Wednesday, April 24, 2013

On long-running series

With the release of A Memory of Light, Robert Jordan's (and, ultimately, Brandon Sanderson's) Wheel of Time series drew to a long-awaited close. Having started reading the series back in 1994, I was understandably excited about how the series would wrap up. So excited, in fact, that I set aside several months of time to completely re-read the series from start to finish.

Three months later, I was ready to throw all of the books away.

I had grown incredibly sick of his portrayal of women. I got tired of the viewpoint switching just when things got interesting. If Nynaeve gripped her braid in one more white-knuckled fist, I was going to write a fanfic with the express purpose of having very painful and degrading things happen to her. The writing style, which hadn't bothered me too severely before, just ended up grating on me.

I've noticed this a couple of other times when I've opted to plow through a long series. The Robotech novelizations were interesting, but after twenty books of very light reading I ended up less than thrilled with them. And David Weber's Honor Harrington series... I never even got all the way through that one. After reading an entire paragraph devoted to the nuances in emotion that the titular character gleaned from a single look, I was ready to throw my e-reader at the wall. "He had a stern look in his eye, but beneath that she could see the glimmer of mischievousness, buoyed by their past relationship. But she could also see the sorrow in them over her recent loss, and felt gratitude at the sincere regret she read in his eyes as well." I exaggerate, but only a bit. After the umpteenth description along those lines, I simply could not continue - that series of novels stands today as one of the only ones that I will not finish after having started reading them.

The issue is not with the writers themselves - the respective authors are much more accomplished than I, and have earned massive respect for their accomplishments. Nor do I think I could do a better job - that's not the point of this post. Instead, what this tells me is that a long-running series can simultaneously be an author's most beneficial characteristic as well as one of their most detrimental assets.

The key is in the subconscious patterns that evolve from works of any particular length. While the inter-gender disputes in the Wheel of Time were at first a minor annoyance behind a novel fantasy tale, over the course of the series they became much more pronounced.  Honor Harrington's empathy was a character trait that had evolved from events in the series, but after a while it came to dominate her every interaction with other characters. Terry Goodkind's objectivist philosophy grew from the ideas behind the actions of Zed and Richard into an entire guiding philosophy of the series - something that was most certainly not evident before the publication of Blood of the Fold.

I could go on, but I think my point is made. After a certain number of words, these traits become more pronounced, the characteristics take up more and more page space. Why does this happen? Is it simply something with which the author can fill page space in a familiar manner? Or is it a symptom of how the books are consumed? For example - if I read one Wheel of Time book a month, instead of one after the other, would I have been as emotionally invested in hating the gender portrayals at the end?

Maybe I'm just hard to please. And if so, what does that mean for me as a writer? Is there some day where a reader of my work will send me an angry letter detailing how I am everything that is wrong with humanity? Is that, necessarily speaking, a bad thing?

Maybe this is just a reason to avoid long-running series in general. Either writing or reading them.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Concrete Coding Corner - Productivity and Project Metrics

Project Management and You

As a programmer, one of the major things I spend my time talking about is how to measure productivity at work. Indeed, an entire field - project management - exists explicitly for this purpose. The ostensible purpose of this field is to provide metrics and milestones for business owners of projects, so that they have an idea of where a given project stands at any point in time. Of course, the cynic in me cannot help but point out the obvious: the entire field of project management is oriented around proving that a given individual, at any particular moment, is actually performing work. Project managers request task breakdowns, status updates, demos - all of the hallmarks needed to show that progress is being made, but it all boils down to the same thing: programming is essentially a black box for everyone but the programmer, and those without an understanding of programming sometimes need additional information to understand exactly what's going on.

You can couch it in all the business language you like, but the ultimate goal is to manage employees who develop software. Some organizations do so benevolently - using missed goals and milestones as learning opportunities as points of improvement. Others do so maliciously - using missed goals as a hammer to beat a programmer into extra hours in the pursuit of some arbitrary deliverable. Like most programmers, I've experienced both ends of the spectrum. Ultimately this is neither good nor bad - the use of project management techniques, like a weapon, is as benevolent as the intent of the wielder.

