September 2011

By all accounts, Charles Balm was a lifelong student of film. He moved to California at 16, leaving behind his native Kentucky to stay with relatives and enroll in a community college at graduation with hopes of transferring to USC. “USC wasn’t really interested in someone like me,” he remarked during a 2004 interview. “I didn’t have family connections or money, my grades in every subject except English and Programming were mediocre, and I contributed exactly zero to campus diversity.”

Balm was able to gain admission to California State, but found his ambitions difficult to realize in the hypercompetitive film program. While waiting during the summer of 2002 for word from a studio internship program, Balm began dabbling with animation and posted a short film featuring Greeble, a loudmouthed and outspoken aardvark, and his dimwitted yet good-hearted roommate Josh. The first “Greeble and Josh” web cartoons attracted a small audience to Balm’s student web space, but after a change in format that solicited videos from fans (with Greeble and Josh adding commentary and performing interstitial skits) the site took off.

In less than a year, “Greeble and Josh” had its own domain and had broken into the Alexa top 100. The cartoons remained ad-free, but Balm’s graphic designer girlfriend created merchandise that was widely sold online and at independent book and comic stores. “It was a runaway success,” Balm noted in a 2005 appearance on KCAL, “I’ve won a few Webbys, which has made it tough for even USC to ignore me.” “Greeble and Josh” merchandise appeared on Iraqi bases, in orbit, and even a 30-minute TV special which aired in 2006. That special, and the Nintendo game that followed, represented the high water mark of “Greeble and Josh.”

On January 17, 2007, Charles Balm released his last “Greeble and Josh” cartoon. A message went up a few months later that the site was going on a short hiatus; no further updates were ever released. Fans keep a mirror of the site online, and “Greeble and Josh” merchandise quickly became collector’s items after the domain name for the site store lapsed in 2009. When a crew from KSCI tracked him down in the fall of 2009, a visibly relaxed Balm claimed that he had a film project in the works, and that he was enrolled in the USC film school under an alias. “‘Greeble and Josh’ was a means to an end, and it’s in my past,” he said.

Fans speculate that the “C. B. Smithy” credited as writer and director of the 2010 film “Love’s Last Gasp,” was actually Charles Balm. The film was barely released in theaters and prints have become difficult to find; the distributors refuse to comment on the identity of C. B. Smithy, other than to confirm that the film did not break even and led to a substantial loss for all parties involved.


During the Crisis of the Third Century, when 25 emperors ruled in a span of 50 years, the only qualifications for the purple seemed to be legions and the money to pay them. Such was the case with Caesar Marcus Aurelius Illyrius Augustus, better known to his contemporaries as simply Illyrius, who ruled the Empire from 280-283.

Illyrius came to power in the typical way, by bribing Emperor Probus’ men to assassinate him. A cavalry commander, he was from a long line of Dalmatian nobility who claimed ancestry from the mythical Illyrius spoken of in the myths.

As such, Illyrius began an ambitious program to emulate his idol, Augustus, by simultaneously consolidating power and burnishing the facade of a constitutional ruler advised by the Senate. Senators saw their number and pay increased; coins showed Illyrius in simple Senaate robes, and thousands were put to death for the new crime of seditionem imperium against the princeps.

The most curious thing about Illyrius was his fate: despite being arguably no better or no worse than his predecessors, when he was assassinated by Carus in August 283 the Senate took the unprecedented step of declaring that it was the Emperor Probus who had been killed, implying that he had reigned uninterrupted. This particularly insidious form of damnatio memoriae ensured that Illyrius was left off most lists of Emperors even to this day.

When Carus died of a lightning strike less than a year into his reign, some felt it divine retribution.

The lowest rank in the Vyaeh military is that of Initiate, signified by teal combat armor. Initiates are expected to prove themselves in battle virtually unprotected before advancing to the next rank. As such, their battle armor provides virtually no protection or vacuum survivability. The ceremonial halberd weapon they carry is a modern variation on a tradition Vyaeh symbol of martial prowess, and is effective as a club, delivering a powerful electric shock.

Once a Vyaeh Initiate has proved themselves in melee battle with a foe, they are granted the magenta armor of an Adept. Providing significantly more protection than Initate armor, Adept armor is also powered, allowing the warriors to put more force into each blow. Once an Adept has proven themselves with this improved protection, they may move to the next rank.

After fighting in close quarters as an Adept, Vyaeh soldiers may become Journeymen and are granted access to improved weaponry. Their halberd, while apparently identical to an Initiate’s, is actually capable of firing energy projectiles not unlike the discharge from a fission pulse. Journeymen are granted no additional protection; they simply exchange the magenta armor of an Adept for yellow.

