Thursday, August 28, 2008

Keeping them in their dresses

Amy Alkon, perhaps the only Pajama Medias blogger whose work I often enjoy when she's not writing about anything I much care about, has this to say about Mr. Obama in her most recent blog post:

"I've marveled at how utterly non-threatening the guy is who's running
as the Democratic candidate to be the leader of the free world. I think
that's a substantial part of his appeal to younger voters: He doesn't
quite seem like a grownup. He's not a businessman (not the way you'd
see your dad or grandpa as a businessman). He's this boyish, sensitive
man with a wife who seems to be much more man than he.

Gregg, by the way, noticed that when the two of them were on stage the other night, and they were going to greet the audience, Michelle Obama strode ahead of him like a power-walker instead of taking his arm and going along to support him. Verrrry interesting!"

It is, indeed, interesting, how conservative pundits stick to their scripts so well. John Edwards is the Breck Girl, or, alternatively, someone Ann Coulter can't talk about without using the word 'faggot'. John Kerry 'looks French'. Now, Barack Obama is a 'boyish, sensitive man with a wife who seems to be much more man than he'.
Ms. Alkon then both links to and prints a lengthy excerpt from a Wall Street Journal piece by Michael Knox Beran named 'Barack Obama, Shaman'.

In addition to the title reference, which pretty directly implies that Senator Obama is some kind of no good lousy non-Christian wizard-type guy, Knox Beran loads his article with the textual equivalent of depleted uranium rounds and then empties his entire ammo belt in Obama's general direction, hoping desperately that phrases like "androgyne", "post masculine", "male mother", "metrosexual mildness rather than masculine testosterone", and "sagging sperm count" will somehow stick to the Senator from Illinois, calling his character into question in a manner that will entirely undermine his Presidential aspirations. (And, presumably, distract readers from Beran's own literary shortcomings -- I mean, is there any other kind of testosterone besides masculine?)

Just in case calling Mr. Obama a fag eighteen different ways in two paragraphs isn't enough to send undecided moderates bolting for a McCain button, Beran has a spare clip of ammo in his belt which he hastily reloads with. Over his next several paragraphs, he starts blasting away with such phosphorus-laced tracer fire as "communitarianism", "the collectivist ideal", "the empathetic mommy state", "the collectivist dream", and "communitarian paradise". Not only does Senator Obama like to suck a lot of dicks, Beran advises us between the lines, with a nod and a wink, but he's a goddam pinko Commie subversive, too!

Ms. Alkon surprises me by excerpting all this nonsense; not only is she an intelligent person who certainly knows it's all b.s., but after having been savaged shamefully by the emotionally retarded hordes at Sadly, No! over the past week or so, I'd have expected much better of her than to sink to the same loathsome lows as her recent attackers did, with their various imputations and allegations regarding her own sexuality. Having her wikipedia page rewritten by some dimwitted so-called progressive to say that she's a post-operative transsexual apparently didn't trouble her in the least, or, at least, it didn't trouble her enough to keep her from imputing that Senator Obama is some kind of girlie-man and (taking the whole 'liberals as weepy womenfolk' motif one step further than even Maureen Dowd or Ann Coulter has heretofore) that Michelle Obama clearly wears the penis in the family.

I wonder at the conservative mind's ability to ignore all internal contradictions within their own retarded propaganda. John Edwards is a lisping queerboy who lacks character because he cheated on his wife with some babe. Wait... what?

Still, it's probably true that the only important quality a U.S. President truly needs is manly goddam toughness. George W. Bush may be the only cowboy rancher in the history of the world who has never been on horseback, but by God he looks great in a flight suit. Ronald Reagan may have napped his entire Presidency away, but at least we always understood that the bombing would start in ten minutes. And John McCain is so fucking manly he needs a team of trained professionals to get his zipper up in the morning, he's so goddam masculine that his campaign slogan really should be JOHN McCAIN: NOT STUPID, JUST FILLED TO THE GUNWALES WITH TESTOSTERONE.

I say that in light of this revelation as to the only vital trait we require in our Chief Executive, we cancel the Presidential election and hold a steel cage match instead. Obama vs. McCain, one night only, in the Thunder Dome -- two Senators go in, but only one comes out! Let Johnny the Mac sob "I was a P.O.W.!!!!" as "Slamma" Obama beats him senseless with a folding chair. Make it a tag-team match; after the Senator from Illinois has reduced his aged opponent to a whimpering puddle of liver spotted gruel, Michelle can bitch slap and terrorist fist jab Cindy into dazed submission.

Obviously, I kid. Mayhem and violence are no way to settle matters of national and international significance, no matter what the battered Iraqi civilian populace may otherwise believe. Instead, we weak, pansified, mangina bearing progressives must resign ourselves to the inevitable victory of Manly Man McCain and the rest of his He Man Women Haters Club (AKA, the Republican Party). And after Johnny McC is sworn in, perhaps he'll hire Barack Obama and a few other sissies just like him as White House secretaries. That way, McCain and his fellow Heroic Alpha Males will always have someone around that they can kid with. They can knock Obama's lunch tray out of his hands, anonymously circulate mock FBI alerts with Obama's picture on them and "WANTED for being a FAGIT" hilariously typed underneath, pick the former Senator from Illinois up by the ankles and dunk him head first in the Oval Office toilet while chanting "faggggzzzzzz fagggggzzzz" and hitting each other in the fat part of the arm.

All in good fun, of course. All in good fun.

Oh, how we'll laugh when those golden days return once more. With a true manly man as U.S. President we'll once again be able to openly mock homos here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Having resoundingly put the uppity Obamas back in their places, decent Americans will once more be able to enjoy gentle, harmless racial humor, just like when our future President was a wee lad listening to his dad and uncles telling hilarious spic, kike, spade, and Polack jokes around the family Thanksgiving table.

God forbid Barack Obama be elected U.S. President, because what we all fear most is a sissy boy in high office. And what the world needs now more than ever is yet another vastly powerful Commander in Chief with testosterone poisoning.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Moff Tarkin is a really stupid name

Some things, none particularly interesting --

* * * FEAR MASTERS is trudging along. I could be writing it right now, but... I'm not. I'm going through one of those mood swings where I go over something I've written and it reads like absolute shit to me. Those are bad periods. However, then there are other times when I reread my own work and think I'm actually a pretty good writer. Obviously, the only valid conclusion to be drawn there is that I can't be objective about my own work, and will have to leave its judgment to others. Which is depressing, when you think of all the 'others' out there who keep rejecting it... oh, well.

There's this guy I know vaguely whom I find unpleasant, mostly because he's an even older geek than I am, and whenever I run into him, the only thing he can talk about is all the wonderful geek stuff he's done and accomplished in his life... how he's had all these games published and he has seven paperbacks in print and he's written and drawn all these comic books and all this other nonsense that, you know, I personally would give somebody else's left eye to have done.

Chances are he's full of shit -- I mean, he's clearly not prosperous and when you Google his name, all that comes back is his crappy Deviantart gallery. What I suspect, in fact, is that he's pretty much an alternate future version of me, the way I'd have most likely turned out if I hadn't been lucky enough to meet Superwife... I'd have ended up sitting in a geek shop somewhere, playing Magic and telling anyone who would sit down across the table from me (mostly kids, because nearly any adult would see through me immediately and walk off in disgust) all about my seven or eight novels and all the games I've designed and how I'm a great artist and all the comics I've scripted and how I knew famous comics pros back in college. Desperately scribbling in my sketchbook while pretending to be so immersed in what I'm doing that I'm totally unaware of my surroundings, while actually exquisitely aware of everyone else in the shop (especially the females) and hoping against hope that someone (female) would come over and express interest. Oh yeah. I know that tune so VERY well.

And the fact that I see so much of myself in him is probably one of the biggest reasons I can't stand him... and yet another entry on the endless list of things I am forever grateful to Superwife for.

However, I have read some of this dork's crappy writing, and I'm sure that's a big part of why I'm in such a funk over my own writing right now -- I think I'm a better writer than he is. But I can't really tell. And jesus, if I'm not a better writer than he is, I need to just give up in despair and go find a job in a carwash somewhere.

None of which really matters in any galactic or cosmic sense, but, then, I hardly ever write about anything that does.

I've just checked my stats counter and am somewhat bemused to see that apparently the ONLY person who has bothered to read either of the 'Fear Masters' entries to date is Mr. X. I have a pretty good idea who Mr. X actually is... not that I'm brilliant or anything, but SuperWife made a pretty spot on suggestion the other day, and I'm as sure as I can be without actual photographic evidence that she's right... and if he's the only person reading this thing, then, well, I'm not greatly moved to keep putting chapters up every now and then. I'll put the whole thing up, probably over on my Angelfire page, with yet another bad cover mock up, when I get it done. Until then, I'm sure the other five or six of you who read this thing won't miss it.

As always, I'm selling off my HeroClix on Ebay. The latest bunch of auctions that just concluded were a mixed bag, economically. On the one hand, some guy walked off with my West Coast Avengers team, including a Vet Fantastic Forces Hawkeye and a NGN bronze ring Iron Man, for two bucks. On the other hand, my Kingdom Come group sold for $129. So I guess that kind of balances out.

