Cool Things: Mindspace Investigations

He had it all. He was a Level Eight telepath, specializing in Structure. With a lot of time and work he could rebuild a person’s mind, bringing people out of comas or restoring sight to people who hadn’t seen in years. He was a respected member of the Telepath’s Guild, the body governing psychics in the U.S., and eventually got a job teaching his skills to others. He was engaged to marry into a powerful family, and he was just one of a group of likeminded, idealistic and very talented people who were likely to chart the course of the guild for years to come.

Then he volunteered to help out one of his friends with a research project. The purpose of the project? To see if psychic abilities could be enhanced with the use of mind altering drugs.

Now he has no Guild status, no girl and plenty of guilt. He also has a nearly constant craving for Satin, a substance that not only doesn’t enhance the abilities of telepaths but has been outlawed by both the Government and the Guild in the time since he got addicted. He has next to nothing. He isn’t even allowed to handle his own money, on the off chance he might go out and blow it all on drugs.

What he does have is a job for the Decatur Police Department. Mostly he works the interrogation rooms, asking questions and gauging people’s reactions to them in more ways than the typical cop. Of course, with a bunch of felony charges related to his druggie days he can’t testify or work full time, but he can ask questions so long as another witness is along to back him up. And every so often the Homicide detective who pushed so hard to get him his job pulls him out of the interrogation rooms to take to the field.

You see, the world around us isn’t just shaped by our hands and feet, by the objects we take with us or leave behind. It’s also shaped by our thoughts and feelings, the joys we spread and the grudges we hold close. But those thoughts and feelings don’t leave marks in physical space, they leave them in Mindspace. The Guild doesn’t routinely send telepaths out to work with normal, telepathically deaf cops. He is unique. He and Detective Isabella Cherabino go out to murder scenes. There, she looks at the physical evidence and he looks at the Mindspace.

Browsing around in the places where people have died is no fun. In fact, it’s a profoundly disturbing experience. But he does it all the same. Part of this is pure pragmatism. The more time he spends solving murders, the more time he’s not getting high. Three years is a long time clean, and he has no desire to fall off the wagon. Well, that’s not true, he just has more desire to stay on it. And ultimately, that strong desire to stay clean is rooted in the past.

He had it all. Now he has nothing. Nothing, that is, except for a chance to make a difference. He can’t safely remodel people’s minds anymore. But he can find killers. Maybe, just maybe, that will be enough for him to sleep at night.

Mindspace Investigations is a series of stories by Alex Hughes. There’s two short stories and three full length novels, and they are excellent in a number of ways. Obviously, Mindspace world is a sci-fi setting. It’s not just the telepaths. Hughes’ world is set after the Tech Wars, when sentient machines spawned blood borne computer virus and nearly ended humanity as we know it. There’s a strange blend of technologies running around – flying cars juxtaposed with pen and paper. Antigravity building techniques are commonplace but paranoia about wifi runs rampant. Technology isn’t allowed to come even close to thinking for itself. Computers are now controlled technology.

In this kind of a world, a telepathic forensics consultant does a lot to push investigations forward. There aren’t nearly as many fancy technology investigation techniques as you might expect in the future, but there’s still plenty of good old fashioned police work in these books. Following the money, interviewing all the witnesses, the whole nine yards. And since psychics are required by law to inform people of their telepathic abilities before anything learned by telepathy counts as legal evidence gathering techniques… well, it can all get quite complicated.

But not as complicated as not using the protagonist’s name for the entire first book. That’s ridiculously complicated, and it makes writing reviews about them complicated, too. Less thrilled with that than many other aspects of the series.

Still, if you like flawed but relatable characters, good world building or whodunnit’s of just about any stripe, Mindspace Investigations might be right up your alley.

Water Fall: Storm Surge

One Week, One Day After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

It took a little more than five minutes for me to get from the command bunker to my destination, although that was at least in part because I had to go up, over the tree line, and come back down again to locate exactly where the crossroads I wanted was. Finding a trail was easy enough, making sure I had the right portion of the trail was trickier. Flying below the treeline at thirty miles an hour was definitely not an option and positioning technology is a double edged sword – I could risk revealing my position to Project Sumter if they were waiting for me to ping a GPS satellite. I could still tell where the maglev relays around the park were positioned and that gave me a general idea of where I was, otherwise the trip could have taken three times as long.

I’d just started sifting through the trees, looking for a good ambush spot, when my earpiece dinged to life with Simeon on the other end of the line. “I think we have a problem, sir.”

“Bigger than planning a very personal lesson on death from above for Project Sumter?” I asked, trying to keep my voice down in case the wave makers on the other side could pinpoint my location just from that.

“Yes, sir, quite possibly.” There was a loud, indistinct noise on the other end, then the distinctive popping sound of small arms fire. “Agent Samson was with Project Sumter’s team.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, rapping my knuckles on a nearby tree with impatience. “What’s all that noise? You aren’t out with a patrol, are you? You’re-”

“I’m in the power reserve bunker, as you instructed.”

