Saturday, 28 February 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #19: The Last Samurai Of The Sun

Japan is fucking weird.

This, of course, is hardly revelatory. It's not particularly surprising that one island culture would find another island culture strange, especially when you consider that our little bunch of islands lies on the other side of the world to the Japanese archipelago, and thus cultural contamination (meant in the least pejorative sense possible) has arrived somewhat late in the day.

Sometimes it's worth remembering just how strange Japanese culture is to our eyes, though. It isn't just a place where you can buy a comic book in which a massive-breasted schoolgirl is raped by a tentacle, it's one in which that you might find a middle aged man reading that comic whilst sat next to you on a bus. It's a culture in which blowing your nose in public is abhorrent, but spitting is entirely acceptable. Where they have two Valentine's days, one for each gender, arranged so that your girlfriend buys you a gift in February with the expectation you will spend at least three times as much come March.

A place, ladies and gentlemen, where it has been only a handful of years since you were last legally able to purchase used women's knickers from a vending machine.

Japan is fucking weird. You pick this stuff up learning a language. And I haven't even gotten to the toilets yet.

Today's question is this: when faced with a culture so vastly different from your own, so alien, how do you write a character from that culture?

Research would be the quick answer, but even that doesn't necessarily help. It's arguable that the greater the gap between societies, the harder it becomes to tell the difference between what is genuine cultural difference, and what is cliche and stereotype.

I mention all this purely because I'm not sure it's fair to give Sunfire, aka Shiro Yoshida, too much of a kicking for being so totally obsessed with honour, and/or the Samurai Code. Sometimes, you gotta give writers a bit of slack.

Of course, there are several other reasons to give Shiro a kicking. But let's go back to the beginning...

Here's a fun fact for you (it is in no way fun). Of the seven new international X-Men who joined Cyclops to rescue the original team from the clutches of Krakoa (we've seen Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Banshee and Storm already, Colossus and Thunderbird are still to come), only two of them had appeared in the pages of the comic before. One was Banshee, which, since he was an Irishman in New York doesn't really count as thinking outside of the box. The other was Sunfire who appeared, almost inevitably, as a villain.

It's probably because the two countries interest me so much separately, but I've always been interested in the relationship between the Americans and the Japanese from the end of the Second World War up until, ooh, probably the Seventies at least. I am in no sense a historian, so take all of this with a pinch of salt, but it always seemed to me that the opinion of the Japanese held by many Americans during and following the war differed remarkably from the way the Americans saw the Germans and Italians. There are a number of plausible explanations for this. The attack on Pearl Harbour, the comparative length of the different conflicts, the combat tactics of the Japanese, but I would think that one major reason, if not the greatest reason, for the differing attitude was that Americans understood Europeans. There were a great many German immigrants in the US, and a great many more Italians. America may have been willing to go to war against the motherlands of many of their citizens, but they had little problem grasping the cultures of those they had set themselves against. At least they were killing fellow Christians, which sounds a weird thing to say, but it does mean a level of shared culture.

The Japanese, on the other hand, were so uncommon in the States that it was plausible to round them all up into interment camps. To the general populace it was probably far easier to buy into the "foreigner as other" mentality so much warfare relies upon. It was all Shinto and volcanoes over there, right? Raw fish and emperors and falling on your sword.

Maybe it's for that reason, and maybe not, but it always seemed to me that the Americans listed three enemies in the war; the Nazis; Mussolini's fascists; and the Japanese. The entire culture became demonised in a way the Germans and Italian's didn't. [1]

All of this provides context for Sunfire's initial, villainous turn. The Red Skull is a villain by dint of being a Nazi. You didn't really need anything else in 1941, and don't really need much more today. Nazis = evil. Fact. One wonders whether much more was required of the Japanese. The problem with Shiro's first appearance isn't just that he's a Japanese villain, it's that his villainy stems from the fact that he is desperate for the Home Islands to once again become a dominant power.

Like I said, it can be difficult to separate stereotype from cultural trait, but once we get into "We must rebuild the Empire and destroy the American swine!", I call bullshit. It's just too easy, a straw man in comic character form. It's true that his uncle Tomo raised him to be anti-American ("Ah went ta live with ma bad oncle"[2]) whilst his father was a UN ambassador, but I'm not sure that really helps, especially since Shiro's own father pleaded with him to not be a dick, and Sunfire didn't pick a side until his uncle shot his father in front of him (nice plan, Tomo; definitely the way to keep your nephew on side).

In this humble amateur writer's opinion, you could have gotten far more out of the fact that Shiro's mutant powers were believed to have come from his mother's proximity to the Hiroshima blast (which crippled her for life), and were switched on when he visited Ground Zero. There's a hook for you. You're a superhero, but only because your mother was crippled by a nuclear blast that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and you only got that power switched on by deliberately going back to the scene of the crime (admittedly, it was Tomo's idea). Now what do you do? Power and guilt, and it's the same thing. You could even attack America, if you really wanted. It would make sense at that point, rather than just being a lazy excuse for the Japs to show up and start giving Uncle Sam a hard time.

Still, not much point crying over wasted story potential in 1960's comics. Lord knows I realise that. We should probably be happy Shiro didn't ride into town on a dragon (or in a spaceship piloted by a big-titted minor, for that matter, or would that have been anachronistic?), frankly. And, of course, any true comic book fan knows full well that plenty of characters that went on to be truly great weren't introduced particularly well. The problem with Shiro, though, is that he never changes at all.

Maybe that isn't entirely surprising. The defining characteristic of Shiro, along with patriotism, is insufferable arrogance, and arrogance is a pretty hard thing to beat out of a person even before they become able to harness the power of the sun itself. Even so, though, Shiro is pushing it. This is a man who has fought Namor twice, each time realising the Atlantean was on the right side of things halfway through. This is a man who has fought Iron Man twice, each time realising the American was on the right side of things halfway through. Does that repetition seem jarring? Imagine it's your fucking life, over and over. Then imagine that each time it happens you insist on being an intolerable douchebag about everything ever.

In fact, Shiro is only even in this series of articles because of the one mission he undertook with the X-Men (the rescue from Krakoa), a mission he deliberately refuses to prove to Xavier he doesn't give a shit about the missing heroes, and then joins halfway through just to demonstrate how awesome he is. Remember, this is how he treats the heroes who tried to stop him destroying Washington D.C. for no fucking reason at all. The next time he meets the X-Men, he accuses them of being thieves, and attacks them. My dog learns faster than Shiro, and Josh hasn't managed the art of sitting yet (I blame my parents). He eventually accepts them as fellow warriors, but only because they save his entire country (with Banshee losing his powers in the process).

It is of course very possible that Sunfire's arrogance is a direct result of his self-appointed status as samurai. We return to cliche vs cultural trait. In this case, the latter might make more sense. Whatever the samurai once more, they are now just history. What everyone used to want to be, before Tom Cruise and machine guns showed up. If you're going to reach back into the past, pluck out a dead tradition, and model your life around it, a certain degree of imperviousness to anyone or anything else is probably necessary (God help anyone in the North East who decides they want to be a Viking), and that's before you get into the fact that rigid systems of honour and self-discipline don't usually imply humility, at least not when you're in the intersection of stuff that has huge fucking swords.

There's another part to all of this, as well. As I mentioned, Shiro loves Japan. He adores her so much he returns to the site of its greatest tragedy on the off-chance it would help him serve her better. His patriotism is so great that he models himself on what he sees as the purest representation of her spirit [3]. When his powers go wild after being hit by an EM wave (unleashed by Magneto, but that's another story) and he is forced to flee Japan as a fugitive, his diagnosis with terminal cancer leads to him choosing to return to his beloved homeland. Better to die a prisoner in the land he loves than a free man in Canada (another long story). Once part of Big Hero Six, Japan's own superhero team, and later part of the Yakiba (a branch of Japan's secret service), Shiro seems to finally find his place. The need to prove his superiority as a proxy to Japan's own is no longer present. After being abducted by Apocalypse during The Twelve storyline, he joins the X-Corporation (the successor to Banshee's short-lived X-Corps, where Shiro's sister Sunpyre lost her life), perhaps finally realising that Japan's interests could not be served by clinging to isolationism in an increasingly interconnected world.

This, though, is not what proves that Sunfire has finally changed. That comes later, after he is beaten by Lady Deathstrike, and she cuts off his legs as revenge, or a warning, or a sick game. After he has lost his powers in the wake of M-Day. After he has accepted the offer of Apocalypse to become the newest Famine. When all he has is his will and his desire to once again be a hero, he realises that what Apocalypse offers comes with too high a price. Regaining his legs, regaining superpowers (albeit not necessarily the same ones), neither are worth selling his soul. Selling his honour. And so he tries to escape, dragging himself inch by inch towards one freedom, and away from another.

He would have made it, too, but for his desire to save the life of the man he hears screaming down the corridors of Apocalypse's Sphinx. A man who was almost certainly not Japanese. Who had no reason to care whether Sunfire was the living embodiment of the Bushido code. Who might well be dead, or worse, by the time Shiro could get to him, and who could not expect any help from the de-powered cripple crawling toward him.

His failure results in his being forcibly turned into Famine, a position he holds for all of five minutes before rebelling. Following this, he is not sure what he is. No longer a Horseman, but not free of Apocalypse's influence. No longer an X-Man, or even a hero at all. He might consider himself ronin, perhaps, though by this point he may have abandoned the samurai altogether. Certainly, all that remains is rage, and bloodthirstiness. He even joins Sinister's Marauders, for reasons I still don't entirely understand, though the promise of being saved from Apocalypse's influence seems a likely cause. Now that Sinister is dead, of course, it remains to be seen what Shiro does next.

I hope he returns from the brink. God knows, he's fought on the wrong side of enough conflicts. Fighting for pride, or to earn honour in the eyes of fools. Through it all, there is always the hope he will come home again. Back to the only thing that ever seemed to give him joy. It may be that Shiro's unique blend of aggressive patriotism is simply the third vertex of the Japanese cliche triangle, but there are worse stereotypes than the man who loves his country, and who risks his life every day, protecting the fucking weird.

