Who is Northwest Smith?

Northwest Smith is an entirely fictional character, whose stories and observations are the figments of his creator's imagination. Those stories which do not advocate a particular point of view in a vehement manner (see RANTS! section for those) are listed below.

From the Desk of N.W. Smith

07/06/05: The following tale was inspired by the image at the end of the story, an artist's conception of a planet circling the star mentioned in the story.

Smith didn't like getting this close to a star.

Even with a sputtering M-Class red-dwarf like Glieses 876, a diving swing to within two million miles from the churning photosphere made him tense. The heat and radiation were bad enough, though the shielding on the Wealth of Shanara seemed to be able to handle it. It was the color of the star that was unsettling: even filtered by the starboard sensor arrays, it was like a drop of fresh blood on black silk.

Smith flipped the view forward, trying to spot their destination. "Where in Hell is this place?" he asked.

The merchant had four arms, flattop computers in two hands and styli poised in the chubby fingers of the other two. Smith couldn't tell if the extra limbs were natural, or something the man had bought to help him count his money.

"Where in Hell indeed," he replied, not bothering to look up from the flattops, but sparing one hand to punch a button in the navigation panel. A green targetting reticule sprang up over a orange-red dot near the left-hand side of the screen.

Smith watched intently as the navigation computer threw the planet's orbital data and his own flight-path onto the main screen.

"By the Three Dead Gods!" he muttered. "How fast is that bastard going?"

"Orbits the star every two days," the merchant said, still absorbed in his flattops.

Smith punched the insertion manuever into the nav' 'puter. "No wonder we're taking this death spiral in." He had to admit it was a slick solution: their speed would match the planet's centrifugal plunge around the dying star just as they entered the world's shadow. A short, fierce burn of the main engine, and they'd drop into a close orbit that would give them thirty minutes in the planet's shade to dump their excess heat for every forty-five minutes under Gliese's punishing glare.

But that wouldn't happen for at least an hour, and the merchant seemed to enjoy being anti-social. Smith checked the on-board database for more information about their destination, only to find there wasn't much in the world-registration file for Gliese-876 I beyond one striking fact.

"It has an atmosphere?" he exclaimed. "With extensive water-vapor and cloud-cover?!"

"Indeed," said the merchant, scratching a smooth jowl with one of the styli.

"But it's barely two million miles from the primary!"

"It's surface gravity is nearly four-times Earth normal."

"But it's orbitting a red-dwarf! When Gliese went nova, it should have flashed the whole world to dust, or at least scrubbed it down to the core.

"One theory is it did the latter." The merchant found something on one of the flattops that wasn't to his likely, scratched it first with one stylus and then another, smiling when the slim computer chimed. "Gliese I was probably a "dirty" gas-giant, and what's left is the metal core, covered in the ash of star-death, and bombarded for over four billion years with enough comets and left-over gases from the nova to establish an atmosphere that's almost breathable . . ."

"If it wasn't 300 degrees on the surface . . ."

The merchant made a rude noise. "That's just on the dark side. High noon sun-side averages more than twice that at the equator."

"And there're surface colonies?"

"Several. About 100,000 population. Official figures, that is. My estimates place the actual number closer to twice that, if you include space stations like micro-gravity factories in polar orbit make propulsion-grade anti-matter for the Patrol." The merchant looked over at the nav''puter's display. "Be sure our approach is well clear of any of their platforms: being the Patrol, they tend to shoot first and forego questions entirely."

Smith drew his blaster and pressed the snout against the merchant's left temple. "The Patrol is here?" he said quietly.

The merchant raised his left eyebrow, looked over casually.

"Mr. Smith. Please. The bounty on your head wouldn't cover the cost of my personal hygiene products for a year."

Smith managed to feel relieved and insulted at the same time. He hosltered the blaster anyway.

Except for the scratch of the styli and the soft tones of the flat-tops, the remainder of the approach was in silence. Gleise I's AI traffic controllers and the Wealth of Shanara's guidance computer traded time-lagged binary code. Only when the ship's engines ceased firing and they were securely in low-orbit did the merchant speak again.

"Come to the main view-port," he said, slipping one of the flat-tops into the pocket of his Alderberon silk robe, and rising to his feet.