“Then what-”

“The noise is Agent Samson.” Cutting me off twice in a row was a sure sign Simeon was upset. “He’s infiltrated the bunker and is in the process of destroying our reserves.”

I slammed my fist into the tree and kicked the maglev back into high gear, shooting up and across the trees at top speed. “How did he get in? If nothing else you could have armed the antipersonnel mines at the entrance.”

“He used the back door.”

“That bunker doesn’t have another entrance!”

“He’s renovated.” Another indistinct noise, followed by the sound of a large, center core power transformer being dropped. Or, in this case, probably thrown. “Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, he is renovating.”

“It’s not renovation if you don’t put all the pieces back together into something new and beneficial, Simeon.” I swooped in towards the bunker. By pressing the maglev array to its limit I managed to make it back to the power reserve in barely two minutes, helped by the fact that it was closer to my starting point than the command bunker and the fact that I’d burned out a relay to do it – if I couldn’t save the power reserve then I wouldn’t be able to fly and fire empion grenades at the same time and, of the two, I needed aerial denial more. Frying a few relays was acceptable losses. “I’m at the front door. I notice it’s not locked.”

“We’re a little bit busy in here, sir.”

The power reserve is basically a big, rough concrete bunker wired to allow a couple of hundred high capacity industrial batteries to charge in a protected environment. Most of the important bits are down below ground level, the entrance basically lets out onto a catwalk that overlooks the batteries – and yes, catwalks are a theme in villain design and I’m no exception. They’re cheaper than building a real floor and villainy is pretty much always on a budget.

About half the catwalk was torn up, mangled and twisted until it looked more like a pretzel than a walkway. Parts of it may have been missing entirely. One of the guards was actually wrapped up in part of the mess. At the far side of the bunker I could see a ragged hole where something roughly the size of a man had torn or smashed its way through a foot of reinforced concrete. My stomach turned over once and I swallowed. I’d known Rodriguez – Samson – was absurdly strong but it looked like I’d still drastically underestimated him.

Simeon was waving to me from the control room, the sounds of sporadic gunfire and tens of thousands of dollars in electrical equipment being torn apart came up from below. I slid to a stop on the catwalk just outside the door, crouching with Simeon in the frame to avoid the bulk of the dangerous stuff flying around outside. “How do things look?”

He shook his head regretfully. “Not good. I’ve already lost touch with two of our six guards and the engineer on the control panel bolted. We’ve lost about a quarter of our reserves and the remainder is dwindling fast. I’m still not sure how he’s avoiding being electrocuted with all the wiring he’s handling but the voltage doesn’t seem to be slowing him down at all.”

“That’s disappointing and extremely odd.” I slipped my SIG out of it’s holster and checked the magazine, deliberately not analyzing what immunity to electricity might tell me about Samson’s talent. I still had no idea how it functioned other than allowing him to perform absurd feats of strength. “We’ll have to deal with him in a little more direct fashion. He took cover when I shot at him at Diversy, and again when Grappler tried the same thing at the library. Bullets must hurt him.”

“They guards are trying that but not getting very far,” Simeon said, tugging absently at the lapels of his suit jacket. Even in the middle of a dingy concrete bunker he was dressed impeccably and, in a bizarre kind of denial of his circumstances, he’d refused body armor or a weapon. That was one reason I’d asked him to stay in the most out of the way bunker, so he’d be out of the line of fire. Not my greatest success, I’ll admit.

“Are the stairs still intact?” I asked, peering through the wreckage that was the catwalk.

“Sir, with all due respect, it may be best to pull back. There’s no way to be sure bullets will actually harm him and staying here just puts you in his reach.”

“I’m not letting him wreck this place ahead of schedule, Simeon.” I gave him my best disapproving look. “It could take months or years to track down the components to finish the Thunderclap array on the black market if we don’t finish fabricating the raw materials here.”

He held up a hand and, grudgingly, I waited to hear his piece. “I understand all that. You are intent on this and I’ve long since come to accept that. But if your set on getting yourself killed I don’t see why you’d object to blowing up a building or two along the way.”

There was a clatter from behind Simeon and Hangman rolled into the control room doorway on an office chair. “Wait, what?”

I glared at Simeon. “Why is she here?”

“The engineer bolted and she has the technical know-how to keep the systems running even when someone’s ripping the guts out of them.” Simeon shrugged. “It was a logical personnel allocation.”

What he wasn’t asking was why I had a problem with something that should be so obvious. Of course someone with Hangman’s computer background would be experienced in keeping an electrical system up and running. The only reason not to want her there was because of the danger. It wasn’t like me to ignore the obvious like that and Simeon didn’t have to say it out loud for me to know he was thinking it was purely for personal reasons.

“Hey, guys,” Hangman said, interrupting my thoughts, “can we get back to the part of this conversation where we’re sitting in a building with a bomb in it?”

