Thunder Clap: A Brief Cooldown

Helix

The city streets were oddly empty, even for the time of night. It was well after midnight when Samson and I set out from the venue and struck across town. I’d been expecting less traffic, given the power outage and the hour of the night, and we did pass a another car going the opposite direction every thirty seconds or so, but for the size of the city that struck me as far too few.

I thought about mentioning it to Samson but he was staring out the window. I could tell he was still a little hot under the collar – figuratively, not literally – but I wasn’t sure how to broach the topic. Even after working together for nearly two years, I didn’t know the man well. Samson worked with rehabilitating talents guilty of minor offenses. I leaned more towards catching the ones with delusions of grandeur with a small helping of policy advising on the side.

That didn’t mean I didn’t know what his problem was.

“Izzy is as ready for field work as anyone ever is, Samson,” was what I finally settled on saying as we turned onto the highway and I became less concerned with watching side streets. Given how quiet it was I glanced away from the road long enough to try and read the other man but he was still staring out the window. “Massif is there and he’s got almost as much field experience as I do. She’s gotten way more practical training than any of us ever did, since she can do it out in the open and crosstrain with the police. She’ll be-“

“Helix,when you have kids of your own, you’re going to be very embarrassed about this conversation.”

I gave him a confused look but he was still staring out at the streets. “Is this the voice of experience talking?”

Samson gave a rueful laugh and finally turned away from the window. “It sure is. The tactical chief I had the year before I retired was worried about his son joining the police and I told him that he’d probably be safer there than working with us.”

“Were you right?” I asked, aware that the odds pretty much went the other way.

“His son has been shot at twice and probably stared down a dozen knives but he’s only been hospitalized for bruises and cuts from fistfights, so he’s been blessed more than most.” Samson shrugged. “I guess men with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility shouldn’t be surprised when our children follow in our footsteps.”

“Grandpa Wake would say you can’t ever have too much responsibility so long as it’s used in the right way.”

There was a short, comfortable silence in the car, then Samson asked, “Why did your grandpa retire, Helix? I always wondered, back when I joined. It would have been nice to have him there in person to learn from for a while, not just the first few days.”

I glanced at him in surprise. “You met Grandpa?”

He nodded. “Back when I was a troublemaker, not a peacemaker, Project Sumter brought me in and the Sergeant was there to keep an eye on me until Michael was confident I wouldn’t cause any further problems. He was a frightening man, in his own way.”

“What, did he lose his temper and break something?”

“Age makes a difference for us, Helix. It’s not like we’re actually limited by this.” He slapped a hand to his forty inch waist. There was a slight shockwave, he had enough of a gut for that, but I knew that most of it was muscle. There was a theory around that taxmen actually stored their borrowed entropy in muscle and that was why they could pack it on so easily compared to most. Samson laughed and added, “I met this one ex-K-“

He stopped abruptly and shook his head. “Never mind. What I’m trying to say is, these days cellphones, cars and light bulbs alone put out more power than a taxman could hope to use in a lifetime. There wasn’t as much technology when I was a stupid kid but there was more than enough that I could throw a bus at the agents who came to pick me up. Imagine my surprise when I met a man who I was sure could throw that same bus into orbit.”

“Orbit?” I looked away from the road longer than was strictly safe. We didn’t crash only because there wasn’t much on the road to crash into.

“You didn’t realize?” Samson asked, honestly curious.

“What he could or could not do with public transportation wasn’t something Grandpa talked about a lot,” I said dryly. “He didn’t say much to me about what he thought he could do, just what he’d done.” A shrug. “He never said why he left Project Sumter but I always felt he and Grandma didn’t like staying there when it had no clear goal. I’m sure he would have come back had war ever broken out with the Soviet Union but the idea of just sitting on standby didn’t sit well with him. Grandpa Wake’s a man of action, even if all that action boils down to is working on the tractor.”