Next time: we return to our consideration of Wagner (the composer, not the fuzzy teleporter) and remind ourselves that there is a point at which you can become so powerful that there isn't a damn thing you can do about anything.

[1] I'm aware that being Catholic in the States isn't always a great deal of fun, and this continues to be an issue in politics to this day, but whether any of that was due to the war or if its a problem fuelled by America's puritan roots, I couldn't say.

[2] I had hoped to find the relevant clip on Youtube in order to prove that I'm not just going mad. Apparently people don't have sufficient love for Legz Akimbo, though, which is something that will baffle me until the day I die.

[3] When I was much younger I used to think I disliked patriotism. Later though I came to realise that I disliked nationalism. The former often leads to the latter (as we know from The Last Supper), and certainly Shiro is a nationalist, but that in itself doesn't invalidate patriotism a priori.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Friday Gothic Blogging: The Imperial Navy

Last photoblog before I send my camera to be de-bollixed. I thought I'd show you my first ever Gothic fleet. It consists of a Retribution Class Battleship (the Dortmunder), along with four cruisers. From left to right: two Lunar Class Cruisers (Agamemnon and Nosferatu), a Mars Class (the Manticore), and a Dictator (the Saratoga). The capital ships are escorted by a trio of Sword Class frigates, the Blue Slayers.

Not really getting any better at pointing this thing...

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Commanding The Kingfisher (Part 7)

21st March

There was a sudden slap of acceleration and the familiar churning of internal machinery as the Kingfisher ripped its way back into reality. Infinite swirling gas clouds of luminous blue and green gave way to the familiar blackness of normal space. The surrounding stars were gone, eclipsed totally by the light of the gas giant ahead; all streaks of muddy cream and barren browns. After a moment, the view started to rotate, as the Kingfisher began spinning along its axis, providing the crew with false gravity.
The planet was Martingale VI, according to the Terran star charts, but this was not Terran space. Out there, the R’Dokken lurked, swimming in their filthy oceans, swimming and fucking and plotting.
Soon, all they would be doing was bleeding.
“Hop complete,” Mopsy announced pointlessly. Nobody responded.
Keigh chewed on her bottom lip, and pressed her fingertips together.
“Scan for traffic,” she said absently in the direction of comms, not even bothering to check who currently occupied the console.
This was an extermination mission. Somewhere in high orbit of the planet below tumbled a stricken R’Dokken mining vessel. The Kingfisher had picked up its distress call, the idiot creatures hadn’t even bothered to scramble it. Perhaps they thought themselves far enough into their own space to be safe. Or perhaps they wanted help so badly they would even accept it from the humans.
Keigh smiled grimly. The prey was not even aware it was being hunted.
“I’ve got something,” said the woman at comms. In a flash Keigh remembered her name; Carline White.
“What is it?” the captain asked, her smile growing in anticipation.
“It’s definitely the R’Dokken ship, sir. Her calls have got a little less panicked, I guess they’ve managed to stabilise themselves, but from the chatter they still can’t get themselves moving.”
“Has anyone responded to their mayday?” Hennis asked from beside Keigh. Keigh didn’t like Hennis, he looked like a rat, and smelt strange. He was also dangerously ambitious.
“I can’t tell for sure, sir,” White said guardedly. “If someone has, it can’t have been with a promise to help; otherwise there’d be no reason to keep broadcasting.”
“Keep checking,” Keigh said. There was no reason to suspect an ambush; no-one knew the Kingfisher was in R’Dokken space at all, let alone here. Still, the hideous creatures were not without their low cunning, it was best to be on your guard.
Without warning a wave of pain engulfed her head. She gasped in shock, felt herself tumbling from her chair. Her knee hit the deck; hard, but the jolt was just a droplet in the ocean of agony swallowing her mind.
“Get her up here!” she heard Hennis yelling from very far away. It was the last thing she heard. Then her sight fled as well, and all she had left was white noise, black light, and red pain.


Jessa lay awake on the bed, staring at the ailing strip light on the ceiling. Harlan dozed fitfully beside her. The powerful sedatives and terrible memories mixing in his head made him murmur, and occasionally spasm. The medical machines above him purred and hummed and whispered, monitoring his condition, assuring her that everything was fine.
She didn’t trust a single one of them; not with him. And so she had laid there for two days, watching her husband slowly recover. Or stabilise, anyway; Jessa doubted he would ever really recover. Every now and again he would wake, for longer periods each time; and they would have brief, semi-lucid conversations. He never mentioned what had happened, and she chose not to press it.
The only times she permitted herself to leave his side, other than to answer the call of nature, was to answer the call of her.
She smiled harshly to herself. Either one shit, or the other.
As if on cue, the comm chimed.
“Doctor Lambert, we need you up here.” It was White. “The captain’s collapsed again.”
Jessa lay there for a few seconds in silence, weighing up her options. Eventually one of Keigh’s episodes might prove fatal. How much better for everyone if she waited here?
“Doctor?” White’s voice came again, thick with urgency.
Jessa sighed, and carefully stood. Without bothering to acknowledge the summons, she took one last look at her husband, and stepped from the sickbay.
Geiss was waiting for her outside. His face held its usual expression of casual disregard, but it was a little flushed, and his chest was heaving slightly. He had run to find her.
“Not another house call?” he asked, grinning.
“I was about to say the same to you,” she replied curtly. In the last two days Geiss had been a near-constant unwanted companion, following her around like an infuriatingly arrogant puppy. He kept proclaiming that it was in an effort to ensure her safety. Perhaps he even believed it himself, but Jessa was very much aware that her well-being was nowhere to be found in the equation.
“Hardly very charitable, Doctor,” Geiss said, feigning indignation, “Here I am, busting a gut to take you under my wing; and all you can do is turn round and bite my head off.””Quite the pair of contortionists, aren’t we?”
“You don’t seem to realise how vulnerable you are right now. And who knows how long our resident fascist’s little junta will last.”
Jessa hadn’t told him of Harlan’s success. She hadn’t dared to, for fear of tipping off Keigh. Plus, she really couldn’t care less if she kept Geiss in the dark. Let him sweat. He was bound to survive all this, his trademark smirk still firmly in place. Screw him.
“We best be off, shouldn’t we?” Geiss prompted.
Jessa rolled her eyes. “Shouldn’t you be in engineering?”
Geiss’ grin widened. “I’ve left Deveraux in charge. Decent little engineer, especially for a frog. Plus, you should see the way she waggles her arse when she’s cleaning the coolant tubes.” He raised his eyebrows and whistled appreciatively.
Jessa’s impatience grew. She didn’t have time for this idiotic exchange.
“Fine then. Just stay out of the way.”
She span on her heels and strode down the corridor, Geiss in tow; off to heal her dictator.


Harlan opened his eyes. His wife was gone, but the bed beside him was still warm, and ruffled from her weight. He had felt his servos whirring to keep him safe as they dropped from hyperspace.
They had arrived at their destination. And, if all went to plan, help would be waiting out there.
He could just wait here, and allow his system to yield to the drugs that were flowing through it, whispering soothing suggestions of sleep. He could lie here a few minutes longer, let himself be rescued. Just a few more minutes…
No. Shaking his head violently in an effort to clear it, Harlan sat upright. The effort sent waves of unpleasant sensation through what remained of his arm, but the drugs rendered the sensation uncomfortable rather than agonising. He would not wait here to be saved like some fairytale princess in an ivory tower. If there was going to be a rescue, he was going to be part of it.
And he knew exactly how.
Standing slowly from the bed, he began to extricate himself from the web of sensors and drip-feeds attached to the stump of his severed limb. An alarm began to sound, but a quick stab with his remaining index finger silenced it. Once he was free he began gradually walking from the room. Step followed step followed step. His knees shook, his vision swam in and out of focus. If Jessa could see him now he would be in so much shit. He could imagine her indignation at his folly. Hero complex, she would call it. She always did have more love than sense.
His legs buckled, and he fell forward, only just managing to grab the door frame and pull himself back up.
Truth be told, in this condition he didn’t think it at all likely that he could go through with what he had in mind.
But his friends were counting on him. Time to prove he could be relied on. Wincing with every step, Harlan staggered out into the corridor.