“Technically there’s more than one bomb and they’re not that big. Blowing up your base is an essential part of supervillainy.” I ignored the look Hangman was giving me. “Simeon I’m not losing this round. It’s mine to win, we just need to stick it out a little longer and-”

“We don’t have a little longer, sir.” In an uncharacteristically familiar gesture he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “This is your last chance to make a clean break. I’ve never understood why you wanted to become a martyr, but-”

“Yeah,” Hangman broke in, pulling Simeon back as she crowded into the doorway with us. “Care to explain that part? What is he talking about, Circuit?”

I sighed and rubbed my forehead for a minute, wondering when it was I started feeling so old. “Hangman, how much of the plan – the long-term, gambit within gambit, let’s rule the world Plan – do you think you’ve figured out?”

She kept giving me the look and I stared at her until she sighed, accepting that this was a part of how things were going to go. “Well, first you use Thunderclap to take over a city’s electronics. Then you rule it with an iron fist while driving down crime rates and using your public persona’s influence to help bring the economy into line and establish functioning social services. Then you…” Hangman hesitated for a minute, clearly to the part of the plan she hadn’t quite figured yet. “Expand, I guess. Some people will come to you willingly and others can be bullied. At some point there will probably be a direct challenge or five, but-”

“But it will never get that far. Hangman, listen to me.” I reach out as if to put a hand on her shoulder or brush the stray hair from her face. She blinked, a little uncertain, and in that moment I had her by the lapels of the jacket and pulled her close in a way that no one would mistake for affection. “You are stupidly naive and it infuriates me, because I was just like you once. So here’s the truth, unvarnished. Tyrants crumble. Alexander the Great. Julius Cesar. King John Lackland. Napoleon. Adolph Hitler. Nothing they build endured. They don’t usher in new eras, they ripped down the old ones. It was always someone who came after then who did the work of rebuilding, all they were good for was the act of destruction. All.”

Simeon grabbed me by the wrists and broke us apart. “Sir-”

“This is a contest, Hangman,” I snarled, pushing myself to my feet using the doorway as a prop. I was mad and I didn’t know why. I’d spent the last seven years piecing together these ideas and the plans that would make them real, but talking about it always seemed to make me angry. It was perhaps the one thing I’d never stopped to examine. “I tear down their lies, their projects, their secrets, until someone comes and stops me. This is where I get the ability to do whatever I want and use it to find all the liars, the cheats and the bullies out there and grind them into dust so when they finally come and finish me off there’s no more trash out there to clutter up the new order. Because sooner or later that was going to be someone like me. Maybe Lethal Injection. Maybe the Enchanter. But me – I am going to do it right. I will make them hurt like they never have before, but it will be to make them better. And when I am done and buried, they’ll be able to rebuild without any of the old crimes weighing them down.”

“You’ve made a difference, Circuit,” Hangman said, slowly reaching out to take my hand. I jerked back instinctively and she hesitated, looking hurt. “Simeon is right. You’ve shown the world Project Sumter’s lies. You have almost everything you need to build the Thunderclap array. You can step back for a while, take stock, come up with a new plan. You don’t have to-”

“Do you know what a thunderbird is?” I asked.

“What does that-”

“Do you know what it is?”

“No.” She shook her head sadly. “I don’t.”

Simeon gently laid a hand on her shoulder and said, “It’s a creature of wrath, Miss Dawson. A thunderbird’s wrath is unchecked and uncontrollable. Come. We need to go.”

I shook myself back to reality and realized I’d set my gun on the ground at some point during the exchange. I quickly scooped it back up, saying, “We can still contain this, Simeon. We’re nowhere near the endgame yet. I said it this morning – we’re winning this round.”

“Sir, I know you haven’t been paying the best attention so I’ll just tell you.” He nodded towards the edge of the catwalk. “No one’s fired a shot down there for the last ninety seconds. Now you might be able to outmatch Agent Samson with your superior maneuverability and one pistol but I doubt Hangman or I could add much to you side of the equation. And I seriously doubt you or Samson want us here.”

The worst part was, he was right. There hadn’t been gunfire for the last minute or so and I should have noticed and sent them away a long time ago. I sighed and tried to let the tension ease out of me. “You’re right. Go. I’ll see what can be done about Rodriguez.”

They’d gone a few steps down towards the door when the massive bulk of Manuel Rodriguez, full time preacher and part time government strong man, vaulted up from the ground floor and onto the wall above the catwalk, stopping himself on all fours like a human fly, except he immediately slid down and landed lightly on the catwalk. How a man his size managed to land lightly I’ll never understand.

“Actually,” he said, dusting off his pants and bulletproof vest, “before you’re on your way there is one thing that needs to be said.”

I tensed and eased the safety off my sidearm. “And what would that be, Agent Samson?”