I have an X-Box 360 and a copy of MASS EFFECT!!!! Bane got a new one and loaned me his old one for a couple of months, so I could play through the game at least once. You'd think I'd be delighted, but in fact, I've tried to play the game a few times and am very disappointed with it. It's much, MUCH more military than I'd expected, and I really don't much care for that kind of atmosphere. Plus, I find myself baffled by most of the control screens, and the game also seems to have a lot of 'timer tasks' in it, i.e., things your character has to do within a certain set time limit, or DIE!!!! I hate that crap; I've never been good at getting stuff done while someone is holding a stopwatch on me, and certainly don't relish doing it as part of something that's supposed to be 'recreation'.

Super Drama Teen, naturally, has nearly beaten the game by now, but she likes HALO and all that crap, and seems to have a brilliant innate talent for that sort of thing. If that child could get paid to play videogames, or if videogames were an Olympic sport, she'd be set for life, I swear.

I have chores to do today -- a couple of packages of HeroClix to take to the post office, one of the bathrooms needs cleaning, I'm sure there are dirty dishes in the sink, and eventually, I'll have to go over and pick up Super Adorable Kid at her school. It's not like having a full time job, but it does cut into my nap time.

Okay, whiney as this is, I guess I'll post it and go do something I'm supposed to be doing.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

So much for the afterglow

So SuperWife got me a videotape containing two episodes of JONNY QUEST and one ep of SPACE GHOST, and I was stoked, because JONNY QUEST and (to a lesser extent) SPACE GHOST were among my favorite cartoons when I was a kid, and I was looking forward to re-acquainting myself with them. I'd heard that someone or other had just released a DVD set with all the JONNY QUEST episodes on it, and I confidently presumed that I would love the two episodes on this videotape so much, and they would be so brilliant and fabulous in a way that would transcend the child/adult dichotomy that I would jot them down on my Christmas list and could look forward to watching the entire series again sometime before the expiration of 2008.

And that happened. Oh yes, it did.

In my mind.

The two JONNY QUEST episodes on this tape are "Calcutta Adventure", which tells the tale of how Race Bannon, Dr. Benton Quest, and his son Jonny first ran into Hajii and incorporated him into their oddly NAMBLA-esque adventuring group, and "Pirates from Below", which was about some vaguely Soviet seeming guys with a trillion dollar underwater base and a few billion dollars in advanced submarine technology who decide to steal this stupid little underwater tractor/probe thing that Dr. Quest is test-driving for the U.S. Navy today.

Certain commonalities immediately established themselves across both individual episodes -- crappy animation, lousy dialog, the weird crypto-gay vibe between Race Bannon and Dr. Quest, the master supervillains who never have actual names, with their legions of incompetent minions wearing fairly cool costumes for no discernible reason, in pursuit of some master villain plan that never quite comes into focus, who apparently have access to trillions of dollars to spend on secret Himalayan nerve gas labs and underwater fortresses and heavily armed one man minisubs that whip along underwater at supersonic speeds and cool looking yachts and advanced communications arrays and nifty little hover-discs, all of which inevitably gets blown up, melted down, or otherwise completely fucking trashed by huge avalanches or their own deadly mines or maddened octopi or some goddam thing at the climax of whichever episode they're appearing in.

Jonny Quest and crew do not have recurring villains. If you're stupid enough to try to do something evil on JONNY QUEST World, you will by the Jesus never fucking make THAT hideously retarded mistake again, buddy, because Race, Dr. Quest, Jonny, Hajii, and Bandit will come stumbling and bumbling along and, sometimes by employing some experimental death ray Dr. Quest just happens to have in his luggage, or on other occasions through the bizarre superhuman machinations of Hajii's wiley Oriental mystic powers, or every once in a while just because Bandit happened to by complete coincidence leave a live grenade in your shoe, completely undo all your anti-social machinations and send you screaming to hell in the process.

Hajii was, apparently, some kind of 10 year old Indian Sith Lord, as early on in one episode for no comprehensible reason whatsoever he employed his strange Eastern mental powers to waft Jonny thirty feet up in the air, while Jonny whimpered in terror and begged him not to -- "Oh, no, not the levitation trick! Please put me down!", to which Hajii malevolently sneered "Oh, I'll put you down -- but -- shall I do it slow -- or fast?", causing Jonny to piteously beg, rather like some anti-Peter Lorre in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, "Slow! Slow! Real slow!"

Hajii continued to demonstrate his absolute mastery of the Dark Side of the Force a little later on in the same episode by hypnotizing an armed underwater pirate into letting them all go free, heaping insult onto spiritual injury by unnecessarily demanding that his newly conditioned slave carry him around in his arms, snidely mock-apologizing to the Quests "I'd like to give you a lift, but you'll just have to do the best you can".

Now, you'd think that one of the world's top scientists and a one-time alpha class international espionage agent would be at least somewhat bemused when witnessing a 10 year old casually defying every law of physics known to man, while simultaneously both terrifying and endangering the show's title character, and you'd also figure they'd be at minimum astonished if not entirely appalled when this sneering Hindu dwarf deftly employed his turban-gem to mentally enslave a full grown man... I mean, you'd really think either of those displays of superhuman mental prowess would have elicited at least a murmured "What the FUCK, Hajii"... but, nooooooo... to Race and Dr. Quest, this was all apparently just SOP. All they ever did was exchange knowing glances with each other and chuckle at Hajii's colorful antics while, presumably, giving each other reassuring handjobs just below the cartoon frame's lower edge. Most likely Hajii had long since mentally conditioned the two of them to accept whatever impossible bullshit he was pulling this week as being perfectly normal, nothing to see here, move along, please, allowing him to torment Jonny at will with perfect impunity.

I had never realized, while watching these cartoons in my childhood, that Jonny was essentially a cartoon version of STAR TREK JR's Wesley Crusher, a character whose only reason for existence is to get everyone else around him into as much trouble as possible at any given space/time coordinate they might happen to find themselves occupying at any particular moment. Nor had I ever absorbed that the Quest bunch is some deeply disturbed animated incarnation of Spanky and Alfalfa's He-Man Women Hater's Club, apparently inhabiting some dismal and horrifying Testosterone Planet, as not only do they never hang around with any chicks at all, but there seem to be no females of any variety, human or otherwise, anywhere in their entire quadrant of the galaxy.

The only other notable thing I can think of from either episode was the presence in "Calcutta Adventure" of a supporting character named Pasha Peddler, an agonizingly 'groovy' middle aged Indian guy with an apparently endless supply of useful equipment and goods he would provide to Race and Dr. Quest for heavily marked up (if, thirty or so years after the fact, seemingly ludicrously inexpensive) prices. Now, normally the dialog quality in JONNY QUEST ain't nothin to write home about, sure, but every scintillating syllable of presumed Flower Power slang that dropped from Pasha Peddler's badly animated lips was a pearl of such painful parlance as to make me want to puncture my own eardrums with the closest writing implement to hand, although somehow I managed to summon up enough willpower to conquer this doubtless entirely sane and reasonable impulse.

But then they were done, and I was on to a Space Ghost episode entitled "Vengeance of the Spider-Woman!!!!" And it was everything I'd hope that JONNY QUEST would be... subtle, brilliant, multileveled plotting and dialog that could be enjoyed by any age group, fabulous hand painted animation that brought the carefully nuanced, deeply complex backdrop fully to life, living, breathing characterizations that... it... erg... urm...

Okay, no, it was awful. Terrifyingly, brain-bendingly awful. See, Jan, Jace, and Blip the goddam masked space monkey are all on this water world jet skiing, and the Spider-Woman sends her ugly toad-man minions to capture them, so the ugly toad-man minions hold a length of rope up just above the surface of the water, which causes Jan to trip and flop off her jet ski into the water (because she's just a stupid gurl, of course) so Jace has to come roaring in on his own jet ski and scoop her up before the stupid toad guys can grab her. (Only Jace, Space Ghost, and probably the friggin monkey are allowed to grab Jan; everybody else can take the air.) So then the toad-guy commander croaks "Put into effect -- Plan: Capture!" which, you know, you have to give these toad guys credit for style and wit and imagination, coming up with a name like that for a plan to, well, capture somebody. So their big sharklike sub opens its mechanical maw and gobbles up Jan, Jace, and the fucking monkey (causing me to wonder why they didn't just do that in the first place, but never mind) and Space Ghost has to come rescue them, talking to himself the whole time about how the Spider-Woman has sent him detailed instructions to get to her lair, and she traps him behind this 'viso barrier' or some such shit, and sends a hydra-shark (a three headed shark! DUDES! what were you SMOKING?) and an electro-manta to kill him, but Space Ghost deftly dodges the first one and uses some kind of nebulizer beam to absorb all the power of the second one, which lets him break the viso barrier, causing a huge tidal wave of released water to wash over Spider-Woman and her toadies (Jan, Jace, and Blip turn invisible and fly into the air to get out of the way, which is their entire contribution to the adventure beyond getting captured in the first place). And then they all return to the Phantom Cruiser, where presumably Jan and Jace put on their kneepads and remind Space Ghost exactly why he puts up with all their bullshit in the first place. Or something.

