Site Traffic Update (July 2010)

Back in February 2009, I posted a brief summary of tannerhelland.com traffic for the last five months of 2008.  I also mentioned a few goals related to traffic, including my hope that the number of unique visitors would double between 2008 and 2009.

I’m finally getting around to posting a follow-up, so for those interested – here’s how tannerhelland.com traffic has grown over the last 18 months.

Tanner Helland (dot) Com visitor and unique visitor counts, by quarter

Two interesting trends stand out to me:

  • First, I am excited about the steady growth of visitors.  (Note that this chart shows human visits – bots aren’t included.)
  • Less exciting (to me) is an ongoing decrease in the site’s unique visitor / total visitor ratio.  In the 1st and 2nd quarters of 2009, the number of visits per visitor hovered between 2.5 and 2.6, implying that most site visitors returned at least once or twice.  In the 1st and 2nd quarters of 2010, this ratio has dropped to less than 1.4 – implying that the majority of visitors only visit once.  While this isn’t inherently bad – especially considering that most of tannerhelland.com’s traffic is search-generated – it could certainly be better with some work on my part.

Another interesting metric is the site’s ratio of visits and pageviews:

Tanner Helland (dot) Com visitors and pageviews, by quarter

As you can see, the average tannerhelland.com visitor looks at quite a few pages on a given visit.  The pages/visitor ratio hasn’t changed significantly over time (it peaked at 5.2 in 4th Q ’09 and is currently 4.8), possibly because the site hosts a number of multi-part articles.

Next comes a chart for pageviews and hits.  Hits represent any file pulled from the site – so a single page could easily represent multiple hits once all the images, stylesheets, and accompanying .js files are counted:

Tanner Helland (dot) Com pageviews and hits, by quarter

My hits/page ratio has grown over time (from 4.8 last winter to 6.6 this spring), thanks in part to the addition of more icons and images to most of my posts.  I’d like to work this number back down as part of an increased emphasis on site optimization, which should benefit those of you browsing the site from mobile devices or (gasp!) still stuck on dial-up.

Finally, here’s how much bandwidth the site has served up over the last 18 months:

Tanner Helland (dot) Com bandwidth, by quarter

I try to keep the bandwidth down whenever possible (particularly when it comes to images), but some growth is an inevitable side-effect of more visitors and more content.  I hope it doesn’t skyrocket too much when I make FLAC versions of my music available for download… ;)

Before ending this article, I wanted to share some fun site stats for the year ending 2009:

  • The busiest day of the week for visitors was Friday, but the busiest day for bandwidth (e.g. music and code downloads) was Sunday.
  • Visitors came from 167 different countries.  The top five countries were United States, Great Britain, Canada, Russia, and France.
  • Average time per visit was 4 minutes 46 seconds.
  • In 2009, roughly 16 .zip files, 6 mp3s, and 3 midis were downloaded daily from the site.  So far in 2010, those numbers have increased to 26 .zip files, 31 mp3s, and 4 midis a day.  (People prefer mp3s to midis?  Who knew!  :p)
  • In 2009, my most popular article was “The Only Feature Ubuntu 10.04 Needs” – 23,416 views in total.
  • 55.5% of my visitors used Windows, 34.4% used Linux, and 6.2% used Macs.  I had 1 hit – just one – from an OS/2 machine.  300 hits came from Wiis.
  • 55.8% of my visitors used Firefox.  Another 19.9% used IE, 7.8% used Chrome, 3.7% used Opera, and 3.6% used Safari.

To all who visit the site – I hope you find something you like!  If you have any suggestions for improving the site or its content, please let me know.

TEAL: Chapter 13

Teal is available as a free CC-licensed science fiction novel. You can read more about the project here.


Click here to download this chapter as a PDF (113kb)


It took the better part of an hour and several confusing bus transfers, but eventually we arrived at the hospital. I helped Eddie up the front stairs and the receptionist at the front desk gave each of us directions.

I asked Eddie if he’d be okay; he just shrugged and hobbled down the hallway. His goal was to have a doctor look at his ankle, but he didn’t know if they could do anything without his parents around. “It’s still worth a try,” he had said.

I went the opposite way, taking the elevator up to dad’s new room on the second floor. I wondered when he had been moved – and if his move was related to the gunfight at his old room.

I couldn’t believe how nervous I was to face him. I had no reason to be scared – and I knew I would feel better once everything was out in the open – but something about openly discussing all this Zargansk crap made me feel uneasy.

I just hoped dad would be willing to talk. The last thing I needed to hear was another round of “sorry, but we can’t discuss that.”

I exited the elevator and, after several turns, found myself outside my father’s room. The butterflies in my stomach had been fluttering the entire way up; now they were going wild.

But there was no getting away from what needed to be done. I gritted my teeth and slowly pushed the door open.

Dad appeared to be sharing the room with another person. Both of them looked asleep. Thankfully.

I breathed out a sigh of relief and pulled a chair over to the side of dad’s bed.

For several minutes, I couldn’t help but stare at my old man. He didn’t look well. His cheeks looked sunken and new wrinkles had sprouted around his eyes and the corners of this mouth. His hair looked thinner and his skin had an odd, translucent look to it. All this, combined with the soft hum of the overhead lights and a strong antiseptic smell, made me feel a tad nauseated. This wasn’t going to be easy.

I thought for a moment about when dad would have checked into the hospital. Exactly two weeks ago he had claimed to leave town on an overseas business trip; I wondered if he had actually made it out of town before his symptoms set in. Mom didn’t find out about him checking into the hospital until last Friday night, so where had dad been between the previous Monday and last Friday? Had he been involved with the agents that now pursued us?

That explanation was better than some of the ones I had considered on the way up. I hoped my dad was a hero.

My throat involuntarily tightened, but this was no time to be getting sentimental. I would find a way to make him better. There had to be a way.

But first things first. I had to tell dad about the green explosions, the crazy janitor, mom disappearing, and the Zargansk.

Only…I really didn’t know what to say about that last one. Eddie still hadn’t told me anything about them.

And as for the crazy janitor, well – we still had no idea who he really was. I didn’t even know where he had gone. He had called it “Orionis,” but that didn’t sound familiar. Maybe that was a code name for something else…?

And oh yeah – then there was the Cronus guy we were supposed to find. Should I tell dad about that?

I felt completely overwhelmed. The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous my story sounded. No way would it be good for dad’s health if I told him a bunch of big men in black suits were actively pursuing his family. Maybe coming here had been a stupid idea after all.

Just then, dad stirred.

I stiffened. I wasn’t ready to talk…yet.

I watched him for several moments and swore I saw his eyes open, but after another minute passed it seemed like he had fallen back asleep.

So I took a deep breath, then began recounting the story of my weekend. I had described the various events so many times to so many people that I had the chronology down pat. I told dad everything, starting first with the Friday morning explosions and eventually ending with my bus trip to the hospital. More than once I got so excited that I stuttered and tripped over my words, and more than once my throat tightened up.

Thankfully, I managed to make it to the end without a single tear. Dad would’ve been proud.

“Well,” I said after finishing my sordid tale. “There it is. That’s how my weekend went. How was yours?”

I grinned in spite of myself, and it almost looked like a slight smile formed at the edges of dad’s lips.

“So what am I supposed to do now? Eddie has a gimp ankle, I’m broke, and I have no idea who Cronus is. Everything seems hopeless.”

Suddenly dad cleared his throat and whispered, “I can’t fix your friend’s ankle and I don’t have much money, but I think I can help you find Cronus.”

My jaw dropped. Literally.

“Dad! Have you been awake this whole time? And what do you mean you can help me find Cronus?”

He coughed and weakly held up his hand.

“Quiet, Teal! The janitor told you to keep this information secret.”

I shut my still-open mouth and sat back down.

“I can’t believe you were–”

“Shh. This won’t take long.”

I looked sharply at my old man.

“What’s that supposed to mean? You’re not dying here, dad. No way.”

He sputtered out a combination of coughing and laughter.

“No, I’m not dying yet. But I probably won’t live past the end of next week without an antidote.”

“An antidote? So you have been poisoned!”

“Teal! Quiet!”

I realized I was standing again.

“Sorry, dad. I just–”

He held up a hand.

“It’s okay. Now please listen carefully to me.”

I nodded.

“I know about the Zargansk, Teal. I also know about your janitor friend, and I know where he has gone.”

“What?! How can you possibly–”

“Let me finish!”

“Sorry.”

He smiled weakly.

“What do you know of the Zargansk? Anything?”

“Pretty much nothing,” I said, shaking my head. “The janitor was just about to explain the connection between the Zargansk and Genetitech when that earthquake hit. He never got a chance to finish.”

Dad let out a heavy sigh.

“Oh, son. I wish I were well. I have so much to tell you – so much I never should have kept from you kids. But now’s not the time. You have to get going. You have an important mission ahead of you.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Dad, I–”

“Quiet!”

He cough-laughed again.

