Thunder Clap: Bad Company, Stranger Characters

The straps holding him into his wheelchair were very sturdy. Nothing short of a chainsaw would be getting him out of the chair until they were removed. The wheels were firmly locked in place by the clamps in the floor of the van. Matthew Sykes leaned back in the chair and did his best to get comfortable. At the very least, that was one thing wheelchairs had in their favor – they were intended for people who spent a long time in them.

The stress ate at him for a while, inevitable considering his circumstances, but mostly he worried about his wife and whether she’d met her guards or made her flight rather than his immediate circumstances. He’d never been the worrying kind, business wasn’t kind to those who couldn’t have confidence in their decisions, but the situation he was in was unique, and not directly a result of his own decisions. But even with all the stress he was under, certain facts, like being woken up very early, were inescapable. As the van roared to life and started towards it’s destination a gentle sloshing sound from one side of the van slowly  lulled him to sleep.

Sykes woke to the sound of a low flying jet coming in through the back door, currently open to allow the big man from earlier and a new friend of his to wrestle a second wheelchair into the back of the van. It took only a few minutes for them to clamp it in place and tumble out the back. They were silent during the whole process and Sykes saw little point in talking to them.

And the van’s new occupant was doing plenty of talking for everyone, laughing and joking about the wild living of young people these days. He sounded almost like a stereotype of a ninety year old man, his voice gone a little high and wheezy, and he was speaking with an odd rhythm that suggested he was a little short of breath. Sure enough, as the men who’d brought him in moved away Sykes could see that there was an oxygen tank attached to his chair and tubes running up to his nose.

The man’s obvious infirmities didn’t seem to have handicapped his voice or good humor, though. Once he was in place and the back door was closed again, leaving them alone in the relative darkness of the early hour, the old man turned to Sykes, a glint on his glasses the only sign of the motion, and said, “Well, son, what brings you here this time of night? Most respectable men are still asleep right now.”

“I couldn’t really say,” Sykes said, rubbing absently at gritty eyes. “Do you know what time it is?”

“Oh, six thirty, I would guess,” was the answer. “I’m surprised you don’t know. Didn’t you fly in?”

“No,” Sykes answered quickly and decisively. After a moment’s uncomfortable silence he added, “I tried learning to fly once. I don’t trust myself on planes now.”

The old man gave a huff that might have been a laugh. “That why a man your age is in that chair? It doesn’t suit to run from the things that weakened you.”

“I’ve lost four parents in this life, to suicide, drugs and airplanes.” Sykes shrugged, more uncomfortable by the moment. “It’s a short enough list of things to avoid, and not likely to get any longer.”

Another awkward silence. “Sorry, son. That was rude of me. I think I’m loosing my touch.”

“No worries,” Sykes said, the ghost of a smile on his face. “I’ve made my peace long ago.”

“Still, it begs the question,” the old man said. “If you didn’t fly in, and I didn’t, why are we at an airport?”

“I don’t think we’re going to learn that any time soon.” Sykes looked his companion over again. It was hard to tell in the light but he really didn’t look like anything other than an infirm old man. “Speaking of obvious questions, what brings you here?”

The gleam of the old man’s smile was back. “Me? Old Stillwater just couldn’t pass on the chance to get back in the field. If I don’t keep my hand in the game I’ll keel over and die. What about you?”

“I suppose…” Sykes trailed off and tried his best to sort through the possible answers to that question. “I suppose I’m paying for my sins.”

“As good a reason as any. Poor choices or poor friends?”

Sykes chuckled ruefully. “You can’t have the second without the first. But in my case, I think it was mostly bad friends.”

“Poor choices are easier to straighten out, poor friends tend to fight back,” Stillwater said. “My sympathies. Had a few friends that didn’t get on with reason in my time.”

“Just a few? I’d think a man your age would have had more friends than that.”

The old man laughed. “Okay, more than a few. But only a few that really went off course. Maybe it’s not as bad as it seems – it isn’t always.”

“No,” Sykes said softly. “I’m pretty sure it’s bad.”

“You’ll just have to be better then.”

Sykes narrowed his eyes, trying to make out the old man’s expression in the dim light of the van. He didn’t sound insincere. “What do you expect me to do under these circumstances?”

“For starters you can get your mind on the problem.” Not insincere but definitely annoyed. “I know you got a life outside this van, but I served on ships full of guys that had lives outside the hull. When you spend your whole shift on the sonar, listening for the Kraut U-boats coming for you, there’s nothing you can do but listen and think. So you learn to plan ahead and good. Who do you talk to as soon as you hear the screws in the water? How fast can helm be notified of incoming torpedoes? What do you need to do to light a fire under whatever needs burning?”

“You must have been a real terror to your ratings.” Sykes shook his head. “Still, you do have a point. What-“

The back doors of the van swung open again, cutting off his next question. “Alright, it looks like everyone is here.” There were two new people at the back of the van. The speaker had a smooth, cultured voice and the clean, elegant cut of his suit could be made out beyond the harsh glare of parking lot lighting behind him. “I was caught a bit unawares and I do apologize. However, now that everyone is here I suppose we can set things in motion.”

He turned to the other new person, a tall, African-American woman who looked like she’d fit better in a Greek myth than modern America. Her long, tan vest covered a shapely figure from shoulder to knee and her charcoal clothes were accessorized with paracord and a host of indistinct but dangerous looking equipment. The man handed her a slip of paper and said, “If you’d care to get behind the wheel, this is a list of your destinations. I’ve already spoken to the rest, they know where they’re going and where to get off. Your instructions are on the next page. Don’t read them until you reach your final destination.”

The woman took the papers hesitantly. “What about you?”

“As always, I have my own business to attend to. You take care of yours and this will all end as planned.” The well dressed man clapped his hands together and said, “I suppose we should get on our way. Good luck and stay out of trouble. At least, until it’s time for you to cause it. Then you can do as you like.”

