Thursday, June 7, 2012

Swamp Shadow: Ch. II

May 27, 1718
South Carolina Coast
Port of Charleston

            A red-orange smear across the shimmering horizon announced the new day as First Mate Hand scanned the ocean to the east with his spyglass. Gulls cried out and swooped among the riggings and down to the deck, searching for scraps of food, and waves slapped at and rocked the vessel. The only other sound was the groaning of the mast and riggings as the ship dipped and rose with the waves.
            It was the rising sun that made the sail on the horizon visible to Hand. A shimmering shadow approached from the distance, rising and falling in rhythm with the movement of his own vessel.
His arms began to tremble as he watched the ship draw nearer. Collapsing the spyglass like an accordion, he gulped and ran to notify the captain.
He raised his hand to rap on the door to the captain’s cabin and hesitated. The captain had been up late, drinking heavily and celebrating their recent plunderings. His head would not be happy about being awakened at dawn. Still, an approaching ship was an urgent event.
His grip tightened on the spyglass as he brought the knuckles of the other hand against the wood three times hard.
No answer.
Still no answer.
This time he heard stirring in the cabin. A woman groaned. Heavy footfalls approached the door.
“What is it, Hand? Do you realize what bloody time it is?”
“Cap’n,” Hand repeated, leaning close to the door, “a ship approaches from the East!”
“What!?” Roared the voice from within. “Why the bloody hell didn’t you say so?!”
Rustling sounds emanated from within and what might have been a wooden chair toppling over.
“How far out?” Came the rumbling bass from within.
“Half a league maybe.”
The voice in the cabin laughed.
“Let me get my britches on and then I’ll be up. Don’t raise the flag until we can see theirs, understood?”
Hand ran back to the deck to watch the approaching vessel as he waited for the captain. The sun was now an orange half-circle framing the ship.
Other crewmembers had awakened and, having noticed the approaching ship, began to gather at the rail to watch. Their expressions were anxious as they leaned forward, vainly attempting to see the ship’s flag. They were eager for this one, for they all knew it would be the last. Already they had enough booty in the hold on which to retire, and this would be bonus treasure before they sailed north to settle down. Hand shared their desire to get out of pirating. He’d been in it for long enough. He first served under Hornigold and stayed with the ship when Hornigold got out. It was a rare thing to leave the business with one’s neck still intact and the same length as when one started.
That’s what Hand wanted too. Out before he got his neck stretched.
The governor of North Carolina had promised amnesty to anyone who chose to abandon piracy and settle in the colonies, and with the loot they carried, they could all make a good go of it.
Hand knew that was only a dream for some, for the captain would not want to split the treasure with so many hands. He wasn’t sure exactly what the captain planned to do with those he wanted to cut out of the bargain, but he was sure that it would be more than a few. He also knew that he, loyal first mate, would retire a wealthy man.
Thundering footfalls on the deck behind him heralded the captain’s approach. Hand turned and nodded to his commander.
The captain was in full garb. A black cap sat atop his black-haired head and a red coat hung down to behind his knees. Four pistols protruded from holsters on leather straps slung around his neck, and two cutlasses dangled in ornate scabbards at his sides. A dagger was strapped to each thigh, and two more were tucked in his belt.
He was braiding his scraggly beard as he approached the rail.
“The spyglass, Mr. Hand,” he said.
Hand gave him the glass, and the captain gazed out at the approaching ship.
“Okay, Mr. Hand,” we can raise the flag now.
Hand barked the order to raise the flag, and a crewmember ran from the rail to carry out the command. Hand watched as the black flag rose up the mast.
Catching the light of the rising sun, the familiar flag was surely visible by now to the approaching vessel.
* * * * *
As the sun rose behind them illuminating the emerald coast of South Carolina, the crew and passengers aboard the Edinburgh Venture gazed westward at several ships between them and the Port of Charleston.
“Looks like they’ve sent an escort or perhaps a welcome from the governor,” remarked the first mate, a green sailor from a well-to-do London family.
Commander Albert Macbright grunted as he squinted at the distant ships.
“What flag are they flying?” He asked.
Though of average height, Macbright was broad shouldered and a seasoned war veteran who commanded respect among his crew. He was formal in all his dealings and paid attention to the smallest details in the operation of his ship and the behavior of his crew. Unlike many of his peers, Macbright was clean shaven and discouraged facial hair among his crew. Meticulous grooming, he maintained, was a sign of industriousness and discipline.
“None, sir.”
Macbright’s eyes narrowed.
“None? Give me the glass.”
Macbright snapped the leather-bound scope to his eye, extended it to its full 34 inches and peered through it a long moment before shoving it back into the first mate’s hand.
