Wednesday 12 March 2008

The Secret Mathematic - Chapter Fifteen

The Secret Mathematic is a science-fiction novel told in an indefinite number of chapters, posted serially by me, your full-colour glossy host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the fifteenth installment.

Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8|9|10|11|12|13|14|15|...

Multimedia: Listen to the The Secret Mathematic Overture in MP3 format, by Syntax Error.

Related reading: Stubborn Town, Three Face Flip, The Long Man, Plight of the Transformer, The Extra Cars

And now, our tale continues:


The plane banks. Porter's view dips lower, tracking along the terrain: runs of crinkled, leathery rocks separated by flat lakes of sand. Down below, between two faded stripes of highway, the plane's shadow is fuzzy and translucent. It appears to ripple as it slides up and down over the dunes.

An announcement in Arabic: "Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please: we are commencing our final descent into Nuribad at this time. Fasten your seatbelts and return your trays and seatbacks to the upright position."

Porter snaps his seatbelt ends together, then tugs on the restraint. He folds his research notes away and tucks them back into his briefcase. Outside the window the naked desert is giving way to infrastructure -- pipes and electrical cabling, irrigation trenches and radio relay towers. His belly lurches as the plane bleeds away altitude, engines screeching, wing-flaps buzzing as they reorient.

The city of Nuribad scrolls into view: patchwork farms and square-walled villages first, then monstrous refineries and factories, sprawling commercial parks and rows of apartment blocks. Cranes are everywhere, a fleet of metal storks arrayed along the coast sticking up between the half-completed shells of hotels, department stores, amphitheatres, the steel skeletons of skyscrapers. The beaches are being torn apart, reworked into resort paradises, blossoms of disturbed silt clouding the sea almost to the horizon.

Nuribad is a busy place. The oil boom has left no quarter untouched.

The city tilts up to meet the plane, shadow flashing over rooftops. A moment later rubber barks and the cabin bumps as the wheels touch down. The engines scream, then fade. Porter knows his cues. He unhitches his seatbelt and stretches, passing his empty cup to the stewardess automatically. Every flight is the same.

Most airports are the same, too -- but not this one.

It is brand new, gleaming, massive and nearly empty. The architecture is daring, gravity-defying, swooping and modern, decorated by swirling, colourful miasmas of Arabesques detailed in geometric rings, curls and lines. Great sections of the building still undergoing work are shielded behind walls of translucent plastic, muting the pounding and humming of tools. Porter and the half dozen other passengers cross the vast terminal alone aside from a lone artisan assembling an intricately tiled floor by hand. He doesn't look up as the passengers pass.

Only one customs wicket is open, but eleven more are under construction. "Business or pleasure?" asks the swarthy man behind the counter, his English heavily accented. His uniform seems needlessly ceremonial and militaristic to Porter, who likens it to the look of officials in a banana republic. Who would put such ostentatious epaulettes on front-line customs staff?


"Your profession?"

"I'm a journalist."

"You have documentation of your sponsor?"

Porter pushes an envelope across the desk. The customs officer slips out the enclosed letter and scans it. His brows rise, then he peeks over the top. "You are a guest of the Shah himself?"

"That's correct."

"Very good, sir." The envelope is pushed back to Porter's waiting hand. "Welcome to Anwar."

The young photographer arrives on a separate flight from Istanbul. He meets Porter by the luggage carousels, asks him to watch for his equipment cases while he steals outside for a badly craved cigarette fix. Porter nods. He watches the conveyor slide by, looking sharp for the reinforced shipping modules labelled in yellow and black: PROPERTY OF N.G.S. - WASHINGTON, D.C.

He's hauling the last box off the carousel as the photographer returns with a trolley. The photographer has a wild beard and a head of neglect-matted hair. He wears grubby jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt under a rumpled corduroy jacket. "Okay that's the lights, that's the batteries and stands...hey man, where's my 'Blad at?"

It turns out the Hasselblad camera has been routed to a security desk for a thorough test of its mechanisms. "It's just a camera, man," explains the photographer. The security agent gives him a polite but cool smile as he hands over the camera.

"It is my job to verify this," he offers. "It is indeed just a camera."

"What else could it be, man?"

"You will be seeing the Shah, sir. Nothing is left to chance."

"So you've got to be sure it's not like a camera-gun or something?"

"Quite, sir."

"Far out, man," he says, shouldering his bag.

Porter pushes the trolley as they cross the hall to the taxis. "This is our first assignment together," he says, eyes on the windows ahead. "I'd like you to understand, though, that from now on you're to let me do the talking. Understood?"

The photographer glances over at him, pulling a lock of hair away from his eyes. "Yeah, man," he says. "Sure, man. I'm sorry Mr. Porter. I just didn't know they'd give my 'Blad an anal exam, you know? I'm very protective. This stuff's my bread and butter."

Porter nods. "As long as we're understood, then. I'm the voice; you're the eyes."

"Totally understood, Mr. Porter. Hey, that sounds so stiff: now that we're working together I should probably call you Barry?"

Porter shakes his head. "I'm not of your generation, Mr. Quaker. Mr. Porter will be sufficient."

"Right on. I hear ya, man."

Porter winces slightly but offers no reply. Together they push through the doors out into the sunshine. A white limousine is parked by the curb heralded over by a lean, almost dainty chauffeur with an immaculately trimmed beard. He bears a sign that says NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC in a tight, careful hand. The chauffeur notes the equipment cases on the trolley and looks up to meet Porter's eye. "Sir?"

"Barry Porter," he nods. "This is Sean Quaker, my photographer. Hold on, I have my identification..."

"That won't be necessary, sir. The appropriate assurances have been provided me."

"I see," says Porter slowly, tucking his wallet away again.

The chauffeur pops the trunk and stands aside as Quaker manhandles his metal cubes into the rear. Porter looks along the curb outside the airport, noting immediately three men waiting patiently, apparently with no business, their eyes flashing over to scan Porter and Quaker every few minutes. They politely step out of the way of the actual passengers. Their right hands never stray far from the edge of their jackets...

The limousine crawls along the crowded streets, choked by mini-bazaars and throngs of mostly men in white robes, only occasionally accompanied by women in head-to-toe black burqas following at their heels. The vendors shout, kids at play dashing between the counters and blankets. Some of the men press sleeves together with the vendors, concealing their hands as they dicker with hidden digits.

They pass a glorious blue mosque with soaring minarets decorated by glittering filigree lines of lapus lazuli. The stones wink in the sun, casting azure caustics on the pavement below. Quaker takes a couple of shots through the window with a Nikon 35mm SLR from his shoulder bag. "Mr. Porter," he asks, voice muffled as his face is pressed to the viewfinder, "do you read Arabic?"

"Certainly," says Porter.

"What do those signs say?"

"They say, 'No photography under penalty of death.'"

Quaker lets his Nikon droop. "Seriously?"

Porter sniffs. "No. They say, 'No parking.'"

Quaker chuckles. "And Nancy said you had no sense of humour."

Porter smiles in an unfriendly way. "I don't, Mr. Quaker," he says. "This should be a lesson for you: venturing illiterate into the Arab world is a risky proposition. If you want to go on assignment with me in the future, you'll correct that."

"I have a phrase-book," offers Quaker, fumbling with a pocket.

"Insufficient," says Porter shortly. He turns away.

