Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Part Five, Chapter Three - What a Piece of Junk

Our heroes are... well, I say heroes, but the occupants of the aircar are Gris' slacking driver who isn't referred to by name in this chapter, an unrepentant murderer, and the combat engineer whose awesomeness Hubbard keeps shoving down our throats. Case in point: Heller is now driving with one toe on the gas and only his knee on the "wheelstick," barely paying attention to the high-altitude traffic.

Heller takes them to the Emergency Fleet Reserve, where he reaffirms his popularity by chatting up the staff, who of course detest Gris on sight. Then it's time for a tour of the facilities - the Fleet personnel take umbrage at Gris' suggestion that this is a boneyard. No, it's a storage facility for ships in "suspended activation," spaceworthy vessels that just happen to be obsolete. I say "facility," but the Reserve is just fifty square miles of tarmac with a vast collection of dusty old spaceships sitting on their tails, pointed skyward... wow, Hubbard is old. Most sci-fi has its spaceships setting down on ventral landing gear these days, but here he is in 1985 going with the oldschool Saturn V stuff. Keep in mind Star Wars debuted in '77.

Anyway, Heller cruises through the surplus spaceship showcase. Their Fleet guide points out the Upward Strike, which looks like a dilapidated mountain of cubes but was part of the original invasion fleet of Voltar 125,000 years ago... and it's still in one piece... huh. Hubbard just has no conception of time, does he? Between this and the crap he pulled in Battlefield Earth...

As if that isn't enough, we learn just why the Upward Strike is kept around - it's equipped with "the original time drives that made immigration possible between galaxies," which even to this day are studied by cadets. I have no idea either; L. Ron Hubbard does terrible things to the fabric of the universe in his stories.

Heller finally spots something that gets him excited, gushing about this "darling" and "wonderful beauty." Gris is less than enthused.

It was a pygmy amongst these monsters. It was the ugliest, dustiest thing I ever hope to see. It was standing on its tail. It looked like a headless old woman with two arms outstretched, her black dress reaching the ground. It was only about a hundred and ten feet tall. It was fat beyond belief. All around it were graceful, swept-curve cruisers and patrol craft, any one of them preferable to this horrible looking little blob.

Meet Tug One. As a tugboat, it's got cruiser-class engines welded to its tiny body (which still has enough space for a stateroom, and more as we'll see later). Its insides are covered with dust and grime. And Heller is ecstatic because it should go ludicrously fast. His old buddy giving the tour is much more concerned; you see, Tug One doesn't have just any old sort of engines, but "Will-be Was" drives.

"Time drives," said Crup. "The type designed for intergalactic travel where distances are truly enormous and they have to work directly with time. When you run these engines inside a galaxy without a heavy load behind them, they pick up more energy than can be wasted. They work all right in a battleship with all its auxilliaries to burn the excess energy but not in a tug. And Jet knows it."

No clue. None at all. No idea why being inside a galaxy is more dangerous than being between galaxies when activating "time engines." No idea why weight matters in the frictionless, zero-g expanses of out space. Still no idea just what is meant by "time engines." The important thing is that Tug One's sister ship exploded, so the survivor got mothballed. The Fleet guys tries to talk Heller out of taking the vessel, but he's all "faster, faster!" and doesn't care about the risk.

Well, at least we got our mission ship. A tugboat. With brain-breaking engines. And luxury accommodations because an admiral pimped it out before it got shelved. But we're now one tottering step closer to getting off this miserable planet and onto Earth, where no doubt we'll be treated to insightful and witty satire on human follies as seen through alien eyes.

Back to Chapter Two

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Part Five, Chapter Two - We Finally Leave Spiteos

Gris is awoken before dawn by a guard, and finds his and Heller's room jam-packed with soldiers and boxes of belongings. Heller, in a white and red racer's suit, asks if Gris is moving out too, and since Gris hopes to be on Earth soon he agrees. So the murderous, ill-disciplined Apparatus grunts happily toil away to get all of Heller's treasures and Gris' trash carefully packed up. Gris gets suspicious when he sees the Homeviewer being prepared for transport - they couldn't use it on Earth, so why is Heller bringing it?

The caravan makes its way to an airbus, which the guards pack and Gris and Heller board, but Heller insists that the driver get in the back with Gris, so that Hubbard can show off his favorite character's piloting skills. Heller, driving with one hand and one toe, takes the ramshackle transport straight up to twenty thousand feet. A nervous and airsick Gris tells Heller that there should be an Apparatus freighter available in a couple of hours - almost inadvertently revealing that the not-CIA makes regular runs to and from Earth - but Heller wrinkles his nose in distaste at the thought of taking one of those ships, and isn't pleased when Gris admits that there isn't a mission ship yet.

Why the hell not?

This is one of the most mind-boggling things about The Invaders Plan. Mission Earth is vital to the Apparatus' survival, right? And the sooner Heller gets off the planet to screw up Mission Earth, the less interference the Apparatus has to endure until it's ready to make its move, right? So why is Soltan Gris the only person in the entire organization trying to get the show on the road? Nobody else has come up with a vessel, possibly one rigged to self-destruct in Earth orbit, for Heller to fly off to his death in. Nobody else is pressuring Heller to stop fooling around with Countess Krak and get his perfect ass off the planet. Nope, it's all up to Gris.

Anyway. Heller flies to the Apparatus hangars on the outskirts of Government City at five hundred miles per hour, which is a hundred miles per hour faster than the vehicle should be going. Tragically, they arrive safely, and he and Gris start poking around, but Heller is not at all impressed with the shoddy collection of surplus junkers the Apparatus has collected. There's an entirely unnecessary sequence where Heller's charisma gets an Apparatus crane operator to let him and Gris ride the claw five hundred feet in to the air for a better view. Heller concludes that the Apparatus doesn't have any ships worth taking, and Gris, by this point screaming with acrophobia, agrees that no half-rate freighter will do for Mission Earth.

The chapter ends with a very shaken Gris following Heller back to the airbus, wondering where his "subordinate" will be taking him next. The answer is: another hangar.

Back to Chapter One

Monday, August 29, 2011

Part Five, Chapter One - Stop, in the Name of Love (Before I Break Your Skull)

After damning his faulty loaded dice to the darkest netherhells, Gris goes back to the Countess Krak's training halls, disinterestedly supervising another Heller visit. The Countess is instructing an assistant on how to train someone to juggle a half-dozen razor-spined lizards, while Heller is casually performing some dangerous gymnastics that Hubbard spends four paragraphs talking about. Meanwhile another assistant trainer is handling a wrestling match between a hulking humanoid and a primate. Circus stuff.

So, Hubbard, I'm curious: why the freak shows? Why the circus acts? And why is your "satirical" equivalent of the CIA the one running them? What's the connection between J. Edgar Hoover and Barnum and Bailey? Why is this stuff in a book about the shadowy world of alien espionage? Why couldn't the not-CIA make its money from blackmailing the Voltarian Treasury, or counterfeit currency, or ransoms, or illegally-seized property? Why are circus freaks the backbone of the Apparatus' economy? Why do we have to watch someone wrestle a monkey?

Maybe it's snide commentary on how CIA spymasters are little more than ringmasters getting trained animals to balance balls on their noses or walk in conga lines or jump through flaming hoops. Or maybe Hubbard just loved the circus and thought his readers would enjoy one in his crappy book.

Anyway, Gris gets interested in the wrasslin' match because it isn't going well. It's a "comedic-acrobatic wrestling act" over a piece of fake fruit, and though the primate is well-behaved, his opponent - a huge, roaring, muscled, hairless "yellow-man" probably from the "Deepst Mountains" - is getting carried away and no longer pulling his punches. When the assistant trainers steps in to take the primate's place to show how to do a specific routine, the "yellow-man" goes nuts and tries to kill him.

In a flash Heller is there, doing something totally different from the Vulcan Nerve Pinch to disable the "yellow-man," then he KOs the brute with a kick to the back of the head, easy-peasy. Heller helps the trainer up, solemnly shakes hands with the ape, and goes home to shower.

This leaves Gris with his enemy, the Countess Krak, who is admittedly beautiful and looking snazzy in an outfit I refuse to waste words on. She comes up to him, tears in her eyes, and fearfully admits that she's run out of things to teach Heller. To prolong his "training," she asks Gris if she can instruct him in the rudiments of espionage, an idea Gris shoots down with the explanation that Lombat Hisst's orders were specific, even though he feels a little urpy at the thought of how Heller 's naivete could put him in mortal danger.