“That’s not surprising, I suppose,” Samson said, leaning back in his seat a bit and letting his eyes droop most of the way closed. “I left for much the same reason. Project Sumter was doing too much cracking down and not enough reaching out. Many young talents just needed help controlling themselves and awareness of the dangers. Instead we tried to scare them into not doing anything at all.”

“The Cold War wasn’t healthy for anyone. We started researching some really freaky things back then. When I’d been with the Project three years I was cleared to read up on the Harvest research.” I cracked my knuckles absently against the steering wheel, watching for the exit we wanted. “Grandma would have thrown a fit if she’d known what they’d done with her ideas.”

“Her ideas?” When I didn’t answer, he needled me a little more. “I never heard of any line of research codenamed Harvest. What did it have to do with your grandmother?”

I shrugged. “During the war she came up with the idea of creating a large scale mild low pressure zone to influence the weather and make it easier for the bomber streams to fly on ’round the clock bombing missions. That’s why her codename is Clear Skies.”

Samson nodded. “I’d heard stories about that.”

“Harvest was research into doing the opposite. I think the name was chosen since it was kinder than the alternative.”

There was a moment of silence, then I heard a sharp intake of breath. “You mean reap. As in reaping the whirlwind. They wanted to make bad weather instead of good weather?”

“Bingo.”

“Why?”

Another shrug. “Making storm systems on demand would be a great way to interfere with spy satellites, slow the progress of armies in the field, even cause artificial droughts and famines if you really felt mean. The ultimate goal was to make artificial tornadoes, although they never even built a theoretical model for that.”

Samson sat up straight again at the mention of tornadoes. “How much of the rest can we do?”

“None of it.” I said it with real satisfaction. I wouldn’t stop being a heat sink for anything but I didn’t like the idea that someone could make a desert just because they hated the rain and chased it off whenever it came near. “Even the most basic weather manipulating formulas they came up with never worked in practice. Too many variables, or something. Research was stopped almost forty years ago, although there are one or two people out there who periodically suggest starting it again.”

“I suppose you could use that kind of ability to end droughts as easily as cause them,” Samson mused. “Or pull hurricanes into landfall in the least damaging place possible.”

“I’m not saying there aren’t good uses for the idea,” I said quickly. “I just don’t think the Project Sumter I used to work for was prepared to use the ideas in good ways. I hate to admit it but some of what Circuit’s forced us to do has been for the better. Any transparency at all would have been an improvement and he sure forced a lot of it on us. But his methods are a- What’s that?”

Coming around a curve in the highway I could see at least half a dozen vehicles stopped in odd positions across the highway. Almost as soon as I saw them the steering wheel went stiff and unresponsive under my hands and I stopped talking to focus on keeping the vehicle under control. The dashboard was dark and the engine wasn’t running. Samson jerked forward in his seat, scanning in all directions in case there was a surprise waiting for us somewhere out there, and asked, “What happened? EMP?”

“I think so.” The car kept going under the influence of momentum but I stepped on the brakes and aimed for the side of the road. “Looks like Circuit’s been working on cutting off the highways as a way to get around.”

“It certainly explains why we’ve seen so few cars out,” Samson agreed.

“On the bright side that means he wasn’t deliberately targeting us this time, probably just hitting every car that comes past. No doubt using satellites to spot them, although I wonder how the EMP is being delivered.”

Once I got the car mostly out of the road I put it in park, we climbed out and Samson picked up the car and moved it so that there was no chance of some other out of control driver crashing into it. I could see a few people who had been milling about the other stalled cars gawking at us but ignored them. Not having to keep a low profile all the time was nice in more ways than one.

With the car out of the way Samson dusted off his hands and said, “Are you really sure you want to do this?”

“Well, it’s not going to be fun for either of us from what I understand.” I started limbering up my legs a bit as I spoke. “But if we don’t do it then we’ve kind of defeated the point of your coming along with me, instead of staying with the others at the convert venue.”

He sighed and carefully lowered himself down onto one knee, wincing slightly in the process. “You’d better climb up, then.”

