Squeezing Things In

Time management is the bane of most authors I know. In fact, it’s a real challenge for most people I know but authors have their own particular issues, which is what I’m going to talk at today. You see, writing eats up time. You can sit down with one good idea that you’re sure you can pound out in ten or fifteen minutes and an hour later realize you were planning to eat lunch in there at some point but now it’s time to get back to work (as in, your paying job). Even a writer in a full-blown spark induced fugue state can loose large chunks of time in exploring an idea, throwing out poor developments (or just poor word choices) and crosschecking ideas against other parts of the story.

As a result, many writers labor under the impression that writing anything is going to be a long and involved process and that they must set aside a large (sometimes an impractically large) chunk of time for in order to get anything done. I myself used to think of writing as a process involving five to ten minutes of focusing followed by an hour, minimum, of writing and twenty minutes of rough editing.

I can now confidently say that this was because I was a moron.

Not that I’m a whole lot better now, but I have at least reached the conclusion that the assumptions I had about the time required for writing were not true.

For example, at my job I receive two 15 minute breaks every day, in addition to my lunch break. I used to think that was too little time to do anything of value, writing-wise, and so that time was effectively lost to me. (Well, not entirely. I still used the time for reading, sketching and other activities that are good for me and/or ultimately inform my writing. But I wasn’t spending it on writing, which is the gold standard for being a, y’know, writer.)

Now, with a lot of focus and determination, I’ve managed to pull about ten minutes of writing out of that half hour of break time, at least when I’m planning to spend my free time at work writing. I still spend time at work doing those other things, because they’re good things, but I feel that getting another half hour to forty-five minutes of writing time a week is a good thing, too. If you’re prepared and ready to roll, even that little time spent writing can yield great results.

So what are some things you can do to get prepared and ready to roll? Well, here’s three suggestions:

1. Prime the pump. Think about what you want to write before you sit down to write it. Not just a little, a lot. If you have some sort of secretarial job or one of the dreaded customer service positions this may not always be practical for you, but try and find at least fifteen minutes a day, say on your drive to work or while you’re engaged in mindless lifting or filing, where you can think about something you want to write about. Turn it over and over in your mind, ask yourself questions about it, revise it and toy around with how it fits into the bigger picture. At the very least, you should be able to do this while lunch is in the microwave and while you’re eating.

2. Do some editing (but not a lot). When you open up your document or pull out the notebooks start by going back to the start of the last paragraph you wrote and rewrite it, focusing on clarity and word choice. Make bigger changes if you think they’re necessary. Hopefully that will get you in the mood to write and remind you of what you were saying when you left off. Sure, rereading does that too, but something about the act of writing things out really gets the neurons firing.

3. Bring the right tools. I didn’t really do a good job of writing on my break until I broke down and bought a tablet that I could easily take to work with me and cloudsync my files so that I didn’t have to be constantly retyping handwritten pages from work. I was very skeptical at first but the money invested was more than worthwhile. A corollary of this: Don’t use a Swiss Army Knife when what you need is an X-acto knife. If your tablet is a writing tool, don’t clutter it up with games and other distractions – keep it as a writing tool. With maybe e-mail and blog software on the side…

Hopefully you’ll be able to use the advice here to make some inroads into turning spare minutes into productive writing. Or maybe you already have. If so, by all means, please share! I know I’m always looking for more ways to squeeze writing into the cracks.

Cool Things: Index (x2!)

Indexing is a new serial by Seanan McGuire, available from Amazon.com through the Kindle store. I discovered it because I made the mistake of reading one of those periodic e-mails Amazon sends out, you know the ones where they recommend things for you. They’re dangerous, dangerous things and my wallet doesn’t like them very much. In fact, they’re one of the prime reasons that I don’t let Amazon show me pictures in their e-mails.

But the name caught my eye. I’ve already mentioned one of McGuire’s works in this spot before, the very high quality October Daye novels. Indexing plays around in very different headspace, running with themes of self-generating narrative similar to Mercedes Lackey’s 500 Kingdoms series. This is weird, very metanarrative stuff. As far as I know the idea first started with Terry Pratchett but has become more popular over time (or maybe just speaks to the breadth of Pratchett’s influence on modern fantasy). It may only appeal to the literary minded.

The basic idea of a self-generating narrative (or SGN from here on out) is that there are stories out there, and some unknown force causes them to play out over and over again, frequently bending or breaking the laws of nature to create the necessary circumstances. There’s problems with the concept of SGNs and the implications that most authors give to them that the more logically minded might question. But the whole point is not to think too logically and just enjoy the ride.

In short, SGNs offer a chance for fractured fairytales on a grand scale, giving the author license to mix, match, avert and otherwise put their own spin on classic tales. Indexing looks to be no exception. It focuses on members of a special government task force who’s job is to deal with SGNs before they get out of hand. However, since Ive only read the first few installments of the series, gauging it’s exact tone and the level of the story behind the stories, so to speak, is a pretty iffy game. Still, if you like the idea of story on top of stories, McGuire looks to be bringing a pretty good one to the table.

What’s really cool about this, at least to my mind, is the fact that Indexing is really taking advantage of changing technologies to bring readers a good experience. The serial will update every two weeks with a new installment, but you only have to pay for the book once. After that, each installment is synced to your Kindle (or iPad/desktop app) as soon as it comes out and you can pick up reading right where you left off. Neat! Plus, it looks like while it’s running as a serial you get a considerable discount on the final price. It’s worth talking a look at.

——–

Totally unrelated to the above: Indexed is a sort of webcomic, published on Tumblr by Jessica Hagy. It uses simple line graphs and Venn diagrams, and occasionally something a little more complicated, drawn on the back of index cards, to make humorous and sometimes insightful points. It updates most every weekday and is a lot of fun to read. Check it out!

#63 (Part One)

The last thing that Kevin Kirishima expected to find when he answered his door the day after the Stillwater Sound robbery was a set of leggy blonde twins. Certainly not blondes in featureless black suits flashing IDs that said they were a part of the Secret Service.

Sure, when your place of work has been robbed you expect to be interviewed by the police a couple of times, more if you were the inside man, but one doesn’t really expect the Secret Service to show up when a small technology company in the Midwest gets robbed. To say that Kevin hadn’t been expecting the visit would have been an exercise in understatement.

The blonde on the left cleared her throat. “Mr. Kirishima?”

So apparently this wasn’t a case of showing up at the wrong door. “That’s me.”

“Eyes up here, please,” said her twin.

Kevin did as asked, not that he had been looking at anything inappropriate. “There’s no name on your ID,” he said to her before taking a quick glance at her sister’s. “Either of yours, actually. I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me who I’m talking to?”

