Graveyarding

 I think I’ve mentioned once or twice the practice of sticking various story elements in my “graveyard” once I determine I’m not going to do anything more with them, at least in the form they were in originally. What sends a story to the graveyard varies, anything from writer’s block to needing extensive research to confirm details can result in this treatment. I’ve even had ideas for good scenes that just don’t fit anywhere and reluctantly found myself sending them to the graveyard. This is where many of the short stories I write come from.

And that brings me to the subject of today’s post: Graveyard management. The first thing to recognize is, when you find something that doesn’t work, killing it doesn’t mean it’s gone for good. You’re a writer, not a surgeon. You are constrained only by your imagination and vocabulary in the language of your choice. If you set something aside it’s only gone for good if you can’t remember it. So it’s less important to fret about cutting ideas you like and much more important to take solid steps to insure you remember those ideas.

So why call a file of unused stories a graveyard?

Mainly because they’re rarely going to come back as you remember them. That particular idea may be dead but you can use it as the foundation of something new, or weave multiple story ideas together creating a veritable Frankenstein’s Creature of a story. With cut and paste, we have the technology to lay the ground work for such a thing quickly. You can make it better, faster, stronger… you get the idea.

Project Sumter itself is one such creation. The characters take their cues from an old set of short stories I worked on, where Circuit was just a megalomaniac fronting a global network of technologically savvy insurrectionists, Lethal Injection was his mentor, not his first victim, and Helix was an intelligence agent who knew something was going on but had no idea what. Superpowers were something the story was supposed to explicitly reject.

Obviously, that didn’t work out.

Project Sumter, as I said a couple of weeks ago, was supposed to focus on the American Civil War. It was only when I started trying to work out all  the possible interactions of Corporal Sumter and his Confederate rivals into the existing timeline of the Civil War that I began to appreciate exactly how complicated a those stories would be. So the early phases of Project Sumter went to the graveyard.

There they bumped into the old technothriller stories and sat for a few months, stewing. The results are still playing out, but hopefully they’re enjoyable.

And that’s the beauty of the graveyard. If you properly maintain it, glancing over it every so often so that the ideas in it stay fresh, you will eventually find a home for all those stray thoughts, fun characters and snappy dialog. You don’t have to call it a graveyard, of course, you could call it the pot, the top shelf, the cutting floor, whatever you want. But if you’re going to be a writer it’s important to conserve your most important resource – the writing you’ve done. So whatever you do, don’t ever let any of it slip through your fingers!

Cool(?) Things: The 48 Laws of Power

Here in the US we’re starting to boot up our presidential election cycle, a two year political circus we endure after a very brief two year vacation. It’s about this time in the four year cycle that I revisit a book that has been very influential in my thinking and writing, Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. While not exactly ‘cool’ in the sense that it makes you go ‘wow’ or inspires you to shove it into the hands of random people on the street, this book is still a must read for anyone who intends to live in a theoretically free and democratic society like a constitutional republic.

The 48 Laws is nonfiction and, like most nonfiction, it’s pretty much what it says on the tin. Greene opens his book with an introduction to power, why people seek it and why they keep it, and offers some basic warnings to the casual reader. This is not a book of right and wrong, not a thing of moral imperatives, but a book of things people have done in the past and that have resulted in those people amassing or keeping hold of power. It then plunges into each of the 48 laws, each with a short chapter on how the law has been proven, both by people who obeyed it and prospered and those who disobeyed it and suffered, and how the law might be implemented practically. Each chapter is packed with amusing anecdotes, cautionary tales and useful memory devices. The book ends with a bibliography of sources, in case you want to delve deeper into examples of any of the laws of power you’ve just studied. The book doesn’t need to be read in any particular order, and could just serve as a handy guidebook on manipulating people.

If you’re into that kind of thing.

Greene doesn’t waste any space in The 48 Laws. Each law is quickly explained and it’s implications explored thoroughly but succinctly. A powerful person will only spend as much time as is necessary on a thing, after all. For all that, it’s very informative and engrossing. The pages are populated by historical figures, well known and obscure, who’s cunning and wisdom has ensured that they find and stand in places of power. It’s much like entering an exclusive club and finding it full of witty, gregarious people who are willing to tell you anything you want to know. They probably realize that if you can understand what they’re telling you, you’d have figured it out on your own. So why not share? They’re not around for you to bother any more.

Why read The 48 Laws of Power? For starters, it’s a great villain’s guidebook. Both Circuit and Senator Brahms Dawson, the primary antagonists in my Project Sumter stories, use gambits or adopt policies that are derived from reading this book. Of course, Helix and others also demonstrate some of the laws but they rarely do so deliberately.

There’s also a goldmine of human psychology here. You don’t have to actively seek to amass power to glean lessons about how your mind and the minds of others works and benefit from them. And, of course, as you may already realize from reading this blog, I don’t think power in itself is a bad thing. Getting power for it’s own sake will undoubtedly make one a villain and advancing the wrong causes with your power can easily do more harm than good. But simply because you’re armed with the strategies and techniques of power doesn’t make you a bad person.

And that brings me to why I’m recommending this book at this time. Politicians are all about power and manipulation. They use the laws of power frequently and shamelessly. Reading Greene’s book will ready you for those techniques and equip you to see past them and analyze what lies behind the power. Is it selfishness? An unworthy cause? A worthy one? These are things worth knowing. And once you know, well, that’s half the battle.

And that’s very cool, indeed.

Water Fall: Outpouring

Four Hours After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation

Massif

Helix finally showed his face again about twenty minutes later, coming in at the head of a procession that included Agents Herrera and Mossburger, Cheryl O’Hara and, to my astonishment, Lincoln He. Helix ignored me, yelling, “Darryl! Voorman! We need to talk!”

Hush and HiRes peeled away and went over to join their boss in the following discussion. As they did Dominic gave a strangled yelp.

“What’s wrong?” I demanded, setting my feet a little more firmly on instinct.

“You can’t see that?” He demanded, then apparently realized how silly a question that was. “They disappeared!”

“That’s normal procedure,” Coldsnap said.

“One of HiRes’ handier tricks,” Frostburn added. “Thanks to Hush they can’t be overheard and HiRes makes sure they can’t be seen or have their lips read.”

I squinted in the general direction they’d gone a moment before. The amorphous blobs of movement that indicated people shifting on their feet or passing documents back and forth were still there, although I didn’t see anything solid looking at the center of the calm zones Helix and Hush created. Weird.

I decided to keep the fact that whatever HiRes was doing wasn’t entirely effective against my talent to myself. “I’m not sure that’s really necessary,” I told Frostburn, “considering Voorman basically told us what Helix was up to half an hour ago.”

“But procedure is procedure,” she answered. “Sometimes it’s an end unto itself.”

I knew all about that but before I could explain how little I thought of it Lincoln tapped me on the shoulder. “I found Hangman,” he said, handing me a very dated looking laptop. “But I don’t know how helpful to your investigation that’s going to be.”

“Sound ominous,” I said, taking the laptop and squinting at the screen. “What am I looking at?”

“A video file uploaded by Hangman a few hours ago.” Lincoln pointed at a line of pure gibberish at the bottom of the screen, half capital letters and half random symbols or punctuation. “It looks like he scheduled this to go live about half an hour after they hit Michigan Avenue.”

I glanced at him. “How do you know about that? It shouldn’t be in the press yet and you’ve been in the Records department for the last month.”

