The Art of the Unexpected – Humor and Writing

Humor is one of humanity’s unifying experiences. Nothing draws a group of people together like a good joke, laughing actually alters brain chemistry in ways that makes people more friendly, more enthusiastic and less stressed. Even people who are not particularly funny still tend to have one or two good jokes they can share with others to break the ice in new situations or just keep a conversation moving when it’s stalled. But original humor requires a great deal of intelligence and social awareness to pull off and, even then, it’s very subjective, so what leaves one audience in stitches will leave another bored and restless. Any stand-up comedian can attest to this.

Most writers try to have some humor in their works. Getting that humor to land can be very difficult for all the reasons above but when it does the benefits it provides in getting and keeping your audience is immeasurable. Humor isn’t a formula or a set of tricks but instead a fresh perspective combined with penetrating understanding of the world in general and human nature in particular. The two basic keys to good humor tend to be honesty and surprise. The first, honesty, is very simple. You cannot get a laugh if it’s not founded on some truth of the world that your audience recognizes. There’s a lot of nuance to that, cultures and limited perceptions playing a huge part in it, but that’s the core of it.

The harder part is being unexpected. We laugh because our expectations have been violated but not badly violated, or violated in a way that is very harmful. People in stressful situations often say that they laugh because the only other option is to cry, a testament to the fact that the biggest difference between humor and trauma is how deeply the wound cuts. Another way to look at it is the difference between being tickled and rubbed with sandpaper – one causes laughter, another tears.

Unsurprisingly, this means that a failed joke often causes some kind of emotional distress. Anger, sadness and general discomfort are the outcomes of a failed joke, which means using humor in your writing carries a great deal of risk with it. More than just breaking immersion, a bad joke can actually turn audiences against your story if it really rubs them the wrong way. It’s true that you can chalk this up to part of the audience being thin skinned or overly stodgy. But at the same time, it could be that your use of humor didn’t suit the story or audience you were trying to find. These kinds of judgement calls ultimately rest in the hand of the author but, as always, are also things you must be aware of in order to make those calls effectively.

There are three basic ways to violate expectations for humorists. The first is to cross societal bounds, the second to set up non sequiturs, the third is to construct running gags.

Crossing societal bounds is touchy stuff, the kind of humor most likely to cause offense and, naturally, the funniest when done right. The most famous example of this is probably George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV”, although the modern masters of the art are undoubtedly Bill Burr and Dave Chappelle. Beware strong language – Here’s a great example of Bill Burr explaining why there’s always a reason to hit a woman (but you shouldn’t).

So yeah. That kind of humor is potent, potentially destructive stuff. I’d say it’s for advanced users only but, honestly, it’s probably impossible to master that kind of biting social commentary any way other than going out and doing it. But, for the aspiring writer it might be wise to practice this kind of humor a great deal in less permanent venues before immortalizing it in writing. Test it on trusted friends first, then maybe writing groups and, if you have access and can speak in front of people, at comedy clubs. Get really good at judging this kind of thing and exactly where it’s funny for most people because once it’s out there in writing it’s never going away.

Of course, there are many much milder ways to play on societal expectations for humor. Consider the punchline of this gag from Girl Genius. The setup is when General Zog hears Dimo was listening at the door like a great big sneakypants and he says, “Dimo, I am shocked at this behavior!” And the payoff is when we realize he found it shocking because it was smart, not rude. Our understanding of shocking behavior is violated by the general’s. Puns are another great example of a very mild form of humor relying on social norms.

It’s important to note that this kind of humor can fail for reasons other than being offensive. Someone from a culture where listening at doors is normal and accepted, for example, might immediately conclude General Zog was shocked at Dimo’s display of social awareness in knowing when to listen at doors rather than the fact that he did it at all. Humor based on social conventions needs to be placed in a story that will appeal to an audience that will understand those social conventions or it won’t play.

The second kind of humor is the non sequitur. As the phrase implies, this is humor that violates our expectations simply because the punchline does not follow directly from the setup. All absurdist humor follows under this banner, as does a good bit of sketch comedy and improvisational comedy. Fish out of water humor is an interesting blend of non sequitur and societal norm humor as it revolves around people taking actions that make perfect sense to them but no sense to the audience (see Demolition Man’s three seashells gag), or taking actions that make sense to the audience but produce absurd results.

