Cool Things: Gravity Falls

When I was younger I never had the experience of being picked up and shipped of to some distant relative to spend the summer out of my parent’s hair, working, building character and tangling with the paranormal. Fortunately, thanks to the Disney Channel and Gravity Falls, I can live the experience vicariously through the lives of twelve year old twins Dipper and Mabel Pines.
I feel for Dipper. Really, I do.
His parents have shipped him off with his twin sister all the way to Gravity Falls, Oregon, to work with their great uncle (or grunkle) Stan in his tourist trap, the Mystery Shack. The thing about Gravity Falls is it’s not exactly… normal. There are gnomes, dinosaurs, ghosts and arcade cabinets that can create real video game characters for a short time. It’s weird, spooky and he has this really annoying sister to deal with. And somehow it all works to make great stories.
Central to the show is the question of what is going on in Gravity Falls. Dipper stumbles across the weirdness early in the first episode and the show just keeps spinning things up from there. A strange journal found hidden in the forest clues Dipper in to the fact that others have investigated the town before and he begins researching the matter on his own. That is, when Mabel isn’t bothering him with the pet pig she won at the town fair or Grukle Stan isn’t making him chop firewood or Soos isn’t distracting him by goofing off or he isn’t crushing on Wendy, a local girl who works in the Mystery Shack.
Okay, not much researching gets done.
Which is not the same thing as saying no research gets done. Gravity Falls moves at it’s own pace, content to explore the three main characters, the twins and their grunkle, and the weirdness around them with plenty of self-aware laughs and the occasional fitting aesop.
Watching Gravity Falls is kind of like watching a mashup of Duck Tales and The X-Files. There’s lots of mystery but also an abrasive father figure and a couple of precocious kids with their own agendas. Stan is probably the most interesting character in the show, his superficial greed and general lack of social graces masking an ambitious but thoughtful and caring personality. Stan doesn’t dislike his niece and nephew, he just comes from a generation where men didn’t show affection much and, on top of that, he’s not used to kids. At first he comes off as an aloof and pretty calloused person. But, as the twins and the audience get to know him better, little touches start to come through.
The first time he tells Dipper he’s proud of him it feels like a really meaningful moment. At the end of the first season we learn how much it means. Late in the first season an old, disused room of the shack is uncovered and we see him pick up a pair of glasses almost identical to those he’s wearing from a side table before anyone notices them and slips them into a pocket. As the twins argue about who will get to use the new room we see him in his chair staring at the glasses thoughtfully. These and other moments, many of which would be spoilers to talk about, serve to let us know Stan has a past and it’s just as much a mystery as Gravity Falls is. Learning about him is just as much fun as learning about the town.
Mabel is all energy and enthusiasm. She sees something she wants – a pig, a sweater, some friends or a cute boy – and she goes after it %110. She drives the boys nuts and wears her heart on her sleeve and honestly, we don’t care. When she’s having fun, we’re thrilled. When she’s sad, we’re sad. And when Dipper decides, time and again, that he’ll walk through fire for her, we understand why. If she were to get hurt it feels like something precious would be lost.
Dipper is us. He wants to know what’s going on. He wants things to work out well. He’s not very confident but he means well. He makes heroic, self-sacrificing decisions with a wistful sigh and the hint of a smile. He over works, over plays and generally handles his life in a pretty average way. His relationship with Mabel defines the show, rarely will you see siblings share such an authentic feeling relationship, and even when things don’t work out their way the closer bond they share makes us feel like they still got something worthwhile.
Watch this show. Sure, it’s animated. But it has heart, passion, humor and mystery all in equal measures. It won’t fail to surprise you but you’ll never be upset with where it winds up, either.

Thunder Clap: Grinding Out Some Answers

Helix

I had to send Teresa out of the room. It wasn’t fun for any of us but she’d been a close friend of Elizabeth Dawson before her disappearance and essentially a protégé of former Senator Brahms Dawson. There was no way she could approach this impartially and she knew it, even if she didn’t want to admit it at first. I think the argument about it would have taken longer if Sanders hadn’t come down to check in on the interview and found out what was going on. He pulled rank and Teresa finally caved.

Which left Jack and I to interview a woman who had been missing for almost two years and was last seen with my archenemy.

We took a moment to get settled into our chairs and I opened with the obvious question. “Matthew Sykes is Open Circuit. Yes or no.”

“Yes.” Elizabeth nodded but didn’t add anything after that. On closer examination she really did look like she was under stress, she’d always been a bit of a cute girl in the pictures I’d seen, bright eyes and an open expression, but the woman here now looked tired, mouth drawn and creases around her eyes.

“How is that possible?” Jack asked. “Your husband has been a cripple ever since his plane crash.”

“Which was four months before Circuit tampered in the Lethal Injection case. Kind of serendipitous.” She gave a wan smile. “Not that he lost his adoptive parents, but he did need a few surgeries to get full use of his legs back. I’m given to understand it’s not that hard to find a doctor and therapist willing to lie about how successful their treatments have been for the right price. It let him put on a false front. There’s actually a rule for supervillains out there, you know. Fake a weakness other than your real weakness.”

“How very like him.” I rubbed at my forehead, feeling like an idiot. “And we were even in the same room during the Michigan Avenue fiasco. He never needed that stupid chair.”

“Not until you broke the Chainfall dam. He got caught downstream and…” Elizabeth trailed off but my imagination provided some unpleasant pictures. I didn’t feel bad about it, exactly, but it was strange to know that I’d come so close to ending things with Circuit and never even known it.

