26 Mar

Tex Murphy Overseer Install Guide

texmurphyoverseer

I remember walking into my new Software Etc store in the late 90’s and wondering where it would all end. Who and how were they going to top this one? The box on the rack that contained Tex Murphy Overseer had a little, flashing, red light to highlight the box art. Right at the top of the building in picture was a miniature LED driven by a watch battery. Definitely eye-catching.

tex_o_boxannotated

And the MMX badge prominently displayed–it was Intel, in fact, that played a large role in financing this fifth entry into the Tex Murphy Universe. And if you read the interviews with Access muckity-mucks, the imposed development time-line necessary to get the game done at the same time the Pentium MMX processors shipped is somewhat to blame for Overseer’s rough edges. Ah, but the fond memories (of course, when I think about my Pentium 166MMX (with a Voodoo3d card), MDK comes to mind first for some reason…).

This game was also unique in that it shipped on 5 CDs, like it’s predecessors Under a Killing Moon (4 CDs) and Pandora Directive (6 CDs). However, it also included a single DVD version of the game with (supposedly) much higher quality video.

If you’re like me, you didn’t have a DVD drive in those days. Mainly because to do things right, one needed not only a DVD-ROM drive at the steep price of $300 or so, but also a Hardware MPEG card. These cards (like the REELMagic) also cost about $250-$300, but were almost required due to the relatively stodgy performance of even the fastest CPU of the day. So, I didn’t have one.

I played Overseer by swapping the CDROM disks, like most people. One leg at a time.

But, over the interceding years I would occasionally ponder the DVD version of the game. You and I are probably not too different in this. Perhaps you would find yourself considering the disk, lurking darkly in the game box in the deep recesses of the basement. Who knows what wonders would be revealed simply by installing it? And sooner or later, the temptation would become too great–great enough to root through the junk in the attic or whereever and find it.

The heady anticipation we felt as we popped that disk into the drive, thinking, “I was so lame back then–how could I have gotten along with just a silly CD drive?” And our chortling at ourselves would give way to a rapt excitement, as that autoplay we’ve been meaning to shut off decides to work with us for a change and we see:

o01

Oh, the joy! My stupid old Pentium 166MMX wouldn’t be loading it that fast! No, sir! This is going to be great–WHAT?!?!

o02

With an almost PC LOAD LETTER calmness, one small Windows message deflates our high hopes faster than a balloon animal made by Needles the Clown. Oh well, we told ourselves, it wasn’t that great a game. Maybe someday I’ll build a Windows 95 machine with which to play old games. We blinked back the tears and went on with our dull lives…

But not today. Today we’re going to beat it. We will play Overseer again!

Since Overseer has a much different architecture when compared to Under A Killing Moon and Pandora Directive, our options to play this game are substantially different. There may be variations, but they roughly break down like this:

  1. Option 1: Build a Windows 98SE PC. Seriously, you could buy all the stuff from Ebay (CPU/MBD/FAN), throw 256MB of RAM on it and Ebay an nVidia TNT AGP card, and a Sound Blaster ISA card. This would be a fun project–you could even buy a PC case that identical to the one you have and a $40 KVM switch to bounce your Monitor, Keyboard, and Mouse between them. Or, go out into the garage and dig up enough parts to build a machine 🙂
  2. Option 2: Full Virtualization, once again. Host Windows 9x in a VM session. With a really fast dual core CPU and gobs of memory, this may get you where you want to be…or it could end up performing slower than that Pentium 166 originally was…bleck.
  3. Option 3: Tweak–and enjoy 3D acceleration, smoothness, and breakneck performance. And best of all, “high quality DVD video”. Oh, did I mention, at the cost of MIDI music? Yeah, sorry, I’ll explain why this is apparently unavoidable in a minute.

Once again, my main goal is to be able to play these games on the road or on a Media PC. So, with those restrictions in mind, I am constrained to Option 3 with Windows XP or Vista. The only real prereq here is to have a DVD decoder codec installed. If you can watch Movie DVDs on your computer, you then you already have one. PowerDVD and WinDVD are good ones–versions of Windows Vista already come equipped.

First thing we need to do is install the game–mostly, anyway. Insert the DVD, browse to my computer, right-click on the DVD drive and select “Explore”.

o03

Now, right-click on SETUP.EXE and select properties again. Switch to the compatibility tab and turn on Windows 95 compatibility mode. Click OK, then execute the setup program.

Have you ever noticed how people incorrectly use the phrases “capital punishment” and “execution” interchangeably? A criminal may have a death sentence “executed”, but they themselves cannot be “executed”. Kind of a pet peeve…sorry 🙂

o04

The installation program should run fine now.

o05

Place the files can be installed anywhere, I personally do not like to clutter the root of my C: drive. Now here’s two bigger deals: When prompted to install RSX and DirectX 5, respond with NO to both.

o06

And it will finish up the install. Hey, cool, there’s an 800 number for registering our product! Bet they can help us with the MIDI issues!

Ring 1. Ring 2. Click. “Connect now with exciting local ladies! Call … blah blah blah…”

Guess not.

o07

Now we have to do something about Intel RSX3D Audio Software. So as Unofficial Tex Murphy user marinedalek tells us, copy the RSX3D folder from the DVD to the root of your C: drive. Right click on the file called RSXSETUP.EXE and select Properties. Place it into Windows 95 Compatibility mode just as before. Click OK and run the file. It will only take a few seconds to install, and will present a configuration page. Go ahead and test it, just to make sure.

o08

Next, go to the tab entitled Advanced Settings – Buffer Times and change it from the default to 240ms. This may not be entirely necessary, but it is recommended according to the readme file.

“Change the output audio device buffer from its default 120 milliseconds setting to a higher one. We suggest 240 milliseconds. 400 milliseconds is maximum.”

And we’re right here looking at it, so why not? I couldn’t tell any difference in the audio, and if it possibly saves a troubleshooting step later, then I’m all for it.

o09

Now is the time on sprockets when we patch.

Simply download the Tex Murphy Overseer 1.04 Patch, and unzip it over the top of your game install directory. If prompted, tell it to overwrite existing files.

And the DVD Express Software must also be installed. This seems to be just another front end for your existing MPEG2 codec, but from back in the day. Therefore, it shouldn’t interfere with DVD decoding software. I tried doing some hacking on the Overseer setup files and registry settings, but wasn’t able to find a way around this step. Turns out that I was working hard for no reason–DVD Express is old, but didn’t cause any problems on my system.

So just run the DVDExpress install, and even though it may not be necessary: let the machine reboot.

Now, let’s give it a shot. But, before we forget, place the shortcut to Overseer into Windows 95 compatibility mode (right-click, properties, compatibility tab, win95 check box). Click OK, and launch Overseer. You will probably get an info box that looks something like this:

o10

It was probably important back in the day–but a modern machine should suffer no real performance loss for a few applications running. Click the “Don’t show this window again” check box, and then Continue.

Then a Screen Saver warning will pop up. This one may be slightly more important, however, I clicked the “Don’t Show Again.” In Windows 95, task swapping between running applications and a game was usually somewhat catastrophic–but XP can handle it just fine.

o11

Alright. We’ve got some tweaking to do, so escape out of any video the game may present, until you get a menu that looks like this:

o12

After clicking on the CONFIG button, two display options instead of just one will appear on the video tab–IF the patch and DVDExpress are installed correctly. If there is only one drop-down line for display devices, exit and re/install the patch.

o13

Drop the MPEG II Device combo down to Mediamatics DVD Express, and select the Preferences Tab.

o14

The Basic Preferences default to 640X480 and medium walking…800×600 looks better, and each user can make up their own minds on the walking speed. Click on Advanced Preferences.

o15

In this menu, setup the Hardware Rendering if there is supporting hardware (which is a pretty good bet). Personally, I turned on the Trilinear Filtering.

Now then, here’s were the make of Video Card can affect things. On my ATi video card, the screen would jumble up in a horizontal band where ever the mouse was…this happens on other video cards as well, evidently, so here ya go:

ATI – The quick fix for this is to edit the TEX.INI file in the installed game directory. On the boards of the Unofficial Tex Murphy site, user Adam tips us to simply change the lock video setting from the default to 1:

lockvideo=1

The funny thing is, I took a screen capture of the messed up video, but the shot was clear in the JPG. Oh well. Obviously, lockvideo has something to with refresh timing or something late in the rendering chain.

