Monday, July 27, 2009

Heist, Part Eight

And we're back into "Heist", my abortive Doctor Who novel! I'd be interested in comments on whether you'd prefer Chapter Two all in one big chunk like Chapter One was, or alternated with non-Heisty posts to keep you from being glutted with narrative. (Those of you who would prefer I not post it at all, thank you but it's going to happen anyway.)

So with that, let's pick up Chapter Two!

Chapter Two
The Perfect Crime

As she woke up, her limbs still heavy and uncoordinated from the repeated stun bursts they’d subjected her to for prisoner transfer, Amanda looked at the cell around her with blurred vision. It was different from her old cell back on Tinaria; the security measures were a little grimmer, a little more primitive, and probably a little less effective. They had to be. This ship probably wasn’t used to transferring prisoners as—modesty aside—brilliant and resourceful as her. Still, she could see five stun projectors through the transparisteel door, each on a swiveling mount that would allow it to track anywhere in the room. The guards, secure in their booths, didn’t seem even interested in her. They had a perfect view of each of the six cells that formed half of the circular holding cell, and cybernetic control of those stun projectors. They only needed to watch her if she tried to escape.

She looked through the transparisteel walls (prisons loved transparisteel—all the benefits of glass, and none of the downsides) at her fellow prisoners, and in a flash, it all came back to her.

* * * * *

The days after her arrest had passed in a blur for Amanda Delacourt. The Monitors wasted no time in obtaining a warrant to search her modest house on Shantar, which in turn uncovered evidence of a dozen other major thefts that Amanda had participated in. What they called “evidence”, Amanda called “souvenirs”, but she understood that the Imperial Service to Monitor Criminal Intent wouldn’t take the distinction into account at her trial.

Even before her trial, though, the Monitors petitioned the Imperial Courts to classify her as a Class A criminal, one “whose escape would be of the greatest danger to the security and safety of the Empire and whose recapture would be unlikely if not impossible.” Amanda knew what that meant—Class A criminals had no civil rights under the Imperial Code, and any measure could be taken to prevent their escape. In a way, the distinction flattered her; only one other person had ever been assigned Class A status, and that was five hundred years ago. For Amanda to be the next, well…she knew from the moment they caught her that she would never be free again, but being caught after a life-time of criminal activity didn’t tarnish the reputation of a great thief. In fact, it enhanced it. The best thieves might be the ones who never got caught, but the most famous thieves were the ones who only got caught after a long, long career.

She almost looked forward to her trial.

They didn’t allow her to attend personally; as a Class A criminal, her right to stand before the court had been waived on the grounds that the logistics of prisoner transfer and the decreased (still substantial, but decreased) security requirements of the courtroom could give Amanda the opportunity to escape. Instead, they broadcast the trial to her cell. Three guards watched her watching her trial, part of a continual rotation that made sure she was observed personally as well as over cameras. She couldn’t see them, though; as a precaution against her learning details of her surroundings and using them to escape, the transparisteel was only clear from the outside. Paper clothing gave at least a token concession to modesty, although she’d briefly considered going naked rather than wear something so ugly. She sat on a force-field projection that served as furniture—they had already decided that giving her actual chairs was too dangerous—and smiled as the prosecutor began his opening statement, wishing she had popcorn to eat.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Latter-Day Cronkite

As everyone probably already knows, television news icon Walter Cronkite died recently. He'd already been out of the public eye for quite some time, but death always adds the ultimate finality to someone's departure from events. So even though it's been a subject of comment from time to time for quite a while now, Cronkite's death really brought home to a lot of people the thought that there's nobody in news today who is as trusted (and as trustworthy) as Walter Cronkite. To a lot of people, his death brought an end even more final than his retirement to the idea that there's a person out there who can be trusted to tell the truth and not just his version of events.

But I was thinking about it (because, as I say, I heard it a lot for about a week or so...) And I'm just not sure it's true. I think there is someone out there who I trust implicitly to tell the truth to power, to give the facts free of bias and show the world as it really is, even when that truth makes us uncomfortable about ourselves. Someone who is, in short, the successor to Walter Cronkite as the most trusted man in America.

Jon Stewart.