Keigh had apparently recovered by the time Jessa reached the bridge. Flanked by her navbots, she was leaning forward in her chair, head resting on interlocked fingers, attention absorbed by the viewscreen. Jessa followed the girl’s gaze down the long bridge. There, surrounded by lazily tumbling asteroids, she saw Keigh’s target; a drifting R’Dokken ore-hauler. In shape it was not dissimilar to the trading junk whose crew they had butchered a week earlier; a long, flattened tube of dark red, tapering from bow to stern. The vessel’s front was a snub-nosed cone, marred towards its bottom by a loading bay exposed to space. It was an ugly gash of a mouth that gave the ship the appearance of some endless hungry organism, forever travelling the void in search of prey. The illusion was reinforced by the ebony support struts which split up the vessel’s smooth hull like ribs; rising to meet a thick black spine which ran along the ship’s length, curving over the indescribably complex shape of its hop drive as it did so.
Keigh stared fixedly at the vessel as if the sheer force of her will and her hatred could burn it out of space. A thin line of crusted blood ran from her left nostril. Jessa thought she could see the slightest tremor in the girl’s limbs. She made no move to help. Until she was ordered, she couldn’t bring herself to restore her captain to his callous, murderous glory. It was dangerously close to breaking her Hippocratic oath, but God only knew how many sentient lives would be lost on the defenceless alien vessel if the captain wasn’t dealt with.
Finally, Keigh turned towards her.
“It hurts,” she said quietly, and suddenly the insane, brutal captain was sheared away, and there was simply a child in pain.
“OK,” Jessa said softly, “It’s OK.”
She walked over to her patient’s chair, and knelt down. From there the tremors were more obvious, Keigh was shaking, as if she was cold, or had just finished crying. Indeed, she was sniffling quietly, puffy eyes cast down at the floor. Jessa took an antiseptic wipe from her medical bag, used it to clean off the blood trail above Keigh’s lip, and left the child with it to use as a makeshift hankie. The shuddering died down at Jessa’s touch, so she kept her right hand on Keigh’s arm as she worked.
“What’s the problem?” Hennis asked curtly from the seat beside Keigh’s, craning his head to watch as though he could possibly understand what Jessa had to do.
Jessa ignored him. Turning around, she pulled a scanner from her bag, flicked it on, and placed it against Keigh’s temple. The device began chirruping happily as it considered.
“I asked you what the problem was,” Hennis said, with a hint of threat.
Jessa glanced at him contemptuously before returning her attention to her scanner.
“I’m not really a fan of flash diagnoses,” she said, “But most likely it’s probably acute hippocampus fatigue; or maybe adrenal gland overload; the whole glucocorticoid thing.”
She looked back up at Hennis, grinning harshly at his blank face.
“Oh, you didn’t follow? Then why don’t you shut the hell up and let me work?”
Hennis snorted, but made no reply.
The scanner beeped smugly as it finally decided on a diagnosis. Jessa frowned at the green diagram that congealed on the mechanism’s screen. Sucking thoughtfully at her teeth, she considered the verdict. It wasn’t good. Bright dots peppered the curve of Keigh’s cortex; points of neurone fatigue where her mind had crumbled under the constant see-sawing between two sets of memories. There were more of them since the last time, and they were larger as well. Jessa could almost see them growing, fractionally but relentlessly chipping away at the surrounding tissue. It was little wonder Gabe had apparently withdrawn, allowing a scarred, terrified Keigh to break the surface. His every thought must be agonising, an inferno of pain accompanying every action he forced his daughter to take.
But even with his self-imposed exile, the two of them had days at the most, and their condition was far beyond anything Jessa knew how to treat.
“Sir?” came White’s voice from Comms, “I’m picking something up.”
The pinpricks of light on the scanner display flared briefly.
“What is it, White?” Keigh asked; the scared child’s sniffling replaced by a madman’s precision. Gabe had returned. Absently, he picked the scanner from his temple, and dropped it.
Catching it before it hit the floor, Jessa cursed Gabe silently for his abrupt return. Dammit, didn’t he realise what he was doing to his own daughter?
“It’s a signal from the ore-hauler,” White said, answering Gabe’s question. “Clear channel, and in English. They’re demanding that we assist them.”
Hennis snorted loudly.
“Typical fucking ‘pedes,” he sneered. “’We demand you save our lives, feeble Earthmen!’”
“How did they see us?” Geiss asked under his breath, from the back of the bridge.
“The same way we can see them, I’d imagine, if that’s not too complicated for you,” Hennis responded, not turning from the view-screen.
Geiss ignored him. “Hey, Vance,” he called. Vance was the current helmsman, nervously making endless tiny course corrections to evade the surrounding rock. “What magnification we on right now?”
“Er,” Vance glanced momentarily downward, “Twenty.”
Geiss smirked. “So I ask again, Mr Hennis. How did they see us?”
“Fair point,” Hennis responded acidly, “No reason to suspect a space-faring race might have developed binoculars.”
Geiss gave a sigh of exaggerated patience. “Let’s go through this step by step, shall we. Number one, their scanners or up, or they wouldn’t have seen us coming. Number two, they have comms, or they couldn’t have called for help.”
Jessa saw where this was going.
“And their thrusters must be working, otherwise they wouldn’t have lasted long in this rock field.”
“So they have scanners, comms, and manoeuvres,” Geiss concluded. “And it just happens that they’ve lost their engines and hopper?”
He paused for effect.
“This is a set-up.”
“Ridiculous,” the captain spat. “How could an insect lay an ambush?.”
The look on Hennis’ face made it clear he too thought the idea ludicrous. But he must have decided it was worth considering.
“Vinga, scan that vessel again; full spectrum. Then I want increased radius sweeps. If those fuckers are so much flipping is off through the portholes, I want to know about it.”
“Full spectrum sweep, aye,” Vinga said, hunched over her console, her face lit oddly by its flashing, spinning displays. “Well, that ships covered in power spikes like Christmas lights, but it’s all back up systems, like we figured. And the drives show nothing, same for the hoppers, so-“
She froze; a rabbit in the headlights of the scanning console.
“Sir” she gasped urgently, “That thing hasn’t got a hop drive!”
“What the hell, Vinga?” Hennis replied, “I can see the damn thing from here.”
“It’s a fake!” Vinga said, the strain in her voice raising its pitch. “There’s no power! None! Even with it off – shit, even with it wrecked, there’d be- Jesus, captain, it’s a trap!”
As if on cue, the green glow bathing the Scanning Officer’s face ran crimson.
“She’s powering her main drive!” Vinga exclaimed. On the view-screen, Jessa watched the R’Dokken vessel swing ponderously away, its now glowing stern turning to face them.
Hennis leapt to his feet.
“Vance” he bellowed, “I want delta off, now!” He reached down and toggled a switch on his chair arm. “This is Lieutenant Commander Hennis. All crew to battle stations. Gunners; I want that ore-hauler in pieces. And prepare for zero gravity.”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than Jessa felt her stomach lurch in protest as the Kingfisher stopped rotating. The magnetic plates in her ship boots automatically kicked in to keep her anchored, but the contents of her medical bag began slowly floating away.
Keigh, of course, had not been wearing boots, but the white-knuckled, furious grip of her father kept her in her chair.
“I want these monster’s dead!” she screamed, in a tone that might have sounded petulant were it not so chilling.
“We got them, Captain,” Hennis assured her. “Whatever that ship has planned, we can handle it.”
“For Christ’s sake, you prick!” exclaimed Geiss. “If that ship has no hopper; that means she’s intra-system! Which means somewhere out there is-“
“Contact!” Vinga called out. “Two vessels; R’Dokken signatures. Shit; they’re behind us!”
“What?” Hennis coughed, “On screen!”
The image on the view-screen split in two, the right side still showing the fleeing ore-hauler, the left now showing a pair of R’Dokken gunboats, squat, ugly vessels with heads like termite nozzles; bristling with weapons. They span and weaved as they raced from their hiding places amongst the asteroids.
“Why the fuck didn’t you see those two before?” Hennis spat, rounding on Vinga.
“They must have been powered down, and shielded by the rocks,” she said.
“How did you not see this coming?” Hennis responded angrily.
“Does it matter?” Jessa said. “We have warships inbound! We can point fingers later.”
“Assuming we have any left,” Geiss pointed out. “They’ll need me in engineering”. He turned and retreated from the bridge as fast as his footwear would allow.
“Why aren’t we attacking?!” Keigh whined. No-one answered.
“I should be in sickbay,” Jessa said, trying to keep an eye on the rapidly closing gunboats whilst she collected together her fleeing medical supplies.
“You stay where you are,” Hennis told her, “I won’t have the captain relapsing.”
“I’m not going to stand by while-”
“I’M NOT GIVING YOU AN OPTION!” Hennis screamed, panic and terror clear in his eyes and face. “Mopsy, she seeks to abandon your captain. Don’t let her leave!”
Mopsy rolled obediently forward, stopping between Jessa and the bridge hatch.
“What are we going to about those gunboats?” Vance asked, “Right now I’m just chasing this ore-hauler.”
The Kingfisher began to shudder slightly as its main batteries started firing. Jessa watched occasional burst of blue plasma appear to streak toward the gunboats. But most of the batteries were firing on the ore-hauler. Following orders, but not common sense; the approaching gunboats were a much bigger problem than a retreating mining vessel.
The two warships made the point by opening fire. The muzzles of their guns began to strobe as thousands of tiny scarlet projectiles raced across the view-screen, obscuring the pattering of fire from the Kingfisher.
A moment later, the bridge began to shake; the booms of impact hits ringing out in time with the lurches.
“We’re taking hits!” someone announced unnecessarily.
“Shit,” Hennis hissed. He flicked his comm-switch again.
“Gunners; leave the ore-hauler, concentrate all fire on those gunboats.” He left the channel open. “Vance; give me combat manoeuvres.”
“I’ll try,” Vance said, “But anything too violent and the asteroids will get us before the ‘pedes do.”
The violent shivers of the incoming fire slackened slightly as Vance sent the Kingfisher into an unpredictable corkscrew, constantly changing its direction and radius. The gunboats were approaching less quickly now, as they were forced to start evading the incoming fire. Jessa watched with satisfaction as one of them was hit; knocked sideways by a blue explosion; its hull glowing white with heat and venting water. The stricken vessel regained itself, and rejoined its wingman, but its torrent of fire had become a trickle. The staccato drumbeat of explosions against the hull had become the occasional thump, and the gunboats were maintaining a more respectful distance, where their manoeuvrability and faster fire rate might outstrip the Kingfisher’s ponderous cannons.
“Why aren’t they dead yet?” Keigh complained, her voice reedy and loud. “I want the monsters dead right now!”
“We’re doing our best,” Hennis said, trying to be soothing, although he sounded nothing of the sort.
“Now!” Keigh repeated, letting go of her seat to thump her fists against its arms. “Now now NOW!” The force of her blows sent her floating upwards, but she ignored it, still screaming, faster and faster, “Nownownownownownownownow-“
Suddenly her whole body splayed outwards, blood bursting from her lips to fly in crimson teardrops across the bridge. Spasms wracked her small frame; her limbs began to flail wildly.
For a moment the crew watched, stunned, totally unable to process what was happening.
Jessa recovered first, leaping onto the captain’s chair, hooking her legs under its arms, and grabbing the thrashing Keigh by her left ankle. She kept a firm enough grip to stop Keigh wrenching herself free, but she held her wrist loose, providing a cushion against the spasms rather than a barrier.
Hennis jerked into action, reached to help.”No!” Jessa said. “You grab her too, and she’ll just do herself more damage. This way I can stop her colliding against anything.””And how long does she stay up there?” Hennis demanded. The three navbots drove themselves into a tight triangle around the captain’s chair, but Jessa did her best to ignore them.