The moral of the story is, anything you thought was really cool on TV when you were 8 years old is actually a fucking nightmarish horror of mind melting proportions that you should avoid at all costs once you've become an adult. There are no exceptions to this policy, and the sooner you accept this and move the fuck on, the better off you will be.

Okay, all the old Bugs Bunny cartoons are still pretty neat, though.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Fear Masters (2)

All you lurkers send big thanks over to Mr./Ms. X, whose lengthy comment on the first three chapters of this puppy has motivated me to continue publication. That doesn't let any of y'all off the hook, mind you...

Anyway, Chapters IV through VI after the jump.


The old LAW rocket launcher kicked on my shoulder like a Missouri mule, causing the flyer to dip on its gyroscopes slightly on the side where I was leaning out an open window in the back. A whitish-red streak of fire lanced upward into the darkness above us; the flivver’s built in radar had warned us that fifty yards above, the access shaft was completely blocked. I dropped the one use plastic tube and pulled back into the car’s cabin like a scared cat. Up above, a rose of fire bloomed and a reverberating boom echoed back down the shaft. Then junk started to rain down too, some of it trailing little licks of flame. Eddie had set the EM antigrav field surrounding the car to its strongest repel mode, so the debris bounced, tumbled, and slid off around us and continued on down towards the cache 75 feet below.

After a minute or so, things calmed down again. Eddie consulted the read outs on the Texas-sized dashboard. “There’s a hole up there,” he said, “but it ain’t gonna pass a fish this size. Hit ‘er again.”

I picked up another rocket launcher from the back seat, leaned out the window, and repeated the previous procedure. One further rain of debris later, Eddie pronounced we had us a usable exit.

He gunned that flyer up out of there like a singed pigeon; the insides of the New York City craters are still pretty hot even without ten years of accumulated industrial poison and none of us were anxious to have our gametes scorched. At four miles up he leveled off. For just a second I could see the entire vista of Newer New York City spread out off to our left and below, the five mile wide octagonal float platforms linked together like faceted costume jewelry, the ramshackle buildings and tawdry lit domes covering them like a crust barely discernible from this altitude. I knew the linked octagons stretched for miles out into the Atlantic off the coast of the original city, but from this vantage you could practically blot out the entire thing with your palm.

Then Eddie rotated the gyros and realigned the EM vectors and we started the long inverted gravity ‘slide’ back towards New Washington, and home base.

It had seemed like there was a lot of smoke coming up from Newer New York, in that fast glance I’d had before Eddie laid us in the groove. But maybe that was just my imagination. “Get a news broadcast,” I said, leaning forward over the back of the seat to punch buttons on the dashboard.

“Get outta there, you’ll overload the injectors,” Eddie growled, slapping my hand away. “This thing doesn’t have a three-vee… here’s a radio.” He turned some knobs on what I would have sworn was a mini mwave cooker and after a second, the sounds of chaos filled the cabin:

“…this is Patrolman Roberta Desjardins, Sector Car 12. I am sheltering in my inoperative vehicle; it is overturned but no longer burning at coordinates 17-12… my partner Patrolman Gutierrez has suffered multiple bites by the attackers who overturned our car… I have not been able to stabilize him… requesting a bus forthwith at coordinates 17-12… my partner is losing blood from his wounds… is anyone out there? Please respond, please respond…!”

She sounded breathless and scared; pretty much exactly the way I felt. In the background, the sounds of gunshots and explosions, a crackling that might have been distant flames, intermittent screams. And someone’s labored breathing… in, out… in, out…

“Can we get down there to her?” I asked, already knowing what Eddie would say.

“We gotta report in,” he said, tersely. “And get the doc to a lab. That cop’s gonna have to hope her own squad can get her some back up.” Eddie jerked his head angrily. “Anyway, I got no idea where coordinates 17-12 are and no equipment for trackin’ a radio signal.”

“So it’s happening everywhere,” Dr. Hansea said quietly.

“In NNY, anyway,” I said.

In the twenty minutes it took us to slide to New Washington, broadcasts confirmed it was happening everywhere… everywhere we could pick up, anyway. The dead were walking, attacking the living, and civilization was on the verge of complete collapse from the resultant mass panic.

One of the things each of the three of us had been trying to do all morning was report in to base by secure q-link. But all of our phones had gone silent right about the time the blackout had hit, and they were still dead. It fretted me some; I don’t understand the technology behind a q-link, but I do know there isn’t supposed to be anything that can interfere with or even monitor a quantum communication. Science Sector has perfected a technique for tracing q-link connections, sometimes, when the stars all align and the shooter rolls boxcars, and even that is more than anyone else has ever managed.

So a q-link blackout along with everything else was worrisome. I could understand a sudden zombie apocalypse causing a power blackout; stuff like that happens when there is sudden social chaos caused by mass terror. But I could not for the life of me figure how an onslaught of walking dead could interfere with the quantum linkages that hook together the universe.

It sent a shiver up my spine, but there wasn’t a thing I could do about it, so I tried to put it out of mind.

The flivver’s built in radio didn’t have much range. We were ten miles out of Science Sector’s base when we finally raised someone inside, and kark knows what they thought we were doing, calling on an EM broadcaster… I was just glad someone there had thought of dusting off an old fashioned wireless set when the q-links all went down. Eddie exchanged the passwords of the day with the watch commander and we were directed to a camouflaged entrance just off Tennessee Avenue, holographically disguised as a smelting yard. Eddie floated us onto the cradle as easy as a mama bear putting her cub to bed for the winter, and a hydraulic piston-arm lowered us slick as silk to the base, six hundred feet underneath New Washington.

I admit, when those four foot thick blast hatches clanged shut over top of us, I nearly whooped in relief. Being attacked by things that had no business being upright and moving around in a subway tunnel had been bad enough, but watching the whole world wobble on its axis because those same things were crawling out of their graves everywhere was downright goddam nerve wracking. I could have gotten down and kissed Sector’s steel plated floors, I was that glad to get inside out of the crazy.

Techs took charge of the flivver, and a minute later we handed off the doc to the sergeant at arms and then both headed for the Chief of Staff’s office to report. I wasn’t looking forward to it and I doubted Eddie was either. The new Chief was a political appointee and, in my opinion, no replacement for her predecessor. That could have been because the previous Chief had been one of my D.I.’s at Sumac Bay, then I’d served under him in the Ranistan campaigns, and then he’d personally sworn me in when I signed on with the Sector. Or it could have been because the new Chief was a worthless slitch whose only expertise lay in career advancement through the political rats nest that security services are supposed to haughtily ignore, being presumably above all that sort of nonsense.

On the other hand, the current Chief’s predecessor had earned an administrative transfer to a Moon desk counting crater rocks for trying to keep Science Sector out of politics, so maybe I should brush up my office politicking skills. I doubted I had that much willpower long term, though. I wasn’t sure I had enough to get through this debriefing, to be honest.

Then we ran into even more aggravating nonsense – a brand new security checkpoint outside the new Chief’s office. Now, look, you – every Sector agent is ex military, or an ex cop, or worked in some other security service before signing on here. We all know you can’t just let any Tom, Jane or Harriet wander around a secured area. Which is why we keep track of who goes in and out of secured zones slightly more zealously than a mama duck keeps track of her kids.

But once an agent has passed six different body scans and a DNA sampler on the way in to the warrens, it starts to tread on the absurd to post a guard outside somebody’s office – Chief of the Sector or not – and demand that everyone surrender their heaters before entry into the Holy of Holies.

Above and beyond all that, it’s always been standard practice in Science Sector for every field agent to go armed at all times, on premises and off. You never know where, why, or when trouble is going to suddenly jump up and try to take a chunk out of you, but a thirty round clip of heatseeking or explosive tipped ammo and a weapon to project it with will nip a lot of foolishness right in the bud every time. Or, at least, so my one time boss Colonel Logan had believed, and I for one agreed with him. I’ve always felt that giving up your weapon is a real bad habit to get into. For Eddie, it’s a personal trauma.

Nonetheless, after a bit of futile bitching to the Chief’s exec – a good joe named Donner who knew bad policy when he saw it but had to follow orders just like the rest of us – we handed over our gats and were waved into the inner sanctum.

“Report,” the new Chief ordered as soon as we were in her office. All we could see was the back of her desk chair. Colonel Logan had never bothered with b.s. like that, but the new Chief had to play her little dominance games.

Eddie laid it out for her, his tone and word choice much more professional than you’d expect if you only ever ran into him outside HQ.

When he finished, the new Chief swiveled her chair around and fixed me with what she most likely thought of as a gimlet gaze. “You concur?” she barked, or tried to, anyway, at me. 5’3 in her stocking feet and what her political bosses probably thought of as ‘a living doll’, I didn’t think she carried off a ‘ring of authority’ very well. But I freely admit to bias.

“They looked like walking corpses,” I said. “Smelled like it, too.”