I'm fully aware that it's a sad commentary on the state of modern journalism that the most trusted journalist in the field is a self-professed comedian who continually insists that he's not running a news show, but it's true. "The Daily Show" relies, for its comedy, on having an audience who knows what the real facts are so that they can laugh at the jokes about those real facts. Over the years, Stewart has gradually come to understand that if "The Daily Show" doesn't tell its viewers those facts, a lot of the time, nobody else will. This, in turn, has given him a strong sense of outrage at the sheer amount of misinformation, spin, and bias in modern news...and that honesty and outrage combine to be exactly what journalism needs right now. Someone who will act as their mirror and say, "No, this is the truth. What you're saying, right now? That's so wrong it's actually funny."

I think the turning point was his appearance on "Crossfire". That, I think, was when he came into his own as someone who was willing to turn to the self-inflated "experts" who were really just a couple of blowhards and say, "Does this even mean anything to you anymore? Is this just some sort of abstract game, Right vs. Left, that's kind of fun to bicker over? Do you even remember that real people have to live, suffer and sometimes die with the consequences of these decisions?" He literally shamed that show off the air. I think that was when he realized that while he was still a comedian, he had a higher calling than just telling jokes. The best comedians change us, and I think that was when he realized he could do that.

I think there are still things he can improve on. I think his interviews still tend to be a bit too deferential at times (although when he does go for the jugular, he can be absolutely mesmerizing.) But he is someone that I do trust, implicitly, not to bullshit me, even when he's saying things that are obviously jokes. He's someone I trust to tell the truth. That's what Cronkite was always known for.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Emergency Snark!

Apparently, Warner Brothers released "300: The Complete Experience" on Blu-Ray DVD yesterday.

Presumably, when you open the package, you're immediately murdered by Persian hordes.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Bat Lash

(or "Right Story, Wrong Reality")

Looking back over "Bat Lash", as it's presented in the latest "Showcase Presents" volume, one has to wonder exactly what went wrong. It's clear something must not have worked in setting up the elements that go into a long-running series, because "Showcase Presents: Bat Lash" is only 240 pages long, less than half the length of a usual volume. What was it that made "Bat Lash" so short-lived? Was it a lack of a good protagonist? A poor setting? Weak supporting characters? Uninteresting antagonists?

Clearly, it wasn't a bad creative team. Sergio Aragones and Denny O'Neil are two legendary writers, and Nick Cardy's art is genuinely spectacular. This really is a book with some of the best in the business in it, doing stellar work. But maybe if we look a little closer at Bat Lash's storytelling engine, we'll get more of a hint.

Bat Lash, star of the series, is a comedy Western character (no big surprise, coming from the pen of comic genius Aragones.) He's presented as a sensitive dandy, a poetic rogue with an eye for beauty who's entirely out of place in the Wild West...except that honestly, he's deceiving everyone with that act, himself included. Bat's actually a thief, a scoundrel, a con artist, and a deadly fighter to boot. (The opening story, where he tries to get a beautiful lady to cook him dinner in a town being taken over by bandits, is a comedy masterpiece.)

This is, fundamentally, a satire of Westerns...and given that Aragones and Mark Evanier managed to make a satire of sword-and-sorcery epics last over a hundred issues of continuous publication, it's no stretch to think that Aragones and O'Neil could think up enough Bat Lash stories to last a similar length of time. After all, there are just as many Western tropes to satirize as there are barbarian hero tropes to mock.

But unfortunately, the types of Westerns that were popular in the late 60s, when Bat Lash was created, were not the light-hearted Westerns of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. By this era, the only Westerns that managed to retain an audience in a distinctly sci-fi age were the grimmer, darker spaghetti Westerns that Clint Eastwood made famous, leaving very little place for a Western hero who plucks flowers for his hat and has a taste for pheasant in aspic. The last two issues of the series emphasized his tragic past, perhaps in an effort to reposition the character for that audience, but it was too little, too late.

Which is, sometimes, the unfortunate truth about creating a storytelling engine. Sometimes, even when you've created a good, solid, well-crafted status quo that can generate hundreds of stories...the audience just isn't there for them. Tastes can change, and sometimes you're just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thankfully, we live in an age where it seems like just about everything's being archived...giving a series like "Bat Lash", which never got the chance it deserved, a little time to shine.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Convention Stories: Foot-In-Mouth Disease

So I was reading Peter David's new collection of "But I Digress" columns, and he had a whole section set aside for his convention anecdotes--mostly positive, but he did mention a few times that he had to deal with fans that were rude, annoying, and just generally jerks. In fact, in one column, he asked the reader to do some soul-searching and ask themselves if they were one of the people who made personal appearances less enjoyable for the creators they supposedly idolized.