And then, because Heller curb-stomping Big Yellow wasn't enough, we get another action sequence. Big Yellow has recovered, and Gris watches without saying anything as he lumber up behind the unaware Countess. Big Yellow strikes the woman, demanding that she keep "that (bleepard) Heller away from me or I'll break his (bleeping) neck!"

So she kills him.

It take a full page of the usual Hubbard action scene formula, with one-sentence exclamations, or paragraphs full of short, bland sentences. The gist of it is: the Countess goes berserk with a kung-fu flavor, breaking bones and pulping flesh, killing the brute a little more with each strike. She's able to redirect a killing blow and send her enemy head-first into an electroshock device. When she orders her victim taken to the infirmary, an assistant trainer informs her she killed him. She rolls with it and declares "That'll teach him not to threaten Jettero!"

Question: is the Countess a Good Guy or still a Bad Guy? 'cause the Apparatus are evil because of how often they murder each other, or other people. But then Krak fell in "love" with Heller and became a Good Guy, right? So is it okay when she kills somebody in the name of Heller? Did her karma get reset when she switched sides, negating her earlier murders? Are we supposed to share her triumph right now or be vaguely worried?

Gris is certainly shaken by the display, which could very well happen to him if the Countess figures out what he has planned for Heller. He goes home and finds the target of his ire relaxing, so Gris comments that their current quarters are very dirty, adding that he's completed all his training at Spiteos, hoping that Heller can take a hint.

This makes Heller look around as if examining his surroundings for the first time before declaring "Soltan, you are right! This fortress is uncomfortable!" That makes Gris hopeful, a good mood that persists even when the Countess comes over later and she and Heller ramble on about Prince Caucalsia and the handmaiden Nepogat. That night he goes to sleep in a dirty closet while Heller and Krak engage in some more physical therapy, hoping that at last he will have Heller out of Spiteos.

To summarize: unnecessary circus stuff, an unnecessary murder, but the plot might start moving next chapter.

Back to Part Four, Chapter Nine

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Part Four, Chapter Nine - Die Dice Die

The next day we find Solten Gris standing on one of Spiteos' overlooks, gazing out at the bleak vista and waxing poetic about the "noble majesty" of the pitiless Great Desert, where two-hundred-foot dust storms called "Sun-dancers" swirl across the lifeless sands, each colored differently depending on what minerals they've swept up. Apparently the land used to be verdant and productive, which doesn't make a lick of sense to me - checking the map provided, there's not a water source around for two hundred miles. At least there aren't any rivers starting in the middle of nowhere like the ones in Eragon.

Gris thinks the dust devils resemble a dancing chorus singing his dirge, and is considering flinging himself from the battlements and ending this "dekalogy" early. His bribe to buy Dr. Crobe's silence came up ten credits short, so the meat artist will be telling Hisst about Heller's missed appointments, and of course Gris is still five grand in the hole. Then Snelz comes up in a brand-new uniform, enjoying an expensive chank-pop - more goodies from Heller.

As Gris tries to work up the energy to knife Snelz and hurl his corpse from the top of Spiteos, the commander explains that he consulted an expert on cheating, who described the trick dice used the other night as "thudder dice," because if you listen closely you can hear those tiny lead pellets rattling around. Apparently if you shake the dice too much, or even blow on them too often, the friction causes the glue and the pellet inside to heat up and not stick anymore. Luckily for them, Heller never figured out he was playing against loaded dice, because plenty of gamblers have been killed for using them.

Just when Gris is about to murder his minion, Snelz gives him his cut of today's Heller-related income - a ten-credit note. So Gris takes the cash to meet his debt to Crobe, and remarkably enough doesn't kill Snelz afterward. Instead he takes the trick dice, gives them a "blasphemous funeral," and hurls them from Spiteos. That's right, you show those dice, Gris! Teach them to thwart you! Make an example of them to the other inanimate objects!

And so the completely pointless "bankrupt Heller through a fixed game of dice" arc of The Invaders Plan comes to an end. Next time it looks like we're up for a needless and meaningless action scene, and then the main plot will take another tottering step forward.

Back to Chapter Eight

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Part Four, Chapter Eight - This Is Why You Don't Let Others Gamble With Your Money

Apparently the Countess Krak can't just walk out of her chambers and cross enough of Spiteos to reach Gris and Heller's room. No, she has to be "smuggled" out by the guards at Heller's expense. This is the same Countess who regularly goes psycho with an electro-whip and who's killed men for inappropriate comments, feared by everyone in Spiteos except Lombar Hisst. But despite this, she can't move herself from point A to point B without money changing hands.

Likewise, despite how the Apparatus operates outside of the law, they can't just confiscate or freeze all of Heller's assets for some made-up reason, or say "those stupid humans just built a factory that could make the poles shift within months, you need to get to Earth now!" Nor can Gris, despite being Heller's supervisor and supposed superior, simply order the guy to get moving.

No, we have to go through this zany scheme involving a rigged game of dice to attempt to jump-start the plot. It's an artificial obstacle used to justify an unnecessary sequence in which Gris gets to be a sneaky little twerp and have karma slap him around a bit. Which is a recurring theme of The Invaders Plan, really.

Anyway, the dice game - Heller's doing his routine, impatient wait during the three hours between training and Krak Boinking Time... you know what, I should've phrased that differently. A knock on the door turns out to be Snelz, who as rehearsed tells a story about a big dice game down at Camp Endurance, and asks the glorious and handsome Jettero Heller to show him the ropes. Heller explains how six twelve-sided dice can give a total between 6 and 72, just in case Snelz is incapable of basic math, and even draws a bell curve to show how the odds of scoring above 50 or below 28 are fairly low. Snelz eagerly laps up the "lesson," then asks for a demo match, for "modest stakes." Heller agrees, and marks the dice - which unbeknownst to him are loaded - to make sure that they're playing with the same set the whole match.

What follows is dull.

They began with a modest half-credit bet. Snelz threw 20. Heller declined to make a second bet that he could beat it. He threw 51. He won. Ah, well. Good strategy. Heller was to win for a while.

To quote the back cover again, "RIVETING, SUPERBLY PLOTTED INTRIGUE." Oh, and there's singing too, the traditional good luck chants of Voltarian gamblers:

Money for my honey,
Booze for my cruise,
Fly them over fifty
And don't let this spacer lose

There's roughly seven pages of reports on who rolled what, interspaced with the lyrical poetry of L. Ron Hubbard. The gist of it is: everything goes wrong for Gris.

Things go well at first, and Heller and Snelz trade wins, while slowly but surely raising the stakes. Then there's a distraction when a guard comes with a message from Dr. Crobe. Gris gets to go down to the yucky doctor's office and explain why Heller has missed another appointment, which makes his tummy act up again. He only stops Crobe from tattling to Hisst with the promise of a two hundred credit bribe, which Gris doesn't have on him, but he's about to win a boatload of money from Heller, right?

When Gris gets back, he finds Snelz sitting rigid and sweating, while Heller has a huge pile of cash in front of him. Despite Snelz' best efforts, he can't get the trick dice to cooperate. Desperate, he bets all of his money - or rather all of Gris' money - on one last gamble. Naturally, he loses. Heller is such a sport that he tries to back out of it rather than leave his buddy destitute, but to Gris' silent rage Snelz lets it go, saying "Fast gotten, fast gone," and thanking Heller for a good game before leaving.

As Heller yawns while trying to stuff the huge wad of bills into his bag, Gris has a quiet freakout. Not only is he now broke, but he's in debt beyond a year's pay, assuming he can hold on to the three extra paychecks from Mission Earth. Meanwhile Heller is even richer, and still able to smuggle in the Countess for Sexy Time, so he has no reason to leave Spiteos for Earth. Other than, you know, his honorable sense of duty, and his desire to rescue "Prince Caucalsia's Lost Colony," and his prior appreciation for Earth.

I actually miss Terl. He wouldn't have stood for this bullcrap. No, he'd have slapped an explosive collar on Krak and told Heller to get his ass on a spaceship.

Back to Chapter Seven

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Part Four, Chapter Seven - Chance Polyhedrals

Gris' logic is as follows: Heller has money. But if Heller didn't have money, he couldn't bribe the undisciplined, unreliable Apparatus guards, which means that the Countess wouldn't come over to spend the night with him, which means that Heller would immediately leave for Earth in disgust. If you see any gaps in this, or anything that suggests some mental deficiency on the part of the planner, then congratulations, you've identified the key characteristic of a Hubbard antagonist.

So the subplot taking over the next two to three chapters is an attempt to bankrupt Heller through gambling, and Gris just so happens to have confiscated some loaded twelve-sided dice after their former owner got killed during a disagreement. The d12s are hollow except for a free-rolling lead pellet, and the insides are coated with a mild adhesive. With a firm shake the pellet will stick to one side of the die for a moment, just long enough to get the throw you desire.