The two men from earlier climbed into the back of the van and pulled the doors closed behind them, then found seats on some crates strapped into the back corners of the van. There were no real chairs, although the brief illumination while the doors were open was enough to see that something had been bolted along one side of the van at some point. A half a dozen tanks about the size of fire extinguishers strapped down along the opposite side was the source of the sloshing sound heard when the vehicle was in motion.

While one of the two men was the man who’d come to Sykes’ door earlier in the day, the other was a strange, nondescript man with brown hair and an athletic build. Sykes frowned. “Who are you?”

Stillwater answered. “That’s my tactical agent. It’s been a while since I did field work, but when talents came out of the woodwork a while ago Sumter thought I should have someone to keep me out of trouble.”

“You mean this doesn’t qualify?” Sykes asked, incredulous.

“This is the definition of trouble,” the brown haired man answered. “But it’s also the biggest chance a guy like me gets. Chief Stillwater wasn’t the only one who couldn’t pass on the chance.” He broke into a grin. “We’re on our way to catch the biggest criminal Project Sumter has ever let get away.”

Fiction Index
Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Genrely Speaking: Thrillers

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking, where we discuss what we mean when we reference genres in discussions at Nate Chen Publications. While others may disagree with the way genres are defined here they’re often so poorly defined as to be open to a great deal of interpretation, one of the reasons why I started this little feature in the first place.

Today’s topic is thrillers, a characteristic genre, and one that’s become more and more popular as modern storytelling techniques have evolved. Thrillers need almost no introduction as we’ve all seen or read more than one or two, but in addition to defining the goal of Genrely Speaking is to analyze and help develop a deeper appreciation for what genres have to offer writers. So let’s take a look at this popular genre, shall we?

  1. Thrillers deal with immediate and visceral threats to the wellbeing of the central character. Which is to say, they are always games of life and death. Whether it’s the life of the central character or someone they care about or the lives of everyone in a city or planet, thrillers are always playing for keeps. They offer simple, straight forward threats to the protagonist even though the solutions to those problems are almost never simple.
  2. Thrillers feature focused and tense pacing that leaves the audience little time to see far beyond the immediate danger to the character. While the narrative still varies it’s pacing (at least in well constructed thrillers) it never really lets the audience forget that the characters are facing dire threats. There may be romantic or comedic interludes but the threat to the characters is always nagging away in the back of the audience’s mind. Incidentally this is a major reason so many thrillers impose time limits of some sort on their protagonists. It helps give the narrative that urgency.
  3. Thrillers keep the audience guessing. Whether it’s about how the characters will pull off what they’re planning, or how their plan will go wrong, or who the traitor in the group is, every thriller has at least one mystery that will persist through ninety percent of the story, from very early on until the very climax of the narrative. While every story has some kind of mystery to it thrillers need big, attention grabbing ones that will hold an audience for the bulk of the time they’re engaged.

What are the weaknesses of thrillers? Well, for starters they’re really popular and they engage well with human psychology so a lot of them tend to get made and that creates two problems. First, originality starts to dwindle quickly. A successful thriller gets made and people follow the pack. That happens to an extent with any kind of success and not just in writing or entertainment. The bigger problem, for writers, is that in thrillers it’s the execution that makes them great and not the characters or the trappings of the plot. Unfortunately when people knock off thrillers they tend to copy the characters or the plot and not deliver the tight, gripping pacing needed to really make a thriller work. They bungle foreshadowing and ruin the mystery, fail to make the danger to the protagonists feel imminent or just can’t get the pacing right and everything feels off.

Second, thrillers are vulnerable to fridge logic – even very good writers can get so caught up in the excitement of their story they don’t see plot holes coming or, worse, they cross their fingers and hope the audience won’t notice. In the Internet age that’s a pipe dream. Discovering you accidentally gutted your magnum opus with a stray plot thread is no fun but it won’t be nearly as bad as the roasting your audience will give you when they catch you out on it. Always write with care, but that goes double for thrillers.

What are the strengths of thrillers? If one of the greatest weaknesses of thrillers is fridge logic and fridge horrors one of their greatest strengths is fridge brilliance. The moment when your audience is frying up eggs and suddenly clicks together all the little hints you left behind in your story and realizes, “Oh, he was the protagonist’s father!” Or, “That dirty information broker was playing both sides!” Or even, “She was in love with him and that’s why she sacrificed herself!”

Of course many thrillers won’t trust their audiences that far and will just brain them over the head with whatever thing the author wants them to walk away with. But when a creator takes the time and care to hide all the clues but makes sure that you’re too wrapped up in the main story to pick up on them the moment of realization after the fact almost always as much greater impact than simply having it spelled out in the story for you.

Of course the ultimate strength of a thriller is it’s ability to grab the audience and run with them. It’s human nature to want to know, it’s human nature to empathize and it’s human nature to want to come out on top. By giving us a protagonist who feel a very visceral threat we can empathize with, who we want to see come out on top, and then keep us guessing as to how it all happens, the thriller offers a solid formula for keeping the audience with you every step of the way. You have to execute the formula correctly, but then that’s true of any set of instructions. In short, the thriller is just plain good at getting and keeping your audience.

At first glance thrillers do not feel terribly exotic, although that is in no small part because they tend to stand on their own rather than be combined with an aesthetic genre. Part of that is simply because the pacing makes the world building aesthetic genres want much harder to do. But also, aesthetic genres tend to put a little more emphasis on characters and plot elements, things thrillers don’t particularly need to be effective.

But that doesn’t mean the thriller is a narrow genre. On the contrary, no other genre demands more from the author in terms of pacing and careful plot construction. Studying thrillers carefully will help you to master those aspects better and maybe one day you’ll be able to blend a thriller with your favorite aesthetic and make a new genre of your own.

Cool Things: Maximum Overdrive

Try to imagine, if you would, what would happen if you had a pair of Klingons who had been raised their whole life by Vikings in the tradition of Nordic myth and then learned to speak English and play the electric guitar. Time travel would obviously be involved and I’m not sure it wasn’t a part of what created Dragonforce, one of England’s more recent rock exports to the world at large. At the very least it would certainly explain a lot.

