Friday, August 30, 2013

Part Sixty-Four, Chapter Nine - My Little Aliens: Friendship is Blackmail

Gris spends the night in the hospital, under guard, and the next morning Dr. Bittlestiffender shows up to give him some more "healing catalyst."  He dismisses Gris' minders, leans in close, and tells him "I am your friend."  Gris assures us that, were it not for the straps on the bed, he'd have torn Prahd's throat out.

Prahd explains that he spent much of yesterday removing those audio-visual bugs from Krak and Heller's skulls, each taking turns to hold a gun on the doctor while he worked on the other.  But Prahd didn't mention the surgery he did for Gris, when he implanted a mysterious something inside the agent's skull.  Prahd doesn't know what it is, and he's sure Krak and Heller would be interested, but so long as Gris meets his "proper obligations" - Bildirjin's dowry, the hospital funding, the mosque repairs - Prahd won't tattle.

In short...

"Blackmail!" I said.  "You swine!"

"Well, it takes one to know one, doesn't it?" said Prahd, gathering up his instruments.  "Or shall I put it another way: I have learned a great deal serving in the Apparatus.  You have been an excellent instructor."

This makes no sense.

Surely Prahd has noticed that Gris is a bound and guarded prisoner?  Surely he heard when Heller declared he was taking over the base and everyone now works for the Fleet?  Hell, Prahd got the man's assurances in person that he'd finally be getting paid.  All Prahd has to do is tell Heller that Gris owes a bunch of money, and Heller could strongarm his prisoner into paying up.

More to the point, that's exactly what happens next chapter.  Heller hauls Gris to the bank.  Heller settles things to pay the dowry, to pay for the medical program, to pay for the mosque.  So why in the Manco Devil-infested Space Hells is Prahd blackmailing Gris over his secret implant?

For this next scene.

Later in the day "THE COUNTESS KRAK!" pays Gris a visit with a hypnohelmet fresh out of the box.  Without ceremony she plops it on his head, demanding to know how he overcame her compulsion to not hurt Heller, and how he was able to hurt her.  But, because the thing Prahd implanted in Gris was a starship's "breaker switch" set up to nullify all the similarly tampered-with hypnohelmets in the base, and because Prahd has inexplicably decided to hide the fact that Gris has a secret implant from Krak and Heller, Gris is able to lie.

He claims that he got sick and went to Slum City one night, and the doctor found out about and nullified Krak's hypnotic suggestion.  He also insists that he in fact rescued Krak from a plane under terrorist attack.  Krak is silent for a moment but seems to buy this, then declares that the Slum City doctor is wrong, therefore unnullifying her previous orders, adding that if Gris tries to escape he'll feel like his legs are on fire, and if he stops being helpful he'll start puking.  Then she makes Gris thank her for the "help" she says she just gave him.

So, Gris is forced again to play along, pretending he's been hypnotized even though he hasn't, waiting for the next opportunity to escape or backstab Krak and Heller.  Pretty much what he's been doing on and off since Book One, in other words.

This?  This is the problem with hypnohelmets.  The author loves them to death, they allow his characters - specifically Krak - to go around solving problems almost effortlessly, bending others to their will in ways that frequently humiliate their enemies.  They're too powerful, in fact, so in order to have any sort of dramatic tension or conflict, Hubbard has to think of ways to keep Gris free of their influence so he can functi... so he can attempt to function as a villain.

And that's where things get convoluted.  Gris has to bring the helmets to Earth so Krak can use one later, but he can't outright destroy them for the same reason, so we get those awkward scenes where he oscillates between being terrified of them and hoping to use them to his own ends, then he has to sabotage them in a manner that prevents them from working on him, but then he can't use them effectively himself because of that breaker switch, and so on.  And now Prahd has decided to blackmail someone already at his mercy to maintain the illusion that Gris is susceptible to Krak's brainwashing.

All so that, in a couple of chapters, Gris can make another attempt to escape from and betray Krak and Heller.  Even though just a few chapters ago, Gris was able to make not one but two attempts to backstab Heller, despite not being under his supposed hypnotic control.  You might wonder why the story even needs hypnohelmets, except next chapter Krak again uses one to cheese her way through another problem.

I think laziness is a part of it.  The author wove such, uh, cunning plots to ensnare his heroes with, all that "black PR" and a professor who was gonna flunk the main character and whatnot, that the only way they could prevail was to basically cheat - thus nullifying the problem in an insultingly quick and easy way, resolving conflict with no character development, and making the reader wonder why the author even bothered with the likes of Miss Simmons.

Beyond that, from what I've read about Hubbard, I suspect that he would have dearly loved to have a hypnohelmet in real life.  So there's probably some author appeal at play too.

Anyway.  Gris resolves to cunningly play along with Krak and Heller - much like how he planned to cunningly play along with Heller, despite not getting hypnotized by him - until he can throw them at Lombar when they go home.  Just a few more chapters of humiliating Gris and then we're off this planet.  

The hell of it is, in 70 pages Gris drops out of the story.

Back to Part Sixty-Four, Chapter Eight

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Part Sixty-Four, Chapter Eight - Prahd Gets His Own Back

Heller flies right through it!  He takes Tug One right through the sodding holographic mountaintop while it's still on!  A spaceship can pass through it but it's still airtight!

The author made a completely nonsensical pseudoscientific doodad to justify what, how his hero incapacitates a hangar full of bad guys?  "He bombs the opium stocks and they all OD and pass out" was the best he could come up with?  Which necessitates the aforementioned nonsensical hologram.  Which implies terrible base design.  Which implies that the base security team goes half a year without noticing the bombs the hero planted.  All when Heller could've surrendered, pulled out those official documents, and gotten the base personnel on his side exactly the same way as he did after the opium bombing.

This is what truly bad writing does.  The author settles on a contrived way for his pet character to triumph, which necessitates a chain reaction of stupidity ripping through not just other characters, but physics itself.

Anyway, that's the first line of the chapter.

Heller lands the tug, that damned cat's very happy to see Krak, and all the convicts and criminals that the Apparatus uses to staff its most important top-secret base are all fantasizing out loud about being able to walk the streets of Modron or Flisten again.  They've even repainted their Apparatus "bottle" should patches with the Fleet logo, a gold circle over a diagonal bar on a pale blue backdrop.

So... when humans put up a sign forbidding something by drawing a circle around and a slash over the prohibited action, we're actually showing our allegiance to the Voltarian Fleet?  Is this one of those racial memory things, Hubbard?  Like jetliners?

Gris is disgusted.

Heller was undermining this whole base!

A perfectly good lot of criminals were going completely bad!

We haven't been reminded how awesome Heller is lately, so Krak notices the battle damage on the tug and gushes about how he could've been killed by those nasty assassin pilots.  Then she hints about a wonderful surprise she can't tell him about that's waiting for him when they go home, prompting Gris to remind us of those (forged) Royal pardons he gave her, even though he did that last chapter too.  Krak's also looking forward to a quiet life.

"But I can assure you, I simply do not intend to live my life with people shooting my husband left and right!  What would the children think?"

"Are there children?" said Heller.

This is the sum total of his reaction to his girlfriend's hint that she might be unexpectedly preggers.  No change in expression, no burst of emotion, just a stated question. 

Oh, but hey, Krak, you're mentioning children, and current figures for Russia's demographics have 16.5% of the population under the age of 15.  I mention this because your boyfriend-

"No, not yet, but there certainly will be.  And they're entitled to a real, live father.  I think we should go home as soon as possible."

But I guess we should be thinking of the future, sure.  Not dwelling on a past mistake.  Or 16.5 million mistakes, as the case may be.

Gaylov gets a cell, Black Jowls gets to stay put for awhile, and Gris gets hauled to Prahd's hospital so the author can continue to abuse him.  When he comes to after some surgery, his shotgun-wedded wife Nurse Bildirjin complains that whoever shot him "missed" instead of leaving her a respectable widow.  Then she offers to show Gris his "son," slightly premature, but... wait, she just spat out the brat and she's back on her feet, working at the hospital?  No maternity leave?  Well, I'm sure if it were unhealthy Dr. Prahd would be smart enough to dissuade her.

It was a very well-formed baby, several days old.

I blinked.  My eyes are brown.  My hair is brown.  Nurse Bildirjin's eyes are black.  Her hair was black.


It had straw-colored hair.

But that wasn't worth abusing CapsLock over.


I snarled, "That baby must have been conceived the very first night that that doctor arrived here!"

She smiled at me enigmatically.  "Well, it just might have been if you hadn't refused to let him be paid."

I groaned.  Prahd was getting his own back.

Wait, you mean Prahd got his girlfriend pregnant - his underage girlfriend pregnant, putting an even bigger question mark around the issue of her working so soon after delivering - just to get back at Gris?  Or - oh, oh I get it.  Right.  He just claimed it was Gris' to get back at him.

Wait again, didn't Prahd make a point about how careful he was not to get Bildirjin pregnant?  Was that just another part of his web of deceit?  Then why wasn't he careful?

Wait the third.  So despite having access to contraception, and knowing better, Prahd got Bildirjin pregnant, then sent her to do sexy things with Gris to blackmail him into paying for the marriage?  He effectively whored out his lover because his boss wasn't paying him?  He was okay with her helping Gris, ah, paint the hospital floors?  She was okay with the plan?  Was this the reason Prahd gave Gris a w√ľnderschlong, so he'd be able to perform well enough so that Bildirjin's pregnancy would be plausible?