“Just a couple of days, really,” he said absently, poking the laptop’s touchpad. “And I know about Michigan Avenue and that that’s the correlation because your friend Helix mentioned it when Cheryl showed it to him.”

The screen refreshed and the video file started playing automatically. I could make out a man dressed in a fedora, scarf and suit on the screen. He was probably talking but the volume on the computer’s speaker was turned down so low I couldn’t make anything out. “There’s a lot of junk there about overthrowing the current system and creating a more equitable arrangement for everyone,” Lincoln said, still tinkering with the laptop’s controls, “but the really interesting part is this here, at the bottom. The guy talking here-”

“That’s Circuit,” I said, still trying to process what I was seeing. “Hangman’s working with Circuit. He’s not been captured or killed by him.”

“That’s the read Helix and his analyst got, too,” Lincoln said, using that even tone people like to use when they’re explaining to someone who’s particularly slow.

“But why?” I asked, a little confused. “Circuit is already an information warfare specialist.”

“Because he’s trying to broaden his reach,” Mossman said, looking over my other shoulder with Auburn in tow. “That video is basically a recruitment speech. But prospective recruits need a way to contact him, right? That’s what this is all about.” He pointed at the same lines of text Lincoln had earlier. “These lines of code alter slightly each time the page is refreshed, depending on how many page views the video has and the local time of the terminal that’s loading the video. There’s probably more but that’s all we’ve gotten so far. We’re hoping it’s a code that tells people how to contact him.”

“Has the added benefit of screening the intelligence of prospective applicants, too,” Lincoln added.

Auburn plucked absently at her lip for a moment, then refreshed the page again. “Page views with a specific ISP,” she said, pointing at a specific part of the code. “See?”

“I didn’t think of that,” Lincoln said. “How many routers in this building?”

I handed him the laptop. “I’m not sure, but I do know this is way over my head. You people work on this, I’m going to find Bob Sanders.”

Mossburger glanced up at me. “Why?”

“Because he’s got the best contacts with the FBI in this office, and it sounds like we’re going to need them in the near future. Let me know if you find out something concrete.”

——–

Helix

“And those are the Senator’s terms,” I said, finishing my pitch to Darryl.

He nodded. “I suppose that’s the best I could have hoped for, at least for now.” I saw a fraction of the stress that had turned my one-time friend into an old man before his time bleed away. “I appreciate this, Helix.” I glanced meaningfully to my right, where Teresa was doing her best to look inconspicuous. Darryl caught my drift immediately. “And thank you, Agent Herrera. I doubt Senator Dawson would have run late to a meeting if it was just Helix calling.”

“It pays to be connected, sometimes,” she said with the hint of a smile. “Although, really, I think the Secret Service could have arranged for some of his time easily enough.”

“And really, Darryl,” I said, quirking an eyebrow. “You’re a bodyguard now?”

“The exact function of our team is… fluid at the moment.” He laughed softly. “They’ve never tried to used talented individuals as part of their approach to what they do. The Secret Service covers a lot of bases and not all talents work well in all their capacities. Just finding and recruiting the right people has been a challenge. And we’re creating an operational doctrine from the ground up.”

“But still involved in finding criminals,” Teresa noted.

The brief flicker of humor vanished. “Only Circuit, and only because he claims he’s aiming to overthrow the country. Attacks on the person of the President, the Judiciary or the Mint could all accomplish those aims.”

“Even so, when it comes to unusual talents, oversight is Sumter’s job,” I said.

“Oversight indeed,” he replied grimly.

I winced. “You know how it is, Darryl. We’ll get him, and if you want a piece of that it has to be with us.”

Darryl nodded. “Honestly, I never wanted it any other way.”

“For now, work with Mossman and the other analysts,” Teresa said, nodding back to the small huddle that had formed around Lincoln He and his laptop. “Try and get some idea of where to look for Circuit next.”

“Gladly.” Darryl started over towards the small group, cane tapping along the floor.

Voorman, who had been uncharacteristically quiet and still for the duration of the conversation, gave us a weak smile and said, “Not bad work, you two. You just got back in town today, am I right?”

I glanced at my watch. “Technically speaking, yesterday. But yes, that’s right.”

“In that case, go to home, both of you. Get some rest, I’ll be in touch with you, Agent Herrera, and let you know what the schedule is. I think there’s going to wind up being briefings every four hours, but a lot will depend on what the head office decides. Not your problem right now. I’ll be in touch.” He turned and wandered back out onto the floor, studying the updated status reports along the southeast coast.

Teresa watched him for a moment, then said, “Go on home. I’ll call you and let you know what the plan is as soon as I hear it.”

I glanced at Voorman, who was talking to Lincoln and hadn’t heard, then back again only to find Teresa had already left. I figured she wasn’t planning on heading home soon so I decided to follow her and, sure enough, she headed to her office and picked up a stack of reports. I leaned against the door frame and asked, “Are you okay?”

She glanced up, looking a little surprised to see me. “I’m sorry?”

“Look, I know the Senator has been a big help to you over the years, and you know there’s no love lost between the two of us. So,” I held up a hand. “Don’t take this the wrong way. But if I’d been through what you have, and I heard him say what he just said, I’d be upset.”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business, Helix,” she said, slowly setting the report aside.

“Teresa, when you know a Senator you don’t get much privacy.” I took one of the empty chairs in front of her desk, turned it around and straddled it. “Look, this isn’t a great time for this conversation, but I don’t think there’s ever going to be one and we need your A game here. The Senator just said there’s no free rides just because someone’s grieving and you can’t tell me your father’s death didn’t have anything to do with your decision to go into law enforcement, or to join Project Sumter.”

She glanced down and away. “Of course they did.”

“Of course.” It was an answer that said absolutely nothing that I didn’t already know. Looks like I’d have to push a little harder. “You said you know a lot about survivor’s guilt.”

“So?” A defiant expression this time, looking me right in the eye.

Step lightly, Double Helix, I thought. Now is not the time to make her mad. “So, I’m self-aware enough to understand where my guilt comes from. People like Darryl and I, it’s our job to find and stop people like Circuit. We shouldn’t have lost Mona at that school on Diversy, there’s probably a dozen things we could have done to prevent it.” I took a deep breath, reminding myself to stay on task. “Yes, I feel guilty about it. But what do you have to feel guilty about?”

Teresa’s eyes narrowed. “Helix, when was the last time you legitimately felt like you were in danger?”

“When Grandpa Wake got so made he accidentally ripped a tire off the tractor with his bare hands,” I answered promptly, smiling slightly at the memory. “I was twelve and had just gone joyriding…” I let the thought trail off. Teresa was looking at me with that blank, I-don’t-get-it kind of expression people get when I talk about my mom’s parents.

“Okay,” she said slowly. “Let me ask a different question. Was there ever a time when you didn’t feel like your talent was enough to keep you safe?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Once, when I got stranded in a freak snowstorm in Montana. There wasn’t enough ambient heat in the atmosphere to use in a meaningful way.”

Teresa nodded and leaned back in her chair. “I remember reading about that. You were still new at the time, yes?”

“Yeah. I didn’t have a solid migration schedule set up for the winter, since I couldn’t go to the Southern region and the West Coast already had two active heat sinks at the time.” I matched her relaxed posture and asked, “Is that important?”

“How did it make you feel?”

I hadn’t expected this to be my therapy session, but I figured it would be worthwhile to play along. “It wasn’t the greatest feeling, that’s for sure. But nothing happened in the end. I was really just there to interview a newly discovered talent, there wasn’t anything sinister about it.”

