The Reflexive Engine VI

[Chapter List]


Molly wasn't feeling it tonight, sitting in The Freak and Harlot, watching the punters mill in before the sun set and the heavy, reinforced door would have to be barred against the outside world. And then a graceful figure slipped inside, and she sat up straight.

She leant forward over the table, letting her flimsy dress slip from one shoulder. “I knew you couldn't stay away, Beau.”

He twisted his handsome mouth into a smile. “Of course not Molly, you know all the gossip.”

She pursed her lips. “Oh.”

He pulled a chair out from beneath a half-unconscious drunk and slid it over to sit down opposite her. “I hear that someone self-destructed quite spectacularly recently. A learned man, or so they say.”

A look of determination lit her eyes. “Men often meet their ruin in this town. Sometimes even under this very roof.”

“Yes, ruined. He gambled away everything he had. And I've found the chance to help the poor bastard - to return something of his that's come into my possession.”

Her gaze drifted from his striking eyes and across the crowded room. The usual bunch of working men, cheap grafties and cheaper whores. Nothing to compare with the fine young gentleman sat opposite her. “You know I'm one of the girls who gives this place its name? You want to know what's freaky about me? I could leave you speechless.”

“I'd wish you every luck with that,” he said. “Many have tried.”

“I don't speak in jest. I've got bits you've never seen before.”

He sighed. “Molly, do you know about this professor or not?”

“Give up on him,” she answered, through gritted teeth. “He owes a debt to the Franke brothers. They took him to sell for parts.”

He slumped into his chair. “Really? What an age we live in!”

“Anyhow,” she said, touching her fingers to her lips, “I did you a favour, so...”

He slapped the table with his palm, making her jump. “In the absence of the whole, pieces will have to do. Where are the Franke brothers making themselves unwelcome these days?”

She stammered for a few seconds. “A little village, 'Lakechurch' or something like that, but-”

“What would I do without you, Molly?” He kissed her cheek, pressed a handful of gold pieces into her palm and shoved his way through the crowd to the door.

Adjusting her hair and secreting the coins into her bodice, Molly glanced at the people around her, trying to hide her embarrassment. “He's an absolute darling, that one,” she managed to say, through her forced smile.


Thursday Comic

Batgirl: Fists of Fury - Various

This is another victory for my local comic book shop. I've been interested in reading some Cassandra Cain as Batgirl stories for quite some time - she's always seemed like a character I'd appreciate - but until now I've not really had the opportunity. Fists of Fury is a collection of miscellaneous Batgirl stories: some stand-alone vignettes, others detailing Cassie's part in larger stories (apparently as opaque to her as to me).

Damion Scott takes the pencil for four of the chapters, drawing in a highly stylish, deformed style that turns Batgirl into a graffiti-esque silhouette flowing around her opponents like liquid shadow. The chapter pencilled by Phil Noto is a lot less interesting by comparison, but he does draw an extremely cute Oracle, which you should know is more than enough to curry my favour. And another chapter is pencilled by an artist who seems to be trying to emulate Scott's style, but in a way that feels like the collision of two artists' weaknesses.

As for Cassandra Cain, well, my instinct was pretty accurate if this book is any indication. It was a bold move to come up with a Batgirl who, in contrast to Barbara Gordon's lighter, fun-loving vigilante, is actually even darker and more serious than Mr No-Fun himself, Batman. The almost mute daughter of an assassin who brutally indoctrinated her into his line of work, Cassandra is frightened of her own capacity to kill and possesses a strangely innocent callousness. On reflection, it's no surprise that the strongest story in this collection is about Cassandra's interactions with the child of a bank robber. You can feel that this Batgirl is desperate to use her skills to help people, but not entirely sure just how to do that.

And then there's her costume, which is inspired in its simplicity, so inescapably bad-ass that even Ed Benes struggled to sexualise her during her brief appearances in Birds of Prey.

So, yes, I did really enjoy Fists of Fury for its star character. But even without that, this book is worth picking up for Damion Scott's art alone, and the chance to see such an atypically kick-ass superheroine rendered in such a confident, equally kick-ass style.



Not even on this blog. Especially not when I had to get off the tube at Green Park, part of which has been turned into a shark cage for the soft-bodied journalists that must dive into the carnivorous ocean that is the public at large.

