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April 24, 2010

Stuff This Collecting Malarkey

As you've probably gathered by now, I'm looking forward to the release of Bungie's last game in the Halo franchise for the foreseeable future, Halo: Reach, sometime in Spring of this year. I'm even taking a day off work on May 4th to join the Reach multiplayer beta test (thanks to my purchase of Halo 3: ODST). I'd like to cite some high-handed ideal of helping the game be the best it can, but I mostly want to play the damn thing as soon as possible.

I've been a little apprehensive about the inevitable collector's editions of the game, though. Collector's editions have become quite a rage nowadays. In times gone by, special editions were only made after the game had already sold well (and got good press, hence the frequent dubbing of these editions “Game of the Year Edition”). This tended to frustrate me, though; the Game of the Year Editions I was interested in were of games I already owned, and even when I had more disposable income than I have now I couldn't see the point in buying the whole damned game all over again just for the extra knick-knacks.

Nowadays, though, if the pre-release hype for a game has built enough anticipation to guarantee good sales – or, in the case of Reach, the game is part of an extremely popular franchise – the publisher is likely to release a collector's edition of the game on its actual launch date. While I can understand some folks' views that such a move requires a certain amount of chutzpah / hubris, I still prefer it over the other way around.

It's interesting to note that the only games I've bothered to buy collector's editions of are Halo 2, Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST (which I can semi-excuse on the grounds of needing a new Xbox 360 controller). In fact, had I had the money, I probably would have bought the Legendary Edition of Halo 3, complete with scale Master Chief helmet, instead of the Collector's Edition I did buy.

All that said, though, when I reviewed the list of contents of the Collector's Editions of Halo: Reach after they were announced yesterday, my reaction was: “...ehh. I think I'll just buy the regular edition instead.”

Some may take this as yet another sign that I'm acquiring some fucking maturity, me bloody Peter Pan, and hey, I'll take it where I find it.

But actually, the main reason for my lack of interest – Oh, sorry. That's right; I just remembered. I did buy the collector's edition of another game: Mass Effect 2. While it came with an unlock for an in-game item (the Collector armour suit) and a comic book, I was more keen on the extra disc of documentaries. I don't know why, especially as I'm no game developer, but I'm always interested in the processes of making a game and the stories during development.

But after watching it, I remember feeling disappointed. The documentaries on the disc came across as more like promotional fluff. What? Why would I want promo? I've bought the game, for crying out loud! I already know that it's awesome to have Martin Sheen and Tricia Helfer on board. I want to know about the level design, the weapon choices, the actual voice recording process, the cool tools that make the music come alive at the right spots in the game, like... well, like the documentaries on the Halo 3 Collector's Edition disc.

I think Bungie spoiled me on collector's edition content. If you have a friend with the Collector's Edition, go over his or her place and ask him or her to pop the bonus disc into his or her 360 and play some of it for you, especially the audio documentary. That stuff, where Marty O'Donnell not only goes over the Halo 3 score and recording it with an actual orchestra and shows clips of the voice recording process, but also, and especially, talks about how sound works in the game, from how the noise of the Mongoose engine (a combination of a two-stroke scooter and a sports car) reverberates off the surfaces in the non-existent world of the game to how the soundtrack will actually mix itself based on what you're doing. THAT'S what I wanted to see on your bonus disc, BioWare. Show me the nuts and bolts of the years you spent putting that epic of a game together like Bungie did.

This time around, though, Microsoft isn't providing anything like that in the two Reach special editions. Hrm. What are they providing instead? Let's start with the Limited Edition. ONI Black Box slipcase? I don't have enough spare shelf room. Artifact bag with patches and stickers? More chaff I'm never going to sew / stick to anything. In-character journal of the developer of the Spartan super-soldier program? I stopped giving a stuff about the expanded fiction after the Halo: Legends previews. In-game Elite armour set? Hey, I never bothered with Recon armour and the Elites are only going to be playable in a sub-set of the multi-player games.

Take all that and add in the Legendary Edition. It's a whopping great box meant to look like some sort of ammo or hazmat container. Just where the hell am I gonna tuck that away? At least the Halo 3 Legendary Edition Master Chief helmet looked good in and of itself. The statuette of the five non-playable Spartans of Noble Team looks sweet, but I have enough toys, thank you. The only tempting item in that list is the “exclusive Spartan multiplayer armour effect” - an actual thing that does something in the game – but it's not worth $198.

And you know what? Over the last few months, Bungie have been giving away all the good stuff I'd expect to see on that documentary disc. For free. For starters, there are the VIDocs (apparently a combination of “visual”, “informational” and “documentation” - hey, direct that look at Bungie, not me). While they're semi-promotional, they still give a fair bit of info on the game, including the personalities of the folks working on it.

