Cool Things: An O. Henry Christmas

Here’s a limited time, limited availability cool thing. On November 2-4 and 9-11 the all for One theater group will be presenting a Christmas play entitled An O. Henry Christmas. It’s located at the Main branch of the Allen County Public Library, 900 Library Plaza, Fort Wayne, IN. Doors open at 7:30 PM on Fridays and Saturdays, 2:00 PM on Sundays.

Why is this cool? Well, in no small part because I am in it! Hooray!

So if you live somewhere near Fort Wayne, drop by and check us out. You can call ahead and order tickets by calling (260) 622-4620. Ordering ahead even saves you a few bucks!

Oh, you want to know what they play is about?

Well, the play is set on Christmas Eve, 1893 and is based (in the loosest possible sense of the word) on the life and works of the author O. Henry. The best way to think of the script might be to consider it what Christmas Eve, 1893 would have been like if O. Henry had written it.

In the play, O. Henry finds himself on the run from the police after escaping from jail and winds up at an abandoned railroad spur in New York. There he finds a collection of homeless bums (including yours truly) who he helps to pass the cold and lonely night by telling them stories that embody the spirit of Christmas.

If that doesn’t get you excited, you can also come and laugh at me acting like a drunk. Your call.


Heat Wave: Stirring the Fire


I let myself into my apartment and glanced around before turning back to grab my end of the couch. “For a secret government organization, you lot are really lousy at skulking. Maybe you should have your people work on that, Gramm.”

“Counting yourself in that are you, Helix?” Ed Gramm came over and held the door open as Jack and I finished getting the furniture into the big main room, then closed it as we parked the couch in a free corner.

“Hey, I’m just a mild mannered civilian, have been for hours.” I said, dusting my hands off and fishing out my wallet. “My name is Benjamin Dornier.”

“It’s more convincing if you don’t have to check your driver’s license to remember your name, buddy,” Jack said, wiping his face on his shirt as he headed towards the bathroom. “And I don’t care if there are other people here already; I’m borrowing your shower.”

“Probably best you don’t smell like old gym socks when we get started.” Ed tossed me a pale pink bow. I gave him a skeptical look and he pointed at the couch. “Put it on. I don’t think you’re planning on wrapping it but it ought to have something on it, shouldn’t it?”

I sighed and stuck the bow on the couch. “Why did I invite you to this anyway?”

“Because I was Mona’s first boss and she still likes me even though that weasel Voorman stole her for his department?”

“Yeah, that kind of talk really makes me feel better about you being here.” I headed towards the kitchen to check on things in there, but as I left I called over my shoulder, “Just remember who’s party this is and try to keep a lid on things, okay?”

Two hours later there was a knock at the door and I went to get it, switching the lights off as I went. Behind me, a dozen or so people scurried away to hiding places, muttering and snickering as they tried to squirrel themselves away in my admittedly tiny living room. I tried not to sigh. Skulking isn’t my specialty, but I like to see things done well, and this didn’t really qualify.

I opened the door to reveal Darryl and Mona Templeton, who I swept in with one hand while closing the door with the other. “Come on it,” I said. “This your first time in this place? I change apartments so regularly it’s hard to keep track of which ones you’ve seen.”

“I don’t think we’ve been here before,” Darryl said.

Mona patted him on the arm, which I recognized as a shushing gesture. “Helix, are you sure you’re up for company? You just got laid off today. We can come back some other time.”

“I’m fine, Mona,” I said, gently guiding them away from the door. “It’s just a temporary thing, and it’s not like this is the first time. Besides, you only have one birthday a year.”

Jack hit the lights and people came tumbling out of hiding calling, “Surprise!”

“And,” I added, “it would kind of ruin the party if you ducked out now.”

Mona shook her head. “A surprise party. How did you guys manage to plan a surprise party without me figuring that out?”

“Simple. Ed and I are just as smart as you, and we had Jack and Helix to help us make it happen.“ Darryl kissed his wife on the cheek and led her over to her new sofa.

From that point, things got to be something of a blur. I like to plan things but I don’t like crowds so much, so while putting together the party with Darryl had been fun, this part was less so. On top of that, most of the people there were current or former members of Ed’s analyst team, which Mona had belonged to before transferring to field work. I didn’t know them that well. Most of the people from my team had been kept at the office with Sanders. I was pretty sure Jack hadn’t been called in only because Sanders conveniently ‘forgot’ he was on vacation today.

Jack and I focused on keeping the drinks and food flowing, which didn’t really keep us that busy, and I generally tried my best to play a good host. At least we had managed to keep Mona from baking her own cake this year, which I considered to be a victory in and of itself. I was just about to go and get a new bottle of wine and perhaps propose a toast when I noticed the body heat of someone coming up the hallway.

Normally I wouldn’t have paid any attention to it, because it is, after all, an apartment building and people come and go all the time. But this person stopped outside my door and just waited there. No knock, no buzzer, no shouting over the noise of the party, which he could certainly hear, no phone call asking me to let him in. I frowned and caught Jack’s eye, nodded towards the door and slipped through the crowd in the living room to the door.

A glance through the peephole revealed that my mystery guest was Bob Sanders. I frowned. If he was coming to join the party after all he would have knocked. So he probably didn’t want anyone to know he was here. I quickly glanced around the living room.

Ed Gramm had his back to the door, talking to Mona. He’d behaved himself so far that night, not trying to talk Mona into rejoining his team or some such foolishness, but he probably wouldn’t miss a chance to call Sanders out on being away from the office, either. I flipped Jack a quick hand signal that meant I was going to scout ahead and then slipped into the hall.

Sanders was carrying a small bouquet of flowers, a bottle of wine and a card. In contrast to his cheerful looking packages, the man looked strained and tired. I raised an eyebrow. “Working up the nerve to come in?”

He snorted, as if that was a preposterous idea. Which, admittedly, it was. “Just wanted to avoid complications.”

“You’re not staying.” I wasn’t asking, that much was pretty obvious.

“I need to be back at the office in half an hour,” he said. “And besides, I’m not supposed to tell you what I’m about to tell you.”

“Ooh, this is one of those conversations.” I nodded. “And Mona’s party is a convenient excuse.”

Sanders sighed and motioned down the hall, where there was a small corner lounge. “Let’s get out of the hallway.”

I nodded and we walked down to the chairs there. Sanders stopped long enough to set down his gifts on the table and then joined me by the window. He sat in a chair, I leaned against the corner. We both pointed ourselves outwards, facing the two entrances, so we could watch for anyone approaching. As a result, we could only glance at each other out of the corner of the eye but at least no one could sneak up on us.