He didn’t answer me, not directly. Instead he looked at Hangman and said, “Elizabeth Dawson. I have a message for you from your father. He wants you to come home.”

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Genrely Speaking: Military SciFi

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking, the part of the blog where we sit down and look at modern genres and what we mean when we mention them on this blog. Classifying things is as much art as science, so having style guides is important for you if you want to be clearly understood. Thus we get a monthly segment. This week’s genre: Military Sci-Fi.

Military sci-fi is a subgenre of science fiction (surprise!) and, if you’ve read enough of the previous entries in this subsection you know that sci-fi is the genre that examines human ideas. Military sci-fi is most closely related to hard sci-fi in that it takes ideas of human development in general, and military development specifically, and applies them to craft a tale about human ingenuity and courage. You can usually spot it a mile away by the title of the story and what’s on the cover, but once you get inside you’ll also find the following hallmarks of the genre:

  1. An emphasis on the idea of necessity as the mother of invention. Many people will quote the idea that wars drive progress, and that’s true to an extent. Wars will cause a lot of resources to be focused on solving a very narrow slew of problems. While normally money and attention is spent on whatever problems people think need solving at the moment, during war (or at least total war such as we last witnessed a generation ago during World War Two) the needs of the military override the preferences of individuals or nonmilitary groups. A big focus of military sci-fi is how this unusual confluence of money, time and intellect comes together to produce results in ways that are sometimes quite surprising.
  2. An examination of the interface of technology and conflict. Whether the author is Taylor Anderson examining what would happen if you dropped WWII era technology into a war fought with sailing vessels and crossbows or Ian Douglas spinning tales of daring and bravery backed by the bleeding edge theories of reactionless propulsion and sentient computer technology, military sci-fi examines how warfare will change, how it will stay the same and how people will adapt to the situation.
  3. Sound military theory. The more things change the more they stay the same. There’s a reason Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is such an enduing treatise on conflict – much of what it says is valid in just about any kind of conflict, regardless of whether it’s armed or political, futuristic or primitive, if you apply it correctly. The military sci-fi author recognizes that and relies on this and many other examinations of military theory to create their scenarios. Of course, if you’re writing in this genre it’s also important to keep an eye on the less tangible aspects of war – endurance, determination, courage and principles.

What are the weaknesses of military sci-fi? It can be a very impersonal genre. Military histories, the style of nonfiction our genre most closely resembles, tends to focus on leaders and decision makers, and the facts and figures they use to reach their decisions. This is because warfare is a vast and chaotic undertaking and even decades after the fact it can be hard to find a clear picture of what took place. But fiction is ultimately a much more personal thing than nonfiction. We don’t want facts and figures, we want suspense, empathy with characters, memorable dialog and exciting plot twists. While military sci-fi can deliver on all of that, it can be hard to do and not every author does it well.

What are the strengths of military sci-fi? It’s big, bombastic and fun. If properly written it delivers rousing speeches, sudden reversals and snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. It can be like Lord of the Rings, Star Trek and Saving Private Ryan all rolled into one and there’s no doubting that, when it really works, it’s good stuff.

There’s a thin line between cool geek and irredeemable dweeb. With the mainstreaming of comics/graphic novels and other traditionally “geek” media over the past ten years that line keeps getting harder and harder to define. But military sci-fi remains so far into dweeb territory that you can’t even see geek from there. I like the genre, myself, but I don’t think anything I’ve ever read in it would make my top five books of a given year, much less all time. If you love geeky gizmos check it out. Otherwise, you might want to look elsewhere…

Local Theater: 1984

It’s theater time again. This show isn’t a happy one, it isn’t a fun one and it isn’t a family event. This time around, all for One Productions is taking us into the darkness of what could have been. We’re going to visit Big Brother.

George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the darkest visions of the human condition there has ever been. It surpasses Blade Runner, it surpasses Logan’s Run, it surpasses Brave New World. There’s no allowance for hope, or joy, or even fun in 1984. There’s only the all consuming power of the Party, paranoia, hate and despair.

The tale remains a classic because the people and the ideas it talks about are so eerily familiar. It’s something we could see happening at some point. There have been close shaves with these kinds of states before – Stalinism, Nazism, Maoism. Modern Cuba and North Korea. The list is long, and that’s just the last century or so.

We watch it to jolt ourselves out of comfort, to brace ourselves to confront the evil wherever it may raise it’s head. Come and see 1984. It will disturb you – and that will be a good thing.

Shows are May 2nd-4th and 9th-11th at the Main Branch of the Allen County Public Library. Ticket information can be found here.

Water Fall: Raging Rapids

One Week, One Day After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

The first time Double Helix made history he turned a couple of thousand square feet of Death Valley, Nevada to molten glass. That was during a routine set of exercise conducted when he first joined the Project. They were trying to establish a baseline for his talent. By the metrics we use he’s the strongest heat sink on record, weighing in as nearly twice as powerful as the next strongest we know of.

