Tara’s. Topless. Tavern. A Red, white and blue neon sign spewed these words across the wet and cracked asphalt of the Pinkerton street plaza as the dark and clouded sky issued forth torrents of cold rain, bright splashes of white lightning and deep tremolos of sonorous thunder. A blond, dutch barmaid stood atop these words like a glowing goddess of merriment. In each hand she held a tankard of ale, upon her face shone a wink and a smile, and from out her blouse billowed creamy breasts with happy nipples both pink and perky. A cold breeze carried the sweet scent of damp creosote, and the air was alive with music and voices spilling out from the open door leading into the bar.
Vehicles of varying description crowded the plaza’s parking lot like huddled metal masses under the watery onslaught, and in the middle, next to a rust-red all-terrain-vehicle, stood a lonely sentinel dimly reflecting the tri-colored neon light. He was a tall man, just under two meters. Piercing gray eyes peered out from under the brim of an oil-skin outback, and a thin, ragged scar ran down his left cheek and across his unshaven chin. Marshal Alan Hume looked grim in spite of the merry environment in front of him.
At the end of any normal day this scene – specifically the titular alliteration and bulbous boobies – would spread a smile across his ragged features, and force a chuckle from his throat, but not today. That wet and wintry Wednesday broke with a double murder at 5:15am. Alan had eaten his breakfast burrito over the haunting images of tortured, dismembered bodies. The killings were escalating. Today’s batch put the carnage just a dog’s piss-arc away from Hopewell City proper, the name brand metropolis of the Hopewell Corporation, and the source of Alan’s meager but welcome paycheck.
Alan was actually a marshal for the Mining Corps, a multi-functional organization that served as both a safety commission and security force for off-world mining interests, but the Mining Corps was under contract with the Hopewell Corporation to keep the peace and protect their investment in this new world they called Soror. Aside from a few local security teams and the occasional colonial sheriff, marshals were the only law on the planet, and Alan was one of the best. Alan was also the most popular. He was usually assigned the high profile cases by simple means of his celebrity with the mucky-mucks in the tall, steel, towers downtown. One mucky-muck in particular, Dr. Thaddeus Hopewell – the owner of the Hopewell Corporation and half the damned planet – lauded Alan’s performance as a marshal so much it made his asshole pucker. Alan didn’t like attention, and his bullshit meter twittered over the Doctor’s false confidence. The morning’s murders were so close to the good Doctor’s pet city that Alan was sure to hear from him soon, especially after what he’d seen, and who or what could be behind them.
That morning, Alan woke to the incessant chirping of his unified communication device rattling on his night stand. When the phone rings at five and a quarter in the morning, before even the rooster has had his morning piss, it’s almost guaranteed to be a bad day. Alan swiped the answer widget on the folded touchscreen and Grand Marshal Sukhbir Singh sat calmly through a muffled tirade of half-conscious colorful metaphors. When Alan finally cleared the vestiges of an unfulfilled dream out of his head, Singh greeted him soberly.
“Good, you’re awake,” he said.
“Unnnn…” Alan replied to the image on his screen.
Sukhbir was a broad brown man with a face full of salt-and-pepper beard. He wore a maroon Nehru shirt and matching turban. Singh’s Sikh styling was never lost on Alan, and Alan never lost an opportunity to commend his wardrobe.
“You look very… red today, Sooky,” Alan remarked.
Singh remained placid but for a slight tick in his left eyelid. Alan knew enough by that small chink in his bosses armor to lay off the harassment and just shut the fuck up.
“So, sorry to wake you, Alan, but there were more killings last night. I need you to meet Marshal North as soon as you are decent. I’m transferring the coordinates now.” Singh said.
“Can I at least grab a burrito first?”
“I wouldn’t,” Singh replied, and terminated the session. His image disappeared, replaced by a map of Port City with a red pushpin marking the location of the crime, only two blocks from Alan’s flat. Alan’s heart sank and set up shop near his colon. The son of a bitch was getting ballsy, almost taunting Alan, dangling fresh kills in front of him to show how invincible he was.
There it was: a little taste of the shit sandwich that would spoil Alan’s entire day. And here he was at the end of it standing alone outside a titty bar as freezing rain glanced off the brim of his hat, skated down the length of his brown leather duster, and splashed onto the flooding asphalt.
“The last thing I need is a fucking cold,” he grunted, marched through the parking lot, and ducked through the bar’s large wooden door.
If the common cold was enough to drive Alan into the bar, emphysema should have driven him back out. The air reeked of sweet tobacco, tangy ganja, and bitter hashish. The only atmosphere Tara’s seemed to lack was oxygen. One good thing about the aerial tar singeing his nostrils was that it scrubbed away the memory of rotting people that had followed Alan around all day. That smell settled into his sinuses, fouled the smell of food, fouled his very mood. It was the foetid and foreboding scent of death, and the ever-present reminder of Alan’s abject failure. Every murder was one less innocent life Alan could save and it gnawed at his very existence. The reefer was a welcome relief from that reminder.
The scene on that rooftop was one Alan would fight hard to forget. It started nice: the sunrise over the watery horizon almost made Alan forget what he had been sent there to do. As the pale peach sunlight painted the cityscape with day, the daylight unveiled the evil from the night before and was somehow darkened by it. This was when Alan caught the first whiff. That sweet and tangy scent of putridity. It tickled his gorge and broke a cold sweat across his brow. Alan was all too familiar with the smell of decay, but today – a day of 5:15 wake-up calls and more death on Alan’s watch – the smell carried with it a debt. Alan owed every soul on this dark list of murders justice, a debt that Alan intended to repay with compound interest.
Ryan North tapped Alan on the shoulder and forced his attention to the matter at hand. He was taller than Alan by about six centimeters and lanky as a stork on stilts. Decked out in tight denim jeans and a blue chambray shirt, Ryan winked at Alan from under the brim of a black baseball cap with the pickaxe and shovel of the Mining Corps logo emblazoned on the front in gold, and his silver badge clipped to the brim.
“Sorry I’m a bit tardy mate, had a bit of trouble with the commute,” said Ryan. Marshal North was Australian, chasing kangaroos and wallabies and humming didgeridoos with the aborigines, or at least that’s how Alan always pictured it, but in reality Ryan North had once been an Inspector for the Queensland Police Service and Alan couldn’t imagine a marshal he’d rather be working with on this case.
None that were alive anyway.
“What was her name?” Alan asked.
“I really can’t remember,” Ryan chuckled, but lost his grin as he remembered the morning’s business and fidgeted with his tablet as they headed towards the crime scene.
The conversation stopped there. All mentation and sensation was now strictly devoted to observation. Forensics had already covered the area. Pictures taken, samples collected and chalk lines drawn, the crew skedaddled to let the big dogs sniff the leftovers. Alan surveyed the scene with a solemn sincerity that dared even the crickets to strum their leg-strings. Two bodies were cut into nine pieces. Sprawled on a lawnchair lay the bulk of a man in a gray sweatsuit; his head sitting in his lap, face down, dark hair feathered in the breeze. His hands lay to either side of him on the whitewashed roof. The right hand was curled up at the sun like a dead spider, while the left sat in a half fist with a golden band gleaming in the pale morning light. He never saw it coming. His wife, however, did. She ran, ran from the monster who slayed her husband. She lay on her back, red hair streaming around her, screaming at the sky with her throat cut, and torso slashed. A single pale breast hung limply from the gash in her navy jumpsuit. Twenty feet in front of her body lay her forearms, french nails bent back as they dug into the white tar roof. Criss-crossed close behind were her slender legs with strong calves. Like a movie in his mind Alan played back the troubling scene. At first sight of her husbands mangled body she ran, screaming. The killer cut her down mid-stride: taking first the left leg at the knee, then the right at the hip, but she didn’t give up. pulling herself across the roof, she made it over five feet before the killer severed both arms together at the elbow then dragged her body back using the same sharp weapon. He let her scream, the killer, let her look into his murderous eyes before he slowly and deliberately carved away at her throat in slow, even strokes.
