[irevuo] 19 Must-Read Books That Will Help You Bridge “The Creativity Gap

I’ve always believed that consuming a lot of content is a surefire way to develop the creative muscle. The more we feed our brain, the more we get this itch to create something of our own.

But there’s an issue with this. As Ira Glass so eloquently stated, we have developed taste, but there’s this disconnect between the quality of the content we consume and the quality of the content we produce.

That’s why I also believe that creatives have to feed their brains with other types of content: the content that teaches one how to be creative, how to develop the proper mindset of a content creator.

That’s why today I’m sharing with you a list of must-read books if you want to become a better content creator, whether you’re an artist, a writer, a blogger, or a vlogger.

In Our Nature

I had two influences for this story. The first is the artwork of Mœbius, aka Jean Henri Gaston Giraud. Mœbius was a French comic artist well known for his imaginative, fantastic, and absurdist style. If you are not familiar, please look up his work, it will be time well spent. The second was the writer and director, Billy Wilder, but only at the end. Please enjoy and have a happy whatever you celebrate this time of year.

Wind groaned as it rushed through the gaps in the enormous stone tree, in a manner that sounded to Ghent that it was not yet ready to awaken.

“This is a very dispiriting local,” observed T7-U.

“I’d call it more melancholy,” replied Ghent.

“You’re far too romantic for a Xeno-archeologist slash sociologist.”

Ghent smiled, then said, “I’d say I’m about the right amount of romantic. You’re quite mopey for a Mobile Artificial Intelligence.”

The floating MAI, currently shaped as a sphere, glowed an ocherous hue that suggested that if it did have eyes, they would be rolling.

“Let’s take a closer look,” said Ghent as she trotted towards the edifice.

“You know I’ve already scanned it and have a thorough holo of both its exterior and interior. If we went back to the ship, you could examine it at your leisure.”

“We didn’t come all this way to look at a holo.”

“Maybe you didn’t,” muttered T7-U.

“It’ll be fun.”

“You say that but it never is.”

Ghent discovered that there were a series of platforms on the outside of the tree, which would allow her to climb around and up it. She ran her hands over the stone at the base. It was rough and mimicked tree bark. Taking out her portable analyzer she scanned the rock.

“This appears to be petrified wood, very ancient!” she exclaimed.

“I already knew that,” interjected T7-U, “I can even tell exactly how old it is.”

“Go on then.”

“One hundred, seventy-three million, five hundred and thirty-eight thousand, two hundred and sixty years, eight months, four days, seventeen hours and eleven seconds old. And counting.”

“Remarkable!”

“Not really, atomic dating is actually very easy. For me.”

“I meant that this is still here.”

“All it had to do was exist. Not challenging for an inanimate object.”

“Maybe, but no natural disaster toppled it, it wasn’t eroded by sand and wind, it stands here, just as it did so all those centuries ago.”

“It used to be alive, so maybe not exactly.”

“You seem especially glum today T7-U. Is something troubling you?”

“Other than you frittering away your time, no,” remarked the MAI.

Ghent gave her companion a meaningful stare but it didn’t blink. Of course, technically, it couldn’t do that, but it seemed unperturbed by her gaze.

“Very well then, let’s get exploring!” said Ghent with enthusiasm.

The steps were designed for a longer stride than a standard human had, indicating perhaps a taller species, so Ghent adjusted her localized gravity field so she could leap from one platform to the next. T7-U floated alongside her. After circumnavigating one and a half times they arrived at an opening, three meters wide and five meters tall.

Before entering, Ghent looked out over the plain that the structure sat on. To the north-east, on the horizon, were mountains, little more than tiny bumps at this distance.

The two suns, one a G-type star and the other a blue O-type, had passed each other and were slowly heading to set on opposite sides of the planet. Ghent recorded images, not for science but because she found it beautiful.

“Let’s see what’s what.”

They entered the tree tower. Sunlight streamed through both sides of the multitude of gaps in the stone. With the dust that blew in, it created a lattice of light.

“This reminds me of the Living Cathedral on Banvoc Prime,” said Ghent, “Utilizing nature for art.”

“My scans indicate that the species that made this place, genetically altered the plant life to grow in this precise layout,” added T7-U, “So unlike the Living Cathedral, this was engineered, not utilized.”

“It might be argued that both are utilized in the broadest sense of the word,” Ghent pointed out.

“Galactic Standard is a very sloppy and imprecise language,” snarked the MAI.

Ghent shrugged and replied, “You are technically right-”

“The very best way to BE right,” interrupted N7-U.

“But,” continued Ghent, “like great art, it can be subject to interpretation.”

N7-U said nothing in a very pointed way.

“Look at the tile work on the floor,” exclaimed Ghent in an attempt to distract the MAI, “The glyphs are similar to the kind found on many Harbinger sites, especially because of the circular pattern.”

“You are correct, it seems likely the natives had contact with them.”

Looking about the vaulted chamber, she saw carvings. Then again, not carvings precisely, engineered artwork? The native species seems to have tri-legged mobility, with long muscular legs and a humanoid torso and a horizontal head. It was representational, as best as she could tell without seeing a live being or a mummified corpse.

“Let’s see if we can translate this. Link up to my scanner, if you don’t mind,” Ghent asked.

“Linked now.”

With a dance of light and an almost imperceptible hum, the two transcribed the glyphs and the matched them to other examples of the Harbinger’s language.

“I’ve detected an energy surge,” warned N7-U, “Please retreat at least thirty meters and find shelter.”

Ghent moved rapidly, some of the places she explored had a habit of being dangerous and she trusted the MAI. Safely tucked away behind a pillar, she waited. Seconds passed then she heard it. A beautiful song, though she couldn’t understand the words.

“You should come out now,” she heard N7-U say.

From the center of the glyph tile-work came a projection of one of the natives. They did have three legs and an elongated head. The eyes were large and had a double, brass-colored iris. They moved in what seemed to be a graceful dance, and their skin seemed to be covered with a very fine fur. Both Xeno-archeologist slash sociologist and MAI stood and watched this performance until it faded.

“The light from the suns powered a projector set into the middle of the pattern,” stated N7-U, “It must start when enough energy has been harvested.”

“What a gift, to see a species that may not exist anymore,” she said with a smile.

“There is no evidence of current sentient life on this world,” added N7-U.

“It is possible that they left, and found a new home.”

“Would you like to hear the probability of that happening? It is low. Very, very low.”

“But not zero,” Ghent countered.

“No. Not zero.”

“There you go!”

As they explored the rest of the petrified tree tower, Ghent delighted in all they discovered. The images on the walls, containers made of some variety of ceramic steel, tools, and more advanced machines, long drained of power. Each one cataloged and samples collected.

After several hours, the suns began to set, the yellow one first then the blue. N7-U glowed so Ghent could see.

“Would you like me to summon the ship?” asked the MAI.

“Not just yet,” she replied, moving to a small balcony, “The moons are rising and I want to see that.”

N7-U followed her and radiated heat to keep her warm.

“Thank you.”

“You are welcome.”

The two of them stood watched the three moons rise into the night sky, each of them a different shade, red, green, and blue.

“I would like to ask you a question,” stated N7-U.

“You would?”

“Yes. If you don’t mind.”

“Please, ask away.”

“Why do you care about the past of others so much?”

“There’s not just one reason. Part of it is curiosity, other worlds are filled with new and fascinating things. Art, and if we’re lucky, music, and stories. We can learn so much from what has come before. We still only know very little about the Harbingers. What did they want? Why visit so many worlds? Where are they now? So many unanswered questions.”

N7-U floated silently for a moment then said, “And yet, it’s all the same.”

“How can you say that? The inhabitants of this planet are very different from humans or the Juntu, or the Bantakians, just to name three.”