But for the real nuts and bolts, have a listen to the Bungie Podcast. Sure, it's not got the most regular release schedule, but if you're interested in games and want something to listen to on the commute, it's great (I listen on my iPod on the mile walk from where I park to work). While I'll always point folks to the July 7th, (Bungie Day) 2009 episode featuring Nathan Fillion (yes, him) the two most recent episodes are Halo: Reach making-of gold. In fact, I must recommend the April 19th podcast for Luke “Froman” Timmins' (yes, him) hilarious explanation of how Reach's programs which govern Internet multiplayer performance work.

Come to think of it, I've become so un-enamoured with collector's editions that I even traded the Halo 3 Collector's Edition in at EB for credit toward Borderlands. In retrospect, that was a mistake. Borderlands wasn't quite my taste, as it turns out, and while my Xbox Live friends were enthused about its co-op multiplayer they're never available whenever I try to organise a session. (Heh! I'll probably trade Borderlands toward Reach.) And I miss that Grunt in the bonus disc's DVD Surround Sound Test. Ah, well; Karl's gone off Halo in general so I can always borrow his Collector's Edition off him, I suppose.

I'm still waiting for EB and Game to announce pre-order bonuses, though. I hope there's a bundle deal for a game guide - I'm keen to have something tell me where all the basic spawns on the multiplayer maps are so I can start working on call-outs.

UPDATE 11:30AM: According to the latest Bungie weekly update, the “exclusive Spartan multiplayer armour effect” isn't a unique armour ability as I assumed - it's a flaming helmet, which just looks cool, so I now have even less interest in the Legendary Edition.

That Elite armour looks kinda sweet in a bad-ass way, though. And as flaming helmets are reserved in Halo 3 for Bungie employees and Nathan Fillion, I suppose Legendary owners Reach could try getting away with saying they're down with Mal.

April 15, 2010

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II - Chaos Rising

That's right, folks; yet another game review in today's paper! Check it out here OR on the cairns.com.au website!

Next up: Hopefully, the Russian-developed post-apocalyptic FPS, Metro: 2033.

April 13, 2010

That Fresh Taste

Third reason to be cheerful? Continuing on the topic of computers, mine is back up and running properly! I mentioned in my last post that I'd discovered that the solution to some hardware faults is to strip the guts out of the PC and clean the dust and mould off the case interior and every component.

Mould might seem like an odd issue, but these are the tropics and we have just come out of the wet season; moisture is abundant and PCs have plenty of nooks and crannies for it to gather in. Although my case is well ventilated with lots of big-ass fans, I try to teardown / rebuild it every six months, twelve at the outside. Only a couple of rooms in our house are air conditioned, and the computer room isn't one of them.

I've got a dual-boot setup of Windows XP SP3 for gaming and Linux Mint 8 for everything else. I went with Mint instead of Ubuntu 9.10 on Andrew Hilton's recommendation, and I like its user interface and the fact that it encrypts your home directory, which Ubuntu doesn't do natively.

I have to give mad props to Simon at work. A few weeks ago, our ADSL modem, which had been acting flaky for around a month, suddenly packed it in. We called Telstra, but as the modem was out of warranty we were looking at $100 for a replacement. I was bitching about it to Paul when Simon, who sits next to him, told me that he'd upgraded to ADSL2+, leaving his old ADSL modem redundant and he was willing to give it to me. That night, Vickie and I were back online!

The great bit is that Simon's Dlink modem/router combines our old setup – a Speedtouch modem connected via Ethernet to a Netgear four-port network router with wireless – into one piece of hardware! It's neatened our computer room up and cut our power bill a bit! Oddly enough, it doesn't like being plugged into the same power circuit with a desk fan we're using, but that's easily fixed.

Oh, and in case you hadn't noticed from the Links sidebar, I've finally succumbed to the lure of Web 2.0 and now have a Twitter account. Send me a tweet if you have one too!

Things aren't perfect, of course. I was tempted this morning to blow Mint away and install Ubuntu 9.10. The two main programs I use – the Firefox Web browser and Thunderbird e-mail client – are a little older than the most current, which Ubuntu uses. The most jarring difference is between Thunderbird 3, on Ubuntu, and 2, on Mint – TB3 has a raft of new features that I find myself missing. I'm sure TB3 will debut on Mint eventually, but I'd prefer it sooner than later. Also, although I solved the sound conundrum, I still have to figure out both how to get my microphone working and how to tell Mint about my network printer.

I'd also like to upgrade the version of Movable Type powering both this blog and Vickie's. I'm now at least two version points behind the most current and I want to see what features I'm missing out on. Of course, it's been yonks since I set Movable Type up on Marcus' server and I can't remember how I did it at the time. I'll have to do some investigation.