The significant feature of this morbid display, the one that tipped the scales in favor of classifying these deaths as a serial killing, was a complete absence of blood. The bodies appeared as if they had been exsanguinated, but the stains upon the white roof indicated that blood had indeed flowed the night before, as if the killer had sucked up all the blood when the deed was done, and carried it home in a mop bucket.
Alan stood before a diorama of pure evil, with not a clue what to make of it. He could see the victims and their travails clearly enough, but what Alan couldn’t picture was the killer, or the weapon.
“What do the boys in forensics think about the weapon?” Alan whispered.
“One bloke posits we’ve got a psychopathic ninja on our hands,” Ryan replied, “with twin katanas.”
“Maloney?” Alan asked, Ryan nodded.
“Figures, the man can pull a print off a wet cotton ball but he is seriously fucked in the head.”
“Smith thinks a Sonitee could have done it,” Ryan offered.
“A demon?” Alan asked.
Ryan nodded slowly. The Sonitee were the other sentient species that had taken residence on this planet. They crash landed on Soror shortly after the Hopewell risk assessment team made landfall. Many human settlers found the Sonitee’s appearance so unsettling they took to calling them demons. The Sonitee were oily black creatures with large dark eyes and bright red irises, so the moniker stuck. What qualified them for this carnage were the large blade-like claws that they grew out of their forearms when threatened. The claws were purely instinctual, in most cases, but what unsettled Alan even more than the prospects of Sonitee aggression was the utter shit-storm that would arise from letting the human population think a demon had committed these murders. He really didn’t need the riots.
“Keep that under wraps,” Alan said.
“No shit,” Ryan replied.
“Breakfast?” Alan asked.
Ryan took a look around at the human sashimi and shook his head, “Naa, mate, you go on right ahead,” he said.
A firm hand upon his shoulder brought Alan back to Tara’s. The bar’s bouncer was a good deal larger than Alan, wearing a black t-shirt with the word “Security” written in white and “Karl” engraved on his nametag. Karl insisted on checking Alan’s duster but a quick flip of his collar revealed the sterling silver insignia of the Mining Corps marshals. The bouncer nodded and went back to his station. Alan would never leave his duster at the door in a place like this, hell, some days he would just as soon wear it to bed. He had lined the inside with loopholes and velcro straps, enough to conceal an arsenal worthy of a mercenary, and more often than not he needed it. Soror was still the virgin frontier, and adventure drew in both the bold and the baleful. Tonight he packed light: just his sawed-off twelve-gauge shotgun and daily-wear powder-black Desert Eagle. He was off duty after all.
Alan had come to Tara’s to meet his best friend since the Kuiper colonies, Jimmy Tucci. Back in the day Tucci drove the ore-runners and Alan meted out justice in a red inspector’s uniform with a standard issue coil-gun. Now, fifteen years later, Jimmy owned and operated a space-train between Earth and Soror. Jimmy had certain… tastes. And Tara’s was his idea. All around Alan waitresses skittered between tables taking drink, food and recreational drug orders all while naked from the waist up but for a barmaid outfit similar to the sign outside. Most of the girls were augmented and their fun-bags reminded Alan of a child’s punch balloon. Alan pictured tying a rubber band around their nipples and bouncing them off his fist with a hollow poonk-poonk sound. Motion caught Alan’s eye somewhere in the middle of this thought and he spotted Jimmy waving frantically and sitting at a table on a rise at the far end of the bar.
As Alan went to meet his friend he noticed a more mature blond woman around his age mixing drinks behind the bar. She was probably in her early forties and wore a more modest version of the barmaid outfit, but she filled it out fine. This had to be the Tara of Tara’s Topless Tavern. Alan was tempted to make introductions and negotiate possible relations but Jimmy’s gesticulations became almost apoplectic. So, Alan put his oats back in the can and met Jimmy at the table.
Jimmy was a Chihuahua of a man, short, skinny, with a dark comb-over poorly hiding his balding dome. Hazel eyes bulged from sallow sockets, and he sported a whisper of a mustache over large thick lips. Jimmy threw Alan his signature shit-eating grin, demonstrating the poor dental plan offered by the Mining Corps. Alan set his wet hat upon the table and leaned back in the too-little chair.
“How the hell did you find this place, Jimbo,” Alan said.
Jimmy shrugged and said, “It’s cozy, full of tits, and out of the drug-free-zone.”
Jimmy took a deep drag off a fat blunt and scrunched his eyes. He coughed, wheezed, then turned the blunt in Alan’s direction. “Hit?” he asked.
Alan waved it away, “You know I can’t stomach that shit,” he said.
“Fine, ya’ prude. Let me buy you a drink then,” he said.
Jimmy flagged down a barmaid with pool-blue eyes, shoulder-length brown hair, and a natural C-cup. She sauntered over to their table with a toothy smile that faded in and out over a piece of day-glow green gum.
“Hey sweety, what can I do ya for?” she asked, smacking her gum between words.
“Maureen, this is my buddy Alan, and he would like…” Jimmy said, pointing at Alan.
“Do you have Scab Mountain Oatmeal Stout on draft?” Alan asked.
Maureen’s eyes played with the silver star on his collar, “Sure thing, marshal,” she said as her eyes sparkled and she smiled invitingly. “That’s a man’s drink right there,” she said, and then bounced away to the bar with a backwards glance on the way there.
Jimmy took another toke, looked at Alan sideways, and said, “You’re a real prick you know that?”
“How so?” Alan asked.
“You could have all the pussy in this place if you wanted it with that symbol of phallic supremacy on your collar, instead you just sit there like a damned eunuch.”
“Come off it, Jimmy,” Alan said. “I’ve got enough to worry about without distractions or attachments.”
“Whatever, but that shit builds up man,” Jimmy said. “You don’t drown the happy sailor every once in awhile and you’ll find yourself nothing but distracted. You have to bury the mole often to keep a clear head.” Jimmy tapped his temple with his blunt hand. “That’s my motto, always keep a clear head,” he said, then took another drag off his marijuana stuffed blunt.
Alan changed the subject.
“So, how are things out in the black?” He asked.
“Same as usual; into the sphincter, out of the sphincter, like a fag on prom night,” he said.
Alan grinned at Jimmy’s blue-collar honesty. Jimmy’s cargo route between Soror and Earth included a slip through a wormhole maintained by the Hopewell Corporation. It was generally impolitic to badmouth Hopewell’s moneymaker, seeing as they owned most of the planet, but out here on the fringes, Sphincter was the unofficial name for the hole in the brane of space-time spread by the Hopewell Wormhole Auger™. To the working class folk that ran cargo and muscled the docks, the wormhole looked unequivocally like a giant asshole.
“What about you?” Jimmy asked. “The last time we met you were investigating a few killings in the outlands.”
“Still working on that one,” Alan replied. “And I probably told you more than I should have.”
Jimmy put on a sly I-know-more-than-you-think-I-know grin.
“The rumor-mill says your killer’s grown a set and is moving further in-town,” he said. “Even as close as Port City.”
Alan furrowed his brow and clenched his teeth.
“I don’t know where you’ve been hearing these rumors but I suggest you keep your own ass clenched about whatever you hear,” Alan growled, “Coppice?”