Gris rushes back to Camp Kill and finds Commander Snelz in bed looking satisfied while a prostitute fixes him a meal. Both are less than thrilled to see Gris show up, and the whore sneers "Don't break my hand!" as she leaves. Gris explains his grand plan - Snelz will have a friendly, rigged game of dice with Heller and win all eight hundred of his remaining funds. The agent shows off the trick dice and instructs Snelz to simply ensure that he scores above 40 per throw (the max value is 72, so they're throwing six d12s at a time) and he'll win in the long run without attracting suspicion.

Snelz refuses; he likes Heller too much. Gris repeats his command with a hand on his gun. Snelz concedes, but refuses to use his own funds for the scam. He advises Gris to pony up enough cash to match Heller's bank and ensure a good, long game - five thousand credits, just to be safe. So off Gris goes to bribe a clerk to do a routine paycheck advance for about a year's pay, bankrupting Gris in his attempt to bankrupt Heller. But since Gris' victory is assured thanks to those magical dice, nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

Why the gambling subplot, Hubbard? Or if it had to be done, why couldn't it happen in - I dunno, Las Vegas? On Earth? Since this series is about a bunch of aliens going to Earth? C'mon, you could have Elvis impersonators and everything! But no, he's created the, uh, rich, interesting world of Voltar, and he's taking his time showing it off to us so we'll miss it when we reach the planet we're more familiar with. Yeah, once we get to Earth we'll be all like "man, I wish we were back on Voltar with the lepertiges and maimed camp prostitutes and blackmailed homosexual politicians."

Back to Chapter Six

Monday, August 22, 2011

Part Four, Chapter Six - The Computer Saves Another Chapter

So despite getting all excited about rescuing "Prince Caucalsia's colony," Heller and Krak are in no hurry to get on with Mission Earth, and spend the next five days alternately studying and boinking in Gris' room. Gris is eager to get Heller off-planet, but that would require a "body bug" to be surgically implanted into the commando so Gris could monitor him remotely, and the mere thought of such a procedure is enough to make Gris indisposed. So he decides to poke around the computer again.

Hisst is secretly chilling out an Endow's place, but Gris is one of the few who knows it, so he uses a fake appointment to go to Hisst's office and use the terminal there. He checks his profile again and sees his multiple promotions, then asks about Prince Caucalsia but gets a reference to the old legend, while a search for "Royal Successors, Pretenders" gets "Really? You really want 125,000 years of threats to throne?"

Have I mentioned that the computer is my favorite character?

Gris' searches for "Nepogat" and the "Fortress of Dar" keep leading in circles, until the computer suggests "If you are so interested in fables we suggest you consult a competent poet." This is the stuff that anyone who's worked in customer service dreams about, an automated reference system that not only answers questions, but points out when the user is being stupid. A lot of the world's problems could be solved if more people understood the limits of their intelligence.

Hoping to accomplish something, Gris prints out the records for the prior explorations of Earth, which makes a clerk complain about using up all the paper. Then inspiration strikes - if Heller were broke, he couldn't buy off the guards. So Gris checks on Heller's financial records and learns that the combat engineer gets paid ten times more than Gris, never misses a bill payment, and has a credit rating of zero because he's statistically overdue to die in action. But he also gambles on occasion with his buddies. At that, a lightbulb appears over Gris' head.

Back to Chapter Five

Friday, August 19, 2011

Part Four, Chapter Five - Bow Chicka Bow Wow

Now it might not be logical to blame Mission Earth for giving me the stomach bug that kept me up past five in the morning, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to hold it responsible anyway.

So Gris' tender tummy is feeling better (wish mine was), but then there's a knock on the door and a guard delivers a big ass box marked "URGENT, OFFICER GRIS ONLY!" The Apparatus agent pops the top only for to be confronted with the head of a "zitab," the most venomous reptile on Voltar, and Gris flips out.

I literally sailed through the air. I hit into the shower compartment! My scrambling hands pulled the curtain down! The perched lotion and soap bottles fell and hit my head in a cannonade! I was still

You get the picture! Short exclaimed sentences! This means action! Isn't it exciting!

But surprise, it's not an assassination attempt, just Countess Krak using a five-foot kill-lizard to pull a prank. She emerges from the box, holding the reptile in check, while she and Heller and the guards all have a good long laugh at Gris' expense, because enjoying the terror and discomfort of others is heroic if the victims are from the Apparatus.

Once things calm down, Heller plays the charming host and shows the Countess around his and Gris' quarters, even putting on some soft music. Krak meanwhile breaks out the sparklewater, a bubbly beverage with "a lot of minerals and proteins in it" (eww) that assimilates so quickly in your stomach that you can get "a trifle high" from it (but these aren't drugs, remember). Gris gets to be a third wheel while Heller and Krak have a romantic dinner of sweetcakes and fizzy protein shakes, and he describes them as being so pleased they practically "glowed."  He senses that they're playing footsie under the table, and I'm bitterly lamenting that Hubbard decided to try his hand at writing romance instead of just skipping it like he did in Battlefield Earth.

Eventually Heller interrupts what is increasingly becoming a date to talk business. He gets out a lot of photos to show the Countess, who takes them for his relatives or other people from their homeworld of Planet Manco, but they're actually pictures of Earthlings. Krak gets all excited about the legend of ol' Prince Caucalsia, and they both press Gris on the issue. Gris suddenly has a memory on par with Heller's, and he admits that there is a Caucasian or Caucasoid ethnic group thought to have migrated out from the Caucasus region in Russia, and that there's legends about an advanced civilization called Atlantis or Atalantis that sank into the sea.

Krak and Heller conclude that the legends of a Manco colony on Earth must be true, that Prince Caucalsia's colony was flooded the poles shifted, causing the ice caps to melt (?!) and leaving his people to disperse and settle the rest of the world. Heller vows that Mission Earth will succeed in order to save Caucalsia's descendants from suffering the same fate. When Gris complains that there is no hard data backing this theory, Heller is stubborn, insisting that "it's more poetic this way" and that anyway the Countess seems to like it.

And then they both stare at Gris for a bit, until Heller asks if Gris might be able to find a different room to sleep in that evening. And here comes the "hint of sex" promised on the back cover.

Gris steps outside to join the pair of guards flanking the door, but instead of slouching off to find a bunk, he sits down, ears open. The soldiers are behaving "like the relatives of the bride and groom, serious, hopeful. They sure had their ears glued to that door." They, and Gris, listen to a whispered conversation coming from inside the room, followed by the sound of clothes hitting the floor and the bed creaking, their imaginations afire with what could be happening past that door. Over the music they can hear the Countess say "You will have to be careful with me, darling. I have never had a man before," which Gris scoffs at since he knows from his file that Heller is just as inexperienced as she.

There were rhythmic creakings then. They went on and on and on.

Then the Countess's voice. "Oh, Jet." She repeated it. She said it faster and faster, "Oh, Jet, oh, Jet, oh JetohJet. Oh JET!" And there was a shuddering moan from Heller.

And that's not the best part.

The two guards instantly leaped to their feet, totally silent! They shot their arms above their heads the way people do in a bullet ball game after a winning hit. They beat their fists together and jumped up and down. They had ecstatic expressions on their faces. They turned to each other and enthusiastically shook hands. And all without the tiniest sound. My, they were pleased!

I'm now imagining something like the Special Edition ending of Return of the Jedi, only instead of cheering crowds across the galaxy celebrating the death of a tyrant and the dawn of a new era, they're all exulting in the fact that Jettero Heller got laid. Seriously, Hubbard, what the hell? Why did we have to hang around for this? Why couldn't we conclude for ourselves what Heller and Krak got up to after Gris left? Why does everyone's happiness depend on Jettero Heller's? Did you think this was romantic or titillating or fun to read?

After a bit the clinking mattress starts up again, and Gris concludes that with the vigor of youth both of them will be at it for the rest of the night. So he goes off and finds an unoccupied room and tries to make himself comfortable on the floor since there's no bed. Meanwhile I'm wanting a shower to wash off the sleaziness from this second-hand voyeurism.

Back to Chapter Four

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Part Four, Chapter Four - Gris Keeps Barfing

There's a genre of fanfiction called hurt/comfort wherein one character tenderly cares for another after a traumatic experience. Since most fanfic writers are girls, this often leads to guy-on-guy action. This chapter doesn't go quite that far, but it does begin with Jettero Heller gently undressing and washing a miserably-ill Soltan Gris.