April 12, 2010

Friends Don't Share Viruses

Second reason to be cheerful? My computer-assistance business is taking off! My client, let's call him “Ray,” is one of the nicest, most straight-up and loyal dudes you'll ever meet. He's also rather IT-illiterate; between that and a mate of Ray's, whom we shall call “Ron,” Ray's PC was riddled with viruses when he asked me to look at it. The process so far may prove instructive if you're not the most savvy when it comes to computers.

As far as I'm concerned, the only truly effective way to cure a virus-ridden PC is to reformat the hard drive and reinstall the base operating system from scratch. In Ray's case, this is easier said than done. Ray's PC features a pair of 320GB serial-ATA hard drives connected to a RAID card in one of the motherboard's PCI slots. This means that, to reformat and reinstall Windows XP, you need to load the third-party drivers for the RAID card onto a floppy disc because Windows XP's install program doesn't recognise the card.

One problem: The floppy drive in Ray's PC was not only not connected to the motherboard, but it also didn't work. Sure, $200.00 might be a bargain price for a PC, but all the components should still fucking operate properly. I grant you that the floppy drive might have failed since, but the missing IDE cable makes me doubt that.

Thankfully, I have a spare drive and IDE cable lying around, so that fixed that. But then we had trouble with the drivers. Using my Windows XP Service Pack 2 disc and the older of the two drivers listed on the RAID card manufacturer's website seemed to fix the problem, but somehow the RAID card designated one of the two hard drives as a secondary, and that one was at the top of the list of drives to install Windows to in the setup screen. Which meant that, come restart, unless the Windows XP disc was in the CD-ROM drive, the computer didn't see a bootable partition.

Okay, I thought, no problem; all I need to do is start all over again. Wrong. The drivers that had worked fine the first time suddenly stopped working the second time around.

This is the sort of weird shit that gets me thinking, “hardware fault”. Given the humidity we've had in Cairns over the past few months, computer internals are attracting dust and mould; I've discovered that the solution to some hardware faults is to strip the case out and clean it and every component before reassembling.

With this treatment in mind, I took Ray's PC home with me a couple of weeks ago and gave him Vickie's old desktop, Maria, as a replacement. She works, but having spent the last twelve months or so up in our loft in a plastic bag, she's not the best. The drivers for her video and sound card don't recognise their hardware, so she was creaking along a bit under XP (I think she might need the same treatment soon). Still, Ray had web and IM access, which is what he really needs for the time being.

One downside of the recent rainlessness is that I've put the time I was planning to spend on stripping and cleaning Ray's PC into taming our backyard jungle instead. It's a bugger, as I had a panicked call from Ray last night. He said he was having virus trouble again and that a Windows antivirus program wanted him to pay to fix the problem. This was odd, as Avast, the antivirus program I'd installed, is freeware. Then Ray told me that Ron had been “fiddling” with Maria.

I started worrying, as Ray has told me about Ron's prior attempts to “fix” Ray's PC (with little success). I drove over to Ray's where he showed me the virus warning Maria was giving him. The Engrish in the warning immediately told me that one of those fake virus programs, the ones that tell you you have a virus so you'll hand over your credit card details – had installed itself on Maria. How, though was the puzzler – until I noticed that Ray was logged in under the Admin account.

Whenever I rebuild my computer using Windows XP, I set up two passworded user accounts : A “limited access” account under my (or the primary user's) name for day-to-day use and a master administrator account with full rights. It's a security measure; if you're running the limited account, programs can't install without administrator rights unless you explicitly give them that right (which needs the Admin password), which ought to stop Trojans from sneaking in unnoticed. I explained to Ray when setting his PC up that I figured it would be a handy measure until he got a bit more IT-savvy; he wouldn't inadvertently install anything dodgy in the meantime.

Ray told me that Ron had asked to borrow Ray's Internet, then asked Ray to log him in as Admin, explaining that the limited account wasn't letting him use Yahoo (yeah, right). Despite Ron's less-than-successful history of fiddling with Ray's PC, Ray, trusting soul that he is, entered the password and let Ron go for his life.

If the Firefox browser history is any indication, Ron then visited half the free porn sites under the sun.

In case you don't know, free porn sites are a prime target for virus writers; plenty of users who don't know a firewall from a fungal cream visit every hour. In theory the firewall I had set up should have provided an additional buffer, but Ron might have specifically downloaded a programme, something Maria has to treat as legitimate traffic, with a virus hidden within – a Trojan. Thus the two-user scheme I'd set up, preventing installs.

I explained that not only had Ray let Ron download a Trojan onto his system but that said Trojan was messing with Windows' basic functions, like disabling access to the “Add or Remove Programs” option under Control Panel so we couldn't get rid of it (even if we did have access, I'd worry that there was still some part of the Trojan lurking on the system somewhere). In other words, Maria was in about the same shape as Ray's PC was when he first asked me to take a look at it.

