The Bear, the Doyen and the Portal (Pt. 1)

(Once again pushing the definition of “short story” to the length of two whole posts! This one goes up a little late, mainly because I’m still not back in the rhythm of things after my vacation and the length once again took me by surprise. I needed most of today to get the story edited and ready to go. Hope you enjoy!)

Galen Grant awoke in the manner he was accustomed – face down on the cold, hard ground with an armed man looming over him.

It was the middle of the night and it was a different armed man than usual, so at least his hosts had gotten creative in their treatment of him. Galen rolled over on his back, pushing the thin animal skin blanket that was failing to keep him warm to one side, and took a closer look at his new friend. It was hard to tell how tall he was, given that he was currently bending down and poking him with the hilt of his sword, but his weathered brown coat, long sandy hair and tailored pants suggested something.

Galen thought it over carefully, twice, then nodded to himself.

“You’re not local, are you?”

The new man laughed quietly. “Not exactly, no. Hopefully you’ll stay relaxed, by the by, or the locals might take an interest in our little meeting here.”

Galen sat up, frowning a little. “You speak Celt. Definitely not local.”

“Yes.” The stranger rocked back on his heels and tilted his head to one side. “Are you interested in why I’m here?”

There was no one else in the tent, which would have been inconvenient since it was a really small tent, so Galen arrived at the obvious conclusion. “I guess it must be to talk to me.”

“Yes it is,” the brown coat said, nodding slowly. “You’re far from home, Mr. Grant. This world isn’t your home.”

“Yeah, I figured as much when I couldn’t get cell service.” Galen sat up and dusted off his denim shirt. After two months on the open plains there were holes in several places and it smelled worse than the city in summer but it did more to keep him warm than the thin linen undershirt. It was all he’d had when he slipped through to wherever this place was, where the people lived in tents on the open flats, electricity was a thing you only saw during storms and the locals had grabbed him and wouldn’t let him go.

He had no idea what any of them were saying, either, so the reason he was so unpopular remained a mystery. The stranger prodded him with the hilt of his sword again. “Hey. You paying attention?”

Galen jumped slightly. “Sorry. What?”

“There are some people outside who want to talk to you.” He nodded towards the back of the tent, not to the entrance, so it probably wasn’t the locals. “Want to see them? Or would you rather stay.”

Go with him.

“I guess I better come along.” Galen got to his feet and patted himself down. He’d had a dataphone in his pocket when he’d slipped out of his home and into whatever this place was but the charge had died weeks ago and he was pretty sure it was broken. Still he’d taken some video of the place and that might be worth something. His house keys were long gone, as was most of the change in his pockets, which the locals had confiscated. His wallet still had its contents except for the driving license. The picture had prompted his captors to take it, or so he thought.

The man in brown watched as Galen collected his things, a strange smile on his face. “Do you always do what you’re told?”

“Huh?” A blank look.

“I think you’re a little too trusting, that’s all.”

Galen turned that over in his mind a few times. “Do you not want me coming along?”

The stranger tapped his finger to his temple once or twice. “I wasn’t talking about me, although it certainly applies. Come on. Showing you the way is part of the message.”

When he decided to move the other man could really move, Galen decided. They went past the usual guard, who would normally be waking him up in a few hours, unconscious at the entrance to the tent. Then the brown coat quickly led him through the camp in a twisting, circuitous route that avoided the central camp fire and most of the more important looking tents. Galen hadn’t been outside since he arrived but it looked like a lot more people had shown up after he was captured.

But they never saw any of them on their way through the camp. Whoever this stranger was he was running circles around the natives.

Hold on.

It was about ten minutes after they got out of camp when the grass under their feet suddenly seemed to stretch into a blur and jerk under their feet. Brown coat kept his feet effortlessly but Galen fell flat on his back and started to slide. Then something wrapped around his waist and they were flying through the air. A moment later they landed, light as a feather, and the world around him, which still had the pattern of grass but grass that had been painted on a giant, lizardlike cardboard cut out, turned glowing and see-through. A second later Galen was standing on top of a plateau of rock about twenty feet above the rest of the grasslands with the man in brown and two newcomers.

The first was a tall, lanky man in denim, jeans and jacket both more patches than original fabric, his eyes still glowing faintly with chameleon light. He was easy to identify. The other was an equally tall, powerfully built woman wearing a sleeveless top, loose around the collar but fairly formfitting everywhere else, and a skirt that hid most of her legs without looking hard to move in. Galen couldn’t identify her as quickly but the necklace of small square metal plates she wore finally put him on the right track.

The woman gently took the jewelry out of his hand and pushed him a half step back. Galen smiled and said, “You’re Momma Bear, aren’t you? And the Alligecko. Did you two come all the way out here for me? I’m honored. Aren’t you guys a bit far from home?”

“Far from home?” The lady asked, one eyebrow arched in picture perfect incredulity. “Is that all you have to ask us?”

“Well, like I said, it’s not every day you have honest to goodness superheroes picking you up but-”

“Not to interrupt,” the brown coat said, “but I’ve fulfilled my end of the deal, so I’ll be on my way.”

Both Momma Bear and the Alligecko stopped long enough to give a solemn nod to the strange man, who turned and left as soon as they had acknowledged him. In two steps he seemed to be fading from view, by the end of the third he was gone entirely. Galen decided it was more than a little creepy.

The three that remained stared at the empty spot where the fourth had been for a minute, then the Alligecko slapped Galen on the back and said, “So now you know where we all went to get our powers. Time to show you how to get back.”

“Wait.” Galen scratched at his head in befuddlement. “This is where superheroes and supervillains get their powers?”