Hidden Benefits

One thing I've noticed, though is that while I may rail against the arbitrary metrics used to measure performance from time to time, there are indeed concrete benefits to these techniques when applied outside of the software engineering realm - particularly related to creative endeavors. Ultimately, I'd argue the major reason that many personal projects fail for many individuals (and they do fail - if New Year's Resolutions were written on paper, the entire world would be covered in the crumpled dreams of millions of resolvers) is that they simply lack means to measure progress. Self improvement, for example, is only useful in the chance that it actually produces improvement. 

Take an aspiring runner - given the lack of any information or motivation, the individual needs to decide on their own whether or not the activity of running is producing an effect. They need a metric - a means of measuring progress. Most of the time, the only metric available by default is the uncertain metric of how our bodies feel at any given point at time. This can be a good metric, particularly when working towards fitness goals, but it is also inherently flawed in that "body feel" can be influenced by any number of factors. A bad sleeping position produces a pulled muscle, and all of a sudden your progress metric is thrown off by an unrelated issue. Most people, with enough of these false indicators, will eventually give up on their goal. If they can't measure progress, then they can't see that their efforts are actually paying off.


The source of the problem is in producing objective metrics - metrics that rely not upon an arbitrary element of the situation, but that focus on concrete results. One example is in practicing a musical instrument. In my spare time I play brass instruments, and in order to achieve quality tone and technique a brass player needs to spend hours practicing. However, with brass playing it is also very easy to slide once you reach a certain ability level - you find that you can put out a moderate level of adequate performance and that this adequacy, while not particularly impressive, is sufficient. The primary way to advance past mere adequacy is to work on fundamentals - sets of exercise that are equivalent to strength and agility training for brass players. These fundamentals are vital to building proper technique and muscle mass for endurance, but they are also extremely boring (and in some cases, borderline painful). After several practice sessions that seemingly fail to improve this adequacy, it is far too easy to write off the activity of fundamental practice altogether and focus exclusively on the music. We've identified a similar problem to that of the programmer. Our goal is concrete - become an amazing player - but the means by which we have to measure our progress are inexact. We're relying on inadequate body feel and the ephemeral concepts of a "good sound" - something that can be hard to identify without outside observation.

This is the issue faced by project managers when overseeing programming projects. Programming, to them, is a black box. On the surface, all they have is the equivalent of body feel - they have assurances from the programmer that everything is on track, or problem reports as they arise during development. These end up giving false indicators. The project managers, as a result, focus on goals that can be measured objectively in order to give them a more uncluttered view into the progress of a project. While this work seems arbitrary to the programmer (and in some ways it is, as from a certain perspective the need for this information is birthed from an inherent distrust between individuals - else there would be no need for assurances that work is actually occurring), it gives the project manager an objective view of the project and mollifies their concerns.

Application of Metrics

The end point of all of this is that project management principles are not exclusive to programming projects in the workplace. One solution to the body feel problem, which I have found successful, is in breaking the goal down into objective measures. For my brass playing, I developed a spreadsheet system. Along the top of the spreadsheet I put down metronome markings, starting at 60 BPM and increasing to 208 BPM (an arbitrary choice on my part that represented "very fast"). Down the side of the spreadsheet, I listed chromatic tones - C, C#, D, D#, E, and so on. I then printed out about twenty of these sheets, and assigned a sheet to every fundamental exercise: one sheet for lip slurs, one sheet for tonguing exercises, one for Clarke technical study #3, one for chromatic studies, and so on. 

This gave me a grid of concrete milestones - objective goals that I could check off as a list. As I would complete the requirements for a goal, I would write the date in the corresponding cell. For example, if I completed the F# Clarke Study at 140 BPM on February 2nd, I would write "2/2" in the corresponding spreadsheet cell. Over the course of several days of practice I would slowly fill in the spreadsheet with dates, and after a while it was possible to see progress very clearly. Where before I would easily get frustrated practicing technical exercises, reaching that wall where the fingers only want to fumble and the lip feels stiff and unworkable, with the new system I could look down at my spreadsheet and see that I had already completed three cells for the day, and feel confident in moving on. 