The limousine draws along a long, high wall of white stone and then slows as it reaches a gate flanked by guardhouses. The chauffeur nods to the guard who reaches into his booth to hit a control that raises the spike-tipped portcullis, after which the heavy metal doors grind open revealing the green gardens and multicoloured flower beds of the sculpture-studded palace grounds.

As the car crosses the vast private park Porter opens his briefcase and slips out a mimeographed page. He frowns, then looks out the windows. Over a low rise the roofs of the main house can now be seen but the chauffeur is conducting the limousine toward a smaller service road, bypassing the principal boulevard altogether. "Are we not to meet the Shah at the main house?" he asks pointedly.

"Yes sir," says the chauffeur. "However a special tour has been arranged to precede your meeting."

"That's not on the itinerary," says Porter. "What sort of special tour? I'm concerned about maintaining our schedule, you understand. Our time with the Shah is short."

"Naturally, sir," says the chauffeur. He does not elaborate, but his slight wrists flex as his small, black-gloved hands tighten on the wheel.

Porter shifts in his seat. "Something's wrong," he says in quiet English to Quaker. "We're being diverted for some kind of tour."

"What's wrong with that?"

Porter's gaze flicks forward again. "Telling us so makes the driver nervous."

"How can you tell?"

"I'm a journalist, Mr. Quaker. I trust my instincts. Something untoward is afoot."

Quaker's face twitches. "What can we do?"

"Nothing," says Porter, sitting back in his seat again. "Absolutely nothing, Mr. Quaker. We're as good as captive."

Quaker swallows loudly and crosses his legs. Porter wrinkles his nose. The photographer's jeans stink.

The limousine descends down a steep ramp into an underground parkade, its carriage squeaking as it bounces at the bottom. Most of the other cars in the parkade are service vehicles: groundskeeping and housekeeping, maintenance and game control. There are no other limousines. The long white car stops in the middle of an aisle and a split-second later it is surrounded by black-robed figures with machine guns drawn. They reach forward and yank open the back doors, then yank out Porter and Quaker.

"We are cooperating," says Porter in Arabic, lacing his hands on the top of his head. "We will not resist."

The hooded figures do not reply other than to keep the muzzles of their weapons trained on the two Westerners. Quaker raises his shaking hands and holds them aloft. "Don't shoot, man," he says. "We're totally unarmed. Okay? It's cool. Don't shoot."

He looks over anxiously as the chauffeur emerges from the car, tugging off one driving glove and then the other. The chauffeur cap is then doffed, allowing to spill free a head of long, inky hair. The neat strips of beard are torn away next and then the chauffeur turns to face the pair. "Gentlemen," she says.

Quaker's eyes widen. "Whoa -- she's a chick, man!"

Porter casts him an acidic look. "What did I say about talking?"

Quaker presses his lips together obediently. The chauffeur puts her hands on her suddenly apparent hips. "Mr. Porter, you have been brought here because there are things the world needs to see. You must see them now, before the Shah becomes suspicious of your absence. Confirm it: you have a means of communication?"

He nods slowly. "I have a satellite telephone in my briefcase."

"Good. You'll use it to transmit your findings. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the information you gain will be able to be shared by any other means. Are your personal affairs in order?"

He nods again. "Such is my practice before travelling outside of the first world."

"Good," she repeats. "Now, quickly: put these on."

Porter and Quaker are presented with a full-length black burqa each. They pull them on over their clothes. "What did she say?" whispers Quaker. "What's going on?" Porter simply shakes his head to silence him. He buttons closed his burqa and pulls the hood on, then draws the translucent chadri veil down over his face followed by two swaths of opaque fabric that leave only a narrow strip clear for the eyes. He helps Quaker finish up. The photographer's forehead is shiny with sweat. "This is weird, man," he hisses shakily under his breath. "This is way weird, Barry."

"Mr. Porter," corrects Porter.

"Oh God," squeaks Quaker. "Oh man."

The former chauffeur is also donning a burqa. "My name is Raja al-Mera," she says as she buttons her coverings. "I am a senior handmaiden in the Shah's harem." She looks up at Porter, her brown eyes hard and steady. "We are slaves, Mr. Porter, and you are to be our liberation. You will tell the world how we suffer to live at the Shah's whim." She pauses, then adds, "And how we suffer to die."

"And if we fail to comply?"

She gestures with her chin at the rows of machine-gun muzzles aimed at the two men. "We cut you down where you stand, as a threat to security. You have strayed from the Shah's itinerary -- your lives are already forfeit."

Porter nods, unfazed. "I understand the situation," he says crisply. "Where do we begin?"

"Your reputation for temperance is well deserved," remarks Raja. "Come, you will follow me. Walk this way. Take pains to comport yourself as a lady. Eyes are everywhere."

As they follow her across the parkade the others rapidly stow the weapons beneath their burqas and then disperse in random directions in groups of two or three. One hangs back to move the limousine; another climbs a step-ladder that rests next to a security camera and begins detaching a small device clipped to its side. No words are spoken.

"I am armed," says Raja in a close voice. "My response to any false move will be instantaneous."

Quaker grabs Porter's elbow. "What is she saying?"

"She says we'll be shot if we alarm her in any way."

"Jesus Christ!"

"Keep quiet, you fool."

Raja leads them up a flight of steps and into an opulent hall of mosaic walls, a golden chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling. The hall echoes with a continuous muted babble of hisses, clinks and pops emanating from a wide trench that meanders across the floor, coming through one wall and exiting on the other side. Porter's brow furrows as he follows Raja over the narrow footbridge. The moat is filled with coins, endlessly flipped by puffs of air from registers beneath them. It is a river of loose change.

They pass by other robed figures, everything about them invisible except for their downcast eyes. The trio proceeds to the far end of the coin ford, then navigates a series of richly-appointed corridors lined with an apparently endless succession of onion-shaped mahogany doors. The pass an open-air courtyard where male children play, then another filled with little girls. Given the present circumstances Porter finds the sounds of their careless laughter chilling.

They cross a cobbled path lined with date trees, tickled by a fragrant breeze, then up and around a spiral staircase of white marble steps. Finally they come to a long dormitory of row upon row of identical bunk-beds, the air filled by the chatter of dozens of women of every age from adolescent to the middle years. None pause to look at the trio as they walk the aisle between the beds. Some are writing letters or mending clothes, others lie back while listening to Sony Walkman units or reading books.

"I grew up here," says Raja. "I lived in this room. That was my bed." She holds Porter's eye significantly. "I haven't been outside the palace grounds since I was a child."

"The appointments seem luxurious," he replies evenly.

"They are," she agrees. "There is no false facade. Any girl who finds a home here can expect the best food, the best drink, fine shoes, European perfumes, Japanese electronics, Chinese silk, South African jewellery. She will have medicine, education, employment, companionship, security, entertainment." She pauses, her pace slowing, face darkening. "And she will also have her duty."

Porter takes a cautious breath. "To gratify the Shah's desires?"

"No," she says coldly. "The Shah cares nothing for physical gratification." She hesitates at the far door, hand on the knob. "We are sorted, filtered and tested. We are examined and tried. Only one in a hundred of us is suitable. The rest keep their lives contingent on the Shah's mercy."

"Suitable?" echoes Porter. "Suitable for what?"

"Come," says Raja, opening the door.