“You’re just like your mother, always interrupting with some kind of question.”

If dad thought we were bad, he should spend some time around Eddie. Now there was a person who asked too many questions, especially at times he shouldn’t.

“Listen to me carefully, Teal: the janitor was absolutely right. Genetitech was just a front for the Zargansk and Augustus Beck. Beck had a deal with the Zargansk – in return for curing his poisoning, he would act as a horrible scientist for them, carrying out tests on humans that Zargansk laws prohibited actual Zargansk from doing.”

“Humans? But what are the Zargansk…?”

“The Zargansk are an alien race. One–”

“They WHAT?!”

The other patient in the room suddenly coughed and rolled over. We paused until his snoring resumed.

“Son – yell again and we’re done.”

“Look, I’m sorry,” I whispered. “But aliens? Seriously? Dad, c’mon!”

“Do you really think I’m making this up? Think about everything you’ve seen. How else would you explain it?”

“I, it’s just, there’s no, you can’t possibly…”

“Teal, enough. Now is not the time for arguing. Do you want answers or not?”

“I’d love more answers.”

“Then keep it down and stop interrupting. The Zargansk – whether you like it or not – are an alien race. I swear it. To make a long story short, one of their spaceships found Earth thousands of years ago while traveling on a scientific journey through the galaxy. Ever since then, they have been keeping constant watch over us.”

Dad coughed again and motioned for a glass of water on the table beside him. I handed it to him, then thought better of it and slowly helped him drink.

“Thanks.”

He wheezed again and I offered another drink. He shook his head, so I took one instead.

“The Zargansk have always been afraid of us, Teal. They have always feared that someday we would grow strong and become a threat to their race.

“To prevent that from ever happening, they employed hundreds of humans to act as their ambassadors. These ambassadors were to keep the aliens constantly informed of what we, the humans, were up to.”

I couldn’t believe this. Humans serving aliens? Ridiculous. Dad had to be on some trippy new medicine.

“Dad please, this is–”

“Quiet. These human ambassadors were more than just passive observers. They were a failsafe. If the Zargansk ever decided us humans were becoming too strong, they would force their human ambassadors to murder, or steal, or do whatever was necessary to keep mankind from reaching its full potential.

“Your janitor friend was one of these ambassadors. So was Augustus Beck, before he turned. I was also an ambassador.”

I spit water all over myself.

“You WHAT?”

“An ambassador to the Zargansk, Teal. It was terrible. But I escaped, and now I fear I am paying an even more terrible price.”

“But dad, how could–”

“Listen to me. The Zargansk gave all of us – including me, Augustus, your janitor friend – a poison when we began our service. We had no idea. We also didn’t know why every time we reported to the Zargansk, they would make us drink a special concoction before reporting to them. We didn’t realize it at the time, but they kept giving us those drinks as antidotes – antidotes that kept the poison inside us from spreading. When I escaped from service to the Zargansk, I no longer had access to those antidotes, and this is the result.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was like some kind of dream – no, like some kind of nightmare. Everything in my life had officially become a horrible, unbelievable nightmare.

Aliens.

He had to be joking.

“Teal, if what you told me is true and Phenx said that Project Earth is being terminated, then the Zargansk may already be coming to destroy us. We don’t have much time.”

He sighed heavily before muttering, “Kepik was right. We should have moved sooner…”

I didn’t know what that meant. Maybe dad’s medicine had officially taken over his mind.

“Dad, I think you need to rest. You’re starting to sound–”

“No. There’s more I need to tell you.”

I didn’t know how to respond. Dad continued, but his voice was getting weaker. I had to strain to catch all of his whispers.

“I escaped service to the Zargansk exactly two weeks ago – the night before I left on my ‘trip.’ The purpose of my trip was to track down as many of these human ambassadors as possible before someone like Augustus Beck got to them. Each time I found one I would beg him to join our rebellion against the Zargansk. I think I found most the ambassadors, but it’s impossible to know how many will actually join us in our fight against the aliens.

“We agreed on a date – ironically enough, today – when all the ambassadors on our side would secretly close their portalgates. That’s why the janitor needed you down there with him. If he wanted to go into the portalgate after his family, he would have been unable to close it behind him. He needed someone to stay behind and close his portalgate. You played a key role in our plan to delay the Zargansk, Teal! You still have the remeter – the gate-closer? It looks like a small silver pole.”

I nodded. The silver rod was still in my back pocket. Every time I sat down I remembered it.

“This is great news! It means the ambassadors have been following my plan! We might actually have a chance at beating the Zargansk!”

Dad coughed again, and this time it took awhile to subside. I was worried a nurse would overhear and make me leave. I warned him of this.

“You’re right. Let me hurry – I only have a little more to say.

“First, you need to go home.

“When you get there, go to my bedroom. Under your mother’s side of the bed you’ll find an unmarked steel box. The key to its lock is beneath our TV. Find the key and open the box, then take everything inside it – along with any other supplies you can gather – then go back to the alien tunnels at your school. I need you to reopen the portalgate and follow the janitor to Orionis.”

I stared at my father in total disbelief. Was this really happening?

“Don’t talk to anyone about this, Teal – especially your mother. She’d kill me if she knew I was telling you this.”

“Dad, mom’s gone.”

“I know. She’s somewhere safe for now – and she’s very sorry about leaving you behind, but she was ambushed and there was no choice. She’ll be ecstatic to know you’re okay…which is all the more reason not to let her know about this, if you catch my drift.”

I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.

“Good. I’d go myself, but as you can see I’m in no position to leave. But I will try to keep the HIRCs distracted.”

“HIRCs?”

“Augustus Beck’s creations, or the men that have been hunting us.”

Ah, them. The agents.

“What does HIRC mean?”

“It’s a long story. I’m sure you’ll find out eventually.”

“Er, okay. So let me get this straight – you want me to go home, grab a strange box and some supplies, then travel through a portalgate to some planet called Orionis?”

Dad nodded as if this were a totally reasonable request. I started to protest–

…but then it hit me.

This is what I wanted. This is what I had hoped for. This was my mission – the mission mom didn’t want me to have.

This was my chance to save my father…and maybe the rest of my family too.

This was my revenge against them – against the HIRCs.

Thinking could wait.

“Okay, dad. I have no idea what’s going on, but I’ll do it.”

The way my old man smiled at me, I would have done anything he asked.

“Thank you, Teal. You…you’re my only hope. In fact, you may be the only hope for all of us.”

I didn’t like the sound of that.

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t ask. And Teal – I want you to know that I believe in you. You might only be fifteen, but look at how much you’ve done already.”

I couldn’t help but smile. Dad reached over and placed a trembling hand on my leg.

“And this may be obvious, but I need to say it. If I don’t get an antidote soon, I’m going to die.”

I began arguing but was swiftly silenced.

“It’s true. No sense denying it. Without an antidote to this Zargansk poison, I will die. So listen to me, Teal – I know more about the HIRCs, Augustus Beck, and the Zargansk than anyone else on earth. On top of that, I’ve become the de facto leader of our rebellion against them. Without me and what I know, I’m worried that when the Zargansk do attack we won’t have a chance against them.”

He sighed heavily.

“If there was any way to keep you out of this, I would use it. But I have nothing. You meeting that janitor – well, read the gold note in my box. Then you’ll understand what I mean.”

Dad coughed again. He didn’t look well.

“Dad, I–”

He waved his hand as he tried to control the coughing. It took longer than ever for it to stop.

“Teal, you need to go. Time is running out. Take Eddie – if he’s willing – and go to the Zargansk world of Orionis. Once you arrive, use the remeter inside my box at home to close the portalgate behind you. The remeter you have right now only works on Earth. Do you understand?”

No, but I nodded anyway. Dad looked worse than ever.

“Once you’ve passed through the portalgate, try to find a Zargansk doctor. His name is Kepik Arist. He is my friend, and he will help you find an antidote.”

I nodded again.

“Dad…are you okay?”

He shook his head. I’d never seen him so miserable.

“No, I’m not. I don’t have much time left.”

My eyes began to tear up, and I knew that this time I wouldn’t be able to stop them.

“I won’t let you down, dad. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

He smiled weakly.

“I know, son. I know.”

“…I love you, dad.”

But he didn’t respond. It looked like he was sleeping again. I wiped the tears from my eyes and turned to leave, when suddenly I remembered that I had one last very important question for him – maybe the most important question of all.

“Wait! Dad, what about Cronus? The janitor told me to find him! Where is he?”

My father stirred and weakly opened one eye.

Then he quietly whispered, “Teal, don’t you see?”

My eyes went wide.

He smiled, then closed his eyes again.

I spent another minute just staring at my father. I wondered if the janitor had known this would happen. Eddie was never going to believe it. I barely believed it.

I had actually found the mysterious Cronus, just hours after the janitor had told us to. I had found him completely on accident.

Cronus was my weak, poisoned father. He was lying quietly in a local hospital bed, tired and frail and frighteningly close to death.