“Not just yet.” That came from a man standing behind them. Where the twins were blonde and blue-eyed enough they could have stared in Alfred Hitchcock films, he looked more like he should be the wise old janitor in a workplace drama. His hair was still fairly thick, but it was pure white. Lines of gray ran through a beard that looked like a goatee might if you suddenly stopped shaving and let it grow wild for a month or two. He leaned heavily on a metal cane and all in all looked decidedly unlike a Secret Service agent. “Mr. Kirishima, we need to come in and ask you a few questions.”

Kevin removed his glasses and polished them thoughtfully. “Maybe I don’t feel like letting people who won’t tell me their names into my apartment. And if I’ve got my U.S. Constitution worked out right, you can’t force your way in without a warrant.”

The janitor reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper, which he handed to Kevin wordlessly. It was a warrant, of course. What else would it be? Kevin adjusted his glasses once to hide his annoyance and handed the paper back. “Fine. Looks legit. Might as well come in.”

Without waiting for further invitation the twins barged through the door and into the apartment, crossing over each other’s paths as they did so. They took such care to do it while he was watching that it was an obvious ploy to confuse him about who was who. Kevin glared at their backs for just a moment before starting to close the door behind their older companion. He didn’t even get it halfway shut before stopping short.

There was a fourth member of their little group, a tall, thin man with a mournful expression, who looked like he was either Polynesian or perhaps Native American. He gave no indication that he realized he’d almost had the door slammed in his face, made no acknowledgement of Kevin at all, just squeezed his narrow frame through the door and started a long, slow circuit around the apartment, not seeming to pay any attention to what he saw. Kevin snorted and closed the door after making sure there weren’t any other weirdos waiting in the wings. Then he followed his visitors into the apartment’s living room.

Since he wasn’t in any mood to be hospitable there was no point in apologizing for the mess. Besides, on a normal day he was quite proud of his living room. It hadn’t been easy to find and collect all that video recording gear, and some of the older stuff was quite valuable. But with six different video cameras, three TVs, a wall of playback equipment and a nest of wires to connect it all, there wasn’t as much room for living as most people might expect to find in a “living” room.

But Kevin wasn’t most people and he had a feeling his guests weren’t either. The janitor had settled into the only chair, which just left the sofa. The twins had taken up flanking positions behind their boss, the old man, who was clearly in charge, and the quiet man was still blankly staring at the junk in the room, so Kevin took the seat on the sofa where he’d been sitting before company arrived, grabbed the remote and switched off the TVs.

“I’m sorry if we interrupted you,” the old man said in a pleasant tone. “But you understand we wanted to talk to you right away.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Kevin replied. “If I knew what you wanted to talk to me about.”

“A breaking and entering at the place you work,” one of the twins said. “Stillwater Sound.”

“Really.” He leaned back and settled into the sofa. For once he wished the battered furniture gave a little more support. Normally it was comfortable but now he was sinking so far he felt small. With an irate grunt he shoved himself forward to the edge of the couch and said, “I thought the police had that pretty well in hand last night. Why the sudden interest from the Secret Service?”

“We’ll get to that, depending on how things go,” the old man said. “How long have you worked for Stillwater Sound?”

“About three years,” Kevin said. “I started as an intern after college and I’ve been there part time ever since. I just made full time last summer.”

“What brought you to a sound studio?” That one of the twins. She casually waved her hand at his collection of video equipment. “This doesn’t look like recording gear.”

“It’s not. I studied communications but my real interest was production for TV and film. I did an internship with one of the local TV stations. When I graduated,” Kevin waved a hand in the general direction of his diploma, which sat on a shelf beside an old Super 8 video camera, “I went to a job fair where I met the Chief – that’s Mr. Griswald, the owner of Stillwater Sound.”

“And he hired you?” She asked. “Why does a sound studio need a TV technician?”

“Because film is an audiovisual medium,” Kevin said. “Adding a soundtrack, voice-overs, remastering sound, removing background noise, all that stuff is a part of film and TV. And when you’re working with a small budget or amateur stuff video and sound work tends to get done with one piece of software, instead of doing video editing with one program and audio editing with another. The Chief thought it would be nice if we could get a piece of that pie and help out amateur movie makers at the same time, so about six years ago he started recruiting people that knew that end of the business.” He shrugged. “It’s not Hollywood, but it’s a place to start.”

“According to the police report, the break-in at Stillwater was just after seven at night.” The old man flipped open a folder he’d brought with him, turning pages until he found the one he wanted. “Are you usually in the buildings that late at night?”

“Only the last couple of days.” Kevin let himself relax fractionally. The questions so far seemed fairly mundane. The whole set up was really weird, what with the Secret Service agents and the badges with no names, but even if these were just really ambitious reporters he couldn’t see any harm in answering their questions. “If you work for Stillwater you get a major discount on using the studio. A friend, Susan, and her husband have a little New Ageish kind of a band. They do recordings, I help out.”

The janitor made a quick note. “Tell me what you saw when you came out of the studio.”

“You been out to the studio yet?” The old man shook his head. Kevin held his hands up, his palms at a right angle to one another. “It’s like this. The parking lot is a square and the old building is down here.” Kevin wiggled the fingers of one hand. “The new building is over here.” He sketched a large rectangle by the opposite corner of the parking lot. Then he indicated the edges of the lot between the two buildings. “All this is some sort of high tech graywater treatment ponds. Four or five of ’em, to be exact. It’s all very eco-friendly stuff, Federally subsidized, we have it to help pay for the new building. And the Chief’s son is a big believer.”

“Sounds smelly,” one of the twins said.

“There’s something to deal with that, too, so you don’t really notice it except on really warm days.” Kevin dismissed the issue with a wave of his hand. “Anyways, I definitely wasn’t smelling anything, just looking around, you know? And I see someone walking through them.”

The white haired man scribbled a note. “That’s not normal?”

“No, it’s not. The only people I’ve ever seen out there are the people who make sure the whole mess isn’t about to wash away or something. They come out about once every three months, poke around the banks for an hour or so and leave. They’re always in teams, and they never come at night.”

“So this person was alone?”

“Yeah.” Kevin tapped his fingers on his chin for a minute. “Nice looking lady. African-American, about five foot six, dressed in gray coveralls. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman in the group before now that I think about it. That’s kind of strange.”

“And you were sure she wasn’t an employee?”

“Stillwater’s big for a sound studio in Indiana, but it’s still a small company. I know everyone working there now and most of the time we hear about new hires before they do.” Kevin shook his head. “She had no business being there after dark and we both knew it. And when you’ve got a stranger with a backpack prowling around buildings with hundreds of thousands of dollars of sound equipment in them you get suspicious fast.”

“According to the preliminary police report you were the one who called security,” the blonde on the left said. “What prompted that if she was just standing around outside the building?”

