Monday, October 31, 2011

Part Ten, Chapter Six - How Not To Blackmail Someone

The mysterious figure with a gun trained on Gris steps out of the shadows, revealed to be Raza Torr!

What? Surely you remember - okay, he's the Chief of Provocation Section, the murdering rapist who Gris blackmailed with photos of the foul deed. That guy. He's come alone, save for the camera he's used to record Gris' latest crime, as well as Gris' visit to the head plumber, "cellologist," and Colonel Recently Deceased at the officers' club.

Talking isn't shooting.  Keep him talking.  "Then you were the one who blew up my airbus in the Bilke Mountains!"

Yes, the attack that you completely ignored after it was over, Gris.  The attempt on your life that you showed no interest in, which you didn't investigate, which didn't convince you to extra careful in your recent adventures.  That attack.  The one that occurred in one chapter and had no effect on the plot whatsoever until right now.

Raza wants the originals and duplicates of Gris' blackmail photos, as if there were a reason Gris would be carrying them on his person at all times.  Once Gris points this out, Raza reluctantly agrees to a truce so that Gris can tidy up this crime scene, thus covering both their backsides.  Then they'll go back to the office and swap their respective incriminating photos.

So Gris goes through the trouble of retrieving the projectiles fired by his "blade gun," which involves a lot of blood and "electronic pliars" to pry out a shot that hit a doorjam.  Then Gris carefully packs the bugs he intends to use, and less carefully grabs the contents of the cash register and a bunch of other goods in order to better simulate a robbery.  Raza helps him carry stuff, as well as get Colonel Horrible Judge of Character's corpse into his car along with his driver.  Gris sets up a blaststick so that a good jolt would set it off, and puts the car on autopliot towards Slum City, where it will either collide with traffic or crash somewhere.  Then it's a simple matter of starting a fire in the store and heading home in the car Raza stole.

We got into the stolen car.

"I take it back," he said, putting the camera down. "You sure are thorough!"

"I sure am," I said, and I put ten inches of the Knife Section knife into his back.

Yeah, just like that.  Questions abound: when did Gris draw the knife he kept sheathed under the back of his neck, and why didn't Raza notice it or react?  How easily can you stab someone in the back when they're sitting in the car with you, especially if the blade's nearly a foot long?

Gris takes to the air and pushes Raza's corpse out somewhere over Provocation Section headquarters, heedless of any worries that doing so might start an investigation that ends with his head on a platter.  He heads back to his office and opens up his stash of blackmail goodies under a floorboard and briefly considers getting the photos published in a newspaper, but decides to be careful and just burns everything - his photos, Raza's photos, his bloodsoaked clothes, etc.  After that he writes a suicide note from Dr. Bittlestiffender and leaves his coat and ID next to a river, and then it's bedtime.  All in all, a full day.

The moral of the story - make duplicates of your blackmail photos, put them in a safe place, set it up so some get published if anything happens to you, and then you go to the person you're blackmailing and tell them you've taken these precautions.  Gris sure is lucky his would-be blackmailer confronted him at the scene of the crime while carrying all the evidence of said crime, and not the next time Gris dropped by his office, where there would be plenty of witnesses.

With that I guess we're done with the "Who's Watching Gris?" subplot... which only popped up at five distinct points in this story, and could be cut from it without affecting The Invaders Plan in any way.  It certainly didn't lead to any character development or advance the main plot or anything.  But I could say that about 70% of this stupid book.

Back to Chapter Five

Friday, October 28, 2011

Part Ten, Chapter Five - "Stiffen" Isn't a Command I Could Shout With a Straight Face

The Eyes and Ears of Voltar (no caps or italics this time) is owned by a man named Spurk, who greets a twice-disguised Gris and Stinkens from Supply when they come by after hours for a late-night, high-figure deal. Spurk is naturally the only one in the store, which Gris is quietly grateful for.

He offers his guests a tour of his inventory, particularly some cutting-edge overstocked goodies they're waiting for the Army to place an order for. I'm wondering why such sensitive espionage tools would be allowed to sit around in a downtown store, rather than made to order and hurried off to a secure Army facility, but maybe that's how things happen in the real world. Maybe there's a warehouse somewhere full of Predator drones that Uncle Sam hasn't purchased yet, just waiting for a wealthy Air Force clerk to snap up during his off hours.

Gris makes a show of inspecting product ID numbers for Stinkens' benefit, as Spurk presents a "respondo-mitter" that works by induction (through bone, no less) so long as it's implanted within two inches of an optic nerve. It picks up the... signal, or electrons, or something, and transmits the data up to two hundred miles (ten thousand with the 831 Relayer) into a receiver that renders an image of what the subject is seeing. And nobody can tap into this signal because it's:

"Undetectable! Nonobstructable. No known means will register it. Actually, it is a very long wave acting as a carrier and a conduit for a side band."

Ah, magic.

Gris is disappointed the Super Bug won't transmit the subject's emotions or allow him to send "hypnopulsars" or electrical jolts back the other way, but he has Spurk bundle up both of the kits in stock, along with all the spare parts and power packs, and their equivalents for the audial nerves. Then he shoots the storeowner in the throat with his bladegun.

And things immediately go wrong. Colonel Stinkens, who hasn't done anything besides follow Gris around and occasionally ask questions, doesn't conclude that "Snahp" is executing the guilty party like Gris had hoped, but goes for his gun, shouting "What the Hells are you doing?" And since a blastgun's "magnetic shock waves" could endanger all the sensitive equipment, Gris shoots the Colonel too. And then the Colonel's driver comes running, sees his officer down and Gris splattered with blood, and reaches for his gun. But by some miracle the weapon doesn't fire, so he grabs a bayonet and charges Gris, who shoots him.

So there's blood everywhere, three corpses on the ground, but Gris has finally gotten the surveillance equipment that the Army can routinely order but the Apparatus can't even blackmail someone into delivering. But then:

"Stiffen, Gris!"

It came from the door to the next room! A blastgun pointing.

And so we end the chapter on a cliffhanger doubling as a sentence fragment.

Back to Chapter Four

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Part Ten, Chapter Four - Stinkens and Snahp

It takes four hours to get Colonel Stinkens sober, but Gris gets it done thanks to a supply of sobriety pills, hot jolt, and Gris' grasp of Psychology! The disappointing thing is that we don't see how he uses this pseudoscience to convince the alcohol to leave Stinky's system, as it's lost somewhere in the gulf between chapters. Missed a chance for some good satire there, Hubbard.

Hmm, or maybe that was smart of him. Gris Psychologying the colonel sober might look uncomfortably close to a Scientologist using Dianetics to cure someone of nearsightedness, and that could raise questions that Hubbard wouldn't want asked.

Anyway, Stinky asks who Gris is and what's going on, and the Apparatus agent explains that he's Timp Snahp from Army Intelligence, and he needs Stinky for a top-secret mission relating to espionage on Flisten. Someone's been stealing top secret super-sensitive bugging devices for sale on the black market, and Stinky is needed to go to one of the manufacturers here on Voltar and inspect their stock with an eye towards similar electronics, so Gris - excuse me, Snahp - can compare the serial numbers and stuff.

In other words, this whole convoluted set-up is so Gris knows which bugs to get his hands on. Good grief.

Well, the Supply officer is very excited by all of this and happy to do his patriotic duty. Gris goes off and uses Stinky's "identoplate" to make a call to THE EYES AND EARS OF VOLTAR COMPANY and set up an appointment for after dark, then helpfully "finds" the "dropped" ID when Stinky fumbles on the floor looking for it. They head out, and it turns out Stinky has his own driver, but Gris rolls with it. Gris, seasoned infiltrator that he is, has to be reminded that he should probably change out of his Army Intelligence uniform by the formerly drunken desk jockey, but of course "that was the very hint that [he] was waiting for." He gets back into civvie attire while en route, raising the question of whether or not he was carrying a change of clothes with him the whole time or if the colonel's aircar had a set that happened to fit.