I wiped the tears from my eyes as I walked silently to the door. I found that, for the first time in a long time, my mind was surprisingly clear. In fact, I had but one thought on my mind: a single, powerful, overwhelming thought.

I would find a way to save my dad.

No matter what.


Next Chapter (Chapter 14) >>

<< Previous Chapter (Chapter 12)


TEAL: Chapter 12

Teal is available as a free CC-licensed science fiction novel. You can read more about the project here.


Click here to download this chapter as a PDF (104kb)


CHAPTER 12

I don’t know that anyone knew the lone boy’s real name. At his request, everyone called him “Niche.” Even the teachers.

Niche seemed to be a nice enough guy. He never got into fights, never caused trouble – but if you met him in a dark alley you’d probably crap yourself. He was actually an exchange student from…well, I don’t know where. His voice was really deep and he spoke with a harsh accent, making him always sound angry. Thing is, he never really smiled or frowned or had any expression but a look of total indifference.

On top of that, he never associated with anyone unless they first engaged him. He was always polite – almost too polite – and more than one girl had pointed out that with a haircut he’d be very good-looking.

I wasn’t so sure. Today he wore his usual outfit: baggy camouflage pants, heavy black boots, and a black denim vest over a t-shirt with “Animal Mother” written in bold letters across the front. The only part of the outfit that ever varied was the t-shirt; everything else was pretty much the same regardless of the occasion or the weather.

So what does this all have to do with my desperate need for a distraction? Not much, except in reference to a conversation between Eddie and I on our first week of high school. We were eating in the lunchroom when Eddie suddenly pointed at Niche.

“See that kid?” he had said.

“Yeah. Niche, right?”

“Yep. If you ever need an answer to an impossible question, talk to that kid. There’s way more to him than meets the eye.”

At this Eddie had began humming the Transformers theme as he resumed eating. I didn’t have any idea what he meant and the topic had never come up again. I never found out why he’d said this or what he meant by it.

But I was in a bind – a bad one – and I needed help from wherever I could get it. I just hoped Eddie’s advice was good.

I slowed as I approached Niche’s tall, stoic form. He didn’t move except to turn to the next page of his book. I could just make out the title; it said US Army Survival Manual.

That worried me somewhat.

“Uh…hey, Niche.”

“Hello Teal,” he replied, his gaze never leaving the book.

How did he know my name? We’d never talked before.

“Hi. Um, I have a strange question for you.”

Niche folded down a corner of his current page and closed the book. He slowly raised himself from against the tree and turned to face me. I couldn’t help but tense.

But Niche simply looked at me, apparently waiting for more information.

“Uh, someone once told me that if I ever had an impossible question, you’d be able to help.”

He almost smiled.

“I don’t know about that.”

“Heh, yeah, it’s kinda weird… Anyway, I need to create a distraction.”

Wow. That sounded even dumber than I expected.

“A distraction? Why?”

“See those guys in suits? The ones by the row of black cars?”

Niche glanced sideways. He examined the agents for a moment before nodding.

“Those guys have a friend of mine in their custody, only he hasn’t done anything wrong.”

“Then why do they have him?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because he’s with me.”

Niche paused.

“Then instead of creating a distraction, perhaps you should simply turn yourself in. That could be the best way to free your friend.”

“It’s not that easy, Niche. It’s…well, it’s complicated.”

“Who do the agents represent?”

Man, his voice was deep. He sounded like a Russian James Earl Jones.

“They won’t say, but I don’t think they’re police, FBI, or CIA.”

Niche nodded.

“They do not work for the government. They must represent a private interest.”

He glanced at me, then shook his head.

“Sorry Teal, but it’s not in my best interest to get involved.”

He opened his book and resumed reading.

“Niche, buddy – I know it sounds crazy, but I really need some help. Can you help me or not?”

He didn’t look up from his book.

“I can think of more ways to create a distraction than you can probably imagine, Teal. But I have no reason to help someone who withholds information from me.”

The grating buzz of the fire alarms suddenly ceased.

I was running out of time.

“Niche! I’d give you more information if I had it, but I just don’t know what’s going on! I think these guys work for the Zargansk and they’re after me for reasons I don’t understand.”

He didn’t move.

“But Eddie – he’s innocent! He hasn’t done–”

“Eddie? Eddie Singh?”

“Yes, Eddie Singh! We gotta help him! Please!”

Students were starting to file back into the school. Time was up.

Niche suddenly placed a massive hand on my shoulder.

“I’m helping because this makes Eddie and I even. Don’t expect charity from me, Teal. If you want my help again you’ll have to pay for it.”

“Okay. Whatever! But we gotta act now!”

A car door slammed shut. Niche and I glanced sideways to find the agents climbing into their vehicles.

Were we too late?

“Stay here and act surprised,” he muttered as he sprinted back toward the school.

Act surprised? No problem. Every part of the last three days had been surprising. Surprise was my trademark expression.

Niche darted between thinning throngs of students like a snake, and faster than I could’ve imagined, he was back inside the school.

Exactly seven seconds later the fire alarms started back up. Niche was good.

I smiled as bunches of grumbling students trudged back outside.

Suddenly I heard the roar of a starting engine. I glanced over to find one of the black sedans – not the one with Eddie in it – backing out of its parking spot. Two spaces down, Eddie’s silhouette appeared to be banging on the back window of another sedan.

Argh. Niche or no Niche, I needed to get Eddie out. Time was officially out.

I took off at a sprint as I tried to formulate some kind of plan for freeing my trapped friend without getting both of us captured or shot. Nothing came to mind, but the next black sedan had just started its engine. That meant Eddie’s was next.

Niche suddenly emerged from the front doors of the school. He ran to the flagpole, placed something at its base, then ran back inside.

I slowed down, wondering what had just happened.

The final black sedan started its engine.

A sudden BOOM exploded from the base of the school’s flagpole. Kids screamed and sprinted in all directions as the pole began to topple.

The brake lights flickered on all three black sedans.

As the screaming escalated, the flagpole fell outward, gaining momentum as it dropped. I’m not sure of its total length, but it was taller than our two-story school, making it at least twenty feet high.

Students plowed into me and I had to fight to keep from getting run over.

Then I realized where the pole was falling.

Niche was a genius after all.

The gigantic metal beam smashed through the front windshield of the middle black sedan. Its tip crunched through the roof, popping metal and shattering plastic and glass as it turned the general shape of the car into a V. The horn blared, the airbags deployed, and the pole didn’t stop until it nearly touched the ground.

The car was decimated.

The driver and passenger of both Eddie’s car and the undamaged car jumped out. Two ran toward the school, weapons drawn, while the other two ran to the damaged car.

Now was my chance.

I ran past fleeing classmates in a direct line for the last black sedan. Once I reached it I slowed down, ducked, then crawled to the street side of the car.

I quietly opened the back door and beckoned Eddie out.

“Teal! Dude! Am I glad to see you! These stupid doors have no handles on the inside, so if you hadn’t come I–”

“No time to talk,” I interrupted. “Let’s get outta here.”

Eddie climbed out and I quietly closed the door behind him. The two agents trying to move the pole off the damaged car were making steady progress, but at least they hadn’t noticed us.

I quickly considered our options. Eddie and I wouldn’t have much time to make our escape, and I wasn’t even sure where to go. The only idea I could settle on was to try and get lost in the now-huge group of students running from the school.

We scurried away from the car and into a nearby group of running teenagers. I led the way as we made a wide berth around the school and started moving toward the back fence. Eddie loudly questioned this decision but I ignored him. He should just be glad he wasn’t still in the back of a black sedan.

A sudden boom erupted behind us. We looked back to find the two agents from Eddie’s car blasting away at the pole with – you guessed it – green laser guns. They were trying to split the pole into smaller sections so they could remove it from the mutilated car.

I sped up. Those agents weren’t gonna be happy when they realized Eddie had escaped, and I was starting to wonder if they might finally decide to use those green blasts on us.

Once we reached the back side of the school, we stopped jogging and started sprinting for the fence at the edge of the schoolyard. If I remembered things correctly, our destination would be just past the large, weed-filled field on the other side of the fence. With a bit of luck, Eddie and I could reach it before the agents noticed he was gone.

I just prayed other men in suits wouldn’t be there waiting for us.

My legs were starting to hurt, but that didn’t stop me from pouring on the speed as we sprinted toward the fence. I reached it at a full run and somehow managed to gracefully leap onto and over the top of it.

Eddie tried to jump over behind me but somehow he missed; all I heard was a crash and a curse, and I turned around to find him on the ground in a painful heap.

“Eddie, c’mon! Those agents are gonna see us!”

He grunted and tried to stand up.

“Dude, my ankle is killing. I think I broke it.”

I fought the urge to panic.

“It’s not broken. C’mon! We gotta go!”

Eddie tried to lift himself over the fence, but his leg collapsed beneath him.

“I can’t, man. I can’t make it. Go on without me. I’ll stall them. Go find Cronus.”

