Thursday, February 28, 2019

Writing Faith in Fiction

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It is fashionable in modern SFF to denigrate religion as oppressive and outdated superstition. Priests are corrupt hypocrites, gods are dead or evil or both, religious doctrine is a lie -- and the worst offender is always Christianity in fantasy dress. Science fiction goes one step further, portraying technologically advanced societies that have outgrown religion -- including Christianity. Alternatively, religion is treated as window dressing, or as an afterthought plastered on to the setting.
Such derogatory or half-hearted portrayals of religion undermine the genre.
A key element of science fiction and fantasy is awe and wonder. The writer evokes this feeling by portraying an organic world and a cosmology much larger than the characters, and by extension the readers. Drawing upon religion and mythology is a powerful and time-tested method of achieving this.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Red River Part 13


Dewdrop World

One can’t challenge an Executive Assistant Director of the PSB without consequences.
Mere minutes after Pearce left, a barrage of orders came down from above. The mission was declared complete, with all operational duties handed over to the Riveria field office and local ESWAT team. All STS operators would catch the first flight back to Babylon. Team Black Watch would be suspended and placed on administrative leave to support a post-shooting investigation by the Office of Professional Standards and Ethics.
After every mission, if an STS operator fired shots, there would always be a post-shooting investigation. But unlike regular law enforcement agencies, STS operators weren’t pulled off the line during the investigation. Their operational tempo and small numbers simply couldn’t support it. What investigations OPSE performed for the STS never took longer than a week, rarely longer than a day or two, long enough to establish that, yes, the operators faced extraordinary threats in an extraordinary environment, yes, the operators were required to employ dynamic tactics and specialist weapons to meet these threats, yes, the operators acted within policy.
It took a major fuck up to be suspended.
And the Black Watch did not fuck up.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Red River Part 12


The Balance

The conference room was small but cozy, befitting the intimate and confidential nature of this meeting. Executive Assistant Director Robert Pearce, wearing a bespoke blue suit of fine silk, leaned back in his chair and smiled at his three guests.
“I am pleased to report that the Public Security Bureau has smashed the Guzman Cartel in Riveria. We have rounded up their leaders, facilitators and soldiers, and have confiscated millions of dollars in illicit wealth, assets and weapons.
“We are continuing to pursue their remaining members in Riveria. However, their ability to conduct criminal operations have been significantly diminished. We judge they are no longer capable of anything more sophisticated than street-level crimes.”
“That’s wonderful,” Emily Anders said. “Please convey our thanks to the brave agents who made this possible.”
“Thanks. I will.”
“We—the Pantheon—are most delighted to hear of this development,” Nav Chaudhari said. “With that said, I understand there are some ongoing investigations that touch upon mutual interests.”
“Yes,” Anders said, nodding. “My congregation is traumatized by the demise of so many of our fellow members. We need answers.”

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Red River Part 11


House of Shadows

The operators stayed aboveground for fifteen minutes.
Long enough to replace their expended magazines with spares from their vehicles. Long enough for the RPD to swoop down and form an outer perimeter. Long enough for the flying ambulances to recover the former hostages and send them to hospital.
As the last ambulance took to the air, Yamamoto found the senior cop on scene and clapped his shoulder.
“Sergeant, we need your help.”
“What do you need?” the cop asked.
“We still have work to do here. We need you to maintain the perimeter and make sure no one breaches the scene. Not even the New Gods. We also need more paramedics on standby, prepped for a mass casualty event and evacuation.”
“What are you going to do?”
“To save lives.”

