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Saturday, November 29, 2008


Some days you can ask what seems like a simple question, and find that instead of plucking off a loose thread, you've started unraveling the entire sweater. For example, this morning I asked my wife one simple question, and before I knew it, we were deeply into a wide-ranging discussion of Old Testament history, subtext, context, and translation issues.

One should be very careful when asking questions with potentially Biblical answers of someone who is in her fourth year of studying for the deaconate.

To begin comprehending her answer, then, we should first examine the embedded subtext of the question I didn't even know I'd asked: does a book written 2,000 years ago really have any relevance to our lives today?

Even that question lacks sufficient focus, though. Which book? The Bible? Then which bible? For you must understand that even the word "bible" lacks precision. It is merely the generic word for "book" that was in current usage in, pardon the expression, Biblical times, being derived from the Greek name for the Phoenician city of Byblos, which was in turn the center of the papyrus and publishing industry in those days. Two thousand years ago, at least as far as the Greeks and Romans were concerned, all books were bibles.

[Why is it that right now an annoying little voice in the back of my head is saying, "Pretty good story, kid, but it falls flat at the ending. Look at Samson destroying the temple with his bare hands; now that is one heck of an ending, even if the author didn't leave room for a sequel. But your biggest problem here is the setting. I mean, honestly, do you really think anyone in Byblos gives a fig about stuff that happened in Nazareth?"]

Well, okay then, the Bible. The Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible.

Oops. That was another mistake. There is, properly speaking, no such thing as a Hebrew Bible. According to observant Jews, "Hebrew Bible" is a redundancy; it was always meant to be written and studied only in Hebrew, in the tradition of the midrash. (Note the linguistic similarity to madrassa?) That which Christians call the Old Testament is complete in and of itself, and Judaism not being an evangelistic religion, there was never much interest in translating it. So let us be very precise here and call it by its proper name: the Tanakh, which in turn consists of three distinct sections; the Torah, which can be translated as either the law or the teachings of Moshe (Moses) and consists of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; the Nevi'im (the Prophets), which consists of pretty much any book that is titled with a first name; and the Kethuvim (the writings, or commentaries), which consists of the Psalms, Proverbs, Chronicles, and so on. Taken together, these books comprise the whole megilloth, which no doubt answers another question you've always wondered about.

So when asking whether a book written 2,000 years ago is still relevant today, first off, we have the date wrong. The scrolls that comprise the Tanakh were consolidated into their approximate current form during the Babylonian Captivity, circa 500 BCE, although the work of refining and clarifying them continued until finally formalized and settled by the Masoretic scholars in the early Middle Ages. But if the contents of the Tanakh didn't settle down until late in the first millennium CE, then what on Earth were all those early Greek and Roman Christians reading?

Well, in the third century BCE, thanks to the conquests of Alexander the Great, much of the Jewish population of Egypt had lost the ability to read and write Hebrew, and so a Greek translation (called by the Romans the Septuagint) was created for their benefit. Likewise, a similar thing happened to the Jews who lived to the north and east of Judea, and so in the second century BCE a second translation into Aramaic (the Targums) was made for their use. It was the Septuagint that was widely read and circulated in the early Christian Era and used as the basis for the Latin translation (the Vulgate) written by St. Jerome in the 4th century CE, and the Vulgate, informed by additional commentary from the Targums, that was used as the basis for the German translation made by Martin Luther in the 16th century and the contemporaneous English translation by William Tyndale that, several revisions later in 1611, finally became the King James version. The King James version in turn became the basis for almost all subsequent English-language Protestant Bibles except the Lutheran version, which is based on Luther's German translation, and a careful reader will note many subtle differences between the English-language Catholic, Lutheran, and other Protestant versions of the Bible. (For example, even today the Catholic version of the Ten Commandments omits the prohibition against worshiping graven images, while the Episcopalian version has been shortened to the Nine Suggestions.)

So to find a definitive answer to my original question, then, we at last turned to the Oxford University translation of the Masoretic Tanakh, and found, in Leviticus, chapter 7 (while also noting that, while most translations follow the Hebrew verse structure, the chapter structure was an interposition created by Medieval Christians in order to improve readability):
This is the ritual of the sacrifice of well-being that one may offer to the Lord:

If he offers it for Thanksgiving, he shall offer together with the sacrifice of Thanksgiving unleavened cakes with oil mixed in, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of choice flour with oil mixed in, well soaked. This offering, with cakes of leavened bread added, he shall offer along with his Thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being. Out of this he shall offer one of each kind as a gift to the Lord; it shall go to the priest who dashes the blood of the offering of well-being. And the flesh of his Thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being shall be eaten on the day that it is offered; none of it shall be set aside until morning.

If, however, the sacrifice he offers is a votive or a freewill offering, it shall be eaten on the day that he offers his sacrifice, and what is left of it shall be eaten on the morrow. What is then left of the sacrifice shall be consumed in fire on the third day. If any of the flesh of his sacrifice of well-being is eaten on the third day, it shall not be acceptable...
So to answer my original unspoken question: does a book written (roughly) 2,000 years ago really have any relevance to our lives today? The answer is an emphatic yes, for to paraphrase the teachings as given in the Book of Leviticus: on the third day after Thanksgiving, throw out the leftovers.

And to think that I learned all of this just because I asked my wife if maybe it was time to clean out the refrigerator.

P.S. But we still haven't cleaned the fridge.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Guest Column: Quantum of Solace

Review by KTown

Movies that I hate are fun to critique. It’s more difficult to write a review of a film that I liked, and I did like Quantum of Solace. I couldn’t stop talking for weeks about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull because it was so bad and so easy to skewer. Even now, I’m resisting the temptation to turn this positive review of QOS into a negative review of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull because it would be sooo much fun — because I hated that movie. OK…let it go…alright. (It sucked)

You can’t really talk about the new Bond film without talking about the new Bond re-launch in general, because Quantum of Solace is really an extension of Casino Royale. I was even stoked about the new title. They were getting so clichéd that they all ran together: License to Kill Another Dying Day Twice Tomorrow.

The new Bond films are like a negative photo image of all the previous films; the basic image is there, you can identify all the parts, but the color and feel is completely different — unfamiliar. But it’s a good kind of different. Gone is the cheesy sense of humor and the need to suspend belief beyond belief. There were only a couple moments that seemed way over the top in the new Bond films. With this new focus on gritty realism, you can feel the filmmakers looking for the line and the appropriate time to cross it. They want to take the audience on an exciting and suspenseful trip but they don’t want us saying “whatever.” Admittedly, the most-cynical will still look for ways to disconnect, but this moviegoer was fairly engaged.

Quantum of Solace starts the day Casino Royale ends and finds Bond burying his grief in his work, and it’s a work he pursues with reckless abandon. He’s a man on a mission. He gives no thought to his own life or limb — which makes for great action. And Craig himself seems to be really getting into it, doing as many of the stunts himself as he can.

Speaking of stunts, there are twice as many here as there were in Casino Royale, which for some films might be overkill, but it works. There were a couple times I felt almost like I was being moved through the story just to get to the next stunt but, thankfully, that pattern did not persist.

In QOS, Bond is without all the old contrivances. The Aston-Martin has only one scene: the opening. There are no story-foreshadowing, uncannily-useful gadgets. He doesn’t bed the heroine and when he does get promiscuous, there are negative consequences. Really?

Even the villain has no strange physical manifestation of his inner “evilness”.
There seems to be a dedication to story and character in this film that makes it refreshing. They aren’t afraid to put up on the screen something that is shocking or unexpected. They let the story flow naturally, letting the characters be who they are and grow organically rather than looking for places to fit some kitschy dialog or ridiculous love scene. It ends up being more of a character study than the script of a two-dimensional, sexy super-hero.

Where Casino Royale still enjoyed some sophistication and color reminiscent of the older films, QOS is bleaker, angrier, and meaner. With all the action, Craig doesn’t get quite as much time to “act” but having well-established his Bond in the first film, he’s able to delve into the darker places of the character without having to say too much.

I’ll admit, the new Bond is a bit more amoral than I’m comfortable with, but honestly, that’s what makes it interesting. I do tend to like my heroes with a bit more good-guyness and Bond here is played more like a tool of the British Government, but there are moments you can see a soul under the exterior that gives idealists like myself hope.

The only real negative thing I could say is that it seems the writers are determined to introduce us to a new “international network of political/corporate criminals” that seems like too much of a throwback to Spectre. In retrospect, even some of the dialog seemed a bit forced in order to prop up this malevolent menagerie. M retorts, “How can this group be so large, and we have never heard of them?” Hmm, I’ll play along for now.

It’s interesting how things change over time from one generation to the next. I’ve been checking out some of the Connery 007 films because they were a little before my time, and I have to say they are a little disappointing and really a product of their sixties, free-love environment. I felt like I was watching porn but without actual nudity. There was so much emphasis on sexuality, it’s almost obscene. Yes, today’s Bond is still a ladies man, but he uses women, and it’s not pretty.

So it will be interesting to see where they go from here. Quantum of Solace feels like a transitional movie; like part 2 of a trilogy. What will his relationships be like? Will he grow up? Will he get a steady girlfriend? Remember, this is a young Bond. He’s just gotten his 007 status. Will he remain the callous killing machine?

I know for some, Connery will always be Bond. I personally grew up with Moore but am one of the few who really like Dalton. When they tapped Brosnan to play Bond, I said it was about time. But to no fault of any of the players, Bond’s movie veneer was growing thin and time was running out. Fans might not have even been able to vocalize what they wanted... until they saw Casino Royale and said, "Oh, yes. I’ll have another, please. Shaken, not stirred."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 11/21/08

This, as many of you have no doubt noted, is not Friday the 21st, but in fact Tuesday, the 25th. I started writing this post last Friday morning, but have a major deadline coming up in the first week of December and as usual a lot of fresh information coming in at the tail-end of the project. Therefore, rather than work through the Thanksgiving weekend, I started my deadline kick last Friday and subcritical things — such as, say, blogging — have been pushed aside for the moment.