They follow her down another spiral staircase, this one leading to the ground floor and then beyond, winding underground. At the bottom is a velvet drape. Raja stops and turns to face the two men. "This is the Rejects' Serraglio. We are obliged to cross it. The facility may be in use by any number of the Shah's men. Protocol dictates you keep your eyes down. Watch only the hem of my skirts, and follow me closely. Do you understand?"

Porter translates for Quaker. Both men nod. Raja turns on heel and pushes through the drape.

The air is heavy, the scent simultaneously acrid and sweet. Porter sniffs, frowning. "Hashish," whispers Quaker. Porter nods. They follow the trailing edge of Raja's burqa as she moves into the first of a connected series of small, intimate cells lined by tapestries, the mouths of each obscured by a diaphanous curtain. There are bare, wet footprints on the floor. Some are large, and some are small.

Out of the corner of his eye Porter sees shadows moving behind the curtains. The shadows glisten in the feeble light. He hears the occasional soft, sensual groan or stifled whimper following the smack of skin on skin. Someone, somewhere, is breathing hard.

From a change in the quality of the air's sigh he knows they've passed into a larger chamber. He looks up instinctively upon hearing a splash, catching glimpse of a sprawling set of tubs and pools connected by little gurgling brooks running in tiled troughs. Arrayed around the waters and swimming within them is a host of women, each of them as naked as the day they were born. They slide out of the pools shamelessly, squeezing excess water from their long black hair, sauntering langorously to stretch or sit at the mouth of one of the many ornate fireplaces running around the chamber's edge. Others lounge on sofas, sometimes in pairs, sometimes embracing.

"Holy God," breathes Quaker, so Porter kicks him in the shin.

"Keep your eyes down," hisses Raja without looking back.

Raja veers to lead them to one side of the connected pools, skirting a massive multi-user hookah dribbling pungent, yellow-grey fumes to swirl up at the ceiling, tossed by lazily turning fans. A lone, obese concubine sits crosslegged beside it, a pipe in her fleshy hand, its smoke-filled cable spilled carelessly across her thick thighs. She bobs her head down to catch Porter's eye, but he looks away. In his peripheral vision he sees her smirk and then drag on the pipe, eyes closed. "I like the way you walk, maiden," she whispers as he passes. "Meet me later?"

Porter shakes his head and quickens his pace. The fat concubine snickers.

On the far side they come to another set of curtained cells. Someone is making a lot more noise here, grunting and smacking and breathing fast. He tries not to see but as they turn a corner he catches an unwanted image of six swarthy men on their knees surrounding a single woman as she heaves and bucks in a nest of pillows. What they are doing to her and why she cries is something Porter hopes he will never learn.

"What the hell...?" croaks Quaker. "Oh my f --"

Porter clamps his hand over Quaker's mouth and then uses the other hand to force his head down. "Just walk, Mr. Quaker. One foot in front of the other. Understood? We're only walking here."

Quaker's eyes are wild. "But did you see --"

"No," growls Porter right into the other man's ear. "And neither did you."

Beyond the serraglio the corridors take on an abruptly different air. The floor is painted to resemble a cobblestone path and the walls and ceiling of the corridor are decorated as a summertime sky -- birds, butterflies, cumuli. They arrive at a windowed gallery that looks down into a large room partially filled by a miniature castle. A rainbow of coloured glass hangs from the ceiling. Male children swarm everywhere, chasing one another and yelling, jumping from the towers and laughing as they land in piles of bean-bags. Some of the children seem strangely tall or inexplicably muscular. Others seem weak and half-starved, watching their more energetic peers enviously. One or two of the boys have their hands encased in thick mittens secured at the wrist. Many wear bruises.

A clown stands in the middle of the chamber. He's blowing balloon animals, handing them out to a cheering ring of bandaged boys.

"Offspring of the concubines," decides Porter, looking over at Raja expectantly. "What's wrong with them?" he prompts.

"They're dying," she says, breath fogging the glass in a small circle. She wipes the fog away with her sleeve and turns away from the window. "This kindergarten of delights is the Shah's final gift."

"Why the restraints on some of the boys?"

"Hyper-aggression is a common side-effect among the failed stock. Those who cannot be controlled are euthanized. The milder cases are permitted to run out their days here."

"The Shah carries a genetic defect?"

Raja tilts her head. "Something like that."

Porter takes a deep breath. "This's completely inhumane."

Raja straightens, her mouth grim. "Choose your words carefully, Mr. Porter," she says. "These boys are not human."

She leaves the gallery abruptly. Porter and Quaker hurry to stay with her. They chase her through a kitchen busy in preparation of the midday meal and then to a service elevator that smells like old food. She closes the cage behind them and pulls a lever. The elevator descends, its works clanking. It shudders to a stop and the men follow Raja out into a darker corridor. It smells of disinfectant.

Quaker whispers, "I've got a bad feeling about this, man."

Porter ignores him, following Raja without hesitation inside a small janitorial closet. He steps around a mop bucket. Quaker bumps into it. Raja kneels, disengages a lock, and then pushes open a hatch at the mouth of a tight tunnel. "Hands and knees, Mr. Porter," she says, then ducks inside.

The three robes figures emerge after a long, winding crawl. They blink and squint even though the light is low. Raja stands up and presents the massive chamber with an outstretched arm. "Our mausoleum."

It's more like a cave. Thousands upon thousands of drawers line its sides, extending away into a curving darkness. Each drawer is inscribed with a range of dates. While Quaker stands struck beside Raja, Porter walks slowly toward the closest of them. He fumbles under his burqua, then strikes a match to read: the calendar system is unfamiliar to him, but the span of years is short.

He frowns, turning to look over his shoulder. He avoids Quaker's beseeching eyes. "How long has this been going on?"

"My grandmother's grandmother lived in service."

Porter hesitates. "This...practice -- it goes far back in the Shah's line."

Raja takes a shuddering breath and shakes her head. "No, Mr. Porter. This -- all of this -- this is the line." She stifles a sob. "He is panning for gold, Mr. Porter. He's culling for the perfect heir." She gestures blindly at the drawers behind her. "Chaff," she explains.

"Why are all these people dead, Barry?" cries Quaker. "What the hell kind of morgue is this?"

Porter spares the young photographer a look. "I'll continue attempting to establish that if you'll only be good enough to keep your bloody mouth shut," he says, then turns to Raja again. "Did the Shah's father do this to find his heir?"

Raja drops her hands, her expression blank. "I know nothing of the Shah's father," she says flatly. "I doubt he had one."

"How can you say that if your grandmother lived under his rule?"

"She knew him as I know him," she says simply, then checks her watch. "We have to get above ground now. It's time for you to place your call, Mr. Porter. You will be believed. You can bring help."

They crawl out they same way they came in, and this time ride the service elevator up to the very top, exiting onto a gravel terrace on the roof. Birds chirp, flitting between potted baobabs. Raja wordlessly picks up a rebar and jams it into the gap between the elevator and the terrace, lodging the car in place.

She wheels on Porter. "Check your telephone: do you have a signal?"

Porter wrestles his briefcase out from his black robes and withdraws the satellite telephone gear. He unfolds the antenna panel and lays it on the gravel, then activates the bulky handset and watches the little crystal screen, tilting it into shadow in order to read what's there. "Yes," he confirms. "I have a signal."