A few seconds later I was up on his back and we left the gawkers and Circuit’s impromptu roadblock far behind.

——–

Izzy

“So do we just sit here and keep an eye on things or do we wait for Helix to give new marching orders?” Jane and I were out on the street with Clark, watching the last of the audience from the evening’s abbreviated concert go trickling out the doors.

“Right now Circuit – or whoever – knows where we are,” Clark said, absently twirling the tire iron that Jane had recently brought in around by the socket. “Staying here doesn’t gain us anything, not even doubt about what we might be doing. This was a well publicized concert. Odds are good we’re under surveillance by Circuit already.”

“Creepy,” I muttered.

“I know, right?” Jane sighed. “So we’re just amusing Mr. Voyeur if we hang around here.”

“That’s a great way to put it.” Meaning it wasn’t.

“Sorry, Izzy, I call it like it is.” Jane folded her arms and proceeded to lavish a death glare on the surrounding skyline. “We need to get out there and figure out to undo whatever he did.”

“It would be easiest to just go to his tower and drag him out for a good spanking,” I said. “If your house is covered in webs the fastest way to deal with it is to kill the spider.”

Clark slung his tire iron over one shoulder and shook his head. “Not to brag but I’ve done field work for a year or so now and, in my experience, the oldschool field agents got where they are because they showed a good deal of caution. We may need to go after Circuit and shut down his operation but we’re supposed to do that while trying to minimize the impact he has on the general populace. And minimizing impact means we need to know what impact Circuit is trying to make and how he’s making it.”

“Yeah?” Jane planted hands on hips and gave him a skeptical look. “Speaking of the General Public, I thought we weren’t supposed to be waving tire irons in the air around them?”

“Is that so?” He made a show of looking around the street, which was now pretty much empty. “It’s a good thing they can’t see me, then, isn’t it?”

Jane was obviously winding up for some kind of retort, she would keep going like this all night if we let her, so I stepped in and said, “Well, Massif is in charge of our half of the show so why don’t we go and see what he wants to do now? Maybe he and Lincoln have thought of a good place we can move to, so at least we’ll be out from under Circuit’s eyes.”

“I still think he ought to give me the tire iron back,” Jane sulked.

“Clark doesn’t have a sidearm with him or any kind of talent,” I said, trying to be reasonable. “I think we can stray from what’s normally advisable a little bit.”

“I’m glad one of them sees reason,” Clark said under his breath.

“I heard that!” Jane snapped.

I managed to get the two of them out of the street and back inside without incident. Almost as soon as we were back in the lobby Amp’s disembodied voice said, “Good timing. Get backstage, Massif is rounding up the team.”

Once Jane and I got over near heart attacks – I’ll never get used to the way she does that – I asked, “What’s he planning on?”

“Well the idea is that he’ll tell us the details once we’re all there so neither of us goes hoarse with all the talking.” The sarcasm came through loud and clear, Amp’s got one of the most expressive voices I’ve ever heard. But that just made it easier to hear the contained excitement behind the sarcasm too. “From the sounds of it, though, we’re going to go out and beat Circuit like he’s a redheaded step-child.”

“Alright!” Jane punched a fist in the air and gave Clark a triumphant look. “That sounds like my kind of plan!”

Clark nodded resignedly. “It sounds like someone’s in for a world of hurt. Let’s just hope it’s not us.”

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Worldbuilding: Deep Space Terminology, An Overview

World building is a complex and demanding process. I’m not an expert on it but it is fun to share all that work from time to time and for me, one of the things that means is sharing the dictionaries and lexicons that start to accrue over time as I write stories and come up with new concepts.