Anyway, I wondered down there over lunch and, for some reason, when faced with the sea of tourists and journalists swarming around Buckingham Palace in the sunshine, I decided to take a picture of this thing instead.

Because Buckingham Palace is always there, and this thing's new.

I was going to take a photo of the flags along the Mall, but I realised I couldn't do it without winding up in someone else's picture. On which note, in all the coverage of people flocking to the area, if you see a young man in a suit stopping to check the time on his phone, and then walking on with a glance to the side that says, "Oh hey, a television camera." That's totally me.



I answered some questions here. Mostly focused on interactive fiction, and my entry to IFComp.


The Reflexive Engine V

[Chapter List]

Once Cracksman's Gang

She wafted into the room and threw herself into the high backed chair opposite the corpulent Cracksman. As she kicked her feet casually onto his desk, the two men in the room stared at her pale ankles. The rhythmic cranking of the mill machinery reverberated up through the floor.

“The job's done?” Cracksman asked, trying to keep his gaze level with her eyes.

She smiled. “Of course.”

He grinned in return. “You're the best, Jez.”

She absently drew her dagger and picked at a nail with the point. “I know.”

Cracksman nodded to the other man, a fellow with the tell-tale lop-sided hunch of a badly done graft. A bulging sack of gold coins was dumped onto the desk before her.

Her smile widened. “By the way,” she said. “I've found an opportunity. A distant opportunity.”

Cracksman frowned. “I see. I must say I'll be sorry to see you leave. It can be hard getting things done around here without you.”

“I think it may be a big job,” she added. “I'd need a gang.”

“Well, if you need any advice,” Cracksman said, “you've only to ask.”

“What I need,” she repeated, “is a gang.”

Cracksman glanced at the lop-sided man.

You have a gang,” she said, slowly.

“We work the town,” he said. “I can't spare anyone for an expedition.”

She slipped her dagger back beneath her overcoat. “What a shame. Especially with your hands on top of the desk, instead of near the carbine you keep strapped beneath it.”

The lop-sided man plunged his hand into his jacket, but she was quicker, a pistol suddenly in each hand.


The workers stared at her as she left Cracksman's office. The two gunshots would have been audible even over the rumbling of the mill's water-driven machinery. Those workers larger and less obviously occupied than the others - Cracksman's footpads and thugs - regarded her with special attention.

“Cracksman is dead,” she announced. “I'm in charge now. Does anyone have a problem with that?”

With a bellow of inarticulate rage, a solid slab of a man charged her, fists clenched. And with four quick stabs of her dagger, she pierced each ventricle of his heart.

“Does anyone else have a problem? No? Then we shall be going on a little expedition.”


Friday Christmas Tree Worm Blogging

Image Credit: Nick Hobgood
Some rights reserved
Image source

Just getting into the spirit of the season.


Thursday Book

1920s Britain - Janet & John Shepherd

A slim reference, with little interest in narrative or theory. A nice recap of things I've learned elsewhere.

Really, I just bought it for the pictures.


Monday Movie: Evil Dead 2

An isolated rural cabin seems like the perfect romantic getaway for Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda - but little do they know that the absent occupants had been dabbling in the occult. When Linda is possessed by a Kandarian demon, Ash (perhaps a bit too readily) decapitates her with a shovel and buries the body. And this is only the start of his ordeal. By the time relatives of the cabin's owners arrive to discover the blood-soaked, unhinged man barricaded inside, it may not be easy for them to accept where the real danger lies...

The first thing that's apparent about Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn is the bold and dynamic direction from Sam Raimi, readily lifting this otherwise shaky and low budget film above its B-movie roots. The next thing you'll notice is just how damn funny and scary the film manages to be, often at the same time. The scares come from meticulously crafted shocks and a relentlessly sinister atmosphere. The comedy comes from the slapstick violence, and the absurd situations that develop - both probably exemplified by the sequence in which Ash fights his own possessed hand, before severing it with a chainsaw... at which point he's then forced into a game of cat and mouse with the now independent appendage.

