Since I’m a terrible procrastinator, I just finished reading the book Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole. (The recommendation was from this site, which has a cool story in its own right.)
It’s an interesting story, fairly well-written, and I think it considers some interesting moral conundrums. It’s a bit like the X-Men, and loaded with military references. That said, it also has some serious flaws. As ever, here there be spoilers.
The Magic Is Awesome
It’s just like our world, except it’s the future, and there’s been a magical Reawakening. People have been popping up with magical talents for the last several years, at least — the precise details are vague. The magical powers come in several flavors, and each “Latent” person gets one of them. The most common are the typical cardinal element powers — Pyromancy, Hydromancy, Terramancy, and Aeromancy. They do pretty much what you think, although Hydromancy can be used to freeze pretty much anything, and Aeromancy allows flight, weather control, and lightning.
There are several other skills as well — Physiomancy, classical healing, and also anti-healing; Necromancy, which does what you would expect; and Negromancy, or Black Magic, which is magic of rot and decay. There’s also Elemental Conjuration, where you can make separately intelligent elementals out of pretty much anything.
Our protagonist, Oscar Britton, a US Army pilot, comes up with a talent which is so rare that there’s only one other person in the US with it: Portamancy.
Yes, it is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. On Earth, he can make portals to any location in the Source (a parallel world with stronger magic), or to anywhere on Earth, if he starts in the Source. It works pretty much like the portals in Portal, except he doesn’t need a portal gun or a surface to put the portals on, and he can also suck things through a portal if he puts some effort into it.
From a military perspective, Britton and his cohorts take pretty good advantage of his powers — instant insertion and backup, porting behind enemies, portal cuts… lots and lots of portal cuts, actually. Lots of things and people get sliced and diced. Whew.
However, as we discussed in the post for Portal, there are a lot of possibilities here for instant transport that really aren’t taken advantage of. Britton only needs a good picture to go to a location, and he can keep air/water/other fluids from going through the portal if he doesn’t want them to.
Instant transport to the ISS… the Moon… Mars… Titan… anywhere with good enough pictures. That would be awesome. Unfortunately, in this story, the US and numerous other counties have exhibited a rather serious problem…
Failure to Learn from History
Apparently, this is a problem in the US at the time of the story, as well as many other places. (Then again, it sounds like China is doing better.)
It’s the classic “New powers, dangerous and scary, must ban” thing. New Latents (the term for people with powers) typically manifest due to emotional turmoil, with their powers out of control. Making them more anxious (i.e., by sending the supernatural SWAT after them) just makes it worse. At some point, somebody (deliberately or as a nasty Manifestation, it’s unclear to me) destroys the Washington Monument. From that point on, all persons who manifest are required to report themselves and join a special Supernatural branch of the Army. Black magic, necromancy, and portamancy are all banned by US law. (And by the “Modified Geneva Convention”? What?)
Mandatory training makes sense, to help people keep their powers under control, but… beyond the draft, it gets worse.
In addition to being stuck in the Army for life, they black-bag anybody with banned powers for their special ops group. And their use the obviously explosive nature of Manifestation as an excuse to support their draconic measures. The problems with Manifestation would be a lot better if the military actually (a) didn’t go in shooting people when someone Manifested and didn’t immediately turn themselves in, and (b) weren’t keeping the Dampener drug top-secret. The Dampener helps people keep their powers under control, especially if untrained… you can see where this is going.
Plus, there’s a group of Native Americans who’ve effectively seceded and are actively fighting the government to be able to act independently and use their powers.
This is just… there are no words.
I’m not sure there’s a way to actually get the politics right for all of this, either.
Most glaring is one of the quotes at the beginning of a chapter. It’s essentially stated that France is under Sharia law and magic is completely banned (aside from Suppression, which blocks someone else’s magic). Um… what? At the present time, France has a population of about 66 million people. Of those, estimates on Wikipedia give somewhere around 3% as Muslim at the present time. Even if they were all extremists (which they’re not), that’s not nearly enough to rewrite France’s laws to such a serious extent as to have extremist Muslim view dominating. Erp.
