Friday, April 16, 2021

Post-apocalyptic cinema: Love & Monsters mini-review


Love & Monsters
is a ton of fun. 

Probably the best, over-the-top post-apocalyptic adventure romp that I've yet seen. It mixes heart, comedy and ridiculous creatures. Road Warrior and Fury Road look positively down to earth by comparison. 

The actors all do a stand up job, the dialogue is solid, and there weren't any narrative missteps that took me out of the experience. 

It's not super deep. It won't change the world. But it's not intending to.

The monster designs are great, a fun mix of horrific and cute, and despite the light, breezy tone, there are genuine moments of cringe inducing suspense. 

And the giant leeches are gross.

The hero is a goof, but his evolution into hardened badass flows nicely and feels natural.

Two thumbs up, as they say. 



Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Ranking the Star Wars films: worst to best

I thought I'd rank all the films in the Star Wars series, just for the heck of it. Hasn't everyone else? It's a wonderfully imaginative and realized universe in many ways, but some of the movies are stronger than others. 

So let's get to it!



11) The Rise of Skywalker

Rise is such a frenetic assault on the senses, and so lacking in logic, I wanted to walk out of the theatre. Incredibly, the Emperor is brought back off screen, in the text scrawl at the start, and delivered his 'Message to the Galaxy' in... a video game. Say what? 

Abrams tries to cover the senselessness with a manic pace and throwing constant distractions at the audience, like shouting 'Space squirrel!' whenever we are starting to question what's happening on screen. 

Finn is given little to do, neither is Poe, and the newest member of the gang, Rose, is so abruptly and unceremoniously sidelined it'll give you whiplash. The narrative through line between these movies is non-existent, the changes in direction are jarring and derail the audience and take the viewers out of the movie.

The fake out with Chewie supposedly being blown up is ripped from Raiders of the Lost Arc, where one of two trucks explodes and Indy thinks Marion is dead. She isn't. It worked there, it doesn't here.

It's obvious with Rise that if there ever was A Plan for this clusterf*ck of a series, it's not just been abandoned, but dynamited, chopped up, set on fire, and then packed with weights and sunk in the deepest crevice of the Marianas Trench. 

They had a huge task in trying to wrap up the series, but even accepting that it would never live up to fan expectations (likely true), this movie is just bad. 


10) The Phantom Menace

Oh, geez, Wizard! Are you an angel? Awkward and hobbled by stilted dialogue (some of the worst in the entire series, although Attack of the Clones gives it a run for it's money), it does introduce new ideas. It doesn't use the original series as a template to rip off, although it does have a big battle at the end that resembles Jedi's ending (a simultaneous battle on the ground and in space). The lightsaber fight with Darth Maul is particularly stunning. Unfortuantely I never really connected with Qui Gon Jinn. 

There's a huge problem dramatically with putting a stoic Jedi together with another stoic Jedi (even if he is younger). They don't play off each other well. 

The collection of characters in the first film had a wonderful dynamic; they were easily recognized archetypes, and very different people, which added conflict and spark. Here, as Red Letter Media has noted, the characters are hard to describe other than by using their clothing or job. 

And then there's Jar Jar. 


9) Attack of the Clones

I tried to watch this one again, and was stunned by how badly some of the effects work has aged. 


8) Rogue One

Flat characters and an overly convoluted plot don't help this (to me) unnecessary prologue to the original film. I like leaving some things to my imagination. The story felt fragmented and repetitive, like a video game: they go to find the pilot, they then go to find her father, then they finally go to try and steal the plans. People pop up the instant the plot requires: stormtroopers flood into frame to be shot down like ten pins. 

The plot was pushed forward with such clumsy brutishness it reminded me of The Truman Show, while the climactic scene in the data storage facility recalled the engine obstacle course from Galaxy Quest, only it's played straight—more than a couple decades after Quest's satirical take. 

The action scenes lack emotional investment and went on way too long. 

On the positive side, the cinematography is absolutely stunning, and the film is chock full of iconic shots. 


7) The Last Jedi

The most controversial and divisive film of the set, Last recycles The Empire Strikes Back: it opens with a battle and then becomes a long spaceship chase contrasted with training sequences. It throws in a side plot with a visit to Gambling Planet which added nothing, other than to show how the ubiquitous by-the-seat-of-our-pants schemes cooked up by plucky heroes are reckless and destined to fail. Finn and Rose trust the fate of the recycled Rebellion (sorry, Resistance) to some guy they meet in a holding cell. Part of the reason we watch this genre is to see improbable schemes succeed. How much do we really need a finger poked in the eye of the genre's tropes?

On the plus side, it surprised me a couple of times, such as with the perfunctory killing of Snoke. That perked me up! On the down side, I did not find Kylo compelling as the new Big Bad. Hux? Even worse.  

The possibility of Rey and Kylo teaming up? Interesting direction! Also quickly discarded. 

Everything set up in Force Awakens was discarded or undermined. New directions were set up, only to be discarded in turn. WTF?

The original trilogy had awesome villains: Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, Boba Fett, Jabba the Hutt, and the wonderful, delightfully evil, scenery chewing Emperor. 

Even the Prequels had some half-decent villains: Darth Maul, Count Dooku, General Grievous.

The sequel trilogy? Snoke (killed off before we knew him), Kylo, Hux. I understand Rian was not interested in Snoke as a villain, and was more intrigued by the conflicted Kylo. Fair enough. I wasn't really, and any pay off to this focus was lost in the third film with the non-sequitur reintroduction of the Emperor.