And for all that the film could be claimed to boil down to making you jump out of your seat and split your sides laughing, it does still continue to maintain its atmosphere throughout, constructing a Lovecraft-style mythology of its own, and brutally but steadily fashioning Ash into an iconic horror hero. Add to all that one of my all-time favourite endings to a film, and you've got one heck of a cinematic experience - if you can stomach it.


The Reflexive Engine IV

[Chapter List]


She crouched beside an uneven road, sheltering among unkempt trees that bordered neatly tended fields. A tall, broad-shouldered woman, her skin was dusky-toned and her golden-brown hair gathered into a long braid. She wore the white breeches and black coat of some foreign military, a sabre hanging by her side.

Her eyes flicked up at the sound of footsteps and casually - almost lazily - she strode out into the path of three darkly dressed men who led a horse-drawn cart piled high with bric-a-brac.

The foremost of the three removed his tricorn hat and bowed. “Well, hello, Miss. How are you this fine day?”

The other two laughed, hands resting on the butts of holstered pistols.

She stood facing them, feet apart, and spoke quietly. “Turn back.”

The leader looked from one to the other of his lackeys, and all three laughed. “Please,” he said. “The villagers have hired you to protect them, I suppose? They're not worth it, honestly. Take their gold and leave them.”

She placed her hand on the hilt of her sword.

The leader let the reins of the horse fall from his hand. All three men now stood ready to draw their pistols. “There are three of us,” the leader said. “You don't stand a chance.”

A strong breeze whispered across the fields, hissed through the leaves of the trees, and scattered gravel across the road. The woman drew her sword.

Before the foremost man could fire, his arm was severed at the elbow. A split second passed and the tip of the woman's sabre protruded from the back of the man to his left.

The third man fired his pistol with a blast of smoke. A moment later his head was at his feet, his body toppling awkwardly over it.

Clutching his stump, the only man left alive fell to his knees. “He... shot you!”

“Yes,” the woman said. “He did.”

With a flash of silver, all three of the footpads lay dead at her feet.

She approached the horse, and the animal reared up - the whites of its eyes showing, the scent of blood in its nostrils. She caught its reins with a firm, but gentle hand and patted its haunches reassuringly, before turning to the laden cart it was harnessed to.

Something in the pile of bric-a-brac groaned.

With a clatter of displaced trifles, the woman threw back a sheet to reveal an elderly man: wild-haired, gagged and bound. With a few flicks of her sword she cut him free.

“Thank you,” the man gasped, sliding off the cart and rubbing his wrists. “Thank you. Things have been going from bad to worse for me, and I thought they were about to wind up as bad as they could get, if you know what I mean. I can't tell you- Wait, where are you going?”

The woman stopped in her tracks and looked back at him.

“You can handle trouble, right?” he asked.

She nodded. “Yeah.”

“I've lost something,” the man said. “Sheets of paper with holes in them. They don't look like much, but they're worth more than you can imagine.”

“Code?” the woman asked.

“Something like that.”

The woman nodded again and, sabre sheathed, began to walk down the road, drawing the horse along by its reins. The elderly man followed quickly after.



I am up to something. I should have a thing done by next week. At least, if I meet my deadline.

So, expect a thing.


The Reflexive Engine III

[Chapter List]


The windows were shuttered against the daylight, absolute silence prevailing within. Half a dozen men sat around the table, brooding over their cards.

“Your deal, Beau,” said the man with the pointed goatee.

Beau smiled. Unnaturally beautiful, immaculately dressed and, to see the pile of coins in front of him, improbably lucky. He gathered the cards with his perfect hands and began to shuffle.

“Wait,” Goatee said, holding out a hand. “You're quick. I'll give you that.”

Beau tried to look puzzled. “What do you mean?”

The other men at the table glanced at one another. Hands began to slide quietly towards belts that held pistols and daggers.

“I know what you are,” Goatee continued. He tapped a finger to the side of one eye. “I am too. I'd see what you were doing even if you weren't always winning when you dealt the hand.”

“A cheater?” one of the other players snarled.

“We have something very special in store for cheaters,” another added.

“I don't want any trouble,” Beau said, setting down the cards and holding out his hands.

The largest man at the table threw back his chair and leapt to his feet, towering over the others. “Well, you've got it anyway.”