I shook my head as I backed up from the fence.

“No way. I’m not leaving you here.”

In one fluid motion I leaped toward the fence, grabbed the top of it, and flipped myself back over. My heart thumped and my mind raced, but I only had one thought: Eddie and I had to get out of there, and we had to do it fast. By now, the agents almost certainly knew were missing.

I pulled Eddie up and half-lifted, half-shoved him onto the top of the fence. He teetered dangerously before falling to the other side. It sounded painful.

I lined up for another running start, then leaped back over the fence. My legs were tired and this time I scraped my hands as I flopped to the other side.

Eddie moaned and held his ankle as I watched the school grounds through gaps in the fence. I didn’t see any agents yet, but it wouldn’t take them long to pinpoint the possible places Eddie and I could have gone.

I reached down and lifted my injured friend to his feet. Eddie grimaced, but he threw an arm around my shoulders as we hobbled across the field.

I tried to reorient the weeds as we walked, hoping to cover our tracks, but the two of us were in a bad situation. No way could Eddie go much further without medical attention, and if we happened to encounter more tall men in dark suits we wouldn’t stand a chance.

I just hoped I could get us somewhere safe before he passed out.

“Hey – you okay?”

Eddie said nothing. His face was pale and frightened, but despite his obvious pain he continued hobbling alongside me.

It didn’t take us long to arrive at the cul-de-sac on the far edge of the field. The streets here were empty, but if we walked to the end of the street we would find ourselves on a busy road. I didn’t want to spend more time on public sidewalks than we absolutely had to, but my plan required us getting to that main road. Eddie and I hurried down the sidewalk as best we could.

The dissonant blur of chaotic screaming and exploding continued to play across the field, and more than once I thought a black sedan would suddenly pull into the cul-de-sac.

But none did, and we managed to reach the main road undetected. I scanned the busy street for the help we needed.

Perhaps it was fate, perhaps it was luck, but the street had exactly what I’d hoped: a bus stop. Eddie and I hobbled over to the empty bench and within thirty seconds a bus arrived.

Eddie stumbled down the center aisle while I took care of the fare. As the bus doors closed, I grabbed several bus schedule pamphlets and joined my friend, who had settled somewhere near the middle. He looked like he was suffering.

I sat and began searching through the various bus routes. Eddie held his ankle and stared blankly out the window.

A minute or so later, he elbowed me and motioned out the window. I looked out to find us driving past the far end of my street.

And wouldn’t you know it, a host of black sedans sat parked in front of my house.

Eddie grinned.

“Guess we’re not going to your place any time soon, eh?”

“Guess not.”

His smile faded.

“Speaking of which…where are we going?”

I sifted through the bus routes in my lap.

“Actually, I was hoping we could go to University Hospital. That’s where my dad is staying. I figure we could get your ankle examined, and maybe my dad will have some advice for us. He’s the one family member I have left, and I know he has more information about what’s going on.”

Eddie raised an eyebrow.

“And what about Cronus? Shouldn’t finding him be our first priority?”

“Eddie, look at us! You’re injured and can barely walk. I spent my last three bucks on bus fare, so now we’re broke.”

He started to interrupt but I cut him off.

“And, as if that’s not ridiculous enough, these agent guys are after us at every turn. Getting help is way more important than hunting down some Cronus guy.”

Eddie looked like he disagreed but he stayed quiet. I just hoped the police and/or agents wouldn’t be at the hospital. Based on the events of my last visit there, I didn’t know how safe it would be – but it couldn’t possibly be more dangerous then sticking around the school.

I just prayed we’d make it there alive and unharmed.

And then I prayed we’d find my dad alive and unharmed. Bad as our situation was, his seemed even worse.

Then I prayed for Jackson. And Emmary. And mom.

I really missed them.


Next Chapter (Chapter 13) >>

<< Previous Chapter (Chapter 11)


Stained Glass Effect (using VB6 and GIMP)

I wanted to title this article “a novel method for matrix randomization using polygons and custom differential post-processing blending“… but that was a bit long, even for me.

Why such a complex title?

It all started with a strange idea I had today.  I was thinking of common ways to randomize image data (don’t ask why), and it struck me that the most common randomization method – varying RGB data of single pixels – is not the most interesting way to go about it.  Why not use lines, triangles, or other polygons to randomize an image?  How would that look?

To test my theory, I wrote a quick program that selects two random pixels in an image, averages their colors, then draws a line of that averaged color between the two points. When repeated over and over again, such an algorithm leads to some interesting effects…

I started with this God of War 3 image...
...and got this (100,000 iterations of lines with max length 42).
Here's the same image, but with lines of max length 85.

Kinda cool.  I’m not sure what to call this effect… although it looks “furry” to me.  Should we invent a new word – furrification?

Once I had lines working, my next curiosity involved polygons.  Here’s the same picture, but with triangle randomization:

Same parameters as the first line-based randomization above (100,000 iterations, 42 max length).
Same parameters as the second line-based image above (100,000 iterations, max length 85)

This is also a cool effect, especially when you watch it in action.  (The program refreshes the screen every 100 iterations.)

While I didn’t go to the trouble of implementing additional polygons, the code is primed and ready for it.  In fact, it would be trivial to draw polygons of any segment count.

Once I had my newly randomized images, I decided to pop into GIMP and do a bit of post-processing.  It was then that I realized this could be used to create pretty sweet stained glass images:

Sweet!

It’s trivial to create an image like this – simply open up your base image, then add a triangle randomized copy over the top as a new layer.  Set the layer mode to “difference” and bam: stained glass!

Same effect, but with a larger triangle size.

Other blending modes provide interesting effects – for example, multiply:

Same two images as the first stained glass example - just the blending mode has changed.

Anyway, I thought this was an interesting exploration in using a randomized copy of an image as an overlay.

 

DISCLAIMER: These download files are regularly scanned to ensure they remain free from malicious content. Unfortunately, some virus scanners will flag these .zip files as suspicious simply because they contain source code and/or executable files. I have submitted my projects to a number of companies in an attempt to rectify these false-positives. Some have been cooperative. Others have not. If your virus scanner alerts you regarding these files, please allow the file to be submitted for further analysis (if your program allows for that). This should help ensure that any false-positive warnings gradually disappear for all users.

This site - and its many free downloads - are 100% funded by donations. Please consider a small contribution to fund server costs and to help me support my family. Even $1.00 helps. Thank you!

TEAL: Chapter 11

Teal is available as a free CC-licensed science fiction novel. You can read more about the project here.


Click here to download this chapter as a PDF (92kb)


It wasn’t until my third candy bar that it hit me: meeting at the vending machines was a dumb idea. After the final get-to-class bell rang, the school’s halls cleared out and everything went deathly quiet. If I stayed at the vending machines, a teacher would undoubtedly find me and force me to go to class – something I really wasn’t in the mood to deal with.

So I bought another two candy bars then snuck around the corner and into the lunch room. If I hid in a back corner it would be harder for a teacher to spot me, but I would be still be in a good position to see Eddie coming.

Speaking of which, where was my strange little friend? At least ten minutes had passed since our disastrous lock-out. Maybe the office ladies were giving him crap about faking sick. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that had happened to some poor student.

I absentmindedly chomped into another candy bar and tried to ignore my growing sense of panic. Eddie would show up any minute. He had to.

Two candy bars later I changed my mind. Apparently Eddie didn’t have to return, because there was still no sign of my delinquent friend. My rising panic seemed plenty justified since nothing short of an emergency would keep him from coming.

Another five minutes passed…

…and still nothing. This had to mean something bad.

I wasn’t in the mood for bad.

But without any other options, I dumped my pile of candy bar wrappers in the trash and went in search of my missing friend. A quick glance down each hallway surrounding the cafeteria revealed nothing, and a pass by the now-infamous janitor’s closet showed it just the way we’d left it: closed and locked.

I hurried back to the cafeteria – my eyes darting every-which-way in search of a hall monitor or wandering teacher – but still Eddie was nowhere to be found.

I glanced at the analog clock hung high on the cafeteria’s back wall. Almost twenty minutes had passed since I last saw my friend.

Something had to be wrong. I prayed it didn’t involve green laser guns.

Much as I didn’t want to, the next logical place to search was the main office. Maybe someone there could tell me if Eddie had successfully checked out.

Of course, the downside was that the place would be crawling with teachers and administrators.

But what other choice did I have? Unless Eddie had abandoned me – and I really couldn’t blame him for that – he probably needed my help. I at least owed him one final check at the office.

I hurried there as quickly as I could, and as soon as I reached it I knew something was wrong. Really wrong.

Three tall men in dark suits and sunglasses stood, arms folded, immediately inside the front doors. Two more were outside talking to an administrator while another two paced the sidewalk. All looked like FBI agents, but recent experiences made me doubt that.

I debated doubling back and approaching the office from the opposite direction, but it quickly became obvious that no matter which way I went I would have to pass the agents. Worse yet, if they were related to this whole Zargansk thing they would almost certainly recognize me.

