Cool Things: Five Iron Frenzy

Ah, the music of my youth. The very first album I owned was Quantity is Job One by Five Iron Frenzy – a fantastic and fantastically short collection of pure nonsense that represented the last of the great third wave ska bands at their finest.

Never heard of ska? If you don’t want to take the time to read the Wikipedia article I just linked, the short version is, ska is punk rock meets swing. Ska bands tend to be large, and Five Iron Frenzy was no exception, sporting eight members, and typically include drums, electric guitar, bass, trumpet and one other brass instrument at a minimum. More guitar, brass and possibly a lead vocalist can be added for flavor. I think the sheer number of people needed to make a ska band work is one of the things that’s kept them from ever catching on in a meaningful way…

So, other than representing a kind of sound that you don’t hear every day, what makes Five Iron cool? Now that I’m a seasoned man of almost thirty, do they still hold up to my initial love from middle school? Why should you even care about a band that retired in 2003?

To handle each question one at a time. Five Iron Frenzy didn’t just write ska – they wrote ska with a purpose. Now if you’ve read this blog for any amount of time you know I love things done with a purpose, and Five Iron was always 110% devoted to whatever purpose they were pursuing, even when that purpose was just silliness.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, here’s a few of their songs from that great resource of the modern age, YouTube! First, a ditty of pure silliness extolling the greatness of our near neighbors:

Now a song with a bit of a more serious bent to it:

The contrast between these two songs does an excellent job of encapsulating what made Five Iron Frenzy a band worth listening to. They didn’t just write music or do a great job turning a phrase. They did an excellent job of making you care about what you were hearing about.

Sure, when I first encountered Five Iron I was mostly enamored of their silliness. What other band offers you greatness like “These Are Not My Pants, The Rock Opera”? None! But their sense of fun was accompanied by a sense of place and purpose, even when you’re not sure exactly what those places and purposes are. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize just how meaningful their songs about those ideas are. Certainly they’ve aged well. I suspect I’ll continue to find their music meaningful as I get older.

So why should you care? Simple! While Five Iron may have retired in 2003 they reunited in 2011 and kickstarted a new album which is slated for release on November 26th! I can’t even begin to say how excited I am for Engine of a Million Plots. After a ten year absence, I can’t wait to hear what they sound like. And if you’ve never heard of them, it’s a great place to start. Check it out and let me know what you think!

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Water Fall: Pointed Questions

Six Weeks, Four Days before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

Helix likes to complain about how Project Sumter has procedures for everything. He once joked that he thought we had to file paperwork just to get a bathroom break while we were in the field. On the other hand, I think that just shows how much of Helix’s life has been eaten up by the Project. Apparently, his grandparents have been telling him stories about Project work since he was seven or eight and it progressed until working for Project Sumter was the only career path he could conceive of.

So what Helix doesn’t seem to realize is that all of life is full of procedures. The only difference is the paperwork is a lot less intense outside of our office.

“I should have asked earlier,” I murmured to Amplifier as we followed Sifu up the stairs. “Can you handle green tea? He’s going to serve it to us and it’s rude to turn it down.”

She gave me a quick grin. “Handle it? I was practically raised swimming in the stuff.”

“All the caffeine would go a long way to explaining your personality,” Harriet said from a few steps behind us. She didn’t seem to be having trouble with the stairs but she did sound a little winded. With a conscious effort I made myself stop monitoring my boss’s physical condition. She was getting up there, sure, but she was still cleared for field work and I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by second guessing her. That kind of distraction could be dangerous in field work.

While my sifu doesn’t have talent in the same way that Amp and I do, he does live a life that’s not that different from ours. Teaching wushu and dealing with talents are some things he does, but it’s not what he does for a living.

Sifu also owns a small store in Chinatown, one of those tourist trap kinds of places that sells a bunch of authenticly made in China bric-a-brac, but that’s not what he really does either. It’s run by a selection of people from his family, mostly nieces and nephews, and his oldest daughter. No, Giancarlo He is an acupuncturist, which means he gets paid to stick needles into people to help relieve their aches and pains. There are a surprising number of people who think this is a good idea and some of them have a surprising amount of disposable income, so he does fairly well for himself.

The top floor of the building where the store is located also serves as his home and office. It’s cramped, but I’ve never one heard him talk about moving out. We turned left at the top of the stairs and Sifu let us into the small treatment room. It consisted of an polished walnut desk with an equally classy chair, a long wooden table with a stack of cushions on one side and a two other chairs. A cabinet in one corner held all the acupuncture stuff and on top of it sat a tea pot and four cups. Sifu busied himself with the teapot immediately, I took a seat on the edge of the table and the ladies took the two treatment chairs.