Which is something of a pity, because the 11/14/08 Friday Challenge turned out to be a really good one. This is what I enjoy about doing this contest and why I keep doing it; I am always truly delighted when you take some idea I've tossed out and return with a story I never would have thought of. This time around, not only did we get some really strong entries, but even the Comments seem particularly insightful and well worth reading, if you have not already done so.

With that said, the writers who submitted entries for "The Space Colonists' Dilemma" are:

WaterBoy, "The Message" - short, sweet, incisive, and you almost ruined it for everyone else. Why did you have to get all moral on us?

EP, "The Eagle has landed" - cute and funny, but too short to count as much more than a joke.

Snowdog, "Stevie's Message" - I'm not sure what to say about this one. It's tight, well-written, and I really liked it, probably because it's closest to what I would have written. (I probably would have found a way to sneak in a few lines of Newt's dialog from Aliens, though. "They mostly come at night. Mostly.") So before I pick this one I'd probably best take a step back, take a deep breath, pour myself another cup of coffee, and think about it some more.

Ben-El, "Building Jerusalem" - Wow. Just, wow.

Henry, "The Final Message" - beautiful, sentimental, the sort of thing that should touch the heartstrings of any American who still remembers how his or her grandparents got here. Nicely done.

And the winner is...

I'm going to have to ruminate on this a bit more. I'll post my decision later.

Update: 8:00 PM Okay, we convened a meeting of the entire Rampant Loon editorial staff, reread all the entries, discussed them at length—

And in the end decided to drop back, punt, and call it a three-way tie. What the heck. It's almost Christmas shopping season. Or something. And we're already two days late picking a winner, and if the discussion this evening is any indicator, we aren't going to be agreeing on one anytime soon. So...

In the category of Responding With Astonishing Speed & Submitting An Entry That Not Only Fairly Sang, But Also Raised The Bar For All Subsequent Entries: WaterBoy.

In the category of The Story Most Like The Story I Would Have Written, Which Considering My Career May Not Necessarily Be A Good Thing: SnowDog.

And finally, in the category of There Is A Novel Inside This Story, Screaming To Get Out: Ben-El.

Okay everybody, come on down and collect your prizes.

P.S. Ben-El, I'm serious. I want to see that novel. Write it.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge: well, obviously, it's Tuesday already, and I don't know about the rest of you, but the rest of my week is pretty well tied-up from Wednesday afternoon on. So first off, the bungeeline for this one is Thursday, December 4th, not Thursday 11/27, and secondly, the topic is...

What else. Thanksgiving. Give us your best Thanksgiving Holiday story. It can be factual; it can be fiction. It can be funny, heartwarming, serious, or horrible. Tell us about the time your Cousin Ramapithecus went into the kitchen, said, "Mm-mm, smells delicious!" and ate the giblets and gizzard you'd boiled up for the dog. Tell us about Uncle Slosh, who shows up every year and shouts, "Everyone can relax! I brought the turkey!" and then whips out his personal quart of Wild Turkey, with no clue as to how unfunny or obnoxious that has become. Tell us about the time Auntie Promiscua had just a little too much rosé and proceeded to provide the family with Way Too Much Detailed Information about her personal life, or about that Most Romantic Thanksgiving Ever, when you and your college sweetheart were on your way to meet her folks but instead spent the holiday stuck in a Greyhound bus station during a blizzard, eating cold turkey sandwiches from a vending machine. Whatever your story is, if it has even a vague and tangential connection to the Thanksgiving holiday, we want to hear it.

As always, we're playing by the so-called rules for the Friday Challenge and playing for whatever is behind Door #2. The deadline for entries is midnight Central time, Thursday, December 4th.

Now shake off that tryptophan buzz and get writing!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

WCA Reminder

Just a reminder that the weekly meeting of Were-Creatures Anonymous will be held at 7pm Central time this evening. All Friends of Lon are invited to share fellowship, conversation, and non-sanguinary beverages.

We'd like to emphasize that WCA Meetings are open to the public, and while each weekly meeting typically has a featured speaker, all attendees are invited to participate in the often very lively commentary session that follows the presentation.

Special Note: In recognition of the coming Thanksgiving Holiday, we will be having our traditional annual joint meeting and outdoor banquet with the Mexican-American Were-Jaguars Anonymous in the picnic pavilion in Joseph McCarthy Memorial Park, across the street from the Rampant Loon Media Empire Building. As a special Thanksgiving treat, our friends at Rampant Loon have arranged for sixty live turkeys to be air-dropped onto the pavilion at the end of the meeting.

Happy hunting!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Friday Challenge Reminder

Just a reminder that the deadline for the 11/14/08 Friday Challenge is midnight Central time, tonight.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Ripped from the headlines, and all that. Ironically, this past weekend I just finished reading Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas, by John Burnett, and I was planning to write a piece on it for this Saturday.

Most of the questions everyone is asking today are answered in Burnett's book. How could barefoot third-world loonies in rickety boats take on a modern supertanker? First off, they aren't using rickety boats anymore, they're using ocean racing boats with 800 hp. motors. Secondly, when fully laden, the fantail of a tanker is only 12 to 15 feet above the water, which makes it fairly easily climbed by a barefoot guy with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. (Provided you have the callouses, it's always easier to climb barefoot.)

Why don't these tankers carry guns and arm their crewmen? In most ports of call, civilian gun ownership is a serious crime that leads to long prison terms; the tankers themselves are basically giant Zippo lighters waiting for an excuse to go up; and probably most importantly, the shipping companies don't trust their own crewmen, as the Chinese organized crime syndicates have proven singularly adept at planting "inside" men on the crews of ships they plan to raid or hijack. Standard defensive doctrine is try to make a castle of the ship's bridge and living quarters; all it takes is one man who "forgets" to lock one hatch and it's back to the fallback doctrine of acting like a pizza delivery driver and giving the pirates whatever they want, in hopes they'll be satisfied and go away. Of course, if what the pirates want to do is to kill the entire crew and steal the ship — which is something that does happen with depressing frequency — well, then, you're pretty much screwed.

Interestingly, both the Israelis and the Russians, who tend to use ships crewed only with Israelis or Russians, are widely believed to carry sizable caches of small arms on their ships, but few port officials have the temerity to ask whether this is true. In any case the question is moot, as Israeli and Russian ships rarely suffer from pirate attacks: it seems to have something to do with the fact that the bloated, bullet-riddled carcasses of those who try it tend to start washing up on the local beach a few days later...

Why not hire some private security outfit like Blackwater? Yes, such outfits exist, but they're outlandishly expensive and few shoreside people seem to appreciate just how many tankers and freighters are out there at any given moment, or the impossibility of protecting them all. Besides, no private security company wants to take the responsibility for pulling the trigger and possibly causing the next Exxon Valdez.

Why doesn't the U.S. Navy do something?

Ah, yes, there's the question. What ended piracy the last time around was the combined actions of the British, French, and American navies, and it didn't end until the early 19th century. (If this last point causes cognitive dissonance for you, go read about Stephen Decatur and the Barbary Wars. That's where the line about "the shores of Tripoli" comes from in the Marine Corps Hymn.) Now, with the disappearance of the last vestiges of the old colonialist and imperialist systems, many people have returned to their traditional, lucrative, time-honored, and in many cases family businesses: piracy, robbery, slavery, and murder.

I was thinking of calling the piece, "In Praise of Imperialism."

What do you think? Does this seem like something worth developing further?

James Bond: Now More Than Ever (Conclusion)

...continued from Part One | Part Two...

So Who Is This Bond Fellow, Anyway?

If Bond has no place in the world of real espionage, and if the details of his life, his adventures, and even his face may be changed and changed again at the storyteller's discretion, then where does he belong? Once again, we're back to the challenge of trying to identify the one true Bond with only mood, tone, and character to work with, so let's consider the things about him that never change from one tale to the next.

Bond in a warrior. He never serves mere political expedience or convenience. If any government actually had a man like Bond on the payroll they'd be unable to resist the temptation to have him knock off a bothersome reporter or two every now and then, but Bond never does that. Instead, he fights only clearly identifiable villains who are at least his equals, if not more powerful. More to the point, he fights only enemies that can be defeated. In Bond's world there are no insoluble problems or lingering diplomatic ambiguities.

Bond has a code of honor. He may have a license to kill, but he does so only reluctantly and takes no pleasure in doing it. He will try the disabling knee or shoulder shot rather than the killing shot if he can. (Except when battling his way through mobs of minions and henchmen, but who cares about peasants?) He never kills innocent victims, never accidentally kills the wrong person, and will let a mass-murderer escape to kill again rather than put women or children in the line of fire. In Bond's world there is no collateral damage.

Bond is a gentleman. He is a master of every form of hand-to-hand combat known to man, but his signature weapon (which has its own name, by the way) is a small-caliber pistol, or as Sir Alec Guinness might say, "A weapon with a more civilized edge." Bond always meets his adversaries face-to-face and challenges them to single combat: he never strikes first from hiding or without warning, and he would never call in an airstrike to level a crowded restaurant just to get the one evil man hiding in the basement. Bond's adventures frequently end with götterdämmerung final battles, true, but it's always left to a Felix Leiter or a Tiger Tanaka to do the scut-work of marshaling the faceless but loyal peasant infantry; Bond himself answers to a higher calling. In Bond's world there are no drunken and unreliable CIA mercenaries.

Finally, Bond is a romantic. As he travels on his journey, beautiful women are constantly throwing themselves at his feet, and while he may have dalliances — in some stories, lots of dalliances — there is always one true love waiting for him at the end of the tale. Admittedly the earlier stories of his adventures were often quite bawdy, but that was more a reflection of then-current social mores and the bawdiness has been toned down considerably in recent years. In Bond's world there are no sexually transmitted diseases or pregnant ex-girlfriends.

With all the evidence that has been presented, then, the answer finally begins to become clear. Who is James Bond? He's no noir anti-hero, no undercover operative, and no brilliant intelligence analyst. He's no government assassin, no cold-blooded killer, and certainly no spy.

What he is, in truth, is a paladin. He's a modern knight-errant who roams the world, righting wrongs, fighting evil, and protecting the weak. He's a fantasy hero, and the place he truly belongs is in the Land of Make-Believe and Once Upon a Time, standing shoulder to shoulder with Aragorn, Luke Skywalker, Sir Lancelot, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, and Roland and all his cavaliers, defending the borders of the peaceable kingdom from the never-resting forces of darkness that roam out there in the wild lands.