“Maybe she caught you staring at her chest and started to get mad?” Her sister asked, with a quirk of the eyebrow and the hint of a smile.

Kevin wavered a minute. A hard look confirmed that the one who was asking wasn’t the same one who’d called him out at the door. It was another mind game, not legit banter. Absently he pushed his glasses up his nose and shrugged. “She was a bit far away for that. Anyway, I have the security station at the gatehouse on speed dial and I let them know.”

“How many employees have the Stillwater security stations on speed dial?” The old man asked.

“How many Secret Service agents have no name on their IDs?” Kevin countered, folding his arms across his chest. “Look, I’ve answered your questions with pretty much the same answers I gave the cops-”

“You called security at 7:43 PM,” the old man said, ignoring him. “The initial break-in was at 7:09 PM, and the suspect left the building at 7:35 PM. There’s an eight minute window there that’s unaccounted for.”

“-and I think that’s who you need to talk to.” Two could play the ignorance is bliss card. Kevin went to reach for his wallet and jumped when the thin man materialized beside the couch and grabbed his arm. Kevin jerked away instinctively, startled by his sudden appearance. He’d been so quiet Kevin had almost forgotten there was a fifth person in the room. Best to try and calm things down. “I’m just going to give your boss the name of the detective I talked too after the robbery. I think you’d best come back with them if you want any more questions answered. This whole thing smells fishy and I don’t want to say anything I shouldn’t.”

The old man motioned for his gaunt friend to step back and he did. “Mr. Kirishima, do you know why the owner of Stillwater Sound is called Chief?”

“Well…” That was a matter of public record, so he didn’t see how answering could hurt. “He was in the Navy. Served in the Battle of the Atlantic and later Korea, I think.”

“That’s right. He was a Chief Sonarman when he retired.” The old man leaned back in his chair. “That doesn’t mean the Chief didn’t work for the U.S. Government anymore, though. There’s some jobs you don’t give up that easily. Chief Stillwater just changed job description. He doesn’t wear a uniform anymore and his assignments have more to do with research and development than intelligence gathering, but it’s important work and his talents make him a valuable asset. You might say he’s really made waves.”

Kevin frowned and absently started polishing his glasses again, giving the old man an appraising look. “Are you trying to tell me that Mr. Griswald is using Stillwater Sound as some kind of secret government testing site buried under one of the buildings?”

“Of course not,” the left twin said.

“It’s in the water pits,” her sister added. “He was a sonarman, not a nuclear physicist. He tests sonar equipment under something resembling real world conditions.”

“He what?” Kevin shook his head in bewilderment. “Why would anyone bother bringing sonar equipment this far inland when they could do those kinds of tests just as easily from a fishing trawler or something?” But even as he said it, his mind flashed back to the work crews he’d seen around the ponds every month. Not only were they all men as far as he could recall, but they came with buzz cuts and very good posture. Not typical for a company with a big focus on green technology.

“What’s more important,” the lead agent added, “is that, instead of just being a place to store wastewater, the ponds are actually a national security asset and are monitored as such. I want you to take a look at something.” He fished a set of papers out of one pocket and unfolded them. On the top was a grainy still taken from a security camera feed showing a woman approaching one of the wastewater ponds. From the angle Kevin decided it was probably mounted on one of the light poles in the parking lot. The quality wasn’t good and it had clearly been taken at night. Kevin felt his gut sink. “Is this the woman you saw last night?”

Kevin licked his lips and shrugged. “Hard to tell, as dark as it is.”

“Well, I suppose that’s entirely understandable. How about this one?” In the next photo the woman looked to be running towards the camera, the perspective suggesting it was mounted on the building. A bright beam of light illuminated her from the direction of the parking lot, which looked oddly dark.

Kevin grimaced. “Yeah, that’s her.”

“I see. And this one?” Now the woman scrambled frantically up the side of the new Stillwater building, somehow clinging to the rough concrete with her bare hands and feet.

“Now that looks a lot like someone’s idea of a bad joke.” Kevin shrugged. “I’m not an expert on Photoshop, but I’d guess it’s probably some kind of splice with a movie?”

The janitor raised an eyebrow. “You deny seeing anything like this last night?”

“Of course not. I like to shoot movies, not live in them.”

“I see. What about this?” The next picture wasn’t of a woman at all. It was Kevin, or rather Kevin as he might appear if he was looking at himself in a fun house mirror. His legs seemed to twist, his waist curved at an impossible angle and from the shoulders up he seemed to narrow until his head was half it’s normal size. It looked like he held some kind of portable floodlight in one hand, or at least a beam of light washed out most of the rest of the picture. Like the first, it was probably taken from a camera in the parking lot, although it was likely a different one.

Kevin tried to hide a wince, but the subtle change in expression on the faces of the agents facing him told him he hadn’t been successful. “I don’t suppose you’ll believe that’s another prank?”

“No, Mr. Kirishima, I’m afraid I won’t.” The old man shuffled away his photos and folded his hands in his lap. “Truth be told, I don’t blame you for hoping to convince me that you’ve been the victim of some sort of prank. But the photographic evidence,” he patted the folder, “along with the unusual way Stillwater Sound was robbed and the testimony and unique nature of your employer all point to one conclusion: That it is far more likely that your are an individual of unique talent. And if that is the case, then we have more to discuss than just your involvement in the robbery of a small recording studio and sound equipment dealer in the Midwest. But the fact is, there is more here than just a simple robbery. Even the Secret Service has it’s hands tied by competing jurisdictions, and there’s only so much we can do in this case. Aren’t you the least bit curious about why someone with the peculiar abilities like the Grappler would bother to rob Stillwater Sound?”

Kevin frowned. “Wait. It wasn’t for the sonar gear in the pond?”

“That may have just been a bonus.” The mighty janitor spread his hands. “Of course, a mere civilian couldn’t be briefed on any of the issues involved at all. But under the rules laid out by Project Sumter, people with talents like, say, Chief Stillwater, are entitled to know certain things before they plunge down the rabbit hole. Other agencies, like the Secret Service, aren’t allowed to go prowling around looking for new talents on their own, but oddly enough the Project’s rules don’t forbid us from briefing newly discovered talents we discover when the Project isn’t around. So you have a choice, Mr. Kirishima. Are you a person with unusual gifts, who’s interested in hearing what exactly happened last night, and why, or are you just a normal person who’s content to go back to work tomorrow and never know what happened? Which is it going to be?”

Fiction Index

A Brief Pause for Out-of-Townness

I will be out of town this week, and since it will make both updating this blog and writing new content more difficult I’ve decided to put it on hiatus until I return. If you’ve been looking forward to the Nate Chen Publications Short Story Extravaganza™ don’t fear! It will begin on Monday, June 24th.