And so they're off for their rendezvous with "smugglers" so Gris can grab the devices necessary to bug Heller. Because the Coordinated Infiltration Apparatus does not have such devices in stock, nor does it have an espionage specialist able to tell Gris which ones he needs, nor does it have a secure operating room to perform a surgical bugging or a surgeon to do the cutting, nor does it have any other personnel able to perform these errands rather than have Gris do every damn thing related to getting Mission Earth airborne.

These guys couldn't manage a fast-food chain, but they're trying to take over the empire. Hubbard villains, ladies and gentlemen.

Back to Chapter Three

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Part Ten, Chapter Three - Because Nothing Says "Satire" Like Implied Bestiality

Maybe I've misunderstood Hubbard and his ideas on race. I mean, he's not stereotyping skin tones into single roles - he has multiple interpretations of skin tones in this book. We've seen a hulking yellow brute or two in fight scenes, and servile yellow waiters in the Artists' Club. Now Gris is disguising himself Army Intelligence officer Timp Snahp by means of some yellow make-up, black hair dye, and skin strictures to make his eyes slanted, creating a "sinister" sort of Fu Manchu appearance.

So like I said, multiple racial interpretations, all of them negative.

Gris has Ske drop him off in Joy City, where the Army's best and most affluent officers relax in the Ground Forces Play Club, which gets italics, but is commonly known as the "Dirt Club," which doesn't. With a "blade gun" (it shoots pretzels, of course), two high-powered blast sticks, and his Knife Section dagger concealed on his person, Gris goes in to look for someone.

The club itself is fifteen stories tall, decorated with a pair of fire-spewing cannons flanking a woman clad only in a general's hat lounging on the arcs of flame. It's a complex of bars and private rooms, where nearly-naked girls parade on glass-floored catwalks hoping to bring a drinker upstairs with them once he "shoots" them with a spotlight. That's just in the third room:

The fifth room is like the girl's [sic] parade except it is animals doing the parading. They get potted and taken upstairs the same way. The Army, being so much in the field and away from home, can develop peculiar tastes.

Charming. So to recap, in this book we've seen assaults, blackmails, and murder via evisceration. We've seen the results of sadistic doctors' surgeries, had multiple off-screen instances of rape, and watched people be doomed to a life of slavery. And now bestiality has been brought into the story.

And yet all of the cursewords are (bleep)ed out. Absolutely, utterly baffling. What warped values do you have to possess to think "goddamned" is what you need to censor in a story like this? I almost wanna investigate this now, to explore how Hubbard viewed the power of words. The guy obviously liked making up his own terms for his stuff, so was it a way of taking control of the world? Why is he avoiding cursing in this work, did he not like words used towards such crude purposes? Why did he think all this rape and murder was fine but an s-bomb was not? Or is this part of the "satire," an exploration of American attitudes towards sex, violence and language?

Also, it's pretty weird that lonely soldiers on campaign would have to resort to pet lambs in a society rife with prostitution and slavery. What, no camp followers?  They don't go raiding for enemy women? Or women in general?

Moving along. Gris leaves behind the ordinary "gambling" halls and enters the "hypergambling" section. The main attraction here are rotating wheels that girls strap into so that patrons can lob cloth grenades at their naughty bits - if they get a hit, "a shower of tokens seems to fly out of her (bleep)." Gris speculates that there's someone working the handle of the nude chick roulette wheels to dodge the throws, but this is accompanied by a hilarious footnote at the behest of the Ground Forces Play Club (no italics) denying such slander. A footnote positioned at the very end of the chapter, requiring the reader to turn to page to find it, making it more of an inconvenience than anything.

Gris finds his man slumped over a table in the Bunker Room, a dingy bar dressed up like a fortification, where soldiers seeking to escape the horrors of war do so in an environment straight from the battlefield and the waitresses serve "blood cocktails" while wearing skimpy field nurse outfits. Colonel Rajabah Stinkins (yes, really) is described paradoxically as both "beefy" and "much given to lard," and the divorce papers and photos of five kids that Gris finds on him seems to suggest that he's drowning his sorrows. But once the guy wakes up he explains that he's "shelebrating" his new freedom from that "(bleeping) old hag and her five awful brats." You can laugh if you feel like it, I'm much too tired.

So Gris, posing as an old academy friend for the benefit of the waitresses, feeds Stinkins hot jolt and "sobriety pills" so that the next phase of his plan can proceed next chapter. 

From the "animal parade" and "blood cocktails," I guess it's safe to add the military to the Great Big List of Professions Hubbard Hates. So what's that make now: soldiers, psychologists, doctors, policemen, politicians, clerks, intelligence agents... I know I'm missing some stuff.

Back to Chapter Two

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Part Ten, Chapter Two - Nor Swedish, Farsi, Japanese, Sumerian, Latin...

Back at the hanger again, Gris sees that the refitting of Tug One has entered a new phase - Heller is replacing the vessel's "absorbo-coat," which "takes all incoming waves and simply drinks them up; absolutely no energy gets reflected, visible or invisible." Stealth stuff, in other words. TV Tropes has a pretty good article on the issue of stealth in space, the most obvious problem of which isn't evading incoming sensors, but masking your own spaceship's heat emissions. And since Hubbard's "absorbo-coat" is absorbing all this energy in addition to the energy generated by the boat's engines, life support, and freaking movie theater, Tug One is going to have some problems in that regard.

Anyway, Gris' attention is soon grabbed by the arrival of the Blixo, a rather generic freighter that makes regular, secret runs to Earth for the Apparatus. Crews are unloading its mysterious "priceless cargo" for shipping to the storerooms of Spiteos, but there's something else: a shouting prisoner.

"Take your God (bleeped) hands off my God (bleeped) neck and get these God (bleeped) cuffs off my God (bleeped) wrists!" It was in English! Not Turkish or Arabic. But English!

Hubbard, honey... why is the specific human language being spoken more important than the fact that a human language is being spoken? Shouldn't the sentence read "It was in English! Not Voltarian, but English!" Are Turks or Arabs being towed into Spiteos a common occurrence not worthy of attention, but a guy speaking English, ooh that's a big deal? Were you expecting us not to care if the captive was babbling in Cantonese but for our hearts to go out to him if he sounded American? Is this pandering towards your readers or just some more of your casual racism?

Stupid. Upon being questioned by Gris, the human prisoner refuses to confirm or deny that he is Gunsalmo Silva (who? how does Gris know to ask this?), and demands to speak to his senator or the U.S. consul. Then the guards take him away for interrogation at Spiteos, and he exits The Invaders Plan, leaving readers to wonder if Silva will reappear, how many books it will take for him to do so if he does, and how the hell Hubbard expects us to remember who he is with so many other pointless characters floating in and out of the story.

This short but thoroughly baffling encounter concluded, Gris goes to speak to Captain Bolz, a big shaggy bear of a being who offers the agent a glass of the Earth whiskey he's about to break into. This friendliness is because Bolz wants twenty cases of Scotch smuggled into Joy City and needs Gris' help to do so. Gris refuses monetary compensation, but has Bolz agree to taking on some special passengers and cargo for his next run to Earth - Twolah the Mincing Agent, a certain doctor, some "cellological" supplies, and some "radioactive" boxes Gris is looking forward to liquidating on Earth. All hush-hush, off-the-record of course.

Gris explains how he'll be able to intercept this cargo on Earth, which leaves Bolz to question how Gris could get there before him. And that leads to another tiresome paragraph in which a spacer marvels at Tug One's dangerousness and explosiveness, in case the other fifty times it's happened in this wretched book have failed to impress upon the reader how daring and fearless Jettero Heller is in choosing such a vessel.