Dragonforce, for those of you not familiar with the band, is a British power metal group, formed near the end of the last millennium and founded on the guitar sounds created by their two lead players, Herman Li and Sam Totman. These two men have one goal in life, namely to play the guitar as fast as is humanly possible. They are very, very good at it. In fact, they may very well be the best in the world.

That said, Dragonforce’s early discography has some notable weaknesses. It’s been said that they basically only play two songs, a power ballad and a sort of upbeat power metal. It’s hard to argue with that – a lot of their songs on their early albums are very similar and most of the rest border on identical. Listening to their sophomore album, Sonic Firestorm, is a lot like listening to a single, hour long track. On the other hand, that album has some if their defining songs on it and the music is good, it just sometimes feels like it’s overstaying its welcome. And for a band noted for routinely cranking out tracks six to eight minutes long a focus on epic scope is kind of to be expected.

The lyrics on those albums are not anything impressive. It’s laced with fantasy imagery and largely focuses on bloody conflict and overcoming it by courage and determination. While having the grit to face such dire challenges is an important thing to strive for and the musical style Dragonforce embraces certainly goes along with such themes, there’s nothing else there on those early albums. It’s pure escapism.

This technically brings us to The Power Within (2012), Dragonforce’s second most recent album, where the band began to show more variation both lyrically and musically. However this post is mostly about Maximum Overdrive (2014), which came out about a month ago and most of what I’ve got to say applies to both albums so let’s skip to the present.

First, Maximum Overdrive has about five different musical aesthetics, four if you remove their cover of “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash. This gives the album a little more musical diversity than earlier albums, which is definitely welcome. Now it’s not to say that Totman and Li’s fascination with fast guitar playing is bad. Quite the contrary, that’s the band’s claim to fame and something you really can’t get anywhere else. But a little variation in how it’s delivered is good.

Second, the band’s lyrical depth has been growing. If you get the Special Edition album off of Amazon it comes with a total of fifteen tracks, three of which are stark departures from the usual lyrical themes. “City of Gold” focuses on a young girl who’s left home to try and make it in Hollywood only to find herself homeless instead. “Extraction Zone” examines the difficulties of video game addiction and what might drive a person to it (a theme already explored some in “Give Me the Night” on The Power Within although that song is about drug addiction.) Finally, “You’re Not Alone” is a powerful song about recovering from grief after the death of a loved one.

Quite a difference from old songs that were basically The Ring of Nibelung set to electric guitar (not there’s anything wrong with that.) All the songs still offer a perspective about overcoming extreme difficulty to gain great reward, which goes nicely with Dragonforce’s musical style, and it is nice to hear that the band thinks that’s as much a part of the real world as it is the myths and legends the band clearly loves so much.

Dragonforce is not a musical experience for everyone. But it is a must for fans of excellent guitar technique and inspiring music.

Thunder Clap: Shocking Claims

Helix

“Your city?” Not for the first time Circuit managed to shock me with his audacity. “Does the city know that? I think they might have other ideas.”

Circuit laughed. “Cities have never had any real choice in who owns them, Helix. You know that. They are in the hands of those who can manipulate them properly, and in this day and age that’s me. Consider this a courtesy call.”

I looked down at the line of unconscious people at my feet, then back up at the camera. “What courtesy exactly am I supposed to be expecting? Because so far it’s not looking inviting.”

“Yes, I am glad you are the one who found them. It saves the trouble of having some hapless passerby try and run you down – or worse, having the police do it.” He steepled his fingers and cocked his hat slightly so I could make out a single eye gleaming at me from underneath the brim. “This is my notice to you that this city is now under my protection.”

“Your… protection?” I glanced at Teresa, hoping she had some better idea what was going on. She just gave me a blank looked, followed by a shrug that suggested that I was the expert on Circuit’s thought processes and I should figure it out for myself. So I said, “How does knocking out the city’s power grid count as protection, again? Or is this a kind of racketeering scheme? The city pays you or no power?”

“Nonsense. I’m talking about the kind of protection you can’t provide.” Circuit spun around to face the windows and gestured out the window at the city below him. “Do you really think anyone’s ever done an adequate job of protecting all that? The police? The FBI? You? Of course not.”

I did my best to keep a smile from my face. “And your knocking out half of the city’s power grid-“

“Three quarters,” he corrected.

“Three quarters,” I said, the humor of the situation quickly draining away. “Your robbing three quarters of the city of it’s power is protecting the people of the city how?”

“Robbing?” Circuit turned his chair just enough to glance back at me. His face wasn’t visible but his tone told me it was his turn to be amused. “No one is entitled to electricity. It’s a convenience only, and one I’m sure people will willingly give up for safety, just like they’ve put up with airport security and End User License Agreements. So long as their precious lives aren’t disrupted, what do they care if they really have freedom? I’m building a world of safety – the world they want. What does it matter if the lights come on when they flip a switch?”

“So who does make that decision? You?” I shook my head sadly. “You’re unbelievably smart, Circuit. I’ll give you that. But even with your talent for reading electric potentials there’s no way you can monitor an entire city’s worth of electricity use – and that’s before we even talk about trying to protect the city.” I put enough emphasis on the word protect to make it clear I thought he was doing the opposite.

“And yet right here in front of you is the evidence to the contrary. It’s just a small start, I’ll admit. But if you were to take the time to look around,” another gesture at the cityscape, ” I’m sure you’d find this little achievement repeated over and over again. All it takes is enough successes like this and soon, surprisingly soon, you’ve created a city where no one would dare step out of line.”

I snorted. “That’s reassuring. So what’s the courtesy call about, again?”

Circuit spun and leaned forward to loom over the camera. Although I got a clearer look at his face it still wasn’t enough to make out much of it. Enough to give me a strange feeling in my gut, though. I was having a lot of those lately. “The call is to warn you to leave well enough alone, Helix. This is now my city, under my protection. I won’t tolerate you or anyone else trying to do my job here, anymore than you tolerate vigilantes in your territory, interfering with your job. It’s time for you to step down and let a real expert do the job.”

“You realize that, even though you do have a lot of experience working with criminals, you still kind of count as one yourself?” I folded my arms and added as an afterthought, “Or a vigilante. Or both.”