When he set out to show Circuit how making history was really done I got a little nervous. The man just doesn’t know the meaning of half measures.

But then, we were already making history. For the first time since the Civil War we had talents moving in teams that didn’t include oversight officers. Both Helix and Amp’s teams were pure talent. And as soon as we were away from the clearing around the chopper Samson leapt in front of the group and took off alone at a pace way beyond anything a normal human could hope to match. All the field oversight and tactical people who weren’t guarding our helicopter were in my group. In some respects I’d actually gotten the shorter end of the stick.

The guy I knew the least about was HiRes, he was supposedly invisible but I could still see him moving as clearly as I could see anything in a windy forest full of swaying trees – which isn’t that clearly, in case you were wondering. Jack and Dominic both insisted they didn’t know where he was and I was still going along with that, at least for the time being. Along with Mr. Not-So-Invisible and those two tactical leaders I had the rest of Helix’s tactical team and Agents Herrera and Sanders, giving me the Project’s foremost experts on Circuit’s history and tactics. Templeton had been forced to remain at the chopper with the other two members of my support team but Hush or Amplifier could forward his thoughts to us if we needed them.

I was sure Dom and Jack were reliable, they’d been in the Project longer than I had and I knew their records before they joined up. The rest, well, the biggest positive I knew of was that they worked with Helix. That means lots of field experience, most of it with situations teetering on the edge of disaster. But smooth running, uneventful operations? Those were a lot rarer in Helix’s casefiles. It made me a little nervous.

Of course, they’d all survived those situations, which had to mean something, right?

“You okay?” Dominic asked me, his eyes scanning back and forth as we lead our group forward. He was trailing just a half step behind me and to my left as we pushed through the thin undergrowth of southern Indiana river country.

“Circuit’s people have seen what I can do,” I said, a non sequitur that would make sense to him, if not the other people with us. A huge part, and I do mean vital, of what makes my talent effective is the fact that it comes as a surprise to people who have never encountered it before. Bullets, punches, getting hit by cars, none of it is particularly dangerous to me so long as I can keep my footing. Getting set on fire, breathing sleep gas, getting cut with a good sharp knife or just having a fire hose pointed at me, those are things that affect me just like everyone else. Most of the time I manage to wrap up tactical situations before anyone thinks of that kind of thing but this time I was walking into round three with a bunch of people who had not only seen me before but were used to the idea of talents existing and thinking of work arounds for that fact. It was making me a little nervous.

And when you put all those little cases of nerves together you got a great big helping of insecurity. I didn’t like the way things were shaping up at all and the loose dirt and random woodland detritus making the ground under my feet that much more unpredictable was just icing on the cake.

With the satellite intelligence we’d managed to gather and the cooperative efforts of a dozen of our best analysts we’d figured out which one of the three bunkers Circuit had built was likely to hold his headquarters. The general idea of my part of the operation was to cut through the woods and hit the bunker, try to take out the center of operations in case Helix or Samson’s end of things didn’t succeed or just serving as a distraction to help them on their way. It hadn’t escaped our notice that we were essentially playing Circuit’s game of parallel gambits against him but, in this case Analysis was fairly sure Circuit didn’t have the people to counter our separate moves even if he recognized our game.

According to Dom’s GPS we were most of the way to the bunker we wanted when we stopped to get our bearings at the intersection of two trails. We were almost at the end of the part of the park open to the public, most everything south of us was supposed to be undeveloped woodland. Dominic wanted to be absolutely sure of where we were before we left behind all usable landmarks, just in case Circuit decided keeping his communications grid up wasn’t worth letting us keep ours.

Dom had just confirmed that we were where he thought we were when the stern, stolid voice of Hush said, “I hear something in your area.”

After nearly a month of working with Amplifier this kind of thing didn’t bother me nearly as much as it would have before. Even Dom didn’t react much, just starting a little then asking, “Are you sure it’s not just an animal or something?”

“Trust me, animals don’t make nearly as much noise as people do, not when they’re in their native habitat.” It was hard to tell for sure but Hush sounded a little condescending as he said it, as if the inability to be quiet was a great failing on our part. “Samson has already gone inside his target and Helix’s group is nowhere near your location.”

“Got it, Hush,” I said. “We’ll deal with it. That’s what we’re here for.”

There was a moment of quiet, then, “Templeton says be careful. I’ll be listening.”

That rather creepy statement was Hush’s way of signing off. I turned to Dom and said, “Let’s take care of business.”

The National Guard had, with much reluctance, agreed to give us gear that matched our surroundings a little bit better than what Project Sumter kept on hand. Most of our work was done in the places where talents are likely to get noticed – in large towns or cities. There’s probably plenty of talented people out in the countryside, but they don’t get noticed nearly as often so we don’t know about them. So our guys, with the exception of Kesselman who was still pretty out of practice, aren’t trained for tactical situations out in the wilds. In case you were wondering, this was the National Guard’s biggest argument for why they should have handled Circuit rather than us.