“It is,” Momma Bear said. “In fact, you’ve been here for a while, right? One should have attached itself to you by now. Why didn’t you get away from the Vishnu on your own?”

“Attached?”

Attached.

“Oh.” Galen shook his head slowly. “I guess I hadn’t noticed. How did you know I was there? Did they tell you?”

“The Vishnu? No. They don’t like people like us for some reason.” The Alligecko shrugged. “They’ve never felt like explaining and most of us try to avoid them. But there’s a guy called Clairvoyance who hangs out on this side of things and watches for people from our side when they come through. He’s good at it, though I’m not sure how he does it. We try and collect them, show ’em the ropes, so the Vishnu don’t get too many of us.”

Galen shoved his hands in his pockets and looked at the two of them. Both were kind of famous back home. Saved people from disasters, caught petty criminals, occasionally battled supervillains. The Alligecko’s lizardlike aura and camouflage abilities made him the darling of the ninja-chic crowd, while Momma Bear’s aura of raw power earned her fans of all stripes. Lots of people wanted find out how to wield the powers of an auratouched superhero. But even if he had been one of them, Galen might have reconsidered if he knew it made you talk crazy. “Can you run all this by me again?”

Momma Bear took him by the elbow and lead him to the edge of the plateau. “Tell me, my friend, do you know where we are?”

“Look like the Great Plains of Western Louisiana. Kinda far from Italy no matter how you slice it,” Galen said, glancing at Momma. “Mexico’s not such a log way off, though I’m not sure why Alligecko’s so far north either.”

“You’re close but not entirely right,” the Alligecko said, the giant, glowing, toothy reptilian aura that his name came from springing up around him and slipping noiselessly down the side of the bluff to the ground below. Though he was making no attempt to hide the shape of the spectral creature was still obscured, like a fog bank, hard to make out clearly even though it glowed slightly in the dark of night. It reared up on it’s hind legs, serpentine body stretching a good twenty feet upwards so that its upper shoulders were even with the top of the plateau and its massive head was even with Galen’s.

The Alligecko spread its arms, stubby in comparison to its body but still long enough that Galen could lay his head in the palm of one hand and his feet wouldn’t quite reach the elbow of the other arm, and gestured to encompass the world from the ground below to the sky above. “This is not our home. It’s a different world, my friend. Little here is like you would expect. The shape of the land, perhaps. But beyond that? Everything you know is wrong.”

“Things are different here,” Momma said, taking up the train of thought. “There’s an entirely different energy at work in this world. I wish we could explain it better but really we can’t. The closest word for it is magic, though I’m not sure that’s what the locals call it. There are thin places between here and home, and sometimes we stumble through to this place. And then the magic finds us, and we take a little of it home with us.”

“I get stumbling through,” Galen said. “But what makes getting back so hard?”

“Usually it’s not, most places you can slip through one way will let you back the other. But the Vishnu,” the Alligecko jerked it’s head in the direction of the camp they’d left recently, “and some other groups who don’t like visitors from other worlds keep an eye on the crossing points in their territory and grab people who come through them.”

“We know where most of them are and keep an eye on them so people don’t get caught that way,” Momma Bear added, “but sometimes old ways close and new ways open. That’s one reason we need to get home as soon as possible. You need to show us how you got here so someone can start watching it and keeping people from crossing that way.”

“Yeah. Two months camping in tents isn’t much fun when you are expecting it.” Galen laughed. “Worse when you aren’t. The voices don’t help much, either.”

Momma gave him a weird look. “Voices?”

Never mind. 

“…Never mind.”

——–

Unfortunately Galen wasn’t quite done with camping yet. Although tents weren’t involved he still spent another two nights sleeping on the ground as they made their way to the “hard way” home. Along the way the other two spent a lot of time trying to get Galen to find the aura that had attached to him. Both Momma Bear and the Alligecko showed him their own, the ways they focused it and called it to life. But Galen couldn’t find any such power within himself, he just heard voices. And he knew better than to say anything about them.

By the end of the trip both were upset with him, which wasn’t a fun feeling. The Alligecko and Momma Bear were world famous, after all, and it didn’t make much sense to expect him to be up to their standards just because he fell into a different world, did it?

The worst part was sneaking into the compound. This was the “hard” part of the “hard way”, a long, tortuous trip in the shadows of buildings, timed to get them past guards and make sure no one caught them. The whole place was crawling with people in creepy white coats of all different cuts. Everyone, men and women, wore enough jewelry that they jangled quietly when they walked and they were armed like they’d just stepped out of the weirdest Renaissance Fair ever. Wicked hooks that were sharp on both sides, spears with large, flat blades and brass colored gauntlets with all kinds of nasty nubs and spikes on them, he wasn’t sure how people could fight with them but he knew he didn’t want to find out.

You shouldn’t be here. You need to leave.

Worst was the voice. Very insistent, that, kind of distracting when he was sneaking past people who might take “getting medieval” very literally. But, though they gave him some annoyed looks, his two guides managed to see him safely through. Finally they arrived at a building that was little more than a dome about twenty feet high in the center and twice as wide at the base.

A single door led inside. There was a large rectangle in the center of the door with two triangle, points downwards, on either side of the lower half. It took a second but Galen realized it was probably supposed to be a chair of some sort.

Don’t go in!

Galen started slightly. “Um…”

“Quietly,” the Alligecko whispered. That had been his favorite word for the last hour.

“I know. But did you hear that?”

A frown creased the thin man’s face. “Hear what?”

“Singing,” Momma Bear said, pressing her ear to the door. “Beautiful singing.”