NVIDIA – I’m sorry, can’t really test this solution, but it seems pretty well known. UOTM user i’m_melting_i’m_melting says:

“Uninstall the driver in ‘Add/Remove Programs’ (or whatever it is in XP) and then use this: http://www.drivercleaner.net/ to remove all elements of the previous driver. Then install this version: http://downloads.guru3d.com/download.php?det=966

Nonetheless, at this point one should have a very playable game running…

o17

..with two small problems. One, this stupid error message that at first seems to (but really doesn’t) have something to do with accessing MPEG video from the DVDROM and then re-entering the VR world.

o181

And secondly, the MIDI music. Sigh. Windows 9x used a technology called MCI (media control interface) to play MIDI music. That was changed in Windows 2000/XP to the new WDM (Windows Driver Model) format. In other words, the Overseer sound system is sending out messages addressed to an vacant lot. Nobody’s home. And it seems that there is a timing issue involved as well…

Turns out that this is the same issue. If one mutes the MIDI music on the Audio configuration tab, the message goes away. I suggest doing this. Furthermore, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as muting the MIDI seems to be the fix for crashing bugs in Gideon’s Gallery and the Anazasi Ruins sections of the game.

But the good news here is that I think there may be some surface to attack this issue. I’m running over some plans with some developers friends–it may be fixable.

The last unresolved issue, at least on my machine, is that the game will not exit cleanly the first time each reboot. This could be a Visual Studio issue, however, as the debugger pops up which may lock the application and prevent it from closing out. It’s a bit strange, if I go into the game once, exit out it brings up the VS debugger. I just use Task Manger and end the application. And it doesn’t happen again until I reboot–I can open and close the game 30 times without a hiccup.

I have been meaning to disable the debugger anyway, so this just gives me an excuse.

Grab up a copy of this essential game from Amazon:

[amazon-product]B0007TB6HK[/amazon-product]

That’s about it. I believe that I will continue this series of posts with guides for the other three games, and then distill them out as static article pages. So, up next would be Under a Killing Moon. See ya then!

23 Mar

Tex Murphy Overseer (Coming Soon)

tex_o1

Keep tuned…I’ll post soon with a complete setup guide. This game is running great, without much in the way of real issues on Windows XP. That is, except for the MIDI music… And yes, I know there’s other info out there (such as on the boards of the Unofficial Tex Murphy website), but I thought it might be nice to have it all in one spot.

In other big news, PHP is no where near the mystery it was to me a few days ago. I should have my own custom WordPress theme done sometime soon.

20 Mar

Tex Murphy Rides Again (Pandora Directive and DOSBox w/o CDs)

“I’d like to help you, but I can’t.”

The glory days of adventure games are gone. I really hate to say that, but let’s be realistic.

As much as anyone, I have fond memories of all night runs at the latest title. I actually played through Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis on an Amiga 500, for heaven’s sake. (For the uninitiated, an A500 didn’t come with a hard drive, and there were 14 diskettes that I had to swap between two floppy drives.) I was working 2nd shift when The 7th Guest came out, and I distinctly remember agonizing over the $250.00 CD-ROM upgrade. I ended up with a glacially slow 2X Mitsumi. I wanted one of the new Plextors that ran at 3X but they required SCSI, and this Mitsumi had it’s own ISA interface card. Whereas, my unfortunate Gravis Ultrasound didn’t have a CD interface and there was no place in town that stocked a Creative Labs CDROM drive that could be purchased separately. I didn’t need a second SB16… I was running out of ISA slots.

“My gun. I love it SO much!”

And then, Tex Murphy came to visit.

I had played Martian Memorandum, and enjoyed it well enough…but…it was no big deal. Not paradigm shifting. I have never, to this day, played Mean Streets. I might get around to it one day. Both of these titles can be downloaded for free from The Underdogs, but really, unless you are an Adventure Enthusiast they’re awfully primitive.

While MM was fun, it did nothing to help prepare me for the Under a Killing Moon experience. Wow. 4 CDs? All for one game?!?!?

I whole-heartedly recommend that you play this game. It is an adventure game with a mixture of fully-navigable 3D environment and (dare I say) full motion video. So, literally, one explores in a first-person 3D viewpoint but trigger cut-scenes that are 3rd person FMV. PD is probably the best game of the series, and the Tex Murphy games are probably the best of this type ever made.

I should point out here that Overseer is pretty much a “remake” of Mean Streets (told from a historical perspective), just in case you decide to download it–wouldn’t want anyone spoiling their fun. Not that there is much comparison between the two. Actually, Overseer was supposed to kick off a new Tex trilogy that never happened. Microsoft bought Access primarily for their Golf Game assets (Links)…so it ends with a cliff-hanger that may never be resolved.

But if you’re interested, there is the Tex Murphy Radio Theater that helps a little. It contains 7 short episodes that at least inform us that Tex and Chelsea are not dead…wait…forget you read that, and play the games! You can get them from Ebay usually. That’s where I got mine. My original plays in the 90’s were borrowed from the amazing Thomas Joseph Murray III, the father of my high school chum, Tom #4.

Go to the wiki for more info on the time lines and such. Oh, and of course, The Unofficial Tex Murphy site.

“Knick-knacks, paddy-whacks, and the world’s largest piece of elbow macaroni.”

But, dear reader, you are probably here to find out more about DOSBox configurations. And rightly so, for to play Tex Murphy on a modern machine, you’re going to need help. All but Overseer were pure MS-DOS goodness, DOS4G extenders and all. And Windows XP seems to purposefully hate DOS.

So, to play Tex Murphy you’ve got 3 main options:

  1. Build a DOS Gaming Machine.
  2. Find a PCI Sound Card with DOS Drivers
  3. Use some form of Virtualization Software

Option 1: Isn’t bad–as a matter fact, can be quite fun. Just go to a local Computer Recycler-type store and get the fastest motherboard/CPU combination available that still has ISA slots. The ISA slot is the key, here. A native DOS sound card is our main requirement. Everything else can be modern equipment–as a matter of fact, some VOGONS (enthusiasts who run Very Old Games On New Systems) would be well off to invest in a new motherboard built for industrial computing, something like this:

Caveat: I have not done this, although, I want to build a Media Center PC using this motherboard (or one like it). The plan is to be able to play Adventure games on the TV screen from bed. However, this is a project for a later date.

So, one of these and an Sound Blaster Pro or Sound Blaster 16 from Ebay, dig out a set of DOS 6.22 install disks, and you’ve got a KILLER DOS machine. Don’t forget to load a CPU slowdown utility, though, it might be TOO fast for some games. But not Tex–these games will eat as much CPU and Video power as you can throw at them.

Option 2: A bit harder, technically. I tried 14 ways from Sunday with a Yamaha PCI card–one that supposedly had DOS drivers. The Yamaha site has been updated, and may include better downloads now. YMMV. I have heard that an original Sound Blaster Live! has good DOS support, but have never tested it. I did try with about a half-dozen Sound Blaster PCI64s and PCI128 cards with no luck.

Yamaha Sound Card YMF744

As you can see, this one (YMF744) has an optical SPDIF on it. Which, was why I focused on it so long–I wanted it for the Media Center PC, so I could hook it directly to a surround sound receiver for multi-channel DVD playback.

Now that I actually have my hands on a couple of SBLive! cards, I’ll probably try again with these DOS Drivers.

Option 3: Is all that’s left to us in the meantime. Virtualization. There are three sub-options here:

  • A fully virtual machine–a complete second operating system running on top of your own. Such as a VMWare solution, which is certainly an option here, with their free downloads now. Sadly, I was never able to get good performance in a DOS game within a VM session.
  • VDMSound is another, slightly better, option in general. This is a neat Windows extension that translate the DOS sound card calls directly to the Windows sound driver. Good for many games–but not much luck for old Tex. At least in my own experience.
  • DOSBox.

“Here’s a little tidbit our government boys missed…”

DOS Box Logo

DOSBOX is fantastic. It really seems to be the answer for all of us who want to run old DOS games. The only problem is that the documentation is a bit…well…terse. But it should get anyone going for simple stuff. What’s lacking is a good process for getting more complex stuff up and running. Like Tex Murphy – Pandora Directive with all six (count ‘em) CDs.

