Monday, June 10, 2019

4HU: Alpha Contracts by Chris Kennedy and Mark Wandrey

Greetings, internet friends and neighbors! And thank you to my loyal family members who are striving to help me find fame, fortune, and a meaningful existence by reading this blog. Umm, let's just forget about the fame and fortune part, shall we?

I wasn't planning on this being a blog post. But when I got to the bottom of the second page in the book review, I realized NOBODY was going to read that, not even the authors, so in order to preserve what I had taken so long to write, I dumped it here. Now I have to go back and slash what follows to make it fit.
Here's the slashed Goodreads review; I've submitted the Amazon review, but it hasn't posted yet. When it does, I'll post the link in the comments.

Warning: the main text (which follows)  is 1247 words. That's only 1/10 of the words in"Nightfall," by Isaac Asimov, though, so I'm certain that a few of you loyalists will find your way clear to read it.

Okay: if you are running an ad blocker, you WON'T see this (it's a link to Amazon to buy the book):

I do not wish people WITH ad blockers (as I do) to suffer data denial, so here is a link for YOU, followed by a NON-LINKABLE picture of the cover.

The ORIGINAL Four Horsemen

First, a confession. (And yes, I DO seem to be doing a lot of those lately.) When I looked at the cover art, I thought, “What the heck is going on here? What in the WORLD can the artist have been thinking! That's the worst rendering of a fat Jim Cartwright possible!”

Sigh. I was half-way through Chapter 1 before I realized that, duh, ALPHA CONTRACTS!!!! This is the ORIGINAL Cartwright (also named Jim, though), and NOT the obese-shading-to-merely-rotund Cartwright of Cartwright's Cavaliers and the other mumble mumble books in the 4HU. And the original Cartwright wasn't operating with the same burdens (see what I did there?) that the most-recent Cartwright had to struggle under, hence wasn't a Tub-O-Lard.

The artist is right; I was wrong. On with the review!'

The primary focus is on the companies which became the Four Horsemen. However, the writers include small snippets from another company, the Avenging Angels, to remind us that 96 of the contracts ended in the extermination of the humans. It's a very well-done bit, and the method of the telling, which is correspondence with home, makes sure we know that it wasn't Companies who died; it was individual people, with hopes, dreams, and families.

Note: because the book deals with the main history of each of the companies separately, there is some repetition of scenes in which more than one company is involved. Feature, not a bug.

First, Cartwright's Cavaliers. Jim Cartwright is owner/operator of Cartwright's International, an independent contractor supplying security and transport in parts of the world where booms can ruin a perfectly good trip to the market. He has a number of significant employees, including Nina, a young woman of short stature who is highly proficient at making bad Enemies into good Enemies,  with the .50 BMG being her ammo of choice.
We discover that Cartwright combines a love of action with a first-class business mind, and that he has started and sold numerous highly profitable companies, all of them selecting resources that no one else thought existed. He MAY have some sort of built-in early warning system, because he gets uneasy just before the aliens land, and Earth's economy is wrecked. Prior experience serves him well; alone of all the potential mercs, he understands the value of research. Seeking such, and bearing gifts/bribes, he seeks counsel from the only military officer who has a clue about fighting aliens, Col. Kuru Shirazi of the soon-to-be-extinct Iranian Guard.
And I'm not following the story further, because spoilers. Just remember: Jim Cartwright may have some pre-cog, or his genius may be extrapolating from available data, and he is a firm believer in preparedness.

Next, Asbaran Solutions, seeking to carry on the tradition of the knights who lead the Sassanid army in the closing days of the Persian Empire. They are mostly drawn from the remaining units of the Iranian military, which has taken a SOUND beating as a result of the suicide bombing of the visiting aliens at the UN vote to adopt a global government. In response, the MinSha had turned most of Iran into slag, then raided much of what was left over for booty. In almost every case, Resistance WAS Futile, but there were a very few notable successes, hence Jim Cartwright's visit. Reading the signs, Col Kuru Shirazi led remnants away from the lethal entanglements of what was left of Iran, and also away from the jackals fighting over the corpse, and established New Persia, under civilian leadership.
This separation from the country now mostly consisting of radioactive glass solved a number of problems for those left alive, but for Shirazi, a principle benefit was that it would support the efforts of the merc group he established.
From his own experience, significantly clarified by his contact with Cartwright, Shirazi was convinced of the futility of force-on-force conflict with aliens. The few wins (which no one else had accomplished) had been achieved through tactics lumped under the term 'asymmetric warfare.' And that's the specialty Asbaran Solutions picked for their company.
Long enmity with ...(practically the rest of the world, but a few countries in particular) was a difficult obstacle to overcome, but Shirazi found he was able to unify others by their hatred of the MinSha, and by extrapolation, the entire Galactic Union. This was a solution devoutly to be desired by his comrades. Thus, from the beginning, his company was a Solution: to the problem of association with a dying, lethal country, and to the problem of the lost honor, stolen by the MinSha. It also made for a nice front for prospective clients: whatever your problem, we are the Solution.