“But for a little while you had an idea of what the life of a normal woman is like.” She gripped the arms of her chair tightly, her gaze somewhere far away. “Empowering women is a major concern for so many people today because we’re typically physically less capable than men. Worse, we’re often singled out as the targets of people like Lethal Injection.”

There was a whole world of preconceptions there but I had a feeling they didn’t have anything to do with what Teresa was really trying to say. “Except Lethal Injection didn’t kill you, he killed your father.”

“The police say he got there just after I left for school and it might have been a kidnapping attempt gone wrong.” She shuddered slightly. “His other two cases looked much the same, from what I’ve read.”

“You think your father died instead of you.” That sure explained a lot. Teresa had never struck me as the vengeful type. Of course, Darryl never had either, but even he was showing some signs of hopefully regaining perspective with time. It had been years since Teresa’s father died and she knew that his killer was dead. Batman style revenge-on-all-criminals makes for a decent comic but there are few people in real life who have the kind of emotional stamina to carry a grudge that long, the Man From Gettysburg being a notable example.

And he was probably mentally disturbed beforehand.

But guilt? That was something that never really went away. I reached across the desk and gently took Teresa by the hands, pulled her forward so her forearms were resting on the desk and put my hands over hers. By doing so I engaged multiple senses at once, ensuring that her entire attention was on me, a technique for better engaging emotionally distraught people that we learn early in our field training. I sternly told myself that better communication was the only reason I was doing it.

“Teresa, I don’t think I’ve ever met a father worth his salt who would have been upset to die in place of his children. But that’s not what happened.” Teresa hesitated as I added the last bit and I took it as an opportunity to push on. “Lethal Injection killed more than just the three people who made the news. We think he was responsible for seven or eight murders. All middle aged men, two of them who didn’t have any daughters at all.”

Her brow furrowed slightly. “Then why… Serial killers always have a specific kind of victim they target. Why middle aged men?”

I could think of several possible answers to that, all sarcastic and probably not that useful under the circumstances. “They were all single fathers, Teresa. Most of them lost their wives or partners to an accident or some kind of illness, although I think in one case she just walked out. But they all decided to keep their kids and raise them themselves, rather than turning them over to relatives. That was the only similarity we found among them. Ethnicity, place of origin, economic background, education, there were no commonalities in those factors. You loved your dad, I take it?”

 “Yes.” Immediate and firm. “He wasn’t always as… involved as mom was before the accident, but he was always there. Even when he was still hurting from her death he took time for me.”

“We got similar statements from just about everyone child we talked to during the course of the investigation,” I said, grimacing at the memory. Even years afterwards I still felt a twinge of anger at a man who would single out a child’s last living parent and kill them. “They all had kids. They were all trying to do their best by them. We never got Lethal Injection for questioning, since he died resisting arrest, but we’re pretty sure that’s why he targeted them. There weren’t any other similarities.”

Teresa stared at me, her expression a mix of wonder and disgust. “That’s horrible.”

“More importantly.” I looked her directly in the eye for a moment and spoke each word slowly. “It means your father died because he chose to do the right thing. It wasn’t your fault. The only one to blame is a madman, and he’s dead.” I let go of her hands and leaned back, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. “I don’t know what Circuit wants to do, I don’t think he chose to kill Mona, it probably wasn’t intentional at all. But she was trying to do the right thing and now she’s dead. Darryl deserves the right to look Circuit in the eye and demand justice as much as you and all the other children of Lethal Injection’s victims.”

Teresa nodded. “And to do that we all need to pull our weight.”

“That’s right.” I gave a rueful smile. “Can you guess what step one of that is?”

“Getting some rest,” she said, matching my smile and raising a tired laugh. “I can take a hint, Helix.”

“Glad to hear it,” I said, dragging myself up off of my chair. “But I’m not hinting, I’m dragging. Come on.”

I took her by the arm and hauled her out of her chair. She went along with a groan but let me push her out of the office and into the hallway. She made it out of the building under her own power, smiling and occasionally shaking her head and chuckling under her breath. Outside the sky was dark, the streets were bathed in shadows from the street lamps and Circuit cast his own shadow over the future. But I could tell that, for Teresa Herrera, the darkness that had driven her to Project Sumter was finally starting to break.

It was a start. But the real work was yet to come.

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Out of the Dark – Disappointment Deconstructed

Every Wednesday we sit down and you get to hear about something that I think is cool. Usually, it’s a book or series of books because, hey, I’m a writer and books are what I do. Sometimes it’s movies or theater but a lot of my cool things are books or their distant cousins, graphic narratives (which is like a graphic novel except it applies to things that are not novels as well as thing s that are.) While reading good stories is great for a writer we can’t read good stuff all the time. Bad stuff is going to sneak in sooner or later, it’s a statistical inevitability. Normally when I encounter something bad I just don’t talk about it.

Not today.

There’s a lot a writer can learn from writing we find bad, but only if we take the time to dig into it and seriously ask ourselves what we don’t like about it. Let’s walk through that process today by looking at the novel Out of the Dark by David Weber – but before I start I want to warn you that

—->There Will Be Spoilers<—-

so if you’d rather not read them stop now. Normally I wouldn’t include spoilers but it’s impossible to really discuss what I felt was most disappointing about this book without them.

My disappointment with this book actually begins before I picked it up. David Weber writes a military scifi series known as the Honor Harrington books that focus on a female starship commander in a space operaesque setting. (I haven’t covered military scifi in Genrely Speaking yet, but it’s coming. For now, think of it as space combat with carefully analyzed tactics.) I’ve had Honorverse books recommended to me a couple of times before but I’ve avoided the series simply because it’s so large – thirteen novels in the main storyline, not counting spinoffs which add another sixteen published works to the universe. But I’ve been told it’s good.

So when I saw the name David Weber on a stand alone novel I had high hopes, since the overanalysis that goes into military scifi is fun from time to time. And to be fair, Out of the Dark did deliver, to an extent. At it’s core Out of the Dark is an alien invasion tale, where a race of overlarge doglike aliens invade for the purpose of stealing all of earth’s heavy metals and enslaving it’s people. They make a lot of miscalculations in building their strategy, some because of general genre blindness, some because of cultural unfamiliarity and some just because hey, invading a planet is a big logistical undertaking.

One of the best ideas Weber plays around with is that humanity is advancing much faster than the aliens are used to seeing. While only one race invades Earth, they represent a much larger group of aliens called the Hegemony. The Hegemony fist scouted Earth during the Battle of Agincourt (literally, the scouts took a lot of footage of the battle but apparently never did a solid analysis of what it might mean about humans both tactically and in general disposition) and show up in the modern day expecting a much lower level of technology to deal with. Drawing on their collective history the invaders determine humanity has been advancing several times faster than they would normally expect. The invaders have come with an invasion group equipped to suppress a civilization tinkering with steam engines, not one putting satellites in orbit.

The unexpected tech level, cultural and historical differences all result in the aliens loosing several rounds early and their invasion getting off to a slow start, but the promise of a race that could put them ahead of their neighbors on the technology curve is very tempting. But ultimately human resistance goes on much longer than the aliens expect. Even with all the major human cities bombed out of existence guerilla groups continue to harass the invaders and take a terrible toll. Eventually the alien commander decides to bioengineer a virus to wipe humanity out, deeming subjugating them to be too costly.