“So he’s wheelchair bound for real now,” I said, to cover the weird feeling that gave me. “I’m assuming that’s why he dropped out of sight for so long. What brought him back?”

Elizabeth Sykes’ expression changed from strained to bitter. “Someone stole his life’s work.”

——–

Izzy

It was hard to tell who was more surprised at Mr. Sykes – Clark, Stillwater and I or the guy who’d just come out of the elevator. The one person who didn’t look surprised was the guy with the exterminator’s tank, who calmly stepped up beside Mr. Sykes’ wheelchair, pumped the hose he was holding like it was a shotgun and blasted the flunkies of the fake Circuit with some kind of dark, black gunk.

From the way the two men staggered and clawed at it the liquid was obviously really sticky at both men wound up plastered to the side of the hall. Fake Circuit jumped back into the elevator shaft and wavered there for a moment before shooting upwards. And then Sykes – or Circuit, or whatever -went after him.

I felt like I’d already seen enough crazy in the last thirty seconds to last a lifetime but the sight of Sykes’ wheelchair tipping over the edge was apparently what it took to spur me into action because I was pushing past exterminator and into the elevator doorway. Even as my brain was focused on getting there as fast as possible my eyes were telling me Sykes wasn’t falling he was floating. He stayed there just long enough to drop something over the side of his wheelchair before shooting up after the other guy. Clark was yelling at me to stop and Sykes’ partner grabbed me by the sleeve to try and pull me back but I was looking up the shaft and I could make out the silhouettes of both men still going up the shaft above me. I bent my knees and jumped.

In all honesty, there’s no limit to how far I can jump if I have good footing. It’s just that eventually, if you want to jump so far, there’s no footing good enough. But the basements of a skyscraper are tough, overengineered to the point of absurdity. A ten floor jump was no problem at all. As an added bonus, the flashbang Sykes had dropped on his way up went off as I was about halfway through my jump, the split second of illumination enough to blind anyone looking at it but, since it was below me and I was looking up, provided me with a fairly clear picture of where everything above me was.

I snagged the back of Sykes’ weird wheelchair and kicked off the side of the shaft, smashing through the doors and half of a wall as we tumbled out onto the seventh floor.

We lay there, coughing and wheezing amid the dust and rubble for a second or two, then Sykes asked, “Can I ask you something?”

“What?” I asked after spitting out another lungful of drywall.

“Why do you never get hurt smashing through things but then wear body armor when you deploy to the field?” His head peeked up over the armrest of his chair to glance at me. “Well, current circumstances excepted.”

I hauled myself to my feet and set his chair upright. The restraints on his chair made sure he didn’t fall out, which explained what they were for. At least, sort of. I wasn’t sure if he expected to flip upside down while whizzing through elevator shafts or what. Maybe they were there in case he came to a sudden stop. “I have a better question. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

His expression hardened. “Long story short, there were some guys who used to work for me and when I retired they apparently decided there was no need to shut down my projects just because I was gone.”

“But-”

“Look.” He took my arm in a surprisingly firm grip. “Agent Rodriguez. I’ll confess to being an unrepentant villain. My goal was always to take over this city and make an example of it. By and large, I did not care who got hurt in the process and a lot of people did, in fact, get hurt and there’s a reckoning for that fast approaching. Stillwater’s taking me in as soon as this is over – although I’m not sure he realized it was me he was taking in. But right now there’s three people that need finding and taking down before they slip out of here and cause more trouble.”

I gently pried his fingers off of my arm. “And why should I believe you?”

He smirked in a way that made it hard for me to decide whether I wanted to punch him or just get out of his way. “Because I’ve never lied about what I wanted before and I’m certainly not about to start for a nineteen year old girl on her first field mission. Should you really be so far away from your tactical team?”

“I don’t have a tactical team. I got gassed and slapped in exploding leg irons by some thug who looks like he’s never met a snack machine he didn’t buy out.” I settled on folding my arms over my chest and positioning myself so I could watch both Sykes and the elevator shaft. “What about you? Were you planning on taking all these guys by yourself?”

“Well, I have made arrangements to have reinforcements show up in due time. Your arrival moved my plans up.” He scowled. “I hadn’t realized you got here without a full team. We may have made our move too early.”

I laughed. “You don’t really do the whole talking things over with other people very much, do you?”

His expression turned rueful. “I’ll confess that’s not really a big part of scheming evil. That’s why I had to give scheming up when I got married.”

“That sounds really familiar.”

“You have no tactical support at all? Not even Agent Movsessian?”

“Clark’s specialty is field analysis. He’s not useless in the field but he’s definitely not James Bond, either.” I hesitated as the sound of something bouncing down the elevator shaft echoed eerily in the hallway. “Maybe we should move somewhere else?”

“No. That,” he pointed at the open door a few feet away, “is one of only four maglev equipped elevator shafts in the building. I don’t know who Davis found to take my place at the heart of Thunderbird but if we’re going to match their maneuverability we need to control at least one of them.”

“We’re not matching them.” I reached down and took hold of one of his wheelchair’s armrests. “Listen, I may not have a whole lot of field experience but I do know one thing. When you wind up stuck without your team in the middle of a bad situation you look to break off and regroup as soon as possible. You don’t stake out territory and throw down with the other guys. You said you have reinforcements coming.”

Sykes gave me a smirk. “Trying to decide whether that’s a good thing or not?”