See you then!

Genrely Speaking: Police Procedural

The police procedural is a close relative of the detective story and the thriller. It’s a variety of mystery that focuses more on following the day-to-day work of a low to mid ranked cop on the beat as they go about their business, solving cases with persistence, connections and shoe leather more that brilliant deductive logic and the power of observation.

These days the definitive police procedural is probably CSI, which focuses on crime scene forensics and, like many mysteries, it focuses heavily on the crime of murder. Other crimes are frequently involved, murder rarely happens without some serious prompting to encourage it, and that prompting isn’t always legal either. But the CSI franchise works with the premise that the best mystery stories always wind up with murder involved somehow.

This isn’t saying that all police procedurals work like that. Some of the definitive police procedural TV series such as CHiPs, Hawaii Five-O and of course Dragnet rarely involved homicide, perhaps in part because Homicide is it’s own division in most police departments and the star characters would probably get shut out of investigating homicides they uncovered. Also, those were all shows with a shorter running time, so there may not have been time to brew up a good murder mystery.

So, with those basic ideas in mind, what are the hallmarks of the police procedural?

1. It’s an ensemble cast. While one character inevitably takes the lead, because human nature demands a focal point, police investigations are major team efforts. The one character simply cannot be on point for everything. Rather than one incredibly brilliant character who is constantly leaps and bounds ahead of one or two sidekicks who help him with legwork, the typical police procedural features a medium to large group of equals, some of whom are semi-regulars rather than appearing in each episode or book, in cooperation and competition, sharing work and success.

2. Things are character driven. A police investigation is actually kind of repetitive. There’s lots of interviewing people over and over again, picking over paperwork and staring at crime scenes and photos of those crime scenes. Police procedurals rarely have complicated, locked-room puzzles to crack, that’s not the strength of an investigation unit, but with less bizarre crimes to track it falls to the actual investigators and their personalities to keep us interested. Not that that’s a bad thing.

3. The rule of “fair play” cannot always be honored. Fair play is the idea that mysteries exist as much for the readers intellectual stimulation as their diversion. Some people feel that all the clues the brilliant detective uses to unravel a puzzle should be offered to the reader before the parlor scene reveals whodunnit, so the reader can have the satisfaction of seeing if he was right or wrong. But, of course, police procedurals don’t always have brilliant detectives or ingenious crimes. Sometimes all it takes to catch the crook is turning over the right rock and finding a document that makes everything as clear as day. Sometimes it’s obvious who’s guilty from minute one, it’s just a question of proving it to a judge. And frequently authors will hold facts back from the audience to help build suspense. As with the point above, that’s neither good or bad, that’s just they way the genre works.

What are the weaknesses of this genre? Police procedurals aren’t great at building longterm plots. While TV series can often get away with leaving one major, open-ended case as a running plot element the audience often gets frustrated if there is no real progress over the course of many seasons, or the larger case has no real bearing on most of the episodes, making it largely superfluous. This is because the status quo is god in many TV series, and the writers don’t want to mess with a working dynamic. If a major, overarching case is solved it tends to lead directly to an even bigger mystery to keep things moving along, which can quickly grow tiresome and unbelievable.

Written stories in this genre go to audiences who have an expectation of finding most things wrapped up by the end of the story. That leaves the characters themselves to creating large story arcs through their evolution and growth. However this also runs up against the wall of status quo – if you have a series going already, you and/or your publisher are probably going to be wary of tinkering with something that’s already working well. Striking a balance there requires a great deal of skill.

What are the strengths of this genre? Probably the greatest strength of the police procedural is character growth – yes, it’s very hard to do right and is frequently done badly. But if you do it right, the result is incredibly satisfying.

Also, the genre’s solid grounding in reality let you use a number of popular, believable and likeable archetypes to quickly draw in your audience. The naive rookie, the jaded cynic (with a heart of gold), the cranky doctor and the almighty janitor are all examples of the kinds of characters you might expect to find in a police procedural and, no matter how many times we’ve seen them before we’re likely to wind up rooting for them all over again.

Police procedurals are a kind of variation of the workplace comedy/drama that follow a simple formula: show us a bunch of strange, quirky people doing their jobs and let us build up a real affection for who they are and what they do. The addition of crime solving makes it easier to root for them and creates a thousand natural story hooks. It may not be your cup of tea, but at the very least the genre is a great example of how the basics of storytelling will always pay out. Worth looking at for the character building, if nothing else.

A Letter, From Open Circuit to His Colleagues in the IRS

Gentlemen,

I am distressed to see the way your organization has taken such a pounding among the media and news pundits in the last few weeks. Undoubtedly all this has done a great deal of damage to an otherwise sterling reputation for solid, respectable work among the people of our community. It is disappointing to see a group once the first weapon of war in the arsenal of the iron first reduced to blathering about Easter egg rolls on the White House lawn. There were such hopes for the place you could have in the new order. But perhaps the IRS can still make an impact on the future.

I have taken the liberty of applying my unique talents to borrowing this modest media platform and contacting you (knowing, of course, that people of your resources cannot possibly overlook it.) Please do not be dismayed, the normal blather usually posted in this section will be resumed next week and none of the so-called content will be lost, although I doubt that will make an impact on your work in any way, as it certainly wasn’t creating revenue.

In the mean time, I present you with a few suggestions as to how you might regain the initiative in the battle for public opinion and restore your reputation for ruthless efficiency in the face of the protests of the populace.

  1. Remind Congress who’s in charge. They don’t have the power of the purse unless you fill it, but you can’t go around not collecting taxes because then people will forget who you are. So you should audit all those who have been asking questions. The best part about this is that, with all the free stuff they get from lobbyists there’s bound to be something, and probably a lot of somethings, you can charge them with. It takes one to know one, especially where corruption is concerned, so if Congress wants to go there, go right there with them.

  2. While you’re at it, remind the accountants who’s in charge. If anyone tries to dispute your findings while you’re carrying out step one, remind them you can always start playing hardball with all their clients. You’re publicly funded, so bankrupting a few private accountancy firms through litigation is child’s play.

  3. Audit the president. Figureheads are only so useful, sooner or later they outlive their usefulness and you’ll need to have distance between you when that happens. It might be time to take a few steps away.

  4. Pull out all the stops on the media obfuscation campaign. Harassing Apple about using tax shelters was a good start but too many people love that company for it to work well. Time to pick some new targets. Might I suggest GE, Microsoft, Ford or perhaps Warren Buffett? That last comes with the added bonuses of working against the ideological demagoguery people are using against you and, since he already says he doesn’t pay enough taxes, he won’t fight you!