The blood drained from Jimmy’s face, “Shit, sorry Alan, I didn’t…”, he stuttered.
Alan rubbed his temples and his composure softened.
“No, I’m sorry,” Alan said. “If you’re hearing that much then I’ve got some serious ass to chew back at HQ. It’s been a fucking long day.”
“So, you’re saying that much is true?” Jimmy asked, his eyes wide and bulging more than usual. “Shit, man, that’s right in your backyard, you must be livid.”
“Jimmy…”, Alan started.
“I mean if that’s true then all this shit about the bodies being cut into little pieces,” Jimmy continued.
“Jimmy!” Alan growled.
“And the blood, all mopped up and kept as a trophy,” Jimmy continued.
“Just…” Alan said in a shouted whisper, leaning forward in his seat.
“And that a demon might be…”, Jimmy said.
Alan stood, “Shut the fuck up, Jimmy!” he shouted.
Jimmy cowered before Alan’s dark demeanor. Patrons sitting to either side of their table stared at Alan.
“Right, too much information,” Jimmy said.
“You understand why we can’t have this conversation, especially in public?” Alan whispered as he sat back down.
“But I work with those…,” Jimmy started again.
“Jimmeeeee…,” Alan growled.
“Right,” Jimmy said, “shutting up, looking at tits, and taking a hit.”
Jimmy sucked deep on the last two inches of his blunt and then snuffed it in the ash tray on their table.
After Jimmy recovered from yet another coughing fit he wheezed out, “No wonder you’re so uptight lately.”
Alan just shook his head.
A sharp slap dragged their attention to a booth a few tables away. A group of meatheads – well into their fifth round of brew – tried playing touchy-feely with a blonde barmaid sporting a pair of punch-balloons, against her will. The barmaid ran to the big bouncer Alan had crossed earlier. He couldn’t hear what was being said over the din of the other patrons, but Alan could tell there was going to be trouble. The bouncer was a gorilla of a man, but if the bouncer was big, these guys were bigger, and there were four of them. Alan could make out the voice of the leader of the group as he argued with the bouncer. He was tall with sandy blonde hair and a chest that could be measured in full meters. His face and voice were so familiar it made Alan pause. He remembered a similar looking man with a similar voice lying on a gunmetal deck plate. His hand covered his throat as blood pulsed between his fingers from a bullet hole. Alan’s bullet. But that was fifteen years ago when Alan was just an inspector in the Kuiper belt. Alan shook off his déjà-vu as the bouncer went sailing over the railing into a pair of tables, scattering chairs and people everywhere.
So much for off duty, Alan thought. As a marshal, it was now his responsibility to bring a little law to the lawless. The buzz in the bar went quiet, but that incessant music kept pounding through the air. Alan stood, loosened the Velcro straps that held the shotgun under his duster, and put his hand at the ready over the Desert Eagle at his hip.
“Alright, boys, I think that’s enough of that. Time to head home, put on your jammies and sleep it off,” Alan said. “It’s been a helluva day, and I don’t think any of us needs this shit right now.” It’d been over a week since he killed anyone, so he was going to give these guys as much of a chance as he could.
They weren’t taking it.
“Fuck you, pops!” cried the leader, “We came for drinks and titties and that’s what we’re gonna get!”
Alan walked slowly towards the group and the boy just stood there, his great chest heaving. This kid has to be augmented, he’s just too big, Alan thought. They did that to get an edge in mining and dock work in those days. When you could lift twice as much as a normal human, you were worth time and a half at least. Generally a pricey operation, there were black market surgeons and junk dealers that would make you massive for minimal money; they just required a little tithing once you were gainfully employed. As Alan advanced, his testicles retreated. This was turning into a fight faster than Alan liked. He glanced at the other men at the table and took note of the coil-guns stuffed down their pants. Alan should have acted right then, four quick shots and it would all be over, but he was curious. The loudmouth was just so familiar, he could have been looking at a dead man: Terry Moses his name, pirate was he.
“What’s your name, loudmouth?” Alan asked.
“Don’t tell him Russ,” whispered one of his sidekicks.
Just then, of all people, Jimmy stepped between Alan and Russ. Alan shot a puzzled look at the back of Jimmy’s balding head, but Russ just glared at Alan over the shorter man.
“Damnit Moses, go home and sleep it off, we ship out tomorrow and you don’t want this kind of trouble!” Jimmy said.
Russ Moses glared at Jimmy. Alan should have guessed that some of Jimmy’s own crew would be hanging out here as well. Jimmy was generally a staunch captain that demanded the respect of his crew, and Alan hoped that this fact turned the tide of the encounter.
“Back off, piss-ant!” Russ spat in Jimmy’s face.
Jimmy glared at him and glanced once at Alan. He shook his head and said to Russ with poison in his eyes, “Your funeral, prick.”
At that, Jimmy headed quickly for the door. He knew what was next, and he wasn’t going to stick around to play the innocent bystander. Several other patrons saw his retreat, and followed him out in a rush. The rest just stood like grinning fools watching some impromptu play. Shit was going to hit the fan fast, so Alan had to control the situation for minimal casualties. They hadn’t taught him this in his community college Criminal Justice courses, he’d learned them the hard way with a lot of gravestones as grade marks. Alan decided quickly to take the filial relationship between the man in his memory and the punk in front of him to his advantage.
“You’re Terry Moses’ boy aren’t you?” Alan said.
This seemed to take Russ off guard a bit. It’s one thing to face down a member of law enforcement; it’s another entirely when they know your daddy.
“Yeah, and who the fuck are you?” Russ asked.
“I’m the guy who put a bullet in his neck,” Alan chuckled.
Russ glared like a bull in a pen that wanted nothing more than to stick his horns up Alan’s rectum. He sneered at Alan with a devil-dog grin, full of teeth and drool.
“Well, Alan Hume, the great marshal. I’d hoped to run into you out here.” Russ said.
“Oh really?,” Alan said, “You looking for vendetta, boy?” Alan said.
“Maybe I am?” He said. “Last I heard you were grounded, caught a nasty case of space-fright.”
The boy was right. Ten years before, June of 2098 to be exact, Alan checked into the Mining Corps psych ward after the accident. The shrinks called it acute Astrospecific Kenophobia, but space-fright fit the bill. Aside from the physical effects of vacuum exposure, It took Alan over a year before he could go out into a clear night sky, and old Star Trek re-runs still gave him the heebies. He lost Karen, the boy, everything that year. The stellar void became the embodiment of the emptiness of his heart, and so he never left Soror, turning the rule of law into his life and love. This wasn’t the first time the bad-guy had tried to put Alan off his game by poking fun at his psychological maladies, but today, of all days, Alan just wasn’t up for this shit.
“Then I guess it’s a good thing we’re not in space then,” Alan sneered. “Isn’t it, Rusty?”
Russ’s face turned a violent shade of red and veins bulged from his neck and forehead. He’d activated a subdermal adrenaline pump and was sputtering and sweating like a spring pig on Christmas day. It was time to levy the kill-switch.
“Well, Russ. Your daddy was a total fuck-up, and it looks like you’re aiming to follow in his footsteps,” Alan said. “So, we gonna dance, junior?”
Russ’s reply was a swift swing of his right arm, John-Wayne-style. If anyone had taught this boy to fight, Alan would be in real trouble, but his high and obvious angle of attack allowed Alan to duck and jump back up hard. He jammed his head into Russ’s chin with a satisfying crack. Blood and enamel sprayed from Russ’s mouth and he fell to the floor with x’s on his eyes and canaries over his head. If there was one thing Alan learned during his tenure on this rock, it was that junkheads had glass-jaws.