PD in DOSBOX

Well, obviously it runs…but how well? Actually, very. On a modern Windows XP machine, at least.

First step is to take images of the disks. There are alot of advantages to this, including better access times, particularly for a Tex Murphy game. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use Alex Feinman’s marvelous ISO Recorder Power Toy, which is free. Nero or some other software can do it as well. ISO Recorder integrates into the shell, so you can right-click on a drive (or any folder) and create a disk image.

Right Click on Drive

Then store the image someplace.

Save the ISO

I suggest that for ease of use that you don’t use spaces anywhere in the directory structure–DOSBOX configs are a little flaky with spaces. For instance:

c:\games\iso\gamecd1.iso

Rather than:

c:\old games\disk images\gamecd1.iso

Once all of the CD’s imaged and safely stored on the hard drive (an unthinkable concept in 1994), we are able to turn our attention to DOSBox. Hop over to the sourceforge site and download the latest version, which at the time of this writing is 0.70. After it is installed, browse out to the folder C:\Program Files\DOSBox-0.70\ and look inside. It wouldn’t hurt to read the README.TXT, but we’ll skip it for now.

To follow my method, we’ll be creating a pair of text files. The first one is called tex_pd.bat and will easily launch our DOSBox session with our choice of command-line switches. For the second file, copy the default dosbox.conf to a new file called tex_pd.conf. This file will contain all the sound card, cpu, and memory settings required to run the game, and will also mount all of our ISO images as CD drives.

I have my ISO files in C:\archives\iso\tex\pd\ so, obviously, the bit at the end may need to be changed to the proper location. Here are links to copies of my own files:

tex_pd.conf
tex_pd.bat

You may use them at your own risk 🙂 .

Let’s walk through the sections. I’ll remove settings we won’t be adjusting for the sake of space. So, just because it isn’t here, don’t delete it! 🙂

In the SDL, I will only note two of the lines. Full screen can also be set at the command line. But in my initial experiments, I was able to get better performance holding the full resolution down. Odd thing is that I don’t think this actually affects the graphics…and this may have changed in .70. It is possible that you can leave the default setting of “original”.

[sdl]
fullscreen=true
fullresolution=640X480

The next section with some changes is RENDER. I set frameskip to 1 from the default of 0. Smooths things out a bit.

[render]
frameskip=1

Now to one of the most critical spots. CPU core will default to auto, but I force it to stay in dynamic. Also, pay close attention to where the cycles setting is. This is the one we’ll have to tweak to get a good Tex experience. Is that a “Texperience”? We’ll return to this later.

[cpu]
core=dynamic
cycles=14000

There are no changes to the Mixer section, but I wanted to point out the rate setting…this can be lowered if you really need the performance, but if that has to be done, you might be wasting your time on slow hardware. This shouldn’t make enough difference on a modern machine to be the sliver bullet that takes you from an unplayable choppy mess to silky smooth gaming delight. Oh, and the nosound may seem counter-intuitive: make sure it is false if you do, in fact, want sound.

[mixer]
nosound=false
rate=22050

Defaults are fine for the MIDI section.

[midi]
mpu401=intelligent
device=default
config=

However, I changed the SBLASTER part to use an SBPro1. I had much better luck there instead of the SB16, which caused the audio to skip. This may be somewhat hardware dependent, and the SB16 might be fine on another machine. Anything less than an SBPro will be mono, rather than stereo. The rest of the settings are defaulted.

[sblaster]
type=sbpro1
base=220
irq=7
dma=1
hdma=5
mixer=true
oplmode=auto
oplrate=12050

Curses! My favorite card of all time and I have to turn it off. It actually worked very well on Tex Murphy back in the DOS days…but in DOSBox, it locks up the installation sound card detection. And if one sets up the game by hand, it refuses to play sometimes. Sigh. I intend to revisit this sometime.

Not that it really matters, all of the sound is actually being generated by my current sound card…whatever it is. I would like to say, though, that for other DOS games, if a GUS is supported (or you understand the usage of SBOS) try to use it. Performance will be better in DOSBox just like it was better in the old days. Ah, the arguments we had with the SB16 guys on Prodigy. Paging Dave Redfern from Clearwater, FL.

Anyway.

[gus]
gus=false

Turn the speaker off. You won’t be needing it and it will save a CPU tick or two.

[speaker]
pcspeaker=false
pcrate=22050
tandyrate=22050
disney=false

XMS on, EMS off.

[dos]
xms=true
ems=false

Turn this stuff all off.

[modem]
modem=false

[joystick]
joysticktype=none

[directserial]
directserial=false

[ipx]
ipx=false

And now, to the AUTOEXEC. This syntax works on DOSBox 0.70 which is a little changed from 0.65. Notice the lastdrive, this is to get past the default DOS lastdrive setting. Which is, what, F? I can’t remember 🙂

[autoexec]
lastdrive=z
imgmount D “c:\games\iso\tex\pd\pandora1.iso” -t iso
imgmount E “c:\games\iso\tex\pd\pandora2.iso” -t iso
imgmount F “c:\games\iso\tex\pd\pandora3.iso” -t iso
imgmount G “c:\games\iso\tex\pd\pandora4.iso” -t iso
imgmount H “c:\games\iso\tex\pd\pandora5.iso” -t iso
imgmount I “c:\games\iso\tex\pd\pandora6.iso” -t iso
mount c c:\games -freesize 20
c:
#cd pandora
#pandora

In addition, I commented out the lines at the bottom that will start the game. We need to install it first, as was pointed out by Anastos. This basically means we’ll start the DOSBox with this config, which will mount all of our images and drop us to a C:\ prompt. Then, just like if we sat down in front of our 486, we will need to change to the CDROM drive and install the software. It may seem a little backwards at first, but think about it and you’ll see.

“Well, hello there, little Buddha!”

Now, here’s the batch file:

@echo off
dosbox -conf tex_pd.conf -noconsole -fullscreen -exit

Not much to the batch file. One can drag a short cut into the Start Menu and use this icon from the Pandora Direct CD, if desired. Great! We are almost ready to dissect some area 51 aliens!

Pandora

Now, let’s run the batch file and see what happens. You should have a big ugly C:\ staring you in the face.

Ugly DOS

Type the following at the prompt:

D:INSTALL

And you should be taken to the Installation screen, click Install to Hard Drive and accept the default C:\PANDORA for the directory.

Install Splash

Setup

Ok, once it gets finished, exit out of the installer and DOSBox.

At this point, download the Pandora Directive patch. Rename your current TEX4.EXE to TEX4.BAK, unzip the patch, and drop the new TEX4.EXE file into its place. I personally did not need this, but it may prevent some random memory errors.

Remove the # symbols from the last line of your DOSBox config file so it will automatically start Pandora Directive. Since this is the first run, the game will take you to a setup menu. The automatic sound card detection worked great in my case for the digital audio card. For the MIDI, I had to change it to MPU-401 by hand.

Sound Setup

Now, use the wonderfully powerful Tex Murphy game engine to setup the CD-ROM drives. Just load all 6 of the CD drive letters into the game and NEVER HAVE TO SWAP DISKS!!!

CD Loader

Click OK, and exit out of the game. Now, here’s where the jiggery-pokery comes into play. Under the CPU heading in that config file there is a line I mentioned earlier that says:

cycles=14000

We are going to keep changing this until we get the best performance possible–trying to zero in on the optimum setting. Every machine seems to have a sweet spot that is unique for that system. I’d start out at around 12000 on a P4ish machine, and then set it up 2 or three grand each time until the game gets as fast as possible, but yet doesn’t have sound glitches or video tears. Higher isn’t always better…If I set this value too far up on my test machine, the game actually gets SLOOOOOOWWWW and the speech is unintelligible.

In other words, take the 15 minutes or so:

  1. Edit the setting and save it
  2. Start the game and test
  3. Exit, change the number, save the file, and so on.
  4. Rinse, lather, repeat.

“I’m on your left. I’m on your right. I’m right in front of you.”

The end result is a game experience that is FAR better than playing PD on the Pentium 100 or whatever I had when first I clapped eyes to it. This same setup works for Under A Killing Moon, but you will need to run TEX197.EXE rather than the TEX3.EXE to start the game, or it will crash on the DOS extender.