  5. Weigh in on issues that have nothing to do with your normal sphere of influence. The EPA does this all the time, and you should study their recommendations to developing nations for further insight. Just to give one example, you could offer to help build third world tax systems from something that crushes the population into poverty into something that confuses them into paying others to help the process along! (This also proves you’re playing hardball with American accountants only because you have to, not because there’s some kind of personal or political grudge in play.)

  6. Begin mandating some kind of distinctive identifying mark or piece of clothing for your agents. Armbands were popular last century, hats for a while before that. Perhaps a particular style of glasses or a unique cut of suit jacket, something that will make your agents highly visible to the public so that they become more aware of your constant and invasive presence in their lives.

  7. Set visible, incremental objectives to expand your influence and be seen doing it. Taking over healthcare the Department of Education “to ensure fair treatment of all parties” would be a good place to start. A national tax on income from the Internet would also work well!

  8. Most importantly, stop apologizing. No one will ever bend the knee to a government who apologized for something in recent memory. Own that policy with a scowl and they’ll back away. Then you can take all you want.

In short, with a few simple steps that I know are well within your abilities and temperament to execute you can quickly solidify your position and stand ready to quash dreams like never before. The IRS has been a powerful force of confusion and oppression for over one hundred years, and I have high hopes of working with you personally in the future. I look forward to your good work,

Open Circuit 

Heat Wave: Afterwords

Early comic books have been described as assimilationist fantasies. That’s really not a bad summation of the era that brought us the catch phrase “truth, justice and the American Way.”

Many of the early comic book artists and writers were Jews, struggling to make ends meet and find acceptance in a country and in an era that were not particularly hospitable to outsiders. So it’s not surprising that the idea of being different permeates the early and middle era of superheroes. Superman and Wonder Woman were the ultimate outsiders, coming from totally alien cultures. Later, Marvel’s X-Men would take the idea of outsiders and move it to a slightly more human level. Of course, this tradition before the Second World War and the civil rights movement came along and changed many people’s perspectives on ethnicity and culture.

Now, everything is better, right?

Well, not exactly. You see, one of the things that was emphasized, and became overemphasized, in these assimilationist morality tales was that we are all the same. That’s a great sentiment, and on one level it’s certainly true. What makes us human or not human is not a matter of skin tone, culture or social standing. The problem is, while we’re quite confident about what doesn’t define humanity, we’re a lot sketchier on what does. Most people don’t give the whole issue a lot of thought and a lot of very smart people argue about it but it sometimes seems like today’s culture has chosen sameness as our defining characteristic. We’re all human after all, right?

So there’s a lot of hand wringing over making people “equal” where equal equates to us all having the same experiences. We want everyone to go to the same kinds of schools with the same ethnic mixes, get the same higher education and have all the same opportunities. The problem is, that kind of lifestyle is not very… shall we say, ergonomic?

From the moment kids arrive at school they’re presented with a number of boxes. Square classroom, square desk, square meals. Pile it all up for twelve years and you can move up to square cubicles in square buildings belonging to square corporations. And this might even be a great thing if people were invertebrates that could readily conform themselves to whatever environment they were put in. They could have total security and contentment for their entire lives. The problem is, people are individuals with very significant differences of circumstance and personality. Perhaps most importantly, they want to be different. It’s even possible that they were meant to be different, so that they could grow by understanding each other.

Some people will fit nicely into the square lifestyle our culture offers them. Some will be a tad cramped, but they’ll learn to adapt. However, there’s evidence of an ever-growing body of people who just can’t or don’t want to adapt to what culture offers them. They can’t keep up with it, or aren’t motivated by it and want to find meaning outside the existing structure. Once upon a time, that was fine. Many different kinds of societies flourished in America, from the Quakers and Shakers to various communes and the Moravians, all different kinds of social structures used to exist in America with little comment. Sure, they were ethnically similar and based primarily on European culture, but they lived and thought in very different ways.

In contrast, modern education places an emphasis not on giving people ideas to think about, but rather teaching them how to think. People from outside the cultural status quo, who don’t accept the ways they’re told to think, receive a kind of polite condescension, assuming they’re not view as outright freaks. (As a homeschooler I know of which I speak – people always seem so surprised to find I’m not a total social misfit or some kind of raving lunatic who’s trying to restore feudalism. “Homeschooled? But you seem so normal!” At first it was funny. Then it got annoying. I’m starting to worry that it’s a sign of serious cultural closed-mindedness.)

If you can’t hack it in school, you must need medication or new parents. If you don’t care to work for the corporations or the unions, if you want to work for yourself, then obviously you’re an antisocial isolationist. Herbal medicine instead of pharmaceuticals? How unscientific! And on and on it goes.

There could be, are being and have been many books on the subjects of education, business and culture, how the pendulum has swung so far away from individual thought and so far towards mandating a single culture of uniformity. Heat Wave is not one of those books.

Rather, Heat Wave is a dissimilationist fantasy – it creates a world where people are different in a culture much like our own. When they try to use their differences, they run smack into a world that doesn’t want them there. Some will try to change it slowly. Some will try to ruin it. And some will try to change it unilaterally, regardless of the consequences.

But all of them struggle with the same idea. The world they live in wants them to be the same. It needs them to be different; as much as they themselves need to be different. Of course, being different isn’t always a good thing, sometimes those different people will cause harm to themselves and others.

So there are people who are different. The society we have created doesn’t suit them, and sooner or later their incompatibility with it is going to cause problems. What do we do about it?

Well that, my friend, is a whole different story altogether…

Due Respect

If you’re going to do anything with the idea of superheroes, and you live in the US, then the first thing you must do is decide how you are going to handle Superman.

The Last Son of Krypton is an American icon, famous around the globe for his unmatched strength, in body and moral character. This month marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of his first appearance. Since then, the Man of Steel has been joined by legions of other heroes with extraordinary abilities, characters created by both his own publishing house and their rivals at Marvel. Every conceivable archetype has been filled – soldier, detective, mercenary, scholar, teacher, wizard and countless others. But in spite of the objections that his creed or powers or character are too simple,  Superman was, and in many minds still is, the first and most prominent superhero in existence.

Different stories with superheroes deal with Superman in different ways. The character was never created because there were real superheroes in the world already. The character was written about but is referenced only in passing. There’s someone with the abilities and character of Superman (a Superman analog) who exists in the world already, and thus the world didn’t need a fictional version. Or the story takes place before the Superman story existed or had enough popularity to be widely known. There are almost as many different solutions to the Superman issue as there are stories about superheroes. But if superheroes are your theme, then sooner or later Superman gets a nod of some sort.