Friday, February 22, 2019

Red River Part 10


Shots Fired

“Shots fired, shots fired inside the office,” Fox called.
“Anybody got eyes on?” Yamamoto asked.
“I can’t see inside the office from here.”
“Negative visual here,” Wood said. “Lycan?”
“I’m…” He inhaled sharply. “I’m tapped out. Sorry.”
“We need to go. Now,” Connor said.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Red River Part 9



The House of Shadows looked nothing like a church. It was a simple brick building, five stories tall, painted in cheerful blues and reds. The signboard said ‘SAFEKEEP SELF-STORAGE SOLUTIONS’. There were no altars to the Lord and Lady of Shadows in a three-block radius. No iconography, no goons hanging around. A perfectly innocent business.
And yet…
A wall surrounded the building, concrete to waist height, steel bars to eye level. Security cameras watched the entrances and exits. A guardhouse controlled vehicular access, and the guard on duty wore pistols at their hips.
And one more thing.
“The place is warded,” Mustafa reported. “But it’s… odd.”
“How so?” Yamamoto asked.
“The office on the first floor, and the storage areas on the upper floor, are transparent. I can pass in and out through them. But the floor of the office is warded. I think there’s a hidden basement.”
“What kind of ward is it?”
“A complex one. It keeps out intruders on the Aether. If I touch it, I’ll bounce off. In meatspace, if someone enters the warded space, it’ll set off an alarm. And, I think, if the ward goes down, it’ll trigger an alarm too.”
“Can you penetrate the ward?”
“I could try, but it might set off an alarm.”
“Before you do, search for a way to physically access the basement.”
The six operators of the Black Watch had surrounded the building. Fox and Tan had taken positions in an apartment block opposite SafeKeep. Wood and Mustafa were in an unmarked car in a nearby parking garage. Yamamoto and Connor, ensconced in a black van with tinted windows, were parked three blocks down the road.
During the conversation, Connor was busying studying the target. Seated in the back, he trained a pair of binoculars out the window, staring at the entrance, noting all traffic. Next to him, a suite of phone interceptors and trackers waited for someone to call SafeKeep.
Stakeouts were boring. But Connor understood why he needed to do this, and what he needed to do. His nerves wanted to be in motion, but that would defeat the mission, so he willed himself to remain still. As Yamamoto would say, it was merely the chattering of the monkey mind, and the mind could be mastered. Sometimes, what Yamamoto said was too esoteric for Connor. But he grasped the concept of discipline and self-mastery immediately.
When this was all over, he really should ask Yamamoto the title of the book he recommended.
With that note filed away, Connor resumed his task. He dutifully logged every vehicle coming and going from the facility, confirming details with Tan and Fox. When someone called the office, Yamamoto slipped on his headphones, listened intently and took notes. There had been three phone calls so far, all of which were routine enquiries.
“Samurai, Lycan,” Mustafa radioed. “I think I’ve found an access point to the basement.”
“Tell us more,” Yamamoto replied.
“The elevator shaft. The control panel shows buttons for floors one to five, but the shaft itself runs deep underground. I followed the shaft down, and I found a hidden door. A warded door, at that.
“The elevator control panel uses a thumbprint identification system. My guess is that if an Elect presses his thumb against the reader, the lift will automatically descend to the basement.”
“That sounds plausible,” Yamamoto said. “But look around for hidden stairs. I want to see if there’s another access point.”
“Roger that.”
Time crawled past. Connor swapped out with Yamamoto, drank some water, and listened to the police and PSB radio chatter.
It was a war zone out there. STS and ESWAT were still running hard, hitting target after target. Gunfights were springing up all over the city, and the police were scrambling to keep up. Elect were sighted in multiple districts. The New Gods were getting their kill on. Through the window glass, he heard the muffled pops of faraway shots.
“All call signs, Lycan. I’ve found a secondary access.”
“Go ahead,” Yamamoto said.
“On the white side of the building, there’s a mechanical room. Inside the room, on the white side, there’s a storage room. The white side of the storage room conceals a false wall. Behind the wall, there’s a staircase heading down. And the stairs are warded.”
