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Alpaca-based Microfiction

My friend Adam shared a weird alpaca tweet on facebook the other day.

Somehow, it spurred me into creative mode, and I wrote an epilogue…

As it bared its fangs and sunk them into me, the brief moment of relief vanished. How easily did I forget the scourge of vampacas upon this land? Bristly tufts of hair began to burst out of my face, my neck vertebrae groaning and stretching.

In my last moment of consciousness, before the full blood lust of the camelid rage took over me, I had but one thought – “How I wish it had been a sheep”.

Of course, Adam had to criticise: “That sounds more like a werepacca to me”. And so I responded.

Hidden, in the corner of the dark field, the werepaca growled. And sort of “baa-ed”. Whatever noise alpacas make, anyway. It recognised the transformation – the man had become a vampire controlled drone, a inhuman barely controllable bundle of rage. Better than the alternative though – a full vampaca – intelligent, deadly, riddled with malevolent dentistry; they were almost unstoppable.

The werepaca slunk off towards the woods, scraping its foul bloated body along with it. Barely caring at the scraps of man-flesh and wool it left behind on the barbed wire, it retired to plan its attack. The emnity between werepacas and their vampiric brethren was as old as time. And kinda cute.

What do you think? Is there the basis for a book in there?

(The correct answer is “no!”)

Deadzone Scatter Battle Report

I’ve been doing a fair bit of model painting and scenery collecting during lockdown. One of our favourite games is the Mantic Games futuristic skirmish game Deadzone.

Adding to the fun, my son recently got a huge metal Enforcer Strider model that hasn’t been used in a battle yet. Joen and I decided to test this out with a short game…

The Teams

Joen was playing the Enforcers, with 3 Pathfinders and a Strider (which was nearly half his points on its own!).

I was playing the Forge Fathers, with all my new Brokkrs, and the Inferno Drill. I had 6 models to his 4, although if the Bomb Bot and Inferno Drill won’t function without the Chief or Engineer within 3 squares.

The Setup

We randomly set up the play area, rolling a D6 for every tile to determine large and small scenery and items to pick up.

In Scatter you score VPs for finding Intel tokens, killing opponents, and 1 VP per Objective tile held at the end of a round. You roll to see who is going first, and then take it in turns to put half your force in opposing corners. It was our first time playing this scenario, and the split setup is a real tactical challenge, especially with such small teams.

Joen rolled highest, so he set up first, with the Strider and a Pathfinder top right. I responded with the Engineer, Inferno and Bomb bot bottom right.

We finished his setup with the Sergeant and remaining Pathfinder bottom left, and my Chief, Brokkr and Steel Warrior top left.

Turn 1

The Enforcers began with a Pathfinder (1) sneaking through to cover against the bulkhead and shooting at the Brokkr Engineer (2) – to no effect.

The Brokkr Chief (3) ignored this, cool-headedly, and moved two squares south, remaining in cover but keen to get his fearsome hammer into play as soon as possible.

Seeing this, the Enforcer Sergeant (4) fired at him… ineffectually. He then moved into the cover of the southern watchtower, planning to sneak up on the Engineer (2), as the Engineer began shuffling himself directly towards the Sergeant from the other direction.

The final Pathfinder sprinted to the western watchtower (4), hiding perfectly underneath it. Emboldened by the total lack of deaths so far, and keen to stake a claim on the north Objective, the last Brokkr marched to the north Objective marker (3)…

…only to be brutally slain by the Strider, which waddled forward into a perfect vantage position (1), getting to roll 5 dice, and rolling a 6 on all of them – a 1 in 32,768 chance – not even needing to use the 2 Heavy Burst Laser re-rolls. Ruinous.

The Forge Fathers responded with burning rage, and the Steel Warrior (5) commando-rolled over a ruined wall, landing on his knee to belch flames into the base of the western watchtower. Even though the Pathfinder had hidden perfectly, the Dragon’s Breath’s outpourings didn’t care, and the Pathfinder died with a scream of “IT BURNS!”.