“Why do you call him Little Mountain?”

Sifu chuckled at Amp’s question. “Because he is as stubborn and unmovable as a lump of rock.” He quickly placed three cups of tea on the table for us and kept one for himself, settling into his office chair with a sigh and keeping an eye on her the whole time. “You do not look like someone that Little Mountain has brought to me to learn wushu.”

Before answering Amp paused to take a sip of her tea. “This is good,” she murmured, setting her cup back down and leaning back in her chair with a look I was beginning to realize was anticipation. She actually enjoyed chatting up all the weird people she was meeting, which was a good thing for her chances of working in the field. “I’m not here to learn wushu. In fact, Agent Massif said he really shouldn’t be teaching me. Apparently you wouldn’t  like it.”

Sifu turned to look at me and took a sip of his tea. I did the same through sheer habit, you’re supposed to follow your sifu’s lead on everything when you’re a student and I’d never forgotten it. Of course, I don’t like green tea, so I found myself grimacing at the taste as I set the cup aside. “It’s not traditional to choose your own first student,” I said. “But mostly it’s because you’d start developing a bunch of habits that won’t necessarily mesh well with the training Project Sumter has waiting for you down the line.”

“Unfortunately, to them you will be an agent and not a person,” Sifu said. “Your training will be tailored to their needs, not yours.”

“Or you could say that we’re focusing on giving you skills that you can use to serve the public, rather than skills for self defense and personal improvement,” Harriet said, taking a tranquil sip from her own teacup. That kind of verbal sparring, like the tea or Sifu’s perpetually dour attitude, were just part of the standard procedure for a visit. But they didn’t seem to be making the best impression on Amplifier, so I decided to break with protocol and try to get to the point.

“Sifu, we’re not here to talk about wushu or differences in training doctrine.” I took another gulp of tea in an effort to make up for breaking with pattern. It sounds weird, I know, but that’s the give and take on these visits. “We really just want to find out about a couple of people in the community.”

Sifu sighed and looked into his tea. Being a teacher of any kind comes with a lot of responsibility for someone in Chinese society. In the small, rural villages where his parents grew up a sifu would probably be a part of his student’s entire life, a sort of third parent. By that measure, I’d qualify as a really bad child, since I never call, write or see him in person unless it’s to ask a question. I know it’s a purely cultural thing and you can’t go around bending over backwards to accommodate all the different expectations you encounter in life. But Sifu’s still really good at making me feel guilty about it.

“What is it you want to know?”

“Two things.” I shifted my feet, partly to try and get more comfortable on the edge of the table, partly to try and shake off the nagging sensation of guilt. “First, do you know of any place where a person with unique talents could get his car worked on? Specialty modifications to cut down the chance a fusebox is going to blow out his radio, for example.”

Sifu leaned back in his chair, fingers absently tapping on the sides of his teacup. “There hasn’t been anyone like that local in three or four years. The last fellow was called Wally the Wrench, or somesuch. He actually lived in your part of town.” By which Sifu meant the Polish neighborhood. “He apparently got a job offer somewhere else, though, so now the closest person I know of who does that kind of work is across the state line, in Gary.”

Harriet made a note of that, then said, “Do you know of any others? It’s probably worth following up on them all.”

Sifu set aside his tea and fished around in his desk until he found an old-fashioned Rolodex and started flipping through it. “I know of at least eight, from Texas to the East Coast. Do you want them all?”

“That many?” Amplifier asked in surprise.

Sifu gave her a quick smile. “I know a few people here and there.”

“Well, that’s just it,” she said. “Why are there even that many people in that line of work?”

“They probably don’t do work for talents that often,” I said with a shrug. “But once you do it, even if it’s just once or twice, your name gets passed around. Some of these people have probably gone years between jobs for talented people.”

Sifu grunted, copying the information from his Rolodex onto a sheet of paper. “Just as you say. There are probably a hundred people in the country who meet the criteria you asked about. Eight is not that large a number. It is strange that the only one here would get a job elsewhere. I never though of mechanics as the type to move around a lot.”