“Any way to access the false wall?”
“Checking now.”
“Lycan, Boomer. How thick is the wall?”
“About half an inch thick. I can’t tell for sure, but I think it’s drywall. I’m seeing some kind of sliding mechanism behind the wall. The wall slides to the left.”
“Good thing I brought my MOE kit,” Connor said.
“Samurai, should I penetrate the wards?” Mustafa asked.
“Are you able to ghost in?”
“I’m almost tapped out. I’m losing my connection on the Aether.”
“Take a break. Once you’re fresh, you can try again.”
“Got it.”
“ZT, how’s progress?” Yamamoto asked.
“I’ve hacked into SafeKeep’s systems, but I’m not seeing anything of use,” Tan continued. “Invoices, inventory, payroll, but nothing damning.”
“What about control systems for the elevator or the false wall?”
“Nothing. I could keep looking, but if you ask me, the control systems are air-gapped. I’ll have to physically access the elevator control panel before I can work my magic. Likewise, I think there’s some kind of lever or catch inside the storage room.”
“Keep looking. We have time.”
“Roger that. I’ll poke around their security system some more and see if there’s anything I can work with.”
Connor grabbed his bags and checked his kit. This was a low-profile op; there was simply no room for mechanical breaching tools, and he had to leave his heavier explosives behind.
Which wasn’t to say he had nothing to work with. He had a pair of door knocker charges in his pouches. The small shaped charges were just powerful enough to blow in a lock. For more extensive cutting work, he carried breacher strips in his backpack Where explosives were contraindicated, or if they needed to go fast, he had mounted an underbarrel shotgun to his carbine. And finally, every operator carried a breach pen, a small but powerful thermal cutting tool.
More than enough to break into a House of Shadows and say hello.
“Convoy entering SafeKeep. Three vans,” Yamamoto reported.
Connor sat up. That was unusual.
“Copy, I see three vans,” Fox said.
“Lycan, are you ready to go?” Yamamoto asked.
“I’m… Yeah, I’m good.”
Fox rattled off the vans’ license plate numbers. Tan ran them against the local and national databases. Routine, so far, but one question nagged at Yamamoto.
Why three vans?
“Subjects are exiting the vans,” Fox said. “Two subjects per van. Six subjects total. They are all wearing ball caps, shades, jackets, cargo pants.”
“Can you get a read on their faces?”
“Already on it,” she said. “I’ve captured vid and photos. Uploading to the database now. Stand by, stand by. The subjects are opening the rear of their vehicles. Can’t see what they’re doing.”
Her rifle’s telescopic sight had an integrated camera for occasions like this.
“Roger. Break. Farmer, do you have visual?”
“Negative,” Wood replied. “Wait. One guy is running over to grab a trolley.”
“I see Trolley Man,” Fox said. “He’s pushing the trolley to the vans. Stand by. He’s parked the trolley by the vans. The other subjects are unloading crates from the vans and placing them on the trolley. Wooden crates, green storage containers, footlockers… Hey, some of this stuff looks military.”
“Lycan, look inside the boxes.”
“Roger. Wait one.”
“All six subjects are going to the elevator,” Fox said. “Hurry.”
“I’m in the Aether,” Mustafa said. “Peeking in. Stand by… I’m seeing guns. Rifles and shotguns. Boxes of ammo. And… people. Two individuals, one male and one female, stuffed inside a wooden crate. Another two inside a second crate, both males. And… well, they’ve entered the basement.”
“That does not sound good,” Connor said.
“Agreed,” Yamamoto replied.
The Court of Shadows used blood for many rituals. None of them good.
“Samurai, Deadeye. We have a hit. One of the subjects is Jose Luis Gutierrez, one of the sicarios on our list.”
“Gotcha. I’m going to update the TOC. Stand by.”
Yamamoto pulled out his phone and dialed.
“Sir, this is Yamamoto. We have a positive sighting on one Jose Luis Gutierrez, a sicario on our target deck, at the suspected House of Shadows. Gutierrez has five others with him. They were carrying weapons, ammo and four hostages into the House. We need authorization to breach the facility and rescue the hostages. …A what? The hostages— Right. Understood.”
Yamamoto sighed and switched to the radio.
“Samurai here. I’ve updated the boss. He said he’s going to apply for a warrant. We need to send him our reports so he can submit them on to the judge.”
