A Break!

Hello people! This is a brief post to let you know what’s up right now. Basically, I’m taking this week and next week off because I’ll be in the process of moving.

Originally I’d hoped to only take one week of doing this but the last week I’ve been pretty stressed and haven’t been able to focus much on anything but getting ready to move and therapy drawing (which is a thing where you destress by drawing stuff). Also, leaving the characters (and the reader) quite literally in the dark over what was going on struck me as a great time for a cliffhanger break.

See you in a bit!

Out of Water – Chapter Four

Lauren and Herrigan had gotten half way out the door of the Third Ward offices when Lieutenant Holly Newcastle, Australian Army, caught up with them.

Herrigan managed to suppress a disgusted sound. Not because he disliked the Lieutenant or had really wanted to go somewhere alone with one of the Australians but because the young woman – more of a girl in his mind – kind of creeped him out. In spite of a month plus of reminding himself that a lot of the ideas trenchmen had about the surface were based on hyperbole and out of date information there were some things he hadn’t gotten past. An intense dislike of professional armies was one of them.

Oscar had pointed out the irony of that coming from someone who was a Deputy Justice and a militia officer and so, technically, in the same line of work. But in Herrigan’s mind fighting wasn’t his job, it was something he did to keep his job. In theory, fighting was Newcastle’s job.

“Lauren?” Holly poked her head past Lauren’s shoulder, a quizzical look on her face. “Are you going somewhere? Ambassador Sudbury doesn’t want any of us wandering alone.”

She sounded more like a schoolmarm than a soldier to Herrigan’s admittedly untrained ear. Lauren didn’t seem to mind because she smiled back and said, “Herrigan just thought we should take a break and grab some refreshments. We’ll be back in a little while.”

“Forty five minutes, tops.” Herrigan put in.

“What kind of refreshments?” Holly asked, clearly skeptical.

“Well.” Lauren gave him a questioning look and said, “If there’s any kind of civilization left down here hard liquor will at least be on the menu.”

“Guaranteed.”

Holly clasped her hands together and said, “Take me with you! If I have to listen to one more word about the complexities of getting all your stupid Chiefs in one place and I’m sober, someone’s going to get shot.”

“Wait.” Herrigan’s brow furrowed. “Who gave you your gun back?”

“My sidearm hasn’t been returned yet. That’s another thing that bugs me.”

It wasn’t going to get fixed any time soon, that he was pretty sure of. But mentioning the fact probably wasn’t going to be helpful so Herrigan ignored the issue of arming her for the moment and considered her request. Ultimately, he didn’t see what it could hurt. “Well,” he said, “you’re probably not getting your gun back until you’re sober again but I’m not one to take booze from someone who has to deal with the Chiefs. Let’s go.”

——–

The sign said that the bar’s name was Orpheus. Holly gave Herrigan a skeptical look. “Orpheus?”

“Third Ward’s very own roving bar,” He said with a grin.

It was Lauren’s turn to look skeptical. “Does it move places?”

“It did in the past.” Herrigan waved at the circular hub room they stood in, ringed with what she guessed were store fronts and other public buildings. “This plaza only opened a couple of years ago. Before that, Orpheus was located one floor up. Whenever the Ward built a layer down into the Trench then the owner would buy up a business plot there and move shop. Orpheus is always as close to the underworld as it can get.”

Holly snorted. “Figures. Randal mentioned that one of the other Chief Executives was named Dante and from Inferno Ward. Are all the naming conventions down here so cheerful?”

“Most of ’em. It fits a place like this, don’t you think? Besides, Inferno Ward is where the Geothermal plant is, so it fits.” Herrigan stepped forward to open the door for them, then turned back and said, “By the way, until we can officially announce that we have Australian visitors to the public you might want to save those kind of questions for when we’re alone.”

Lauren took a quick glance around. Fortunately the plaza was fairly empty at the moment and she didn’t think anyone had overheard. “Good point. Lead the way, oh native guide.”

They pushed through the doors of the bar and in to the dimly lit interior. So far she’d mostly experienced the inside of a salvage sub and the docks and stairwells of the colony itself but even that small sampling had been kind of alien.  But pubs were apparently a universal constant. Orpheus was just a big room with booths, tables and a bar along the side wall. There were a few new wrinkles. Alcatraz itself wasn’t as humid as Erin’s Dream had been but humidity was still higher than she was used to and the near ubiquitous Spanish lace dangled from a number of supports throughout the room.

The people there were about what she’d come to expect from the trenchmen, dozens of men with close cropped or shaved heads, women with bobbed hair, all dressed in brightly colored jackets of various lengths. Between the unusual colors the people wore and the plant life trenchmen scattered everywhere the room felt a bit like a tropical rainforest that had somehow gotten lost and wandered down to the bottom of the ocean.