Enforcer activations over, the Engineer (2) hummed as he rolled the Bomb Bot to the other end of the bunker, and fired the Inferno Drill wastefully into the soil quite near to the Strider (1).

With no Objectives held by teams, the score at the end of Turn 1:
Forge Fathers: 2, Enforcers: 1

Turn 2

This round saw both teams drop to 50% vitality, with deaths all round.

As the Pathfinder Sergeant (4) killed the Steel Warrior, the Brokkr Chief (5) ran out of cover and killed the Sergeant in retaliation with a Shoot Command Dice. He then finished with a sprint to the western Objective. His time there was short, as the sole living Pathfinder (1) snipered him to a bloody pulp, before hiding again back in the north-east corner.

The machine battle began, with the Inferno Drill (2) caused three punishing damage points to the Strider, whilst the Strider (1) was unable to achieve anything in retaliation.

In the final moments, the Engineer (6) skinnied up the wall of the bunker, landing himself on the southern Objective, twiddling on a remote control to send the Bomb Bot (6) to sit on the western Objective.

With two Objectives held by the Forge Fathers, the score at the end of Turn 2:
Forge Fathers: 6, Enforcers: 6

Turn 3

The start of round 3 was the Enforcer’s opportunity for a sudden victory. I had foolishly left the Engineer (6) on the roof of the bunker, unprotected, in clear view of the Strider. If he died, the Bomb Bot and Inferno Drill would be disabled, and the battle lost.

The Strider (1) fired, using an Extra Dice command dice, with Weight of Fire allowing 2 rerolls. And managed a single point of damage. The Engineer was injured, but alive.

Then Joen grinned, and revealed his other command dice – an extra Shoot action! Which missed! The moment had passed, and my Engineer jumped down to hide behind the bunker.

Climbing onto the roof of the north east bunker, the last Pathfinder lined up a perfect viewpoint to the Bomb Bot – 3 normal dice + 1 for higher ground + 2 for full view of target model. 6 dice still only resulted in the Bomb Bot taking a single point of damage. Not quite enough to explode it.

The final activation was the Inferno Drill (2). Which it used to destroy the Enforcer’s Strider! And then, with a Shoot Command Dice, took a pot shot at the Pathfinder, injuring and pinning it.

With one Objectives held by the damaged Bomb Bot, the score at the end of Turn 3:
Forge Fathers: 11, Enforcers: 6

Turn 4

There was a definite imbalance on the field now, with the Forge Fathers with 3 models and Enforcers with just 1. Still, it’s not over until the female Teraton sings…

The Pathfinder, all alone now and the desperation showing on his face, stood up, and fired at the Bomb Bot, finally destroying it with a loud “BOOM!”. Using a Movement Command dice, he jumped down, a little nearer the eastern Objective.

The Engineer scuttled out from his hiding place, taking a shot with his short ranged Burst Pistol – the first time he’d actually been in range of an enemy. He might as well not have bothered, since it pinged harmlessly off the bulkhead behind the Pathfinder.

Not satisfied with that result however, he typed in a command to his control unit, and the Inferno Drill lumbered forwards two squares, landing squarely on the eastern Objective. With a Shoot Command dice, the mechanical weapons platform turned, ponderously, and fired an overwhelming 6 dice blast at the Pathfinder. With 3 hits, the Enforcers needed a minimum of three successes to survive…

…and they rolled three, two 7s and a 6…

…and the last Pathfinder lived on, even as the Inferno Drill claimed the Objective, winning the game.

End Game

Final Score: Forge Fathers: 12, Enforcers: 6

Victory belonged to the Forge Fathers, but it all nearly fell completely apart on Turn 3! Interestingly, we rolled to see what would have happened if the Inferno Drill hadn’t scored that final Objective VP. On his next activation, the Pathfinder would have successfully killed the Engineer, potentially reversing the victory!

Overall a fun battle, and one that was a lot closer than I’d expected. The splitting of forces of Scatter really made the Engineer a weak point in the Forge Fathers setup, I’d expected to have the Chief on hand to control machines if needed. There will be a rematch!