Part of that is basic human nature. People want to see the things they like and they like to see those things in new and different lights. This is the origin of a thousand Star Wars vs. Star Trek and DC vs. Marvel geekfests. But it’s also due to the fact that there is nothing new under the sun. Many early superheroes have their origins in Jewish history and traditions, which are rife with decidedly superhuman goings on. But the American cultural legacy doesn’t include much in the way of superhuman activity- except, of course, for Superman and his ilk. So we expect something analogous to Superman to serve as the foundation for similar traditions in fiction.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.

Superman is the embodiment of the flying brick archetype, founder of the garish superhero costume tradition and epitome of the hiding in plain sight tactics so many superheroes favor. When Siegel and Schuster first put Clark Kent together they created something truly enduring, and since the typical American will always associate Superman with superheroes in some way, if they plan to write in the superhero genre then they owe it to themselves and to their readers to be ready to say something about Superman.

In the Project Sumter universe Superman and other superheroes are problematic figures. While all the luminaries of the DC and Marvel lines exist there, for a myriad of reasons they’re not going to be referenced much by name. However, astute readers have probably already caught on to the fact that Helix, and many other talents, don’t like the portrayal of superheroes in American comics much, if only because they create so many untrue, and potentially dangerous ideas of what talents are and how they work. (There will be much more on this theme in Water Fall than there has been in Heat Wave. Assuming I remember it and can find the space.)

On top of the misconceptions many people will have about talents vs. superpowers, there’s the little fact that many superheroes are vigilantes, something that Project Sumter actively discourages. The government doesn’t just want private citizens to stay off it’s turf and not make them look bad – the fact is, a single individual, operating independently, is limited in their reach, their effectiveness, their knowledge of what’s going on and how to best deal with it and in their ability to contain dangerous situations and keep them from endangering others. Solo crime-fighting as a hobby just isn’t going to work very well, even if you do have a genius IQ and incredible funding. Vigilante crime-fighting teams are starting to look dangerously like an extragovernmental army and giving them all powerful and difficult to anticipate abilities doesn’t make things look any better.

As I worked on building Project Sumter’s world I kept pushing hard against the typical superhero ‘flying brick’ mentality. Most talents are as vulnerable as normal people to normal dangers and their powers have more limits and potentially bad side effects than those used by comic book superheroes. One reason was that I wanted powers that clearly acted as some poorly understood addendum to known laws of physics. But another was, the farther I was from stock superheroes the less I had to worry about fighting Superman’s shadow.

That’s not to say that he hasn’t gotten a nod or two. When you’re playing around in territory that has been heavily trod before you, the founders and trailblazers of that archetype in your culture deserves your respect. Part of that respect is finding your own way to tell your stories and part of that is giving you defining stories and characters their due respect.

Cool Things: Project Milkweed

Ian Tregillis‘ Milkweed Triptych is a saga of alternate history, superpowers and Nazis. It focuses on that defining era of the previous century, World War Two, and it weaves a convoluted tale of politics, ambition and the human penchant for evil. If you enjoy any of the the above you might enjoy the series, but if you like them all it’s required reading.

A quick definition: Alternate history is an exercise in world building where you take the established time line and change one thing, be it major or minor, and then wonder how that would make a difference in the resulting historical events. Most alternate history looks at what would have changed immediately after the break with established history is made but sometimes changes are made in the far past but the alternate history narrative still looks at the society that would result in the ‘modern’ era, which is to say at whatever time period the author was living in.

Milkweed belongs to the first category, and it begins with the idea that the Nazis had real, working übermensch with psychic powers at their disposal starting about the time of the Spanish civil war. While these psychics are still highly experimental, they’re dangerous enough that Great Britain becomes concerned when word of their existence leaks out.

In their attempts to learn how the psychics work British Intelligence winds up consulting one of the last English warlocks in existence. A rather foppish young man and good friend of one Raybould Marsh, spy, Lord William was taught the language and dangers of negotiating with Eidolons by his grandfather. Since negotiating with powerful beings of alien nature with cosmically horrific overtones drove Will’s grandfather to becoming an awful drunk, Will himself has ignored the art for many years. There’s also the little fact that the Eidolons are bent on the extinction of humanity and tend to demand payment for their favors in the form of violence and murder.

Never the less, Marsh and his superiors quickly decide that, if Britain is going to stop the German supermen, Eidolons are the only option available. What results is a horrifying series of atrocities on both sides of the conflict. The first book in the series, Bitter Seeds, lives up to its title as men rack up the lives of other men as counting chips. Coldest War brings the butcher’s bill due, and Marsh and William have to face what their earlier actions have wrought.

But anyone could write a series of devastating failures and ideologically motivated missteps. What makes Project Milkweed really shine is the third book, Necessary Evil. After all the wrongs done, Raybould Marsh is given a chance to make things right. And he does it, not by taking the price from others without their consent but by freely sacrificing many of the things he had been willing to murder for. In the end, it will take more than cleverness or power to carry the day. It will take strength of character. Marsh finds it, although he pays a horrible cost.

While I highly recommend Project Milkweed be warned that, since it focuses on a very dark period of history, some of the things that happen in it are dark as well. In particular, a lot of time is spent in the Nazi’s human augmentation research program. While what is described there pales in comparison to some of the real experiments that the Nazi’s ran in concentration camps, and the books never go into gruesome details, it may not be your cup of tea. Also, the use of human lives as fuel for arcane rites is more than a little disturbing.

If you don’t want to hear about those things, then avoid Project Milkweed. But if you’re okay with reading about how sometimes it’s darkest before dawn, then that alone may mean Milkweed is right for you.

Heat Wave: System Shutdown

Circuit

According to my research, a diggle is a small, yellowish, subterranean birdlike creature that burrows around using it’s rubbery nasal appendage. Ornithologists consider it to be among the worst minions ever. Of course, like most words in the English language, diggle has multiple meanings. However, of all the available options, I was pretty sure this was the one I wanted. Comic book authors and small villages in England are not usually turned into plush toys, after all.

I’m not sure if there was some kind of meaning in Hangman choosing to bring a stuffed diggle toy to our meeting as his signal for how I should recognize him. It was set a couple of days before the end of my disastrous operation at H.S. 44 so choosing the world’s worst minion probably wasn’t some kind of commentary on how badly that had gone. That left the possibilities that it was a comment on my abilities in general, my organization or some kind of inside joke.

With Hangman I’ve never been quite sure where the games end and the real business begins.

So it was that, four days after making myself one of the most wanted men in America, I found myself strolling through Millennium Park, looking for a drill-nosed plushie. The life of a professional supervillian is not always satisfying but it is guaranteed to be bizarre.

As you might expect, Millennium Park was conceived of by the city fathers around the beginning of the millennium, on the assumption that the people of the city might like to see some small part of the exorbitant taxes and fees that came with dwelling in its limits devoted to the construction of giant, reflective, stainless steel coffee bean sculptures. It is but one example of why one of the first things I intend do when I establish my new order is to have all city planners rounded up and exiled to a small island off the New England coast. The handful of people who haven’t starved in five years may prove useful.