Some of the colonials had begun gathering on the deck to see the welcoming committee that had come to greet them.
Macbright motioned some of the crew to him.
“Man your stations and stand ready,” he told them. “Say nothing to alarm the passengers.”
The first mate scurried to Macbright.
“You think it’s pirates, captain?”
Macbright glared at him.
“Watch yourself, Willhite,” he snapped. “I don’t want the passengers bloody panicking and jumping overboard, hear?”
Willhite swallowed hard and nodded.
“Our job is to transport these ladies and gentlemen to the Colony of South Carolina unmolested. I’ll not have my crew jumping to conclusions and feeding the flames of mass hysteria among the passengers.” As he spoke, he nodded and smile amiably at the passengers who hurried toward the rail.
Willhite nodded again.
“Now watch that big ship in the middle and tell me if and when it raises a flag.”
Macbright whirled away from Willhite and strode across the deck, simultaneously smiling at the passengers while watching his crew to ensure that they were following orders.
First timers to the colonies were commenting on how beautiful the coast was, how green the foliage was. It was like a giant emerald in the early sun. Some waved at the waiting ships.
Macbright clenched his teeth.
Come plunder us, he thought. We’re bloody wealthy travelers transferring all of our belongings to the New World.
His thoughts also strayed to the chest in the hold, the one that had been delivered just as they were preparing to leave port with a message from former Prime Minister Walpole. It was actually two messages that accompanied the chest; both notes bore Walpole’s seal. One contained specific instructions about what to do with the chest and its contents; the other was not to be opened until they reached the colonies. Macbright had opened both of them anyway. He did not fully understand the meaning of the messages, but he would not question them, especially the order that the chest not be opened under any circumstances. It was well that they had come from the former prime minister, for had the pedantic German sent the missives, Macbright would surely have tossed them and the package overboard.
The chest was purposefully nondescript, an ordinary wooden crate that would, Macbright hoped, be dismissed as containing ordinary supplies. It bore no distinguishing markings but was tightly closed and secured in chains in the hold.
Having made a quick inspection of the ship, Macbright returned to stand behind Willhite.
“The middle ship is raising a flag,” Willhite said as he gazed through the spyglass.
“Describe it.”
“I can’t see the whole of it yet. It’s black. Let’s see. It’s—it’s a devil skeleton, looks like, holding an hourglass and pointing a spear at a bloody heart.”
“Bloody Christ! Can you see the captain of the vessel?”
“Aye,” Willhite replied. “Tall man, black hair and long beard. He’s carrying swords and guns and—and it looks like he’s on fire! There’s smoke all around his head!”
“Christ, Christ, Bloody Christ!”
“Wh—what is he?” Willhite asked, lowering the telescope. “He’s a demon … or a warlock!”
“You don’t know who that is, man?!” Macbright snapped, snatching the scope from his hand.
Willhite shook his head.
Macbright peered through the scope once more, studying the ship and its captain. Then he shook his head, collapsed the glass and returned it to Willhite.
“You are green, Willhite, and right now I’m glad of it. Keep your mouth shut and keep an eye on that ship.”
Macbright mingled with the passengers and quietly requested that they calm down and return to their cabins and rest until it was time to land. This request, however, was largely ignored.
The passengers pressed against the rails trying to see the New World and the welcoming ships.
When he heard one passenger comment on the pirate flag the ship was flying, Macbright decided it was time to at least attempt to take control.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he called over the hubbub. “If I may have your attention please.”
The crowd quieted down and turned their attention to Macbright.
“Do not be alarmed,” he began, “but we are about to be boarded. If we remain calm and do as we are instructed, all will be well.”
Some of the passengers gasped; women cried out and some even swooned. Male passengers shouted angrily at Macbright and shook their fists at him as if it were his fault that the raiders had lain in wait for them.
“We’ve got two cannon!” one man shouted. “Let’s use them!”
This elicited a chorus of agreeing shouts from many others.
Macbright motioned with his hands for the crowd to be quiet.
“You can’t just let them board us without putting up a fight!” one man blurted after the crowd had quieted.
“Don’t be a damned fool!” Macbright shouted back. “That’s the bloody Queen Anne’s Revenge out there! She’s got forty gun, and if we put up a fight, she’ll sink us with one volley!”
This news caused the crowd to begin shouting and screaming anew. The panic that Macbright had hoped to avoid set in full force. Passengers knocked each other down trying to reach their cabins, and a few even jumped overboard. Macbright motioned for some crewmen to fetch those who’d jumped and then yelled to get the attention of the rest.
He blew a strong blast on the whistle he carried on a chain around his neck, and this finally, at least for a moment, settled the riot.
