Mundus Novit: Dark Horizons – Warm Welcome

Continued from Twenty One: Fruits of the Mind Field

Twenty Two: Warm Welcome

The van moved through side streets and alleys, avoiding main thoroughfares. Gurung knew the city. He knew how to get to the safe house and do it discreetly. Alexander Scott sat in the passenger seat, his Kevlar vest with plates feeling heavy, but his MP7 feeling oh so light. The two other occupants of the van sat in back.

The dark of the earliest morning had given way to touches of twilight. The sky heralded the arrival of the sun, but its face hadn’t yet made an appearance. It was a bad time of the day—everyone was drooping, everyone was wilting.

Alex didn’t feel it. Granted, he had been moving, had been awake and active for almost 24 hours, but there had been progress. He had seen results. Best of all, Dyck, who had been seriously wounded, was on his way to receive proper care. The crew had just transferred him to a helicopter and seen him off.

On the floor, against the wall, Sergeant Everson sipped at the coffee Rudi had procured him. “So we know those guys weren’t rogue, right?”

Gurung didn’t take his eyes off the road. “They were not CIA.”

Dark Horizons Gone . . . Dark

You have probably noticed the newest chapter/episode/posting for Dark Horizons is late. I apologize.

I don’t want this to sound like an excuse, because it’s not. It is a bit of a look under the hood.

When I write, especially for something as long as Dark Horizons, I need a roadmap. I plot out the story with many of the key points and important information attached to sections. The thing is, as everything progresses, information and decisions change. It’s kind of clichéd, but I have to admit that the characters do take hold of the story and begin to drive it.

While some changes are incremental, some changes are not. Sometimes a voice demands to be heard. This is the case with Rudi the Russian. Originally intended as a throw away character who existed more to illustrate the personality and past of Alexander Scott, I really liked Rudi. I wanted to see more of him. He took over his own thread, and provided the link to Boyle that another set of characters were supposed to make.

Kyle and Meredith, introduced in Four: the Bedouin, were supposed to be main characters. Prospero was supposed to have a hand in the ongoing excitement. The thing is that neither of them spoke to me. The Bedouin, though—the Bedouin spoke to me like Rudi did. I wanted to see more of him. A character intended to disappear into the background, to impact on the story from off screen, and to be referenced more than seen, got his own story thread.

It’s because of these changes that the story has morphed into something larger than originally intended. While I was somewhat ahead of the game when this whole thing started, I have fallen behind. That sucks for all of us, but I assure you I will finish this and it will be more or less on time.

Less more than more.

I hope you stick with me for the ride!

I’m Showin’ You Mine

A lot of companies do it, and I’m always interested in seeing it, so I figured I’d release SEP’s sales data. I have never done this before because SEP is such a minor, minor players, and the numbers are–frankly–embarrassing. The fact is, these cannot be compared to sales numbers from Evil Hat (for example), because Evil Hat does print products. All our sales recorded here are PDF.

Also, this is not necessarily accurate. Since the merger of Drive-Thru RPGs and RPG Now into One Book Shelf, I think some sales data has disappeared.

Keep in mind we published our first product in September of 2004. That was Raid on Ashkashem

I’m also going to post the monthly sales. You have to understand, other than this site, SEP does nothing to market itself any longer. Last month was a really, really good month. Later month’s figures should give you a better idea of how slow things are moving for us.

So, without further ado, the sales figures.

To Date:

Albenistan: Election Day (Modern Dispatch 113):   19
Khorforjan Gambit:   77
Qalashar Device:   90
Raid On Ashkashem:   128

Covert Forces
Canada’s Combined Security Reconnaissance Section:   70
Covert Forces:   97
Covert Forces Redux:   99
In Her Majesty’s Service:   107

Modern Medieval
Gunpowder Plots:   73
Man-At-Arms Advanced Class:   36
Mercenary Advanced Class:   39
Spy Advanced Class:   34

Roles & Classes
Capable Hero:   84
Combat Hero:   83
Counter-Terrorism Assaulter:   95
Covert Hero:   92
Spec Ops Recce:   93
Special Operations Marksman:   93
Talent Trees Assembled:   68

Treasure Chest Unlocked
Gems:  66
Incense: 7

Cyber-state Avatar Toolkit:   21
Line Zero:   26
Relief Effort:   45

Sales for March
Covert Forces
Canada’s Combined Security Reconnaissance Section:   2
Covert Forces Redux:   5
In Her Majesty’s Service:   3

Albenistan Series
Khorforjan Gambit:   1
Qalashar Device:   1

Cyber-state Avatar Toolkit:   1
Relief Effort:   1

Analyticalize This!