“Yeah, that is-” I stopped as a thought hit me. I knew it showed because Harriet and Amp both turned to look at me, but I didn’t want to mention too much about the case in front of Sifu – one of the reasons I keep my distance from him is that he’s really not supposed to know a lot about what I do and I’m not certain I could keep myself from asking him for advice constantly if I did hang around him a lot. But I’d just remembered what Samson said about Circuit possibly having a whole set of replacement parts for his armored van and couldn’t help wondering why he wouldn’t get a personal mechanic, too. It fit with the kind of thoroughness that we, or at least Helix, had insisted was a basic part of his personality at yesterday’s meeting. “Sifu, do you know if Wally left any kind of contact information behind when he moved out?”

He glanced up from his Rolodex. “Of course. I made it a point to ask, since keeping track of those things is what I do.”

“Where did he say he was going?”

“Overseas.” Sifu shrugged. “As I said, very strange. Perhaps he got a government contract?”

“Maybe.” I glanced at Harriet, who waved her hand slightly to show she was following my line of thought. Helix had been tapped by the CIA for some kind of job in Africa two years ago. Rumor was Circuit had been involved. “Give us Wally’s last known contact info too, please. It might be worth following up.”

“Very well.”

I finished my tea and made another face. The others could get away with just drinking a little, as a former student I knew I had to drink it all. “Anyway, you ready for the second thing I wanted to ask about?”

“The day I cannot write and answer your simple questions is the day they pour my ashes into an urn, Little Mountain.” Sifu waved a hand for me to continue.

“Right. Do you know anything about a contact like you who goes by Hangman?”

“Hangman?” Sifu laughed. “Of course I do. I’m surprised you even have to ask about him. You people should know about Hangman already. He is quite famous in our circles.”

“You’ve met?” Harriet asked.

“No, we haven’t. I don’t think anyone has met Hangman, he’s quite the recluse. He knows a lot and I don’t think he came by the information in a legitimate way. In fact, I’ve heard some things I’ve never heard about gifted people before in the last year or so, and if you trace the rumors back far enough they always seem to come from Hangman.” He handed me the sheet of paper he’d written the contact information for Wally and the other mechanics on. “Mind you, that doesn’t mean Hangman’s information is correct. I haven’t passed any of it on myself.”

“We appreciate that,” I said, tucking away the paper. “How do we go about meeting this Hangman if we were interested in talking to him?”

Sifu shrugged. “As far as I know, you don’t. He’s an information broker, and people who deal in secrets have a tendency to die with them, eventually. Hangman has tried to prevent an untimely death by conducting all his deals over the Internet. I’ve never heard of anyone who’s met him in person.”

“Have you ever dealt with him directly?” Amplifier asked. “Even knowing how to find him over the Net could be useful.”

“I haven’t, but my nephew Lincoln has.”

That made sense. Lincoln He was the family network administrator, he spent a lot of his time making sure the technology that ran the family businesses was functional, but he’d also started studying wushu with me when I was twelve. In another ten years, if I was still around, I would probably be dealing with him instead of Sifu. “I’ll get in touch with Lincoln, see if he can tell us anything more.”

“That won’t get you far, Little Mountain,” Sifu said, a note of regret in his voice. “Hangman wasn’t unwise in taking all the precautions he did, but they don’t seem to have helped as much as he hoped. From the sound of things, no one has heard from him in-” Sifu paused to glance at something on his desk, “-almost a month. Lincoln mentioned it to me the last time he was through to check on the computer wiring.”

Presumably Sifu was referring to the network routers or something. Since it didn’t really matter I ignored it. “We’ll get in touch anyway, in case Analysis can do something with what he knows.”

“If they do, let him know,” Sifu said. “He’s been quite worried, and I don’t think he’s the only one. While Hangman never said much about how he knew what he knew, he was very fair in making sure people heard it and he’d gotten to be quite popular.”

“We’ll let you know if we find out anything,” Harriet assured him. “But honestly, finding the van armored like an APC that disappeared week and a half ago is probably a higher priority than finding an information broker who disappeared a month ago.”

Sifu perked up a bit. “What’s that? You’re looking for a full sized van fitted with military grade armor?”

“That’s right,” I said slowly. “What about it?”

“I was contacted a week ago by someone trying to find a buyer for such a vehicle.” Sifu pulled out a drawer of his desk and picked through it. “I told them I was in the business of passing on wisdom, not taking commissions. But he did leave me a contact method. Would you be interested?”

I snatched the offered piece of paper out of his hand and laughed. “Sifu, you’re priceless.”

“Why didn’t you mention that before?” Amplifier asked.