“Corpses don’t walk,” she replied, her tone unpleasant, “therefore, Agent Hannigan, I doubt they were ‘walking corpses’, or ‘zombies’, or whatever you want to call them.”

“So what caused the power failure?” I asked, feeling myself getting hot under the collar and not caring much. “What’s causing all the chaos and mayhem up and down the seaboard?” What, I wanted to say, overturned a cop car in New Brooklyn and bit chunks out of Patrolman Gutierrez? I didn’t, though.

“There has been some sort of outbreak of mass hysteria,” the new Chief admitted, never batting either of her pretty blue eyes. “Violent mass hysteria in many cases… but this notion of the dead rising again and attacking the living…” She grimaced. “You two are supposed to be trained observers – professional agents, two of our best in the field.” She shook her head. “I’ve long suspected my predecessor’s judgment was… spotty, in some areas.”

Then she smiled like a piranha at me. “Although in your case at least, my dear, I can certainly comprehend what spun him so strongly in your favor.” She was practically cooing.

“You –“ I understood in that moment why we hadn’t been allowed in with our weapons. You can insult any single one of us all you want and all we’ll do is smile at you and memorize your vital statistics for some later, off duty, occasion. But an insult like that to Colonel Logan would have gotten her shot by anyone who had ever worked with him, and I had to assume she knew it, too.

“That’s a professional libel in front of a witness,” Eddie observed mildly. I may have been the only living person in North America who knew just how dangerous that mild tone was, coming from him. “C’mon, Myrna Loy, I’ll help you type up the complaint.”

He was trying to get me out of there as quick as he could, before one of us went diving over Colonel Logan’s desk to wipe the smirk off that bitch’s china doll face with our boots. I was so angry I nearly didn’t notice her hand moving on her desk top.

Eddie squinted at her in a way I knew meant he was cycling his optics, then grimaced and started to bring his right hand up. The new Chief beat him to the draw, most likely because she was already bringing a weapon up; there was a PHUT of compressed air and a fat dart was hanging from the front of Eddie’s tunic. He went as limp as a sack of laundry and started to crumple to the ground.

She swung her arm across her body towards me but I wasn’t exactly standing there flatfooted. I was already cycling my own optics through to IR again on a hunch; I hadn’t figured I’d need active scanners inside HQ, but was only mildly shocked to see that she radiated no body heat at all, just like all the deaders we’d shot at that morning.

Science Sector agents are never really unarmed. Our issue pistols are modified for accuracy and to take non-standard ammunition, of course, and we have various goodies salted around our persons at all times, from useful bits of hardware embedded in our boot-soles to the varied contents of our agents’ vests. But even stripped to the buff we can nail you from a distance if we discover a sudden need to do it; one of the first modifications the Sector puts us through is surgically removing the bones of our dominant-hand index finger and replacing them with ceramic chemical reservoirs, knuckle sized power batteries and a refined glassite lens good for one, maybe two hard shots of lased energy sufficient to burn through three inches of tungsten steel.

Beam weapons are probably at the very tippy top of the ‘too hot for general release’ list that most of the stuff Science Sector invents gets put on, but they’re too firkin effective not to use. So our laser fingers are a compromise; we get one, maybe two shots if we really need them, from a weapons platform that even the most forgetful agent isn’t likely to drop in unfriendly territory. If we need to do more damage than that, well, that’s what we have our sidearms for. They’re pretty souped up, but when you get down to brass tacks, they’re solid slug throwers for all their modifications; if a hostile gets his or her hands on a Science Sector special, they’re not going to learn much of anything that would revolutionize the state of world weaponry.

However incompetent she was, the Chief had to know about the finger lasers, and that’s probably why she rushed her shot at me with the trank pistol. The dart meant for me took an inch of lace off my left jacket cuff, and then a blue line of fire vaporized the end of the plastex sheathing my right index finger and drilled a neat hole through Chief Slitch’s left eye and out the back of her skull. Her corpse hit the carpet on her floor barely a second after Eddie’s unconscious body had gone down with a heavier thump.


I went carefully around her desk and looked at her body. It was twitching and shuddering in a way nothing living or dead should have been after having a hole drilled straight through its brain’s left hemisphere. I shook my head, trying to jump start my thinking processes. What the hell was she? No body temperature would indicate a zombie, but she sure wasn’t one of the ‘arrrr arrr eat your brains’ type Eddie and I had been shooting all morning. And why had she tried to take both of us with tranquilizers? It made no sense.

One thing was certain – not only had she changed procedures to disarm agents entering her presence, but she’d also disable any kind of outside monitoring. Otherwise, a weapons discharge in the Chief’s office would have resulted in a swarm of armed agents piling in from every direction in seconds flat… but a full minute had gone by and it was still just me, her and Eddie.

I sat down behind her desk and kicked her over onto her side. She rattled and thumped and drummed her feet against the wall a few times, then finally went still. I used her desk screen to pull up a directory of Sector personnel, then coded a call through the internal comm system.

When Dr. Hansea’s face appeared on the screen, I hit the accept button… or reached to do so, anyway. At that exact moment, the Chief twisted around like a snake and set her teeth into my ankle, clamping down hard, worrying it like a terrier. It hurt enough to get my full attention. I yanked the leg she was clamped onto up, folding my knee up next to my chin. Her head came up with my ankle, one good eye glaring sheer blue hate at me as her jaws kept working my anklebone. I brought my other foot down hard, doing my best to punch the narrow heel of my boot as far into that death-maddened eye as possible.

There was a wet crunch, and I swear she squealed like a pig caught in a board fence. The impact knocked her mouth off my leg leaving several teeth behind, embedded in my flesh. She rolled onto her back, writhing, shuddering, and continuing to squeal. I jumped up, went into the air, and landed with both bootheels on her face. Her head squished like a rotten cantaloupe, bits of skull and expensively coifed hair spreading across splattered brains. Her squeal cut off as if guillotined; with a final spasm, she went still.

“Bitch,” I muttered, leaning on the desk and breathing hard. My ankle was throbbing like I’d been snakebit, and I could see the wound was bleeding freely. It made me uneasily aware of that one cop broadcast we’d heard in the car on the way down… the cop’s partner, bleeding profusely from multiple bite wounds, and her unable to stabilize him. In the old viewsees my dad had loved, a bite from a creature like this never healed; it inevitably festered and killed…

I felt woozy, and sagged back into the Chief’s former chair. The room was swimming around me. Bolts of pain were streaking through my nervous system from the bite now. I bit down on a scream. Not that anyone would hear me in here…

Something was happening to me, something awful. I could feel coldness starting to creep in from the ends of my limbs, moving slowly towards my heart and brain. I thought about Eddie lying unconscious on the floor… still alive… warm and fresh… helpless. Part of me wanted to throw up, but another part of me felt ravenous hunger.

I had to get out. Colonel Logan had once shown me his escape hatch; every commander’s office in the Sector had one. I hit all four directional arrows on his keyboard with the palm of my hand and leaned back in the chair. It tilted backwards as if on a swivel, dumping me out through a just revealed wall opening behind me and onto a nearly frictionless chute. I slid backwards into blackness…


I came to lying across something soft. I grunted and pushed myself to my knees, then got clumsily to my feet. I felt slow and stiff… strong, though. And very hungry.

I was lying on thick padding at the base of the escape chute. I knew where I was because Colonel Logan had shown me once, when he’d shown me the chute itself… a small emergency cache much like the one Eddie, Dr. Hansea and I had accessed a few hours earlier. It held weapons, useful equipment, a small three seat flyer, this one looking like exactly what it was, a ’25 Forge Zephyr.

I wasn’t interested in any of it. I looked at the shaft I’d just woken up at the bottom of. An emergency ladder made of built in U brackets ran up one side; twelve feet up, the four foot square opening I must have slid out of gaped… but the walls of that were too smooth, at too steep a pitch. That was a pity; the thought of Eddie possibly still lying there in the office, knocked out and helpless, like a great big side of beef on a plate, was all but irresistible to me. On one level, anyway.

On another, I was full of cold, malevolent contempt for every living human being on planet Earth… but I was fully aware of the capacities of the agents scuttling around the Sector offices above me like so many roaches. If the Chief-thing… stupid, worthless failure that she had been… had indeed cut off all outside monitoring, then it was unlikely anyone not in the office would reconstruct what had happened… no, not true. Eddie would wake up eventually and report what he’d seen. I couldn’t get to him… at which point, I remembered the interrupted comm call. I’d been trying to ask Dr. Hansea for advice. By now Eddie had most likely been revived, then, and it was all about to hit the fan. Once he reported that the Chief had apparently been some different kind of zombie than those running amok outside, strategic surprise would be lost. People would start looking for infiltrators with no body heat. Science Sector optics weren’t available to the general public but there were bulky visors that worked nearly as well.

I turned and went over to the small flyer. There would be a trigger mechanism… there. I hit a sequence of buttons near the AG sequencer and a trap door yawned open in the ceiling. Meant as an escape shaft, but it would have hatches off it leading back into the Sector itself.