What could I possibly be talking about this Tuesday? My Mutants & Masterminds campaign? Sword Noir? More adventures? More fiction?

Google Analytics.

I can hear the collective intake of breath on that one.

Bear with me. Analytics might not be the absolute best way to track audience, but it’s pretty good. What it tells me is that SEP is losing audience. Like, a lot. Conversely, Sword’s Edge has been gaining audience. Like, a lot.

So, I’ve been working pretty hard to keep both websites current and populated with posts. Those of you keeping track will know that I have a new day job. I’m also doing distance education. My new day job offers less opportunity to do work on down time. I can’t really say why, just trust me, this is the case. My distance education courses are taking up time at night.

You know where this is going, right?

Since I don’t have time to write four posts a week (and that only allows for two posts per site), I need to focus my energies.

From here on in, pretty much everything will be posted at Sword’s Edge. The only exception will be Mundus Novit-themed articles and fiction. As much time as Dark Horizons robs from me, I’m keeping with it. You will see a conclusion.

All other articles, reviews, ideas, fiction, etc will be over at Sword’s Edge. I may be wrong, but looking at the numbers I’m guessing that a huge majority of the people visiting SEP, visit SE. If not, can you start doing so?

Or just keep track of everything me related at my tumblr page.

If you think this is a really bad idea, let me know why.

The easiest thing to do is follow the RSS feed. That’ll let you know when SEP is updated. You can expect something everything Thursday (Mundus Novit related), but once Dark Horizons is done, that will likely taper off.

Bummer, eh? It’s been in the cards for a while. My net presence has been deteriorating since the birth of my second daughter. Someday, maybe I’ll have more time again.


Mundus Novit: Painting the Project Black

Something that is hiding in the background of Dark Horizons but is front and centre in Mundus Novit is the Black Project. There are more than a few Black Projects revealed in the Mundus Novit sourcebook. What do I mean by Black Projects?

From the sourcebook:

Sometimes the government acts for the good of the nation, but in ways it thinks best to keep from that nation. The general public, after all, doesn’t see the big picture. It doesn’t understand that sometimes the ends do justify the means. But even if the government wanted to share information regarding all its projects and operations, national security often does not allow it. Are you going to broadcast to your enemy everything that you are doing? Of course not.

Since the Second World War, governments have embarked on many projects hidden in the shadows. The budget for these projects is disguised, mislabeled, nonexistent. These black projects have produced some amazing advances; they have protected nations and averted war. They have also perpetrated suffering and ignored injustices.

You have to look at the Big Picture.

Now, if you aren’t interested in a look behind the curtain, to see one of the prime motivators for all the action in Dark Horizons, move along. Nothing to see here.

For those of you interested in what is going on in the shadows, the stuff that none of the protagonists knows about, read on.

After the Trigger Event, many academics and researchers wondered if perhaps paranormal powers of the mind were not confined to someone amazing like Kreskin. While the scientific community sought to answer its own question, a rogue element within the CIA decided to try to purpose-build ESPers. Using the already identified Oberon virus, a secret operation piggy-backed itself onto a legitimate DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) research project. Not only did Crosswind seek to create ESPers, it sought to create super-soldier ESPers.

Who? The actual mastermind behind Crosswind has not been revealed, though the project was backed by a rogue CIA group. The lead scientist, aware of the true purpose of Crosswind and its true master, was Dr. Jean Howlett. She had already proved herself through another secret project involving the Oberon virus. In order to have her manage Crosswind, she was given control of a small unit called the Technical and Sciences Group (TSG). She leads a very small scientific staff, all officially working in the TSG.

What? Using the research network and resources of DARPA, Crosswind was to create task-oriented ESPer spies and assassins that would be further enhanced using what the TSG referred to as Oberon X. No single group or organization involved in the research would be privy to the entire plan. Only Crosswind would have all the data, and it would be the Crosswind team who would try to synthesize Oberon X.

Where? While the DARPA project had been outsourced to a variety of research facilities and academic institutions, the black part of the project was conducted at a facility code-named St. Martin. The location of St. Martin has never been revealed.

How? The CIA backchannel funded a DARPA research program into parapsych known as Emphasis. Project Emphasis sought to clinically prove the existence of parapsychic powers. The Trigger Event sparked renewed interest in the paranormal, and Emphasis was one of multiple projects undertaken publically by DARPA and other research organizations.