"Security will already be on the way," she says.

"How can you be sure?"

"I know this palace like the inside of my pocket," she replies. "Every protocol, every sensor, every directive. I assure you, Mr. Porter, we have just over two minutes left to live."

Quaker, who has been surreptitiously flipping through his phrase-book, looks up sharply. "What did she just say, Barry?" he demands, desperately pulling the chadri veil away from his perspiration-soaked face. "I'm freaking out here, Barry, because I think she just said we're gonna die, man!"

"Steady yourself, Mr. Quaker."

"I can't, man -- I'm totally freaking out. What the hell is going on? What the hell is she saying? You gotta tell me, man. Just be straight with me, okay? Barry?"

"Mr. Porter," he corrects wearily.

Quaker looks at him as if he might be insane. "We're not getting out of here, are we?"

Porter shakes his head gently. "I'm afraid not, Mr. Quaker."

"Jesus!" he cries, and then after a look over the walled side of the terrace he cries even louder, "Jesus!"

A fleet of Jeeps are rolling over the green fields of the palace grounds. Uniformed men stand at machine guns mounted on tripods in the rear. Guards on foot charge after them, leaping over artfully cut topiary hedges, splashing through mosaic-tiled wading pools with their jackboots. In the distance an alarm siren can be heard warbling up and down, up and down, up and down.

Raja seizes Porter's sleeve. "This what you need to know: to carry the Shah's progeny is to carry a monster. If it comes to term it will almost surely die after a short life of miraculous strength. If it does not die it will fall into succession, to stand in line to be schooled -- it is only the best graduates who have any hope of becoming Anwar's next prince."

Porter face goes slack. "What kind of man would carry out such a monstrous plan?"

Raja almost laughs, but her eyes are starkly serious. "You don't understand," she says forcefully. "The Shah is not a man."

Porter hears a series of pops. He is automatically plunged into dread by long practice. An instant later the edge of the wall nearest them begins to flake and crumble under assault from a hail of bullets. "Get down!" he bellows, grabbing Quaker by the burqa and dragging him to the ground.

"Oh God!" cries Quaker.

Porter starts dialling numbers into the telephone, then pushes it to his ear to hear if the connection is sound. He gets only a series of crackles and bursts of static, so he bangs the receiver against his hand and then dials again.

"I'm gonna freak out," whimpers Quaker, eyes jittering back and forth. "I can't handle this, man. Help me, Barry. Oh God!" He throws his arms over his head against a hail of broken stone fragments.

"Tell them," whispers Raja urgently. "Tell them we come by invitation but are held against our will. Tell them what's happening to those boys. Tell the world we are the slaves of an insane creature --"

A tear-gas canister bounces to a halt beside them, spinning as it spews thick clouds. Raja and Porter roll away, shielding their faces, but Quaker stares wide-eyed into the miasma and then begins to cough, then gasp and sputter. He staggers blindly to his feet. "No!" bellows Porter.

But it's too late, and Quaker has been struck by bullets. He's torn up, thrown backward, a defensive hand raised and then turned to spray. He doesn't cry out. He's dead before he hits the ground.

Porter pulls his shirt over his mouth and nose as he mashes the receiver into his ear. "This is Porter! It's Barry Porter! I'm in the field! This is an emergency! Can you hear me? Are you recording this call? Record this call! I must speak with Gilbert this instant -- this instant -- I'm under fire!"

Raja grabs his sleeve and pulls him, scampering across the gravel, away from the roiling cloud of tear-gas. She sticks her head up to quickly check their position, then lies across his body as a human shield. "Tell them!" she shrieks. Porter concentrates on speaking clearly and succinctly, numbering his points, repeating key words.

Bullets sing as they ricochet. Sharp flakes of chipped stone fly in all directions, hissing through the air. Another fresh volley: pop, pop-pop-pop, pop.

"Gilbert?" Porter yells over the din. "Gilbert, are you there?"

Now Raja is heavy and unresponsive on his back. Two more tear-gas canisters hit the gravel and start hissing as they dispense. His ears are buzzing: he doesn't know whether anyone can hear him or not, the voice on the other end of the telephone a tinny squeak barely audible between bursts of gunfire. "Gilbert I'm dying!" he screeches into the receiver. "Anwar has killed me!"

His eyes and lungs burn. He coughs, then retches. His vision turns grey.

He regrets having unceremoniously broken off relations with a sweet girl named Rachael in the spring of '62. He knew even then he was needlessly callous about it. He'd broken her heart, poor girl. Her hair was like flax, her lips like berries. She had wanted so badly to believe in Washington.

What a heel he was! Poor girl, poor girl...


Simon said...

I get the feeling we'll see more of Porter, if not Quaker or Raja.

This had the feel of the sort of chapter that will lead us into the latter third of the book. The details of the Shah are barely trickling out, making each one extremely tantalizing. I think the presence of Quaker was at least in part to give us an idea of the time frame of this chapter. Like, the '60s, man. So this must be at about the same time (I think) as the Ninjews have their thing going on under the future World Trade Center.

(Duh... I just read again the last paragraph where Porter reference the spring of '62. Late '60s now?)

But why would the Shah have invited a couple of guys from the NGS to his estate?

At first, I began to suspect that Porter was really Tennyson in disguise, given his aptitude for the language and his cool demeanour under pressure and fire. I wouldn't entirely rule it out yet, though I was guessing it wasn't by the end.

Mark said...

I love the imagery here, especially of the plane in flight.

Interesting development of the Shah's character without ever seeing him.

There's something I like about chapters written from the POV of a doomed character. Maybe because it goes against Hollywood's tendency to never let the main character die. Although Porter is not a main character of the overall story, this part was his, and now he's gone. Very un-Hollywood.

Anonymous said...

Simon: I think their deaths make it fairly unlikely that we will see any of them again.

Anonymous said...

I was too distracted by Quaker's complete idiocy. (Also, I think it's "unfazed".)

Anonymous said...

Very good chapter -- liked it a lot. Perhaps a trifle of clarification at the denouement of the harem kidnappers -- it was not quite clear that the women surrounding the limo were, well, women. It took a bit for that to sink in which detracted from the shock. Maybe. Not sure.

I like the revelation of monstrosity in the Shah, who has heretofore been portrayed somewhat sympathetically as a "good guy" in comparison with some other Longs.

Tolomea said...

How the hell do you crawl in a Burqa?

SaintPeter said...


This was certainly an interesting chapter, but I have to say that I'm having a much harder time viewing this as a novel than SoS.

Without a single character or group of characters giving us a viewpoint, I'm really not sure what is going on. This feels more like a series of vagely connected stories than a single story. I long for a unified narative that I can sink my teeth into, rather than meet yet another new character and bang my head against yet another mystery. I can confidently say that we have enough mysteries now and it would be nice to have some answers.

I had anticipated that at some point you would stop skipping from time to time and character to character and settle on just a few points of view and a single timeline that would then converge to, presumably, the discovery of TSM and event zero. Here we are at chapter 15 and we're still hopping around like Kurt Vonnegut on an acid trip.

While I am happy to read anything you write, and I will no doubt enjoy it, I am starting to feel a bit strung along.

Dan said...

I told you the Shah's son needed to see the Nazi experiments to build the perfect human...hah!
Tolomea - I believe at the crawling point, you would be raising the burqa over your knees to gain better mobility.