“I’m sorry about the party,” Sanders said. “I’ll apologize to Mona tomorrow.”

“Fair enough,” I said with a shrug. “We’ve all been where you are before. I’m just not following why you came after you said you couldn’t.”

“Voorman needed an excuse to for one of us to talk to you. Tonight.” Sanders shrugged. “No one but you and Darryl actually knew I said I wouldn’t come, so he figured he’d send me with his gift.” Sanders motioned to the bottle of wine.

I nodded. “Makes sense. He and Gramm can’t stand each other, so they wouldn’t be at the same party. Sending a runner is Voorman’s style.”

“Right. So here I am, officially to give Mona her birthday present, unofficially to tell you to answer your phone tomorrow morning.” Sanders smirked slightly.

“I always answer my phone, even when it’s two thirty in the morning,” I said in confusion. “It’s part of the job. Why would I not answer my phone tomorrow morning?”

“Oh, you’d answer the phone but you wouldn’t answer it the right way,” Sanders said, his smirk growing. “You see, tomorrow you’re going to be asked if you’ll come into the office for reassignment.”

“Sanders, I just got officially relieved of duty…” I paused to check my watch. “Six and a half hours ago. The Project doesn’t just pull someone off duty so they can call them back less than twenty four hours later.”

He stopped smiling. “They do when he’s one of only eighty eight talents in the whole country certified for law enforcement work.”

“Right.” I grunted in disgust. “Like they haven’t already thought about that.”

“This is what I mean when I say you wouldn’t answer right,” Sanders said morosely. “Knowing you, you’d just tell them to take a flying leap and hang up.”

“Oh, I could be more inventive than that.”

“And I wouldn’t blame you,” Sanders said, abandoning his watch on the hallway to level a stern look at me. I humored him and met it. “But there’s more to my job than just keeping you happy.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that actually a criteria of doing your job?”

“More than you know.”

I shook my head with mock seriousness. “Well, Sanders, I’ve gotta tell you, you’re doing lousy.”

He ignored my jibe. “The Project is taking on someone from HSA for overseer training.” I nodded. While I work for the FBI most of the time, I’ve also worked with the TSA and the CIA. Project Sumter as a whole is available to all the many abbreviations of the federal government but we don’t actually belong to any of them.

Instead, our team leaders are drawn from the ranks of various agencies, receive basic training and work a year or two in the Project then return to wherever they came from, so when we’re called in there will be someone who knows the score to work with us. I wasn’t surprised to hear that we had someone from the HSA coming in to be a team lead. It’s a good career move for them, and it keeps the Project well supplied with fresh blood from which we draw a much smaller core of experienced, full time oversight agents.

But what Sanders said next did get me to sit up and pay attention. “Special Agent Herrera is being sponsored by Senator Brahms Dawson.”

“Oh.” I stared off down my hallway, not really watching it anymore. That had a lot of implications. “So he’s a friend of our favorite secret Senate committee leader, is he?”

“She is,” Sanders said, both confirming and correcting at once. “She’s from Utah, so she’s not from Dawson’s state but they seem to have known each other for a while. He’s had a hand in her education and helped her join the HSA and he’s been going to great lengths to make sure she gets a chance to work with us. If we can’t get a team assembled soon she could be pulled by the HSA for other duties.”

“And whoever is up next may not be quite so friendly with the Senator,” I said, nodding in understanding.

“Oh, it’s better than that,” Sanders said with a grin. “The next person in line for a team leadership position, in line for a permanent oversight position in fact, just turned thirty six today.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Mona’s bucking for her own team?”

“Has been for quite a while.” Sanders laced his fingers behind his head, leaning back in his chair. “In fact, keeping her out of an oversight position has been Senator Dawson’s pet hobby for the past five months. Voorman got her the job by agreeing to let Herrera go first.”

“On a temporary basis, of course.”

“Of course.”

“So,” I said slowly, feeling my eyes narrow. “Why does the Senator want this woman in the Project so badly he’d be willing to hand his nemesis such a big concession?”

“That’s the real question, isn’t it?” He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “We really don’t know much about Herrera other than that she’s 25, female and Hispanic.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Nothing at all? Aren’t we on permanent liaison with the FBI?”

“Herrera’s juvenile records were sealed when she turned eighteen,” Sanders said. He spread his hands. “The FBI is wary of pushing too hard to get them, particularly when it’s people from the Circus who are asking for them.”

Whenever Sanders calls the Project by the FBI’s pet name it means that he’s already thrown all of his considerable talents of persuasion into getting what he wants from them and still come up blank. His favorite way of showing frustration is making others look unreasonable.

Still, this time I felt like siding with the FBI. Sometimes records are sealed with good reason. “What do we know about her after she turned eighteen?”

“Just that she got into UC Berkley where she majored in social work.”

“And managed to attract the attention of a certain Senator from Wisconsin?” I asked.

“Essentially,” Sanders said. “She attended a rally or something there; we’re kind of fuzzy on the details. But she’s known the Senator for the last six years and it looks like he’s been grooming her for this job.”

“So what kind of viper is he looking to slip into our midst?” I mused. And maybe I was jumping to conclusions about Agent Herrera, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep and my opinion of the Senator was pretty low. Nothing personal, but he had once suggested registering and tracking all known talents in the States and that’s something we’re all a little touchy about.

“We don’t know,” Sanders said. “But Voorman is desperate to find out and contain the damage. That’s why, when the Project calls you and tells you they’ve changed their mind and want to put you back on duty, you’re going to say yes.”

I rubbed the bridge of my nose for a moment, fighting a headache that had been growing back there all evening. “So I can either forgo a well earned vacation to babysit a rookie field overseer, or let Brahms Dawson finally get whatever hold over talents he’s been looking for since he joined the Senate Oversight Committee twelve years ago. Is that what you’re saying?”

“That’s about what it amounts to.”

I spend a moment saying goodbye to the idea of a blissful week in my workshop, then looked up at Sanders and said, “All right. I’ll be there.”

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Fiction Index

Writing History

It’s one of the most absurd truisms of the modern age that the victor writes the history books. I’m not really sure how this idea got started. The original quote is typically attributed to Winston Churchill, although no one’s quite sure who said it first. My biggest problem with this idea is how vigorously actual history seems to contradict it.

Take the Peloponnesian wars. Thucydides wrote a history of them, one of the early scholarly histories. He was from Alimos, a small place just outside of Athens. But they lost the war, so Thucydides had no business writing history books about it, right?

Another example from antiquity is Josephus, the historian who wrote a history of the Jews while they were under the rule of Rome. The Jews would not have a nation to call their home for more than 1800 years, living an existence that was pretty much the total opposite of a victor, but Josephus still wrote the history of his own people.