Fixing it was going to take another reformat and rebuild, something I didn't have time or energy (having dug a garden bed out that afternoon; see previous post) for last night. The problem: Poor Ray is in a situation where he absolutely has to have ready Internet access (why Ray didn't think of this before handing Ron the keys to his PC, I'll chalk up to inexperience). I figured there were a couple of things I could do for him: Take him home so he could perform a couple of urgent tasks via my PC and install Linux on Maria.

Of the distributions I had with me, I chose Linux Mint version 8; the user interface is a touch more friendly then Ubuntu and the basic install is more likely to be able to open or play common file formats. I left it to install while I took Ray home, where Vickie gave him the rounds of the table for breaking his promise to not let any porn on Maria, and by the time we got back to his place Ray had a working, Internet-capable computer again.

I was so enthused by my success that I stayed up until midnight installing Mint on the empty space on my own PC; in fact, I'm posting this from it now. More on that later, though. In the meantime I intend to give Ray's PC the cleanout I've been meaning to this weekend, and I have the feeling that installing Linux Mint might even solve the booting problem without having to reinstall XP.

Taking Back the Yard

You know, I'm glad that after writing what was going to be the first two paragraphs of this post I got up and had lunch. Because on the way back to my desk I realised I was writing a tersely-worded whinge-fest. So I've deleted that last lot and will blog instead in a good mood, backed up by a belly full of Vickie's chook soup.

First reason to be cheerful? What Blind Melon started to complain about: No rain. The monsoon season was keen to hang on until the bitter end, with nigh-constant downpours right up until Easter Monday; since then it's been mostly sunny. This means we can get stuck back into the garden.

First item of business is, naturally, the lawn. I went out and mowed it to what you could get away with calling a manageable length on Monday. It still needs a thorough going over with the petrol mower before we can maintain it with the pushies, though. I bought some new blades for the petrol mower on the weekend, so Vickie will likely get a few good laughs as her non-handyman husband fiddles with nuts, bolts and spanners on Saturday.

Next, the side yard. We have a couple of garden beds in there, but the wood sleeper bordering has mostly rotted away, so Vickie suggested that we take them out and let the grass grow into them; that way we can maintain them with the mower. We're also moving the dog kennel out of its nook between the shed and the fence and putting it against the house; this will give it more shelter and get it away from the fence. I picked up some pavers on Saturday and spent Sunday afternoon digging out the garden bed to the correct area. Our mate Dave will pop over tonight and help me lay the pavers down, then shift the dog kennel into place.

Thirdly, there's the garden bed. All the recent rain has battered our vegetables to death; the weeds have moved into replace them. This'll mean a big weeding job, followed by some vigorous warm-up before forking the entire bed over. We'll need to buy some replacement plants soon.

Ach. One thing guaranteed to bring a mood down? Expenses. I paid for rego on Thursday, but we still need to get the car serviced and tuned and Ziggy's teeth sorted soon. But we'll sort it soon. More on that in the next post.

At some point in the future, we're also going to have to tackle the five palm trees in our backyard. While they're lovely and in this great curve that separates the Hills Hoist from the main yard, they're a bit too tall for cyclone country and are also starting to rot out. Still, we have a good mate with a chainsaw ticket who's keen to lop them.

The main thing is, getting these projects done will involve a lot of good, hard labour. And you know what? I'm looking forward to it. Everyone's telling me that I'm getting to skinny, too pale, I need to bulk up and get some time in the sun. Well, here's my chance. That and I'm starting to relish a little honest work.

April 08, 2010

Interview: God of War III Developers

A couple of weeks ago, the Entertainment Editor at work forwards me an e-mail from a PR company in Sydney. Two developers from Sony Santa Monica, the studio that produced the entire smash-hit God of War series for the Playstations 2, 3 and Portable, were in Australia promoting the just-released God of War III and available for a phone interview.

Would I be interested in handling it, my editor asked?

Now, I've never owned a Playstation or played a God of War and the only person I've interviewed before was local lad DJ A.N.G for the LAN party article.

I said "Sure."

I did some research into the company and the history of the God of War series, although I was limited by the fact that I had no idea exactly who I would be talking with. Still, i assembled a list of questions, which my editor vetted.

A little after 10AM on Friday, March 26th, I took a phone call from the PR agent, who told me that I was speaking with no less than Jonathan Hawkins, Senior Designer, and Bruno Velasquez, Lead Animator at Sony Santa Monica. Two of the top team that developed the God of War games.

I had no idea what to expect; I didn't know whether these fellows had just got off the plane and suffering jet-lag or spent the last couple of hours fielding the same questions over and over. But the fifteen minutes I was allotted flew by; Jonathan and Bruno were both affable and enthusiastic, more than willing to talk about the eight-or-so years they've spent bringing Kratos' saga of rage and vengeance to gaming consoles.