One of my favorite examples of a non sequitur gag is demonstrated in Dr. McNinja on this page and the next.

No explanation is ever given for what happened in that missing third of a page, if you’re wondering. Christopher Hastings is a master of non sequitur humor in addition to great plot based storytelling but cutting out a typical encounter in the middle of a typical adventure story and using that absence to remind us that the Doc is, in fact, a ninja is delightfully absurd. He violates both our expectation to see the Doc manage a cop quickly and easily and our expectation to learn something new about what’s going on at the same time and he does it so skillfully we don’t hold it against him. And we get to see Doc fight the NASAghasts that much faster.

Non sequiturs also have their weaknesses as humor devices. You have to present the audience with something surprising in order for it to really work and that gets harder to do every day. There’s a sequence in The Orville episode “About A Girl” where a Mexican standoff turns into a dance-off because one of the officers has been tinkering with the holodeck programs. It’s supposed to be funny but it flopped, first because Guardians of the Galaxy already attempted that gag and flubbed it but secondly, and more importantly, because going from Mexican standoff (an exotic and unusual situation) to dance off (not particularly exotic, and still less unusual than a Mexican standoff) is a poor non sequitur joke. The sequence of events started us someplace more in violation of our expectations than where we wound up, which is not funny.

Finally, there is the running gag.

It may seem strange to say that a thing that happens over and over again is a violation of our expectations. But the secret of a running gag is not that it is the same thing over and over again, but that we keep seeing the gag in places where it hasn’t shown up before and doesn’t make sense. The best examples tend to come from long running media or entertainment careers that have the time to really find the best use for these gags, things like the black cat in Trigun or the way Harpo Marx never speaks, in spite of take the roles of many people who would have to be excellent public speakers. Even Bugs Bunny’s “What’s up, Doc?” is a running gag of sorts. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine found nearly infinite uses for self-sealing stem bolts, and the accompanying reverse-ratcheting routers. And the Nostalgia Critic’s relationship with the Bat Credit Card is the stuff of legend. But one of the greatest running gags of my childhood has to be the Noodle Incident from Calvin and Hobbes. The less said about that the better.

There tends to be a danger that running gags become overused. They can’t turn up constantly because then they stop being unexpected and funny. But if they’re forgotten completely or only mentioned once or twice then they can’t build up the force of a good running gag. Of course, repeating a gag that is naturally funny, as often happens on Who’s Line is it Anyway? helps make reusing it easier, but even these gags can wear out their welcome. The best part about running gags is that they’re easy to set up and bear little of the risk of other kinds of humor – basically, the only two risks are setting up a running gag that isn’t funny at all or running one to death so that your audience loses interest whenever it comes up instead of laughing. Of course, the opposite side of the less risky coin is that few running gags are exceptionally funny. Typically they just are. People like them but don’t love them.

Humor brings a lot to a work but it’s also important to know what kind of humor best suits what you’re writing. Running gags rarely fit commentaries, for example, while social humor is going to completely miss with younger audiences, who don’t get puns and don’t fully grasp the contexts that make other forms of social humor funny. Learning what humor goes best in what situation is just another part of sorting out how you’ll use it in your writing. Sorting it all out is half the fun – for you, if not your audience. But once it works the payoff will be more than worth it.

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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.

Editing Resolutions

Hey look, it’s New Year’s Day! Lots of people are probably making resolutions about how they’re going to spend the next year. For a lot of people this is an important tradition, it helps them focus and determine what they hope to accomplish in the next year few months day or two. And that’s great. If you recall, last year about this time I did that as well.

But what many people don’t do after putting their resolutions together is go back and look over them later to see how they’ve done. Such a thing can be pretty depressing, after all. But I’m a writer! Writers do that all the time, and in the process they tweak things in order to make them better – you’ve probably heard this called ‘editing’ and it’s an important part of the writing process. So this year, I’m not going to write a whole new set of resolutions. No, I’m going to go over last year’s and note how I did, and possibly make some tweaks. Below are my original ten resolutions, with notes and edits in italics and stuff I’m taking out of my goals for this year struck out.