CBB - I believe "wet bare footprints" would read better and be clearer. Great Chapter! I hate the wait for more, but reading everyone else's chime-ins gets me by sorta.

THE Danimal

Teddy said...

Given the amount of his mention, and the general feeling towards The Long that's been created, I've had him pegged as the Big Bad Dude for a bit of a while now.

At the end of this novel, his movement, his attempt to develop the secret math for himself, will be defeated. I know that's not incredibly profound, because we know that it is not completely secret initially, but I think he's the antagonist in this story. We're studying Zoran's life, his character, but we're also discovering why The Shah is the bad guy.

Which, by the way CBB, is very thorough and excellent authoring. There is only ONE story in which I was actually impressed with the bad guy despite having NO reason for him being the bad guy other than how he treated those he immediately interacted with in the story. The bad guy was a jerk, ran a nicely generic Evil Empire that ruled by brute force, but we didn't hear about child-slavery or any of the fun stuff like that.

The bad guy was Darth Vader. Blowing up Alderaan was quick a bad-guy move, but seriously, other than that what did they do? Bad guys have a HISTORY, a PATTERN of abusive behaviors. Darth Vader impressed the bejeesus out of me, but nobody else without being well explained.


gl. said...

gah! quaker drove me insane! the rest of it was good, but, like anonymous, i kept being distracted.

Cheeseburger Brown said...


Re: Period

The year here is 1971. The Shah is anxious to promote his country as a tourist destination, and thus is delighted to be interviewed for the cover story of the National Geographic Magazine. Like the leaders of many suddenly oil-rich countries in the 1970s, he wants to show the Western world just how civilized a place Anwar is (er, or appears to be).

Simon, there is an explanation for the similarities between Porter and Tennyson, but it isn't that they are one in the same.

Dear Mark,

The Shah-Bahram chapters are a real festival of butchery, aren't they? I was talking to my brother about this recently: I set 'em up, the Shah knocks 'em down.

Of course, as suspected, not everyone who appears to have gone down is actually out of the game.

Nevertheless your point still stands true: many of these new characters are, essentially, disposable and quite doomed.

I figure it's a more visceral way to realize the lengths to which the Shah has gone, rather than just hearing about it.

Dear Anonymous,

Well, there's dead and there's dead.

Dear CodeWright,

Thanks for the note there. I'll look again at that passage with an aim to clarify the action.

Dear Again Anonymous,

Noted. Also, thanks for the spellfix.

Dear Tolomea,

It's no different than crawling in a skirt. Which, of course, I do all the time. Um, well -- I've crawled under the diningroom table in my robe to retrieve a lost teddy bear...that's close, right?

Actually, I think the standard practice in such a situation is to hike the hem up either over the knee, or just enough to gain the tension necessary to avoid tangling the shins.

I'm guessing Quaker had the hardest time with it.

SaintPeter said,

This feels more like a series of vagely connected stories than a single story.

Close. They're a series of intimately connected stories whose timelines slowly converge to a single event involving everyone, revolving around the principles we follow the most closely (Drago, Mr. Miss, Bahram).

It would be a more unorthodox structure if it were a screenplay or something, but as a novel precedents for this kind of nonlinear multicast narrative abound (q.v. Catch-22, War and Peace, et al).

Don't fret, though: the next novel has a more standard structure, following one character through a series of adventures. You'll like that.

Dear Dan,

Thanks for the note, I'll look at it again.

My bath is ready...gotta dunk.

Cheeseburger Brown

Unknown said...

I enjoyed this chapter. I don't have any specific comments other than that I thought you did the fast paced action quite well in this.

It's fairly classic to start out with slow suspense that builds to a climax like that, but I think that you do it much better than most CBB.

Simon said...

Anonymous #1:
While Quaker and Raja are most certainly dead, Porter only ended with his vision going grey. I have come to understand, in the Burgerverse, that is by no means a death sentence. But I think CBB covers that in his reply up there. I just like hearing myself type sometimes.

I can understand the sense of frustration with such wildly skewing time lines. My feeling so far is that this whole story will read a lot differently when it's compiled and as a single book or novellette and read all at once. Much more so than with most of Mr. Brown's other - more linear - stories. I'm already looking forward to it.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

I think Simon's right with regard to how the pace of this story will feel different as a paper read.

If you have the book in hand, it feels different to charge through an enigmatic chapter knowing there's a Drago chapter or a Mr. Miss chapter available to dive into immediately afterward as an antidote. The mysteries feed a drive to push on and find out in an hour, rather than to sit and scratch one's head over for a week.

The format is also affected by how infrequently I'm able to post. In an ideal world, we'd be doing three chapters a week. That would be a pace that would make me happy, and do the story justice.

This is not possible right now, though, so I'm also bending the story to fit that reality: each chapter is far more self-contained that would otherwise be appropriate, to at least make a nicely rounded snack rather than dangling cliffhangers in the immediate action that won't be picked up again for many days.

Finally, I had a fear here of mindlessly replicating a Simon of Space-type plot architecture, and I thought the surest way to move away from that would be an ensemble-cast approach. It's tricky, though, and not always satisfying, so as I mentioned for my next novel I'll be moving back to the more standard follow-a-protagonist-through-their-linear-adventures mechanism.

Cheeseburger Brown

Dan said...

The multistoryensenblecast type of presentation should be working wonderfully for the true Burgerites (Burgerons? Burgerversers? Burgermaniacs?) We know the payoff. We should understand you are well aware of the dangles you have to undangle. I mean we still have to discover what Mike is going to do with all those bananas in space and how he gets a spaceship named after himself.
One of the joys of the Burgerverse is knowing that the brain of all this has all the tendrils connected and is taking great pleasure in bringing us into his world.
I guess what I'm trying to say is I don't want the process rushed and want the story told the way the storyteller means for it to be told.

I have been relishing the CBB stories long enough to know that he knows how to tell his tales. I've also been here long enough to know that if there is a failure in some aspect of the translation from his brain to the keyhboard, CBB has big enough cajones to take criticizim, adapt where needed, thank us for the input, and move on (that's bigger cajones than I'd have if I had all of us tearing my baby apart)

Tell it like you want to CBB!!!

Your Biggest Fanboy,

THE Danimal

SaintPeter said...

I will attempt to reduce my fret level.

Perhaps you're right - if I were able to hop from this chapter right into another character chapter, I would not be as concerned.

It's just that last weeks story with Mr. Miss didn't seem to drive the story forward any - even less so than prior stand alone Mr. Miss tales, to be followed by this section. . . Bah.

Anyway, I'm a die hard CBB fan and I'll be sticking in there for whatever may come.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear SaintPeter,

Don't adjust your fret. Some static is normal.

It always bears repeating that your telling me when things aren't quite sitting right with you is the most valuable contribution made by you readers. It gives me direct and important information about how things are striking you, and it is a conduit of opinion that leads directly into the editing cycle as well as affecting how I might choose to cast future chapters.

Don't stop.

Cheeseburger Brown

Mark said...

So this is a story with characters from seemingly disparate worlds, and the plan is for a convergence of some kind. Cool. I can handle that. Along with the books you mentioned, to me this seems similar to the storytelling format of the show "Heroes." Stay with me on this.