But I had to get to the office. I had to find out what happened to Eddie. He’d been brave enough to follow the janitor into the tunnels despite having no promise of protection, and I knew if I ever disappeared again, he would go to any length to track me down.

So I took a deep breath, tightened my borrowed backpack, and made a beeline for the office doors, trying my best to look inconspicuous.

I held my breath the entire way and – thankfully – the men in suits ignored me. This ray of hope gave me newfound courage, and once inside the office I headed straight for the front desk.

But before I could reach the desk, a familiar voice floated from a room down the office hallway.

“I told you already – I don’t know anyone named Teal. Why do you keep asking me about him?”

I stopped in my tracks as another voice followed.

“Listen, kid: we were told to pick up you and a student named Teal. You can either help us find him, or you can count on being in a lot more trouble than you’re already in.”

“Trouble? What have I done wrong? You haven’t even told me why I’m here!”

“Excuse me, young man – do you need help?”

I looked up at the secretary, who gave me a matronly smile.

“Um, no, I’m alright. I was just wondering why the police are here.”

She frowned.

“You’re not the only one wondering what they’re doing here. They’re not even police officers. I don’t know who they are,” she continued, her expression growing angry. “I was worried they’d frighten the students, standing around all scarily like that.”

I put on my most convincing frightened face.

“Oh, it’s okay, ma’am. I’m not,” I paused for emphasis, “too frightened. I just wanted to make sure no one was hurt.”

Suppressing my sudden urge to gag was no small feat. This was so unlike me.

The secretary smiled sympathetically.

“Well don’t worry, son. I guess they just needed to ask two boys some questions. Hopefully they’ll leave after that.”

Two boys, and Eddie was obviously one of them. That could only mean the other one was…

I forced a smile.

“Okay. Thanks.”

I left the office and walked out the front doors of the school, trying hard to stay calm even though one of the suited men showed a hint of recognition upon seeing me. I just kept my gaze firmly forward, carefully avoiding eye contact and acting like I knew exactly what I was doing.

As soon as I was out the second set of doors, I dashed behind the row of bushes set along the front side of the school. I waited, but no agents followed me outside. Maybe my luck had begun to turn.

I crept quickly along the wall, hidden from view by the bushes, until I was directly below the window of the room with arguing voices.

“How many times do I have to repeat myself? I don’t know anyone named Teal!”

“You know what – I’ve had it with you, kid. Stay here while I go make a phone call.”

A door slammed; I waited a moment, then slowly stood up and peeked through the open window.

This looked like the principal’s office. It was empty except for a lone figure hunched in a chair opposite an oversized oak desk; the figure appeared to be shaking a fist and mumbling bad words underneath his breath.

I’d know that brand of grumbling anywhere.

“Eddie! Over here!”

My no-longer-missing friend whirled around.

“Dude! Where have you been?”

“What do you mean, ‘where have I been’? I was at the cafeteria waiting for you! What’s going on? Who were you arguing with?”

Eddie rolled his eyes.

“I don’t know – some stupid guy. He won’t say who sent him, but he’s obviously not a cop, not FBI, and not CIA. He won’t even tell me why they want us.”

As much as I’d anticipated this, my stomach still dropped when he said us. Apparently these stupid men in suits were also after me, surprise surprise.

So why hadn’t they grabbed me by the front doors?

I pondered this as Eddie continued.

“So I got to the office and was just about to check out when this big guy in a suit grabbed me from behind, dragged me into this office, locked the door, and started asking all about you. I told him I didn’t know anyone named Teal, but he didn’t go for it.”

“And he didn’t say why they wanted me?”

“Nope, and I’m not even sure he knows. He just kept saying we’re going to take you down to the boss so he can ask you some questions.” Eddie scowled. “Somehow I doubt that’s a good thing for us.”

I nodded in agreement, making a mental note to try and get information on this boss guy if the opportunity presented itself.

“So what are you waiting for? Jump out the window! Let’s go!”

Eddie darted for the window. He was halfway out when the doorknob to the room clicked. I slunk down into the bushes as Eddie pulled himself back inside.

“Not thinking of jumping out the window, were you?”

“Uh, jump out the window? Ha! Why would I do that?”

I was almost certain the person who’d just entered didn’t find this funny.

“So did you make your phone call?”

“Yeah, kid. I’m supposed to take you to the boss right now. My associates will bring your friend as soon as they find him.”

This sent my heart pounding. I had to get Eddie out of there and I had to do it fast. What could I do to cause some commotion?

I hunched over and ran to the end of the building, then turned and sprinted to the nearest door. Once back inside the school, I found myself in the same hallway as the main office.

A glance down the hallway revealed that more suit-clad men – agents, I decided to call them – had assembled around the front doors. Fortunately, none seemed to notice me. They were too far away, and whatever they were talking about had them deeply engaged.

I rapidly scanned the walls of the hallway in search of something that could create a distraction. It didn’t take me long to find one.

I crawled along the ground until I reached a fire alarm. After a quick glance around to make sure no one was watching, I closed my eyes, reached up, and yanked down on the alarm lever.

Sirens blared as red emergency lights flashed along the length of the hall. Sudden noise echoed from every open classroom door and more than one “agent” drew a weapon.

I slid to my feet and joined the throngs of students leaving the building. Once outside, I strolled around the corner of the school to the front lawn, hoping to find a good-sized crowd.

I wasn’t disappointed. Kids were everywhere and more continued to pour out of the school’s many doorways. Some of the more assertive teachers were attempting to organize students by last name and take a headcount, but it wasn’t going well.

This was exactly the situation I had hoped for. It would take the teachers awhile to get a grip on things – especially given how jittery everyone was after last week’s green explosions.

I just hoped there would be enough time for me to get Eddie out of his current ‘situation.’

I waited until my imprisoned friend exited the school. A group of annoyed agents escorted him to a row of – surprise surprise – black sedans at the edge of the parking lot.

I started weaving through the crowds of milling students. I tried to stay behind taller and wider students as I worked my way over, and I quickly realized how much I would have to hurry to reach Eddie before he was dragged “down to the boss”…

…whatever that meant.

So I moved faster, grateful for the adrenaline saturating my blood. I couldn’t believe I’d just pulled a fire alarm and was now trying to steal Eddie out of secret agent custody. Part of my brain told me to turn and run for my life, but I couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling that if I were the one stuck with the police, Eddie would almost certainly try to save me.

I also realized there was no way I could find that Cronus guy without Eddie’s help. If I wanted to get to the bottom of everything that had happened, I needed to keep him around.

I also remembered that the janitor had told the two of us to stick together, and though I found that entire conversation very confusing, it was probably best to follow whatever advice the crazy man had given. Right now I had nothing else to go on.

So I gritted my teeth and continued sneaking toward Eddie and the agents surrounding him.

By now, Eddie and the agents had reached the black sedans. The front agent opened a back door for Eddie and forcibly pushed him toward it. Eddie looked around (presumably for me) then reluctantly climbed inside. The agent closed the car door and began talking to several of his nearby companions, each of which looked exactly the same: big men, dark suits, dark sunglasses. How cliché.

A quick sidestep and I was able to sneak into the group of students nearest the black sedans. I glanced around to make sure none of the agents were watching, then I tried to signal Eddie.

As usual, he wasn’t paying attention. I was going to need another quality distraction to pull the agents away from their cars.

But what? It would need to be something flashy – something so slam-bang shocking that even the agents would fall for it. This couldn’t be an ordinary, everyday distraction.

My eyes drifted across the crowds of mulling students as I considered my options. Whatever I decided, I needed to do it fast. It wouldn’t be long before the teachers figured out this was all just a false alarm.

As I considered my options, I couldn’t help but marvel at how my displaced classmates innately ordered themselves into their usual social circles. The jocks stood near the flagpole, flanked by the Franklin High cheerleaders and drill team. Next to them were the drama kids, then the band geeks. After that came the artists, the yearbook staff, the math nerds. The debate team was next, followed by the skaters.

In fact, only one student stood completely alone – a tall boy with shaggy blond hair, his lean frame resting against a tree on the edge of campus and his face buried in what looked like some kind of old textbook.

A-ha. There was my answer.

Let’s just hope it worked.


Next Chapter (Chapter 12) >>

<< Previous Chapter (Chapter 10)


Generating Emboss / Engrave / Relief Filters (in VB6)

Bayonetta is quite possibly the best action game I've ever played - yes, even better than God of War III

I’ve had this code ready for months, but I couldn’t bring myself to post it until I added something more exciting than just “emboss” and “engrave.”

Today is that day!

First, let me mention what emboss/engrave actually do. These are two of the simplest image processing filters, and they can be efficiently implemented in pretty much any programming language. They both operate on the same principle – for each pixel, subtract the RGB values of one or more neighboring pixels in a particular direction. This leads to an image where low-contrast areas are all black, while high-contrast areas (edges) are varying colors of brighter intensity. Most emboss/engrave filters add 127 to the RGB values so that uniformly contrasted areas are gray. As a bonus feature, I’ve added a “color” option to this code, so you can emboss/engrave an image to any hue. In the Bayonetta example above, the left side of the picture is embossed to something around #81a3fe.

