Heat Wave: Fresh Fire

Helix

Everyone thinks you walk through a wall by making yourself some kind of fog and seeping through the cracks. Or some such nonsense. In other words, you get less dense than what you want to go through. In reality, the talents we refer to as matter shifts work the exact opposite way: You make what you want to go through loose density while upping your own. Then you walk through it like it was fog, which causes a lot of field agents to call them fog banks, and return the wall to normal.

Doing this with load-bearing walls is not recommended.

Because a matter shift relies primarily on making things less dense the first thing Project Sumter did when it started keeping records on talents was check to see if there was anything they couldn’t walk through. As it turns out, they’re unable to walk through anything denser than lead.

So, when Project Sumter moved into our current office building they installed a lead lined holding cell in the basement, on the off chance that we’d wind up hanging on to matter shift at some point. As far as I know, Gearshift is our first.

Of course, I know all of this through the family grapevine. I’ve never officially be cleared to see file on the matter shift talent in general, or the files of any specific matter shifts in Project history. And if I hadn’t there was almost no chance Herrera had. As we rode down the elevator I flipped through Gearshift’s file. It was no real surprise when I found that no information on the talent had been included in the file.

I glanced up at Herrera. “Did you get anything on this guy’s talent in your file?”

She shook her head. “No. All I know is that it’s a single digit.” She grimaced. “Since they’re numbered in the order they were discovered that doesn’t really tell us much either. But we apparently need Voorman’s clearance to get a rundown on what he can do. How they figure that is beyond me.”

I was saved from a response when the elevator door opened with a cheerful ding and we stepped out into a short, dark gray hallway of lovely concrete. There were a couple of doors on each side, which we didn’t want, and a door at the end, which we did. “Look at it this way,” I said as we walked toward it. “You’re already cleared for one single digit talent. They probably just want to avoid concentrating too much information in one person.”

“You’re probably right,” Herrera said thoughtfully. “But it would be nice to know what this guy can do. In case there’s trouble.”

“That’s what I’m here for, right?” I reached to open the door. “A talent to handle the problems, an oversight agent to ask the ques-”

My brilliant recitation of what I thought to be the ideal interrogation style, perfected after years of work with Bob Sanders, got cut off mid sentence when the doorknob yanked out of my hand the door swung inward to reveal pretty much the last person I had expected to see.

Herrera made a surprised sound behind me and I could feel my jaw hanging open. The first thing I did when I collected myself was snap it closed. Then I backed up a step and said, “Pastor Rodriguez. What brings you here?”

The big Hispanic man smiled at me and said, “I heard you were holding a young man that is part of our youth outreach program for something. He contacted me with his phone call.”

My eyebrows were going up in spite of my best attempts to keep a straight face. “And they just let you come down here?”

“I authorized it.”

I leaned to one side in an attempt to see around Rodriguez, who obligingly stepped back and to the side so I could see Voorman standing just behind him. I glanced back at Herrera, to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, but she apparently saw him too. Rodriguez stepped forward again and extended his hand, saying, “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. I’m Pastor Manuel Rodriguez, from Diversy Street Church.”

“Senior Agent Teresa Herrera,” she replied, giving his hand a quick shake. “Pleased to meet you, Father.”

I suppressed a smile at the pastor’s expense but he took the mistake with good grace. Since he was now out of the doorway and occupying a large chunk of the hallway I figured it was a good time to edge around him and into the observation room. Unlike most rooms of its type, there was no one way glass built into the wall. That would be a point of egress for a fog bank.

Instead there was a bank of monitors attached to a number of cameras inside the room, along with a couple of guards to keep an eye on things. I didn’t recognize either of them but I nodded hello to be friendly while scanning the monitors to see Gearshift lacing his shoes back up while sitting at the table in the room. “Will you be observing Herrera and I as we debrief, sir?”

“Actually,” Voorman said, “he’s been taken care of and we’re releasing him into Pastor Rodriguez’s custody.”

The surprises just kept coming. Project rules say that talent has to be interrogated by both a talent and their oversight officer. Voorman was the only person I saw with the authority to debrief a new talent, and he isn’t anyone’s oversight officer, that’s not a Special Liaison’s job. If Gearshift had been debriefed by Voorman it mean there had been no one else in the room at all. That’s just plain stupid.

Apparently Herrera realized that too, because she said, “Sir, isn’t it unwise to conduct an interview without someone else in the room?”

“Ah, well, it’s something of an unusual case,” Voorman answered. “The young man’s family was anxious about him. Since Pastor Rodriguez was here already I conducted the interview with Agent Shelob’s assistance and authorized his release.”

I frowned. Shelob was an antenna, much like Broadband. Technically she wasn’t even a member of the Project, when we’d found here she running a private security firm, using her ability to hear and project most kinds of electromagnetic waves to monitor and control a host of custom built security equipment. She basically still did that, except she got paid more to do it for us. Between her senses, cameras and other equipment she can keep an “eye” on most of the building simultaneously from her desk in the lobby.