Or, more recently, consider the American Civil War (or War Between The States, or what have you). In spite of the fact that no one has fired a bullet in that conflict in nearly a hundred and fifty years, no one can agree on the history of it. Was it a war of northern aggression? Was it a war to liberate slaves? Was it a war to protect the Union? Do they even mention protecting the Union in history books any more? How did the premier cause of the victors wind up getting so totally lost in the retelling? Weren’t these people writing the history books? And how did the South get away with creating the legend of the Lost Cause if they weren’t writing any of the history books?

There are other examples, to be sure. From monasteries on the British Isles writing records of being sacked by raiders to Masanori Ito’s book Fall of the Imperial Japanese Navy right up to the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, the defeated have been chronicling their own history and doing their best to both remember and learn from their defeats ever since the study of history first came about.

To me it frequently feels like this idea that the history books are written by the winners actually has its roots in a famous quote from someone on the other side of the English Channel from Churchill. Joseph Goebbels told us that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will come to regard it as truth. We’ve come to accept this as a truth, that if we can just get a platform to push out agenda loudly enough and often enough, we can make people think whatever we want about anything, even history.

However, in spite of telling his lies for 12 years, Goebbels is not now thought of as a great historian, a visionary thinker or a leader. He’s thought of as a liar.

Perhaps the real problem is the lack of scope in this way of thinking. There are no victors in history, there are only people who come for a short time and then quickly fade away. We don’t write history. Rather, history is written on us, its letters and words the lives of people and the traditions, values and literature they leave to their culture. History shows through how we live and what we do far more than what we say. After all, you can’t know the winner until everything’s over, and in history, the end has not yet been written…

Something Different: Battle of Samar

Early in the morning of 25 October, 1944, Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita led one of the largest collections of naval gun power ever seen through San Bernardino Strait, a narrow passage between the Philippine islands of Luzon and Samar. In spite of his incredible firepower Kurita was uncertain. He was only one part of a large, massively complex plan to strike at the Allied invasion of Leyte and prevent the reconquest of the Philippines. Kurita had very little in the way of air support, most of it promised from army air bases in the area, and the necessity of radio silence left him entirely blind to the progress of the other parts of the operation.

A total of four separate elements of the Japanese Navy was involved in the Japanese counteroffensive. Kurita’s was the largest, and the primary strike force. To his north, another fleet comprised of the dregs of Japanese naval air power dangled itself as bait, hoping to lure away the powerful battleships and carriers of the United States’ Third Fleet. To the south, two more smaller fleets sailed for Surigao Strait, hoping to come up and meet Kurita and catch the Seventh Fleet and the landing forces of General Douglas MacArthur unawares, destroying the Sixth Army’s troop and supply ships and shelling the troops until they surrendered or the Third Fleet returned and drove them off.

The complexity of the plan had already proven costly once. The absence of Kurita’s air support the previous day had resulted in the mauling of his fleet by planes from Admiral William Halsey’s carriers in Third Fleet. Before that, they had been ambushed by submarines in the Sibuyan Sea.

While Kurita couldn’t know it, the southern arms of the fleet had encountered the battleships of Seventh Fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf. One group of ships was almost entirely destroyed, the other withdrew rather than risk the same fate.

At the same time, the northern arm had met with a certain degree of success. Halsey had spotted the carrier force to his north and, knowing the power of carriers in modern naval warfare, concluded they must be the real threat. Hoping to destroy the last of Japanese naval air power, he moved to the north with his fleet in tow.

A crucial string of miscommunications and wrong assumptions led everyone from MacArthur to Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, stationed in Hawaii, to believe that Halsey had left a task force of battleships to guard the strait. The upshot was that no one was watching San Bernardino when Kurita came through.

With Third Fleet sailing to the north and Seventh Fleet’s battle line still mopping up Surigao Strait there was almost nothing at all between the full might of Kurita’s warships and the transports in Leyte Gulf. Almost nothing, but not nothing at all.

Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague commanded Seventh Fleet’s Task Unit 3, identified over the radio as Taffy 3. As its name implies, it was one of three virtually identical groups of small aircraft carriers, known as escort carriers, assigned to patrol airspace around Luzon, support the Army troops and chase subs. As the sun rose over the Philippines, Sprague’s command was preparing to send up its first combat air and anti-submarine patrols. A scout plane was dispatched with instructions to scout San Bernardino Strait.

Rather than the battleships of Third Fleet they were expecting, the scouts found twenty three Japanese warships with enough firepower to sink all of Taffy 3 in twenty minutes, practically without breaking stride. The stage was set for the battle off Samar Island.

The scale of the mismatch alone is incredible. Taffy 3 included six Casablanca-class escort carriers, three Fletcher-class destroyers and four John C. Butler-class destroyer escorts. Together, all thirteen ships displaced about as much water in dry dock as Kurita’s flagship, IJN Yamato. The largest guns among the American ships were five-inchers, peashooters when compared to Yamato’s massive 18.1 inch guns and still woefully underpowered even when compared to the 11 and 14 inch guns of the heavy cruisers in Kurita’s formation.

Casablanca-class carriers could manage a top speed of about seventeen knots, and the top speed of a pursued group is really no better than its slowest ship. Kurita’s fastest ships could nearly double that. Even the Yamato, damaged in the bombings of the day before and weighted down by water in its double hull, still managed to top twenty knots.

Yamato was the flagship and pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and her crew were some of the best and brightest. The rest of Kurita’s battle line was likely staffed by regular navy sailors. Sprague’s force was crewed in large part by reserves and new recruits, many not even past their twentieth birthday.

Taffy 3’s planes were one of its major advantages and, in addition to the compliment of its own six carriers one of its sister groups, Taffy 2, sent its planes to support Sprague’s beleaguered group. However, only Taffy 2’s planes had the time to arm with torpedoes and the heavier bombs suitable for use against warships. Taffy 3’s planes would fly into combat armed with little more than light antipersonnel bombs, depth charges and rockets. Taffy 3’s bees could sting, but not kill.

Such was the situation at 6:59 AM when the guns on Yamato trained on the American ships and opened fire.

Sprague had little in the way of options. He couldn’t run, his ships were too slow. He couldn’t move towards the landing zones or they’d come under fire, and there was no one to help him there anyways. And he had no idea where any of the battleships from either fleet were. There was nothing to do but fight.

For the next two and a half hours Taffy 3 would run before Kurita’s fleet like a clipper ship before a storm. The three destroyers of the group’s screen, along with one very brave destroyer escort, put themselves between the carriers and the Japanese, making smoke to hide the ships and harrying the enemy as best they could with guns and torpedoes.