Relief is a variation on emboss/engrave, where the base color is not artificially generated but is based off the current pixel. This acts almost like a sharpen filter, but because the filter doesn’t operate in all directions, it lends the image a more artificial look. (Hence the “relief” moniker – on certain images, it looks like an image has been chipped out of stone and then painted.) Try it on a photo – they tend to work best!

 

DISCLAIMER: These download files are regularly scanned to ensure they remain free from malicious content. Unfortunately, some virus scanners will flag these .zip files as suspicious simply because they contain source code and/or executable files. I have submitted my projects to a number of companies in an attempt to rectify these false-positives. Some have been cooperative. Others have not. If your virus scanner alerts you regarding these files, please allow the file to be submitted for further analysis (if your program allows for that). This should help ensure that any false-positive warnings gradually disappear for all users.

This site - and its many free downloads - are 100% funded by donations. Please consider a small contribution to fund server costs and to help me support my family. Even $1.00 helps. Thank you!

TEAL: Chapter 10

Teal is available as a free CC-licensed science fiction novel. You can read more about the project here.


Click here to download this chapter as a PDF (98kb)


We had walked less than five feet in when without warning the wall reappeared behind us and everything went completely black. I groaned, and Eddie said a word he probably shouldn’t have.

“Quiet!” the janitor whispered. “You think I don’t know my way around? All you gotta worry about is staying close to me.”

I hoped he was right. Plowing blindly through a dark tunnel was scarier than I liked.

As I waited for my pupils to dilate, I tried focusing on other senses.

The first thing I noticed was the slope of the tunnel floor. It wasn’t level. It sloped slightly downward, and the further we walked the steeper it became.

That meant we were moving underground.

The air inside the tunnel felt surprisingly fresh. I took a deep breath and tried to pinpoint any kind of smell or odor, but nothing came. Listening was useless too, since everything was silent except for our shoes tapping on the metal floor.

It took about thirty seconds for my eyes to adjust enough to start making out specifics of my surroundings. Like the floor, the tunnel walls were also metal, and there were no corners at any edges; the floor curved smoothly into the walls and they curved smoothly into the ceiling. Everything looked unmarked, untouched, and very smooth.

Even weirder, the walls were warm to the touch – not cold like I’d expected. A dim red glow provided a little light, only there weren’t any light fixtures. The glow seemed to emanate from everywhere at once.

The whole place felt like something out of Star Trek. Eddie must have been thrilled.

After a minute or so of walking, the tunnel floor leveled out and branched into two paths. Even here, there were no corners; everything looked smooth and clean, and the temperature felt quite a bit warmer than it had in the school – again, opposite of what I expected.

Despite the branch in the tunnel, the janitor didn’t slow down. He seemed to know exactly where he was going. He veered right and continued straight for another fifty or so feet before holding up his hand. Eddie and I stopped as he got down onto his knees and pressed an ear against the floor.

“…Damn,” he whispered. “I can’t hear a thing and I don’t like it. It’s not like the Zargansk to hide, waiting for us to come find them. They usually prefer to blast their way in.”

That didn’t sound good. I glanced nervously down both sides of the tunnel, but everything was still calm, silent, and really creepy.

Eddie, however, looked like he was having the time of his life.

“Hey,” I whispered. “Do you have any idea what’s going on?”

He grinned and shrugged as our fearless leader jumped back to his feet.

“Well,” the janitor said, scratching his head, “they won’t be here for something friendly. Time to arm up.”

He continued several feet down the hallway then began feeling the wall. His actions implied looking for something, but whatever he sought must have been well-hidden since every square inch of the silver walls looked identical to me.

While the janitor searched, I took another shot at analyzing our surroundings. My eyes had pretty much adjusted to the darkness and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

For one, the tunnel ceiling was awfully tall – probably ten, twelve feet high. And, like all the floor and walls so far, it too was made of unending, unmarked, bright silver metal. I wondered how anyone could keep track of where they were down here.

As I contemplated this, the janitor stopped searching and turned to face me.

“Have you used a gun before?”

“Uh, I…what?” I sputtered. “What do you mean?”

“What do you mean, ‘what do I mean?’ Have you used a gun before? It’s a simple question!”

“Well yeah, dad’s a hunter and we’ve–”

“Good enough.”

He turned to Eddie.

“You?”

“Uh, I’m pretty good at arcade games that use plastic guns. Last summer I beat the all-time high score of 350,000 points on–”

“Okay, okay,” the janitor said, shaking his head and rubbing his temples nervously. “This may not have been a good idea. Let’s just hope you don’t accidentally shoot me with these…”

He then held out his left hand and pressed it against an unmarked spot in the wall. A bright white light in the outline of his hand appeared, flashed twice, then disappeared. He removed his hand and turned to face the opposite wall, where a dim rectangle the size of an electrical panel had just appeared. The janitor once again removed the diamond-shaped black pendant from around his neck, then brought it slowly toward the panel. The pendant glowed an effulgent blue – the same blue that had filled the upstairs room just minutes before – as he inserted it into a small hole on the bottom-right corner of the panel. Without turning anything, a soft click sounded and the panel swung open, revealing a hidden gun rack.

That was some kinda pendant.

The gun rack was stocked with four identical science-fiction-looking rifles; each was long, thin, and made of the same polished metal that lined the silver walls of the tunnel. The janitor removed three of the rifles, one of which he handed to Eddie, another to me. He then removed a 6-inch metal rod from the bottom of the safe and stuffed it in his back pocket.

Then he closed the panel and turned to face us. I found his expression somewhere between totally psychotic and totally worried as he grimaced and motioned over his shoulder.

“Follow me, boys. We got us a Zargansk to fry.”

And he started jogging down the tunnel.

“Hey!” Eddie said. “What is this thing – some kind of sci-fi rifle?”

The janitor slowed.

“You bet it is. Works like a normal rifle, only it uses vaporized silicon powder instead of powder or projectiles. Real powerful, real quiet.”

He glanced at our guns, then smacked his head.

“Oh yeah – almost forgot. Switch that lever on the right to red and pull the trigger if you see anything move. Just don’t hit me with the blast, ‘cause like I said – that’s no ordinary gun.”

And as if that were an acceptable explanation, he turned and continued jogging. Eddie and I switched the levers on our rifles to red and hurried to catch up.

After another fifty feet we reached a four-way intersection. The janitor plowed straight through it then took his next left. After several more turns I was hopelessly lost. I hoped Eddie was having better luck tracking our location.

Five minutes of jogging later, I had to fight to keep my breathing slow and steady. I was in the back of the line; the janitor still lead the way with Eddie in-between us. I caught myself reflexively glancing over my shoulder, because while we hadn’t seen anything yet, I half expected to see some monstrous, bloodthirsty creature sneaking up on us. I had assumed these Zargansk guys to be some brand of assassin or ninja or secret agent – but what if they were something else entirely?

I tried not to think about it as we took a sharp right turn.

Suddenly the janitor slowed and raised his hand. Eddie and I stumbled to a stop, both of us sweating and breathing heavily. I was way too out of shape for the amount of jogging I’d had to do in the last hour.

It was then that I realized the janitor wasn’t breathing heavily. He was breathing normally, and while Eddie and I were dripping with sweat, he looked dry as sandpaper.

Who was this guy? Some kind of superhero in disguise?

He mumbled something to himself and scratched his head while I leaned against the wall and tried to catch my breath. Eddie did the same, though after several seconds he leaned in and began whispering between labored breaths.

“Dude. Vaporized silicon – the stuff the janitor said was in these guns – from what I know about it, I bet it looks exactly like the green blasts we’ve been seeing.”

“Really? You think these are the same kind of guns the bad guys use?”

“I think so,” Eddie whispered, nodding excitedly. “Which means we’ve got the same firepower they do, only they don’t know it.”

Finally, some good news. Part of me couldn’t wait to try my new gun on a Zargansk, but another part of me – the sane part – secretly hoped this was all just a mistake. I didn’t know if my pounding heart could handle another gunfight.

Eddie was about to say something else when the janitor raised a triumphant fist in the air.

“Of course!” he said quietly. “I bet something went wrong with the portalgate! Serves him right for using it to transport! Ha! C’mon, boys!”

Back to jogging down the hallway. I was really, really sick of running, but the thought of being left alone in these creepy alien-looking tunnels really didn’t appeal to me.

So I followed. Grudgingly.

Three hallways later the janitor again raised a hand, bringing us to a halt. He waited for a moment before placing his hand against the wall.

Somewhere in the distance a sudden crash rang out, followed by a loud scuttling sound scurrying away from us.

That noise…

…I knew that noise.