But if Voorman had gotten into trouble with Gearshift she would have been too far away to help quickly. There were the guards, of course, but I honestly doubt they could have stopped a matter shift determined to cause trouble. They may not be able to pass through a lead barrier, but I was never really clear on whether bullets hurt them a whole lot, either. Gearshift’s lack of body armor was one of the things that had tipped me off to him.

Not that I was bringing any of that up with Pastor Rodriguez in the room.

I slipped a hand around Herrera’s elbow and carefully pulled her back just a half step. I rocked forward onto my toes to get a few inches more height and muttered, “Not now,” into her ear, then said in a more conversational tone to the room at large, “Then I’ll let you get on with the paperwork.”

“Thank you, Helix,” Voorman said with a relieved nod. For once he looked me in the eye as he said it. Then he and Rodriguez hustled out of the room, leaving me with a very upset superior agent.

At least we were back to business as usual.

“Voorman can break with protocol on occasion. He’s the man in charge, making that kind of judgement call is part of his job.” We were back in Herrera’s office and I was leaning against her desk and watching her pace. “We’re just grunts, you and I. You less than me, but still it’s not our place to pry if there was something he wanted to handle himself.”

She stopped and gave me a level look, one I had a hard time interpreting. She leaned back against the half-empty shelves that lined the wall of her office and folded her arms across her chest, apparently taking her time in choosing her next words. The disembodied voice of Bob Sanders echoed in my head, telling me I could learn a thing or two from her. I tried to ignore him.

“Helix, I know I’m the new person here, and in spite of our relative positions in the Project you’re better informed and more experienced than I am.” Herrera tipped her head slightly to on side, as if taking my measure. “You have to know that the interrogation protocols are in place for a reason, and what those reasons are. And I’m willing to bet you don’t question why Voorman did what he did because you already know his reasons for ignoring them.”

“You get hired by the HSA because of that kind of insight?” It was a knee-jerk comeback and I knew it.

Apparently Herrera realized it too, because she ignored me and went on. “I’ve been around enough to know I’m not going to get anything from you if I pry, that’s the way of office politics. It’s frustrating, and I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with it here, but it’s not like I didn’t have to play that game before. I don’t care about all that. What I care about is closing this case. So what I want to know is, will whatever game is being played here matter when it’s time to deal with Open Circuit?”

“We just call him Circuit,” I said. It wasn’t an answer, but I had to think about the question and I’ve found irritating people and then ignoring them to be a good way to find the time. Herrera didn’t rise to the bait but she seemed content to give me time. It was kind of spooky how well she had my patterns down after only a few days. Maybe that was the real reason the HSA had hired her.

I jerked my thoughts back to the issue at hand. Even after fifteen minutes to work on the problem I was pretty sure my original read on Voorman’s motives for handling Gearshift the way he did was correct. He was trying to limit how much Senator Dawson knew about the Project and our talents. It was part of his job to keep the Project’s secrets, and what Dawson would do with those secrets is something of a mystery.

On the other hand, I was growing less and less convinced that Dawson had placed Herrera here as some sort of spy. I wasn’t sure why she was here, other than that the HSA needs qualified liaisons as much as anyone else, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t a direct participant in any scheme of the Senator’s. In fact, I was beginning to have the sneaking suspicion she might be using the Senator, and not the other way around.

Voorman was harder to read. He had moved up to a senior position before I joined up and he hadn’t worked with any of the family, either. Outside of the formal chewing out sessions that typically followed my destroying something valuable in the field I didn’t interact with him much and his strange, withdrawn attitude kept me from getting much from him then. I could guess why Voorman had shut Herrera out of debriefing Gearshift. But would he deliberately withhold information to undermine someone who was just associated with the Senator? Or was he too good an agent to let politics get in the way of work?

Actually, I don’t think there’s any senior agent who can separate politics from work, it’s part of the nature of the job. One of the few reasons to be grateful that I’m ineligible for management.

In the end I just shrugged and said, “To be honest, I don’t know. Undermining any Project operation being run out of our office doesn’t make any sense for someone in Voorman’s position, so I’m guessing he’ll give us everything Gearshift said about his chasing Circuit. I doubt there was much there that we couldn’t guess from what we’ve already gotten from Amplifier and Mr. Movsesian. But information on his talent… well, we’re not likely to get much of that.”

“Because it’s dangerous,” Herrera said.

I grimaced. “Basically, yeah.” I braced my hands on the desktop and shoved myself up onto it, resting my feet on one of the guest chairs, then leaned forward with my elbows on my knees. That left me on eye level with her, and I noticed for the first time that her eyes were the kind of color some people like giving fancy names like cedar or hazel or something.

Obviously, I’m not one of the people that does that.

“Listen, Herrera, this is nothing personal-”

“Can I guess what it might  be?” She asked, cutting me off mid question. I shrugged. That was apparently all the permission she needed to continue. “I think there’s some sort of a power play going on between Mr. Voorman and Senator Dawson. It’s also pretty obvious you and a few other people around here think I’m a part of whatever the Senator is up to, whether I realize it or not.”