  1. I will maintain this blog, doing my best to continue to post on schedule, no matter how many toothpicks I break keeping my eyelids open. This goal was pretty successful. I didn’t miss any posts except those I had planned for in advance and gave my readers notice for. I hope to do the same this year, although maybe with less toothpicks. 
  2. I will not poke myself in the eye with a toothpick. It impedes the writing process. Yeah, see my notes for point 1. No more toothpicks. It’s all around unhelpful. 
  3. I will try to read less garbage in my continuing attempts to understand what kinds of stories currently drive the writing market. Sadly, it’s hard to pinpoint all the garbage. I need to keep working on this one. 
  4. I will read more garbage with the intent to discover what makes bad writing bad and how to correct those flaws. This would be easier if reading the garbage wasn’t so painful. I’ve gotten a few lessons from what I’ve read, but I’m afraid I still need to work on this one too. 
  5. I will remember that finding ways to resolve apparent contradictions helps a person become more creative and flexible, it’s exercise for the imagination and every writer needs more of that. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but in practice takes up way too much brainpower that could be used more productively. I’ll do it when absolutely necessary, but it’s no longer something I will go out of the way to accomplish. 
  6. I will continue to offer shameless critique of people who have succeeded in an industry I have not yet broken in to, as well as people who work in industries I know little about. If they want to sell me stuff, they better make it a worthwhile product. Consciously aiming to develop a critical mind has resulted in… my being very critical of how I spend money. This has resulted in my buying less low-quality stuff overall, even if I haven’t made much progress on the publishing front. Saving money is always a worthwhile goal, however. It’s good for another year. 
  7. I will do my level best to get an e-book assembled and available for purchase from Amazon.com, so that my work can be held up for ridicule in the largest forum available. This is me being grossly ignorant of the kind of time and work I would need to put in, above and beyond what I already do to maintain this blog and my real life. I’ve made almost no progress here and that’s no one’s fault but mine. While this isn’t a bad goal to keep for this year I think that sometime in the next month or two I’ll need to try and break it down into it’s component parts to see how I plan to accomplish it this year.
  8. I will attempt to finish and publish at least two short stories this year to help build name recognition for my work that will hopefully help when book proposals start going out. This is a new and hopefully worthwhile goal.
  9. I will add as much suspense to my stories as is humanly possible, because day to day life does not contain nearly enough uncertainty. Lately I find myself craving a little more certainty in daily life. Not getting it, but craving it. Alas, I’ll have to keep going for suspense because verisimilitude is still important… 
  10. I will add more romance to my writing, because write what you know is more a loose guideline than a mandatory requirement. This remains absolutely true. 
  11. I will hire a person to stand behind me with a rolled up newspaper and periodically whack me over the head yelling, “Make with the funny!” This should keep my writing from being overly gloomy. This year my stories have included: the death of a woman, which emotionally devastated her husband, a man nearly going insane when confronted with the mind-numbing darkness of the deep ocean and a man getting frozen into a Schmidtsicle. BUT you were entertained, were you not? So probably not too gloomy! (Still, the guy with the newspaper can keep his job, it helps the economy.) 

 So there you have it! My plans for this year. If you have any suggestions or goals of your own to share, please feel free to share! And here’s hoping your year is a time to experiment, adjust and set new goals.

Water Fall: Echoes and Avalanches

Five Weeks, One Day Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

It takes a lot of hard, boring work and careful fact checking before cops can go from getting a tip to getting a warrant. Life for those of us working for Project Sumter is complicated by the fact that we are not technically a law enforcement agency (what we are, technically speaking, is pretty vague). If we want to raid a place or make an arrest we actually have to coordinate the operation with some branch of government that can legally do those things. On my team, most of that work is usually handled by Harriet or Dominic Screeton, my tactical team leader, so I spent the most of the time between getting sifu’s tip and the resulting sting working with Amplifier on various parts of her application process.

Mostly it was the formal address to the Senate Committee, which is one of the two big hurdles every talent joining the Project has to face. But once Dominic started talking about the kind of operation we were looking at I decided I also wanted to bring her along on that. The field stress test is the other big hurdle we all have to go through and the sooner Amp took her first crack at it the better it would be for all of us.

Most of Dominic’s law enforcement contacts are with the state police, which turned out to be fortuitous since they were already aware of the group that had wound up with Circuit’s damaged van. They seemed to be some kind of low grade arms dealers, mostly working with drug dealers and the like. I’m not sure how they planned to market an armored delivery van, other than possibly as a way to ensure drug shipments never got hijacked. Regardless, they apparently couldn’t find a buyer as easily as they thought.