It took away the human tendency to focus on the negative - the problems faced as I worked on a particular exercise could dampen my mood very easily - and instead highlighted the positive. I could look back on my spreadsheet at any time and see the period of time where I couldn't perform the current exercise faster than 60 BPM, and realize that the troubles I'm facing at 120 BPM are a mark of progress rather than purely  a source of frustration. I was able to measure my progress based on where I had come from, rather than where I was headed. I was celebrating the mile I ran continuously, rather than lamenting my inability to complete a marathon. The marathon would come, just as surely as completion of the current exercise would come.

Metrics and Writing

Most writers debate this technique without knowing they are doing so by focusing on word count. Some writers proudly claim they only complete 500 words a day, but those 500 words are rock-solid. Other writers pound out 2,000 or more words in a day and are pleased with their progress, leaving rewriting for later (in the interest of full disclosure: I typed at a rate of 2,083 words per day when completing my first novel, with a high water mark of 10,000 words in a single day. I obviously fell into the latter category). The issue faced is that while word count is indeed an objective metric for writing, any individual can quickly tell that it is in no way indicative of quality. This tells us one thing: our metric is inadequate. We have found an objective measure, but not the right objective measure.

Of course the blogosphere constantly debates the issue of quality versus quantity, but ultimately we end up coming back to the same issue: what are the fundamentals for a writer? What is a way we can work on these fundamentals objectively in order to produce measurable progress that results in increased quality? We have critiquing, which despite the attempt at objectivity is almost entirely subjective. We have editing, which suffers from the writer's blind eye when working on their own pieces and suffers from the subjective perceptions of an external editor when performed by an outside party.

This is something that has been on my mind lately, and I'd argue that it's a concern of every writer. How do we know that what we write is actually good? Are we practicing the right things? Is there an objective measure of "good" or "bad" when it comes to art? I have my own ideas, but I am open to suggestions. Until then I am left with an imperfect metric of word count goals, which I pursue with vigor.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Theme Story - The Chase

Jonathan cast a glance over his shoulder, breathing hard, but he had not put any distance between him and his pursuer. The creature behind him leaped a fallen tree, its red eyes glowing with an unearthly light. Swearing silently, Jonathan turned his head forward and redoubled his efforts. He tried to ignore the building pain in his legs, focusing on his breathing as he forced his way through the foliage.

The chase had been going on for fifteen minutes, now, and Jonathan knew he was only delaying the inevitable. He had never been much of a runner, and that fact was certainly apparent as he felt a stitch forming in his side. He could almost hear the creature's panting, a near growl marking the time behind him as the beast pursued. He had never gotten more than a glimpse of those horrid, haunting red eyes in the fading light, but the light of malice in that face was unmistakable – a clear sign that whatever it was, it wasn't friendly.

Jonathan stumbled and cursed, his foot catching on a root. He fell forward, catching himself on his hands. He winced at the sudden pain as his skin was scratched and scraped, but used his momentum to vault himself back to his feet before coming to a halt. The creature's breathing seemed louder now, closer – he imagined that he could feel it's hot, moist breath on the back of his legs. He dashed around the trunk of a tree, the branches whipping at his exposed arms as he pushed himself onward.

Behind him, the creature began to growl. Softly at first, but building in intensity. The sound chilled Jonathan to the bone – it was unmistakably hostile. Jonathan knew a war cry when he heard one. He began to feel panic truly boiling inside of him as he ran, adrenaline pumping his legs when sheer willpower gave out. His arms began to shake as his body reached the limits of its power, and he felt himself start to flag.