Since another one of the park’s many features are large waterfalls with TV screens behind them that display eight to ten foot tall images of nearby people taken by hidden cameras, I elected to confine myself to the outdoor amphitheater and many walking paths, and avoid that area altogether. Hangman also comes from a profession that tries to avoid the public eye so I wasn’t really expecting to find him there.

And I was right. In fact, I spotted the stuffed animal I was looking for sitting next to a small, artificial stream that ran down one side of the gardens. It was perched next to a young woman, in her early or mid twenties I guessed, sitting on a board walk and dangling her feet in the water. The diggle was standing sentinel over a pair of flip-flops and the woman was wearing a red tank top and Capris. A messenger bag sat open beside her, revealing a couple of notebooks of the spiral bound variety and a lot of the random detritus that accumulates in student’s pockets and carryalls. She didn’t look much like an electronic information broker who’s services were in demand the world over.

That was my first clue I had the right person, and there weren’t simply two people with a strange preference in plush toys in the park that day. The second was her hair. As I got closer I could see that, rather than being cut in a short bob as it had first appeared, her pale brown hair was actually tied into a loose pony tail and pulled over one shoulder. Rather than an elastic hairband, she’d used a piece of string tied in a hangman’s noose.

I’d managed to get close to her without drawing her attention but as soon as my shadow fell over her shoulder she glanced up. I rested both hands on the silver topped cane I’d brought with me, the upside down power symbol engraved at the base of the handle serving to confirm my own identity, and gave her a more critical look. There was a quick intelligence in those eyes and a slightly pinched cast to her mouth, but otherwise a pleasant face. It seemed vaguely familiar, like I’d met her somewhere but hadn’t bothered to try and remember her name. She seemed to be regarding me with the same evaluating gaze.

Finally, I indicated the boardwalk next to her with the end of my cane and said, “Is this seat taken?”

“Not until you arrived,” she said. “But we don’t have to talk here, Circuit.”

“No, this is fine. I don’t want to look like I’m propositioning someone in broad daylight.” She giggled lightly, whether at the popping sound my knees made as I knelt down or the idea of me propositioning someone, I wasn’t sure. Absently I rubbed at one knee through a pinstripe pant leg and said, “I do feel overdressed, but there’s nothing I can do about that now.”

“You’re very dignified, but not exactly dressed for dangling your feet in the water,” she admitted. Her voice was surprisingly deep, I suspected that if she wanted to she could make herself heard from the other side of the park.

I smoothed my dress shirt down and got settled. The boardwalk was just far enough below the ground level of the rest of the park that I could rest my feet on it comfortably. “I wouldn’t want to, either way. I’m afraid I have a number of rather nasty blisters from my last few days activity and they’re best kept out of sight.”

“Vain, are we?” She grinned and playfully kicked a little water at me, prompting me to heft my cane up and lay it to one side where her diggle could keep an eye on it.

“Let’s not get the electronics wet, shall we?” I said, ignoring her dig. “There’s a small fortune in lithium-ion batteries in that, and I’d hate to have to replace one before it’s even seen use.”

“I apologize.” She pulled her feet up and tucked them under her, clambering up to sit beside me on the cement embankment. “Now, I believe you have an agreement to uphold. I want to know exactly what it is you plan to do with all the materials you’ve been gathering for the last eight months, and-”

“Actually, Hangman, what I’m here to do is resolve a problem.” I folded my arms over my chest and gave her my best frown, which oddly enough prompted her to smile. “You have become increasingly… involved in my activities over the last few months, to the point where you have come to have a more up to date knowledge of my activities and their consequences than anyone other than myself. Sometimes, it seems you even know more than me. A person of your intelligence surely realizes that makes you potentially very inconvenient.”

“Oh, of course I do, Circuit.” Hangman crossed one leg over the other, folded her hands and rested them on her knees. “I also realize that you give me enough credit to know you’re smart enough and ruthless enough to assume that the easiest way to deal with that inconvenience would be to kill me here and have done with it, so you mention this only to hear what steps I’ve taken to stay alive.”

I inclined my head in acknowledgement and she went on. “So I’ve arranged for files implicating you in my disappearance will be placed in the hands of my father by the end of the day today, unless I take steps to prevent it. I’ll not say much more than that, but you do see how that’s a problem for you, yes?”

“Your father?” I hesitated for just a second, and then I knew why she looked familiar. “Elizabeth Dawson.”

“A man of your capabilities can easily evade a small organization like Project Sumter, even if they were at Condition One, which, by the by, they are not. But if they’re not the only one’s looking for you then things get more complicated. As soon as you’re implicated in a mundane crime like kidnapping, one which you talent played no part in, the people looking for you will increase exponentially.” She began listing points on her fingers. “My father employs a private security firm that will want to find me as quickly as possible, if only to avoid bad PR. The FBI will be under a lot of pressure to find me, since I’m the daughter of a US Senator. Local and state police agencies all across the country will take up the case and there will be tips phoned in to hotlines from all over the country. The law of large numbers says that sooner or later someone is going to catch you.”

It took a great deal of willpower but I managed to resist the urge to grit my teeth. She was undoubtedly right in her assessment. If Hangman was telling the truth about having ways to inform Senator Dawson of what she’d been doing, and I had no reason to doubt her, then killing her would be the worst thing I could do. Even if I left at that moment without even bothering to try and threaten her into silence, I’d be better off than otherwise. Then at least she’d have to explain herself to her father and the Project, diverting manpower from chasing me, and it was unlikely that very many normal law enforcement agencies would bother to try find me afterwards.

“Very well played, Miss Dawson,” I said, gritting my teeth. “Now, tell me, other than keeping my reputation as a trustworthy business partner, what reasons do I have for explaining myself to you? Or, at the very least, for being honest about it.”

“Because you need me.” She held up a finger to forestall my coming objection. “Not merely because you don’t want me running free. If nothing else, the possibility that you’re responsible for my disappearance has to have occurred to someone by now, and that possibility makes direct action against you less appealing that it might be otherwise. The human shield factor, if you will. At the same time, Project Sumter will be under tremendous pressure to divert resources from searching for you to look for me.”

“Until they can prove that the two things are one and the same.” I shook my head. “No, I don’t see as that really offers me any tremendous advantages, Hangman.”

She gave an exasperated huff. “I wasn’t finished, Circuit. I also offer you something no one else you currently employ does.”

“You know, Hangman, I did do my own information gathering once upon a time. And there are other brokers out there, admittedly less well connected but also less meddlesome.” I did my best to match her nonchalant posture but it was a front. I liked this conversation less and less by the minute. Hangman had this planned out far too well. “What exactly can you offer me that my other employees do not?”