Overseer is more of a challenge–if you want to use the DVD version that has the higher quality video. I’m still working on that one.

[amazon-product]B0002SLAYA[/amazon-product]

Hope this little guide helps. Keep on playing adventure games. Sooner or later the market will open back up. They may not look like Myst or Tex Murphy, but I have enough faith in basic human intelligence to believe that firing automatic weapons at endless waves of faceless aliens will eventually become stale to the buying public.

It sounds even more naive when I put it that way…

See you, space cowboy.

14 Mar

The Long Tail Took Jack Bauer’s Lunch Money

Yep. Pretty much the best bumper sticker evar: “I took Jack Bauer’s Lunch Money.” I think I may have an original there–better start printing them up fast!

250pxjackbauer

My wife and I are pretty big fans of 24. We are currently in the middle of Season 5 from Netflix, with Season 6 stacking up on our DVR. Unfortunately, we already knew about President Logan’s treason due to a stupid promo that we caught on accident during another show.

Odd how some TV shows are actually surpassing movies in sustained interest level. I personally believe that the TV networks see the end of their business model fast approaching and are scrambling to create content that is actually compelling…but it won’t last. Not with DVRs. There is no way to make me watch commercials–the content would have to be almost impossibly great to overcome my (and the modern consumer’s) restlessness.

So what are networks going to do? Probably niche supply, stuff that Chris Anderson at the Long Tail has been talking about for years (?) now. Simply stated, there’s just no room for blockbusters anymore. I’ll steal his graphic here:

rawtail

The more products there are, the less will be purchased as there aren’t enough buyers to go around.  You need to buy his book:

[amazon-product align=”center”]1401309666[/amazon-product]

Most importantly, why would I watch commercials when Netflix ships me DVD quality 24 disks as fast as I can watch them? Lost, too.

13 Mar

WordPress is a Dream

Wow. Fourth Law is now up and running on a real blogging engine: WordPress. It is absolutely fantastic! I’ve never had a better experience with a piece of software–honestly. Since the very first moment that I logged into cPanel to create a new database, and started up the WordPress installer I have been utterly impressed.

wp20squarebutton

To be completely honest, I had a harder time deciding on a theme (or creating my own) than installing and becoming completely at home with the interface. Every possible option I have been able to think up has already been handled by the excellent WordPress community with the huge library of existing plug-ins. It is just incredible.

Everyone should be using this software–so let me suggest some books:

[amazon-product]0321450191[/amazon-product][amazon-product]0321591933[/amazon-product][amazon-product]0470149469[/amazon-product]

As a matter of fact, even oddball needs…like creating a dynamic listing of subpages is already handled (I haven’t used this one yet, but do not expect any issues). I have found a pre-built Photo Album called PhotoPress. A hierarchical Comments plugin. Even a Digg submit plugin.

It really is like heaven to find software that just works!

In other news, I’m still working with Endian Firewall with great success. I’ve resisted the temptation to turn off the outgoing firewall, but am instead dealing with each issue on a one-by-one basis. The only mysterious issue I’ve had was regarding the content filter that somehow found a Food Network recipe for “Jamie’s Minestrone” objectional.

Maybe I’m naive…but can Minestrone be used as a double-entendre?

13 Mar

Nessus (Old)

NessusLogo

There are a great many commercial network security scanners on the market. McAfee FoundStone, HfNetCheck, Retina, and probably scads of others. The problem with this is the word “commercial”. Commercial means “takes money”. Well, scanning with Nessus would be a good way to save money, right?

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13 Mar

Those Who Live by the Sword

© Joseph Baxter

Note: This story was written in homage to Ray Bradbury. I have lost count of the references to his short stories contained herein.

The dream I had had, now gone forever-made intangible by my dawning consciousness; and trying to keep it was as futile as clutching at a wisp of smoke. Like a hand full of fine sand, the harder the effort made to hold to it, the more that slips away. The dream was now gone away, and, at my acceptance of that fact, reality changed and shifted and heaved.

My eyes came open.

I found myself to be lying on a stiff metal bed, and staring up into an array of medical lights. An old man with a wizened face was standing over me, smiling faintly. He was altogether too close–the hoary strands from his balding head momentarily blocked the bright light from above, giving the apparition of a halo. Would I have imagined myself confronted by an angel had not I also been confronted by his soured breath? In that second before I awoke completely, one thing stood foremost in my mind, I had no idea at all how I came to be in this place. But, presently, the old gentleman spoke.

“Ah, Mr. Bradbury,” he said as he pulled his face away, “you’re awake.” He settled back into a chair and broke into a genial, however, crooked smile. The old man was a remarkable character, and if I had ever seen him before this moment, it certainly would have been well remembered. For there was one particularly striking feature that possessed the man, the one thing that for some reason burned in my mind. That singular feature was the old man’s shirt. Oh, and what a shirt it was. It was at one time every nightmare and dream I had ever had. It was nature, life and death, space and time. In its cloth there lay the power to create and destroy, but at that singular instant, the image looked like nothing so much as a single sunrise.

One hopeful, glorious, warming sunrise-the sun poised to throw his rays over the shoulders of the sleeping mountains.

This picture fascinated me and I became lost in it. Only a moment later–though it was a subjective eternity-the old man moved, causing the cloth to ripple and the vista was lost forever. I wondered to myself if it was wrong to mourn the loss of a picture half seen in the dyes of shirt-cloth. My head was still swimming-perhaps I had been in an accident! Perhaps even now the pain-killers coursed through my broken body causing me to see things that did not exist. I felt myself becoming agitated.

Seeing my upset, a concerned look crossed the old man’s face. Reaching up to switch off the intense lights, this stranger introduced himself. “Please, do not alarm yourself. Everything is alright. My name is Dr. Marcus Drake; I am a great admirer of your work.”

The oldster’s eyebrows shot up his forehead whenever he spoke, like every word he uttered was some great revelation. Was that a beacon of senility in the old man’s eyes? I tried to say something in reply but found my throat too dry to form words. I wanted to ask where I was, but my voice only cracked and caused me to start coughing painfully.

“Oh, now, don’t try to talk yet; the medication takes a while to wear off. Here, drink this,” Drake said as he helped me into a sitting position. He gave me a glass. It contained only water–or at least seemed to–but did a great deal towards freeing my voice. After several swallows I felt I could speak, if only a little.

“Where am I?” I got out before the coughing returned, doubling me over in pain. Old Drake’s wrinkled face knotted with concern again and he put out a hand to steady. When the coughing fit had passed, I drank some more from the glass. My eyes seemed to be watering uncontrollably, giving everything in the room a bleary glow.

“An un-original question,” said the old man after a pause to regain his apparently usual humor, “but you are in my house.”

“How-,” I started but my voice caught again, and I quickly drained the glass. Drake held up a hand to quiet me, anticipating the questions.

“Well, well, let me explain some of that. You see, you have been dead for a long time, Mr. Bradbury. Some seven hundred years, I should think. I have brought you back.” The oldster said the last statement so simply that I’m certain any kind of incredulous look was on my face-truly as if such revival were an everyday happening.

“From the dead?” I managed.

“Well, of course, where else?” Drake said, somewhat preoccupied as he spun about in his chair and busied himself with a few instruments.

“It is quite ironic, you know,” he threw over his shoulder. “The longevity treatments came only a few decades after your death. In all actuality, I am only fifty-two years older than you. But still, as you can see, the advent of the drug caught me a bit late in life.” He turned and considered me with a thoughtful look.

“Come to think of it, you’re the youngest author I am bothering to resurrect.”

He suddenly smiled, and getting up from his seat, moved across the junk-strewn room where he started to fiddle with some other equipment.

“Author?” I said, this time with surprising ease. I felt a little more functional now. My brain had finally come alive and questions regarding this bizarre situation screamed through my mind. Yet for some reason I only asked, “You only revive authors?”

“Oh, yes, that’s what I do, you know. Revive all the great old time authors. I’m researching a book, you see.”

I didn’t see. I tried to stand, to get away-run! My head suddenly weighed too much and the room spun like a nightmare carousel. I had to collapse back onto the table with clenched my eyes shut, and stayed there holding my head in both my hands until the waves of nausea had passed.