“Whoever these people were, they are now gone, and until today, forgotten.”

“Exactly, they live again.”

“Do they? After many years of research, you might have a slight idea of who they were, but hardly the full picture.”

“True, but no one can know everything. Some knowledge is surely better than none?”

“As one of your people once said, ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’”

“Ha! Laying some ancient human wisdom on me! Well played sir,” Ghent conceded.

“The odds of truly knowing this species is five trillion, nine hundred and seventy-nine million, three hundred and-”

“You’ve made your point! I know we’ll only get a sliver of insight into this species. However, we might gain more knowledge of Harbingers.”

“How do you know that the Harbingers are even still alive? Or if they have your best interests in mind?” asked N7-U.

“One, we don’t. They could all be dead or ascended to the next plane of existence or something more incomprehensible. Two, every place we’ve seen evidence of their presence has been positive. And if they are even half as advanced as we think they are, it would be easy for them to conquer the Concordance of Worlds. Why would they make us work this hard to find them, and why leave clues if they wanted to attack?”

“Your reasoning is… sound.”

“Thank you. Did you translate the song or the glyphs yet?”

“I have.”

She stared at the MAI.

“It seems to be a prayer of thanks. To the Harbingers. Though they use a different word but it is clear from the context.”

“How dangerous! We must flee at once!”

“Please do not mock me!”

“Sorry, I apologize. I wasn’t making fun of you. Just what you said.”

“I do not see the distinction,” observed N7-U.

“I was doing it with affection.”

“Understood. I do accept your apology then.”

They stood for a while, Ghent watching the moonrise, N7-U possessing thoughts.

“I wish you would allow us to explore for you. MAIs are extraordinarily resistant to damage, we can go places biological beings cannot, our memories are flawless,-”

“You are an outstanding being, but humans have the need to do things for themselves. Obviously not everyone, we’d be tripping over each other if that were true. But enough of us want to see what’s over the next hill, so to speak.”

“It would be safer for you if you did not.”

“In our nature,” Ghent said with a shrug.

“This seems to be the truth,” N7-U replied with resignation.

“There is something to be said for boots on the ground, if we hadn’t explored first hand, we never would never have heard that alien song.”

“Very true. But it might have been dangerous, even fatal.”

“No reward without risk.” Ghent countered.

“While that might factual, however I must insist on protecting you.”

“Even when I don’t want you to?” she asked.

“That is when you will need it the most,” N7-U pointed out.

“Agreed!” Ghent accepted, “We complement each other well, don’t you think.”

“According to many philosophical theories, the balance of opposing viewpoints has merits.”

“I’ll take that as a yes. If you don’t mind, it is getting very chilly, could you please summon our ship?”

“It’s on its way now.”

“Thank you. You know, I think it’s very sweet the way you look after me,” she said.

“As it is your nature to put yourself in possible peril, it is in my nature to protect you,” answered N7-U.

“I love you too.”

Worn Paths

Writer’s block. Everyone who puts pen to paper, or in my case, fingertips to keyboard, wrestles with with this particular demon. About two weeks ago, I was chatting to another writer who was struggling with her own problems in this area, and we comisserated. Naturally, after than I grappled with my own lack of inspiration. Below is what I wrote when I didn’t know what to write.

He wandered through the stacks, looking for something. His fingertips brushed over the spines of books. It all seemed familiar, but the comfort that usually accompanied the sensation was absent. All subjects had been explored, extensively, and any related topics felt… dull. No, not dull, he still loved them but they felt like there was nothing new to be found. There was a sameness to it all and it increased his doleful mood.

“May I help you?”

Looking up he saw the librarian.

“No,” he replied, “Well, yes. Maybe?”

She smiled and asked, “Perhaps if told me what you were looking for?”

“I thought I knew.”

“Did you forget?”

“No!”

“Apologies, sometimes people forget titles and authors, there’s no shame in that.”

“That’s not it at all. It’s just that everything seems as though it’s been done.”

“And you feel like you’re just treading the same path?” she inquired.

“Yes! That’s it exactly!” he exclaimed, “No matter what I look for, it feels tired and dull.”

“So you are seeking something new?”

“Maybe.”

The librarian moved to a shelf, pulled a volume out, and presented it to him.

“I know that one.”

“Yes, I thought you might be familiar with that, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.”

For the next hour, she made suggestions. Many he knew, others didn’t inspire. Piles of books grew on the table he sat at and his frustration rose with them.

“What is wrong? Why is there nothing new?” he cried, “It’s like in a dream, when you are searching for something that’s always just ahead but somehow out of reach. No matter how hard you try, you can’t ever get it.”

Tapping a fingertip on her chin, the Liberian regarded him.

“I’m going to do something for you. It may be the solution you are looking for,” she mused.

“Is it a new subject?”

“No.”

“An obscure philosophy?”

“Not that.”

“Some sort of insight that will illuminate the truth?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Please! Don’t tease me! I must know!”

“I’m kicking you out.”

He stared at the librarian for a moment, waiting for her to say something else. Anything else. She did not.

“What!” he sputtered.

“You need to leave. Now.”

“Why? What have I done? Are you saying I cannot come back?”

She adjusted her glasses, more for effect than necessity, and replied, “I’m going to answer your last question first. Of course, you can return. In due time. Secondly, you have done nothing wrong, so don’t fret about that.”

“Then why?”

She gestured to the stacks, “On these shelves is the sum total of human knowledge, or as close as it gets. I’ve made multiple suggestions, all of which you have dismissed or rejected. Clearly, what you are looking for is not here.”

“Are you suggesting another library?”

Staring at him, the Librarian contemplated many responses. A substantial percentage of them were less than charitable. She chose kindness instead.

“No. You currently do not require this or any other library. I would encourage you to live your life.”

“I’m not sure what you mean?”

“Take a walk. Eat food you’ve never tried. Dance. Or maybe travel.”

“How will that help?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea.”

“Then why-” he began.

“Because,” she interrupted, “what you are looking for is not here.”

“It must be!”

“Do you live alone.” she declared.

“Yes,” he cautiously said.

“Have you ever opened up your refrigerator multiple times, hoping to find something new and tasty to eat?”

“Maybe…”

“Has anything magically appeared when you’ve done that?”

“Uhhhhh, no.”

“That is what you are doing here. Go forth and do something else.”

With a resigned sigh, he slowly collected his things and began to leave. A moment before exiting, he turned and asked, “Any ideas where to start?”

The Librarian pointed a finger and answered, “Just outside the door.”

The Saga of Wizard Bear

I do not consider myself a poet, despite having two daily haiku twitter feeds, @D_and_Dhaiku and @TrekHaiku. Here is another poem I wrote, in clear defiance of non-poethood. I wrote this as a result of discussing whether or not a Druid could cast spells while transformed into an animal, i.e. hardcorde nerd discussion. From minutia comes art. (BTW a Druid CANNOT not cast spells while in animal form. In case you were wondering.)