With a sudden jerk of his arms, Beau held a small pistol in each hand. Firing both at the same time, he dispatched two of his opponents in one blast of gunpowder, sliding down from his chair and beneath the table just as the giant's fist ploughed through the space previously occupied by his handsome face.

The next blow overturned the table, clearing the line of fire for the two pistols he had pulled from the back of his belt, one bullet smashing the giant's lantern jaw, the other sending Goatee tumbling through the shuttered window.

The last two men raised their weapons. A fellow with a jagged scar across his face aimed his pistol and fired, only for his target to roll forward at the last moment, dodging the bullet and pulling another pair of pistols from his expensive shoes. As the scarred man wrestled with the pouches of shot and powder in his jacket, the only other man standing was shot through the heart in the act of throwing his knife.

Beau got to his feet and dusted down his breeches, watching the scarred man struggle to reload. “I still have a pistol I haven't fired, you know.”

The scarred man dropped his gun and held up his hands. “Take the money. I won't stop you.”

“Of course I'll take the money,” Beau said. “But I can't get a reputation as a cheater, however deserved it might be. One can only cheat the ignorant, don't you agree?”

The scarred man nodded frantically. “I won't tell anyone.”

Beau sighed and waved his pistol back and forth. “But I'm far too trusting. It's my chief flaw. I really should shoot you.”

“I have something else,” the scarred man said, reaching a trembling hand into his waistcoat.

Beau tutted. “It had better not be a pistol. I really have the advantage here.”

But the scarred man produced several folded sheets of paper and handed them, shakily, to the man holding him at gunpoint.

“Blank,” Beau said. “And full of holes. You have a most peculiar sense of humour.”

“I was playing against a professor of some sort, really down on his luck. He lost everything, and this was all he had to put on the table to try and win it back. He said it was worth a fortune.”

Beau raised a slender eyebrow. “Really? Maybe you're the one who's too trusting. Look, toddle off. And we'll both forget we ever knew one another.”

The scarred man blinked, and then took off like a rocket.

Beau dropped the blank sheets of paper on the floor and righted the table, before sweeping his ill-gotten gains into a large purse. One by one he returned his pistols to his belt, sleeves and shoes.

He sighed. Reloading them all would be such a chore.

About to leave, he stooped down on a whim and picked up the blank pages, holding them up to the light that poured in through the broken shutters. The holes in the pages were neat and orderly: some square, some rectangular.

“A fortune,” he mused.

He half made to throw the pages down again, then stuffed them into his riding coat and strolled outside, pockets jangling.



I won't claim to be any good at it, but I'm finding the Streets of Rage Remake pretty fun to play. In particular, for a game that boils down to just walking around punching and kicking people, there's an impressive amount of variety and inventiveness to its branching levels.

Hat tip GameCentral Inbox.


A Rusty Friend

Rain Town, by Hiroyasu Ishida.

Make sure to keep watching after the credits.

Hat tip Twitch.


Monday Movie: 5 Centimetres Per Second

As a thick snowstorm closes in, the young Takaki embarks on an unexpectedly difficult journey to reach his erstwhile schoolmate, long-time pen pal and potential soul mate Akari. When he does eventually reach her, it's a moment of profound romance and intimacy that will overshadow every subsequent relationship he has.

Makoto Shinkai's 5 Centimetres per Second is a sixty minute character study told in three parts, charting Takaki's single perfect moment with Akari, and his inability to recapture the electricity of a love that arguably never really happened outside his head in the first place. The monologue voice-overs that accompany the story are over-earnest, but everything else about the film shows surprising restraint for a portrait of adolescent love. The spoken dialogue is natural, and the ambient sounds blend perfectly with visuals that are simply exquisitely gorgeous. The colours, lighting effects and level of background detail are almost overwhelmingly sumptuous.

My favourite of the three chapters is definitely the second one, in which the monologues are pushed to the back seat and we're introduced to Kanae, an adorably shy and indecisive girl with a terminal crush on Takaki. Compared to the barefaced angst on display in Takaki's two chapters, Kanae's story presents the heartbreak of unrequited love as something almost brave and honourable.

Although 5 Centimetres per Second may stumble, it does so on the road to being a perfect little movie. I definitely understand why Shinkai is seen by many as the next big thing in Japanese animation.