Right as he felt himself slowing, he heard a noise off to his right – something crashing through the brush. He looked up hopefully, but screamed when a second pair of red eyes bounded out of the underbrush, shaggy-haired snout slathered in foamy saliva. His fear overcoming him, Jonathan dashed off at a diagonal, attempting to put maximum distance between both his pursuers. He just barely darted out of the way of the new pursuer, hearing its jaws snap in the air where his leg had been mere seconds ago.

The hot breath on the back of his leg was no longer imagined. The new pursuer growled along with his partner, the dissonance of their cries resonating in Jonathan's soul. He could see the end, feel the jaws clamping around his leg in his mind. With a final burst of speed, he pushed through a large wall of brush...

...and found himself airborne. He took a panicked second to look back over his shoulder and see his pursuers tumble out of the hole he had just made in the patch of green on top of a large rock face. The wind was deafening, the roaring in his ears his entire world as he fell. He had no idea how far the ground lay below him, but he suspected that any moment now he'd find out. His last thought as the tops of trees in the valley below him entered his peripheral vision were of his impending impact, and how he sincerely hoped it would be less painful than being torn to pieces by rabid creatures with demonic eyes.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The contest has come to an end, but the journey is just beginning

Today, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award announced the 25 semifinalists. Unfortunately, yours truly was not among them. I wish the winners the best of luck - I am sure they are all fine examples of the art, and will see great success.

As for me, I learned a lot during this process. I'm not really upset or irritated that I wasn't selected - on the contrary, I was honestly surprised to have made it as far as I did. Being selected as one of the top 500 entries out of 10,000 submitted is an honor I'm still not certain I'm worthy of, and the forthcoming Publisher's Weekly review - whether it is positive or negative - is simply icing on the cake. The fact that this is my first novel - indeed the first work I've written that is longer than 15,000 words - is just something I am immensely proud of.

Sorry if the previous paragraph sounds like bragging - it's honestly not intended that way. I just never expected to make it as far as I did.

Now, where do we go from here?

Let's talk about a couple things: the things I learned from this contest, and what I plan to do with it.

On Reviews

Firstly, I'll probably keep obsessively refreshing my reviews page in createspace. While my position as a quarter-finalist warrants me a Publisher's Weekly review, it hasn't actually been posted yet. On top of that is the fact that the review is not required to be a good review. There's no such thing as bad press in many cases, but I can't say I'm looking forward to being excoriated by one of the gatekeepers of the publishing world.

That being said, I also earned two reviews from Amazon "expert" reviewers. I mean no disrespect by the quotation marks - I've simply heard them referred to by a number of terms, and I'm unsure what exactly brought them to the rank of expert. There were two, both of which contributed to the decision to move my book onward to the quarterfinals. Both reviewers praised my writing style - one called my writing style "gripping," while the other described the writing as "strong". At that point the two reviews diverged. One claimed that my ability to seamlessly move the viewpoint between the character's internal dialog and the actual events was excellent, while the other said that they found it jarring in places. One said that he disliked my main character based on his word choices, while the other described my main character as "dynamic."

Probably the most troubling part of one review was when one reviewer stated their "disinterest in the science fiction portion of the novel." I have yet to determine if this is due to the reviewer's dislike of science fiction as a genre, or whether I just did not present enough science fiction elements fast enough. If it's the former (which I am led to believe based upon my reading of how the ABNA process works), then I question the system Amazon has put into place for this contest. Maybe it was just a fluke, but it's a disconcerting one.

In either case, I wish I had the opportunity to thank both of my reviewers. I gleaned a lot from the brief reviews they left, and I will apply it to my future writing.

Moving Forward

My conclusion after this contest is that, barring a horrid review from Publisher's Weekly, my book just might be ready for marketing. I've been pondering what to do with my writing for a while now. I have a stable day job that pays very well, so I'm not looking to make a living on my writing just yet. Granted that's one of the end goals - to do what I want, essentially, for a living - but the process I plan on taking isn't necessarily driven by publication as any kind of hard benchmark. If my novel isn't worthy of the world, I have no problem writing another (and another and another) until I get it right. Or until I've saturated the market.