“Listen to me people,” Macbright said in his most authoritative voice. “If we remain calm and do as we are told, we’ll survive this assault. If we panic, scream, try to flee or fight back, we’ll likely be keel hauled or hanged or both.
“Which would you rather do, ladies and gentlemen—lose some of your wealth, which can be rebuilt or lose your lives?
“Let’s keep our heads here and try to survive.”
His last statement was punctuated by his crewmen shoving the soggy deserters onto the deck.
Macbright motioned the wet crewmen to him.
“There’s an unmarked chest in the hold below, the last to be loaded before we set sail,” he whispered to them. “Go down there and hide it somewhere as best you can. Teach’s men are not to get their hands on it, do you hear me?”
The men nodded and quickly disappeared down the hatch.
“What if they decide to cut our throats anyway, Macbright?” a passenger shouted. “What then?”
Macbright strode to the man and grabbed him by the collar.
“Listen and listen well,” he snarled. “I’m an experienced seafarer, and I’ve survived encounters like this before. Pirates—even bloody Blackbeard—want nothing more than booty. If we give them what they want, they’ll send us on our way—a little lighter in the pocket, mind you, but alive.
“Right now I don’t give a bloody damn who it is you know back in jolly old England. Just keep your mouth shut and do as I say.”
The passengers fell silent and huddled together on the deck. Husbands pulled wives and children close to them. Women clutched at their sobbing children.
Macbright had succeeded in calming the crowd and regaining the control. He pulled himself erect and smoothed his coat.
And just in time. The Queen Anne’s Revenge was pulling even with them.
Blackbeard himself stood at the prow, burning fuses sending smoke curling about his head. He held a cutlass in one hand and a pistol in the other.
“Prepare to be boarded!” he yelled across to the Edinburgh Venture.
Many female passengers began to weep.
Crewmen from the Revenge threw grappling hooks over and pulled the ships together. Blackbeard and several of his crew jumped onto the deck of the Venture.
Blackbeard strode to Macbright and looked him in the eye.
“I believe I know you,” he told Macbright.
He thought a moment.
“Well, Captain Teach,” Macbright offered, “when you were signing on as a privateer for the Queen, I was joining the ranks of Her Majesty’s Navy.”
“Ah, yes. The Scot. Macbright?”
Macbright nodded.
“Well, Captain Macbright,” Teach said, “I’m going to lighten your load a bit.”
He motioned his men to the hold of the ship.
“And,” he added, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to take some of your passengers for a brief stay on my ship.”
“Now just a bloody minute here, Teach!” Macbright started to protest but closed his mouth and set his jaw.
“Don’t worry, Captain Macbright,” Teach said. “I assure you no harm will come to them. I need a little leverage against the good governor, and nothing less than your passengers will do.”
While they chatted, the crewmen of the Queen Anne’s Revenge were busily emptying the hold of all its contents.
“In addition,” Teach continued, “I require that you deliver a message to the governor for me. Once my demands are met, you may return for the passengers. Agreed?”
Macbright took the rolled up message from Teach. It bore a wax seal with the same design as the Revenge’s flag. He clenched his teeth to still his trembling jaw.
Suddenly gunshots rang out from the hold.
Teach’s grim visage grew angry, and he thrust his pistol under Macbright’s chin.
“What in bloody hell is going on here, Macbright?” He growled.
Two of Teach’s crew emerged from the hold carrying an unmarked, padlocked chest.
“Two of his men were guarding this,” one man said in a thick London accent.
“What is it?” Teach demanded of Macbright.
“I don’t know. It was turned over to us just as we were leaving port with two messages bearing Walpole’s seal.”
“Yes,” Macbright replied. “I don’t know what’s in it or why it was turned over to us, but I was given explicit instructions to make sure it arrived at its destination at all costs.”
Teach laughed harshly.
“Perhaps it’s the crown jewels,” he said, and his crew laughed heartily.
He motioned for his men to carry on with the chest.
“In any event,” he said, slipping the pistol back into his belt, “it’s reached its destination, eh, Macbright? I’m sure it won’t be missed.”
Macbright swallowed hard.
After the hold had been emptied, Teach signaled for his crew to begin transferring passengers to the Revenge. Many women resisted fiercely, screaming and kicking, but eventually calmed down and allowed themselves to be pulled over a wobbly plank to the other ship.
Macbright watched silently through fiery eyes.
“Stop worrying, Macbright,” Teach assured him. “No harm will come to them as long as the governor does as we request. Mind you, it will be up to you to impress upon him that I’ll follow through on my threats if he does not honor the bargain.”
When all of the transfers had been made and the hold of the Venture thoroughly scoured, Teach and his men returned to the Revenge with final instructions to Macbright to seek out the governor and deliver the ransom demands.
Macbright immediately set sail and navigated past Teach’s ships and into the Port of Charleston.
* * * * *
May 30, 1718