Star Wars is opera in space. It needs good villains and (for me) the sequel series failed to deliver.

Some say this film makes The Force egalitarian. That's nonsense. Attack of the Clones introduced restrictions on Jedi having relationships and kids. So if Jedi aren't having kids, where are all the new Jedi coming from, if not random families throughout the universe? 

Even then, it's not egalitarian: people are still BORN with Force ability. It's not something they develop with hard work and training, as people in Star Trek progress. 

Star Wars is Chosen Ones and feudal mythology tropes (Dark Lords, Princesses, Knights, Royal Family Drama, Sweeping Battles, Magic). 

Being born with a special ability or power is John Wyndham's The Chrysalids for God's sake: you have two classes of people, those with Force powers and those without. 

And we all know the destiny of the people who don't (I'll give you a hint: it's not pretty). 

If you want a series that really promotes egalitarian values, watch Star Trek: TNG. 


6) The Force Awakens

Likeable new characters, supported by old favourites, and fun banter help float this rehash of the original film. 

On the other hand, it turns our original beloved heroes into losers: Han is a desperate bottom feeder and incompetent smuggler, Luke is in hiding after catastrophically botching the rebuilding the Jedi Order, and Leia has failed utterly as a politician and general to stop the First Order, which quickly obliterates the New Republic. 

Logan did terrible things to poor old Xavier, which I didn't like, and yet the story was so good and powerful, it was worth it. With Force Awakens, the pay off isn't. And it only gets worse.

The map to find Skywalker never made any sense (why would you leave a map if you don't want to be found?) and another, even bigger Death Star... was tedious and creatively bankrupt. History occurs first as tragedy and the second time as farce. What's the third time?

That being said, the performances of the new leads (Finn, Rey, Poe) were all great, and their interpersonal energy made the film watchable, despite the stories' relentlessly repetitious nature. 

But they didn't build on it.


5) Solo

Unnecessary (I never needed to know how Solo got his last name) but different enough from the other films to hold my attention. It had some good banter, but honestly I never bought the lead as Han Solo. Anyone else in the Star Wars universe, sure, but he wasn't Solo. 

The overall tone struck me as... dreary. 

Somethings are better left to our imagination. 

At least they didn't blow up another Death Star.


4) Revenge of the Sith

There's a big, gaping chasm between the original trilogy and the rest, just as there's a gap in quality between the first two and the third, but Revenge is the best of the Prequel trilogy. 

One thing that I'll give the Prequels: Lucas had something he wanted to say. Or at least, it seemed to me he had something to say, even if he didn't say it as well as he might have. The Sequels? I never felt there was a driving artistic vision. Just the desire to make lots and lots of money. 

You always have to be careful what you wish for. 

When I was a kid, I wanted to see more Star Wars films. As an adult, in retrospect, I believe it would have been better to stop at Return and leave it at that. 

Live and learn.

I do find The Mandalorian fun (the effects are incredible), and I have also enjoyed watching episodes of The Clone Wars.


3) Return of the Jedi

Lucas originally planned for the Empire to fight Wookies in the final film, as a commentary on the recently concluded Vietnam War. But he'd already included Chewie as Han's co-pilot, so he thought he had to come up with another creature instead. Being a very good businessman, Lucas also wanted something cuddly that could be marketed. He took Wookies, cut out letters and halved their height. Voila: Ewoks are born! 

As a parallel to Vietnam, I don't think it works. Not because high tech military forces are never defeated by less technologically advanced armies: this has happened often, and I would have bought into Wookies defeating the Empire. 

The problem to me is that the Ewoks have stubby little legs and arms, can't move quickly, and can't get much force behind their weapons. Their arms are too short to throw with any real force (which is why I imagine they resort to sling shots), and they have no reach in hand to hand combat. 

Sure, maybe they could lull their opponents into a false sense of security, like the little child like blue aliens in Galaxy Quest, and then pounce and devour them. 

I don't think they made the Ewok threat very believable. 

That being said, it's fantasy, and the film buys a LOT of good will with the first two, with the wonderful characters and effects and the sweeping adventure angle. It is still a weak point for me in the series though. 

Luke's scheme at the beginning seems... really really badly planned, and I imagine if Rian had gotten his hands on it, it would have failed. 

The final battle, and the confrontation with the Emperor, are just splendid, and they carry the film. The space battle, at the time, was beyond breathtaking. Nowadays, you see that in episodic television! 

Progress?

2) The Empire Strikes Back

A fabulous follow up to Star Wars, although it is dependent on the first film and requires Jedi to conclude it. It's a very much a 'to be continued' middle chapter, albeit an awesome one. I don't have much to say about it: it's awesome.

1) Star Wars

As I wrote in an earlier post

When the first Star Wars hit the screen it was like a hurricane of fresh air. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Well. Okay: except Flash Gordon. But this was such a huge leap forward, such a refreshing take on the earlier space pulp material that it transcended its point of inspiration and became something else entirely. It became a phenomenon. People went to the theatre over and over again to see it, and cinema has never been the same since. It was the beginning of a four billion dollar franchise, and it was still unhindered by mounds of marketing crap weighing down the original creativity.

I recently heard some of the music from the first film, out of the blue, and out of context. And I was struck by the feelings it dredged up. It felt fresh, hopeful, wistful, like a beautiful lost dream. Just without all the additional hackneyed crap that got stuffed into the franchise over time by dozens and dozens of different, disconnected creators, marketers, writers, artists, and toy and game manufacturers.