Having religious fundamentalists of various stripes objecting to “black magic” and “demonic powers” makes perfect sense, but having the minority take over the government like that is… very odd.
The other weird bit is that they have the US Army operating domestically, which is prohibited by the Posse Comitatus Act and all precedent. Modifying the law to let people get out the big guns to go after newly-Manifested high school Pyromancers seems… very off. The US is pushing towards a police state, which is part of the point — considering the scary implications of these things on our characters. There have been times in history (and at the present) where classes of people have been persecuted, and placed in forced/slave labor situations. But in this case, it seems contrived.
Shh, It’s a Secret
There’s also the question of the clandestine base in the Source. Sure, there was foreshadowing of a leak that said there was a secret army base and goblins, but how on Earth could they keep that quiet? Especially given that, however rare Portamancy is, there will be Portamancers other than Britton and the other poor sucker working for the US military… and not necessarily in friendly countries. Plus, there’s another parallel here — they’re essentially trying to conquer the Source, and trying to steamroll a bunch of goblin tribes in the process.
At least Britton blows the whistle on the whole mess at the end by dumping the surviving villains on the White House lawn.
There Is No Section 8
There is also one other big problem with the Supernatural Operations Corp, which has all the drafted sorcerers.
Um, morale? Hello? Several characters show signs of Stockholm Syndrome after being drafted. They put a bomb in Britton’s chest to prevent him from just porting away to escape, and they keep a crazy Black Magic user trapped in hopes of bringing her around. They have one nasty doctor use Physiomancy to torture a prisoner… to death. They use over-the-top propaganda and psychological pressure to make the draftees cooperate, along with threats to harm their families. (In at least one case, one unwilling Aeromancer’s wife and unborn child were murdered when he was taken.) Genuinely evil drill sergeant included at no extra charge. Oh, and the friendly goblins are basically used as cheap labor, from hauling bricks up to medical aid.
What kind of army is this?! Seriously, this organization is just waiting for an opportunity to implode… and that seems to be in progress in this novel, but still. I want to know how things got this bad.
You choose to look for help outside of Alederik — ideally starting from the source of the dangerous spellbook.
You drag Alek the wizard next to a tree, and put a pair of concentric wards around him in addition to a long-lasting invisibility spell. It’ll be a while before he wakes up, and probably longer before anyone finds him.
You consider your options as you mount your stolen horse. You’ll need to work to stay ahead of the people looking for you. They will have people who can use something similar to Grescher’s trick to warn others to look for you, including in Alederik. Letting things cool off while you look for answers is a reasonable decision. But first, you need to know what direction to go.
You ride some distance further from the road, then stop to draw another ward around yourself. You take a seat in a clear spot, and skim through the book you “requisitioned” from Grescher. As he said, the entire text focuses on the method of casting the spell. You recognize nearly all of the runes, including those that appeared on your own skin.
The details of the casting of the spell also corroborate Grescher’s other claim: that two people must have the bulk of the spell cast on them, and that the one who betrays the other is to be cast into what the text calls the “mist of annihilation,” presumably that around Oblivion Canyon. As to its effects, there is little detail, and your limited recall of magical theory isn’t enough to predict the effect of the numerous runes to be used, chants and wards and methods of destroying the wards… no wonder it took days to cast.
But there is no clue as to its origins. Aside from Grescher’s impression that you had stolen it…
Alederik. Home. Home. The memory oozes with a sense of the familiar. A small house, but it is yours. The small, tidy garden has no large bushes to enable thieves or spies to sneak too close. The windows have heavy shutters, capable of keeping out both rain and mid-sized arrows. The door has a second latch, hidden inside its frame, preventing entry from outside unless one knows where to push. The rooms are spare, but you thought the money spent on your thick new carpet was worth it… a symbol of a successful public servant. But not too ostentatious.
A knock at the door. A messenger, again, summoning you to the palace for a meeting with his Imperial Majesty. Just like always. Home.
Your mind skips ahead, to a room you remember from before, with the same thick red carpet and upholstered chairs. You made your most serious oath here. And here again is Dleshan Kaev, your lord and emperor. He stands, but he taps nervously on the walls. “I need you to retrieve an item for me, which I believe is critical to the safety of the Empire.”