From there it's the usual "Heller is too honorable to be a secret agent" stuff, as he gets all sorts of potentially incriminating and sensitive documents out of Gris' pockets but leaves it all in a neat pile instead of reading them. Deeming the barf-covered uniform ruined, Heller has a guard run off to order a replacement with Gris' identoplate, making the agent wail that the courier will just blow all the money on hookers and bankrupt him. Heller urges his reluctant companion to show some faith in his fellow Voltarian, and sure enough when the guard returns he is nothing but respectful and courteous to Heller, especially after he gets a tip. Some whispers and smiles lead Gris to suspect that they're planning something.

There's a brief "Heller is awesome" moment too, when the combat engineer takes Gris' ten-inch Knife Section blade, compliments it on the alloy, does a little trick to make the weapon "sing," and then throws it lightning-fast into a convenient melon, offering Gris a slice of the snack. Gris refuses and gets to wondering why he's so violently ill. The Apparatus agent ponders how he gets all urpy thinking about what Dr. Crobe planned to do to Heller - cue another bout of explosive eructation and Heller tenderly sponging Gris' forehead - leading Gris to conclude that he should stay as far away from the mad doctor as possible. With that decision reached, he instantly feels wonderful again, and is up and out of his bed almost immediately.

I'm sorry to say that aside from the "getting Mission Earth off the ground" main plot, a good portion of the rest of The Invaders Plan will concern Gris getting to the bottom of his bouts of nausea. Bet you weren't expecting that from a "satirical" story of alien intelligence agents infiltrating Earth, didja? Ah, Hubbard is just full of surprises.

Back to Chapter Three

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Part Four, Chapter Three - I Rage, Darwin Cries, Gris Pukes

For every blissfully short and stupid chapter of Mission Earth, there's an irritatingly long and stupid chapter to make up for it. This chapter is one of the latter.

Gris and Heller arrive in Spiteos' medical suites, a complex of operating theaters and biological storage famed for the stench of purtrifying cultures and rotting organic waste. Normally such a festering pit of disease, combined with the Apparatus' appalling hygiene, would be a hotbed of plagues that would regularly sweep through Spiteos' population, potentially wiping out the Apparatus altogether. Since this is a Hubbard story, however, the miasma and grossness only serves to underline the Apparatus' moral decay without inhibiting their function in any way.

Did I mention that Spiteos has no air circulation system? Despite being in a desert, and having a complex of tunnels extending deep underground? Obviously the stone walls are exuding breathe-gas to prevent suffocation.

Dr. Crobe's putting the finishing touches on "the one and only specimen of life from the unconquered Planet of Matacherferstoltzian," some poor schmuck who's had his arms and legs replaced with tentacles and gotten an extra-long insectoid tongue sure to delight the freakshows. Gris considers it fortunate that the insane victim will probably die soon, and shows the doctor his next patient. And then a funny thing happens - Gris feels a bit nauseous.

The mad doctor Crobe goes on with giving Heller a physical, giving the nurses a show by ordering Heller to strip and flex for measurements, and letting Gris admire his nemesis' physique before mentally slapping himself and assuring us that he's no "man-lover." The doctor determines that Heller is a native of Planet Manco (the same world the Countess is from, incidentally), and starts listing the ways he'll have to compensate to life on Earth - there's 1/6th less gravity so he'll have to practice moving about, the atmosphere is thinner so he'll oxygenate daily, that sort of thing. Amusingly, the good doctor proscribes hamburgers as a balanced, healthy ration, ideally washed down with beer.

No mention of immunization against a planet's worth of diseases and viruses that Heller's systems have no way of fighting against.

Heller's barely playing attention anyway. He's distracted by pictures displaying Earth's various races and asks for, of all things, a compilation of Voltarian mythology. After an infatuated nurse brings him an abridged copy of In the Mists of Time, Legends of the Original Planets of the Voltarian Confederacy, Heller looks up a particular story he remembers from his childhood on Manco.

Once upon a time, the story goes, during the Great Rebellion, Prince Caucalsia (oh God) fled Manco with his followers to Planet Blito-P3, where they founded the colony of Atalanta (oh come on!). The rest of the Confederacy only learned of this nine years later when two freighters returned to Manco proposing peace and trade, only to be betrayed by a woman named Nepogat (I have a bad feeling about this) and executed. Fortunately for the colonists, the internal struggles wracking the Confederacy kept them from further reprisal, and afterward everyone apparently lost interest, leaving no records to verify the truth of the legend.

In other words, looks like we're in for some "Atlantis was aliens" bullcrap. Not gonna lie, it's a pet peeve of mine, the insinuation that humanity's progress is due to some extraterrestrial influence, as if we couldn't figure out stuff like soap or air circulation systems without alien help. It's particularly jarring coming from Hubbard, really, considering his last work had a bunch of cavemen mastering alien technology, surpassing everyone's expectations to essentially become multiple universes' benevolent overlords. Isn't this guy supposed to be an old-school sci-fi author, full of optimism and the promise of the human mind?

I should really track down some of Hubbard's early works. I think they'd answer some questions.

Anyway, Dr. Crobe gets frothing mad at the story, exclaiming that "Humanoid forms are the commonest sentient life forms in the universe! They comprise 93.7 percent of all populations discovered to date. The humanoid form is inevitable from the basic survival demands of any reasonable carbon-oxygen planet: if sentient life is to appear and succeed, the adeptness of hands, the articulation of feet, the symmetrical right-left body construction and flexible skin are needed."

Which is an utter load of garbage. It's absolutely mind-boggling to suggest that our bodies are the only way for sentient life to succeed, that it's some sort of universal constant so that similar shapes will arise on alien worlds. One natural disaster in Earth's prehistory, one shower of random interstellar radiation, and humanity could have been wiped out before it ever got around to banging rocks together, leaving Earth to be inherited by sentient squid, or elephants, or dinosaurs. Just because we're currently dominant by no means proves the superiority of the human form, and it is utterly laughable to suggest that if evolution started all over again it would turn out the same way.

On the other hand, here's a convenient excuse for designing alien races that are indistinguishable from humans. Nice combination of bad science and laziness, Hubbard.

Crobe doesn't buy Heller's suggestion of similarities between Manco and Earth races' facial structure, and summons a blood sample to prove there's no connection. Or rather he brings in a severed human hand from the freezer to take his sample - the Apparatus is responsible for a few alien abductions, it would seem. When the comparisons are up on screen, Heller insists that they still look similar, and though Crobe can't make a good rebuttal he refuses to believe Heller's theory.

Instead the good doctor rants about how Heller's incapable of blending in with humans - he's 28, just past his growth period, but he can expect to live to be almost two hundred, and will probably gain some inches in the coming years. So Heller will be trying to act innocuous while looking like a 6'5'' eighteen-year-old. The solution, the doctor goes on, is to surgically shorten Heller by removing sections of bone from his limbs and shrinking his skull. And this is where Gris throws up.

The special agent falls to the ground in utter agony, doubling up and adding a new lair of yuck to the area as he empties his stomach, while Heller has some guards get a stretcher. I find it somehow appropriate that copious vomiting marked the end of this chapter.

Back to Chapter Two

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Part Four, Chapter Two - Bloody Tears and Other Romance

I'm not sure if the chapters focusing on the romance between Jettero Heller and the Countess Krak are the low points of The Invaders Plan, or if the forthcoming parts where Gris is running around doing spy stuff and offing people are worst.

Gris returns to his room to find Heller lounging around not studying for the mission, instead listening to love songs performed by very emo artists who - Goth kids take note - "paint their faces black for 'unrequited love' and by means of tubes beside their eyes they shed red tears--tears of blood." And if that's not bad enough, there's the song itself:

And so faded my glow
Into the sorrow
That took me in tow
To the deep pits of woe
And with my last breath
I'll still cry for death
And grave clothes to use
as my trousseau.

So here's the riddle: is the song intended to be this bad? Gris finds it "sickening," of course, but are we meant to agree with the little misanthrope's opinion, or dismiss him for being an antisocial twerp? Is this a parody of angsty romantic music, or Hubbard's earnest attempt at songwriting?

It is only now that Gris figures out what he's dealing with - the awesome power of love. His training warned of the emotion and described how it brought ruin even to mighty royal dynasties. Sadly, the Apparatus solution - shooting people - isn't an option here. So Gris just reminds Heller that he's got an appointment with the Countess, and off he goes to clean up and get ready.