I opened my mouth to deny that, then realized that I’d just be insulting her intelligence and closed it again. Herrera graciously ignored my aborted interruption and kept talking. “What I know is that my job is to find talents that are guilty of crime, arrest them and bring them to justice. I’ve also read enough of your file to know that you will do pretty much anything you have to, within the law, to do the same. You’re not afraid of hurting you’re career, you’re already as far up the totem pole as you can get, so I’d be tempted to say you should be above this, but it sounds like you’ve got your own issues with the Senator.”

“Not bad,” I said, resting my arms on my knees and knitting my fingers together. “You’ve pretty much covered all the bases, proving you’re intelligent enough to realize the truth of what I’m about to tell you, idealistic enough to accept it and most importantly, not naive enough to tell me it’s not necessary. There are some talents that are so dangerous their abilities must be kept secret from as many people as possible. Even if some of those people are the good guys.”

“Really?” Herrera spread her hands. “Because I didn’t see any evidence of something that dangerous being used today.”

“It’s not that simple,” I said, sliding off of the desk and starting to pace. “I’ll admit, if Gearshift is what I think he is, until a couple of months ago I wouldn’t have thought anything of him either. But, as you undoubtedly know already, the Project has a number of programs underway devoted to researching and better understanding how talents function and what they are capable of.”

“With little success understanding the function part,” Herrera said, nodding. “I’ve read about them. You go to the Rose-Hulman Institute a couple of times a year, as I recall.”

“And while the eggheads there aren’t supposed to talk about other talents’ capabilities with their subjects, sometimes things slip out. Some of them are real geeks, they have rankings and who would win debates all the time. And they want opinions from the horse’s mouth.” I waved it off. “It’s stupid, but sometimes they come up with their best ideas doing it, so no one says anything. And some of their best ideas are really scary, Herrera. This is not the kind of thing you want to write down, much less tell other people about.”

“And you think Gearshift is that dangerous?”

“After what Voorman did today? I’m sure of it. Let the people who are actually cleared to deal with that mess handle his case.” I scooped up my copies of the folders on Amplifier and Gearshift and changed the subject. “I don’t know if you’ve met Cheryl down in Records yet, but she can make your life very hard if she wants and she likes her paperwork turned in on time. You should get on your after action report, try to get it too her by the end of the day. Get her your summary of Amplifier’s debriefing, too, and she’ll be your friend for life. Or whatever passes for friendship from Cheryl.”

“Thanks for the advice.” Herrera clearly wasn’t distracted by my subject change, but she seemed content to let me go. For now.

So really, I should have gone. But when I was halfway out the door I remembered and glanced back over my shoulder. “Did you want us to do any follow-up work on the note from Circuit’s warehouse? The Enchanter, or whatever it was?”

“Oh, that?” She briefly looked embarrassed. “I need to double check something first. I’m not even sure I’m remembering right. I’ll bring it in tomorrow, if it’s even relevant.”

Figuring that discretion was the better part of valor I just shrugged and got out of there while the getting was good.

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Merry Christmas!

I hope that you have a wonderful Chirstmas! Even if you don’t celebrate the holiday you can still enjoy the day off. Like you, I’ll be taking a vacation this week, so look for the next installment of Heat Wave on Dec. 31st!

World Building: Start with the Basics

Okay, so we’ve covered original vs. derivative in terms of world building. But whether you want to be completely original or mostly derivative, you’ve got to do some of the work yourself, otherwise your story will be a flat thing in a flat world (and I’m not talking about Discworld here.) So where do you start?

There are obviously a lot of things to think about when you’re building a world. What’s the geography like? What’s the climate? Who lives there, what do they want, how old is the world and what’s the current political situation, what events led to the current status quo, and on and on. To be honest, it can be more than a little overwhelming. It’s important to keep some basic principles in mind.

Build From the Bottom Up

Start with the basic ideas. Where did the world and the people come from? Is it a colony created by Earth around a distant star in the far future? Or is it on a disk on the back of elephants, put there by bickering lesser “deities”? And how much of the world’s origin is even known to the average person? If it’s not known, what are the prevalent theories?

Who lives there? Are there other races beyond humans? Are there humans at all, or is the average person an oddity there? How much of the world is actually explored and understood by the people who your story focuses on?

Frame the Rules of Enagement

What do you want to your world to be about? While in the real world science, exploration, political theory and standard of living were all linked in their advancement, there’s nothing wrong with your distorting your world slightly to bring one of those elements to the foreground. But if you’re going to do that, you need to know that you’re doing it from fairly early on, or you’ll have to go back and make significant adjustments to bring things in line.

Also, if you’re going to have magic, metahuman abilities like telepathy or telekinesis, nonhuman races or even stranger things like lurking eldritch horrors, you’re going to need to decide on that at this stage. Adding these things after the world is mostly set can result in story elements that are wildly out of place.

Set The Scene

Choose a particular part of your world to focus on first. Choose a country (or a city or a county) to focus on first. Build that place until it’s what you want it to be, then think about other parts. It’s true that no country is an island (unless, of course, the country is a literal island(s), like Britain, Japan or Madagascar, but that’s not what we’re saying here) and as you think of ways for that your first area of focus ties to other places in the world, go ahead and write them down.