I have to admit, watching our agents fan out along the side of the path in a rather clumsy fashion, I kind of saw where they were coming from. Still, it was our case and we had the experience. It was time to prove we were the best people for the job.

As soon as Dominic signaled that everyone was in position I walked out into the center of the crossroads, planted my feet, clasped my hands across my back and said, “May I have your attention, please. I am Special Agent Aluchinskii Massif of Project Sumter. This is a raid to apprehend the known terrorist and traitor calling himself Open Circuit, wanted in connection with the recent attack on Michigan Avenue, the death of an agent of the Federal Government and numerous other charges. If you surrender now and offer to testify you will be shown leniency during prosecution.”

There as a moment’s pause then I heard Hush, sounding about as amused as I’d ever heard him, saying, “They think you’re high and they’re daring each other to shoot you.”

Reports suggested Circuit had both hardened mercenaries and more run of the mill criminals working for him. I was guessing these were the latter. Just to make sure all the bases were covered I said, “If you resort to force we will respond in kind.”

Then they really did shoot me.

It was a pretty good shot, hit me just below the left collar bone and bounced off the vest I was wearing. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered with the bulky thing but footing was bad enough out in amongst nature that I didn’t want to be caught without one if I lost my footing. This time it wasn’t necessary as the bullet came to a total stop as soon as it touched me, all it’s forward momentum bleeding into the ground at my feet. I sighed and started forward at my usual deliberate pace.

One genius, who probably thought he was some kind of stone cold killer, came up out of the trees on the far side of the road, carefully squeezing off shots from his semiautomatic as he walked towards me. No doubt he though that since I was playing it cool and doing the impressive slow walking thing he had to do the same or loose face. Of course, he didn’t realize I was kind of bulletproof and he wasn’t. Not until one of his shots caught me square in the cheek and tumbled off without leaving anything worse than a light red mark, and that because the bullet was hot and not because of the force of the shot.

That was enough for him to realize he was tangling with something he didn’t understand but by then it was too late. He was close enough for me to reach out and grab his outstretched gun hand, twist his arm until the joints locked, then pull him off balance and straight into my knee. He doubled over and dropped to the ground, I kept hold of his arm only long enough to pull the gun from it before I let him go. Disassembling a pistol only takes a few seconds if you know what you’re doing and as long as you keep the gun barrel the rest of the pieces are useless but you have no chance of hurting yourself with a misfire or later giving up a weapon to your enemy. By the time that was done the other members of my hapless victim’s group were cursing loudly and had started shooting at me for real. I went to pay them a little visit.

I managed to drop another one with a quick grab and elbow combo, then grabbed a third by his leg, flipped him onto his back and wrenched his ankle until it made unhealthy sounds. That looked to be half of the little group out of commission but by that point they’d figured out that, just like a mummy in a bad horror movie, I couldn’t move much faster than a very deliberate walk and all they had to do was hustle a little bit faster than me stay out of reach. On the other hand, their bullets weren’t really doing much besides make me angry.

Of course all that attention on me kept them from noticing Jack’s group slipping around behind them and cutting them off. It was three on three and I meant to pitch in – not that I doubted Jack’s team but you can never be too certain in these kinds of situations. Problem was when I went to take the next step towards them I found my feet were stuck to the ground. I flashed back to the robbery at the Allen County Library at the same moment a hand landed on the back of my collar.

I twisted and hooked arms with my assailant, keeping her from throwing me to the ground. I couldn’t move my feet but that was less of a problem for someone with my training than it might have been for others. I dropped my hips and twisted, aiming to bring Grappler forward enough to hip check her to the ground. But somewhere in the process the arm I was holding became very slippery and I lost my grip. I heard, rather than saw, her staggering back a few steps. Then I heard someone yelling, “Grappler! Get back to the dam!”

At the same time I saw Dom and Teresa, who had flanked my other side to try and catch the guards in a pincer, moving up through the brush and exchanging gunfire with a new group somewhere in the distance. Grappler turned and bolted, her trail of movement quickly getting lost in the brush. I looked down at my feet, still stuck to the ground by the abused laws of friction, and tried to pull them free. After a couple of minutes effort Dominic joined me and said, “If you give it about fifteen minutes it should wear off.”

“I don’t know if we have that kind of time,” I said.

“Look on the bright side,” he replied. “At least she didn’t manage to lay you out flat on the ground.”

“I’m not sure we can afford to keep going,” Teresa added. “We’ve got six suspects in custody here. We can’t watch them and safely follow another squad of that size with the number of people we have on hand.”

“They said they were headed towards the dam,” I said.

She shifted and put her hands on her hips, a thoughtful pose for her. Then she shook her head and said, “Helix can look after himself.”