“If you’re really planning to turn yourself in to Stillwater then they’ve got to be people he wouldn’t have a problem with. So I probably wouldn’t mind them either.” I didn’t mention I was also thinking of what Al had occasionally called the Helix Factor, Circuit’s tendency to assume and plan for Helix’s interference in his operations. It wouldn’t surprise me if Circuit had somehow tipped Helix to what was about to go down and was just waiting for him to show up. What Sykes – or Circuit or whatever – was planning to do after that was what was really bothering me. “So how about this. We’ll sit tight here and knock out anyone who tries to come down this way. But otherwise, we wait until Project Sumter catches up with us here. That shouldn’t take too long.”

“If you want to wait, that’s your decision. But I’m not in custody yet and I’m not turning myself in to you.” He nodded towards the elevator. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a great deal of work still to do.”

I grabbed the other armrest on his chair and braced myself, looming over him with my most threatening look. “Stay put, Mr. Sykes.”

He laughed. He actually laughed. I’d just grabbed him out of the air and smashed him through a door and he laughed at me. “I’m sorry, Agent Rodriguez. It’s not personal. I don’t doubt your capacity for harm. But your father once tore half a reinforced bunker apart around me. He’s much better at intimidating people than you.” Circuit leaned back in his chair and let himself smile. My scalp tingled and I couldn’t tell if he was generating static somehow or if it was pure nerves. “For that matter, Helix once turned one of my facilities in Arizona into a six inch deep glass covered hole in the ground. There wasn’t even wreckage to recover. Do you really think a girl who can’t even legally drink yet is going to keep me from doing what I want?”

Fiction Index

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Christmas! A poor excuse to take a week off from writing…

…and yet, I’m going to take it anyway. Thanks to all my readers out there, but it’s a time for celebration and I intend to spend it with family and… well, not writing as much as I usually would. To keep supply and demand about equal, I won’t be making any posts other than this one this week. But come back next week and our cliffhanger will resume and Thunder Clap will progress forward once again! Also, Midseason Recaps will resume and… other things will happen.

In the mean time, celebrate the holiday (or the day off if that’s your thing) and see you next week!

Midseason Recap: Scorpion

Hey, let’s talk about TV shows! I haven’t followed any TV shows in a long time but this season I’m watching four, yes four of them. Since it’s the time of year where most shows are on break for the winter (at least while I’m writing this, I think most of these posts will go up after the actual shows start airing again) I thought I’d take a little time to look at the shows I’m watching from a writing perspective. Let’s start with the show that I feel is currently doing the best, writingwise, of those I’m following. That show is Scorpion, which I’ve already talked about some here.

If you want a quick rehash of what the show is about and haven’t watched it, my linked recommendation serves as a good primer and I’m going to skip rehashing the premise of the show but I will talk a bit about format. Scorpion is an episodic show that deals a lot with the mechanics of hi-tech crime, at least in theory, and tries to wrap up each storyline within the course of a show. There are some exceptions, Walter trying to find a cure for his sister and Ralph’s dad coming back into his life for example, but for the most part each episode is a stand alone adventure. This is both a strength and weakness of the show but, as it’s been written so far, I feel like it’s more of a strength.

The fact that there’s no overarching plot in this first season means I’m going to skip an analysis of that so far and just talk about the characters, relationships and episodes I feel were best and worst in this series.

Favorite Character: Cabe Gallo

While Paige is our audience surrogate, the normal person in the herd of geniuses, Cabe is the heroic normal and he’s perfect in the roll. He’s competent, knowledgeable in his field and surprisingly tough for a grumpy old man. Although if Up and Gravity Falls have taught me anything it’s not to underestimate grumpy old men.

What makes Cabe so well written is how well he handles his team. He’s a stern leader when he has to be, and you never get the impression that he’s overly familiar or affectionate. But there are enough glimpses of the compassionate and caring person who values his job as a way to help people to ensure that we never see Cabe as just a suit or a handler. He’s a wise man and mentor of the group and he fills the roll to a T.

Least Favorite Character: Sylvester Dodd 

Now don’t get me wrong, I like Sylvester a lot. He’s funny and sweet and his neurosis remind me a lot of famous fictional detective Adrian Monk. And that’s my biggest problem. Other than age and mathematical acumen, Sylvester doesn’t feel a whole lot different from Monk in the way he’s presented most of the time. Sure, Sylvester smiles more but that’s about it.

Mostly, I feel that Sylvester lacks development. Hopefully as we learn more about his background and see him in new situations he’ll grow and become more interesting but right now he feels a little flat against all the other, louder characters in the group.

Favorite Character Dynamic: Happy/Toby

These two. Happy could just come off as a stereotypical abrasive, angry woman. Toby could just come off as another snarky man with a huge ego. The two together could just feel like clashing personalities in a boring, predictable relationship.

And okay, on occasion they do.

But for the most part the two complement each other well and they’re written with a light touch, not overused, and we see their good sides very often as well. It makes them fun to watch and gives an alternative to the much more vanilla relationship between Paige and Walter.

Least Favorite Character Dynamic: Walter/Drew 

I’m not sure where the relationship between Walter and Ralph’s dad is going, what Walter thinks of it or if we’re supposed to find it touching or disappointing or what. Walter seems just as conflicted about it so that may be intentional but I think it’s cluttering up the show when I’d much rather see the Scorpion team being fleshed out more in their own right. Just not sure this is adding anything to the show right now.