All this to say, at long last the "Nurse Bildirjin" sub-subplot comes to an end (I hope).  Chapter after chapter of unentertaining, uncomfortable shenanigans - Bildirjin fooling around with Gris, the extended gag of Prahd not getting paid, Gris getting blackmailed into marrying Bildirjin - all so Gris can look stupid after having been forced to marry a woman over another man's pregnancy. 

Again, one bad idea ends up having damaging effects on the rest of the story.  None of this crap would be in the hypothetical movie.

Gris is of course annoyed at the thought of paying a dowry to make another man's son rich, but the nurse threatens to have Prahd give him another operation.  Gris knows she means to make him a eunuch, because the Prahd giveth (surgically-enhanced genitalia), and the Prahd taketh away (surgically-enhanced genitalia).  So Gris lies to save his man-bits.

But it was right at that moment that I added to my plan.  I would go home and deliver Heller and Krak to Lombar.  Then I would come back and undo all the damage Heller had done by providing cheap fuel.

How does this affect Rockecenter's drug trade, again?

And last, for desert, I would see that every Turk connected with this hospital and this base died horribly!  Including Nurse Bildirjin and this (bleeped) baby!

Yawn.  That'd be what, a hundred people at most?  Two hundred?  Sorry Gris, Heller's upped the ante considerably, you'll need to slap a couple of zeroes on that number to impress me.

Still, at least he's thinking about salvaging the mission again.  Even if he doesn't have any sort of workable plan to go along with that goal.  

Back to Chapter Seven

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Part Sixty-Four, Chapter Seven - The Trial of Soltan Gris (Will Be Held Later)

Luckily Gris didn't design his deluxe prison cell with one of those doors that automatically locks behind you.  That might have been too secure.

"It was hours later and the hangar presented a very strange sight," Gris says, which is odd language for someone purportedly giving an account of his past actions from a prison cell.  Heller's managed to climb up and "somehow" switch off that airtight hologram of a mountaintop, no doubt making the locals freak out about sudden vulcanism.  I'm sure back in Book Two they explained that spaceships could go through it anyway, or that they conspicuously caused the mountaintop to disappear whenever a ship tried to land, but I'm not going to check because either outcome is stupid.

Krak's standing guard with a blastrifle, Prahd's come in to tend Gris' wounds, Gaylov is still tied up, and Heller's set up a table and chairs in the middle of the hangar.  All the officers, still tied up, are situated around it, while the rest of the similarly bound base personnel are dumped nearby.  The debilitating effects of an opium overdose are easily dispelled by Prahd's "oxygen respirator."  Nobody's got the shakes or anything, all it takes is a blast of sweet, sweet oxygen and they're at 100%.

Couple of things on the agenda of this post-opium-high, captive conference.  First Heller whips out his Grand Council mission papers, reading them out loud "in a very official voice" and passing them around, in order to convince everyone that he has no intention of killing them (drug overdose notwithstanding).  Then he declares that this base has been dealing in illegal contraband, and he's putting a stop to it.

"You can't!" said Faht Bey.

"Oh, yes, I can," said Heller.  "Under my own cognizance and as a Royal officer of the Fleet enforcing His Majesty's regulations, I am commandeering this whole base in the name of the Voltar Fleet."

So, uh, why now?  You knew about the drugs half a year ago.  You knew the Apparatus wouldn't be doing anything good with them.  So why let it keep going on for months and months while you loafed around in a whorehouse or puttered about on a racetrack?  Why didn't you call a meeting after finding the drugs, whip out the paperwork, and then gone on with your mission, but with the additional support of the commandeered base?

"The Chief of the Apparatus would kill us!" said Faht Bey.

Heller reversed the hand blastgun and pointed it at their faces.  "I think there will be some changes on Voltar when I return," said Heller.  "But if there are not, you could always say you were forced to do it at gunpoint."

Hero bravely threatening helpless prisoners...

Oh, wait, it's okay because right afterward, he unilaterally declares that they're all working for the Fleet now, and will get paid accordingly.  Even Prahd!  And because the Fleet is so wonderful, even employees with no prior legal status, like these schmucks, will get full amnesty and recognition under the law.

All the base personnel are agape with unspeakable delight, and then Faht Bey asks about Gris.  Heller declares he'll be taking "that creature" to Voltar for trial - he's talking about Gaylov, as a witness - and with such testimony, the courts will surely make "short work" of Soltan Gris.

They suddenly began to cheer, and even the cordwooded crew began to yell with delight.  The hangar practically exploded with their joyous shouts.

At length Faht Bey looked around and shouted, "Do we accept his deal?"

The din was deafening!

"Then untie us so we can get to work!" cried Faht Bey.  "We got to get this place so it looks like the Fleet!"

Good lungs for a bunch of folks recovering from a powerful soporific.

And Gris?  Gris is disdainful of such traitorous riffraff, but knows that he's the one who's winning here.  After all, Lombar controls Voltar, not the council.  So he'll just go along like he's cooperating, they'll fly back to Voltar, and then whammo!  Lombar will execute him alongside Heller and Krak for his staggering incompetence! 

Heller's actions would not be condoned.  They thought I was their prisoner.  Actually, they were mine.

I would manage it so that I would be taking this Royal officer they were so stupidly applauding back to his death.  And their own demise would soon follow!  They were double-crossing Lombar Hisst, who now controlled Voltar.

Yes, two paragraphs after reminding us that "Lombar controlled Voltar now," Gris makes sure we know Lombar Hisst is the guy who now controls Voltar.  And yes, he's still not thinking of any way to save his own skin, he's fully preoccupied with getting other people killed.  So either his character has become fatalistic and vengeful after failing so many times, or he's being stupid as usual.

Back to Chapter Six

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Part Sixty-Four, Chapter Six - Maybe Gris Saw the Twist Coming, Too

Gris leads Heller into the base's prison complex, convinced that his "brilliant plan to lure him with the corpse of the Countess Krak was about to pay off."  The plan that requires him to get behind someone doing his best to make sure he stays where he can see him.  The plan involving a corpse that Gris took pains to not view, but is convinced is waiting for him.

They reach Krak's cell, and Gris makes sure not to lift the little curtain covering the observation port - to increase the shock for Heller, of course.  Even though he's feeling pretty "sick" after being shot twice, and learning that he's been doin' a dude, and his feet - wait a minute, Gris' feet were badly injured a couple of chapters ago, and he was wearing huge honkin' foot casts that impaired his ability to walk.  Huh.  They must've come off at some point during the trip to Saturn and Heller's cometary holocaust.

Anyway, Gris is confident that despite his injuries and Heller's superhuman combat ability, if he's able to get behind him, that little knife of his will do the job.

I spun the combination.  I got the door open a slit, enough to get my hand through and unlock the barred grate within.

The light in the cell was dim; most of the glowplates seemed to be broken and lay about in shattered fragments.

I swung the inner door open and then stepped back, swinging the outer door wide.

It put me behind him!

He stepped straight through into the large cell.

So hey, aspiring writers: if you need to create some dramatic tension, have your book's hero, who up to this point has been four or five steps ahead of his foes and never loses his cool, suddenly become dumb enough to let your backstabbing villain get behind him.

Aw, what am I saying?  Heller would never do something stupid, he just knows that Gris poses absolutely no threat to him.

 A shaft of light seemed to be coming from the roof.

There was something lying under it, something dark.

Heller was four paces into the cell.  He stopped, staring down and ahead of him.

His back was totally exposed!

Wait, if he's in the cell, and you're not, couldn't you just lock him in with the "corpse" of his girlfriend? Then you could repeat that trick where you lob a grenade down the air shaft.

With a stealthy hand I drew the knife.  I stepped forward on silent feet.

I raised the blade to plunge it into his spine.

Hmm, striking at bone?  I'm no expert on assassinations, but wouldn't it be safer to cut his throat?  Or maybe stab down behind the collarbone or something?

Was Gris ever trained in backstabbing, or just falling down?


Something hit me over the head!

I spun around as I fell. 

A heavy book hit me again!

I was staring up into the face of a very angry Countess Krak!

This is one of the most shocking lines in the book, because it isn't so much as italicized.  Gris tends to shriek the Countess' name whenever she's mentioned in the story, and here she is apparently back from the dead.  I was expecting all caps, italics, bold print, a good half dozen exclamation marks, maybe even size 72 font.  But instead Gris is showing all the shock as he did when a book bounced off his skull.

Speaking of books hitting skulls, Gris gets knocked out when another book hits his skull.  He wakes up with his wrists bound behind him, Heller sitting on the cell's bed, crying, and Krak cooing that "When I heard the firing I knew it must be my Jettero."  Hey.  Hey Krak.  What'd you think about the earthquake?  You should ask him about that.

Oh, and nobody has their gas masks on, but it's okay because the cell door is... shut... behind them.  Uh, guys?

Heller recounts that he didn't dare believe Gris' word that Krak was alive (but came anyway), and that the past week or so without her has been the "awfullest days" of his life.  Krak explains the lighting problem and the stuff on the floor - she'd been stacking ration boxes in an attempt to dig her way out, but a few days ago there was some sort of explosion in the airshaft that made the hole bigger and took out most of the glowplates.