Now so far the book is decent but not exceptional. David Weber is a popular military scifi writer for a reason and he does a great job setting up believable exchanges between scattered human irregulars and semi competent alien invaders. (And again, to be fair to the invaders, competently invading a planet inhabited by creatures you haven’t studied much is pretty much impossible. Or at least it would seem so.) The characters aren’t compelling but the tactics and ideas are fun and I was legitimately wondering how he was going to dig humanity out of the hole it was in. After all, with most of it’s population centers gone there would be no facilities to try and create a vaccine for the alien’s virus.

Pretty much the only option would be to destroy the lab making the virus before it was deployed, a great opportunity for more scheming and great tactics, ploys and moments of breathtaking personal sacrifice, the stuff that is the bread and butter of the typical military history (and thus, military scifi.) At least, that seemed like the only option to me. It turns out Weber had another one in mind.

Vampires.

No, really.

Vampires come out of hiding among normal humans and wipe out the invaders.

I never finished Out of the Dark, in fact this “plot twist” (coughdeusexmachingacough) actually made me so mad I closed the book, put it face down on my desk and didn’t touch it again except to take it back to the library. It really felt, to me, like Weber had written himself into a corner and just made something up to get himself out of it.

To be totally fair Weber does provide a little foreshadowing for this twist but even the idea of vampires isn’t introduced until the last third of the book. It feels tacked on. And I feel, as a writer, that it’s really the only thing wrong with Out of the Dark. It could be a great military scifi/alien invasion story if it just didn’t cheat. Worse, by using vampires – and not something like the traditional folktale vampires but the uberpower vampires of modern myth – it feels a lot like deliberate pandering to a new audience, as if Weber was making a play for the Twilight crowd.

My deep disappointment with the book, so deep that I did something I rarely do and quit reading it before the end, stems from three things. First, I went in with high expectations. There’s not much that I, as a writer, can learn from that other than beware overhyping yourself. But it’s still worth noting that I expected something I didn’t exactly get, namely a book that was military scifi to the core.

The second thing was the lack of consistency. Vampires and aliens from outer space? Yeah, you could put them in the same book. I get it. We actually have more evidence supporting the existence of vampiresque creatures than aliens. There are stories of bloodsuckers in pretty much every cultural tradition in the world, dating back thousands of years, while stories about aliens are rare and recent. (Let’s not go into ancient alien astronauts, m’kay?) But military scifi often leans very heavily towards the hard end of the scale of scifi hardness, trying to stay away from too much phlebotinum. Vampires, on the other hand, are pretty much made of the stuff.

Weber tried to take two incredibly disparate things – hard, well analyzed tactical military scifi and vampires-as-superheroes – and mash them together. If he had put as much work into that as he obviously did in all the human vs. alien encounters in the book it might even have worked. But it really feels like he was just hoping the rule of cool would make it work. And it doesn’t.

The third thing was he didn’t set up his biggest plot point enough. I said it before and I’ll say it again, we don’t see any hints of vampire activity until we’re approaching the climax of the book. That’s just too late to introduce the thing your entire story basically hinges on. In fact, if it doesn’t come up until then it’s probably not what your story is about and you should save it for another story entirely. There’s nothing wrong with that. It should have happened in Out of the Dark but it didn’t.

In short, I think that David Weber had a potentially workable story idea. But I think he put it in the genre he was comfortable with, not the genre it actually wanted to be, and it wound up being a worse story for it. Definitely a pitfall all writers should look out for.

Cool Things: Noir

Noir is a genre pioneered in the nineteen twenties and thirties that focuses on the seedy underbelly of society and those that try to make their way through it. The name is derived from the French word for black. Since this is not Genrely Speaking, we’ll leave the background information at that. The subject of this post is an anime series by that name.

Anime, for those not in the know that don’t feel like wading through the Wikipedia page, is an animated story, either of TV length or movie length, produced in Japan. Following today’s theme, the word itself is borrowed from French.

Noir is a 26 episode TV series that aired in 2001. It is primarily set in Europe and focuses on the activities of a pair of assassins for higher that operate by the codename Noir. Our protagonists are Mireille Bouquet and Kirika Yuumura, two assassins who are connected by family, history and conspiracy. Most of the series focuses on the characters, slowly developing them from fairly generic killers for hire into characters that stick with their work for reasons we can almost sympathize with – if they didn’t require piles of bodies.

Like most noir stories, our protagonists are strongly principled; keeping to codes of conduct that are as strict as they are alien to most people. And, like most noir characters, they also hope to get out of the game once they reach their goal. In the case of Mireille, revenge, for Kirika, the truth. These motives become clear only slowly and our understanding of them only comes as Mireille and Kirika learn to trust each other, a process that takes most of the first half of the series.

The second half of the story revolves around the way our heroines pull themselves out of the twisted circumstances that made them what they are.

Noir relies heavily on themes of irredeemable sin and unlooked-for grace. It’s no accident that one of the series two leitmotifs is Salva Nos, a Roman Catholic funeral mass set to a pounding techno beat. As cold-blooded killers, Mireille and Kirika have little room to expect a fulfillment of their goals. But, perhaps out of a desire to find some measure of redemption, they’re far more forgiving than you might expect of assassins. In turn they both manage to find moments of grace even in their dark circumstances.

The pacing of Noir is a bit slow, probably because they had to fill an entire 26 episode season, but the story feels very fulfilling when it ends. Like most noir stories the ending isn’t exactly happy, but it is hopeful. You can find some measure of hope that the survivors can finally set the darkness they’ve lived in behind them – though where they might go from there is a bit of a troubling question.

As a show that focuses on girls with guns, action sequences are a pretty important part of the series and Noir delivers hand over fist. The fight choreography will definitely remind dedicated action movie watchers of movies like The Matrix or The Book of Eli. Cante per Me and Salva Nos embody Noir‘s conflicting senses of wistfulness and pounding adrenaline and serve as the backdrop of some  artfully executed gun battles, highlights of one of pro composer Yuki Kajiura’s early works.

Looking for a show that mixes thoughtfulness and action, a dark plot with a dash of hope? Willing to take “cartoons” with a more serious bent to them? Noir might be a thing for you.

Water Fall: Waters Rising

Three Hours After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

I don’t know where Helix managed to find our old Analysis chief, or why he agreed to bring Templeton back to the office, or what he hoped to achieve by dropping Templeton and his five man team of unfamiliar talents into Voorman’s lap. I’m not even sure when he disappeared during the resulting argument or where he went. All I really know is that I would have liked to go with him.

With all our desks moved to the side of the room to uncover the map there wasn’t a whole lot I could do at the moment, other than join Auburn and Dominic over northern Florida and try to stay out of the way. In theory, all field agents were supposed to be out in the field while we were at Condition One but, with few leads on where Circuit had gone to ground and a brewing PR nightmare as news sources started to realize that something fundamental had changed in the world around them, that was less of a practical option than normal. A lot of things that used to be secrets were coming to light and it was going to be a media circus as people tried to figure out what all that meant. We field agents, who had so far mostly been trained in the opposite of public relations, were keeping a low profile until a solid party line could be worked out. So I watched developments come in from the other offices and get marked on the map and I kept an eye on Templeton’s team.

They were a pretty strange group, all things considered. Based on what I could gather, the five of them were all talented, there was nothing in the way of tactical support or analysis, although Templeton was well qualified to do the latter. From my own experiences with other talents I had a pretty good idea what most of them could do. For starters there were the blonde sisters that had stopped by to talk to Helix about the time Agent Templeton resigned. Coldsnap and Frostburn were identical twins that shared the cold spike talent, able to force heat to leave an area just like Helix was able to force it to gather in one place. The man in dreadlocks who’d been taken to the infirmary on arrival to have some stray buckshot looked at was clearly a vector trap, with that same kind of pent up, flickering potential as Jane Hammer. The grim, quiet man who went with him read a lot like a wave maker. Not only did the air around him move with the strange calm pulsing I saw around Amplifier, ever since he got back from taking his partner to the infirmary and gone to stand by his boss and Voorman we’d stopped hearing what they were saying, even though they were clearly yelling at times.