Alan picked a chunk of tooth out of his hair and looked up in time to see Russ’s buddies pull the coil-guns from their waistbands. Each gun whined as its capacitors charged. Alan dove over the railing and ducked as quiet-fire slugs whistled over his head and slammed into the liquor bottles behind the bar. Tara screamed as glass and alcohol rained down in a deadly cocktail over her head. Alan ripped the shotgun from his duster and sprayed both shots into melee. Two of the punks took the bulk of the shot and their weapon arms disintegrated into meat mush as they were thrown back into their booth, leaving the final punk dumbfounded and covered in blood. Alan pulled out the Desert Eagle.
“Put it down, son” Alan said.
The boy snarled and raised his charging coil-gun. Alan put three hollow-points into the boy’s chest before his coil-gun was ready. His back exploded as the slugs expanded and he crumpled to the floor in a heap of death. Alan stowed the Eagle and assessed the damages. Tara needed a first aide kit and a healthy insurance settlement, but otherwise she was fine. Moses was alive, but he’d be eating pudding through a straw for a few weeks. The rest were lifeless hunks of ground chuck. This was going to be a lot of paperwork. That’s all I fucking need, Alan thought.
Alain de Botton has been pissing off atheists lately with his assertions that there are religious practices that might be of benefit to “secularists”. It’s not so much his basic premise that is rotten, indeed I studied all sorts of religious and mystic crap in my earlier misguided search for my kind of religion, or at least the best idea of God, and I came to understand several points in many traditions that had benefits outside supernatural intentions. What really seems to be pissing off a lot of atheists is how he’s presenting his case. Not only is he attacking the “New Atheists” as essentially fundamentalists, but he’s doing a piss-poor job of providing real examples of religious practices that “secularists” seem to need in order to bring them away from religion.
Now, from my perspective, I have no real interest in eradicating religion. As an expression of culture I find a lot of it quaint and beautiful. Some people even like it. What I have an issue with is when religious myths are used as facts and a basis for trying to control other people’s lives – namely mine – or when they use magical thinking to make decisions. I also don’t like when religion inhibits progress. If the moral aspects of religion were more maleable, less resistant to change, then there wouldn’t be that much of a problem. Sure, the myths wouldn’t be real, but I don’t need to believe in wizards and goblins in order to enjoy the latest Harry Potter movie now do I? Suspension of disbelief is one thing, the complete abandon thereof is dangerous!
The non-religious are non-religious because they don’t like religion in practice. Sure, I studied religions for most of my young adult life, but that was pure intellectual and spiritual curiosity. So, when de Botton proclaims that we need the aspects of religion we set aside on purpose, the only response he should expect to get is “What the eff are you smokin’?” For me, it wasn’t the truth of the religion that steered me away from it, it was the constriction of it. So when de Botton posted an article in the HuffPo titled “5 Religious Concepts That Atheists Can Use”. There was some obvious backlash, beginning (for myself at least) with Professor Jerry Coyne’s blog “Why Evolution Is True”. Jerry listed a summary of de Botton’s 5 concepts, but I decided to read the original article. What I discoevered was that Jerry was too kind in his summaries. Now, I understand that this is a fluff piece to promote his book, considering the title is textbook headline marketing, but de Botton doesn’t make me want to buy his book. This is why:
Nothing DeBotton lists is exclusive to religion, and just a little bit of contemplation finds secular corollaries for all of them.
1. Does he think Atheists don’t use calendars or observe holidays? Are we supposed to genuflect in the direction of the Orion Nebula and repeat “We are star-stuff” five times a day?
2. Exercise? Meditation? Taking a shower? Even Sam Harris, one of those few fundamentalist atheists he carries on about has made strong cases for Buddhist meditation practices. Perhaps he’s got something here though, self-flagellation might be a great practice for breaking bad habits such as smoking!
3. Umm, apparently the non-religious can only meet in bars and restaurants. Nevermind Meetup.com or about a gazillion secular events that have nothing to do with religion, yet are also inclusive of the religious. His contrast between facebook.com and church service is laughable, not to mention backwards. How exactly do you meet non-like-minded people in a church? Gee, I’m going to go to my local Lutheran Church because of the great variety of people there, I’ll confront the “Other” people who believe exactly as I do and listen unquestioningly to the same drivel from the pulpit. Perhaps a UU church where you might find an Atheist, a Muslim and a Christian all sitting in the same pew, but most religions JUST DON’T WORK LIKE THAT! In fact, religion is the LEAST likely way to meet different kinds of people! He is apparently projecting himself onto all atheists when he suggests that we can’t make friends because of our “cold exteriors”. I’m not the most sociable guy on the planet, but I’m not going to say that all atheists are like me so we need a churchlike environment to really get the social juices flowing.
4. Please, let’s spoil the joy of studying a painting for the purpose of understanding the artist’s purpose BY ORGANIZING THE ART BY THE ARTISTS PURPOSE! What if I look at the painting of Mary and think, “Slut!”? Would that be the wrong interpretation? Should I be told how I’m supposed to react to art?
5. Apparently DeBotton has never heard of the great American Road Trip! How about hunting trips? Season Tickets for the Diamondbacks? He’s utterly vague on what he means here.
If DeBotton could pick just one of these and perhaps be more specific about what he means, provide good religious examples and then show how these are better than those options that DO EXIST in the non-religious world, he would have a better time on this project. Sure, there are some good things about religion, but they are NOT THE EXCLUSIVE DOMAIN OF RELIGION! Most of these actions are performed with the mindset that the supernatural claims of the host mythology is in fact true. If you contend that they are not true, then you must discover or invent some psychological benefit for actions that, if turned into compulsions would have clinical implications in a secular setting. The man who prays five times in the direction of a holy city is considered religious, the man who kneels five times a day for no reason is OCD. There needs to be a more rational explanation for mimicking traditional religious practices, and there may be, since of course meditation and breathing has benefits unrelated to the supernatural and thus makes sense to emulate.
He also needs to do a little reading on what “secular” actually means. He’s conflating it with “atheism” and that is simply not the case. If I join a bowling team with church/temple/synagogue-going friends and we drink beer, talk trash, and bowl-lousy, that is a secular event that builds community. What DeBotton has done is built a short-bus full of straw-people that he proceeds to trot-out and execute with paper bullets and a rubber-band. For someone with a background in philosophy, he sure is a muddy thinker.
Rhys Morgan in the UK has come under fire by the Burzynski Clinic bully and marketing director Marc Stephens for posting a critical blog regarding their cancer treatment.
After posting his original criticism (http://rhysmorgan.co/2011/08/the-burzynski-clinic/) Rhys found himself under attack from this morally degenerate individual, claiming legal action for supposed illegal libelous and defamatory remarks against this quack treatment (http://rhysmorgan.co/2011/11/threats-from-the-burzynski-clinic/). After learning that Rhys was in fact a teenage boy enrolled in high school, Marc shed his professional demeanor and resorted to straight up bullying, including threats to report him to his school and attaching a picture of his house from Google Maps implying that ever disingenuous threat: I know where you live.
You come to expect this form of defense from charlatans. They can’t rely on the non-existent science for their fraudulent claims, so they resort to the old canard of defamation and libel. This isn’t libel. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong, period. If you can’t prove that your snake oil works, then I’m not making shit up about you when I question the efficacy of your product, service, or special super-human ability, or your integrity as a human being for fleecing the innocent and hopeless for your quackery.