She was pointing and I looked at the air shaft where dusty air was coming in.  Then I remembered that in the plan I had put hooks in the air shaft to prevent anyone climbing up it.  But I had also planted explosive charges there that would kill anyone who sought to go up through it. 

But he conveniently forgot about these security measures when it came time to "kill" Krak.

When Ahmed had dropped the gas grenade, it had simply set off the charges and the explosion had just blown the vapor back out as the whole series had gone off.  It had damaged the solar lights.  It had also opened up the shaft.  Once she had gotten the hooks loose, the Countess Krak could have climbed right up to freedom!

All because Gris had to have a cell with a separate ventilation shaft.  Couldn't have had even a tiny grate connecting it with the rest of the base, Crobe might have shapeshifted into a snake and slithered out through it.

Krak is holding Gris' knife and looking at him in a way that makes Gris realize she plans on cutting his throat, but Heller explains he swore to see him tried on Voltar.  Good news is, death of a hundred million people aside, he's almost wrapped up Mission Earth, so they'll be leaving soon.  Krak is overjoyed, and gushes about a "marvelous surprise" waiting for them when they get home.

I gasped with relief.  The moment he landed on Voltar, he would be arrested on some pretext.  Lombar would finish him!

This doesn't solve your whole "I'm going to be tortured to death for utterly failing in my mission to derail Heller's mission" problem, Gris.

As to what she was so happy about, those Royal proclamations were forgeries and if she ever tried to present them it would mean immediate execution.

Remember, on the enlightened planet Voltar, it's not counterfeiters who get punished, but anyone unfortunate enough to try and use one of their products.  Also, thanks for reminding us about that plot point from the end of Book One.


This should be good.

How could I arrange that they would present those forgeries so that Lombar would have a pretext to execute them out of hand?

Wait, what?  Your "INSPIRATION!" is a question you don't have an answer to?

Oh, I was not finished.  Not by a long shot!

Of course not, you still don't have a plan, just a vague notion of incriminating people Lombar shouldn't need a reason to kill, since he hates them, or an excuse to kill, since he controls the whole Confederacy.

I would get even with them for all the hideous things they had done to me!

I guess Gris has given up any hope of preserving his own life, and intends to drag Krak and Heller down with him.  Or maybe his brain can only hold so many concepts at once, and his self-preservation instinct has been temporarily jettisoned by Krak returning from the grave.

Back to Chapter Five 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Part Sixty-Four, Chapter Five - The Hologram Doesn't Have an Off Switch, Either

Triage time.  Heller inspects Gris - though not well enough to notice the knife tucked away in his shirt - and declares that while he has a bullet in his arm and side, there's no vital organ damage or "arterial pumping," so he'll be fine with some bandages.  Presumably Heller's Super Vision lets him monitor the status of someone's internal organs.  So he hauls Gris to his feet and off they go, down the hidden tunnel to the Apparatus hangar, Gris in front in case another Soviet crossdresser feels like shooting at him.

So Gaylov knew the USSR had been pulverized, but felt like making one last scavenging run into the hangar?  He had no other contingency plan, no escape stash prepared?  Why didn't he go off to eastern Russia in search of a surviving authority to- bah, whatever.

Gris makes a conscious effort to play up his injuries in hopes that the guy using him as a human shield will let him get behind him.  Then he remembers how he triggered the alarm and the hail of blaster fire that will greet anyone approaching the hangar, and so, for the second time in a page, assures us that he cunningly exaggerated his wounded condition.  Just as they're about to step into the hangar:

Expertly, I weaved and crumpled.

Gris aced his Apparatus "falling down" classes.

I shouted, "Kill him!"

Instantly a barrage of fire racketed!

The whole tunnel exit turned blinding orange!

I felt my jacket singe!

Something had me by the collar, dragging me back.  "Well, blast you!" said Heller.  "It was a trap!"

Good luck working this one out.  Heller has somehow dodged a wall of unfriendly fire bursting over Gris' prone body, then managed to grab him by the neck and haul him back into the tunnel while continuing to avoid getting shot.  Guess he's scuttling about on the floor like a crab.

And he doesn't sound all that mad about Gris' sudden but inevitable betrayal.  Though if he's avoiding getting hit this easily, maybe he's not too concerned.

Heller uses "that piercing, Fleet officer, carrying" voice of his to open a dialogue with the guys shooting at him, warning that even though he's pinned down in a tunnel, he's armed, so they better not try anything.  Faht Bey orders him to come out with his hands up, Heller cites his Grand Council orders and tells them to come out with their hands up.  Faht Bey accuses Heller of wanting to kill them, Heller responds that he has Gris as his prisoner to be tried, Faht Bey's like nuh-uh, Gris probably has a gun on you, get him to come out.  Faht Bey also brings up the earthquake for whatever reason, and then Gris screams that it wasn't his fault.  And, having confirmed that Gris is there, everyone starts shooting again, raising the question of why, if their objective is to kill him, they chose not to shoot him when he stepped into the hangar in the first place.

So hey, remember way the (bleep) back in Book Two when Heller was poking around the Apparatus base, climbing the walls and such?  What'd he say he was doing, rock surveys?  Well, that was a lie.

Heller orders everyone to stop shooting, or he'll heroically collapse the cave-hangar on their heads.  The shooting continues.  So Heller whips out a little detonator he grabbed from a hiding place along the tunnel, but which Gris didn't think anything about beyond "He now had something in his hand."  Heller presses the button, and...

So hey, remember way the (bleep) back in... Book Five?   When Gris shot at Crobe with a stungun and somehow caused a minor cave-in?  No?  Well, Gris is nice enough to remind us about it, to explain why Heller's attempt doesn't work - Gris accidentally triggered it months ago.  Mystery solved!  A seemingly random and pointless event from a thousand pages ago now pays off to explain why Heller's first attempt at subduing his foes didn't work.  Aren't you glad the author included it?

Heller of course has a back-up plan, and pulls out gas masks for himself and Gris.  He flips some different switches on his "firing board," causing some muffled explosions from elsewhere within the base.

Then I heard some coughing.  Faht Bey's cough joined it through the loudspeakers.

Somebody screamed, "Opium!"  Another took it up!

The firing stopped.

There was the beginning rush of everyone trying to leave.

A white fog came swirling into the tunnel mouth.

The opium storage caverns!  Heller had installed flame bombs in them last fall.  Countless tons of opium were burning.

Yes, our hero set this up back when he was "surveying" the base months and months ago.  And nobody noticed.  Nobody saw him do it, nobody discovered the bombs after ward.  For half a year, those explosives sat around, undiscovered, at this highly secure, top secret facility.

Don't even ask where Heller got the firebombs.

Or why the opium storage caverns don't have a sprinkler system.

Or why there's no gas masks around for the base crew to wear in case of fire.

The electronic illusion which made up the hangar roof would not pass air.  I had seen Heller test it!

Or why an illusory spaceship can pass through an icy comet but an illusory mountaintop forms an airtight seal.

Or why there's no ventilation system beyond the hole in the - hold up, Gris' super-deluxe holding cell had a separate air shaft installed.  Was that the only room in the base with an alternate air supply?  Why wouldn't they make precautions for their narcotics catching fire and fuming up the place?

The whole hangar was now full of a powerful narcotic--OPIUM SMOKE!

Oh, thanks.  I was wondering, since the opium stores were on fire, and the people were screaming "Opium!", what exactly the white smoke was.

So all the shooters fall over, having succumbed to the... well, I guess the opium euphoria'd them into unconsciousness.  No confusion or hyperactivity, no potentially fatal slowdown of the respiratory system, not even constipation or rash.  Nope, a cloud of concentrated opium smoke merely knocks you out for a bit, after which you can be roused with a good puff of oxygen with no lingering side-effects or addiction problems.  Especially if you're an alien with a particular vulnerability to drugs.

And after all that, after getting lured into an ambush, Heller nudges Gris forward and orders him to take him to Krak's cell.  And Gris complies, confident that he'll soon be able to shank Heller, because the guy hasn't even bothered to handcuff his untrustworthy, murderous guide.

Even Frodo had Gollum on a leash for a little bit, sheesh.

Back to Chapters Three and Four

Friday, August 23, 2013

Part Sixty-Four, Chapters Three and Four - This Book Came Out Five Years Before The Crying Game

One last note about the whole comet fiasco, which I somehow forgot to mention last time - Corky the Talking Tugboat ran the numbers, and although the effects will take a little longer to kick in due to the glancing nature of the impact, Heller's comet did manage to get Earth's core to "spin slightly more true to the axis."

So, even when Heller's 2,375 miles off target, even when he kills a hundred million people, he still achieves his ultimate objective.  What a guy!

The tug lands, Heller and Gris hop out, the former making sure that his untrustworthy companion stays where he can see him, the latter waiting for a good moment to try and backstab his nemesis.  The cat stays behind to guard the spaceship.  Given the number of pirates and mobsters who have met their ends after being attacked by said feline, this is not as hollow a threat as it should be.

When they reach the villa gates, Gris, while claiming to unlock them, triggers a quiet alarm to scramble his goons.  Sure enough, as he and Heller walk closer to the building, Gris sees movement in some bushes (that Heller, with his superior vision, does not), and knows that Musef and Torgut are here to save the day.