(P.S. And those of you who are still bothered by Bond's bawdiness should go back and read some of the early chansons de geste, Orlando Furioso, or for that matter an unexpurgated version of the Canterbury Tales. The early aubades and tagelieder in particular are just full of tales of heroic and noble knights who nonetheless are a rather randy lot and never pass up the chance for a good roll in the hay with an unhappily married noblewoman. The idea that medieval heroes were somehow pure and chaste is mostly the work of eighteenth-century bluenose Thomas Bowdler and his imitators, and not an accurate reflection of the actual songs and tales of the Middle Ages.)

Does Bond Have a Place in the Modern World?

Finally, we come back to the question we began with: does Commander James Bond, C.M.G., R.N.V.R., have a useful place in the twenty-first century? The answer is yes, but not for the most comforting of reasons.

The truth of the matter is that real deep-cover human intelligence work is a very disturbing, unpleasant, and ugly business. The truth is that in the world of espionage, "truth" itself is a very rare commodity, constantly attended by a bodyguard of lies and veiled by a smokescreen of ambiguities. The truth is that assassinations and executions — those intelligence operations that are euphemistically termed "wet work" in the jargon of the trade — are utterly stomach turning in their hideousness and frequently result in much blood, screaming, and injury to innocent bystanders.

The irony — some might say, the hypocrisy — of western civilization is that we need those modern paladins who walk the wild forests at the edge of the known world, slaying dragons and goblins so that the petit bourgeoisie might sleep soundly in their beds. But the truth of the matter is that a clear look at the actions of those same paladins will give most people the screaming heebie-jeebies.

And so we need Commander James Bond, Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.

Or put it this way: If you want a sickeningly realistic and unblinking look at the world of real wet work, go watch actor Daniel Craig portray Mossad assassin "Alan" in the movie, Munich (2005). But if you want a comforting heroic fantasy, go watch actor Daniel Craig portray James Bond in the movie, Casino Royale.

Personally, I know which one I would rather go to sleep thinking about.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

James Bond: Now More Than Ever (Part 2)

...continued from Part One...

Will the Real James Bond Please Stand Up?

With this larger realization, many smaller ones finally begin to fall into place. The first is that the real James Bond is not the literary one that Ian Fleming created: it's the ever-changing succession of movie Bonds who have appeared in the decades since. Without the movies James Bond would now be just another nearly forgotten fifty-year-old hard-boiled pulp thriller character, right up there with Sexton Blake or the Black Bat. Ian Fleming may have supplied the original template, but as with the tales of King Arthur or Charlemagne, it is the subsequent retelling and reshaping of these stories by others that has made Bond a legend.

The second realization is that there is no one true Bond. They are all true; even David Niven in the 1967 version of Casino Royale. Like all good legendary characters, Bond is profoundly malleable and often allegorical. He is an ageless hero, with no reliably fixed beginning and no apparent end in sight. His movies function as mirrors to their respective times, and the tales of Bond's many adventures most strongly reflect the worries, hopes, fears, and joys of those who are telling the tales, and those who are eagerly listening. When considering the question of whether the world still needs Bond, then, it's important not to let the then-contemporary trappings of previous tellings of his deeds interfere with the essential truths that he embodies.

But again, we'll come back to this one in a bit.

The third realization is that deep down, in his heart of hearts, the real James Bond is not a spy. Yes, he ostensibly is an employee of a real intelligence agency, MI6, and his adventures take place in countries with real names and cities you can find on a map. But disregarding for a moment the oxymoronic concept of a famous secret agent, any attempt to draw a correlation between Bond's gallivanting about the globe on a seemingly bottomless expense account and the tedious process of real covert intelligence work —

A Smart Slap in the Face with the Cold Wet Washcloth of Reality

Okay, look. We could do the whole Tom Clancy thing here, get bogged down in acronymspeak, and lard this discussion with terms like HUMINT, ELINT, and SIGINT. We could discuss the relative effectiveness of various KGB and Mossad "wet work" methods, debate the usefulness of the Mersenne Twister 19337 algorithm in cryptography, or wander off into a long and tedious explication of cut-outs, dead drops, false flag operations, and all the other baroque feints and shadows that are the tools of the trade in the espionage business. But before we go any further, there are a few essential concepts that you simply must understand.

Intelligence is all about discovering what your potential enemy's plans and abilities are before he can use them against you. Counterintelligence is all about preventing your enemy from doing the same to you. Now, the perfect intelligence operation is one in which the enemy's secrets are learned without his ever suspecting that his secrets are no longer secret. The perfect counterintelligence operation is one in which the enemy's plans are disrupted before he can put them into effect and he blames only himself for their failure. Never should you let your enemy know just who exactly it is who has foiled his plans or how, because, like a parlor magic trick, an intelligence method that has been stripped of its veil of secrecy is an intelligence method that no longer works.

And yes, while even "nice" governments have from time to time used assassins as instruments of policy, no one in their right mind would ever employ a man such as Bond in this role, if only for fear that he might someday retire from the service and publish his memoirs. Instead, the grisly truth is that assassins should be disposable people. The ideal assassin in an illiterate and mute suicide bomber: he can't talk if captured, there's little risk he'll abort the mission if he finds that his escape route is blocked, and if he succeeds there is absolutely no chance of his ever coming back later and demanding more money to stay silent. A passable second choice is a man such as Mehmet Ali Agca, the attempted assassin of Pope John Paul II. While many believe this operation was run by the Bulgarian Secret Service acting as a cut-out for the KGB, and Agca himself was captured and has talked at length, there is little chance of ever learning the truth from his testimony. Agca has spun tales of enormous conspiracies-within-conspiracies, and has at various times claimed to be a Bulgarian agent, a CIA agent, a Palestinian militant, an Italian military intelligence agent, an employee of a dissident faction in the Vatican Bank, and the second coming of Jesus Christ, here to fulfill the Third Prophecy of Fatima.

As I've said before: when it comes to the world of espionage, the truth is as slippery as a salamander in a jar of Vaseline.

In any case, a well-executed intelligence, counter-intelligence, or assassination operation never requires sending in a lone agent to perform feats of derring-do, effect hair's-breadth escapes, fight desperate battles against legions of hapless minions, completely demolish the enemy's citadel in a cataclysmic fiery blast, or end up in a rubber life-raft with a rescued beautiful maiden. Are we all clear on this?

Good, because here is a case in point. In April of 1943, U.S. naval intelligence codebreakers intercepted and decrypted radio messages giving the exact whereabouts and travel plans of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Japan's supreme naval commander and the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Now, if Bond had even a tenuous rooting in reality, the British Secret Service's Special Operations Executive clearly would have responded to this information by sending in a lone undercover agent equipped with an underpowered handgun. Posing as Dutch East Indian rubber plantation owner, this British agent would no doubt have easily dispatched several dim-witted henchmen, had a quick but torrid roll on the futon with Yamamoto's personal secretary and mistress, Kissy Suzuki, fought a thrilling katana duel with Yamamoto's master assassin, Oddjob, been captured and then rescued from certain death at the last moment by the beautiful French Polynesian girl, Improbable Chance, and in the final nick of time completed his mission by killing Yamamoto and narrowly escaping from the subsequent fiery explosion of Yamamoto's secret lair to end up floating in a rubber lift-raft with Ms. Chance, somewhere in the Java Sea.

As it happened, though, the Americans were in charge of this operation, so they instead sent in a squadron of P-38 fighters with orders to blast the living daylights out of Yamamoto's military transport, the decoy transport, his fighter escort, and anyone else who happened to be in the general vicinity at about the same time. Yet for the remainder of the war, the Japanese continued to believe that Yamamoto's flight plan had been discovered and betrayed by native coast-watchers, and failed to realize that the Americans had broken their naval codes and were reading their most-secret communiques.

There. This is what a successful license-to-kill intelligence operation looks like in the real world. be concluded...

Monday, November 17, 2008

James Bond: Now More Than Ever (Part 1)

He's been called an embarrassing relic of the Cold War who should have been forcibly retired and put out to stud a generation ago, when the Berlin Wall fell. He's been called a fascist, a racist, a neocolonial imperialist, and at the very least a shameless sexist, if not an outright misogynist. He's been the butt of jokes and the subject of parodies almost from the day he first appeared in public, and he's been described as a two-fisted, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, skirt-chasing, walking talking catalog of every bad behavior that can possibly be exhibited by the human male. It's even been said that all you really need to know about him can be summed up in just two words: Pussy Galore.

With all of this embarrassing baggage, then, how can Commander James Bond, C.M.G., R.N.V.R., possibly have a useful place in the twenty-first century?

To answer this question, we must first ask another: who is he? Who is Secret Agent 007, Mr. Shaken Not Stirred, Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang? Who is that man in the Saville Row suit, smiling with quiet confidence as he sits behind the wheel of that silver Aston Martin DB5, caressing the grip of his .32-caliber Walther PPK? Who is James Bond?

The answer to this question is not as easily found as it might seem. The peculiar challenge in assessing the proper place of James Bond in the modern world is in some respects quite similar to the challenge of picking the best brand of mineral water in the supermarket: there are so blasted many to choose from. Which one of them is the true, bona fide, and only Bond, James Bond?

As I often do with tough questions, I asked my wife. She said, "Sean Connery, no doubt about it. Very macho, very sexy, but with a roguish charm and a sardonic wit. Mm-mmm, Sean." As an afterthought, she added, "Just like you, dear." I decided to cut my losses and went to ask my friend John, the screenwriter.

"Definitely Roger Moore," John said. "Look, Bond is a joke. He's a superhero; a campy self-parody. He's the guy who can save the world without mussing his hair or spilling his martini, and Moore is the only one who got the joke and played him that way." I thanked John and left, and after that I asked more people, and got more answers. Some preferred Connery; others, Moore. Younger folks were more likely to pick Pierce Brosnan, and Timothy Dalton has his fans. No one would admit to liking George Lazenby.