“Which one you reckon we’ll be taking first?” A swarthy deckhand asked, tossing a thick rope over yard arm.
The other man, whose skin was wrinkled and brown as leather, merely shrugged and went about the business of securing the other end of the rope to the mast.
The men had fashioned a noose and were making the last preparations for the first hanging. They were testing the rope when the Venture reappeared in the distance. Some shook their heads disappointedly. The wise among them, however, breathed a sigh of relief.
As the Venture pulled alongside the QAR, it was grappled and the crew formed a chain to haul the medical supplies they’d requested aboard. The business of exchanging supplies and passenger was over in less than an hour’s time. The passengers were sent back to Macbright’s ship over gangplanks, some staring at the noose swinging under the yardarm.
With ample booty and supplies in the holds of their ships, Teach and his men weighed anchor and sailed north.
That night Teach called Hand into his cabin.
“You called for me, Captain?”
Teach wiped his hands on a formerly pristine linen napkin and finished chewing the remains of his ample dinner.
“Sit down, Hand,” he said, motioning his first mate to a chair. “Best meal I’ve had in months.”
Hand nodded and sat in the chair in front of Teach’s desk/dining/map table.
“Hand, you’ve been with me since I took over the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and I want you to be a part of my plans. Now, the rest of these scurvy mongrels I wouldn’t trust enough to turn my back on them for a glance through the spyglass. So I don’t mind telling you I plan to double-cross the lot of them. And that bloody Bonnet is an incompetent of the highest order; I’ve had my fill of his ineptitude.
“I’m retiring, Hand, and I’m taking the booty with me. I don’t know what’s in that chest that Walpole wanted Macbright to defend so stalwartly, but it’s a king’s ransom, I’ll warrant, and enough for us to make a good living in the Colonies.”
He punctuated his speech by downing a goblet of wine and then poured two more, handing one to Hand.
“Anyway, Hand, I’m asking you to back me up on my next maneuver. What’s in it for you is a cut of whatever booty we’ve collected, including a share of what’s in the Walpole chest. All I’m asking is for someone to watch my back and help me see the whole thing through.
“I want out, Hand. I’ve pirated enough, and I want to settle down. I was only in it for the money, anyway, and I’ve got plenty of that now.
“So, here’s to retirement.”
With that, he held up the goblet of wine.
Dumbfounded, Hand raised his own goblet, and Teach clapped his against it and downed it all in one long gulp.
Hand did the same, knowing full well he’d just signed a bloody pact with the nefarious Blackbeard.
Teach belched loudly and leaned forward.
“I tell you, Hand, I’ve built quite a reputation now, haven’t I? Folks think I’m the devil himself, and I’ve done all I could to foster that. You probably think me cruel for the things of I’ve done, but I tell you I’ve done it all for one reason and one reason only—to stay alive. Why, if a man thought he could defy me without retribution, then I’d’ve been keelhauled years ago and drowned like a rat in a bucket.
“No, no, not me.
“When Hornigold took amnesty and turned the Concorde over to me, I knew then I’d have to be a merciless bastard to stay alive. And that’s what I became.”
Hand sat silent while Teach filled another goblet and drank more wine.
Teach then abruptly swept the platter of food and empty wine bottle off the desk and unrolled a map of the coast of the Americas.
“Here’s my plan, Hand. Pay attention …”
And he proceeded to reveal all to his first mate.