That wasn’t what he’d meant but it was something. The three of them clustered by the door, which Momma had cracked open just a bit. Sure enough the sound of someone singing a beautiful tenor solo in Russian was pouring out. “Wonderful,” the Alligecko whispered. “There’s never been a guard before.”

Guarded forty nine times over.

“How many times have you done this?” Galen asked.

“Four,” Momma answered, pushing the door open a little further and carefully sliding a small mirror through it. Light poured out as Galen peered through the crack and saw something breathtaking.

There was what looked like the beginning of a spiral ramp going up the inside of the dome. It wasn’t possible to see much beyond that but even the small part of the dome that he could see was full of dozens of thing, glowing slivers of energy, as if the air was full of floating panes of glass. Fascinated, Galen reached out to touch one that was drifting just in front of the open doorway.

No!

As soon as his finger touched it the pane of light bounced away with a horrible crashing noise then vanished from existence. With it went most of the light from inside inside the dome. Alarms were sounding all across the compound and feet were running in their direction. Momma Bear shoved the door all the way open and Galen could finally see the goal of their trip. It was a crackling circle of pale purple energy covered in constantly shifting shades of light and dark. In front of it stood a single man with a spear. Backlit as he was Galen couldn’t make out many details other than that he wore the ubiquitous white coat, appeared to have blonde hair and the panes of light in the room now clustered around him like a flock of chicks. And he knew they were there.

Run! Run now!

But the Alligecko grabbed his arm and pulled him forward into the darkened room.

Fiction Index
Part Two

Adaptations: Kill/Edge

The subject of turning a book into a movie is one fraught with strong feelings. It happens a lot. Some of the most anticipated movies of the last year (and the year to come) are based on books. But it never fails that something gets left out, some character gets left on the cutting room floor, you name it. There’s a lot to the process of adapting a book and you can never make everyone happy. So it was with some surprise that I learned that the movie Edge of Tomorrow was based on a book.

And not just any book, a Japanese novel called All You Need is Kill. Naturally, I had to see it.

Of course, first I needed to read the book, which took some doing, then I took the time to track down both the graphic novel adaptations. One was a Japanese manga, one was a traditional American graphic novel. Both were extremely faithful to the book, the only real difference was the art style and how much got cut (it wasn’t a whole lot in either version.)

So when I sat down to watch the movie I was kind of weirded out because I knew that it was going to be wildly different. Did I like the movie? Yes, I did. It was a good movie that entertained and said something simply but forcefully about human nature, both good and bad.

This is not a review of the movie, so I’m not going to give you a full length breakdown of the plot or what I liked and didn’t but that’s what I thought in a nutshell. Now I’m going to talk about what I got out of the movie vs. book in terms of adapting fiction for the screen. And, since such things are totally unavoidable in this context be aware:

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS 

Let’s look at what changed and why I think it worked.

Okay, obviously a lot changed from book to movie and I do mean countless things, large and small. The appearance of the mimics, the alien menace of the story, was changed from what were basically big green blobs to something that would look more impressive on screen. Keiji Kiriya transformed from a Japanese person to an American and got renamed William Cage (although Keiji does get the nickname “Killer Cage” in the novel so this is not entirely a departure.) Rita Vrataski is now a Brit rather than an American. Things take place in Britain rather than Japan. The troops are on an offensive operation rather than a defensive one. The list goes on.

Mainly, though, I want to look at the big changes and they start off about as big as it gets.

Theme 

Kill is about determination against despair. When Kenji gets trapped in his time loop it wears him down and breaks his spirit until his humanity is dubious at best. Rita pulls him out of it by offering him companionship and a way out but, at the same time, she has to at least suspect that only one of them is getting out of the loop. In the end Kenji escapes but is still alone. His humanity is still very much in question.

But in Edge the theme is much more about courage overcoming fear. A fair argument can be made that Cage fighting with the certain knowledge of a do-over if he fails doesn’t count as real courage but that is exactly why his loosing the power to jump back in time before the final battle is so significant. We see that, even with no safety net, Cage has transformed from a man who flees from what needs to be done to a person who passionately pulls others along in their duties. As Sergeant Ferrell would say, he has been purified in the crucible of glorious combat. He has become more human, more willing to stand by others and sacrifice for them if need be.

More than anything, this thematic change is what lets the film adaptation get away with all the other changes being made. Determination and resolve are a big deal in the East but often Eastern philosophy puts an emphasis on pushing through until you find out what you’re working towards. On the other hand, courage is knowing what you’re working towards and putting aside personal fears in favor of what needs to be done. It’s more universal, easier for American audiences to understand and, perhaps most importantly, healthier for the audience.

Main Character 

Keiji is a raw recruit about to go into his first battle. He’s untested but honest and he knows what needs to be done and fully intends to do it. Over the course of the story he becomes jaded, to the point where he no longer cares whether the people around him live or die. They’ll just come back the next time around, after all. True, meeting Rita gives him renewed purpose for a time but we’re not sure what he’ll be after the close of the story, with Rita gone and the burden of winning the war with the mimics on his shoulders.

Cage, on the other hand, is an Army Major, a ROTC graduate and a man of business. He’s also determined to avoid the front lines if possible – in short, he’s a coward. He learns to fight much like Kenji does, by going through countless iterations of one battle, but to a certain extent it looks like going through the motions. He does change in some ways. Like Kenji he gets colder as he loops, at least for a while, but he also learns more about the people in his unit and what makes them tick. Courage begins then. Sure, it’s Rita who comes along and fans it into a fire but, by the end, Cage is fully on board.