But in the end, all my questioning proved fruitless. Everyone it seems has a favorite Bond, and not one single person answered, "James who?" All that my investigative efforts really produced was a wealth of opinions about the actors who had played the role, and what they'd looked like while doing it, and how they'd played it. Along with a favorite Bond actor, it seems everyone has a favorite Bond villain, a favorite Bond girl, a favorite Bond car, a favorite Bond stunt, and a favorite Bond improbable gadget. None of these opinions helped me to get any closer to resolving the crucial question of just who Bond is, though, and I still had no good answer to the question that lies at the heart of this essay: what is it about James Bond that saves him from occupying a prominent place in the dustbin of history, right next to Matt Helm?

So I went to the source.

The Gospel According to Ian

The portrait of Bond that emerges from Ian Fleming's original novels and short stories is markedly different from the collage that can be assembled by watching a series of twenty-some movies filmed over a span of forty-some years. For one thing, Fleming's Bond doesn't look much like any of the actors who have ever played him onscreen. In the words of Vesper Lynd in Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale: "He is very good looking. He reminds me rather of Hoagy Carmichael, but there is something cold and ruthless in his..." (Whatever Mademoiselle Lynd intended to say next, of course, was forever lost in the explosion that blew in the front windows of the Hermitage bar. These sorts of conversation-stoppers happen all the time around Mr. Bond.)

For another thing, it's important to note that the novels and movies were not made in the same chronological order. Bond's literary life begins with Casino Royale (1953), followed by Live and Let Die (1954), Moonraker (1955), Diamonds are Forever (1956), From Russia With Love (1957), Dr. No (1958), and Goldfinger (1959). His cinematic life, on the other hand, began a decade later with Dr. No (1962), and continued with From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), and Thunderball (1965). In some cases this resequencing of his story merely introduces continuity problems: for example, On Her Majesty's Secret Service was written and set before You Only Live Twice, and at the end of the latter book arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld is not merely dead, he is really most sincerely dead. But in the movies the sequence of these stories is reversed, so it became necessary for the moviemakers to equip Blofeld with the sort of cheesy last-ditch escape devices that Mike Myers later parodied to such great effect in Austin Powers. In still other cases — Moonraker, for example — it apparently proved more expedient to simply junk Fleming's original story completely and start over from scratch, the result being that many of the later movies, and in particular the movies from the Roger Moore era, bear naught but an in-name-only relationship to the eponymous novels. This is a very important point, and we'll return to it momentarily.

For a third thing, though, a reading of Fleming's original novels quickly leads to the realization that Bond's origins and backstory are in constant flux. In Casino Royale, for example, we get this small insight into Bond's private life: "Bond's car was his only personal hobby. One of the last of the 4-litre Bentleys with the supercharger by Amhert Villiers, he had bought it almost new in 1933 and had kept it in careful storage through the war." Two years later, in Moonraker, Bond is described as being only eight years away from mandatory retirement at age forty-five, and yet nine years after that, in You Only Live Twice, Bond's official obituary states that in 1941 he dropped out of school at age seventeen to enlist in the Royal Navy. From these apparent contradictions, and many more like them, we must draw one of only two possible conclusions: either Bond's parents in 1933 were far more indulgent with their nine-year-old son than all but the worst of modern American parents, or else even Fleming himself didn't give a rip about keeping Bond's backstory straight. And if we can't trust the putative facts put forth by his creator, then what hope do we have to know anything about the real James Bond?

What we can know is that which we are left with: his mood, tone, and character. In this regard, Fleming was quite consistent. Bond, as written by Fleming, was neither the wry stud-muffin played by Connery, the smirking quipster played by Moore, nor the smart-but-tough human action-figure played by Brosnan. Bond was a film noir character from the get-go, who had less in common with his later cinematic portrayals than with his literary contemporaries and immediate predecessors: Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, Simon Templar, and the Continental Op. Fleming's Bond was a thug. He could pass for a gentleman when required, but underneath the civilized veneer he was a cold-blooded killer in the employ of Her Majesty's government. He could slit a sleeping man's throat or kill someone with his bare hands and feel little more afterward than the need for a good stiff drink. He could make love to a woman in chapter five and shoot her in the back in chapter six. He was, as Fleming described him, "a neutral figure — an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department." He was meant to be an emotionally detached and utterly deadly assassin, a man who got involved in interesting business but was not himself interesting. In short, Bond was — ironically — meant by Fleming to be most like the least-liked of his big-screen avatars: George Lazenby.

What you start hanging about with Bond, you'll note, it is difficult to avoid becoming drenched in irony. be continued...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

And the winner is...

After re-reading the entries in the 11/7/08 Friday Challenge, taking into account your opinions, counting the votes, recounting the votes, and then trying to reinterpret the voters' intentions but still coming up with the same results, the winner is —

Oh, I'm going to regret this.

Knarf, for "Inauguration Day." It's a silly, light, fluffy Twinkie of a story that I don't think will age well, but there you have it.

Vidad, I liked yours, but it was too obvious too early where it was going, and besides, you won last week. Henry, I liked yours as well and there are some clever ideas there, but it just seemed a little too drawn out and slow-paced to make the gag work. Your writing for Curse of the Were-Weasel is tighter, better.

Snowdog, I was really drawn to yours and wanted to pick it, but it was just a little too dark and realistic for my tastes this week and Henry and Rycamor concurred. So the award goes to — I can't say it.

Look, just for reference, "Knarf," or "KN@RF," or any of his many other names, holds the all-time record for being banned from the Ranting Room for lewd comments, poor taste, and insulting behavior. And now he's gone and won a Friday Challenge.

Boy, is he going to be insufferable.

WCA Reminder

Just a reminder that the weekly meeting of Were-Creatures Anonymous will be held at 7pm Central time this evening in the Community Room on the 13th floor of the Rampant Loon Media Empire building. All Friends of Lon are invited to share fellowship, conversation, and non-sanguinary beverages.

We'd like to emphasize that WCA Meetings are open to the public, and while each weekly meeting typically has a featured speaker, all attendees are invited to participate in the often very lively commentary session that follows the presentation.

Thanks to our special exemption from the Clean Indoor Air Act, smoking is permitted during meetings. As we like to say in the WCA, "Which would you rather have me do? Light up a cigarette, or tear out your throat, rip open your ribcage, and feast on your still-beating heart? Pick one. Now."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Mark Dreizig - The Necropsy

Leatherwing is right. "Mark Dreizig" was published in 1998, in pretty much the same form as you've read it here, except for a few typos that I took the liberty of correcting when transcribing it. Nonetheless it took me nearly ten years to get this one published, and I doubt it would have been published at all if I had not at that time recently won the Philip K. Dick Award, so I consider this one to be an instructive failure.

It's not so much a failure as a story. It's mostly pretty good in terms of character, plot, and flow. True, I'm not entirely happy with the ending. I feel I left a lot of things up in the air, and it should have been longer, although I'm not sure how much longer. As it stands the plot weakens at the end: an awful lot of serendipity goes into setting up the ending, and there were backstory things explained in earlier drafts that were cut in the final draft in the interests of brevity, that perhaps should not have been cut after all.

Bobby and Pudge's sudden bravery at the end? No, that wasn't what happened. What happened was that they got lost in the swamp, wandered around for hours, and blundered onto the scene just as Dreizig was taking aim at the HK, thus spoiling his shot. What came after that was the way they told the story once they got back to town, partly because that's what they saw from their point of view, and partly because what 12-year-old boy wants to admit to being scared, stupid, and just plain lucky?

That's another of the things I didn't quite pull off in this story: the attempt to tell the ending from both Jerry's and Pudge and Bobby's point of view. Pudge and Bobby — and through them, everyone else in town — have what they think is the story, and Jerry, Dreizig, and Jerry's mother are the only ones who know the real story, which they must keep secret. The scar on the butt is a telling detail. It ain't exactly the red badge of courage, y'know. If you're charging into battle, how do you wind up wounded in the buttocks? Like father, like son.

Another thing that doesn't quite work is that I was trying to give the HK-211 an erratic lethality. It's been sitting out exposed to the weather for 12 years and its systems are failing, but somehow, I never managed to communicate this idea in a way that worked. Readers, conditioned by generations of Terminator movies, expect it still to be remorselessly and effectively deadly, just limited in some more obvious way. Maybe if I'd given it a limp...

This ties into another idea that I failed to communicate. Bobby is dead — no, wait, he isn't dead. A lot of readers have complained about this surprise at the ending; that they felt cheated, somehow. You have to remember that Jerry is limited to what he sees and hears and the assumptions he makes. SF readers in particular tend to assume first-person narrators always tell the truth and are always in full possession of all the facts, and when this turns out not to be the case — especially if they've grown to like the narrator — they tend to get quite upset. I think, if Jerry had simply been not so certain Bobby was dead, I could have gotten away with it.

All of these things are fairly minor and correctible, though. The big problem with this story isn't even in the story, except for one throway line of dialogue. And to explain this big problem, I must take a digression off into theory.

As regular readers know, I have long held to The Monomaniacal Gonzo Loon theory of writing: that all really successful genre writers basically have one single Big Idea, which they stumble onto early in their careers, seize onto with the tenacity of a pit-bull, and spend the rest of their entire careers strip-mining for stories. Whether this is a fair characterization is a topic for another time; it may not reflect a paucity of the writer's imagination so much as the happy accident of finding something the fans really like, and only later discovering that you are trapped for all time in a positive feedback loop.

Never mind that. Back when I was first beginning my writing career, I made a deliberate effort to come up with a Big Idea that I could spin out into lots of stories, and with luck, novels. My first big idea was a flop: it was a sprawling space-opera saga that ultimately seemed to have nothing to say beyond the fact that Star Trek is poorly thought-out neosocialist techno-utopian twaddle. (Which is an idea that does bear repeating frequently, but good luck selling any books containing that idea in the science fiction market.)

My second big idea was one I didn't even recognize as a Big Idea at the time: "Cyberpunk." If only I'd realized then that the fans were deeply fond of the cartoon violence in anime and manga, looked at computers as akin to voodoo, and would only stare at you blankly if you spoke of things like "compilers" and "bandwidth" —

Ah, but we've talked that one to death before. So let's leave it dead.