The Reflexive Engine II

[Chapter List]


In shirtsleeves and waistcoats, the two men pored over tattered maps and yellowed books. Little outside their immediate thoughts bothered them. The housemaid thought to open the curtains, letting light in through the ornate, baroque windows, and they noticed only that the words flowed more easily from the page, that their scribbles on the wall-mounted blackboard accumulated more quickly and legibly. The tea she proffered slipped down their throats almost by reflex, and the plates of breakfast were ignored. She stoked the fire, and they merely loosened their collars.

When the stranger entered - a tall woman: pale, dark-haired and dark-eyed - she too went unnoticed. She thanked the housemaid for escorting her in, waiting for the younger woman to leave before removing her bonnet. She watched the two men for a minute or so, observing their frantic work and the way it revolved around the chattering machine in the corner.

And then she reached into the dark overcoat she wore over her loose, high-waisted dress, and retrieved a flintlock pistol, discharging it into the nearest man with a thunderous crack. He spun round, eyes wide, and fell to the floor, dead. The other man stared open-mouthed at the stranger, his train of thought finally derailed.

The stranger drew a second pistol and pulled back the hammer. She glanced suddenly back towards the entrance, expressionless and unreadable. After a split-second's thought, she fired through the door, leaving a neat hole just below the keyhole.

The surviving man lunged for the fireplace, grabbing the poker, but with a flash of metal he had dropped it, and the woman was beside him, the point of a long dagger at his throat.

As she pressed forward, he squeezed back against a wall of books. He spoke quickly, trying to spit out the words before it was too late. “Cracksman sent you, didn't he?”

Still stony-faced, she said, “Of course.”

“There's nothing of value here. Kill me and my debts will never be honoured.”

“Unfortunately for you,” she said, pushing the dagger forward, drawing blood. “I still get paid.”

“I know where to find a massive fortune!” he gasped.

“Shame you couldn't have found it sooner.”

“It only just revealed itself. Let me live, and you can have it. Actually, I can have it too. That's its value.”

She extended a manicured, short-nailed hand and skilfully buttoned up his collar, dagger held steadily all the while. “That noisy machine has something to do with it, doesn't it?”

Perhaps relieved to still be alive, he actually smiled. “Yes, yes it does.”

Her impassive mask cracked, and she smiled back. “Then I don't need you.”

With a jerk of her wrist, blood sprayed over the bookshelves, and the man's body hit the floor.

With a glance at the clattering machine, the stranger strode to the door and opened it. Outside, the housemaid lay gasping on the floor, a hand to her stomach, blood spilling out between her fingers. “I told you to go to into the village and post my letter,” the stranger said. “No good comes of listening at keyholes.”

The girl sobbed with pain. “The letter was blank.”

The stranger sighed. “Of course, the kettle. No good comes of steaming open letters either.” She crouched down beside the girl. “It hurts doesn't it?”

The housemaid nodded, eyes screwed tight.

The stranger slid an arm around her shoulder, drawing her close, kissing her forehead. “Shush. Just bear it a second longer.”

The light from the baroque windows flashed briefly on the blade of her dagger.


As she wandered back into the room of the two learned gentlemen, cleaning her dagger with a handkerchief, a bird began to plaintively sing outside.

She sheathed her blade, and laid out her two empty pistols on a writing table, running her fingers contemptuously through the garbled notes laid out upon it. All the while, the chattering machine vomited out a long strip of paper, punching it through with holes.

Her cold, eagle eyes followed the strip's coiling path, watching for patterns.


No April Fools' Post This Year

Sorry guys, no April Fools' post this year. I am currently the subject of a nationwide manhunt, and have been advised by my solicitor to turn myself in to the police.

It is my firm belief that slapping David Cameron across the face with an Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus oxyrinchus, pictured above) is a legitimate act of political protest. Nevertheless, I did so fully aware that I would likely suffer consequences. I can only ask for your patience, and assure you that I will produce a belated April Fools' post at such a time as I am released on bail.

I would also like to stress that I performed this act with the full and informed consent of the fish in question. I was not, at the time, aware that the Atlantic sturgeon is listed as an endangered species.