Herrigan led them to the side of the room, towards the bar. They’d gotten most of the way there when a loud, clearly inebriated voice called, “Hey, Harry! Over here!”

Towards the back of the room an arm clad in bright blue was waving lazily. Lauren vaguely recognized some of the people at the table as faces of the crew they’d come in with, although she probably couldn’t have put names to faces. Herrigan muttered something under his breath and said, “Be right back. I need a word with them.”

Lauren and Holly shared an amused glance as Herrigan hustled away, leaving them by the bar. Almost at the same moment a tall, gangly fellow stepped over to them and asked, “What’ll it be, ladies? Any preferences? Or did Cartwright promise you a drink from his stash?”

“Harry said he’d let us sample some of the best drinks in the Ward,” Lauren said, hoping to avoid ordering anything by name.

“The stash it is,” the barkeep replied. He pulled out a fairly normal looking glass bottle and set it on the counter, followed by three shot glasses. “You’re welcome to sit here at the bar until he gets back to you, or his favorite table’s open if you’d like some privacy.”

“Thanks,” Holly said as she took the bottle and headed towards the table he’d pointed out. As they got away from the bar she dropped her voice and asked, “How often do you think he brings ladies here for privacy? That sounded like a pretty practiced spiel to me.”

Lauren shrugged and made a noncommittal noise as she looked the bottle over. The label announced the drink was Selkie, which she’d never heard of, and it was mostly full. As soon as they got to Herrigan’s table, a booth near the back corner of the room, they poured half a glass in each glass and studied the result.

Holly turned her glass slowly in one hand, then carefully sniffed at the beverage and pulled a face. “It’s… I don’t know.”

The liquid sloshed in the glass but didn’t cling like wine or brandy would. Lauren didn’t smell much from it either, beyond a vague hint of the sea that could easily have come from the room around her. “It’s green.”

“Yeah.” Holly nodded. “Green.”

“It’s Selkie. Distilled seaweed and other flavors.” Herrigan slid into the booth on the other side and scooped up the third glass, downing its contents in a single gulp. With a grimace he set the shot glass down and refilled it, then looked at the ladies. “Not going to try?”

Apparently unable to back down from the challenge, Holly downed her glass with equal speed, then nearly fumbled it onto the floor as she half-choked swallowing. Curious, Lauren took a much more restrained sip of her own drink. It didn’t burn like some well aged whiskies she’d had but it tasted a lot more like grass than she cared to think about. “Must be an acquired taste.”

“I think all booze is, to be fair.” Herrigan downed a second glass but didn’t refill it. “We brewed with what we could spare, back in the day.”

Holly wiped her eyes and swallowed hard, then smoothed the front of her shirt and exhaled sharply. “It’s certainly unique.”

Herrigan smirked. “Suits its makers.”

She bristled at that and pulled herself up a bit in her chair. “Mr. Cartwright, could I ask you a question?”

He shrugged. “Sure, why not? I’m probably not going to give you the best answer, but if you wanted that I’m sure you’d have asked Sam or Randal.”

For a moment Holly paused to gather her thoughts, perking Lauren’s interest. The lieutenant wasn’t an airhead but she didn’t give the impression of a deep thinker, either, and Lauren couldn’t figure out what in the last few minutes could have prompted such a serious attitude from her. Finally Holly looked Herrigan in the eye and said, “Why -”

And all the lights in the bar went dark.

Out of Water: Chapter Three

“Seriously, Sam?” Herrigan flopped down in one of the chairs in his cousin’s office and started to put his feet up on the desk.

Sam caught one ankle on his way around the desk and shoved Herrigan’s feet back towards the floor. “What’s the matter, Harry?”

Herrigan threw a glance at the doorway, which by longstanding Trench tradition had no door in the spirit of not dealing behind closed doors, in the direction of Randal’s office just down the hall. “Kind of feel like there might be better things to be doing with our time. Like maybe keeping an eye on the first ever foreign delegation to our colony?”

“That’s just it. This isn’t a colony, it’s a prison.” Sam’s legs claimed the space where Herrigan’s had been headed a second ago. “Think about it. How to run this place internally has been a point of contention since the inmates started running the asylum. We can’t take ourselves seriously enough to run a coherent government, how can we expect Australia to take us any more seriously knowing that?”