As Jonathan Price's High Sparrow might say–if I may mix my franchises–there was something clean and pure about the original 1977 film. Strip away all the bells and whistles and CGI and toy tie ins, and you're back to the first film and something that might even be described as edgy. Daring. Hopeful. It was made by dreamers, invented on the fly, innovated while it was being shot with whatever could be found. No one was saying 'no, you can't do that,' and 'no, you can't do this'.

It was pulp art, but it was art.

A joyous flight of imagination.

Now it's a bloated, multibillion dollar behemoth, and some of that lithe, elegant purity was lost along the way.

It was probably sold off in a value meal.

Star Wars begins with a farm boy, a couple of fleeing droids and some stolen plans. We end with a space station the size of a small moon blowing up just before it was about to vaporize another planet.

Talk about stakes! Talk about tension!

Will Luke save the rebel base and all his friends, or will the Empire be triumphant, destroying not only the Rebellion HQ, but the stolen plans along with it?

The villain here isn't just Tarkin and Vader, but the Death Star itself. It's a menace to the entire galaxy, a mobile doomsday machine. And it's already killed a planet full of people!

And what do they attack this planet sized peril with?

Teeny, tiny fighters.

Drama is about conflict and contrast, right? Scale makes things epic. Well, here we have the greatest, most dramatic difference in scale in pretty much the entire history of cinema: man vs. planet.

Goliath has nothing on the Death Star.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

David Brin's Startide Rising & the Uplift Universe

One of my favourite sci-fi writers of all time is David Brin.

My aunt bought me a copy of Startide Rising as a gift in The Long Long Ago, back when we actually left our abodes and met in person (It happened!).

We now live like Isaac Asimov’s Solarians, each in a separate world...

Anyway, Startide Rising (published in 1983) is a mind blowing, magnificent journey into imagination. The science is fanciful, but backed by Brin’s expertise in physics and work at NASA.

I’ve been meaning to write about his work for some time, but never felt I could do it justice. Well, COVID-19 has me isolating and I’m going to write about it anyway, because if you’re also isolating this is top line stuff to read.

He sets the adventure of the startship Streaker in a universe of breathtaking scope: the galaxy has been populated for millions of years. In fact, it is a seven galaxy spanning civilization, or multi-civilization, composed of thousands of different species and loosely governed by Galactic Institutes. The nearest parallel would be The United Nations.

Of course do not have a copy of the book currently, as I’ve loaned it out to a friend. Again. I’ve bought multiple copies over the years as I often don’t get it back. Looks like I need to order another.

Jim Burns painting of Kithrup, from the Uplift Universe
Here’s the description of the book, taken from the Wikipedia page. I believe it is partly pulled from the old back cover, but I can’t be sure anymore (The Amazon book description is not as compelling as what I remember from the book jacket):

In the year 2489 C.E.,[3] the Terran spaceship Streaker — crewed by 150 uplifted dolphins, seven people, and one uplifted chimpanzee — discovers a derelict fleet of 50,000 spaceships the size of small moons in a shallow cluster. They appear to belong to the Progenitors, the legendary "first race" which uplifted the other species. The captain's gig is sent to investigate but is destroyed along with one of the derelict craft — killing 10 crew members. Streaker manages to recover some artifacts from the destroyed derelict and one well-preserved alien body. The crew of Streaker uses psi-cast to inform Earth of their discovery and to send a hologram of the alien.


When Streaker receives a reply, it is in code. Decrypted, it says only: “Go into hiding. Await orders. Do not reply.” 


And we’re off!

The book starts In medias res, with the Streaker already in hiding and The Five Galaxies going batshit trying to find them.

The way Brin describes the thinking of aliens (and animals) here is compelling, really getting across as sense of ‘other'. The dolphin crew members use Haiku, for example. Little things like that, different ways he uses language (poetry, sentence structure, punctuation), go a long way to establish that these beings think different and probably buy Apple.

And yes, dolphins! Startide Rising is part of Brin’s Uplift Universe, where space faring species scour the galaxy for pre-sentients to raise up into civilization. They take them under their wing, tailor them genetically to whatever task they wish, demand indentured servitude for 100,000 years as payment for this ’service’, and then let them go so they too can then scour the galaxy for species to uplift, and the process repeats.

Such a fascinating idea! Talk about scope and thinking long term.

Humanity, for it’s part, upsets the entire system by uplifting dolphins, apes and chimps before even coming into contact with Galactic Civilization, meaning we don’t have to spend eons in service to one of the senior races. Which pisses them off no end, and gets humanity labelled ‘wolflings’.

Some of the aliens are reasonable and noble, others rapacious and predatory (Jophur, Soru). The Jophur are a favourite: collective organisms made up of living 'rings'. They always came across to me like ambulatory fungus. The description of them from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uplift_Universe#Other_clans_(of_aliens) :

The Jophur are a fictional extraterrestrial race in the Uplift Universe. Physically, they are a stack of waxy, living rings. Each ring serves a different purpose, and they connect to each other to form a single being by chemical means via an electrically conductive, sap-like substance that flows down the center to bind the stack together. A "master ring" provides a strong sense of individuality to each stack and enforces this with corrective electrical shocks to non-compliant rings.

The Jophur were originally the traeki, intelligent but often indecisive because of internal debates between the rings that formed each individual. Their patrons, the Poa, asked the Oallie to engineer the traeki further to increase their effectiveness. The Oailie created "master rings", shiny black rings (often described as "silvery") that created a strong sense of self-identity. The newly invigorated Jophur, as the traeki with the new master rings were called, quickly became a strong, vigorous force in the Five Galaxies.