Favorite Episode:  Rogue Element (S01E09) 

This episode introduces us to Cabe’s ex-wife, fills in much of his backstory and lets us see how Cabe’s leadership of the team now is just an extension of who he’s always been. I really like the dynamic we see between Cabe and Rebecca, his ex, and I love the sense of longstanding partnership between the two. Rebecca is obviously a toughminded woman but still charming and thoughtful. It’s easy to see how she and Cabe would have wound up a couple and how Cabe’s regrets over their falling apart would mark him.

I also enjoy the clear signs that Cabe and Rebecca actually thought about what their relationship would mean for each of them as a result of Cabe’s career, avoiding what I like to call the Gwen Stacey Fallacy, but more on that another time.

Least Favorite Episode: Plutonium is Forever (S01E04) 

Did not care for the scenario, antagonist or general direction of this episode. While Scorpion has a theme of great intelligence not necessarily being a blessing, the way this episode tries to portray Walter as a personality waiting to collapse under it’s own genius just doesn’t ring true. Many of the plot points are predictable and the resolution lacks tension. Cabe walking out of the ocean is a really funny scene, though.

Other Stuff

Okay, so that’s the highlights and lowlights of the season’s writing for me, so far. Some other things I like about the show include it’s casting – only Elyes Gabel (Walter) and Katharine McPhee (Paige) fall into the typical Hollywood “beautiful people” range. The rest of the cast, while not unattractive by any means, feel much more like real people and not the over-stylized figures that you typically find in a TV show. Props for that.

Also, the heist-esque elements in many of the episodes are very entertaining, giving what could be a slow-feeling premise (dealing with cybercrime and security) a more lively feel.

On the other hand, the acting is not always all it could be. Robert Patrick (Cabe) and Eddie Kaye Thomas (Toby) do the best most consistently, in my opinion, and this is probably a big part of why I like their characters as much as I do. The other actors aren’t bad, but they don’t feel particularly inspired either. Hopefully as the cast gels more we’ll start to see more engrossing performances from them as well.

Scorpion has had a good first season so far and it promises to be interesting and fun come the new year as well so if you’re not watching it yet give it a shot. It’s good stuff.

Cool Things: Soulminder

Timothy Zahn is the king of well crafted scifi thrillers, specializing in space opera. But in Soulminder he outdoes himself twice.

The premise – Dr. Adrian Sommers looses his five year old son in a car accident. For years he lapses into obsession, convinced that with the right technique his son’s body could have been healed. Finally he perfects the Soulminder, a device to that hangs on to the human soul long enough to let modern medicine repair the body intended to host it so the soul can be returned. A new medical procedure capable of saving thousands of lives has been created. And with it comes problems. So very, very many problems. The first comes when a man who’s soul is in a Soulminder is declared dead and malicious parties try to have the body cremated. And the cases only get more bizarre from there.

Zahn is always at his best when there’s scheming and clever tricks to be played and the concept of the Soulminder gives him an incredible new set of gambits to make. Soulminder is episodic, with each chapter covering a new problem Soulminder causes Dr. Sommers, his clients and frequently, the legal systems of the countries where Soulminder Inc. is operating. While the ideas are interesting and each new problem is handled in a clever way, many of the problems Zahn presents us with are frankly disturbing, not only in what they do to the people trapped in them but how realistic they sound. If a Soulminder trap were to be created in the modern day, these are exactly the kinds of things we could probably expect to happen as a result.

On the other hand, Zahn also approaches this new technology with a clear understanding of the need for moral oversight. In fact, the second chapter of the book deals extensively with how religious leaders and other sources of moral oversight might react to something like Soulminder and, in a refreshing change from the way such figures are normally treated in scifi, even Sommers’ most strident critics are treated fairly and respectfully, with the understanding that they are also doing their best to deal fairly with strange, new technologies. In fact, for the fairness and clear understanding Zahn shows to his religious characters alone this book is a stand-out among scifi today and worth your reading.

Sommers tries his best to ethically use his technology but ultimately others have to be involved and the problems just keep multiplying. That leads to his ultimate solution which, while interesting, does disturb me to a certain degree. I’m not sure if Zahn was trying to make a point with it or not, and I don’t think there really was a better solution for the problems Sommers faced, but I have to admit on reflection it’s uncomfortably close to an endorsement of suicide. I don’t think that’s what Zahn meant by it, I may just be overanalyzing it and in the context of Soulminder, a technology that’s more fantasy than true prediction of the future in my opinion, it may be the only right solution. It’s the only thing keeping me from recommending this book to anyone and everyone who loves good thrillers.

But still, that small caveat aside, it’s a good book. If you don’t mind reading about the darker things man can do with technology and trying to work out whether the solutions we find to those problems are correct, Soulminder is the book for you.

Thunder Clap: Hit Bottom

Izzy

Life is all about plans changing. Still, going from “get down the stairs, smash stuff and get gone before you get shot” to “run around and get shot at as a distraction” is a pretty extreme change.

“There’s four stairwells open,” the mysterious Agent Stillwater told us. “Closest is around the second left.”

“Got it.” I leapt down the hall, leaving Clark to catch up, and did a quick glance around the corner. The way was clear so I signaled Clark to come forward and headed to the stairs. We’d been doing this for the last ten minutes, trying to buy time for whatever Stillwater’s team was doing, baiting Circuit’s guard forces from floor to floor to keep them from paying too much attention to the lower floors. I wasn’t quite sure what he was up to but he’d known an access code that Clark recognized – field analysts have this huge list of codes they’re expected to memorize and apparently the old man knew one really high up the list.