“If they can’t take us seriously that’s the Aussie’s problem, not ours.” Herrigan kept his voice pitched so hopefully he couldn’t be heard down the hall. More than a dozen years on subs had taught him to control his voice in a controlled space so he was sure he couldn’t be overheard normally but he still wasn’t sure what to expect of the delegation. The crew’s consensus from time spent in New Darwin was that the surface was ten to twenty years ahead in terms of miniaturized infotech, he was willing to bet the delegation had listening and recording devices the trenchmen hadn’t even spotted yet. “Anyways, so far as I know the whole colony doesn’t have to negotiate with them. Just one Ward. Preferably ours.”

Sam raised his eyes towards the ceiling in silent supplication. Herrigan wasn’t sure if it was for patience or his quick and accidental death. Or maybe the patience to wait for the accident. “Did it ever occur to you that they could just blow us up instead?”

“They wouldn’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.” Herrigan favored his cousin with a dangerously toothy grin. “Sam, did you ever realize that Erin McClain was an Alcatraz native?”

“Yes…” Sam waved for him to get to the point.

Herrigan leaned forward, his grin dissolving into impatience. “Sam. Have you forgotten that twenty years ago we still used scrap metal to shore up barely functional underwater mines that only met our building needs on a good day? Without Erin McClain we wouldn’t be able to grow ceramics out of seawater. Or if we could they probably wouldn’t be up to resisting pressure at this depth.”

“I get it, Harry, everyone’s heard of Erin McClain. She’s a celebrity down here, saved us from-” The pieces clicked into place with an almost audible snap. “Australia doesn’t know how to make magnetically aligned ceramics.”

“To be precise, no surface nation knows how to make magnetically aligned ceramics.” Sam leaned back in his chair like a cat that got the cream. “McClain building techniques are ten times as strong and four times as cheap as concrete equivalents, and a lot lighter to boot. Even if McClain Tech chooses to build stuff here and ship it to the surface instead of selling the tech to firms on the surface they’ll make a mint, new construction on the surface will get a lot cheaper and no one will want their supplies to the new wonder bricks cut off.”

“McClain ceramics don’t come in bricks. You know that, right?”

“My point is, if we show them what we have to offer reasonable people will see that cooperation is a better way to get it than violence.” Herrigan jerked a thumb in the direction of Harold’s office and the delegation. “As far as we can tell, they’re reasonable people.”

Sam laughed. “Reasonable people don’t round up the folks who disagree with them and toss them on the bottom of the ocean.”

“The good old U.S. of A. did that, not Australia, and they don’t even exist anymore. Place is broken into two countries now and they’re too busy with each other to bother with us.” Herrigan climbed to his feet and started towards the door, pausing to look over his shoulder. “Relax, Sam. Oscar and I hashed this over a lot and the crew put it to a vote, if we didn’t have confidence in this we would have left them on the surface.”

Sam let him get all the way to the door before he said, “That won’t hold up for long, Harry.”

The other man paused in the doorway and turned back. “Beg pardon?”

“That’s a really good song and dance routine you just ran now.” Sam mimed applause. “It might even fly with most people. But try it with a Chief, especially one from another Ward, and they’ll know you’re blowing smoke. That’s an issue but not the biggest one. You went up, Harry. We don’t have many laws down here, compared to the societies that we left behind at least. But not contacting the surface until the Chief Executives say it’s okay? That’s a big one. Someone’s going to call you on it, Herrigan. Not me, probably not Randal. But sooner or later, someone will. Be ready.”

——-

Lauren stepped out of the Chief Executive’s office feeling more than a little exhausted. On top of a new place and a new culture there were a bunch of new security and secrecy protocols in place. Randal wasn’t sure what people would make of outsiders suddenly showing up in their very insular community so he wanted to take things slow. Ambassador Sudbury was okay with that, and Lauren thought she probably would be too. But before she decided she just wanted a break from it all.

Once upon a time she’d thought there was a lot of fuss in being assistant harbormaster.  Now she was sure it wasn’t anything compared to being a diplomat.

She headed aimlessly down the hall out into the reception area for the office suite where Randal and the other leaders of Third Ward had their offices. To her surprise, she found Herrigan leaning against the receptionist’s desk, staring pensively into the distance. “So that’s where you got to.”

Herrigan glanced up. “Yeah, I’m still here. Sam just had a few things he wanted to has out with me.”

She leaned on the desk space beside him, glad that the secretary had been called into Randal’s office so they wouldn’t be interfering with her job. “Randal did mention you were a ‘Deputy Justice’ and would be our escort in town.”

He pinched the brightly colored fabric of his jacket sleeve. “I wear the yellow for a reason, it’s true. But before any of that gets started I need a drink.” He shot her a grin. “Want to come along and absorb some local culture?”

“Sure.” She answered his grin with one of her own. “Sounds like a great way to kick things off.”