I just grunted and started investigating how big a patch of ground around me had been transformed to work like flypaper, thinking I might just take my shoes off and jump clear of the affected area. I’d determined that it was only a couple of feet wide and had just reached for my shoelaces when there was an impossibly loud cracking noise, followed by a sound like the waves on a distant beach. I glanced up, even though there was nothing to see. “Hush? Amp? What just happened?”

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I Hate Zombies – Themes That Eat Your Brain

It’s part two of I Hate Zombies week. Here’s part one, in case you missed it.

If you were wondering, this post is not another screed of geeky nitpicking on why zombies are stupid, lazy plot devices that exist only to create irrational fear in the back of your mind. All that is true, but it’s kind of true of all plot devices and anyway it’s not what I’m on about today. Also let me say that it’s not related to my intense, longstanding, deep seated hate towards vampires, even though vampires and zombies probably share their origins in the bizarre behavior of people afflicted by rabies. I hate vampires for totally different reasons than those that drive my hatred of zombies. Maybe one day there will be time for I Hate Vampires week.

But this week, we look at zombies.

I’ve already hashed all my problems with zombies as the plague on Wednesday, so I’m going to ignore all the things that make zombies patently ridiculous. Anyone who’s seen a solid action movie knows that the patently ridiculous can actually be a selling point of a good story, so the real question is less, why are zombies ridiculous? And more, what keeps them from having redeeming value?

I’m going to pick on The Walking Dead again, or really a lot of the people I’ve heard talking about The Walking Dead. These people, from the reviewers on the internet to the guy I share my apartment with, insist the story is not about the zombies or fighting them, its about the characters and how they survive.

I’ve also noticed that The Talking Dead, a talk show which follows The Walking Dead, always contains a one to three minute slow-motion recap of all the zombie deaths that occurred in an episode. I take their assertions with a small salt shaker.

Now I’ve not watched this show, but I’ve read a volume or two of the graphic novels they’re based on. I’m hardly an expert on the series. But I’ve noticed that, just like most zombie stories, the general rational for people’s behavior is: “They do what they have to in order to survive. It’s a different world.”

And if you pay any attention to these stories, anyone who tries to stand on anything higher than pragmatism tends to wind up as zombie fodder quick. And as survival becomes more and more the goal of the characters they loose perspective, loose the ability to plan for anything but the next zombie attack, where their next meal is coming from. Sure, the logic holds up but what does it really offer the audience? It’s nifty that the writers have thought of all these ways to stay alive in unrealistic circumstances but you’re not really bringing anything relevant to day to day life and the typical zombie story doesn’t really uplift the audience, either, but leaves them with a grimmer, more selfish mindset.

Yes, the central characters of these stories often try to behave with generosity and decency. But by the end, nine times out of ten, we’ll find they’ve “accepted” the reality of the situation – everyone’s going to be a zombie in the end. Even if you die a natural death most zombie stories don’t let you stay down. Everyone’s just an enemy waiting to happen, and you can only coexist until they turn on you.

Which brings me to the next thing I hate about zombies, and that’s the blatant encouragement of violence. Now I love action movies as much as the next guy, and I’m particularly fond of stupid kung-fu flicks due to the pure athleticism the display, so I’m not saying violence has no place in storytelling. But the violence in zombie stories? It’s in a dimension all its own.

Beating zombies in the face with road signs until eyeballs fly, stabbing them through the mouth and into the brain with a sharpened wooden stake, blowing their skulls into fragments with a shotgun – zombie violence is brutal. Now you can say that they’re just dead bodies, not people anymore (and you’d be wrong, because your body is a part of you, whether it’s functioning or not) but the fact is this violence inevitably spills over onto the living people as arguments arise or people betray the group. Witness the brutal violence between the Governor and members of the central group in The Walking Dead, particularly the emasculation that takes place in the comic version. It doesn’t take long for the philosophy that everyone’s just a zombie waiting to happen to pour out into violence. Witness the brutal final fights between the newsies and the conspirators at the end of the Feed trilogy. And these are the examples from zombie fiction at it’s best. These are the stories that try their hardest to have some kind of meaning on top all the other mess. I’m just not sure it carries convincingly over the din of violence and nihilism, that it’s really worth hearing we’re just zombies waiting to happen, but at least before we become the rotting dead we can do something that the living will remember fondly for a time.

And perhaps that’s ultimately the thing I hate about zombies. It’s the implication that we’re all just mindless drones waiting to happen, at worst tearing one another down and leaving nothing but suffering and emptiness in our wake, or at best leaving a hollow happiness for a short time, that I really dislike about zombie stories. I write to try and make people a little more aware, a little more thoughtful, a little more devoted to God and one another. Could you do that with a zombie tale? I don’t know – maybe. But the tone and conventions that seem to run through them makes me doubt it.

I Hate Zombies – Because Braiiiins…

In honor of the recent conclusion of this season of The Walking Dead, I offer you this thought:

Zombies are stupid.