Eventually, you’ll need to think about places outside where you want to tell stories, unless you want to convey the idea that you’re dealing with one of the last places on earth or a small colony in space or something. When the time comes, don’t be afraid to go back and edit what you’ve already written about your first place. It’s important not to give the impression that everything in the world revolves around that one patch of ground. But there’s nothing wrong with having a very firm idea what one place is like before you move on. If you’ve done it right, you can actually follow the lines of commerce, politics and money from place to place until you have at least a general idea what the entire known world is like!

Establish the Core Conflict

There’s a conflict inherent to every setting. When looking at the part of the world you’re working on, find out what that is. As your characters explore that world later, they’ll have to encounter it at least tangentially, or their life won’t look real. For example, in Asimov’s robot novels, it’s the struggle between Earth and the Spacer worlds that results in the murders that Elijah Bailey must solve. Bailey’s conflict is between himself and the murderer but the larger conflict in the world around him defines those smaller conflicts in dozens of ways, including the constant presence of R. Daneel Olivaw.

On the other hand, few conflicts are world wide. It’s fine if one area has one overarching conflict, such as the local equivalent to Prohibition and the resulting organized crime, while another area is wracked with conflict between a petty tyrant and la Resistance.

Identify Major Players

I’m not talking about the characters your story will be about (although they may be in your story, and they may even be your characters, the just don’t have to be.) Rather, decide who’s important in your neck of the woods. Who runs the government, who owns major businesses, who heads la Resistance (if there is one). Sooner or later, you’re probably going to need one of these people to help your story along, and it looks much better if you can show their influence from the beginning, rather than having a major player in the military-industrial complex simply appear out of thin air.

With these five basic rules to help you lay a foundation you should be well on your way to making a decent world. Getting the broad strokes down is just as important as all the other minutia, and the one won’t look nearly as good without the other. There may be another few posts on the subject of word building, but for the time being, I hope that will be enough to get the wheels turning.

Uncool Things: The End of The World

As you’ve doubtless heard by now, calendars from the ancient Mayincatec civilization mysteriously end on December 21st, 2012. Most people believe this heralds the end of the world, as the Mayincatec civilization had incredible powers of timekeeping and foresight that allowed them to perform incredible feats such as worshiping feathered serpents as gods long after the dinosaurs were actually extinct. They also foresaw a number of significant astrological cycles like eclipses, which we now know happen at regular intervals. Unfortunately, they failed to anticipate the Spaniards, who are not cyclical (and who, by their own admission, no one expects.)

All in all this sounds like a pretty airtight reason to expect a cataclysm of some sort come Friday. (Although not to worry – not even the end of the world will keep me from my appointed posting time!)

Now the end of the world sounds pretty uncool. After all, you won’t get to open your Christmas presents this year, nor will you be able to party like it’s 1999 on the 31st. On the other hand, it also means you don’t have to worry about car or house payments!

Unless, of course, the Mayincatec were wrong…

But hey, when have ancient, extinct civilizations ever been wrong about the future?

So in order to prepare you for your local apocalypse, we suggest a few basic measures. First of all, learn the song. I cannot stress how important this is. If the world is ending, you want your last words to be as cliche and meaningless as possible, and nothing says that like REM.

Second, don’t stress out about having a bomb-proof shelter. Don’t worry about having enough food or being prepared for the new world order. The end of the world means the end of the who stupid world. There’s not going to be anything left to fight over. Again, get this: When the world ends there is. No. World. Left. So stop stressing! One way or another, when you’re gone, you’re gone!

So instead of blowing all that hard earned cash on pointless frivolities like canned food or guns and ammo, buy something truly worthwhile, like a Jacuzzi. If you’ve only got a few days left on earth you might as well spend them in comfort, right? Just be sure to order next day delivery.

Finally, consider just sleeping in. The most likely way for the world to end is in a spontaneous supernova. Given that it will take about eight minutes for the light from that event to reach our planet and it won’t take too much longer for the shockwave to to incinerate all life from the surface, there’s really no reason to be awake for it. There will be nothing to see, very little to do, and there’s no reason to live through the end of the world going through cardiac arrest or something. Why ruin the experience?

In conclusion, I highly discourage you from asking yourself any kind of meaningful questions at this juncture. There’s no reason to wonder if you really trust the kind of people who routinely cut out people’s hearts to mollify their deities, or if people who couldn’t figure out that something heavier than quilted armor and light bows would be needed to fight Conquistadors are really the people you should be taking long term planning advice from. You certainly shouldn’t ask yourself how you might be able to take advantage of end of the world frenzy.

That’s my job.

Enjoy your end of days!

Heat Wave: Raking the Coals

Helix

Once we got back to the office there were a million things to do before I went in and talked to Biker Girl and her friends. For one thing, I had to go over to Records and see what they had found out about them. I was sure we’d gotten their legal names by that point, but beyond that making these inquiries takes time, even if you’re connected to the FBI. Especially then. So there wasn’t much to work with there.