The planes did all they could with the weapons they carried. They would empty their bomb bays, their ammunition reserves and still fly until their fuel tanks were empty, hoping somehow to distract the Japanese enough to keep their carriers alive.

Sprague maneuvered his ships in any way he could, hiding in rain squalls and behind smokescreens in a desperate bid to last until help arrived.

But help was hours away. The battle line of Third Fleet wouldn’t turn around to head back towards Samar until after the action was over. Oldendorf’s battleships were running low on ammunition and not in place.

Then, with no apparent reason that the Americans could see, the Japanese pulled back and left with nothing to show for their time and effort than a handful of downed planes and four US ships, two destroyers, one destroyer escort and one escort carrier, sent to the bottom.

Taffy 3 had won, thought they might have found it hard to believe in the moment.

After that, Taffy 3 was mostly forgotten. They would be given awards and have the assurance of a job well done, but their work is rarely addressed in the history books. For all they faced and did in those few hours on the other side of the globe, they were overshadowed by names like Midway and Guadalcanal on one side and Iwo Jima and Okinawa on the other.

Tomorrow is the 68th anniversary of the Battle off Samar. It’s not a particularly auspicious number, or a well known occasion. But it’s important. Most of the men who were there were fighting and suffering because they hoped that, by doing so, they could make the lives of their friends and family just a little bit better. They didn’t expect great fame or reward what they did, they only hoped they could live to see the outcome.

In a world that often tells us that any kind of suffering is naturally wrong, and that there’s nothing in this world worth dying for, their example stands in stark contrast. We shouldn’t need a special day to remember that. But sometimes we do. And if thinking of Taffy 3 at Samar Island helps you to remember that, well, maybe that’s all the victory they need.


Further Reading

The Battle of Leyte Gulf: 23-26 October 1944, by Thomas J. Culter

Afternoon of the Rising Sun: The Battle of Leyte Gulf, by Kenneth I. Friedman

Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour, by James D. Hornfischer

Heat Wave: Burnt Fingers


Bureaucracy at work: In order for Project Sumter to kick me out of the offices for the next week, I have to come into the office and sign paperwork.

Now if I was a cop, yeah, maybe they’d just take my gun and my badge and send me home for a little while, paperwork to be filed by others. The problem is, I have a talent that lets me melt through steel and concrete, and I can’t be sent to take some time off without the powers that be giving me a Very Clear Warning about behaving myself.

So after going home, stripping out of clothes reeking of smoke, hitting the shower and then getting an unrestful night’s sleep I got up the next morning and went right back to the local offices of Project Sumter. Sanders was in his office with the paperwork in hand and notary witnesses at his side and had me out again in under five minutes. But not before extracting a solemn promise from me that I would take it easy for a while.

Always a kidder, that one.

I asked him if he had plans that night but, unfortunately for him, Voorman had pulled the entire active team on the Firestarter case in for an all-nighter. It’s that kind of thing that makes people around here wonder if getting periodically relieved of duty isn’t part of some secret plan of mine to get out of work.

Technically speaking, once I was relieved of duty I was supposed to be restricted from accessing all files and offices to ensure I wasn’t trying to follow up any of the Project’s open cases on my own. Fortunately, I’m not terminally stupid or suicidal. Chasing talents is a team sport and trying it on your own is a one way ticket to a shallow grave. Anyone who’s worked here for more than a month knows better than to try it.

So Sanders didn’t have someone escort me out, nor did anyone really seem anxious to force me to leave once I had signed on the dotted line. Under normal circumstances I would have been itching to leave anyway, as my workshop was calling to me, but as I left Sanders’ office I passed Mona on her way in, so I took the opportunity to slip down the stairs to Analysis and ducked in.

To my surprise the first thing I saw as I wove through the ranks of empty desks was Pritchard Mosburger, with a man I didn’t recognize, being ushered into one of the conference rooms. Mona certainly hadn’t wasted any time getting him sworn in, but that wasn’t really surprising. There’s a lot of turnover in Analysis. It has something to do with shoving a couple dozen highly paranoid, barely stable geniuses into a small room and telling them to deal with each other while trying to track down people with the kind of talents that make you want to dig a hole to hide in and pull it in after.

Believe me, I know most of our getmen and, while someone who puts together conspiracy theories for fun might sound far out to your man on the street, I was pretty sure that Mosburger was actually on the saner side of our Analysis team. But he wasn’t the sanest. That particular honor belonged to the man who I’d come to see.

Darryl Templeton, Mona’s husband, was head of the Analysis department and quite possibly the sanest man I know. His office was on the far side of the common room and the door was conveniently standing open. I made my way towards it, keeping an eye out for roving getmen as I did so. It’s not that I dislike our analysts; it’s just that the female ones love to come and ask me questions about some of my coworkers. Questions I generally prefer to avoid.

A huge part of my career at the Project has been spent doing my best to not understand Bob Sanders. I really have no idea why he doesn’t seem to want to hang on to a girlfriend for more than a few weeks and I wouldn’t want to explain it to an upset woman if I did.

Fortunately the floor was pretty empty at the moment, I didn’t see anyone besides a couple of guys I vaguely recognized sorting through newspapers from the southern part of the state, so I made it to Darryl’s office without incident. Unfortunately, Darryl wasn’t at his desk when I glanced in. That’s not unusual, half of Darryl’s job involves making sure files get to people and Project Sumter has the most draconian network security policy I’ve ever heard of in a government institution. We don’t have one.

A network, that is.

Well, that’s not entirely true. We have computers and a local rig set up here in the office, but its physically separate from the outside and there’s no way to have any electronic device in the building without a cellular data plan contact the outside. Obviously, it’s against the rules to have such a cellular device in contact with the LAN. As a result, all files are sent from one office to another in hard copy. Somehow, this is supposed to make them safer.

This rather bizarre policy is the result of a couple of major hacking attacks three years ago that resulted in a lot of our research files getting stolen. There’s a lot of information on talents out there in the wild and the only reason we can think of that it hasn’t wound up in the hands of the media is that whoever stole it was a talented individual with a vested interest in keeping it secret. My money is on a talent we call Open Circuit, who’s made quite a name for himself in cyber warfare in the last decade or so, but he’s not the only one who could pull that kind of thing off.

The upshot of all that is a lot of highly classified files enter the building from other parts of the Project and only three people are actually cleared to receive them. One is Voorman, who never actually does it. One is the non-existent head of our Records department. Our last one quit months ago and was never replaced. That leaves Darryl, who, as head of Analysis, is pretty much authorized to collect and share anything with anyone in the office he thinks worthy.