Next chapter we learn what the Voltarian Army does on its days off, and it isn't pretty.

Back to Chapter One

Monday, October 24, 2011

Part Ten, Chapter One - Gold, Again

His Hunger Meter sated for now, Gris makes a few quick purchases. He uses some "hundredth-of-a-credit" tokens to buy a greeting card to write a note to "Know All Lombar" thanking him with a "going away present," and makes a copy of a million credit bill and writes a "÷2" on it to let his boss know what to expect. He also copies that "I totally didn't give Gris a kickback" note Zanco wrote him last chapter and writes "Please can you lift this restriction a little bit?" on it, because Gris is a greedy little bugger.

With this cunning cipher in place, Gris drops the message not in the normal mail, but in a secret Apparatus office in the back of a lingerie shop. Thereby making the deception all but pointless. The Coordinated Information Apparatus, ladies and gentlemen.

His next stop is the industrial sector called Power City, a 150,000-year-old warren of power stations and smog. This is where induction fields convert materials from one element to another, generating both ore and electricity to power the planet, presumably from all those electrons changing orbits and such. Which would mean that the Voltarians have perfected nuclear transmutation to such an extent that the energy released by the operation exceeds the energy necessary for the conversion. And I'd love to pick at this and criticize it from an educated standpoint, except my high school chemistry teacher was going through a divorce the year I had her, so I remember the names of the movies we sat through rather than actual nuclear science. Osmosis Jones, Joe Dirt, The Wedding Planner, Inspector Gadget...

I think I got to endure Joe Dirt three times that year, all in separate classes, all because one guy kept lugging it around and suggesting it to teachers, curse him. And that's not a film that appreciates with subsequent viewings, let me tell you.

Anyway. Ske swears up a storm from all the smoke dirtying his garish ride, not to mention the energy fields scrambling his equipment. But he's able to get Gris to the Reliable Ready-Pack Take Away Metals Company, where the agent inquires about a personal purchase of gold. Gris wants nine hundred pounds of it in some secure crates for spending money - after all, Voltarian credits aren't good where he's going. A little backroom dealing, a bit of lead fed into the magical science machine, and voila, futuristic alchemy.

I took one of the fifty-pound ingots off the pile. Gold is deceptive. It looks small but it's heavy. It almost broke my arm. I poked at it with a fingernail and then put my teeth into a corner of it. Nice and soft. Pure gold. Gleaming, lovely! Gold is so pretty!

If only the Psychlos had figured this stuff out. It would have crashed the pan-galactic economy, of course, but it would've made Battlefield Earth a lot shorter.

So soon Gris is on his way back to the hangar with enough treasure to overload his garish aircar. He cunningly secures the gold by putting labels warning of radioactive materials on the crates, which will fool anyone without a Geiger counter, and fantasizes about what he can do with such wealth on Earth. He's memorized the exchange rates for gold on various Earth markets, and estimates that he'll have over six million American dollars for his private use.

Power, power, who saith it doth not have a sweet taste? I was spending it in English already. And in my imagination, Heller, a ragged, shabby and starving, panhandling bum, approached on the street and begged me for a quarter and I pulled the sleeve of my tailored jacket out of his bony, clutching fingers and slammed the door of my limousine in his tear-streaked face.

This chapter raises an interesting point - did Gris get any sort of allowance for Mission Earth, any sort of operating funding? Nobody mentioned what his war chest for infiltrating human society was. Were they expecting him to improvise? I guess this is part of the mission being intended to fail.

Back to Part Nine, Chapter Ten

Friday, October 21, 2011

Part Nine, Chapter Ten - $5,000 Sweetbuns

The next morning Gris visits the hangar to find a whirlwind of activity, with contractors scurrying every which way and Heller guiding a fin into position on Tug One's back, which is completely unnecessary for space flight, wouldn't be enough to make the monstrous tug aerodynamic in atmospheric flight, but might make it look cool. A Fleet Intelligence officer is also there to deliver some now-obsolete "variable time sights" for the ship's baffling propulsion system, which Heller coos over. Gris is just happy to see some progress being made, and concludes that the Countess has convinced Heller to get his fanny into space ASAP.

Next he goes to the corporate headquarters of Zanco Cellological Equipment and Supplies to discuss a millions-credit order with CEO Koltar Zanco himself, who is described as both huge and sleek, like a manatee in a skintight jumpsuit. Gris namedrops Professor Slahb as a family friend and discusses a high-paying, top secret project. He gets Zanco to fill the materials list Dr. Starving wrote up last chapter, and, because Zanco's a worldly man experienced with government graft, requests that the bill be doubled so half of it can go to Lombar Hisst. This requires Gris to go through the entire Zanco product catalogue and order multiples of each item, as well as some "special" purchases not normally listed, but the bill is properly padded.

Even though Hisst expressly forbid Gris from earning a space penny from any kickbacks relating to Mission Earth, Gris has the executive give him a cool ten thousand credits, and covers his tracks by having Zanco write and sign a little note refusing Gris' demand to give him money - "Oh no, boss, I didn't get no kickbacks, this guy even wrote a note about how he didn't give me any! 'Where'd I get the ten grand, then?' Er..."

Zanco is quite pleased with the day's transactions, though Gris threatens to complain about faulty goods if Zanco tells Hisst about the ten thousand credits. And Gris is ecstatic as well - "I suddenly wasn't poor! I could even buy some hot jolt and a bun!" Good grief, what kind of inflation is Voltar going through?

Oh dammit, that reminds me, I was supposed to be keeping track of Gris' diet. But to my recollection there's been nothing to keep track of - no mention was made of Gris either scavenging for food (beyond stealing Bawtch's tup) or suffering from hunger pangs. Odd. I guess that meal at the restaurant was really filling.

Anyway, Gris has Ske take him to a place with sweetbuns, but his driver is worried - he thinks someone's watching the airbus and shadowing Gris. Gris, of course, waves it off as nonsense, because he's a careful Apparatus agent always covering his tracks and watching his back.

Heavens help you now, Heller, I said to myself as I ravenously chomped down on a sweetbun. A clever Gris might not be enough. But a clever Gris and a rich Gris are an unbeatable combination! You're sunk!

...Does Gris have a clone?

Back to Part Nine, Chapter Nine

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Part Nine, Chapter Nine - Gris Gets Some

If you're wondering what end Gris is working towards right now, it's getting Heller good and bugged. Not through a wire on his clothes or anything as mundane as that, but surgically bugged, and in a way that Gris and only Gris can keep tabs on him at all times. He's already picked a specialist to perform the operation, now he's looking for a secure operating room.

No, the gifted Doctor Crobe isn't an option. No, the not-secret dungeons of Spiteos aren't suitable either. What Gris has in mind is a widow's house.

We get a little side story as Gris recalls how he met the Widow Tayl - he had interviewed a captured burglar who confessed to a murder, hoping to earn a place in the Apparatus. The widow had paid the burglar to off her husband, a wealthy but invalid man who had added what amounted to a small, private hospital to his mansion for his doctors to keep him alive in. Gris had gotten the burglar's written confession, had the man thrown through the garbage shredder, and with blackmail material in hand visited the widow and gained a contact.

Gris checks in with Mrs. Tayl and explains that he'll need the old hospital suite for a top-secret operation to cure a Lord's son of homosexuality, and she's happy to help. More than happy, really; warty face and sagging bosom notwithstanding, the Widow Tayl is a nymphomaniac. She can't help but show off her late husband's old bed and comment that "You will never find a bed so serviceable!"

Her naked foot was hooked behind my heel as I tried to go backwards.

Tayl's robe hit the floor.

My right boot hit the far wall and fell with a thud.

Actually, as "love" scenes go, this one is handled fairly well. For borderline rape, anyway.

A standing lamp began to reel.