Who comes up with this stuff? Brin! He has some of the best aliens you’ll ever encounter in fiction. Honestly, he should make a few Pokemon.

Better yet, the Uplift Universe comprises six full novels, in two trilogies. 


The first trilogy books (Sundiver, Startide Rising and The Uplift War) are not a continuous story; they’re set in the same universe, but do not directly flow from one to the other, and none of the same characters appear. The second trilogy (Brightness Reef, Infinity’s Shore, Heaven’s Reach), however, is a three novel arc, compromising a massive cast of humans and aliens.

Brightness Reeis set partly on the planet Jijo, which has been illegally settled after having been declared a fallow world. The whole idea of fallow worlds is awesome: it shows the time scale these civilizations operate on.

Infiinity’s Shore ups the ante:

...The Streaker, with her fugitive dolphin crew, arrives at last on Jijo in a desperate search for refuge. Yet what the crew finds instead is a secret hidden since the galaxies first spawned intelligence—a secret that could mean salvation for the planet and its inhabitants … or their ultimate annihilation.

Heaven’s Reach (published in 1998) brings it all to a soaring conclusion. It even features fractal worlds (where Retired species go to play cosmic yahtzee. I’m making the yahtzee stuff up. It’s way more exciting than that).

One of the greatest problems I have with sweeping, epic fiction is that so often the pay off to the mysteries the author sets up are so... lacklustre. This is especially true with television, where the whole idea is to hook people with a mystery and then keep them hooked in perpetuity. An ending is not necessary, or even wanted. The big thing is to keep people coming back and continue getting advertiser money, so the crew stays employed. Everyone’s gotta eat. But it doesn’t lead to satisfying endings (I’m looking at you BSG, selling out your complexity theme for a simplistic let’s all throw our technology into the sun with no dissenters nonsense finale).

Brin, however, pulls it off. The second trilogy is mind bending, getting into memetic worlds and galactic drift and more. it’s a truly epic conclusion. Others may (and have) disagreed, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. This is smart, imaginative, unique stuff.

One down side is that it is so way out there it’d be hard to film, and Hollywood is notorious for being unwilling (in general... The Arrival is a great exception) to depict truly alien aliens. Even the Borg, who started out very different (at least psychologically, as a collective), got a ‘Queen’ in order to make them more relatable.

Of course, aliens are usually just a way to talk about ourselves. I don’t think that’s always the case with Brin: he genuinely puts thought into how a species with a certain ecology would behave differently. And he gets that across.

He did have his novel The Postman turned into a film starring Kevin Kostner. The book, in my opinion, is far better, with greater depth and complexity and a solid theme that isn’t conveyed as well in the film. This book has some of Brin’s hardest hitting emotional moments.

Earth, another stand alone novel he wrote, is about, well, the future of life here. It’s also got some mind expanding ideas, which I don’t think I have the scientific knowledge (or memory) to really explore, given how long it's been since I read it. He was ahead of the curve on a lot of issues (oligarchs and the effect of cameras proliferating).

Existence is the last book of his I have read, and I admit it wasn’t my favourite.

Heart of the Comet he wrote in collaboration with another author, Gregory Benford, some time ago. I confess was a difficult, yet truly rewarding read. I had to go over some passages twice (or more) to truly understand what he was saying. It’s hard science sci-fi. Like reading Stephen Hawking, only with nail biting adventure, suspense and high stakes.

Brin also contributed to the Foundation series, writing Foundation’s Triumph, which ties Asimov’s books together, including Pebble in the Sky. It’s just awesome. I have no other words. Read it!

Brin's in the same class as sci-fi greats like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frederick Pohl, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, Frank Herbert and Ray Bradbury.

It amazes me how brilliant our scientists and theorists are, to imagine mind bending yet plausible scenarios. I can imagine all kinds of stuff, but the majority of it falls into sci-fantasy / satire at best.

We all have our strengths?

Brin has also written extensively about transparency (see The Transparent Society) and currently writes a lot about politics in the United States, which he obviously cares passionately about. If he buys into something, it always gives me pause.

There are some threads about Donald Trump, for example, that I thought were so out there they had to be conspiracy theory, yet there is an unsettling amount of evidence that they are actually true.

Brin also surfaces how Republicans, who talk a good fiscal conservative game, are actually dreadfully profligate spenders. I find it incredible this is not more widely known.

Anyway. Enough about politics. This blog is about sci-fi.

If you have a true love for sci-fi, I suspect you’ll love his work. His imagination is truly epic in scope and scale, like rock candy for your brain. If there’s any series in sci-fi I would recommend (along with Foundation and Ringworld and Heechee and Hitchhikers, and okay, well, there are a lot, but this is right up there, you can start with it), it’s Startide Rising.

Give it a read, you won’t be sorry.

And his guide to aliens is also good. Not as in depth as I might have liked, and painted illustrations would have been preferred (just being picky). 


There are even some old GURPs books for the Uplift Universe.

I’d love to see some lushly produced coffee table volumes covering Uplift, with detailed paintings, like a Barlowe Guide. Or graphic novels. That would be cool.

One can dream…!

Joh Wimmer reviews Startide Rising for Gizmodo here. He delves into the book in more detail, and while I don’t really agree with his criticisms, it’s good to get another point of view.






Monday, December 24, 2018

Magnum Thrax and being weird

Apple says Think Different. 

I say be different.

Revel in your uniqueness. 

Be the authentic you. 