“Until I’m convinced I can pull her down without her breaking her limbs against the bulkheads,” she replied, refusing to be intimidated.
Captain, the ore-hauler’s getting away,” Vance said, “I can’t keep up with her while I’m dodging all this incoming.””Let it go,” Hennis said, “We can hunt it down once we’ve fucked the gunboats.”
Vance nodded, and began furiously hammering at his console. The image of the ore-hauler shrank from the screen, engulfed by the two gunboats. Jessa watched as the damaged alien vessel pitched sharply downwards to avoid scraping one of its three radial tail fins on an asteroid. In the process it ran straight into a burst of plasma from the Kingfisher. The screen was filled with a silent white explosion, which faded to reveal an expanding cloud of metal and water vapour where the gunboat had been.
The bridge crew cheered; it had been a long time since they had anything to celebrate.
“Gunners; finish off that other gunboat,” Hennis said. “I don’t want any more scratches on the hull.”
“Sir!” Vinga said suddenly, “The ore-hauler has changed vector; zero-six-five-slash-zero-four-niner.”
What?” Hennis said. “Get her back on screen; right now.”Jessa felt Keigh’s struggling beginning to die down. Soft moans and whimpers escaped her lips.
The view-screen split again, the fleeing ore-hauler once more appearing on the right-hand side, silhouetted against a gigantic asteroid spinning half-heartedly in the middle distance. It had indeed changed its heading, now it was moving upward and to the far right of the screen.
“Where the hell is it going?” Vance asked.
Things finally fell into place.
“It isn’t going anywhere,” Jessa exclaimed, “It’s clearing a flight path!”
The huge asteroid in the background of the view-screen seemed to fractionally increase the speed of its rotation. As it spun, it revealed something upon its surface. A R’Dokken space station. It was huge, spread out across the rock like a twisted spider-web of thick red metal. Flak cannons and missile silos studded the station; clouds of defence drones wheeled overhead like ovoid flies.
The crew had only seconds to recognise the structure for what it was before two dozen R’Dokken fighters launched from the jaws of its docking bay, insect-like ships with two snub-nosed cones at the bow attached to a trio of stabiliser fins. They were followed by four gunboats, and a pair of assault transports, likely crammed with alien warriors.
For a moment, no-one on the bridge spoke, each crewmember attempting to process their situation. Then the view-screen burst into action as the space station opened fire, thousands of glowing red projectiles silently streaking towards them.
“Mr Vance; get us the hell out of here!” Hennis ordered. “Turn about; one gunboat is a better bet than half the fucking R’Dokken navy. Gunners, concentrate on the original gunboat and the fighters; we’ll try to outrun everything else. Cottontail; I want a hop calc now.”
“Such a manoeuvre is impossible within this asteroid field,” Cottontail informed him dispassionately.
The Kingfisher lurched violently; the first impact from the station’s flak.
“Then find the closest point outside the field and calculate the hop from there!” Hennis shouted desperately.
“To what destination?””Fuck; any destination! Vance; make sure we get there.”
“Do my best.”
The station began to recede as the crew attempted their escape, but the fighters kept growing as they raced toward their target.
“Here they come!” Vinga called. Jessa watched the lead fighter explode in blue fire and red metal, but those that followed began to spit white hot plasma. She tore her eyes from the battle, ignored the shaking as the vessel was hit again and again, tried to focus on her patient.
Keigh had stopped struggling; stopped doing anything, other than whimpering softly, the occasional perfect globe of saltwater escaping her cheeks. Gently, Jessa pulled her down, and held her to the floor.
“Keigh?” she whispered softly. “Keigh, can you hear me?”
“Yes, doctor,” the girl sniffled. “It hurts.”
“I know,” Jessa breathed. “Would you like something to make it better?”
“Yes please,” Keigh said quietly.
Jessa began to rummage around in her bag’s remaining contents, hoping what she was searching for was still there, and not floating somewhere above their heads. Eventually her fingers closed on a syringe, which she pulled out and placed between her teeth. Another few seconds of searching, and she found a small phial of sedative. Using her knee to hold down Keigh by her dress, Jessa pierced the phial cap with the syringe, drew out the liquid, and reached for Keigh’s arm. She was worried the navbots would object, but the robots remained still as she slowly slid the metal needle into Keigh’s arm. A moment’s pressure; and Keigh went limp against the deck. This was their one chance; with Keigh asleep, and their demented former captain with her, the crew might finally be able to regain control of the ship.
If only she had the faintest idea how.
Jessa was thrown sideways from another impact, more violent than the others; she only just managed to keep hold of Keigh. Sparks began to fill the air; she heard someone swear in pain from across the bridge. She couldn’t stay like this, she needed her hands free. Reluctantly, she handed the sleeping Keigh over to Flopsy.
“Defend your captain,” she said softly.
“For fuck’s sake, people!” Hennis shouted, running forward to hover over Vance’s shoulder as though it might somehow speed up the vessels escape, “Take out that forward gunboat; before she zeroes in on the bridge!”
A moment later a storm of plasma was launched towards the R’Dokken gunboat, which began wheeling through the incoming ordnance, firing seemingly at random.
“What the hell is she doing?” Vinga asked.
“Running interference,” replied Geiss, striding back onto the bridge; “She’s firing at the asteroids.”
“What are you doing back up here?” Hennis demanded, looking back at the engineer.
Geiss shrugged dismissively. “There’s damage all over the ship; lifts are out, corridor’s blocked. Devereaux will have to cope; I can’t get to her.”
The deck rocked from another strike a moment later, not the sharp slap of an energy impact, but the jarring shudder of metal scraped by stone. The gunship kept firing, each blast sending shards of rock spinning in all directions; smashing into other asteroids in a chain reaction, or slamming against the battered, buckling hull of the Kingfisher.
Klaxons screamed across the bridge.
“Hull breach!” said an ensign Jessa didn’t know. “Deck 4; asteroid impact. Nanos are responding.”
“I can’t dodge all this rock,” Vance said, staring at the screen as though his gaze could sweep the stone aside, “Can’t we use the cannons to clear a path?”
“And make it worse?” Hennis snapped.
“Captain, the fighters have us surrounded!” Vinga said.
“We’ve lost engine three!” came another voice.
“Captain, we need some orders down here,” said a gunner over the comm., “Who are we supposed to FUBAR first?”
“OK, I want…,” Hennis hesitated a moment, “Captain?””She’s out,” Jessa said over her shoulder.
“It’s your moment to shine, rat-boy,” Geiss grinned.
“Shut up!” shouted Hennis. “Vance, keep going. Gunners, I want you to target the, erm…”
“Hennis!” Vinga gasped, “Two fighters on collision course!”
“Open fire!” Hennis shouted in panic.
Someone switched the view-screen to display two fighters racing towards them, side by side. The leftmost disintegrated in a hail of plasma from the Kingfisher. The second ship was hit too; one stabiliser fin was shorn clear off, sending the ship into a careening spin. For a heartbeat, Jessa thought the fighter would tumble away to join the asteroids.
Instead, the spinning vessel grew to fill the screen.
“Oh, shit!”
There was a deafening explosion as the fighter cannoned into the Kingfisher amidships; the scream of tortured metal mixed with the cries of terror and pain, and the roar of escaping atmosphere. Despite their boots people were knocked from their feet. Crewmen began to cartwheel past Jessa’s face; not all of them were still alive. Globes of blood, some horribly large, began to collide with the bulkheads, or the deck, or with Jessa. Out of the corner of her eye she saw an ensign she had once had lunch with. He was stood bolt upright as though at attention, his head above the nose shorn clean away. Zero-g and his boots kept him standings, whilst tendrils of artery and brain unfolded from his open skull like sea anemones.
Instantly Jessa’s medical reflexes kicked in, the smell and sight of blood and bone cutting off her fear and flooding her with determination. But the sheer scale of the suffering around her baffled her ability to respond.
How could she possibly choose who to help first?The decision was made for her when Vance’s console exploded spectacularly, flinging him backwards from his seat. He burbled a scream as he careened into Jessa, hitting with something more akin to squelch than slap. His arms wrapped round her automatically, she had to allow her knees to buckle to avoid injury. As her spine reached horizontal, her feet still safely in her boots, she stared into the ruined eyes of the man on top of her.
Only the name on his shipsuit would have allowed her to identify him as Vance. His face was a welter of blood and bone. Breached veins spat red bubbles, his ruptured eyes leaked yellow liquid, and he screamed mad agony into her face. She had to fight the urge to vomit. Instead she rolled him aside, allowed his boots to find purchase again, and grabbed for her bag.
Even as she reached for the e-stitch she knew she was too late. Vance’s clothes were awash with red stains, which were expanding every second. He began spewing blood and bile through his screams. Jessa grabbed his head fiercely, feeling him struggle against her grip, and forced it to the side. She rammed her fingers inside his mouth, holding his jaws open with her other hand, and began furiously working to keep his airway clear of vomit. “Get me a medical team!” she bellowed to anyone who would listen. Again and again he flailed his arms against her, trying to free himself, as if she were the cause of his pain. Her own suit was now heavy with blood.
As she fought hopelessly to save Vance’s life, Geiss ran to the ruined conn. He thrust himself underneath, and busied himself with the smoking mass of wires beneath.
“What the hell are you doing?” Hennis asked him.
“Hot-wiring the conn,” the engineer replied. “Give me two minutes.”
“We haven’t got two minutes!” Hennis whined.
“Then fucking FIND THEM!” Geiss shouted. “You wanted to fuck over everyone between you and the captain’s chair; you sort this sodding mess out.”
Finally something shook loose from Hennis’ skull.
“Vinga?” he said, his fear seemingly gone, “Report.””Nine fighters are out of it,” she replied, “The others are providing a screen for the gunboats and transports.”
“We still have forward momentum,” Geiss put in, “If we can get past that other ship-“”All gunners, hit that forward gunboat,” Hennis ordered. “And the nearby asteroids if you have to; let’s give this arsehole a taste of his own medicine.”
After a moment he added: “And put it on-screen. I want to watch this fucker fry.”
The view-screen obediently showed the gunboat, still was backing away and blazing fire into the rock around the Kingfisher.
Suddenly there were explosions and plasma traces everywhere. The gunboat pilot had only seconds to recognize his danger; he was still turning into his first evasive wheel when his prow detonated. Smaller explosions ran down the ship for a moment before the whole craft blew apart.
“Good shooting!” Hennis crowed. “Geiss, how we doing?”
“It’ll be faster if I’m not interrupted.”
“What about the hull; I thought I heard a breach in here.”
“That was over the comm,” Gallagher said, “Guess lost a gun-deck in the collision.”
“Vinga, what about the enemy?””We’re well out of range of the station, sir; and the other vessels can’t break to attack without leaving those transports open. We might get out of this yet.”
All of this might as well have been background static to Jessa. All she could focus on was the man dying in her arms. Furiously she worked, sealing opened arteries, stitching the gashes from debris that covered his frame.
It made no difference. The internal damage was phenomenal, he was haemorrhaging everywhere.
“Where the fuck is that team?” she shouted.
The only person to respond was Vance. With one last cry of hopeless agony, he twisted in Jessa’s grip, and died.
Jessa did the only thing she could. She let the cadver float away, and began searching for her next patient.
Geiss whooped loudly.
“I got it!” he shouted, “Where to?””We’re already headed the right way,” Hennis told him, “Just give some evasive manoeuvres.”
“Can do.”
Jessa looked up briefly, over a crewman’s dislocated shoulder that she was shoving back into joint. The enemy vessels were accelerating hard, after them, but surely they were nearly outside the field. And with a hop already calculated…