They go to Krak's training areas, but one of the Countess' minions has a summons for Gris, so he sends Heller on and hustles off to answer it. It takes him a full hour to go to Camp Endurance and see what the fuss is about, but the confused personnel there say that the only summons they've heard of was from that morning. It was all just a clever ruse by the Countess to get Gris away, so she could... stare adoringly at Heller while he listened to high-speed language tapes. For two hours. Without interruptions from Gris. Wow.

A thoroughly-disgusted Gris makes some calls and moves some paper around, then pops back in to see Krak and Heller engaging in what he initially mistakes for combat training. But it's actually some bizarre dance called the "Shatter" that involves the participants alternating between lunging at and dodging each other. I guess this is better than having them doing a generic waltz or something, since these guys are aliens after all, so points for effort, Hubbard. It's just a shame that what you come up with to make your alien culture unique tends to be stupid or lame.

Wait, maybe the dance is a parody too?

Then Krak "accidentally" lets Heller bump into her, and to Gris' astonishment doesn't rend the man limb from limb. He watches the Countess and Heller have a good smooch, complete with a whispered "Oh, Jet" that Gris can hear across the room. He has to clap his hands thrice to get their attention and remind them that Heller has an appointment with Dr. Crobe. At least Heller's unlikely to French him.

I'm having Attack of the Clones flashbacks.

Back to Chapter One

Monday, August 15, 2011

Part Four, Chapter One - Love (and Industrial Cleaning Agents) is in the Air

The narrative, such as it is, is interrupted by the "copy of a letter inserted into the manuscript at the date of this writing." Gris is writing to the Chief Judiciary, thanking him for reading this far and assuring him that he's getting plenty of food and water. Gris also writes that yes, he knows there's a warrant for Jettero Heller's arrest, but no, he doesn't know where he is. If he did, Gris assures his audience, he'd try to kill Heller himself.

I'm not quite certain why this letter is necessary - we already know this whole story is a flashback of sorts and that Gris is antagonistic towards Heller, nor is there a timeskip or anything between Part Three and Four for the letter to help smooth over. I don't remember any similar letters later in this book. It just kind of appears, tells us things we already know, and is gone. Like a redundantly-informative speed bump.

Anyway. After his harrowing meeting with his boss, Gris rushes down to the Countess Krak's training rooms and encounters the unfamiliar smell of soap and military-grade cleaning agents. Krak's entire work force - who have all taken baths! - are scrubbing away centuries' worth of filth, replacing lightbulbs, and bringing in new furniture. The Countess herself shows signs of shampooing as she orders a minion to forgo the traditional muting of her training subjects - she refuses to work with people who've had their tongues cut out, and will instead preserve Spiteos security through hypnotic suggestion.

More than that, though, she's terrifying Gris and her underlings by how she's smiling and humming as she helps tidy up the place. When she sees the new arrival, she dismisses her work crew, praising them for their efforts and letting them go home early, causing them to flee the room in terror. There's an almost reassuring moment when Krak stalks towards Gris, training hook in head and eyes a-blazing, but all she does is yank him upright and towel off where he'd been sitting, explaining that he was in Heller's chair.

This reminds the Countess that Gris is to be Heller's handler during Mission Earth, and she abruptly declares that she needs to do a quick "accent check." So he's stuck in one of the training chairs with the hypno-helmets, and when Gris comes to it's half an hour later. She has Gris read some Voltarian aphorisms about obedience and fear in authentic Virginian and New England accents, but then the lesson is interrupted when a guard walks in with a package for "a dazzling star," from "Jet." It's a trio of skin-tight, fashionable dresses that the Countess goes ga-ga over, and she clutches Heller's note to her breast as she dances around the room. When Gris points out that Heller's scheduled training session is overdue, she rushes out of the room to bathe and change clothes, demanding twenty minutes to prepare.

This is all supposed to be a dramatic reversal and change in character, but here's the problem - a Heel Face Turn, or the defection of a bad guy to the side of good, is only as meaningful as the villain's previous career allows. Darth Vader going good at the end of Return of the Jedi? Very dramatic, very awesome moment, because we'd seen him spend two and a half films being an unstoppable, inhuman embodiment of the Dark Side. A spoileriffic reveal about a certain Harry Potter character in Deathly Hallows? Even more powerful, something that turned peoples' perceptions about the character on their head and made them view the entire series in a new light.

Countess Krak, in contrast, has appeared in all of two chapters before going gooey at the sight of Heller. We've had exactly one scene of quasi-evilness as she whipped the bejesus out of some rude mechanicals, and one or two descriptions of her criminal personal history. And now, just by meeting Jettero Heller, she's discovered personal hygiene and the power of positive reinforcement over corporeal punishment.

It's not character development so much as it is a character being suddenly and inexplicably rewritten, all to ensure that Heller will have a suitable love interest, as well as reinforce his status as a purifying agent in the dark, sinful world of the Apparatus.

Oh yes - there was a fairly major plot point in this chapter, something that will lead to death and carnage later. See if you can spot it.

Back to Part Three, Chapter Eight

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Part Three, Chapter Eight - Multitasking

The Mission Earth drinking game: read the word "shabby," take a shot.

They exited from Lombar's office, some of the cream of the Apparatus high ranks: gaunt, grayish faces, suspicious eyes, black uniforms, shabby, shabby, shabby. A general in the Army Division looks like a monument lit up for a feast day; a general of the Apparatus looks like a tramp abandoned him in a garbage can as not worth scavenging.

So was Hubbard like this in real life, constantly remarking on how badly-dressed or ill-kempt people around him were, while nodding his approval at crisp, freshly-laundered uniforms? Did he demand that his followers wear specific outfits and inspect them each morning to make sure they were up to snuff? Did he really believe that one's physical appearance was a reflection of their moral character?

We get some useful information as the parade of planetary Apparatus heads and officers goes by - the not-CIA commands four million soldiers, which although "miniscule" compared to the might of the full Voltarian military is somehow enough to deter the rest of the government. Guess all those badly-dressed, undisciplined washouts and criminals are really intimidating to seasoned space marines. The crowd also clues Gris in that the meeting was an important one. "That eleven Apparatus generals had been seeing Lombar meant that something was having to be protected--something secret and sinister in the best Apparatus tradition."

Whatever you're thinking is probably better than what Hisst's actual plan is.

When Gris finally gets to see the chief, Hisst has him sign a receipt for the latest shipment of a Mysterious Something from Earth. Hisst explains that Gris is still head of Section 451, but this won't interfere with his role as Heller's supervisor for Mission Earth - Gris will get sent all his paperwork. He'll also get to sign the shipping order for further packages of a Mysterious Something, which will be sent back along with a signed receipt for receiving the shipment. Hisst reassures Gris that he'll be getting paycheck for his job as Section Chief, Mission Earth coordinator, and cargo inspector, so lucky for him, huh?

If it weren't for this insightful parody, I never would have guessed that the CIA was so redundant and incompetently bureaucratic.

Hisst also raises the matter of the leak, whoever let the papers know that Heller was going on Mission Earth. The Grand Council has read the news and congratulated the Apparatus for their choice, and also mentioned inspectors to make sure things go smoothly. Naturally, this means that Hisst recommends getting off-planet as soon as possible. This, regrettably, will not happen.

This brief and uneventful chapter ends with Gris leaving the office, stunned by his promotions and shaken by off-hand threats about the consequences of failure.

Back to Chapter Seven

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Part Three, Chapter Seven - Friend Computer

Gris wakes up bright and early, invigorated with the prospect of getting Heller on his way to Earth. The combat engineer is still asleep, giving us a chance for some homoeroticism:

There he was, sleeping with a half-smile on his face as though he hadn't a care or worry in the world. He was very good-looking, even in sleep, which is unusual. He was a very handsome fellow but he was pretty, too. I wished I had more blackmail material on him. Anyone that was that handsome must have had plenty of wild adventures in the sex department.

Ah, if only there had been teenage girls writing slashfic back in 1985. 'course if anyone would sue fanfic authors over the "illegal" use of fictional characters, it'd be Scientology.

Gris' plans for the day are interrupted by a summons from his boss. He races to Hisst's office but finds it occupied - there's a lot of Apparatus higher-ups having a conference in there. So Gris gets to wile away the hours in the waiting room, his thoughts eventually returning to speculation over Heller's sexual escapades. And then he gets an idea: there's a computer console connected to the Apparatus' information network in the room with him, so he could be doing some research while he waits.

He logs into the Apparatus' databank. You can look up anything there, though whatever you find is suspect - just about anyone can make changes or add completely fraudulent documents, with only the user's ID number to hint at the truth. So it's a lot like Wikipedia, I guess, except full of blackmail material instead of six-page bios of Doctor Who characters.