Out of Water: Chapter Two

I forgot to mention last week – for those interested in reading about the previous adventures of Erin’s Dream and her crew you can find them here: 

Emergency Surface

Code Red – Part One

Code Red – Part Two

Now on with the story!


Herrigan drummed his fingers on his console, hoping his nerves didn’t show. Of course, the Aussie group probably didn’t know him, or docking procedures, well enough to tell how much nerves was typical for the situation but he couldn’t help but feel very transparent at the moment. But not telling the Australians about the Trench’s buried communications network had been his idea. So had assigning Tank to go out in a salvage sub to connect and disconnect Erin’s Dream from the network during the approach run instead of doing it himself like usual. That didn’t mean he liked the results.

Part of it was the usual feeling of worry over having his dive crews out when he wasn’t with them. Tank was a good salvage driver but he wasn’t the best pilot on the boat. But with Herrigan on the bridge to create an illusion of normalcy and Drip, the boat’s other top Waldo driver, out of commission until he could get a solid psychiatric evaluation Tank was the best qualified for the job on board. Mostly, he just missed seeing the city as they came in.

Third Ward clung to the side of the Trench, well below the early construction that had been put up when Alcatraz was still officially a penal colony but not quite as deep as the geothermal plant Second Ward had built to serve as the colony’s primary power source as it grew larger. On approach in a Waldo salvage sub you could see almost the entire colony glowing softly in the dark, like a jewel half-buried in the ocean’s shifting sediments. It was beautiful and a little wistful and, for Herrigan, the sight was synonymous with homecoming. As much as he loved Eddie, her bridge wasn’t even on the outer hull and she wasn’t equipped with external cameras so that would be one sight he would miss out on this time.

On the other hand, he did get to hear Ambassador Sudbury negotiating with the Chief Executive as they made the half-hour trip down the trench, through the perimeter minefields and into Alcatraz home waters.

Alcatraz may have originally been populated by hardline political groups but that didn’t mean that the colony had fostered political niceties and the clash between Sudbury, who’d struck Herrigan as deliberately obtuse when they’d first met, and Holman, who had the typical blunt spoken nature of most Alcatraz executives, had been… informative. The two were still on the line, hammering out the details of how and when Sudbury would meet with Third Ward’s Operations staff.

Lauren had been doing her best to eavesdrop on the conversation but, since the ambassador was wearing Oscar’s headset, there wasn’t any way for her to hear both sides. Finally she’d given up and left Sudbury and Hathoway debating details by the captain’s station and moved the few feet back to his console. Gwen looked up long enough to give her a friendly nod but kept her attention on her screens.

“I don’t get it,” Lauren said, her attention still mostly on the ambassador. “How can you run a colony as complex as and experimental as this without a central governing body?”

“We got one. Sudbury’s talking to the head of it right now.” He leaned back in his chair as much as it would allow, which wasn’t very much. Eddie wasn’t built with comfort first in mind. “Thing is he wants to talk to all the Chiefs. That’s gonna take time. They don’t like talking to each other much. Getting all of them to agree to talk to a total stranger is going to be worse than herding cats.”

“Do you even have cats?”

“My niece has a cat plushie. I bought it for her fifth birthday.”

Lauren gave him a patronizing smile. “You must have been uncle of the year.”

“Don’t knock plushies. They’re good for lots of uncle points down here.” Herrigan spared a quick glance for his board and then went back to the conversation at hand. “Thing is, Alcatraz isn’t really a nation, per se. It’s more like a county with a bunch of small, bickering cities scattered around in it and no county council to mediate.”

“That’s the part I don’t get. How could you be around for so long and not put some sort of council in place?”

“Never needed one. After the U.S. abandoned Ellis platform and left us to our own devices the districts – which is what we had before separate Wards were built – were release valves for all the differing viewpoints that had been jammed into one place. People gravitated to the district they were most comfortable in and didn’t want anyone telling them they had to do work with the other districts if they didn’t want to. So no one ever tried to get them to work together.” Herrigan paused for a moment as his status board lit up to let him know Tank was safely back on board. He cleared the message and glanced over at the ambassador, who was now talking about something with Oscar. Tank had to have disconnected Erin’s Dream from the network before he docked so apparently plans were now in place. Hopefully Oscar would clue him in on what they were before they happened.

“So basically Alcatraz has no central government because you’re a bunch of stubborn crooks?” Lauren asked.

Herrigan just shrugged. “And isolated from the outside world something fierce, but yeah, basically.”

“Why do you people even worry about protecting this place again?”

He grinned. “Give us a second to get docked and you can see for yourself.”