Of course, he also has to sign for all outgoing files, so some days he can spend as much time in the mail room as he does in his office. That was a little disappointing, since I’d hoped to talk to him quickly and get out to my workshop with a minimum of time lost. Still, there was nothing to do but wait, so I settled into one the chairs in front of his desk, propped my feet up on its immaculate surface and tried to grab some shuteye.

Apparently I succeeded because I woke up when someone dropped a large stack of paperwork onto my stomach. I sat up with a grunt. “If you’re going to be hogging space at my desk you can at least earn your keep.” Darryl slid into his own chair and plopped an even larger stack of envelopes and a single cardboard box onto one corner of his desk. “Speaking of which, why are you even here? Shouldn’t you be suspended without pay, or something?”

“That’s exactly what I am,” I replied, taking the pile of paper and dropping it next to the box. “Which means I can’t look at any of that on pain of pain. Sorry.”

Darryl did his best to draw himself up to an imposing height and glare down at me. Since Darryl’s only five inches taller than me, just like all the other average American males, and kind of skinny to boot, it didn’t really work that well. I’m used to it. Still, I suddenly felt bad giving him a hard time.

When I joined the Project eight years ago Darryl had been my field analyst, the job his wife has now. He’d moved into the offices after a bad car wreck a few years after. That had aged him some, but these days it seemed like he had more gray hair in his beard every time we bumped into each other. Meeting his stare, I saw more wrinkles around his eyes than I ever remembered there being.

I held up my hands in front of my chest. “All right, I’ll be going. I just wanted to make sure you and Mona were still coming over tonight.”

Darryl’s expression softened somewhat. “Are you sure you’re up to it? You had a rough day yesterday.”

“Hey, Mona was out there too.” I waved him off. “If she feels like she can make it I’m good too.”

“Mona didn’t get relieved of duty today,” Darryl said earnestly.

“This is nothing new, Darryl. I swear they do it to me at least once a year. It’s like a habit or something. You know it; you sat through it once or twice.” I leaned over the desk and lowered my voice, to make sure he was listening. “I’m fine, and if you try and back out on me I’ll prove it by sneaking in here and melting your desk into a puddle.”

A smile twitched at the corner of Darryl’s mouth before he could suppress it. “Well, at least I know you’re feeling fine. I guess we’ll be there.”

“Glad we got that straightened out.” Darryl and I turned to find Jack leaning against the doorframe. He turned his attention from Darryl to me. “If Sanders finds out you’re still here he’ll have a cow.”

“Why’s that?” I asked. “He’s not a big stickler for the rules.”

“Because he’ll have to file an addendum to your suspension paperwork showing that you were somewhere you weren’t supposed to be when you weren’t supposed to be there.”

“That doesn’t even sound like it makes sense,” I said.

“It probably doesn’t,” Jack said with a shrug. “But it’s what he’d have to do. And you know how much Cheryl hates dealing with addendums.”

I brightened a bit. Watching Sanders go at it with the day shift manager from Records was always fun. “Maybe I should go down to the cafeteria and grab something to eat before we-”

“Come on, partner,” Jack said, grabbing me by one arm and hauling me out of the chair. “It’s time to go.”

“See you tonight, Darryl,” I said, and let myself be dragged out of his office.

“Don’t work too hard,” Darryl called as I left. It sounded like a good idea at the time.

An hour or so later Jack and I were in the bed of his truck, parked outside a U-Store It garage in the process of tying down a sofa. It was another hot afternoon and Jack had managed to keep a steady stream of grumbling about it going pretty much ever since he stepped out of the cab. Unfortunately, tying down a hardwood framed sofa in such a way that its finish doesn’t get scratched isn’t simple or fast, and I wasn’t about to let this beauty get ruined for a moment’s carelessness.

I was in the process of fitting the second to last set of bungee cables and rubber pads into place when we heard a series of muffled crashes and bangs from the garage a couple of units down the way. I popped up out of the truck’s bed like a groundhog looking for its shadow, hands braced on the side, and looked around. It was part classic rubbernecking instinct and part well honed desire to find trouble and sort it out, and it was the kind of urge that drove me to be a civil servant in the first place.

But I’ll admit that the real reason I hopped down from that truck and went to see what was going on was a feeling of general laziness. I’ve never been one of those people who deals well with having time on their hands. I like to be doing things and I like to be at the center of the action. Playing the moving man just didn’t quite cut it.

I heard Jack jump down from the truck behind me as I made my way over to the garage the noises came from. There was a large U-Haul parked out front, the kind of thing you might use to move a family of three from one side of the city to the other, but there was no sign of anyone in or around it, no one outside the garage at all.

I peered around the side of the truck and called, “Hey, is everything all right in there? We heard something falling.”

Before I had finished talking a man in a suit jacket backed out of the garage with a metal floor lamp in his hands. He was trying not to bang the light fixture on the top of the doorframe while still getting the bottom over the drift of boxes that blocked half the entrance. With his back mostly to us and his head pointed down, I didn’t recognize him until he spoke.

“I’m all right, though I’m not sure all these boxes are.” He said, his attention still fixed on the mess on the floor.

Now I’m not an expert with voices, in fact I’m as likely to forget one as remember it, but I’d only met the man yesterday and he’d struck me as a bit strange even then. I raised my eyebrows and said, “Reverend Rodriguez. I gotta say, you keep turning up in places I wouldn’t exactly expect to find a man of the cloth.”

Rodriguez set down the lamp as soon as it was clear of the garage door and turned around, looking just as surprised to see me as I was him. “Well, well, the FBI,” he said. “Twice in two days. Is this a coincidence, or is there some problem I need to know about?”

“No problems today, Rev,” Jack said, “we’re off duty.” He waved one hand to encompass the storage facility. “Looks like we just store our junk in the same place.”

I glanced into the U-Haul, which looked to be about half full of furniture and other household goods, then into the garage, which contained a lot more of the same, and said, “Wow. You do pretty good for a church man, Reverend.”

Rodriguez chuckled and said, “Not mine, actually. It’s the church’s, some of our members donate furniture as they buy or inherit or just find new things, and we keep it here against unexpected need in the community.”

I considered the floor lamp standing next to him and the boxes near his feet, one of which apparently held a toaster. “This is for the people who lost things in the fire.”

“Exactly. A few of the deacons put together a list of pressing needs and worked out what we could do to help.” He gestured to the U-Haul and shrugged. “It won’t heal the emotional hurt that comes from this kind of disaster, but it is a step in the right direction.”