“History will prove which of our opinions is right, I think.” Circuit leaned back in his chair and pointed a finger at me. “I’ve given you fair warning. Leave or face the consequences.”

He twitched his finger once, like he was pushing an invisible button, and the TV switched off. I glanced back at Teresa and we quickly stepped off to one side of the display window, huddling up with Gearshift, who was quickly tapping the screen of his smartphone.

“How much did you record?” I asked in a soft voice, sure that Circuit could still eavesdrop on us even if we couldn’t see him.

“I didn’t get the first ten seconds or so,” he said. “And I had a bad angle so I don’t know how much of the visuals are going to be of use. But we’ve got all the audio.”

I gave him a slap on the back. “Well done. Lets-“

The screen of his phone suddenly went dark. We all stared at it for a few seconds then Teresa dug her phone out of a pocket as I felt a headache coming on. A second later Teresa said, “I think we’ve been EMPed.”

Gearshift cursed viciously. From the look of the case and the cleanliness of the screen I was guessing it was a new phone. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Most insurance policies consider destruction by malicious terrorist adequate reason for replacement.”

“I guess.” He stared at it for a second then shook his head. “Fastest I’ve ever had one of these turn into a paperweight, though.”

“Hang on to it,” Teresa said, matching actions to words by putting her own back in her pocket. “There’s a chance Forensics can recover some of the data on it.”

I pulled a hand across my face, trying to wipe away all the exhaustion I was suddenly feeling. When I could see again my eye fell on the unconscious people at the base of the window. “Okay, let’s head back to the venue. We need to let everyone else know the score and figure out what we’re doing next. And find someone to grab these poor saps off the street before Circuit remembers to come back and grab them.”

The three of us set off across the city at a fast pace, doing our best to remain alert. I’ll confess to being more than a little distracted, though, with my brain spending a lot more time trying to work out Circuit’s angle this time around than paying attention to what was going on around me. Teresa slowed down a step or two for some reason, I have to confess I’m not sure why, and I nearly ran into her. She glanced back at me and frowned. “You’re making your ‘Circuit is bugging me again’ face, Helix.”

“I don’t have a ‘Circuit is bugging me again’ face. That would be a stupid face to have.” I looked at Gearshift. “I don’t have make that kind of face, do I?”

He held up his hands. “Don’t look at me. This is our first time working together, am I right?”

That was enough for me. “See? The man says I don’t have that kind of face. He would have noticed it by now.”

“He is noticing it, right now,” Teresa said with a laugh. “He’s just scared to admit it.”

“Scared? Of what?”

She shook her head. “Forget it, you’re just trying to change the subject now. Seriously, Helix. What’s wrong? Aside from the obvious.”

I cracked my knuckles absently, trying to figure out what to say next since she’d cut off the easy comeback. “It just doesn’t sit right.”

“What doesn’t?” Gearshift asked.

“Him calling me out.”

“But he did that during the Enchanter business back when I first joined,” Teresa pointed out. “That was another case of him trying to do our job to make a point.”

That was exactly what was bothering me. He had called us out before taking a direct hand in the Enchanter case. “Maybe. But last time the point of contacting us was to give us the chance to work together. Why call us now? He can’t possibly expect us to back off.”

“He does have a weird idea of fair play,” she answered. “Maybe he just feels he has to, in order for things to be done right.”

“Could be. But I’d have expected him to do it before hand, to make his eventual move that much more impressive when it looked like we were powerless to stop it.” I hesitated, a new thought occurring to me. “That’s what’s wrong.”

Teresa and Gearshift both gave me quizzical looks. “What?”

“Wheels within wheels.” I could tell they didn’t get it but instead of explaining I picked up my pace. “Come on. We need to get those looters picked up and back to the venue. I need to talk to an analyst…”

——–

Izzy

“Why does she have a tire iron?” Helix stormed through the backstage area, voice booming much louder than you’d expect for such a small guy. He was talking about Jane, who for some reason still had the tire iron she’d picked up at the shopping plaza in one hand.

“We had a little trouble, Helix,” Al said, getting up from the small cluster of people sitting by the back wall of the venue. “There-“

“No tire irons,” Helix said. “Loose it somewhere.”

Jane and I exchanged a bewildered look but while we were at it Amp gently slipped the tire iron from Jane’s hand and passed it to Clark Movsessian, her drummer, and Clark made it disappear almost like it was magic. Al watched the whole thing impassively and, once the show was over, said, “Done. Want to share what the big issue is?”

“Where are Cheryl and Samson?” Helix asked instead.

“Cheryl was missing when we got back,” Amp answered. “Samson went to try and find her. I heard them talking with the manager a few minutes ago. I think it has something to do with the generator not being enough to keep the full air conditioning system going – you of all people must have noticed how hot it’s getting out there. People in the crowd are going to start passing out soon.”

“Great. Just what I need today.” Helix slumped down onto one of the boxes we’d been using as seats and leaned his head against the wall. “Terrorists are taking over the city while we’re waving tire irons around and letting people pass out.”

Al sat down on the floor next to Helix and said, “So you’ve confirmed the outage was caused maliciously.”

Helix nodded. “I just talked to someone claiming to be Open Circuit, and in complete control of the city. He’s got a nice little view to go with it. He not only spotted us moving around but managed to EMP bomb us and he’s taking out looters and leaving them on doorsteps like he thinks he’s a stork or something.”

“Circuit’s back and he’s worried about a tire iron?” Jane whispered to me.

“Little things. He needs to have the little things because sometimes that’s all he can get,” I whispered back, echoing something my mother had said to me many times.

“Why do you say ‘claiming to be’?” Gearshift asked. “I didn’t see anything to make me think it’s not him.”

Clark shook his head. “If Circuit’s existence was still classified it I’d say that’s enough to assume it’s him. But there were copycats for months after we cracked his last operation. There’s a chance whoever you saw is another one, although if his is he’s doing a lot better job of it than anyone else who tried. Circuit plays big and wiping out the city’s power grid is the closest anyone’s ever come to his level of ambition.”