——–

Lauren followed Harry and the rest of the bridge crew back through the ship’s living section and into what the trenchmen called “the launching dock.” Really it was just a large hold where the six miniature submarines the crew used to cut up salvage sat when they weren’t in use. The massive hydraulic lifts that dropped the subs into sea locks for launching loomed almost all the way up to the catwalks they walked on, giving the room a dreamlike quality, almost like a forest of iron. As they moved towards the exit hatch Lauren caught a whiff of sea brine, which didn’t make any sense because the subs hadn’t been launched since before Erin’s Dream made port in New Darwin.

Of course the whole ship was as humid as a rain forest so it could have been her imagination. Either way, thoughts about humidity and strange smells left her entirely when she climbed out onto Eddie’s top side and got her first look at the port.

Erin’s Dream was a cramped, damp, gray place, built for pure functionality. Not an inch of space was wasted and the only decoration in sight was the garishly bright colors of the jackets the crew wore. Oscar had warned the group that the rest of Alcatraz wasn’t built like the sub but Lauren hadn’t been prepared for just how different it would be. After all the time aboard the dull, claustrophobic ship her brain had a hard time focusing on any one thing so it locked on to the first thing that got its attention. The docks were green.

Or rather, she realized as they clanked across the gangplank to the dock, the piers were built out of some kind of clear plexiglass that allowed light from the ceiling far above to filter down into the gently waving mass of seaweed in the water below. The docks appeared to be much the same except fernlike plants rose up in mounds about chest high, probably contained in planters of some kind and laid out to create lines of traffic. Every so often a lamp pole rose up out of the ferns, the pole and the cross piece near the top covered in a hardy green moss that hung like Spanish lace. Trenchmen moved up and down the docks everywhere, their brightly colored clothes giving the entire place a tropical air.

“Remarkable,” Sudbury said, sounding just as amazed at the docks as Lauren felt. “Are all your docks like this?”

“Docks and most of the other common areas. Now in First Ward,” Oscar gestured vaguely at the ceiling in what Lauren guessed was the general direction of the ward in question, “they used to mandate this kind of stuff everywhere. Most places still have it, although industrial zones cleared it out real quick once they could.”

Hathoway snorted. “I’ve never heard of a place that liked gardening so much they made green thumbs a legal requirement.”

“They just liked breathing,” Herrigan said, sounding a little testy. “Population was outstripping mechanical oxygen supply at the time so we bred an organic supply.”

And just like that the wonder of the situation was gone. Lauren shook herself to get her mind back in the game and said, “Sorry, Harry. We’re just impressed, is all. We’ll try and keep gawking down but you have to admit that we’re kind of fish out of water, here.”

“No. You’re not.” He said it very decisively.

Oscar jumped in as Herrigan seemed to have said his piece. “It’s probably for the best if you don’t use any idioms about water down here. They probably all mean something different than what you’re used to. Let’s get up to the lockmaster’s and you can meet the Chiefs.”

The Australians dutifully followed their native guides, Lauren wondering the whole way what other unexpected landmines they might stumble over on their way.

Out of Water: Chapter One

The hull of Erin’s Dream groaned as the tired salvage sub sank down below the edge of the Marianas Trench. Lauren Cochran watched as the ship’s salvage commander, Herrigan Cartwright, wiped the condensation off the shoulder of his bright yellow jacket and threw it on the floor. It was a practiced, unconscious movement, one she’d realized was something between a dismissal and a curse. Barely two feet to his right the ship’s XO, Gwen Bolton, mimicked the gesture. Apparently the ship’s crew didn’t like the noise any better than she did. Lauren knew Erin’s Dream had suffered a hull breach before making port in New Darwin but the repairs had all been cleared by safety inspectors before it headed out to sea again.

Of course none of those inspectors had been told its final destination was a half forgotten prison colony built near the bottom of the deepest chasm in the world.

With eight people crammed into a space that couldn’t be more than twelve by twelve, plus the control consoles and station chairs, the bridge was cramped and tense. Given the distant attitude the crew had shown them so far she wasn’t sure why the small Australian delegation had been invited to watch the ship make port at Stalag, the Third Ward of a prison colony turned self governing state calling itself Alcatraz. For that matter, she wasn’t entirely sure why she had been sent with the delegation at all. She was an assistant harbormaster, not a diplomat. Her only qualification was the amount of time she’d spent around the crew since they got into port and even on that count she was sure Ambassador Sudbury had her beat. He’d spent a lot of time with the ship’s owners during the weeks it was laid up for repairs.

“All engines stopped,” the XO announced. “How’s her back, Graham?”

“Hull looks fine,” Gwen’s brother replied from the ops station, “but give her a second to get her feet under her. It’s been a while since Eddie was this deep.”

Herrigan pulled a headset out from under his console and put it on. “I’ll call in and let the lockmaster know we’re coming.”