You don’t even need an introductory fieldwork course to figure that kind of thing out.

The only mystery was the third man in the group, who was on the shortish side and didn’t seem to fit well with the rest of them. He was pacing across the floor like you might expect an analyst to do while studying it, except he wasn’t actually looking at anything there. I also wasn’t seeing any telltales of talents at work, although that doesn’t really mean anything two thirds of the time. I’d heard him called HiRes and that sounded like a codename, not a real name. Maybe he was just the new guy on the team.

My attention was dragged back to more immediate matters when Auburn stepped in front of me, shuffling papers and occasionally dropping them on the floor as she went. “…moving across the Georgia border and into South Carolina. Contained.” She crumpled up another sheet of paper and tossed it down in the general area she was talking about and took another couple of steps north. “Possible movement of arms and ammunition from Virginia into Ohio. Closing in.” That paper went to the bottom of the stack and she paused to chew on her thumb nail. “Holes.”

That kind of nonsense is pretty much par for the course with her but sometimes you can get useful information with prompting so I asked, “What kind of holes?”

“Places he’s not moving things,” she answered. “Northern Indiana and southern Michigan.”

“Maybe he just doesn’t have anything to move in those areas?” Dominic said.

“That doesn’t add up,” a new voice said. I glanced over at HiRes, who was waving his hand around at parts of the map that were too far away for me to see at all. “It’s fair to assume we’re finding less than ten percent of all of the stuff Circuit’s moving, and he’s been moving small cells of material and personnel for the last two days all across the country. But your getman’s right, there’s no sign of materiel moving through the Michiana area. With the volume of stuff he’s moving we should find something moving in that area.”

I didn’t know this guy from Adam but Auburn was nodding vigorously. “It stops moving there.”

“How do we know that Circuit just isn’t moving anything through that area?” I asked. “It’s pretty close to our offices here. Maybe he’s just routing around us. You,” I nodded to HiRes, “might not know this but Circuit has this thing about avoiding Helix unless he’s uber prepared for it.”

“I’ve heard from the Chief,” he said, presumably referring to Templeton. “But between our resources and Project Sumter they’ve intercepted at least eight shipments or groups of people in the Midwest that we can tie back to the drugs and arms networks you found Circuit working with last month. Two of them were en route to Peoria, another was headed towards Indianapolis. That’s not exactly going around this place. There ought to be something in the Michiana region. Unless, of course, they’re going to ground there, suggesting that’s the staging area for Circuit’s next operation.”

Dominic raised a hand like he was in school. “Question. How are you familiar with what we have and have not intercepted?”

Frostburn and Coldsnap had drawn closer and quietly inserted themselves into the loose group that had formed over the Midwest section of the floor. “He’s probably been reading reports as they come in and are handed off to the people keeping the floor updated.”

I blinked and gave the twin – I wasn’t sure which one it was – a look. The floor wasn’t anything fancy, just a large map that was a good thirtyish feet one way by fortysome the other, but we had overhead projectors that displayed the status of the five regional and most of the important branch offices on the relevant sections of the floor, along with the case file numbers to pull for more detailed information. But those projectors were controlled from a computer that was located in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. “How is he reading them from here?”

“It’s what he does,” one of the twins said.

Her sister added, “That, and he has ninja skills.”

“Darryl says he could even just take a desk job and do analysis-”

“-but that’d be boring and we need HiRes in the field-”

“-and he doesn’t mind so here we are.”

Dominic was stared at the sisters as their sentence bounced back and forth. I couldn’t see the expression on his face clearly but if it wasn’t total confusion then I’d convert to Protestantism. HiRes just sighed, apparently more used to this kind of thing already, and said, “I had a little intelligence and espionage training before I joined up and-”

“You’re a ninja?” Dominic asked incredulously. “I thought you were Korean.”

“I’m half-Japanese,” HiRes said, snapping in irritation. “And yes, back in the days of Sengoku some of my ancestors used their talents to make a living as onmitsu, which is the proper term.”

For some reason, at that moment, HiRes sounded just like sifu explaining the difference between wushu and gugn fu – or Shaolin – for the thousandth time. I decided to go for a subject change. “Alright, so we got guns and criminals with guns moving into the Midwest. Is there anything specific we can act on using just that information?”

“Uh…” HiRes paused for a moment.

“No,” Auburn said, to the point as usual. “Making his own stuff. Just general supplies.”

“Meaning?” The twins asked in unison.

“Circuit makes all his mission critical equipment himself or using very trusted associates he has a long-standing relationship with,” I said, able to translate less because I was fluent in Auburn and had more because of an ever-growing understanding of Circuit’s style thanks to a few months on this case plus a long association with Helix. “So it sounds like all we really know is Circuit is staging a small army of crooks in the area.”

“We could learn more if we cooperated with local law enforcement and did a general dragnet through gangs and other known criminal elements in the region,” HiRes said, pacing in a wide circle that probably represented the borders of the activity free zone he’d mentioned earlier. “But that’s going to require permission to work openly and in the public eye.”

“And we’re going to do just that,” Templeton said, prompting Frostburn and Coldsnap to jump.

“Don’t do that, Hush,” one of the twins said, turning to look at the wave maker who’d come over with his boss. The two men, along with Voorman, had come up behind the twins without making any noise – presumably thanks to the guy with the most apt codename I’ve ever heard.

“You should have felt our body heat even if you couldn’t hear us,” Hush said. “You need to pay more attention.”

“More importantly, Templeton,” I said, folding my arms over my chest, “you can’t operate openly. The Senatorial Oversight Committee on Talented Individuals doesn’t just have jurisdiction over Project Sumter. All federal agencies are governed by the Talented Incident Response Procedures. TIRP dictates we maintain secrecy and until we can get that changed you’d do best to stick to it. Especially if you plan on working with Project Sumter and not independently.”

“We’re going to try to contact the Committee secretary to call a meeting on that subject,” Voorman said. I was kind of surprised to hear that from him since I’d always thought he was a staunch supporter of those rules.

And I could think of one other person who might not like the idea much. He was practically synonymous with the Sumter orthodoxy. “I don’t know if you’ll be able to sell Helix on that.” I rubbed my chin as a new thought occurred. “And without a senior talent on your side I’m sure you’re not getting the Committee to back the idea.”

“The Secret Service doesn’t answer to the Committee,” Templeton said immediately.

Voorman gave him a sideways look, then said, “Whether that remains true or not, there’s a good chance the Committee will approve the idea by tomorrow morning. Helix is already working on it.”

——–

Helix

“I’ll agree to this one condition, Helix.” I couldn’t see Senator Dawson’s face but the voice that came from the speakerphone sounded incredibly tired. It was almost midnight already and he was about to walk into an emergency meeting of the Oversight Committee. I wasn’t sure if the whole Committee would be present, given the circumstances, but there certainly wasn’t any way they could start before their chairman arrived so I knew that he would be willing to wait as long as necessary for me to agree to his terms.

I glanced at Teresa, who just shrugged to indicate she had no more idea what kind of conditions might be attached to the Senator’s agreement than I did. “Go ahead, Senator.”