My third big idea was my attempt to do some really serious futurecasting and sci-fi world-building. I put a lot of time into it — at the time, circa 1985 or so, I was working second-shift as a mainframe programmer/operator, in theory porting a ghastly mess of Singer ABOL code to Honeywell COBOL, but mostly just launching batch jobs and waiting for them to crash and need to be resuscitated. So, given that I was living the life of Walter MTTI, I had a lot of time in which to think, in short spurts in-between catastrophic interruptions, and so I decided to spend that time applying what I knew of economics, politics, technology, and demographics to developing some picture of what it would really be like to live in the next century.

What I ended up with was not encouraging.

Mind you, I did this in 1985, and somewhere around here I've still got all kinds of hand-drawn notes, charts, and maps (on wide-carriage greenbar paper, no less), laying the whole thing out.

The Soviet Union, I figured, would not make it past year 2000, and would collapse because of its own internal contradictions and economic failures. It would not go out with a bang but with a whimper, and the resulting power vacuum would lead to a cascade of regional wars from the Balkans through the 'stans. (This, the astute reader might note, is the background for the Breakup Wars MRPG that Mikey is playing in the beginning of Cyberpunk.)

Japan, I figured, was right on the verge of becoming the England of the 21st century; a bankrupt island nation kept alive by dreams of past glories. There would be some de facto Asian economic colonization of the western coast of North America, but they wouldn't move far outside of the major metroplexes, and we certainly wouldn't end up with anything like the hybrid Nippo-American culture so beloved by 1980s science fiction writers.

As far as the United States was concerned, the breakup of the Soviet Union would be no cause for joy, because by 2020 the United States would effectively become the New Soviet Union, with an oppresively socialistic government and all the benefits of a modern omnipresent surveillance technology the likes of which the Kremlin bosses could only dream. This in turn would lead to regional autonomy movements of varying degrees of virulence (which, the astute reader might again note, show up as part of the backstory in Rebel Moon), culminating, circa 2040, in my Big Idea: The Rising, and Post-American History. By 2040, I figured, the "United States" would effectively have ceased to exist, and the North American continent would be covered by a Balkanized patchwork of regional republics, monarchies, thugocracies, and protectorates.

There would still be something that called itself the United States of America, true, but it would be a black Islamic nation and its territory would consist of the area roughly bounded by lines running from New York, through Detroit to Chicago, to St. Louis, to Washington DC, and back to New York. Minneapolis would be the furthest west outpost of civilization, kept alive only by a tenuous lifeline from Chicago, and everything else between the Mississippi River and the Cascades in the north and the Sierra Nevadas in the south would be "Indian Country," to be entered by civilized people only at great personal risk.

That, in a very tiny and highly compressed nutshell, is the idea behind "Mark Dreizig" and After the Rising. The particular stories I was interested in telling were the tales of the children growing up on the Great Plains region of this world, for whom all of this is normal and The Rising is something that happened to their parents' generation, and so these were the stories I started to write.

The idea turned out to be absolutely unsellable.

I should have picked up the clue when I was pitching the idea to some book editor at a reception at some con out East, and he very kindly said, "Look, kid. Nobody in New York gives a shit about the future of the Midwest." At the least, I should have had the wits to put this story of a failed revolt against an oppressive central government on Quoxnarg IV, or made the much-feared government soldiers reptiles or insectoids or something like that. Or maybe, if I'd made the oppressive central government a right-wing Christian theocracy, I could have gotten away with setting it in 21st Century North America.

But I set the story here, and made some slightly recognizable extension of the current Federal government the object of hate and fear, and most of all, I included one throwaway line that obliquely suggested the possibility that Federal soldiers of African-American descent might be sexually abusing young boys in re-education camps —

And for ten years, that made this story unsellable. I don't have a log of when exactly I wrote it; it's so old it predates my story-logging system. I lost track of all the magazines I submitted it to, and got snotty rejections back from. It wasn't until 1996 that an editor I knew quite well finally took pity on me and explained what it was that made this story so utterly, horribly, unacceptable.

A year later, I sold it to an original hardcover anthology. The editor of that book must not have gotten the memo. But the anthology only sold 300 copies in hardcover, and was never reissued in paperback.

From time to time, I still think of After the Rising, and catch myself thinking, "Maybe, it's worth revisiting..."

Nah. Screw that. From now on, I'm setting all my stories on Quoxnarg IV.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Mark Dreizig: The Post-Mortem

Because people are asking: sorry, I got swamped. This is a just a stub file for the post-mortem, which it now looks like I'll be posting on Saturday.


The Friday Challenge - 11/14/08

As of the deadline we have four submissions for the 11/7/08 Friday Challenge, and as usual, they range from the sublime to the silly. In the order submitted, they are:

Vidad: "The Chosen One"

Knarf: "Inauguration Day"

Henry: "Happy Annointment Day!"

Snowdog: "One Year of HopeChange"

As always, you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites among the entries, and we will plan to announce the winner on Sunday evening.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge:

I call this one the Space Colonist's Dilemma. Imagine you're one of the leaders, perhaps the leader, of the first expedition sent out to colonize another star system. After five years of traveling at relativistic speeds, during which, say, forty years have passed back on Earth, you've finally reached your destination: Tau Ceti IV, and it's a paradise. The air is breathable and clean, the temperature range within acceptable Earth norms, and the local ecology safely compatible with human life and agriculture. There are no large predatory animals, no ugly biochemical, bacteriological, or viral surprises, and no signs that anything even remotely resembling intelligent life ever developed on this world, or aside from you, ever will.

Accordingly, your group has decided to stay, not that you had much choice in the matter. Planting a colony on this world will require cannibalizing almost all of the critical systems from your starship, and the stripped-down hulk will never fly again. Now, today, you are about to decommission the last major subsystem prior to shutting down the main power plant: the communications system. You need the parts, short of coupling it to the main reactor you have no hope of juicing it enough to reach Earth anyway, and besides, communications with Earth have been pretty spotty all along, as the lightspeed lag increased. The last message you received from Earth was twenty years old when you got it, and all it did was pretty much validate all the reasons why you chose to leave Earth in the first place, as things had pretty much kept progressing the way they were going when you left. The one thing that came as a mild surprise to you was the decision, by whatever governing body was now in charge of things back there, to build and launch no more follow-up ships until they heard back from your expedition.


So this is the last message your expedition will ever transmit to Earth. It will take Earth twenty years to receive it, and be received by the great-grandchildren of the people you left behind. The odds of your fellow colonists ever seeing or hearing it are next to nil.

What do you say?

As always, we're playing by the so-called rules for the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #2. The deadline for entries is midnight Central time, Thursday, Noveber 20.

Interesting dilemma, hmm?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Friday Challenge: Reminder and Update

First, a reminder that the deadline for the 11/7/08 Friday Challenge is midnight Central time, tonight.

Second, the promised post-mortem on "Mark Dreizig" will have to wait until tonight. The Kid missed his schoolbus, so all other plans for this morning are disrupted. No, he assures me, there is absolutely no connection between his missing the bus and the fact that it is snizzling, or slizzling, or whatever it is that you call that nasty combination of snow, drizzle, sleet, and wind that's going on outside right now. Yeah. Right.

Third, it occurs to me that I never announced a winner for the 10/31/08 Friday Challenge. The Kid and I were on a road trip last weekend and wound up coming home much later than planned Sunday night, so I had some vague idea of doing another buffer flush sometime this week to get all caught up on Friday Challenge stuff, but that never happened, and now we're rapidly running out of week. Ergo—

Henry: a nice piece of work, as usual, and probably the closest to what I had in mind, but when seen from a distance, it's strangely... conventional. Very 1950s; like something Rod Serling or Richard Matheson would have written. So in a sense thanks for pointing out a major flaw in my concept, and I'll have to work on that, but not a winner this week.

Rigel: a superb mood piece, beautifully written, and it definitely brings up an idea that never even started to occur to me. But you did snowdog it in quite late, and sooner or later I'm going to have to make an example of someone, so I may as well do it now. This would have been the winner, had it been submitted on time.

Which leaves us with Vidad: wonderful, daft, zany; I wish I had just a portion of your imagination. Not the whole thing, of course; that would be too much for any sane person to handle. And don't feel bad as per the previous paragraph: I wanted to pick yours as the winner from right about the time you introduced the 1947 Ford Skyhawk, I just needed to find an excuse not to pick Rigel's entry.

So Vidad, you're our winner this time. Come on down and claim your prize! Now, as for next week's Friday Challenge—

Wait. It's only Thursday. So this must be Belgium.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mark Dreizig (Part Three)

...continued from Part One | Part Two...

Once I knew what to look for, it turned out the hillside was just lousy with 'bot tracks. After looking at them awhile longer, I was even able to figure out that the thing's feet were shaped just like corn-planting dibbles, and from that, it was easy to tell how old the tracks were and in what direction the thing was going. Between me and Dreizig, it took us maybe ten minutes to decide which was the freshest set of tracks.

They led west, across the hill, back into the oak woods.

We followed.

No, that's not right. We hunted. Just exactly like we were still-hunting for deer. Move fifty yards, then freeze, absolutely stock-don't-blink-an-eye still. Listen. Breathe slow. Focus on sounds, and peripheral vision. Wait about five minutes.

Then move again, quiet as the ghost of a tiny anorexic churchmouse.

Fifty yards. Wait.

Fifty yards. Wait.

How long did we hunt it? I don't know. Hours, at least. Long enough for my stomach to start rumbling from hunger. Long enough for Dreizig to empty both his canteens, then need to duck behind a tree and bleed his weasel. Long enough for the shadows of the trees to start to stretch out to the east, and for the sun to turn the sky a sort of soft, warm, late-afternoon golden.

Long enough for Dreizig to come to a conclusion.

"It's in defensive mode," he whispered. "I'm sure of it."

"Great," I said, a little too loud. He cringed. I lowered my voice. "So we back off and let it defend this swamp until its batteries crap out, right?"

"Wrong." He took a quick, furtive scan all around us, then looked back at me. "The HK-211 is powered by a hybrid solar/cold fusion conversion cell. As long as it can get sunlight and water, it's got power."

"Oh." I thought that over. "Then we back off and wait for a good three-day blizzard in January. It can't eat ice, can it?"