“Lockmaster?” Sudbury asked.

Captain Duffy leaned back from his work station to give the ambassador his full attention. “He’s somewhere between a harbor master and an engineer in charge of keeping the sea locks in working order so subs can get in and out of the Ward.”

“Did you rename everything in your society?” The grumpy man asking was the Sergeant in charge of the small Australian army detachment – really just two people – sent along to keep Lauren and the Ambassador safe. Most people seemed content to attribute his generally surly attitude to the fact that he felt dangerously understaffed for his responsibilities.

“We didn’t rename anything. We just didn’t feel any need to borrow from existing surface societies when inventing entirely new things.” Herrigan was the one exception to the spirit of good will Lauren had noticed, perhaps because he was kind of the opposite of Sergeant Hathoway. Both men had spent a fair portion of the trip watching each other suspiciously and not talking much. He was friendly enough with the rest of the delegation but something about Hathoway seemed to rub him the wrong way.

“What happened to calling in?” Gwen muttered.

Ambassador Sudbury stepped in to break up the tension. “I thought your subs maintained radio silence as a way to stay hidden.”

“Once we’re in the trench we have relays that let us talk to Alcatraz without risk of detection,” the captain said. “Without real time contact we’d have a hard time navigating the hazards between us and home.”

Lauren suppressed a shudder. “What kind of hazards do you have down this deep? Predators?”

Gwen laughed at that. “Nothing big enough to hurt Eddie, even with the bad shape she’s in. There isn’t enough for something that big to eat, assuming we weren’t past it’s crush depth. We have smaller fish, crustaceans and jellyfish running around but nothing like monster sharks or kraken or stuff like that. Most of the dangerous stuff comes from us.”

“What kind of trash do you leave laying around down here?” Lauren asked. “I thought Alcatraz sent out salvage subs because it couldn’t afford to leave stuff lying around.”

“It’s not trash,” Herrigan said. “It’s other things.”

Before Hathoway could ask what he meant Herrigan keyed his headset and said, “Hello, Alcatraz control. This is the Erin’s Dream, requesting an approach lane and permission to dock from Third Ward’s lockmaster.”

——–

“I told you your cousin would be fine.” Randal hopped down stairs two at a time trying to keep up with Sam as his friend clattered down towards the lock levels at full tilt.

“I wasn’t worried about him. Herrigan’s tough as nails. But Aunt Martha practically went gray this month and the family’s been hopping trying to keep her spirits up. He shouldn’t be worrying his mother like that.” Sam shot Randal a look over his shoulder. “This is personal business, Chief. Don’t you have other things to be doing? Like getting a campaign in order?”

Randal chuffed a laugh out in between deep breaths, trying not to show how much the pace was taking out of him. “I’ve spent four and a half years of my life as the Third Ward chief executive, that’s long enough thank you. Not sure why I wanted to be a politician in a colony full of stubborn political prisoners, it’s worse than wrangling cats.”

“You’ve never seen a cat before. We don’t have them here. How would you know?” Sam was sounding a bit winded himself, although at nearly ten years Randal’s senior he had a decent excuse.

“I’ll concede the point if you’ll quit trying to talk me into running for office again.” After six flights of stairs, going down or not, both men were glad to reach the door that let them in to the control room that overlooked the main sealock control center. Half a dozen faces swivled to look at the two with curious expressions. Randal grinned. “Quarterly inspection, folks. We’re here to make sure you’re parking the boats right.”

The lockmaster grunted and went back to his console. “Interested in one boat in particular, I’ll bet.” He waved absently towards one of the other technicians. “I think Frank’s on the line with Erin’s Dream right now.”

As the two men approached Frank’s station he hit a key on his control screen that switched his audio from his headset to speakers. “-coming in for final approach and requesting docking instructions.”

Herrigan’s voice came over the speaker and Randal saw Sam smile out of the corner of his eye. In spite of what he said Randal knew the Cartwrights were a close family and had been worried as Harry’s ship got more and more overdue. “Eddie’s two months overdue, Cartwright,” Frank said, pulling up the current docking assignments on his screen. “Her usual berth’s taken. Get your ship in sooner if you want her resting easy, I’ll have to see what I can scrounge for you. Guess you got a full hold of scrap after all that time out there, at least.”

There line was quiet for nearly a minute, long enough for Sam and Randal to exchange curious looks, before Herrigan’s voice came back. “Some scrap, control. Also, perishables.”

The sealock controller sat back in his seat and scratches at his head. “Perishables? Did you find an intact medical shipment or something?”

“No. It’s foodstuffs. Mostly vegetables. A few head of livestock. And four passengers.”