“Of course, my Emperor.”
He describes the text to you, its appearance, its dangers, that it is referenced in several other works. That it may also hold the key to a spell to ensure the Empire endures forever. The book you are now holding. It is kept in a monastic library, near the north-western mountains. A good place for preserving books — high and dry, and a safe distance from the greater cities repeatedly burned in conquest, and supported by a small nearby town.
You bow. “Yes, my Emperor. What shall I do with the town and the monastery?”
“The knowledge in that book could also be abused to destroy the empire. I dare not permit it to be known that we have found it. If you succeed in taking the book, burn everything else.”
“Yes, my Emperor.”
You read the book, sitting beside a campfire, the burning buildings still lingering on the breeze. Turning page after page… page after page, marked with pain and sorrow, destruction and death. Oblivion, oblivion…
The image of the map you consulted before you departed echoes in your mind even after the flashback ends. The implications of what the Emperor had you do… and what you may have done… spur you onward.
For the week or so you spend traveling northwest, you only need to avoid a couple of small groups of soldiers and one failed missive from the amnesiac wizard. It seems they were not expecting you to travel this way. You may have bought yourself some time. Regardless, you have also stolen or bartered for less suspicious clothing and other basic supplies.
Eventually, you reach it, after you cross the stream they call the River Shayev. The town of Zajez is near the banks, but not so close as to flood. The monastery is further up the hill.
Everything in the area has been burned to the ground. Given the current state of the ashes, you would estimate that it’s been several weeks, and no one has attempted to rebuild anything in that time. In amongst the fallen beams and scorched bricks, you can see a few things that might once have been human.
[In the event of sufficient excess free time, I’ll actually draw a map of the empire for you, maybe.]
Option 46: Eh, this is going to be a wild goose hunt. Turn back towards Alederik, where you’ll definitely be able to stir something up.
Option 47: Keep poking around here. Perhaps you’ll eventually come across someone who isn’t dead and can help.
Option 48: This is more than you want to deal with. Screw it, head for the eastern frontier and out of the Empire.
Since the two votes for “third options” on the last post weren’t incompatible, let’s combine them — spy on the mage Alek Grescher before you meet, and then make sure he doesn’t remember talking to you.
After some discussion, you and the wizard Alek Grescher find a point where you can meet the next day — a rocky outcropping some distance from the road, the first sign of the rising hills further to the west. Alederik is further to the south and west from here, south of the mountains.
You use his own spell against him, with a few whispered words to reverse its direction. You don’t project your own image along it. Instead, you simply look around inside Alek’s wards. The image of himself he sent was clearly cleaned up. His clothes are noticeably stained from travel, and there are dark circles under his eyes. He has a small pack inside his wards, but no horse that you can see. He spends a while studying from a book filled with magical runes, although they are difficult for you to read through the firelight and the scrying link that he constructed. You don’t see him calling or meeting with anyone else.
You cut the link before he notices you.
You reach the rock first, of course. You have a horse, even those he was somewhat closer to the site. You tie up your stolen horse some distance away, then sneak around behind where you expect Alek will be coming from, covered by your best invisibility spell, and a second spell to dampen any sound you might make.
You find him easily enough. He has the back on his back, and is clutching the book to his side. He looks back and forth nervously as he goes. When he reaches the pile of rocks, he relaxes for a moment. You become visible and audible at exactly that moment, preventing him from preparing any additional spells to cast on you.
“Good morning,” you say drying, startling him.
He drops a monosyllabic expletive, then says, “They didn’t tell me you were that good.”
“If I wasn’t, I’d be dead by now,” you answer dryly. “What’s the book?”
“That’s the spell I was told to cast on you. I’m a specialist in lengthy protective spells, but-“
“The whole book is the spell?”
He shrugs. “Yes, although I was only ordered to cast it once.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a weird spell. The same section, most of the book, has to be cast on two different people, with some bizarre specifications about how the two people must be associated. It requires that the person who goes into the canyon have betrayed the other somehow.”
“I’m not a traitor,” you hiss.
He raises his hands up and stands back. “Hey, I didn’t choose you. I was just following orders.”