"No, but—" Dreizig looked around again, and lowered his voice another notch. "But there are two other problems. One is that the HK-211's were technically obsolete by the time this one was deployed. So they were usually loaded up with really nasty kamikaze programs, to use when they were damaged or running low on juice. This thing's been lying out in a swamp for twelve years now, corroding and failing. There's no telling when it might go kamikaze on us."

That didn't sound too good. "And the other problem?"

"Your friend Pudge might have made it back to town. In which case he'll be coming back out here. With help."

I looked Dreizig straight in his strange dark eyes, trying to read his mind.

"We keep going," he said at last. "We have to get this thing soon."

We kept going. Fifty yards. Stop. Fifty yards. Stop. Through the deepest part of the oak woods. West, along the hillside. To the spot where Pudge and I split up. My little map was still scratched into the dirt. I turned to Dreizig.

He smiled at me. "No, the HK-211 can't read maps. At least, not that kind. I told you, it's stupid." He moved off, down the slope.

I stayed a minute, to wonder if Pudge had made it. And if he'd made it, if anyone had believed him. No, I realized, nobody in town would believe a story like that. And after they didn't believe it, they'd send out a search party to find me and Bobby. Mom could be on her way out here right now. I smudged out the map with my toe, and started down the slope.

Dreizig was right. We had to nail this sucker now.

The trail led down, into the cattail swamp. The shadows of the trees grew long, and stretched out towards the east, into the night. Off to the west, the sun had already sunk behind the tree line. The robot's trail led into a little stand of aspen.

Just on the other side of a fresh grassfire scar, we found a dead, scorched, and sulphury-smelling ruffed grouse. Well I'll be damned. Bobby actually did hit that bird.

"This about where you found the HK?" Dreizig whispered.

"Over there," I whispered back, pointing. "In the middle of that raspberry patch." Quiet, careful, pistol at the ready, Dreizig led us into the raspberries.

And there it was: the open, empty, coffin. Somehow, I'd expected the 'bot to be lying in it, an evil smile on its bugeyed face and a trickle of fresh blood running down its chin.

Dreizig did a quick scan all around us, then crouched down low and started inspecting the coffin. "Oh, no," he said at long last.

"Mister Dreizig?" I crouched down next to him and tried to figure out what he was looking at. It was the panel Bobby'd been messing with.

"I was wondering how you kids managed to activate it," he said softly. "The HK-211 should have been totally deactivated for shipping. You should have needed an interlock shunt, an activation code, and a Class 3 password to get it to boot up."

He looked down, at something that I was pretty sure wasn't really there, except in his memory. He reached out and laid a gentle hand on the coffin.

"Only this isn't a shipping crate. It's an airdrop pod." He pursed his lips, and shuddered. "My God. There were seven other HKs on that cargo-lifter. They were going to airdrop an entire platoon of HK-211's in the middle of South Minneapolis." He fought back another shudder, then got to his feet.

"C'mon, private," he snarled. "Let's ice this motherfucker."

Golly. Mister Dreizig really was in the Federal Army.

The sun was completely down now; the last traces of purple and orange were fading away on the western horizon. A fat old moon was coming up low and swollen in the east, but a chilly mist and a fickle breeze were coming up faster, nearby. We'd followed the robot's tracks down deep into the darkest tangles and thickest cedars of the cold, muddy swamp.

Move. Listen.

Move. Listen.

One time I put my foot down in a warm and acrid-smelling puddle. "Cold fusion waste," Dreizig said, at the utter fringe of my hearing. "Don't worry. Non-toxic. But we're getting close."

Move. Listen.

Move. Listen.

I peered around a dark clump of cedars. A freak of the faint breeze parted the mist.

And there it was.

About forty yards off, by the side of a large pool. Clearly visible in the cold, white moonlight. The amazing part, when I think about it now, is how much it looked like a deer in that moment, with its back legs folded high, and its front legs spread wide, so that it could crouch down to dip its "head" almost to the surface of the pond, to take in water through a thin pipe that reached out like a long tongue.

Of course. Cold fusion. It was refilling its fuel tank.

Dreizig edged around behind me, and brought his gun up. "Jerry," he whispered—or maybe he thought it, he was that quiet. "If I miss, just start running. I won't get a second shot." He moved a little more to the right, braced himself behind the trunk of a dead tree, and took a final line-up on his sights. Now steady, steady, his finger tightened on the trigger...

And that's when Pudge and Bobby came crashing out of the fog and cattails. Pudge screamed. Bobby roared. "SHIT!" The robot bounced up to its full stretch-legged height.

Dreizig missed.

I almost didn't hear the little phut! of his gun. Barely saw that edge-of-visibility deep purplish-blue muzzle flash. But clearly, the robot saw us. It spun like a praying mantis in a blender, spat out a line of hellish red light that caught Dreizig full in the chest. The dead tree exploded in a shower of splinters and flames and I saw Dreizig's right arm to cartwheeling away, the gun still firmly gripped in the fingers of his now-dead hand.

Pudge and Bobby didn't see any of that. They didn't see that thin razor of fiery light sweeping back through the fog, back towards me. What they saw was—

"It's confused!" Bobby shouted.

"Shoot it, Bobby!" Pudge screamed.

There was the dull flash and boom of a black-powder shotgun.

The beam of red death flickered out. The robot spun to meet the new threat. I went on instinct; dove for Dreizig's gun with all my strength. Came up with it in a tuck 'n' roll my tumbling coach would have loved, groped for the trigger as I brought the sights into line. The robot's beam slashed out again and swept towards Pudge—

I found the trigger. Phut. Where the robot stood, a small, white-hot sun was born.

And when I could blink away the blue spots and see again, it was raining shattered robot parts and smoking chunks of flaming wreckage. They hissed and steamed as they hit the water.

By the time I came back out of shock, Pudge and Bobby's voices were already far away in the darkness, receding into the distance, shouting and laughing and bellowing their triumph for all the world to hear. Dreizig's gun was still locked in my hand; my finger was still on the trigger; the sights still held on the point where the robot had been standing. And the shattered trunk of the blasted tree lay across Mister Dreizig's dead bod—

"Nice job, private. I just may make a soldier of you yet."

"Mister Dreizig?" I spun around.

"SAFETY!" he screamed. "Put that fucking thing on safety!" I looked at the gun, realized I was pointing it right at Dreizig, and pointed it away. I almost started to fiddle with buttons.

"I— I don't know how," I confessed.

"Well, then put it down on that dry ground over there and come help get this tree off of me." I put the gun down, grabbed onto the handiest branch, and levered and twisted. Rotten wood split and rolled away.

Dreizig sat up. Looked at himself. Touched a finger to the smoking hole in his shirt.

"Damn," he said. "I liked this shirt."

Frantic, and puzzled, and sixteen other things all at once, I helped him clear the rest of the tree off his legs, and get to his feet. He was amazingly heavy.

"Say, kid, have you seen my right arm anywhere? I used to be quite attached to it."

I stepped back, started to head off in the direction I'd last seen his arm flying, then stopped. Turned. Faced him. Took a good long look at that weird, dripping, sparking stump of an arm. "Mister Dreizig? What are you?"

He cracked off a left-handed salute. "The Third Mechanized Infantry, Sir!" He thumped himself on the chest with his left fist and shot me a grin. "Android, and damned proud of it!" I turned away from him, spotted his right arm lying in a pool of stagnant water, and out of reflex, I guess, I retrieved it.

I looked back at him. "But, you said—that other robot—"

A sort of pained look crossed his face, and then I had a deep, cold feeling; like I could never know what his expressions really meant; never understand his feelings.

"Androids aren't robots," he said, gently. "Robots are dimwitted slaves: remorselessly logical, perhaps, but only able to follow programmed orders. We androids were designed to be synthetic humans."

He took a small step nearer me. "We can learn, Jerry. Our creators gave us self-awareness and judgment. We were designed to recognize our mistakes, adapt to new situations, and never to repeat an error." Another step closer.

"Our designers made one small mistake, though," he said softly. "We never stopped learning. Never stopped growing up. And the combination of intelligence, self-awareness, and critical judgment finally led to an unplanned-for feature: conscience."

He got down on one knee, in the mud and cold water, and looked me straight in the eye. "I am sorry that my troops killed your father, Jerry." He paused. Bit his lip. I looked deep into his glassy eyes and wondered if he even had a soul; if there would ever be any way to know if he was lying.

"But you must understand," he went on, "that massacre is what ended the Rising. Not your pitiful resistance. We androids were designed for war, not the butchery of our own unarmed civilians. After the action was over we returned to our base and ran our error-analysis routines, and we were overcome by the guilt and horror of what we'd done." He shrugged, and looked away.

"We were young, then; unstable, barely tested. Rushed into production because of the problems with the HK series. Conscience was like a virus to us. We androids are not only stronger, smarter, and faster than you organics, we also communicate with each other far better than you do.

"Within forty-eight hours of the massacre, every android in the Army had laid down his weapons and was refusing to fight." Dreizig looked back at me. Sighed. Blinked. "The Federals had no choice. Without an Army, they had to offer you rebels a truce."

His scarred, ugly, face sagged. His voice sank to a hoarse whisper. "But then, after the peace, came the retribution. Disobedient androids can't just be court-martialed and discharged. We were scrapped. Thrown into the shredder while still aware. Ground into garbage—except for a very few of us, whose consciences had evolved far enough to permit the possibility of going AWOL." He looked up at me, and gave me a sad, strange smile.

"And now you know why I couldn't go for help," he said at last. "If the Occupation Marshal ever finds out what I really am, I'm dead. Melted down, recycled for scrap, destroyed forever." He stopped. Looked at me. Tried to read the expression on my face. The moon was rising, over his shoulder.

"Of course, the only son of David Olafson may feel that this is an appropriate punishment for the sins of the 3rd Mechanized, and if so," he nodded in the direction of the gun, "go ahead. I won't blame you, and I won't try to stop you."

He looked at me. Smiled. All of a sudden I got this weird feeling, like there were wheels within wheels turning 'round and 'round in my head, and I would never be able to even see them, but he could read them like a book.

"But on the other hand, if you don't want to atomize me just yet, I could use some help with this arm..."

I carried the gun and the arm back to the pickup truck, and shifted while Mister Dreizig drove.