I don’t mean they’re mindless, shambling creatures of pure appetite, although there is definitely that to take into account. Rather, I mean that they are the result of very lazy storytelling, resulting in plots and themes that are full of more holes than their antagonists!

Now I should mention that most of my ire here is going to be directed at zombies as they appear in popular culture, movies like I Am Legend or 28 Days Later, or written fiction like World War Z (which, admittedly, I really enjoyed) or Feed. And, of course, The Walking Dead is a TV phenomenon about zombies in the “modern” vein. These modern zombies are supposed to be disease carriers, or possibly druggies, as opposed to creatures created by magic, evil spirits or other supernatural forces. I dislike supernatural undead, too, but this isn’t the set of posts for that particular gripe.

So what, exactly, are my gripes with the zombie plague horror story?

Let’s start with the zombies being disease ridden plague carriers. At some point, and I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that it was some kind of reaction to the incredible campiness of The Evil Dead franchise (DISCLAIMER: I’ve never watched these movies but there are stories…), it was decided that zombies as the result of sorcery or other supernatural meddling wouldn’t be taken seriously anymore. So people settled on this disease idea.

And that’s probably not a terrible idea, since people with rabies are likely the source of the zombie/vampire/ghoul/wraith ur-legends. The problem is, people insist on keeping the trappings of sorcerous zombies, like the person actually being dead, impervious to pain and not having body heat (to name a few). Problem is, these “more real” zombies are actually less believable than zombies that result from occult forces.

You see, moving takes energy. Living people get the energy to move around chemically, by metabolizing sugars from the food they eat. Zombies get energy by… well, no one ever bothers to think about this, because zombies are the result of writers being lazy and their audience letting them get away with it. Seriously, they don’t have a working metabolism so they can’t actually eat food or burn body fat. And if they did burn old tissue for fuel they’d quickly run their bodies down to nothing, because they never do more than sink their teeth into a victim before they run off after something else and a new zombie rises to take their place in the ranks of the horde. A “real” zombie would have to strip it’s victims to the bone to get enough calories to keep going, there wouldn’t be anything left to add to the ranks.

Which brings me to another aspect of lazy writing: with the exception of Feed, I’ve never read a zombie story where zombies went after anything other than humans. Why is that? There’s all those calories out there, waiting to keep the zombies going, and they ignore them! Likewise, how can zombies tell that other zombies are already plague carriers and should be left alone? Why not eat them, too?

At least drug addled zombies theoretically keep enough of their wits about them to recognize that they need food and water, but that doesn’t explain why they would desire to add to their ranks or why their drugs would spread to people bitten by them. The endless swarm is one of the defining characteristics of zombies, you can’t make one without the ability to spread the plague. I think that’s why you see so few plots with drug zombies in them.

And that reminds me of another thing. How do dead things move around, anyway? A juju zombie is a puppet for whatever evil is keeping it going, but a zombie that results from a disease? Most viruses and bacteria only have enough room in their DNA for mechanisms that allow them to replicate themselves and infect hosts to help them do it. Zombie fiction frequently tries to foist off zombie behavior as part of the infection’s reproduction drive but that’s just ridiculous.

It’s one thing to say that a virus can cause increased mucus production by settling in the sinuses, as a cold does, as part of it’s survival process. Rabies is the same – it infects nerve tissues, eventually causing inflammation of the brain that leads to violent behavior and biting attacks (which infect others) and death. These things are the results of the body’s normal attempts to fight off the disease, processes that just so happen to result in the disease spreading to other people as well. But when the body is dead there are no natural processes to spread the disease.

The zombie virus has to be doing all the work itself – firing the neurons that make the limbs move, processing visual and audio input to locate prey and then telling when you’ve successfully bitten the victim and it’s time to move on. The virus has to do all of that, and still be a small enough organism to be transmitted from one person to another by saliva. Are you starting to see why I find this idea so absurd?

Oh, and let’s not forget zombie resilience. Another thing that makes no sense. The human body is fairly delicate, people. Cut a muscle and all those around it become strained. The muscle fibers around the wound become overworked, pull apart and stop working and pretty soon you have a chain reaction that leaves the body immobilized. Sure, zombies won’t feel the pain – although I’m not sure why they won’t since they can still see and hear and sometimes smell – but that just means they won’t realize the body is breaking down, not that it’s still functional. Because it’s not.

And then there’s the 100% infection rate. No one ever survives a zombie bite. Why? It makes no sense. No one ever tries to justify it. We’re just told that’s the way it is. The writing is so lazy it’s infuriating.

I could go on. (Why don’t zombies get infested by maggots?) But the fact is, people are going to go right on creating novels, TV shows and movies based on zombies and ignoring the fact that they make no sense because they keep making money. Only a very few people will be turned off by the absurdities of the concept because a story with the right themes and good technique can overrule both logic and sense using style and humor.

My real problem with zombies runs a little deeper than that. Hopefully you’ll come back on Friday, when we dig a little deeper into the problem – maybe deep enough to bury it for good.