Generally, I think I come off pretty well in that regard. I try to be respectful of their privacy, to convey my sincere appreciation for their work (one of my happiest moments at a con was just getting a chance to shake Al Feldstein's hand and thank him for MAD Magazine's role in shaping my young mind), and in general, to spend my time with the pros listening to and enjoying their "performance" as a guest. But we all have our moments of utter stupidity...and mine actually happens to involve one Peter David.

He attended a local convention in the early 1990s, during the height of the 90s comics boom. (I think it was in the fall of 1993, judging from the comics that were out around then.) Now, this was during the "honeymoon period" of my Peter David fandom--I still enjoy his work, and his name on a book is enough to make me want to pick it up, but you know what it's like when you first discover a writer you like. This was during that, "can do no wrong, everything he writes is brilliant, even his bad novels/comics are good novels/comics" phase that I'm sure everyone's familiar with. (Like the Grant Morrison fans who actually liked 'Final Crisis'.)

So my first stop was at his table, to get my books signed and ask a few polite questions. Then I went to the panel he did, which was quite entertaining (I remember getting a free Marvel baseball cap for finding Waldo in the background of the first issue of "Hulk: Future Imperfect".) Then I browsed around the dealer's tables for a while.

Now remember, this is late 1993, the absolute height of the collector boom. Everyone was anticipating that every #1, every foil cover, every "special issue" was going to be a must-have collectible that would skyrocket in value. As a result, everyone over-ordered everything, and was left with tons of leftover copies. And of course, a quick way to get rid of those was to schlep them to conventions, mark them as "3 for a dollar", and count on the convention atmosphere to help sell.

So as I browsed around the dealer's tables, any time I found a cheap Peter David comic, I'd pick it up and go get it signed. Some of them were for me, to replace my existing copies. Some of them, I had signed for friends or family, since Christmas was coming up and I did, after all, have family members who were comics fans. The point is, I didn't really make a plan to do this, it was just an impromptu decision every time I saw a comic he'd written in the discount bins.

And about the fourth trip through the line, he obviously must have recognized me, because he said, with this very polite look of concern on his face, "You know, you can take up to three books at a time to be signed."

And I, cheerfully and thoughtlessly, said, "Oh, it's not that. I just keep finding your books in the--" At which point my brain caught up with my mouth, and I realized that very few authors would take it as a compliment if you suggested that their comics littered discount bins all over the convention.

Peter David raised an eyebrow at me, and said, "Yes?" in a tone that suggested he knew perfectly well how the sentence ended.

In a tiny voice, staring down at my shoes and hoping for the ground to swallow me whole, I said, "...three for a dollar bins."

At which point, I proceeded to babble about over-ordering, and how I knew it wasn't a reflection on his talent, and I felt lucky to get such a good deal on great comics, et cetera et cetera et cetera. He took it well, and I wasn't so ashamed that I couldn't attend his second panel, later that day. (He had the last slot of the day for that room, and kept the whole crowd so entertained that the hour-long panel ran something more like two and a half hours instead. And I think we'd have probably sat there for longer if he hadn't wound it down.)

So remember, industry legends...sometimes, we're not jerks. Sometimes, we're just plain stupid.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Heist, Part Seven

And this is the end of Chapter One, folks. I'll probably post something else between Chapters One and Two, just to satisfy the people who aren't into the story at all.

The safe was empty.

Amanda looked again.

The safe was still empty.

Immediately, Amanda turned around. Something had clearly gone very wrong, but the time and place to think about it was not in the vault where the safe had been emptied with 1.5 minutes before the guards showed up to ask her questions about the whereabouts of its contents, questions she couldn’t answer. She could think about all this later, when she was safely in her space-ship returning home.

That thought flickered and died in her mind when she saw seven flickers of light fade into seven olive-green individuals pointing seven very large rifles at her. She recognized the flickers as the tell-tale signs of mimetic camouflage suits deactivating. She hadn’t noticed them before because they’d been staying perfectly still—trained eyes could detect a person in mimetic camouflage when they moved by the flickers at the edge of the image-field, but when they stayed still, even the sharpest eye couldn’t spot them. These men must have been very bored.

