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PROLOGUE, PART THREE

Cobryn opened the throttle all the way. He'd never piloted an exploration buggy before, but the fundamental principles had to be the same as piloting a starship: faster was always better. The four-seat buggy surged forward, nearly tossing its passengers from their seats. Oops. Maybe that was too much throttle.

"Wheeee," Quig shouted gleefully over the roar of the engines and the howl of wind through the open cockpit.

Sahara was less enthused. "I thought you said you knew how to drive one of these things!"

"Obviously he does," answered Striker One. "We are already overtaking our quarry."

It was true, Cobryn noticed. The goblins were slowing their buggy down to navigate the rough-cut path – it didn't even deserve to be called a road – through the forest. They simply weren't willing to take the same risks he was. Of course, taking chances is what had gotten Cobryn into this situation in the first place.

He had taken a chance when he accepted a smuggling job for a client he didn't already know. The pay was great, but it turned out the cargo wasn't. Cobryn might be a lot of things, but he was no slave trafficker. The client hadn't liked Cobryn's change of heart. One thing had led to another, and Cobryn had lost his ship, his reputation, and his freedom. With no better options, Cobryn had taken another chance on a mysterious message. One thing had led to another, and now he was on the other side of the solar system chasing goblins with an annoyingly cheerful ysoki, a humorless android, and a lashunta woman who just might be a bigger gambler than he was.

"What are we going to do if we catch them?" Quig asked.

Cobryn scoffed, "What do you mean 'if'? I out-maneuvered that space pirate, didn't I? I think I can handle a couple of goblins in a go-cart."

"When we get close, I'm going to put this grenade in their driver's face," said Sahara.

Striker One was skeptical. "That may be unwise. Our mysterious benefactor has insisted on secrecy, but those goblins were clearly surveilling our arrival before they fled. It would be useful to know why and where they are headed."

"Whatever you're going to do, you'll need to do it quickly," said Cobryn. It certainly didn't take a pilot of his skill to catch these goblins; they could barely keep their buggy moving. Cobryn relaxed the throttle and pulled alongside them, coming eye to eye with the goblin in their passenger seat. It grinned. Only then did Cobryn notice the plasma pistol in its hand. His reflexes saved his life. (Again.) He jerked the wheel, and the pistol bolt blasted the buggy's windshield frame instead of his head.

"Decision made," said Sahara. She lobbed the grenade.

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PROLOGUE, PART TWO

Sahara twitched her antennae in nervous anticipation. Had she escaped from a noose only to face a firing squad?

"Surrender your vessel and whatever your cargo is, and I just might let you live," ordered the space pirate through the starship's radio.

Sahara toggled the radio to broadcast. "We don't have any cargo of value," she said. It was the truth. The holds were as empty as her pockets. Not even the ship itself was worth more than what a scrap yard would pay for it.

"I'll be the judge of that," came the reply. "Turn off your engines and prepare to be boarded."

An electronic signal from the ship's science station caught Sahara's attention. She looked at the android in the gunner's seat. "The pirate weapon has a target lock on us," Striker One said calmly.

Sahara looked at the ratman. "Are the shields working?"

The furry Ysoki nodded vigorously. "You can count on Quig."

"If you say so, Quig," said Cobryn, the ship's pilot. "But shields won't last forever. A pirate ship like that against a tub like this…. We'll never be able to outrun him or his lasers. Maybe we should comply and hope for mercy."

Sahara's three crew mates waited for her response. She hadn't asked to be captain of this vessel, but she wasn't a trained pilot like the human or a natural engineer like the Ysoki. And she certainly didn't have the artificial man's ability to talk to computers. That left her in the captain's chair by default. It was not a comfortable fit.

The last time she'd been the captain of a starship, it had been on a two-seat craft fleeing the slavers who had captured her and her sister. Their escape plan was Sahara's idea, but it had been her sister's beauty that lured an overconfident jailer into giving up the security codes to the ship that would carry them both to freedom. The plan had worked well, but an unlucky break, a guard's unpredictably overactive bladder, had resulted in her sister being gunned down on the launchpad. Sahara took off without looking back. She knew she would meet the same fate if the slavers ever caught up with her again.

That's why she had been willing to answer the mysterious summons that had led her into this latest pickle. She didn't know where they were headed or why, and she certainly didn't trust her crew mates. But so far as she was concerned, death was a better option than surrendering to a pirate who would only sell her back to her captors.

Turning back to the android, Sahara ordered, "Target his thrusters with our gyrolaser. Let's see if we can't even these odds."