Then the lights went out.
“What the fuck?” Hennis gasped. “Report!”
“We’ve lost main power!” someone responded; Jessa couldn’t tell who. “Back-up’s not responding either, all we’ve got left’s the EBG.”
Pale blue lights flickered into life around them. Everywhere Jessa could see faces darkened by shadow and defeat.
“Reports coming in from all gun-decks,” a crewman said, “They’re trying to jerry-rig some generators for the plasma cannons, but right now we have no weapons.”
“Or engines,” Geiss said, his voice muffled from beneath the conn. “I still got thrusters, but even if I can ride our inertia out of this field, we can’t hop. We’re dead in the water.””Sitting ducks,” Vinga snarled. Then she returned her attention to her console.
“Hennis, the enemy vessels are closing.”
“How?” Hennis said, his voice clogged with angry confusion, “How could they possibly hit main and emergency power?””They couldn’t,” Geiss insisted, still working under the conn, “The systems are deliberately kept separate for exactly that reason.”
“Unless it was sabotage,” Jessa said coldly. Grimly she strode over to the conn, grabbed Geiss by the leg, and pulled him roughly out from underneath the console.
“Hey!” he exclaimed. Without gravity to add friction, she yanked him out harder than she had intended. As the came clear of the conn his forehead collided with the console.
“Ow! Shit, Jessa, what the hell?”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Hennis demanded.
“Oh come on,” she replied, “This was obviously a set-up. How else did the R’Dokken know we were coming?””Well it sure as fuck wasn’t me!” Geiss protested, “Why the hell-“
“Hennis!” Vinga cut the engineer off, “Those assault boats are closing to dock. Starboard ‘lock D-4.”
“Get security down there,” Hennis said, before turning back to Jessa.
“Now what the fuck is this about?”
“Geiss has been screwing us all along. He alerted the R’Dokken, and sabotaged-“
“Fuck off!”
“-And sabotaged the engines. Couldn’t get to engineering? I should’ve smelled your bullshit from the start. What did you do, Geiss? Plant a bomb? Is Deveraux dead? And how many along with her?”
“You crazy bitch!” Geiss shouted, rounding on her, “I’ve spent weeks trying to keep you safe! I just crawled under a sodding burning console to try and get this tin can out of trouble, and this is what I have to show for it? Fuck you.”
He made to leave.
“Navbots?” Hennis said icily. “This man stands charged with treason. Defend your captain.”
Obediently the machines rolled forward to block Geiss’ path.
“The R’Dokken are through on D deck!” Gallagher said, “Security’s getting the crap kicked out of them!”
“Get some more men down there!” Hennis said, “Security, engineers; anyone you can scrape together. And set up barricades along all routes to the bridge.”
He turned to face Geiss. In the wan light his leering grin seemed positively demonic.
“At least we have time for one more execution,” he said.
“Fuck you!” Geiss said again, his desperation obvious in his voice. “Even I’d wanted to, how the hell could I have tipped the ‘pedes off?”
Hennis glanced at Jessa, eyebrows raised.
“A good question. Doctor, you seem to be council for the prosecution. I’m sure we’d all love to hear an explanation.”
“D Deck no longer transmitting!” Gallagher put in. “Remaining security guards are re-organising on B Deck.”
“Shit, that’s us,” Hennis said, “I want anyone in here whose armed to guard the door.”No-one moved.
Reluctantly, half a dozen crewmen sloped to the hatch. Three walked through, and the others took what cover they could, training their guns at the hatchway; awaiting the end.
“I still want to know what’s going on,” Hennis said.
“It’s very simple,” Jessa said, glaring at Geiss with contempt. “After you found that transmitter on Harlan; he told me he’d managed to get a signal out; call for help. Geiss was the one who slapped it together, he must have set it to a R’Dokken frequency; it let them set this whole scenario up.”
For a moment Geiss didn’t respond to the accusation. Then, suddenly, he doubled up with laughter. He seemed to be trying to say something, but he couldn’t get it out, his entire body was shaking with mirth.
Hennis was furious. “Stop fucking laughing!” he shouted. “Did you do this or not. I swear to God, Geiss, I’m not going to need the navvies for this one; I’ll rip out your spine myself.”
Geiss kept giggling. After a few moments he calmed down a little. He reached out and leant against Cottontail for support, sucking in air in long, loud breaths.
“I’m –hah!- I’m sorry,” he said, grinning from ear to ear, “It’s just so funny; you are so fucking well and truly fucking fucked.”
He looked straight at Jessa, his eyes glistening.
“Just how stupid do you think I am? The transmitter I gave your hubby had a tiny explosive device inside, just powerful to gut its workings. I couldn’t take the risk it would be traced back to me; so I had to make sure I activated it as soon as the call for help went off. I was monitoring the transmitter that whole time.”
His smile grew grim.
“In the end I had to blow the device as Harlan was being dragged aboard by security. You get me, Jessa? Harlan never used my transmitter!”
Jessa stomach heaved.
“You’re saying-?””I’m saying that if Hennis and his Nazis found a transmitter on Harlan when it came aboard; it wasn’t mine.”
Finally some lingering thread of compassion switched off his smile.
“I didn’t call the R’Dokken,” he said, almost gently, “Your husband did.”
At that moment the intercom chimed on.
“This is Second Officer Summers to all crew,” came Harlan’s voice. Each word stabbed Jessa like a knife through her windpipe. “Our guests are about to reach the bridge. I suggest everybody surrenders immediately; we all know how the R’Dokken feel about taking prisoners. I guarantee no-one will be hurt.”
The intercom clicked off.
No-one spoke for a moment. Jessa felt sick. The world around her seemed to be twisting slowly in and out; she had to squeeze her eyes shut to avoid collapsing. It felt as though gravity had returned, that she was falling, and would be falling forever.
But she didn’t have the luxury of self-pity. From outside the bridge a barrage of fire broke out; the characteristic crack of the crew’s Gorgons, and the strange high pitched whine of R’Dokken weaponry.
The enemy had arrived.
“So,” Geiss said conversationally, “What do we do now?”
“I don’t know about you,” Hennis snarled, drawing his pistol and checking the chamber, “But I’m going to blow so many holes in those fuckers they have to swim home in their own blood.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Geiss said, grabbing a jagged-ended metal tube as it spiralled slowly past. He looked at it appreciatively. “Better than harsh language, anyway.”
He glanced at Jessa.
“What about you, Doctor. You joining us for operation Get Eaten Alive?”
Jessa couldn’t meet his gaze. “Geiss, I want to… er, I need to say-“
“Forget it,” he said, grinning. “If I was dumb enough to marry an alien spy, I wouldn’t be able to grasp simple logic either.”
Jessa felt her anger surge at Geiss’ insensitivity. But then, he was right, wasn’t he? She needed her anger; hell, she deserved her anger.
But she had a better target than Geiss.
Without a word, she pulled a small, jet black cylinder from her bag.
“Hah!” Geiss barked. “I thought this pipe was shit; but you’re going after the ‘pedes with lipstick?”
Instead of replying, she flicked the switch at the tubes base. The opposite end suddenly erupted into a crackling red haze.
“This is a VFE-scalpel,” she told him, “If you tried to use it as lipstick, you’d slice your face off. I’ll take it over your penis-compensator any day.”
The gunfight outside ended with an abrupt scream. A moment later, a beam of fierce yellow power punched through the door. It travelled slowly downward, leaving a trail of molten, sparking metal.
“Plasma cutter,” Geiss said. “Company’s coming.”
He looked around the bridge. Jessa did the same. The few crewmembers still able to stand had, like them, scavenged whatever debris they could use as weapons. Their terror was obvious even in the blue half-light.
“Is this it?” Geiss asked doubtfully.
“Not exactly,” Hennis said. “Navbots; defend your captain.”
There was a whine of servos as Mopsy and Cottontail rumbled toward the increasingly damaged door, stopping just out of range of the plasma cutter’s beam. Flopsy set Keigh gently down under the captain’s chair, and swivelled to face the hatch, its huge hands opening and closing in preparation.
“Everyone ready?” Hennis asked, staring along the barrel of his pistol.
Geiss was the only one to reply. “'Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door’” was all he said.
“Is there any chance you’re going to shut up?” Hennis snapped.
“Not the best last words I’ve come across,” Geiss replied. “How about you, Jessa, what are we putting on your tombstone?”
“If Harlan shows, no-one touches him,” she said coldly, tightening the red haze of her scalpel into a long, thin blade of energy. “He’s mine.”
At that moment, the door exploded inward, and the enemy were upon them.
Four streaks of plasma flew simultaneously; and Jessa had only the faintest glimpse of a R’Dokken’s ugly helmet before it detonated, spraying yellow blood across the bridge. For a moment it seemed that the recoiling corpse might block the door, but the next alien through simply snaked itself around the first, its legs pushing it forward with horrible speed, its strange weapon firing in all directions. Jessa watched as a crewman was caught in one of the invisible blasts; screaming with agony as his body first twisted, then somehow imploded. She saw Flopsy and Mopsy grab the intruder and rip it noisily in half, showering themselves with ichors.
Then the aliens were everywhere, and there was no time to watch, or even think. Jessa’s world became an endless tunnel of hacking and stabbing, of screams and blood and gunfire. A R’Dokken reared up in front of her, and she thrust her improvised weapon deep into its armoured face. There was a blood-curdling screech of hate and pain, and the alien was gone.
Her legs became tangled in someone’s severed arm, and she lurched forward, feet scrambling furiously until the magnets in her boots regained their purchase. By the time she was steady again another alien was upon her. Its tentacles rippled toward her, each one tipped with dozens of variously sized blades, rotating or vibrating or sawing the air. She tried to turn and run, but the creature grabbed her with two of its forelegs, pinning her arms to her torso. Screaming in terror, she struggled desperately to escape, but she could not break free, could not use her scalpel.
The blades reached for her face. Jessa stared with terrified loathing into the green, expressionless eye of her killer’s helmet.
Suddenly its eye burst open in a cloud of blood and viscera. The alien let her go as it thrashed in its death throes, the metal fist of Cottontail still protruding from the helmet’s ruined eye-socket.
“Thanks,” she murmured, inspecting her rescuer as it removed its hand from its victim’s body.
The robot was in bad shape; its chassis was badly buckled, its face barely recognisable as the rough human sketch it had once been. One track was all but gone, and its wide panelled chest was a mess of melted metal and sparking components.
With the immediate danger passed she risked a glance around her at the raging melee.
It was obvious that the battle was already lost. Mopsy was almost impossible to see under a swirling layer of R’Dokken, endlessly stabbing and ripping with their blades, two more leaping onto the machine with every one it swatted clumsily away.
Flopsy stood immobile in the centre of the bridge, its head melted clean away, its hands yellow with R’Dokken blood, the child it had died to protect cradled still unconscious between its treads.
The sound of Gorgon fire was gone, now only the weird screech of the alien weapons rent the air. And there was something else, just discernable above the clamour of battle; a low incessant hissing. It wasn’t until the scent was already in her nostrils that she recognised her danger. Gas! Jessa knew she should panic, but it was already too late, the gas was winding its way around her brain, crushing it in velvet. Her limbs grew heavy, and her head seemed to be inflating. Woozily she watched a R’Dokken, clinging to the deck above, push off with its front half to lash out at Hennis; puncturing him with a half dozen armoured legs before dragging him screaming to the ceiling, and its waiting knives. Another alien used the gun it carried in two tentacles to blast one man from his feet, whilst using the third to slice Gallagher’s leg off at the knee.
Then her vision fled her. Dropping her scalpel to the floor, she closed her now useless eyes, and drifted happily away.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Time And Place, And Underpants Gnomes