June 3, 1718
Hold of the Adventure

“He’s going to bloody keelhaul us,” the stocky Mareth growled as he clenched and unclenched his fists and paced the floor.
“Nah,” replied Smoot, a wiry pickpocket with a quick sword and quicker wit, “he’d’ve done that already. I’m guessing he’s going to turn us over to Eden.”
This sent a wave of grumbling among the 25 men held prisoner in the hold of the Adventure.
“What’re we going to do in the meantime,” one man snapped, “sit here and wait to be killed?”
Smoot flowed lithely to his feet from the sack of flour on which he’d been resting.
“’Course not,” he said looking about at the men who sat on crates or stood about wondering at their fate. “We’re going to collect as much of this booty as we can and stow it away.”
Some of the men laughed.
Mareth flashed Smoot an angry grin.
“And what good’ll that do us rotting in a colonial jail?” He snarled.
Smoot shrugged.
“I don’t know that that’s what Teach plans,” he replied, “but it’s a possibility. The other possibility is that he’ll maroon us somewhere.”
“Maroon us?!”
Smoot nodded.
“Sure. He’s sent Bonnet off to seek a pardon. When Bonnet returns, he’s sure to figure things out and come looking for Teach and find us.”
More laughter.
“Look,” Smoot beseeched, “Teach ain’t going to maroon us without supplies, and we’re sure to be picked up by some ship along the way. All I’m saying is, if this is the case, we’d be fools not to try to sneak some booty with us.”
A chorus of agreement rose from the gathered crowd.
“Here’s what I figure,” Smoot continued. “That chest that Macbright wanted to hide from Teach is sitting right over there, and it’s likely filled with gold. I say we take it out of that crate and put it in the supply crate Teach intended to drop with us wherever he planned to unload us. If he does maroon us, then we’ve got a small fortune to split up and live on. If he plans to jail us, then whatever we can stuff in our pockets will be enough to bribe us out of jail. Either way, we’ve got an insurance policy.”
Mareth smiled again and started pushing crates aside to get at the hidden prize.
Several men joined in the search, and they soon found the box that bore Walpole’s mark.
Inside the crate they found a smaller, padlocked chest with a parchment scroll tied to the lock.
Footsteps above told them they didn’t have time to open the chest, so they heaved the whole thing out of the crate and shoved it into one containing small sacks of flour and wineskins.
Sunlight poured into the hold.
“Come on out,” First Mate Hand called down. “We’ve reached your new home. We’ve got swords and guns, so don’t try anything.”
“Um … Sir,” Smoot called, “what about supplies? Mightn’t we grab some food or something?”
Teach’s bearded head appeared at the opening.
“Grab that crate with the bloody flour and wine in it and get your arses out of that hold!” He bellowed.
Smoot, Mareth and company dutifully marched up the ladder and out onto the deck. A boat was already in the water waiting for them. They stared out at a heavily wooded coast.
“Nothing personal, men,” Teach said. “It’s time for me to get out, and I’m making a clean break of it. This island lies off the coast of the Carolinas. If I guess correctly, Bonnet’ll be making his way in this direction in a few day’s time. If you keep a signal fire burning, you’ll get picked up and be safely aboard the Revenge soon.
“In the meantime, I bid you adieu and good luck.”
The men climbed into the waiting boat, secured their precious cargo and began rowing for shore.
Teach signaled for his crew to weigh anchor.
* * * * *
“You see, boys,” Smoot said. “Now we can live like kings.”
After pulling the boat out of the tide’s reach, the stranded men hauled their booty into the trees.
Mareth pulled the scroll from the padlock.
“Can anyone here read?” He asked.
All but Smoot shook their heads.
Mareth shrugged and began to bang on the padlock with a rock.
Smoot, meanwhile, unrolled the parchment and began to read it.
Mareth cursed angrily at the stubborn lock and began pounding on it furiously. Finally, the metal gave way and the lock broke open.
“Don’t!” Smoot shouted just as Mareth threw open the chest with a greedy grin.
The smile fell away from Mareth’s face.
Smoot backed slowly away as the rest of the marooned crew pushed forward to view the riches that lay inside.
Mareth screamed.
A shapeless thing flew from the chest, engulfing Mareth’s face like a black cloth. The men pushed and shoved at one another in an effort to flee into the woods.
Smoot turned and ran for the boat waiting on the beach, clenching the parchment in one hand.
He could still hear Mareth’s screams as he began to row out to sea.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Swamp Shadow: Chapter I