One from the right!  The other from the left!

They were drilling straight at Heller's face!

Below them were the muzzles of guns!

Suddenly a scream!

"The DEA man!" cried Musef.

There was a clatter.

A lead pipe had fallen to the walk!

Wait, I thought they were both carrying guns?  And why'd they drop their pipe but not their pistols?

The flashlights were weaving a wild pattern as they went away.

They got to the wall.

They went up a straight over the top, barbs and glass and all!

"Run for your life!" Torgut was bellowing in the field beside the villa.

Ayep.  Those two vicious wrestlers turned enforcers were so traumatized by Heller back in Book Two, that even when they caught him flat-footed in an ambush, even when they had guns trained on him, they decided to flee rather than risk shooting at him.

Pretty exciting stuff, when bad guys are too terrified of the good guy to even try and fight.

Heller doesn't respond to this - no quickdraw and snapshots, no dive for cover - beyond asking Gris "What was that all about?"  A thoroughly disappointed Gris declares that they must have scared off some robbers.

The two make it to Gris' room, where he hopes to step on a particular tile to activate another alarm, but Heller's in the way, and on top of that they hear someone coming - and not from the villa hallway.  Instead the secret passage to the Apparatus hangar opens, and who should step out, carrying two bags of heroin (Gris' psychic powers allow him to see inside bags), but "UTANC!"

She stopped.

And then in a draw so fast I didn't even see a blur, she had a small gun in her hand!

With a sudden yank, Heller had me in front of him!

Hubbard, I know you want to present Heller as some kind of incorruptible hero too pure for this sinful planet, but when he does stuff like use human shields or blow up buildings full of federal agents or work for mobsters, it's kinda hard to see him as that sort of good guy.  At best he's a delusional antihero who assumes that his superiority to these aliens means he's automatically occupying the moral high ground.

Utanc was raising the gun!

"Oh, darling!" I screamed.  "Look, look, look!  It's me!  DON'T SHOOT!"

In terror I watched her finger on the trigger.

I made a struggle to get free.

She looked straight at me.


And there's Chapter Three's cliffhanger ending, which I'll immediately defuse by continuing.

Gris takes a bullet to the ribs, and he meets Utanc's "cold and ruthless!" eyes before Heller throws Gris forward to absorb another shot.  As Heller and Utanc grapple on the floor, Gris spots the alarm tile, activates it, then notices and collapses from the pain of his wounds.

Heller heroically strangles Utanc with one hand, while with his free hand he starts tearing at Utanc's clothing.  As Gris wonders if he's about to witness some rape, Heller manages to completely strip his struggling victim.

Writhing and twisting and trying to get out from under him, Utanc was naked on the floor.

The body, every muscle taut, writhed over on its side in my direction.

Through the pink mist of pain, I could not believe what I saw.


This bothers me more than the whole mass slaughter of Russia thing.

The comprehension hit me like another bullet.  And then a wave of nausea swept through me.

See, the millions killed by Heller's gross stupidity at least died to move the plot forward.  It was the only way the author could imagine ending the threat of nuclear war, and had the side effect of knocking the south pole back into place.  Two birds with a hundred million stones.  The world of Mission Earth is now different for their passing.

Ever since this creature had come, I HAD BEEN MAKING LOVE TO A HOMO!

Utanc?  Entirely pointless.

I vomited.

Utanc's evidently the one stealing stuff from the Apparatus, a subplot which as you'll recall was totally ignored by Gris and never ended up going anywhere.

The not-woman has a wallet taped to his inner thigh, and of course he's carrying his ID card - Col. Boris Gaylov (subtle, Hubbard) of the Soviet KGB.  Heller declares that Gris is now part of the biggest Code Break of all time.

So (bleeping) what?

The whole Code Break thing has always been a nonsensical threat.  When Gris was trying to catch Heller making one in earlier books, he simultaneously needed to keep Heller in place on Earth until he got word that it was safe to kill him.  There was no way that hauling Heller off and trying him for a Code Break would work with that plot.  Now Heller's hitting Gris with the same threat, as if any of Gris' many, many other crimes weren't already worth executing him for.  

It's redundant at best, self-defeating at worst.

Heller reached across the floor to where the heroin had spilled.  He scooped up a handful.  "If you don't talk, this is going to go down your throat!"

Utanc screamed and writhed and tried to get away.

Hero is now threatening to force-feed a prisoner narcotics...

"Russia is no more," said Heller. "You can't betray it, as it has ceased to exist. Talk!" The handful of heroin approached her mouth.

Yeah, "her" mouth.  Post-reveal, Utanc's for the most part referred to as "Utanc," and the author uses "the" instead of gendered possessives when describing what body part Heller is holding down.  "The homo" is used here and there, or "the creature," but twice Utanc is indicated as female, while at the very end Gris refers to Utanc as "he."  So word use is a bit inconsistent here, though the raging homophobia comes through loud and clear.

Also, the hero has now come to terms with his mass-murder and is attempting to use it as leverage during an interrogation.

The Gaylov Formerly Known as Utanc reveals that he was raiding this base to supply the USSR's global spy network, and discovered - and reported - that everyone there was an alien the moment he arrived after being "purchased" by Gris.  So, Code Break it is.

Why did the Soviets desperately need Turkish heroin when they, at the time this was being written, had a military presence in Afghanistan?  Why could they not start up their own drug farms?  How did they know that a rich idiot named Sultan Bey would be the perfect pawn in their scheme of infiltrating an underground drug production facility?  What did they do with the knowledge that the drug manufacturers were aliens?  Why did Utanc focus on drugs and cash instead of alien technology?  Why was the top secret Apparatus base powerless to detect an apparent belly dancer waltzing in and out of its supply stores?

I've tried to find where any of these questions are answered, but no luck so far.  So it looks like the whole heap of unresolved, related subplots that the Utanc subplot brings up aren't going to go anywhere.

All things considered, I think the real reason Utanc was included in the story can be summed up with Gris' "I HAD BEEN MAKING LOVE TO A HOMO!" scream.  The author has decided to use a particular character as his punching bag, so here we are.  Ha ha, that guy was doin' another guy when he thought it was a girl! 

Gris ends the chapter recovering from a lot of puking, but certain that Heller will soon be dead now that the base is on alert.  "I hated him now more than ever for costing me the love of my life--Utanc!  She was gone forever."

So hey, why did the Soviets decide to send a crossdressing gunsel to belly dancing school instead of using one of their female agents to... ah, but I answered my own question two paragraphs ago.

Back to Chapters One and Two

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Part Sixty-Four, Chapters One and Two - Either Remorse or Giddy Anticipation

The weird thing is that the book waits a chapter to examine the fallout of wiping out an 800-mile-wide stretch of Eastern Europe, killing tens of millions of people.  Well, I say "tens," but the figure Gris casually tosses out is a hundred million.  Since it's Hubbard's story, I guess that's how many people his hero just killed.  So well done, Heller, you topped Mao!  You are officially the worst mass murderer in this planet's history.  All because you refused to change course while towing a big lump of ice.  You just kept on flying right at the planet, knowing full well that an enemy was waiting to kill you.  You stupid, stupid man.

Chapter One starts with Gris, again, desperately trying to come up with an escape plan.  Heller's sitting quietly, probably praying.  "'Oh, God of peoples,' said Heller, 'forgive me.'"  He's sorry, alright?

It's at this point that Gris finally, or rather "Suddenly," has a workable idea.  Gris promises to divulge some special information if Heller promises to take him back to Voltar for trial (where Lombar will surely execute Gris for his staggering incompetence).  All the guards at the Afyon base think Heller is going to kill them and will therefore be hostile, but Gris knows a secret way into the base.  When Heller asks why he'd want to go there, Gris writes down - he can't even speak the words, they're so incredible - a simple sentence: "THE COUNTESS KRAK IS ALIVE IN A CELL AT THE EARTH BASE."

What an inspiration--especially since she was dead!  What genius to use a corpse to lure someone in!

Especially if you're trying to trap Torpedo, am I right?  ...No?  Too soon?  Unwelcome reminder of a pointless, disgusting, and pointlessly disgusting character?

And if we got that far, I had that planned, too.  Somewhere between here and there, I would secure a weapon.  He would see her body and in that moment when his attention was off me, I would kill him, for he would be in shock.

Another Gris plan that boils down to "crush Heller with the power of sadness."  And "at some point I somehow find what I need."

Heller can only accuse Gris of lying, but Gris weaves a tale about how he picked Krak up at Rome when he learned her plane was being targeted by terrorists, then held her safe at Afyon, "though of course in detention."  For proof, Gris produces her Squeeza Card.  And now Heller's hands start shaking, not from having the blood of million of innocents on them, but because he recognizes his girlfriend's credit card.  He buys Gris' story and sets off for Turkey.

And Gris gloats about his own genius, and how once Heller is dead he'll "somehow" blow up Heller's power company and take out the Chryster car company and bomb the Empire State Building and be able to look Rockecenter in the eye and say "All is well, for I killed the man and your empire is intact" and then he'll be a "spi" again and have unlimited moneys and be able to release Black Jowl and waive his crushing debt and then he'll be Head of the Apparatus.