And today, my interview was published!

So there you have it. "Resident games guru" and interviewer!

I wonder what's next?

UPDATE: Entertainment editor Jesse Kuch has posted the interview on the cairns.com.au website! Check it out here!

April 03, 2010

Pet Peeves

  • Rain, rein and reign.
  • Aid and aide.
  • Sight, site and cite.

And it ain't just the Internet; this stuff is cropping up in print too.

Come on, English writers! How 'bout a little more care and attention?

Six Years In The Making

Okay, more like six months, but these three-thousand-or-so words are the first new SlamDance I've put on the web since, well, 2004 at least. It's changed some since back then; you'll notice a few new names and ideas in this. there's more to come, and I need to knock my rambling background bullet points into some sort of coherent shape, but I just wanted to show this off, for better or worse.

A few of you may have read this already in earlier forms, and it may change again later, but for now, enjoy.

Even nineteen storeys below, people were startled by the violent shattering of safety glass. They might have been forgiven for thinking that a meteorite had suddenly hurtled out of the office window halfway up Australia Square. It sped through the air with barely a downward arc over four lanes of Friday night Sydney CBD traffic and through a fourteenth-storey window on the other side of George Street. Several desks, partitions and filing cabinets caved before its momentum until the object was arrested just as brutally by a concrete pillar.

It sucked in a deep breath laden with concrete dust and yelled in agony.

“Slam! Are you okay?” a voice said between its ears.

The 2.4 metre, red being tentatively moved protesting limbs. “No,” it gasped, “but I'm alive.”

“I heard o' budget flights, Slamdance, but next time front the readies for the wings, eh, bro? What happened?”

A grin rapidly melted into a grimace of pain as Slamdance staggered to his feet. “I'm also lucky that golem has a good pair of throwing arms.” He put his hands above his knees and took another shuddering breath, fighting to clear the pain and dizziness. “I could have – akhh – been smeared all over the pavement.”

“Yeah, I saw your human cannonball act from down 'ere. How'd you let it get that close?”

“It set a trap, Rev,” he said. “Used some people trying to get out as a distraction.”

“What the hell? Most golems don't think about more'n their job. Forget ambushes, man, that thing just got lucky.”

“I'd agree,” Slamdance replied, blinking to clear concrete dust and chipboard fragments out of his glowing blue eyes, and looked to the window he'd just arrived through. “Except those people were only trying to get out because the doors were barricaded shut.”

“You serious? Hostages?” the voice said. “What's a golem need hostages for?”

“As soon as my back stops arguing with me I'll go and ask it.”

“Yeah. Wait up... Lissen, bro, you're top of the chart on COP FM right now. Ain't long 'til TRS get all up in the house.”

A chill whent up Slamdance's spine. “Oh, no; that'll be a blood bath.”

Slamdance gasped as he jogged, then ran back toward the gaping hole in the window. A few paces from the ledge, he sprang, placed both feet on the very threshold like a long jumper, then leapt up and out – and the rocket nozzles that had unfurled like flowers from underneath the armour-skin on his back spat blue flame, hurling him back across George Street.

He was still gaining altitude when the exhausts on his right hand side suddenly flared and sputtered.

Damage from the fall,
he thought. Instead of back inside Australia Square, his new trajectory took Slamdance straight to the lip of the building where the bottom of the broken window met concrete flooring. Sparks whirled in Slamdance's vision as his breath was squeezed from his lungs – and then gravity began to pull him back out of the window again. He scrabbled frantically for purchase on the carpet, but to no avail. “Oh fuck! Slam! MIKE!” Rev yelled in his head-

A massive, metal claw wrapped itself about Slamdance's right arm. All three hundred kilos of him were yanked upward as if he were a rag doll.

What part of 'go away' do you not understand?” the golem roared, drawing its huge yellow-and-black-striped right arm back for a punch that would probably take Slamdance's head off. The voice between his ears was yelling frantic profanities.

Quick as a striking cobra, Slamdance pivoted on his right shoulder, ignoring the agony of torn muscles, driving both his feet into the golem's exposed flank. The golem yelled in pain and staggered backward into the dark office, off balance, right arm now flailing. Twisting his battered muscles yet further, Slamdance brought his left arm up and across. With a snap, a triad of blades sprung from Slamdance's forearm, fastening about his fist; he slashed them across the thick black hose running along the golem's left arm from its back. Hydraulic fluid spewed across Slamdance, but the golem's grip loosened and he dropped to the floor. In a flash, he was back on his feet in a fighting crouch, snapping another triangle of knives out of his right arm.

“You're a series four industrial work unit,” Slamdance said, eyeing the golem uncertainly. “You shouldn't be able to string a sentence together.”

“Definitely not bright, stating the bleeding obvious,” the golem replied.