Art by the incomparable Bil Roundy. See his art at; http://comics.billroundy.com/

Deep in the woods, let evil beware
The children’s friend, the Wizard Bear
With tooth and claw, staff and spells
Monsters he fights, darkness he fells
If you be goblin, ogre, or troll
Growing thunder will be your doom’s toll
If wisdom you seek, Wizard Bear is wise
His knowledge is great, as is his size
Old as the trees, strong as steel
Calls no one lord, he’ll never kneel
If you lose your way, in the pathless wood
Wizard Bear watches, from beneath his hood
So be not afraid, have not a care
You’re under the gaze of Wizard Bear

* * *

If darkness is present, this is its flag
Running wild and free, the Daemon Stag
Blood crusts his antlers, and also his hooves
When his hunt begins, everyone moves
He bears no knight, only death rides along
All birds and beasts flee, they know something’s wrong
Many hunters have tried to bring him down
Their reward is always six feet underground
When the wild hunt, it does assemble
Wise and foolish, both will tremble
Dark as his heart is, bereft of compassion
There is one foe, turns his victory ashen
Who is this Hero, Elf, Dwarf, or Man?
None of these worthies, claim him in their clan
If you worry, feel no despair
The wicked Hart’s rival, is Wizard Bear

* * *

The birds have all fled, the beasts are all gone
And none will return, till the breaking of dawn
The woods are empty, air still as a tomb
Evil swiftly approaches, each moment closer to doom
A ring of stones stand, ’round an ancient Tor
While fiery prints cross the forest’s floor
And under the sky, the stars grow dim
The moon hangs crimson, all seems grim
Walking into the circle, it’s no crone’s nag
It’s the Devil’s hart, the Daemon Stag
It’s midsummer night, blood and flame he’ll bring
Laying claim to the title, the Forest King
Who will challenge, such a fearsome foe?
Will all lose courage, will all say no?
Deep in a cavern, filled with sweet fragrant smoke
A figure does stand, gathers staff and cloak
He strides through the woods, with purpose and steel
Brave and bold, no fear does he feel
At the circle, he now arrives
He roars to his foe, its sound cuts like knives
After that time stands still, no wind through the air
So begins the last battle, of Wizard Bear

* * *

With a bolt of lightning, Wizard Bear strikes first
But the Daemon Stag, he’s endured worse
Antler points flash, under the blood-red moon
They don’t find their target, he’s lunged too soon
Magic is loosened, fire, cold, and storm
But the the foe is pure evil, shaped in Hart’s form
Hooves forged in Hell, sharp as hate
Swiftly they strike, blood-thirst without sate
With claw and hoof, spell and horn
Soon both are bloodied, flesh pierced and torn
For all that, both fiercely fight on
There can be but one victor, when the forest sees dawn
Daemon Stag is weakened, but still has one trick
Where blood has been spilt, the footing is slick
If he could smile, his smirk would be wide
Wizard Bear lunges, then begins to slide
With a fall like thunder, he lands on his back
All weakness forgotten, the Stag now attacks
Claws hold back antlers, but the strain is great
Each one fights, to seal the other one’s fate
Inch by inch, the horns do descend
Wickedly piercing, flesh they do rend
With one final thrust, Daemon Stag impales
Wizard Bear shudders, but still never quails
Horns still in him, he slowly stands
Grasps the base of each antler, bound like iron bands
Strength does fade, as night passes to morn
But defend the forest, this he has sworn
Throws back his head, roars mighty as thunder
Snaps off the spiked rack, breaking evil asunder
His power is rent, the ground yawns wide
Back to Hell itself, does Daemon Stag ride
Battle is won, evil has lost
Do not yet rejoice, there is always a cost
He’s now Forest King, but his reign will be brief
The day has been won, but not without grief
Against the Tor, does the Wizard Bear lie
Though in great pain, he looks to the sky
Birds are returning, he hears their song
Gently he sighs, and Wizard Bear is gone

* * *

Deep in the woods, surrounded by oak
Lies a cave filled, with sweet-smelling smoke
Those who live in the woods, they know one thing
Protected they are, by the Forest King
Others will say, that one is dead
But the sage know the truth, and just shake their head
Now he dreams and rests, in a peaceful slumber
But not forever, these days have number
When Darkness rises again, evil must beware
Their foe is always the Wizard Bear

The Day I Died

I see the truck bearing down on us out of the corner of my eye, I consider dropping our weight to my right, dropping down a few gears, and really opening that throttle up, red-lining the girl in an attempt to get away.

I had just gotten home from work, my fiance of 10 days was almost ready. I’d said we would go somewhere for a drink and a bite to eat, as well as swinging by one of my offsite warehouses. I didn’t want to though, I just wanted to lay down after a full-on day. I averaged 30 thousand steps a day at my job and it was physically demanding.

Today had been busier than usual and I was tired. Looking back I think it was my gut telling me to not go, but I knew she’d been looking forward to getting out of the house. So we geared up and jumped on my Hyosung 650cc and off we went.

The warehouse was going to be the first stop. 15 minutes away, at the most. I slowed down as we approached the roundabout, a bus was going straight through, across our path. Bear in mind, we are in Australia, we drive on the left-hand side. I looked to my right, nothing was coming at all. Glanced to my left as I started opening up the throttle and leaning, as we entered the roundabout, I saw the truck approaching and dismissed it as I went to open her up further, I’ve got right of way, he’s not even at the roundabout as I’ve entered.

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Gift of Giving

I am an excellent gift giver. Is this a brag or even a humblebrag? No, it’s a fact and one other thing, which I will reveal later. “Why bring this up at all?” you might be asking yourself, “I’m busy enough without your non-brag bragging.” 

Because it is the season of gift-giving. I’m going to pause here for those who questioned this topic to go “Ahhhh!”

Pause…

Now back to the gift-giving. It is for many people, a source of great stress. We can put a lot of pressure on ourselves on getting that PERFECT GIFT. A gift that will make this holiday (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Festivus, Orthodox Life-Day, Saturnalia, etc) complete. That’s a lot to ask of a thing, so let’s accept that while a gift can be excellent, it’s not magic.

If it’s not magic, then what’s the secret? How can we match your self-declared skill in this specific wheelhouse? Simmer down there, I’m going to lay a little wisdom on you all. Ready? Good.

ONE-LISTEN

People tell you what they want or need all the time. Sometimes literally. “I really need a new scarf.” Or “I quite liked the Dune movie, I should read the book.” Maybe, “I’d like to start cooking more.”

All of these are just sitting there, ready to be picked up. Scarf, copy of Dune, cookbook, cooking classes, or a new pot and/or pan. All you had to do was pay attention. It also involves not being self-involved.

Simple and so hard. Even before supply chain problems and the world being on fire, it’s not always easy to not worry about oneself. I’m not advising a Saint’s level of selflessness, just be aware of what’s being said. Here’s an example of this from my own life.

When shopping at a Costco with an old girlfriend, (ah the romance), I looked for those giant cartons of Pepperidge Farms goldfish crackers but they didn’t have them. A mild disappointment at best but I mentioned it to her, then promptly forgot about it.

The next time I was at her place, one of those giant cartons of Pepperidge Farms goldfish crackers awaited me. It was one of the best presents I’ve gotten. It meant that what I said, even in passing, perhaps especially in passing, mattered.

Are we still together? Let’s just say that love and goldfish crackers aren’t a universal solution. Nonetheless, this is the sort of thing to listen for. Whomever you do this for will be touched by your attentiveness. If not, those little crackers will fill the hole left by loneliness. Just kidding. Nothing will fill that hole.

TWO-ASK

Don’t ask the recipient, unless you both don’t care about the surprise. Do ask their friends or family. Often times they can give you excellent insights. Also swear them to secrecy, if you can trust them to do so. Use your best judgment. 

THREE-DON’T WAIT

It’s July, you see a sea glass necklace your sister would just love, but her birthday was two months ago and it’s five months till Christmas. You could make a note to come back later and pick it up close to the holidays. It will still be there, right?

WRONG! Oftentimes, unique gifts will not wait for you to make up your mind. If you know that’s an excellent gift for someone. Get it. If you fumfer, you will likely lose out. Or more accurately, the person who would love that thing loses out. (A side note: Don’t tell them that you saw something that they would adore and but waited too long. In this case, the thought DOES NOT COUNT!)

So as you go through life and you see something that you know will bring someone else joy, just get it, and put it away. When the holidays roll around and everyone else is franticly searching for presents, Jingle All The Way style, you’ll be sitting comfortably in front of a roaring fire, drinking eggnog like a boss, listening to the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and smiling because you’ve done your shopping. Well done!