The Winged Hussars. Lawrence Komalski was an information technology genius, and a person with great expectations. Specifically, he expected to inherit control of the family shipping business, while his less-competent cousin was sent out to pasture with some money to play with. Unexpectedly, at the reading of his grandfather's will, he discovered he had been outmaneuvered, and his cousin got the company. The beating his cousin also got, at Lawrence's hands, locked up in Warsaw's Rakowiecka Prison. (Note: this prison is REAL, and HIGHLY worth the time it will take you to google it. In fact, here's a link I followed.). His cousin runs the company into the ground, and springs Lawrence from the slammer to fix things. This Lawrence does.  One of his earliest changes allowed his merchant ship officers to receive military training, which turned out to be a critical choice.
No amount of beatings could introduce good sense to his cousin, who spent all of the resources on the company buying what he thought was a space-faring cargo ship; it turned out to be a worn-out warship.  He then compounded that error by signing a merc contract, to serve as an armed escort for an assault group. If the contract is fulfilled, it will redeem Komalski Shipping; failure will bankrupt it. And, the contract stipulates that Lawrence has to be a part of the crew.  The job goes badly. 
Look, you KNOW it HAS to work out in the end, right? Because Winged Hussars are part of the Four Horsemen? You MUST read this to find out how Lawrence pulls THAT off.

The Golden Horde. If ever I read in prior books in the series that the Golden Horde merc company emerged from a drug-smuggling background, I neglected to store that fact in memory. What I retained is that the leader, Madame Enkh, was ruthless, and that she had prescient dreams, and that the Horde traced their legacy to Mongol origins. And that family ties are very, very important.
Drug trafficking IS a high profit-margin business, but it's also a high-risk business as well. The cops can be bought off, in many cases, but the competition never stops. And the discovery that one of their competitors has access to alien hardware makes current business practices untenable for the Gray Wolves, the precursors to the Horde. Even worse, the casualties they suffer are family members, and it takes a LONG time to turn a zygote into a team member.

It's tough enough to get arms, but the disintegrating corpse of the former Soviet Union provides opportunities for scavengers, willing to take some risks. Where do you get subordinates who will be bonded like family, though?  There must be SOME way...

Thanks to those who took the time; comments are always nice.

Peace be on your household.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Little Old Man in Line

Greetings and blessings to you, internet friends and neighbors! And for all my kin folk out here, I love you, and you know that.

I wrote this six years ago this week. 
At the time, my 30-year-old first-born son was in Afghanistan. He had already received the wound that would force a medical discharge and 100% disability two years later, but he had yet to tell me about it. He was still trying to find a way to stay with his boys over there.

I wonder if that little old man is still with us? If he is, I'd like to assure him that we are still standing up for the same thing he did, now 75 years ago. We are keeping the faith, sir.

The little old man in line
He was a little old man, just like this one.

The little old man in line in front of me at the grocery store was bent over, and it took him a while to unload his shopping cart onto the conveyor. He shuffled forward, and greeted the cashier with a clear, pleasant voice. It took him a while to scan his credit card to pay for his groceries; then he had to retrieve his cane from the cart while the young lady (what do you call a female bagboy?) helped him move it to the door; it was a slow process. The cashier looked at me with some embarrassment; she had seen me watching him, and I read her mind: she was afraid I was put out over the little old man's slow movements. 
She rang up my few items, and I leaned over to her, and said, "I'll bet you any amount of money you want that he's a WWII veteran." She gave me a puzzled look; I said "Didn't you see the way he was standing?" She probably didn't see it, but I did. Even with the trembling and the cane, the little old man had seen service. "His generation saved our generation," I told her.
Her voice broke. For the first time, I realized she had an Eastern European accent. She said, "They come in here all the time, and I never know what to say to them." 
"It's a debt we will never be able to repay," I said.
I hobbled out to the parking lot. Even with my own limp and cane, I caught up with the little old man and his helper before we reached the parking lot.
"Excuse me, sir, but I have to ask you where you were 69 years ago."
He gave me a funny look. What the heck is this gray haired, bearded pony-tailed cripple asking me? He started to answer. "well, let's see, I'm..."
He was going to tell me how old he was, and figure it out from there. I stopped him.
"June, 1944."
He smiled, and looked at me full in the face. "In the Navy."
"I knew it," I said. "I could tell by the way you stand."
"Well, I used to stand a lot taller..."
"You stand just fine, sir. Thank you for your service. Your generation saved my generation, and we won't ever be able to pay you back. We're doing our part, though; my oldest son is in Afghanistan now, and I was in the 582 Med Company." 
"Good for you, young man" the old sailor replied, with a trace of moisture in his eyes, and a bit of a quiver in his voice.
"Thank you, sir, and thank you again for your service."
"And thank you as well," he said.