And so, a mad dash through the tower was the order of the day. We’d been looping back and fourth through the building, going down floor by floor and attracting as much attention as we could without getting shot. Agent Stillwater hadn’t told us what his game was although, to be fair, he was kind of busy just directing us through the building and keeping a listening ear on our pursuers. At some point he’d done the math and figured out there were probably only fifteen or twenty guards on our tails, not enough to watch all twelve stairwells in the building effectively, so we were doing our best to stay a step ahead. But they were herding us into one corner of the building and it was getting harder.

Worse, we’d come down at least ten floors and were somewhere around the fortieth floor now. At some point Circuit’s people could start coming up at us.

I gave the stairwell a quick check, although so far Stillwater hadn’t been wrong about a stairwell being empty, and waited for Clark to catch up. He was starting to get really winded, he probably did some PT but we’d covered a lot of ground. I don’t have a good grip on this kind of thing but I’d guess anyone would be tired after all that. As he skidded to a stop I knelt down and picked him up in a piggyback carry. Odd, perhaps, but it’s the safest way to jump while carrying someone and we weren’t actually using the stairs just sort of falling past them from one landing to the next.

Clark started to slip off my back as I reached for the door but Stillwater chose that moment to break in and say, “Agent Rodriguez?”

“Call me Izzy,” I said by reflex.

He ignored me and went straight on. “We’re ready for you now. You and Agent Movsessian can come down to us now. We’re in the third subbasement.”

Clark groaned and climbed back on. I took a deep breath, did my best to ignore my stinging feet, which had decided to start getting their feeling back two floors ago, and got ready for the next jump.

We wound our way down the stairs for a good fifty to sixty seconds, the way lit only by the dim light of emergency exit signs. I’d briefly considered asking if we could just knock out the building’s generator and hamstring Circuit that way but Stillwater, whoever he was, didn’t seem to be in the mood to consider other ideas and there wasn’t that much time to talk. Besides, given what I’d heard about him, odds were Circuit wasn’t actually running off of the building’s power grid. Finally we arrived at the subbasement in question, and for those of you wondering a subbasement is what they call anything below the first basement in a building. So we were basically three floors underground and isn’t that just something to make you feel great about yourself?

Stillwater’s voice led us through the basement hallways and over to one of the two elevator banks that led down to the subbasement. Finally we wound up in a small utility room beside the elevator shaft with two men in wheelchairs, a nondescript white man who could have put on a jumpsuit and passed for a janitor anywhere and a black guy who would pass for a basketball or football coach most places if not for the tank he wore on his back that made him look more like an exterminator.

In wheelchair number one there was an old man, hunched to the point his head was almost resting on his chest, who I guessed was Stillwater. The other man had a head like a pool ball, shaved clean and smooth, and looked vaguely familiar.

Clark placed him before I did. “Matthew Sykes?”

He looked up from a laptop he’d been engrossed in. Lit by the screen, Sykes was easier to make out than most of the people in the room and the first thing I wanted to ask was why he was strapped in to his chair with something that looked like a cross between the restraint bar on a roller coaster and a rappelling rig. Thick, padded straps covered his shoulders and fastened to a bar that was tightened down over his waist. It looked like the laptop was connected to a pannel in the wall, at a guess I’d say it was a router of some sort. A wan, distracted smile changed his rather unremarkable face to something almost inviting and I suspected he’d be a fun guy to hang out with under other circumstances. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your names?”

“Clark Movsessian.” He twitched a thumb at me. “Isabel Rodriguez. We work with Project Sumter and can I ask what you’re doing down here?”

“Expert consulting,” Stillwater said.

“But what’s he consulting on?” I asked.

Sykes tapped the side of his laptop. “The network those guys are running on was built by my company and I did a lot of the basic setup work on it in my younger days.” He hit a few keys. “And now it’s gone.”

“Gone?” Clark hurried over and looked at whatever Sykes had just done. “Are you sure? They can’t get access back?”

“Not without coming down here and asking us to share,” Sykes said.

“Oh.” I looked back out into the dark hallways we’d just come through. “I guess that’s what we’re here for?”

“We could always use more hands.”

Stillwater spoke at the same moment Sykes said, “What do you mean?”

The two men shared a confused glance. Stillwater quickly said, “Mr. Sykes, perhaps my tactical man and I should take it from here? I may be old but this isn’t-” Stillwater paused and tilted his head in a way much like Amp did when she heard something odd. “Someone’s coming down the elevator shaft. I can hear them talking.”

“How?” Clark asked. “Elevators shouldn’t be on the backup circuit.”

“They’re not in the elevator, just the shaft,” Sykes replied, setting his laptop on the ground nearby. With the quiet whir of an electric motor his chair rolled out the door and towards the elevator entrance. The rest of us hurried to keep up.

——–

Helix

Jack met Teresa and I as we headed towards the interview rooms. “She just got here with Mr. Sykes’ secretary,” he said without preamble. “No trouble on their way over from the airport.”

“Have you seen her yet?” I asked.

“Nope. Guards said she seemed collected but nervous.” He shrugged. “Sounds like a tough lady but no idea if that means she was involved or not. That’s her.”

Jack pointed to a average sized brunette, seated with her back to us, in one of the nicer interview rooms. A snappily dressed man in his mid to late forties sat to her left, a hand resting lightly on one shoulder in a caring but somewhat distant way. He had salt-and-pepper hair and beard and an intelligent set to his features. I was guessing that was the secretary.

“We know anything about that guy?” I asked.