The old man’s breathy voice trailed off and became only an echoed murmuring. I now looked up and realized that he had walked away down the hall. I didn’t trust myself to stand yet, at least for a while, so my gaze frantically traveled about the room, looking at first this and then to that. I was looking for anything that I could use to gain an orientation-some clue that would help me understand what was going on. Finally, my eyes fell upon the console behind where the old man had been sitting. The lights winked and flickered back at me in sinister patterns. On its face there were a hundred buttons and as many levers and switches. It was surprising how much it looked like those early science-fiction films I had once loved so…if Drake was to be believed, over seven hundred years ago. And then I saw it.

A dark coldness knifed through me, and I stared fixedly at the small nameplate attached to the lower left corner of the console. It bore only the word “Fantoccini”. I swallowed hard and racked my brain to find the word-to find some reason why it frightened me so. I was still staring in anguished contemplation when Drake returned.

“I have a meal prepared for you; I hope it will be to your taste.” He smiled. “There is much we have to talk about. Do you feel up to it?”

I nodded my head absently, then, tearing my gaze away from the console, looked up at the old man. “That name, Fantoccini, where have I heard that before?”

Dr. Drake’s head jerked slightly as a look of astonishment for a moment crossed his features. He replied, if a little too off-handedly, “Oh, well, that’s nothing, nothing at all really. Better you just forget about it.”

His eyes shone with the light of withheld tension, silently requesting that the matter be settled-almost as though he were imploring me to ask no more. He turned to leave, and glancing back to where I was still perched said, “Well, when you feel up to it, Mr. Bradbury.”

He gave me one last look in askance and started to walk from the room.

“Wait!” I shouted hoarsely-startling even me as the sound echoed from the stone walls. But how could the old man so easily discount something that seemed so important? The need to know burned like fire. Dr. Drake stopped at the doorway with an expression of dread. He already knew what the question would be.

“It’s not nothing,” I accused, “is it? I want to know what that name represents.”

Dr. Drake refused to meet my gaze. It was obvious from his manner that the man was unused to lying and still was about to tell a half-truth. In any case, he certainly would not reveal the entirety.

“It’s only the name of the company that makes that equipment.” He hesitated, then turned back and there was sadness in his eyes when they finally met mine, “Please, leave it at that.”

I could tell that the other was unwilling to say more. Dr. Drake stayed in the doorway, perhaps waiting to see whether or not I would press the issue. Through that intangible communication, for the moment we two decided silently to let the issue lie. That any other question would do, except that one. That maybe later, we seemed to console each other in unheard speech; more can be said.

“The date, then,” I asked at last, and the tension released a little, “What is the date?”

A look came over my benefactor’s face that was an indefinable mixture of pity and remorse. The man’s brow darkened and his movements once more became furtive.

“It is October, Mr. Bradbury.” He turned and left; his voice echoing eerily from the empty door, “It’s always October here.”

Futility is a harsh companion. It sits looking on in abject hopelessness, waiting for the end to come and sweep its carcass away. Not even its fears can sustain it, for it is resigned to have no control. Futility waits only for the bliss of nonexistence, and yet keeps no hope in that. To suddenly come to the realization that; in this time and in this place, one can never know free will, is a thing that can lay waste to the soul. To have one’s every thought be only to follow along some hidden plan, to have every action long ago decided.

Could I believe in fate?

I slowly gained my feet, and rather unsteadily followed my host through the door. A long hallway waited beyond, containing several doors on the left-hand side, and a row of windows to my right. It was the view from the windows that halted my faltering steps and held my stare with more gravity than countless stars. Outside was an entire landscape of shallow hills and rock. And as far as I could see, everything was a pale, dusty red. The anxiety in the pit of my stomach grew-my knees wanted to buckle and fall out from under me!

I whispered the name, “Mars.”

This place was a restless spirit that forever haunted, it was a load so heavy to bear; it spilled over into my writings. My thoughts raced as memory traced my grappling with this angry war god. I had to cry out in the written word that someone please help, help me carry the yoke that was the Red Planet, my tormenter. The crimson plains beckoned to me and I stood there lost in the view, for an hour or for only a minute. I did not notice the quiet footfalls of the man who had brought me here.

“Breath-taking, isn’t it?” came the heavy voice from behind me. I turned to face the old man and wondered to myself whether this man was friend or foe. Or, if maybe, Dr. Drake was the pawn of forces beyond his own control-merely carrying out the wishes of someone else. But, Mars! The shock of finding myself here on Mars fairly swept away my ability to make speech.

“Yes, yes,” Drake was looking out over the dried plains, also caught up in the overwhelming beauty, or perhaps in the chilling austerity, “It is indeed Mars. Makes one feel very, very small, does it not?”

His head turned away from the view outside and he said directly to me in a conspiratorial voice, “Of what worth is the life of one man when compared only to a planet. How can you ask one man to juggle the sun and the stars?”

“Or Mars,” I finished. Dr. Drake broke from his spell and smiled at me.

“Yes! Good! Or Mars, indeed!” he agreed. And with that said there was nothing left.

It was then, seated before a long and book-strewn table set with a handful of covered dishes-but with no effort at formality-in the library of Dr. Drake’s mansion on the surface of the red planet called Mars, that I found myself. I had been told that I had been dead, but now resurrected. I was sitting across from a man who claimed to be over six hundred years old, but appeared to be only in his sixties. The despair inside me welled up and broke forth with a confused torrent of questions.

Dr. Drake made no effort to stop me now. He appeared interested, and made sympathetic noises wherever they were required. All the while never slowing the rate at which the fork in his hand continued in its breakneck journey from plate to wizened face, and back again. As the tide of my questions stemmed, I noticed faintly that there had only been one plate, and Dr. Drake had fallen on it directly. His evident lack of regard for his guest’s welfare seemed odd and out-of-character. As for myself, I could only sit across from the man and gaze in astonishment at the speed with which the other ate. In between mouthfuls-but just barely-the old man began to tell the story of how I came to be there.

“You see, Ray-may I call you Ray?” And without stopping went on. “You see, Ray, you’re my hobby. Well, not you particularly, but authors in general. See, all the authors I deem worthy; I revive. And maybe even a few I don’t deem worthy, I haven’t decided yet. You are one of the first, actually, since I am going in alphabetical order. Brought back Ambrose Bierce last week, William Cullen Bryant comes tomorrow. Cervantes and Hemmingway by next week, and Poe before the year’s end.”

He went on to take a few hurried spoonfuls of soup that appeared to be made from extremely large mushrooms. He stopped eating for an instant with a look of fright and intently examined a spoonful. Then, with some palpable satisfaction, he sliced a lone loaf of pumpernickel and began dipping it in his bowl before he went on.

I seized my chance to ask, “How did you bring me here?”

“Oh, that. By the wonders of modern technology, of course.” As if it settled the matter, but when pressed he went onto say, “Oh, I’ve learned some advanced techniques. But really, Ray, I have only this one day to talk with you, and I don’t want to get in long, involved technical discussions.”

“Why do you only have one day?”

But that was all he would say on the subject. Drake continued to eat furiously, and I tried to digest what was happening to me. The old man’s frenzied concentration on his food, and his horrible table manners churned at my stomach. Contemplating the idea, I realized that I was not hungry and quite honestly repulsed by the thought of eating. Perhaps it was whatever drugs he had used to revive me, but at the time I rather chose to believe that the boorishness in front of me was the cause.. I never had another chance to find out, for soon the meal was over, signaled only by Dr. Drake dropping his utensils in a satisfied flourish. I watched as the other got up and went over to the immense desk that sat in one corner and began writing with the same intensity that he ate.

“Such strangeness,” I said quietly, at which I bemusedly thought to myself, could have described almost anything that had occurred from the time I had awakened earlier. Nearly a quarter of an hour later, we were still sitting in the same places. Drake was still scribbling franticly at his desk, and I still looked on unbelievingly. The pale red sunlight filtered through the room. In retrospect, except for that pale crimson light, the furnishings seemed very Victorian.

But enough of this! So many questions remained unanswered and this old man who claims to have brought me back from the dead pays me no attention in the least. It’s madness!

“Drake!” I nearly screeched.

“Hmm?” He peered over the top of the spectacles he wore. I smiled what I hoped was a pleasant smile and vowed not to get angry.