Where I Write

Inspired by a post by author Gareth L. Powell, I thought I’d share a photo of my desk. Then, after I’d written most of this, I felt a sense of deja vu.

It turns out I wrote a similar article, over ten years ago – called My Office, appropriately enough. That makes me pretty old.

It’s not actually where I write that often. “Where I write” is more fairly represented by the photo below – any random cafe, with headphones and a laptop!

But given that I’ve shown you my desk, here’s a numbered explanation:

  1. desk labelledA Kindle. Standard. I’m easily distracted from actually doing writing by reading other people’s. That’s as it should be, I reckon.
  2. Remote control for my Amplifier. The upgrade from an amp without a remote to one with one was life changing.
  3. Post-Its. Always useful, always forget I have them and use printer paper instead.
  4. Triple monitors. Still using my PC from 2015, but now with triple U2415 monitors
  5. Map of Warrington. I love maps, I have about 15 OS maps too. Inspirational when thinking about setting.
  6. Speakers! Can’t work without music playing constantly. Listening to The Horace Silver Quintet right now.
  7. Typing Window. I generally write directly into this blog in the wordpress editor, or onto Google Docs. I find a good nature background helpful. This was a tree photo I took at Erddig Hall.
  8. Half empty mug. There’s always a tea, coffee or squash on the go.
  9. Separate Numpad. Means the mouse is right next to you, rather than an extra 3 inches over. Great RSI trick for you there. The keyboard came with a rubbish one that worked intermittently and ate up about 10 watch batteries a year. This was an ebay special that runs on rechargeable triple As… and has the backspace in a slightly annoying position.
  10. Microsoft Sculpt keyboard. Ergonomic, cheap, comfortable. Lasts forever on rechargeable triple As.
  11. Mastermouse MM710 Mouse. Never considered a mouse upgrade? Try an ultralight one like this, you’ll never go back!
  12. Empty glasses and mugs. There’s usually about 5. I literally cleaned my desk for this photo, and still there was one.
  13. Pile of books, films, CDs, paperwork. The never ending to-do pile.

Thanks for the inspiration Gareth!

Beautiful Space Pirates

As you may know, I like to occasionally indulge in pen & paper role play games – see my previous, very silly write-up of All Outta Bubblegum or Chapter One of Prisoners of Corral.

Yesterday, me and some pals played an equally ridiculous game of “Beautiful Space Pirates“, a one shot RPG made by the incredibly talented Grant Howitt.

Our game was fast paced, remarkably idiotic, and a lot of fun. It also came together pretty perfectly at the end, with the final action of the game causing the death of the crew’s main rival and securing their success in an arranged shotgun wedding to inherit a fortune at the same moment. Yeh… so pretty silly.

Go check it out yourself for the full details, but in a nutshell, you play some fairly one dimensional pirates, attending the will reading of a dead Pirate King, hoping to make a windfall.

Anyway, there was one moment in our evening that felt quite epic. I decided to turn it into prose…

Beautiful Space Pirates

“Fine”, said the AI, switching off her screen.

Byron stepped back from the monitor, a little taken aback. He’d not expected the conversation to go particularly well, but there was no reason for the Computer to be quite so rude. Sure, he’d commanded her to kamikaze the ship directly into a nearby battle cruiser, and sure, that would require her inevitable fiery demise – but there was no need to be tetchy about it.

A steady vibration began under his feet. The engines had turned on. The shaking intensified; the AI was clearly overriding safety protocols. It was the only way she could break the ship free from the battle cruiser’s stasis field.

Byron began to sprint towards the escape pods. “Time to get going guys!”, he shouted. A split-second later he crashed into his two crewmates in the corridor. He threw a hand out, narrowly snatching a wall handle to avoid falling over.

In front of him – and obviously poorly equipped for the task of running along a slippery floor – was James “Pegleg” Plank. His shiny (and bent) prosthetic leg was barely providing the traction required to propel him forward.