This week’s world building log is on The Divided Futures, a series of stories about humanities future and what kinds of challenges it’s going to come up with for itself. Specifically, here are some common terms from the Extrasolar age, the age of interstellar colonization and increasingly difficult national relations. Terms like:

biocomputer – A kind of upgrade to the human brain that works in two ways. First, it allows the human brain to enter a state similar to the fight-or-flight reaction people already possess. They experience time and a much slower relative speed, usually seeing things moving at one half or one quarter the normal rate. Digital computers can also coopt the incredible processing power of the brain to carry out their calculations with, sending the person who’s brain serves as the biocomputer into a sensory deprivation state. The most invasive versions of this technology allow people to experience time at 32x – they perceive time at 1/32nd normal rate – and function as the core of incredibly powerful processing engines. But the human brain cannot adapt to the most advanced forms of this technology past a certain age. This used to be around the age of twenty but, as the changes biocomputers impose on brain matter and function grow more and more pronounced, that age has fallen to fifteen.

cetacean ballet – The term for large space vessels moving in precise patterns via tesseract technology (see below). It generally refers to either the traffic patterns of large passenger or freight ships around a spaceport or the movements of large war vessels engaged in a pitched battle.

CMD – Stands for Cochran Mass Drivers. It’s an unofficial unit of measurement for mass driver technology that still finds widespread use in U.S., Russian and Chinese colonies. One CMD is equal to the amount of mass the Cochran mass driver on Mars can launch from the surface of the planet into orbit in a single firing. Because of it’s age the Cochran mass driver tends to be pretty weak by modern standards and most colonies have local planet to orbit launching systems that average 2-4 CMDs per firing. Constant retooling and upgrading by the Cochran Foundation means that the value of the CMD is almost always in flux, which is just one reason why it’s not an officially recognized unit of measurement.

CODSpace – Slang term for the U.S. Combined Orbital/Deep Space forces (see below), primarily used by other branches of the U.S. armed forces or English speaking foreign militarizes.

ComODS - Slang term for the U.S. Combined Orbital/Deep Space forces (see below), primarily used by people within that branch of service and the media.

downwell – Refers to moving towards the center of a gravity well or magnetic field. Usually attached to a descriptor if there are multiple large gravity wells or magnetic sources in the area. “Downwell Jupiter,” for example, means, “I am moving towards the surface of Jupiter” as opposed to towards one of the gas giant’s major moons. The opposite of upwell (see below).

Exo – Pronounced like the letters “X” and “O”. This refers to an atmospherically sealed suit built around a self propelled exoskeleton that allows people to move and work more effectively in super low pressure environments. They range from simple exoskeletons that give a person enough strength to move components massing twice as much as they do to complex armored weapons of war used by soldiers in low microgravity combat.

hash – Refers to an area where gravity’s effect on spacetime distorts it to the extent a tesseract drive can no longer create folded space. This is usually found in the center of a gravity well such as that created by a planet or a Hawking reactor (see below). Gets its name from the way the relevant space is hashed out on most realtime space charts.

Hawking reactor – A method of generating power created some sixty years ago and widely accepted by humanity, a Hawking reactor uses Unified Field Theory to create a microscopic flux in spacetime – essentially creating a miniature black hole. It then harvests the resulting Hawking radiation to create power. Physicists assure the public that black hole evaporation will prevent these singularities from ever becoming true black holes and that they vanish even if the reactor is not shut down safely, but some people view them with a large measure of distrust regardless.

McGee – US ComODS slang for microgravity (see below).

MGI – MicroGravity Infantry, refers to a ComODS branch that specializes in fighting ship to ship, repelling boarders, boarding and seizing hostile ships and making space to planet assaults. The last doesn’t technically take place in microgravity but the name still makes more sense as calling a fighting force in space Marines…

microgravity – Refers to regions of space where no large stellar object, like a planet or a moon, is close enough to produce gravity noticeable to humans. The effects of an object’s gravity never really disappear, they just become so minuscule as to be meaningless, hence the term microgravity is usually preferred to zero gravity, even though they are functionally the same in most cases.

rad cloud – The heavily concentration of stars near the galactic center, a place widely considered too dangerous for exploratory work, much less colonization.

spacetime – Refers to a mathematical construct that unifies space and time for the ease of higher mathematical functions.