It was an expensive one, ultra-high resolution, taller than Smith and three-times wider than it was tall. As they approached, the merchant tapped his remaining flat-top, and the screen filled with the world below. Moments later, plantetary statistics sprang up at the four corners of the display, in Earth Standard, High Venusian, Space Binary, and a language with a character set that Smith didn't recognize.

"Quite beautiful," sighed the merchant. "Don't you think?"

They were crossing over the day/night terminator. On the sun side, fully a half of the surface was blocked by roiling cloud cover, and Smith spotted three cyclonic storms whose winds must have easily topped 400 miles per hour. The clouds were tinted a sickly pink by the red-dwarf's intense but dying light, while the surface underneath was various shades of dirty, crumbling brick. He spotted what looked like lakes or small seas, but realized they were sprawling pools of molten metal and rock. On the night side these glowed like cooling steel, and he spotted what were clearly rivers of lava running between them and dozens of volcanos large enough to swallow cities. He could clearly make out the cloud cover on the dark-side: where it wasn't the color of dark blood from catching the light of the lava's fire, it shimmered in nearly every color of the rainbow from continent-spanning discharges of chain-lightning that came every few seconds.

"People live down there?" Smith murmured. "It looks like Hell."

"Close," the merchant said, returning his attention to his flattops. "Damnation."

06/29/05: A friend of mine plays the Lottery every day; nothing too hardcore, usually a dollar play on the Pick-3, and a dollar down on one of those Powerball things once or twice a week. He says he does it in lieu of spending money on beer other things that he can no longer do for health reasons. The other day, he asked me why I don't play the lottery, and I told him I just don't gamble.

"Why's that?" he says.

So I explain to him that, on a practical level, he should just throw that money into a FDIC protected savings account, where you'll always be able to get back your deposits and earn some interest on top of that. In comparison, given the odds most of these legal numbers games work under, you'd be lucky if you get back half the money you throw down that particular bunny hole -- hell, the illegal policy have better pay-offs than the state-run ones.

But I confessed there was another, darker reason I don't gamble.

When it comes to gambling, I'm as cursed as Larry Talbot.

I'm quite serious about this. Back in the day, my Dad use to take my Mom for a night out at the horse races at a classy track near where we lived, and each drop a two dollar bet on whatever horse struck their respective fancies.

It's not just that my Dad never picked a single winner.

On two occassions, when betting on trotters, my Dad's horse broke stride coming down the home stretch, and was disqualified.

On another occassion, his horse broke an ankle on the final turn, and had to be destroyed.

And one time, the horse he picked actually dropped DEAD during the race. Right on the track.

How do I know I carry this curse? Let me give you the most recent example.

Being from New England originally, I'm a bit of a Red Sox fan. But I had no illusions they were ever going to win another World Series. So last year, when they were down 3-0 to the Yankees, I turned to M'Lady and said: ""I'll bet you $10 the Sox get skunked. Even if they don't get skunked, I'll bet you $50 they still lose to the Yanks. And even if they manage to dig out and go on to the World Series, I'll bet you $100 they still lose to the Cardinals."

Of course, the Red Sox won the next seven games straight without breaking a sweat. I paid M'Lady her money; I'm just thankful the plane carrying the Cardinals back to St. Louis for Game 3 of the Series didn't crash into the Mississippi.

Which is why I don't buy a lottery ticket: the moment I do, it'll turn out the guy running Power-Ball had embezzled all the funds and fled the jurisdiction.

06/26/05: 60 years ago today, June 26th, 1945, my father was serving in World War II as a flight engineer on a B-29 "Super Fortress" flying out of Tinian in the Mariannas Islands in the Pacific Theatre. Of all the jobs on a B-29 in combat, my Dad insisted that the flight engineer was the most useless: sitting in front of a board full of dials, switches, and indicators that monitored the plane's various electronic and mechanical functions, "All I could do was change fuses, trigger fire extinguishers at my own station, and tell everybody when it was time to bail out" (see left for the "view" from his position). On the ground, though, he had his work cut out for him, as the plane required extensive maintenance between flights. But production of the B-29s had picked up considerable, to the point where, if a repair required more than 24 man-hours, it was simpler and faster to take one of the new planes arriving from the States and prep it for flight, and that included repainting squadron emblems, numbering, and nose-art on the outside of the new aircraft. Much of that preperation was to increase the flight range and bomb loads of the B-29, and involved the removal of onboard eminities like an oven and coffee-maker, and sometimes even some of the plane's anti-aircraft guns!