Then I had to run over to Analysis and see if they’d attached a code word to Biker Girl’s file yet. As it turned out they had. Talent File #4322 was officially named Amplifier. Charlie, Talent File #4323, was now Gearshift. Fitting but vague. Classic Sumter. There were no indications that Skinny had admitted to talent of any kind, nor had he exhibited any signs of one. That didn’t mean much, but it also meant he didn’t have a Talent File, he’d probably wind up as a person of interest. Talents have to be debriefed by other talents and their supervising agents, persons of interest are usually handled by others. That meant Skinny wasn’t my problem.

I labeled the files Records had given me and went back up the stairs to my desk. Nearby the tac team was working on after action reports. There was no sign of Herrera.

“Where’s Herrera?” I asked Bergstrum as I sat down.

He shrugged. “Haven’t seen her since we checked in our gear. Probably checking on where the kids we picked up are being held.”

“Should have just gone up and asked Cheryl.” I tapped my folder. “They got it in here already.”

Bergstrum shook his head and laughed. “I’ve never seen anyone ride people as hard for their paperwork as she does. Life could get problematic once she’s Records chief.”

“Don’t I know it,” I said, and looked down at my desk. As I’ve said, it’s typically a disaster area, but today that was more useful than problematic. We don’t like a Member of the Public to think we’re understaffed, hampered by red tape or otherwise lacking in the omniscience department, and as such I wasn’t prepared to go in to talk with our freshly minted talents bearing files on them that only had three to five sheets of paper a piece.

So I raided my desk for padding.

There were a half a dozen office memos on fascinating subjects like how to use the new paper shredder or photocopier, rather redundant as they effectively amount to the same thing if you ask me. I shoved them into Amplifier’s file and tossed a stack of pages from last year’s Project employee handbook that would need to go through the shredder or copier later, for disposal. I absently tossed this year’s handbook on top of the other three ring binders at the back of my desk and pulled out the bottom drawer.

There I found the mother load, a two inch stack of rough drafts for after action reports from a forgotten time. I shoved them into Gearshift’s file and compared my stacks. They were about the same size but one was full of typed pages and the other handwritten stuff. That didn’t look good, so I shuffled pages until things were equal.

I really wasn’t paying attention as I did it, so it’s really kind of a miracle that I spotted it. Still, there it was, as I was moving an old action report from Gearshift’s file to Amplifier’s. A familiar name that had no business being in a report I’d written eight years ago. And why did I still have hand written reports from my first case anyway?

The far door banged open and cut off that line of thought. Herrera stalked through on her way to her office. Her expression was impassive but this was the first time in the last three days I’d seen anything like that from her.

I made a mental note to look into the discrepancy in the old file later and shoved everything into the folders, yanked some sticky notes down from the nearest bulletin board and stuck them on pages at random, then closed them up and headed over to Herrera’s office. The door was open so I took that as an invitation to come in.

“Hey, Herrera,” I called. “We got talents down in the tank stewing. If we keep ’em too long they’re gonna have to answer some awkward questions once they’re out. We gotta move.”

She glanced over from the file she was flipping through. I could tell from the looks of it that it didn’t have anything to do with our strays. The label was green, meaning it came from Forensics, not Analysis. “Yeah, just a minute.”

While I hadn’t known her that long I could tell that something had ruffled her usual composure. It was tempting to just chalk it up to stress and lett it go, after all it had been a long day, but at the same time I was technically supposed to be keeping an eye on her. So I asked, “Something wrong?”

Herrera looked at me for a moment then closed the folder and said, “Helix, why do you call everyone by their last names? Jack, Lars and Paul all seem pretty informal, and that doesn’t seem to bother you. But except for Jack, I’ve never heard you call anyone by their first name.”

“Curse of rank, ma’am,” I said with a shrug. “There’s a natural tendency to assume that a better behaved person is a safer person. The more dangerous a talent is, the more people want to know they’re well behaved.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she said with a snort. “Formality doesn’t equal safety.”

“No ma’am. But you might be surprised how much of a difference it makes in perceptions.” I smiled slightly. “It can make you seem safe, or at least too stodgy and unimaginative to be a danger. On the other hand, it can encourage the idea that, and I quote, ‘Individuals of talent come from longstanding families who’s conservative ideas often cast them as the new American aristocracy. To allow these people to establish family dynasties that continually influence the course of national policy sets dangerous precedents that could have a long-lasting impact on the course of our society.'”

Herrera raised an eyebrow. “Who said that?”

“Senator Brahms Dawson, when I originally applied to join the Project.” I shrugged. “He’s entitled to his opinion, of course, my point is, while all talents have a lot to juggle, some of us juggle more than others. The last thing I need is some kind of bureaucratic reprimand because somebody thinks I wasn’t respectful enough. Or worse, was sexually harassing someone by being too familiar.”

“What about Jack?” She asked.

I shrugged. “I’ve known Jack since I started here, and I didn’t start the whole formality bit ’til I turned twenty and actually grew a brain. Old habits die hard. Same thing goes for the Templetons, really. Now, that was a nice dodge, but why don’t you tell me what it is about that,” I waved at the folder, “that’s got you so upset. Is it something I need to know about before we go and talk to Biker Girl and Charlie?”