Jack rubbed the back of his neck for a moment as he considered what we were looking at and then said, “You know, Reverend, a lot of those people probably had renter’s insurance to pay for things like this.”

“That can take weeks or months to come through, though,” the other man said, turning and hefting the lamp again and moving it into the truck. “And it brings all the comfort and reassurance of bureaucracy with it, which is to say none at all. Besides, God’s people are not called to let other people deal with it when we’re perfectly able to help on our own.”

I shrugged. “Nothing wrong with that, I guess. Where are your other people? We didn’t see anyone else here.”

“Just me right now, I’m afraid,” Rodriguez said. “Some of the deacons were planning to come once they got off work, but I didn’t see any reason to wait for them before starting.”

Jack snorted. “I can respect that, Reverend, but it looks like you’re fixing to hurt yourself. Do you need a hand?”

“Well, it couldn’t hurt…” Rodriguez looked the two of us over. In traditional fashion one of us, namely Jack, was big and burly and the other was small and scrawny. But if he had any concerns over my ability to pull my weight he kept them to himself. “But if you’re going to help you have to settle for calling me Pastor Rodriguez, or just Manuel, like my friends do. There’s only one man worthy of reverence and sadly, it’s not me.”

I exchanged a glance and a shrug with Jack. If the pastor wanted to be nitpicky about things like that, well, that was kind of his job, I guess. So we wound up spending the next two and a half hours helping Pastor Rodriguez fill his U-Haul with random household objects then restack everything that had been moved or knocked out of place in the process.

By the time we were done there were about half a dozen other folks there who were introduced to me as deacons from Rodriguez’s church. I shook hands with all of them, did my best to remember their names, and then went back with Jack to finish tying down the sofa. We piled into the truck’s cab in a much better mood than we had been before and made it back to my apartment without incident.

We hauled the couch up the back door and into the freight elevator, stopping to get the keys from the manager. As we waited for the doors to open and let us out onto my floor Jack took a moment to wipe the sweat off his face with the edge of his shirt. “It’s pure murder out there, Helix,” he said as he grabbed the edge of the couch again. “I think I’ll need to borrow your shower once we get this thing settled.”

“Fine by me,” I said, looking behind me as the door slid open then backing out into the hallway. “I’d prefer you not smelling like road kill anyway.”

It was about three hundred feet from the elevator to the entrance to my apartment, pretty much a straight shot down the hall. We’d gotten about halfway there when I slowed to a stop. The ability to sense heat isn’t something I have to concentrate to do; I just have a general sense of what’s around me at all times. And as a general rule of thumb, human beings are about twenty to thirty degrees warmer than the air in a climate controlled building, even one where the climate control is second rate, like my apartment complex. Four or five people standing around in an apartment stand out, especially if that apartment is supposed to be empty, like mine was.

“Problem?” Jack asked.

“I think you’ll have to skip your shower, Jack,” I said. “It looks like I’ve already got company.”

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Fiction Index

Points Of View

By this point you’ve probably realized that Heat Wave is told from two different perspectives: Double Helix, a member of Project Sumter, and Open Circuit, a wanted man. You’ve probably also noticed that so far, Helix has had more time in the driver’s seat than Circuit has. You can expect that pattern to continue, at least for the near future. But here’s a fun fact: When I originally had the idea for these two characters I actually intended for Circuit to provide most of the perspective.

Helix is pretty much an accidental viewpoint character. I never even intended to use him to provide perspective. When I first created him, Helix existed pretty much entirely to provide a foil for Circuit. So how did he wind up becoming the primary point of view?

Well, as you might already suspecte, it had very little to do with his character and a lot to do with Circuit, and a little bit with the needs of the story (Circuit and Helix existed in a number of forms before they found a home in the world of Project Sumter.)

The protagonists of Heat Wave started off in a series of unpublished short stories told from the perspective of Circuit that served to help me refine their voices and establish many of their important character traits. I hadn’t been working with Circuit and Helix long when I came to realize that, while Circuit could be fun to write and has a unique way of looking at the world, prolonged exposure to him steals much of his charm.

For one thing, he’s very superior and sooner or later your going to get the feeling that he’s looking down on you for something or another (which is understandable, because he is.) For another, he’s not very sympathetic to others, which also serves to make him hard to sympathize with. But most of all, he’s given to sermonizing on the importance of his own point of view, which can really get dull.

Worse, he wouldn’t be as effective a character as he is without those qualities, so I couldn’t simply sort through a box of writer’s tricks for replacement quirks. Circuit really needs to be a sanctimonious, arrogant know-it-all in order for Heat Wave and some of the ensuing stories to work.

In addition it quickly became clear to me that only showing things from Circuit’s point of view wasn’t really working either. The stories needed some kind of insight into how Circuit’s enemies were working against him to really be effective, and Circuit himself couldn’t provide that insight without introducing a whole new host of problems (like, how does Circuit even have trouble with Helix if he understands him so well?)

When Project Sumter was added to the mix to keep track of talents and serve as an the organizational foil for Circuit, it only seemed natural to have a point of view on that side of things. Helix, as the most thoroughly established character in the story after Circuit, was the natural candidate.

As the story progressed Helix came to take more and more narrative time away from Circuit, in part because he has the more interesting early parts of the story and in part because Circuit with time on his hands is truly obnoxious. If you enjoyed Circuit’s opening narrative, worry not! Once he has something constructive to do it will be safe to let him out more often. In the meantime, hopefully Helix will be able to keep your attention.

Cool Things: The Hat

In the modern day and age there is very little respect for the hat. I’m not really sure why that is. If you think about it, the hat opens up another 4 – 8% of the body to customized accessorizing. In oldentimes (pretty much any time up until the 1940s) the hat was almost a mandatory accessory for people of both genders. However at some point, the hat has lost favor. I’m not really qualified to comment on whether this is a good or bad thing so far as it concerns women’s hats, as I’ve never worn one*, but I really feel like men have lost access to a valid method of varying themselves from the general populace.

So let’s take a look at some modern hats, shall we?

This is a stocking cap. It’s a very common piece of headgear in the modern day and age, at least during the winter. It makes a very aggressive fashion statement, namely, “My head is round.”

While modern fashion favors tight fitting clothing that emphasizes the line of the body, I’m not really sure that hats are a great venue for this. Usually the only adornment seen on these hats is some sort of commercialized logo. Fun, cheap advertising is a kind of a fashion statement- “I pay money to advertise!”- but if that’s really the message you want you might do better with something like this:

The “ball” cap is traditionally a way of showing who and what you are affiliated with, and is generally light enough to be worn in any weather! This hat, as you can see, clearly identifies the wearer as an employee of the Hereti Corporation, or perhaps their subsidiary, the House of Cheese! Wearing this particular hat around mini-lop rabbits is not advised.