I already have a sequel written for the novel I submitted to this contest - Majestic - as I feel that I had places to take the story that the first novel didn't adequately explore. This novel hasn't been edited (or even read yet), but I already have ideas for others in a different series. Aside from that I've been dabbling in short story and scene writing (which you can see on this blog), just generally building my skills. I look at writing like programming - you can spend hours and days and years tightening the project down, but after a while you just need to get it out the door and move on to something else.

On Self Publishing versus Traditional Publishing

There is endless debate online about self publishing versus traditional publishing, and it ultimately boils down to this: If you self publish, your royalties for each book you sell will be higher on average, but the perception of your quality will be lower, as will your out-of-pocket expense. If you traditionally publish, you get the cachet of the the published author and better publicity, but you run the risk of not earning as much in royalties.

Personally, I see merits in both approaches. Self-publishing gets you feedback and income now, but removes the barriers to entry. There are a lot of bad books out there - poorly edited, poorly thought out, poorly formatted - that people throw up just to be able to say "I'm an author, you can buy my book here." These books bring down the perception of self publishing as a whole, and actively harm the community. Honestly, these books are the single biggest argument against self-publishing for me. Although I need to be honest and admit to myself that there is a good chance that my book also falls into that category.

Traditional publishing, on the other hand, has the gatekeepers. You need to find an agent, who will request edits, who will sell to a publisher, who will request edits, who will print the book and sell to bookstores. Then you need to participate in marketing with variable support from your publisher, who may be loathe to take risks on a neophyte author with no proven sales record. In the end you have your book in a bookstore, but you're taking on a lot of the process than authors have traditionally done in the past.

So which is important to me - getting it out there, or getting the respect?

My Approach

My primary consideration is that  I recognize that I'm trying to build a brand. After a while, if no one has heard of me, no one will buy my books if I ever end up published. So here's my naive plan to get the ball rolling:
  1. Start the query process. Get my book out and in front of agents, and see if I can get one to bite.
  2. After twelve months, if I have not received any substantive indicator of progress, pursue the self-publishing route.
This is the plan I start today, with my first official query later this evening. I've a number of reasons for choosing this approach, but they can be summarized as follows:
  • Some writers see romanticism in amassing years worth of rejections before finally getting that one "yes" they need. I don't really see the point in this, myself.
  • In some ways, being proliferate can trump being unknown. Having things out and selling builds my name, and builds evidence behind me that I have something of worth to offer the reading world.
  • Ultimately, I'm writing for myself. If other people think my books are publication worthy, that's great! However, I don't plan on truly defining my success as a writer on my publication status. As such, I'm not really in the mood to beat my head against a brick wall, hoping I break my way through after enough strikes.
So what do you think? Am I making a good choice, or taking the first steps down the path of folly?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Theme Story - The Crash Site

Jarvik approached the object cautiously. The surrounding flames had long died down, leaving a gaping, blackened rent in the object’s surface as the primary evidence of the recent crash. Jarvik had to assume it was a crash – the object’s fall had been far too controlled to represent any natural phenomenon. With the planet of Bekhal being so close to the asteroid belt, those kinds of strikes were inevitable. As a result, Jarvik was all too familiar with meteorites and their propensity to strike from nowhere.

A faint trailer of smoke rose from the rent in the object, with occasional lights erratically flashing in the dark interior.  Jarvik sniffed warily, but was unable to sense any poison in the air – just a strong whiff of ozone, as though lightning had struck circuitry. He pulled out his handheld and captured several images of the object – he knew that this was a momentous occasion, but he figured if nothing else he wanted to be able to hold the images over the heads of his friends.

The ground was warm, the grasses blackened in a ring around the object. Jarvik didn’t know much about spaceflight, but he remembered reading that movement through the atmosphere created a lot of heat due to friction. He stepped gingerly, wary of finding a stray bit of molten metal but operating as though the main danger had passed. Before long he was at the side of the object, peering into the gash at the dim interior. Strange protrusions and oddly lumpy objects were bathed in a harsh red light, taking on sinister aspects as their shadows loomed at odd angles against the skewed walls of the craft.

Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Jarvik stepped inside. It took him a moment to stabilize himself on the sharply-sloped floor of the object, but before long he was able to move around relatively freely. He said a silent prayer of thanks to the gods for his love of mountain climbing that allowed him to move around such a precarious environment, and began to explore.

His eyes scanned the compartment, taking it all in. On the other side of the rent was a featureless wall, appearing to be made out of some kind of metal. There were oddly-shaped pieces of furniture stranded about the cabin, looking as though they were built with an eye for comfort on top of their intended function. Jarvik surmised them to be chairs, though the physiology they were designed to support was completely foreign to his eyes. It didn’t take long for him to find one of the creatures, lying in the corner. Even though this was his first sight of an alien creature, he could tell that the beast was obviously broken. Limbs bent at awkward angles, and the entire body appeared to be folded around some kind of container. Jarvik contemplated getting closer, examining the creature, but he had no idea how this being would react while hurt.

Jarvik continued his examination, but there wasn’t much else around to see. He had seen popular depictions of the interiors of alien spacecraft before, but those were largely designed with contemporary preferences in mind. He looked back at the broken alien, seeing all of the equipment surrounding it, and realized exactly how primitive his culture’s understanding of technology was. He surmised that these beings communicated with their ship using their minds exclusively, negating the need for controls or displays of any kind. Of course he had to account for the fact that the displays may be there and were simply shut down due to the crash, but looking at the smooth surfaces surrounding him he saw no marks or depressions that could indicate some kind of conventional screen.

Jarvik found this exceptionally strange. With no visual or tactile displays, how did these creatures interface with the craft – provide information to passengers or engineers working on repairs? He knew that he would not find answers here, but he found the simple thought exercise engaging. What would an alien creature consider standard in a craft such as this? What was the purpose of the craft, anyway?

A slight scraping sound alerted him, and Jarvik turned quickly to watch. The rent in the wall appeared to be closing itself, the metal seemingly knitting itself together before his eyes. Not pausing to think, he made a dash for the hole and tried to force himself through. It was a tight fit – he had half of his body out of the opening when the repair process caught up to him. He braced himself for the inevitable pain of piercing jagged metal, but was surprised when the surface smoothed itself underneath him. He took only a second to ponder this before pulling himself the rest of the way out. He looked over his shoulder to spy the hole in the side – much smaller now, and with a body-sized portal in the center – and realized that the ship had reacted to his presence, the hull forming itself around him and recognizing that he was not to be harmed.

As the rent closed and the enigmatic ship returned to a dormant state, Jarvik could only sit and marvel at the mastery of technology necessary to accomplish such feats. He looked at his handheld almost with scorn – how could such pedestrian technology ever compare to the true marvel before his eyes? Shaking his head ruefully, he put the handheld back into his pocket and headed back into the forest, towards a home that suddenly seemed much, much smaller.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Theme story - The Fall

Ryan dashed madly through the halls, wing tips that had never been meant for running beating out a staccato pattern on the tiles. He could hear the blasts outside the walls, the quick rapport of gunfire answered by the almost silent hissing of the invading army’s weaponry. They had come out of nowhere, appearing in the sky overnight and blasting away several of the largest cities on the planet without any warning. Ryan dodged around a pair of startled interns standing in the middle of the corridor. A particularly loud hiss ended their confusion as a chunk of the wall exploded, priceless artwork and masonry gone in an instant.

Ryan turned left at a juncture, and caught sight of his goal in the distance. A small, unassuming door lay set off to the side next to a pair of lavatories. His people’s tendency to hide important things in out-of-the-way places had helped them weather the first onslaught, allowing them to prosecute a war they were clearly losing. The invading forces were not invincible – Ryan had seen enough of their forms littering the ground, oddly hairless faces peering through broken visors as their bodies seeped a red liquid he assumed was their blood. Their technological superiority, though, had been evident all along. They took control of our communications easily enough, Ryan thought as he ran, so it figures they’d find us sooner or later.