The operation was shaping up to be a kind of sting. We’d give the State Police an excuse to crack down on the operation by suggesting they serve a warrant that accused them of accessory to assault. After all, the van had been last used by Circuit, who had merrily shot at Agent Samson at least eight times in the course of his escape from the Diversy Street incident. Now these guys were trying to sell it rather than turning it in as evidence of a crime. Even if we couldn’t make the original charges stick with what we found when we raided their place the State Police were bound to find something else they could charge the arms dealers with once they’d searched the building. The police could close down the death merchants, we’d get our van. Wins all around.

If this sounds like a lot of carefully cultivated self interest, well, welcome to my world. Helix sometimes wonders if keeping all our secrets is worth the time we waste on this kind of thing. I just try not to worry about it too much.

Especially when I had to worry about getting Amplifier through a crash course in field work, which is what we spent the rest of our time working on. When Helix first stumbled across her, Amp was working with a couple of friends, trying her hand at vigilante work. They’d been smarter than most, investing in body armor and some basic communication gear, but Amp proved to be woefully untrained in the use of firearms and teamwork, and she was still far below the basic conditioning threshold we like our agents to have. On the other hand, we weren’t planning to just throw her on the front lines and by the time we had all our paperwork squared away Harriet and Dominic agreed she was readyish for the field.

I walked into the briefing early that morning with a cup of coffee in one hand and a copy of the files we had on the arms dealers in the other. It wasn’t a big time operation but there was enough money and people behind it that we could be looking at some serious opposition and I wanted to be sure exactly what we might be dealing with before we went in. While bullets don’t pose much danger to me, just about anything chemical works just fine and I can be stunned by a flash bang same as anyone else.

I was looking over the speculation on whether the folks we were about to tangle with had any – the state police were fairly sure they didn’t – so at first I didn’t notice the slight change in the air when I entered the briefing room. After all  this file wasn’t in Harriet’s special 24-point font, so I had to hold it pretty close just to read it properly. With the paper practically plastered to my face there wasn’t that much of the room around me visible so it took a few seconds for it to register; but the way things are moving around me always clicks sooner or later.

“Helix?” Once the papers were out of the way I could see that yes, he was in fact sitting at the table. Well, not exactly sitting, more like slumped in a chair with his head resting on his arms.

“Hi, Massif,” he said, voice muffled. He lifted one hand and waved it in a vaguely welcoming way. “What brings you here?”

“I have a morning briefing.” I dropped the papers onto the table and took another sip of coffee. “What brings you here?”

Helix raised his head to look at me. Even though his talent being present made it easier to see through the fog of random movement in the air I couldn’t read much in his expression beyond general exhaustion. “I have a morning briefing, too. Someone must have goofed up.” He fumbled in his coat pocket for his phone and eventually found it. “I am not in the mood for this…”

“I would never have guessed. You only look like you’ve been run over by a truck.”

He snorted out something like a laugh as he thumbed buttons on his phone. “Just flew back into town last night. Musta put in a hundred hours in the last five days. Jet lagged, cranky, in the wrong briefing room.”

I shook my head and focused on finishing my coffee. When Helix gets in a mood like that it’s best to stay out of his way. “Wait.” I paused with my coffee halfway to my lips. “You went out of town? Why?”

“Circuit hijacked some army trucks. There’s a write-up about it coming.” He lifted his phone to his ear and waited a second or two. “Teresa? What room is our briefing supposed to be in?” A pause and then, “That’s what I thought.”

He hung up without saying any thing else and looked back at me. “I think you’re in the wrong place.”

“Who?” We both looked over at the door, where a familiar, vertigo inducing knot of impossible was walking in.

“Hey, Sam,” Helix said, putting his head back down on his arms. “Don’t tell me they triple booked this room or something.”

“Not that I’ve heard.” Agent Samson took a seat at the table. He hadn’t brought anything with him but he still seemed to take up half the table. I unconsciously inched a few steps away. “How’s things coming with the van follow-up?”