This may be shocking, particularly if you, like me, grew up on all those documentaries, TV shows and movies where B-17 crews in Europe fired .50 caliber machine-guns with crazed desperation at incoming Luftwaffe fighters, while the plane rattled and jinked from the concussions of ground-based anti-aircraft fire. But the Pacific Theatre was a very different place for strategic bombers like the B-29s. By the time the Super Fortresses began to systematically hammer Japanese cities in the last year of the War, AA fire was both sparse and poorly aimed. Dad said the safest place to be in any formation was up-front, as the Japanese gunners fired directly at the foremost planes without "leading" them, resulting in the anti-aircraft shells bursting at the tail-end of formations. And however formidable Japanese fighters may have been at the start of the war, by 1945 they were technologically inferior, and their best pilots were either dead or assigned to the Navy and Army in the field. Those that did ascend to face the "B-sans", as Japanese civilians called the bombers, found themselves caught in the cross-hairs of the first on-board computer-assisted anti-aircraft system: instead of five or six guys firing at whatever target popped into their vision by muscling their heavymachine-guns into position, one or two gunners in motorized blisters aimed their guns, and either half or all of the remaining guns on the plane turned and fired in unison, throwing up a devastating wall of flack.

So by June 26th of 1945, the least of my Father's worries were any actions take by the enemy. Even with the bombers flying well under 10,000 feet to increase the accuracy of their bombing runs, they were more likely to go down due to mechanical failure or the enormous weight of the bomb and fuel loads with which they lumbered into the air. On Tinian, the airstrips were designed for lift-off from the edge of a cliff, into the prevailing winds and over a bay, to give the planes as much help as possible getting airborne . . . and a relatively safe place to "ditch" when they couldn't. On that particular day, everything went smoothly: his plane had clawed its way to altitude and everything seemed to be running smoothly. Their target was a A/C factory; it was a daylight raid, cloud cover was minimal, the plant was located at a very distinct bend in a river to make it easy to spot from the air; if there was any AA fire from the ground, my Father never saw any of the tell-tale puffs of dirty smoke that were it's calling cards. It was shaping up to be a classic "milk run": fly out, drop your bombs, and head back to Tinian.

And then the kamikaze tried to ram my Dad's B-29.

The topside gunner spotted the suicide plane, literally flying out of the sun, the fighter's guns blazing, though it was clear his intent was to ram: at that altitude, coming in at that angle and that speed, the Japanese pilot couldn't pull out of that dive without his plane disintegrating around him. The B-29's pilot managed to jink out of the way at the last moment, but the kamikaze's machine guns raked across my Dad's side of the plane. Metal and glass flew, and Dad's engineering station began to billow smoke and flame. Without hesitation, he hit the fire-extinguishers, and flapped his hands to disperse the smoke so he could see if any of his guages and meters were still in working condition.

The pilot called on the intercom for everyone to report. So intent had my Dad been to see what the condition of his station was in, it was only then that he noticed the redness on his left hand. He tracked down his arm, and saw his entire left-hand side was soaked in blood.

"I've been hit . . ." he managed to say, and then passed out.

Hours later, somewhere on the long return flight to Tinian, my Father regained consciousness briefly: he was laying flat on his back, bandages all along his abdomen and chest. He said something to one of the gunners, who was the in-flight medic, and the guy said something back, but then the morphine kicked in. The next thing my Dad knew, he was in a hospital bed in Tinian, recovering from an operation that had removed several feet of badly perforated lower intestine and most of the pieces from that Japanese bullet (the hysterionics of M.A.S.H. aside, combat surgeons in those days were not obsessed with getting every bit of bullet out of a soldier's body, just the ones that were imbedded in vital organs: Dad lived more than forty years with enough scrapnel in him to set off airport metal detectors). Once he was stable enough, he was flown to Hawaii for more treatment, then to San Francisco for his final weeks of recuperation. He had dropped from a wirey 165 pounds to a skeletal 110, and had become addicted to morphine. He quit cold-turkey in what he called "one of the more interesting periods of my life", as the army switched him to the recently invented Acetaminophen to deal with the lingering pain of his wound. His experiences at that time probably explained why he had a poor opinion of Tylenol as an analgesic until the day he died.