He opened the small door, not bothering to knock. Judging by the madness inside the room, no one would have heard him anyway. Glowing screens covered one wall, displaying security footage from outside the compound. Far too many of those images are blank, Ryan thought sadly. I don’t think we’re going to make it through this one.

The emperor was where Ryan knew he would be, standing quietly next to the device that was his right. The Last Resort stood there, quiet and ominous in its state of readiness. Ryan approached and fell to one knee before the emperor, but he was quickly bidden to his feet.

“Not much point in that now, is there?” The sonorous voice that had enthralled so many crowds held a note of sadness today. He indicated the room around them, the activity panicked in its intensity. “We work to hold on long enough, to let our civilians get to safety, but we no longer have any real chance of escape.”

“Your highness, there is always hope,” Ryan asserted, desperation playing through his voice.

“Ah, the optimism of the young.” The emperor turned to look at him. “So tell me, what news have you brought?”

“Your daughter and son are safe, your highness. The transport left an hour ago.”

“Small comforts.” The emperor sighed. “You have been a trusted friend and advisor.”

“Thank you, highness.”

The emperor waved a dismissive hand. “I speak only the truth. You’ve been with me since we were both children, enduring the same training, taking on your role as my prime guard with tenacity and dedication. I will never forget that.”

“Nor will I, highness.”

The emperor turned back to the screens. Scenes of horror from around the area were displayed in a grid along the far wall. Here a pack of defenders firing into the forests were vaporized by a stray flash of light – some kind of particle beam nobody understood. There, a lone soldier charged a hill held by the enemy only to be cut down by the same weapon. A third showed only a burning husk of a vehicle – one of the few they had left. Nothing they had seemed able to stop the devastation wrought by the invaders – their greatest defenses cut to pieces like meat carved off a carcass. Another screen went black – they were down to a dozen now, the original eighty-one defense points having fallen one-by-one.

The building rocked from some kind of impact. Ryan couldn’t tell what it was – whether it was some of the invader’s pernicious beams causing a section of the structure to collapse, or more of those kinetic energy weapons – weapons no more complex than a guided metal bar driven with great force from the sky – crashing into the ground nearby. We might have had a chance, if those weapons didn’t target everything that moved, Ryan mused bitterly. All of our artillery and military vehicles destroyed in fifteen minutes. And we thought ourselves mighty.

“Commander, what is our status?” The emperor’s voice rang out over the din, its full tones overriding the cacophony of chatter in the war room.

A man looked up. His uniform was bedraggled, as if he’d been dragged out of bed and thrust into it bodily. That probably isn’t too far from the truth, Ryan thought. The commander straightened his lapels and began speaking.

“Sir, most of the roads coming into the area have been taken by the enemy. Our forces have been reduced to a tenth of their original size, and that number falls by the minute. We have had several perimeter breaches of the command center. So far none of the invaders have stepped inside the walls, but that is only a matter of time.”

“I see.” The emperor pondered for a moment. “And what of our other forces?”

“We lost communications with the empire’s other military units approximately three hours ago.”

“And on the rest of the planet?”

The commander shrugged. “Our information is obviously limited in that area, but our spies that are still active report the same story all around – no one has stood against the invaders and met with any kind of success.”

“Thank you commander.” The man returned to his duties, and the emperor sighed. He turned to face Ryan. “It seems like we’re up against the wall here.”

Ryan nodded solemnly. “I don’t see how we can salvage this one.”

“And a moment ago you were so optimistic.” The emperor laughed, a sad sound with no trace of mirth. He held up a controller, retracting the cover from the firing mechanism. He placed his thumb on the button, and smiled at Ryan. “For the glory of the empire.”

A flash of color in one of the monitors caught Ryan’s eye. A hint of clothing and a familiar face being pushed forward pulled at his mind, and Ryan’s mouth dropped. He lunged desperately for the controller in the emperor’s hand, a strangled “Wait!” erupting from his lips.

But then the bomb exploded.