This is a fedora. Unlike the last two hats, the fedora does not hug the head as tightly as possible, but instead is styled in such a way as to make you look as much like Humphrey Bogart as possible. It will undoubtedly add an air of sophistication, elegance and style to your life and relationships. You may or may not find yourself seeing in black and white as well.

The jockey’s cap is favored by horse racers everywhere, or just people who want something to keep the sun out of their eyes without a logo being affixed to their forehead like some sort of modern day variant on cattle branding. Wearing one is a sure way to mark yourself as a man of refined tastes, or possibly just find people who are looking for a cabbie.

So in the future, keep your eyes out for headgear and ask yourself, “What does this say? I it something I would wear in public? Or should I just take a picture of it and send it to Nate?”

I’ll look forward to hearing from you.


*Nor am I, in fact, a woman.

Heat Wave: Shooting Sparks


I returned to my base of operations with the three telltales of a successful bank robbery in tow. The first, of course, was a large amount of untraceable cash. The second, a completely intact business suit. The third, the irrepressible smirk of a man who has taken what is his and has no intention of apologizing for it. To say that I was incredibly satisfied with the day’s work would be understating the matter.

I’m not going to describe the bank robbery, those details are on a need to know basis, and no one who’s not me really needs to know, but it was truly the kind of work a man could take pride in. I had been looking forward to taking a day or two off at my headquarters, catching up on some coding that needed to be done before my next major move and getting some hard earned rest from the constant paranoia that must accompany a man of my profession who is temporarily cooperating with others. While I didn’t really expect things to go exactly according to plan, I wasn’t expecting them to stray too far, either.

I was not expecting my phone to ring.

A man in my position cannot be free with his personal information, so my giving out the number is a rare occurrence, having it ring, even more so. I pulled out the cheap, disposable, prepaid cell phone I was using at the moment and wondered if it was time to get another. It didn’t have any built in Big Brother tracking features, but it didn’t have Caller ID either so I couldn’t tell who was on the line. After a moment of thought, feeling a touch adventurous, I decided to answer. So I lifted it to my ear while punching the “call” button and said, “Hello?”

“Eiyeiyeiyeiwaaaaaaazogahzogahzogah,” said my phone.

“Augh!” I said. Someone was trying to send my phone a fax. No matter how many times I hear that sound I will never be able to bear it without cringing. I can code computers by touch but not by voice.

It’s unusual to be getting a fax in this day and age, but it wasn’t an accident. In fact, given how few people knew my phone number and how few fax machines still exist, the odds of my getting a fax accidentally are probably larger than the Cubs winning the World Series next year.

As a man of reason I found it more likely that this was not an accident and rather one of many prearranged signals from one of my more reliable contacts.

I hung up the phone and left my briefcase by the door and picked my way through the debris of a half a dozen tinkering projects that were scattered about my underground apartment. I paused long enough to take stock, making sure the computer system I actually wanted was unboxed and ready to run. I had moved in only four days ago, and my usual set-up wasn’t entirely unpacked.

However villainy, such as it is, runs on information, and in the information age that means a computer. The computer I use for contacting the network of informants, brokers and snitches that I maintain is physically isolated from all of my others, and it is always one of the last packed and first unpacked, because sometimes being out of touch can be fatal. So it was out and waiting for me on the desk in back of what was, theoretically, my living room.

Booting a state of the art computer and getting onto the Internet is the work of but a moment, and I confess that a person with my talent doesn’t even have to touch the keyboard in order to make it happen. But in this case, I did. I’m not normally terribly paranoid when dealing with my informants, because if they were really smart enough to get around my safeguards they’d be using their information themselves, not selling it to me.

But this one was a special case, and I wasn’t about to start taking chances with him now.

An unsecured Internet game room dedicated to wordplay may seem like a strange place to start a highly criminal transaction, but that was exactly where I was headed. Ever since I’d first heard of Hangman a year ago he’d made it a practice to meet up with clients on a small social networking game site in the room for the game from which he took his name. As a rare service to customers with extensive lines of credit, he sometimes contacts us when he has information he thinks we’d particularly want to know.

Hangman was already there when I logged in, but that was no surprise. He had prepared a simple puzzle, only six letters. I smiled and typed in the solution, “Sumter.”

There was a flicker and I wasn’t in an internet game room anymore. There were no graphics, just plain, uncolored text. A box presented itself, asking for my user name and password. By the Hangman’s decree, all his customers used the code names given to their files at federal agencies, unless they didn’t have one yet, in which case I assume he gave them one.

This meant I had to log in as “Open Circuit”, not a name I am fond of but, until I can convince Project Sumter to change my file, it’s what I’m stuck with. As soon as I was logged in Hangman typed, “Congratulations on your latest exploit, Circuit.”

“What exploit would that be?” I asked. Playing coy is part of how the game works.

“A little matter of a bank in Detroit suffering an unauthorized withdrawal.” There was no way for plain text to convey emotion effectively but Hangman never struck me as the type to be smug knowing something he shouldn’t. Rather, he struck me as the type to enjoy being in on the joke. “Not why I contacted you.”

“I imagine not. Perhaps it has more to do with your wanting to make back some of that credit you owe me?”

“Pursuit of knowledge is its own reward.” I wasn’t sure if that was meant to sound sanctimonious or sarcastic. Fortunately, Hangman followed it with, “The information you feed me from the Sumter data files is worth more than just money to me.”

I nodded to myself, a tell I wouldn’t have allowed in person. Hangman was a mystery, other than the fact that he sold information to anyone who was buying, I literally knew nothing about him. But I had theories, and it was always nice to have hints to support or disprove them with. This was another hint that Hangman was indeed one of those who just wanted to know. Figuring out whether it was his real personality showing or just part of a persona he adopted was half the fun.

“Unfortunately,” I typed, “I don’t have anything new from the Project archives to share right now.”

Normally I did have a set of dedicated on-site and off-site computers that worked on various hacking attacks on known elements of Project Sumter, the US Government’s talent management bureau. Even with the recent changes to their information security policies there was always something to glean about them, and I frequently sold what I found to Hangman. However, the computers set aside for that task were still packed.

“Not a problem. I actually have some information about Sumter that might interest you. It’s about your favorite FBI agent.”

“I don’t have one of those. They’re all equally bothersome to me.”