“If it’s no trouble, could you please tell me what I am to do here?”

“Oh, dear, I’m afraid I haven’t been a very good host, have I?” He took off the glasses and came around the desk. I was barely able to hold my tongue and tried to smile again. It probably came off as more of a grimace, but at least, I thought, I have gotten his attention.

“A drink? Bourbon, perhaps?” Drake asked as he went over to the sidebar and picked up a smallish bottle made of sky blue glass. I was inexplicably drawn to it, slowly rose, and walked over to where the old man was standing. Taking the bottle gingerly from him, I held it completely mesmerized. At first I thought it was empty. However, when I shook it-and it gurgled slightly-I was strangely relieved. Dr. Drake watched this all with a slight grin.

“Bored with life, Ray?” He asked.

“No, no,” I told him, not understanding his meaning, and reverently put the bottle back into its place, “Just curious.”

“Yes, that is just what I was saying,” Drake stated as he poured himself a drink, and then after a moment’s pause poured one for me; a drink that I was still too suspicious to touch. Dr. Drake motioned me over to the couch, while he took a large winged chair.

“It is curiosity, isn’t it? That’s what drives us. As I said, I am writing a book and that you and the other authors I am reviving are research material. Why only read about famous authors when you can talk to them yourself, was my thought,” he chuckled, and then paused for a moment before continuing. “I’m sorry if I have been rude to you in anyway, but I really don’t get much of a chance to have guests. Not many people around here, you know.”

An unreadable dark look colored Drake’s face, a look that deeply troubled me. “No. I hadn’t known. Where are all the people, then?”

“Oh, they…are beyond caring about such things… but enough of this depressing talk!” He unexpectedly reached over and slapped me lightly on the knee, suddenly brightening. “Let’s go out and take a walk in the city. You can ask me your questions there. And I have some for you as well…after all this.”

He stood, thrust his hands deep into his pockets and brushing past me, and headed out the door. As I made to pursue the strange old fellow, I noticed something I didn’t see upon entering. It was a stuffed parrot perched on a bust of what could only be Pallas above the chamber door. I recoiled-but too many odd things by half had happened already to be bothered much by that. Shaking my head, I hurried to catch up with Drake. Seeing the old man turn right into one of the doors that lined the hallway, I hastened after him.

Some of the other doors I passed were open, and those where I could view inside were filled with many strange and wondrous things. One-most recently opened, if the tracks in the dust gave any evidence-held a mock-up of a golden sarcophagus of the Egyptian type. This, for some unknown reason brought back to the surface the feelings of dread I had had since first seeing the hills of Mars through the hallway windows.

I involuntarily spun about in place, and found that Mars was still out there. Red as far as the eye could perceive: pale, pale crimson. It was the very color of dried blood. And as I stood staring the dark foreboding grew inside me with every breath. I shuddered violently and had to force myself not to run.

When, at last, I stood before the door, I turned and cast one furtive glance back through the windows at the red dunes. It was as though the graves of untold millions lie just beneath the surface, I thought as I turned the knob. Have I made my grave there? Even as I stood there I felt a presence bearing down on me. It filled me with horrific thoughts, the kind that scare you that an impulse might make you jump from a high window-just to see. It had been just on my heels, grasping tenuous fingers toward me-and then it suddenly seemed to dissipate like a cloud of mist. My fear propelled me across the threshold, and I fell against the inside of the door, as if I were shutting it forever.

When I came to myself, I saw that beyond the door there lie a flight of stairs. I ascended, and found the old man on a sort of rooftop garage; puttering over a beat-up vehicle of some sort that appeared well passed its best years of service. At the sound of the door, Drake looked up.

“Oh, there you are-almost ready!”

“We’ll be leaving in that? It hardly looks up to going anywhere.”

“Well, actually this is a fine old bird, a classic, owned by my father, who bought it from . . .”

He rambled on as I turned and put my foot on the parapet, looking out over the rolling plains. In the far distance, I could barely make out the outline of a city. It struck me as familiar some how, in fact it almost looked like Greentown.

Without taking my eyes from it, I asked Drake “Is that where we are going? To that city?”

Drake looked up from under the hood where he was working and squinted in the direction I indicated.

“What? Oh, no, that’s just an illusion. The real city’s over there,” and he hooked a thumb in the almost opposite direction. “Nope, nope, that’s just a mirage.”

I walked stiffly around the small building that housed the helicopter until the real cityscape came into full view. I swallowed on a dry throat-once again the gnawing in the pit of my stomach grew. I was still standing there ten minutes later when I heard an engine fire and backfire and finally sputter into life. Dr. Drake appeared around the corner of the building.

“Come on, Ray, you can gawk on the way there.”

I sighed, resigning myself to this fate, and climbed into the well-worn interior of the cockpit. I was seated beside a grinning Dr. Drake, who still hadn’t relayed the purpose behind his actions to any degree of satisfaction. And who was no doubt, perfectly mad.

“Here we go,” said the old man with just a little too much hopefulness in his voice. Nevertheless, the venerated engine huffed and heaved them into the air, although it seemed a strain. Once airborne, Dr. Drake began chattering once again, non-stop, as if he were trying to make up for his silence in the library. I listened, trying to discern some meaning in his words, but could not. Not that I didn’t understand the language, but that it all was a jumbled stream of random thoughts and ideas. He appeared almost to be reciting from some odd script-and whenever I tried to stop him, he simply ignored me.

Soon, the flight mercifully was over. Drake piled out of the cockpit, and thankfully stopped yammering. I climbed down more slowly to join him on the sand-blown desert floor. We had landed on the outskirts of a small city, consisting mostly of small villas around the outer edges, and tall, fluted spires clustered in the center. While seemingly man-made, the architecture had foreignness about it, some strange quality that made the air feel weightier, and the mood more somber.

“It’s beautiful,” I whispered softly to my companion.

“Oh, don’t worry about your voice.” Drake’s words seemed a near shout by comparison, “Sound doesn’t affect them. They’re neither that old nor that fragile.”

I had to turn and give my host an appraising look. Even though the knowledge put me more at ease, I was unsure whether I liked the idea-around such graceful beauty, it did not seem right to talk loudly, or without a certain reverence. Drake, for his own part, seemed unmoved; and went on talking at great length on things about which I cared nothing.

Dr. Drake led me to a bench in the center of the spires and sat down. Before us was a small tiled pool, filled with the seasonal rain. He began to speak again, in that disjunctive, convoluted way. So, there we sat as Drake filled the air with meaningless words, and I unable to say anything in between. If the man has taken the trouble to make me live again so he could do research, why doesn’t he ask me questions about my life, about the work I did? And yet, as he droned on, I noticed that some of the words he spoke caused intense but fleeting sensations of deep nostalgia. The sounds and views faded from before me to the point that I forgot utterly where I was, but instead flitted about from this memory to that. Sensing again that smell of the house where I grew up, marveling that all the old places took on a yellowed look like old photographs, sucking in a sharp breath as the pedal slipped away from my sneaker and scraped down my shin for the first time that summer… How long this went on, I am unable to say, and I barely noticed when Drake had stopped talking.

He smiled at me, and I couldn’t think what it was that we had been talking about. I suppose it hadn’t been important. It was so peaceful here-the slight wind making alien melodies as it blew past the tall spires. I could stay here, I thought. I couldn’t remember why I had been so anxious before. So, out of respect for the man who had returned the breath to my lungs, I would remain here in this quiet place and patiently await any questions he had for me.

And quietly we did sit there until, late in the afternoon, Drake glanced at his watch. “Well, it’s about time for you to leave; I’ve got to get you back.”

“Where am I going?”

“Oh, no where, really, but I still have to prepare you for the next author.”

“I am to meet him then?”

“You’ll get to know him intimately,” returned Drake with a gentle smile.

I had nothing to say to that, but the tension in my stomach knotted ever tighter. On the way back to Drake’s mansion, the old man was withdrawn and silent-as though he had run out of words. As we set down on the roof top of what I now saw really was a Victorian mansion setting incongruously on this Martian hillside, Drake turned to me. He had his right hand inside a pointed object-a weapon of some sort, I supposed. It made a low, insectine whine as he brandished it at me. I felt little fear now-I had somehow expected it.

“I’m sorry, Ray, I really am,” he said as he pulled the trigger.