Out of curiosity Gris checks his own profile, but the only recent change is his promotion. Dr. Crobe, according to the Apparatus, is dead. Checking on the Countess is a little more confusing - any search for "Countess Krak" brings up "Lissus Moam" and vice versa, until the computer informs Gris that he's holding down the "repeat" key.

Oh. My finger wasn't but my cap was. I put the cap elsewhere and punched in,

Lissus Moam

again. The screen promptly said,

See Graves Reference

So I punched in

Graves Reference

The screen said,

There is no connection to the Graves Reference.

I hit Query three times. The machine said

Please do not argue. The computer is always right.

The computer is by far my favorite Mission Earth character. That's right, out of the entire cast, I hold the most affection for an inanimate object. It's not a murderer or an idiot or a sycophant or a Marty Sue, its just a quietly sarcastic user interface. And maybe, at the end of the day, that's all we really need.

Going back to his original idea, Gris searches for any records of Jettero Heller's sex life, querying about "affairs with women," "affairs with fellow officers," "affairs with underage..." thanks, Hubbard... "affairs with prostitutes..." oh come on, you do that one after the speculation over pedophilia? But even a search for "incest" comes up with nothing.

So Gris looks up "mental interviews" and finally finds something - while being treated or some battlefield heroism, Heller got in a fight with a homosexual nurse and put him in the hospital... er, injured the guy enough for him to need treatment too. Strangely, the mental health exam afterward revealed nothing wrong with Heller, and more tellingly there's no mention of reprimands about beating a man over his sexual orientation.

Did I mention that this is a homophobic book?

Heller has a few childhood arrests and misdemeanors - a one-credit fine for riding his space-bike on the sidewalk at age seven, a dismissed case for illegally skydiving into a parade to show off a new technique at age fifteen, and another dismissed case at age sixteen for sneaking aboard a freighter, which the judge used to send Heller to the academy. Laws are for ordinary people, not the likes of Jettero Heller. There's a single court-martial from Heller's military career, when Heller objected to a training officer's use of electro whips and got in a fight, which was dropped because Heller was three days the other man's senior in ranking.

Even Gris boggles at why Heller would go cuckoo for Countess Krak if he hates electro-whips so much. But then a clerk informs him that Hisst's conference is breaking up and it's time to go.

Back to Chapter Six

Monday, August 8, 2011

Part Three, Chapter Six - Disciplinary Action

And here's the chapter where we lose any bit of sympathy for Soltan Gris.

Heller's a lost cause, but Gris still has an item on the night's agenda - punishing Commander Snelz, the officer in charge of the security detail that's supposed to be keeping Heller under close watch, but has instead become all chummy with him. So Gris hops on a "zipbus" and takes the underground road from Spiteos to Camp Endurance. He asks the (half-naked, for some reason) driver about the unusually high traffic and gets some expletives aimed at officers, which makes Gris agree with Hisst that such "riffraff" and "trash" is indeed worthy of extermination.

After passing through the security checkpoints blocking the so-called Camp Kill off from the Apparatus' super-duper-secret headquarters, Gris heads towards the officer quarters carved into the hillside like "animal caves." There's the usual sounds of loud music and a nighttime brawl, along with the characteristic stink associated with the Apparatus. And then Gris is attacked in a Hubbard Action Scene.

I am pretty fast. Otherwise I would have died in my tracks!

The blastgun barrel was into my stomach with violence!

I hardly even saw the man behind it.

With a roll to the side I made the barrel shoot by. I brought my right hand down on the back of the sentry's neck!

And so forth. Gris defeats the overly-enthusiastic sentry and clubs his skull twice with the butt of his own weapon, crushing bone and leaving the man motionless and bleeding. Apparatus troopers such as this have it tough - as a bunch of criminals, "the worst riffraff of the planets," they have a tendency to hide while on duty. As a result, their officers are authorized to execute them at their discretion, so a sentry is faced with the choice of risking his life for a murderous superior or risking execution for dereliction of duty. And yet the Apparatus is able to hold itself together to present a credible threat as a villainous organization.

Gris boldly pushes into Snelz' quarters to find the officer sitting at a table in his underclothes, practicing his dice game, while in his bunk a camp prostitute sleeps peacefully. Using his incredible Apparatus training, Gris deduces that Snelz intends to win some money from his mates to pay back his whore, but he doesn't intend to give his victim the chance. Drawing his weapon, Gris formally announces Platoon Commander Snelz' death sentence for fraternizing with a prisoner. The prostitute behind the officer is also in the field of fire, but meh, collateral damage.

But oh, the irony! When Gris pulls the trigger he gets the pop of a dud fuse. What a... silly mistake for a seasoned Apparatus operative to make, not checking his weapon before going a-murderin'. If you haven't noticed by now, Gris' secret agent skills are only as keen as the plot requires.

Luckily Snelz didn't notice that Gris' weapon is suffering projectile dysfunction. The officer grovels, begging for his life, pleading that the "fraternization" with Heller is just a way to avoid raising his suspicions, as per Gris' orders. He even crawls over to offer some crumpled currency at Gris' feet. The (filthy, dirty) prostitute wakes up during this and is irate: "Hey, don't give away no money! You can buy another (bleep)!"

While Snelz is still trying to bargain for his life, the whore makes a dive for the twenty spacebux on the floor in front of Gris; in reply our viewpoint character stomps on her hand, shattering bones and sending her naked and screaming out the front door... until she sees the downed sentry out front, panics further, turns around and runs back into the house with the gun-toting, hand-stomping Apparatus agent, and decides to cower in a corner. Even Gris is dismayed at her stupidity.

After Snelz offers to split half of whatever Heller gives him with Gris, our villain protagonist agrees to spare his life. He even hands over a ten-credit note so the skull-smashed guard can get a trip to the doctor, before heading back to Spiteos and the armory for a functioning weapon. On the way he tries to figure out why his gun didn't fire, and rejects the idea that Heller somehow swapped out the cartridges, concluding that he took the gun that Heller's friends had packed, which had been loaded with a dummy cartridge for safe transport that Heller hadn't removed yet.

Gris roughs up the armory... guy. Armorer, I guess? Hubbard doesn't give him a title or name. Anyway, Gris gets loaded up with shooty and choppy bits, as well as complimented when the armorer suggests that he's becoming more like Lombar Hisst each day. Or at least Gris decides the guy means it positively, so he doesn't kill him.

The chapter ends with Gris returning to his shared quarters with Heller, where he concludes that the sooner he leaves Voltar the better, especially since Heller will be completely at his mercy on Earth.

Allow me some hollow laughter at the idea of them getting to Earth quickly.

Back to Chapter Five

Friday, August 5, 2011

Part Three, Chapter Five - The Murders of the Countess Krak

On their way back to their quarters, Gris takes Heller to Spiteos' topmost tower to catch a much-needed breath of fresh air under the star-studded desert sky, and to have an important talk. Feeling strange brotherly feelings for his fellow officer, Gris restates Mission Earth's importance and warns Heller that despite his training as a combat engineer he needs to follow Gris' lead in the area of espionage. And romance, apparently. "That female you met this afternoon is trouble. Trouble with a capital crash!"

...Okay, Hubbard, that's how you want to play it? Fine. Then your book is dumb with a capital crap.

Gris explains the Countess Krak's dark backstory. She's a real countess, but her true name is Lissus Moam, and three years ago on Planet Manco (capitalization required, apparently) she was arrested and sentenced to death for training a bunch of children to kill guards and rob banks. The kids were executed, she wound up working for the Apparatus. We've been told this before, and I'm not sure why I'm repeating it.

Anyway, Krak has killed three guards since she arrived at Spiteos. One touched her hair, so she stabbed him in the heart with the butt of her whip. Another whispered something in her ear, so she yanked his head back until his back snapped in three places, leaving him to die in agony days later. The third groped her during hand-to-hand training - thigh-high boots and jacket and nothing else, remember? - which ended in him mashed into a "red paste" without a single unbroken bone in his corpse. Lombar Hisst is the only person to survive striking the Countess.

Heller finally starts paying attention after learning Hisst has beat Krak, utterly ignoring the three murders she's committed. Gris admits that Hisst is a bit of an abusive boss, but reiterates that Heller should stay away from the Countess, who is "death incarnate," if he values his life.

After a long, thoughtful silence, Heller stirs and asks Gris if he thinks Krak's eyes are a pale blue or gray. A perfect moment for the sarcastic trumpet wha-wha-whaaaaaaa sound effect.

Well, it's nice that Heller is showing some imperfection besides "too honorable and pure for intelligence work," even if this makes him a lovesick fool who's completely blind to his beau's homicidal tendencies. So he's 90% obnoxiously perfect, 10% utter moron... which isn't much of an improvement.