tesseract drive – A method of “propulsion” that folds two distant points in spacetime together and allows a vessel to pass from one to the other in effectively no time at all. The “speed” a space vessel can reach is only determined by how much distance can be covered in a single folding of spacetime and how quickly its generators can recharge the drive and repeat the process. Tesseract drives have existed for nearly one and a half centuries but that doesn’t mean they’re trusted technology. The fact that process of folding spacetime leaves it distorted for several minutes or even hours afterward, to the point that a ship cannot tesser again until it “clears it’s own hash (see above),” is frequently used as an argument that the technology might be permanently damaging spacetime in ways not yet understood.

Unified Field Theory – Often shortened to UFT. A mathematical system that has succeeded in relating three of the four “universal forces” in quantum physics, namely gravity, electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force. The strong nuclear force continues to resist physicists efforts to bring it into the theory with the other three. UFT serves as the foundation for many modern technologies, including artificial gravity, tesseract drives and the Hawking reactors that feed it all.

United States Combined Orbital/Deep Space Forces –  The branch of the U.S. Military charged with securing the spacelanes and defending U.S. Exoplanetary States and Territories from foreign threats. Considers itself the most powerful vacuum-ready fighting force in existence, although the British and Indian space arms both have their own thoughts on that.

upwell – Refers to moving away from the center of a gravity well or magnetic field. Usually attached to a descriptor if there are multiple large gravity wells or magnetic sources in the area. “Upwell Jupiter,” for example, means, “I am moving away from the surface of Jupiter” as opposed to away from one of the gas giant’s major moons. The opposite of downwell (see above).

So there you go. You’re probably not ready to jump in and navigate the space lanes just yet, but at least if you wind up frozen in a block of ice and get thawed out three hundred years in the future you’ll be prepared to talk the talk, if not walk the walk. Best of luck!

Cool Things: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

That immortal bard, Shakespeare, is possibly one of the single best known playwrights in the world. So what would it be like if he had tried his hand at writing science fiction? That’s the question Ian Doescher seeks to answer with his William Shakespeare’s Star Wars trilogy. Verily, A New Hope, The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return are three gleeful, tongue in cheek romps through the twin mythos of Shakespeare and Lucas, blending thoughtful soliloquies with starfighter action in a weird but fun reminder that there really are no new stories, just new takes on them.

This trilogy has plenty to love, from the irreverent twisting of old soliloquies to new circumstances to hilarious illustrations of how the play might be staged, these books are love letters to both sets of source material and a reminder that we love stories best when we enjoy them. Doescher does a great job both painting the movie characters and scenes we know so well while letting the format of Elizabethan theater give further insight into characters that the franchise, due to it’s early limits, explored in other media or the eventual prequels.

You can do a lot with these texts. Obviously, you can just read them, and believe me that’s a lot of fun. But you can also get together with a dozen friends or so and have a hilarious night doing a dramatic reading of them. I did this about a month ago and it was incredible fun. In this way you, like the people of most times up until a hundred years ago, can make your own entertainment and participate in the process, things modern entertainment rarely allows for.

You might even explore staging these shows, although between the difficulties of staging, costuming and finding a large enough cast, to say nothing of the legal challenges inherent in messing with someone else’s IP (especially one as big as Star Wars) make this a daunting prospect..

But most of all these scripts are interesting for what they say about the stories themselves. The timelessness of the characters far surpass the language or the medium used to convey them to us. That’s one of the reasons great art has such enduring qualities, why people are motivated to try and marry such diverse concepts as Shakespeare and Star Wars in the first place.

A careful reading of these texts, especially in comparison with the movies that inspired them, say a lot about the structure of story and relatable characters. Just try not to do it while you’re eating unless you want to spray food all over your kitchen table.

It’s a real hazard, believe me.

Whatever you do, should you choose to peruse these strange yet familiar texts, enjoy yourself. Even the best of these kind are but shadows, after all…

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.”

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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.”