These men must also have been placed here specifically to wait for her. Someone had set her up for this. One of about five people who had either suggested she go for the Styrax Medallion or who knew she had plans to go after the Medallion had tipped off the Imperial Monitors to her intentions, and they’d set up a trap for her. She realized that she’d been grassed.

The door at the end of the hallway opened, and Gavin Lloyd walked in still wearing his forest-green suit. He flashed an identity badge at her. “Krau Amanda Delacourt,” he said, the tone of earnest uncertainty in his voice at their last meeting replaced by a clipped formality, “I am required to hereby inform you that you are being placed in detainment for the following crimes: The attempted theft of the Styrax Medallion, in contravention of Tinarian Statute 1415.7B, the assault of an officer of a private security firm, in contravention of Tinarian Statute 2374.9A, the unauthorized entry into a private residence…”

Amanda let the charges wash over her; she knew they were meaningless. Enough to put her away for life, but she wasn’t really being arrested for attempting to steal the Styrax Medallion. She was being arrested for all the crimes they knew she’d committed but couldn’t pin on her; all the brilliant thefts she’d pulled but had never gotten caught in, all the tricks that had left the police baffled and angry. They could never prove it, but they knew it was her, and now that they’d caught her, they were never going to let her go. She’d spend the rest of her life in Nirvana for her crimes.

Amanda had occasionally wondered how she’d react if she got caught; she was confident enough to believe it wouldn’t happen, but it was nonetheless an interesting hypothetical question. Would she attempt to fight her way free, killing police in a daring bid for freedom? Would she die in a blaze of glory, forcing them to kill her rather than live a life in imprisonment? Would she perhaps break down in a fit of terror, once she realized that she couldn’t get away and that her crimes had caught up with her? She’d imagined all these scenarios from time to time. As Gavin finished reading off the list of charges and finished his formal arrest with the classic words she’d heard on so many police vids, “I must now take you into detainment until a fair and just trial may be convened,” she knew the only possible way to respond.

She smiled wickedly at him and held out her hands to be cuffed. As he walked over to her, pulling out a loop of flexisteel and wrapping it around her wrists, she grabbed his lapels and pulled him in close. The guards began to shout, cocking their weapons, but all she did was plant a long, slow, smouldering kiss right on her captor’s lips.

After a long moment, she let him go and said, “It’s a fair cop, guv.”

Friday, July 10, 2009

Heist, Part Six

And more...I know it seems like this isn't a Doctor Who story at all, but it is. Really.

After checking to make sure the guards were as unconscious as they seemed, Amanda walked down the short hallway towards the vault itself. She smiled gently at the lack of cameras; for someone so concerned with security, Dame Abigail had a major neurosis about being watched. Amanda remembered her drunken conversation with the architect (well, he’d been drunk, and he’d thought she was too) and his impression of Dame Abigail discussing the security measures.
“Oh, my goodness no,” he’d said, flapping his hands around to imitate the elderly woman. “All those black, creepy little eyes watching me and who knows what on the other end, looking at the monitors…no, no, we’ll have genuine people doing the watching. You know where you stand there.” Or in this case, Amanda thought, looking back at the guards, where you fall down and drool into the carpet.

Amanda stood in front of the vault door for a long moment, kneading a small ball of putty with her right hand, slowly and carefully folding it back over itself again and again until she was satisfied with it. Only then did she open the door to reveal the inner vault.

She looked across the ten-foot expanse of the room to the far wall, where the safe itself sat smugly, defying her to cross to it. Amanda knew that between her and that safe were three sets of motion detectors, a whole floor of pressure sensors, dozens upon dozens of light beams, and nano-machines designed to note anomalies in air-flow and pressure. If Amanda tripped even a single one of those security measures, a silent alarm would sound and within 1.5 minutes, a dozen guards would flood this passageway. Even the best thief in the galaxy couldn’t hope to avoid that much detection technology.

Of course, Amanda thought to herself as she walked briskly across the floor of the vault and yanked open the safe door, 1.5 minutes can be a very long time.

* * * * *

Amanda knew what was supposed to happen at that point.

She’d mixed the debris from the keypad into the putty, after first running it through a genetic filter. The filter had sorted out the random bits of dust, pollen, and other contaminants, finding only those bits of dead skin which belonged to one Dame Abigail Marsten, a frequent user of the keypad. It had then spit those back out, allowing her to mix up a putty which would contain a relatively large amount of Dame Abigail’s genetic material, fooling the sensors on the safe’s computerized lock and allowing her to open the door of the safe as easily as one opened a screen door.