Jack shook his head. “Didn’t even get his name. Apparently he was waiting for Mrs. Sykes at the airport and she wanted him to come along. No idea if there’s anything beyond casual acquaintance between the two.”

I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and popped my knuckles. “Okay. Let’s go see what we can see.”

Secretary guy stood up as soon as the three of us stepped into the room, automatically taking a half step to put himself between us and his employer’s wife. Mrs. Sykes turned at the same moment and for a brief moment she seemed familiar to me before the secretary distracted me by talking. “Good morning gentlemen, ma’am,” he said, nodding to each of us in turn. “I’m the office manager for the Sykes Telecom home office. Simeon-”

“My God.” Teresa brushed past both of us and grabbed Mrs. Sykes by the shoulders. “Elizabeth?”

Simeon cleared his throat, looking a little uncomfortable, and continued on. “I am Simeon Delacroix and this is Elizabeth Dawson Sykes.”

Which was why she looked familiar. We’d never met but I’d seen her picture many times. I looked up at Jack. “I think we have a problem here.”

——–

Izzy

The elevator door slid open without that usual ding. And I guess that makes sense, the thing that dings is probably in the elevator cab not the door, right? Putting one on every floor would be a lot more expensive than just putting one in the elevator cab. Dumb thing to be thinking about at the time, but it’s what went through my mind.

Sykes came to a stop in front of the elevator as the doors started to slide open. With the exit sign above the stairwell nearby providing the only bright source of illumination in the hall I couldn’t make out much. Just the blocky shape of Sykes’ wheelchair, which now that I thought about it looked way overbuilt. The frame seemed to go all the way down to the floor and extended over the wheels several inches. And it was solid, like someone had put a golf cart engine under the seat. Or a couple of car batteries, since that made more sense.

But the really wild thing? When the elevator doors opened there were three guys in the shaft and they were flying. Clark whistled softly when he saw that. “Maglev elevator shafts. This place really did have a lot of nonstandard work done when it was renovated.”

The first man in line stepped out of the shaft, squaring off against Sykes as the other two came out behind him and three more dropped into view. The leader wore a dark suit, fedora and a black cloth around the lower half of his face hiding his features and expression. But his tone of voice was pure contempt. “Who are you people?”

For just a second the tableau held and I felt the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. Then Sykes slammed his fist down on the armrest of his wheelchair and the men still in the elevator shaft dropped like puppets with their strings cut. I got a brief glimpse of another batch of three going past the open door while Sykes snapped, “I’m Open Circuit, that’s who I am. You are in my tower, stealing my plans and even ripping off the way I dressed. So tell me something, young man. Who are you?”

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Avengers Analyzed: Tony Stark

The Avengers – most people in America can tell you at least a little bit about who they are, at least in their most well known incarnations that have been around in theaters for nearly ten years(!), and that’s really pretty amazing. Writers can always benefit from analyzing writing that’s successful and the most successful part of the franchise is undoubtedly its ability to craft memorable characters. So, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe builds towards the second touchstone movie in the franchise, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, we’re taking a look back at the first movie, Marvel’s The Avengers, to see what makes its characters so well defined. Today, we’re tackling Tony Stark.

Because it’s important to state biases I should note, before I begin, that I pretty much like Stark the least of the Avengers presented in this movie. That’s not to say that I don’t like him. I smile at his banter and I find him entertaining. But when I first watched the movie I suspected that he would begin to grate on me if I had to watch him solo and found that I was correct when I watched some of his stand-alone movies. I do like his character arc in this film but I don’t really love the character like a lot of people do. That said, his character arc in this film is really good.

Stark’s Background

Stark, as portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the only portrayal that matters for the purposes of this analysis by the by) is a genius weapons inventor turned general industrialist. His change of heart came after he was kidnapped by terrorists in Afghanistan and forced to escape by inventing the Iron Man power armor that he now uses to fight injustice. He claims to have privatized world peace. His ego is larger than the Hulk’s enraged form.

The Conflict

Like his friend Bruce Banner, Tony Stark’s conflict in The Avengers is character against himself. (And yes, one day soon I will be talking about what all the basic conflicts at the heart of writing are.) In Stark’s case it’s a conflict between his expectations for himself, rather than his actual personality. One half wants to continue to be the high-rolling, easy-street-walking, devil-may-care egotist he’s always been. The other half wants to be a superhero. Tony thinks he can be both but the fact is, the two halves are at odds.

We Meet Tony Stark

“Like Christmas, but with more me.” – Tony Stark 

We are introduced to Tony when he’s completing Stark Tower, a massive testament to three things – Stark’s genius, as the whole thing runs of one of his arc reactors, his ego, in his comparing himself to a major religious icon, and his wealth and influence. These are the underpinnings of his character and we get them in less than fifteen seconds. Well done, Avengers. Well done.

As a side note, the choice of Christmas as the point of reference for Stark Tower is interesting. Why not the Fourth of July or, for something more in line with Stark’s character, a rock concert? Hang on to that thought for a bit.

Stark’s Starting Point

“Phil? Uh, his first name is Agent.” –  Tony Stark 

Stark’s biggest problem is that he’s lived an essentially selfish life up to the point he became Iron Man and, really, for a little while after he first donned the suit. He’s set himself a goal of being a hero but he doesn’t really understand what that means and his behavior towards most of the people around him is unbalanced.

We see this fairly clearly in the way he can’t seem to pay a straight compliment to Pepper and the way he spends most of the time he’s around Phil treating him like an annoyance at best and a nonperson at worst. And these are the people that Tony Stark really likes, the people who have done their best to help him become the hero he wishes to be. Our Anthony clearly still has a long way to go.