Because everything weird about you is what makes you, you.

Speaking of which, Magnum Thrax is devotedly weird. 

It’s my weirdness.

And it’s a bit of a screw-you to all the conformity enforcers out there, who constantly hector us from both ends of the political spectrum.

It’s silly and strange and holds no punches. 

It makes jokes you aren’t supposed to make.

It has sexbots in it, for example. That's right: sexbots. 

Quelle horreur! 

Cue the fainting couch! 

Some people think this is appalling, but I think they’re funny. 

Why? 

Because they’d be an incredible feat of technology, requiring the convergence of multiple scientific fields and billions and billions of dollars worth of research and development. 

Because there’s an inherent absurdity in that we might be smart enough to create living, breathing simulacrums of ourselves, to create life, but the reason we’d do it is so we could fuck it. 

Like building a rocket to go to the moon for sex tourism. 

Some find that sentence appalling. 

I think it’s hilarious.

Our science God is like the Greek Gods of old: driven by primal passions. Lust, hate, envy, gluttony, sloth and all the sins and emotions that make us human. 

The internet is an incredible technological achievement. Originally intended to link scientists together into a massive, collective innovation engine, harnessing brain power for the greater good of the military industrial complex, it achieved true greatness with porn and cat videos.  

If you don’t find humour in that, I’d skip the book.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Why Magnum Thrax? Why not.

I was going to write about why I wrote Magnum Thrax and the Amusement Park of Doom.

Why, oh why, write an outrageous, incendiary satirical text?

I have answers. But now I have no time to write them out.

It will have to wait.

Future Fossil, the short story I just finished posting, I also wanted to dissect. I had all these ideas for the emotional journey of the characters (It's true! Believe it or not) and yet, they fall short of what I was trying to achieve. The action somehow got out of control and took over, like bacteria overflowing a petri dish.

I parred back, but I don't think i went far enough.

I had an epiphany as to what makes interesting characters, one which will help in building out future stories.

If I ever get the time.

I had been working on a Magnum Thrax sequel, but this has stalled due to other commitments. Ones that involve things like paying for food and rent and superfluous material consumption and all that jazz. I don't know when I'll get back to it, or if anyone cares whether I do or not.

That's not what really matters.

I want to get something out of the journey.

If some things are going to have to change.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Magnum Thrax: Future Fossil, Part 5 of 5



Thrax saw the killer-chickens coming and doubled his pace up the dinosaur’s back. It charged about wildly, trying to throw him off. 

It slammed sideways into the wall again. 

Thrax kept his grip.

A raptor leapt at him from the ledge above, raking claws extended. Thrax flattened himself against the Tyrannosaur’s flank, and the raptor soared past with a squeal of frustration. 

He reached the neck of the Tyrannosaur. Working fast, he detached a sticky grenade from his belt and adhered it to the back of the Tyrannosaur’s thick bone brain casing. Then he jumped off and rolled. 

POUM! 

The explosive took the Tyrannosaur’s head clean off. Flesh and bone spewed everywhere; it was completely disgusting and Thrax found himself showered in brain and bone. 

The headless torso wavered. 

“Booyah!” shouted Thrax, exultant. He pumped a fist in the air… then noticed three raptors charging right at him. Before he could react, lasers from above cut them down. “Booyah!” he cried again.

Kal ran over to hug Thrax, but Thrax brushed him aside, in favour of Sally who leapt into Thrax’s arms. He spun her in a circle. “Thank God you’re safe!” he gushed, and squeezed her tight.

“Yeah,” said Kal, looking awkward. He scratched the back of his neck. “See? No need to worry. Honestly, I don’t know what all the fuss is about, she was perfectly safe…” His voice trailed off.

“What are you doing here, Sally?” Thrax asked his little sister, checking her for injuries.

Sally pointed at Kal. “Uncle Kal said it’d be a good learning experience. He showed me how to play craps and five stud poker an’ drink shots!”

Thrax looked at Kal. “I’m so going to kill you.”

“Mom called first dibs,” said Sally.

There was a high-pitched whine that caught Thrax’s attention: the blood and guts of the Tyrannosaur’s former head shimmered, including the guts on Thrax, which became quite warm. The remains of several raptors also glowed. While Thrax gaped, the organic material streaked through the air and smacked back into the ragged neck stump of the headless beast. The organic goo bubbled and squirmed as more raptor guts flew into the seething mass. 

A moment later, the mass congealed and the beast was more than whole again: a now two-headed Tyrannosaur roared pure rage, and in stereo. 

Kal and Sally both breathed, “Cooooool.”

“I call bullshit!” swore Thrax, setting Sally down and drawing a laser gun. “I killed you fair and square!” 

Bullets sent up gouts of sand around them and Thrax danced to avoid getting drilled. What was going on? Then he saw it: incredibly, several of the raptors were armed with old fashioned pistols. Thankfully, they fired awkwardly, and poorly; their claws were not designed for human weapons. 

“Mammalian dexterity, suckas!” shouted back Thrax, wiggling his left thumb at them. “Can’t be beat!” He turned and ushered Kal and Sally towards the Tyrannosaur’s lair. “Quick!” he shouted. “Into the tunnel, before it’s too late!” He pulled out his laser pistol and shot a couple charging raptors in the head, then unhooked another grenade. 

Skipping backwards after Kal and Sally, he waited for the Tyrannosaur, heretically named Big Jesus by faux-Protestant faux-raptor giant chickens, to roar again. It closed in. Mouths shut. Both of them. 