A table of instruments was shaking and every instrument on it clattered.

The lamp crashed on the floor.

I mean, Hubbard's being very understated here, leaving us with little doubt about what's happening but without being explicit. I'd say it's more tastefully handled than the whole "guards eavesdropping on Heller and Krak's moans and grunts" incident.

The double window blew open inward with a terrific blast of wind.

The outer door looked solid. I got to it and put my hand on it to steady myself. I was totally shot.

Flush with success but wryly noting that "You have to be careful who you blackmail," Gris takes his leave and has Ske fly him to a bookstore, where he finds a copy of Cells I Have Known by one Professor Slahb and tears the author's photo out of the back. Then he dons his old scholar disguise, puts on some make-up, and has Ske take him to a hospital district in Slum City, ringed with private practices where "doctors completed ruining the cases the hospital had botched."

Dr. Bittlestiffender's practice is in a back alley up a couple of fire escapes, which Gris views as "natural selection - it was easy to cure anyone who could make it to the office." Man, Hubbard's on a roll with his doctor-bashing wit tonight! Dr. Probablyapenisjoke is actually sleeping under a pile of newspapers in his office, and turns out to be a tall and gangly recent graduate. When Gris introduces himself as Professor Slahb the doctor is besides himself with excitement, especially when Gris starts talking about a high-paying government assignment (the young graduate hasn't eaten in two days).

Gris whips out a contract that he printed with a portable forgery device in his car, offering the doctor a five thousand credit salary for some top-secret surgery implanting objects alongside optic and auditory nerves. He has the doctor write up a list of needed supplies for the surgery, tells him he'll be reporting to one Soltan Gris, and gives him the Widow Tayl's address, where he'll stay until it's time for the operation. As he leaves he asks for an old coat due to the cold, and the doctor is of course happy to oblige.

So now Gris has his surgeon, his operating theater, and a sample of handwriting to forge a suicide note to be found next to the doctor's coat when it's time to tidy up loose ends. All in all a productive day. As he heads back to the car Gris - a trained secret agent, a paranoid and suspicious veteran of the backstabbing Apparatus - thinks he's being observed from behind a pile of garbage.

It was nonsense, of course, that anybody could recognize me. I shrugged it off--just some thief being hopeful.

I'd just like to point out that since the whole attempted murder thing that led to him spending a month in the mountains, Gris has not show any interest in whoever's trying to kill him or why. He hasn't worried about it, started looking for clues, or anything. He just went back to glowering at Heller without a second thought.

And now here he is, discarding concerns that someone's following him, even after that encounter in the head plumber's office. You have to admire the guy's optimism.

Back to Chapter Eight

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Part Nine, Chapter Eight - Bittlestiffender, a Name You Can Trust

So we're off to the always-bustling Communications Complex Towers, where Voltarians come by in throngs to pay their space phone bills or order Homeview channels, because sci-fi pioneer L. Ron Hubbard couldn't conceive of such transactions being done over the phone or interwebs. Gris hits the Central Directory, finds a ditzy female clerk that everyone else is pointedly avoiding, and goes to work.

This place's computers have very detailed personal information in them, to help figure out which Soltan Gris among the multiple worlds of the Voltarian Confederacy you're looking for. The brainless clerk watches as Gris all but takes over her console, printing out information on the top tier of "cellologists" (as denoted by their credit rating), followed up by a list of newly practicing "cellologists" (as denoted by their recent purchase of office equipment).

You might be wondering why the Apparatus, being the Coordinated Information Apparatus, doesn't have a copy of this vast stockpile of personal information, or at least some way to access the data without leaving the squalor of their own offices. It is a very good question.

After leaving the Directory, Gris has Ske hover for a bit while he looks through the data he's mined. Gris picks Professor Gyrant Slahb as his "cellology" expert, and chooses a poor young graduate named Prahd Bittlestiffender as an expendable pawn. Then it's back to the Provocation Section for another disguise - clothes befitting an old professor, with only small dagger holes and just a bit of blood.

You might be wondering why the Apparatus, being an agency whose operatives regularly adopt disguises, doesn't have a stockpile of clean, carefully selected outfits to dress up in, rather than the bloodstained odds and ends they've pulled off of corpses. That's also a very good question.

Raza Torr is on edge and dismayed that Gris is once again rifling through his equipment and demanding counterfeit identoplates, which are particularly illegal. But Gris just smiles and makes comments about mistresses, and the blackmailed murder-rapist is forced to comply... though not before he almost pulls his gun on Gris.

But hey, Gris has leverage over him, so surely nothing will come of it. Gris leaves in a good mood, ready to ensure Jettero Heller will be completely at his mercy.

Back to Chapter Seven

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Part Nine, Chapter Seven - Imperial Necromancy

Gris is struck by the stink of industrial-strength disinfectant as he enters the training hall of Spiteos. The Countess Krak's assistants are putting Apparatus personnel through their paces: one agent's practicing with "electronic needle bombs" blown from a tube, two "claw fighters" are going through a faux-duel and spraying fake blood everywhere, and in another part of the floor there's "an act with a magician and a primate who seemed to be exchanging roles in making each other disappear."

Uh... huh. Maybe this is satire? Like "har har, those CIA guys are clowns, so in my book I'll have them performing actual circus acts!"  It's just hard to imagine this sort of thing coming up in actual intelligence work.

The Countess Krak isn't doing any work herself, instead passing the time by performing feats of agility while humming to herself. Her good mood vanishes when Gris shows up and beckons her to a quiet corner. He explains that he just had "the most glorious audience," which can only mean that he's spoken with the Emperor himself. Citing concern for Jettero Heller's safety, Gris spins a tale about being secreted away that morning to speak with Cling the Lofty. Gris describes the Emperor's opulent personal quarters, his diamond swimming pool, how His Majesty lounged after his morning swim and had perfumed lard massaged into his skin by his yellow-men...

You could've at least used something like "green-men" or "blue-men," Hubbard. Just exerted the slightest bit of effort to avoid the unfortunate implications of a servile caste of yellow people.

The Countess Krak is quite impressed when Gris tells her that the Emperor has taken a personal interest in Jettero Heller's well-being, but also in Mission Earth - or more specifically its delayed launch. But after some suggestions from Gris, His Majesty came up with a proper incentive to see the expedition begin posthaste. Gris produces that forged letter from the last chapter, a secret decree from Cling the Lofty ordering that, after Mission Earth's completion, Jettero Heller will be retired from active duty and assigned to the palace's royal staff. Then Gris produces the second pronouncement, this one unsigned and unstamped, but which would effectively allow the Countess Krak to resume her civilian identity, claim her inheritance, and generally be "resurrected from the dead." Once Mission Earth is completed, of course.

Krak is of course spellbound, especially since Gris is making lots of references to being sick with worry at the thought of anything bad happening to Heller, as if he was still under her mental conditioning (strange how knowing you had subliminal suggestions implanted in your mind removes said suggestions). So Gris asks her to help hurry Heller along, which she agrees to so long as she gets to be the one holding the documents.

Gris leaves Spiteos practically skipping and cackling - he's got his pawns in motion, and he could even see Krak killed by suggesting that she be searched for those extremely illegal forgeries. "I had a lot to do now. A lot to do! This was only the beginning!"

I think there's only one way this will pan out.

Mission Earth starts, we get a couple of books' worth of hijinks on Earth, but despite the Apparatus' best efforts Heller safely returns to Voltar with Gris in tow. He tries to cash in those forged royal decrees, and Cling the Lofty is conveniently Cling the Dearly Departed. Then Gris has to desperately break into the palace records and forge documents proving that Heller and Krak's happy ending decrees were genuine, and a good laugh is had by all as Soltan Gris is forced to help his enemies achieve their hearts' desire in order to cover his own ass.

Call it a hunch.