Chapter Two briefly touches on some of the ramifications of the events from last Part.  Heller's still not turning on the news, so Gris can only speculate on what he's missing.

I was very sure it was full of juicy bulletins concerning the demise of Russia.  Rockecenter's PRs would be rushing the media to blare how he insisted upon vast relief expeditions.  

Yeah, that sounds like the sort of thing Rockecenter's Public Relationses would do.

But nobody need bother.  There was little if anything left alive in European Russia.  Probably Sweden would just move in to pick up any loot left lying around and annex the place.

Any particular reason you think Sweden would do this over any other state?  Not Poland, Romania, East Germany, or Finland?

The so-called satellite countries would throw off the yoke and probably right this minute were murdering the Russian troops who had kept them in line and fattened off them.

Did Hubbard predict the end of communism in his sci-fi opus Mission Earth?  I'm going with no.

It's true that a major part of the fall of communism was the end of the Brezhnev Doctrine, under which the Soviet Union invaded any Warsaw Pact country that threatened to deviate from the only proper form of government.  With that threat removed, countries like Poland happily and peacefully went democratic.  But that doctrine's end was the result of a bunch of other factors - Soviet exhaustion from Afghanistan, Gorbachev and his attempts at reform, local reformers in Warsaw Pact countries, and so forth.  It was the result of a confluence of processes.

This event is divorced from history, the removal of Soviet domination via the removal of most of the Soviet Union.  There's no indication of an undercurrent of unrest or reformist sentiment.  For all we know, this could allow some Tito or Mao analogue to try and fill the vacuum and become the new figurehead of communism.  And if that doesn't happen, expecting a happy transition to liberty and capitalism and Coca-Cola may be premature - even in our world, the communist regime of Romania went down fighting.

Of course, all this is assuming that nobody from a bunker under the smoldering ruins of Russia, or some Siberian military base, is able to take control of what's left of the country.

World power had certainly shifted.  Rockecenter must be going crazy trying to figure out how to keep international tensions high now.

On the one hand, it's true that the 1990's was characterized by the United States trying to find something to do with its bloated, global military.  On the other hand, I don't think international tensions are going to disappear completely just because the biggest threat was hit by a comet.  There's always regional hotspots like Korea or Pakistan-India to worry about, to say nothing of the cluster(bleep) that is the Middle East, or major powers like China that must be preparing to conquer the world because that's exactly what a Western country would be doing in its situation.  If all else fails, Rockecenter could get America stuck in a perpetual War on Terror a decade or two early.

I said as much.

"They can't blame any other nation," Heller said.  "Every astronomer in the northern hemisphere plainly saw what they thought was a natural cataclysm.  

Yeah.  A "comet" that suddenly emerged from Saturn's rings, headed on an intercept course with Earth, and started to change velocity and heading as it closed, before being peppered with mysterious orange-green explosions.  Totally natural.

The planet won't destroy itself with atomic war now and that's the only benefit from this.  So shut up.  I don't want to hear about it."

Wow.  Heller sounds almost upset about killing millions of people.  Maybe this horrific tragedy will mark a drastic change in his character.  Maybe he'll be haunted by his crime, forever tortured by man I can't even finish that sentence.

I've skimmed ahead to the end of the book, trying to find evidence of character development or remorse, but as far as I can tell Russia's fate barely gets mentioned beyond "wow, it's a good thing Russia got hit by a comet" once or twice, and Heller's still Heller.

See, the problem is that while Gris notes that Heller's hands shake from time to time, and he looks "rather white around the eyes" (?), Gris' psychic powers tell him that Heller's distress is because "Every part of him wanted to believe me but part of him was also saying that it might not be true."  We've got the shock of killing a hundred million people and the shock of his girlfriend possibly being alive hitting at the same time, and the fact of the matter is that the latter feels like the more probable cause of Heller's distress.

The chapter ends with the tug descending to Turkey, Gris directing Heller to an open field he says is next to that secret passage to the base.  Heller also gave Gris a change of clothes that, in an improbable stroke of luck, contain a hidden knife.  With Heller distracted by his girlfriend being alive, Gris is feeling real good about his chances of success.

I could scarcely breathe.  In only a couple of hours I would be free to wipe out the hopes of Earth for cheap fuel.  Rockecenter must be saved!

Very shortly now, Heller's corpse would join the lifeless body of the Countess Krak.

You can see the "plot twist" coming, right?

Back to Part Sixty-Three, Chapters Eight and Nine

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Part Sixty-Three, Chapters Eight and Nine - Jettero Heller Saves the World

Let's solve global warming once and for all, shall we?

Heller, towing "billions of tons of silvery ice" in his souped-up tugboat, begins the process of decelerating from close to lightspeed as he reaches his destination.

"Check these figures, Corky," and he read them off.  "How does that strike you?"

"Well, sir, it isn't going to strike ME.  The mass will hit the north pole of the planet at an angle of thirty-three degrees in the direction southward on east longitude 36.5.  By gyroscopic precision, it will tend to shift the spin of the internal core slightly and move the magnetic poles closer to the Earth's axis."

I was wondering how an impact on the Earth's free-floating crust would penetrate 1,700 miles' worth of mantle and 1,370 miles of outer core to affect our planet's inner core, but now I know: gryoscopic precision.

"And your conclusion on the effect of this?" said Heller.

"It will cure the tendency of the southern pole to wander over water, thus melting the place and causing continental submergences.  The liability is that it will probably hit some polar bears."

New theory time, attempting to work out Hubbard Logic:

1. The south pole is cold
2. The south pole is moving.
3. Therefore, if the cold south pole moves away from all the ice in Antarctica, the ice will melt and flood the planet.
4. The cold emitted by the magnetic south pole will not freeze the water it travels over. 

Heller assures the tug that warning the polar bears about the billions of tons of ice about to squash them won't be necessary, the species is already extinct.  That's depressing, but not as depressing as what we'll see shortly

Right when they need to start the tricky maneuvering and deceleration to set their enormous icy payload on a "safe" vector, the tug's sensors pick up some "magnetic turbulence" a half million miles from Earth - "THE ASSASSIN SHIP!"  Don't worry, Heller has a plan on how to deal with this new threat.

"Blast," said Heller, "I didn't expect him this soon."  He picked up a microphone.  He spoke into it.  "Calling Apparatus vessel."

There was no answer.  He verified that he was on Apparatus intership frequency, limited range.  "This is Tug One, the Prince Caucalsia, Exterior Division.  I do not wish to be interfered with."

Yeah.  "Hey, enemy ship?  I'm busy right now, let's fight later."

There was no answer.

Heller tried again, "Apparatus vessel, this is Jettero Heller, Grade X, Voltar Fleet, operating under orders of the Grand Council.  You are directed to reverse your course and forgo interference with this tow."

"I mean it, guys, I'm really busy with this big, distracting payload.  I'm in no position to fight right now.  So go away."

No answer!  And there should have been.  We were returning to the planet, and leaving it was all they were supposed to prevent.

Stop pointing out the plot holes, Gris, that's my job.  Well, more of a hobby...

And then it dawned on me that that assassin pilot and his mate had also received orders to kill Heller!

Why would they need additional orders to do that if they were already supposed to blast any ship leaving the planet?  Why would they let him leave if they were supposed to kill him?  Did they know he'd be making a short trip in-system before coming home?

The ship just kept on coming to meet us.

"Oh, blast!" said Heller.  "I can't abandon this tow!  

Sure you can.  The ice doesn't need you to tug it anymore, it'll just keep on going at whatever speed and heading you left it at.  Alter course, give it a little nudge, then cut the traction beam so the ice flies off into deep space.  Kill the assassin ship, then use your time-raping engines to catch up with the ice and get it back under control.  Sure it's inconvenient, but less so than trying to dogfight with a billion tons of ice attached to your rear bumper.

That crazy idiot is going to cause a catastrophe!"

It's the assassin pilot's fault a billion tons of ice are going to hit the planet.  Even though that was Heller's plan to begin with.

So, space fight.  The assassin ship is clearly visible because its hull is silver to protect it from radiation, while the tug is not silver and therefore invisible (and irradiated), except for the billions of tons of ice directly behind it and the "magnetic turbulence" it's emitting.  Heller turns a dial and hits a button, and suddenly another ship appears a thousand yards ahead, looking just like Tug One!  Gris is spooked until he realizes it's the result of what's "obviously an electronic illusion projector, so common in Voltar celebrations and displays."  We haven't seen one of those since the going-away party in Book One, because of course the aliens don't use such technology to make kickass holographic displays for their spaceships or computer systems.  Computer screens and tape-based data storage are where it's at.

To the assassins, it must have looked like the tug had simply turned its silver coat on!

The deadly ship was off to our left.  It was turning.


The shot was well above the illusion.


The shot was below the illusion.


Flame burst right in the middle of the illusion tug!

Heller threw a switch.

The illusion vanished!

Yeah.  The Apparatus' finest "assassin pilots" took three shots to hit a target that wasn't trying to evade, or even altering its course or speed in any way.

For a moment Gris and Heller think they're clear, but evidently the enemy pilot noticed the lack of debris, or are still picking up the tug's "magnetic turbulence," 'cause I guess Heller kept the engines on.  The assassin ship fires again, hitting the tiny, unarmored tug with a cannon designed to blow holes in battleships. The tug is instantly reduced to a glittering cloud of debris and-

Oh, excuse me.  The tug just takes a bit of damage to one specific system - the traction beams, naturally.