Sam leaned forward and cleared the docking assignments from Frank’s screen, leaving him looking at the sonar profile for Erin’s Dream, as if that would give him some kind of insight into what was going on. “Where did he pick up that kind of stuff?”

Frank’s thoughts must have been running along the same line because he said, “How did any of that stuff survive salvage depth? It’s well past crush depth for any of it.”

“We picked it up in Australia. Long story. Look, the four passengers are a diplomatic envoy from Canberra and they want taken to our leaders or something. Have the lockmaster call the Chief Executive up and let him know what’s going on then find us somewhere to park and order a repair crew. Eddie needs her hull looked at.”

Frank switched off his headset and gave Randal a questioning look. Randal looked around and realized that everyone else in the room was mirroring it. A huge mess had just landed in his lap. There weren’t rules for receiving diplomats, no one had ever really anticipated it being a necessity. He wasn’t even sure the other Chiefs would be able to agree on a way to deal with foreign negotiations, they had a hard enough time agreeing amongst themselves. And given that everyone in the room had just heard that contact with the surface had been reestablished keeping that little fact under wraps was now a pipe dream. For a moment Randal stood stock still, trying to juggle variables and figure out what they should do next.

Naturally, the first thing he asked was, “Think they brought any cats with that livestock?”

Out of Water: Opening Thoughts

There’s a lot of talk these days about what we can and cannot talk about. Colleges clamp down hard on “hate speech” and create “safe spaces” where only approved ideas can be discussed in ways that (supposedly) make things fair. There’s a lot of deferring to people based on who their parents were or how much money they have (or don’t have in most cases). There’s not a whole lot of talk about whether that’s good or bad for societies. It wasn’t always that way in America.

Consider the case of the National Socialist Party v. Village of Skokie, ruled on in 1977. The Nazis wished to hold a march there, the town wanted them to go away. The legal issue of the case was whether displaying the swastika in a town where one in six residents was a Holocaust survivor or direct relative of one constituted an attack on those people. The debate ran round and round the Illinois court systems and went to the United States Supreme Court briefly before being sent back to the state and ultimately resolved by the Illinois Supreme Court. The ruling was that the Nazis could march with all their uniforms and symbols intact, because doing otherwise would be a violation of free speech.

The Jews of Skokie fought back by planning a counterprotest, although the Nazis would eventually wind up returning to their preferred march site in Chicago when the ban against their meeting there was lifted. The community of Skokie then pooled their resources and built a museum to remember the Holocaust and inspire their descendants to work towards the prevention of such atrocities in the future.

Consider a different case. In modern Europe a sort of self-censorship called secularism has fallen into place. People believe whatever they want but they never share it in public venues. Religion or the lack thereof is only discussed with people of like minds. But now a large number of immigrants have entered Europe and they hold strongly to Islam. They do believe in discussing it in public, in fact they believe public life should be ordered by Islam and not secularism. This has caused a lot of social (and occasional violent) conflict in Europe.

Unfortunately, the self-censorship of secularism has left Europeans with weak skills in discussing religion. They barely understand how they think about religion (beyond that they should not talk about it) so they can’t understand how these newcomers think about religion. Many Europeans believe that living in Europe’s wealthier, freer culture will eventually win out over the religious training of Muslim immigrants. This is condescending and insulting, like offering a bribe to a man of strong principles. Europeans need to make the case for their culture in a context Muslims can understand and accept or there will never be a breakthrough.

Unfortunately after years of a culturally agreed upon censorship of religious discourse Europeans not only don’t have the rhetorical skill to engage in this debate, they’ve actually atrophied to the point where most of them can’t even see the kind of debate that is going on. Censoring free speech has left them too mentally impoverished to engage with the world around them.

There’s no doubt the people of Skokie hated the kind of free speech they faced on their own doorsteps. But by countering it with their own free speech the message of the National Socialist Party was rebutted and remains in ill repute. A lot of people in Europe got tired of the free speech of religious bodies and so they all agreed to censor it. But that left them vulnerable to a cultural conflict they now have no idea how to deal with it even as it grows ever more violent around them.

The Divided Futures started as a way for me to ruminate on political ideas in weird ways. I didn’t seriously think at the time that a penal colony for political dissidents was part of the future of American politics. In the last couple of years I’ve started to wonder. Who knows? Perhaps in a few years writing this blog will be enough for me to get thrown to the bottom of the ocean. In the meantime, I continue to support free speech in the hopes that the more people speak their mind the more bad ideas will be called out and the more all thinkers will grow and be ready to debate their ideas once again.