“You’re not to let Templeton’s team operate alone.” A pause for emphasis. “Under no circumstances, Helix.”

“This is Project Sumter’s turf, Senator,” I said. “Why should I-”

“Helix I’ve spent my whole life ensure that the system is fair.” Dawson’s voice rose slightly, growing heated and a little bitter. “No one should get unfair advantages. You should have to earn your status. You can’t get it because your parents bought your way around the system, you can’t get it because you have a knack that smoothed the way for you. And you shouldn’t get a pass just because your life has had little tragedy in it.”

“Brahms!” Teresa jerked back like Circuit had just tased her. The shock was probably just as bad.

I put a hand on her arm. “I hear you, Senator. I even get that that seems fair to you.”

“Good.” A deep breath, then he went on in a more businesslike tone. “I’ve read about the Man from Gettysburg, Helix. I know what can happen when a man goes out for personal vengeance.”

“And you know that story’s more than just history for me, Senator. My family lived it.” I glared at the phone wondering why hearing the exact same things I’d thought over and over from Dawson was irritating me so much. If it weren’t for the fact that he was dealing with his own tragedies I probably would have yelled at him too. “I resisted pressure to let Darryl – Mr. Templeton – work on this case for just those reasons. But I don’t think we can afford to ignore the Secret Service’s offer at this point.”

“You’re right. There’s no way to keep this out of the news. There’s already rumors about this circulating through the Hill. I got a call from our counterparts in Ottawa just half an hour ago, wanting to know what’s going on. They’re in touch with London already and we’ll probably be hearing from them within the hour. I’m going to propose to the Committee your office be allowed to make contact with the public on these issues and be given broad leeway to work with conventional law enforcement. That should cover collaborating with the Secret Service as well as most others.” His voice hardened again. “But make sure Templeton understands that being in the public eye works both ways. If he oversteps he will be called on to explain himself to this Committee, if not the Senate at large.”

I glanced at Teresa again, mouthing, “Can he do that?”

She spread her hands then tapped her watch. She didn’t know if he could now, but he probably could soon.

Aloud I said, “I’ll pass the message on.”

“Thank you. And Helix…” There was a long pause.

I rubbed my forehead and sighed, to exhausted to tackle another emotional minefield. Teresa recognized that and picked up the ball. “We haven’t heard anything about Elizabeth. I’m sorry, Brahms.”

The silence on his end of the line stretched a little longer, then Dawson said, “I’ll send word as soon as the Committee reaches a decision.”

The line went dead and I sat back in my chair, feeling drained. I had expected him to be more upset but, in its own way, his hanging up on us was almost as bad. “Can it get any worse?”

“Stop asking for trouble,” Teresa said, switching off the speakerphone. “We have enough on our plate already.”

As if on cue, Cheryl poked her head into the office. “Have you two seen Massif? That Lincoln guy he’s saddled me with found something and won’t shut up about it.”

I dropped my head on the desk, groaning in exasperation. Teresa laughed and pulled me to my feet. “Too late, I guess. Come on, Cheryl. We’ll take a look at it and see if it’s important.”

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Writing – A Love Letter

Happy Valentine’s Day! I hope you all will enjoy celebrating this august holiday with your paramour. If you live in the Fort Wayne area I highly recommend your celebrating by taking your significant other to see The Princess and The Goblin tonight. I will be performing in it, and thus not celebrating romance with the rest of you, for the Arts are a harsh mistress.

Yes, that’s definitely the reason.

Well. Partially.

But mostly, it’s the Arts. The Arts are what define a society. They call us on to greatness, they take our ideas and paint them in bold colors across a canvas that stretches across the hearts and minds of an entire society. The Arts, my friend, embody a romance that goes beyond sentiment and passes on into the very fabric of our thoughts and lives. They are not merely professions of beauty or adoration. No, they are, in a way, the foundations of that admiration.

Writing, it would seem, is the least of the Arts. It is so old, so ancient. Surely it is surpassed, in this day and age, by others. The Arts, after all, embody so much more than just words on a page. A picture is worth a thousand words. They say that Music hath charms to sooth the savage beast, and with radio and the Internet to help spread it Music has a reach and impact like never before. Theater, the Art that claims me tonight, can draw on Music and combine it with the nuance and power that comes with the dynamics of audience and performer to drive story and draw people in. Film looses the power of that bond but offers the opportunity to craft the perfect performance on the cutting room floor and duplicate it time and time again.

And yet I am drawn back to Writing. It captivates me, demanding my time and my energies as jealously as any romance.

The empty page is the greatest promise of all, full of untapped potential, crisp and fresh and pure. In time it will be marked and marred and scrubbed over, mistakes made and imperfectly erased, or simply crossed out. There is nothing  in the world like flipping back through the pages, running your fingers over the words and reading, over and over again, the thoughts that shape your life. The written word cannot suffer for being spoken poorly, cannot be forgotten by the mind of an actor.

And for all its simplicity, you will find that Writing is the Art that underpins all the others. There can be no Music without a score, no Theater without a script, no Film without a screenplay. Writing is at the center of all the other Arts. Its simplicity is its strength.

Writing endures. We have films dating back to the creation of the medium, music from a few hundred years ago, plays from the time of the Greeks. But the oldest written words may be twice as old as the oldest play, if not older, and have survived because they embody ideas that are essential to understanding the human condition. (Also because they’ve been written down.) Writing has gone from tablets of stone to the hides of animals, the pulp of trees to pixels on a screen and it will undoubtedly continue to transform itself as long as there are people with ideas they love.

So today, this is my Valentine. May Writing long endure.

Cool Things: Witness For The Prosecution

Sometimes you talk to people about black and white films and you get the sense that they somehow feel that they were… naïve. That early Hollywood was too constrained by censors and the studio owners to make films that really grappled with the hard issues of life.

When you find these people, make them watch this film.

Witness for the Prosecution is a courtroom drama set in London, England, and staring Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Barrister. (An aside: If you don’t know what a barrister is, suffice it to say that they’re English trial lawyers, which is to say they specialize in courtroom cases and legal briefs. They don’t to wills or contracts, that’s a solicitor’s job. If you want more than broad, vague generalizations you can follow the proceeding links to Wikipedia.) Wilfrid is approached by Leonard Vole (the debonair Tyrone Power) who is seeking a lawyer to defend him from charges of murdering a rich older lady who had made him the main beneficiary of her will. Wilfrid is in poor health and has a nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), who says trying the case will be bad for him. Wilfrid shows his sharp, argumentative mind by somehow turning his health into a reason for Miss Plimsoll to serve as his girl Friday and we’re off to the races.

Like most tales of love and money, this one winds through many strange paths on its way to the resolution. It is, in fact, less about who committed the murder than how the trial will turn out, much like the John Grisham novel The Runaway Jury. It’s based on an Agatha Christie story but, unlike many Agatha Christie stories, it doesn’t hinge on complicated timing or who is or is not left handed. Rather, it hinges on human nature and psychology. These things alone would make it a good movie, but not a great one.

However, the actors are all excellent, the screenplay moves briskly and, more than anything, the final plot twists are stunning. I’m not going to explain them here because, not only are spoilers generally a bad thing, the movie actually comes with a voice-over at the end warning the audience not to discuss the ending with people who haven’t seen the movie! You can tell they didn’t have the Internet back then.

Perhaps more than anything, what comes through in this film is clear insight into the darker side of human nature. While it’s not always pleasant viewing it certainly isn’t naïve, either. Whether you watch it for the story or the acting, I assure you that you won’t be disappointed.