Long before Dad fully recovered from his wounds, World War II ended . . . and he finally found out what those guys in the 509th Composite Group--who never participated in any of the bombing missions and kept to themselves at the far end of Tinian--had been up to. Between his time without leave overseas, plus recuperative leave-time, he remained on the Army Air-Force payroll until well into 1947. He met my mother shortly after he was de-commissioned, married her six-weeks later, and my oldest brother was born just about nine-months after that, the first of four kids my parents contributed to the Baby Boom generation. Along the way, my father took advantage of the G.I. Bill to become a Certified Public Accountant, and buy every house we lived in for the next 35 years at outrageously low interest rates ("The thanks of a Greatful Nation!", as he called it).

It was that CPA degree, though, that ultimately led him to become the C.F.O. of a commercial bank holding company, where in the late 1970's he found himself in New York City, one of about two dozen such financial potentates being "pitched" to by a company looking for investment capital to create a high-tech automobile factory in Japan. The lead presenter was a Japanese gentleman in his early-forties, a man who spoke perfect English and had the enthusiasm of a Babbitt-esque booster. The project was in his home-town, and among his visual aids was an aerial view of the proposed site, both as it then stood and how it would look after the factory was built. The site of both pictures gave my Dad a feeling of deja vu: something about the way the river curved around the site looked familiar . . .

After the presentation was over, my Father walked up to the pictures for a closer look. And that's when it hit him, though he probably wouldn't have mentioned it to anyone if the Japanese gentleman hadn't walked up to him at that moment to ask if he had any questions.

"This site," Dad said, "Didn't there use to be an airplane factory there?"

The Japanese gentleman looked surprised, and smiled. "It was," he said, "many years ago. But it was destroyed during the War."

"I'm afraid," my Father said, "that I was one of the guys who bombed the hell out of it back then."

"And most of the surrounding neighborhood," replied the Japanese man. "My parents sent me to live with relatives in the country afterwards."

Today, people consider it a terrible and deliberate act when a single, straying American bomb accidentally kills a dozen civilians in Iraq. My Father participated in carpet-bombing raids that routinely racked up civilian casualty rates to rival Hiroshima or Nagazaki. Dad seldom questioned the necessity of what he did during World War II. But he had no illusions about the morality of it, either.

"I'm sorry," he said.

But the Japanese man still smiled. "It was long ago. And frankly, for a young boy of ten, it was an exciting and wonderful time. That's the paradox of war, you know: die, and it is a terrible tragedy; survive, and it becomes the greatest of adventures."

06/18/05: This . . . is . . . soooooo . . .
It's a real giant robot. That works: no dangling wires, no supporting super-structure that has to be digitized out of the film post-production, no CGI! It even has GUNS (Okay, they're compressed-air things that fire rubber-balls, but DAMN)!!!! Click the image if you don't believe me, it'll take you to the website where they have .WMV movies of the thing in action!

I can't wait until my daughters call me for Father's Day: they've promised to buy me a real giant robot ever since they made my Christmas a couple of years back by giving me a copy of MechWarrior 3. Long before Robotech got big, I thought it would be cool as hell to stomp around on a futuristic battlefield in 20 meters of fearsome iron-mongery, firing off missiles and hurling photonic death, or hosing down some other lumbering slab of metal with a blast of chain-gun bullets the size of a baby's fist. MechWarrior3 was the closest thing I'd got to actually doing it outside of my imagination in nearly 30 years. From that Christmas on, and on my birthdays and Father's Day, the girls always apologize for not getting me what I really wanted, and I do a quick improv routine, looking the brute up and down with a wide-eyed smile all over my face, say " This . . . is . . . soooooo . . .


. . . then clamber up the side into the control cab, power up the b*st*rd, grab the controls, get that bad-boy rollin', accidentally crush a car parked along the sidewalk ("OOOPS! Sorry!"), then go tooling around the neighborhood until the cops pull me over and M'Lady walks up and starts chewing my ass out for being a natural born fool, and wondering aloud why she ever gave me so much as a first date let alone let me be the father of her children . . .

Ahhh. The dream is just that much closer . . .

06/16/05: Pac-Man is twenty-five years old.

I clicked on the article at CNN, and when I saw the graphic to the right, I got hit with a big dose of nostalgia.