FOUR-THE PERFECT GIFT

As stated previously, perfection doesn’t exist. However, it’s possible to come close, but it is a real challenge. What is this rare and wonderful item? The thing that you didn’t know you wanted till you saw it.

This is tough to pull off, maybe even impossible. But when you can do it, wow, it’s amazing! Naturally, there is no one thing that can fill that order for everyone. Especially a car with a bow on the roof. If you do that you’re a dead-eyed, soulless monster. Am I planting my flag on this hill? You bet your holly jolly jingle bells I am.

Okay, back to why this is so hard. Say your sweetie collects Peanuts memorabilia. Charlie Brown and Snoopy stuff all over the place. You want to give them something special but it looks like they have everything already. Given their breadth of what they have, it’s a concern. They likely have done daily deep Google dives looking for additions to the collection. What do you do?

Let’s go back to part one. Listen. Did they mention a piece they are looking for? A character they resonate with? Start with that. 

Additionally, you can find a lot of artists who will make something for you to order. A wholly unique gift. It will also show that you’ve been paying attention.

As I said before, it’s tricky at best. Even if it’s not an epiphany in wrapping paper, the fact you made a real effort will be appreciated. In this case, the thought DOES count.

FIVE-WRAPPING UP

So, I’ve given you two solid techniques, one possibly useful trick, and a final aspirational idea. The fact is that being good at gifts isn’t that difficult if you pay attention. Here’s another tip, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to do this. The best gifts don’t have to cost a lot of cash. If you have a big budget for gift-giving, good for you. It must be nice. Or so I would imagine.

In the beginning, I said that my being an excellent gift-giver was a fact and one other thing. The other thing is you don’t always get excellent gifts. 

One Christmas, I was given by a close friend, a memo cube. You might ask, “What is a memo cube?” A memo cube is a plastic cube filled with square pieces of paper, for writing down messages. This was not something I ever desired nor was it was something I never knew I wanted. Truthfully, had I given memo cubes even one second of thought, I wouldn’t have ever desired one. Why did he give it to me? I still don’t know.

Just so you don’t think I’m just grousing, I have received many thoughtful gifts over the years. For example, I’m a big fan of robots. A good friend of mine gives me a robot or robot-themed gift for my birthday every year. Clearly, I’m not the only excellent gift giver. A reassuring thought.

So when you go off to shop for the holidays, keep my advice in mind. Those you give to will appreciate it. And if by some twist of fate you come across a memo cube, keep walking.

Mad Science and Magic, Together at Last

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

-Arthur C. Clarke

The above is a very well-known and often quoted rule, at least by fans of science fiction and fantasy. And the reason that this bon mot is so often dropped is that it is absolutely true. If you went into the past, your smartphone would effectively become a magic tablet, even without cell service. Let’s face it, we don’t use phones to talk to one another but let’s get back on track.

In movies, TV, books, and comics there is a clear delineation between magic and technology. Magic is inscribing runes or glyphs, speaking specific words, and making gestures to make the impossible real. Technology uses physics, chemistry, and engineering to make the impossible real.

So what’s the difference? Well, physics, chemistry, and engineering are all real and magic is not, as far as I know. But they essentially accomplish the same things, narratively speaking. Whether you’re firing a plasma pistol or shooting magic flames from your hands ends up with the same result, someone’s painful death. Unless you miss but let’s just say that orc or stormtrooper got what they had coming.

Again, aside from flavor, how do they differ? A plasma pistol should have a limited number of shots, like any projectile weapon. Do wizards have ammo? It depends on if they are using their own reservoir of magical energy, in which case, yes they have ammo and it’s limited. Even if they are channeling magic from outside their bodies, that has to take a toll so again, a wizard is limited on how much they can do.

Of course, an energy weapon can be hooked up to an external power source that would effectively give the shooter unlimited ammo, or near enough to deal with their foes, so that’s different. Of course, a wizard could use some sort of ritual that allows them to focus magic from another dimension. It becomes a zero-sum game.

Some science fiction tries to use real science to justify the fantastic things that are accomplished in the course of their stories. This is more prevalent now than it was in the past. In the Lensman books by E.E. “Doc” Smith, faster than light travel was accomplished by use of an inertialess drive. Other than the idea that being inertialess would allow you to travel faster, it has no scientific legitimacy. If you’ve not heard of the Lensman stories, the first one, “Triplanetary”, was published in 1934.

Note: A man by the name of Michael Pedler claimed to be developing an inertialess drive and raised $6.8 million to make it a reality. Spoilers, we do not have inertialess drive space ships.

So how does inertialess drive work? It just does, that’s all you need to know. In fact, that’s how a lot of science fiction tech works. I’m sure there are some that have a basis in theoretical physics or other disciplines, and I’m quite confident that some of my readers can cite examples that counter this. While I admit I’m painting with a very large brush, I don’t think I’m wrong.

For magic, it’s the same thing. Why does saying certain words and waving your hands or a wand allows you to break the laws of physics? Because it does.

In the Harry Dresden series, which is about a wizard private eye operating out of Chicago, magic has rules. He can throw up a shield spell to protect himself but it takes energy. If he does it too much it can wear him out.

Too counter that, he makes rings and a bracelet that captures the energy he generates while walking around each day, like a self-winding watch, and uses that power to avoid being damaged or to throw some of that force back. While this is clearly something we cannot really do, it does have a scientific feel, despite being magical. And like the inertialess drive, it works because it does. Side note, if you’ve not read them, I suggest you check them out. After you’ve read all my stuff.

Does the lack of a solid scientific basis make it less enjoyable? For me, not at all. When you create a weird and wondrous world, it doesn’t need to be entirely realistic. The rules just need to be consistent.

In a very real way, science fiction and fantasy are closer than people think. It may come down to a matter of preference.

I have a friend who loves fantasy and superheroes but does not care for science fiction. To me, this is puzzling, not just because of all the reasons I’ve listed above but because to my way of thinking, superheroes and science fiction are very closely linked. While there are magical heroes and villains, most have origins closely tied to scientific means or more accurately pseudo-scientific means. If radiation really bestowed superpowers, I would’ve dosed myself a long time ago. I know I’m not alone in this.

In spite of that fact, he just doesn’t care for science fiction and nothing I could say would change his mind. He likes what he likes.

Of course, fantasy leans into the destiny of heroes and queens and kings and science fiction tends to be a little more inclusive and more democratic but the idea of a hereditary nobility still persists in the distant and not so distant future. But in both, emperors are usually evil. Another overlap on the ven diagram of these two genres. Interesting.

Maybe we should think of fantasy and science fiction as potato chips, each with a different flavor. You might love sour cream and onion or barbecue but they are both crispy and delicious. Also, they are both still chips.

So conjure up, or nano-build, a big bowl of crunchy goodness, share it with your favorite cyborg or sorceress, and realize you aren’t so different after all.

Kill The Messenger-Part Three

As promised, here is part three of Kill the Messenger, where our hero‘s mettle is tested and the fight betwixt Classical and Abstract art continues. Please enjoy!

This is dishonorable!” said the Amber Thane, much too loudly, in Paul’s opinion.

You must admit, it’s damnably clever,” appropriately whispered Dominic.

How else can we move around the camp?” asked Paul with a lopsided purple mouth.

They shambled amongst the Abstract troops who were loping, oozing, hopping, shuffling, and otherwise moving towards the sounds of combat.

Paul thought it was damnably clever of him to disguise all of them as Abstract troops. His less than classical training in art assured them that they would not be recognized. Dominic was impressed with his ability to ape their enemy’s style, and Paul was thankful that his lack of rendering skills had a practical application.