Sifu chuckled. “Young lady, mark this well and it will only be a matter of time before you surpass Little Mountain, at least as a detective. He never mastered the lesson, it seems.”

“What lesson?”

“To understand something you must begin by asking the right questions.”

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World Building Stuff: A Glance at Terra Eternal

It’s time for some nitty gritty stuff. Everyone likes world building, at least everyone that I know, and it’s one of the most involved parts of writing there is. Today, instead of messing with all the boring theory of writing, I thought I’d take you on a quick tour of some of the fun world building that I’ve done while writing stories. Today let’s look at Terra Eternal, a major part of the Endless Horizons story setting. If you haven’t read The Doyen and The Dragon, my first short story that involves them, you might want to do that before checking this out. On the other hand, perhaps you’d prefer to browse this first. It’s up to you.

Now technically, Terra Eternal represents all or part of 52 different worlds scattered about under the great sky. So really, working with them is more like worlds building than world building. But at the same time, since all of these worlds are connected to each other and even share something like a unifying culture, in many ways they are actually a single world.

Now I could run you through the entire history, or give you a quick sketch of the overarching government and social systems, but really that would be way beyond the scope of a single post.

Besides, that’s really not how their world grew up. Believe it or not, Terra Eternal actually started out as the villain of another piece, which I haven’t shown you all any part of as yet. However, beyond knowing that they were a vast, interdimensional empire with practically inexhaustible resources, I didn’t bother to set much in stone about them when that project was starting. I simply selected a number of cool sounding ideas and figured I could work out a good overarching structure for a society they could call home later.

So rather than give you the unified theory of Terra Eternal, I decided to just share some of the ideas that now define them, and let you enjoy envisioning the shape of their worlds just like I did. Ready? Let’s go!

  • Bruja” Magic – In some worlds, magic itself displays consciousness and can form the basis for strange and alien forms of life. This is called bruja magic by theorists in Terra Eternal. The origin of the term is not known, although it’s frequently credited to Veronica Locke. Because it is often hostile or malicious towards humans, bruja magic is considered a bad thing by most in the borders of Terra Eternal.
  • Doyen – Literally means “brilliant” and refers to a small group of crack problem solvers. Doyen are called in whenever the red tape that binds the empire together pulls too tight and what needs to be accomplished cannot be done in good time. They have a great deal of autonomy to deal with problems, and can take great liberty with the resources on hand, but they also suffer a set of fairly draconian restrictions to keep them from running wild. Technically speaking, they don’t belong to the nobility of any of the fifty two worlds, or swear allegiance to any of the three lesser thrones.
  • Friedrich Goltermann – One of the Three Founders. A shrewd politician and philosopher, he is credited with establishing much of the basic theory behind Terra Eternal’s government. The fact that it still functions several hundred years later, on a much larger scale than he ever anticipated, is credit to his brilliance.
  • “Powers” – Refers to any creature that embodies, or claims to embody, an abstract concept. In some cases, can also refer to creatures that embody or claim to embody specific places or the consciousness of things. Exactly what the power embodies tends to severely warp it’s personality and perspective. A form of bruja magic that is considered particularly dangerous.
  • Regula – Term that refers to the commanding officer of a military unit. The rank is always given along with the position and size of the unit the officer commands. Thus a regula millenia outranks a regula decima and a regula centuria.
  • Sail – The foundation of magic is the sail. Just like a ship is propelled by sails collecting the wind, so magic matrices are propelled by sails collecting magic as it rises up out of the earth. Also, just like the sails on ships, more surface area creates a better sail. Thus, those who use a lot of magic tend to wear flowing, many layered garments.
  • Soul of One – The nature and rules governing the many Earths vary greatly, and as often as not the face of the world is different as well. But sometimes there are enough similarities between worlds that even some people are duplicated. People that exist on multiple Earths are known as Souls of One, and Terra Eternal has a special role for them to play in the life of the Empire…
  • “Sterile” Magic – Magic that is simply a resource to be harnessed, like the wind or water. Pretty much the opposite of bruja magic.
  • Throne of Terra Eternal, The – Refers to a massive magical construct built by the Three Founders when establishing Terra Eternal. The exact functions of the construct remain known only to the successors of the Founders, but it is generally viewed as an important part of keeping the empire ticking.
  • Thrones of Terra Eternal, Three Lesser – Refers to those individuals who have inherited the authority of the Three Founders. The roles of the three lesser thrones are defined by the True Throne, making the people who hold the lesser thrones surprisingly limited in their powers. These three thrones are frequently referred to by the name of the founder who’s authority they embody. Thus “the Throne of Vesuvius” refers to Terra Eternal’s supreme military authority, and so on.
  • “Thrones” – A generic term for the individual who rules a specific political group or piece of territory. For example, “So-and-so is the throne of Terra Geodesia.” Frequently used when the speaker cannot remember the local name for such rulers. It’s automatically considered respectful, since it’s also the term used to refer to the seat of Terra Eternal’s powers. Of course, not everyone likes to be reminded that there’s a bigger power out there that they have to answer too…
  • Throneworlds – Refers to the first two worlds of Terra Eternal, which are still the seat of culture and progress for the empire. Unlike the other worlds in the empire, no special measures are needed to travel between the two beyond finding one of a series of “shallowings” between the worlds that were created by Locke.
  • Veronica Locke – One of the Three Founders. Credited with first envisioning the Throneworlds and convincing the other two to help establish them. Many of the spellworks that tie the empire together are based on her work. When they are not direct copies.
  • Vesuvius the Great – One of the Three Founders. Locke’s ideas required influence across two globes to implement properly. Vesuvius led the military campaigns that gave Terra Eternal that influence.