I was already mentally mapping out Sector’s lowermost levels, which were probably only a few floors above where I was now. I got into the flyer and took it up slowly. Thirty feet up I spotted a ventilation shaft covered with a grill. It only took me a second to rip it free; I had always been strong, but now I was much, much stronger. I slithered out of the flyer’s cabin into the shaft like a snake and started working my way forward on stomach and elbows.

While I crawled I worked a problem in my head – how had the former Chief kept standard security scans from reporting her lack of body heat? The only thing I could figure was that she must have used her clearance to get into the subsystem and jigger the read outs. That wouldn’t fool an agent’s personal optics, but then, who would bother to scan someone inside Sector itself?

What I didn’t know was whether she’d reset the thermal scanners to work on anyone, or just when she herself was being imaged. It wouldn’t much matter. I was pretty sure that HQ’s cold fusion power plant was on this level; if I could get there, a few pulled wires and one laser bolt into a specific mass of chemicals would turn Science Sector, and the square mile or so of New Washington directly above it, into a rapidly expanding plasma cloud.

On one level, I was still very much Myrna Loy Hannigan – but a much more primitive, primal version of myself, one with no ego or superego, one that felt only bloodlust and hunger. On another, I was something entirely different – something cold and vicious, something that regarded living human beings as filth, nearly worthless offal that should be disposed of at the first opportunity.

That ‘I’, whatever it was, did not want to eat people, although it would if it had to. It just wanted every living human being dead… for reasons that, if I ever understood them, I carry no memory of now.

I’d been counting grills in the floor of the shaft as I crawled over them. When I reached ‘seven’, I stopped and lowered my face to the grillwork, squinting down into the room below. Had I been alive, it would have taken my eyes some little time to adjust to the bright illumination there, but, then, if I’d been alive I wouldn’t have been able to see at all in the pitch dark tunnel I’d been crawling through.

Being dead, though, neither too much light nor too little seemed to trouble me at all.

Directly beneath me was the curved ceramalloy dome holding the bulk of the cold fusion plant. I could see the outstretched legs of a watchman, obviously sitting in a chair just out of my sight off to the left. I coldly wished I could torment that bungling Chief-creature; had it not disarmed me, this would have been much easier. Certainly the agent in the room would be armed, and I could not imagine any ruse that would let me drop down out of a ventilation shaft into the central power chamber without getting shot… probably several times. Even if the agent were someone who recognized me, chances are, they’d still shoot me.

While cold, vicious me was still trying to dope it out, hungry bloodthirsty me slammed my hands into the grill, knocking it out of its frame, sending the clips that had held it in place ricocheting around the room like tiny brass bullets. I dropped with a growl through the hole. The agent – some dark skinned man about forty years old with a shaven head, nobody I recognized – was jumping out of his chair, a printout see-sawing to the floor, his hand already blurring towards his shoulder holster.

Stiff and clumsy as I was, there was no way I could reach him at a run. My upper mind was wondering if I had another shot in the finger laser when instead I straightened up from the crouch my fall had driven me down into and sprang on him, the new power in my legs hurling me across the distance between us like a crossbow bolt. I hit him hard, slamming him backwards over his upturned chair. He landed badly, cracking his head loudly against the tiled floor. I ripped desperately at the front of his coverall – Sector agents on duty wear a kind of plaslick body-suit that will shed most bullets and turn most blades – wanting urgently to get at his flesh.

Then I realized he was already cooling – apparently he’d broken his neck, or maybe smashed his skull in going backwards over that chair. I lost interest in him as food; dead flesh had no appeal to me. And the ‘other’ me was aware that even down this deep beneath the ground, reanimation would take place within minutes. As I hadn’t bitten him, he would be a drone, but another pair of hands would make the work go faster.

I got back to my feet and waited for him to get back up again, too. I could have set his chair upright and sat down, but felt no need to; a dead woman can stand – or sit – or crawl through a tight passage that would uncomfortably compress, and quickly exhaust, most living humans – forever and a day, if necessary.

Around five minutes went by, and still he didn’t stir. Lazy scum. My dominant self started ‘feeling’ for the vestigial, id-driven mind that should have been forming within him, but there was nothing there. He must have sustained severe brain damage in his fall, too much to allow the reanimation process to take hold. What a loathsome thing. I found myself kicking the body around the room, lips drawn back in an infuriated snarl.

After a few minutes of this I controlled myself, or, rather, my strange alien upper mind exerted control over itself. No matter, I could do what needed to be done myself, it would just take longer…

Then the door to the room snapped back into its frame, and Eddie was standing there, pointing his gun at me.

“Myrna Loy, Myrna Loy,” he said, and he sounded positively mournful. “I told you, if you got yerself kilt I was gonna have to do your corpse a mischief.”

He should have fired. I felt contempt for the mortal sentiment that had stayed him, even for a moment. Slow as I was, I could almost certainly take him with the finger laser, assuming it had another shot left in it… especially if I could distract him.

“Eddie,” I said, “don’t. It’s me, I’m okay…” I started to raise both hands, palms out. I was slow… but if he would keep hesitating…

He shook his head, his face set like stone. “Sorry, honeychile, no sale. I’m scannin’ you in the IR right now and you’re as cool as a cucumber. Whatever the hell the Chief was, you are too, and that ain’t right.” I saw his knuckle start to go white on the trigger –

By then all I had to do was turn my wrist and point my finger. Another laser bolt snapped out – not through his heart, where I was aiming, but piercing his shoulder like a cobalt blue harpoon. My dead body’s hand-eye coordination left something to be desired, too. Humans were so worthless.

Eddie howled and dropped his gun. The smell of roasting meat from the neat hole drilled through his shoulder perversely churned my stomach; as a zombie I preferred my food raw. But he was still alive and plenty of him was left uncharred; I sprang on him off steel piston leg muscles, hitting him like a battering ram, knocking him off his feet and slamming us both back into the opposite wall clear across the hall.

He was wearing body armor but I ripped it aside like foamboard. My higher mind was telling me to kill him quickly and get about my business but the lower me wasn’t having any of it. I was hungry, and I was going to feast --

Something hit me very hard at the base of my skull. Brain trauma is the one thing that will destroy the effectiveness of one of these undead shells, but I wasn’t exactly worried, any more than you’d be about getting a tear in an old tunic you didn’t much care for, anyway. But I did feel a burst of fury and loathing, that some human creature had snuck up behind me and dared to attack me in some fashion. And contempt, that the primitive human part left in me had made me vulnerable in the first place.

Then I was spinning down into blackness again.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Clix ain't givin' you piece of mind

Yet another in a series of posts only Mike Norton will ever read, if indeed even he bothers...

So I'm selling off my HeroClix collection, a bit at a time, over on Ebay. Why? Well, let's see if typing it all out makes it seem a little more coherent --

First and foremost, I never get to play any more, and I've never wanted to be one of those geeks who collects useless-but-pretty memorabilia just to have same cluttering up my living space. I feel the same urge to have useless-but-pretty junk as nearly any other collector/obsessive of some pop culture sub-genre, but for me, there has to be some function to the form. That's one reason the Heroclix bug bit me so hard back in, what, 2003? Whenever it was my brother Paul gave me an Infinity Challenge starter set... I could indulge the collector's itch with a clear conscience, because not only were Heroclix cool little superhero statues, but they were actually useful as game pieces, too.

From the start, though, I was enormously dissatisfied with certain aspects of the official rules, so I pretty quickly implemented the first of what would grow to be an endlessly complicated array of House Rules. This was fine as long as I was primarily playing with my brother and his friends, who were all amiable about such things, and willing to defer to me as the 'comic book expert' in their gaming group. They just wanted to play an interesting game, and if I was anal enough to insist that only flyers with Damage Values of 3 or higher could taxi other characters, well, they didn't care.

Once I stopped playing with those guys, though, my insistence on playing only under my own House Rules pretty much crippled my opportunities to play with anyone at all... at least, until I moved to River City. Here, for a while, my two oldest stepkids would play with me... but they're pretty long over the game at this point, and I've never managed to find any replacement gamers. And as long as I insist on playing only by my extremely complex House Rules, I'm unlikely to ever find any replacements. And if I can't play clix with anyone, then the figures are just little superhero statues with no function or purpose, and I don't want that. So, really, I'd only been putting off the inevitable for months.

Still, I probably would have kept putting it off for a while yet if not for several other factors, which I'm writing all this to get outside me and take a good hard look at.

As a game, Heroclix has undergone several changes over the past few years. Flatteringly, many of those changes have been very similar to modifications I've enacted in my House Rules -- okay, it isn't really flattering; I'm sure the WizKids game designers aren't consciously borrowing my ideas, it's just a case of parallel thinking... but at the very least, when WizKids officially implements a rules mod that I myself have been using for years, it validates my own chops as a game designer to at least some minor extent, right? Anyway. While many of the rules changes have been laudable, a few others have been near criminally idiotic, and WK will apparently never address the central issues that create the greatest dichotomy between how combat works in comic books and how it works in their game... but never mind all that. Suffice to say, regardless of incremental movement towards a game structure much more consistent to the source material the game and characters in it were based on, it was clearly never going to get to a point where I'd be able to play a game of Heroclix under the official rules without gritting my teeth for nearly the entire match. So rules changes really weren't helping me.