Thick mists from the nearby marshlands made a stealthy invasion on the Travers residence. The musky scent of the swamp hung heavy in the air. The night was deathly quiet.
The clock on the dash of Derek Travers’ Cherokee flashed 8:35pm. The SUV fishtailed up the winding, stone-paved drive, headlamps stabbing impotently into the fog. The waxing moon peeked out occasionally from behind thin cloud cover but improved visibility only slightly.
Christ, he thought and glanced again at the clock. He was late again, much later than usual, though. Evan would already be in bed, and Heather would be pacing the floor waiting for him. His latest project was taking much more of his time than he’d intended, leaving Heather home alone with the challenge of caring for Evan. Ever since the accident that had left Evan paralyzed, Heather had become a nervous wreck. She’d been forced to quit her job and stay home to care for him. It was a full-time job to see to his needs, and it wearied Heather. She got no rest during the day and lay awake much of the night worrying that something might happen to her son while they slept. The whole thing had shattered her.
Even though his income was the only thing supporting them now, Derek still found himself feeling guilty each morning when he walked out the door to go to work. Heather would smile weakly and wave, but Derek knew underneath she was fretting over what horrible things might happen to Evan. She wasn’t used to seeing Evan so helpless. She was used to seeing him running with his friends, playing baseball, climbing trees. Now she saw him as a china doll to be locked safely inside a display case.
He fingered the button on the garage door opener as he neared the house. For the third time this week, he had to slam on the brakes and skid to a halt inches from the door because it failed to open again. He jabbed the button angrily, but the door stubbornly remained closed.
He let out an exasperated sigh, grabbed his briefcase and stomped up to the front door.
Before he could put his key in the lock, the door flew open.
“It’s almost nine,” Heather said.
“I—I know. I’m sorry,” Derek said. “The garage door wouldn’t open again.”
“It’s the fog—I told you,” she said, moving aside so he could enter. “It interferes with the signal somehow.”
As he stepped past her, he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.
“Didn’t do that when we first had it installed. Why now all of a sudden? Is the fog getting thicker?”
“Things wear out.”
“Speaking of fog—you see it out there? Weird. Couldn’t see a damned thing coming up the drive. It was clear as can be on 363, but down here on Willow …”
Heather looked out into the night.
“Yes, it is odd, isn’t it? It’s so quiet.”
The fog around the house was like a gray wall. She couldn’t see more than a few feet beyond the porch.
“Evan asleep?”
“No,” she replied with a shake of her head, long dark hair swinging from shoulder to shoulder. “I let him lie downstairs awhile to watch a movie. It’s Hitchcock week on AMC. He’s still down there.”
Derek sighed.
“I know, I know,” she answered the unspoken complaint. “But you know how much he loves movies. It can’t hurt just this once.”
“Yes, but you shouldn’t leave him alone; you never know what might happen.”
“I just now ran up to see if you’d made it home yet.”
Heather looked tired. It was taking a lot out of her to stay home with Evan. Having to quit her job and turn her back on her career had been hard enough, but now she had a new burden. And Derek hadn’t been much help to her. The accident that left Evan wheelchair bound had drastically changed their lives.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just that I worry.”
“I know.”
Derek tossed his jacket on the banister, set his briefcase next to a small stand and walked down the hall to the basement door. Heather followed.
The family room in the basement was a small nook just large enough for a television, a sofa, an easy chair and a loveseat. The sofa faced the TV and away from the stairway. Wooden TV trays hung neatly on a rack next to the loveseat, magazine holders next to the easy chair were filled to overflowing, and the coffee table between the sofa and TV was strewn with notepads, books, magazines and TV listings.
Evan lay on his back on the sofa. Two cushions propped him up. A long straw from a glass on a TV stand allowed him to sip a soft drink while he watched TV.
“Hey, Sport, what’s on?” Derek said, walking around to the front of the sofa.
Evan’s eyes lit up.
“Hey, Dad! I’ve been watching Hitchcock on AMC. They’re showing a different movie each night this week.”
Derek sat next to his son and tousled his hair.
Heather watched with folded arms from the stairway.
“Yeah, but it’s kind of late, isn’t it?”
“It just went off. That’s not too late, is it?”
Derek laughed. It was hard to deny Evan anything, especially something this simple.
“And aren’t you a little young for Hitchcock?”
“Todd’s mom let him watch all of the Alien movies,” he protested.
“Yeah, well, that’s Todd’s parents, isn’t it? Don’t get any ideas. You’re not watching any Alien movies until you’re at least thirteen, and maybe not even then.”
Heather leaned against the back of the sofa.
“Come on, Daddy,” she said, “Hitchcock’s not so bad. By modern standards he’s pretty tame.”
“Depends on the film. Some of them are fine, but others are just inappropriate for a ten-year-old. You want him watching Psycho or Frenzy?”
Heather opened her mouth to protest, but Evan intervened.
“Tonight it was just Rear Window, Dad. That one’s not bad at all. They don’t even show the woman getting cut up.”
Derek shook his head disapprovingly.
“Up to bed with you, Mister,” he said, scooping Evan up off the sofa.
Heather folded Evan’s hands neatly across his abdomen and then followed Derek as he carried their son upstairs.
“I guess we’d better make a pit stop at the bathroom on the way up,” Derek said. “Looks like you had a lot of soda while you were watching that movie.”
Evan nodded agreement.
At the top of the stairs, Derek turned to Heather.
“You go on to bed, hon. I’ll tuck him in.”
Heather smiled thinly and kissed Evan on the cheek before walking across the hall to the master bedroom. She watched from the doorway as Derek took Evan into the bathroom and listened briefly to their chit-chat before she closed the door to get ready for bed.
Derek tucked the blankets in tightly around Evan and placed the call button on the pillow within easy reach.
“Will there be more tests?”
“I don’t think so, Evan.”
“I’ll never walk again, will I?”
Derek shook his head.
“Let’s not talk about this now. The tutor will be here early, so you need to get some sleep. Shouldn’t have been up this late anyway.”
“Can you pull the blinds up so I can see out the window? I like to look at the fog in the moonlight. It’s cool. Like you see it in old movies like The Wolfman.”
He kissed Evan on the head, said good night and rose to leave. At the window he pulled up the blinds and paused to peer out at the thick fog that had crept to the house. Frogs chirped loudly in the night, obviously enjoying the damp weather.
“Good night, son,” he whispered. “Get some rest.”
Evan lay for a long time after his father left the room, gazing out at the play of the fog in the moonlight. Tendrils of fog reached out into the night like the tentacles of a jellyfish groping for prey. He imagined the thick mists populated with all manner of ghosts and Hollywood monsters.
He had finally grown weary of staring out the window and started to close his eyes when he saw something else. Something was moving in the fog, something dark. It moved like the fog but faster, seemingly with purpose. It approached the house from the direction of the marshes.
Evan watched fascinated as the dark mass in the fog inched closer to the house. The darkness and fog obscured any outlines and prevented him from seeing what exactly it was.
It was soon so close to the house that he could no longer see it over the windowsill. He stared out the window and listened. The fog lay like a great blanket silencing the night.
And then he heard a rasping sound outside his window. Something was climbing the trellis.
His heart began to thump as the sound drew nearer.
He was terrified and fascinated at the same time. He was afraid of whatever was coming up the side of the house, but he also wanted to see what it was.
A dark shape eclipsed the moonlight. The window frame groaned as if an enormous weight pressed against it. Outlined by the moon, the thing was like a cloud of smoke that moved with sentience.
The latch on the window popped and the two panes swung inward. Black tendrils reached into the room and crept toward him.
Evan’s mouth began to work reflexively, but he could not summon his voice. The tendrils curled around his arms and shoulders, and the thing seemed to pull itself toward him. The whole of it was suddenly in the room, an amoeba-like, inky cloud. It used the tentacles wrapped about him to lever itself up to his face.
He gasped and whimpered trying to cry out, but his voice would not come. He found himself staring into the blackness. It wrapped around him like an oily pillow so that he could not breathe. Then he could feel it penetrating his body through his ears, nose and mouth.
He could not scream.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Diablo III: The Skeleton King