It sounded like what I’d heard at the school Friday morning, and the same noise had also sounded at the hospital just moments before my family and I were brutally attacked.

That noise was always associated with green blasts.

The janitor cursed and took after the sound at a run, Eddie close behind him. I tightened my grasp on the silver rifle, tried to clear my mind, and sprinted after them.

Two turns later we entered a very long, very wide hallway. A blur whisked past the end of the tunnel and the janitor unhesitatingly fired. Sure enough, a brilliant green sphere the size of a golf ball burst from his rifle and soared down the hallway, dissipating with a hiss into the far wall.

The enemy glanced around the corner and fired back. This time it was a yellowish sphere; all three of us dived frantically out of the way and the blast barely missed the janitor’s leg before hissing angrily onto the floor.

“Phenx!” the janitor yelled. “I’m gonna kill you!”

A horrible, scaly laugh resonated from the far end of the hallway.

“Oh really, Joseph?” it hissed. “You want to kill me? I’m shocked. I thought we were friends.”

The janitor cursed and hammered his trigger. Multiple bursts of bright green energy lit up the tunnel before smashing into the far wall.

“Arrrgh! Why’d you come back through the portalgate? Why!”

“Must I explain everything to you? The project is over. Foolish Kepik is finally imprisoned, Zyken’s HIRC forces are in place, and I no longer wish to deal with you. I have come to kill you and collect the portalgate.”

The janitor roared and fired off another round of shots. A creepy, hissing laugh slithered from the end of the hallway.

“Foolish man. Will you use all your weapon’s energy firing at the wall?”

The janitor cursed again. By now the still-sane portion of my mind had kicked in, and I realized I really didn’t want to be forced to fight if his gun ran out of power. I reached out and set a frightened hand on his arm.

The shooting stopped, but the janitor looked absolutely murderous.

“Enough of your games, Phenx. Come out and face me like a man.”

The hissing laugh returned.

“Like a man? What an ignorant statement. Why don’t you come down here and face me like a Zargansk? Or are you afraid for your imprisoned family? I’d hate to have to punish them for yet another mistake of yours…”

The janitor grimaced as Eddie and I traded startled glances.

“You know the deal, Phenx,” he responded, his voice slightly quivering. “You can’t hurt them. Your laws won’t allow it.”

“Ah, but laws can be changed. With Kepik imprisoned, many representatives – including myself – are moving for complete termination of Project Earth. Complete termination, Joseph. Do you realize what that means?”

Somehow I didn’t like the sound of that. Project Earth? What was this Zargansk with the weird voice talking about?

“No way,” the janitor replied. “They’ll never allow it.”

“Ah, Joseph. You have so much faith in something you know so little about. We Zargansk are not like you.”

“It has nothing to do with race, Phenx! It’s about basic moral decency!”

More laughter.

“Do not lecture me. I am not here to philosophize with you. Now come face me – as you say, like a man – so I can kill you and be done with this ridiculous game we have been forced to play.”

More laughter still.

“And Joseph, how convenient that I can kill you here, where first we met! How fitting!”

I glanced at the janitor, whose face had become frighteningly inexpressive. How did he know this Zargansk by name? Were the Zargansk a different race? The conversation had seemed to imply that. Why did the Zargansk talk about us like we were aliens? Were they that detached from the rest of mankind? And what was this crap about ‘Project Earth’ being terminated?

So far this secret meeting with the janitor hadn’t clarified anything. In fact, it made things a thousand times more confusing, and now I was about to face down some elite assassin dude with a weapon I’d never even fired before.

Unbelievable.

“My only regret,” the Zargansk suddenly hissed with unmistakable sarcasm, “is that no other humans are around to hear your final screams. I wish all the universe could watch as I end your pitiful, meaningless life.”

And then it dawned on me.

Our opponent didn’t know he was facing multiple opponents. The Zargansk named Phenx thought the janitor was alone.

That gave me an idea.

I whispered my plan to the janitor, who – after a startled smirk at my boldness – nodded grimly and continued arguing with our enemy. Eddie raised an eyebrow but didn’t ask any questions, and he followed quietly as I began creeping down the hallway.

The janitor was yelling loudly now and I prayed that would be enough to hide the sound of Eddie and my scuffling feet. I double-checked the switch on my rifle; it was still at the red mark, which I could only assume was the maximum setting. I hoped that would be powerful enough.

Like before, my pounding heartbeat seemed fully audible. How could the enemy miss it? The pounding seemed to surround me, engulf me.

Eddie looked equally frightened. He seemed very eager for adventure, but based on my past experiences with him, whenever excitement actually arrived he usually found himself wishing there was less excitement.

But at least I wasn’t alone.

I just hoped this plan would work, because if it didn’t we would be sitting ducks. I focused all my attention into creeping as quietly as possible.

We neared the end of the hallway. The janitor continued his ranting.

Dim red light pulsed around us, covering everything in dramatic crimson hues.

I held my breath and tightened a finger around the rifle’s trigger.

Just then, I realized janitor-man was no longer yelling. I turned to see why when a powerful, hissing voice screamed out “THAT IS ENOUGH, HUMAN!” and a large shadowy form stepped out from behind the corner.

There was no time to think; I swung around and mashed down my trigger finger. Eddie followed suit.

Green bursts of energy blasted from our rifles. The hallway lit up and our target let out a horrifying scream.

I fired again. The enemy darted right, sprinting for a room at the end of the tunnel.

Eddie and I sprinted after him. The janitor yelled but I couldn’t really hear him. Hopefully he didn’t say anything important.

Our opponent was huge and unbelievably nimble. His giant form plowed through the door at the end of the hallway. Eddie and I plowed through it after him.

He was already halfway toward something in the corner of the room. I raised my rifle and prepared to fire again, but the janitor – who had somehow caught up to us – smashed my gun awry.

“No, Teal!” He yelled. “Don’t fire at the portalgate!”

The enemy shrieked again – a horrible, banshee-like shriek – as it darted toward a strange three-dimensional orb in the corner of the room. I raised my rifle again – the shot would’ve been clear – but the janitor wrenched the rifle from my grasp, leaving me to watch helplessly as the enemy plowed into the orb.

What happened next was totally unbelievable, even now.

The orb, previously a milky black, flashed bright white as it engulfed our opponent; it swelled from its original size – maybe 8 feet high by 6 feet around – to nearly twice that, the swelling accompanied by a series of violent vibrations and a loud, low pulsing noise.

I thought for certain it was going to burst. The janitor set a hand on mine and Eddie’s shoulders and pulled us backward, apparently fearing the same thing.

The three of us huddled together and watched, spellbound, as the numinous spectacle continued.

After several seconds the orb’s vibrating slowed and, slowly and almost painfully, it tediously began to shrink, its color fading from white to gray as the pulsing noise softly diminuendoed.

Eventually it reached its original size, and when it did the janitor let go of my shoulder.

I immediately turned to face him.

“…What just happened?”

“Well for starters, you shot a high-ranking Zargansk soldier. That’s gonna piss them off.”

My stomach dropped. The janitor stared at me for a moment before bursting out in laughter.

“And a damn nice shot it was, kid. I’m impressed. You got guts.”

He patted me lightly on the shoulder.

“Is that a portalgate?” Eddie whispered, pointing at the orb. It had shrunk to the size of a gallon of milk and its color had returned to deep, milky black.

“Yes. It connects this room to Orionis.”

“Orionis?”

“Yeah, Orionis. Just be glad you didn’t shoot it – that would’ve collapsed the portalgate and blown the city of Franklin to smithereens.”

The janitor snickered as if this were somehow funny. I didn’t find it funny.

I started to ask my next question when a sudden pop reverberated through the room. I spun around to find the orb/portalgate-thing bright white and flashing. Another pop rang out and something fell from its glossy surface before slowly drifting to the bright metal ground.

The janitor frowned and walked over to the object: a small, plain-looking square of something like paper. He bent over, read something written on it, read it again, then slowly stood, one hand holding the paper and slightly trembling, the other pressed tightly against his forehead.

“Well, this changes things,” he mumbled. “Guess I’m going in after all.”

“What?” yelled Eddie. “You can’t be serious! You know they’re not supposed to be used like that!”

Huh? What were they talking about?

“I don’t have a choice,” the janitor replied. “He’s going after my family.”

“But you could die! Those things aren’t meant for transporting humans!”

“I’ve watched them drag enough humans through that stupid orb to know it’s possible. I can do it.”

“And what about Teal? What about your mission to protect him?”

The janitor looked from Eddie to me.

“I’m sorry, Teal, but I can’t stay here and protect you any longer. I have to go after Phenx, and I have to do it quickly.”

He reached into his back pocket and pulled out the metal rod he had taken from the gun cabinet. He gave it a longing glance, then handed the rod to me.

“Guard this with your life. Once I go through the orb, I want you to throw this rod at it. That will close the portalgate…at least for a little while. After that, I need the two of you to track down a man called Cronus. He’s the only one that can help us now. Do you understand?”

Did I understand? Was he serious?