“Not wiped out – taken over,” Helix clarified. He went over the whole conversation his group had just had with Circuit for us. “And there’s another thing you haven’t considered, Movsessian,” he said when he was done.

“What’s that?” Clark was a field analyst and considering things was his job. He looked a little miffed at the idea that he wasn’t doing it.

“He could be a decoy Circuit set up to distract us. Circuit never directly does whatever it is he wants to do, he’s always juggling multiple things at once – this could just be another gambit to distract us while he does something else. Whatever that is.” Helix pushed away from the wall and pressed his palms into his eye sockets for a moment, then shook his head. “No point tying ourselves into knots over it, though. Amp, I want to talk to the manager. Can you ask him to come over here with Cheryl and Samson?”

She nodded and backed a step or two away from the group, lips moving but not making any sound we could hear. Helix slapped his hands to his knees and gripped them like he was looking for something stable to hang on to. “We’ve got work to do, ladies and gentlemen. For starters, Circuit has a headquarters in the city. Someplace high up, with a view of the lakefront and no similarly high buildings between it and the lake. Teresa, Gearshift, did either of you-“

“Waltham Towers.” Clark said it with such certainty that Helix stopped midrant for a full two seconds.

“I agree,” Lincoln said, piping up from his spot by the wall. “Waltham Towers is the skyscraper closest to the lake. I’ve been in most of the big ones one time or another and you can see the Towers from all of them, most of them have at least one other big building visible from them.”

Helix scratched his head. “Well that’s kind of useful, except we can’t be sure the image we saw was taken from the public observation area of the building, or that it didn’t come from one of the big buildings that didn’t have an observation deck or some such.”

“No. It’s definitely Waltham Towers.” Clark smiled. “You know how the property changed hands about four years ago because the last owners were in trouble financially?”

“How about I take your word for it and you get to the point?” Helix suggested.

“Three guesses who was middleman and did the accompanying remodeling.”

Helix’s eyes narrowed. “Keller Real Estate and Development.” It wasn’t a question. “That must have been a big deal for them.”

“The biggest they ever closed,” Clark confirmed. “It’s not one of the properties we had a special interest in from earlier investigations but when Circuit disappeared we pulled a complete list of everything Keller Realty has worked on and that was at the top of the list.”

“Okay, that is a pretty strong case for that being the center of operations. And if it’s true, it’s another reason to suspect Circuit and not someone else.” Helix looked at Amplifier. “Are they coming?”

“They’ll be here in a minute.”

“Good. That leaves three little things to take care of. Or one big thing, depending on how you look at it.” Helix pulled himself to his feet and dusted his hands off. “Gearshift. Jane. Isabella. You three aren’t cleared for field work yet but we need people on the ground right now and you’re close enough that I’m willing to give you a pass. But I’m not forcing you – if you want to cut out now it won’t look bad on your record. So. Field promotion to active field agent or bow out and wait for another day?”

Jane answered immediately. “No time like the present. I’ve got a bone or two to pick with my ex-boss anyway.”

“I’ve cleared everything but my wall diving certificate anyway,” Gearshift said with a grin. “So long as I don’t try to run straight through a skyscraper we should be okay.”

“So long as you don’t get cocky,” Helix said with a smirk. Then he looked at me. “What about you, Izzy? You’re the youngest here and honestly, from a PR angle, I don’t like the idea of someone under twenty-one out on this.”

“To say nothing of what her father might say?” Papa asked, looming out of the backstage shadows to tower behind Helix.

Helix didn’t even glance back at him. “She’s an adult and I started field work when I was even younger. I’d be something of a hypocrite if I didn’t give her the chance – and that’s something you’re not very enthusiastic about, isn’t it?”

Papa just grunted and looked at me.

Which kind of put me on the spot. I knew my father didn’t want me running around with a supervillain on the loose. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be left out when Jane and Al were risking their necks. But more than anything I hated the thought that someone was willing to cause all this mayhem just to try and prove a point – if this was what it took the point wasn’t worth arguing.

“Don’t let anyone twist your arm into it,” Helix said, sensing my indecision. “If you don’t want to do it you’ll just be a liability.”

I took a deep breath and said, “What if I just want to knock Circuit into the next time zone?”

Helix smirked. “Then you’ll have to get in line. I filed my NBH-186 years ago, that means I get first dibs. Now all three of you need to raise your right hands.” He waited until we did. “You going to do all you can to drag Circuit in and throw him in jail?”

Gearshift said, “Yes.”

Jane and I exchanged an uncertain look and did the same.

“Great. By the powers vested in me, etcetera, etcetera, you’re field agents. Put your hands down, this isn’t an elementary school.”

“Huh.” Gearshift looked at Amp. “That felt kind of anticlimactic.”

“That was pretty ceremonial,” she said with a smirk. “When he made me an acting field agent, last time Circuit went wild, I only got one etcetera.”

“There was only one of you at the time.” Helix waved papa and Cheryl into the circle. “Now listen up, people. Circuit’s one step ahead of us – again. That’s fine. We always have been and we’ve gotten better at winning from there every single time. Here’s what we’re going to do this time.”

Everybody’s a critic

So criticism is good for you, whether it’s criticism of your work or someone else’s. The next logical question is, what critics provide useful feedback? There’s a lot of critics out there, ranging  from Michiko Kakutani, literarian extrodinair, to Noah Antweiler, the Spoony One. What are their relative values and weaknesses?

Well, in short, it really depends on what kind of aspect of a work you want to examine.

In general, highly literary critics are going to grapple with issues like theme and symbolism. Many works are crammed full of tiny subtleties that are all designed to point the audience to a single conclusion about a work, many of them so subtle or so vague that the audience either misses them or isn’t sure what to make of them. When you add in creators who add symbolism without bothering to consult with an expert on what it’s supposed to mean (I say this with tongue firmly in cheek) or who add symbolism for the express purpose of muddying the waters, it’s easy to wonder how much value there is to reading that kind of highly literary criticism.