The character of William Cage is where the adaptation really shines. All You Need is Kill tries to be a coming of age story but it leaves us unsure of what the newly minted man is going to look like. But Edge of Tomorrow clearly defines the character at all points along the way – who he was, how he changes and what that man is likely to look like in the future.

Presentation 

In the book much of the iterative nature of the story is told to us. We’re given the framework of the thirtyish hours Keiji lives repeatedly and then the differences are spelled out for us. This is the right call. Prose is one of the clunkiest ways to tell an action oriented story so cutting out as much detail as possible is where you have to start, not where you need to end up.

But Edge of Tomorrow is a movie and it exploits the fact that it can show us five seconds of action four times in only twenty seconds. These rapid replays of events, showing us how Cage is adapting to obstacles, aren’t in the book because they’d just be too clunky but they work for the movie. In them we see Cage doing the same things over and over again in rapid succession to show us how his thinking works, then later we see him working with Rita to set up ever more complex plans, then finally we seem him start referencing events we’ve never seen but we can now clearly tell he’s lived through before. It all culminates when Rita asks, “What do we do now?”

When Cage says, “I don’t know, we’ve never made it this far before!” We laugh because we’ve seen all the meticulous planning happen and we know what happens when Cage reaches the end of it – he goes from a prescient supersoldier to somebody a lot like us. And that means things are getting interesting.

What I like most about seeing a half a dozen slightly different iterations of the same scene is that we can see Cage’s character growth spelled out in his face. He goes from being caught up in his own affairs to aware of the army around him, then his unit particularly and finally his partner Rita in particular. And as he gets more and more used to the idea that he can die he becomes more and more disturbed every time she does…

Ending 

All You Need is Kill doesn’t have a happy ending. Edge of Tomorrow does. There, I said it. Are you happy?

Because I was.

Yes, I get that, unless the main character dies at the end of a book, technically the story isn’t over yet. That means there’s no permanent happy ending to be had because life naturally has ups and downs. But it’s okay to end your story on a moment of triumph. People do get those in life and it is okay to celebrate them.

Keiji never really gets a win in All You Need is Kill. It’s sad, really. He puts in the time and does the work but still comes out behind. Yeah, I know some people think that’s how the world works but if that’s all your story has to tell you then it’s not very useful.

So maybe Edge of Tomorrow is a little pat. Maybe Cage is getting off easy, walking out with the aliens defeated and a legit shot at the girl he’s come to know and love. But you can’t tell me he didn’t earn it. He passed through the crucible and cast off cowardice, he was sure he had no chance to get back and enjoy any of the fruits of his labors and he still chose to suffer and die in the hopes that others might live. And in the end only two other people on the planet would believe his story if he told it. So it’s not like he’s a big shot hero. Just a guy with some unpleasant memories and a shot at a slightly better life.

In the end, All You Need is Kill and Edge of Tomorrow are both about character growth. But the film adaptation took some major gambles in changing the theme and main character to make, not a story better suited to its target audience, but a better story on the whole. And I am of the opinion that they succeeded. Not because they made the protagonist American instead of Japanese, or made his name easier to pronounce, but because they made him a person more worth trying to be like.

In my book, that’s always an improvement.

Cool Things: Trigun

Okay, I’ve hinted a few times that I like some elements of Japanese culture. Not just the classic stuff like Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or calligraphy, the pop culture that has produced things like Astroboy or Dragonball. The question I so often get when people find this out is… why?

It’s hard to just sit down and say, “Well, you see it’s this and this and this that make it all so interesting.” Have you ever tried to explain your favorite band to someone who’s never heard their music? If so, you understand what I mean. Even if you have a well reasoned, even handed argument for why you like them it doesn’t mean much unless the person you’re talking to has heard their music. (If they haven’t you’re probably ready to subject them to a few dozen bars of off key singing that will fail to make you any friends. Unless, of course, you’re one of those people and you can actually sing.) The fact is, it needs to be experienced, as often as not.

Anime and manga, the elements of Japanese culture that I get the most, are the same way. I can’t really pour the experience straight into your brains but I can recommend some places for you to start. Thus and so I proclaim July 2014 to be Japanophile month here at Nate Chen Publications and I’m going to use these here Wednesday segments to talk about some of the things that drew me to the twin mediums of manga and anime.

A quick aside on terms. Rather than write out everything here, I’ve made a separate post where several words that are used in this month’s posts will be defined. And from here on out I’m going to link to it every time I use one of these terms with the exception of anime and manga. Just so you know. Shonen will like to the Japanese Terms Cheat Sheet every time it’s a hyperlink. If you remember what a given term means you don’t need to click on it every time. Or just keep it open in another tab while you’re reading this.

So. Pretty much the first anime I ever watched in its entirety was Trigun and it still has this special little place in my heart even though, looking back on it, it only accomplished so much narratively or artistically.

Trigun is a good place for the anime novice to start for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s one of the three anime Space Westerns created in the 1980s and 1990s. If you’ve seen Firefly you have a good idea of the aesthetics of these space westerns, although the exact balance of elements varied between the three.

Trigun had the most western and the least space. As a result it’s chalk full of imagery that will be familiar to Western audiences in general and us Americans in particular. Gun slingers, taverns and great sprawling deserts are all a part of the scenery in Trigun.

At the same time they’re on another planet (which I don’t believe we ever learn the name of.)

Basically, the people there were part of a colonization project gone awry that crashed on planet hundreds of years ago. The details are fuzzy at start but are explored in more detail as the series goes on, point is the disaster set humanity back but more due to a lack of resources and infrastructure than a loss of information. And the planet is a desert so it’s not like it’s a hospitable environment, either.