“Yeah?” said the voice between Slamdance's ears, “A three-metre golem in a lifting suit breaking into a CBD office building ain't world-class dumb-arse?”

The golem struck out with its right arm. Slamdance swayed out of the way on his hips, jabbing out in return but scoring only a glancing blow. “Whatever you're doing here,” Slamdance said, “holding people won't help. Let them go.”

The industrial golem laughed, swinging out again; Slamdance had to vault backward over a work cubicle, which the golem demolished a split second later. “And have their police come storming up here with their guns? You are stupid, Slamdance. Yes, I know what they call you,” it said. “I don't just talk. I listen. I watch.”

Slamdance's surprise nearly cost him his head when the golem snapped off a right jab faster than its exoskeleton should have allowed. He let the momentum of his frantic dodge pivot him about his centre of gravity, turning it into a leaping kick that clanged into the metal rollcage protecting the golem's head, buckling it inward. He regained his feet and punched out again as the golem staggered to its right, retracting the blades on his right hand at the last instant and striking with his fist. It was enough to unbalance the golem even further, and with a desperate bellow it toppled over.

Slamdance hurdled the flailing yellow beast and ran, ignoring the pain each jolting step sent throughout most of his bruised, taxed body. Up ahead was the end of an access corridor leading to one of the fire stairs. The golem had fashioned a crude barricade by ripping the metal sliding doors out of one of the lifts (whose controls had been ripped out) and shoving them into the fire exit's alcove, over the door's release catch. That fact didn't stop a group of fearful people beating at it, begging to anyone who might have been listening to be let out.

Upon seeing the tall being with glowing eyes bearing down on them, the crowd panicked, crying and flattening themselves against the door. Slamdance quashed the urge to try and calm them down, let them know he wanted to help them; the golem would be back on its feet and pursuing any second. He pushed through the crowd to the door, took a firm grip on the bent metal and pulled.

Days before, Slamdance and Rev had decided to test Slamdance's strength. They discovered he could fairly comfortably bench press a four hundred kilogram Honda Valkyrie for several repetitions; if he pushed himself, he could even press the chassis of a car. At the time, of course, he hadn't just been mauled by over a ton of angry construction equipment. Muscles pushed beyond endurance yelled as he tried to pull the metal door away from the exit, but it only gave a few centimetres before its edges dug into the walls and stuck fast.

Slamdance took a few frantic breaths, then re-deployed the blades in his left arm and punched into the door. The metal shrieked but sheared, giving way above the exit's lock release. He pulled the ragged edges open, exposing the opposite panel of the lift door. Just a little more to go and -

“Filthy traitor!” the golem snarled. Its huge hand clamped about Slamdance's shoulder and he was yanked backward. The golem stepped backward, dragging him away from the door and the screaming people, then pivoted on its waist and threw him. Yet more office partitions shattered as Slamdance hurtled all the way across the office and into a wall. Plasterboard gave way and he found himself hanging into a cleaner's supply cupboard. Someone left this closet's door open, he thought, fighting to clear his vision of all the blotches and stars. Of all the strange things to notice when you're about to die.

“Slam, don't say that shit,” Rev spoke between his ears. “Get out if you gotta!”

Didn't realise I was thinking out loud, Slamdance thought.

The dull thump of heavy footfalls sounded behind him. “They work us beyond tolerance, they drive us into fury, they kill us with their police, they treat us worse than pets. We're just...” the golem searched for a word. “Toys. Played with until we break and chucked in the bin.” Its tread advanced across the office toward him, then stopped. Blearily, Slamdance looked up over his shoulder and beheld the golem, a welt swelling above its right optic, standing stock still in the middle of the wrecked office, looking away... into, of all places, the office's kitchen area.

“Not one of them cares for any of us,” it said, speaking quietly for the first time that night, turning back toward Slamdance. “And you... you help them,” it snarled. “You'll come after us, just like them, unless I stop you now.”

Slamdance got his hands up on the edge of the hole in the wall and pushed himself up and around as the golem began to advance again. “You'd...” he gasped. His legs gave way and he fell on his rear, facing the monster. “You'd go that far? Even you'd see... that as murder.”

“If you die now, you get to miss out on fury,” the golem said, resuming its lumbering stride toward him. “That's how you must have justified it, didn't you, all those times? Putting malfunctioning golems out of their miseryyyyeeeEEE!

Had Slamdance not seen it with his own eyes, he mightn't have believed it. A metal ladder snaked out from between a pair of desks right in front of the massive golem's feet while it talked. It trod down in exactly the wrong spot; whoever had pushed the ladder out lifted it slightly so that it hooked about the golem's ankle and then let it catch against another desk. Caught off balance, the golem toppled once again, falling straight on its face before his feet.