The answer is, a lot. As I’ve said before, many creators are building their stories with all the care of a master jewel thief planning one final heist. Careful examination of that kind of work is definitely beneficial. But all but the most patient and painstaking minds will find that it grows dull after a while (and not a long while at that). I try to read one or two works of serious literary criticism a year – currently I’m working through “Reading Joss Whedon,”edited by Wilcox, Cochran, Masson and Lavery. Also, this is the kind of criticism you only tend to get from books and journals, the kinds of things it’s better to get from a library (cheap) or dedicated research database (expensive) than try and dredge up online, so access to it is not as easy as the next kind.

You see, below literary criticism but above the layman’s criticism is the criticism you get from people who spend a lot of time exploring stories and have become experts on narrative structure and examining the craft of writing. We’ll call this semi-literary criticism. There’s a lot of people out there these days that dabble in this kind of criticism. Already mentioned are reviewers like Kakutani (who I believe has done some true literary criticism as well) and Noah Antweiler (who has done no literary criticism and has the motto “Because bad movies and games deserve to be hurt back!”)

While Spoony can be both excitable and crass he does put a lot of thought into his critiques and takes the time to thoroughly, sometimes too thoroughly, explore his points. It might be tempting to write him off, since he doesn’t have any background education in writing or film, but the fact is you don’t really need much beyond reading comprehension and a nose for lazy writing to be a good semi-literary critic and Spoony has both in spades. Spoony has examined the plots of a number of video games as well. While that’s still kind of useful for a hardcore writer many of his critiques are not going to translate to other mediums directly.

Doug Walker, The Nostalgia Critic, is a movie critic and leading member of the League of Super Critics and his work is very good. While he is a movie critic first, and thus addresses issues such as the strengths of an actors performance or the technical level of a film’s cinematography, there’s still more than enough said in his typical review about plot and characterization to inform attentive writers watching his work.

There’s very few to no video reviews or podcasts for written fiction that I know of – Linkara’s Atop the Fourth Wall for comic books on Channel Awesome, liked with the Nostalgia Critic above, coming the closest that I can think of – but a good way to find in-depth analysis of a book is to hit up Goodreads. I don’t recommend doing this with a book you love as the Internet has absolutely no regard for the things you love and that will probably hurt. But if you had a title you thought was mediocre, chances are the people on Goodreads have analyzed why it’s lousy or not lousy six ways from Sunday and there’s a lot you can learn from reading that kind of thing.

And, of course, I have also dabbled in semi-literary criticism right here, and hope to continue doing so for a long time.

So we come full circle back to you. Yes, you too should indulge in criticism. The more criticism you read the sharper you mind should become and the sharper and more insightful your abilities to pick apart writing and analyze it should become. Practice it as much as possible on your own so when you disagree with other critics you’ll be equipped to talk about why. Who knows, you might eventually be able to make your living as a literary critic yourself! Don’t worry, we won’t hold it against you if you do.

Cool Things: Prince of Foxes

Prince of Foxes is a work of historical fiction by Samuel Shellabarger set in the long ago days of Italy during the era of the free cities, specifically during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, as the power of Cesare Borgia was at it’s zenith. As the name implies, the book centers on a character who prizes himself on cunning and subtlety – although the relative value of those things is left more for the reader to decide on his own.

The plot revolves around Andrea Orsini, a young noble and chevalier (or knight) in the service of Cesare Borgia, who’s working his way up the ranks of Borgia’s court and has just been assigned his first political mission (as opposed to a combat mission.) Andre faces a lot of problems along the way – he’s lying about who he is, he’s fallen in love with a married woman and he winds up dueling one of the most proficient chevaliers of his era on something of a fool’s errand. And then there might be the little part where he adds to his problems by deciding to betray one of the most powerful men in the land for the sake of outdated notions of love and honor…

At the very heart of the conflict is the growing and competing notions of honor and self interest Andre holds. On the one hand, Andre prides himself on being very modern and quietly sneers at the values of honor and chivalry that so many of the foreign knights espouse. That’s not without cause – Northern Italy was one of the richest parts of Europe at the time and wouldn’t be eclipsed until it’s poor avenues of trade to the American continents gave the advantage to England and the Dutch, and they got there in part by shedding feudal ways of living often upheld by notions of honor and duty. But they were also ways that Borgia would take them back to.

On the other hand, the Lord Varano, an old soldier who has lived by the code of honesty and respect for all people, is the embodiment of the Italian free city. He serves his people as much as they serve him and he lives chivalry rather than preaching it. He has married Camilla, Andrea’s love interest, for her protection and not out of romance or a desire for heirs. Varano respects his people’s rights because that is the honorable thing to do in his mind, providing a picture of honor and chivalry that upholds something worthwhile rather than something cynical and self-serving, like Borgia and the serfdom he’s seeking to go back towards. Neither honor or cynicism are ideals, it turns out, but rather tools to uphold either freedom or slavery – and it’s these Andre has to choose between.

Although Andrea has been promised Varano’s city and wife by Borgia, if only Andrea will help take them by treachery and murder, ultimately Borgia doesn’t view Andre as his equal as the old man and his wife do. In no long period of time Andre will have to decide where his loyalties lie and each choice comes with unpleasant consequences.

This story has pretty much everything you might like from a good piece of historical fiction. A wealth of real, historical figures, a backdrop of events of great consequence – although little discussed now, Italy of this time period was a testing ground for democratic principles like citizen’s rights – and most important of all, fictional characters that blend seamlessly into the historical narrative. It also grapples with questions of what it means to be a man, to lead people and where the place of God and honor (or societal pressures if you want to be technical) fit in it all.

While the plot moves pretty slowly by modern standards that is fairly reasonable for a book over seventy years old and not all tales of intrigue hinge on how fast events move. Prince of Foxes is one that prefers to entrap readers by how much pressure it puts on. The story is chock full of characters, real and imagined, noteworthy for their cunning. There’s at least three different agendas at work most of the time and gambits pile up pretty high by the end. At the same time, at least one protagonist gets through most of the book totally ignorant of all the machinations and if you can’t follow them all either you won’t be any worse off.