There’s still some high technology running around, cyborg arms, futuristic power plants and even the rotting, semifunctional hulks of old colony ships. But at the same time most people exist in a world where what’s generally available wouldn’t be out of place in the 1890s and wound up looking like they belong in the old west.

There were twelve colony ships that crashed and each one had a city built around its ruins. These twelve cities, named after the months of the year, were the centers for human culture, learning and progress – at least until a lone man completely annihilated one of them over night using methods no one quite understands. Since this is a space western the man who is blamed for the incident had a price put on his head. Like all great outlaws he’s best known by the name they put on his wanted poster and that name is Vash the Stampede.

If you think that sounds dumb you don’t know much about the kinds of names people used out on the range.

Although it is an odd choice of a name since there’s no herd animals to stampede anywhere on the planet, at least so far as we see, so it’s not like people are going to have vivid images in their minds of what a stampede looks like…

Anyway, Trigun revolves around Vash and what people do about him. It’s got a very distinct story structure with beginning, middle and end, themes of learning to correctly evaluate people and a story of truly epic sibling rivalry plus some really weird names, slapstick comedy galore and gunfights to put The Matrix to shame. It’s fast, frenetic and fun, at least most of the time. That said, to really get what drew me in about the series you only have to watch the first five episodes.

(ASIDE – Trigun, like many anime series of its day and even some now a days, aired 26 episodes. Since one of those episodes was a mid-season recap it essentially had 25 episodes of plot development. The first 20% of the series is, in my opinion, the best part from a storytelling perspective. Not to say the rest isn’t good stuff, but it’s what really grabbed me.)

We start off by meeting Meryl Strife and Milly Thomson, insurance adjustors from the Bernardelli Insurance Company. They’re looking for Vash not for the bounty on his head, or even to try and claim damages from him, but because his tendency to leave chaos in his wake ever since he wiped a city off the map is costing the company money. Meryl and Milly are supposed to try and keep other people away from him, thus hopefully preventing further incidents that will cost the company even more money.

These two women are following rumors of Vash and are stymied when they encounter not one, not two but three men who match the description. They eventually write off all three as not Vash and continue their quest – but we, the audience, see enough of one of them to draw three conclusions:

  1. He’s really Vash the Stampede, just keeping a low profile.
  2. He’s very laid back for a coldblooded killer and, in fact, seems intent on avoiding conflict, passing off his considerable abilities as bumbling.
  3. He loves donuts.

Over the first five episodes Meryl and Milly watch Vash wrap up one incident after another – mixed-up bounty hunters, greedy land owners, bank robbers and a hostage situation – all without getting anyone killed. Each time the stakes get a little higher and it gets harder to hide the fact that under that sunny disposition and carefree attitude there’s steel and courage and possibly even something a little darker.

Episode 5, “Hard Puncher” is where it all comes together. Vash wanders into a town that has a failing power plant. Without power to keep things running the town will loose access to water and machinery to keep the desert at bay and it will quickly die. Getting an engineer to fix the plant is incredibly expensive – but Vash has the highest bounty in history and it’s more than enough to set things right.

Except Vash will not turn himself in quietly. He is, in fact, willing to fight the whole town.

And he does.

It’s not the first time Vash has done this. Obviously it didn’t work before but this town has a secret weapon. After all their efforts to catch him themselves they fall back on the old maxim that to catch a thief… And so they turn the biggest criminals they have on hand, a steam powered cyborg and his mad scientist “father” known collectively as the Nebraskas, loose on Vash.

This proceeds to backfire within fifteen seconds. (Surprise!)

The Nebraskas show no concern for the wellbeing of the townfolk and smash the place up even worse trying to catch Vash. In turn Vash busts his butt trying to keep the townspeople who are trying to throw him in jail safe. Finally the Nebraskas grab the villain ball and try to kill some townfolk just to prove they’re bigger than Vash (which is literally, if not figuratively true.)

In the end Vash beats the Nebraskas and saves the townfolk – even though they were determined to throw him in jail just hours before. Our lacksidasical, donut eating protagonist may be more of a hero than we thought, ruined cities or no.

Now this may not sound like anything special. But what impressed me at first and still impresses me now is how we learn about Vash. He never flat out says he’s Vash the Stampede, to keep a low profile, sure, but even when situations have already gone south he doesn’t trot out his reputation to try and scare off enemies. In fact, he doesn’t ever try for any kind of recognition – well, other than maybe some attention from the ladies.

We learn about Vash by what he does, not what he says or even what other people say about him (except for how it contrasts with the character we see.) It’s very strong writing like you don’t see much in any venue. Yes, the series doesn’t entirely live up to its early promise but it always does an excellent job with its character building and that’s why it still has a special place in my heart.

If your interested in checking out Trigun Funimation, the company that owns the license to distribute Trigun in America, has made the series available on Youtube. If you enjoy animation or character building it’s worth looking at.

Anime/Manga Month Cheat Sheet

(Scroll down for new terms from the 7/16/2014 post!)

These are some commonly used terms when discussing anime and manga. Note that not all of these are Japanese words, for Japanese, just like English, is a language all too happy to straight up steal words from other languages and give them new meanings. Let confusion abound.

Anime – This is one of those stolen words. It comes from French and it means animation. Oddly enough it’s used in a straightforward fashion – it refers to any kind of animated story, much like we’d use the term “cartoons” except that it never refers to pictures that don’t move only ones that do.