The difficult thing for me is keeping track of characters over a long time arc with only written names to go on. In many cases, I'll read a name and just keep going, whereas another reader will comment, "Hey, I remember him, he was the guy who..." and so on. I feel that my memory does not serve me well in keeping track of the Burgerverse in stories published so far apart.

Less challenging, however, is seeing a character on a television screen and then, while watching another part of the large picture unfold, seeing and recognizing that same face. Because it doesn't require remembering a name, I immediately get that "Ahhh, okay, cool..." feeling that some people get here when they read. That said, recalling a name is easier when a face can be associated with it.

None of this is to say that your approach here is faulty. On the contrary, you handle it wonderfully and I'm amazed you crank out so much quality content amidst an already busy life.

I've written both the linear story seen through the eyes of one character and the kind that skips from one character to another. I still don't know that I have a favorite. You handle each very well, but I agree that linear is a little easier to follow when reading in small chunks.

If I have any trouble following all of this, it isn't because of you. You create vivid images of the characters and the events. Perhaps I just don't do a very good job of completing the picture in my head.

Simon said...

Dear Dan(imal):

I take exception to your spurious claim of Biggest Fanboy-dom and, were you corporeally closer to me (and I thought moderately less of you), I'd thwack you upside the back of the head with my Fifty Million Hours ceramic coffee mug. Not too hard though. I wouldn't want to break the mug.

I think I could liken the pacing of this story to a George RR Martin novel, though his don't have the time jumps thrown in. Each of his chapters focuses on one of the MANY protagonists, leave it hanging to some degree at the end, and you have no idea when that character will crop up again because there are so many others dangling, also waiting to be caught up. Having read the first three books in his Song of Ice and Fire series, I can attest that that method of story writing, while frustrating, definitely eggs one on to plough ahead, what with all the other chapters slapped into the same book.

But with GRRM, I've sworn off the rest of the series until he's done because it's too long a bloody wait between books. Then I'll just buy the whole deal in paperback and read it through again from the beginning.

As an aside, you know what frustrates me about these Blogger comments? I can't click the "Email follow-up comments to [gmail account] until AFTER I submit a comment. Not very bloody useful, unless I submit a second comment right away just to establish the email privileges.

And Dan, if you took any of that first paragraph seriously, I will have to taunt you a second time.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Mark,

We're inverted in our faculties, you and I: Myself, I have a lot of trouble keeping track of faces in movies and television.

I whisper to my wife, "Who's THAT guy?"

And she says, "He's the same guy as from the spy plane, remember?"

"He looks different."

"He brushed his hair and shaved."

"Looks like a new guy."

"You're hopeless, but I love you anyway."

This also goes some way toward explaining why I tend to re-introduce myself to people I've already met. I find it much easier to recall a name than a face or voice.

Your comparison to the Heroes structure is apt. I watched the first season after it was recommended here in the annals of commentary (didn't care for the second season, though), and I was indeed thinking of Heroes when I started plotting TSM.

Cheeseburger Brown

Dan said...


I am secure enough in my Fanboyhood to not be intimidated by those who think their Fanboy is bigger than mine. Thwack me if you will, but when I come back to consciousness, my first action is to refresh the CBB site....and then hunt you down to buy you a beer.

THE Danimal

Teddy said...

So it's a fandom war now, is it? I submit my hat to the ring.

To: Simon

Re: Incendiary inference of greatest fandom.

I and my own Ceramic "You are Safe: Do not Panic" mug would, while dressed in my two SoS t-shirts and sitting within sight of my "50 million hours" poster do challenge your claims to the highest order of fandom. Also, as evidence, let it be remembered by the people and noted by the court that it was I who positively identified Dr. Zoran the first time we saw him in Three Face Flip (chapter 2)

Most Sincerely,


Big t said...

I too find the story line a bit confusing, I have to refer to the comments to set me straight, I trust CBB enough to let him take me wherever he sees fit to go in the Burgerverse. I know that it will end up somewhere good.

I didn't realize that the people with the machine guns around the limo were women, this could have been a powerful image if it was made clearer.Over all a good chapter.

Any body thinking Mr. Miss is long? I think everybody is long now.

Anonymous said...

big t,

"Any body thinking Mr. Miss is long? I think everybody is long now."

I suggested earlier that Mr. Miss could turn out "long" but think that is probably the wrong term. The longs are superhuman while MM is the world's least likely UFC champion pitfighter.

I think MM is on his way to a completely different kind of near immortality via his prosthetics. Imagine an executive/human hybrid. Upload his unique consciousness into a whizbang cyborg shell, add one part nanotech, and two parts TSM; we get a "Mississuaga Machine" or the basis of such as mentioned by Felix.

I hope MM doesn't turn out to be the artifact. He is too good of a guy to spend somewhere around 50 million hours as the frozen head of his own cybernetic clone.

Anonymous said...

My thoughts, in no particular order:

Way to establish the Shah's evilness, CBB. Well written to say the least.

I do wonder, though, if talking about "cranes" and then calling them "steel storks" is all that effective, since you're just trading one fisher bird for another.

Teddy, Simon, and Dan... really, you guys. I think there's room for all of us in the "biggest fan" circle. Where we fight to death for the title.

And Teddy, since we're talking about predictions, I seem to remember going out on a certain speculative limb back in Stubborn Town; it took something like 5 stories for me to be validated, but I was right!

Smiley, if you haven't, you need to read The Taste of Blue. That is all I will say.

Must sleep now. The Man is keeping me from job-hunting by working me to death 30 miles from home.

Big t said...

OH Sh*t

Smiley K I think your on to something, hybrid Mr. Miss. Could he be the head? Man that would be a trip!!!

Unknown said...


Perhaps we might be Beefeaters?

Burgerites might work I suppose.

Any other names?

SaintPeter said...


The good part about being a CBB fan is that you don't have to go to some separate fan site. We can all rejoice here and even interact with the man himself.

It kinda blows me away, sometimes, what access the web gives us. I can interact with some of my favorite authors on a day to day basis. And not just 2nd raters, either. Folks like John Scalzi, Elisabeth Bear, and Charlie Stross. I was reading Scalzi before he was ever published, and I guess I can say the same about CBB now. I'm so hip, being ahead of the curve.

fooburger said...

Typo, The --> They?

"mahogany doors. The pass an open-air courtyard"

Just for the record, my impression of timeline was 1980's due to the Sony Walkman inclusion. I got the slight impression from comments that it was 1971, well before the Walkman.

The Shah is showing a depraved indifference to life in his quest. We have some information suggesting that his quest is personal in nature, but I don't see it yet as conclusive (in the various texts) that there is no societal 'greater good' that could be at the heart of this monstrous activity.

Sometimes I feel like I'm moving from "intrigued about the unknowns" to "confused" with regards to the Shah, Lalo, the war of the long in general, jeremiah and tim's influence in history, and the various factions involved.

I'm not completely sure who's affiliated with whom. I'm certain that Tim & Jeremiah are 'good', and on the side of 'good', but almost everybody else is suspect in my mind, including Lalo, whom I used to think was 'good', before he became hellbent on tracking down the rest of the long.

And my big BIG BIG unanswered question is still: "Who were the 'aliens' Lalo met as a young caveman in "The Long Man".

Well.. I hope this helps you evaluate what at least one reader has going through his mind in reading these works as a whole.