Clamping his arm with prison-warder style was Frau. Her matronly three hundred pound frame made her less of a supportive aid and more an unstoppable force of nature. She swept down the passageway, dragging the diminutive Plank in her wake.

Byron ran along behind them. It was becoming difficult to stand up with the intense oscillation from the engines. Hard edges around them were becoming blurry. Time was running short.

As she reached the airlock, Frau threw the unresisting amputee into the escape pod. There was no gravity force-field inside. This allowed James to projectile magnificently through the air before crashing into a ceiling beam. He looked down with a glazed impression – just in time to see Byron burst through the door. Byron’s expression changed to annoyance as he recalled the lack of downforce… moments too late to actually stop. He continued forwards, uncontrolled, his legs pinwheeling in frustration. Plank’s eyes grew wide as Byron spun towards him. They collided with a painful crunch.

From the doorway, Frau smirked at the chaotic sight above her. “Having fun, boys?”. Her deep, almost masculine tone was dripping with sarcasm. The vibration took her attention back to the job at hand – the resonating steel door frame was almost painful to hold. They needed to get away.

She hammered the pod release button – to no effect. It wasn’t even lit.

Spinning around, she realised all the lights and displays nearby were turned off. That damn AI! Fine, there was only one thing for it. She ran off down the corridor.

Byron had just finished un-tangling himself from Plank when he saw Frau return. He looked down confused – why was she wearing her ridiculous mock-Viking iron-rimmed EVA suit? – as the door slammed shut. She was still outside! Before he could react, a loud ‘clunk’ rang out. The manual pod disengagement mechanism had activated!

The escape pod began to drift away from the ship. He launched himself back across the space, grabbing the door hand hold. Peering through the strip of 3 inch glass in the door, he was just in time to see Frau leap across the widening chasm, having already exited the ship’s airlock herself.

Frau landed on the outside of their pod, a metallic thunk audible inside.

She swung her body round to the window and made impatient eye contact with Byron. “Get on with it then!” she communicated with raised eyebrows alone.

He spun round and slammed the ignition button.

The podblasters fired into life, tearing them towards the planet. Behind them, barely even metres away, the ship finally ripped out of the stasis field. It rocketed towards the battlecruiser. Already it was travelling at an unstoppable pace.

Frau watched the action unfold, still holding on to the guide rails on the exterior of the pod.

Before the crew of the Imperial fleet vessel had time to put down their coffee, let alone activate shields, the smaller scout ship had impacted, boring a hole straight through the hull plating of the larger vessel. For a moment it appeared that nothing else would happen. But the AI had aimed well. She’d hit them exactly amidships, exactly where the fusion core operated – or, in other words, exactly where a neutron bomb was locked, loaded and ready to blow.

The entire battle cruiser disappeared, like some giant galactic being had pressed a ‘delete’ key. Frau saw it blink out. She quickly averted her gaze. Behind her, a green glow began to build, before it was overtaken by a growing overwhelmingly white ball of light. The light grew, getting brighter and brighter. It was the kind of white that your retinas detect, briefly, just before they burn out. Even with her visor darkened and eyelids screwed tightly closed, Frau’s eyeballs ached.

Eyes still closed, she began to notice a different sensation, a warmth in her chest. She risked cracking open her eyelids to look down; there were wisps of air passing in front of her. They’d been orbiting Traal, the prison planet, and the pod was starting to enter the atmosphere. The heat of re-entry was building quickly; already the metalwork near her was picking up warmth.

Back inside the pod, the intercom clicked. The internal speakers crackled then Frau’s voice came through. She was humming a tune, in a rich baritone. Byron looked again through the narrow window. Silhouetted by the dying blast of the imploding battleship, Frau was majestic. Her iron breastplate began to glow, each rivet picked out in fire. As her deep rendition of “Flight of the Valkyries” rang out through the escape pod, smoke trails of debris began to fly past, the disintegrations of the vanquished battle cruiser picking her out against a fading green supernova. She was an iron warrior, flying through a storm of conquered enemies.

Byron slumped to the floor, facing the pod’s terminal.