“Well actually-”

“Helix!” Amplifier practically bounced into the room. Helix jerked upright, sending his own cup of coffee teetering across the table. Samson caught it before tipped over entirely. Sadly he couldn’t also grab Helix before he tipped out of his chair when Amp wrapped him in a bear hug so I had to grab them both before our senior talent got sidelined with broken ribs or something.

Have I ever mentioned that Helix has serious ideas about personal space? I think it has something to do with the way he can only affect temperature in the area immediately around him; and I’m not sure if he just doesn’t like other people’s body heat being there, messing with stuff or if he’s worried about someone getting hurt. Regardless, he wormed out of Amp’s hug in record time. As he started to straighten out his suit he said, “Good morning, Amplifier. What brought that on?”

“You’ve barely said ‘hi’ for the last two weeks!” She protested. “Where have you been?”

“Out of town.” He took his coffee back from Samson and sucked down about half of it. “What is going on here? Don’t tell me there’s supposed to be four meetings in one room.”

“Amp’s getting ready for her field stress test,” I said quickly, trying to get a sense of where all this was going. Helix was right, it didn’t really make a whole lot of sense for us all to be here at the same time. “She’s actually supposed to sit in on my briefing. What are you here for?”

“Dunno.” He tossed off the last of his coffee and looked at the empty cup glumly. “Teresa just called me up this morning and told me we had a meeting here.” He glanced at Samson. “Pastor? What brings you here? Something to do with your media notoriety?”

The big man sighed. I’d heard about his appearance on television and I was still trying to get over the idea of Project Sumter’s personnel being interviewed on the news, but I had to admit it did seem like a good angle for a missing persons case to take. It’s just that we so rarely investigate those and. when we do, there are other considerations to take into account.

Like secrecy.

The two actually don’t work that well together. We’d probably have left the Elizabeth Dawson case alone if it hadn’t been for her father and the fact that pretty much everyone was sure Circuit had something to do with it. But our point agent on that case didn’t really look happy with the notoriety his part had brought him. “We’re probably going to have to pull a team of analysts together to go over all the tips that newscast has provided but no, that’s not why I’m here this morning. We’re here because Massif’s team has finally tracked down one of the leads we handed off to them.”

“Well, yeah,” I said, waving at Amplifier with the files I’d just been reading. “That’s why we’re here. But what about you two?”

“It’s going to be a joint operation,” Voorman announced. We all, except for maybe Samson, turned in surprise. I’d been expecting Harriet to be leading this briefing. Helix had no doubt anticipated having Agent Herrera leading his briefing. But Voorman closed the conference room door behind him and locked it, so he obviously wasn’t expecting anyone else. “In case you are wondering, I’ll be briefing you talented people, Agent Herrera is in charge of field analysts and Agent Verger is going to be coordinating the tactical teams.”

Helix threw me a glance, something I caught more as a quick movement then a meeting of the eyes. He asked, “A joint operation?”

Amplifier cleared her throat. “I take it that doesn’t happen very often?”

“It hasn’t happened in over seventy years,” Helix said. “Not since Project Sumter was part of the war effort. Getting the tactical support and complicating factors of various talents to work together smoothly is very difficult. I’m not sure this is a good idea, Voorman.”

“We’ve been considering some revisions to normal procedures over the last few weeks,” he said. “And by we, I mean certain Senior Liaisons and the Senate committee. They’ve decided this is a good test case.”

That got an inaudible grumble from Helix. At least, I couldn’t make it out and I don’t think Voorman did, but from the way Amp snickered it probably wasn’t very nice. “Sir, with all due respect, why this one?” I asked. “The write up from the state police suggest there’s only twenty or so of these guys, and there’s no reason to expect all of them to be there at any given time. I think between us and the police we can handle this.”

“And I would agree with you. Except we received these from the South two days ago.” He set a pair of files on the desktop and pulled glossies out of them. At first he made to put them up on the whiteboard that dominated one wall in the room then he caught himself and handed them to me, apparently remembering I wouldn’t be able to see them otherwise just in time.

I squinted at the pictures as Voorman went on. “These two people are known criminals with unusual talents. The man is Static Shock, a fuse box, and the woman is Jane Hammer, a vector trap.”

“Vector trap?” Helix sounded as confused as I was. “What’s a vector trap?”

“You don’t know?” Amplifier asked, incredulous.

“There’s sixty-two known talents and some are rarer than others,” Helix said defensively. “I can’t have met or heard stories about them all.”