With a sigh she handed me the folder. “It’s not really important. Just notice from Forensics that they’re not going to have time to look at most of what we’ve found for another two days.”

I glanced through the file, which looked like a lot of the kind of delay oriented bureaucrobabble desk jockies use to avoid doing real work. Still, I’ve been here enough to know when they’re really asking for time and when they’re just seeing how much they can get away with. “It looks pretty legit to me. There’s ‘only’ thirty talents that use our forensics office on a regular basis, but that’s enough to make a real backlog.” I closed the folder and handed it back to her. “In fact, the forensics people almost always have the biggest backlog of any department.”

“I know.” She tossed the file down in frustration. “I had just hoped…”

“What?” I asked, when it was clear she wasn’t going to finish the thought. “That somehow Project Sumter was different? We’re not really superheroes, Herrera. Day to day problems don’t magically smooth themselves out of our way so we can get to cracking skulls faster, no matter how much I might wish it were the case.”

“Right.” She picked up the files on our new friends and hefted them in one hand. I noted approvingly that she had packed them to the regulation three quarter inch thickness. “Well, while we wait for the gears of justice to grind onward, let’s go talk to Amplifier, shall we?”

“There’s an idea I can get behind. Put on your scary face, Herrera, we’re gonna nip it in the bud.” I did my best Barney Fife imitation. “When we’re done with those kids they’re not gonna be able to think about vigilante justice without shuddering.”

Herrera laughed and gently turned me around and pointed me out of the office. “Then get going, we’re burning daylight.”

We walked into the holding room where Biker Girl, now Amplifier, was waiting for us before discussing exactly what out tactics would be. As it turned out, that was a major error.

I opened with a classic interrogation gambit, namely slapping down great big honking files and looking at my interrogatee meaningfully. People usually find this a little intimidating and Amplifier looked to be no exception.

In fact, once you stripped her out of the body armor and biker gear what you got was a rather fragile looking girl in a sweat stained red shirt who looked like she’d walked into a classroom on the first day of school and been asked to hand in a report no one told her she had to write. It’s a common reaction most talents have when they find out about us, because conspiracies keeping the nature of the world secret are something that happen to other people, right? I’d like to say you figure out a good way to deal with people feeling like that, but I never have.

Now, normally, Sanders and I have a simple system where in I collect all the biographical data “for the record” and he does all the hard questioning. This tends to net more results than the alternative. Which is anything else. Believe me, we’ve had a lot of time to try other systems.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know Herrera well enough to signal that she needed to do most of the talking, nor did I know how the HSA handles interrogations well enough to seamlessly work my way into her routine. So naturally, I decided to bull ahead and hope that Teresa would realize she needed to take over at some point.

It’s this kind of shrewd conversational decision making that gets me into trouble in the first place.

Things started off well enough, Herrera gave her name to the microphone and I identified myself by codename. Then I said, “Subject is tentatively identified as a Wave Maker, a talent capable of adjusting the frequency and amplitude of most sound waves. Tends to manifest unusually good hearing and the ability to identify and exploit harmonics to destroy objects.”

Biker Girl sat up a bit straighter and said, “How did you know that?”

I glanced at her for a second, then said, “Our subject will now be briefed on the Project’s confidentiality protocols,” and switched off the tape recorder. “You and your friend were both wearing body armor when we met a few hours ago. Why was that?”

“Because we didn’t want to get shot?” She said, as if that were the most obvious thing in the world. Which really, it was, but you wouldn’t think it with the way some wannabes act.

“Good thinking,” I said. “But you weren’t wearing a helmet like Mr. Movsesian. It would muffle the sounds you hear and interfere with your ability to effectively use your talent. You also removed jewelry from all of your piercings, because hitting the wrong frequency can cause them to vibrate violently enough to hurt yourself, and you could tell the door in the bunker was free of coolant because you didn’t hear any being pumped through, pretty much the only way you could have determined that without learning the pump was missing, like Mosburger did.”

“Huh.” She sat back in her chair, a looking slightly impressed. “Not bad. You’re smarter than you look.”

“Thanks,” I said dryly. “It’s a requirement to be in this line of work. You want to work with talent, you better get used to thinking that way. You’re a known talent now, and that comes with baggage.”

“I beg you pardon?” Amplifier said.

“You’re now a part of the Project Sumter files,” I said, hefting the file in question for her to see. I opened to the first page, one of only five legitimate pages of data on her. “We’ve assigned you a codename, Amplifier. You’ve been assigned an Temporary Oversight Agent, namely Agent Herrera.”

The two women nodded in acknowledgement of one another while I pressed on. “At all times, when dealing with the Project, you’ll be identified by codename and should identify yourself by codename. Very few people will know your real identity, and it’s in your best interest to keep it that way.”

“Wait, you want me to call myself Amplifier the whole time?” She asked, a little incredulous.

I rubbed my eyes and, in a fit of generosity, said, “Would you like to ask Records if your codename can be changed?”