Five meters. 

Three meters away the twin maws opened wide to swallow him up, presumably a half for each. He tested the grenades’ weight, then whipped it straight into the beast’s left throat, and ducked.

WHAM!!

Goo and guts splattered him again as the head blew apart. The shock wave threw him roughly to the earth. His ears rang. He climbed back onto his feet and raced into the Tyrannosaur’s lair, where he found Kal waiting.

Alone.

“What the? Where’s Sally?” shouted Thrax, drawing close. “So help me, Kal–” 

Kal looked about wild eyed. “What? How should I know? She was here a minute ago!”

“Here!” shouted Sally. Thrax looked about wildly, then spotted her as she stepped out from a rock grotto. “I found a stairway up, Thrax! Through the crevice!”

Thrax felt an odd tingle. The guts and muck that covered his body quivered once more and streamed away as if vacuumed, strands of blood streaking through the air as if poured sideways. Even more raptor remains were sucked up this time, liberated from gravity, and gathered in the Tyrannosaur’s still steaming head stump. He could see it out the cave entrance. This time the entire body was growing larger.

“Aw, crap,” groaned Thrax, shoulders slumping forward. How many times did he have to kill the stupid thing?

“It’s gathering up organic material,” gushed Kal. “Damn, that’s amazingly well coded!” 

Thrax punched him in the shoulder and shoved him into the grotto. “Get going!” He sandwiched himself against Kal and squeezed into the narrow gap. Raptors raced into the cave. Thrax fired repeatedly, taking down one after another. But there were too many. They began to slash and claw at him. He parried as best he could with a knife, but he couldn’t block them all. Slashes on his arms healed quickly at first, then more slowly as his store of organic matter was depleted. He was a battle enhanced human, but he wasn’t invincible. 

Thrax wished he’d had a bigger lunch.

He changed tactics, aiming his laser pistol at jagged rock outcrops above. He sliced them off with a sweeping motion. Chunks fell in and piled up, cutting off the raptors. 

The weapon barrel glowed red. Not a good sign. In fact, it was a very, very bad sign and usually happened right before the weapon exploded.

“Keep moving!” he shouted. They emerged onto the floor of the chamber, by the river. The egg net was before them. Andromeda was on the far side. 

“Untie it!” she called. “Raise it up and tumble them my way, sir!” She pointed at the eggs. As she did, a bullet thudded into her chest. Then another. Thrax winced in sympathy. But Andy just grunted and remained standing. She expertly threw her hunting knife, striking the raptor marksman in the throat. 

The creature flopped forward, into the river, and was swept away into swirling foam.

“We can’t gather them up in time!” shouted Kal, racing after a rogue egg.

Thrax looked back towards the arena. Raptors were chasing down escaping Utans and ripping them to pieces. Smoke obscured the pit itself, thanks to the work of his team. The air was becoming hard to breath and stank of cordite. 

Thrax heard a triple bellow: the Tyrannosaur was back, angrier and more multi-headed than ever. They wouldn’t have much time. He checked his laser pistol’s power pack: twenty per-cent. Not much against a mad hydra-Tyrannosaur. 

And he was all out of grenades.

“Hey! Where’s Eastwood?” he yelled at Kal, who was coming back with the egg coddled in his arms. “What’d you do with my magnum?” He could do with the magnum’s nanite packed deconstructor dum-dum shells.

“Who?”

“Eastwood!”

“What? You mean the magnum?” said Kal, caressing the textured egg. “I think Red has it. The head raptor priest.”

“On first name basis with him, are you?” Thrax swore and untied one of the net’s corners, then activated his wrist and ankle jets and hovered in the air. He gestured at Sally, who’d already untied the other corner. “Pass it to me!” 

“It’s not like we were hanging out.”

Sally slipped Thrax the rope and he flew over to the south side. The glittering eggs tumbled to the bank in a pile, then began to roll. The floor of the chamber cracked and popped and then subsided. Rock creatures were guiding their young along, channeling the eggs into a deep depression. Stone arms extended out from the edges and formed a solid canopy over the eggs. 

At the last second, Kal rolled his egg into the collection.

“Keep them locked in!” shouted Thrax at the rocks, although he felt kind of stupid doing it. “Air tight!” 

“This is all happening too fast,” said Miss Jade, rushing up to Thrax. “I haven’t had the chance to establish relations!”

“Next time!” said Thrax. “Everyone make for the lift!”

Miss Jade hesitated a moment. She looked wistfully behind her, then followed after Thrax and the rest of the team.

The ground shook. The three-headed Tyrannosaur charged after them, flecks of drool flying from its great maw. It was now twice its original size. Maybe more.

“Scatter!” shouted Thrax. He ran like the devil himself was after him. In fact, he’d have preferred the devil to the triple-headed T-Rex.

Jade bumped into Thrax and yanked the neural interface out of his belt, almost tripping in the process. “Sorry, I signed this out, I’m responsible for it!” She recovered her balance and ran ahead. Crazy android, thought Thrax.
The team assaulted the rock face leading up to the exit tunnel, with Thumper bringing up the rear. Sister Cinnamon was out ahead of the others, by far. She reached the top first and hauled herself over. 

“Oh shit!” she cried.

Thrax grabbed the cliff ledge and peered over. Arrayed before Sister Cinnamon, a dozen deep, were dull brown feathered raptors, jaws agape, fore-claws spread wide, ripping toes cocked. 

Thrax looked back. Colourful male raptors and the triple-headed Big Jeez were nearing the foot of the cliff. 