For most Vyaeh warriors, the rank of full Warrior, signified by azure armor, is the last step toward reassignment in another arm of the military and access to better equipment. The armor they wear is comparable to that of armored troops in ballistics protection, though it still offers no vacuum capability. Their staff, like that of the Journeyman, can fire projectiles, but is configured to fire multiple shots at once, with a reduced cooldown time between shots. Once they have proven themselves as Warriors, Vyaeh are often reassigned as Assault Troopers, officer candidates, or Hunter-Killers in training.

Some Warriors so distinguish themselves in their craft that they are asked to remain Warriors rather than accept promotion. These Honored Warriors gain special titles and privileges, and serve as leaders and guides to large formations of less experienced troops. Their armor is lovingly handcrafted to serve as the ultimate protection against enemy fire, and their halberds can fire faster, further, and more accurately than most weapons on the Vyaeh arsenal.

Quantum Marmoset
Mustempus peregrinationis

This relative of the common marmoset lives its life in a nonlinear fashion. To the observer they appear to fade in and out at random intervals during their 8-10 year lifespan, but from the perspective of the marmoset it is living its life in a straight line with surroundings that randomly jump about. Exceedingly rare, as the likelihood of any two marmosets of breeding age in the same area at the same time is vanishingly small.

“Natives in Brazil’s Rio Grande do Norte state will try and lasso a quantum marmoset when they find one. If done correctly, they will be taken with during the next nonlinear tree swing. Tradition holds that if the passenger goes back in time and prevents themselves from lassoing the marmoset, the universe will cease to exist.” – Dr. Phineas Phable

Hammer’s Space Wallaby
Malleuspatium desultor

Named after Hammer’s Space, the ranch where it was discovered in Australia’s Northern Territories, the Hammer’s Space wallaby differs from ordinary wallabies in that its pouch has infinite capacity through a link to an interdimensional space. The wallaby will often store items that strike its fancy in its infinite pouch, and will throw them at pursuers or competing wallabies. Joeys enter the pouch from the interdimensional space; the exact method by which the wallabies reproduce is unknown but of extreme interest to particle physicists.

“The pouch is too small to fit a human, but settlers have been known to go ‘wallaby fishing’ by catching a Hammer’s Space wallaby and pulling items from its pouch; occasionally valuable items like gold and jewels are found. One witness describes a Hammer’s Space wallaby evading pursuers by throwing a wooden mallet, an airplane propeller, the left wheel of a 1930 Holden sedan, and a human tibia at them.” – Dr. Phineas Phable

Sigh Bat
Vespertilio suspiransugere

The sigh bat is related to the vampire bat, but unlike its more famous relative it subsists on the sighs of the brokenhearted rather than blood. It has evolved a number of abilities that allow it to generate brokenhearted sighs in generally happy times, from mimicking human voices and penmanship to excreting a compound that resembles lipstick that they smear on collars and napkins.

“If for all your indiscretions
a sigh bat ye’ve blamed
Beware that thru ye inhibitions
a sigh bat ye’ve not gain’d.” – Traditional

The easy chumminess of the Web 2.0 social media Millenial me generation world had utterly spoiled Blake. She was used to learning the bare minimum of personal information about someone, looking them up online, and learning everything from their taste in music to their relationship status to shoe size.

That’s why Renny (or was it Rennie?) in the loading dock was such a pain.

Blake saw him every few days when they brought in a new shipment. They chatted, though it was mostly Blake talking and trying not to get caught admiring the finer parts of Renny (René?)’s anatomy. Lad was chiseled.

His first name and the fact that he was a student at SMU should have been enough, but to Blake’s frustration Renny (Ranie?) seemed to be the only person in the world without a Facebook profile, a Twitter feed, or even a MySpace. No iteration of his name came up with any (male) hits in the campus directory, and Blake was too shy (or was that intimidated? God, those abs) to ask him directly. She even tried pumping the accounts receivable manager for information only to have the thing blow up in her face.

Estaban appeared in the subtle way people appear in dreams: one moment he wasn’t there, had never been there, could never be there.

The next, he was and had always been.

“You can’t fool me, Esteban,” Jan whispered, fighting whatever sorcerous glamor suffused the area. “I know what will happen if I shatter the crystal, if I read the spell.”