“It’s not that,” she said, “I just didn’t expect to… you know…”

“Concealing your identity is a fundamental safety measure,” I replied. “Believe me, I know it’s strange and unsettling,” which was true, I understood it but not like a normal person would, “but you need to start partitioning your thoughts now so you’ll make fewer mistakes in the long run. And if you choose to remain a part of civilian life then you probably won’t notice too much difficulty in keeping things distinct.”

“Remain civilian?” Amplifier’s face fell. “You mean I’m not going to join the Project?”

“We don’t force anyone to join,” Herrera said. “We open files on talents as a safety measure, like tracking a gun owner. Some of the abilities out there are very dangerous. There’s also enough people who know about them and would want to extort them for various purposes that we need to keep an eye on that possibility as well.”

“Extort them?” Amplifier looked legitimately alarmed for the first time since I’d met her. “You mean like a slaver ring, or something?”

I shifted uncomfortably. “That kind of thing has never been observed in the US before.”

“Which means you’ve seen someone somewhere else doing it, right?” Amplifier said. “I’ve heard enough doubletalk to know it when I hear it, Agent Double Helix.”

“You can just call me Helix.”

When it was clear that I wasn’t going to say anything beyond that, even if she glared at me, Amplifier asked about Gearshift, except she asked about him by name. Herrera told her his new codename and explained that we’d not spoken to him yet. I had been hoping that this signaled that she was ready to take over, but unfortunately with that said she seemed content to watch a master at work.

For the first time in recent memory I found myself wishing Sanders was here. Amplifier looked like she had something else to say, but I wasn’t about to loose control of the interrogation, they’d run me out of the FBI.

“The facts of the matter are pretty straight forward, Amplifier,” I said. “If you want a job the odds are pretty good that the Project could put you to work, provided you can qualify.”

“Qualify?” She seemed a bit mollified by that. “What do I have to do to qualify?”

“For starters,” Herrera said, “you have to show an ability to pursue investigations and work well in a team setting, something you’ve already done.” I shot her a glare, not at all happy we kept going down this road when I was more interested in how three college aged kids found one of Circuit’s outposts in the first place. Which was, of course, what we should have been asking Amplifier about in the first place.

Herrera ignored my glare and the weight of purpose behind it, opting instead to finish explaining the Project’s hiring standards. “You also have to be able to work with oversight and complete basic field training similar to what the FBI or CIA go through.”

“They’re very big on undergraduate degrees, too.” Grumbling about it probably didn’t reflect well on myself or the Project but whenever the subject came up I couldn’t help but remember all the difficulty I had when I first tried to join the Project. Now Herrera was practically giving a recruiting pitch to Amplifier. It didn’t seem right, but then, talent alone is proof that the world isn’t fair.

I straightened, realizing that both women were looking at me questioningly. I straightened a bit and said, “Can we focus please? This is supposed be a…” I stumbled for a second, thinking that “interrogation” might not be a productive word to use. “A debriefing,” I finally said. “We’ve been sitting here for a good ten minutes without recording any actual testimony.”

“Right,” Herrera straightened up a bit, looking slightly chagrined. “Is there anything else you wanted to ask about the Project with direct bearing on this debriefing?”

“No,” Amplifier said uncertainly after a moment’s thought. “I don’t think so.”

There was a twinge of guilt from the part of me that usually spent its time wondering what life without knowledge of talents or the Project was like. I’d lived knowing about talents since I was four. I really had no idea what kind of adjustment this was for her. I tried to sound sympathetic as I said, “Just try to remember not to give your own name or those of any other talents you know.”

She exhaled slowly. “Right. Code names, protect identity, tell the truth.”

“That’s the idea,” I said, wondering that tell the truth had to be said explicitly.

Now I’d like to say that we wrapped up the debriefing in fairly short order after that, but it actually took us a good two hours. Most of it was fairly boring stuff, with Herrera and I trying to figure out exactly how a bunch of college students managed to run down a warehouse belonging to an international crime lord.

It turns out that you can get really far with just a girl able to make out conversations through two or three walls and a halfway decent analyst to back it all up. Circuit needs hands to help him move things around, just like anyone else, and he hasn’t managed to build robots to replace bodies with yet. His major mistake seems to have been robbing a man Gearshift knew a couple of days ago. While the crime took place in Texas, Clark Movsesian, who I still thought of as Skinny, was somehow able to track Circuit back to a warehouse in the city.

I made a note to recommend Movsesian to Darryl as a potential getman recruit.

Amplifier, Gearshift and Movsesian all belonged to a band, which was how they met each other. I gathered that Amplifier was the singer, Gearshift played guitar, which apparently had something to do with his codename. Movsesian was both the keyboardist and wrote the music. There was a lot of other trivia mixed in there, but the rest of it went in one ear and out the other.

Once the debriefing was done we sent her on her way with another warning to be careful and not talk about this to anyone. Herrera also gave Amplifier the contact information for a person in HR, in case she was still thinking of joining up. Finally we got her out of the tank and headed back into normal society.

I glanced at my watch and tried not to swear. It came out in a muffled grunt, prompting a puzzled look from Herrera.