You nod slowly. Following orders. You were following orders once… “Fine. What happens to the other one?”
“I’m not sure. It’s the most complex spell I’ve ever cast, and I’m still not sure what all the effects will be. It doesn’t look good.”
“Then let’s see you take it apart. And no funny business. I know the difference between antimagic and fireballs.”
“Yes, ma’am. Stand still.” He flips through the book, stops at a page near the beginning, and says a few words. Simple runes you recognize, for revealing hidden things. A more advanced version can be used to strip away invisibility spells. This one merely… causes a densely packed set of runes to appear all over your skin. They glow a dim, misty gray. You understand why Grescher found the spell disturbing — the runes you see most frequently repeated are those for power, force, death, loss, forgetfulness, and pain, among others. Of course, your temper is not helped by seeing them written on your skin, or knowing what must have been done to place them there.
Grescher starts walking in a circle around you, chanting slowly and precisely, while carefully drawing runes of nullification in the dirt around your feet. At first, nothing happens. Then the runes on your skin itch. Then they slowly turn an angry red. Then they start warming up.
He chants a bit more furiously. The runes on your skin respond by glowing more brightly and starting to burn. You have to move out of the circle and lob a small fireball at the wizard to force him to stop.
“Sorry,” he says, jumping back. “I thought it was working…”
“It wasn’t,” you reply. The runes on your skin have disappeared… except for the red marks left behind where they burned. A few words of your own is enough to banish them. Then you turn back to Grescher. “Show me that book.”
He finds a conveniently short rock, sits down, and opens it. He points, and says, “This is all the details of the setup for the spell here. Here’s the part where what I cast on you starts, and it goes nearly all the way through, to here. This symbol — the one pronounced like kadasnai — it appears everywhere, but it’s not one I ever learned…”
Something about the book itself, it worn edges and exaggerated calligraphy, triggers your memory. “Oblivion.”
“That symbol. It means oblivion. If you’re used to working defensive spells, that’s why you haven’t seen it. It’s a part of several particularly nasty and rarely-used destructive spells.”
Alek looks at you and gulps.
You continue on. “This book. Do they have copies?”
“I don’t know. This is the only one they gave me.”
“Good. Do you know where they got it?”
He frowns, and give you an awkward look. “I… they told me you had stolen it…”
After a pause, you add a few more words of your own. Alek only gets so far as, “What are you-” before you tap him on the back of the head and the spell knocks him conveniently unconscious. He’ll be out and asleep for several hours at least. You take part of that time inexpertly wiping his memory. Detailed messing with someone’s mind is not your strongest point, although you are able to smash through the mental defenses he has in place. When you’re done, you’re not sure how much you’ve removed. You might have erased as much as several days’ worth of memories. You may need to take precautions to prevent him from calling you again.
Before you leave, you look at the book more closely. The oblivion rune is imprinted into the front cover. Flipping through it, you remember… finding the book, dusty in a stack of other tomes. Fire. Fire licking up walls, consuming shelves of books visible through the window… just following orders.
Option 43: Well… you still feel sorry for the guy. A little. And if he gets found right away, he might still give away things that he knows. Dump him somewhere fairly safe, and cover him with a long-lasting invisibility spell and a ward. Then, on to Alederik.
Option 44: Upon reconsidering, leaving Alek alive to be found by the searchers — and perhaps forced to help kill you and recast the spell on someone else — is not appealing. Kill him, dispose of the body, and move on to Alederik.
Option 45: This is a mess. Hide Alek, and rather than going to Alederik to confront whoever was probably behind this mess, seek out more knowledgeable magical help elsewhere. Finding the library this book came from would be a good start.
I apparently have too much free time, and therefore played with GarageBand and iMovie over the weekend. Oops.
Your last move: Go ahead and talk to the guy, but keep your memory problems on the down-low.
You look at the transparent construct, then say, “You want to talk? Fine. Let’s talk.” You know that there’s essentially a magical thread tying the construct to its creator, but you close the ward around your camp anyway. At least this way, only someone who knows about the incoming message will have a decent chance of finding you. You are prodding at the fire when he finally says something more interesting.