“A warrant?” Connor asked. “What the hell for?”
“We need to keep our ops nice and legal.”
“This is the Court of Shadows we’re talking about. They only have one use for those hostages.”
“We have ‘no proof of imminent danger’,” Yamamoto groused. “Look, we already have a judge on call. The sooner we send in the reports, the sooner we’ll get the warrant.”
Connor grumbled.
Half the team maintained surveillance. The other half prepared their reports. Connor dictated his into his phone, edited the transcript, then bundled it with the other reports and sent them on.
“Hope he’s happy now,” Connor said.
“We’re accountable to the taxpayers,” Yamamoto said. “We need to satisfy them.”
Connor just sighed. If he were younger, he would have demanded the team to jump out and hunt down the Elect. But he was older and hopefully wiser now. He knew that if they didn’t comply with the legal process, it’ll come around to bite them in the ass.
“Heads up,” Fox said. “A four-car convey is approaching SafeKeep.”
“I see them,” Yamamoto said.
“The vics are driving in… They’re not parking. They’re pulling up in front of the office. Subjects are jumping out. I count sixteen, one-six, subjects. They all have carbines, body armor, full-face helmets. Eight of them are entering the office. The rest are fanning out and pulling security positions.”
Connor’s eyes widened.
“Deadeye, Boomer. Is it a raid?”
A pair of gunshots cracked in the air.
“They just shot the security guard in the face!” Deadeye reported.
“Did you get images of their faces?” Yamamoto asked.
“Stand by… Negative. They have full-face helmets with tinted goggles and ballistic plates. Break. Two guys have broken away from the security team and are going around the back.”
Helmets with ballistic plates? Shit.
“Boomer here. We have to load up for bear. Swap your ammo for SLAP.”
Saboted Light Armor Penetrators were probably overkill for helmet-mounted plates. But in cases like this, it was better to penetrate too much than to not penetrate at all.
“Lycan, Samurai can you look inside the office?”
“I’ll… Yes.”
“Do it. We need eyes inside.”
“Copy… Ah!
“What’s wrong?”
“Headache. Exhaustion. I’ll be fine. Looking…”
Connor swapped out his loaded magazine for one filled with SLAP. As he replaced the mags on his plate carrier, Mustafa spoke again.
“There are eight suspects in the office, and six hostages. They’ve gathered the hostages in the corner. One of the suspects is yelling at the hostages. The others are pulling security and tearing up the file cabinets. One guy is plugging his laptop into the manager’s computer.”
“It’s not a robbery, that’s for damn sure,” Connor said.
“The front man grabbed the manager and is shouting into his face. The manager seems scared. The hostages are panicking and—”
Mustafa groaned.
“Lycan, what’s wrong?”
“He’s woozy,” Farmer muttered. “Looks like exhaustion to me.”
Yamamoto muttered darkly. “Roger. All call signs, monitor the situation. I’m calling this in.”
Connor scooted into the back, picking up the binoculars. Out the window, he saw all of nothing.
“All call signs, this is team Black Watch,” Yamamoto radioed over the guard net. “We’re mounting a stakeout at SafeKeep Self-Storage Solutions. A group of sixteen, one six, gunmen have invaded the site and have taken hostages. Suspects have carbines, body armor, and full-face helmets. Immediate response required. We need backup. Over.”
“Black Watch, TOC. Roger on the hostage situation. Everyone’s tasked out, but we will reroute the moment we have available teams. ETA three-zero mikes.”
“Copy that.”
Six on sixteen were poor odds, even for STS. They’d need backup. The more the merrier. Other STS teams, ESWAT, regular SWAT, hell, even ordinary beat cops would do in a pinch. As Connor framed the thoughts, Yamamoto got on the police net and—
A sharp crack filled the air.
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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Fantasy Monsters, Realistic Fights

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Almost every fantasy story I've read deal with fight scenes in one of two ways. The first is to make it a spectacular show, with special moves, acrobatics, magic, powers and other feats thrown around to dazzle and impress the reader. The second is to describe the battle in broad strokes, seeking to capture the spirit, the energy, the tactics and strategy, and the drama of the clash without delving too deeply into the mechanics of each technique.
Unfortunately, they don't work for me.