There was no escape. They were caught between the males below and the females above.

Andromeda stood at the base of the cliff, and was firing into the oncoming mass.

“Cinnamon, jump!” Thrax said, reaching out with one arm for her. “There are too many! Jump!”

“Someone has to stand up for the brand!” Sister Cinnamon shouted back at him. She snapped her necklace off its gold chain. The cross emitted hosannas and the sound of trumpets. “Damn Rexutherans!” she spat at the raptor mob, and charged out of Thrax’s sight.

“What’s going on up there?” demanded Thumper, catching up to Thrax.

“Cinnamon!” shouted Thrax. “Don’t do it!”

There was an explosion of blue light. The powerful shock wave dislodged Thrax, who fell back onto the sand with a painful thud. Sally, Thumper and Kitty fell after him, arms flailing, expressions of incredulity on their faces.

As Thrax got up, the raptors fanned out, creating a semi-circle against the cliff face, hemming in his team. A moment later they parted to let the Tyrannosaur through. Red was perched upon its back, legs straddling the middle head. The raptor priest waved about a golden cross with a red ruby set in the centre, and a .357 magnum.

The red raptor wasn’t a happy camper. “What you do?!? Sick rat-mammals ruin planet!” barked Red, seething. “Now you ruin big blood-baptism! You hateful! Bad rat-mammal!” The top of its headdress had been burnt off. Blue flame danced along the burnt edges. “Now… you die!” Red tapped the Tyrannosaur with the cross and it lunged at Sally with three gaping maws. 

Thrax tried to move, to block, but wasn’t fast enough.

Thumper was. 

“Watch out, Sally!” she cried as sabre-like teeth sliced through her soft pink flesh. She screamed and thrashed and went limp. 

But Sally was saved.

“Thumper!” gasped Thrax, both horrified and awed by her sacrifice. He grabbed Thumper’s dropped rifle and hefted it up, levelled it at Red. He fired just as a wave of raptors leapt. A burly one blew apart in an explosion of superheated guts. But he missed Red. Total bullshit! 

To his left, Thrax saw Sally crawl between Andromeda’s legs. His little sister kicked madly at slashing raptor claws. They gouged bloody chunks out of Andromeda’s powerful thighs. She stabbed back with her glowing red-hot bayonet.

“I knew something like this would fucking happen!” shouted Kitty from above, still on the cliff face. She pressed herself against the rock. Stone shards burst around her as bullets struck.

Thrax traced the fire back to raptor musket men in the rear. They growled in frustration and reloaded their primitive firearms. He blew a couple of them apart with well placed shots. 

“Covering fire!” shouted Thrax. “Sable, Kitty! Get down here!” 

“We can help more from up top!” yelled Kitty, and began to climb again. “Hold on!”

Raptor bodies piled up around Andromeda and Thrax. Two raptors climbed up on the rock face behind them and launched themselves at Andromeda’s back. Thrax blew their heads off with the rifle, then it beeped and went dead: out of power. He tossed it aside and drew his hunting knives. 

“Hold on Sally! I’m coming!”

“Gimme a weapon!” shouted Sally from between Andromeda’s legs. “Lemme kill’em!”

Thrax laughed and hacked his way over. “You can use my lil’ carving knife…“

BLAM! 

Red shot him, blowing off the upper section of his left arm. He spun in the air and fell into the raptor discard body pile. 

Through blood shot eyes Thrax watched Red ululate a victory call, only to have it cut short by Miss Jade’s boot. The two became entangled and toppled down the Tyrannosaur’s back.

Up above, laser shots were pouring down. Kitty had reached the top and was providing covering fire. 

He saw Kal beside her, leaning over the cliff. “Don’t let them bite you!” he shouted down. “Their mouths are diseased! Like Komodo Dragons. Bacteria.”

Andromeda groaned to his right. Raptors tore her rifle away and flooded over her body. She fell backward atop Thrax. Raptors swarmed and slashed and bit at her, so numerous and tightly packed at first they prevented each other from getting in a killing blow. Finally, a large one with white streaked feathers settled atop her and ripped her open from neck to belly. “To die… in battle…” She shuddered and went still as a smile crept across her face.

“Farg-dross!” swore Thrax. That was not just his favourite sergeant, she was his friend. 

He saw Kal and Kitty draw back from the cliff, above. 

Black specks flitted out of Thrax’s arm and settled over the nearest raptor corpse. The ravenous nanite fog stripped away flesh and transferred the organic material to Thrax’s shattered limb. His fingers crawled towards Andromeda’s abandoned weapon. Sally had wriggled somewhere underneath him, through the twisted, tangled limbs. “What are you doing, Thrax?” asked Sally, peeking between raptor bodies. She saw the gun. “I’ll get it!” 

Teeth flashed as mighty Tyrannosaur heads pecked at them, but raptors got in the way. Big Jeez flapped its tiny forearm wings in frustration, then bashed a raptor off using its powerful snouts. 

Then Thrax saw Jade, clambering up the beast’s back, out of nowhere, wielding the neural probe. She jammed it hard into one of the dinosaur’s tympanic membranes. The triple headed Tyrannosaur bellowed and waggled its mighty heads, but Jade held on tight, her legs straddling the central neck. As soon as she attached nodes to her temples, both she and the Tyrannosaur froze. 

The raptors noticed immediately. They slunk cautiously back, staring in fear at the pair. Red chirped, a questioning note in its voice, but the Tyrannosaur did not respond. Red chirped again. More insistent this time. Like it was dealing with a disgruntled pet at dinner time.