So there you go! A few of the ideas underpinning Terra Eternal. Is there any other part of the world building process you’d like to see me highlight here? Or perhaps another part of another story you’d like to see highlighted? Project Sumter? The Divided Futures? Post it in the comments!

Local Theater: The Family Nobody Wanted

Once upon a time, there was a Reverend named Doss. He and his wife wanted children, but weren’t able to have any of their own. So they turned to adoption and took in a child. They found a calling, and sought to adopt more children. But the agencies informed them that there would be a lengthy waiting period before they could adopt another child. Surely there were plenty of other children around?

Well, there were. But they were of mixed ethnicity, and in the dark old days of the 1940s and 1950s no one really believed you could adopt transracially and have a successful family. Carl and Helen Doss proved them wrong.

The Family Nobody Wanted is based on their story, a blend of romantic comedy and comedy of errors, that tells of the oldest Doss child, who, like his parents, was white, falls in love with the rich girl next door only to find that her parents Do Not Approve of the rest of his family. While the story itself is fictional, at least some of the events portrayed, such as the visits of more than a few reporters for national magazines such as Life, are real.

The script offers a great deal of laughter, some worthwhile thoughts and a message about the importance of family and it’s reality regardless of superficial differences like skin color or genetics. It’s good fun for the whole family, and if you’re in the Fort Wayne area you could do worse with your Friday nights than coming to check it out. (Disclamer: The author of this post is, in fact, appearing in this show. If that’s a down side for you, you have been warned.)

Performances will be at the main branch of the Allen County Public Library on the weekends of November 1st-3rd and 8th-10th. Information about tickets and show times can be found here.

Water Fall: High Voltage

Six Weeks, Four Days before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation

Circuit

“The obsession some people have with human flight mystifies me.”

“Circuit.” Hangman’s voice came distant and a little scratchy over the modified Bluetooth headset I was wearing. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of heights.”

“Try something for me. Ask ten people at random what superpower they’d want to have and at least half of them will tell you flight.” I looked down the side of the stone outcropping I was standing on and down into a shallow gorge carved by a creek that only existed during rainstorms. “I think people assume it’s freeing to be able to fly. Do you think it ever occurs to them that flight is little more than a constant, life or death battle against gravity? One wrong move and you’re just a mark on the pavement.”

“Much like the rest of life.”

“True. And to be fair, they never think of life in those terms, either. Yet more proof that the average American suffers some kind of brain damage at some point in their life, a troubling trend that I’ll assign someone to study as soon as I’ve achieved unquestioned authority.” I ignored the muffled snort from Hangman and backed up from the edge of the ridge a few steps. “Regardless, I suppose we have no choice this time around. Are all the connections ready to go?”

There was a moment of silence, then, “Everything looks green. Tell me, how were you planning to test all this by yourself?”

“I was actually planning to bring Davis along. This whole system is his baby and he’s been dying to find a practical testing ground for it.” I glanced towards the east, where the van Hangman was in had been parked. She couldn’t see me from there, of course, but some instincts are hard to suppress. “But since you volunteered I kept him at the Chainfall site. He’s not happy about it, but it’s a more efficient use of personnel.”

“You keep mentioning the Chainfall site…”

“Yes, I do.” I left it at that. “Review. How long do we have set aside for this test?”