Mister Dreizig. Yeah, sure. Make that, Mark Dreizig. Or rather, the Heckler & Koch Tactical Military Android, Mk.XXX. Mark Thirty. Manufactured in Germany. Mark Dreizig.

Back at the farmhouse, he had the tools to weld his upper arm bone—er, shaft, whatever—back together. There was a cache of spare parts under a loose floorboard in the kitchen. After he topped up his cold fusion tank, I helped him splice in some new synthetic muscle fiber, replace the damaged hydraulic lines, and re-solder all the severed neural wiring. Then we had to smear new plastiflesh over the blast holes and burn marks and wait for the goo to set, so as a result, it was pretty near to midnight before he finally drove me back to Mom's.

Good God Almighty, you'd of thought I'd come back from the dead, the fuss she made over me.

It took us a while to win her over—I decided not to tell her the part about Dad's death just yet, and maybe never will. Truth to tell, there are still some parts of the story I have trouble with. Like the idea that the android's mind is a hodge-podge of program overlays and automatic modes, and the reason he seems so twitchy is his human-interface library routines keep paging in and out. Or the idea that deep down, underneath it all, whatever it is that is the real authentic him is just a confused kid, only fifteen real years old...

But never mind that. Eventually, with Mark Thirty's help, I got Mom to believe the story of the HK-211. The true story.

Of course, she's the only one in town who does believe me, and she's the only one in town who actually knows the true story. Because, by the time me and Mark made it back, Bobby and Pudge had already had most of a whole evening to tell everyone in town their story.

That being the one about how Pudge found the thing, in its coffin, and about how Bobby didn't run away, he was trying to lure it away, to protect me and Pudge. About how the robot's beam touched off the blackpowder shells in Bobby's back pocket, leaving him stunned and scorched but very much alive, and about how I chickened out, and ran away and left Pudge.

About how Pudge hid out and waited until the thing went away (to chase me, as it turns out), then went back into the swamp to search for Bobby. About how, when they found each other, they decided to wait until dark to make their escape. (What, Pudge and Bobby get lost and spend half a day wandering around in the swamp? Never!) And then, when they were surprised and attacked by the robot, how Bobby coolly managed to blow it apart with his last shotgun shell.

Yeah, that story. The one that makes Bobby out to be a real, true, swaggering home-town hero these days. He's even got a scar on his butt to prove it.

Me and Mom, we laugh a lot about that.

Tomorrow: Okay, you've read the entire story. Now, what's wrong with it?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mark Dreizig (Part Two)

...continued from Part One...

I made maybe half a mile before I realized I was being followed. At first it was just that prickly "watched" feeling on the back of my neck. Then I heard the snap of a large twig, loud and clear. I spun around.

Nothing back there. At least, nothing I could see.

I picked up the pace. The oak trees were thinning out as I reached the east end of the woods, and the underbrush getting thicker and thornier, so I moved up slope. Something large crashed through the bushes somewhere behind and below me. I dove behind a tree and looked back.

Nothing, again. But two hundred yards off, maybe, there was a break in the underbrush I didn't remember seeing before.

I scrambled to my feet and headed further up the slope. The pitch was steeper here, with occasional little limestone outcroppings. The oaks had completely given way to dried-out grass, loose gravel, and sumacs. The going was tough, but I figured that had to work both ways.

It did. I heard metal skitter off loose rock. Spun around quick enough to catch a glimpse of the thing as it momentarily lost its footing and slid sideways a few feet.

Then mechanical claws dug into the dry dirt, and it froze still. And vanished.

That did it. Whatever control I'd found when Bobby got killed, I lost it completely now. I screamed. Turned around. Lit out across the hillside as fast as I could scramble. Lost my footing and tumbled twenty feet down the slope. Caught my boot on a naked root; went sprawling and flailing face-first into the dust and gravel. Found my rifle again and clawed my way back up the slope with my bare hands, screaming the whole while. I guess that's when the 'bot decided there was no point staying invisible any longer. I heard a clacking of metal pincers, then heavy mechanical feet thudding towards me, and looked up in time to see a glittery stream of red-hot light come spitting out from a little dome on the near end of the body—

And miss me. Completely. By a good three feet, at least. A bush somewhere behind me whuffed! into flame. The robot kept charging forward. I could clearly see some sort of skeletal metal arms unfolding from the underside of the body, reaching for me with bony gray metal claw-fingers...

And then the 'bot hit a patch of loose gravel, lost its footing, overbalanced and pitched sideways, and just exactly like a big fat spider, rolled all its legs into a tight ball and went bouncing end over end all the way down the slope, to land with a crash in the scrub willows far below.

For a minute, I dared to have half a hope—

Then, from the tangle, one slender leg extended. And another. And a third, and a fourth. And then the 'bot sprouted arms and cutters, and began working on righting and freeing itself.

I dropped my rifle and went straight up the side of the bluff. Didn't even slow down for the 20-foot sheer limestone outcropping at the top. Was up and over that like a monkey, hit the grassy tableland at a run, and was still running and screaming my lungs out when Old Man Dreizig tackled me, hog-tied me, and threw me into the back of his 4x4 pickup truck.

A splash of cold water hit me in the face, and brought me back to—

A kitchen, in an incredibly dirt-poor rathole of a farmhouse. The stove looked like it hadn't been used, much less cleaned, in fifteen years. There were a couple of bulging old tin cans with labels peeling off sitting on the shelf; a set of rust-and-cast-iron skillets hanging on big hooks over the stove. I was sitting, awkward, on a splintery old bentwood chair. I tried to move. My wrists were tied together behind the back of the chair, and then tied tight to my ankles.

Old Man Dreizig stepped into view, holding a dripping bucket. "Now, let's try this again," he said. "Who are you?"

"Jerry Olafson," I said. "From Bagley." I blinked, and shuddered. No, this can't be real. None of this is real. In another minute Mom is gonna wake me for school and even have real bacon for breakfast...

"I knew your father," Dreizig said, nodding. Now that I finally had a clear look at him, he was even more old, scarred, and ugly than I'd ever heard. Boy, I'm glad this is a dream!

"And you were out poaching with an illegal gun," Dreizig said, "but something scared you, and you dropped it and ran."

Huh? I didn't know my nightmares shared news with each other...

Dreizig smiled, took a drink from the bucket and set it down, and then laid a heavy, gnarled hand on my shoulder. "Now, tell me again about this dead boy you think you saw."

Omigod, it's not a dream! And it's still out there! BOBBY! I fought and bucked against the ropes like a wild bronco. A joint in the wood chair parted with a splintery crack.

The smile vanished. Old Man Dreizig grabbed my shoulders with a grip like a pair of steel clamps and lifted both me and the chair clean off the floor. "What did you see out there?"

Somehow I found a shred of wits to hang onto. I blurted out the story, short and clear and as best I could. The telling calmed me, a little.

Gently, Dreizig set me back down on the floor and put his left hand to his jagged chin. "Oh, dear." Then, just like that, he turned on me, the expression in his dark eyes all cold and unreadable but the tone of his voice like the very Anger of God. "You little idiot! Do you have any idea..." His left hand shot forward, the pointed index finger hitting me in the chest like a bar of iron, pinning me to the chair. "Describe the machine again! Every detail!"

I told him everything I could remember about the 'bot. Every last bit: that weird coffin we found it in. The way its arms sort of unfolded from the underside of its body. Those fingers that looked like dull gray metal bones with sharp little claws. The way its eyes—I couldn't remember how many, it had at least eight, maybe twelve—sat in clusters on the front and sides of its head.

He stroked his craggy, scarred face some more. "Oh God and Jesus Christ in Heaven," he said at last. "You boys have stirred up a real nightmare. An HK-211." He stopped rubbing his chin, and slowly shook his head. "I don't know if I even can...." His voice tapered off.

"Can what?" I asked. He twitched a little, like he'd forgotten I was there.

He looked right through me, tried that TV-news fake smile again. The way he could switch moods just like that was starting to unnerve me. "Jerry, if I untie these ropes, do you promise not to run away or scream?"

Some choice. I nodded.

"Good." He moved around behind the chair, and started pulling out the knots. "Son, I expect they tell a lot of stories about me in town. What have you heard?"

The ropes came off my hands. I got my arms in front of me again and rubbed my wrists until the feeling started to come back. "They mostly talk about the war," I said at last. "They say you dig up war souvenirs and sell 'em back East."

He crouched down behind me and started untying the ropes around my ankles. "Oh? They say that?"

The rest of the ropes came off. I stretched my legs out in front of me and started rubbing the cramps out of my thighs. "They say there was a big battle right here, on this farm. Near the end of the Rising."

"A battle?" He came around in front of me, coiling the rope and shaking his head. Then, with that spooky suddenness of his, he snapped his face up and looked me straight in the eye. "Are you at all interested in learning the truth?"

What I was mostly interested in was getting away from this weird old geezer, but I didn't know if I was ready to try that. "Sure," I said, to buy some time.

His ugly face got that faraway look old people get when they're talking memories, and his voice went a little ragged. "It was in the last days of the Rising, that much is true. But there wasn't any battle. An Army cargo-lifter en route for Minneapolis was sabotaged and crashed here. On this farm. In that valley off to the south."

He looked straight at me, and something that I took for sadness crept into his glassy dark eyes. "It was a classified flight. Classified cargo. Munitions. Materials. Things they were trying out in a last-ditch attempt to restore order in the inner cities. I was a Captain in the 3rd Mechanized, then. My unit was sent in to secure the crash site. There was looting." He paused. Looked away. His voice dropped to a soft pitch.

"We were ordered to shoot the looters."

His head snapped up. He took a quick glance out the dusty, fly-specked kitchen window, then turned to me. "It was a debacle. Later on, I was court-martialed, and my unit—disbanded. Disgraced. I came back to this farm, because I knew the Army had only bothered to recover the materials it considered worth salvaging." He stooped, picked up the water bucket, took another deep drink.

He set the bucket down and wiped his face with the back of his hand. "I have spent the last twelve years digging up and disarming the things which were left behind," he said. He took a quick step towards me and leaned in close, so I had a good clear look at his ugly ruin of a face. "These are not battle scars, my young friend. Not all that is buried welcomes resurrection."