“We need to go talk to Gearshift,” I said, by way of explanation. “Sanders has probably debriefed Movsesian already, but Gearshift’s been down in the tank for practically four hours already. Even if we get him out in two, it’s gonna look strange to anyone paying attention.”

“Right.” Herrera nodded and headed towards the elevator. “Remind me again why he’s down in the basement?”

“He looked to tanned. I didn’t want to contribute to his developing skin cancer so I had him put out of the sun.”

“How generous.” She hit the elevator call button and gave me a skeptical look.

“Sorry, ma’am,” I said, holding up my hands defensively. “This is one thing I really can’t explain right now.”

“Helix, I know there’s a difference in what you know and what you can tell me. You’ve been doing this longer than me, regardless of who’s in charge, so you’re bound to be cleared on more stuff than I am. But I hope that if there’s something I need to know, you’ll tell me.”

“Believe me, ma’am,” I said, “if there’s something you need to know, I’ll be the first to point it out.”

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Fiction Index

Original VS Derivative: Original Worlds

So last week I talked about the reasons why you, or the author of the book you’ve recently been bashing to your friends, might choose to write a book set in a world that is merely derivative, showing little in the way of original thought as far as world building goes. To summarize, there are plenty of good reasons to choose a derivative world over an original one. So why choose to build an original world at all?

Well, there’s several things in favor of original worlds.

For example, if the theme of your story is exploration it’s important that your readers share in the wonder and excitement of something new. The easiest way to do that is to make sure the reader has never seen the world(s) you’re exploring before, and the easiest way to do that is to build them yourself. While it’s nearly impossible to come up with totally new ideas that have never been done before (a lot of fiction is published every year, after all, and that’s without taking movies and television into account) there’s still plenty of room to innovate and combine unusual ideas. Sometimes all you need to do is take two ideas and combine them to find a totally different world waiting for you.

Another possible reason is that you are looking to really emphasize some particular aspect of human nature or society. A great example of this is if there’s some aspect of technology you want to put at the forefront (see Asimov’s robot novels highlighting AI, or any number of modern stories looking at genetic engineering or nanotechnology).

But the biggest reason is that it’s fun. It’s more fun for you*, it’s more fun for the reader. On some level all stories are about discovery. Discovering how things work, discovering how people think and feel, discovering how the story turns out. Discover is what keeps people turning the pages. When there’s nothing left to discover, the story is over. Having a world remarkably different from anything they’ve seen before gets readers excited and gives them another reason to keep turning those pages. Of course, like any aspect of story world building can’t carry the show on its own. Don’t count on your phenomenal story setting to replace good plot or good characters. But still, a vivid backdrop helps a lot more than having a bland one.

If you want to see some books with solid, original world building, I recommend Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen series or any of the works of Timothy Zahn set in original world but especially the Quadrail series and the Conqueror’s Trilogy.

 

*Unless you don’t like writing all this stuff down. In which case might I suggest thinking about a different profession?

Cool Things: The Protomen

Time for something a little different! The Protomen are an indie band that produces rock operas (and occasional covers of Queen). Now even if you don’t like opera and Queen isn’t your thing, the Protomen have a lot to offer you.

You see, the primary focus of The Protomen is Mega Man. Yeah, the video game character. Okay, that’s not entirely true. The primary inspiration for The Protomen is Mega Man.

For those not familiar with the general gist of the Mega Man storylines (yes there are more than one) they’re about a plucky blue robot and his epic battles with the mad scientist Dr. Wiley. A number of characters, including Dr. Light, Mega Man’s creator, and Proto Man, an earlier model of Mega Man and the source of the band’s name, are featured.

Most Mega Man stories revolve around Dr. Wiley, a former associate of Dr. Light, building a number of powerful and intelligent robots, providing them with armies of much less intelligent but still dangerous robots, and tasking them with taking over the earth. Mega Man foils these plots by defeating Dr. Wiley’s robot masters and exploiting the similarities in their construction to turn their own weapon systems on their creator.

This kind of stuff is now fairly standard video game fare, but fortunately the Protomen don’t dwell on that part of the Mega Man franchise.

The Protomen are two albums into a three album story cycle. The first album, titled “The Protomen” but perhaps more accurately thought of as Hope Rides Alone, introduces us to a dark, dystopian world ruled by Dr. Wiley and his armies of evil robots. Here, The Protomen introduce us to many of their major themes.

And it’s in their choice of themes that they really set themselves apart. They mull over what heroism really means, to what extent we must take responsibility for the evils we see and act. And it reminds, in Mega Man’s own words, “hope rides alone” and often, doing the right thing means standing alone.

In “Act Two: The Father of Death”, The Protomen take us back in time to meet the young Drs. Light and Wiley, and introduce themes like discerning use of technology and the value of work in a mechanized society. They also give one the feeling that one of the two doctors at the center of their story isn’t entirely sane. Here’s a hint: It’s not Wiley.

It’s true that on occasion The Protomen can border on the melodramatic. But that’s not often, and hey, it’s opera, right? They’re entitled to be a little melodramatic.

If you want to hear what they sound like, here’s a link to their preview track from The Father of Death.