First Bridge

“Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” – Tony Stark 

In a choice that is at once odd and probably inspired, Tony actually drops out of The Avengers for a good tenish minutes to give other characters a chance to breath. He’s had two films to the one the other superheroes have and it lets us get a good idea who the more restrained characters – Bruce Banner and Steve Rogers – are before they have to deal with the louder and more bombastic characters of Tony Stark and Thor.

But almost as soon as Stark comes back his conflict is at the forefront. He starts a pointless fight with Thor that Captain America has to diffuse but then he turns around and leads the charge to find the Tesseract while also privately offering Phil Coulson the use of his private jet to visit an offscreen love interest. Both modes of Tony are at full blast and causing problems.

Ever the perceptive leader, Steve Rogers spots the hypocrisy in Tony’s claim to heroism and calls him on it, precipitating another conflict of a much different type. As a soldier and a veteran of actual war, Captain America knows that you can’t win the fights that mean something without suffering casualties. Steve recognizes that Tony’s in denial about what being Iron Man will cost him and tries to confront him about it but Stark weasels out by trying to make it Steve’s problem, not his.

After all, Tony Stark has always been smart enough, rich enough and, thanks to Iron Man, strong enough to solve his problems without ever having to give something up. What possible need could there be for him to consider giving something up for the greater good?

Ultimately, though, not all choices are in his hands.

When the brainwashed Agent Clint Barton and his squad attacks the Helicarrier Tony has to play hero again and keep the ship in the air. And he does save lives. Lots of them. But in the process Bruce Banner goes missing, Loki escapes… and Tony looses a friend.

Stark Changes

“He was out of his league. He should have waited. He should have…” – Tony Stark 

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan introduced the term Kobayashi Maru to the geek lexicon. For those not familiar, the Kobayashi Maru is a training scenario for Starfleet cadets and officers in the command branch of the fleet, in other words those seeking to eventually command ships of their own.

The set-up is thus: The cadet being tested is placed in command of a mission to patrol a demilitarized zone between the Federation and their bitter enemies, the Klingon Empire. On patrol they receive a distress call from a freighter called the Kobayashi Maru that has broken down in the neutral space between galactic superpowers. The cadet must decide if they will go and rescue the freighter, thus risking a breach of the peace, or leave the crew of the freighter there to die. If the cadet does send his ship in to rescue the Kobayashi Maru Klingons attack and destroy the trainee’s ship.

In the course of the movie we learn that the point of the scenario is to see how cadets react to a no-win scenario and to help them mentally prepare to face such a possibility in the future. We also learn that Kirk cheated, adjusting the programming in the scenario to make it possible to succeed, and Spock went through the Academy in the science branch and thus did not take the test. Neither one had really faced death. Ultimately both characters will face a real, life or death no-win scenario of their own and the outcome will mark them for the rest of their lives and become a touchstone of scifi literature.

I mention all this because out of all the Avengers in this film, there’s one who’s never faced a Kobayashi Maru before. Just like Kirk, Tony Stark didn’t believe in no win scenarios. Sure, Yinsen died when Stark first made his escape in Afghanistan but Tony hadn’t really been friends with him and he hadn’t really been Iron Man either. Tony thought being a hero meant never having to loose something again.

He was wrong.

Phil Coulson was Tony’s Kobayashi Maru. A wake up call to seriously consider the cost of the heroism Iron Man was supposed to embody. A reminder that Tony Stark could do everything right and still loose.

And Tony is still so very, very far from doing everything right. But at least he’s thinking about it. And Tony Stark thinks a lot faster than most.

Confrontation With Loki

“His name is Phil.” – Tony Stark

Stark begins his character’s transformation and the change in course almost immediately throws him in the face of Loki. Almost.

In the larger context of the Iron Man movies Tony has a habit of dropping into funks whenever things don’t go his way. And things didn’t go his way in a big way. So he goes off to brood after Nick Fury gives the team a little push. It takes Steve Rogers to snap him out of it and get him back on track. By example and by his own involvement Cap is making himself something of a thorn in Stark’s side, reminding Tony of his own failings in a way that makes him distinctly uncomfortable.

Steve also pushes him to get in Loki’s head and deduce his next move. Romanov and Loki may have the most similar skill-set but in terms of personality Stark and Loki are the most alike. That makes Stark Tower a fitting location for their showdown.

The confrontation between Tony Stark and Loki is interesting for any number of reasons but I’m just going to discuss two of them. First, Stark confronts Loki when he’s not in his heroic element, at least most of the time. All the other Avengers do.

Why? Well, I suspect it’s to emphasize the transformation going on inside of him. Stark’s never been a coward but, unlike Bruce Banner, he fully accepts the tools he has for the job. When he needs to put the hurt on baddies he does it with the Iron Man suit. But his current suit is busted and he needs time to get the new one ready and that means confronting Loki under conditions that aren’t optimal.

Stark’s never done this before. (As an aside, I like the fact that a major part of Iron Man 3 is Stark hacking it as a hero even without the armor.)

So in Stark’s willingness to confront Loki without his greatest resource at his disposal and without waiting for the rest of the Avengers to show up and make life a little easier we see a growing maturity in Stark’s behavior. He’s accepting risk as part of the job.