“I’ve never heard of vector traps either,” I said, passing the photos back to Voorman.

He put them up on the board as he said, “I’ll be covering the capabilities of both of talents, as not everyone here has heard them before.” I knew he was referring to Amplifier there, since I was pretty sure the rest of us were familiar with Circuit’s abilities. “But Agent Massif, I hope you took special note of Jane Hammer. We’re expecting you to act as a counter to her abilities.”

“Right.” Just as soon as I knew what those were I could get started. Unfortunately, Jane had looked pretty unremarkable – a brunette woman in ratty jeans and jacket that were either very old or very expensive. “I don’t suppose we’ve got any kind of way for me to pick her out of the crowd?”

Voorman pulled a chair out from the table and sat down, loosing very little of height in the process. “From what I hear she’ll be almost as distinctive as Agent Samson here, at least in your eyes. Her rap sheet says she’s also six feet tall, so that should help the rest of you identify her out.”

“Lovely,” Helix muttered.

“But all this is just in the event that the situation deteriorates,” Samson added. “I’ll be praying that things don’t go that far. They might choose to simply surrender once we make ourselves known. Assuming these two are even there.”

“How often does that happen?” Amplifier asked.

“Sometimes,” Helix said, voice grim. “But not often enough.”

——–

A weapons ring would be the perfect kind of thing to run out of an abandoned warehouse, or at least that’s what you’d think, right? So of course this particular group decided to hunker down in the back of an office complex. As nearly as we could tell the front half of the building was devoted to a legitimate business that managed vending machines. The constant in and out of concessions served as a cover for moving the other, more exotic wares that were sold out of the back.

The building all this happened in was a large, L-shaped three story structure. From the blueprints on file at city hall, most of the storage space in the structure was on the ground floor in the short part of the L. There was a small loading dock there with enough space to hold a half a dozen regular vehicles or a couple of semis at a time. We figured that was where the van we wanted would be kept.

Now since the van was merchandise the dealers had been looking to sell the state police had decided the easiest way to handle things was to pose as a group of people interested in buying the it. The police had handled that side of things through their own channels but, at our insistence, they’d agreed to pair me with the man that went to check out the vehicle. The rest of the Project people on hand would hang back with the police team and wait for our signal to sweep in and round up anyone we managed to catch on site once we’d confirmed that yes, this was the vehicle we’d come for. If it wasn’t our warrants would start to look a lot flimsier in court.

And yes, if we want to maintain good relations with the police that is something we have to think about.

What really struck me as funny about all this was that buying what was basically a small APC from a back alley arms dealer turned out to be a lot like buying any other used car. The dealer rep who brought the van out to the parking lot for us to look at spent most of his time talking, detailing the van’s gas mileage, it’s good condition, it’s spacious interior (which looked like it had been made that spacious when a cut-rate chop shop ripped all the innards out in one hour’s time) and, of course, the bulletproof plating. In turn, the undercover cop who was handling most of the deal pushed for a lower price and asked to take the van for a test drive, a cover so we could check the VIN. If it wasn’t the right van our warrant wasn’t valid.

And me? I wound up standing around and looking tough, which is fine since I’m a pretty big guy, at least vertically. The important part here was to make sure my temporary partner didn’t get hurt, there were only the two of us and if things got hot it would be a minute or two before the rest of our teams got there. So when he climbed into the van to check the VIN I moved so that my body blocked most of the door.

The rep and his two bodyguards were just starting to get curious about what the cop could be doing when he reached out and tapped me on the shoulder. I nodded back to him and he slammed the van door closed. One of the guards took a step forward to protest but I shoved a palm to his chest and brought him up short. With my other hand I pulled out a badge and said, “Gentlemen, you’re under arrest for accessory to the crime of assault.”

Dealer rep and his other bodyguard exchanged a look and the rep said, “You’re serious?”

“You have the right to remain-”

The bodyguard pulled a pistol of some kind and shot me before I could get any further and I assumed that pretty much ended any possibility of reading them their rights, or their coming peaceably for that matter. The rep had already turned towards the building and started yelling “Five-Oh!” when I took the other bodyguard, who had tried to back away when his partner started shooting, by the wrist and threw him to the ground.