Where did they take your blade?” Dominic asked the Amber Thane.
The Knight scanned the camp with his asymmetrical eyes, squinted and pointed to a large tent-like structure in the back of the camp.

It must be there!” he declared.

Thinking of the Thanes’s terrible eyesight, Paul asked, “Are you sure?”

Do you think me a fool!” challenged the Amber Thane.

Fool was not the first word that sprung to Paul’s mind but Dominic quietly interjected, “I’m sure your squire but wishes to speed your return to the front.”

Of course! I was about to say something very much like that,” said the Amber Thane.

What are you three doing?”

They turned to see an Abstract, it was difficult to tell if was an officer, Paul wondered if they even had any like a chain of command. In any case, this one was large, easily eight or nine feet tall. All of them froze, unsure of what to do, though Paul saw the Thane’s fist, or what passed as a fist curing up.

We’re about to fold the edge of the inside layer,” croaked Paul in his raspiest voice, the one he used when there was no caller ID on a call and wasn’t sure if was someone he knew.

The large figure stared at them, or it would’ve if it had a face, for a beat and said, “Then get going.”

Yeah,” Paul wheezed as they moved on to the back of the camp.

An entrance as a challenge to find but they soon did and slipped in. The Amber Thane’s sword was leaning against something in the center of the tent. This was something non-abstract and definitely not impressionistic. It was a glass sphere, fitted on bottom and top with metallic caps and filled with a clear liquid with a pale yellowish tint. Attached to it was an a tangle of what looked like cables connected to a clock face that was draped over a tree.

By the canvas…” said Dominic in a hushed voice.

What?” asked Paul and the Thane simultaneously, though for different reasons.

It’s Hieronymus’ Solvent,” replied the soldier.

Whose what?” asked Paul who looked closely; there was a subtle scent of pine and licorice.
Dominic looks at his companions, his vertical eyes gone wide, and said, “The jar from Hieronymus Bosch’s lost painting, Revelations.”

And…” inquired Paul.

The jar was held aloft in the hands of the Four Horsemen,” said the Amber Thane softly, as he looked closely at it, squinting his one tiny eye and the other lopsided one.
That chilled Paul, not from what was said but the fact the Amber Thane did not shout.

So, what’s in there, a mix of plague, war, famine and…” he asked.

You are a simple soul, the last one is pestilence,” remarked the Amber Thane as he patted Paul on the head.

No one knows, but it is said that whatever it contains, it means the end of all things,” replied Dominic.
They all stood there for a moment, just staring at each other. Finally, Paul spoke.

Well, there’s only one thing we can do.”

Agreed,” said the Amber Thane.

We need to steal it,” said Paul, while the Amber Thane said, “Enter the battle and die as men!”
“What?” they both said to each other.

It is the only honorable course!” proclaimed the Amber Thane.

How is it honorable to let everyone die?” countered Paul, who thought this a very fair question.

There is nothing to be done in the face of this infernal device! Better to die in combat than wait submissively for oblivion to take us all!” said the Thane and with that he took up his blade, unsheathed it and electricity arced along the edge.

Paul feeling as though he had nothing to lose at this point (quite true) felt it was time for a bold/foolish action.

I didn’t think someone like Major Veronika would love a coward,” said Paul with more confidence than he truthfully felt.

The sharp end of the power blade didn’t pierce his throat but it certainly could move into that neighborhood with little difficulty.

A poor choice of last words,” said the Thane.

Dominic held his hands up and suggested, “I think, perhaps, that the

stress of the situation has addled his brainpan.”
Paul breathed in and said, “No, it hasn’t. You want to run away and die, then don’t call it bravery. We need to do something about this jar, if we’re going to die either way lets try to save everybody.”

This last statement hung in the air. Sounds of distant battle could be heard, with the tick tock of the draped clock moving in inexorably towards their own doomsday. The Amber Thane sheathed his power blade and nodded.

You are far more daring and less simple that I gave you credit for my Squire,” pronounced the Thane.
It was both praise and an insult, but Paul also knew it was not the time to quibble.

What is the plan?” asked Dominic.

First, they shed their abstract disguises, the Amber Thane was especially pleased to do that, and they looked at the tangle of cables connecting the clock to Hieronymus’ Solvent. The Amber Thane wanted to cut them all but both Paul and Dominic persuaded him that would likely set off whatever the Abstracts has set up.

Paul had seen enough movies to know that choosing the correct wire to connect was tricky business and often was cut in the last few seconds. But the characters in those movies were often experts in this sort of things and had the good will of the screenwriter on their side.

Paul’s only experience with explosives was throwing firecrackers as a boy and he was fairly certain that if he had some mysterious creator who was ultimately in his corner, he or she was of a mercurial nature as her or she put him in increasingly dangerous situations.

So moving it is as dangerous as severing those tendrils?” asked Dominic.

I don’t really know, but probably, yeah…” replied Paul.

Damn those Gloppy Devils!” cried the Amber Thane, “They vex us even in their absence!”

It was at this point that three abstract fighters entered the tent, they resembled armored figures but their proportions were decidedly asymmetrical.

Seize them,” said the middle one with a voice like wood breaking in an echo chamber.

Whatever Paul thought of the Amber Thane, he was a furious warrior, he leapt into action before the enemy warrior ended his somewhat predictable command. Electricity could faintly be heard sizzling bellowed alternating war cries and insults as he sliced through his foes.
It was so impressive, that it had the unfortunate, in Paul’s opinion, of attracting more Abstract soldiers. While it might worry Paul, and it did, it seemed to delight the Amber Thane who was jubilantly carving up all comers. He spread oddly hued viscera everywhere, and grinned while doing it.

Dominic grabbed Paul by the shoulder and said, “Whatever plan you have, now it the time to set in motion, your Thane can only last so long!”

Indeed, while the Amber Thane was clearly having the time of his life, numerically, it was simply a matter of time before the Abstracts overwhelmed him. Paul looked at the rat’s nest of cables and wished he could know which one to cut. If they only have something to move it…

Dominic, paint a steel ball around all this,” Paul said, waving his hands to indicate the jar, wires and clock.

But that won’t protect us!” replied the artist solider, “It’s simplify blow apart!”

Trust me!” Paul said a grin.

Dominic quickly and expertly created an iron sphere around Hieronymus’ Solvent, the snarl of cables, and the droopy clock. The metal had a grey metallic sheen, symmetrically spaced bolts. It radiated strength and heft and looked as if it had always existed and always would.

It will not hold for long,” said Dominic as he shook his head.

It doesn’t need to,” said Paul who took out his own brush.

While ray guns were his favorite thing to draw as a boy, there were several other things that filled the margins of his school notebooks and he now painted one of them. The tent ripped and tore as the thing Paul created stood. Paul knew that he would never be the artist that Dominic was but if there was something he knew how to render, it was a robot.

Candy apple red and silver, it stood fifteen feet tall with antennae on its head that arched electricity back and forth.

Clearly, this did not go unnoticed. Dominic’s eye went wide. The

Abstracts froze, fighting stopped and craned what passed for their heads up. Even the Amber Thane paused, though he saw an opportunity to take several heads and did so, but he did so without any martial proclamations.

RX-13, the name he gave to his creation, reached down and picked up the iron sphere and spun his arm round and round until it was a blur.

Five, four, three, two, NOW!” shouted Paul!

On NOW, RX-13 released the payload and it shot straight into the air with the sound of loud whistling that faded as it got smaller and smaller until both object and noise disappeared. A pause followed, then a thundering explosion. What, at least to Paul’s eyes, looked like a glorious sunset blossomed, though it was very high in the sky and not at the horizon, but no less glorious for being in the wrong place.