Other mods to the game, and to the figures themselves, however, have troubled me greatly. In some cases I understand why, but in others, frankly, I'm baffled. Maybe I just hate change. I suppose that's normal, although I dislike admitting that I may well be uncomfortable with certain changes not because those changes are poorly conceived and/or implemented, but just because I'd become accustomed to things the way they were and don't want to have to accept change in any particular, regardless of how cosmetic.

Still, that's probably it. Each of the changes that WK has made to HeroClix over the past few years bothers me deeply. In each case I can see the reasons why they made the changes, and I can also see that the changes were either necessary or actually a good idea... but I still don't like them.

Cosmetic changes -- I dislike the fact that clix no longer have colored rings around their bases, unless they're Uniques. I suppose I don't mind the loss of the full Rookie-Experienced-Veteran cycle for most figures in a set, as it does indeed allow the inclusion of many more characters per expansion. But I miss the colored rings. I don't see why, if a particular character in a set is the Rookie version of that character, it can't still have a yellow ring. I suppose old school players like myself would be tempted to regard yellow and blue rings with some contempt, because, generally, the yellow and blue ring versions in a standard REV were less desirable than the red/Veteran version of the character... but I still miss the colored rings.

I also miss flight stands, and more than that, I miss the mechanics of hovering and soaring. I understand that by eliminating flight stands, WK has managed to save probably a significant amount of money on their manufacturing costs (plastic is a petroleum by-product, and its production prices are going up in direct proportion to skyrocketing oil market shares), and if they're going to stay in business they're going to have to pinch pennies wherever they can. But flying characters just don't look right to me without flight stands. As with the colored rings, I'm sure this simply comes down to me being emotionally unwilling to accept or embrace a change I am viscerally uncomfortable with, but, whatever. I miss colored rings on the dials, and I miss flight stands.

Beyond all this though -- there are simply no words for how conflicted I am at the introduction of Special Powers, which necessitate each figure now having a Character Card to explain how any Special Powers it may have actually function. One of the beauties and wonders of HeroClix was that the built in dial feature made the figure itself entirely self contained. You didn't need paper and pencil, you didn't need to keep track of stats or hit points. Everything was on the dial. Now, with Special Powers, you suddenly had cards to go along with each character. Now, many of the characters don't have Special Powers and therefore don't need the cards, but many others (usually the most powerful and/or useful figures) do. And it's a lot of clutter, and I find it intrusive and annoying.

The problem is, many superhuman comic book characters NEED Special Powers if they are going to be adequately defined. So Special Powers are actually a wonderful innovation in HeroClix... and yet, they aggravate the crap out of me.

All that, plus the usual obsessive collector frustrations... I had a good collection but I was never going to have a great collection because I simply couldn't afford to get all the figures I really wanted. Just for one example, WK screwed me badly by putting out an Alred Pennysworth figure that was both enormously useful and all but impossible to obtain; as a super rare chase fig, he costs... well, I can only find one on Ebay right now, and his Buy It Now price is over $200. Even if I were lucky enough to pull one from a booster -- and the set he came out in is long out of print -- at that price, I couldn't justify keeping him. I'd HAVE to sell him. And there are quite a few figures out there like that; I want them, but I can't afford to acquire them, and if I somehow got hold of one anyway, I'd feel obligated to sell it because my family needs the money more.

(Afternote: Okay, Alfred is a bad example. They've used the same sculpt from the super rare chase fig on a common "Alfred" figure in the new BATMAN:ALPHA starter set. And the figure's dial is actually more useful than the chase fig's. So if I really wanted an Alfred, I could have one, and the cheap, common one is more playable, too.)

Beyond all that, there are the frustrations I feel whenever a new set comes out featuring yet more characters I couldn't care less about from contemporary comics storylines I am either apathetic regarding, or actively loathe. It's not enough for Brian Michael Bendis to completely piss all over my Avengers, no, he has to fucking ruin every new Marvel Heroclix expansion with his toxic drivel, too.

All in all, it just seemed like a good time to get out of it. I doubt Heroclix has the same legs as, say, Magic: the Gathering does; if these little figs are worth a few bucks NOW, I may as well get what I can for them, because it doesn't strike me as likely that they're going to hold their value for very much longer.

And that's that.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Fear Masters (1)

Working on Chapter 9, just under 15,000 words in. I have a vague idea where things are going and kinda sorta suspect I'm about a third done, which, if correct, would bring this in somewhere around 40-45,000 words.

Different people have different definitions, of course, but I've always used Stephen King's, from the afterword to the mostly brilliant DIFFERENT SEASONS, where he says:

"There is no hard-and-fast definition of what either a novel or a short story is - at least, not in terms of word count - nor should there be. But when a writer approaches the 20,000-word mark, he knows he is edging out of the country of the short story. Likewise, when he passes the 40,000-word mark, he is edging into the country of the novel."

So, this will most likely end up as a short novel, or, I suppose, if you're of a different school of thought, a long novella. What it most likely will not end up as is published in any way other than on one of my myriad web pages, so it hardly matters, but, still, barring me suddenly getting an inspiration for some sort of lengthy interlude on planet Aldegoric or some goddam thing, THE FEAR MASTERS is probably going to end up as one of my briefest 'novels'... about half the length of THE PUPPET MASTERS, which is kinda-sorta my inspiration for this thing.

After the jump you should find the first three chapters of the current draft. If I get any cogent comments on it indicating any interest at all on anyone's part, I'll keep publishing chapters as time and typing speed allow. If I don't get any comments... well, no feedback is still feedback of a sort, I suppose.


Fear itself -- One of the early 20th Century's greatest national chieftains once remarked that it was the only thing anyone really had to be afraid of. And maybe that's why fear was the weapon they ultimately chose to try and wipe us all out with. All of us -- every last living man, woman and child on The Globe -- the entire human race.

For me it started too early on 050232. The day had kicked off with an 0630 reveille. After mixing myself a quick breakfast and gulping it right out of the shower, I’d logged in at my keyboard and punched for my daily assignment. It had looked like a no-brainer; me and my usual partner Eddie Barrow on bodyguard detail for Dr. Veronica Hansea, who was taking a quick subway ride up the coast to Boston for some covert corporate/Globe symposium.

A flyer would have been faster but much less safe; American Hezbollah had hit four antigravs in the last six days, one of them a private commercial transport carrying 354 people – most if not all of them dead before the burning fragments spiraled back to Earth, from the nerve-frying electroshock of the EM impeller going wild.

So our little triad rode the coast rail instead. Once upon a time the subway was cheap transit for the unwashed masses, an underground spider-web connecting the East Coast, Midwest, Southwest, and West Coast together into one big 90 minute-maximum commute. After Homeland Security’s infamous 12 Minute Failure punched deep glassy craters in North America’s urban landscape, the subway lines were unusable and irreparable… until Globe Chief Landeau had much of the track network secretly restored, to be used as emergency transport for those on official, if covert, business.

It would have made sense for Science Sector to have easy access to the secret subway, so, naturally, our New Washington HQ was twelve miles away from the closest entry node. Eddie and I hooked up with the doc in Lincoln Corridor inside Sector HQ and rode up two thousand yards of escalators with her. She never took her eyes off her portable calculator’s screen the entire time; we never took our hands off our gun butts.

We came out through a store selling blown glass curios in the James Carter Indoor Mall, after waiting a few minutes behind a hidden blast door for the proprietor to give us the ‘all clear’. Don’t bother trying to get in that way; the door is cobaltanium cored and will hold off a Markov 77 nuclear tank… at least long enough for someone in HQ to trigger that access tunnel’s demolition charges.

We exchanged countersigns with the cabbie who was waiting for us at the corner of Fisher Boulevard and California Avenue – not one of ours, I think Eddie flashed her the Urban Surveillance Agency sign of the day, but I wasn’t really paying attention, as I was trying to scan 360 degrees of busy street corner and several thousand feet above it simultaneously -- and then all three of us crammed into the back of the ’23 Hanshaw she was driving. She dropped us at Jefferson and Fourth; we went up another escalator and into Kringle’s Fine Furnishings by a third floor ‘revolving door’ that actually dumped us out in a sub basement sixty feet below ground level at the head of yet another escalator heading even further down – this one with an armored grill at the top guarded by someone in combat armor standing next to a security droid which was essentially a 400 megawatt laser projector with a built in subprocessor and a pair of heavy duty all terrain treads. I refrained from sneering with an effort of will – had Science Sector been in charge of security for the secret subway, unauthorized intruders would never have seen what hit them.

Or maybe we were, and that insanely overpowered battledroid was a distraction, to keep unauthorized types from noticing the bio-engineered rhinoviruses rendering their lung tissue down into a chunky soup inside their own ribcages.

The uniformed guard – Global Union Sky Marines, my old outfit – scanned our IDs carefully, matching the inset holos against our bare faces. Then the gate itself took skin scrapings and checked our DNA against its databases. The theory is, a saboteur might fool a human, or maybe the machines, but getting by both would be a good trick… so far, an impossible one.