The guy with the gun just stared at me for a second, then fired three more times. He only hit me twice and I felt more than saw the spikes of momentum bleed out of the bullets, through my body and down into the pavement at my feet once they made contact with my skin. Since the guard I had thrown probably had a gun too I kept hold of his wrist and used my position of superior leverage to quickly wrench his arm out of socket with a disturbing popping noise.

With his dominate arm out of service I figured I could focus on the other two, who were now staring at me like I was… well, what I was. Some kind of freak.

They bolted for the building as soon as I took one careful, measured step towards them. Unfortunately, since keeping at least one foot on the ground is a survival skill for me I had to keep that pace and let them get a good ways ahead of me. I’m told the slow, deliberate approach can be very unnerving to watch but I’ll tell you this, it’s frustrating to do. Not only did the other two guys get back to the building way ahead of me, at least two other people started shooting at me from the windows. I knew I couldn’t get hurt by it but they were ruining a perfectly good shirt and it was obnoxious. Plus the bullets were hot and they burned when they got stuck under my clothes.

I did my best to brush them out as I went but quickly wound up with bigger concerns on my hands. I’d covered about half the distance between the van and the building when something dropped off the roof and hit the ground, becoming a very bright knot of momentum that rocketed towards me like a cheetah after it’s prey.

The vector trap had arrived.

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

Gentlemen,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Circuit 

A Day in the Life of an Indiana Meteorologist

TO DO –

  • Wake up.
  • Check the radar reports.
  • Pencil “cold – mostly sunny” into draft of morning weather report.
  • Start the coffee.
  • Put miniature potted cactus out on back porch, so it can get some sun.
  • Breakfast.
  • Rescue potted cactus from unexpected rain shower. Too much water can make them swell up and burst!
  • Don heavy jacket, strap on galoshes and collect umbrella.
  • Drive to TV station.
  • Place dry galoshes and umbrella in locker.
  • Call Giuseppe Garfagnini, from the Parks and Recreation office, about that segment on fun things to do in warm weather. Suggest changing to a cold weather activity.
  • Give morning weather report – mostly cloudy, cold, small chance of rain.
  • Enjoy sunny weather on drive to local park.
  • Leave jacket in the car. It’s too warm for it.
  • Text wife, ask her to put the cactus back out on the back porch.
  • Roll up sleeves for segment with Giuseppe. Sweat through taping of segment.
  • Run back to car to grab spare umbrella to ward off sudden cloudburst. Let Giuseppe use it to get back to his car. There’s one in the locker at work.
  • Text wife, ask her to bring the cactus back in.
  • Receive reply from wife.
  • Remind her that the cactus cost twenty bucks, and you’d hate to see it wasted because of a little rain.
  • Receive reply from wife.
  • Remind her not to use that kind of language once the kids are home from school.
  • Drive back to TV station.
  • Lunch.
  • Check weather radar.
  • Give evening weather report – clear skies and cooling temperatures.
  • Drive home.
  • Receive phone call from wife, who says car battery died while picking kids up from school.
  • Point out that you just replaced that thing.
  • Say that yes, that doesn’t get the car started and you’ll be there soon.
  • Check radar reports.
  • Put cactus back out on the back porch, because some sun late in the evening is better than no sun at all.
  • Drive to local elementary school.
  • Spend fifteen minutes diagnosing problem with wife’s car.
  • Conclude that the car battery is dead.
  • Ignore “I told you so” look from wife by cleverly pointing out that the skies are clouding up and it looks like rain.
  • Discover that Giuseppe still has your spare umbrella.
  • Realize your usual umbrella and galoshes are still in the locker at work because you hadn’t needed them when you left.
  • Enjoy unseasonal thunderstorm complete with torrential rainfall.
  • Prepare to jump wife’s car in half inch of standing water.
  • Remember that prayer is an important part of a long and fulfilling life.
  • Jump start wife’s car.
  • Drive home, wet and cold.
  • Discover there is no warm dinner waiting for you because no one was there to cook it.
  • Eat cold cut sandwiches in gloomy silence.
  • See that clouds are breaking up!
  • Step out onto back porch and enjoy glorious sunset.
  • Bury miniature cactus.
  • Go to bed – tomorrow is another day!

Any semblance to people living or dead is strictly coincidental. Any semblance to real events is credited entirely due to the nature of Indiana weather.