She smiled, at once charming and deeply disturbing. “Conviction.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Hangman leaned forward and dropped her voice dropped to a conspiratorial tone. “Ten years ago, my place as a digital information broker was filled by a hacker and cracker known as Hard Scrabble. In addition to selling information, Hard Scrabble was well known to the metahuman community, what Project Sumter would call ‘talented individuals’. If you noticed that you had unusual gifts and asked the right questions in the right places you’d be pointed to him and he’d do his best to figure out which talent you had and what was known about it.”

She paused for a moment, waiting to see if I had anything to add, but I just motioned for her to continue. “Hard Scrabble was around for about two and a half years before he was contacted by a water worker on the west coast. His brother and sister-in-law had just gone through some sort of falling out, possibly the trigger event that turned a normal African-American delivery driver into a serial killer called Lethal Injection-”

“He was always a sadist,” I interjected. “The worst ones are always the best at hiding it.”

“Well, either way Hard Scrabble didn’t like him much. Didn’t like him enough to enlist his brother and track him half way across the West Coast, inland and eventually to Phoenix, Arizona, where he cracked the Sky Harbor airport control systems and shut it down to prevent Lethal Injection from flying out of the city.” She straightened up and folded her arms over her chest. “And that’s when Hard Scrabble disappeared and Project Sumter started investigating a talent codenamed Open Circuit.”

For a moment my mind wandered far and away. I don’t think about those days much anymore. Sometimes I wonder why that is. “Things were simpler then. Fewer wireless connections, different security protocols, less need to go places in person.” I forcibly turned my attention back to the present. “I was young and foolish.”

Hangman laugh softly. “Having met you in person, I’d guess you were still older then than I am now.”

“So I was.” I plucked her plush toy off of the grass and gave it a once over. “At the very least, I had given up stuffed toys.”

“But never developed a fashion sense.”

I arched an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”

She laughed again. “No one wears fedoras anymore unless they’re interested in the dodge bonus.”

“That statement is so nonsensical I’m going to pretend you didn’t say it,” I said, handing her the stuffed animal. “Scrabble didn’t refer to the board game, you know.”

“I guessed as much.” She set the diggle in her lap and rested one hand on its stomach. “But the reference had to be oblique or someone might make the association before I was ready.”

“Ready?”

She absently began kneading the plush in one hand. “Before Hard Scrabble disappeared entirely, and Open Circuit became the only identity you used, you left a message in some of your old venues.”

“The world has been lying to us for over a hundred years.” I said, recalling the message, more of a brief note than a manifesto, like I had written it yesterday. “It says we are all the same, and pounds us into it’s mold with a thousand merciless hammers. The nature of our education, entertainment, work and government all serve to make us like one another. But we are not. And the longer we pretend we are, the more tragedy there will be. We must change.”

“Brahms Dawson lives to be the opposite of everything you are.” She dropped her gaze down to her bare feet and idly dipped her toes into the water, as if that could wash away the guilt and revulsion she was obviously feeling. “When I was in junior high I had the opportunity to take advanced mathematics and basic computer programming. He wouldn’t let me. Said advanced course work sent the wrong message, arbitrarily made some people winners and others losers just because they were born with a knack for something.”

“So you learned on your own.” I nodded to myself. The idea sounded surprising to me, but I knew enough very smart people who had reasoned themselves into believing equally surprising things. For Hangman, junior high would have probably been about ten years ago, the same time I was starting to build my own reputation. “How long did that go on?”

A choked laugh. “Oh, until about three days ago. I was very, very good at it. Got my undergraduate degree in journalism. Haven’t touched a computer science course in all my life.”

“And are doubtless a better programmer for it.”

“I was never going to be anything else. Certainly nothing he could be proud of. He’ll manage without me. I found him a replacement, a daughter who’s everything he expects. I’m a little worried about my mother, but she’s always been defined by what’s best for him. I’m done with that life.” She lifted her head and looked me in the eye. “You were right, Circuit. We must change. I can see that- I’ve lived that need, and I want it done. How many people working with you can say that?”

It was true. Simeon was incredibly competent and farsighted, but for all that I enjoyed his company he was still an employee. It was doubtful he would try and continue my work if I suddenly dropped dead. Heavy Water and Grappler had lived through Lethal Injection’s rampage and written it off as a part of life, like a drug addiction or a gang war. They had some sort of strange affection for me, but they rarely thought farther than the end of the next day. Changing society wasn’t even on their radar. Davis and the other engineers were just a means to an end, with little knowledge of what the end of all their work was going to be, much less why I wanted done.

For all the Enchanters and Double Helixes in my life sometimes it felt like my greatest enemy was the enormity of what needed to be done, and how alone I felt in trying to do it.

She was right. I needed someone who shared my conviction. And maybe Hangman was that person. “So,” she said. “Do we talk about how you intend to change things? Or was all that for show?”

“In fact, the next part is all show.” I collected my cane, clambered to my feet and held out my hand to her. “So it will make things a lot easier if I just give you a sneak preview. But first, you’re going to need a change of clothes. Something people who know you won’t recognize.”

Hangman picked up her bag and let me help her to her feet, slipping her sandals on in the same motion. Then she patted the side of her bag. “I bought two sets of clothes with cash from a Salvation Army store four blocks away. I just need a place to change and then I’ll be set to change the world.”

I smiled and offered her my arm, which she took, and led her out of the park. “You know, you almost make it sound like you plan to charge off and be a hero.”

“That’s not how you see it?”

“Heroes generally come from the other side of things,” I said. “If they’re allowed to, that is. And I rather think people like your father wouldn’t much care for one of those working with him.” Unless we gave him no choice. But I left that part out.

“Well, that’s true. Still, that really only leaves us the option of being villains.”

“Supervillains,” I said. “That first part is important. It’s why we get all the nice equipment, loosely defined working hours and ambitious pay scale.”

She gave me an amused glance. “Medical?”

“Only if you’re well connected, which fortunately I am. Trust me, the longer you do this, the more you’ll be convinced. Pretty much all the perks are on our side of the equation.” She laughed and began trying to worm some hint of where we were going out of me. I was glad for the change of subject.

It was surprising, really. Until she pointed it out to me, I’d never felt the need for someone who shared my views. I had never even thought there might be such a person and I was gratified that one had taken the time to find me and throw in. But at the same time I worried. Hangman was ready to take on the world now, young and foolish like I had once been. It was at once charming and disheartening. I couldn’t find it in myself to tell her then, although maybe I should have. For all the perks we supervillains have, there’s one we never get.

For us, there is no happy ending.

Heat Wave – Fin

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