One thing that Project Sumter and I have in common is that we hate the stereotypical depictions of what most people would call superpowers. There’s a lot of reasons for that, and which one is yours usually varies depending on whether you’re the government or a self-employed talent. But in spite of that, no matter where I go or what I do in the Western Hemisphere, there’s one particular governmental talent that always seems to turn up.

Thus, while I wouldn’t consider Special Agent Double Helix my archrival, he is the single most aggravating thing I’ve ever experienced. Hangman has somehow figured this out and brings it up from time to time, usually to help in extracting money from me.

“How much?” I added.

From the length of time it took Hangman to reply it was clear he had been halfway to finishing a snide reply when I asked, forcing him to delete it and start over.

“500. It’ll hit the news soon enough, but I thought you’d want to know, since it’s Helix.”

If it was going to be in the news on its own it must have been a big deal. Still, it’s not like Project Sumter was going to be mentioned on the news, their involvement would be buried behind several layers of innuendo and subtext. I’d have had to do some digging to know for sure Helix was involved. And Hangman’s right. Whether by deliberate design on the part of Helix, the US Government or some higher power, whenever I try to do anything significant Helix shows up. He even followed me to Morocco once.

Best to know what he’s been doing. “A done deal, Hangman. Take the credit from my account.”

“Pleasure doing business with you.” There was a few minutes pause, probably Hangman digging up the records for tidbit of information I’d just bought and sending them. Patience is a virtue, even for villains, and I spent the time unpacking more boxes. A sound from my computer told me Hangman had sent another message.

“Special Agent Double Helix burnt down an apartment building this afternoon, and it was a pretty big one. He’s been removed from active duty pending review of what happened, which could very well take a full month. Initial confirmation in the documents I just sent you.”

I read the message in disbelief, then read it again. Here I am, hard at work, robbing banks and spending cash to keep the economy turning, and what is the FBI doing? Sending Helix to burn down buildings. And then getting him laid off. This was better than I could ever hope for.

“Hangman, I’m breaking out the credit cards,” I typed. “I need you to find me some things. A lot of things, actually. Stand by for the list.”

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Fiction Index

Changing History

History is vitally important to writing a story. Everyone has history, so it’s important that any story you write not actually start at the beginning, but before it. The backgrounds of your characters influence their prejudices, interests and reactions to new situations. By extension, the history of a society and a world influence how it reacts to large scale changes in circumstances or the ideas of individuals.

The farther a world is from what we know, the larger its differences from our own history must be. But changes in history have large ranging repercussions, and if you’ve decided that you don’t want a world radically different from what we know in the modern day you’ll have to take steps to compensate for that. (Of course, if extrapolating the changes to the modern day situation is what you want to do, that’s fine, but we’re not all Harry Turtledove.)

There are a lot of options for how an author might make significant changes to history and still manage to keep their fictional world similar to what we know.

The simplest is to make your changes very recent, occurring within the last twenty-five years or so. In this case you can generally get away with saying that whatever your unusual element is, it hasn’t had time changed the world too much yet. A corollary to this is to make whatever change you want to take place totally apocalyptic in nature, like a zombie plague or a sudden ice age, changing all the rules after the point of departure, keeping the old and developing the new.

Another option is to make the changed history an occult element, in other words, totally secret. If only a select few people know about the different history, it’s really easy to justify it not making any real changes to history as we know it.

A third possibility is to hand changes to historic figures with such overriding circumstances or goals that they could only do one thing with them, which reinforces our own history. Abraham Lincoln, for example, is going to use just about any innovation or discovery handed to him to preserve the Union. Likewise, Churchill would probably have used anything he could against the Nazis. If Albert Einstein had laid the foundation for practical nano-tech instead of figuring out how to split the atom, I guarantee it still would have gotten used against Japanese sooner or later. Not that World War Two with nano-tech would ever make a good story.*

Heat Wave is, in many ways, a combination of approaches two and three. This is one difference between Heat Wave and the early days of comics, where superheroes were typically a new occurrence. I’ve chosen this approach for a number of reasons, but the biggest one was to allow for the back story I have in mind. Also, it’s different from the norm, which is a good thing so long as it doesn’t make things any harder to grasp, which I don’t really feel it does.

So as you read, keep your eyes open for hints to Project Sumter’s slightly different understanding of world history. Hopefully it will be as much fun for you to figure out as it was for me to put together.

*Note to self: Story idea..

Cool Things: The Quadrail Series

Timothy Zahn’s Quadrail novels, also known as the Frank Compton adventures, showcases one of sci-fi’s best thinkers in his best work to date.

Many science fiction authors, including the great Isaac Asimov, wrote their stories as mysteries. The mystery is a classic genre in literature, appealing to our desire to know. It also allows the sci-fi author a unique vehicle to explain their world to the reader, as detectives often ask questions about how and why things happen, even when they already know to a certain extent, just to ensure they have the facts straight (or to catch someone in a lie.) And the working out of a puzzle, be it a crime or just a strange set of circumstances, gives a story an immediate sense of purpose and conflict.

Zahn is a master of the sci-fi mystery, and even his Conqueror’s trilogy, ostensibly about an interstellar war, has a number of mysterious circumstances at its heart. The Quadrail series takes this to the next level, presenting you with Frank Compton as a protagonist and the Quadrail itself, along with the aliens who run the Quadrail, known as Spiders, as some of the first mysteries you’ll have to figure out.

Let’s be honest, having a whole train system in space as the primary means of interstellar travel is a little mysterious. In fact, it might be the most difficult hurdle for most sci-fi fans to get past (but it’s worth it, there is a very solid reason for the Quadrail, trust me.) The quirky, almost B-movie feel of the Quadrail is part of the charm, and if you can’t get past that there’s certainly no way you’ll get used to the talking chipmunks with guns*.

In the Quadrail’s galaxy, humanity is surrounded by eleven other civilizations that have been riding the Quadrail longer than they have. Aliens with unusual and distinctive social structures are a trademark of Zahn’s fiction and he really goes over the top with the races on the Quadrail.

Being a fairly experienced traveler who is familiar with the basics of interstellar politics, and more importantly, out of a job, Frank is recruited by the Spiders to deal with a problem they anticipate occurring in the next few months involving one of the oldest and most powerful interstellar civilizations on the rails. If that wasn’t enough, Frank quickly finds no one is really telling him all he needs to know- not that he’s being entirely honest himself.

Frank’s attempts to get a handle on the Spiders and their problems, not to mention the parter they saddle him with and the enemies he makes on the way, fill a total of five books of suspense, clever reasoning and wry irony. A fan of suspense, espionage or science fiction will enjoy the Quadrail series, a fan of all three should definitely check them out.


*Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers all grown up.