Dono (see also Honorifics) – Not used much in modern times, this was the term you would use when referring to the person who was your direct superior in the feudal structure. If it is used in modern times it is often done in a joking fashion.

Honorifics – American culture is, by world standards, fairly informal. But by Japanese standards we’re downright hicks. The Japanese language uses a set of honorifics to define relationships and I’ve included a few of the more important ones here. These titles would usually be used after a person’s name almost like a suffix. Thus if I was your writing teach I would be Chen-sensei. These honorifics serve to set some social ground rules between people and generally say a lot about the structure of a group, plus they’re considered polite. Most Americans will get this. What they might not realize is that not using any honorific at all is considered either A) a sign the speaker knows the person he’s addressing very intimately or B) the speaker intends to be very rude. Something to keep in mind should you ever visit Japan.

Manga – This is a very broad term in Japan that refers to pretty much anything that’s been drawn. But for our purposes it covers the things American audiences would refer to as comic books, comic strips and graphic novels. The two are very similar but manga tends to be more image focused where American comics are very dialog heavy. The differences are very stark if you take, say, a page from DCs New 52 and place it next to a page from Shounen Jump…

San (see also Honorifics) – This is the catch-all, general purpose, polite honorific you use if you and the person you’re talking to are equals or your relationship is as-of-yet ill defined. The rough equivalent of Mr. or Mrs. in English.

Sama (see also Honorifics) – This term refers to someone more important than you. Your boss, the mayor, the Prime Minister, it can be pretty broad and how important the other person has to be before the speaker uses it varies, assuming it gets used at all.

Shoujo – This word basically means “young girl” and means a girl between the ages of 12 and 16, dealing with the new complexities of interpersonal relationships that define that age. It’s also a genre of entertainment. Shojo entertainment tends to focus on… well, romance. But also the societal pressures girls face in what Americans would view as highly regimented school systems play a major role. Gossip, appearance, grades and the like are very, very common themes.

Shounen – This word basically means “young boy” and refers to a man on the cusp of adulthood, somewhere between 12 and 16 years old. Anime and manga called “shounen” are just what you’d think – aimed at boys in that demographic.However shounen also tends to be the best selling and most popular genre in Japan, so this may be a bit of a misnomer. Shounen Jump, the most popular shounen publication in Japan, has the motto “hard work, friendship, victory” and that may be the best summation of the genre there is.

As the month goes on I will come back and add to this page as needed. Of course, I don’t expect you to read this straight through, although some of you might be doing just that right now, but rather look up the correct entry whenever you encounter something you don’t understand in the course of one of this month’s posts. So be aware that the contents of this post will be changing over time.

7/16/2014 Update

Bakumatsu – A roughly three year time period from 1866 to 1868 when the Japanese Shogunate was overthrown and the Emperor restored to actual leadership of Japan. While it’s sometimes compared to the American Civil War the only real similarity is the time period and that a formerly unified nation divided into factions that fought with each other before being forced back together in a sometimes uneasy peace. In truth it might be closer to the American Revolution, as it overthrew one kind of government and instituted another… but in all truth comparing the history of one nation to another is kind of futile. The Bakumatsu was a civil war that changed the government of Japan and ushered in the Meiji era. It is one of the most often romanticized periods of Japanese history. ‘Nuff said.

Ishin Shishi – The faction of the Bakumatsu set on overthrowing the Shogun and restoring the Imperial form of government. The ultimate victors of that conflict and, oddly enough, often cast as villains in stories set during that era.

Katana – This is the Japanese equivalent of the long sword. The blade has a slight curve to it, so that the force of impact is focused in a smaller area than it would be with a straight blade, and it is forged and tempered in such a way as to withstand incredible impacts without breaking. The weapon is sharp on only one side. The Japanese consider them works of art and those forged by Japanese smiths in the isles of Japan are actually national treasures that cannot be exported legally. There’s a lot of other technical stuff but basically all you need to know is they’re pretty and deadly.

Meiji Restoration – A period of Japanese history stretching from the late 1860s to the early 1910s. The samurai and other deposed ruling classes were still around and both causing and solving problems but, on the whole, the imperial government, along with growing militancy and modernization that would characterize the nation until the end of the Second World War, were the driving forces of the times. While the Bakumatsu wasn’t really anything like the American Civil War there are a lot of similarities between Meiji and the American West, particularly in how they are romanticized.

Rurouni – A samurai with no master and no place to call home. Samurai were the backbone of the Shogun’s feudal system and, with that system overthrown, all samurai were essentially homeless. To carry the analogy between Meiji and the Old West one step further, rurouni would be the Virginians of the era, part of a dying breed who still held just enough power in the minds of the people to have an impact one last time.

Sakabato – Roughly “a reversed blade” a sakabato is a katana with the cutting edge and the blunt edge reversed so that striking with it in the normal fashion hurts like the dickens but won’t kill you (much). In theory, this allows a trained swordfighter to enjoy the balance and heft of his normal weapon without running the risk of randomly chopping someone’s head off. He can just leave them crippled for life or something.

Shinsengumi – Literally “newly chosen group” these people were the elite of the Shogun’s defenders, a special police force pulled up to defend Kyoto (then the capitol of the nation) against Ishin Shishi activities. Historically they were about as nice as you’d expect hardline police to be during wartime but they were exceptionally good fighters and popular culture has romanticized them a lot. In fact, if there’s an elite fighting group in a Japanese work of fiction there’s a 50/50 chance both it’s structure and leadership are modeled on the Shinsengumi.

Keeping Sharp

Shannon Harrison was one of the most terrifying people Ashton had ever met.