Off the top of my head, I would argue that there are four problems with writing long-running plots in television series:

  • You might get cancelled half-way through, and a lot of people will be pissed (Carnivale);
  • You wake up in the middle of the night, realise you've been making shit up for four years, and try to cack-handedly weave it all together (The X-Files);
  • Russell T Davies might decide to give it a go, and bizarrely only a few people will be pissed, which doesn't make sense because THE MAN CAN'T WRITE PEOPLE WAKE UP PLEASE!


  • If you have X episodes left, and only enough story for X-Y episodes, then it encourages you to write a wheel-spinning episode in which pieces are moved around the board for forty minutes, and then something tragic happens and we are supposed to care.

Of course, the only thing worse than the wheel-spinner is the wheel-spinner when you're only a month away from the end of the series. Thanks for nothing, last night's Galactica.

Well, for almost nothing.

Right, that's the preliminaries out of the way. Shit will now get serious, y'all.




I'm pretty sure no-one in this world or any other is crying out for a list of things I couldn't give a shit about, but just for the record, I am now adding "Spouses pissed off that their other halves moved on after they apparently died." I mean, I get why it's a problem, I get that it's not just the seeming betrayal but also the ruination of everything Ellen has been pinning her hopes on post-resurrection; it's just not of any interest to me. When firing on all cylinders, one of the best things BSG does is take two people, with totally different viewpoints, both of them at least partially valid, and chucks them in a room together. Often one of them has a gun.

This doesn't work quite so well when one character doesn't have a leg to stand on, and knows it themselves. This is why every time someone has a go at the Five for what happened on the Colonies fucks me off so bad. I get why people are so pissed that they'll blame any Cylon within reach, but once you've accepted the memory loss (to say nothing of the fact that we now know the Five stopped the first war), you need to stop being a dick, and there's nothing more to say.

Anyway, if a passing whine by Lee pisses me off, you can imagine how much I dislike entire episodes predicated on the "I know this doesn't make sense but I need you to feel it is justified anyway" line of bullshit. It's sort of vaguely interesting seeing how the aspects of "human" Ellen are bleeding back into the previously calm and collected improved Cylon model, but it is also vaguely interesting watching CAG maneuvers, but I suspect an entire episode of them would leave me feeling cheated.

If you're not going to set up a particularly interesting interplay, you can always try to ramp up the tension with a looming crisis. What did we get this time, though? A vote on whether or not to leave. Why did Saul even agree to the idea of majority in the first place? Just so we could feel like there was some tension? He was obviously never going to leave. So you had the immovable object of Tigh's devotion to Adama (and anyone who thinks "Saul loves Bill more than anything" counts as a surprise needs to pay closer attention) against the unstoppable force of Ellen being a bitch. Yawn.

Then Caprica loses her baby. Which in real life is sad on a very direct level, there's a whole potential person who doesn't get to burst into the world and then get fucked up by inches, but I am incapable on any level of caring that a potential fictional character will now not be seen, so on TV this stuff only matters insofar as how it is reflected in the characters we already know. And frankly, Caprica has been annoying me so much lately that it's difficult to care on her behalf (I'm so glad that Chip Six is still kicking ass and taking names, more on her in a bit).

Tigh, on the other hand I feel for. In fact, Tigh was by far the best thing in the entire episode. You could have had a much better episode wrapped around him, one in which space strippers attack the fleet in TIE fighters [1], and he still would have been the best thing in it. Just for "I feel it less with words!" alone. I love that over the last four years hardly an episode has gone by without me feeling I understand Tigh just a little bit better than I did before. Even more, I'm amazed that it's taken as long as it has to finally peel away Tigh's final layer, to understand that his problem is that he loves so much, in so many different directions, that he can't function without booze and bile. That he can't find a way to express his love in something as limiting as words (which is a beautiful counterpoint to what Cavil said last week, to Cavil words limit his ability to function as a machine, to Tigh they can't express the way he functions as a person).

The other moment that made the episode came as Tigh embraced Adama, and started with the words "It's not the same as Zack, I know." Having lost his child, needing to be consoled by his oldest, dearest friend, Saul is compelled to begin by recognising how his own pain cannot compare to Bill's. If you love someone enough, you don't see pain as being past, or present. You never assume anything has healed.

I am also prepared to offer bonus points for watching the two fleets merge, though I then take most of them away for doing it so unbelievably heavily.

Wikipedia tells me that a lot got cut out of this episode, including dialogue helping to explain the situation in Dogsville. The marines are pulling out of there due to lack of numbers (at least partially due to the mutiny, though whether this means the mutineers have been executed, or imprisoned, or just that too many people were shot during the fight, isn't made clear), which has allowed the Sons Of Ares to fill the resulting vacuum. Watching Gaius continue to dance his little I-think-these-people-are-dicks-but-I-am-also-learning-to-love tango is beginning to grate a bit, but hurrah for Chip Six still being awesome with chips. While everyone else is whinging or sulking or shooting themselves, she's still working towards the plan. Whatever that actually is; The One True God alone knows who those automatic weapons get pointed at, though the smart money Baltar just signed up to lead the armed militia for the mysterious Third Faction. How much Adama regrets his decision to give automatic weapons to Gaius (who'll probably get the hang of reloading eventually) will probably depend a great deal on what the greater plan is. Step one: resurrect Starbuck. Step three: profit.

But what's step two?

Rewinding slightly, just what the frak has happened to the other mutineers? I let them off not saying anything last week because the exposition marathon needed to take place without the B plot drawing too much attention away from it. No Exit, first and foremost, was constructed according to the "Pay attention, children" method of television writing. Deadlock didn't have that excuse. What happened to Racetrack? Did Skulls survive? What happened to Racetrack? Is Kelly now in Gaeta's spot on CIC? What happened to Racetrack? Is she now a space stripper in a TIE fighter? [2]

There's a certain irony in the fact that so many questions were answered last week, and last night they declined to tie up what loose ends still existed. Fuck irony, though. I want closure.

I want Racetrack.

[1] Yes, my concept for "best episode ever" hasn't changed since I was fourteen.

[2] I should point out for the record that Leah Cairns is a great actress and probably a very nice person. It isn't cool to just view women as sex objects, no matter how unfeasibly attractive they are.

Seriously, though: space stripper.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Absolute No-Brainers No. 416

A former co-worker of mine once told me a story about taking her then two year old child to the doctor's. Living in the North East in the early Nineties, her kid had managed to get through those first twenty-four months without running into anyone who wasn't Caucasian. When the doctor finally arrived, a seven foot black man, the child burst into tears.

His mother is convinced that this was because her son was encountering something new for the first time, and was scared about it. Without being an expert in child psychology or anything, I can't confirm or refute the theory, but it certainly seems plausible. We don't all react to something new in the same way.

I'm wittering on about this for a very specific reason. I would like anybody who complained that the new CBeebies presenter, who has only one hand, is "scaring" children to explain to me how objecting to that idea is any different from suggesting black doctors shouldn't be allowed near white children.