“How much do you remember from between when you were captured and when you escaped?”
You snap your head up, and give him a sharp glare. “Enough.”
“Okay,” he answers warily. “Look, I’m sorry about all that… I didn’t realize what I was going to be doing, and, well, I didn’t want to go through with it, and letting you go was the only way I could think of to prevent them from coming after me, sorry about that… how did you break the rest of my control, by the way?”
Given that you’re not sure what he’s talking about, you just answer, “Carefully.” You sit down, take a bit of dry bread from your stolen pack, then say, “Slow down, and start from the beginning. You’re not making any sense right now.”
“Okay, okay.” He paces while he talks, gesturing broadly and fiddling with his spectacles at regular intervals. “I don’t know exactly what happened before you were captured. When they brought you to me, you were heavily drugged. Good opiates, I think. That made the mind-control process easier, but not by much. You had just about the heaviest mental guards I’ve ever seen. Where did you get those?”
“I don’t think you need to know that,” you answer. But, you realize that you remember a fragment — training in Alederik.
“Anyway, it took a couple of days, given that they didn’t want you comatose. It was the second part of what they wanted me to do that I really didn’t understand. And it had to be near Oblivion Canyon, in the early morning. We were supposed to tell you to walk in after I had finished.”
You remember the tempting chill of the canyon’s mist, and suppress a shudder.
“They’d given me the full description of the spell — the technical description, you understand, all the runes I needed, all the incantations — but they didn’t tell me exactly what it would do. Just that it was for the good of the Empire, something to protect the Emperor from all harm. I’ll be honest, I’m really good at doing spells exactly as designed, but magic theory was never my strong point. I’d just memorize them and go on my way. But I… this spell required it to be laid on a victim, who would then walk into Oblivion Canyon, where it would be activated. And I… thought it was strange, but I’d come across that kind of sacrificial spell before. I figured you were some traitor being executed for a good cause.”
“I’m no traitor,” you hiss between clenched teeth. That claim bothers you more than almost anything else in the last few days.
He raises his hands. “I get it, I get it. Anyway, I puzzled out some part of what the spell would do, once it was active. And it’s… not likely to be beneficial. In fact, I’d bet on some very serious upheaval if it’s ever used. Some sort of great calamity. I didn’t have enough time to study it. I was too busy making it.” He shrugs. “I have no interest in dying in some disastrous spell gone wrong, and it looked like having the caster die when the spell activated was part of it.”
The sharp spike of anger you felt earlier has dulled and broadened into a new fear. What would have happened to the Empire, had you chosen to jump? “How much of the spell did you cast?”
“All of it,” he says. He takes his spectacles off, and nervously cleans them on his shirt. “All of it. It’s why I had to send you off when I ran. I’d hoped they’d lose you, or at least kill you by accident instead of actually activating the spell. And, well, I thought that if you were dead, they’d stop chasing me.”
“They seem very determined.”
“That they are.” The he glances behind himself. You’re not sure what he sees, in the real world, but he’s not happy about it. “That they are.”
You try to make him focus. “Can they have someone else cast the spell on another victim?”
He shakes his head firmly. “No. It can’t be recast while another version is dormant somewhere.”
“Can a dormant version be dismantled?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “The only sure way I know to end the spell other than by actually activating it is if you’re, well, dead. If I can meet you in person, I might be able to undo what I did without killing you.”
“Might. You’re inspiring great confidence.” Digging a little further in a different direction, you add, “I’m not sure I ever caught your real name.”
“Alek Grescher.” You don’t recognize it. “They… never actually told me your name.” You’re quite not sure how to interpret his expression, but he’s not much of a spy. He may be testing your memory.
Option 37: Take Alek’s suggestion, but skip the early steps and this face-to-face meeting — now is the time to get our of the Empire.
Option 38: Meet the guy, listen to what he says, and see if you can get him to help you further. Even if he does seem a bit of a coward, he has useful skills.
Option 39: Meet the guy, listen to what he says, and then kill him after you’ve gotten whatever information he has to offer. He’s obviously not trustworthy.
Option 40: Ignore him completely, and continue on your current path to the capital, Alederik.