I half saluted the Marine as we went through (Eddie, being former GU Ground Forces, ostentatiously refrained) and we went on down.

Generally these subway rides are entirely uneventful, but there is always an exception to every rule… which you usually find out about when it rears up on its hind legs and kicks you right in the ovaries. I first realized it was going to be an exceptional morning of the kick-in-the-ovaries variety when the subway car came groaning to a halt somewhere under the ruins of Old New York City.

Then the first half rotted corpse came lurching down the stairs from the old 7th and Lex platform at 4:17, twenty two minutes after our unceremonious halt fifty yards southwards.

At that point, I knew the day was officially gone straight in the dumper. Inconvenient power outage, subway train stalled two hundred feet under the world’s most sprawling radioactive ruin, something fresh out of a shallow grave coming towards me with obvious murderous intent – things had definitely gone from ‘all is well, all is well’ to ‘run in circles, scream and shout’ at terminal velocity.

Staring at what was left of the walking dead man’s face, my brain tried to gibber the 'z' word at me, but I told it firmly to shut up, mama was busy.

The dead man was lurching along at a pretty good clip, letting go with one of those growly 'rrrrrr' sounds that seems to be standard equipment for all walking corpses in the viewsees that concern themselves with that sort of subject matter every couple of steps. It was goddam creepy, if anyone asked me.

My ocular implants were already set to infra-red, so I knew that whatever this thing was, it had no body heat. It was a shock to see somebody who ought to be decently dead shambling up the tunnel towards me, but I don't freeze up when I'm scared, even bad scared like I was right then. My 'fight or flight' reflex was permanently hard-wired to the former option before I hit puberty, and 13 weeks of boot training in Sumac Bay, followed by three years in a Middle Eastern hot zone and four more doing 'dirty' ops for the Globe’s top secret Science Sector had refined my instinctively violent responses to a monofilament edge.

I had my window cranked down, my gun yanked up and an explosive round on the way before anyone else in our subway car had even realized there was anything out there, much less lurching towards us with flesh devouring intent.

If I’d had any doubt regarding the nature of our attacker, it vanished as soon as I took my first breath of outside air. The creep not only looked like a rotting corpse, but he smelled like one, too. The stench was enough to, as they say, knock a buzzard off a shitwagon, and it would probably have pole axed me, too, if I hadn’t been hardened to even worse sensory input by jungle training.

Eddie, who had been scanning behind us in the UV range, turned around just in time to see my first target’s head explode. "Myrna Loy, Myrna Loy," he murmured out of the corner of his mouth, "don't know if she's a girl or boy. I hope we find a WEE-pun on that corpse when it comes time to file reports, darlin."

"Stop flapping your jaw, Eddie," I said, trying to keep the exasperation out of my voice. "Switch your ocs to IR and your clip to explosive rounds. And take a big whiff while you’re at it; it will put you in the picture faster.”

Eddie's all muscles and reaction time -- a good sort to have around when it hits the fan, but lord above, that boy can get on my last nerve when he's a mind to.

I mean, I can't help that my pop was a big fan of classic movies, nor do I really have any choice about the personal lifestyle preferences Eddie so often heckles me regarding. I knew he thought he was just kidding, but after a while, you get tired of repeating "Don't ask, don't tell", and you start itching to make a more direct rebuttal. In my case, it wasn't my knuckles that ached to get into the debate, but the edges of my palms and the soles of my feet... especially the spots where twenty years of kendo-karate training had built up all the calluses.

Eddie has three inches and about eighty pounds on me, and his arms are longer than mine, too. And he is probably stronger. But if he kept pushing my buttons, I had no doubt I could break his jaw, his nose, and six of his ribs in one fast cobra-hand strike/cobra-hand strike/leopard kick flurry, most likely before he even got his big gorilla mitts all the way up to guard position. I have a lot of quick, and a whole lot more mean, when I reach down deep to get a handful.

Eddie rolled his eyes at me, but dutifully clicked his contacts through to IR... just in time to catch sight of a well below room temperature mob spilling off the platform and shambling hungrily in our direction, 'rrrrrrrr'ing to beat the band.

He snarled something imaginative in Arabic that managed to be blasphemous, profane, obscene, and anatomically impossible all at the same time, while simultaneously hitting the RELOAD button on the side of his modified Ruger .38, dropping a clip of heatseeker and slapping in one of explosive rounds. By that time I'd dropped two more deaders with direct hits to their faces and three others behind them, presumably from high velocity skull shrapnel. That only left maybe thirty or forty more walking dead lurching and growling their way towards us.

"Zombies, goddam it, ZOMBIES," I finally blew out past my clenched lips, "we're about to be inundated by a genuine horde of mother karkin' ZOMBIES."

"What's the hazard bonus for that?" Eddie asked, actually flicking a smile at me as he started shooting. I was keeping my cool through an effort of will, but Eddie is one of those psychotics who is honestly baffled by the concept of fear. The way he's wired, 'bloodlust' is the closest he can get to it.

"Not frackin enough," I snorted back, keeping a tight grip on the little panicky butterflies that were trying to flutter in my lower intestine. I kept firing until I'd emptied another clip. It took about four seconds; by that time, the only slightly diminished mob had covered about half the distance between the platform and our stalled subway car, and I'd come to the conclusion that this wasn't going to work.

"There are too basting many of them," Eddie said, apparently reaching the same conclusion as I had. He didn't sound unhappy about it, just a little irritated at the realization.

Dr. Hansea's voice spoke up from behind us. "There's a security cache about a mile past the platform," she said calmly. "According to the manifest, it contains an armored four seat flyer and a plenitude of heavy weapons. If we can get through that horde and move quickly enough, we should be all right."

Dr. Hansea is one of the very few people in the world who can use a word like 'plenitude' in everyday speech and not sound like a dope. For her, it's just the way she talks. Her bulging brain is why the Sector assigns her a couple of gun jockeys like Eddie and me whenever she ventures outside a secured zone; her curvy chassis is why gun jockeys like Eddie -- and me, I admit it -- are happy to have the assignment.

Well, usually.

"You've got a map?" I tossed back over my shoulder, while continuing to fire my reloaded weapon.

"On my portable," she affirmed. She moved up behind me and slid her arm around my waist so I could glance down and see the screen.

"What's that round grey thing behind us?" I asked after a quick second's scrutiny of the track diagram she had projected there. "Right there, beside the track."

She edged her head in under my arm -- curly auburn hair that would fall past her shoulders if she unpinned it, wound up on top of her head in a tight bun, smelling vaguely like sun warmed strawberries -- I once again had to tell my brain to stop gibbering and stay professional.

"Underground reservoir," she said. "Probably about a million gallons... something for firefighters to use, back before compact foam-packs. Why?"

"You button this car up," I told her. "Make sure all the windows are tight and the doors are locked. Eddie, step out front and hold off the horde for a minute or so." I hit the emergency lever to open the folding doors and dropped to the floor of the track before either could argue with me.

I hotfooted it back, being very careful to hop well over the third rail as I crossed the tunnel. The unexpected power failure that had stranded us could end at any time; when it did, I had no hankering to take up a career as human barbecue.

I reached the area where I'd seen the grey oval on Dr. Hansea's map. There was an old brass nozzle-cap sticking out of the side of the tunnel there, with an equally old brass metal wheel, like the kind you see on doors in submarine viewsees, mounted right next to it.

I thumbed open one of the pockets on my agents’ vest and got a handful of boom buttons -- little things the size of a fingertip, made of a particularly stable form of plastic explosive. I didn't have time to play; I squashed them together into a blob of putty half the size of my fist and pressed it to the end of that brass cap. I jammed a pencil detonator into the mess, snapped the end off it, and ran like hell for the stalled subway car.

Normally the pencils will take about three full seconds to burn down, but the chemicals go bad fairly quickly away from controlled temperatures and you can end up with more performance variation than you'd really want under most field conditions. This time I was still maybe five yards from the subway car when I heard the sharp, flat crack of the explosion behind me.

I slammed into the car, grabbed the utility ladder mounted on the left side, and swung myself up on to the roof. Behind me I could hear the heavy hiss of high pressure water blowing out through the ruptured pipe -- then a rumbling roar as the sudden release caused the entire side of the buried reservoir, and the subway tunnel next to it, to collapse.

I'd planned to be back inside the subway car by then, but there was no way that was happening now. I reached into my vest again and had just slammed closed my handcuffs around my wrist and the upper end of that ladder when a roaring wall of ice cold water hit me and that subway car like a giant fist. The car trembled and shuddered like a wild bull in a rodeo chute but its wheels stayed in place on that track. For what seemed like several seconds past forever I thought my hand was going to come off at the wrist, or, failing that, my arm was going to pop out of its socket -- but then the water was roaring on past and I could take a breath again.


I was doing that, gratefully, when I heard Dr. Hansea's voice calling me, sounding worried. "Agent Hannigan? Agent Hannigan?"