She had made her decision. The die was cast.

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PROLOGUE, PART ONE

This particular starship was unknown to Quig, but he'd certainly seen its like before. Light freighters were the backbone of the solar system's shipping industry, after all. Therefore, it wasn't the unfamiliar surroundings that set the ratman's hairs standing on edge but the three strangers in the airlock with him.

Summoning his nerve, Quig asked in his high-pitched voice, "Excuse me, but is one of you the person who sent for me?" He dialed his personal communicator to the anonymous message he'd received a week before and held it up for the others to see.

The pale, broad-shouldered android raised an eyebrow in a good simulation of how other races would display surprise. "You're willing to expose your data to persons you do not know? That seems… unwise." Artificial men like this one made most sentient organics existentially self-conscious, but Quig had always found them distracting for other reasons. What made these mechanical marvels tick? He'd love to take one apart and find out.

The scruffy-looking (real) human man leaning against the starship's bulkhead smirked. "I was just about to say the same thing. Maybe I got a message. Maybe I didn't. How do I know you didn't send it?" Across the galaxy, no race was as capable of deceit as humans. Quig made a mental note not to trust this one.

"This is getting us nowhere," complained the female lashunta, her forehead antennae twitching in apparent irritation. She kept glancing out the ship's porthole at the docking bay entrance. Was she expecting more company? "Yes, I got the message. Obviously, we all did. The question is what are we going to do about it?"

The android shrugged almost naturally. "I believe we should do as instructed and take this ship to the coordinates indicated. Why else did we come here if not to uncover the mystery behind our summons?"

The human interlaced his fingers and extended his arms to crack his knuckles. "Works for me. I've been itching to get back in space."

"I think we're walking into a trap," said the woman dourly. "But as there are some… people around here who I'd rather not run into again, I don't see as I have any choice."

That was more or less how Quig felt, too. He couldn't go back home where The Families were looking for him. That was certain death. Better to take his chances with this motley crew. Besides, he'd always liked tinkering with alien technology, and if he had to walk into a trap, at least it was a trap well baited with the promise of getting his claws into an advanced starship's innards. “I'll start the engines,” he volunteered cheerfully.

The adventure had begun.

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For the record, Keith, I've found an RPG I hate more than any of The Witchers.

Final Fantasy XV suuuuuuucks.

In the mood for a story-driven RPG and a fan of previous games in the series, I picked it up on in a recent digital sale. The story setup is good. The environment is pretty. But the disappointment set in pretty quickly because those are the only two good things I can say about it. It has terrible gameplay and worse storytelling.

According to online game guides, the game has 15 chapters. I put the game down at Chapter 6. Then, a month later, I picked it back up and slogged on, much to my own detriment. Each chapter proved dumber and more frustrating than the one before it. Final Fantasy XV isn't a game but a psychological experiment in masochism. I finally threw in the towel at the end of Chapter 13 (and deleted the game and all my saves from my system) despite realizing that both Chapters 14 and 15 must be better if only because they couldn't possibly be worse.

Oh, well, they can't all be winners. At least I know that the next game I play can't be worse.

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The following is based on actual events:

My friends and I sat, talked, laughed, and otherwise enjoyed the convivial environment engendered by the rustic treehouse lounge Keith had constructed in his backyard in suburban Cumming, Georgia. Despite the good company, I knew the neighborhood had problems. I had a passed a bright red demon on the streets leading to Keith's house. Fortunately for me, it was preoccupied enjoying its meal of unwary domestic cat. Still, I felt safe up in the treehouse — until we were startled by the sudden appearance of a bright green dragon.

Keith saw my fear and laughed. "Relax. It can't get to us here. I've wrapped the whole tree in a dragon-proof net."

He spoke the truth. Although the dragon bit and bit, it was unable to chew its way through the protective wire. We soon ignored it and went back to having a good time.

When I woke up, I realized the treehouse and dragon had all been part of a very vivid dream. Amazed by how realistic it had all seemed, I decided to drive over to Keith's to tell him about it. I passed no demons on the way, and as expected, there was no treehouse in Keith's yard.

Keith met me in his driveway. You cannot be too cautious these days, so I was careful to wear a mask and stand a socially-accepted distance away from him in the cold December weather as I told him of my dream.

Keith enjoyed my story and laughed. "That's ridiculous. There's no such thing as a dragon-proof net."

Naturally, that's when the dragon swooped down upon us.