And why? Well, that brings me to the second thing that’s interesting. Tony’s trying to intimidate Loki, he actually uses the word “threaten” a couple of times. He plays up the overwhelming nature of the forces arrayed against Loki. As a former arms merchant, Stark knows a lot about the value of displaying overwhelming force against an opponent and he’s a natural salesman. He does everything he can to sell Loki on the overwhelming nature of the weapons at Earth’s disposal. And what are they?

Two of the best trained spies in the world, a man with breathtaking anger management issues, a demigod and the greatest soldier the world has ever known. Plus one more.

Phil Coulson.

Tony Stark is nowhere on that list. Why? Is it because Stark was ashamed of himself for not protecting a friend and didn’t think he had anything to contribute? Possibly, but if so why bother going to Stark Tower at all? Did he feel his presence there was all the mention he needed to make? I don’t think so, he’s never passed on the opportunity to talk himself up before.

Instead, I’d suggest that Stark’s incredible high opinion of himself has been shaken. Oh, it will recover to be sure but, for the moment, he doesn’t really feel like a hero. His illusions of power and efficacy have been shattered and Phil Coulson, who’s actions objectively did little to directly hinder Loki, has risen to a place of prominence in his mind not through something he did but through the attitude he demonstrated. That’s fitting given Phil’s role in the story. More on Phil later, for now it’s important that during Tony’s confrontation with Loki he replaces himself with Coulson.

There’s a lot of other interesting things going on in the confrontation between Stark and Loki, not the least of which is Loki’s failure to dominate Stark’s mind, but from the perspective of Tony’s character arc the fact that he stuck his own neck out and did so in part because of the example of Phil Coulson are the salient points. The confrontation ends when Loki throws Stark out a window and the new generation of Iron Man armor goes after him, allowing Stark to take to the skies and grapple with the incoming alien menace.

Second Bridge

“JARVIS, have you heard the tale of Jonah?” – Tony Stark

Once again the focus swings off of Stark as the Chitauri army fills the skies over Manhattan and a huge brawl breaks out. Stark is first on the scene and throws himself headfirst into holding the gap, a purpose he fills admirably.

Of note is the fact that from this point onwards Stark stops pushing back against the leadership of Steve Rogers. The two characters have grown to the point where they can no longer really serve for foils to each other and, to the movies credit, it doesn’t try and keep them in this role. Tony follows Steve’s orders both because he has a new understanding of what Captain America, who has lost many friends in past battles, has gone through and because Cap is clearly the man for the job. The only thing of note that happens regarding Stark’s character is when he and his electronic co-pilot JARVIS are trying to figure out how to take down the heavily armored Chituari sky creatures.

Taking Jonah as an inspiration is an interesting choice. The obvious reason would be the most famous part of that prophet’s story, his time in the belly of a great fish. But more interesting as a part of Stark’s character development is the fact that Jonah wound up in the water because he volunteered to be thrown overboard. Why?

Because he knew that the storm threatening to sink the ship he was on was caused by his presence. He knew that by leaving the ship he could save everyone else on board even though it might cost him his own life. Again, why is this important?

Well, I’ve asked you to hold on to a few thoughts during this analysis, I guess it’s time we tied them all together.

Character Resolution

“I know just where to put it.” – Tony Stark 

Over the course of the story Tony has compared himself to two religious figures, Jonah and Jesus, both of whom have self sacrifice as a component of their story. He’s also outright replaced himself with Phil Coulson when confronting Loki, and Phil is also a character who made a sacrificial stand during the course of events.

Now if only one of those comparisons had taken place we could say it was a coincidence. Christmas fits the theme of a tower of blazing lights. Stark was mad about Phil’s death. Jonah did go into the belly of a great fish and the leviathan Stark was fighting looked a lot like one as well. But all three together? That’s too much to be coincidence. Three is a number human beings like, three is the number of acts in the typical story, three is the number of times the comparison is made. Not accidentally. Deliberately.

Joss Whedon wrote this script and he’s an incredibly literate, articulate and artistic man. He knew the significance of the words he was putting in Tony’s mouth and he knew the picture they would paint. Tony isn’t serious when he compares lighting up Stark Tower to Christmas. He doesn’t want a religion built around Iron Man, although he probably wouldn’t mind being seen as a more conventional savior.

But when Phil dies it exposes something that Stark lacks and he’s trying to figure out what it is. He thinks Phil had it and as a result the humble Agent Coulson becomes the biggest thing in Stark’s mind. Thus for a moment Phil takes Stark’s place in the Avengers, at least in Stark’s opinion.

Finally, when JARVIS suggests Jonah isn’t a good role model Stark ignores it and treats the prophet as just that. He’s gone from not believing in heroes to recklessly following in their footsteps.

When world leaders deploy a nuke against the Chituari and threaten all of New York Tony Stark is a different man than he was at the beginning of the movie. He’s prepared to, as Steve Rogers put it, make the sacrifice play and lay down on the wire. Rarely do those who fail the Kobayashi Maru get a chance to redeem themselves. When Stark finds his he’s more than ready.

For a man pretty much defined by his ego and selfishness, it’s an incredible journey.

Of course a big part of what defines Stark’s journey is the constant presence of a man who has faced everything Stark hasn’t, and more than once. It’s ironic that Tony Stark spends most of the movie clearly of the opinion that Steve Rogers is naïve and out of touch but, when things go south, we find that it was really the other way around. While Iron Man is the most charismatic and charming of the Avengers, clearly it’s Captain America who is fit to lead them.

So next month let’s take a look at the man who’s struggle is one of the most relevant to the Avengers as a whole and the other characters individually. Come back in January and we’ll look at Captain Steve Rogers and the question of purpose.