AiA – White Shadow: Episode 17

Our story so far: Allison is a typical American High-school girl. Only now she’s in Japan, and it’s not the Japan she learned about in Social Studies, it’s the Japan created by the Japanese in their cartoons. Somehow, that Japan is suddenly real.

In that Japan, transfer students are always a source of untold chaos. They are rarely human, and even when they are they have hidden (and very destructive) abilities. Her classmates hope only to identify the nature of the destruction she brings, before it’s too late.

But Allison’s just a regular student, right?

Oh, except it seems that she’s a whiz with computers, and it just so happens that the world (“the world” means “Japan” at times like this) is threatened by a killer computer virus called White Shadow. White Shadow wants nothing more than to merge with Allison, the only one with the skills to make it whole.

Also, a bunch of other stuff has happened. Allison’s best friends are all prisoners of The Instute of Biological Computing, a mysterious organization that probably created White Shadow in the first place. Now, all she wants is to bust them out. To accomplish that, she has accepted White Shadow into her own consciousness. It makes her pretty kick-ass.

What’s with the kittens? Well, let’s just say that people are misinformed.

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

Allison clutched at her harness as the helicopter tilted, pointing its rotors at the institute. Her stomach rose up into her throat and she tasted yesterday’s lunch. Even breathing was difficult as she lost track of gravity. Closing her eyes just made it worse.

The helicopter lurched back the other way and Allison felt a soft impact against her foot, followed immediately byt the feeling of several needles being thrust into her ankle. She looked down to see a white kitten clinging to her foot. She couldn’t hear its cries over the roar of the aircraft. Allison tried to reach for it but she was strapped down too tight.

The woman sitting next to her seemed not to notice that they were about to die in a fiery crash. She was shouting orders into her comm unit in a rapid staccato that matched the thrum of the helicopter’s rotors. Allison couldn’t hear her words, yet she could feel the sense of what Lancia was saying as it passed through the electrical universe.

With Lancia’s words, people lived, and others died. Allison could feel them all, but they didn’t seem… human. They were abstractions. Statistics. Allison was the abacus, counting heartbeats.

Lancia spat a set of orders, and Allison followed the electronic signals of a squad of men rushing down a hallway. At the end lay death, a hellish crossfire of claymore mines, their electronic triggers waiting impassively for a reason to die.

“Bomb”, Allison said. “Corridor 12. It’s a trap.”

Lancia hesitated for perhaps half a second before she resumed shouting. “Squad seven! Squad seven! Abort advance!”

Allison reached through the electronic universe and touched the detonators. “I disarmed them,” she said.

Lancia hesitated longer this time. “Squad seven, proceed. Use extreme caution.” Lancia keyed off her mic. “Why did you do that?”

Why? Echoed White Shadow. She is the enemy!

“Those are people,” Allison said.

They’re trying to kill other people, White Shadow reminded her. Enemies of this woman, which makes them our friends.

“They’re all people,” Allison said aloud.

Lancia raised her eyebrow, watching Allison for another moment before returning to her battle.

The helicopter heaved again and Allison clung to her restraining straps and fought down a scream. The kitten skidded across the metal floor and banged against a bulkhead. In the cockpit buzzers sounded urgently from the control panel. Lights flashed red. The pilot threw the stick over and the helicopter was practically upside-down. As far as she could tell, anyway; “up” was an abstraction without much meaning in this place.

“Missile!” The pilot cried out. “It has lock!”

Allison felt the deadly rocket, knew its hunger for destruction. It was using radar to track them. Radio waves. She could work with that.

She quieted the animal part of her mind that wanted to do nothing but scream in fear. She closed her eyes and touched White Shadow, accessing the world through the new window it provided. She began whispering to the missile through its guidance system, deceiving it even as its hunger grew. Slowly she bent the perception of the rocket’s radar eye, convinced it that the helicopter was up and to the left. The rocket rushed past and detonated, shaking the helicopter and rattling fragments of metal off the hull.

The pilot righted the craft and resumed their headlong assault on the institute. Allison opened her eyes, convinced herself to take a breath.

White motion at the corner of her eye caught her attention. She turned to see Lancia talking calmly on her comm, as if nothing had happened at all. In her other hand the white kitten lay, limp and dead. “Oh!” Allison said.

Lancia looked at Allison, at the kitten, then back to Allison. “So you could handle the missile,” Lancia said. She tossed the tiny carcass out the window.

Ruchia lay on the hard metal floor, dizzy from the blast. The only sound she could hear was a persistent ringing in her ears. She coughed and pushed her hair back from her eyes. Cautiously she raised her head and looked around.

She was alone again, back in the institute. She lay her head back and closed her eyes, concentrated for the moment on clearing the dust and grit out of her lungs. No one came to help her; no one came to investigate the explosion. She wondered if there was anyone else left on Earth.

“Hello?” she croaked. No one answered. This must be what hell is like, she thought.

She opened her eyes again, took better stock of her surroundings. Next to her on the floor lay stainless-steel table. The way it had toppled and dumped her on the floor had protected her from the worst of the blast. Kenzo’s arms protecting her had just been a dream.

Nearby was a hemispherical plastic helmet apparatus which had half a hundred metal probes sticking out of it. Each probe was connected to a colored wire; the wires gathered into a bundle and left through a hole in the wall.