Back to Chapter Six

Monday, October 17, 2011

Part Nine, Chapter Six - Row Row, Fight the Power!

Soltan Gris is on the rebound. His theme music is blaring, and the camera is backpedaling while focusing on his expression of determined purpose as he strides to work, leaving his coworkers shocked at his vitality and confidence. He grabs Bawtch's cup of morning jolt right out of his hand and slurps down the leftovers, not even stopping to enjoy the look on the old clerk's face, which could almost make up for the backwash.

Gris hits the office's forgery unit in the basement, whose staff he of course has leverage on... huh. I'm suddenly imagining what Battlefield Earth would have been like if Terl had been replaced with Gris. Anyway, Gris orders his coworkers to do a very special forgery, requiring very specific paper and seals and stamps. They slave over their work for two whole hours, out of both professional pride and necessity. But "At last, sweating, sort of proud and terrified at the same time, they were blowing the waxes dry."

These are the mother of all forgeries - false documents with the forged signature of royalty itself, a crime grounds for immediate torture and execution if you're caught so much as holding such papers. And as forgeries go they're kind of useless - yes, they'd never end up in computer banks, but the documents would be checked against the Royal Issue Log as a matter of course, making discovery (and punishment) inevitable.

Of course, Gris has been using counterfeits to get other people into trouble. He goes back to his aircar and gets Ske to double-time it to Spiteos.

He was doing two hundred in the thick, midmorning traffic. "Who the Hells do you think I am?" he said crossly. "I can't drive like Heller and you know it."

Yes you can, Ske! If you can't believe in yourself, then believe in me who believes in you!

Back to Chapter Five

Friday, October 14, 2011

Part Nine, Chapter Five - Trick Disemboweling

Up until now Gris' sins have been somewhat indirect. Yes, he's given lots of people counterfeit bank notes that will earn them a death sentence, but someone else would be the one to carry them out, and there's always the slim chance that the victim will get out of it since the killing would occur off-screen. Yes, he gave a captive crew some poisoned food, but we don't know that it killed them because again we don't see it happen. Maybe they were too smart to eat it. Maybe it only made them sick, and they'll return to beat Gris within an inch of his life in a later book, because the universe exists to punish Soltan Gris.

Well, that changes this chapter. Gris spends half an hour quietly fuming after learning how the Countess Krak ruined his life. He finally decides to get up and get going, and repays the physician's aid with a counterfeit fiver. But the good doctor smiles and says "I'm afraid that is not quite enough, Officer Gris."

You can imagine Gris' astonishment - why, maybe letting the doctor hypnotize and interrogate him unsupervised was a bad idea after all! Yes, thanks to Gris' unconscious blabbing Cutswitz knows all about the Apparatus now, and wants a down payment of five thousand credits as hush money. So Gris resignedly hands over all the (fake) cash he has on him, and in the same motion stabs the doctor in the heart with his tricked-out knife.

Ladies and gents, we have Murder Two! And some wonky anatomy - Gris stabs the doctor in the heart, right, and then presses the button that makes the knife expand into three blades. But when he pulls the weapon out, it releases a splatter of "Guts and a gush of blood." From a chest wound. So either a Voltarian's plumbing is about as nonsensical as a Psychlo's, or that's a knife that Crocodile Dundee would think is overcompensating for something.

His would-be blackmailer thoroughly killed, Gris salvages the situation further by wiping the blood off the fake bills by smearing it on the dead doctor's coat before pocketing them. He seeks out, finds, and destroys the recordings of his unintended confessions, and steps out of the office. He thinks he sees someone quickly stepping out of sight at one end of the hall, but is immediately distracted when a woman comes the other way and spots him. And the still-bloody knife in his hand.

Gris is a well-trained secret agent, remember.

He keeps the woman from screaming by ordering her, in a "low, secret sort of voice [which] prevents that when used right," to take the murder weapon down to the nearby police station and tell them that Doctor Cutswitz has been killed. She runs off to be arrested and presumably executed by lazy cops happy to have murder suspects who accidentally turn themselves in. Again, Gris thinks he sees movement in the shadows, but he isn't concerned. After all, he's in that black motorcycle outfit with a helmet on. What are the chances that this hypothetical tail could have overheard part of the conversation in the doctor's office, or might follow him back home?

A well-trained, paranoid secret agent.

Gris is nice enough to return his stolen bike to where he'd found it, and even locks it again. Then he has Ske fly him home, where he spends the night plotting horrifying revenge on those who've wronged him.

I had never felt so deadly before in my whole life. I told myself, Hells have no Demon as full of hate as a man covertly hypnotized. And no Demon would have dared make up so ugly and varied plans as I made that night.
Heller was totally at my mercy now and I intended to make the very vengeful most of it!

Sheesh, a guy pulls someone's guts out through their ribcage and suddenly thinks he's hell in a shabby uniform. So I guess the rest of the series will be Gris coming up with elaborate murder schemes that Heller will cluelessly evade. Like Wile E. Coyote vs Mr. Magoo.

Back to Chapter Four

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Part Nine, Chapter Four - Revelation and a Vow of Retribution

Gris slips into the building undetected, passes through a hall and finds the front door of Doctor Cutswitz. He "boldly" steps through - it isn't locked or anything, but it really should be, 'cause Gris finds the good doctor atop a "mechanical fornicator." Gris is extra loud shutting the door behind him so Cutswitz can get his pants on.

The room has two walls devoted to shelves holding uncounted jars containing human - well, Voltarian - brains in preservative fluid. The doctor, belonging to a profession that Hubbard loathes, looks like he had "soaked himself a year or two in oil and, from the smell of him, it must have been rancid," but he smiles and asks what he can do for Gris.

The cunning secret agent explains that his name is Ip, a common Voltarian appellation, who has "a friend" with a problem. After describing his inability to draw a weapon, the doctor immediately ascertains the nature of the illness and readies a "hypnohelmet" to see where and how "Ip" was hypnotized. Gris, being a suspicious, secretive Apparatus operative, sees no problem with donning mind-scrambling headgear and puts on the helmet without protest.

Gris hears the doctor's voice "like a shadow in the background," asking questions that he answers without hesitating, but Gris doesn't pay much attention. And then, eventually, he hears a new voice, a voice giving him four directives: if Gris contemplates harming Jettero Heller, he will become nauseous, and if Gris actively tries to hurt Heller he'll become violently ill. If Gris even plans to hurt Heller, he'll have nightmares about a Manco Devil, and if he tries to strike at Heller, his arm will stop working. The voice finishes by saying that after Gris awakens he'll read the word "obedience" and instantly forget hearing these orders.

And that voice is - dramatic musical sting - the Countess Krak! "(Bleep) her! (Bleep) (bleep) her!" She programmed Gris back when she did that "accent check" I-can-be-bothered-to-look-up-how-many chapters ago!

"Shocking" plot twist aside, this is actually an interesting move on Hubbard's part.

We just recently saw how the Countess is continuing to be "redeemed" by having her vicious backstory explained away (or parts of it, anyway). She didn't willingly program children to be thieves, and she never used nasty electroshock treatment to train her workers. And Hubbard evidently thinks those whip frenzies were justified. She's intended to be a Good Guy, a suitable love interest for Heller.

So why is she using hypnosis? Why, that's one of the tactics of those disgusting psychologists, isn't it, Hubbard?

Maybe Hubbard is going for a more complex character here, a Countess who isn't a squeaky-clean, misunderstood, fawning sex toy for Jettero Heller, but someone trying to pull herself out of degrading Apparatus work but still finds herself using their methods to do so. Or more likely, Hubbard is okay with mind-meddling being used by the right people for the right cause in the right situations.

Like if someone wanted to leave Scientology, for example.