A Brief Primer on Magical Theory

Fantasy is a popular genre today. One of the most common aspects of fantasy stories is magic, but many people complain about magic because it doesn’t seem realistic. I applaud these people. The whole point of magic is to be not realistic. It is to be, you know, fantastic.

So, for those who don’t quite get it, or who want to write fantasy and were looking for some basic guidelines, here are some things to keep in mind when you’re working with magic.

1. Doing magic does not follow the laws of physics.

This should really go without saying, but most people just can’t get over the fact that the stuff they are seeing or reading about doesn’t seem to add up. How can a two pound house cat lift a four thousand pound car over it’s head even though it doesn’t have opposable thumbs? It’s magic, people. Stop worrying and enjoy the show. This is such a large stumbling block that most of the following rules are actually specific examples of this phenomenon.

2. Undoing magic also does not follow the laws of physics.

This is a corollary of rule #1. Even if it makes no sense that an enchanted amulet can stop a building destroying energy beam, or that the energy necessary to destroy a single magic sword of slightly greater than normal sharpness lights up the horizon brighter than your average city, that’s just the way things are.

3. Magic causes confusion.

Regardless of what kind of magic it is, good or bad, people always experience a moment of disorientation when they are subjected to it. Wizards become addlebrained old men so frequently because they spend so much time messing with it. Really, this isn’t surprising since magic totally defies all the rules of day to day living. So whenever someone has a spell cast on them, expect a moment of disorientation as they adjust to the addition of magical influence to their lives.

4. Magic treats inanimate objects as if they were thinking beings.

In short, magic makes the Pathetic Fallacy a reality. This is why magic items so frequently develop a mind of their own. And since magic is such a confusing, I-do-what-I-want kind of a force, you can expect most intelligent magic items to be real jerks.

5. Magical movement does not create inertia.

Regardless of how big or small, if you use magic to move objects, they won’t have any inertia. For example, if you throw a bunch of knives at someone with a telekinetic spell or are holding a kite aloft with magically conjured wind, and then another wizard undoes your spell, your items will waver for a moment in confusion (a combination of rules #3 and #4) and then fall to the ground, instead of continuing on their merry way until gravity catches up to them. This applies to all magically created phenomenon, so charging golems will drop straight to the ground without sliding a step further on their course, avalanches will come to an immediate rest no matter how precarious their position and, in extreme cases, objects will actually teleport themselves back to where they came from in the first place.

6. Magic that involves blood automatically protects the user from communicable diseases.

Seriously. If you are a horrendous, blood-sucking fiend your magical powers will prevent you from ever getting the flu or malaria or any other such stuff from any of your victims. Why these creatures don’t just start a blood bank and take a little off the top from each transfusion is beyond me.

7. Magical elements are not located on the periodic table.

Wizards are allowed to think of the world however they want. Just because fire, ice, poison, metal, grim and fluffy aren’t on the periodic table doesn’t mean they aren’t perfectly good magical elements.

8. The phrase “schools of magic” doesn’t refer to institutions. Nor do they have classrooms, scholarships or “school spirit”.

Schools of magic are how people think about magic, not boring buildings where you listen to boring lectures all day. Expect lots of exciting, potentially lethal hands on experiences to go along with your painstaking book learning when you join one of these. It’s also likely that you’ll spend more time proving yourself the better fluffymancer when you encounter others from the fluffy school of magic than you will striving to prove the superiority of fluffymancy over venomancy.

9. The more complex a magic spell, the sturdier or harder to disrupt it becomes.

This is why your basic light spell is always flickering out at the least opportune moment, even though all it involves is tapping a little crystal until it lights up, but a summoning ritual that involves candles, synchronized chanting, intricate diagrams drawn in chalk and constantly updated listings from the New York Stock Exchange never fails.

10. The cooler the thing you use to cast your spells, the cooler your magic.

For example, if you’re a plain ol’ wizard with a plain ol’ staff, you can expect that your coolest magic to be something like a fireball or a disintegrate ray. On the other hand, if you store your magic in playing cards, expect the ability to summon five story dragons or transform a normal mountaintop into the world’s newest caldera.

Of course, magic is much deeper and more complex than that, in fact it is deservedly thought of as a force beyond human understanding. Consider this a basic primer and remember the most important rule of magic there is: If you don’t know, you can just fudge it!