Of course there's more to the Countess than that, since we can't have Jettero Heller falling in love with a villain. But that's later.

Back to Chapter Four

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Part Three, Chapter Four - The Countess Krak is Ruined Forever

Heller comes out of stasis for his big scene and begins slowly moving around the room, examining all the training/torture equipment lining its walls. The sight of him is enough to silence the Countess Krak before she can point out that he and Gris are late for their appointment and presumably whip them for tardiness.

The combat engineer risks painful death by popping open one of the brain-frying devices and fiddling with its innards. Normally messing with the Countess' machines is an act of suicide, but the woman, "as beautiful as the Goddess on the altar of a church, but every bit as cold as that carved stone," continues to silently watch Heller from beside her desk. Heller continues his tour of the sadistic devices, and one of them in particular stands out:

It was a maze of electrodes that could be applied to different parts of a strapped-down body. There was a sort of projector screen. The hapless being strapped to it could be shocked with high voltage and shown pictures at the same time.

It's not quite the same as using an "electronic ribbon" to suck the souls of atomized aliens into "vacuum zones" before subjecting them to intense 3-D cinema in order to brainwash them, a chain of events that will culminate millennia later in Tom Cruise shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to rid himself of extraterrestrial ghosts until he feels better about himself. But it's close enough to make me suspicious.

The torture devices left behind, Heller reaches a part of the room where the exercise equipment is. He confirms my suspicions that his hands are inhumanly strong by spinning a hundred-pound weight on one fingertip, then playfully swings himself along some suspended gymnastic rings. This culminates in a twenty-foot flip that drops him right next to the Countess Krak.

He saw her. He stood up very erect. It was as if somebody had turned on a light inside of him.

"HelLO!" he said. "Hello, hello, HELLO! What is a beautiful creature like you doing in a place like this?"

It's almost refreshing to find something that Heller absolutely sucks at. Gris is horrified, not just at the corniness and raw Fail of Heller's pick-up line, but because Krak has killed people for lesser insults. But just as he's ready to write off Mission Earth as a failure, Krak surprises him by not killing Heller, instead collapsing into her chair and half-turning away from the idiot standing next to him.

She just sat there. Her eyes were fixed on a spot a yard in front of her feet. In a low, strained voice, not looking at him, just looking at that spot, she said, "You should not talk to me." There was a silence. She seemed to sink lower into her chair, tense, indrawn. "I am not worthy of you." It was just a monotonous mutter. "I am rotten. I am vile. I am not fit for you to talk to."

How telling is it that Hubbard likes for his books' heroes to be worshiped? Jonnie Goodboy Tyler was made a demigod by people he had never met, a person whose girlfriend's only defining characteristic was her unconditional, slavish devotion to his cool indifference. And here we have Jettero Heller, a beacon of such purity that murderous thugs become his humble servants while this woman is crushed because she'll never be "worthy" of interacting with him. I can't wait to see how the people on Earth will fight each other for the honor of kissing his keister.

I mean, lots of protagonists fall under the messianic archetype, but this is... it's just... dammit, Hubbard.

The now-ruined Countess Krak is sobbing uncontrollably because Heller's god-awful pick-up line was "the first friendly thing anyone has said to me in three years!" He's a little lost, but holds her hand and gives her his hanky in an attempt to calm her down. Gris, meanwhile, has had enough of this crap. He steps outside, has the guards move in to make sure nobody leaves, and hits the medical labs to get some more "skin patches" for his face. When he gets back to Krak's room he finds that she's still crying. Oh, and all her tears "were making her breast pretty wet." Thank you, Hubbard, for attempting to eroticize the sight of a woman crippled by self-loathing.

So Gris starts gathering equipment on his own. There's headgear that puts the wearer into a hypnotic trance while it plays language tapes, perfect for rapid learning, and fortunately Earth provides a lot of commercial language courses that the aliens have appropriated. There's even a nearly funny moment as Gris muses that the "FBI" who warns of the penalties of copying such products will have a pretty hard time arresting him. Since Heller will be primarily operating around New York City, Washington DC, and Virginia, and there are a confusing number of accents listed for NYC, Gris settles for a basic Virginia accent and an "Ivy League" intonation, since he concludes that New England must be close to where they're going.

Now, were you aware that Jettero Heller is totally awesome? I know you just saw him reduce a woman to crushing despair with his inherent goodness, but I'm not sure you properly appreciate just how incredible this man is. Krak finally pulls herself together, so Gris moves in with a language tape and the hypno-learning-helmet. Heller shrugs it off and deflects his handler's attempt to explain its use, sits down on Krak's desk to mess with the device, and listens to it say "My name is George" in "Elementary English (Ivy League)." But this will simply not do for Jettero Heller!

He gets Gris to call in one of Spiteos' many surveillance technicians while he starts fiddling with the teaching helmet. When the worker arrives, Heller orders, very specifically, a "small frequency step-down unit," and of course the technician hurries off to get the part. With it installed the device will play one of the language strips, which normally take an hour to get through, in a mere thirty seconds. The noise is a high-frequency screech, but Heller listens to it and then flawlessly recites the lines from the language lesson!

The Countess Krak breathed, "Instant articular assimilation and retention. At hyperspeed."

I looked at her. "Is that rare?"

"No," she said. She seemed to be in a daze. "Well . . . yes, at speeds like that, it is." She wasn't talking to me, really. "His hearing is trained to differentiate minute time intervals." Her voice sounded so strange. "I've never seen it done that fast." She seemed to become aware of me for a moment. With bright-eyed awe she said, "Isn't he beautiful?"

Gris grudgingly admits to himself that Heller is indeed smexy. On the bright side, since Heller can go through four language tapes in the space of this side conversation, they can just take the language gear to his room and learn it all in a night, right? But no, Krak is adamantly opposed to that idea. Regulations, you see. They'll just have to come back tomorrow for Heller's next lesson, preferably one done shirtless. Gris hurriedly drags Heller out of there, and this long, painful chapter comes to an end.

RIP Countess Krak, emotionless dominatrix. We barely knew ye. Here comes Countess Krak, Jettero Heller fangirl and love interest.

Back to Chapter Three

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Part Three, Chapter Three - The Countess Krak Whips It Good

Heller and Gris finally arrive for their appointment with the Countess Krak.

I opened the huge armored door to the training area and started to step inside.

I was hit with a wall of sound!

The first hall is a huge place of platforms and machines, full of shadows and dim recesses.

The hall resounded with a curling, snapping, vicious sound! I tried to back up and get out but Heller was behind me coming in and he closed the door after him.

I could be reading the brand-new Dresden Files book right now. I've got the entire Discworld series on a bookshelf literally within arm's reach. Hell, one of my favorite authors on just updated his Command & Conquer 'fic. But instead, duty compels me to spend an hour or so with L. Ron Hubbard.

The snapping sound that's overwhelming poor, delicate Gris is the Countess' electro-whip, which she's using to lash the five burly Apparatus workers frantically trying to escape her wrath. Then Gris spots gleaming eyes in the shadows next to Krak's desk - it's a lepertige, nine hundred pounds of muscle under mottled black and orange fur. In other words, a tiger with possibly leopard-like spots.

There's a weird moment when Gris, who tries to bolt for the door at the sight of the not-tiger, notices fresh blood on its jaw, becomes "fascinated" by the gore, and instead moves to get a better look in case there's a body on the floor that the beast has been tearing into. Almost as if Gris has an unhealthy fascination with bloodshed that overrides his survival instincts. Now, if you were an author intending to portray Soltan Gris as a murderous villain, this would be an effective and comparatively subtle way to do so - not to have him outright admit in his narration that "I like blood and violence!", but to show him taking a deviant interest in gore and suffering, without him even thinking it something worth mentioning to his audience.

So of course this flash of competence is entirely accidental on Hubbard's part. Gris has little to no reaction, positive or negative, to his acts of violence over the rest of the book. He's predictably upset when someone's trying to kill him, but he doesn't revel in the act of bloodletting or anything. This is a moment of character stupidity, not character-building.

Anyway, Gris realizes that the not-tiger has been captured and brought in for training by the Countess, but has had its claws pulled out in preparation. Hence the Countess' whipping of the workers for bringing in a "maimed" animal. She lashes the drudges without any sign of anger or sadistic pleasure or any emotion whatsoever, as if "she might just as well have been eating dinner." Once all five are down and whimpering for mercy, she warns that she'll send a trained not-tiger to kill their boss if this happens again.