Well, somehow Gris discovering who implanted those subconscious commands is enough to completely nullify them, and in a rage he (Bleep)s the heck out of Countess Krak and her precious Jettero Heller. "Every Hells any planet ever heard of would be a lovely place compared to the Hells you two will be in now!"

And with that wince-inducing bit of prose, this climactic chapter comes to a close.

Back to Chapter Three

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Part Nine, Chapter Three - One Man's Torture is a Voltarian's Kink, Apparently

Gris leaves the troop ship that smells of vomit and echoes with macabre singing, and paces around his aircar, pondering the "meat-chopper"'s words. The doctor suggested a "neurotic predisposition" might be to blame, but Gris' knowledge of Psychology! tells him that isn't the case. But the doctor also complained that he wasn't a "Slum City head plumber," and from that Gris decides his next move.

He drops by the Provocation Section to say hi to the guy he has dirt on ("met any nice girls lately?") and get a disguise, a black "speedwheel suit" with matching helmet, and a weapon. Gris goes for a "tri-knife," a ten-inch blade that's needle-thin until it "hits bottom," then "the blade springs into a narrow fan, becoming three razor-edged blades." It has a ring built into the hilt because pulling it out of a body can be tricky, and usually results in a shower of guts.

So is Gris being stupid by picking such a messy, impractical weapon, when any decent black ops guy would go with something quiet and functional? Or is he being cunning since he's disguising himself as someone who isn't an Apparatus agent, who of course would know better?

Questionable armament in hand, Gris has Ske drive him to Slum City, a sprawling stretch of urban decay and desperate poverty, a place where it's rumored Lombar Hisst spent his youth setting fires (which Gris doubts, because Hisst is supposedly more "efficiently destructive" than that). Gris dons his disguise and steals someone's "speedwheel," which Hubbard doesn't bother to describe so I'll assume it's a motorcycle.

And so Gris races along the streets until he reaches his destination - a part of town known for its "fornication machines, electric thrillers and head plumbers." Among the signs advertising Electric Penis Stimulation he finds the office of one Doctor Cutswitz: "Mental Doctor; Brain Examination; Physiological Nerve Specialist; Hypnotist; Bowels Purged." Yes, in Hubbard's world of incisive satire, mental doctors are relegated to the same slums as purveyors of sex toys and have to supplement their income with proctologist work.

The office is dangerously close to a police post, but Gris is out of options. But instead of going through the front door he slips in through a window, because he is, of course, a sneaky secret agent. So why even bother with the disguise in the first place?

Back to Chapter Two

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Part Nine, Chapter Two - The Mystery of Gris' Malfunctioning Appendage

Soltan Gris is terrified for his life - his weapon arm is totally unresponsive, meaning he has no idea to defend himself from the animals he calls coworkers, and if his superiors find out about his crippling injury he'll be subjected to the Apparatus healthcare policy, i.e. shot in the head and left in a ditch.

First things first - Gris goes to his flying car and finds Ske predictably enough snoozing in the back. Gris picks his drivers' pockets, earning a sleepy protest about needing the money to pay back Snelz on the bogus cop uniforms, and then spots a big ole Apparatus troop carrier landed at the hangar. It is, of course, "shabby."

These decrepit but somehow spaceworthy vessels can fit up to five thousand Apparatus soldiers jammed into their holds, and more importantly will have a health officer as part of its crew. So Gris claims to be inspecting the ship before launch and looks for the doctor. Predictably the ship is a reeking, filthy mess with centuries' worth of vomit caked on its interior surfaces, because the Apparatus is evil and doesn't believe in soap. Presumably their members are all but immune to biological agents after years spent breathing this miasma.

Now you're probably thinking, "this is great and all, but what I really want is another song!" Well, you're in luck! Hubbard's mastery of writing allowed him to anticipate your desires and pen a lovely poem for your reading pleasure. As Gris clambers around inside the carrier, looking for a physician, he hears a bunch of weepy spacers singing a pre-launch dirge, complete with "hand air organ." So here's "The Spacer's Lot:"

To planets of the dead,
And stars that have no light,
We cruise throughout this endless space,
Encased in darkest night.

The eyes that do no miss us,
The hands without caress,
The hardest hearts behind us,
Spare no slightest warmth to bless

The Forces of the firmament,
Enfold us as our home.
The lost, the damned, the outcast,
Cruise darkest space alone.

Shun space, your groundbound creature!
Suck in your planet's breath!
Hold safe to stable gravity!
For we of space live DEATH!

Half-assed attempts at rhyming, rhythm's off in the second stanza, awkward word choices... but hey, he tried, right? Gotta put the "opera" in "space opera," yeah?

The ship's doctor is sealed behind a door labeled "Health Officer: Do Not Open," locked in a room that stinks of rotting meat, because surgeons have no reason to value sterile work environments. Once roused from his tup-induced slumber - so is it coffee or beer, Hubbard? - the doctor gives Gris a disinterested physical, but can find nothing... well, physically wrong with him. Gris even puts his clothes back on with his bad arm without noticing. The doctor speculates about hypnotism as a possible cause before going back to sleep, like "a true professional."

But believe it or not, this is actually going somewhere. Not the main plot, of course, but this "What's Up With Gris?" sideplot.

Back to Chapter One

Monday, October 10, 2011

Part Nine, Chapter One - Hopefully We're Done With The Countess Krak's Backstory Now

Still shaken from his confrontation with Hisst, Gris races off to try and prod Heller's well-sculpted backside into action. He decides the best way to do this would be to to sink the Heller-Krak ship, and in his panic Gris remembers a tidbit from Heller's file: he refused to have his crew trained by electroshock.

Yeah, I know, Gris' intelligence ebbs and rises according to the plot's demands. He rushes over to Heller, finds him alone in a section of Tug One, and apropos of nothing starts talking about how the Countess Krak uses electroshock training as part of her work for the Apparatus.

So Heller slugs Gris like they're LARPing a game of Smash Bros.

A stunned Gris, seeing Heller striding towards him with murder in his eyes, goes for his gun, but to his considerable surprise his weapon arm is abruptly paralyzed and unresponsive. Fortunately, Heller wants to talk: he reveals that the first day he was in Krak's room, he went around and inspected all the electroshock equipment and found is nonfunctional and unused. I guess even though he hates the things, he still knows enough about how they work.

Furthermore, he found a newspaper article - a copy of which he just so happens to be carrying on his person at this moment - concerning the deathbed confession of Manco's Assistant Lord of Education. Long story short, Krak only did that "teach a bunch of kids to be burglars" thing because her mother was held hostage by this guy (and killed even though she cooperated), and it was him threatening to kill Krak that persuaded the kids to kill. And then they were all executed except for Krak, who was smuggled out by the Apparatus while a double was killed in her place.

So, the Countess Krak: introduced as a cold, ruthless, whip-crazy psycho who will kill you for inappropriate language. Meets Heller and immediately turns into a meek, sappy, boring female love interest (unless someone insults Heller, in which case she tries to kill them). And now we've learned that she never was as evil a trainer as she was supposed to be.

It's one thing to "redeem" a villainess by having them fall in love with the book's (obnoxiously perfect) hero. But now we're all but retconning most of the villainy right out of her. She was framed, she was just misunderstood! We can't have a bad guy fall for the righteous Jettero Heller, can we?

Heller rants about how the Apparatus have been keeping the innocent Krak captive for three years, and announces his intent to clear her name and marry her. Then he realizes what he's done and apologizes for slugging Gris, explaining that he was planning on getting Krak cleared and having the wedding before leaving for Mission Earth. Gris, who has been trying and failing to draw his gun and shoot Heller the entire time, quickly objects - since the Countess has been declared legally dead, all records about her were destroyed (why?). So Heller can't marry this person who doesn't exist. But, Gris adds, if Heller gets moving and leaves for Earth as soon as possible, the agents swears to do his best to help him get the Countess' legal status sorted out.