"Goddamit, Myrna Loy," I heard Eddie curse from below me, "if you got yourself kilt I'm gonna find your body and..."

Exactly what desecrations Eddie was planning to visit on my corpse I never found out, because I pulled myself to the edge and peeked over. "I'm okay," I said, and then had to hack up about half a cupful of water I hadn't actually planned to take into my lungs that morning. "More or less," I added raspily when I was done.

Dr. Hansea still sounded worried. "We should be making our way down the track to that cache," she fretted. "Whatever those things were, if more of them were to appear..."

Eddie and I exchanged a brief, far from untroubled glance. "Yeah," I said, putting my handcuffs away and dropping lightly into the shallow puddle the stalled subway car was now sitting in.

I had been assuming that the power failure was one of those intermittent brownouts typical to the mainland power grid around the Old New York crater. The horde of zombies -- I hadn't given any thought to where they'd come from, but in the back of my head, I'd assumed that they were something aimed specifically at Dr. Hansea. I won't say I've foiled weirder assassination attempts in my time, but I've seen some pretty strange ones. But if the zombie horde hadn't been something bizarre aimed just at the group of us, then it might well be just a small part of a much larger problem -- a problem that might have been the direct cause of the power failure itself.

"We need to get upstairs," I said.

Eddie nodded, and added, "But not on foot, unless I want my ex wife collectin’ my life insurance sometime next week. An’ I most certainly do not."

"Cache it is," I said. I breathed a silent prayer of gratitude to the ghost of General Devon-Hall, the Globe’s first Security Minister. I had no doubt salting the newly reconstructed subways with caches of useful equipment had been his idea; according to what I’d studied in school, he’d always been a suspenders AND belt man.

We set off at a half-run down the tunnel, splish-sploshing our way through new puddles. I expected we'd have to slow down to accommodate Dr. Hansea -- she couldn't be expected to have the kind of physical conditioning necessary to our MOS -- but she kept up without complaint. She did keep scanning around, which wasn't unusual, since my own eyes were peeled back to my ears trying to spot hostile movement in the shadows around us. But she wasn't looking for active threats, as we discovered when she suddenly stopped to kneel over an unmoving body caught where two tracks converged in a Y junction on the floor of the tunnel.

"Dr. Hansea, we have to keep on truckin’, here," I told her, taking the moment nonetheless to inhale a few cubic yards of oxygen.

"Momentarily," she said, kneeling next to the corpse. From what I could see, the temporary tidal wave I'd unleashed had rolled and tumbled this bad boy a few hundred yards until by chance, his head had wedged between two rails, breaking his neck and crushing most of his skull. Being dead, he probably hadn't felt a thing, but I hoped otherwise. Which will tell you how upsetting I found this whole zombie thing, as normally I'm not much on tormenting an enemy. I'll kill someone if they make it necessary, but I normally don't try to make anyone suffer on the way out.

Dr. Hansea murmured something to herself as she pressed a tissue probe against the dead man's clammy looking arm. I didn’t catch it but it sounded admiring. Science Sector necessarily has cutting edge field equipment; our labs and shops invent and fabricate a lot of stuff that stays classified for years, other than our own proprietary uses.

The small light at the back of the probe blinked green and Dr. Hansea got smoothly to her feet, tucking the instrument away again through a sleeve-loop. "I shall have to cancel the Boston meeting," she announced, as if she were sitting in an environment controlled cubie somewhere and I were her exec-assist. "I need to return to a fully equipped analysis laboratory as quickly as feasible."

I looked at Eddie; he shrugged. Dr. Hansea isn't in our COC and can't legally give us orders, but whatever was going on had to take priority over anything scheduled prior to us coming down with a bad case of walking stiffs. "Either way, the cache is our best bet," I said.

The other two voted with their feet; there were no further stops as we slogged at a double time pace the rest of the way up the tracks.


In a section of track that looked pretty much identical to every other one we'd just jogged by, Dr. Hansea stopped, holding up the hand she had her portable in. "We are here," she said, not even breathing hard. I was a little bit winded myself... not incapacitated by any means, but glad for a chance to take a few deep breaths again.

"Don't look like much," Eddie said, huffing a tad to get his lungs pumped back up to maximum capacity.

"It's beyond this wall," Dr. Hansea said, studying her portable's screen, fingers twitching on the minikeys. "The receivers are picking up my signal but the code it's looking for is 12 years obsolete... wait... that's got it."

A line of greenish light appeared on the wall in front of her; with a damp rumble of long unused metal casters, it widened into a standard sized doorway. Beyond was a flight of rusty iron-plated stairs leading upward, lit by greenish chemical emergency glowpods. Tripping the entry switch must have triggered them; they were the kind that shine for an hour or so after being stimulated, and then go dead forever.

Eddie and I bracketed the doc; I went up first, then she followed, then he played caboose. I only hoped he was keeping an eye out behind us instead of on the behind ahead of him. I could have managed it, if I'd had to. Probably.

One flight up we came out into about 200 concrete lined cubic feet of storage space, mostly filled with dusty stacks of cardboard boxes and something vaguely vehicle shaped under an equally dusty canvas drape. More emergency lights started to glow. I knew Eddie would want to check out the flyer, so I went to the closest boxes and started brushing dust off.

Military rations, bottled water, battery powered flashlights – good, we’d want those in an hour or so, if we were still here -- protective gear against bacteriological or chemical weaponry, a stack of crates full of Bouncing Bradley land mines, another stack of Claymore 21s, another stack of various different types of hand grenades... that was as far as I'd gotten when I realized my hands were starting to tremble. I tried to clamp down on my nervous system and my fingers started shaking even worse. Delayed reaction from the morning’s action – in a deep-tank or on a flatscreen, zombie attacks are kind of fun, but in real life, holding off a horde of walking human corpses with just your Science Sector .38 is a pretty horrible experience. I’ve done some bad things in some gruesome spots, and watched other people do worse, but I’d never gone through anything like this morning before in my life. Or imagined I might have to.

The last thing I needed was for Eddie to see me this way – like I said before, Eddie doesn’t have nerves so much as he has stimuli receptors he mostly uses to aim weapons with. It was bad enough I had to listen to his bullshit about my sexual preferences; if he got it into his head that he was partnered up with a ‘weak sister’, he’d be even more insufferable, and I’d probably have to kill him.

I felt a small, soft hand rubbing my neck from behind me, and heard Dr. Hansea’s voice, pitched to carry only to my ear. “Buck up,” she told me in a whisper, her breath warm on my ear. “You weren’t shooting people, just things – like this.” She held her portable where I could see it; she’d captured several pictures of the oncoming zombie horde from that morning. Unlovely specimens, in varying degrees of decay. A few maybe could have passed as still living if they’d had any animation in their expressions; they must have been very recently dead. The others didn’t look anything like breathing human beings.

It helped me get myself under control again. “Thanks, Doc,” I whispered back, shakily.

Then I heard Eddie whoop behind me.

I turned around. I didn't recognize what he'd uncovered, other than that it looked big as a whale and about as ungainly. "What the frack is that?" I asked, honestly baffled.

"It sure ain't what it looks like," Eddie chortled, walking around the unlikely looking thing, actually rubbing his hands together in glee. "No way to get a 1959 Cadillac El Dorado land cruiser down here... this has to be the antigrav flyer. Don't know why it's got the classic chassis, but don't she look sweet!"

I gave it the once-over. The unusual bodylines must have created an optical illusion; from twelve feet away, it looked big enough to stage a Busby Berkely musical in. A trunk the size of a swimming pool between two shark fins capped with ruby red signal lights, and a front grill that looked positively carnivorous. This was a flyer...?

"Somebody must have had a sense of humor,” I said. “They couldn’t just give us a standard four seater?”

Eddie shook his head. "Back in the late teens there was a brief fad for vintage vehicle reproductions," he said. Eddie is a vehicle nut, with the same kind of love for old automobiles and aircraft that my not so dear departed daddy had for antique viewsees. “This must be a mock up of a ’59 El Dorado over a standard AG engine.”

Dr. Hansea noted, “The first several generations of anti-grav plants were bigger than the ones we use these days, they would have needed a bigger chassis to house it.”

“Easier to armor a hulk like this, too. But it won’t have a built in cloak,” Eddie said. Then he brightened. “That means it will be faster than the stuff we’re used to today. A cloak sucks maybe 30% of your energy curve.” He paused and glanced upward. “Assumin’ I can get this baby started, you know we’re gonna have a problem with the upper exit.”

Immediately above the car, ten feet up, there was a large metal hatch set in the concrete ceiling, just big enough to accommodate the monster flyer. Beyond that, no doubt, would be the access shaft that Science Sector’s precursor agency – whatever it had been called – would have used to get the sky-whale down here. But that would have been no more than 24 months after the 12 Minute Failure, long before the Globe had started using the New York craters as an all purpose dumping ground for every kind of low grade radioactive and toxic waste. Wherever that shaft had originally led, its exit would be buried under a drift of poisonous garbage now.

Something I thought I’d seen in those stacks of supply crates might solve that problem. “See if you can get it running,” I told Eddie, “I need to look at something over here.”