And then she walks over to the not-tiger to inspect its wounds, making it lay its paw in her hand with a simple gesture. Wordlessly she directs the beast into its cage, which the thoroughly-whipped workers hastily lock. The chapter ends with her ordering a culture from Dr. Crobe's lab to regrow the creature's claws.

So, Countess Krak: completely stoic, sends groups of brutes running from her electrified whip without getting her heart-rate up, good with animals. Compared to the likes of Lombar Hisst she's an interesting character, but now she's going to meet Jettero Heller and... hang on, where's Heller been this chapter? He followed Gris inside and then just stood in the doorway, watching. He had no reaction to the whipping or the not-tiger or anything. And next chapter he greets the Countess like he's seeing her for the first time instead of having just witnessed her feats of whipping and animal handling.

Guess he was admiring the construction of the doorway and sensing temperature variations with his hand again instead of paying attention to, you know, all the screaming and the sounds of the crackling electrified whip and the smell of cooked flesh and burned uniforms and the animal stink of the not-tiger and the coppery tang of blood. Guy really likes his rocks, after all.

Back to Chapter Two

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Part Three, Chapter Two - Let's Go For A Walk

I just want to share this chapter's first paragraph:

The interior of ancient Spiteos is a labyrinth of windowless, black stone. Above ground level it is mainly a deserted hulk but huge with rooms and vaults and tunnelled passageways. The original inhabitants of the planet believed in fortress security--but it had availed them not at all when our forefathers came.

This is the what you guys are missing by reading my chapter summaries instead of the book itself. This is the prose and style of the "master storyteller" L. Ron Hubbard. This is the best he could do after a lifetime spent churning out books and stories for magazines.

Gris and Heller are on their way to Countess Krak's quarters for a scheduled bit of training, but they're not going to make it this chapter. Gris needs to run to the armory and get a dummy blaststick he can swap out with Heller's illicit weapon, while Heller insists that they walk all the way across the fortress so he can get some exercise.

He's doing so in his "hull boots," shoes that can extend magnetized bars from their soles with a click of the heels, to help you walk around while weightless aboard a spacecraft. Heller has left the magnets out as he walks, so he makes an incredible racket as he inspects the primeval fortress' stonework. Heller expresses admiration for the ancients who built it without the benefit of modern tools like disintegrators, and wonders why the ancient Voltar had to wipe the planet's natives out.

This leads to Gris mentally sneering at his partner's soft attitude towards "riffraff and excess baggage" such as conquered indigs, which makes me wonder - does the Apparatus' recruitment pool count as riffraff? Does Hisst plan to purge his own people after gaining power? Not that this would be unusual, given how real-life dictators tend to operate. I'm just trying to apply logic to a half-baked villain, don't mind me.

They reach the armory, and of course the guy running it is all snarling and unhelpful and makes a big deal out of getting a dummy cartridge for Heller's not-gun because the CIA is a bunch of evil criminals who hate each other almost as much as they hate everyone else. And then we're reminded once more that Jettero Heller is a wonderful, talented person. He feels a nearby wall up high near the ceiling and announces that he and Gris must be at surface level now. He can tell because he senses a half-degree difference in the stone's temperature between the bricks at the ceiling and floor.

This bit of "look how awesome my character is" also serves Gris' purposes, though. The agent plays along and copies Heller's gesture, "accidentally" stumbling against the other man and using his Apparatus-trained pickpocketing skills to draw Heller's blaststick from this boot, retrieve the dud power cell from his own sleeve, and load it into Heller's (presumably empty) weapon, all in a "split second."

Since Gris has just displayed a bit of superhuman speed and dexterity that rivals the incredible Jettero Heller, Hubbard puts things right with Heller's next trick. The combat engineer finally retracts the magnets from his boots, gets out a big sheet of paper and a pen, and begins drawing, his hand a blur. Within mere moments he has finished a fully-detailed, "beautifully done" floor plan of Spiteos' upper level, just as an "archeological curiosity" - which he then gives to Gris as a gift for his boss. An awestruck Gris asks how the measurements could possibly be accurate, and Heller explains how all the stomping he's done with his metal booties let him use "echo-sounding" to calculate distance, with a little help from his watch.

Gris has a little freak out as he imagines Heller going and surveying Spiteos' lower levels, what with the secret hangars and storerooms full of supplies for the impending coup and the fifty thousand prisoners and so on. His sweating makes the bandages from his beatings start to peel, but he shoves Heller away before the combat engineer can express selfless concern for his fellow man, and once more reminds him that they have an appointment with the Countess Krak.

And so ends this chapter, yet another reminder that Jettero Heller is smart, resourceful, and utterly incompatible with the Apparatus' amoral methods of subterfuge. I guess the dud blaststick could be considered a minor, minor plot point, but I can't remember how it turns out. I have a feeling Heller's going to get another chance to show us how awesome he is, though.

Back to Chapter One

Monday, August 1, 2011

Part Three, Chapter One - Fraternizing With The Enemy

Gris makes his way back to his quarters in the dark stone depths of Spiteos, but notices something's amiss - there's no sign of the guards meant to keep Heller in check, and he can hear voices coming from his room. Panicking at the thought that his charge may have escaped, he flings the door open and lunges inside, immediately dodging to avoid any return fire, even though he hasn't drawn his sidearm or anything so if there were any hostiles waiting for him he'd be thoroughly screwed. But I'm sure they would have appreciated his dynamic entrance.

There's no danger, of course, it's just Jettero Heller sitting down with the local platoon commander, eating sweetbuns and chatting about what's in the day's paper, while a brand new "Homeviewer" on the wall plays a tune by a "diddleband."

In Hubbard's defense, the verb "diddle" can refer to a percussionist playing two consecutive notes with the same hand. Sort of like how "ejaculate" can refer to someone suddenly exclaiming something. So we all need to grow up and stop snickering, alright?

Gris realizes what I've already complained about, that the agents of the Apparatus are pretty damn incompetent. The guards he requested to covertly keep an eye on Heller aren't there, their commander is chumming it up with the prisoner, and someone who's supposed to be in isolation is being given the latest news.

As the commander scampers out, Heller explains that he's reached an accord with the Apparatus soldiers, and in exchange for letting them know where he is at all times they bring him goodies, such as this newspaper bearing headlines about a famous combat engineer being chosen for a top-secret mission. Gris mentally curses all reporters, lamenting that "we didn't control all the press--not yet!"

So the Apparatus' elite just barely manage to avoid botching a kidnapping, succeed in a way that tips off the victims' buddies on who could have taken him, can't properly control him once he's supposedly in custody, and they can't keep word of his secret mission from leaking to the press. These are crap secret agents. They're trying to take over their government and they haven't even infiltrated the press yet?

Anyway. Heller notices that Gris has been promoted, offers his heartfelt congratulations, and says that as per tradition Gris now owes him dinner in the next nightclub they visit. And you may think that this is a throw-away line, a jolly little joke showing the camaraderie in the Fleet in contrast to the paranoia and mutual contempt between Apparatus personnel, that surely Hubbard wouldn't spend a whole Part of his space epic covering Gris and Heller's evening out. And you'd be wrong.

Oh, did I mention that Heller's a jeweler? 'cause he knows precious stones too. He takes a look at Gris' new gold chain, assures him that the emeralds are real (if mostly off-color) and that the bottom one in particular is an unusually valuable specimen from the South Vose mines, denoted by a flaw that improves its color and refraction. I'm really glad the book's hero knows this stuff. Just think how awful it'd be if he was a star athlete and dashing commando and expert geologist but not an amateur jeweler.

While Heller breaks out the "sparklewater," which isn't a drug because Voltar doesn't know what those are, Gris worriedly notes that Heller must have been slipped a load of cash by his buddies, and wonders what else they may have packed. So in other words, the paranoid, seasoned intelligence operative didn't fully search the bags he brought to his prisoner. He just "glanced" through them.

Heller answers his unspoken question for him, showing off the blaststick his mates smuggled in for him (800 kilovolts, allegedly enough to blast through Spiteos' walls), a wad of a thousand credits (enough to bribe his way out of Spiteos), and a "whizzer" capable of sending up a flare that can be seen five thousand miles away.

Aside from my uninformed guess that such an absurdly powerful flare would blind anyone near it, I'm tempted to try to work out how high such a light would have to travel to be seen over the curvature of an average-sized planet. But this book isn't worth the trouble.

The chapter ends with Gris telling Heller about his appointments with Dr. Crobe and the Countess Krak, while Heller ignores him to chuckle over the Sports page of the paper. Even the book's hero isn't interested in the story.

Back to Part Two, Chapter Eight