From there, Amanda was supposed to grab the Styrax Medallion and sprint back down the hallway. By the time her 1.5 minute window had passed, she should have gotten three rooms and one floor away from the scene of the crime. The guards, not understanding that the safe itself had been burgled already and expecting a thief to still be working very hard to crack an uncrackable safe, would head to the vault first. By the time they got in and absorbed the psychological shock of the safe being both open and empty, Amanda would have been ten rooms and two floors away, and already signaling her getaway craft. Guards on the grounds would notice a ship flying up to a third-story window and someone leaping out into it, but wouldn’t be able to act fast enough to prevent Amanda’s escape. She would fly past the still-blind defense systems, jet out into the spaceways of the Tinarian Empire, and proceed to her fence. The Medallion would fetch large sums of money, which she’d donate to some suitably deserving charity. Two weeks later, she’d be planning her next caper.

That was what was supposed to happen.

* * * * *

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Heist, Part Five

Apologies for the lack of a Thursday post (and the lateness of this "Monday" post)...I was at CONvergence over the Fourth of July weekend, and even though I'm local to the Twin Cities, the transition from "nothing to do, I'll have plenty of time to post" to "OMG, I am swamped with fun things to do and can't get anywhere near my computer" was too abrupt for me to even notice it. Now that I'm back in gear, though, we'll continue...

Fending off three more requests to dance and finishing her glass of champagne along the way, Amanda made her way through the ballroom and slipped through a side exit. It should have been locked, but one of the reasons she’d chosen to do this during the party was the sure and certain knowledge that a lot of bored aristos and their teenage offspring, trapped together at one of Dame Abigail Marsten’s parties, would find ways to slip off into the rest of the house to have sex. Sooner or later, all the locked doors would get unlocked, including this one that led down into the high-security areas of the mansion. She walked down a gallery of statues, politely ignoring the muffled moans that came from the alcoves, and headed towards an unassuming door with a keypad next to the handle.

The keypad wouldn’t pose more than a moment’s work to hack into—pass-code reliant systems rarely did, since the designers built them keeping in mind that ten-digit security codes needed to be recalled and inputted precisely by human beings who ran on two pounds of fatty tissues and water and could sometimes barely remember where they kept their shoes. The weak link in any secure system always came down to the human beings who had to use it, and this system was no exception. So, secure in the knowledge that she’d have no trouble hacking it, Amanda paused for almost a full five minutes to gently and cautiously clean every inch of the keypad. Only when she had removed every single piece of debris, no matter how microscopic, with tools designed for the express purpose of doing so, did she then deign to crack the ten-digit security code with a soldering iron and a few moments of deft work.

As she put the soldering iron away, the door hissed open to reveal two security guards whose facial expressions rapidly flickered through bored to startled before firming up into an angry boredom on seeing some high-class tart trying to head into a restricted area. They headed towards her angrily. “Hey, lady,” one said, in the same tones he’d used on two other bored, over-intelligent curiosity seekers tonight, “you can’t come in here. It’s a restricted.”

He didn’t exactly finish his sentence there; instead, he touched his hand to his cheek, plucking out the dart that was the cause of the brief stinging sensation that caused him to stop speaking. His head turned towards the other guard to see if he’d felt the same thing, but he had difficulty in seeing his partner through closed eyelids and the falling sensation made it difficult to concentrate, and…

Neither guard even felt the impact of hitting the floor. Amanda smiled, folded up her blowgun, and replaced it in her pouch. She could have gotten rid of them some other way. Dame Abigail didn’t scan for high-tech equipment the way some other places Amanda’d had to break into in the past, and she could probably have used a stun-gun. Not to mention, they seemed to be dim-witted enough that she could probably have gotten to within hand-to-hand range before they drew their guns. But it was always a good idea to keep in practice with the darts. Technology definitely had its places, but sometimes people kept a watch out for that sort of thing. A hollow tube and a dart, though, could be concealed virtually anywhere, tripped no sensors, could be disguised as any number of other pieces of equipment, and with the right toxins, could be relied upon to take out a person just as efficiently and silently as any sort of stun beam you care to name. All that was required was a bit of skill and practice, something Amanda had spent years honing.