You can read today's story HERE!
Summary: Tiandre Sully is a fighter pilot with her buddies, but gets shot down on accident and forced to play chess with aliens while grievously injured.
Its October 4th, 2004, and in two days in both real and blog time the WARS Trading Card Game's first set will be released. This is a pretty exciting and momentous occasion, and so its strange that today we're saying goodbye to Michael Stackpole, as this is the last of his WARS stories. This is a sad goodbye, because Stackpole is not only a talented author but one of my personal favorites. Its even sadder, because the plotlines of his stories won't ever get finished. The story he leaves us with though is quite the departure from his other five WARS stories, but not in the way one would expect, because this is exactly what you'd expect Michael Stackpole to write if you paid him to write a knock off Star Wars story in many respects. This is, after all, a story that could easily be about a squadron of X-Wings fighting some alien pirates who took over a base the X-Wings were supposed to raze. To quit beating around the bush: this is a short story written in the style of Stackpole's X-Wing novels, the very thing that made him such a fan favorite among Star Wars fans, and thus the perfect way to send the man off on this blog, because despite all of that, this story isn't one you'd see in Star Wars.
Perhaps as the backstory to a Star Wars tale, say if some wily protagonists ran into the injured Tiandre Sully on their adventures, playing games with their enemies so their enemies could understand human psychology, this story could be maybe a flashback, but Sully is the protagonist, she is the one whose view we follow, and the view we follow is one of the most starkly unromantic views of space combat in print. That isn't unusual for Stackpole, his X-Wing novels are beloved partly because they are a break from the often unrealisticly safe world of Star Wars. Lots of pilots die in the novels, and get replaced. It isn't a fair war, people die we love and care about, and they die in the blink of an eye. So this isn't unknown territory, or some real stretch outside Stackpole's experience. No, this is taking the idea to its fullest possible conclusion, whittling down that painful war drama into 6 pages of text. We get many of the best parts of Stackpole's dogfight writing here: his descriptions of spaceships exploding are among the best out there, his inter com chatter is always delightful, and his pilots sitting around shooting the breeze is practically iconic.
What we also get is an extra dose of grit. Sully isn't shot down by the Quay, she's shot down by her own people who drop a bomb too close to her. Her copilot is killed in brutal detail. She herself doesn't get a nice safe landing, but loses limbs and an eye as she crashes painfully. Essentially we have WARS taking the bread and butter of Stackpole's Star Wars tales, and throwing it into our own universe. The consequences are real, immediate, and everlasting. The guy we met on page one dies a few pages later. Meeting the Quay isn't some grand plan, its more like a dumb accident. Sully's team actually totally bashes the Quay to bits, but she still gets captured and subjected to weird Quay interrogation. There are no good guys or bad guys so to speak here in WARS, but maybe there are monsters.
The title of this story is yet again very interesting. The meaning is fairly clear here, Sully is the monster among monsters, but who are the monsters she is among? The obvious answer is the Quay, but really, but a case could be made it is the Earthers. After all it is the Quay who save her life instead of letting her die in the story, and its an Earther bomb that injures her to begin with. But the most likely course is that the Quay are the monsters, and she is among them, or maybe she never stops being among monsters, it doesn't really matter to the point we'll be discussing, that is that Sully is the monster in the title of the piece.
Sully's motivation at the end of the story isn't quite clear, she could just be insane, a traitor or she could be being quite clever. If Sully is being Clever, she is intentionally playing Chess with the intent of misleading the Quay about Chess and Earth Psychology. In effect, she is playing chess about how to play chess. The more she teaches the Quay wrong, the less they will know about how human beings thing and react to things. Its quite a clever gambit, and one I would have liked to see paid off more. But then there is also the possibility she is a traitor, and this is her way of teaching the Quay about human deceit. I find this option less likely, but its certainly possible. But the first chess game in the story seems to hint at her being a trickster, and playing off people's expectations of her. While we don't get to see the board, Sully attempting to get her opponent to forfeit the game and then acting innocent about it is sketchy. We also learn that she partially focused on being a pilot out of spite for her stepdad. Spite. Trickery. Deceit. These are the traits one might ascribe to a monster.
But we are humans after all, and we side with other humans. Sully pulling her moves on the Quay should be heroic, but from the Quay's perspective, its faulty information that will get Quay killed. Sully is of course saving human lives in all likelyhood, so who are the monsters if everyone will be killing each other? Humans are the default species in Science-Fiction because we understand them, because we are them, but does that put our right to exist over that of other sapient beings? Regardless of the answer, it probably won't stop people killing each other.
The Quay have never been seen “on page” before now. How they first appear is important, and its notable that the Quay in this story are given the appearance of monsters, without much action of them. Sure, they blow up an Earther ship, but that Earther ship was attacking these Quay's home. The Earthers then clean up the Quay really well, and the Quay save the crashed pilot the Earthers leave behind... For all the Quay look scary, they're actually mighty ineffectual here in their first outing, even getting tricked by Sully at the end. Its an odd way to introduce the Quay, but it also establishes the Quay as being not quite what they look. While the Quay will definitely prove themselves to be competent deadly warriors in later stories, by showing them doing something other than that, they're freed from that pigeon hole a bit. The Quay aren't just proud warrior guys running around looking for a fight, there is something more to them, though what that something is we aren't quite sure.
Out of all of Stackpole's WARS stories, this is the one that give us the fewest easy answers, and leaves us with the most questions. If he had gotten to pen more stories, I can only hope there would have been a follow up piece to this one at some point, if only to see Stackpole's vision of the Quay more clearly, let alone getting to see a disabled Quay captive chess player in the future. But this is what we have, and we're left with a puzzle. Stackpole has defined all of the factions he has written so far fairly clearly. The Earthers, Gongen, Mavericks, and Shi all appeared in at least two stories, and had something to do in them. The Quay get one story as background players, leaving them the most mysterious faction at this point in time. Indeed, Sully is learning just as much about the Quay playing them in chess as they aren't learning from her, but we don't get to see the book report she writes at the end of the day. The Quay are left misted and under veils. We'll certainly learn more later.
But not from this author. Stackpole was the big tie back to Star Wars, the guy to get people interested in this crazy new thing called WARS by helping to write up the setting for the game, and penning these six stories. While we have some really great stories coming up, its fair to say that Stackpole was the finest craftsman we'll have at the worktable, and we won't be seeing this sort of strange wonder at this same level of refinement again. But that's now part of WARS permanently, and the DNA has sapped into the rest of the universe and the work of every other author, because no matter how much WARS strives to be a more hard sci-fi version of Star Wars, it still has people with magic powers flying around bumping into aliens. We've had six fine stories filled with Philosophy, Strangeness, Wonder, all mixed up with a gritty realism. Its a fine combination, and one that makes WARS worth caring about. Where else can you end a story with a woman telling a giant radioactive alien to move a bishop straight? The kind of place you can tell this kind of story is the kind of place you want around.
Still, though he's imbedded in it, we'll miss Mr. Stackpole. He wrote some fantastic stories, and made us care about this whole affair to begin with.
But now we're on to the main event, the thing we've been waiting for: the release of the WARS TCG itself!