When I swam back to consciousness, I was back on the table just as I had been this morning. Only this time I was unable to move, but not from nausea-my body simply refused to obey the urgent orders of my mind. A groan escaped my lips and from somewhere behind me I heard Drake’s voice.

“Please don’t alarm yourself, Ray; it will all be over soon.”

“Why can’t I move?” I strained.

“I have disabled all access to your motor functions.” He walked around to give me what I’m sure was meant to be a kindly look, which made it all the more hideous. He picked up my arm and let it fall back to the table. “See? It’s really better this way.”

I must have screamed. For, in the midst of my horror, I had caught a glint of silver on the underside of my arm as he lifted it from the table. A small, metal placard was embedded in the underside of my wrist. Engraved upon it were a serial number and the word Fantoccini!

But that means…all of the other authors…I began to weep.

“Why can’t I stay?” I asked finally.

He gave me a pitying look and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Because there’s only one android like this…and there’s no one left to build any others. They’re all gone. Took off in their rockets-all of them! Returned to Earth to fight the war…I refused. I wouldn’t go! And then the messages stopped coming in-there was no one left alive. Only me!”

He threw his hands into the air. “Here, on this dead planet-I am the last Martian. Who can know how long these longevity treatments will last…” He was muttering now, turning back to the instruments beyond my view.

At these last moments, a serene clarity dawned in my mind. In a way, I felt more pity for him than I did for myself. I now understood that I was not really here. It was just an illusion-how can one be sad to lose an apparition? But Drake…I knew something about him that I felt sure he did not know about himself. Throughout all the ramblings, during the entire day as I was with him, never one time had he hinted that he knew the truth. How could he know? Would he even survive the revelation?

As he had touched my arm, I had seen the one element that made this madness complete. His own serial number was only one digit higher than mine.

I could only hope that Bryant would be happier than I had been inside this body electric.

13 Mar

Keith McQueen Saves the Universe (On a Day-to-Day Basis)

Keith McQueen Saves the Universe (On a Day-to-Day Basis)

© Joseph Baxter

“It’s going to be one of those days,” Keith McQueen said to himself upon waking.

Keith sometimes had feelings in this way-well; more that he had inklings of designs greater than those to which he was a party. But whatever name is put to them, two things remained steady and true. Only he seemed able to perceive them, and they invariably turned out to be harbingers of consequences most dire.

It always started off slowly at first, with merest clues and minor hints. But once set in motion, the power of the occurrence collected and it began to build, and build, and pile slightest precognition upon hesitant intimation until there could be no doubt left in Keith McQueen’s mind that the balance had come due. Many things had already, this particular winter’s morning, clued-in the feckless Keith on what kind of day it would come to be. Some of these were indefinable, such as the way the cobwebs in the corner wavered gently with the room’s imperceptible air currents.

Others were, however, more tangible. The first of these, and probably the most damning, was that the floor was extremely cold to the touch. Keith became aware of this in short order as he swung his thick and callused feet from out the warm refuge of his be-quilted bed. Such a shock it gave him that he could not help but yip loudly and jam the numbed legs back into the haven of the sheets. Only after several minutes of nursing and the alternate warming application of sole to calf did he have occasion to realize what this meant.

“The floor’s too cold,” he whispered wide-eyed with a quiver playing about his lips. Hearing out-loud the accusation hammered the full understanding home-and, in his surprise, Keith even went so far as to repeat himself, “Oh, no… The floor’s too cold!”

A challenge had been issued as surely as if it had been a glove slapped to his face. Keith fell back on his bed and stared fixedly at the ceiling for solace-no matter that he would find none there. The cards of destiny had been dealt, and he knew he had no recourse, no means of control over what would happen next.

And how well he knew that which would happen next-the faucet in the bathroom would be dripping steadily. Oh, he could easily read the signs. The Evil was gathering that morning for yet another duel-he could only hope his meager art was up to the encounter. A deep, dark foreboding welled up inside Keith’s prone form. To his very core, he hoped against all hope not to see that dread faucet. Anything but that…

Wait a second, thought Keith; maybe I don’t have to see it at all. The force of this revelation sat Keith up in bed as only a revelation can to someone who is unaccustomed so to them. “Yeah, that’s it, I won’t go into the bathroom,” he said it aloud as a show of defiance. But only seconds after his voicing of the thought, Keith’s smile fell. For light had dawned and unable to delude himself further, Keith McQueen’s resolve shattered about his feet. It was simply this: Just because he wouldn’t see the faucet dripping didn’t mean that it wasn’t, and that therefore that it wouldn’t bring about utter catastrophe.

Keith sank back into his bedding once more.

“Why me? Why is it always me?” he implored of the four walls.

But he would get no answer. For it was him. It was always him. He held the lone responsibility. Only empowered to he himself was the strength to haul humanity up from the simmering cauldera below. Only Keith McQueen had the finesse to inch mankind back to that perfect balance, ever maintained. For he alone had the talent to fight the endless contest that would never be won, but at the best, merely tied. His was the mastery of the game of cunning subtlety. It was a game of unceased equilibrium-pull too hard and the tenuous thread might snap, and thereby plunge man down into abyss unfathomable.

The sole weight had once again fallen on his shoulders, as it always had. Even when he was young, his heart was already scared with the battle. From the first, he knew the burden he would bear-although unwillingly. Regardless where he ran, Destiny caught him up short, pulling him ever back; back to face his vocation, his place. Himself a pawn.

To say that it all had started almost benignly would be a monumental understatement. It had been every bit ordinary. Just another morning for the young Keith, one where the early summer’s sun causes the mind to laze, hiding in the dewy dampness of the fleeting shade. If not for Keith’s coming to awaredness he might be lazing there to this day, if, indeed, there would be still days to laze in. For on that day Keith saw it. The one thing so blatantly obvious and yet gone so unnoticed.

The error disastrous had been committed, and that threat to all was in the hallway leading from young Keith’s room. A closet door; left standing at an angle. But not just any angle-it was an angle wholly at odds with its environment, Keith realized. It was not wide open, nor was it left as it normally was: anywhere from being totally shut to standing open a few inches from the jamb. It was at some alien point in-between, betwixt the position of open and that of the upward limit of being closed. Standing at a point completely unrevealed to less-seeing individuals. It was this that Keith noticed and thusly saved all humankind by shutting the offending door completely and with a resounding slam.

It was a quick action-arguably inconsequential-and Keith sought to put the matter behind him. Thinking it to be an isolated incident (some tiny, noisome, leak from beyond the hinterlands of this natural universe), he forgot all about it. Or at least, tried to.

But no matter what he did, everything led back to that door. It gave a purpose for existence, and yet somehow sifted away freedom through his clutching fingers. A slave to his duty was he. And yet, nagging doubts tugged at his heart in the late night hours. What if he hadn’t seen that door, would his life be different? Would there be life at all? Anywhere?

As it was, the confrontation at the door had only been the first of a life full of exposed traps and thwarted disaster. Each time the visitation was more and more clever, each time a little harder to mete out. And now… Now it was approaching what Keith feared may be the limit of his power to contain it. Victory now was dear, and he paid a heavy toll for each.

Keith broke himself from his reverie and wearily proceeded to pry himself out of bed. With the heavy spirit of a man condemned, he made his way into the bathroom. Until he stood there in front of the sink, chest heaving, his worst fears realized. The faucet was indeed dripping.

And quite steadily…

His hand, seemingly of its own accord, reached out and tried at tightening the knob, but, of course, it was no help. No simple solutions would be had that day. The battle would again be hard fought.

A sudden sensation pierced Keith’s mind and tore his gaze away from the faucet. He looked up and around him at the walls, the mirror, the tub; as Fear tightened its clutching fingers around his heart. Everything was wrong; it was all wrong, wrong, wrong. The towels were just a little too crumpled, the mirror a bit too clear. Everywhere he looked, things were clouded in cursed incorrectness. His fevered mind could not take it; his knees weakened and gave way.

“Too much, just too much,” Keith cried weakly as he crumbled to the floor. And there he sat, propped against the linen closet, huddling in upon himself-his knees up under his chin.