But wait! The Burzynsksi Clinic apparently fired Marc Stephens, and released a list of supposedly peer reviewed articles on their procedure! Perhaps there is something to this procedure that can cost an upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a “clinical trial”. No, unfortunately, the links and references might appear impressive on a sheet of paper, but when researched, they don’t pan out, and, in fact, are mostly forms of misdirection (http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2011/11/a-look-at-the-burzynski-clinics-publications/)
It still hasn’t been peer reviewed, it still hasn’t shown results, and it still has been in trials with the FDA for over three decades, showing no results save for a rather large bank account. Money that could go to developing real cancer treatments rather than simply providing false hope for the hopeless. They like to brag that they are on course for “Phase 3 trials”, but I suspect this is merely the bureaucratic timeline to put up, or shut up. Trials must eventually end, and just because they end, doesn’t mean the procedure is then approved.
I posted this mainly as a trackback for Rhys’s blog, but I greatly anticipate whatever warnings these frauds want to send my way. I’m not nearly as nice a person as Rhys, and Marc has already been shown to be an impotent fool, who likes to pick on children and then have his ass handed to him by that same teenager who just happens to be a lot smarter than Mr. Stephens.
The months that followed the affair with Professor Presbury at Camford were unusually quiet. Very few cases met my friends particular interest, and so I spent my days reading The Guardian and taking up the occasional visit to some of my more consistent patients. It was early in April, and Baker Street was beginning to show signs of impending spring, the shrouded sky parted for the warm sun more often, and my bones no longer complained of the winter cold. It was a Saturday, and I was reading of the war in the east, how Russia was holding up in Antung, and were determined to stop the Japanese incursion from reach Feng-huang-cheng. My compatriot was ambling by the mantle, his boredom reaching such peaks that even his test tubes and beakers could not occupy his idle mind. I feared that, without some unique conundrum to activate his ravenous intellect, that he might yet return to the syringe and vial for mental occupation. Such as it was, up the stairs and into our sitting room arrived just such a puzzle. A puzzle within a puzzle, that, to solve one, you must accept that you may never solve the other. I relay this story to you as best as I can understand it, and can only accept it myself as a type of lucid dream. One which I will remember with great clarity even as my flesh is interred.
The man who entered our lodgings that day was nearly comical upon first glance, but his countenance bore so serious and intent an expression that neither my friend nor myself were inclined to crack even the slightest grin. He was dressed in the most ridiculous attire, and every piece of it was the color purple. He wore amethyst gems on silver rings, and atop his head curled the most remarkable golden locks under an oversize, purple beret. A velveteen sash crossed his breast adorned with silver and purple medals of all shapes and sizes. He stood with the air of a soldier, but he was no taller than a boy of twelve or thirteen. His Garibaldi fashioned whiskers belied his older age and as odd as this small man seemed, by impetus of my military training, I found myself nearly saluting our purple stranger.
“May I help you, constable?” asked Holmes. By my expression of shock, Holmes was immediately inclined to explain his deduction.
“Elementary as usual, old chap,” he said, “Our man here may present military… colors, but his physique is not in keeping with regular military practice. He is more likely the captain of a royal guard, and therefore also commands his county’s rule of law.”
“Correct you are,” spoke the man,”I am Captain Marmel Lod of The Good Witch Locasta’s Brigade of Justice, and my lady has requested your assistance, for my own skills as a man of the law have fallen short in the face of a most sordid affair!”
Holmes pondered this information for a good many minutes. I was thoroughly unfamiliar with what matriarch would claim the title of “witch”, nor did the name Locasta find any association in what knowledge I had of political affairs. Were it not for this man’s obvious sincerity, I would have thought this some jest in poor taste, perhaps a prank conceived by Lestrade as a jibe at my friends serious contemplation of most matters. I daresay, Lestrade was not the least bit this imaginative, and so I played along.
“From what country do you hail, Captain?” I asked, “I cannot say I’ve heard of your liege in any of my reading of worldly affairs.”
“I am from Gillikin Country,” said the Captain proudly, standing at an even stiffer attention as he spoke, “The northern kingdom in the Land of Oz, a great distance from your… London.”
Holmes’ brow furrowed at this mention, but kept quiet.
“I see,” I said, “Gillikin is on the Australian continent then?”
“No,” said the Captain. He thought a bit then, his regal demeanor turning to one of consternation. “It is closer to a country called Kansas, I believe.”
For the life of me the closest country I could arrive at in my limited but not altogether ignorant knowledge of geography was the Canadian Confederation. This was certainly a puzzle. This man was either a fraud or else he presented a most curious challenge to our common knowledge. Holmes seemed to believe the latter, as when he finally spoke he said, “We must go there.”
“Holmes, you don’t seriously…” I started.
“My dear Watson,” Holmes said abruptly, “I am particularly fond of my ability to detect falsehood in the speech of men, and though this man’s origin is highly absurd, he is most convinced of it, and so I must follow this story until it prove either a wonder, or myself a fool. Discovery is the greatest gain in a gamble of foolishness. You are welcome to stay behind, but I am going to America!”
Surely his recent mania in the face of boredom was guiding his actions, and I would be remiss to leave my friend to an unknown fate in such a state. I also must admit, that my own curiosity was getting the better of me. I had never yet visited the United States, and the adventure was altogether too much to miss.
“I will accompany you,” I said. “I dare not pass on such an escapade.”
Our visitor seemed to relax at our vehement agreement to visit his land, and seemed to shrink even a few more inches with his relief.
“Oh, thank you,” beamed the Captain, “Locasta promised you would, but I had my doubts. Our troubles were met with no solution in all the Land of Oz, and I could not imagine the outside world might hold our salvation as this is whence the once Wonderful Wizard came and he was somewhat of a humbug.”
“What is it then that troubles your… Good Witch?” Asked Holmes.
“There has been, a theft, and most troubling, a murder!” Spoke the Captain, allowing his distress to seep through his strict demeanor.
“Of what details are you aware?” Asked Holmes hastily.
“Well, you see, there is this fellow, Jack Pumpkinhead,” Captain Marmel began, “he is the good friend of Princess Ozma, ruler over Emerald City. He was brought to life in Gillikin country, and so visits every now and again, for no good reason that we can surely tell, but nearly seven days ago his body was found at the steps of Locasta’s own castle, very much un-alive.”
“And the theft?” Holmes asked.
“Why, his very head!” Exclaimed the Captain. “It is that theft which has left him un-alive!”
“Most grusome.” Remarked Holmes. “Nothing further than that for now. The theft of a head is very much a mystery indeed. I shall want to examine the scene!”
“Of course, Locasta was plain in stating everything should be left as it was,” Said the Captain.
“Including the body?” I asked.
“Why of course!” Stated the Captain.
“It must surely be rank by now!” I exclaimed.
“Not as much spoiled as his head I imagine,” spoke the Captain gravely. This statement puzzled me, and so I resisted further questioning, since this strange affair merely begged them and would result in an everlasting session of inquiry. My eyes would best answer all as we arrived and prove out this ordeal as fraud or discovery.
Travelling to this land of “Oz” proved a complicated matter, as the Captain was in no way certain the direction we must travel. We knew as much that we would travel first to America, and from there head west into the prairie lands. The Captain was absolutely certain that it was easiest to get to Oz through either Kansas or Omaha across a large desert, but, as my newly purchased map of the United Stated of America attested, this seemed geographically implausible. I was beginning to suspect we were hot on the trail of a wild goose, but my friend was determined to follow this foolish errand to its end.
We embarked on the RMS Celtic in Liverpool on Sunday morning. The trip was uneventful, but the salty air and watery pitch did little to bolster my weak constitution. Captain Marmal Lod collected curious looks wherever we went, but he did not seem to notice. We arrived in New York that following Monday. The French given Statue of Liberty was a glorious image as we floated into port with the sun at our backs. Perhaps it was the mere sight of solid ground, and euphoria of a journey’s end, but such a well of admiration filled my chest that, were the opportunity presented, a change in allegiance would have suited my heart just fine.