“Hell no, I don’t understand any of this. What’s going on? Give me some answers!”

The janitor looked at me, then turned and walked toward the portalgate-orb-thing.

Unbelievable. He was going to leave without answering any of my questions.

“Oh no you don’t,” I growled, grabbing his arm. “You haven’t answered a thing! What’s going on here? What is all this? Who are you?”

The janitor pulled my hand off his arm.

“There’s not enough time, Teal. My family is in danger and I have to catch Phenx. Just remember this: the two of you must find Cronus. Stick together and you’ll be okay. Don’t worry about me, either. I’ll be fine.”

Then he grew stern, raising a warning finger into the air.

“And whatever you do: DON’T TELL ANYONE ABOUT THIS, especially the police. In case you haven’t figured it out, the Zargansk have eyes everywhere. Every time you mention them by name, you risk revealing your location. You should also know that they’re not going to be happy about shooting Phenx, so they’ll probably send a lot more horrible creatures to hunt you down.”

My stomach dropped again. If it dropped one more time, it’d be exiting via…

…well, you get the picture.

The janitor seemed to sense my worry. He smiled and shook his head.

“But don’t be afraid. Shooting Phenx probably bought mankind a couple extra days of peace. That slimy Zargansk was a major force in trying to start a war between us and them. When this is all over, you’re gonna be a hero.”

He looked straight at me.

“…Or more.”

…Huh? What did he mean by that?

“Anyway, take this advice seriously: you need to find Cronus quickly, because your lives will be in serious danger until you do. He can protect you. Do whatever you have to do to find him.”

The janitor turned to face the orb. Shockingly, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Eddie was also – surprisingly – silent.

“I’m coming,” the janitor whispered as he bowed his head. Hands firmly around his rifle, he closed his eyes and stepped into the center of the portalgate. It seemed to reach out and surround him, sucking him into its center.

Eddie and I could only watch, speechless, as the portalgate went through the same process as when the Zargansk named Phenx had touched it. Its surface rotated swiftly through dark hues of purple and blue as it swelled and began to shake.

Then suddenly it flashed an image of an empty green field with the janitor standing in the center of it. As quickly as it had appeared, the image disappeared and the orb faded to a pure, dark black.

I looked down at the smooth silver rod in my hand. Was I really supposed to throw it at the orb…?

I looked back at the so-called portalgate, which had slowly begun to shrink. I was almost tempted to jump into it myself but I had no idea where the thing led. Orionis? Where was that? And what if it didn’t take me to the same place as the janitor? The thought of being alone in a place I knew nothing about was even worse than being stuck here, wanted by some Zargansk things for more reasons than I could count, most of them reasons I still didn’t understand.

So instead I took a deep breath, wound up my arm, and hurled the rod at the orb.

Although I’d thrown it as hard as I could, the rod seemed to travel through the air in slow motion. As it floated nearer and nearer to the center of the orb, its two ends glowed a dim, delicate blue.

Slowly the rod came to a complete stop, hovering mysteriously in mid-air.

The portalgate began to surround it.

As soon as the surface of the orb touched the rod, both began vibrating dangerously. The rod seemed to be sucking the orb into both of its lit ends; the portalgate resisted, cycling rapidly through violent shades of color as it slowly slurped away.

As more and more of it disappeared, the pace of the sucking increased.

Suddenly the last of the orb disappeared in a furious blast of light. Eddie and I threw our hands over our faces as the rod fell to the ground with a dull clunk.

Several moments passed before I reluctantly uncovered my eyes. A quick series of glances showed the room to be intact; apparently the blast had only been bright – not explosive or damaging.

After trading nervous glances with a wide-eyed Eddie, I cautiously approached the thin metal rod lying innocently on the floor, half expecting it to somehow look different.

It didn’t.

I reached out and tapped it. The rod was warm to the touch, but other than that it looked like a normal metal stick. I picked it up, placed it in my back pocket, then turned to face Eddie.

“So…”

…And then I just laughed. What could I possibly say after everything we had just experienced?

Eddie looked angry as he shook the alien rifle still clutched in his grasp.

“I can’t believe he went through the portalgate. He’s lucky he lived! And what are we supposed to do now – find some random guy named Cronus? That’s probably not even his real name, just some codename they use so they don’t set off Zargansk sensors. It could be anyone! And now the Zargansk are gonna come after us even more than they already have! This is getting way too dangerous, Teal…”

I frowned. My life was hard enough without Eddie panicking. Obviously things were dangerous, and they had been for some time.

“Enough, Eddie. We’ll be okay. We’ve been okay so far.”

“We? You’ve been okay so far, Teal. Or maybe lucky is a better word for it. Do you even know what we’re up against?”

I shook my head.

“How could I? Everyone that promises me answers ends up disappearing!”

Eddie grimaced and brought a hand to his forehead.

“Well I don’t know everything, but between my research this weekend and what we’ve seen here, I do have some answers. But here’s the thing – school is about to start.”

School? I had totally forgotten about school. I glanced at my phone to find that Eddie was right. We would have to hurry to make it to first period on time.

Wait a second. What was I thinking? School? Why should I care about school at a time like this?!

“Are you joking? Eddie, look at us! We just watched a man go through some crazy portalgate thing, we’re being chased by these Zargansk men–”

“They’re not men,” Eddie interrupted.

“What? Are they women?”

“No. They’re…well, it’s complicated.”

Boy, if I had a dollar for every time I’d heard that in the last 72 hours…

“Whatever. My point is – school doesn’t exactly matter right now. My family has disappeared, my bodyguard has disappeared, and I just shot a space-age rifle at some really important Zargansk soldier. An algebra class seems pretty irrelevant right now.”

Eddie laughed.

“Okay, you got me there. Tell you what: let me go check out – I’ll just say I’m feeling sick – then we can meet up and plan our next move. Cool?”

“Cool. Now let’s get outta here. This place gives me the creeps.”

I set my silver rifle on the floor where the portalgate had hovered, then we headed back into the tunnels. A dim red glow still lit the silent hallways and we used its light to find our way back to the tunnel where we’d first encountered Phenx.

Fortunately for me, Eddie seemed to know the way from there. I paid careful attention to the route; somehow, I couldn’t help but feel that knowing my way back to the portalgate room would someday prove useful.

Eventually we reached the long ramp leading to the entrance, and – thankfully – the secret door at the top had re-opened. I hurried the last few steps out of the room and breathed a sigh of relief once we were safely back in the janitor’s closet.

Eddie walked over to the bucket of sawdust. The strange pole with the blue light on top was no longer visible, and if I didn’t know better, it really would have looked like a normal, nondescript bucket of sawdust.

I smiled at the thought.

Outside, the first bell rang. I picked up Eddie’s spare backpack – both of us had left our packs upstairs when we’d followed the janitor into the tunnels – and handed Eddie his. I double-checked to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything, then flicked off the light.

Eddie opened the door and I followed him into the hallway, letting go of the door as we exited. It swung quietly shut.

Then I halted.

So did Eddie.

We slowly faced each other, then turned to look at the door.

Eddie groaned as I cursed. Loudly. The halls were busy, too, which drew me some strange looks. (Even stranger then the looks we’d received when we exited the closet together; who knew what rumors would be spreading about me now…)

“Teal, I can’t believe we just…”

He tried reopening the closet door, but it was most definitely locked. I could only shake my head in disbelief.

“We just locked ourselves out. The janitor should have left his keys because now we’re never getting back inside.”

“Even worse than that,” Eddie replied. “He didn’t leave his magic necklace either – the one that opened the secret doorway. What if it closes? We have no way to get back inside the tunnels even if we could get back into the closet.”

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. That seemed to be the new theme of my life.

And now I had a whole new list of questions, like how were we supposed to find this Cronus guy? Who was he anyway? Was he going to be as cryptic as the janitor? Who were the Zargansk, and were they really going to chase me more than before? What was I supposed to do with the metal rod in my back pocket – the one holding the portalgate the janitor had disappeared into?

What a stupid mess. I really needed to stop thinking in questions.

“Why don’t you hurry up and check out,” I told Eddie. “I’m going to the vending machines by the lunchroom to grab some more food. I’m still starving.”

“Okay. I’ll meet you there in a minute or two.”

Eddie scampered toward the office. I watched him leave, then started toward the lunchroom.

Maybe some snacks would help me feel better.

(…I doubted it.)


Next Chapter (Chapter 11) >>

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More Nokia N900 Photography

Since I had so much fun with my last N900 photography article, why not do another?

I’ve continued to experiment with the N900’s camera, and it continues to impress.  I know iPhone users are excited for the camera improvements coming in iOS 4, but I gotta be honest – after looking through the official iPhone 4 sample photos, I can safely say it’s got nothing on the N900 camera.

If you’re interested in more N900 photography, hit up my N900 set on flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/tannerhelland/sets/72157624248807430/).

(Note: these are all uploaded straight from the phone.  No retouching whatsoever!)