Water Fall: Sprouting Leaks

20 Minutes After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

“Everybody pile in!” Heavy slung himself into the driver’s seat of the van with a manic glee that he only really demonstrated when he was getting away from a job that had gotten his blood moving.

I climbed into the back next to Hangman, who was already ensconced at one of the consoles and bringing her laptop out of sleep mode. “Satellite coverage is back, Circuit. They’ve been back for almost ten minutes, actually, but I figured that wouldn’t matter while we were on the subway.”

“Let’s hope you’re right.” Grappler gave Heavy a meaningful look and he sighed and moved over to the passenger seat. She slid into the driver’s seat and glanced back at us. “We’re leaving.”

“Wait.” I reached over Hangman’s shoulder and twitched the console itself to life, pulling up the traffic monitoring program. “Take route four.”

“Clear traffic?”

“Heavy traffic,” I corrected. “But not too heavy.”

Grappler sighed. “If you say so.”

There was no use going over the theory again. I’d told Grappler before that a route with more traffic would get less scrutiny and would let us go farther without detection so long as no one was actively tracking us. If we were the only full-sized white van on a road there was a chance someone might get suspicious. That might sound ludicrous to a normal person but I’ve seen the kinds of things Sumter analysts come up with – and the higher ups act on. Sometimes I wonder if they use a dartboard as part of their analysis procedures. Part of it might be familiarity with the target, I’m sure Helix’s team has a handbook on recognizing my operations at this point, but some of it has got to be simple brilliance. I don’t believe in luck.

As with all brilliance that doesn’t answer to me, I find it very annoying.

Even worse, in this case my caution was all for nothing. Taking a route with moderate traffic was only a valid tactic if we hadn’t been noticed and it turned out that we had.

They let us get out onto the highway before showing their hand. In Grappler’s defense, our being tracked was not the fault of poor driving or spotting on her part. I’m pretty sure the man who came after us had been maneuvering along the rooftops before dropping down a few stories to land on the barrier running alongside the overpass we’d taken. That’s right, he wasn’t tailing us in a vehicle. He was on foot.

The man was good, landing right beside us and balancing on top of the concrete barrier like it was as wide as a sidewalk and not just a few inches across. He was covering at least twenty feet a stride and ran with the easy, energy saving gait of a marathon runner. Hangman spotted him first and yelped, which attracted everyone else’s attention. I’d never been in a car chase where the one doing the chasing was on foot but there is a first time for everything.

Ever the practical one, Grappler asked, “Who is that?”

“Sumter agent, I would assume,” I said thoughtfully. “Don’t ask me how he found us.”

“He’s got style,” Heavy said, admiring the man’s dreadlocks with an appraising air.

The agent looked like an African-American man who had actually come from that continent himself, he was all wiry muscle with a hard, angular face and the remorseful expression of someone who had seen to much. The starched shirt, slacks and tie didn’t look quite right on him, like he wasn’t used to dressing that way, and I suspected he’d started the day with a jacket that he’d shed when things got serious. From the way he looked at us, he wasn’t any happier being there than I was to see him. I wondered for a moment if this was his first assignment.

“We gonna try and ditch him?” Grappler asked.

“I’m not sure I see how,” I said. “Unless you can think of a way to run him off the road when he’s on top of a traffic obstacle.”

Heavy looked back at me. “Hand me the serious firepower?”

“I thought you were hoping to recruit some Sumter agents as the core for your new law enforcement agencies,” Hangman said, looking at me. “That’ll be harder if you shoot them first.”

The agent outside suddenly made a leap across all four lanes of traffic to land on the barriers between our lanes and traffic going the other way. Several cars swerved, two hit each other, and traffic began to slow down. I muttered a curse. “They’re not trying to hide anymore. The rules have changed.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Grappler asked, incredulous.

“Of course.” I kicked the weapons locker open and passed an automatic shotgun up to Heavy. “But I didn’t think Sumter would realize what was going on so fast. Take him down. We have to survive this encounter before we can worry about anything else.”

“Right you are.” Heavy took the weapon and ran a quick check on it.

The agent outside had jumped the highway a couple more times and most of the cars around us were slowing to a stop. Some people were taking pictures or video with phones. We were driving alone now and stood out despite my best efforts. With that done dreadlocks hopped the center barrier to the others side. A moment later the whole thing jumped a few feet forward and then swung out across two of the lanes in front of us.

Grappler swerved, cursing, and took us towards the off ramp.

“No!” I yelled, realizing what was going on. “They’re herding us!”

“Then we’ll have to be herded,” Grappler growled, wrestling with the steering wheel in an effort to keep us from driving off the ramp. “I couldn’t get back into the outbound lanes without tipping this top-heavy piece of crap.”

As we spun down the ramp, brakes squealing and tires smoking, Heavy took the safety off his weapon, rolled down his window and leaned out, a manic grin on his face. “I got this, boss!”

He fired twice, although I couldn’t see how effective his shots were, and then leaned back in, a frown on his face. “I think I got him. But he’d slowed down a bunch already, maybe he’s just getting tired.”

“Probably something to do with how his talent works,” I said. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure what that might be. Hangman?”

“Never heard of anything like it,” she said. “Shouldn’t we be more worried about the other shoe dropping?”

Grappler brought us off the exit ramp at a speed not conductive to safety, ran a red light and threw us up onto a sidewalk to dodge slower moving traffic. I mentally crossed salvaging this vehicle off of the priority list as it was becoming less and less likely. Aloud I said, “Excellent point. Anyone have any guesses?”

“Put you window up, Heavy, it’s cold out there,” Grappler muttered, her eyes glued to the road.

Heavy started to oblige when Hangman said, “Oh dear.”

“What?” Heavy and I asked in unison.

She ignored us in favor of poking her laptop for a moment. “It’s getting colder outside, Circuit. And only a few blocks ahead of us.”

I felt a sinking feeling in my gut as I came to the same conclusion she’d no doubt reached – there was a heat sink up ahead. “Where’s the hot spot?”

She frowned for a moment as she studied the screen, then gave me a panicked look. “I don’t see one, Circuit. How’s that possible?”

It meant a cold spike, but I didn’t have time to explain how the two were actually opposite uses of the same ability. “It means we have a chance. I don’t think Helix could spike over such a large area.” I thumped the back of Grappler’s chair, causing her to serve us back into traffic. “Can we-”

“You trying to kill us?”

“No,” I said, scanning ahead to try and pick out the cold spike up ahead. “Can we get into one of the side streets in the next few blocks?”

A quick sweep of traffic and positioning. “No.”

“Can you drive us across icy pavement at this speed?”

“That all you need?” It was her turn to grin manically. “Child’s play.”

Somehow we’d managed to slow from highway speeds to a more sedate forty miles an hour without wrecking our vehicle or anyone else’s. Apparently working under the logic that they wouldn’t expect it Grappler decided that now was a good time to speed up again and floored the accelerator.

Then the voice of Morgan Freeman thundered over the street, screaming, “Break!” loud enough to break windows, shake buildings and, most importantly, shatter concrete that had been frozen far colder than could have ever happened in nature. Making us spin out on a frozen road had never been the idea, it had simply been to ready the pavement. Grappler swore like a sailor, throwing the van into a hard swerve, much harder than would have been possible if she hadn’t been tweaking the friction between tires and road to ensure that we didn’t spin out or roll, but even that wouldn’t be enough to keep us from hitting the rubble of the ruined sidewalk and probably going to an untimely end.