The other night Logan and I met up with an old friend from the original Diablo. No, not Deckard Cain. Well, we did meet up with him also, but he was in Diablo II as well, so it doesn't count. No, I'm talking about Leoric, the Skeleton King.

Now, I thought we'd put him to eternal rest the first time around. I guess somebody doesn't know what "eternal" means.

Maybe this time his rest will be more permanent. Anyway, here it is (Note: If you've just started and haven't gotten this far yet, you may not want to spoil it by watching the video):

Diablo III: Initial thoughts

After the launch-day obstacles were out of the way, I was finally able to log in and play last night. I had participated in the open beta, so the early parts of the game showed me nothing I didn't already know. I played co-op with my gaming buddy, he opting for the Demon Hunter while I chose the Monk. There is no doubt that DIII is fun to play and will no doubt garner it's fair share of high review ratings. That's not to say it's not lacking in some ways, but at this admittedly early point, I'd say the good outweighs the bad.

One of DIII's strong points is the atmosphere. The game manages to recapture much of the feel of the original game, which, I argue, was to some degree lost in Diablo II. One of the aspects of the original Diablo that appealed to me was the overall ambiance. Most of Diablo takes place underground in dungeon or otherwordly environments, places of darkness, mystery and deep shadows. Between the visuals and the sound effects, Diablo created a foreboding atmosphere that made players feel that doom could be waiting around any crumbling wall or through any broken archway.

The only area in Diablo II where I can remember having that same sense of atmosphere was in the tombs beneath the desert. So much of Diablo II took place above ground and just didn't have the same feel to it. As much as I enjoyed Diablo II, it didn't hold the same magic for me as the original.

I was happy to see some semblance of that ambiance back in DIII. The area around New Tristram and Old Tristram is dark, misty and full of menace. You can hear the moaning of zombies and the cries of wretched mothers and bird calls as you make your way along the winding paths, through fields and over bridges.

The cellars and dungeons below ground are also well realized and full of atmosphere. Everything from the lighting to the sounds and sense of depth combine for a strong feeling of immersion. The sense of depth is something one could easily overlook because it feels so natural in the dungeon environments. You climb up and down stairs; from balconies you can see areas below where zombies, skeletons or other denizens await—the zombies more often than not feasting on the corpse of a hapless villager.

And that's another aspect that adds to the sense of horror: You actually see the zombies crowded 'round a body, devouring it. In dungeons you pass walls where body parts dangle from chains like sides of beef. Remember the Butcher's room in the original Diablo? Yes, it's very much like that.

The first time I met the Butcher in Diablo, I was actually a little shocked at how graphically that scene was depicted. I don't think I'd seen anything like that in a computer game before. Granted, by modern standards it would seem pretty tame, but it left an impression on me.

DIII has done a good job of delivering on that same sense of horror.

The graphics are also impressive—colorful, detailed, well rendered. The blending of colors in some areas has the effect of watercolor paintings come to life. The play of light and shadow highlights the strong visual presentation. Ironically, it actually reminds me of a less cartoonish Torchlight. I also cannot help but be reminded to some degree of Dungeon Siege III. And that's not a bad thing.

The gameplay is standard action-RPG fare with primary and secondary attacks mapped to the left and right mouse buttons. Using one ability accumulates spirit, which can be spent to use the other ability. Defensive abilities are mapped to number keys and perform actions such as briefly stunning enemies surrounding the character or healing the character and party members. Slicing, firing and kicking your way through mobs in DIII feels comfortably familiar.

In addition to the spoken dialogue, the audio lore updates, journal and diary readings have been a pleasant surprise. I'm a sucker for anything that enhances the dramatic presentation of the story or the immersion. A nice touch for these is that you can continue to run around killing monsters and collecting loot while the audio plays. So when you click on a journal you've found in a study, you're not stuck watching the text scroll or frozen in place while the audio plays. You are free to roam around and do whatever you want while you listen. In this case it's don't stay awhile, just listen.

All of these factors combine for an enjoyable gaming experience, but I can't help being a little grumpy about the skill system. It seems like all of the new action RPGs—and even MMOs—have decided to take the attribute point distribution out of the equation. Skill systems are more streamlined and simplified, maybe even—dare I say it—oversimplified. Admittedly, I may be entrenched in a decidedly old-school mindset when it comes to RPG character development, but I honestly like having control over where my points go. And I would like to be able to select from a pool of skills rather than have them dictated to me. I align this to some degree with allocating skill points and choosing feats in D&D.

Part of making a character your own is having some freedom to do whatever you want with your skills and attributes. Yes, this opens the door for someone "gimping" a character, but it lends itself to creating something that is uniquely yours. The original Diablo, for example, placed no restrictions on what spells or abilities your character could use as long as the primary attribute was high enough to learn and use it. I had a friend who played a mage in Diablo. Instead of doing what you'd naturally expect someone to do with a magic-using character, he did nearly the opposite. Since he was always going to have a nice amount of mana for casting spells, he invested points in strength so he could wield swords and wear heavy armor. It was kind of an odd choice, but it worked. He relied heavily on items that boosted strength to do it, but he had mage running around in full plate who could also blast enemies with frost nova and smack them with swords.

So the character customization could be better. Yes, it's nice to be able to play a class as either gender instead of the classes being locked to a specific one, and, yes, it's nice to see the character appearance change with the items equipped and to be able to dye clothing to different colors. I can understand what this effectively does for the game. It lends more focus to the quests and the gameplay rather than the number crunching. But it's not quite the same as being able to take your character development off the beaten path if you wanted to—whether ill advised or not. The choice should be the player's.

I still have a lot of gaming ahead of me in DIII, so a final verdict will be long in coming. In the meantime, I'm impressed with a lot the game has to offer and hope it can continue to be engaging and immersive.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Diablo III: Blizzard lays an egg

In case you're a normal person leading a normal life--in other words, you work for a living, you go to bed at a decent hour, you get up early, feed your kids, get them off to school and then head off to work for a long day--here's a newsflash you may have missed: Blizzard's Diablo III launch has been a colossal failure.