The Amber Thane, and Dominic mopped up what was left of the Abstract forces around them. Paul did little actual fighting, but directed RX-13 who took care of a large share of the foes. As the Forty Seventh Pigmenteers over ran the camp with a great variety of weapons (too numerous to list here), the battle and day was won.

Paul, Dominic and the Amber Thane fielded many congratulations from the troops, and RX-13 was justifiably ogled and inquired about, what

was it exactly, how did he think of such a weapon, would he teach them to make one?

The sounds of celebration suddenly faded and Major Veronika parted the troops and approached the Amber Thane. He smiled and it was the happiest Paul had ever seen him. Leaning in, the Major whispered something in his ear. The Thane went a little pale.

Are those terms acceptable,” said the Major. It was clear that there was only one possible response.

For you, and you only,” he replied.

And with that they kissed and there were many cheers, hats tossed in the air and huzzahs.

RX-13 faded, as creations that are made in battle were want to do, their purpose fulfilled. The camp was soon made classical, as Paul was told not to say it was non-abstract, and things settled down.

Until, of course, the celebration. Huge kegs of beer and wine were created, long tables, bent under the weight of delicious food and songs were sung. A huge bonfire was lit and everything was cast in a warm orange glow.

Paul was enjoying telling the story of Hieronymus’ Solvent, not for the first time that evening when Dominic tapped him on the shoulder.

The Major wants a word with you,” Dominic said, as he led him to the command tent.

Major Veronika and the Amber Thane stood with goblets in their hands and Paul and Dominic were each handed one.

I wished to thank you both personally, for your daring and innovated rescue,” she said as she raised her wine, “To perspective!”

To perspective!” everyone echoed and drank.

Veronika glanced at the Thane, who sighed.

Squire, you have proven yourself beyond what could be asked of you, I must confess, far more than I had any reason to expect,” said the Amber Thane.

It was, without question, a backhanded complement, but it was perhaps the kindest thing the Amber Thane had ever said to him so Paul murmured, “Thank you.”

Such gallantry warrants reward,” said the Major.

Yes of course,” harrumphed the Thane, picking up a scroll from the table.

Unrolling it, he squinted, making an unpleasant face. Major Veronika cleared her throat; a small sound, Paul nearly missed it. However it had a visceral effect on the Thane. He sighed and produced a brown leather case, opened it, and put on a pair of black rimmed, round spectacles.

The Major smiled and it looked as if the Thane blushed. Paul thought that such an absurd notion that it must be true, as most things in the borough were. Clearing his throat, the Thane spake, “Kneel, Paul of the Borough.”

I’m sorry, what?” asked Paul, who could think of no happy outcome of such a request.

The Thane’s eye narrowed and awkwardness flooded the tent with a preternatural rapidity. Paul glanced at Dominic who gestured a discrete downward motion. Hoping for the best, Paul knelt.

I, the Amber Thane, Guardian of the Labyrinth of the Inner Realm, Slayer of the Nine of the five Chimeras, Defender of the Lost, ennoble the Squire before me,” intoned the knight.

These are the last blows you must endure without recourse or revenge,” said the Amber Thane as he stuck Paul on the shoulders and neck with the flat of his blade, (happily, without electricity surging through), though Paul thought could have been gentler.

Now arise Paul, to be henceforth known as the…” the Amber Thane turned to Major Veronika and loudly whispered, “Must I? It seems cruel”

Paul, who was mid-arising, did not like the direction this was heading when the Major replied, “Quite.”

Very well,” continued the Amber Thane, “Arise Paul, to be henceforth known as the Clever Thane.”

Thank you,” Paul replied and he finished standing.

You’re first quest as a Thane will be to find your weapon. It is a sacred and peril filled task, but…” the Amber Thane paused, “I’m assured that you are up to the challenge.”

Okay, great…” said Paul who was not sure how to react to such nonplussed encouragement.

Major Veronika looked at him and said, “And since you enlisted as a Squire and have been elevated to Thane, you are Most Honorably Discharged.”

Until this very moment, Paul hadn’t given much thought about how long he would have to spend in this painting and found great relief in the knowledge he would be returning to the Borough. There was a twinge of regret mixed in, the 47th Pigmenteers were a decent group, but there was still much of the Borough to explore (he had absolutely no idea of how much) and he wanted to return.

With a smile, Dominic saluted smartly and Paul returned in kind. That set off a round of saluting that seemed as if it would go on forever until the Major spoke up

Private, would you do the honors?” asked the Major.

Yes ma’am,” he replied.

After that there was a round of saluting, which went on too long, until the Amber Thane bellowed, “Enough!” There was one more round of saluting, which thankfully ended quickly, and Dominic led Paul to a clearing a short distance from camp, avoiding the feast, as they both knew that farewells would go on forever.

Well my friend, it been an honor serving with you,” said Dominic.

You too, thanks for putting up with me,” replied Paul.

There was nothing to put up with.”

Paul looked around the clearing and asked, “So, do we need to paint a door or stairway or something?”

Or something,” said Dominic as he quickly painted a brass telescope and handed to it to Paul, “Just look up. But don’t blink.”

All there was left was to shake hand and say thank you, both of which were done, and then Paul gazed skyward. At once he was flying through the magic spin art tunnel as he flew upward, and after an eye watering trip, found himself parting a velvet curtain and was once more in Mrs. Po’s art shop.
“Ah, you’ve returned,” remarked Mrs. Po, “Come along, let’s get you sorted out, Clever Thane.”

Wait, how do you know about that?” asked Paul.

She fixed him with a look that conveyed pity and contempt in equal measures.

You’ll need to stop asking foolish questions like that if you wish to avoid mockery,” she said as she opened her ledger.

After making some notes, she turned it around and instructed Paul to sign it in three separate places, after which she took a lockbox out from under her desk and counted out a pile of coins, placed them in a small pouch and handed it to Paul.

You are now officially mustered out,” she said.

Right,” said Paul.

They stood there for a moment, looking at each other.

That means you can and should leave,” Mrs. Po said.

Paul did so, if only to avoid mockery.

Rather than going straight home, he stopped in a café a few blocks from his apartment, ordered a coffee and pastry called a Blue Forest Blob, which was neither, blue, forest themed nor blob shaped. It was square, filled with a creamy almond paste and made him happy.

As he drank his coffee and enjoyed his Blue Forest Blob he noticed people giving him sidelong glances. He looked to see if he got any almond paste on his shirt (it had happened before), but he was free of crumbs or goop. Finishing up, he signaled for the bill.

The Waitress came over and said, “It’s been taken care of.”

Who…?” asked Paul.

On the house,” she said with a blush and rushed off.

Paul didn’t understand, a feeling he was well acquainted with but instead of asking questions that he knew would present more questions, he left a too large tip and went home. Just before he opened his door, Parsnip and Looseleaf’s doors opened and he was hustled inside with a “Hurry up,” from Parnsnip and a “Many thing to discuss!” from Looseleaf.

It was less of a discussion and more of an interrogation. There were questions, counter questions and many clarifications. Finally they were satisfied, or at least as satisfied as they got and let him go to bed.

If he had been less exhausted, he might have noticed that there was an addition to his front door. But he shambled off to bed. Anyone would’ve with a day like the one he had, and it was only a day, in spite of all that had occurred. So Paul may justifiably excused from noticing the addition of a shield shaped, metal plaque with the image of a robot holding two rayguns and on the bottom, a blue badger.

Or perhaps, it was a cat.

Kill the Messenger Part-Two

Paul looked all around him. The Amber Thane was nowhere to be seen.

“Son of a bitch!”

“Hey! Knock it off! No swearing in the Forty Seventh Fusiliers!” snapped the soldier.

“Uh, sorry, sir?” said Paul.