But when it comes to getaways, Grappler is the best and I never really should have doubted her skills. Wall walkers can alter friction on a surface in either direction and, as far as she was concerned, the van was a single surface. And Sumter’s agents had made a critical error – they’d only frozen and shattered the road, not the sidewalks.

Grappler hopped the van back up on the curb and expertly slid it along the side of the apartment building there, keeping friction along the van’s surface so low that there was little drag to speak of. We bounced along the sidewalk while loosing little in the way of momentum and avoiding the worst of the rubble.

She gave a surprised yelp when a pair of people seemed to appear out of nowhere and jump clear of the van as we rushed down the sidewalk then we were past the patch of shattered concrete and careening down the street and around a corner. I let go of the death grip I had on my seat and looked at Hangman’s computer. “New plan, which safe house is closest?”

“We could go up to Chinatown,” she said, smoothing her hair down absently, “But Logan’s Square has better traffic heading out of the city this time of day.”

“Chinatown’s got a clean car, though,” Heavy pointed out, locking the safety on his shotgun but not putting it away yet. “We’d have to keep the van or boost new wheels if we go to the Square.”

“Chinatown it is then.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Let’s hope there’s no more surprises.”

——–

Helix

I hung up my phone and glanced at Jack. “Samson says they’ve found another batch of clothing that looks like it probably came from some of the people on the Avenue tonight.”

“Where at?” He asked, giving a critical look at the mouth of the alley we were standing by.

“Subway bathroom trashcan.” I sighed. “They’re checking security cameras now but they’re so far behind the curve…”

“We’re probably not catching them tonight.” Jack shrugged. “At least we’ve got the Emancipation Proclamation back.”

“Yes.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “So nice of Circuit to leave it there for us. I’d thank him, except it’ll be a PR nightmare once the press gets hold of it. ‘Shadow agency unable to retrieve stolen historical artifact before thief decides to return it to them.'”

“I noticed that you pretty much made the decision to use talents in public on your own,” Jack said, giving me an unreadable look. “Voorman didn’t okay that.”

“Circuit already outed that for us,” I said irritably. “If we kept trying to deny the existence of talented individuals now we’d just wind up loosing credibility. What are they going to do, fire me and cut their chances of catching Circuit even more?”

Jack started down the alley in front of me, saying, “In that case we need to get some kind of break that will convince Voorman and the Committee we can actually catch him. Let’s hope that Auburn and Mossman were right and there is the logical place for Circuit to leave his escape vehicle.”

“Oh, they were right. Too bad you didn’t get here sooner.” A hunched figure detached itself from the alley wall and came towards us slowly, cane clacking on the pavement. Jack stiffened a bit then relaxed when he realized he knew the voice.

I fought the urge to put my face in my hands. Or yell. Or just turn and start walking until I found a sane part of the world to settle down in and forget all about Project Sumter, Open Circuit and dead friends. Instead I took a deep breath and said, “Hello, Darryl. What brings you here?”

“What do you think, Helix?” Darryl fixed me with a burning glare. “I’m doing the same thing you are – trying to catch Open Circuit. My team almost had him a little while ago, probably could have trapped him if we had a couple more talents and better cooperation with the locals. Care to take my help on your case now?”

“If I don’t will you go away?”

He snorted. “Just until we both get within grabbing distance of Circuit again.”

Now I did rub my hand over my face. Every bone in my body told me to tell him no. Or have him arrested. That was also really tempting. But odds were he was working for some governmental body that did have jurisdiction here. So I gave the only answer I could make that wouldn’t make things worse.

“Get your people together and come on back to the office. We’ll talk it over with Voorman.”

Darryl raised an eyebrow. “And?”

I shook my head but forced myself to say it. “And this time I’ll be in your corner.”

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Genrely Speaking: Paranormal Investigation

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking, the part of the show where we look at various genres and dissect exactly what is meant when they’re mentioned in this blog. Today’s subject is the paranormal mystery.

This is kind of a fine distinction, and once upon a time I would have just lumped this in as a subgenre of urban fantasy. But after some reading I’ve come to be of the opinion that the paranormal mystery is distinct enough to qualify as a genre of its own. What defines it? I’m glad you asked.

  1. An aggressive mixture of traditional investigation techniques and mystical or magical methods of detection. While urban fantasy is about the blending of the supernatural and the mundane, paranormal mysteries are about methods of investigation – they’re a kind of ‘what if’. A great example is Alex Hughes‘ Mindscape Investigation novels, where a powerful psychic serves as a consultant for the local police. He can read minds and, to a lesser extent, emotional echoes from locations, but the evidence he gathers is only admissible under some circumstances. For the most part, while the main character can generate leads, the police still have to do their share of legwork and deduction. See also Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series for a similar take. The X-Files, on the other hand, is about trying to understand the paranormal using human science, with the characters bringing varying levels of faith in the paranormal to the table, but it still fits into this genre. There’s many different ways a paranormal investigation can work to strike a balance, but they all have to have a balance between the paranormal and normal aspects of the investigation in order to count – paranormal abilities can’t let the detective cheat or be the only angle the investigators pursue.

  2. An emphasis on the paranormal as strange and unpredictable, even to those  who have spent their whole life working with it. While most paranormal investigators have a concrete problem their trying to solve, like a murder or mysterious disappearance, the very paranormal forces they’re dealing with tend to be opaque and not entirely understood. Whether no one’s ever used magic as an investigation tool before or the nature of the Masquerade makes it almost impossible to find the goblin witness detectives need to interview, the paranormal forces at work can be as much a hindrance as a help to investigators. While a particular book/episode in a series may deal with a specific paranormal crime, the difficulties of the medium serve as a unifying arc. Laura Anne Gillman’s Paranormal Scene Investigators series provides a good example of this.

  3. A mix of paranormal and mundane sources of trouble. This is part of what justifies keeping regular investigation methods around. While a powerful psychic may hypnotize people to extort their money he probably has to launder it or otherwise keep it safe using normal banking methods. Or, conversely, a powerful mob boss may be keeping evidence of his mundane crimes suppressed by hiding them behind magical illusions. A ghost haunting a hospital may turn out to be the victim of a decades old murder that has to be solved before the spirit will rest. Regardless, both mundane and paranormal methods of investigation will be necessary to solve the problem.

What is the greatest weakness of a paranormal investigation story? Probably the incredibly delicate balancing act involved in keeping your mundane and your magical angles of investigation relevant. Lean to far one way and there’s no need for ghosts and goblins in your story at all, lean too far the other and there’s no need for normal forensics or deduction at all. Worse, because of the many ways the paranormal can enter into stories, from fairies in the attic to wizards killing with curses, there’s no short list of tropes writers can turn to for reference, at least not yet. Time may ease this difficulty.

What is the greatest strength of a paranormal investigation story? Probably it’s incredible diversity. As I mentioned in the police procedural post, and again in my post on the detective story, mysteries are in no small part about their characters. And that’s good, I’m for anything that encourages strong characters. But there are only so many ways you can dress up a robbery or a murder with mundane tools, so many ways to execute a kidnapping or make a ship go lost at sea. Adding a plethora of new paranormal tricks, or new paranormal creatures to conspire with or paranormal obstacles to overcome this genre can bring a new feeling of freshness or just give a story new directions to go in.

Paranormal investigations are kind of a young genre, one of the earliest examples of it would be the 1965 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and even that only lightly touches on the possibilities of the genre. I’m not sure where it’s going yet, but I think I’m going to getting there.