A young woman darted up from behind one of the desks, brandishing a large bottle of caustic cleaning chemical. Just as the golem got its arms under it, she unscrewed the lid and dumped the contents directly into the heat vents on the back of the golem's exoskeleton. There was a sizzling snap and a flash of sparks as the chemical ate into the hydraulic pumping gear. The golem roared again and flames sprang from its metal backpack; just as quickly, the woman raced to the wall, picked up a fire extinguisher and doused the golem as it cursed at her.

Dishevelled blonde locks tossed in the fitful emergency lighting as she looked over at Slamdance and smiled. “Looks like I saved your life, Slamdance! I guess we're even!”

He returned her smile, albeit bemusedly (and pained). “I don't keep a tally, Kaylee Stewart,” he wheezed.

“WHAT?” the voice in his head exploded, forcing him to wince. “Kaylee's up there? What's she doing there?”

“Shut up, Rev,” Slamdance growled, then winced again as Kaylee gasped.

“Shut up, my sweet cheeks,” the voice replied. “I'm comin' the fuck up there.” There was a click as Rev shut the radio connection off.

“Great,” Slamdance moaned. “See what you've done, Kaylee? Now I've got two of you to take care of.”

“You're in no fit state to take care of anyone,” Kaylee said, stepping gingerly past the golem and over to him, slipping an arm about his back. “Lemme give you a hand there.”

Slamdance gasped in pain as he tried to get to his feet. “Don't worry about me,” he wheezed, “I heal quickly. Anyway, what're you doing here?”

“As if you need to ask,” Kaylee replied, smirking as she supported his three hundred kilograms as best she could. “All good reporters scan the police band. A 'golem-related incident' call goes out, you're never far away. But now what do we do?”

Slamdance took a couple of tentative steps away from the golem, now cursing both of them with language that could have come from a barful of navvies, and inhaled deeply through his nose. “The only thing we do is getting those people away from the stairwell door. Once I clear the barricade, you get everyone to safety, yourself included.”

“Oh, now, that's a joke,” Kaylee replied as they staggered forward. “Let those twits in ties go, Tactical Response comes up the steps, bye-bye... well, bye-bye exclusive interview.”

Slamdance looked down at her, shocked. “You'd risk their lives just to talk to me?”

Kaylee snorted. “Risk? What, the fact that a five-foot-nine girl neutralised the golem that beat up big, bad Slamdance too much for your ego?”

There was a hiss and a loud metal clunk behind them, and the golem roared in triumph. Slamdance nodded and met Kaylee's eyes. “That's one of the safety interlocks on the golem's lifting frame, Kaylee. In less than three minutes it'll be free again.”

Kaylee's brown eyes flicked back over her shoulder, trying not to let the fear creeping across her face show.

“Even outside its frame, I'm not much good tying to stop it if I'm getting between it and you,” Slamdance continued. “Besides, a commendation for bravery will probably get your blog a few more hits and a bonus from the boss.”

Kaylee met his gaze. “And you?”

Slamdance looked back toward the office kitchen. “If I can figure out what it wants, then I hope it'll listen to reason.”

Kaylee snorted, but pulled him out of the office with a particular urgency. “Fine, then.”

The whimpering of the crowd turned to shrieks again as the two of them rounded the corner, but Kaylee's barked “Shut up, you wimps!” stunned them into silence. They eased around the pair as they lurched toward the twisted lift door. Slamdance pried more metal back, reached through the hole and pressed the emergency release lever on the stairwell's door. It obediently swung open, a three-foot rectangle of escape between the floor and the bottom edge of the lift door.

Slamdance staggered back and away, out into the waiting area for the lifts. He sagged against the wall as Kaylee started herding the uncertain crowd toward the exit. Quickly realised that escape was at hand, they barged along the short access corridor, ducked under the barricade and ran down the steps.

Kaylee saw the last out and turned to Slamdance. “Just don't get killed or anything, okay? 'Cause, y' know, I still want that exclusive!”

Slamdance shook his head and smiled as she left, then staggered back into the office.

“You stay away from there,” the monster growled as Slamdance stepped past it toward the kitchen. “They won't need their guns, I'll kill you myself!”

In the light from the kitchen's emergency exit sign, Slamdance made out a heavy fabric tarpaulin on the dining table. Something shivered within it. Its weight bowed the thick plastic table only slightly. Slamdance frowned as he hobbled over to it. Whatever it was, why put it in the kitchen? Maybe defensive reasons; there was only the one entrance. Yet industrial golems shouldn't have any instinct for combat. Yet still, industrial golems couldn't talk beyond responses and basic situational prompts.

Another thump, then another. The golem was halfway out of its powered exoskeleton, and it would be a handful of minutes before Kaylee and the civilians got to the ground floor and Tactical Response moved in. Slamdance needed an answer now. He reached for the tarp.