Heller slams on the Space Brakes, then starts going evasive.  The enemy ship, meanwhile, makes the odd but convenient tactical decision to move closer to the now uncontrolled mountain of ice while continuing to fire.  Heller generates another illusionary double, close to the ice mass so that a stray shot hits that instead of anything else.  Then Heller moves the illusion right next to the ice, taking care so that it's directly in front of the assassin pilot.

Apparently these electronic illusions are able to fool even Voltar's sophisticated sensor systems, because Gris realizes that the assassin ship's instruments must be fully occupied with the phantom ship before it.  Gris' psychic powers furthermore tell him that the enemy pilot is relying solely on those instruments and flying blind, rather than bothering to look out the friggin' window to spot the big honkin' ice comet.  And the assassin pilot's strategy seems to be to close point-blank with its target and pull the trigger, a target which is at this point being projected onto the surface of the comet.

All this to say:

The assassin ship made one more charge.


The flying cannon had plowed straight into the ice mass and exploded!

Your spaceship doesn't need conventional weapons when your enemies are willing to kill themselves.

So that's both assassin ships dead.  Heller can now come and go as he pleases; even Gris, assuming he ever escapes, doesn't need to worry about anyone under orders to kill him on Earth, just the mob of people wanting to kill him for other reasons.  But I can't help but feel like I'm forgetting something...

Billions and billions of tons of ice were hurtling straight at Earth, out of control.

Oh, right.

"Oh, Lords," said Heller.  "There it goes without its last correction!"

Corky informs him that the "aft cable ends of the traction beams are totally fused," and will explode if used, and unfortunately Heller doesn't have the tools to repair them on board.  The ship has no bombs or anything, and of course the tugboat can't try to physically push the mass off-course because it's too loose.  For five minutes they can only fly alongside their payload, watching as it coasts over Canada and Greenland towards the North Pole, Scandinavia, and Russia.

Heller drew a long sigh.  He looked over at the ice.  He looked at the planet surface.  He looked at the instrument panels.

"Well, it's a good thing we had it slowed down," he said.  "There's nothing I can do."

He worked the controls and we drew off.

Gris can only imagine the bulletins and TV reports flying around below, as surely even Earth's primitive astronomers have picked up the comet headed towards them (but not the space battle around that comet).  They watch as it approaches the planet to strike a glancing but terrible impact, passing the north pole entirely and just missing Sweden and Finland.

The ice mass struck the upper atmosphere.  Racing, it began to change its form. At thirty miles a second it had not long to go.

It missed Finland.

It seemed to be spreading out, its mass tumbled by the resistance of air.

Ahead of it I could see now what appeared to be a large inland lake, blue in the brown of Russia.  Some of it would hit that lake.

I've no idea which lake Hubbard's referring to; there's a few candidates, but it all depends what vector this thing's coming in on, and where the lake is, which of course remain vague.

In slow, slow motion as it appeared from on high, it was racing down the last few miles.


It seemed to generate an enormous flash like electricity!

An instant later, the mass seemed to have quadrupled in size! A piece of it had hit the lake!

Like a scythe it was sweeping onward!

Travelling at a low angle, it was levelling everything in its path.


If this were xkcd I'd break out some physics formulas and crunch the hell out of some numbers.  The first problem is that the numbers here are vague, we don't know the exact size of the object besides "billions and billions of tons," or how dense the little ice chunks are packed by the traction beam.  A bigger problem is that my high school Physics class degenerated to the teacher referring questions to a particular student, so the square-cube law confounds me.

So I'll cheat.

This pretty neat website lets you simulate cometary impacts.  It has the density for a bunch of ice built into it, and we can easily enter our speed of 30 miles per second.  If we assume that the impact angle is somewhat close to what Heller intended, it'd be 33 degrees.  The closest "lake" to Moscow is the Uchinskoye Reservoir, which I can't find the statistics for, so I'll sub in the Rybinsk Reservoir's average depth of 18 feet.  As for the size of this gift from Heller, Halley's Comet has a mean width of 10 kilometers and a mass of something like a hundred billion tons, so let's crudely halve that.

According to Impact: Earth! such an event would leave a 28-mile-wide crater.  If we were standing a hundred miles away from poor Moscow, half a minute later we'd be hit with a magnitude 9.2 earthquake, flattening most building and badly damaging even reinforced structures.  Well before that, four seconds after impact, we'd see a 74 mile-wide fireball 84 times brighter than the sun, igniting all the vegetable matter around us, our clothes, and gracing us with third-degree burns.  Three minutes after impact our charred remains, buried by the ruins of our home, would be coated with what would eventually be 5 feet of debris.  I'm not sure how that'd hold up to the 1,730 mph winds generated by the impact, or how the wind would arrive five minutes after the debris.

One second there was a city.

The next, there was only jumble!

And fire, and ash.  Going by demographics from 1990, roughly fourteen million people died in the Moscow region alone...

The scythe swept on!

Waves of cloud were racing ahead, southward. They were growing less and less as they progressed toward the Black Sea.

Dust and debris were settling below. however many were snuffed out by the debris cloud crashing through Tula, Kursk, Belgorod, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovosk, Sevastopol'...

And then I saw what it had done.

The recoil had flattened Leningrad.

And burned.  400 miles away the earthquake's effects are negligible, but you get the same ignition effects, and 242 mph winds aren't kind to buildings.  So add about five million from St. Petersburg, plus all the other cities... what, 25 million dead?

Everything that was European Russia had been levelled!

That whole nation was no more!

Our book's hero has just killed more people than Hitler and Stalin combined (Mao's still going to be hard to beat, though).

Gris' response?

I moaned.

There went all of Rockecenter's uranium profits, with the removal of the threat of atomic war!

Oh, Gods, I was in trouble now!

And after all that death and destruction, it feels sorta odd to berate Gris for assuming that uranium can only be used for nuclear weapons, that the Asian half of Russia poses no nuclear threat, or that other nations like China won't be enough to continue the nuclear weapon craze.

But there you have it.  Heller set off trying to save our melting ice caps, but resolved the Cold War instead.  And killed many, many, many innocent people.

Don't worry, the author will do his best to put a positive spin on all this.

Back to Part Sixty-Three, Chapter Seven 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Part Sixty-Three, Chapter Seven - (Bleeping) Magnets, How Do They Work?

Hokay, so: Earth's got a magnetic field generated by our planet's outer core, a field that has two poles.  These magnetic poles are not to be confused with our planet's axis of rotation, and don't quite align with it, or even with each other.  Furthermore, they move around - the (magnetic) North Pole is moving from the Canadian arctic towards Russia at about 35 miles a year, while the (magnetic) South Pole has actually left Antarctica, and indeed the Antarctic circle, as it travels northwest at about 7 miles a year.  This is all due to fluctuation in the flow of molten iron in the Earth's core, which also periodically makes the poles reverse so that north is south, up is down, and cats and dogs live in harmony.

It's weird but more or less harmless, beyond aurorae at lower latitudes than normal and the weakened magnetic field potentially allowing solar radiation to fry electronics and bring about the collapse of modern civilization.  There doesn't seem to be any evidence of ecological disaster resulting from our wiggling magnetic poles, and a theory that polar reversal causes mass extinctions doesn't have much evidence going for it.

But Heller knows that if the poles ever drift over water, the Earth will be flooded.  Because... well, no explanation is ever given.  Our puny Earth science assumes that the temperature in the Arctic and Antarctic is determined by how much solar energy they (don't) receive due to the angle the sun's rays hit our most tilted latitudes.  Heller, on the other hand, knows that the ice caps are only kept frozen because an intangible magnetic field happens to be erupting from under a landmass.

I guess the magnetic field... magnets are kinda like electricity?  So the magnetic electricity is carrying away all the heat that would otherwise melt the ice caps, so that it dissipates harmlessly in the atmosphere?  Or maybe it's not temperature but tidal forces, so that magnetism - not the moon - is responsible for how water behaves, and if the poles continue to drift over water, the seas will be driven inland.  That sounds a bit more plausible?

Fun fact: the (magnetic) North Pole is currently swimming in the Arctic Ocean, and has been moving over islands and water since 1900.  But Heller's not worried about that, it's the South Pole being over water that's going to kill us all.  Even though it's already over water since around 1980.

All this to say, he needs to go to Saturn.

Gris is nervous about the whole excursion, because that other assassin ship will surely spot their Space Turbulence and set an ambush when they return.  Wait a minute, you say, aren't the assassin ships supposed to keep the tug from leaving the planet?  And how can they do that if they can't even catch the tug thanks to those astoundingly fast Will-be Was engines?  Shut up, says the author.

The Apparatus agent nearly suggests that Heller run all the way home to Voltar, before remembering that doing so would end in him trying to explain the jaw-dropping magnitude of Gris' failure to Lombar Hisst.  Then he freaks out when Heller steps out of the "flight deck" to go aft, leaving the tug to fly through the Asteroid Belt with no obvious pilot - not that he actually sees an asteroid at any point, nor does the tug have to swerve to avoid an incoming lump of space rock.  Then Gris freaks out some more.