In front of him, the screen turned on. Slowly, the AI’s scowling visage faded into view. A nearby data storage drive ejected a data disc with an angry ‘whirr’, clonking him on the forehead.

He closed his eyes with a smile. “Told you it would work”, he said.

Apple and Chilli Chutney Recipe

I’m a massive chutney fan, and for years I’ve been planning on using the 300+ apples we get on the tree in our garden every autumn.

I finally got round to actually making some! Shout out to Lesley for the jars!

Lots of jarsDisclaimer: I am a proud member of the chuck-it-in-it’ll-be-fine school of cooking. I firmly believe a happy cook just throws stuff in a pan, rather than measuring 18g of this and 3.5 medium egg yolks of that; so take my measurements with a pinch of salt, so to speak. This recipe makes about 6-8 jars of chutney. Depending on how big your jars are. Obviously.

Ingredients

Fruit + Veg

  • Loads of apples. I used around 3kg (weight before peeling)
    Apples
  • Loads of chillies. I used about 20 medium sized ones. And some jalapenos I found in the fridge. Obviously the more chillies, the more spicy it’ll be.
  • Raisins. I used approx 300g. Feel free to bung in more.
  • Peppers. Think I used about 4?
  • Onions. A couple. Definitely can bulk things out with more onions if in doubt.
  • Anything else you fancy. Carrot? Sure. Parsnip? Why not. Aim to have each additional fruitveg no more than about 10% of the apple weight, ie. 300g.

Other stuff

  • 500ml cider vinegar. Any malt vinegar will do too, but the cider stuff has a milder taste.
  • 450g sugar. Nicer to use soft brown sugar, but anything will do the job.
  • Fresh ginger (or powdered will do if you need to). I used about 2 tablespoons.
  • Garlic. I used a clove and a load of garlic paste. Powder will work too. Use loads, garlic is great.
  • 1/2 tbsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tbsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp cinnamon
  • 8-10 jars and lids. (Better to have too many than not enough).
  • Greaseproof paper.

Recipe

  1. Peel and chop up apples. You want 1-2cm lumps, breaks down more easily. It takes an age, I suggest watching TV at the same time. Feel free to leave in bruised bits, lumps etc – its all going to be boiled for 2 hours and then left in vinegar for 3 months, it’ll be fine.
  2. Prep your jars. Carefully hand wash them all, make sure they are super-duper clean. Then put lids and jars in a dishwasher at max heat. Or in an oven at 120 degrees Celsius. Keep them there until you need them in step 10.
  3. Throw the apple in a massive pan and start cooking on a medium heat
  4. Chop up everything else that needs chopping. Dump it in the pan with the apples
  5. Add the vinegar.
  6. Stir it loads. Do not let it burn and stick or the whole job is knackered.
  7. Sprinkle in all the sugar, garlic, spices, etc. Keep stirring.
  8. Keep stirring! Once its bubbling all the way through, drop it down to a low heat.
  9. KEEP STIRRING! After about 45 minutes, all the apples will be brown and breaking down. Keep going until it stops reducing in size, then cook and stir it for about 15 more minutes.
  10. Fill jars. Take jars out of oven, use oven gloves, and carefully only touch outside of jars. Spoon the hot mixture in. I used a funnel made out of an empty fizzy drink bottle, which makes the spooning-in-process less of a nightmare. Use a tissue and some alcohol gel to make sure there’s no gloopy residue on the screw or upper inside edge of jars.
  11. Fit lids. Pop a square of grease-proof paper on top of each jar, and screw the lid down on top.
  12. Design your own silly labels. This is the best bit of the whole project.
  13. Leave them in a cupboard or under a bed for 1-2 months. This is so the acidic vinegar taste reduces, allowing the ingredients to come to the fore.
  14. Use as an excuse to eat loads of cheese. Or burgers. Or other things with chutney.

Lots of jars

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress – Robert Heinlein

I’ve never read any Robert Heinlein before. Which is a bit ridiculous, given that he’s known as “The Dean of Science Fiction Writers“, and I’m borderline obsessed by the genre.