And I hobbled off to my truck, and he shuffled off to his Buick; and I looked at the young lady who was helping him with his groceries. Her eyes were glowing, and she studied the little old man as if she had never seen a man before in her life.

And maybe she hadn't REALLY seen one before; but she will remember this day, and I will; and so will the little old man, and hopefully he will tell someone he loves that we haven't forgotten him and all those other boys who saved civilization.

Peace be on your household.

Monday, June 3, 2019

"In the Year King Uzziah Died..."

Greetings, internet friends and neighbors, and a big hidey-ho to those family members left upright and on the right side of the daisies. And to everybody else: you start by banging the rocks together, then go from there.

Isaiah 6:1 begins "In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord..." The verses continue with the details of his vision, and if you are at all familiar with contemporary Christian music, you'll recognize the verses as the inspiration for multiple songs and choruses.

"The Prophet Isaiah," Marc Chagall

I'm not gonna talk about that.

Instead, I'm gonna talk, a bit, about how you go about seeing the Lord when you have had your guts kicked out.

To do that, I've got to talk a bit about King Uzziah.

He started out GREAT! And he was only 16 when he ascended to the throne. His name means "The LORD is my strength," and that's the way he ruled.

At first.

And for a long time: his rule totaled 52 years.
And he really did great things for Israel. I'm not gonna detail them here, but if you want to go to the primary source, check out the books of I Kings (Chapter 15) and II Chronicles (Chapter 26). It is said that his rule was second only to Jehoshaphat, since the time of Solomon, David's son and the third king.

Somehow, though, despite his military and scientific advances, and his fame and prosperity, it just wasn't enough for him. He decided he was going to do the ONE thing that was forbidden to him: he was going to burn incense on the altar of God.

Nope. BIG nope. The right incense had to be offered in the right way by the right people, or A Very Bad Thing happened, and that was the truth even from the beginning. Aaron, Moses' brother, was the first priest, and his sons with him, and when they offered the wrong incense, THEY wound up being burned.

You think a king would know better!

But, he didn't; and when he tried, even over the objection of the priests, he got struck with leprosy.

And then he lived, in isolation, for 11 more years.

And the people? Devastated, no doubt. Here was this INCREDIBLE, gifted king, one who was so famous that they knew about him way over in Egypt; a guy you could BRAG about! ...and then he is disobedient, and is cursed as a leper. Maybe, the people would have been better off if he had just died on the spot; on the other hand, he probably had a good bit of teaching he needed to pass along to the next king.

So, after having a king rotting away in a room by himself for eleven years, he dies, and his grave is even separated from those of the other kings.

And THAT'S when Isaiah saw the LORD.

How do you manage to see the LORD when you are at your lowest point? WHY are you seeing the LORD when you are that low? And what else can we learn from this passage?

1. How? Well, the how is a little bit simple. You do it the way you always have done it. This WASN'T the first contact Isaiah had with the LORD, for certain! You want to see the Lord when you are in despair? Start looking for Him immediately! Start looking for Him when you are a child; teach your children how to find God. Let it become a regular part of your life. Then, when you are on the floor, and you can't lift a finger, you breathe out, "Lord, help."And my own experience is that He answers.

2. WHY? Why would God choose to reveal Himself at this moment, in this way? Don't know. But, I expect that one reason is because that's when we need the sign. Signs are good things to have, when we are lost.

3. What else can we learn? How about this one: Don't trust in kings. They will ABSOLUTELY let you down. Not just talking about kings, either; talking about ANY leaders. Sooner or later, if you place all of your confidence in a human, you are going to have that confidence betrayed. I feel so sorry for all those who have determined to invest their resources in support of a political figure. Even if they win, they are going to lose. The principle never fails, because the person always does; and, even if that failure is not readily apparent, their time in power will pass, and someone else will be in control.

At this moment, there are people that I care for who are in pain. Just a month ago, my older sister lost her husband. Just a year ago, my younger sister lost hers. And just last week, a woman I respect and admire had her husband pass away unexpectedly. Others are struggling with different issues, but there are a LOT of people out there who are experiencing some of the same things that the prophet did, in the year that King Uzziah died.

My prayer for all of them, and for the rest of us as well: I hope that you see the Lord.

Peace be on your household.