While the results had not yet been released, a rogue element within the CIA known as Tacit Spear gained access to them. The Emphasis data strongly indicated proof of parapsychic powers. Tacit Spear initiated Crosswind through the Technical and Sciences Group, a small unit within the CIA’s Special Activities Division mandated to assist in operations for the acquisition of technology or scientific research.

Tacit Spear had co-opted the Technical and Sciences Group soon after that unit’s formation. TSG took control of Emphasis and buried the data, while at the same time farming out other experiments and research directives based around the hypothesis that a parapysh could be purpose built with a specific suite of ESPer abilities. Further, Crosswind included genetic research based on the Oberon virus.

When? Emphasis began in May of 2005. The participating institutions believe the project to be ongoing, however, Tacit Spear initiated Crosswind in January of 2008. At this time, Crosswind may have successfully created a purpose-built ESPer using Oberon X, but this has not been verified.

Femme Fatality?

So, I think I’ve gone through the entire definition of sword noir. Over at Sword’s Edge, I’ve even got a story going up to which much of the definition applies. Funny thing is, I wrote it long before I was even thinking about sword noir, and actually before I had seen either of my noir touchstones (the Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past). But you know what is missing from all of this? The femme fatale.

And why is that? It’s something I’ve only just realized. This is obviously a major blind spot for me in regards to sword noir. The femme fatale is a pretty ubiquitous trope in film noir. It’s pretty common in sword & sorcery as well. Given that, one would expect it should appear in sword noir as well.

Now I’m not saying that you’re not going to have the femme fatale in your sword noir campaign, or in something inspired by sword noir. What I’m saying is that it didn’t occur to me and likely won’t appear in anything I create for sword noir.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a femme fatale is “an attractive and seductive woman.” Given this definition, I may, in fact, include the same in a story or a game in the future. But that’s not what I mean by femme fatale. I find Wikipedia actually closer to my mark, saying she is “an alluring and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations.”

Now there are nuances, for certain. There’s nuance in everything, and I’ve only been talking in the general. However, if you look at the Wikipedia definition, the femme fatale is just a kind of MacGuffin.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with using an attractive member of a particular gender to get the story going, or to pick it up when it’s fallen down. In considering the important aspects of both noir and S&S—from which I derived sword noir—the fatale just didn’t register. That’s because I don’t think I’ve ever created a character to fill that role.

An important character from the follow-up story to “For Simple Coin,” which may or may not ever actually get written, might fall into the femme fatale role, but she does not lead her lover(s) into anything. They find themselves there based on their beliefs and assumptions. In a way, I guess, my perception of the fatale is such that they are a scapegoat. Used correctly, that may not be so, but by the very definition, it is the fatale who is to blame for the lover’s predicament—be it compromising, dangerous, or deadly.

Personal responsibility is important to me, and I think that is reflected in my writing. I’m not preaching it at the reader, but I can’t help but have it seep into my works. Characters get themselves into trouble. They might try to blame others, but it is usually evident that this is the shirking of blame. The fatale allows for characters to shirk personal responsibility, and I don’t like that. Whatever the attraction or however tempting the seduction, the character makes the decision.

So, really, the lack of the femme fatale is all about me preaching personal responsibility. As with all things, feel free to ignore my predilections.

But for those of you out there—Google Analytics seems to think there are some of you—do you feel that the femme fatale (or simply the fatale) is a necessary ingredient in sword noir? If so, why?

Mundus Novit: Dark Horizons – Fruits of the Mind Field

Continued from Twenty: Face to Face

Twenty-One: Fruits of the Mind Field

The night hadn’t started out so well. Ambushed while having a cigarette? That should have never happened. Rudi had chided himself in the past about getting soft. This just reinforced the truth of it. Sitting at a desk in Burma, enjoying the perquisites of the job, it had turned him into that which he had always detested: a slow and lazy talker who didn’t do.

That it had been Boyle’s protege, young Lt. Park, who had surprised him made the wound sting only slightly less. It may be that his cigarette had saved everyone time and troubles. If Lt. Park and her friends had stormed the safehouse, would the mistake have been realized before someone got hurt–or killed?

But here they sat and stood, all together, talking strategy, sharing information. Rudi liked it. It made him feel alive again. Fuck the Burmese. Had they planned to kill him? They at least didn’t trust him, if he believed Boyle

He did. It made sense.