“Yes, you do.” His hands were on her shoulders now, a gentle caress. “You’ll have the power that you’ve always dreamed of, from your first days in that Latónian gutter to your appearance at court mere weeks ago. The power to reshape the world, to remake it in your own image–a more compassionate, more just image.”

Even as the rational part of her mind cried out that Esteban was employing his most powerful sorcery, Jan felt her instincts move in the opposite direction. Esteban was a snake, a traitor…but even treacherous serpents could be right once in a while.

The soldiers had merely gone home for a few hours–they were all conscripts from the village of Sualize in the Ardennes, which was only a short distance from the front lines. Not only that, they had left the line on November 13, two days after the armistice which had ended the shooting war.

Nevertheless, the French Army arrested each of the seven men as soon as they could be tracked down, and they were sentenced to execution by firing squad by a military tribunal. The order was personally countersigned by Marshal Foch. With mutinies throughout the German armed forces, and unrest and agitation throughout the soldier, sailors, and workers of the Continent, the marshal probably hoped to forestall any similar actions by his own troops with a firm show of force.

The action backfired. By November 20, demonstrations had been organized in Paris and provincial centers demanding the release of the “Sualize Seven.” Their cause became fashionable among French and British socialists, especially in the face of the continuing compromises and disappointments coming out of Versailles. For a time, it looked like the men might be spared, but events in Russia, Hungary, and elsewhere eventually overtook the demonstrators.

With events of world-changing importance afoot all over the globe, interest in the Seven waned. Eventually, three men were picked at random as “ringleaders” and executed, with the other four sentences to long prison terms. Two of them were imprisoned long enough to see the swastika flying over their prison yards in 1940.

We called ourselves ‘Supprimerlesens,’ which was a bit of an in-joke. Pierre, the lead developer, liked to say that video games subsumed and deleted the senses, so we slapped together the French phrase ‘supprimer le sens’ with no spaces.

It was a very innovative game, and a special processor in the arcade board allowed it to do amazing things with vector graphics…scaling and motion unlike anything else at the time, and more vectors on the screen at once than even dedicated vector systems. We combined it with a series of sophisticated, high-resolution sprites that formed the title, backgrounds, and some gameplay elements. It was all very abstract and geometrical, which is why we called it ‘Pythagoras.’

Of course we were our own testers at first. Everything was going well, and we had a working mocked-up arcade cabinet with schematics for mass-production and several interested arcade companies. Then we brought in outside testers from a local university. One of them had a grand mal epileptic seizure after just a few moments of gameplay. All those flashing lights and spinning colors…

The testers who weren’t susceptible to seizures loved the game, so we modified it and removed the backgrounds. We thought that was enough, but within a month the testers began suffering from a variety of neurological side-effects. Amnesia, insomnia, nightmares, night terrors…even a suicide. That should have been the end of things, but the French DGSE signals intelligence unit learned of this and bought us out. We produced a limited run of 10-12 machines, which were each modified by the DGSE before being distributed to ‘test markets’ in the United States.

Washington State, Maine, Montana, the upper peninsula of Michigan…we were told that the DGSE was going to iron out the bugs while using the game cabinets as dead drops for field agents. We beleived them, or told ourselves that we did…we were young, and ambitious, remember. The first murder-suicides put an end to all that.

“It’s not the same book. Not even close.” Maya said. “What were you thinking?”

“It was awful,” Arthur blurted. “They brought it to me…a great book, they said, a bestseller by a Thai author just waiting for an international audience. But the book was terrible. Half of it was untranslatable, laced with popular idiom and depending on cultural factors for relevance…something American readers wouldn’t understand!”

“That’s no reason to rewrite Mr. Hangpa’s book.”

“It’s every reason,” Arthur snarled. “I never could get published, you know. Never could make it or get anyone interested. But with that book…someone else’s name, the skeleton of their plot…”

“T. T. Viol,” Max read. “1780.”

“Sounds like an Italian name or something,” Carlson said. “You sure the parchment’s authentic to the Revolutionary War?”

“Near as I can tell,” Max said. “I’d have to cut it up to be sure.”

“Can you make out anything else?”

Max squinted and moved the paper around more under the ultraviolet light. “There’s a list of some kind. I see the phrase ‘port of’ here, and I think this is ‘rope’ or ‘barrel.'”

“Ship’s manifest,” Carlson said. “Signed by the captain or quartermaster.”

“Could be,” Max allowed, “but if what Nesbith told you was true, that trunk has been in her family for generations. And I’m sure you know that in 1780 this was all wilderness, with no port for a hundred miles in any direction!”

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