As someone who had spent months in the Australian Outback, fought in the biggest weaver’s war the continent have ever seen and eventually been sworn into the Order of the Round Table before being sent to North America to endure his Trial, being scared at all took some doing. You wouldn’t think a fiftysomething housewife would be on anyone’s list of scary things, particularly when they answered the door with a half-finished blanket for grandchild number two slung over one shoulder wearing a short sleeved blouse and battered jeans that had seen better days. But, although he had not practiced the art as long some, Ashton could still see deeper than most.

He did not, for example, miss the fact that the entire building seemed to loom over him as if it was ready to topple onto and crush anyone who displeased its lady. Nor was he oblivious to the way Shannon was at the center of the house, at least in the pattern of things if not the physical center of the building, with everything that was there, everything that happened there, sooner or later tying back to her. As she stood in the doorway looking him over he understood how the knights of old could have so readily admired and served women who they had no romantic interests in at all.

They just wanted to stay out of trouble.

That and they recognized a kind of power they would probably never really understand fully. Ashton cleared his throat nervously. “Good morning, ma’am. I’m Ashton ap Percival. I’m here to see Janus?”

“Oh, you’re the grail knight?” She smiled and the whole building seemed to relax. “Come in. I’m not sure where he is at the moment but I’ll see if we can’t dig him up.”

Ashton quickly hurried through the door, not wanting to see how the house would react if he didn’t obey. He knew the Harrisons descended from a long, long line of Templars, weavers who had a special understanding of the power of place. Many people thought Templars settled in places of power but one thing he’d learned in the last few months was that it was the other way around. Templars found a place they thought was important and, in a very short time, made it powerful. He’d been to several of their meeting places – he’d even been to this house once before – but he’d never really appreciated just how much power Templars packed into their strongholds.

“You can wait there in the kitchen if you want,” Shannon said, waving through the door on the right of the entry hall. “I think he’s in the new addition. I’ll just pop through and check. Help yourself to something from the fridge if you’re hungry.”

He nodded and cautiously let himself into the kitchen. It was a big room with a small island in the center and a heavy wooden table at one end opposite the usual cupboards, counters and appliances at the other. The table in particular drew his attention for a minute. It was battered and worn, but so tightly woven into the house around it that it seemed like you could drop a nuke on the city of Fort Wayne and still find this table here afterwards, waiting for the family to sit down to dinner.

It was creepy.

The more Ashton looked around the more he saw the patterns of family life ingrained into the world around him. For someone who had pretty much grown up alone in a fifth story apartment with a family that was more like occasional roommates it was a little disconcerting. He didn’t feel unwelcome… but he wasn’t quite sure what he was being welcomed into.

“Hi, Ashton. Did Gary send you in for something?”

He snapped out of his reverie as Angie Harrison, the family’s only daughter, came into the kitchen with an empty cup in one hand and headed towards the sink. Ashton smiled reflexively, Angie’s three older brothers had made it quite clear that he was to Be Polite, or else. “Hello, ma’am. I’m sorry, Gary…?”

It took a second for it to click. Janus was a title, referring to the marshal or field commander of the local Templar order.  Gerald Harrison, or Gary to most people who knew him outside of weaver circles, was the person Ashton was there to see currently held the position. “No, actually he didn’t,” Ashton said after he worked out the question. “I just got here, in fact. Your mother thought he was in one of the additions.”

The Harrison house was over two hundred years old and, while Janus had once recited every addition and renovation in chronological order, Ashton had never made it a point to try and learn them. Knights of the Round who followed Percival we’re, by nature, knights errant, not knights who stayed in place.

Angie finished pouring herself a glass off orange juice and held up the container with a meaningful shake, raising an eyebrow. Ashton shook his head, declining the offer, and she put the juice away, saying, “Well I’ll take you out there, then. Just a sec.”

She let the fridge door swing closed behind her as she went to the doorway he’d entered through and yelled, “Mom, I’m taking Ashton out to Gary in the barn!”

A moment’s pause then Shannon’s voice drifted back from the other side of the house. “Thanks, honey. Come right back.”

The kitchen let out into the house’s massive garage, which was so close to being a barn on it’s own that Ashton wondered why the family might need another one. It was two stories and held a beat up pickup, an full size van and a four door sedan on top of a very serviceable looking tractor. With four people living in the house, and the house sitting on the grounds of a working apple orchard, he supposed they might really need all that space.

What he wasn’t sure they needed was the complex, many layered tapestries that ensured, among other things, that the vehicles would come back safe and sound every time they left. For one thing, if something ever did happen to one of those cars the resulting shift in the metaphysical threads surrounding the household could tear it apart. On the other hand, he hadn’t seen anything around the Harrison household that said “half measures” so maybe the setup shouldn’t surprise him.

Angie didn’t seem uncomfortable around all the heavy defensive weavings, stepping through the intangible web of protections without a second glance and leaving Ashton doing his best to keep up. He did have enough time to notice that the house didn’t defer to Angie the same way it did for her mother. Maybe just because she hadn’t lived there as long, maybe because it only had enough room for one lady of the manor. He wasn’t sure.

It wasn’t until they were out of the garage and crossing the stick infested expanse of crab grass that doubled as a lawn and a shrine to the orchard’s planter than he noticed Angie was watching him almost as closely. “Is something off?”

“I was just thinking you don’t move like any of the other Templars I know, that’s all,” she said with a shrug. “Dad mentioned there was a new guy in the order and I’ve seen you with Gary around Timeslip once or twice so I figured it was you.”

“Well, you’re not exactly wrong. Ashton, son of Percival, Order of the Round Table at your service.” He stopped long enough to sketch a formal bow.