I also wish I was in a position to ban parents complaining that this sort of thing "raises awkward questions" (q.v. "I'm not a homophobe but why should I have to explain that gay people exist to my children!?!"). Guess what? Children ask questions. That is their job, along with playing in the mud and finding colours exciting. They ask questions so that they can understand the world. It is your job to fucking answer them, you miserable whining bastards.

Remember that Chris Rock routine about certain subsets of the black populace (I'm paraphrasing, obviously) who want credit for the stuff they're supposed to do?
"I take care of my kids." You're supposed to, you dumb motherfucker!
This kind of crap is even worse. This is refusing to do what you're supposed to, and then blaming someone else for demonstrating how goddamn clueless you are.

Wow. That was a lot more vicious than I'd intended. Meh.

In Which I Listen To My Commentators

Pause wonders if he can guess how the Catholic Church gathered their data on sinning. Maybe it was all just done during confessional. "Perhaps they arranged them in a grid and played Confession Bingo to make it more enjoyable."

I think that this is something that should be encouraged:

Update: I know that this is somewhat small and a bit scratty, but it was the best I could do with the time and tools available.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Worst... Sins... Ever

I would very much like to see the statistical method used here. Were people asked to rank in order of preference? Choose their top sin? Were they given these seven choices, or did they just ask in more general terms and try to divide the various responses into categories. “Near constant onanism? That’ll be lust. Unless you do it in front of a mirror, I guess.”

Or was something more complex involved? A questionnaire on the subject would probably be good for a fair few laughs. “Is chocolate lip-stick a device for seducing men like the whore you are, or simply a delicious between meal snack?”

There’s also the issue of sample choice. I can’t imagine you’d get very far standing in the street and asking people what the thought was most plausible reason for them going to hell. How am I supposed to take the proclamations of the Catholic Church seriously if they don’t come with experimental information?

Anyway, all that aside, it’s not really like the results are particularly surprising. Lust and gluttony come top for men? I’m not sure we always even make the distinction. Not that we want to eat the flesh of comely wenches, or anything; I’m just saying that the first man to invent a hot-dog that can fellate you is going to get pretty rich.

Also, who knew people were so disinterested in greed? Or is it that the credit crunch has become so gargantuan in its hideousness we're not even interested in owning shit any more?

h/t to Rising Hegemon (LOSB).

Sunday, 22 February 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #18: The Butterfly Effect

There’s an old adage that the longer a review goes on, the less you learn about the subject of the review, and the more you learn about the reviewer.

After seventeen posts on the X-Men, totalling some 30,000 words or so, it’s not hard to believe that I’ve revealed quite a bit about myself. Our relationships with our fathers, the desire to avoid disappointing those you’re close to, the ways in which we fail in achieving our goals, this is the stuff that tends to circulate in my brain even when I’m not talking about mutant teenagers.

When I come to a character like Ororo Munroe, then, who I find so depressingly dull I’d almost rather gnaw off my fingers than continue typing about her, there’s always the risk that my total lack of interest stems, not from a flaw in the character, but in the fact that there is simply nothing inside my experiences and concerns that intersect with hers.

It doesn’t help that there is perhaps a touch of the same problem I mentioned with regard to Jean Grey (and so many other female characters that sprang up during or immediately following the sexual revolution). Maybe so many writers have spent so much time proving Storm is intelligent and independent that it never really occurred to them to put much more specific into her.

Eventually, though, it occurred that this might not be the root of the problem at all. It might not be that I can’t grasp the roots of Storm’s character, so much as I can’t comprehend the scale.

Storm is all about control. Which I guess in some sense is something that I can relate to, along with everyone else in the world, but the sheer size of Storm’s issue is such that it becomes qualitatively different. The less power you have, the less a loss of control matters. Most of spend our days hoping we don’t say something stupid when we’re drunk or upset (or both, I tend to refer to that particular situation as “Fridays”). Once you’ve got the atmosphere of the planet to play with, things become somewhat different.

At this point I’m guessing that 95% of the Western world can identify where the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility” comes from. What Uncle Ben meant, though, or at least how Peter Parker took it, was that those with the power to help people should ensure they use it.

It’s not by any means a poor philosophy, but in Storm’s case it simply won’t work. Spiderman lives in a world of muggings and bank raids, with the occasional miniature sun to liven things up. All he has to do, basically speaking, is decide who gets punched, and who gets protected from getting punched. He fears for the safety of his loved ones, but that’s because of who his powers are applied against.
Storm's problem lies not in deciding how to apply her powers, but in whether to use them at all. Having discovered her abilities whilst wandering in the Sahara (which probably came in pretty handy), Ororo eventually arrived at the Serengeti Plain, and settled down in a nearby village. It was here that she learned the two most important lessons of her life. One of these came soon after she had caused a cloudburst in order to end the drought plaguing their community. She saved the village, but the rain she had used in the process had not been created, but stolen from somewhere else. All she had succeeded in doing was move the drought somewhere else, with the obvious effect of killing many animals, and with Goddess only knew how many less immediate or visible consequences.

With great power comes great responsibility. With power that can change the world comes the responsibility to consider every change you make. We're into Wagnerian territory here, frankly. Wotan's crisis in The Ring Cycle is that with absolute knowledge and absolute power comes a paradoxical helplessness. Although anything can be done, nothing can be done without consequences. Every tug at a thread of the tapestry will unravel something somewhere else.
Storm understands this. After the disaster of the drought, she headed into the wilderness and spent quite some time gradually knitting the weather system back into balance. She spent a great deal of effort erasing the effects of her own actions. Using an innate understanding of chaos theory to try and restore order. Which can't be easy. "A butterfly flaps its wings in Peking and in Central Park you have rain instead of sunshine," to quote Ian Malcolm. Trying to use chaos to impose order is like trying to paint whilst your brush is on fire. She pulls it off this time, but who knows if it will work again, if she might one day knock the system so far off balance that there would be no way to restore it?

I said she learned two lessons in that village, under the tutelage of her dear friend and surrogate mother Ainet. The second was this: that her own emotions were tied into the weather system. The more her own emotions spiralled out of control, the more the atmosphere did the same. She wasn't just able to manipulate chaos theory, she could become it. From her cells to her feelings to the weather around her to the weather across the globe. A fractal of insanity and fury.

Given Storm had already committed herself to control, not just after the drought but after being forced to kill a man who tried to rape her, and swearing to never take another life, it is hardly surprising that she deals with this crisis by trying her best to wall herself off from her emotions.

There's a horrible irony in all of this. As a child, Ororo loses her parents when a plane crashed into their house. She is left trapped under the rubble, next to the dead body of her mother, until she is finally able to dig her way out. This unimaginable trauma manifests itself as acute claustrophobia with which Storm struggles for the rest of her life. Choosing to trap herself within her own mind, to shut away strong emotion, is hardly likely to help. Indeed, by sealing up her passions and her fears, Ororo as much as guarantees that she can never come to terms with the tragedies of the past. Each new crisis, each new loss, is simply shut away the moment it registers. Storm becomes a pressure cooker, trying desperately to shove more and more boxes into the same cupboard, out of sight.

It can't possibly last. We have a finite capacity to contain our rage, and to refuse to allow it to trickle out is just to guarantee that one day we'll simply detonate. This is exactly what happens after Dr Doom traps her inside a statue of herself; upon escape she generates a storm that almost swallows the world. After being trapped inside Emma Frost's head for a while she attempted to murder her the instant she was returned to her own body. She also deliberately almost kills Callisto, leader of the Morlocks, in a leadership struggle deep in the New York sewers. Her victory leaves her in charge of the outcast mutants, a role in which she has no interest, having only declared the challenge in order to save her friends.

After the X-Men fight the Brood, a particularly vicious alien race with the irritating habit of implanting their eggs inside people (where could that idea possibly have come from?), which leaves Ororo out of kilter with the weather patterns even after the embryo is removed, and having met the ronin Yukio and observed the woman's total commitment to enjoying the moment, Storm decides that rather than continue to hold back her emotions and her desire to beat people up, she will become a leather-clad punk. Middle ground is apparently not something she's particularly concerned with.

It's perhaps for the best that she loses her power soon after, hit with a neutraliser gun designed by Forge. As much as she despises being "regular folks", she can at least explore her emotions without accidentally lightning-bolting the world to death. Of course, in an ideal world she wouldn't have fallen in love with the very man who stole her powers (up until she works out the truth, anyways), but better to have loved and lost, I guess. Certainly, better to feel shit than refuse to feel anything, or at least that's what we tell ourselves.

Losing her abilities helps Storm in other ways. She makes the conscious decision that the stripping of her abilities has not stripped her of her responsibilities (I suspect Uncle Ben would be in agreement on this score, at least). She continues to aid those in need, challenges Cyclops for leadership of the X-Men (and wins, though this is mainly because Scott is far too busy at the time wallowing in self-pity to avoid getting repeatedly kicked in the head) and takes responsibility when the Morlocks are massacred, since she had not been there to lead them when the Marauders attacked. She even returns to Forge to ask for her powers back, despite the cost to her pride in the request, and her fear of having to return to being the emotionless, untouchable woman she once was. Maybe it doesn't occur to her that not having to worry constantly about being in balance is what has made her balanced, or maybe she just worries that isn't enough.

Regardless, Ororo does not regress, but the restoration of her power does not come without cost. Having embraced responsibility so thoroughly without her powers, having already made clear that control was a need for her beyond its use in regulating her tremendous strength, finding herself once again a "goddess" forces her to throw herself into her many roles with even more gusto, a choice that costs her her relationship with Forge.

That's the price of control, though, and of power, which she knows full well. While the rest of lament the chasm between what we want to change and what we can, Ororo gazes into the gap between what she can change and what she should. If the rest of us don't understand that problem, maybe we're luckier than we think.

Next time: we consider what the use is in being an honorable man if your bosses are dicks, and you're a twat.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

The Truth Exposed

The scene: a board meeting for St Helier Cider Corporate Headquarters.