It was all slowly making sense.

Then it came. Boyle had information on a shipment that had moved through Vladivostock and into Kathmandu. Gurung offered to take the lead on that. Rudi knew the ex-Gurkha, ex-contractor would get the information. No one in the room had worked as closely with Gurung as Rudi.

No one else in the room even knew his real name.

Boyle pointed to Rudi. “Take Rudi with you. He has the proper skillset for this kind of job.”

That got Rudi excited. This promised some level of action, some application of skills. Gurung trusted him, likely more so than anyone else in that room. This could be good, could be fun. He tried not to let that out. The smile though, that smile he couldn’t contain. “I do at that.”

Nothing ever reached Boyle’s face. Nothing ever touched his voice. When he nodded, Rudi read a lot into it. Perhaps too much.

Then Cascade appeared at the top of the stairs. She looked like Hell. Like she had been there and back, walking the entire way.

“We’ve got problems.” Her words came strong and confident. If she were ready to drop, Rudi didn’t hear it in her voice. “I think I know the opposition, and you’re not going to like it.”

Boyle rose from his chair. “You okay?”

Cascade waved him off. “I just got a bit of a work-out. I’ll be fine.”

Rudi ushered her over to the chair Boyle had just left. She didn’t protest. He had expected she would. Perhaps she had endured more than a simple ‘bit of a work-out.’

“So, who is the opposition?” Boyle moved to join Lt. Park leaning against one of their work tables.

“The CIA,” Cascade said.

“Fuck me.” Madison said it, but all of them were surely thinking it.

Lt. Walker rubbed his face, exhaling loudly. “So maybe Hitch wasn’t as far off the reservation as we had thought.”

Cascade shook her head. “No, your briefer was totally off the reservation. This whole group is off the reservation. Listen, our subject’s got surface memories of being part of a Narcissus forward action team, but those were plants. They were good, but they were plants. Beneath them was a lot of static. There were catatonia trip-wires and triggers for an emotional shock so huge it would essentially lobotomize the subject. That’s not amateur stuff. If this wasn’t planted by the CIA, it was someone or something with plenty of time and skill.”

Boyle leaned against the table beside Lt. Park, his arms crossed over his chest. “The way you’re talking, I’ll assume you didn’t step on any brain mines.”

That got a chuckle out of Cascade. “No. No brain mines. I took it slow and careful. The problem is, I don’t have a full picture. There are places I can’t go, at least not right now. To get everything we need, I’ll need days and days, preferably supported. His head is a real mess right now. He doesn’t even have memories stretching back more than five years. He calls himself Sapan, but that’s a Nepali name and he isn’t Nepali.”

Heather’s eyes narrowed. Rudi had worked with her back when she was still officially with the military. She was the reason he no longer denied the theoretical inclusion of women in special operations. “Can you trust anything you pull from it?”

“I’ve done this before.” It didn’t sound patronizing coming from Cascade, just a statement of fact. “I’ve worked in worse. There are things I can’t say for certain are facts. All I can pull from a subject are perceptions. Nothing taken out of someone’s head is 100 percent accurate. That’s just the way our brain works.”

Boyle took a bottle of water offered to him by Lt. Park. “Did you get anything actionable?”

“Not actionable, no,” Cascade said. “Information, yes. I’m as certain as I can be that he’s involved in the CIA somehow, but not Narcissus. He’s working for a dark operator, someone off the grid, but not renegade. There’s an organization here, something permanent. This isn’t a rogue agent, or even a group of rogue agents. The sense is something hidden, something deep.”

“Wow, and I thought I was already pants-shittingly scared.” Madison didn’t smile. He spoke in a light tone, but he had drawn features, a tense face. “So we’re up against the evil CIA? Do they all have goatees?”

Boyle did a good job of ignoring the comments. “But he’s not Narcissus? Does the CIA have another ESPer unit that has this level of skill? How could we not know about it?”

“The CIA doesn’t know anything about the Stream,” Rudi said. “Why assume the Stream must know everything about the CIA?”

“This isn’t official, this isn’t the CIA that keeps records, has human resources, and provides benefits.” Cascade massaged the back of her neck. “We’ve seen shadow governments before. Now we know there is one in the CIA. One that knows who we are and what we are doing here.”

“Who we are?” Heather leaned forward. “And who is we this time?”