If what you want is a good story with memorable characters who do a little scheming and a little standing on principle, this is one of the best books I can recommend. On the other hand if all you want is a good yarn well told this is… still one of the better options out there.

And if you want a hero without fear and above reproach, it’s got that too.

So go read it! It’s worth your time.

Thunder Clap: Shake Up

Izzy

I really should stop listening when people tell me something is worth a shot. And by people, I mean Jane. She has this idea that just because I’ve never used my ability to smash anything for kicks I’m repressed. I don’t understand why she seems to think smashing things is going to be such a productive route to solving so many problems.

But let me back up here. We went to visit Al’s friend, Lincoln He, who is the nephew of Al’s wushu instructor, as a part of our patrol. That meant going into the outskirts of Chinatown.

Now I have nothing against Chinatown or the He family but I swear it has the highest concentration of shops per city block anywhere in the U.S. They come in individual stores, strip malls and quaint little plazas with fancy Oriental gates, and in every other possible arrangement you can think of short of actual shopping malls. A surprising number of these storekeepers live on top of or behind their shops but most of the newer shopping centers have done away with that old time convention.

Lincoln He doesn’t live in one of those newer shopping centers.

He lives on a little plaza with oriental looking storefronts facing in on a nice courtyard with waist high red pots and planters holding live plants and bushes, a worn wooden railing marking a walkway around the outside and, at least at the time we arrived, a half a dozen people poking through the stores with crowbars. That last part was not a typical feature of the shopping center, which I guessed from the way Al reacted when he saw them.

We had six people with weapons, mostly crowbars or baseball bats with one tire iron mixed in to switch things up a bit. They were all male, which wasn’t really surprising, and they were in the process of trying to pry through one of those folding metal security doors at the front of a shop when we walked into the courtyard. Other than a little vandalism that ruined perfectly good trees I didn’t see an signs of long term harm done yet.

“Hey!” Al called, reaching into his back pocket for his ID, “Put down you weapons and step away from the door.”

“Who’s that?” I heard one of the thugs ask his friends. The general consensus was that they didn’t know and they didn’t care. In their defense, the three of us were all dressed in T-shirts and jeans or, in Jane’s case, cargo pants so we didn’t exactly look intimidating.

At least, until thug number one stepped up to give Al a shove and wound up coming to an almost comical dead stop as Al diverted the force of the push into the ground at his feet. Thug one started to back off a step, maybe to bring his baseball bat into play, but Al turned the move into a takedown, rolling his opponent back while tripping him with one foot and letting him slam flat on his back with an added shove’s worth of momentum.

Things turned hectic after that.

For the first few seconds of the fight my contributions consisted of taking one of the other would-be looters and turning his crowbar into a set of impromptu handcuffs. That took the fight out of him and gave me enough time to get my bearings – a lot happens in a fight in just a few seconds but, at the same time, if I’d accidentally broken the man’s wrists while tying him up because I wasn’t paying attention I’d have been in all kinds of trouble with Al. Not to mention Helix.

Stunned boy was back on his feet but leaning on his bat for the moment. Al was going three on one with most of the remaining thugs while Jane was holding the tire iron and gleefully stomping on her opponent’s toes to keep him off balance. Since none of the thugs were using bladed weapons, which could actually hurt Al since cutting and whacking apparently aren’t the same thing from a physics standpoint, I grabbed Jane’s dance partner by the belt and dropped low, using leverage to swing him around into an underhanded toss into thug one, who was still disoriented and went back down flailing and shouting under his partner in crime.

At that point it should have just been mopping up except it turned out our friends had friends. Friends with guns.

Another three guys, each with some kind of handgun, chose that moment to come running into the plaza, shouting in an attempt to figure out what was wrong and clearly demonstrating why one of the first things you learn to do in just about any kind of tactical training program is communicate clearly. I had no idea what they were actually saying but guns are a problem for just about everyone. Even Al couldn’t move around freely under steady gunfire.

Jane saw them too and came up with a solution first. She pointed to one of the large planters, about eight feet long and two wide, and said, “Stack and shove!”

“Can you tank the recoil?” I asked.

“It’s worth a shot!”

——–

Okay it’s time for a quick explanation of how my talent works. Papa and I are taxmen, a name that was coined because we supposedly levy a tax on entropy. In a nutshell everything you do takes energy and most of that energy is wasted as entropy. When a taxman like me is around we take a small portion of that energy and store it for later use. The name is genderally pejorative because it was coined in the late 1920s.

Now that idea sounds really simple in principle because it is. Dr. Higgins, one of the guys Project Sumter has been been working with to build a better picture of how talents work, has this huge mathematic equation that lets you figure out exactly how much energy we steal in a given situation but we never use it. You see, we can sense that waste.

Don’t ask how I can sense an abstract law of physics at work. I spent an hour trying to explain it to Dr. Higgins and we both wound up confused. That’s how it usually works when somebody tries to explain their talent to someone who doesn’t share it.

What’s important here is that we know when entropy is happening, we feel it as it makes us stronger and we know how much power we have from it to use. What we don’t do is project it like it’s some kind of mystical energy or a forcefield or something. We exploit loopholes in physics, we don’t break them. I can punch a car and fling it across a parking lot but only if I can somehow brace myself against that equal and opposite reaction people like to talk about in Einstein voices. Otherwise the car just rocks on its suspension and I fly back into whatever’s behind me.

This is a big part of the reason why Massif is my combat instructor. Wushu is a martial art that’s largely about positioning the self to best direct force and he has taught me more ways to effectively use my talent in the last year than papa learned in nearly ten years working for the Project. What he hadn’t let me do is apply any of that knowledge. I don’t have a feel for my strength yet, as he puts it. and so he’d been leery about my trying anything he’d taught me on someone who was less than moderately indestructible.

But Jane is part of a moderately indestructible group of people and working together as much as we had in the past year we’d discovered that her ability to trap incoming force let her brace me when I really needed to move something.