CEO: Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the shit.
Mook #1: Sir, there are no ladies here, sir.
CEO: What about that one? That's a woman, surely. Or possibly Colin Farrell.
Mook #1: That's Agent Edmunds, sir.
CEO: What the Hell has he done to his hair?
Edmunds: This is how we wear it in St Helier now.
CEO: Really?
Edmunds: We've had to put taxes on scissors and shampoo.
CEO: What was I saying?
Mook #2: We are in the shit.
CEO: We are in the shit. Business is going tits-up! No-one has the money to spend on pear cider anymore. People are just drinking the antifreeze from their cars and hoping the weather warms up. We need a new angle. A new gimmick. Any suggestions?
Mook #1: A new flavour?
CEO: Can't afford one. Do you know how long it would take to set up the brewing process for a whole different type of fruit?
Mook #2: We could just add flavoring.
CEO: Paugh! Who would fall for such cheap chicanery?
Mook #1: Idiot teenagers?
CEO: I like your thinking! But idiot teenagers don't drink cider unless it has a lightning bolt on the side and comes in plastic bottles. Too busy with those damn alco-pops.

There is a pause.

Mook #2: What if we flavoured the cider with alco-pops?
CEO: You're a genius, witless flunky! We can just take near empty vats of pear cider and then fill them up with Blue WKD! That way not only will it taste of sugar mixed with alcohol, it will be a crayzee colour that the kids are bound to dig. Er, get down with. On. Fo' shizzle.
Mook #1: Won't it taste a bit odd? Why not just replace the cider entirely?
CEO: And compromise our standards?
Mook #1: I'm fired, aren't I?
CEO: Let's just say it might be wise to start broadening your CV. You can start by taking this penknife and this bottle of Windowlene, and take Edmunds somewhere private. I just wish I had some pan-scrubs to hand.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Adventures With Jesus #5: Axioms And Extrapolations

Having reached the conclusions I've been searching for all week last night, I hadn't intended to post anything about today's talk. Partially because doing so seemed surplus to requirements, but also because the title today was "Is Being "Good" Good Enough For God?" and it seemed pretty likely that much of what would be covered had already been addressed in the talk on Hell.

That pretty much turned out to be the case. We can do good without it being good enough for God, and "not a bad person" is hardly a particularly impressive status when being judged by the Lord of Creation. The one thing I did want to mention in regards to today was axioms.

I spent the walk down to the talk trying to explain my own personal position on the meaning of life to Anonymous McNoname. Specifically, my rejection of the idea that good and evil, or at least right and wrong, cannot exist independently of God. It's true that there can no longer be one true definition of such ideas, but contra to popular opinion, this does not reduce them to concepts definable by popular vote. What it does mean is that the best we can do is formulate the most reasonable axioms possible, and logically follow through on them. Is it perfect? Not at all. One man's axiom is another man's fallacy, after all. Since axioms can be challenged and altered, however, that isn't indicative of a process that is broken, but one which is evolving. What's important is to constantly question your preconceptions, to ensure you are evolving too. It's also critical to have others question your axioms, too, which is one of the reasons I've spent so much time this week listening to people tell me I'm going to Hell.

I mention all this because the Q&A today made it quite clear that there are similar issues in Christianity. Whereas the principal axiom that God is real and always right is pretty much unassailable, it is still the case, unsurprisingly, that different Christians will interpret the Bible in very different ways. What is axiomatic to some is simply allegory to others. Absent outside stimulus, inaccuracies and mistakes are very likely. Thus, believing in the Bible and following the word of Jesus requires self-questioning, and also communal questioning in the form of the Church. Obviously this then leads to the question: who is writing their axioms? Are they doing it themselves? Are their ministers, or reverends, or bishops, or archbishops doing it for them? How is that different from what an atheist would do, or at least an atheist interested in trying to be more than an animal reacting to external stimuli?

Today's answer was that Jesus' spirit infuses those who read the Bible, and from that the truth will be revealed. I'd say that if this is true it arguably isn't going tremendously well given the massive number of different churches with their own approach to doctrine, but I'll grant that it does at least provide an answer to the problem that I cannot easily refute. Suggestions, of course, are welcome.

Anyway, that's Main Event Week over for another year. I can now look forward to 51 weeks of meaningless debauchery. And possibly a doctorate.

Friday Gothic Blogging

Due to an unfortunate intersection of my camera, my flatmate's elbow, and the hard and unforgiving laws of physics, I am currently attempting to take photographs without the benefit of anything so advanced as a viewfinder. Thus I present the least pathetic photograph of my Dark Angels Strike Cruisers I could manage.

Once again, I reiterate that they are on maneuvers in the Carpet Nebula, and are in no way just standing on my floor. That would be stupid, especially since a falling digital camera could smash them to pieces at any moment...

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Adventures With Jesus #4: Crime And Punishment

I think today I finally reached some form of meaningful conclusion regarding the activities of this week. An argument can only ever end in three ways. One side realises they were in error, both sides agree to disagree and go off and do something else, or the layers of conflict and disagreement are peeled away one by one until the exact point of conflict is identified, classified, and then returned to the box.

Naturally, given that it isn't easy to change my mind and all but impossible to get me to let something out of my teeth, that third option is by far the most satisfactory conclusion to any discussion I have, and today I finally reached it. Obviously, on a simple level it was always going to come down to faith vs no faith, but specifics are important.

As usual, though, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Today's talk essentially attempted to answer the question: why does a just God send people to Hell? The speaker suggested that this is almost impossible to answer without a sufficient understanding of God. I'm not sure that's true (though I can see why a Christian would think such a thing). What we need to make sure we understand is not the nature of God, but the nature of justice.

There are a number of theories on what does or doesn't constitute justice. My personal favourite was always utilitarianism, which punishes criminals from the perspective of maximising the benefit to society. We throw people in jail to prevent society from being harmed, to warn others of the consequences of similar transgressions, and to allow time for prisoners to learn how to be more beneficial members of society. It's probably not all that surprising that this is an attractive theory to a liberal atheist.

None of the above, of course, applies to God's punishment. To throw someone into Hell once they have already died saves no-one, nor does it allow for rehabilitation. Yes, the threat of Hell can be used to cajole people into doing the right thing, but since we have no way of knowing whether sinners do end up in the lake of fire or not, there seems no reason to carry through on the threat.
What banishing those who reject God can be described as is retributive justice, which states that justice is served by ensuring one receives punishment commensurate with the crime (we'll leave aside the fact that Jesus himself spoke out against retributive justice). If God is infinitely powerful and loving, then rejecting him is infinitely odious, and thus infinite punishment is called for. Thus, "infinite justice" actually turns out to be a single question: "have you turned from God?" So long as the answer to that is "No", it seems that there is literally nothing that can't be forgiven.

Lacking the ability to question God in person, I can't be sure that this isn't in fact the case. What's interesting to me, though, is that the justification for this position given in the talk seemed so at odds with that conclusion. The idea that a loving God might punish in the same way as a loving mother might punish her child, for example [1], immediately falls apart because a mother punishes (hopefully) because she wants her child to become better. It's utilitarianism in microcosm. You could throw "Being cruel to be kind" in there too, if you want; the point is that the focus is on the long game (the long game we were told 48 hours ago was so vital). Locking someone away and throwing away the key isn't to anyone's benefit.

Likewise, appealing to our sense of outrage over such atrocities as Rwanda is somewhat self-defeating. I'm sure the victims of such indescribable, incomprehensible horrors were screaming out for God's justice. The problem is that we're being told that justice won't take place until it's entirely too late for it to be of any benefit. More than that, if you're entire family get hacked to pieces and you lose faith, andthe vicious, blood-stained murderer ultimately seeks forgiveness, then you're the one who'll end up in Hell for all eternity.

That isn't justice, by any human understanding. And yes, the whole point is that God's justice and ours isn't going to match up. But that's a hard, uncomfortable position, and you have to own that. You can't try to justify it by listing all the things we wished we could fix. God is going to leave it broken, and from where I'm sitting, is more likely to punish those that were shattered into glass and blood along the way.

So much for the contents of the talk, then. None of that was what I was referring to earlier regarding my minor revelation (revelette?). That came during the brief conversation I got to have with the speaker (who if nothing else demonstrated endless patience with questions that must seem very silly from a Christian perspective) following the second Q&A session. During that session the old question came up regarding what happens to people who live and die without ever meeting a Christian (even now we're coming across new tribes in the Amazon Rainforest, for example). That never struck me as the right question, though. To me the right question is this: exactly how long after the first Christian missionary stumbles into the village of a new tribe does everyone there get earmarked for Hell unless they convert?

The answer we got back to that question when I posed (probably somewhat incoherently) was tremendously obvious, and yet somehow I'd never really considered it. "I don't know, but given that God is fair, whatever happens will be right".

This, in a nutshell, is the exact point of conflict. For a Christian, the most basic tenant is that God must be right. For me, the fundamental truth is that God must make sense. We can't negotiate this stuff, it's axiomatic. Every time we're confronted with baffling and seemingly contradictory truths, I take it as evidence that God can't exist. A Christian takes it as evidence that we don't understand God well enough.

In some ways that's the problem with Main Event Week. It's an attempt to persuade people of a truth that cannot be understood, merely trusted. It's also why my preferred talk so far has been on the subject of the Bible's historical accuracy, and why that lecture was preceded by a warning that it would be unwise to make such academic discussions the focus of the week. You can't understand your way to God.

Of course, the only way I can get to anything is through understanding, and I'm happy with that. Even if somehow Free week had penetrated my barricades and I'd ended up in church on Sunday morning, I'd give it a week at the outside before I was wanting to know the exact age at which a child goes to Hell unless they're a Christian. It's in my DNA to ask questions: I guess that's why I've ended up where I have.

Still, it's nice to spend some time every now and again reminding yourself of who you are, and where you're going. Or, in this case, where you choose to stay.

[1] In fairness, the speaker was happy to admit there were flaws in the analogy, but I'm not sure the analogy itself was the problem so much as a terribly nebulous and changeable concept of what justice entails.