This one is a moon colony book, in the vein of Andy Weir’s Artemis (which *spoiler* I absolutely loved). I’m always a sucker for moon colonies, I think probably because it seems so potentially achievable, like it might actually happen in our lifetime, and its not limited by the need for close-to-speed-of-light hacks that further out space fiction needs.

I love the disjointed commentary style the narrator uses, presumably intimating a particular accent or dialect from the future.

Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please. Rules, laws — always for other fellow. A murky part of us, something we had before we came down out of trees, and failed to shuck when we stood up.

The golden-age-of-scifi catapults to get things back to the moon is cool, plus the surprisingly realistic mainframe that is basically cloud computing.

Coupled with the style is the way Heinlein makes delightful jumps in his writing. He has a confidence in his own prose, and in the reader’s intelligence; he makes allusions to stuff you already know but wouldn’t necessarily connect, and just trusts that you’ll manage it:

“I don’t know Who is cranking, I’m pleased he doesn’t stop.” [talking about God]

Finally, there is a brilliant send-up of politics and governing in general. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but there’s a beautiful use of busy-work and distraction in the pursuit of an effective government, that both highlights the importance and failings of democracy.

A great read, and one I’d recommend for anyone wanting to get into a classic that isn’t a slog.

Victoria Banana-Sponge with Choco-nana Ermine Icing

During this period of Lockdown, there has been a huge uptick in BBB, or “banana based baking”. Apparently banana bread has been the most searched for recipe on the BBC Food website – we’ve certainly been shoving ‘nana loaf down our throats at an alarming rate.

Yesterday we were donated 25 squidgy nearly-gone-off bananas. After an inevitable, huge banana smoothie, I was still left with fifteen waiting for me this morning. So I decided to invent a new type of Victoria sponge, entirely using bananas instead of butter. That’s right, totally dairy free!

Disclaimer: I am a proud member of the chuck-it-in-it’ll-be-fine school of cooking. I firmly believe a happy cook just throws stuff in a pan, rather than measuring 18g of this and 3.5 medium egg yolks of that; so take my measurements with a pinch of salt, so to speak. This recipe makes one biggish cake.

Ingredients

Cake

  • 310g of self raising flour
  • 6 or 7 medium soggy old bananas
  • 310g of caster sugar
  • 4 eggs.

Filling

  • 3 or 4 battered old bananas
  • 50g(ish) plain flour
  • 100g(ish) icing sugar
  • 50g(ish) cocoa/hot chocolate powder (if in doubt chuck more in. No one ever says “I wish this had less chocolate in).

Recipe

Cake

  1. Prewarm the oven to 180°C Fan (190°C conventional oven) 
  2. Prepare two round cake tins with a bit of oil and some flour sprinkled on top (so it doesn’t stick)
  3. Chuck everything in a mixer or blender.
  4. Whizz it around until everything is no longer obviously just lumpy banana, and has become a cake mixture instead.
  5. Bung half in each tin.
  6. Cook for around 20-25 minutes. It should be brown rather than yellow. If you aren’t sure, stick a knife into the cake. If it comes out still gooey, give it another five minutes.
  7. Turn it out onto a cooling tray to cook down.

Filling

  1. Bung everything in the mixer and blitz it all. Can be lumpy if you like banana lumps, or make it smooth.
  2. Pop it in a pan on a low heat, stirring regularly. Don’t let it stick or burn!
  3. Once its thickened, allow it to cool for a few minutes. Unlike most icings or cake toppings though, you can apply Ermine warm to still warm sponge, since it won’t melt or dissolve.

Putting it all together

  1. Put one sponge half on a plate.
  2. Pour half the filling on, spreading it round evenly with a spatula.
  3. Plop the other half of the cake on top.
  4. Pour the rest of the filling on top, smoothing it round.
  5. Decorate with chocolate chips, banana slices, toffee pieces, marshmallows, whatever sounds good.
  6. Eat it…
  7. Make another one…?

There you go. Hope it goes well. Send me photos if you have a try at this.
Got any good topping ideas? Let me know in the comments…