Thrax saw Jade’s eyes roll over white as her head lolled back. Immediately the Tyrannosaur swooped round. The triple jaws opened and snatched up raptors, three at a time. A bite and then they were swallowed whole, whisked down powerfully muscled gullets. 

The raptors shriek-barked alarm and ran about like chickens without heads as the Tyrannosaur drove them back.

It swirled about and leaned over Andromeda and Thrax. The jaws opened. It paused. The stench of its breath was overwhelming.

Thrax struggled, but couldn’t lift his arm to shoot it. “Sally!” he called, “Help me!” 

“Wait,” said Sally, gently pressing his arm back. “I think it wants us to get in.” Sally looked at the Big Jeez’s open maw, then back at Thrax. 

He shook his head emphatically. “Oh, I don’t think so!”

“Don’t be such a pussy,” admonished Sally. She hauled Thrax into a waiting jaw. He tried to fight her to no effect. The smell was making his gag reflex go bananas.

“Get in the mouth, you idiot!” screamed Kal from above. “Miss Jade’s jacked into Big Jeez’s brain!” 

“That’s fucked up,” muttered Thrax, his butt against the Tyrannosaur’s wet tongue.

As soon as Sally climbed in the adjacent mouth, the hydra-Tyrannosaur ran along the edge of the cliff until it spotted a gradual enough incline to assail, then charged up. Its legs made great pounding WHUMPFS as it charged after Kitty and Kal, who had already set off for the elevator. 

On the beasts heels came the raptor horde, led by Red and the colourful leadership cabal. Thrax kept an eye on them. 

Red egged on its fellows with relentless ferocity. Red had some skin in this game, that was for sure. Probably lose all credibility if its demi-god joined up with the rat-mammals. 

A few moments later they arrived at the lift. Kal was leaning against it, breathing heavily. Kitty wasn’t even sweating.

Androids, thought Thrax, could be annoying. “Lemme down!” He slapped the rex’s snout.

Kitty pulled open the lift gate and examined the platform. “No way we’re getting that T-Rex in this thing, boss. Too big.”

“Unh,” huffed Kal, “unh.”

Big Jesus lowered its multiple maws. Sally slipped out of the first, and hauled Thrax out of the second. In the third, unbeknownst to Thrax, lay Andromeda. He was glad they’d recovered her body.

“You got Andy!” Kitty smiled and ran over. Sally helped her pull the android’s body over to the lift. “We gotta get her memory chip out.”

“Get the grenade bag,” urged Thrax, still unsteady on his feet. He nodded at the north wall. “Jade said there was a river behind that rock. I’ll detonate the remaining grenades, flood the place. Cover your retreat.”

A Tyrannosaur head roared disapproval. It lurched forward. 

The sound of the raptor mob grew louder. They were close.

“Okay, okay,” said Thrax, holding up his hands at the big rex. “You take the grenades.” He dropped the sack into the dinosaur’s middle mouth. 

Tiny forearms flapped with enthusiasm.

Sally grabbed his hand and pulled him back into the lift. 

“We have to go, Thrax! They’re coming!” 

Thrax looked up at Big Jeez and Miss Jade. He mouthed ‘thank you’ and closed the gates. Hit the switch. 

The lift machinery clanked to life and the platform rose rapidly. Thrax watched the Tyrannosaur. Just as it receded into the dark, far below, it charged the north wall.

There was a massive explosion and the lift shuddered. There was a rush of water, then shrieks and high-pitched barks as raptors were swept away into oblivion, along with their triple-headed, man-eating faux-prophet. 

Finally there was just the clanking of the lift.

Once up top, Thrax instructed the team to carry Andromeda back to their bright pink tank. As they neared, Thrax noticed it was surrounded by charred and blackened raptors. 

Candy sat atop the vehicle, smiling happily. “Hey you guys!” She waved and squealed. “Oh, you found Kal and Sally! Hey you!” She hopped off the tank and ran over to them. Kal held out his arms. She ran past him and swept up Sally in her arms, giving the girl a big hug while Thrax looked on with approval. “So good to see you, lil’ Miss!”

“What happened up here?” asked Thrax.

“Nothing” said Candy with a shrug. “Just some big chickens. Say, did you know the hull of the tank can be electrified? That is so, so cool!”

“Yes. Yes it is.” Thrax looked at Kal, who seemed a little distraught. And unloved, standing away from the group. He went over and placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you safe and sound, too.”

Kal turned around and gave him a big hug with unexpected enthusiasm and intensity.

He hugged Kal back until he had a sudden thought, then grabbed Kal’s arms and pushed him back. “Hey! Where the hell’s the zinc, man?”

“Ooh, yeah, that,” replied Kal. “I sort of gambled it away.”

“You gambled our zinc away?”

“Yeah, to Big Purple Dixie. But I swear the dice were fixed!”

Thrax paused. “You say Big Purple Dixie?” He thought about the abandoned rig they passed on their way in.

“Yes.”

“He drive a big purple rig, yeah?”

“Yeah,” said Kal, smiling. “You seen it?”

Thrax nodded. “You, my friend,” he said, tapping Kal on the chest, “have some unloading to do. And you owe me a new gun!”





*****




For more Magnum Thrax, see the novel, Magnum Thrax and the Amusement Park of Doom

Available on Amazon. 

starsIt's Mad Max on crack – Glen Conley

"Underneath this outlandish story’s brash exterior lies astute social commentary and sharp, unapologetic humor." – Kirkus Reviews