Thanks for the works, and thanks for keeping me guessing.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Fooburger,

You're absolutely right about the date. I put the Walkman reference in there to help orient the reader in time, and then promptly forgot about it myself!

Cheeseburger Brown

Tolomea said...

Evil is a very awkward word, generally I consider that being evil is about intent and is separate from action.
And although one can lead to the other, it is also the case that one can do evil despite having good intent and likewise you can do good despite having evil intent. And then of course there are the callous who are somewhere in the middle.

The simplest way to put it is that to be evil is to take pleasure from others suffering and to be callous to be indifferent to their suffering.

Measured on this scale the Shah is neither evil nor callous as can be seen by the opulence in which he keeps the consorts.

Certainly he is a long long way down the "end justifies the means" path. And we've yet to establish if that end is good or evil.

However given that he seems to avoid creating suffering beyond what is dictated by "the end justifies the means", I'm inclined to believe that his intent is good even if the end turns out to be severely misguided.

Anonymous said...

Read TOB again this morning just because it had been awhile. OMG. It's like Fox Mulder meets Darth Vader.

As far as the "evil" debate goes, I think CBB is doing us a great favor by not making any purely evil or good characters. Sure, maybe the Darth Vader types do occassionally blow up entire planets, but then again, they are the ones who ultimately restore "balance."

Maybe the Shah seeks a future where all men are long.

Anonymous said...

Smiley: there was one particular part near the end of TOB to which I was referring, namely the part that validated my several-month speculation and answers your (sort of) question(s) about the nature and future of Mr. Miss.

Hey CBB, I just remembered something. When Lallo first met Ella, he told her that her progeny would be strong, but they would wither. It was the *next* generation -- or the one after that -- that would be born monsters, etc. so why are so many of the Shah's children in that state? Unless of course it's Bahram that's doing the nasty, which wouldn't make a whole lot of sense...

Teddy said...

I have to disagree on your definition of Evil, Tolomea. Just because one doesn't necessarily enjoy inflicting suffering doesn't mitigate the fact that they did, especially if they new what they were doing. Even if they didn't incredible incompetence has as much if not greater potential for harm as incredible evil.

And given the luxury in which his breeding stock live, I'd say that the Shah is using the means to justify the end in the short run, similar arguments to what slave-owners in pre-civil war America would use. "The slaves get three meals a day, and they sing such happy songs! They're clearly happy with this life!"

The Shah I think is in fact evil. His motivations for making humanity all long may not be malevolent, but that is only due to his wrong belief that Long is better.


fooburger said...

yeah, he does put that attitude into the Shah of: "we screwed up the lives of these kids... we should make their lives as comfortable as we can..."

that doesn't legitimize what's going on, but it shows some knowledge of responsibility for the welfare of others.

can't say the shah is utterly evil, but like in reality, that's commonly not the case.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear all,

With regard to the peculiarities of Long reproduction, I think the confusion here stems from differing uses of the same colourful terms (e.g., "monster"). According to Lallo in THE LONG MAN:

"...I should probably warn you that the hybrids never breed true -- at least, not for long. They might go a generation or two, but that's it. After that the babies come out all funny and die young."

Later, Lallo appends the following to his explanation:

"They're strong, as I'm sure you know. They're durable alright. But they will still wither. And their children will wither young. And their children's children will be feeble monsters for the brief moments before they die."

Raja said,

"If it comes to term it will almost surely die after a short life of miraculous strength. If it does not die it will fall into succession..."

The two appear to have slightly different opinions -- it might be argued that Lallo is suggesting that you may get Long-like offpspring in the first generation in terms of robustness but not in terms of longevity, whereas Raja seems to be suggesting that almost none would be viable beyond an extra short life endowed with prodigious physical strength. I believe this discrepancy of opinion is simply a result of differing scales of experience: Lallo may have had dozens or even hundreds of informal "hybrid experiments" whereas Raja has overseen tens of thousands. Their perception of the statistics varies because their pools of results are of different orders of magnitude.

Unknown to Lallo's experience but known to the Shah is the fact that with precious infrequency a hybrid does indeed take, and while it does not become long it becomes special enough in some way(s) to achieve princehood.

On a related note, I find it interesting that these Shah chapters that seem to many of you to introduce new mysteries, from my point of view (that is, seen from the perspective of someone with foreknowledge of the end state) these chapters only reduce the number of mysteries. To put it another way: if you know the answer, you can see the questions diminishing with every clue; if you don't know the answer, a clue is nothing but more bamboozling trivia.

Is the Shah "evil"? That's a deep discussion. I think my aim here has been noticed and appreciated: this is emphatically not the kind of story where Good Guys wear white and Bad Guys wear black. When you don't know someone's motivations, their actions and the immediate consequences are their actions are morally ambiguous at best. Prejudice is easy, but unhelpful for sorting out a mess this complex. Is Lallo evil? Is he less so because we like him? What purpose might he serve or thwart by mowing down his peers? Without perfect knowledge, perfect judgement is impossible.

Sadly, the next chapter will be late. I'm sort of being choked from all sides by life this week.

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

The description of Anwar was a surprise to me. I'd always thought of it as a town in western India.

Still, the name fits the Arab world as well, and FWIW Google wasn't able to find an Indian town with that name (I'm still amazed by that - I could have sworn that town existed). The closest thing I found was was a town in Baluchistan in Pakistan.

gl. said...

if only you had 990 more dedicated fanboys (and fangirls), cheeseburger. you'd be that much closer to the "1000 true fans" concept:

Tolomea said...

Tricksy interlinking author...

so I'm reading a couple of the older stories that I missed along the way and suddenly I'm noticing some interesting things...

Like there is a fair amount of similarity between Cheery from Night Flight Mike and Aglakti from Stubborn Town.

Speaking of Night Flight Mike, there is a serb called Drago in that story...

And then over in Boldly Gone we have another character with the Mississuaga surname.

Dan said...

Tolomea, Aglakti is in fact Cherry Nuk-Nuk. Uncle Miss is Sky Mississagua. And Mike from "Night Flight Mike" is the same Mike form all the stories (I don't think there has ever been another one...Sheik?) including Pink Santa, where he is the youngest we see him.

THE Danimal

Big t said...

gl- 989 fan boys/girls to go

Simon said...


I don't think I'm giving anything away by confirming that Cherry Nuk Nuk indeed IS Aglakti from Stubborn Town. Neither is the Mississauga surname a coincidence. In fact, you could bet some very safe money on there being some sort of connection from ANY story you read on this site to at least one other, often several. That's part of what makes it addictively appealing. And this story is the coming-together of VERY much of it.

Re: what do you define as evil?

That's one of the most interesting and fun discussions there is to have, right up there with religious convictions, political partisanship and how many licks it takes to get to the centre of a tootsie roll. Largely because of the innate contentiousness of the issues as well as a sometimes infuriating inability to prove one side more decisively than the other. Ambiguous "bad guys" are so much more fun (and believable) than strictly evil ones.

Evil, to me, lies very much (if not exclusively) in the realm of the relative. A thing (act) cannot be defined as evil except in relation to something else that is not. We all perform actions that are born of instinct and thought, nurtured through to some degree of intent, and finally made real via some exercise of kinetic energy. How each of us perceives the end result of these acts is a highly individual thing, often depending on one's ultimate involvement in the act itself.