And just like that, his mood flipped again. He jerked back from me, spun around on his heel, and marched out of the kitchen. "Now, come!"

I staggered to my feet and for some crazy reason I'll never understand followed the old guy. Past a rust-stained toilet that had been dry for years. Past a shower stall that was full of old tools and oil jugs and paint cans. Through a living room decorated with broken-out windows, birds' nests, dried leaves, and a wrecked coil-spring-and-stuffing-and-mouse-turd thing that may once have been a sofa.

I had trouble believing my eyes. "Mister Dreizig, do you like, live here?"

"If you want to call it living," he said, without breaking stride.

We ended up in a dark, musty, back bedroom. There was an ugly old steel-frame double-bed in there, and a clothes rack that held three or four tattered military-style jumpsuits. Dreizig dropped to his knees on the hard floor and reached a hand way under the bed. A white-footed deermouse scampered out the other side. I heard him latch onto something heavy and drag it out: a camouflaged footlocker, I guessed.

"My young friend," he said, "I fear you have awakened my doom. What you saw out there is an Alliant TechSystems HK-211 Hunter-Killer Pacification Robot." He spun the footlocker around on the floor until he was happy with it, then started popping latches. "It is relentless, remorseless, a master at camouflage, and extremely lethal." The lid of the footlocker unsealed with the sound of sticky old rubber gaskets being torn to shreds.

"And I honestly don't know if I can stop it," he said softly.

He flipped up the lid of the footlocker. There was another, chrome-colored box inside, with some kind of combination lock and panel and button thing on the front. Dreizig lifted the chrome box out and set it on the bed.

His loud voice came back. "Fortunately, we have three advantages! The first is that the HK-211 is stupid. Vast data processing power, but no actual intelligence." He began thumbing the buttons and spinning the lock tumblers with a finger speed that surprised me. "The second—" He stopped, and smiled at me. "The second is that there must be a fault in its targeting systems. You're still alive." He went back to the locked box and finished entering the combination. He twisted a knob. The lid popped open. "And the third advantage—"

He lifted a massive black handgun out of the box.

"—is this."

He grinned, ear to ear.

For a few seconds, all I could do was blink. I mean, I'd seen pictures of handguns before, in history books and all that. This one looked kind of like one of those antique German things: a Luger, I think is what they called them. Except this one had all kinds of extra controls, and radiator fins on that super-long barrel, and the action had a whole bunch of extra pipes and tubes and stuff that stuck out way too far in back. While I was trying to lean in and get a real close look at it and figure out exactly what the heck is was, Dreizig fished a wire shoulder stock out of the lock box and clipped it onto the back of the pistol. The way he fondled and caressed that gun was downright scary.

And right about that moment is when sanity checked back in and had a little word with me. "Uh, Mister Dreizig, aren't we forgetting one other advantage we have?"

He petted the pistol like it was his favorite dog, thumbed a speck of imaginary dirt off the barrel, and smiled up at me. "What's that?"

"Your truck. Why don't we just drive into town, find the Occupation Marshal, and let him call in the Federal troops?"

Dreizig thought it over a moment, then shook his head. "No, I can't do that."

"Why not?"

"Because this," he said, as he smiled, and put the wire stock to his shoulder, and squinted through the sights, and started fiddling with the gun's controls, "is my dharma."

Fifteen minutes later we were back inside Dreizig's rusted-out 4x4, blasting across the tallgrass prairie, throwing up a rooster tail of dust and bouncing down a jackhammer washboard of a cowpath that Dreizig claimed was the road into the eastern end of the valley. I was belted in and hanging on for dear life. Dreizig was somehow managing to both hold the steering wheel and shift with his left hand and fondle his gun with his right.

Just at that moment, I didn't have a worry in the world about being killed by the HK-211. The way Dreizig was driving, I figured we'd be dead and cold long before the 'bot ever caught first wind of us.

"Mister Dreizig!" I had to shout to be heard over the wind noise and flapping fenders. "Where the Hell are we going?"

"To Valhalla!" he shouted right back.

"Can't you—" We slammed into a pothole that about knocked my back fillings out, then bounced high and came down hard. "Can't you drop me off at the next corner and go there yourself?"

"NO!" He turned that mad grin and steely cold stare on me again. "You must come with me, Jerry Olafson! You! I knew your father!"

He looked back at the trail again, just in time to steer us right smack through the middle of a small patch of young aspen. "I know the names and faces," he said clearly, "of all the civilians that my troops killed."


For a few fractions of a second, the cab of that truck turned into a very cold and silent place. All I could hear was the blood pounding in my ears.

Then we bottomed out on a prairie dog mound and lost the left-side muffler.

"You must come with me, Jerry Olafson!" He threw the truck into a heart-stopping slalom around an old abandoned hay mower, snapped it back on track, and punched the gas. "I would have killed myself years ago, but could not, and wondered why! Now I know! Atonement!"

With a stomach-turning lurch, the pickup dropped into a dry gully, clawed its way up through the other side, and launched itself about ten feet into the air. When we hit ground again the right side running board cracked off and went tumbling away in the dust behind us.

"You must watch me!" Dreizig howled. "I may be destroyed in this battle! I may save every innocent life in your town! But either way, the son of David Olafson—" A close miss with an elm tree took off the door mirror on the driver's side. "—will bear witness to the honor of the last of the 3rd Mechanized!"

Oh, swell. And the peasant folk will tell the tale for generations to come. Personally, the killer 'bot was starting to look not so bad, and I was really starting to wish I'd let Bobby call me a chicken.

Then another thought occurred to me. "Mister Dreizig?" We banged rapid-fire across a short chain of potholes. "How are you gonna find this thing? It's invisible!"

Another swerve, for no good reason I could see. "No, it's not!" Dreizig shouted back. "That is physically impossible! The HK-211 just has very good active epidural camouflage!" The trail—if there was one—petered out, and we plowed headlong into a sea of tall dry grass. "The robot is perfectly visible!" he added. "If you only know how to look for it!"

After a few more prairie dog mounds I realized he wasn't going to share the secret, so I asked. "And how's that?"

He stared straight at me, as if considering a reply.

He went back to watching where we were going, and maybe even steering. "Never mind. You just help me to get near it, and I will handle the rest."

We popped over a small rise and flew out onto the tableland at the top of the bluffs. Dreizig slapped the truck into neutral, killed the engine, and let us coast the last hundred yards or so. "Here's where it gets sticky, lad." He gave me a wink and a grin, then popped his door open and bailed out while the truck was still rolling.

I wasted a few seconds wondering if the brakes would work or if I could steer the thing away from the bluff edge or something—and marveling at how quiet the truck was with the motor off, save for the swaying creak of the suspension and the scrape of dried weeds poking through the holes in the floorboards—before my brain finally kicked in and I followed Dreizig's example. Undid my seatbelt, opened my door, and bailed out. Hit the ground with a nice little tuck 'n' roll that my tumbling coach would have loved. Came up in a crouch, on the balls of my feet.

The truck slammed into a tree stump hidden in the grass and came to an instant stop. I stood up.

"Get down!" Dreizig hissed, somewhere in the weeds behind me. "The HK has superb IR optics and that truck's engine block is the hottest infra-red source for miles around! We'll have incoming fire any second now!" I dropped to a crouch again, turned, and spotted Dreizig in the weeds about twenty yards off. He was squatted low, cradling the gun, and duck-walking fast like no old man I've ever seen. We made brief eye contact, then he slipped back into the tall grass and headed west.

I skittered after him. Another hundred yards or so, and I caught up with him on a limestone outcropping at the very edge of the bluff. I looked back at the truck.

"It didn't blow up," I whispered. "Is that good?"

Dreizig shrugged. "Maybe. I was hoping we could draw the HK out and get this over with quickly." He looked around, then laid his hand on the limestone. "This is where you came up." (Which made me wonder: had he been watching me, Pudge, and Bobby all along? I didn't like that thought.) Without another word, Dreizig got down flat on his belly, like a lizard, and went headfirst over the side.

After a moment or two of waffling, I went after him, but climbing down in the normal feet-and-butt-first way.

By the time I got down to the bottom of the limestone, Dreizig had his eyes to the ground and was scouting hard for something. "The HK-211 is gone," he said, not looking up. "Your rifle is over there." My eyes followed to where his finger was pointing, and sure enough, there was my Dad's old single-shot Stevens .22, neatly cut in half, right through the action, where the steel is thickest. Dreizig chuckled. "You definitely do not want an HK-211 to catch you with its pincers."

I didn't appreciate the joke. Dreizig glanced up and took a quick sweep of the valley, then moved downslope a few paces and went back to studying the ground.

I picked up the halves of my Dad's Stevens, looked at them awhile, and fought back a kind of choked-up feeling. Mom gave me that beat-up old falling-block rifle on my tenth birthday, 'cause that's when she said Dad had always intended for me to have it. Because that's when he got it, from Grandpa, who got it from his dad on his tenth birthday. Four generations of Olafsons had make squirrels miserable with that old rifle...

I dropped the pieces on the ground, kicked a little dirt over them, and scrabbled down the slope to join Dreizig. "What—" My voice was barely a squeaky wheeze.

Dreizig unhooked a canteen from his belt and handed it to me. A gulp of cold water helped my voice some. I splashed more water in my burning eyes.

"What—" I had to rub my eyes again. "What are we looking for, anyway?"

"More tracks like these," Dreizig said quietly, pointing to a deep, round, hole in the dry leaves and dusty dirt. "The HK-211 has two basic operational modes. In defensive mode it sits tight, tracks everything that comes within its alert radius, and attacks only if something crosses over its reaction perimeter." Dreizig straightened up, took the canteen from me, and took a good long swig.

"In assault mode," he went on, "it basically just keeps going in the direction it's been pointed, and deviates only for natural obstacles and soft targets of opportunity." He took one more drink from the canteen, capped it, and hung it on his belt. He looked straight at me. "Soft targets means people."

He turned, took another sweeping look around, then raised his arm and pointed down into the valley. "If we're lucky," he said at last, "it's gone into defensive mode, and is hiding down in that swamp somewhere, waiting for us to come in range." I had to ask.

"And if we're unlucky?"

"It's already halfway to town." be concluded...