Then I saw the time-sight dial slowly turn by itself.  It spooked me.  Was this tug really some sort of ghost?  I couldn't figure out where its voice came from and Heller had even stopped using a microphone to speak to it.

Oh, more than ever, I made up my mind, I had to get off this thing.

Gris has, once again, forgotten that the tug has been robotized.

"Some time later" the tug arrives at Saturn, or Blito-P6, where Gris marvels at the planet's rings: "The outer two were very bright and the one nearest us seemed thinner."  Go look at some pictures of Saturn's rings and see if you can figure out what he's talking about.

Heller returns to the cockpit, and Corky warns him that the gravity here is very strong (so all those itty-bitty ice particles can safely orbit it but not the spaceship?) and that a volcano on one of the nearby moons is erupting.  Presumably Hubbard means cryovolcano, and the moon is Enceladus, but of course nobody mentions its name, and not even Gris pays any attention to it, much less describes what it looks like.  Instead Gris marvels at the pretty colors of Saturn itself - the shades of "yellowish," the "pastel green" of its equator (?), the patches of "reddish brown" - and then worries that Heller will try to land on it.  Heller informs him that Saturn is a gas giant.

Then Heller brings the tug to orbit right next to Saturn's outermost rings and tells Corky to turn on the traction beam, max power!  For just over five hours the tug gathers a few billion tons of near-pure ice from Saturn's rings, ponderously pulling "that huge mass free of Saturn's gravity and into space."  Because the rings aren't in space already?  And Saturn's fearsome 1.07 g gravity is that strong?

Whatever, Heller sets the tug on a course to Earth with a glittering comet trailing behind it.  Just a little something to "tap the poles straight." 

Whatever else was wrong and whatever else I had to solve, one fact was clear as terror to me.  The assassin ship couldn't possibly miss us.  And it was lying in wait.

Tune in next time for the punchline.

Back to Chapter Six

Monday, August 19, 2013

Part Sixty-Three, Chapter Six - Orbital Bombardment

It's not enough to make the oil industry obsolete, Heller needs to make all the existing oil worthless.  He asks Corky whether there's any sign of that other assassin pilot, but for whatever reason the enemy ship has decided to miss all those wonderful opportunities to blast Heller while he was busy towing the black hole or out on a spacewalk.  The timid talking tug does however urge Heller to lie low for a bit, for fears that their "magnetic wake" will alert the enemy to their presence.

And I'd like to argue with this, but when your spaceship's main drive involves throwing synthesized mass against Time itself to trick destiny into bouncing your ship forward, using magnets for your sublight drive isn't much of a stretch.  I'm sure the ship's air supply is regulated by a team of tiny pixies living in the ventilation ducts.

Instead of hiding, Heller talks to the ship, rattling off a long list of "exact spatial positions" of locations on a planet rotating at about a thousand miles an hour while orbiting a star at sixty-seven thousand miles per hour which is in turn part of a galaxy rotating at 490,000 miles per hour while moving through space at 621 miles per second.  He tells the ship to go to the first one (an oil refinery in Watson, California) before calling Izzy to confirm that he's got the options to buy every single one of the world's oil shares at a dollar each.  The deals have gone through, but the oil shares haven't dropped nearly that low... yet.

Izzy asks how this could possibly work, Heller hangs up after an ominous "You'll see," and takes action.

He returned to his magnified view of the refinery below.  He was checking a floor plan.  "Atmospheric pipefill," he said.  He made a couple of tiny adjustments to the position of the ship.

Then his hands went out to the firing control of the laser cannon he had lately installed.

"NO!" I cried in desperation.  "Don't blow up the refineries!"

You would prefer another target, a military target?  Then name the system!  I grow tired of... oh, that's a different thing.  Sorry.

His finger pressed the firing button.  The gun overhead made a brief whirr.

I watched in horror.  The enlarged picture of a part of an oil refinery, I thought, would burst into flame.

I waited.

It didn't!

"Corky, Position Two," said Heller.

"That's Wilmington, California," said the tug.  And we moved.

And Heller does the same thing there, before going on to Long Beach and El Segundo, CA.  A half-hour passes before the electrical impulses conveying Gris' astonishment travel to his mouth, allowing him to ask what the Space Hell is going on.  The gland in his jaw exuding politeness also seems to be working, so Gris is able to say "please."

He glanced at me.  "Everything they do in a refinery first passes into what they call the atmospheric pipefill from the crude oil tanks.

Evidently "they" consists solely of the author, because I can't find the term "atmospheric pipefill" anywhere except Mission Earth excerpts.

From the pipefill it goes on through every other process in the place: jet fuel, diesel fuel, virgin naphtha, you name it.

Maybe he means the fractionating column?  Fortunately, HowStuffWorks is available if you want a better description of the refining process.  I guess it doesn't really matter what you call Heller's target, because its function is less important than its location.

All I'm doing is putting a false radiation charge in the metals of the pipefills.  It will register like mad on a Geiger counter but it actually doesn't affect another thing.  You're not going anywhere, so there is no reason not to tell you that Izzy has the device that nulls the wave."

Yep, that cunning Heller is zapping those refineries with a magical beam causing them to emit fake radiation.  The metals in the whatever pipe are producing particles that, while capable of triggering a Geiger-Mullter tube, aren't actually radioactive in themselves.  And no, there's no further attempt to explain how this works.

He turned away and went back to work, and between him and the tug, they systematically did the same thing to every blessed oil refinery in the whole world.

It took a day and a half to cover them all.

And all Gris does during this nearly two-day timeskip is sit there thinking how strange it is that Heller chose not to blow anything up.  How very Royal of him.  Certainly not how a proper Apparatus operation would go down, no sir!

Heller washes up and changes clothes, than calls Izzy again, who has a visitor on the line with him - "MISS SIMMONS!"  Heller lets her know that at this very moment, every oil refinery in the world reads as radioactive on a Geiger counter.  "How the flaming monkey poo would you know that?" Miss Simmons doesn't ask.  Instead she thanks him, rages about "THE (BLEEPARDS)!" and storms off to organize some anti-nuclear marches.

"Oy!" said Izzy.

"Yes," said Heller.  "Double oy.  The oil shares will go down like a rocket in reverse.

Not a rocket in free fall, mind you, but a rocket shifted into reverse.  Probably with back-up lights.

When they get near bottom, sell.  And use the cash for Maysabongo to exercise their contracts for every drop of oil in reserve in the U.S.  Then in July, purchase every oil company in the world for a song."

"Oh, Mr. Jet, our every dream is coming true!  I just hope Fate doesn't intervene."

Man, it's been so long since Izzy was introduced that I've nearly forgotten his wacko corporate-anarchic philosophy. 

But there you go.  Heller's plan is to use fake radiation to spark a global panic over the safety of oil supplies, causing oil companies' stock value to bellyflop.  I can only assume that nobody's going to figure out that despite the lack of radioactive material in these refineries, they're still giving anomalous radiation readings.  Or notice that one guy arranged some pretty insane stock options the day before the news of the "radioactive" refineries broke and connect the dots.  And that nobody decides to keep using the "tainted" oil anyway because everyone knows you can wash radiation off with a good shower, or cure it with Dianetics.

And Heller's still not done!  He's got one more task before he's calling this mission a success.

"Oh, this last is just a little thing.  The south pole has a tendency to wander over the sea.  I'm going to give the globe a little tap to straighten up its rotation.  Corky, take off for planet Saturn now."

Words fail me.

I suppose I could smash my keyboard a few times to convey my feelings on this plan, but there's plenty of gibberish out there already, no need to add to it.

We'll try to break down how catastrophically stupid Heller is next time.

Back to Chapter Five

Friday, August 16, 2013

Part Sixty-Three, Chapter Five - Unlimited Power

Hours later, Heller emerges bathed, rested, but still in his radiation coveralls.  Gris is still able to see Heller's pallor and expression, and there's no mention of a mask or helmet.  So none of these characters are in danger of losing anything important.

When Gris asks about his choice of outfit, Heller admits that the space around the ship is still "pretty hot."

"Hey, wait a minute," I said.  "You must be suspecting leaks or you wouldn't be in hot coveralls.  I'm totally unprotected!  Are you trying to sterilize me?"

I'm curious as to why Gris is more worried about his ability to reproduce than, say, dying from radiation poisoning.

"Thanks for calling it to my attention," said Heller. He picked up the cat and took it to the chief mate's room and when he came back, the cat was wearing a scarlet blanket.

"You're absolutely heartless!" I snarled.

"I didn't know you cared," said Heller. But he unchained me from the pipe and took me to one of the engineer's cabins and let me go to the toilet.

Yeah, that's the train of thought.  Guy complains about being vulnerable to radiation, so let him use the bathroom.  Heller does give Gris a disposable rad suit after this, but I'm not sure why the crapper was his first reaction.

After Gris changes, Heller tosses him some rations, "throwing them down on the table like he might have done for a dog."  Then he positions the tug, the umbrella thing, and the towed black hole about five hundred miles above some newly-constructed buildings in the "Devil's Playground," in the Mojave Desert.  Finally, with some tractor-beam, compressor-beam, and tension-beam work, Heller situates the little black hole in the center of the cage under the umbrella-thing.

Then, a page of explanations on how this will all work.

