whole suit that collects the heat with radiator fluid, that’s water with some extra chemicals, and then runs it to the fins where it’s dissipated by refrigerants and plain old air flow.  The same tubes collect sweat, and yeah, urine, which just goes into the mix.  After the first few hours, it’s going to level off at about 60 percent radiator fluid, 40 percent sweat and 10 percent piss.”

Martinez stepped in to answer another question.  “The `fins’ are also housings for the suit’s two generators.  The hoses running from the fins to the hips are conduits for radiator fluid, hydraulic fluid and even fuel, which is stored primarily behind the breastplate but also in secondary, rubberized tanks.  A squire’s exoskeleton has the same basic assemblies, but with a much smaller radiator component.  Because of that, and the thinner armor, a squire does not have full stealth capabilities, though under normal conditions our infrared signatures are still less than half that of an unhielded human body.”

We get our rations through tubes in the mask,” the Flea said. “There’s two tubes, one to drink and one for food.  The drink’s water mixed with sugar and electro-stuff, in one big bag in back, and the food’s like tooth paste, it even has a mint flavor, it’s in a couple packs under the shoulder pads.  And for anything else, there’s an extra straw…” He demonstrated, unrolling a rubber straw to drink from a liquor bottle.

If it’s my choice, I only pack one thing, my 3 cm auto grenade launcher,” the Tick said.  He pointed to a weapon that, apart from the addition of a stock and pistol grip, was identical to a design fielded by the Soviets.  “It takes 30-round drums or belt feed, and we’ve got a few different types of ammo, basic frag, shaped-charge and flechettes.  The only other thing I want is the standard wrist launcher for the really close calls: double barrel, 43 mm, always with one smoke and one flechette canister.  Kaka for accuracy, but if you really need it, anywhere in their general direction will count.  Just give them one dose of phosphorous and a few dozen flechettes, and get out while they’re sorting themselves out.”

I dunno, I use lotsa different stuff,” the Flea said.  “I guess my favorite’s the MG 45.  It’s literally practically a hundred years old, something the Nazis built.  8 milimeter, belt feed, 25 rounds per second.”

What about the Luggage?” the Tick interjected.

Hey! You said you wouldn’t talk about that if I didn’t…”

Frankly, the difference in armor between different exoskeleton models and configurations is of minimal importance to survivablility,” Martinez said.  “The protection of a standard 311A2 breastplate is equivalent to almost half a meter of homogeneous steel armor.  Any weapon capable of penetrating even half that thickness will invariably inflict fatal injuries to the occupant by shock force alone.  The greatest value of the armor plating is in fact simply in weighing down the exoskeleton, which improves controllability as well as the ability to absorb such things as explosions, falls, and the recoil of your own weapons.”

The Tick pointed to his collar.  “You want to know why I wear this, why don’t you tell me why women wear heels!  I just do, isn’t that enough?”

Revenant Review Part 3: 7th Voyage of Sinbad/ Jason And The Argonauts/ Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger

Posted in films, Mythology, zombies with tags on July 15, 2013 by David N. Brown


I’m back after a busy couple weeks working on “XX Exotroopers”, which I plan to mine for a few “Demo Days” shortly.  But first, I’m going to do another tribute to the late, great Ray Harryhausen, and in the process write a little about the inspiration for a major element of my current project.  The creations of Ray Harryhausen were very diverse, and I am sure any gathering of fans could argue all day and all night about which ones were best.  I personally am especially fond of the occasional sympathetic or at least unaggressive creatures, like the charming Eohippus in Valley of Gwangi and Prince Kassim, the previously-mentioned prince transformed into a baboon in Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger.  But there can be no doubt that Harryhausen’s most enduring and famous creations are his walking skeletons, best known from Jason and the Argonauts but also featured previously in 7th Voyage Of Sinbad and the subsequent Eye Of The Tiger.  A selection of these creations are featured with Harryhausen himself in the unusual photo above.  (Source TechDigest.)

Harryhausen’s skeletons debuted with a single specimen reanimated by the sorcerer Sokurah to kill the title character.  While many consider 7th Voyage to be among Harryhausen’s best work, I have never been enamored with it:  Strong performances by Kerwin Matthews as Sinbad and Thorin Thatcher as the villain are among its redeeming features, but the film is weighed down by an egregiously annoying genie and a storyline that is disorganized and episodic even by Harryhausen standards.  The appearance of the distinctly sinister, beetle-browed skeleton is the strongest sequence of the film.  In the documentary the Harryhausen Chronicles, Harryhausen displayed the original model, and recounted making it entirely out of hard material with joints corresponding to those of an actual skeleton, rather than from rubber over an armature.  As a result, the model remained in strikingly pristine condition, where the vast majority of his and other vintage stop-motion models were notorious for decaying relatively quickly down to bare metal.

Per Harryhausen, the same model used in 7th Voyage was among those used in the final battle in Jason And The Argonauts.  This sequence is justifiably Harryhausen’s most renowned, and I would not hesitate to endorse it as among Harryhausen’s best animation, but in my opinion, it was in many ways too much of a good thing, with the action crossing the line from complex to chaotically muddled.  In the course of the “Chronicles” interview, Harryhausen made the intriguing remark that the walking skeletons offered a sanitary alternative to the source mythology, in which the revenant warriors are intact enough to be gruesome.  His passing remark is intriguing in the context of the evolution of the movie zombie, as it was indeed a very long time before even “hard core” horror movies began showing graphically decomposed undead.

Audiences would receive one more treatment of Harryhausen’s walking skeletons in an early sequence of Eye Of The Tiger.  Harryhausen recounted disappointment with this scene, but in my opinion, it is in many respects, an improvement on his previous efforts.  The three “ghouls” against Sinbad make for tighter and more focused action (surely in chronically short supply throughout Harryhausen’s career), and their initial appearance in a tent lit only by firelight is impressively atmospheric.  One can also see glimpses of grue that might have been in the ghouls’ mummy-like bodies, which to me give an extra touch of realism.  I can’t help wondering if the infamous insectoid heads of the ghouls were in no small part a means of backing away from a (literally) fleshed-out corporeal revenant.

In closing, honorable mention is in order for two other appearances of the skeleton in Harryhausen’s work.  I was reminded in the course of writing this article that a walking skeleton is featured very briefly in First Men In The Moon, when the Selenites use their technology to view the insides of their human captives.  Then there is one of the most intriguing of Harryhausen’s (very!) many unmade projects, titled “Skin and Bone”.  This proposed film, based on a 1930’s novel, would have featured a hero who sometimes becomes invisible except for his skeleton.  The storyline would presumably have made the animated skeleton a sympathetic character, and focused on misadventures in domestic settings.  The possibilities of table etiquette alone are certainly impressive!