From Jersey City then we took a train to St. Louis, and boarded a steamboat along the Missouri River. We finally disembarked in Omaha after nearly ten days of travel, and here we were at a loss for another destination.
The Captain carried very little luggage, just a simple purple trunk with a silver lock and key. Holmes and myself were equally unencumbered, and the Captain watched over our bags as Holmes lit and puffed his pipe, standing at a distance. I joined Holmes, borrowing a pinch of his tobacco, and watching the purple man stand solemnly in front of our bags with a look of concern on his face.
“I think, perhaps, our charge has lost his way,” I said.
“I swear, Watson, I don’t think he ever had it,” Holmes said. “He claims his liege transported him to this area, and he had from there a specific itinerary for reaching London.”
“I suppose he could have been brought by carriage, with little remembrance of the journey.” I offered.
“I don’t believe that to be the case, dear friend.” He said. “I feel, quite irrationally, that we have become a party to something rather… unconventional.”
“To that, I can surely agree,” I mused.
Suddenly, there arose such a screech from the Captain that both Holmes and myself nearly dropped our briars to the muddy ground. Loath to abandon his charge of our personal effects, Captain Marmel gesticulated towards the two of us madly, pointing at the side of a tavern which was plastered with posters and signs advertising all manner of festivities.
Holmes and I rushed to the small man’s side and asked him what brought on his commotion.
“There he is!” Answered the Captain, “The great humbug! Oz is in Omaha!”
“But I thought you said your country was in the north?” I asked, thoroughly confused.
“No, the man, the wizard!” Cried the Captain.
Holmes grasped Captain Marmal Lod by his sash and collar and swiftly slapped the man right then left. This sobered and somewhat angered the Captain, but he regained his composure and marched toward the tavern wall with a huff and a stomp.
We followed close behind, and at the wall he slapped a particular poster and exclaimed, “This man! This man can take us to the Land of Oz, for he was once the great and powerful ruler after usurping King Pastonia’s throne!” He spat these words in a tone of contempt.
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, tinkerer, illusionist and magician extraordinaire!”, read the sign. An illustration of an egg-headed man in a coned hat with lightning bolts shooting from his fingertips made up the bulk of the sign. “Come one, come aall to the greatest show of the new century! Just 5 cents a head at Barnacles Circus!”
“A performer?” I asked incredulously, “This man hardly looks like the usurper of a whole country.”
“Perhaps, Watson,” Holmes said quietly.
“Are you mad?” I said, quite upset at how this journey was steering us from the ridiculous and bizarre to the ludicrous and outright insulting.
“We should take in the show,” Holmes said. “If not only for the entertainment, I’m sure this wizard can answer a great deal many questions for us about our dear Captain and his Gillikan Country as he seems a most mundane individual.”
“Barely, I imagine,” I muttered.
We secured lodging at an inn a few blocks away from the river, arranged our toilet, and headed out again into the evening towards Barnacles Circus. A hansom carried us to the fairgrounds and we acquired tickets from the box office out in front of the towering blue and white striped tent. The tent proved to be merely a facade, and through the gaping flaps we entered a courtyard of spectacles ranging from hairy women to men lifting large and heavy objects. In a vacant corner, paid little attention by the other patrons was a stage and a sign which read “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. Only but a few spectators sat in the audience. A young boy collected nickels for admission and the three of us sat in the front row on a bail of hay.
When the curtain parted an oversize head floated above the stage, the manner of suspension cleverly concealed so that it indeed seemed to be flying. The lower lip of the construct moved up and down as it appeared to speak in a booming voice.
“I welcome the curious, the brazen, the skeptical and the believers! I am the great and powerful Oz and this evening I will present to you a spectacle unlike any you will ever witness for the rest of your life!” The head exclaimed.
Flames shot out from either side of the stage and sparks crackled from behind the great head.
Holmes leaned into me and muttered, “Worth the nickel at least, I say.”
“Hardly,” I groaned. As the sparklers died down the head floated away and the egg-headed old man from the poster walked out with his green cone hat and silken green robe.
“Welcome all! I am the real wizard here!” The old man chuckled, “I’m pleased to see so… many faces in the crowd tonight. Allow me to show you my wonderful powers!”
The old Wizard rushed off stage and brought back with him an odd assemblage of items with which he performed several parlor tricks, few of which actually worked. The few other members of the audience began to disperse and finally, as the wizard reached the climax of his act, he looked into the audience and saw only three people left. Sherlock Holmes, myself, and the purple Gillikin all of us glaring at him. What little heart he had left in the performance was lost and he threw down his rings and handkerchiefs. The old wizard sat glumly at the edge of the stage and with his head in his hands said weakly, “I’ll be happy to return your fare to you if you’ll simply forgive a very bad wizard and let him end this catastrophe now.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” spoke my friend, “The floating head was a trick worth the nickel at least.”
“Well, I’ll be,” said the old wizard, brightening slightly as he heard my friend’s dialect. “We don’t get many Briton’s out here in Nebraska!”
“Indeed,” my friend said, “we actually came here in search of your services. We are in dire need of one Wonderful Wizard, and particularly, from the land of Oz.”
The wizards face whitened and he glanced swiftly over to Captain Marmel Lod.
“Is that,” he stammered, “Is he a Gillikin?”
“I most certainly am you tired old humbug!” growled the Captain.
The Wizard jumped up and walked swiftly in a circle.
“Oh no,” he gasped. “Oh no, oh no, no-no-no-no-no!” The wizard swiftly lost his footing and tumbled off the stage into the hay and dirt below. Holmes and I swiftly rose to his assistance but he brushed us off and sat down on a bail of hay.
“You’re here to take me then,” he sobbed, “imprison me, transform me into a statue even!”
“Whatever are you saying, man?” Holmes said briskly, bringing the man to his senses with his second fit of slapping that day.
“I’m a humbug!” He shouted. “I was a false magician in a magical land, and now they want revenge I’ll wager.”
“Nothing of the sort!” cried Captain Marmel. “Though for consorting with our former tyrant, Mombi, and turning Princess Ozma into a little boy, we very well ought to.”
I looked at Holmes, and for the first time in my life I saw that man as thoroughly confused as I.
“My dear God, what in the world is all this rubbish,” I shouted. “Why, this is madness.”
Holmes closed his eyes and collected himself, he pulled me aside.
“Yes, but here we have two individuals who share this madness, and we are two individuals who do not,” he said.
“The whole world doesn’t share this madness!” I exclaimed.
“As far as we know,” Holmes said in contemplation. “But, my dear Watson, the evidence is mounting. We have a very peculiar man from an equally peculiar country we know nothing about, and a normal man who corroborates the other’s existence. We are slowly building the case that what we are seeking is very real.”
“Or else we have two very clever con-men pulling our legs,” I said.
“To what end though I wonder?”
“Humiliation?” I offered.
“I care nothing of that,” Holmes said. “To be sure, if this is a ruse, it will fall apart well before there are any public repercussions, unless this was meant to draw our attention away from London altogether. If that were the case then we are two weeks yet gone from home and whatever mischief planned in our absence will be well under way and awaiting our return home.”
“You are a detective,” I said. “Not a protector.”
“Indeed, my point exactly,” He said. “Does that at all console you.”
I glanced at the two queer men by the stage. Captain Marmel stared with concern, while the wizard gazed fearfully at the Gillikin guard.
“It does,” I said.