Heller promises to think the offer over, and Gris scampers off, terrified at being so helpless in the face of death. So hey, looks like Mission Earth might, astonishingly enough, get started sometime over the next two hundred pages. And it turns out the Countess Krak was never a bad guy to being with. Quite a chapter.

No mention is made of the people the Countess killed for Bad Touching her, or the whip frenzy that resulted when someone insulted Heller in her presence. I guess that's doesn't count as bad guy stuff. Murder in the name of Jettero Heller isn't a crime, it's your moral obligation.

Back to Part Eight, Chapter Seven

Friday, October 7, 2011

Part Eight, Chapter Seven - Fleet Admirals Parachute to Work, Of Course

Let's pretend you're working for the United States' Central Intelligence Agency, and your boss wants to speak to you. How do you suppose he (or she) would do that? An e-mailed summons? An interoffice phone call? Or maybe your boss would simply drop by your cubicle to ask how your research on [CLASSIFIED] is going? You know, the same ways your boss in any other setting would do things - whether it's a federal bureaucracy or a multinational corporation, an office is an office. Unless you're working for Google, in which case I hear you take water slides to get around and have a pizza train come by at lunchtime.

Well, Lombar Hisst is lurking amongst some empty boxes, disguised as a worker. And once again we get to play the old favorite Is it Satire? Is the Apparatus' obsession with unnecessary deception and subterfuge Hubbard's way at poking fun at the CIA's clandestine activities, or did he seriously believe this is the way spies act all the time?

Hisst is here to chew out Gris for getting Heller's name in the papers (with a great many bleeps), though he's multitasking by also writing down the company names on all the contractors' jumpsuits. Which he should be able to look up on the bloody invoices... satire or stupidity, you make the call. He explains how he's made the most of the fallout from Heller's Night Out - Hisst convinced the council that underfunding was delaying Mission Earth, thereby boosting its allocations from three million credits to thirty.

So Gris won't be killed, since his incompetence turned out to be lucrative, but Hisst forbids Gris from making a single credit from all the money getting thrown around, and promises painful retribution if he doesn't Mission Earth off the ground before a deadline. Gris' first task towards that end is to keep Heller distracted two days from now so Hisst can send in a crew to inspect what Heller's been packing for the mission which he intends to succeed but Hisst needs to fail. Which raises the question of why, if these are secure Apparatus-controlled hangars, Heller has been able to bring in unauthorized supplies. Hubbard's usual brand of breathtakingly incompetent villains or cunning satire? Again, it's hard to say.

Hisst promises to select a crew that won't fall victim to Heller's ability to inspire loyalty, spends some time cursing and spitting at Heller from hiding, and rants at Gris a bit before taking off. Gris is left with lingering wounds from Hisst's stinger, and confusion: because despite all his references to Mission Earth's departure deadline, Hisst never said when that was.

More hilarious satire? Or another moment where the reader wearily rubs his forehead and wonders how such an incompetently-run organization could function for a single day, much less pose a serious threat?

Gris thinks about prodding Heller into motion and becomes physically ill. Again. Because Soltan Gris being miserable never gets old.

Hard to believe we're 410 pages into this lump of dead tree. Think we'll make it to Earth in the remaining 200 pages? Let your cynicism guide you to the answer.

Back to Part Eight, Chapter Six

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Part Eight, Chapter Six - Generic Not-Spies Co.

The next day we're back in the Hangar of Endless Spaceship Maintenance, as Gris nurses a migraine from a night of stomach pains and nightmares. Ske doesn't have any painkillers for him, but drops off a newspaper and walks off with a smug smile.

The headlines are, of course, about the famous Hightee Heller's brush with death the previous evening, her heroic rescue at the hands of her brother, and the whole riot at the nightclub. A Grand Council spokesman made a statement concerning the presence of Jettero Heller, who was supposed to be on a secret mission, and how the Council will be looking into it.

At the end it mentions related articles: "HIGHTEE HELLER, HUMAN OR GODDESS?" and "THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JETTERO HELLER, THE MODEST HERO WHO BECAME THE IDOL OF THE FLEET." Yes, Heller-worship transcends all levels of society, from the military to the media.

So Gris just sits in the hangar while work on Tug One continues, completely numb and exhausted, waiting for death now that his blunders have been exposed. He tries to take solace in how Heller will surely be next on the chopping block after him, but this causes those mysterious stomach pains to strike again. A crew from the Educational Aids Company comes and goes without incident, and then guys from the Mineral Resources Equipment Company begin unloading boxes from their lorry.

I sat there waiting. I knew it would come and it would not be boxes.

Ah, the innocent days before Metal Gear Solid.

Finally it was there. I felt it. Sort of like an infusion of black poison gas into the scene.

It's a shame - this comes close to doing an almost decent job of creating an atmosphere of dread tinged with paranoia, with lethal danger hiding somewhere in a mundane scene, a threat that only Gris with his Apparatus-trained instincts can sense. And then you describe that danger as a big, obvious cloud of darkness, something that anyone should be able to see. Kinda ruins the effect, Hubbard.

Then again, you just called your aliens "human" a few paragraphs ago, so I'm not sure you even bothered to reread this between churning it out and dropping it in your editors' laps.

A voice from behind a pile of crates: a horrible whisper.

"Officer Gris."

My God, this could only be more suspenseful and terrifying if someone covered Gris' eyes with their hands and said "Guess who?" So there's our cliffhanger ending for this happily brief chapter.

Back to Chapter Five

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Part Eight, Chapter Five - There Once Was a Woman from Manco

Heller and the Countess are all laughing and love-dovey after their slamdance/magic show, while Gris is still worried about getting executed. But of course he can't just explain this to Heller, much like how Gris couldn't refuse to go out for dinner in the first place.

The fateful spotlight hits their table again, meaning it's Hightee's turn to perform. She takes up an instrument called a "chorder-beat," an eighteen-inch-wide, electronic half-globe that functions as a space-age drum, and gets the band to play a certain song.

Spaaaang! went the chorder-beat. Yow-yow! went the band.

For the first full melody she played and did not sing. And it was sexy! Her body swayed and curved, her left hand seemed to be indicating something else than the chords. Her right hand writhed to the beat. It was SEXY!

Well it must be, you've used that adjective twice now. And capitalized it. Sure, other authors might describe the effects of the scene on their viewpoint character, or find a way to convey what's going on in a manner that makes the reader blush. By why do that when you can just tell us what to feel?

Most of this chapter is Hightee singing, so I guess most of this blog post will be the same. It's not a long song, it's just printed with gaps around each three-line stanza. No title, as far as I can tell. So without further ado, the lyrical stylings of L. Ron Hubbard:

There once was a man when I was young,
Who said he knew a foreign tongue,
He'd teach me!

He said it went a funny way,
A thing the ancients used to say,
He'd teach me!

It'd need, he claimed, a very soft bed,
A place where he could lay my head,
To teach me!

So we found a place we could repose,
And he removed my underclothes,
To teach me!

And so we got down to the song,
He kept it up so very long,
He taught me!

Yes, a witty ballad about a cunning linguist. And then it gets stupid.

Hija, hoopah, jiggety plow,
Lecheroo, pokeroo, pow, pow, pow!
Hourly too!

I had to read it. Figured it was only fair that you'd get to see it too.

The language is not hard to learn,
And I invite you, if you yearn,
To be taught!

And then the "hija hoopah" crap starts repeating again. This is the point when the crowd hits the stage.

See, by the second verse someone in the audience figured out the identity of the mysterious singer in the wood nymph mask... why is it always "wood ____" anyway? Wood devils, wood nymphs, wood gods; are arboreal societies associated with superstition here, or what? Anyway, the cries of "ZOMG its Hightee Heller!" leads to a mob rushing the nightclub as neighboring businesses empty and everyone tries to get in before the singer gets to the verses with "jiggity-plow" in them. And of course the film crew in the press box is recording everything.