There he sat, as wave after wave of self-pity washed over him. For all was lost, he knew that now. Even with full use of his varied talents, Keith McQueen knew nothing could be done. The sabotage was by half too complete. There he sat, staring blankly at the tub’s drain, counting the countless ways he had gone wrong. Silently watching the water drip into the pool formed there over the night…

A puddle?

For the first time in the near quarter of an hour Keith had sat there, he truly saw what he was looking at. The stopper had been in the drain all night, causing several inches of water to collect in the bottom of the tub. A grin came over his lips, followed closely by some insistent chuckling, and Keith McQueen sprang to his feet. He smiled coldly at the faucet.

“Ha! I’ve got you!” came his indictment. “You thought you could win it once and for all. You thought you could cover everything over and trick me into giving up. Well, it almost worked, but you made a mistake, didn’t you?” He paused for breath. “You let a flaw slip by, and now I have you.” He clenched his fist tight by way of gesture.

This returned his chuckling, although this time it had about it decidedly sinister quality.

He was a little put out that his declaration failed to have the desired effect-the faucet continued to drip, if now a bit falteringly-but Keith knew he had been heard. With this knowledge and his purpose firmly intact, Keith left the bathroom-head high in the victory to come.

The battle, however, was far from over. Keith still had to set the great many subversions to right. A comparatively simple task if he could pinpoint the key-that being center of all the ill doing. The encompassing disease, of which the lesser acts, such as the dripping faucet, were mere symptoms. If he could find that key, he could topple the entire framework of evil his adversary had built, as surely as if he pulled the topmost stone from an archway. But where would it be hidden?

The kitchen seemed as good a place as any to begin his search. It was the farthest room away from the bathroom that still contained plumbing, and it, therefore, was the most likely place since now the bathroom was plainly not.

Keith wore caution as his cloak at entering the fouled room. One mistake made here and the result could be disastrous, he told himself over and over. One step out of line and all was lost.

“Maybe it would be better to think this through.” Keith said to himself, and then with sudden urgency, looked carefully around with eyes narrowed-fearful that the wrong someone might be listening in. Everything seemed to be in order. Of course, when battling an unseen adversary, it rarely matters whether things seem one way or another. Keith’s unique experience points out that the things that remain hidden are always the most dangerous.

Still, silence might be a prudent measure. But then, so would be a plan of action. If only he knew with certainty for what it was he was looking.

It was time for observation, then. Keith warily stepped into the room. While standing in the center, he reached behind his back, took a chair from under the table, and settled into it. All this done while his eyes darted furtively around the room, seeking the barest hint of trouble.

So, there he sat, his brow beetled in thought, his watchful eyes casting suspicious glances in every direction, and still no closer to knowing what to do.

He then suddenly realized that as long as he sat in the center, he would have his back turned to at least one wall. Who knows what evil might be wrought there in the absence of his wary eye. He thought for a moment and then tried pivoting his chair slightly so only the room’s corners were directly in front, and to the sides of him. He settled back once more, satisfied that no walls faced him from behind-until it came to him that his back was now turned on a corner. That would certainly not do-in fact, it might even be worse.

Time to try a new tact. Maybe he had had the right idea after all, and he was just going about it the wrong manner. Keith picked up his chair and placed in one corner, facing out. There. A vantage point where he could see all that occurred in the room-except what went on above his head! He tried looking up, but then something might happen from underneath his chair!

Keith, in his justifiable anger, threw the chair across the kitchen. He had had enough of this pointless posturing. It was time for action.

Well past time, Keith agreed grimly with himself.

He made a quick inventory of everything in sight. Table, chairs (one now resting pitiably on its side), counter, oven, cupboards…

The cupboards! That was it.

Before he even knew he was doing it, Keith flew to the nearest, ripped open the door, and began to throw kitchenware hither and thither. High over his head they arced away in his two-handed intensity, and clattered loudly to the floorboards behind him. When the present one was emptied, Keith turned his machinations to the next one in line. And so the next, and on, and on. The steely set to his face never for one instant softening-until his arms grew weary and there were no more pantries left to empty. He staggered to the middle of the room and collapsed in near exhaustion onto the fruit of his labor. Looking for all the world as if he were forever marooned on a desolate island of crockery in the hardwood ocean that was his kitchen floor.

When he had finally caught his breath, Keith McQueen wearily gathered up the pots and plates. He knew then what he had to do. The only thing he could do. He slowly and determinedly began to stack-a steady hand was called for-casserole onto saucepan, deep dish onto fryer, and layer upon layer. Only a symmetrically perfect pyramid of pots and pans would preserve posterity and serve to somewhat stem the seething tide. And so, he set out to build just such a monument.

It took him nearly two hours to get it right. And after staring for a brief while in self-congratulation, Keith paced back into the bathroom in triumph. The impact of what he saw there took away his breath.

The faucet was still dripping!

Keith’s eyes opened wide as his mind registered the shock. He stood helplessly shaking his head. How can this be, he asked himself. I did everything I had to do. It should have worked-it couldn’t help but work! If nothing has changed, then I have been wasting my time…

“Unless I was meant to waste my time!”

Keith’s eye turned to read the clock. Eleven forty-eight. Almost noon: the anti-witching hour. If he was going to do something, it had better be now. For soon the point after which he would have no control would pass, and he would be utterly without recourse. The events of the day would turn on unaltered.

Keith’s despair cost him two minutes (for he was a man of deep emotion), and it was now eleven fifty. His mind was screaming: Do something do something do something. He scrambled to the kitchen. But what now?

Pots a trick. Obviously the most concealed. The sink was plainly too obvious. Be clever clever clever. The second most obvious place, that’s the one, always hide in the second to the most obvious…
He looked quickly around. Droplets of perspiration were forming on his brow.

Eleven fifty-six. No time! Appliances. Not the clock, the lack of time is-oh no! Fifty-seven-think think! The stove’s out, too much electricity-don’t look at the clock, concentrate-not the blender, too mechanical-fifty-eight-it has to be the Cuisinart or the toaster oven. Cuisinart or the toaster oven.

Which one?

Eleven fifty-nine. Decide!

Keith stood in the center of the room, Cuisinart on the counter-top to his left, toaster oven on the one to his right. He stood there in feverish indecision as the second hand swept inexorably upward.

Twenty-five seconds.

Twenty. Fifteen, and the decision made. Keith McQueen, with every ounce of effort left in his body, leaped to his right-The toaster oven!-and jerked out the plug with both hands. Minus three seconds, two, oh please, minus one, and finally noon. The clock seemed to hang there, frozen in time-each one of it’s long and graceful hands pointing skyward . . .

And then with quiet demeanor: twelve o’clock plus one second… Twelve o’clock plus two seconds… Plus three.

The world did not end.

The tension held in Keith’s face relaxed; everlasting doom had been circumvented once again. The release was so total that Keith McQueen fell down to his knees and wept. The battle was won, but never the war. Keith McQueen had long since learned to live with the knowledge that with each new morning brings with it a trial. Each day a test, a new searching for a chink in his armor…

Hope against all hope that it is never found.

Some, who live only to disparage, would say that paranoia is its own reward. As for the rest of us, well, we’re just glad Keith McQueen works at night.

10 Mar

Sirius Model Rocketry

logo_sirius_beta

Everyone else has cool rockets, why can’t I?

This all started with a desire to make a tougher rocket for my children that isn’t always in for repairs. We love the Big Bertha type–big, slow, not too high. Great fun for the kids at their present ages–well, Sissy isn’t as into rockets as she was when she was younger (although she is the owner of the original Estes Big Bertha). Our Bertha has made probably over 50 flights without an incident…until this last one (melted parachute). However, it’s ground time was the hardest on it–every fin except one has been broken.

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07 Mar

VPN Active

Awesome.  I can VPN to my home network now.

My work’s corporate network does not allow out-of-spec SSL traffic…so that was the majority of my problem.  Just goes to show that consistent troubleshooting processess are required to make things work. 

I had tested other networks in the past, but it didn’t work because I didn’t have my server certificate file created properly.  So, after I realized that I needed to redo my certificate, I hadn’t checked any network other than the corporate.  Which uses Websense.  Which sits on top of ISA 2004.  Neither of which really likes SSL over the normal port 443, let alone unrecognizeable traffic over port 1194 (which is the OpenVPN default).  Just shows to go ya.

w00t.

I’m going to be moving my blog to a different server.  We’ll see how this works out.