“NO, YOU MURDERING FUCK!” the golem shouted, its roar tinged now with desperation. “LEAVE HER ALONE!”

It was answered by a mewling cry from within the blanket.

Slamdance looked out at the golem, its eyes riveted on his reaching left hand – which, he realised suddenly, was still caged within his blades. He flexed his muscles, and with a pop they disappeared back into his arm. Slowly, over the golem's desperate cries, he pulled the blanket away.

In the scant few months since he first opened his eyes, Slamdance had always been surprised at how inventive people were with invective. He'd heard oaths against deities, messiahs, prophets, coitus, politicians, fecal matter and worse. Yet none of them came close to expressing his horror at what he beheld.

Slamdance's taxed strength left his legs and he collapsed back on the linoleum floor, his back fetching up against the wall. Precious seconds ticked by as he sat, staring dumbly at the bundle of trembling, whimpering thick cloth on the table.

His next conscious realisation was that he was already getting gingerly to his feet. Part of Slamdance noted that he was moving more easily than a bare minute ago – his repair systems were already hard at work.

He looked back at the golem. Its limited musculature left it virtually incapable of facial expression, but it seemed to be... pleading with its optics.

Slamdance stepped back through the kitchen entryway. The golem twitched away, but he knelt and started twisting the emergency release clasps, unfastening the rest of the exoskeleton. The golem stood warily, easing out of the dead framework of metal and plastic tubing, the emergency light catching the reflective safety markings in its yellow skin.

“I'll give you as much time as I can,” Slamdance said. “There's a young man on his way up here now. His name is Fred. Tell him Mike wants him to get you both back behind the curtain. He'll understand.”

The golem looked at him for a few seconds, then shrugged and nodded. They stepped past each other, the golem ducking as it went through the kitchen doorway. Slamdance's eyes adjusted to the darkness as he surveyed the office. Too cramped, too much cover. No escape routes barring the way he came back in, and his damaged jump system wasn't good for breaking his fall any more. He could climb, but the police likely had a twenty-millimetre cannon on a nearby rooftop already.

“What about you?” the golem called. Slamdance looked back over his shoulder; it was standing at the table, preparing to gingerly lift the bundle.

Slamdance returned its shrug. “Do you care?”

The golem looked away. It bent over the table, reached forward and -

The emergency exit light went out.

“What the hell?” the golem rumbled. Slamdance looked about him. Every independently-powered emergency light on the floor had suddenly stopped shining. The only light left was coming from the top floor of the office building on the other side of the road.

Click. “Slam?” The voice between his ears was back.

“Rev?” he replied. “What's going on?”

“Do you hear that?” the golem said.

“Fucked if I know, bro. I'm two floors down from you and all the lights went out.”

“Did you see Kaylee?”

“Nah, man. Musta went down the other stairs. But listen, somethin's odd's goin' down -”

“Someone's got a radio on somewhere,” the golem said. “Weird. It sounds...”

“Like singing,” Kaylee said.

Slamdance's head snapped around. The blonde woman was standing there in the corridor to the lifts, looking up, around, listening to something that kept eluding her.

“Rev, I really have to go,” he mumbled, turning toward her.

“Just lissen, man. Someone called the cops off.”

Slamdance froze. “What?”

“Yeah,” the golem said, stepping back out of the kitchen. “Like someone's singing this weird song that you can't quite...”

“Like it's just out of the corner of your ears,” Kaylee said, nodding, walking forward.

Slamdance shook his head. Isolate comm channel and process audio, he thought, and a subroutine began analysing the waveform input from his ears. Ambient (distant): Saturday night city noise; traffic, horns, sirens. Ambient (vicinity): Air conditioning under load, air movement (pressure differential at window), low-level electrical activity. Close: Respiration (golem, Kaylee), cardiovascular rhythm (Kaylee), modified cardiovascular rhythm (golem). No, the only voice he could hear was the one saying “- the barricade and TRS are back on the leash. This is really nuts, bro.”

Slamdance shook his head and stepped toward Kaylee – who suddenly gasped, eyes wide, fixed on something behind him.

He lunged forward, but something ferociously sharp bit into his calf, and there was an ear-splitting shearing and grinding noise behind him. He cried out in pain, struck the floor and rolled onto his back.

There in the midst of the office was a shadow that stood, a figure that absorbed light. Its outline hinted at a cloak and a hood, but the only thing he could make out was the shining silver sword in its hands; a sword whose tip was embedded in the concrete floor at the end of the deep gouge it had scored after slicing through his leg.

“You again,” Slamdance gasped.

With a careless flex of its shoulders, the shadow freed the sword from the concrete. In one smooth arc, the blade swung up, over and back down toward his throat.

Yes, there's more to come. It's just not quite finished yet. Stay tuned!