After Hightee finishes the song with "Come see me!", in danger of being shoved into the band's ranks by the surging tide of frenzied clubgoers, Gris shoots the lights with his blaster. This is not out of any desire to save Heller's sister, but because he sees that yellow-man struggling through the crowd in his direction, holding what can only be the bill. Then Gris blasts the switchboard behind the bandstand, killing the rest of the lights in the club.

As emergency lighting flickers on, the police rush in to start restoring order. In the chaos, the Countess Krak drags Gris out through the emergency exit, followed closely by the Heller siblings. The police are hot on their heals, but luckily it's Guard Commander Snelz in a police uniform! That's... huh? Well, obviously the guard detail coordinated with Heller as to where he was planning on going, then disguised themselves as civilian policemen, then followed Heller and Gris and everyone to the club, then hid themselves nearby and closely monitored the situation, ready to leap into action to save the wonderful, handsome Jettero Heller. Heller's life must be saved so he can get laid that night, thereby giving the guards' lives meaning.

Hightee gets dropped off, assuring her brother and sister-in-law-to-be that she "really approve[s]." And then once the Countess is taken to her lodgings in Tug One, Heller stops to apologize to Gris. You see, he noticed how Gris was cringing every time they ordered something, and deduced that his "friend" was broke. So Heller used his own identoplate to pay the bill, and assures Gris that he wouldn't have called in his party debt if he'd known it would be so inconvenient.

In other words, Heller's name is now in the nightclub's records, proving that not only has he been running around outside of Apparatus custody, but also that Mission Earth has, like this novel, not gone anywhere in the weeks since its launch.

Gris is furious, wants to kill Heller, and is immediately sick to his stomach. So once again, the chapter concludes with Gris being miserable. But at least we're done with the whole "dinner date" sequence.

Back to Chapter Four

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Part Eight, Chapter Four - A Short-Lived Meme, Born on a Stage Before Your Eyes

Gris marches up on stage under the big bright spotlight, a part of him wondering why he's prepared to humiliate himself for a tab he couldn't pay if it wasn't doubled.

On the stage, I turned to look. A huge, glaring spotlight was practically putting my eyes out. Adrift and disembodied were the masks, masks, masks, all pointed in my direction. And below it were the boots, boots, boots, stamping in a colored rippling haze of lights, ready, I was sure, to kick the daylights out of me.

What? No mention of tables, tables, tables?

Though he'd intended to recite a poem he learned when he was six, "The Brave Hec at the Battle of the Blim," Gris is struck with stage fright and can't remember the words. He almost tells an old Apparatus joke about two agents who thought the other was female until ending up in bed together, but decides he shouldn't advertise the fact that he's part of a murderous paramilitary group. In desperation, Gris falls back on bird calls.

Yes, the fact that Gris occasionally blasts songbirds for sport has become a plot point of sorts.

Gris whistles and chirps the calls of the "mountain thriller," "meadow warbler," and "marsh hen," while his audience stares in silence. Fear gives way to frustrated annoyance, and Gris glowers at them before declaring "Well, the birds like it!"

And that leaves everyone in side-slapping, foot-stomping, rip-roaring laughter. Gris scurries back to the safety of his table while someone from another party gets up to play a "sonic-light drum." And like the teenage fans of Dave Chappelle who drove the comedian to an early retirement by endlessly, mindlessly repeating the line "I'm Rick James, bitch!", the audience ends every subsequent performance by asking "did the birds like it?"

It's only then that Gris, a trained covert operative, notices the balcony with the reporters and TV cameras on it, scouting for rising stars or filming filler to air in the event of a slow news day. The Apparatus of course hates the press, and one of Lombar Hisst's sayings is "The victims have no right to know." Gris is understandably uneasy with the thought of being filmed, as his party includes a worlds-famous actress, a playboy commando supposedly on a secret mission, and a convicted murderess working for a not-quite-secret government agency, but then the spotlight hits his table again - it's time for another performance.

The next four pages are all Heller and Krak dancing. It's just as exciting as it sounds. They get up and do the "Manco Mancho," the "nursery folk dance of Manco!" which involves holding a cloth in your teeth. This evolves into a form of dance-Capoeira as the two work combat exercises into their routine. And then there's gymnastics, and cartwheels, and it all culminates in a magic act as Heller flourishes a sheet and the Countess disappears, popping up at their table while Heller theatrically searches for her in the sheet. How droll. The audience goes bonkers, of course, that's our hero up there.

The chapter ends with Heller ordering another round of drinks, while Gris nervously eyes the cameras, fearing retribution from his ruthless boss.

Back to Chapter Three

Monday, October 3, 2011

Part Eight, Chapter Three - Alien Parking Practices

So this club they're going to has something called a "vehicle escalator," and Heller parks their flying car on it, then watches to see where the system's "side arm" puts it, presumably into a parking space. Hubbard doesn't waste any words explaining how this car-scaled escalator works, leaving his readers to puzzle it out on their own. Or in my case wonder why a much more efficient and simpler autopilot system, in which cars are slaved to an AI valet and remotely taken to and from a parking space, isn't used instead. But whatever.

The first bit of heart-stopping tension comes after the girls go on to the restrooms to check their masks "the way girls will," followed by Heller who does the same presumably the way guys will. This leaves Gris alone with a hulking bouncer whose hand is out, expecting a fiver. But all Gris has is those counterfeits! How will he ever enter the club if- oh wait, a manager is waving for Gris to come on in. So he just walks right on by.

Okay, I need a minute to get a hold of myself, wipe the sweat from my eyes.

Right, let's see this club.

The evening was just beginning

Wait, they left to pick up Hightee at nine o'clock. Whaddya mean "just beginning?"

but most of the tables were already full. Masks, masks, masks, all types and shapes and kinds, a blur of hidden identities.

A blare of loud music!

Boots, boots, boots. Every color of boot anyone ever heard of and the underfloor circulating lights rippled and splashed upon them.

Tables, tables, tables. The manager led us to one, slightly raised, against a wall. I quickly checked. It was also near an emergency exit.

Repetition, exclamation!, repetition, repetition. Dissatisfaction. Boredom.

As a woman in blackface tries to sing a ballad, Gris nervously eyes the table, upon which are light-up panels with the menus and prices. All the entrees and drinks and stuff starts at five or ten credits an item, which makes Gris cringe while I get to scratch my head and wonder how badly inflation has hit dining prices since the mid 80's.

Before ordering, Heller explains the Artistic Club's premise - patrons must get up on stage and perform some sort of act to entertain the other guests, and failure to do so will double their whole table's bill. Like a horrible, overpriced, coercive Amateur Hour. Then Heller summons a "yellow-man" waiter-

Was this conscious, do you reckon? Is this more of Hubbard's "satire?" Or is it more unthinking, instinctive racism? Like he knows that the servants are all going to be yellow-skinned, because that's the natural order of things? Goodness knows I'd like to think otherwise, had I not read Battlefield Earth and encountered Hubbard's Chinese characters who spent a thousand years waiting for someone to kowtow to.

Anyway, the rest of the chapter is everyone ordering stuff and Gris counting up the bill in mounting horror. Imported game from a neighboring planet, "bubblebrew," and "flaming icecake," all good stuff. Two hundred twenty credits total. Gris chows down on what he's sure will be his last meal, since he'll either be executed for trying to pay with his identoplate or passing counterfeit money. And just when he's sure things can't get any worse, the spotlight falls on him and Heller explains that Gris will be the first from their table to perform on stage.

Oh God. Cliffhanger ending. Hope you can handle going a whole day of wondering just how Gris will get out of this mess, and what he could possibly do as an act.

Back to Chapter Two