Word spread quickly when players on Asian servers found they could not log in and play. The top error addressed was an issue with licenses for digital versions of the game. The Asia launch was declared a disaster. You can read all about it in the forums.

Predictably, the US launch was just as successful. The phrase of the day is "Error 37," although a good argument could also be made for a number of other errors. To get a feel for how many unhappy gamers there are, all you have to do is drop in on the Diablo subreddit and join the error message upvoting fun. The bottom line for me is, I ain't playing.

I find myself wondering how many of those other folk occupying GameStop at midnight last night rushed home, ravaged the packaging, waited half an hour for the game to install only to find they couldn't even log in. Now I think I may understand why the game takes so long to install: All along it wasn't that there was so much data to copy; it was because Blizzard was stalling for time. "Um, here, listen to this. It's the music from the original Diablo. I'm sure you'll enjoy it! Oh, and while you're listening to that, here's the entire Diablo story told in finely drawn sketches."

Yeah, yeah, that'll work.

We're left to scratch our heads and wonder exactly what Blizzard was doing during those beta test periods and during that open beta. After all, isn't that what the open beta was all about--getting ready for the big launch? I cannot begin to express what a huge and preposterous failure this is. At this point, no game company, least of all Blizzard, can say, "Oh, we just did not anticipate ..." Not after all those other launch-day failures that should have served as great big lessons for ambitious launches.

A big point of failure in all of this is the rise in popularity of the internet-only multiplayer model. Once upon a time, LAN play was king. Companies, including Blizzard, strongly supported LAN gaming. Does anybody remember the spawn copies specifically for network gaming? The very idea would seem like utter insanity to today's gaming companies. Spawn copies? What am I, stupid?

Would we even be reading anything about this launch failure if Diablo III supported local single-player and LAN play without logging on to servers? This would barely be a blip on the radar. Oh, servers are down. So what? I can play locally.

I'm sure many gamers--particularly the Blizzard fanboys (you know who you are)--will shrug dismissively. Blizzard will get it ironed out. They always do. And I'm sure they will. In the meantime, I've just spent 60 bucks on what out of the box looks like a fresh, steaming nugget of excrement. In two weeks time, many will forget these hiccoughs. But I can't and won't, largely because I come from a different era of gaming, an era in which terms such as "launch failure" or "launch disaster" didn't exist in the gaming lexicon. Oh, sure, there were bugs to deal with; there have always been and always will be bugs. Some bugs are harmless, some are showstoppers.

When the original Diablo hit the shelves, I found myself in the closest thing to gaming nirvana I can remember. Before the game was released, I played the demo over and over and over again. Remember demos? Some companies still release those. I simply could not kill the Butcher too many times. I even bought the expansion pack developed by a different company. The expansion was considered so bad that few people even want to admit it existed at all. But I played it and liked it. I and my colleagues even stayed late after work one day to play Diablo on the company network. It was a huge LAN party. There's another term that will soon be gone from the gaming lexicon: LAN party. Remember those?

Eventually, I'll be playing Diablo III once the kinks are ironed out. But I can't help feeling that the good old days of gaming are gone forever. Here's to the future.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Days like these

Many technology companies like structure and planning. They invest time in creating detailed designs and specifications that will inform development, quality assurance, documentation and marketing. Other companies, even today, fly by the proverbial seats of their pants. Having worked for a number of software developers over the years, I've been in a position to see the industry from the inside. And what I've seen isn't very pretty.

It's days like today that make me regret ever accepting a ticket to this ringside seat. It's one thing to be a software user and to be frequently frustrated by buggy programming and poor design; it's another to be party to it and to understand how and why bad software makes it into the users' hands. Today my manager pulled our heads together to inform us about a change that was forthcoming in a program we've been testing for months--and to admonish us for not having raised a concern about the issue that prompted the change.

I resented the admonishment, not because it was not a valid concern; it obviously was. I resented it because we are one of those companies that make things up as they go. Crudely scrawled diagrams on a whiteboard or handwritten notes on scrap paper are the best planning documents we have. And those are never shared with the quality assurance team. No, the quality assurance analysts have to wait until the product is finished and the code is ready to be deployed to the lab environment before they even have an inkling about what it's supposed to do. We're winging it.

And we are expected to raise questions about design flaws. Never mind that once a product has been built it's a little late to be addressing design flaws. The only way to undesign bad design is to start over. That, of course, is out of the question. Around here it's damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.

What's even worse is that most of the questions we raise about poor design decisions are dismissed. It works as we intended. That's what we hear almost every time we raise an issue with how something functions.

But my manager wants to hold us accountable for decisions over which we ultimately have no control. I understand why the issue is being raised, and I agree that it ought to be raised. Just don't dump this in my lap.

Adding injury to insult, I was then informed of the next testing project. The manager admitted knowing next to nothing about how the system is supposed to work and acknowledged a language barrier. But somehow I'm expected to be able to take on the testing for the system and make some kind of judgment about whether it's working correctly or not. Have you ever wondered why your software doesn't work correctly? I think I know the answer.

Once again, I feel like I've awakened inside a Franz Kafka story.