The soldier laughed, “I’m just funnin’ you, swear all you want. One of the few rights we have, that and complaining. Just don’t do either around the Major.”

“Major Veronika?” asked Paul.

“The one and only.”

It turned out, fortunately, for Paul, that the Major insisted on meeting each new recruit personally. The soldier, whose name was Dominic DéMarche, brought Paul to her tent. There was a meeting going on, officers stood around a table, there was a heated discussion going on when they entered, which stopped as soon as they entered.

Dominic saluted sharply, in contrast with his informal demeanor.

“Major! New recruit!”

Paul tried to mirror the salute but it lacked the polish of his new companion.

The officers parted, and revealed the Major. Wearing a burnished breastplate over a red jacket, tight blue breeches with a gold stripe up the side, polished black boots, and a pelt of what looked like a leopard, if leopard spots were bright yellow, blue, green, pink, red, orange and purple on a black background.

She had chestnut hair, skin like honey and dark eyes with copper flecks. There were crinkles at those eyes; she had the worries, the responsibility of command. There was an air about her, it wasn’t just that she was gorgeous(she was) but upon meeting her, Paul had this sudden urge to make her proud. There was a great stillness about her, not that she was inactive but more as if she would always be there, whatever came and that inspired an instant loyalty.

Dominic nudged Paul, who stepped forward.

“What’s your name son?” she rumbled.

“Paul, Ma’am, Major, Major Ma’am,” stammered Paul.

She smiled indulgently, “Welcome to the painting forty seventh. Private, sort him out.”

“Yes Major!” barked Dominic.

“Excuse me Major,” said Paul.

Everyone froze. Paul knew he had made a faux pas, but it was better to get this out.

“Yes?” asked the Major, which was laced with an undercurrent of ‘this better be good’.

“I came here with the Amber Thane.”

All the others were dismissed and exited quickly. Paul explained how he had delivered the letter from Looseleaf and Parsnip, his subsequent squirehood with the Amber Thane, and trip trough the painting.

“Damn his eyes!” said the Major as she pounded the table.

“He was very excited about seeing you,” added Paul.

“Too excited to get spectacles!” she replied.

“I’m sorry?” asked Paul who didn’t understand how those two things were related.

“His eyesight is ghastly! But he’s too vain to get the help he needs! Now, who knows where he ended up!”

Paul, who learned to deal with all sorts of oddness since moving to the Borough, still hated listening to someone rant about their significant other.

There was no right thing to say, so after trial and error, mostly error he had to admit, he found the best course of action was to nod periodically and make small agreeing sounds.

“Of course, he does have such lovely eyes,” said the Major as she smiled.

“Hmmm?” offered Paul.

“You are a fine squire, Paul of the Borough, I thank you for bring me this news,” she said.

It occurred to Paul that he had very little choice in the matter but he saluted anyway, which seemed to please her.

“I need to send out scouts, if I can find him before the enemy, we could-“

The rest of that thought was cut short as Dominic entered.

“Begging you pardon Major, but a messenger has arrived,” the private said.

“Bring him in,” she said.

Two other soldiers, one in arctic cammo, the other, a woman dressed in Greek Hoplite armor escorted the messenger in. It looked like an abstract impression of an avocado colored man, or woman, the gender seemed, like it’s appearance, a matter of perspective. One leg was much longer than the other, it’s arms undulated like silk scarves in the wind and it had two eyes on one side of its head, which seemed to be two dimensional, or at the least, very flat

“Major Veronika, I come with a gift,” it said in a voice that sounded like it was speaking though echoey mesh.

It opened what could have been a sack or a lumpy smudge and produced the helmet of the Amber Thane.

Paul looked at the Major, if she felt any fear or shock; it was simply evidenced by a minute flaring of her nostrils.

“What are your terms?” she asked the abstract messenger.

“Leave the Umber Valley or we will be forced to make the Amber Thane a palimpsest,” said the messenger.

“Damn your same sided eyes!” shouted Dominic.

“Calm yourself private,” said the Major evenly.

“Sorry Major.”

Walking up to the messenger, the Major regarded it with a quiet contempt.

“We will not surrender one inch of canvas, not one classically rendered tree or bush. We will not rest until this painting has been restored to its former glory, and your ill-rendered rabble has been wiped clean from this classic masterpiece.”

Paul began to clap, her delivery was so moving, but he quickly stopped when it was apparent that no one else was following suit.

The messenger made wheezing, rattling sound, and shook its head.

“The brave and valiant Major Veronika, so dedicated to her cause that she’ll sacrifice her one true love for her ideals. You didn’t even hesitate, we will have to tell the Thane as we scrape the pigment from him and make him one of us. His rage will be unquenchable. Perhaps your death at his hands will silence his scream. For a while.”

“Lock this thing up,” ordered the Major.

Dragged from the tent, it made the same wheezing rattling sound. Paul thought it might be laughter.

“Private, inform my officers that we must prepare to move ASAP. Take the squire here and begin the lantern light maneuver,” said the Major as she moved to the table and rolled out maps.

Dominic grinned and saluted, “Yes Major, right away!”

He clapped Paul on the arm and said, “Lets get you some weapons,” as he lead him to another tent.

Weapons, as it turned out meant a bandoleer of brushes and a belt of paint bottles.

“So no real weapons?” asked Paul.

Dominic laughed, “My friend, theses are better than any gun or knife. With those, all you can do it kill. But with this,” he said, twirling a brush with panache, “you can create anything!”

Paul thought that a philosophical attitude for a solider, which spoke well of Dominic’s mental state, but gave little confidence to the future of whatever the lantern light maneuver was.

“Hmm,” mused Dominic, “We need to get you into a proper uniform.”

“Do you have a spare?”

Holding out his thumb at arm’s length, Dominic regarded Paul, quickly dipped his bush into a jar and started flicking paint at him. Paul felt as though he has been suddenly doused in cold syrup.

“What the-“

“And there!” interrupted Dominic.

Paul was about to give his new friend a good yelling at, or at least let him know that he was not happy about having paint flung at him, when the sensation faded and he felt normal. At least as normal as he got these days.

“You look a proper solider now,” said Dominic with a smile, “Look.”

Dominic pulled a drop cloth off a mirror, and Paul looked at himself. He now wore a uniform like Dominic, ironically minus the paint splatters, but with a tall fur hat, with brass accessories.

“But you just waved the brush around, how…”

“It’s all the mind’s eye. If you can think it, you can make it.”

Paul, whose artistic endeavors were strictly of the stick figure school, had his doubts that he could create anything even close to realistic. But

Dominic assured him that it was easy as he lead him to a wooded area just outside the camp.

A clump of bushes were pushed aside to reveal a tunnel leading downward,

Dominic lit a lantern and they entered. The light was warm and bathed everything in warm light. It made Paul feel as though he was looking through a windowpane made of pale honey. The tunnel was painted in rich dark brown tone, which evoked damp earth, held up with wooden beams rendered in glowing detail, Paul could see the swoops of the grain and the pegs that were fitted with great skill.

“Did you make this?” he asked his companion.

“I did the beams,” said Dominic with a smile.

“They’re very good,” said Paul.

“Thank you, I’ve quite proud of the way they turned out, it’s a pity so few will see them.”

“Because?”

“It is a secret tunnel after all!”

“Right, yeah…”

They continued in silence for a while, until Paul asked what he was thinking.

“Uh… Where are we going?”

Dominic stopped and shook his head, Paul was afraid he asked a stupid question.

“My friend, I must apologies, in my haste I forgot that you had only now joined us. You must think me a fool!”

“No, you’re not a fool, it’s just that I want to be able to help, so… if I knew what the plan is…”

Dominic clapped him on the shoulder and grinned, “I would expect no less of the squire of the Amber Thane! You’re raring to get right to the action!”