Back in 1980 when I was still in college, I was never much of a penny-arcade junkie. But I always enjoyed hanging out at the "game room" in the Student Center, either with friends or just to kill some time between classes or before doing a shift at the school's radio station. I remember the day they got their first Pac-Man machine in, it was the Friday of "road trip" weekend that semester, when most of the frat-boys on campus went on barbarian raids of the "Seven Sister" women's colleges in the area. Anandale was always quiet on those days, with non-Greeks usually going home or riding the Wolverine down to New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, or D.C. for the weekend. So I pretty much had the game-room to myself, something of a novelty on a late Friday afternoon, and was probably one of the first people to play the new Pac-Man machine.

In truth, I wasn't that impressed: I dutifully blew a dollar's worth of quarters, set the high score (the last time I'd do that on Pac-Man), got my name and score put up on the High-Score board by the room attendant, and walked over to play my favorite video-game at the time, Sea Wolf II. THAT I usually held the record on, but my arch-rival at the game had squeaked out a couple of hundred points more than I had a few days before, and it was time to re-assert my champion's status.

Sea Wolf II was pretty basic by today's standards: little video ships would cross along various horizontal lines towards the top of the screen, while you fired torpedoes at them more or less along the verticle, sighting through a periscope with a trigger-button in the handle. You had to "lead" the ships with your shots: if you sank them, you got points based on their size and speed. PT Boats, Aircraft Carriers, and Submarines got you the most points, though Subs varied depending on how submerged they were when you hit them: nail the conning tower, and it was 2000 points. The other trick was to string together as many hits as possible without a miss: nail at least four in a row, and you'd double the point total of the string you'd sunk. You only had about 60 seconds of play time for a quarter, but for every 10,000 points scored you'd get an extra 20 or 30 seconds of game-play.

I could get 30,000 points on Sea Wolf II easy, but the new record was just shy of 40,000. It took me a half a roll of quarters, but thanks to some dumb luck (I nailed two submarines conning towers in a string and a couple of frisky PT Boots while shooting at easier targets), I finally set the new high-score at well over 42,000. Flush with victory, I turned to beckon to the room attendant . . .

And there she was, playing pin-ball.

She was in the same graduating class as me. I knew her to look at her, not even a friend of a friend situation. She was majoring in theatre arts, a fine actress (she'd eventual do Shakespeare with Denzel Washington, be in the original off-Broadway run of Little Shop of Horrors and has been in various Law and Order episodes so much they should make her a recurring character) and dancer. She had the body for the latter: tall, slim but supple, and had a positively magnificent, stand-right-up-and-salute rump. She was standing there with her back to me, wearing a long-sleave t-shirt, four-inch high-heel sandals, and painted-on blue-jeans. And every-time she wanted to give a little "english" to that pin-ball machine, she swung her tightly-wrapped bottom to one side or another . . .

It was a religous experience. I'd still be staring in that direction today if the game-room attendant hadn't have yelled at me to come over and sign the High-Score book.

06/11/05:Well, Dah 'Burgh has reached Summer, a couple of weeks early. After a successful holding action that kept daytime temps in the 60's for a good 10 days, we've now had nearly two weeks where the day-time highs have been in the 80's, with the humidity ranging from comfortable to damn steamy.

When I first moved here back in 1981, it wasn't unusual for the really hot and muggy weather to hold-off until well into July: summer of '84 or '85, if I remember right, we didn't have anything like a heat-wave until early August, and a handful of days before that, it was down into the 40's at night, and the 50's were fairly common as well. But as global warming has kicked in, I started judging the "seasons" in Dah 'Burgh based on the number of showers I had to take in the course of a single day.

Usually, from October 1st until May 1st, I seldom need to take more than one shower a day, at least if I wasn't doing any manual labor or heavy work-outs. From May 1st until sometime in late June or early July, and then through most of September, I've got to take two showers: one in the morning before work and the other at night before going to bed (I can't go to work or bed feeling crusty, you know what I mean?). Once July gets a head of steam and through August, I have to take three showers a day: morning, when I get home from work, and then before bed (this might be cured with some air-conditioning in the house, but I'll be damned if I run up my electric bill: my parents had central air at their home in Florida, where you needed it going 24/7 from late February until early December, and it was 75 percent of their monthly utility payments). A couple of years back when it was in the 90's for something like 41 days running, I actually took FOUR showers a day: I'd get up at 3 in the morning and take a shower, too!

I can't tell what this summer is going to be like: but I went nuts with a batch of coupons and stocked up on Irish Spring soap . . .