I woke up a second time and am now typing this story. But I'm still keeping one eye out. I can't shake the feeling that there's a dragon out there somewhere.

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Jacob stood in the deserted street and looked up at the large, faded sign.

He had been sent to live with his aunt in Wyoming when the outbreak had started. It was for his own safety, his parents had said. What with the riots and looting and hand-sanitizer made by state prisoners, not to mention the virus itself, the city was just too dangerous.

We'll be back for you just as soon as the shelter-in-place order is lifted, said his mother from behind her n-95 respirator mask. His father gave him a comic book, one of the last printed before the country's last comics distributor had shut down. Then his parents had fist-bumped him goodbye and driven away.

His aunt died from the virus two weeks later. (If only they'd tested her!)

Faced with the dreary fate of slowly starving until he was reduced to eating his aunt's massive, unused toilet paper stockpile, Jacob made the only decision he could. He carefully wrapped his few precious possessions in a hobo bindle and set out on foot.

It was a harrowing journey. The wasteland was a wild and unforgiving place filled with roving gangs of self-driving Teslas fighting over solar energy charging stations. At night, Jacob struggled to sleep under a brilliant sky filled with the reflected glow from SpaceX's Starlink satellites.

It took nearly a month and all of Jacob’s determination, but he finally made it to a place where he wouldn't have to grow up, a neverland without end. The sign in front of him said it all. "TOYS R US."

Jacob couldn't wait to see what wonders lay behind the darkened windows. He made camp in the lonely parking lot and waited for the first employee of the day to come and unlock paradise.

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Here's your housewarming present, Keith.

Keith's phone lock screen

Now I have to get to work on a present for Coop's new baby. I wonder what a baby wants on its phone lock screen.

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While we were on the way to a second place finish at trivia last week (where we learned that a flute is a woodwind instrument and a Philco Predicta was a television), friend Keith was amused by my phone lock screen and background. I assume that's because he is envious and would like to use them himself. So here you go, Keith.

My phone lock screen

My phone home screen

If you like those, you might want my computer background image, too.

My computer home screen

Ask yourself: is it vanity that I have my name and face all over my devices, or is it that I want everyone to know who they belong to?

(It's vanity.)

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2019 moves, part 2 of... many.

7. (1446.) Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)
8. (1447.) Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)
10. (1449.) Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
I lump these three together because even though I watched them barely a month ago, I don't think I could tell you which was which. The very definition of popcorn movies, they rely on their fast pace to keep the audience from realizing how little sense they make. I'm pretty sure they all take place inside Ethan Hunt's head while he lies in a coma, but they keep Tom Cruise too busy to make another Magnolia, so I'm willing to cut them a little slack.

9. (1448.) Daddy's Home Two (2017)
Friend Keith challenged me to find fault with John Lithgow's performance in this broad comedy. I couldn't. He's sterling as always. Everyone was pretty funny, including Mel Gibson, playing the character we all believe him to be in real life.

11. (1450.) The Aztec Mummy Against the Humanoid Robot (1958)
Two-thirds of this Mexican B-movie is a recap of the previous two movies in this trilogy about greedy assholes stealing gold from a cursed Aztec tomb guardian. The last third involves building a robot from a corpse to kill a zombie. It has its moments.

12. (1451.) Wizards (1977)
Ralph Bakshi movies are always more meandering acid trips than functional narratives. This one spends most of its time invoking Nazi propaganda as the ultimate evil, then twists at the end to make the good guys look just as bad as everyone else. At least I think that's what happened.

13. (1452.) Old Acquaintance (1943)
Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins are childhood friends who grow to become rivals in work and love. Davis plays the angel against Hopkins' bitch. The animosity between the two is palpable. Pretty good.

14. (1453.) Ghostbusters (2016)
Sure, it's not as good as the movie that inspired it, but rare indeed is the remake that outdoes its inspiration. The movie could have benefited from a director less indulgent of his star's ad libs. (It's most telling that Chris Hemsworth steals every scene he's in.) Still, not bad, assuming you can get past the rampant product placement.

Drink Coke! (Ghostbusters)

More to come

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I've had a lot of bad things to say about the Miami Dolphins as of late. Enough that after today's game, friend Keith sent me this text:

Dude. Stop complaining. Ya'll won for fucks sake.

Yes, we did! With the longest play from scrimmage (69-yards) to win a game with no time remaining in the fourth quarter by any NFL team since the 1970 merger. (I know that's a long qualifier, but I'll take what I can get.)

Woot.

Watch it on YouTube.

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To be continued...

 

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