We is all of us,” Cascade said. “Everyone in this room. Sapan knew all our faces. He had photographs. For us, the photos were taken in Kathmandu. For your team, it was in India.”

“That makes sense if Hitch was one of them,” Lt. Walker said. “They would have had the meet under surveillance. We did the usual sweep, but that was a pretty big location. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had recordings of everything said.”

“And they would have tracked us here.” Heather started to pace. “This is a mess. This is a total mess.”

“If by here, you mean Kathmandu, then yes, Sapan and his people were aware of your precense,” Cascade said. “If you mean this location, then no. Sapan, at least, had no information on your whereabouts or your safehouses. His team was there to intercept others. There were parapsyches in the cafe, and Sapan and his team had been sent to neutralize them.”

“Two teams.” Madison smacked his palm with the back of his other hand. “Two fuckin’ teams. Just like I said. Out back of the cafe was us caught in the crossfire.”

“Two groups, yes,” Cascade said. “And Sapan’s group has little to no information on the other. The impression is that they are amateurs, short-term contractors, ill-trained and poorly led. Still, they are making Sapan’s people nervous. The communications gear that can pierce the Kathmandu silence originated from Sapan’s people, from this shadow CIA, but the opposing force got it, reversed engineered it, and now they have their own.”

“Wait, if the evil CIA has equipment that can pierce the silence, that means they were prepared for it.” Madison’s gaze moved around the room. He cracked his knuckles as he spoke. “They would have had to test it. I mean, this can’t just be a coincidence. This was purposeful. And the weaponized ESPer? Your ‘parapsychic asset; from the ‘non-state actor?’ That non-state actor is our evil CIA. They developed this silence. This is the effect of your parapsychic asset.”

Boyle put out a hand, palm forward. “Hold on, Mr. Sinclair. That’s a lot of suppositions on very little evidence.”

Just as Boyle had ignored Madison, Madison ignored Boyle. “It’s all making sense. Except for Kathmandu. Why Kathmandu? Proximity to China? Is it a warning? There must have been better targets.”

Walker took Madison’s arm. “Slow down, Madman. That’s some interesting analysis, but we need something more immediately useful, you know?”

“The only thing I can offer is St. Martin,” Cascade said. “It was almost a talisman or mantra, something buried deep but bubbling up. It’s something Sapan doesn’t understand, but recognizes. He doesn’t realize how messed up he is, but he knows there is something wrong, and St. Martin is the key.”

“St. Martin?” Lt. Park peeled off pieces of label from her water bottle. “What’s that have to do with anything?”

“There’s the island,” said Lt. Walker. “Saint Martin, in the Caribbean.”

“And there are a bunch of towns around the French-speaking world,” Heather said.

Rudi frowned. He knew that term, had been wondering about it. He had no conclusions, only questions.

“The dude’s the saint with the sword, right?” Madison looked at each occupant of the room in turn. “You know, from that movie, Flesh and Blood? The one with Rutger Hauer? Jennifer Jason Leigh? Jesus, people, come on.”

“Not terribly helpful, Mr. Sinclair.” Boyle watched Rudi. “Rudi, what is it?”

Rudi met Boyle’s eyes. “The ESPer who tried to kill me, the one when I first arrived in Kathmandu, he mentioned St. Martin. He asked me if I knew of it, what it meant.”

“Yeah, Dolme, one of the crew that jumped us right after we hit Kathmandu,” Boyle said. “They thought they worked for the Chinese. This may mean they were CIA all along, which would be ironic.”

Boyle didn’t elaborate on that.

“That is all I got.” Cascade seemed to sink further into the chair, as though she had focused her energy on delivering her message, and with that done, was shutting down. “Not much of a lead.”

“Enough,” Boyle said. “The more we know about the opposition, the better we can face them.”

The beeping actually startled Rudi. He hoped no one saw his slight shudder. He had focused so much on the deliberations, on the information, that he had all but forgotten his surroundings. The beeping came from the collection of communications and computer equipment. Slim, dark-haired Willow–perfect name for her–had been silent for the entire discussion. She moved to the electronics array and worked on one of the laptops.

“Son of a bitch.” She spoke with a British accent that Rudi found inordinately attractive. “We’ve got him. Target Yukon activated his cell. We’ve got it locked. We can activate and track it anywhere now.”

Boyle visibly straightened. “We have a location?”

Willow turned to him with a broad smile. “We have a location.”

“Kit up everyone,” Boyle said. “The game is afoot.”

Continued in Twenty Two: Warm Welcome