“Twenty minutes, maximum, so that no one will notice the current drain.” There was a moment’s pause. “Twelve would be optimum, allowing for the most possible testing with the least chance of detection.”

“Excellent.” I took a deep breath and readied myself for the jump. “Activate the maglev system, please.”

“Maglev is active.”

As Hangman said it I felt the harness I wore tighten slightly and it suddenly felt like I was about forty pounds lighter. I pushed slightly against the electromagnets in my harness and the power cranked up. My feet bobbed off the ground a half inch and I grimaced. “We have buoyancy. How do things look?”

“Eighty percent green,” Hangman replied. “Some circuits in the yellow, two leaning towards orange. At what point am I supposed to become worried, again?”

“Let me know when we’re in the orange, and where,” I replied. “Red means we’re borderline failing, and I want to avoid those spots until I can overhaul it.”

“We’re orange at relays 12 and 27. You’re good everywhere else.”

I quickly ran through where the bad connections were in my head and plotted out a route that would avoid them. Then I grit my teeth and dashed towards the ridge. There was a moment of primal fear as I went over the edge and pushed out along the magnetic fields covering the ground below, forcing more power into the electromagnets we’d spent the last few days installing. As the power increased my own harness produced fields of the same polarity. The opposing fields pushed me back upwards and over the ground at a fast run.

It was a lot like what a rubber ball must feel like when it’s thrown along the floor. I grunted in discomfort.

“Something wrong?” Hangman now sounded like she was trying not to laugh.

“Are you watching this somehow?”

“External camera with a telephoto lens,” she said in amusement. “Very graceful, Circuit.”

“Thank you,” I said, trying and failing to keep discomfort out of my voice. “I’m sure this gets easier with practice.”

“I’m sure.”

And it did, although only slowly. I estimated that I’d only be able to get through two thirds of the relays I’d set out before we needed to shut down, even pushing the system as hard as I could I wasn’t getting much above fifteen miles an hour. Davis had assured me that I would get at least thirty, but prototypes are just prototypes. There was time to make tweaks if I could find any that were practical while we were still in the field.

After about five minutes of fiddling I was confident enough to start talking again. “Anything new I need to know about?”

“A few more yellow connections,” Hangman said. Her amusement was gone and she was all business again. “Nothing beyond that.”

I swept over the highway, twenty feet below, keeping an eye out for headlights. Reports of a flying man over the interstate probably wouldn’t be considered credible, but it’s best to be cautious. “I’ve been thinking about what you said.”

A brief pause. “Which part of it?”

“Organization.” I tweaked the potentials a bit and dropped down to below tree level, slowing my speed and practicing fine control. Not pancaking into a tree trunk was great for my concentration. It just wasn’t focused on the subject at hand.  “Never planned to have you on hand, been trying to work you in.”

“That?” She laughed. “Well, of course you wouldn’t have counted on that. I didn’t know about it until a few months ago.”

I threw my hands up and slammed into the side of a birch tree, bending it out of my way with a grunt. Once I was clear and my ears stopped ringing I said, “No?”

“I’d thought about it for a while,” she said. “But I didn’t work out a way to make it happen until a few months ago. And even then, I wasn’t sure it would work. There were a lot of variables. We’re approaching the nine minute mark.”

“Noted.” Trying to maneuver through the trees was feeling more and more like a fools errand so I eliminated permutations of my plan that called on approaching under cover of the forest and pushed my way back above the treetops. “Let’s return to the original subject.”

“Organization,” Hangman said without hesitation.

“Specifically your place in mine,” I said, angling my way back towards the ridge I’d come from by a different route. “My first instinct would be to observe you for a time to see exactly what your strengths are.”

“Except you’ve employed me as an informant for two years, so you should know that very well,” she said. “That means the next logical step would be to give me tasks of increasing sensitivity in an effort to gauge how trustworthy I am.”

“Irrelevant. You already know enough that your trustworthiness is academic.” I bobbed back and forth in an attempt to get a better handle on precision maneuvering but the system still felt very sluggish and the harness dug into uncomfortable places so I gave up on it. Some tweaking was still needed apparently. “You’re here now and I have to deal with you. That’s at least half the reason you’re here in the first place.”

“Friends close and enemies closer?”

“And the unknown closest of all,” I added, powering down my harness and coming to a stop on the top of the ridge. “Power down the system and meet me at relay 27. You might as well learn how to strip down and overhaul these things, in case we need it tomorrow.”

“On my way.”