When Holmes and I returned to the odd pair, the wizard spoke up immediately, “What is it then you want with me?” He asked.
“We need you to take us to Oz,” replied the Gillikin, engaging the old wizard with more calm than before.
The wizard chuckled. He sat down on the hay once more and outright laughed.
“I don’t even know how I got there, and I’m equally befuddled in how I got back,” he said.
“It is said you flew off in a great balloon!” The Gillikin shouted at the wizard.
“Yes, the same as I arrived. And Dorothy in a house upon a cyclone. By air is the best way.” He said. “But even if I wanted to I wouldn’t know which direction to go.”
“That too is what I am told,” agreed the Captain.
I wanted to grab the Gillikin and demand he tell me how he had arrived here from his own country, how he could simply not know the means by which he made it to America! But I knew that the response would probably only deepen the puzzle and so I remained silent for the remainder of the conversation.
“How may we acquire a dirigible then, in this area?” My friend asked.
“As a balloon man myself, I know some people,” spoke the wizard. “I can get you a balloon or my name isn’t Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs.”
“My, that is a mouthful,” my friend remarked.
“And who, may I ask are you my Briton friends?” asked Diggs.
“My name is Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective, at your service,” My friend said and then bowed slightly.”And this is my good friend Dr. James Watson.”
“And I am Captain Marmel Lod of the Good Witch Locasta’s Brigade of Justice,” said the Gillikin, with a nod.
“Ahh yes, Sherlock Holmes,” spoke the wizard, “that your reputation has reached the Good Witch of the North in the Land of Oz has something to be said for your renown. And what has you visiting such a queer and wonderful land?”
“A murder, and a theft.” Interjected the Gillikin.
“Most serious,” exclaimed Diggs, “I shall fetch the balloon at once!”
The old wizard ran off leaving us behind to idle by the stage.
After a few hours, when we all had just about decided that the old man had fled for his freedom or sanity, Oscar Diggs returned.
“I have arranged it!” he exclaimed. “Tomorrow, at the break of day, you will meet me in that field, behind the fairgrounds.” The wizard pointed to an area of darkness beyond the edge of the circus. “I have rented a balloon for the day.”
We thanked the old wizard and retired to our lodgings for the evening. All that night, the words of our odd fellow in conversation with the lame magician haunted my thoughts.
Overthrowing a king, turning a princess into a boy? I thought fitfully, What nonsense is that? And it seemed every question bore an answer which begged even more questions. I fought the endless cycling of my mind over the matter, and slept in fits from the most unusual dreams of which I can scarce recall.
The next morning we arrived in the field indicated, our luggage in tow. A rather nondescript man in blue overalls and a red cotton shirt was slowly inflating the envelope of a large green balloon with a controlled flame. The basket was comfortably sized, and would accept our luggage easily in addition to ourselves. There was, however, no sign of the old wizard. The sky was clear, the breeze gentle and cool. I asked the balloon operator whether Oscar Diggs had yet been around. The man looked at me blankly as he chewed on a toothpick. Saying nothing, he pulled a folded piece of paper from the front pocket of his overalls and handed it to me. Unfolding the paper revealed a note, apparently written by the old wizard. It read:
To my new Briton friends,
I must, very regrettably, depart your company and that of this city. I have provided this balloon for your use and wish you the best of luck in finding Oz. If I were to guide you in any way towards finding that queer and wonderful land I would say simply to fly as high as you can and stay in front of the gale. This balloon will not likely survive the trip, please don’t mention that to Douglas here. I must cower from your quest for fear of becoming trapped again in Oz. Give my best to the Lion, the Scarecrow, Nick Chopper and fair young Dorothy should you happen to meet them.
I handed the note to Holmes, who in turn handed the note to Captain Marmel.
“What an odd fellow,” said Holmes.
“What a humbug!” growled the Captain.
When the envelope was completely full, Douglas aided us in loading up the basket. Douglas also provided instructions for the balloons using very efficient pantomime. He pointed at the lever to increase the flame and then pointed up, then pointed to the lever for decreasing the flame and pointed down. Then, he pointed to the shutoff valve and swiped his fingers across his throat. We all bid the man farewell and Holmes took the balloon’s controls. Douglas released the ropes that tied down the balloon, and swiftly we rose into the air.
Wasting no time, Holmes ignited the flame so that the balloon would carry us higher and higher into the air.
“I don’t know what he means by the ‘gale’,” I said. “There is barely wind enough to carry us across the fair grounds let alone to another country.”
Little more than I had finished that sentence the sky grew dark and grey around us. Clouds rolled in from nowhere and their moisture collected on the envelope and our clothes. We were very high up, and now could no longer see the ground. Holmes watched the weather intently. From the ground, clouds, at worst, bring a fear of cold and wet, but at this altitude, we all feared the ground now very much more than getting wet.
“Everyone, duck into the basket,” Holmes exclaimed. “I think we’re about to meet our gale.”
Just as we all ducked beneath the baskets rim, the balloon jerked violently. The gust carried us in a spiral through the grey clouds. Up became down and down became up, and suddenly, just as I was slipping out of consciousnesses from the sudden pressure in the air, I saw the flame slowly gutter and then snuff out completely. Just before the blackness took hold, I watched Holmes valiantly grab the shutoff valve, and stop the flow of gas.
I regained consciousness in a most curious position. Above me, all I could see was a lavender sky. Realizing, through gravity, that what I was really looking at was the ground, I marveled at how I didn’t fall straight through the top of the basket. Looking around me it seemed that I was entangled in the loose tether rope in such a way that it formed a rough hammock. My predicament was one that was very safe to be in, yet very dangerous to get out of. For, to untangle myself, or cut the ropes in any way would surely land me twenty feet down on my neck. As I pondered my escape, Holmes walked underneath me and stared into the basket.
“Hullo,” he said, in a rather cheerful manner. “You should get yourself down from there, Watson. You’re going to want to see this.”
“That does seem to pose a problem, old chap,” I said. “Is the ground soft?”
“No, not in the least,” he said stomping on what appeared to be grass, lavender, purple grass. But his heels clicked on the earth there showing that the ground beneath was most uncomfortable for a fall from this height.
I managed to wriggle one of my arms free, and then untangle the other. I carefully untied some of the knots binding my feet, but when one loop came unraveled I plummeted suddenly out of the basket. Fortunately, my waist was still caught in some loops and my fall ended halfway from the basket. My breath left me, and I gasped, but I was now in much less danger than I had been.
Holmes held up a finger and walked away behind me for a moment, when he returned he had a large hunting knife in his hand and he was fumbling with the ropes he could reach, testing each one for tension. He finally pulled one out, gave it a tug and swiftly cut it away with the knife. As if rolling slowly down a hill, I descended to the ground as the ropes unraveled and snapped in an even procession. At the end, the ropes released me in full and I fell three more feet into a crouch on the hard purple ground.
“Thank you, my good man!” I exclaimed clapping Holmes on the shoulder.
“Nothing more of it,” Holmes dismissed.
We found Captain Marmel laying on his back in a small stream several feet away. He awoke with a start, but, aside from a wet uniform, was none the worse for wear.
I must say, that this, I believe, is where the dream truly began. All around me were the most vibrant colors I had ever laid eyes upon. For a man from gray old London, this color was nearly blinding. The leaves on the tree, that had caught our balloon’s basket, and most of the envelope in tatters, were the very plum color of the captain’s uniform. The trunk was a silver white tinted lavender and the stream ran clear over purple rocks that shone like gemstones. It was the most surreal vision I had ever beheld. I could now understand my friends exuberance. Captain Marmel was less impressed, and in a rush to commence our business. He walked briskly across the lavender field and found a roadway. He looked left and looked right, collecting his bearings and deciding which way they should travel. Finally, he decided to go right, and we followed quickly behind with our bags over our shoulders and the Captain’s chest between us.