Kylo Ren – In the Shadow of Greatness

In 1977 Darth Vader walked through an airlock, over the bodies of his enemies and into cinema legend as one of the most recognizable villains to ever grace the silver screen. He projected menace and power, crushed his enemies and nearly pulled a hero from the path of righteousness. His silhouette alone is instantly recognizable. To bring him to life required the towering presence of a bodybuilder, with a stunt double to fill in for his lightsaber battles, two separate costume designers, one to build his suit and another to craft his skull-like helmet, the boneshaking bass voice of James Earl Jones and a sound design team to add in the uncanny rasping of his breath. Any character portrayed in film is a mix of multiple contributors but Vader combined the parts so thoroughly, made each piece so much a part of the identity, that to remove one would be to destroy the character in his entirety. Like a chimera or Frankenstein’s creature, Vader is many parts stitched together into a single whole. His very existence is somewhat monstrous.

Every other villain to share the screen with Vader faded into the background. Even Grand Moff Tarkin and the Emperor were defined primarily by the fact that Darth Vader, the biggest bad guy in the room, deferred to them. Other villains in the franchise that had a role similar to Vader’s were carefully crafted to be distinct from The Man himself. Darth Maul was lithe and exotic, and very much a loner where Vader was comfortable with authority. General Grievous was wiry, shifty and stooped over. Count Duku was refined, polished to the point of being borderline greasy, and charismatic. Care was taken to make sure these characters wouldn’t have to compete with Vader, to make sure they could have a strong impact on the story and catch the attention of audiences.

Then along came Kylo Ren.

Unlike other Force using villains in Star Wars lore he is a deliberate attempt to homage Vader. But the problem is he doesn’t actually homage Vader.

He wields the Force but still has some strange sort of inferiority complex. He has incredible power but he comes across as largely ineffective and silly. Where Darth Vader was a villain who was a credible threat even when he failed and barely displayed visible power in the first film, Ren couldn’t even come out on top of verbal sparring with Poe Dameron even after stopping a laser blast with the power of his mind. If the intent was to create a villain to continue Vader’s incredible legacy of villainy on the silver screen then the movie failed entirely.

It seems to me that the point of Kylo Ren was to show a person aspiring to greatness and finding the model for that greatness in a force of incredible evil. There’s nothing wrong with watching a person aspiring to great and/or good things and slipping into evil along the way. If done right it’s both a beneficial lesson and an entertaining show, as anyone who’s watched Breaking Bad can attest. One of my favorite video game villains, Kefka, started life as a humble official and steadily undermined others until he was the chief political force in his nation and, ultimately, the greatest physical power in the world as well.

But these characters were interesting villains because they grew into their roles and became steadily more and more dangerous as time went on. Kefka was left eating the heroes’ dust at first but he quickly graduated to murdering towns, regicide and attempted genocide. Kylo Ren starts strong when he orders the death of a village but quickly stumbles when he can’t hang on to his prisoners or win any of the following ground battles he participates in.

The worst bit for Kylo’s character comes when he is saved from total defeat by Rey entirely because of happenstance. He didn’t have a clever way out, or force a draw by pulling up some deep reserve of power we’d seen glimpses of throughout the film, he was bested in an arena he was trained and experienced in by a complete novice. In short, he looked pathetic.

And yet, all of this would have been acceptable. Except everything about the character was designed to cause comparisons to Darth Vader.

There’s a phenomenon where you deliberately back yourself into a corner, where you make grandiose claims in order to spur yourself to greater heights, with the catch being that failure makes them look like an idiot. Kylo Ren’s deliberate comparison to Vader was the storytelling equivalent of backing oneself into a corner. It created such high expectations for the character that failing to meet them basically doomed the character’s effectiveness as a villain.

Now it’s possible Ren isn’t meant as a villain for future movies, that he will be redeemed at some (hopefully early) later point. But if that’s the case then so thoroughly and obviously ruining his ability to serve as a villain in the future still served to reduce interest in him and what he could become since he pretty much can’t work as a good villain anymore.

The hard truth is that villains need a certain amount of menace to them in order to work as villains. It doesn’t have to be a physical threat, the Mean Girl archetype works in school settings because they can threaten social ostracization for example, but all villains are somehow threatening. But when you implicitly invoke a certain level of threat then you have to bring that level of game or all ability to look threatening is lost. And that’s the problem with Kylo Ren. He’s not a bad villain. He just has too much to live up to.

You can’t always avoid standing in the shadow of greatness. You can even try to own that fact. But in the end that’s a double edged sword, so be careful. If it comes back to bite you it will do so twice as hard as if you’d downplayed the fact instead.

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On to other matters – we started this run of nonfiction posts on Star Wars heroes and we end on Star Wars villains. Next week look forward to the start of a new story set in the only place we know less of than outer space… Yes, that’s right. Our favorite salvage sub is back in action. See you at crush depth!