Angie laughed and said, “Angela Harrison, hedge weaver. No need for formalities on my account.”

“Hedge weaver? You’re not affiliated with an Order?” Ashton took a closer look at the girl as she led him up a low hill towards the barn. Plenty of people didn’t like the more structured approaches to teaching, studying and regulating magic weaving that the Orders advocated and the Arbiter’s Councils legitimized, but most of them were long term outsiders. The Harrisons had been around Fort Wayne long enough there was a formal term for their patriarch – Third of the Five.

“Even the Five Families have their black sheep,” Angie said, apparently guessing what he’d been thinking. “If I did put in the time to make the physical baselines and weaver theory I still wouldn’t want to join the Templars. Staying in one place all my life just doesn’t appeal. And the rest of the local Orders don’t really feel like the right fit either.”

“There’s no rule saying you must stay in a given Order all your life, you know.” Ashton gave an depreciating smile. “You don’t think I started with the Round Table, do you?”

Angie’s answering smile was all mischief. “No, not if you’re a Percy. Percival was a grail knight, a knight errant, and people who wind up under his banner never sit still for long. They wouldn’t be true to his spirit if they did.”

“You find something funny about that?”

She shrugged. “Not really, but it does explain the Australian accent. You’re a long way from home, Ashton. What brings you to an apple farm in northern Indiana?”

“One of the best war weavers in the state asked me to drop by.” He paused with one hand on the door the barn. “Are you coming?”

Angie had already started back towards the house but she called over her shoulder, “My guess is this is strictly Templar stuff. Good luck!”

“Good luck?” Ashton shook his head, not sure what to make of that, and pulled the door open.

The Pattern of the Weave is always shifting subtly. Things are always changing and the Weave reflects reality in real time – or perhaps it is the other way around. Weavers study the pattern in its broad nature, its subtle variations and the many impacts humanity has on it. In short, weavers are simply people more attuned to the connections between things than is normal. And when patterns of those connections change, whether from natural causes or deliberate interference, weavers are the first to notice.

As Ashton pulled the door open he caught the barest tremors in the Weave that signaled such a change in the offing. That could have meant anything but, with all the heavy defenses around the Harrison house and a certain level of natural skittishness mixed in, it was enough to have him on high alert.

So when the man with the broadsword popped into existence two steps in front of him Ashton didn’t just duck out of the way, he reacted fast enough to get inside the swing and try to throw the other man to the ground.

He might as well have tried to uproot Ayers Rock. His assailant was more than just heavy, he was somehow rooted to the very fabric of the building and moving him against his will was going to be hard. Before Ashton could come up with a change in tactics his assailant drove a knee into his side.

Rolling with the hit, Ashton took a quick stock of his surroundings. He was just barely inside the barn door, in a room totally devoid of any of the boxes, tools, bales of hay or other farming junk you might expect. The ground was dirt, the walls were wooden and the glint of metal came from the wall to his left. Naturally, that was on the other side of broadsword guy.

Also missing were the complex networks of Templar defenses that made the rest of the property look so dangerous. Ashton had just enough time to smile before the ground brought him to an abrupt stop.

Teleporting wasn’t hard, just messy. All a weaver really had to do was find something connected to where they wanted to go and keep pulling until they had a hold of their destination, then let go of what kept them at their starting place. The Weave, which all that pulling would bend all out of shape, would quickly snap back to its original shape dragging the weaver along with it. The letting go was the hardest part and really all that kept normal people from doing it. The problem for most weavers was all the random stuff that wound up tangled around them in the process. That kind of mess could tie you up entirely, keep you from weaving any magic at all for a long time.

But in a clean environment like the barn Ashton had no trouble yanking himself across the room. Even when his assailant tried to stop him with a hastily woven net stretched between the ground and the rafters Ashton made it past with only a few stray threads wrapped around one arm. He found himself beside a long wall holding a half a dozen heavy swords just like the one his opponent was using. Each was about two feet long and a good six inches wide with no sissy weight reducing gutter running down the middle. One side of each blade had the brilliant gleam of silver, the other the dull matte black of cold iron.

They were stupidly heavy, incredibly sharp and only mildly magical. Also, much heavier than Ashton would have preferred, but any port in a storm. Whatever had been woven into the sword it didn’t look like it would be dangerous if a stranger tried to use the thing so Ashton snatched up the nearest and immediately whipped around to parry an incoming attack whistling down towards his left shoulder.

He countered with a waist high cross cut which drove his attacker back a step, letting Ashton get away from the barn wall for a bit more maneuvering room. He settled into a two handed stance, wishing he could swing the blade one handed like his opponent did, and said, “I hate to point this out but you invited me here, Janus. I wasn’t expecting to get jumped in the doorway.”

Janus, who had the advantages of two years of age, more in experience, at least ten pounds of muscle and an inch of reach, gave a cocky smile. “What does the title mean?”

Ashton groaned. “Roman god of doorways. So of course you attack me at the door.”

“See? I knew you’d work it out.” Janus casually waved the point of his sword at the door. “It was as good an ambush point as any. And, in case you’re wondering, yes this is how the Templars greet guests. At least, so long as those guests are interested in sharing field work with us. We do cross-training with the Hospitallers on a regular basis as well.”

“Oh? So this is just a bit of sparring, is it?” Ashton grinned wickedly. “My good luck then.”

Janus gave a curious tilt of his head. “How’s that?”

“You see, mate, this is the one place I’ve been comfortable since I got here today.”

Ashton immediately stepped in to press the combat again. And just like that, he was back at home.

Fiction Index