1. The black hole, situated in the cage, will act as a motor, i.e. a device that produces movement.  At no point will it actually be described as moving, though maneuvering jets on the space umbrella will help keep it in position.  Presumably Hubbard meant the black hole will act as a "dynamo" or "generator" or something like that.

2. The mirrors on the underside of the "umbrella" will reflect the undefined energy somehow emerging from the singularity.  Corky was talking about black holes emitting gamma radiation earlier, so it's possible that's what the mirror is supposed to be reflecting.  Now surprisingly enough, it's possible to build a gamma-ray mirror, it's just going to be many meters thick, while Heller's mirror is not described as such.  Another possibility is that the black hole is somehow generating pure electricity, which the mirror is supposed to bounce back to Earth, though that's not something mirrors can do.  Or maybe this is supposed to be microwaves, which reflect off metal.  Again, the author doesn't specify.  I'm going with magic.

3. The ring around the middle of the umbrella is a "converter-ring," which sends the magical energy from the mirror down to the Earth's surface, "hot-spotting" on the "pile" in the desert.  I'm not sure what Hubbard means by "hot-spotting."  I'm not sure what he means by "pile" - certainly not a radioactive pile, right?  Radiation is bad.  But harmless from the neck up.  Ferromagnets are mentioned later, and while it's possible to use them to produce power, it sounds like more of a "pulse" thing than a constant amount.  And I'm not sure where black holes come into play.

4. The lowest ring around the umbrella's base is a simple set of weights, which use Earth's gravity to keep the thing in the right position.  According to Wikipedia, 800 miles up means that the umbrella is still in Low Earth Orbit, where objects experience weightlessness due to centrifugal acceleration cancelling out acceleration from gravity.  So this is probably a wasted gesture.

Gris is incredulous that Heller's going to leave the umbrella sitting in orbit for a billion years, but Heller reminds him that the thing's still thirteen minutes in the future, presumably on the logic that nobody else will be able to enter the time distortion as he and Gris just did.  Besides, he put a sign on the thing.

No Trespassing
Hands Off
High Voltage

See?  Completely safe.

Heller takes the tug out of the time wrinkle and calls Izzy, who puts on engineer Dr. Phil A. Mentor as Heller checks how the Devil's Playground power site is doing.  Its ferromagnetic pile is "hot," which is to say that it and a nearby truck have completely disappeared, and the "time step-down capacitors" are fully operational.  Microwave power is coming out!  It's being beamed into the sky to be relayed by mirror to where it's needed!

Aaaaand that's it.  That's how a black hole power plant works.  That's all the author tells us.

I'm totally stumped. 

Since this miracle energy is costing them nothing but maintenance costs and installation, Izzy plans on selling electricity for a penny a kilowatt, with industrial rates a quarter of that.  But this causes two problems - they're gonna have a lot of money to invest, and Rockecenter is going to be sad that nobody's buying his coal or oil.

Heller's not too concerned, and wants Izzy to go ahead with that plan to option every sale of oil stock on the planet - because he wants to make those shares go down from $80-$100 apiece to a dollar or less.

"Oy!" said Izzy.  "Mr. Rockecenter will be broke broke."

"That's the idea," said Heller.  "Broke plus broke equals bankrupt.  So what I want you to do now is obtain an additional set of of options to buy all the oil shares in the world at one dollar."


"You heard me.  Your sell options will go for a fortune.  Then, when the bottom is out, your buy options will put you in control of every single oil company in the world."

"Oy," said Izzy.  "Our dream of corporations running the planet is going to come true!  I hope Fate isn't listening in on this conversation."

Izzy, you're supposed to be Jewish.  Gris is the one ranting about Fate being out to get him.

"We'll make it come true somehow," Heller reassured him.

 Yay?  All hail our new corporate overlords?

When Izzy mentions that cheap electricity in itself won't bring the stocks as low as Heller's wanting, Heller alludes to his next project that will make it happen.  Ominous.

Gris is gibbering about poor Rockecenter, whose energy monopoly must be protected in order for the Apparatus to get drugs.  Then he "suddenly" remembers that the Russians have invented "satellite killers" (I'm guessing an anti-satellite missile) and realizes that he could help them locate and destroy Heller's space umbrella.  Unfortunately the first step to that end would be escaping from Heller's clutches, and Gris has been failing to make any progress towards that for several chapters now. 

But there's one important implication from that.  The satellite is located in a timeshifted bubble produced by its captive black hole, but Gris knows a missile could kill it.  The satellite is also beaming magic towards a power plant, despite the aforementioned time bubble.

So, Hubbard.  Remind us again how a similar black hole's time (bleep)ery can protect the Voltarian capital from attack? 

Anyway, that's the chapter.  Free, nigh-infinite energy is as simple as using a time-telescope and tractor beam to grab a tiny black hole from thirteen minutes in the future and putting a mirror behind it to reflect its energy at a pile of magnets, resulting in microwaves to be conveyed via more mirrors through the air to power stations.  Human civilization is now totally dependent on alien technology it does not understand and cannot duplicate.  Millions of people stand to lose their jobs from the collapse of every other energy industry.  International politics are about to be flipped on their head now that oil-producing nations just lost their primary source of income and greatest bargaining chip, not to mention the fact that the new miracle energy source seems to be located in one country.

And Heller's just getting started.

Back to Chapter Four 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Part Sixty-Three, Chapter Four - The Care and Keeping of Black Holes

Physicists and astronomers, start drinking now.

The tug slows down as it approaches the miniature, primordial black hole, and Heller orders it to consult the "universal, absolute clock" to check when they're getting close enough for time to start warping.  Corky the talking spaceship suggests, apropos of nothing, that they solve their prisoner dilemma by throwing Gris out the airlock, through the black hole and into "some other universe," then feign ignorance during the officers' conference to decide what to do with him.  So the robot just suggested they murder someone and lie to the authorities about it.  Just like C-3PO?

Heller ignores it, though, and tells everyone to brace for the time shift as they near their target.

Now, according to what I've pieced together from Wikipedia and the rest of the internet, black hole time shifts work like this - you never notice them, assuming you're the one going near them.  To everyone else, you just get slower and slower (and turn red) until you disappear entirely if you're dumb enough to hop into the event horizon.  It's basically one-way time travel in that time passes normally for you, but x years passed while you were approaching and leaving the black hole's vicinity.

Hubbard, of course, knows that black holes instead shift nearby space a number of minutes into the future, in this case thirteen minutes.  And this doesn't mean that an observer would see you disappear only to reappear thirteen minutes later, no - it means that you're perpetually thirteen minutes into the future.  You cannot be seen, nothing can interact with you (unless they're similarly shifted).   But when you leave the black hole's vicinity, you go thirteen minutes into the past and rejoin the normal flow of time.

Got that?  Got something for your headache?  Good, let's continue.

"Data," said Heller.

"Yes, sir, I'll also duplicate it on printout. Mass, 7.93 billion tons. Expected longevity before final explosion, 2.754 billion years. Exudation, 5.49 billion megawatts. Space sphere warp, 10.23 miles in diameter."

"Thank you," said Heller.  "Turn around, tail to it.  Engage traction towing beams.  Set a course to Blito-P3.  Engage Will-be Was main engines.  When all ready, begin towing.  Gong me when we are eight hundred miles above planetary surface so I can assist in adjusting its orbit."

The tragedy is that we have equations for Hawking radiation that enable us to figure out when a black hole of a certain size will evaporate, how many watts it emits over its lifespan, and how big an explosion will occur when it finally farts out the last of its mass, but I majored in Political Science.  I'm just going to assume that Hubbard's numbers don't add up, because it seems like a safe bet.

And I like the tractor beam.  All this talk about the dimensions of this tiny, primordial black hole, and then zap, the tugboat casts a magic spell that allows a spaceship to tow a supermassive singularity from which nothing can escape (except Hawking radiation, because of quantum).  A tugboat built to physically push other spaceships around, despite the presence of said tractor beam.

Also, if space-time is already being contorted by that black hole, is it wise to mangle the fabric of reality further with those Will-be Was engines?

Heller suits up for his next task, and the author gets artsy.

Then he climbed into a scarlet antiradiation suit.   Its face mask made him look diabolical to me.  A Manco Devil in truth!  I cowered against the pipes.  Oh, Gods, why couldn't I think of something bright that would get rid of him once and for all?  I must!  I must!  I must!

He was now climbing into a pressure suit as a second covering.  When he put the helmet in place, the mirror dome reflected everything around in twisted distortion.  The cat looked fifty feet long.  The pilot chairs appeared all out of shape.  I looked like I was a little speck cringing in some distant closet.  It matched the unreality that saturated my poor, abused mind.

Thanks for explaining the visual symbolism, Hubbard.

So Heller steps into the airlock, opens the door to hard vacuum, and starts assembling something that looks to Gris like some sort of umbrella, with an enormous sectioned mirror up top, under which hangs a cage with a bunch of prongs pointed inward, then a ring halfway down and another at the bottom.

That done, Heller hops inside, takes off his suit, and goes aft, miraculously reaching a part of the ship Gris can't see from the cockpit.  Gris resorts to punching himself in the head in hope of shaking out an escape plan.

This chapter we learned all about black holes.  Next chapter, Hubbard's going to tell us how to make a black-hole based global microwave power network in eight easy pages.

Back to Chapter Three