——–

“Okay, we’re close now. Are you going to get to the point now, or do I have to sit in your lap or something?”

I gave Hangman an irate glare over the connection board we were currently up to our elbows in. “Are you paying any attention to the theory here?”

She gave an exasperated huff. “Yes. Magnetic fields, when they overlap it creates something like an electric circuit which you manipulate to create a maglev effect all quite genius.”

“Also not my invention,” I felt compelled to point out. “This was cooked up by my head engineer-”

“Maximillian Davis, yes.” Hangman crinkled her nose. “What kind of name is Maximillian, anyways? Were his parents touched in the head?”

“Possibly. As I’ve never met them I couldn’t say for sure.” I stopped rummaging around in the innards of the maglev point and leaned on the edge of the machine, which was basically a waist high reinforced plastic box. “Okay, I’ve obviously managed to bore you. Or, at the very least, chosen to focus on the less interesting but more important details.”

Hangman mimicked my pose and smiled slightly. “They’re usually about the same thing.”

“Then let’s talk about you for a minute.”

“That is one of the subjects I find most interesting.” She leaned closer until we were practically nose to nose and whispered, “What do you want to know?”

I felt almost cross-eyed looking at her so I straightened up, putting a little space back between us, and spread my hands. “I plan on expanding my organization soon. And not just a small expansion, either. I’m looking at a large scale adjustment in personnel and scope of operations. I can’t take the same amount of time and care in vetting new additions to my roster as I have in the past.”

Hangman straightened with an annoyed look on her face. “So you want me to come up with some kind of mass background check system for you?”

“Why?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “Do you have a problem with that? Feel it’s beneath your skills?”

“No!” She struggled for a moment with whatever was bothering her, then sighed. “Okay, fine. I’ll get started on a rough protocol tonight straight off. When do you want to see a final draft?”

“By the time we get back from this little job.” She looked a bit taken aback by that so I said, “You were the one who pointed out we’re in the big leagues now. We’re facing Project Sumter, a branch of the U.S. Federal Government. There’s a lot of ground to make up if we’re going to compete.”

“And you plan to do this through strength of numbers?” She shook her head. “I have to confess, Circuit, I am a little surprised. And disappointed.”

“The numbers are necessary, but not the key,” I said in a soothing tone. “Another key aspect of this gambit is information security, so I’m afraid I can’t say much more than that.”

She shrugged and leaned back over the open top of the maglev relay. “I have to admit, I knew it wasn’t all glamour and high adventure but this isn’t exactly what I expected.”

I laughed. “The mundanely of large scale data mining doesn’t appeal to you?”

“No. Well, yes, but not what I was talking about, exactly.” She looked back up from the connections we’d been testing for the last ten minutes. “It’s just… you do so much of your own legwork. Carting these gizmos around, positioning them yourself, leeching electricity off obscure public grids…”

“It’s more like a shoestring budget, basement office operation, isn’t it?” I asked ruefully.

She wrinkled her nose. “Not exactly what I was going to say, but…”

“You’re not wrong.” I went back to testing my share of the connections. “But when you joined up you told me I needed you because you were a true believer, not someone like Simeon or Heavy, who are just in it because they want a paycheck and maybe, possibly think I’m an alright guy, too. Well, if you really think this is worthwhile the shabby beginnings won’t bother you that much. So are you going to do this or not?”

Hangman sighed. “Right. One crazy gizmo, fully functional, coming up.”

“Maybe that’s part of your problem,” I said with the hint of a smile. “This isn’t just any crazy gizmo. It’s both a lever, and a place to stand.” The smile grew until it was all teeth and malice. “And with them, we shake the world.”

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Genrely Speaking: High Fantasy

Welcome to Genrely Speaking! Today we’re going to tackle the genre of high fantasy, a kind of story about the conflict of good and evil, the nature of humanity and formidable legions of heavy cavalry making glorious charges to save the day. Or, at least, that’s what most people think of when they think of high fantasy, probably because they’ve seen the movie versions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. And in a way, they’re not wrong. The Downfall of The Lord of the Rings and the Return of the King is the definitive example of high fantasy. Tolkien codified many of the things which embody the genre today. It’s true, he based his stories on many of the epic myths he studied and taught as a professor, but stories like Beowulf don’t actually meet all the modern criteria of high fantasy. Strange, but true.

So what are the characteristics of high fantasy? I’m glad you asked!