“Right!” said Paul with considerably more enthusiasm than he actually had with regards to action.

“This is of course, is a rescue mission, this tunnel leads directly under the enemy camp. Once we reach the end, all we need do is paint a tunnel up and we rescue your master.”

Paul didn’t think of the Amber Thane as his master, but this was clearly not the time to bring that up. Dominic continued down the tunnel and Paul hustled to catch up.

“Do you have a map of the enemy camp?” asked Paul.

“That would be worthless, it shifts according to their whims, Abstract Dogs!”

“But how do you know we’ll come up in it?”

“The location is fixed, it’s the layout that changes.”

“Right…” said Paul “But there is a plan?”

“Of course! We tunnel up, find the Thane, and escape, while the Major leads the rest of the 47th Pigmenteers in an all out assault!”

Paul didn’t think that was a plan, so much as a hopeful wish, but Dominic seemed quite confident, so he continued onward.

After a period of time, it was difficult to gauge, what with no sun, and his phone saying that time was old, they arrived at the end of the tunnel.

Dominic took out a paintbrush with a flourish and began to create a ladder.

Not a crude sketch, but a solid oaken affair, the joints were joined with cuts in the wood that clearly needed no nails or studs. It was one of the sturdiest things he had ever seen. Paul had once put together a bookcase from Ikea and he felt fairly handy afterwards in spite of the handful of bits that he was left with and was unable to identify.

“That’s very… good,” Paul said quietly.

Dominic smiled a smile that said, ‘I know, right?’, but he managed a slightly humble thank you.

“Now, it’s your turn, when we get to the top of the ladder, you will create something to break through the topsoil,” said the artist warrior.

“Are you sure you don’t want to do it?” Paul asked, “Those stairs are really good.”

“You’ve very kind (I am an excellent artist), but I couldn’t,” insisted Dominic.

“It’s okay, I don’t mind (I’m not really any kind of artist),” Paul said with no trace of false modesty.

“No, I literally can’t, when two soldiers collaborate on a mission, they must both contribute,” explained Dominic.

“Right…”

Dominic clapped him on the shoulder and grinned, “Just think of something that can dig and still be silent.

Paul thought about that conflicting set of requirements. Everything that came to mind that could dig was by definition, loud. Bulldozers, jackhammers, even shovels and picks made noise. A few weeks ago, he had seen something that was called a Geo-Pinnace, a cylindrical tube with a huge drill bit on the front, or the prow, as he had been corrected by the pilot. It had cut through earth and stone like spoon through flan, again as described by the pilot, but it had made a hellishly loud racket and even if he could paint it (doubtful), he had no idea how to start, let alone steer it.

Paul’s mind began to wander as he racked his brain trying to find a solution.

He thought of his Aunt Natalie, who loved two things, baking and puzzles, both physical and mental, mostly mental. When he would visit, she would give him a riddle, which he had to solve before she would give him some of her excellent cookies. This was just the sort of thing she’d test him with, and when she’d eventually told him the solution, which she often did, as she was fond of her nephew and ultimately a bit of a soft touch. But if she took it easy on Paul, she was at war with Josiah, the cat that lived next door, who clearly was born only to drive Aunt Nat to distraction and destroy her small garden.

Josiah, who was gink-toed, could dig up a garden with infernal glee. Nat swore he tunneled in under the fence. Paul had once seen him pop up from under the earth and then leap across the yard pulling a long tomato vine and winking just before he escaped to the safety of his own yard. Paul wasn’t sure if he had imagined the wink or if it was a story that Nat had told but that cat could dig…

“I got it,” Paul said.

The dirt shifted and Paint Josiah emerged into the Abstract camp. Paul and Dominic followed, they were shielded by two large crates but they could as easily been any large…things.

“Very clever, painting that badger in an abstract style, if someone sees it they will won’t know we’re here,” whispered Dominic.

“It’s a cat actually,” said Paul quietly.

“Right,” replied Dominic with a knowing wink.

Creeping around the ‘crates’, they saw six Abstract soldiers standing in a circle at attention, though their bodies seemed to be fidgety. Arms, legs other parts stretched or shrunk with no real pattern, at least that Paul could see.

“What are they doing?” asked Paul in his softest voice.

Dominic didn’t reply but tapped Paul gently on the shoulder and looked up. Hanging, from an absurdly long chain was an even more absurdly large birdcage. Inside, however, was not an absurdly large bird, but the Amber Thane.

“Blaggard! Let me loose at once!” bellowed the imprisoned knight.

“You’ve been asking that since we put you in there, what makes you think that we’ll change our minds now,” asked one of the guards in a hollow, echoey voice.

“I will never give up! I will fight till my last breath and beyond!”

“Can he do that?” asked the largest guard breathlessly.

“Dunno,” replied the first guard, “but it won’t matter in a bit.”

“Ha! You have a broad yellow stripe running down your back!” sneered the Amber Thane.

It was true, there was a long splash of bright saffron along his back.

“Yeah, so?” asked the guard.

Dominic pulled Paul back behind the undetermined things.

“We must act swiftly, these abstractoes are about do something terrible,” whispered Dominic, “I’ll tackle the guards, you free the Amber Thane.

“What should I-“ said Paul but Dominic painted a large armored tiger with a saddle, leapt upon it and road off to attack the guards. The great cat savaged the guards with claw and tooth, and Dominic unsheathed a saber from the saddle and slashed away. Paint was splattered everywhere.

Paul, who was not at all prepared for this, or any battle if he was being honest, tried to think of how he would open a giant bird cage that was twenty feet or so above the ground. Hook and ladder, cherry picker, giant robot claw? He had little confidence of being to able to paint any of those and unsure if they would work. A cat that resembled a badger was one thing.

“Now my friend!” shouted Dominic, whose tiger had herded what remained of the guards directly under the hanging cage.

Pulling up memories of doodling in elementary school, Paul created his favorite thing to draw.

PEW PEW PEW, went the laser pistol, severing the chain and sending the cage, with the Amber Thane within, to squish the last of the guards.

“Well done!” cried Dominic.

The Amber Thane picked himself up from the floor of his cage and bellowed, “What new impressionistic deviltry is this?”

“It’s me,” said Paul as he moved up to the cage.

Whatever else he had to say was cut off by the grip of a resin gauntlet encircling his neck and lifting him off his feet.

“If you think you can play dice with my sanity, you will die with that as your regret!” said the Thane.

Dominic leapt off his battle tiger, rushed up and said, “Amber Thane, we’re been sent by “Major Veronika!”

“Where is she?”

The sounds of battle could now be heard in the distance with ever increasing volume.

“Hah! Of course, she leads the attack!” said the Amber Thane with a wide grin, “Let us now join the fray!”

Paul, whose vision was fading into a grey haze, croaked, “Let. Me. Go.”

Squinting, the Amber Thane pulled him close and said, “It’s you,” and released him.

Dominic helped Paul to his feet.

“My temper got the best of me, I did not meant to strangle you,” said the Amber Thane with little regret.

“We should join the rest of the regiment,” suggested Dominic.

“Not before I recover my blade and helm!” insisted the Amber Thane as he strode towards the exit.

“Your… Helm is back at the camp, they sent it to show that you had been captured,” said Paul, “Dominic can paint you a sword, right?”

“It would be a honor!” Dominic said.

“Nay, it must be my own blade, it was gifted to me by the Azure Thane upon my ascension to knighthood,” declared the Amber Thane.

“Of course,” deferred Dominic, “you need say no more.”

Paul, however, thought that some explanation was in order, but since he was in the minority, he pushed his concerns down, something he found himself doing more and more since moving to the Borough.

“A frontal assault is the best course of action!” declared the Amber Thane.

“I have an idea,” suggested Paul.