“How far must we go to reach your city?” I asked the Gillikin.
“Not far, in fact, I see a procession heading this way. Our balloon must have been seen.” He said.
He was right, more guards, dressed in very similar purple uniforms, marched along the curving road with an odd assemblage of non-purple people behind the leader. As they grew closer, the additional personages took on odd shapes and I was scarcely sure I was seeing things correctly. For it seemed they were partaking in some form of masquerade. There was a man in a gleaming metal suit of armor bearing a gold-handled axe over his shoulder. Next to him marched a rather awkward fellow wearing a burlap sack over his head like a scarecrow, and a man in a very clever and elaborate bug costume, with a vest over his carapace, and a bowler hat upon his head. When they finally caught up together, the procession stopped and the Captain addressed his brigade.
“I have brought the detective Sherlock Holmes and his compatriot Dr. James Watson.” He said.
The brigade saluted and the queer assembly of the three costumed fellows stood straight at attention.
I observed these three with the most intense interest. I thought at once that my mind had been addled by the intense air pressure, or surely the fall since I very nearly wanted to call each costumed person authentic. Which is to say, not human. I can’t say I took this thought very well, because I marched right up to the man in the giant insect costume and put my finger on the tip of his curling nose. What met my touch was very much the exoskeleton of a real insect, only much larger, as if magnified in front of me by a large looking glass. I next touched the ragged man with the burlap sack mask on the cheek, and the material yielded with no flesh beneath to stop my questing finger. I felt a sharp prick and pulled back my hand. A drop of blood welled on the tip of my index finger.
“What was that for?” I asked.
“What was what for?” it replied, the painted mouth moving, much to my shock.
“You bit me,” I replied.
“I did no such thing,” it said, “ahh, I see, you have poked your finger on my brains.”
“Why yes, the Scarecrow is the sharpest creature in all the Land of Oz!” exclaimed the giant insect.
“You were told!” growled the metal man, and the insect shrugged.
At this, I retreated, with my bleeding finder in my mouth.
“What manner of madness is this now?” I hissed at Holmes.
“As much madness as purple grass, I’d wager,” said Holmes in awe.
I am a Duke Nukem fan, let’s make no mistake. I’ve played every Duke Nukem adventure since the early days of Apogee shareware, and even remember feeling giddy over the triple parallax scrolling effect in Duke Nukem 2. I played Duke 3D Dukematch with friends over daisy-chained 10Base-2 Ethernet. Computers in every room, coax cable all over the floor, spare t-connectors strewn about next to 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew and super bags of Cooler Ranch Doritos. For over twelve hours we would play from daylight to daylight. Trip and pipe bomb traps would be laid out throughout various maps downloaded over dial-up connections to single-node BBS systems. Each computer held high-dollar video cards with coveted VESA VGA support so our aiming reticals would be that much more accurate at 800×600 resolution. Those are fond memories. Fourteen years ago that game was the only game I played, and a couple years later, when 3D Realms announced Duke Nukem Forever, I was stoked. Off and on for twelve years I would scope out www.3drealms.com for news of DNF. There were other games, Prey was in the works for years. Since Prey was using its own engine, DNF was sure to be released first. But DNF hopped from one engine license to the next: first Quake 2, then Unreal. Screenshots were released, even a trailer, but seemingly the game was rewritten several times. You would think, after over a decade, that this would be the most polished game of the century, but ultimately I was disappointed.
It’s been a long time since I could call myself a “gamer”, but when Duke Nukem Forever finally arrived, I felt this was one game I had to actually buy. Well, I don’t have much of a game budget, so I downloaded the Xbox 360 demo to get a little taste of the game, maybe give myself a reason to be irresponsible and spend sixty bucks on a video game rather than food for my kids. I’m glad I did. I’m sure one day I will own this game but not until it’s on the $10 list at GameStop.
The game seemed a bit rough. Starting out in the bathroom and taking a piss in the urinal made me chuckle, and I felt some nostalgia for its predecessor. Even when I walked in front of the broken mirror and thought for a moment that I was staring at the old sprite image of Duke. It seems they tried very hard to make the new model look like the sprite right down to the wooden jump animation, but that could have been intentional. While I played around in the staging area, drawing dirty images on the dry-erase board, I felt that the controls were a bit stiff. Granted, I’m used to aiming with a mouse and strafing with my keyboard, and have only recently used the control pad for Halo and Lego games with my sons, but my experience with the Halo trilogy has given me some agility with this control type. Since Halo is really the only FPS I’ve played at length with this controller, I have to compare the controls to that game and have to say the control response in Halo was much smoother.
I played the game on “Let’s Rock”, since I like to experience everything at a middle level from Indian food to video games, so that I have an idea of how the hotter dishes are going to taste. The introductory level that ended at the boss from the previous game was easy. Grab a devastator, dodge missiles, strafe, shoot, get more ammo. Big target, easy aim. The second level was a bit different. You drive a lifted truck through a canyon and run over pig-cops until you run out of gas. Then you’re on foot with a handgun that’s difficult to aim or hit anything and takes a very long time to reload. The pig-cops were much better aims than I was, and could hit me from across the map while I could barely even see, let alone hit them on a 55 inch screen at 1080p. I also noticed that the zoom control was available in the intro level, yet was missing from this one, and would have really been helpful. The rail-gun, for instance, had a scope, which seemed to be only for show. This would have been an excellent sniping weapon for long range targets, but I had to make do with it for short range combat. It was a one-shot one-kill weapon so it was somewhat effective, but the slow rate of fire made it difficult to use. The shotgun was a welcome sight and performed well but seemed to lack the oomph of its predecessor and others like it. This level also gave me the shrink ray, but it didn’t work quite like the old game. The enemies just got smaller but kept shooting and each shot was just as lethal. I couldn’t figure out how to kill the little bastards and was overtaken by rat-sized pig-cops that were hard to shoot at underfoot. This was quite a disappointment considering how much fun the shrink ray used to be.
I did like the recharging “ego” meter for health a la Gears of War, but it seemed a bit unpredictable, and I never really knew when I was going to die. The “Beer makes you tougher” bit I didn’t really get. When you hover over a beer can laying on the ground the game tells you to “Drink beer to make you tougher” which, given the nature of the game seems like it would, but you become disoriented. I don’t know if this was some joke, or if it was just a consequence of near invincibility. I could barely see anything in the game, so I didn’t give it a shot with any enemies near. I was also glad to see an old favorite, the pipe bomb, make an appearance, and the throwing/detonation controls were logical. I could see having a lot of fun with those again.
I suppose my main disappointment was that the game did not look like it had been in development for over a decade. It seemed unpolished, and somewhat rushed as if 3D Realms had a meeting a year ago to look over the Duke Nukem Forever mess and decided to scrap it all and rush a new game out the door. I suppose I probably need to play the entire game to see where the story leads, but the demo didn’t entice me to pay full price for the game in spite of its legacy. I’d rather play Duke 3D on Xbox Arcade. Sure the game had attitude, but most of the sound clips seemed like they were ripped straight out of Duke 3D, perhaps for nostalgia, but I was looking forward to a new game. Duke 3D was a visual masterpiece of its time, I expected more of that from this game. I sooo wanted to like DNF! But, for this Duke Nukem fan, I have to say that twelve years wasn’t worth the wait.
Upgrading my RSS feed for this site to a blog on EmpireAvenue.com.