What may seem evil to one person may come across as nothing more than simple, expedient necessity to another.

Is it possible to call something - anything - inherently evil outside of any sort of moral or social basis? I would argue not. This would be a very interesting discussion to have in the context of Terron Volmash and his Nightmare Cannon.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Heh - Simon snagged the coveted Comment #42.


As others has mentioned, none of those is a coincidence except the other Drago, who is simply named Drago because at the time I was very, very far away from TSM in my head and I didn't make the connection that I'd already used the name.

Unlike in real life, in fictitious universes noteworthy names are supposed to held by only one individual.

My bad.

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

Dan: nope, no other Mike that I know. Then again, he would have been incidental so maybe I've forgotten him.

Funny, I asked CBB about "the extra Drago" several months ago, and found that Isoceles Cat had recently asked the same question.

CBB: Thanks for the insight into Long breeding. Even so, though I find it hard to believe that Ella -- having been very close to the whole breeding thing herself -- has seen the vast majority of her Patagones die in infancy. If she had, she would not have been at all surprised by Lallo's exposition, and in fact probably would have given up long ago (if not Long ago) since having just one viable child would take many years and she'd have to be pregnant all the time.

Either way, keep it coming when you can. I'm so busy at my job that I don't even check this site every day lately (hopefully I can find a less stressful mode of employment soon).

Mark said...

Simon. Um, I think you meant Tootsie Pop, but I guess the saying could be different in Canada.

Nothing more to say about the story. Just a cheap jab at a friend who leaves few openings for them.

fooburger said...

CBB, thanks for recognizing the predicaments we go through as clues come out and we sometimes just get more... umm... not really confused... :)
I imagine this is a situation like the old paper&pencil RPGs, where the game master has everything planned out, and the character decide to go hunt boars in the forest instead. Everything you throw at us, we can always reinterpret in a great many ways. It must be sometimes hilarious just watching some of our comments... :)

simon, Along with societal definitions of evil, I think there's an intent issue as well. A lot of actions are morally neutral, but in certain contexts, split into either good, evil, or still neutral.

If the shah's motive is merely to reproduce, for his own benefit, at the expense of horrifyingly disfigured experiments, he's definitely evil. If he's sincerely looking to reduce poverty, war, and other social ills of the world, then he may be not really evil, but perhaps misguidedly neutral, or in some strange circumstance, kinda good.
As far as I can see at this point, the only thing that could keep the Shah on the side of good, is if he's required to do these horrible things in order to achieve the goals of Tim and Jeremiah, which I feel fairly safe in presuming to be good.

Mark said...

I like this discussion about evil, but just haven't chimed in until now.

The ambiguity of evil is what scares most people, and why "bad guy" characters with redeeming qualities are fascinating.

Is that why the United States gets so much airplay in world news? It fits the description. I'm not willing to demonize the whole country, but there's no doubt evil clouds our history (slavery; killing and forced relocation of native peoples). Some argue that although the US has given up such blatant displays of evil, it still actively pursues the dream of Manifest Destiny.

Teddy said...

Well, no nation would sanely try to be as much of a policeman to the world without at least a small god-complex. I think it'll be a very long time before we can get out of a MD mindset and much more into the global community mindset. Rather unfortunately, the GC mindset is what we need to get into in order to deal with the world like a sane country and not children (woo, invade people cause we think they MIGHT be bad guys! Cowboy hats and "dead or alive", yeah!).


Anonymous said...

Simon: since evil is a moral designation, I don't see how you could define it outside of a "moral basis"... but that seems like a silly question.

Teddy, I have two words for you: Ron Paul.

Seriously, if McCain has a stroke next week, who else is still in the race?

fooburger said...

C'mon... can we keep this kind of political trolling crap out of the comments?
A discussion of good vs. evil seems quite relevant. Vitriol regarding current political topics upon which we're all going to vehemently disagree is just lame.

Mark said...

I wasn't trying to turn it into a political discussion. Certainly, plenty of countries besides the US have evil in their past (and/or present) and have tried, however clumsily, to make amends.

Making up for evil acts of the past is very tricky.

If the long Shah at some point said, "Wait a minute, what I'm doing is wrong. I want to achieve my ultimate goal (whatever that is) without hurting innocent people," then is all forgiven and hey, let's just move forward?

That seems to be what George Lucas wants us to do with Darth Vader. His name has been mentioned in this thread already, but I can't think of a more popular example of a person (fictional or otherwise) who did very evil things but ultimately "did the right thing."

***Simon of Space spoiler alert****

But then there's Simon of Space, who certainly did just that. Maybe he'll one day be just as popular.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Fooburger asked,

C'mon... can we keep this kind of political trolling crap out of the comments?

I'm not no one was intending to ignite a bush fire (this place is too small for a flame war), but as all veterans of these cybertubes know it is nearly impossible to be too cautious with respect to incendiary subjects. People's passions and prejudices can be awakened suddenly, and with surprising vigour.

On the other hand, it is difficult to discuss a pearl like "the ends {justify|do not justify} the means" without drawing real world examples, and it is inarguable that both positive and negative examples abound in the current geopolitical climate regardless of one's political axis of choice.

That being said, discussions of American foreign policy have a notable tendency to explode into especially vitriolic debates, as many people have very strong feelings about the planet's most famous nation.

That and reviling popular religious figures* should probably be considered taboo.

Cheeseburger Brown

* Exceptions: L. Ron Hubbard, Oprah Winfrey, Megatron, anything to do with "The Secret", David Koresh and Bob.

Eric said...

How dare you say Megatron's name in vain!

Simon said...

Sheik, I think we both just asserted the same thing about not being able to define anything as evil outside of any context, whether moral or not.

But citing Oprah as a permissible example - there's a gal who has become a whole lot more evil (relatively, again) than she ever used to be. Poor girl does well for herself, starts a media empire to become the most powerful and recognised face in the public eye, and now the humble, altruistic beginnings that spawned her have been spurned in favour of acts that promote her image of largess and charity.

She's even seen into the future toward her eventual demise and spawned a semi-clone with Dr. Phil. Who, it being an imperfect process, is actually more annoying AND more evil than she is. There's probably a tie in there somewhere to both the Shah and Bahram, centred on misguided intent. (I assume it's OK to revile Dr. Phil since he's guilty by association with Oprah.)

Anonymous said...

Don't revile Dr. Phil or he'll yell at you until you cry. Of course, then you'll feel better, attesting to his remarkable powers of counseling.

And seriously, why the hate for Megatron? Sure, he's evil, but not Hubbard-evil.

fooburger said...

Megatron vs. Oprah vs. Hubbard.
Wait... the only of these three not currently in play is Megatron.
Oprah, I presume, creates the Opran church as mentioned... some sort of offshoot of christianity? And we know Hubbardians and Sky have a history.
So.. where's Megatron? Hmm....

Yeah.. maybe I jumped the gun on the alarm about things going politically nuclear. I'm sure we've all seen things go that route.

Teddy said...


That bit about Oprah and The Secret were actually mildly related. Bob looks not dissimilar to the Flying Spaghetti Monster...

All Hail Megatron!


Anonymous said...

Wow...I forgot how much I enjoy your writing Cheeseburger Brown. Ever since the days of k5. IT's great to see your blog so well-developed and you still writing prolifically. Keep it up!