——–

The planter was way to heavy for me to do anything but maybe pick it up and throw it. Problem was that would keep me stuck in one place long enough I was likely to get shot in the process. So instead Jane and I lined up one side of the planter, Jane bracing me as I gave the planter a hard shove. Since she’s a vector trap, Jane was able to take all that equal and opposite reaction and store it for later use. I got a really solid shove on the planter and it went towards the guys with guns like I wanted.

Unfortunately, as Al says, I don’t know my own strength. I’d never done something like that before.

I way overshot the mark. Instead of sliding the planter along the ground and clipping the newcomers with it; the thing rolled over once and flipped up a good fifteen feet in the air, scattering dirt and plants across the courtyard in a bizarre reversal of rain. The three new guys threw their hands over their heads as the cloud of dirt and plants fell on them, one was taken out by a small bush landing on his head the other two dropped their guns as they wiped furiously at their eyes and spat dirt from their mouths. The planter crashed to the ground behind them and rolled straight over the decorative gate, sending it careening into the street beyond in splinters.

Behind me, Jane stumbled and fell back on the ground, the pavement beneath her shattering as she lost her grip on the forces she’d just absorbed and it went careening through the ground as she landed. Clearly she hadn’t been as ready to handle the recoil as she’d thought.

The two thugs left fighting with Al saw all that and decided that dropping their weapons like they’d been told was the better part of valor. As for our unarmed combat instructor, he let the thug he’d been grappling with out of the hold he’d been in and shoved him away with a sigh. Then he folded his arm behind his back and surveyed the scene, trying to look harsh but a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

That was when we heard Lincoln yelling from across the courtyard, “What are you kids doing on my lawn?”

——–

Helix

We’d just about reached the halfway point of our look around town when we spotted the bodies.

I confess to having the stupid thought, about two minutes before we stumbled on them, that we were going to have a really simple time of it. Everything had been going so well.

Gearshift looked like a natural for field work – he paid attention, he pointed out anything he thought looked odd right down to the unmarked white van we passed a few blocks from the concert venue – which Teresa photographed with her phone in case we needed to run the plates – and he kept his mouth shut the rest of the time. I remembered him as a headstrong, stubborn kind of a guy from our first meeting a couple of years back but I guess field training had steadied him some.

Of course a fog bank like him could easily kill himself if he did something stupid like trying to walk through the load bearing wall of a building and causing it to fall on himself. It was a sobering revelation and news to most of the living ones we found.

There weren’t even that many people out on the streets. Most of the city seemed to have settled in to wait out the power outage. It wasn’t that we didn’t see people, there were a fair number out on the porches or decks of the houses we passed, but they didn’t seem interested in going anywhere.

But several blocks on the houses gave way to an apartment building and beyond that a small strip mall. There was a drug store, a grocery, a hole in the wall restaurant and an electronics store advertising cheap smartphones. There were nine people lined up under the big window of the electronics shop, all seated with their back to the building, heads propped up on their knees and with hands seemingly at their sides. The store window behind them was broken.

One of the best parts of weird experiences is that, even when your job is dealing with them, they’re still new and exciting every time.

This is also one of the worst parts about them.

A glance at Teresa confirmed she was thinking along the same lines as I was. Gearshift just waited for me to give him a signal. After a moment’s thought I didn’t see anything for it but to wave them forward.

We spread out a bit so we’d have room to move if we needed to and Teresa produced a sidearm from a holster at the small of her back, hidden under her loose fitting shirt. Gearshift looked a bit surprised to see it but he shouldn’t have. I’d come to realize that her battered, thrift store purchased T-shirt and cargo shorts, both of which looked like they came out of the men’s section, were just another expression of a deep seated pragmatism that came from a childhood spent living at or near the poverty line. That pragmatism didn’t let her spend more than a few dollars on clothes unless she had to and it didn’t let her walk around the city with herself or her friends unprotected.

In this case, though, we didn’t really need much protecting. There was some stray glass on the ground but the eight men and one woman we found weren’t really that much of a threat. They were all unconscious with their hands handcuffed behind their backs. A couple of crowbars and a baseball bat lying on the ground or leaning against the broken windowsill gave a pretty clear picture of why those people had come there.

I gave one of the sleeping men a poke with my toe, just to see what would happen. He didn’t even groan. I had to lean in close enough to hear him breathing before I was sure he was alive. A glance through what was left of the window confirmed that there wasn’t anyone on that side of it and it didn’t look like anything had been taken. Teresa stood on the other end of the line of people, giving her a better view of the interior of the shop through the window. “It doesn’t look like there’s anyone there,” she reported after a moment. “What do you think happened?”

“Looks like vigilantes,” Gearshift said with contempt I found ironic, given that’s what he’d been when we first met. He trotted up to the wall, his feet sending tiny ripples through the sidewalk as his density increased to the point where matter around him was nearly a liquid in comparison. He gave me a look and jerked his head at the wall. Did I want him to go through it and get a better look inside?

I was about to make my answer when the TV in the store window switched on and said, “I’m very flattered to hear that you think so, Agent Gearshift.”

Teresa snapped her gun up and trained it on the TV while Gearshift just jerked back from the wall like it had burned him. I held still. There was no way the man on the screen was anywhere near close enough for my moving to matter, one way or another. Either we were already in a trap or we weren’t.

The TV showed a slightly grainy view of a man sitting in a leather desk chair in front of a row of floor to ceiling windows that gave a stunning view of the city. Most of the visible skyline was dark but I could make out the lights of civilization out in the suburbs and the more remote patches of the Lake Michigan shoreline. The man in the chair concealed his face with a fedora pulled low over a long scarf, wound around his face like a mask. He was dressed in a pinstripe vest and pants, a plain white dress shirt and a mess of wires and reinforced electronic gear that spilled off his belt and vambraces onto the chair he was seated in and most of the visible floor around him.

A closer look at the TV let me spot a small camera attached to one of the corners and pointed at us. I narrowed my eyes and addressed it, not the screen. “Hello, Circuit.”

“Double Helix.” The man leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his stomach. “It has been far to long. Welcome to my city.”

Fiction Index
Previous Chapter
Next Chapter