  1. A world distinct from our own, usually existing in some kind of idealized Middle Ages, with it’s own history, geography, customs and very often peoples. There can be no cheating here. There can’t be connections between our modern world and the world of the story, or really our world at any point. The fantasy world must stand on its own, and any similarities between the two superficial at best. This first and biggest criteria is what keeps the old bardic tales from counting as high fantasy – they all supposedly happen at least in part somewhere in the world as we know it. It also rules out a lot of modern day fantasy such as The Chronicles of Narnia, which contain fully realized fantasy worlds that are visited by people from our own.

  2. An emphasis on the motivations of the character to enter into conflict, usually to protect something or achieve a moral purpose, such as redeem the family name or atone for some crime. This is what rules out a lot of “swords and sorcery” tales from the genre. High fantasy is not about mercenary warriors seeking to amass fortune or wizards delving into lost secrets so they can amass more and more power. It’s about the efforts of people to achieve something they perceive to be a noble end (whether it proves to be noble or not is part of the journey) and in doing so putting the things they value to the test. Most sources will tell you that these two things are the standards by which high fantasy is judged. However, for the purposes of this blog (which is why Genrely Speaking exists, after all) I add one other requirement, as sort of an extension of this one.

  3. The depiction of magic and the supernatural as rare, and outside the scope of everyday life. The purpose of high fantasy is to sketch the conflicts between light and dark in epic proportions. That’s easily undermined if the conflict comes down to who has the most magic mojo. At the end of the day, Sauron wasn’t defeated on the fields of Rohan, or at the walls of Gondor or the gates of Mordor. It wasn’t even because Frodo was willing to go, or Sam turned out to be a determinator made of iron. He was defeated because, decades before, Bilbo had compassion on Gollum and spared his life. Of course, without all those other people working to stall Sauron and divert his attention, it’s unlikely Frodo and Sam could have made the trip to Mount Doom. But without the compassion of Bilbo, none of the rest would have mattered. It was the unforeseen consequences of Gollum standing in the shadow of the volcano with Sam and Frodo that ultimately made Sauron’s defeat possible. In the end, that is the kind of thing that sets high fantasy apart from the rest.

What are the weaknesses of high fantasy? With all the crazy epic plots, focus on the fate of the world and themes of good and evil, it’s very easy to loose track of the individual human characters that are caught up in the whirlwind. Since no experience is really meaningful to us unless we can relate to it, that means the impact of high fantasy can be significantly weakened if not done well.

Note that this doesn’t mean there can’t be nonhuman characters in high fantasy in order for it to resonate with us. Hobbits strongly appeal to the human desire for safety and comfort, things just about everybody wants. They’re relatable, in fact much more so than some of the technically human characters, like Aragorn (how many here are born to be kings?) The importance is to keep these relatable characters in the spotlight as much as possible, while still keeping events moving as well.

What are the strengths of high fantasy? The ability to look at ugly things about ourselves from a safe vantage point. The veneer of a fantastic setting makes it easier for us to look head on at the kinds of evil that high fantasy tries to portray. While it’s very easy for the evil to become totally remote because of the fantastic skin put over it, the best writers remember to keep pointing out the potential for evil that exists in the best of us. Saruman the White and Denethor, Steward of Gondor are both excellent examples of Tolkien reminding the readers that the enemies were not orcs – it was evil. Sure, Sauron and the orcs were handy personifications of it, but the selfish cruelty they represented can easily show up everywhere.

High fantasy is a troubled genre. In many ways Tolkien, as it’s codifier, casts a shadow that people have had a hard time overcoming. Elves, dwarves and rings are all fantasy tropes that are deeply rooted in the audience’s mind. However it also has great potential as a storytelling medium, potential that is at least partly untapped. It’s worth an occasional read, at least to see where the genre is at. What works do you think embody the genre best?

Original Art: Solomon ben Gideon

As I do every so often, I come to you today to share a little piece of art from my very own pen. Today we feature Solomon ben Gideon of Terra Eternal. (He’s from this story.)

Mons0001

Now if you’ve read The Doyen and the Dragon you know what’s going on here – Mons is a Soul of One, a group of the same person from parallel worlds trained to work in tandem.  That’s why there’s three of him in this picture! Of course, he didn’t wear a mask in that story. The mask is saved for when they’re in public places, not out on the side of mountains. Souls of One tend to cause a stir when they show up in heavily populated areas. The masks at least mark them as official people – although in some ways that’s just as unsettling…

Anyway! As always, click the image if you want to see it larger, and remember to enjoy!