One of the other cell walls was gone, leaving only a pile of debris.

She got on her hands and knees, then stood with the help of the upturned table. Her knees held her, if only barely. Gingerly she made her way over the treacherous floor and peeked out into the hall. It stretched in either direction, pale gray and featureless, curving gently out of sight. In the distance alarms sounded, and she thought she heard another explosion.

She hesitated. Was it safer in her cell or out there, lost in a hostile place?

Her captors would want her to stay put. “Here goes nothing,” she said. She stepped over the remains of the wall and headed down the hall.

She had taken only a few steps when she heard many heavy boots jogging down the hallway behind her. “Hey!” a voice called, an authoritative military voice. Ruchia broke into a run. “Stop or we’ll shoot!” the voice called out. Ruchia slowed to a stop and raised her hands. Not worth dying for. Not yet.

“Fire!” the voice behind her shouted. Ruchia threw herself to the floor, her hands over her head.

“I surrender!” Ruchia screamed.

In the distance, another explosion. The lights went out. The soldiers opened fire.

“Damn!” The technician held on as her console rocked with the force of the most recent explosion. “Subject Seiji Yamamoto is at risk!” The emergency lights came on, bathing the interrogation chamber on the other side of the bullet-proof glass in a pale orange light. The boy was still in there, chained to his chair, grinding his teeth with the futile effort to break free.

The technician stood. “Where is she?” There was no sign of the woman who had been interrogating the boy. The tech checked the door to the interrogation chamber. Still bolted from this side. There was no other way out. Yet, the woman was gone.

Kaneda was almost afraid to breathe. Mitsume Mountains rested her head against his chest, looking up into his eyes. Her hand idly brushed his shoulder. Her breasts were… right there. He took a deep breath, slowly, and tried not to think about what was going on in his swim trunks. Every time she moved, with every tingling contact of her skin against his, it got worse. Or better. Or…

In his mind there were only two thoughts, locked in a battle that could have only one survivor: 1) Whatever it takes, at any cost, have sex with Mitsume Mountains, and 2) Don’t be a jerk.

There were so many ways to be a jerk right now. Mitsume trusted him, enjoyed this quiet time away from her fans. Also, somewhere out there his friends were fighting for their lives. The needed him. He had seen White Shadow; he knew—

“Do you think I’m pretty?” she asked.

Kaneda choked on his laugh. “You—you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” he said.

She smiled. Her teeth were white and perfect. Her pale cheeks colored. “Can I tell you a secret?”

Kaneda swallowed. “Yeah. Of course.”

“You’ll think less of me.”

“That’s not possible,” he said. Then, realizing maybe he hadn’t said quite the right thing, he blurted “I mean—!”

Mitsume Mountains laughed. “I know what you mean, silly.” She slid herself up his body until she was almost on top of him, looking him in the eye. She smiled sweetly, her cheeks dimpling in perfect symmetry. “You’re such a gentleman. I thought…” she broke eye contact and looked down at his chest. She took a breath. “I thought maybe you might be the one.” Kaneda didn’t respond right away, so she looked and added, “The first one.”

“…” Anything Kaneda might have said was lost to his constricted throat.

“Once you’re first, you’re first forever,” Mitsume Mountains said.

“Forever,” Kaneda echoed.

“Will you do it, Kaneda?” She moved her thigh against his, but her round eyes betrayed her fear. “Will you be mine, forever?”

Forgive me, Allison. Forgive me, Seiji. “Yes! Yes. I will be yours. Forever.”

Mitsume Mountains smiled, her features painted with relief. She slid on top of him, straddling him. Kaneda thought his heart was going to leap straight through his ribs and leave him the happiest corpse ever.

“I’m glad,” she said. She bent forward and brushed her lips across his. “They can’t take you from me now. No matter what.”

In the distance, Kaneda thought he heard explosions.

They hit the rooftop hard. Allison’s head snapped forward, straining her neck and rattling her brains. Armed men gushed from the stairwells at the corners of the roof and formed a perimeter around the helicopter. The blast from the still-spinning rotors hit Allison in the face as the door next to her slid open.

“Come on,” Lancia said.

Allison struggled with her buckles until a soldier released her. As she stepped off the aircraft a man was waiting, holding an olive-drab vest covered with large pockets. In each pocket a protesting kitten squirmed.

“Put that on,” Lancia said.

Allison held the vest at arm’s length. “Why?”

Lancia laughed. “Don’t try to pretend. We know.”

“Well, perhaps you could enlighten me.”

Lancia’s eyes narrowed as she pushed her face into Allison’s. “You’re good,” she said. “Now put it on.”

Allison did as she was told.

“All right,” Lancia said. “Let’s go conquer the world.”

A Big Muddled Milestone Approaches

Down near the bottom of the sidebar over there, you’ll see a few stats about this blog. There is one stat of which I’m really rather proud, even though it’s not really my accomplishment. The credit goes to you guys out there.

Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas will soon have its 10,000th comment.

That’s a big deal. All those comments represent a huge amount of content and, well, intelligence that this little media empire would not have had otherwise. The comments are the second layer, the extra reward for those who choose to dig a little deeper.

How should we reward comment 10,000? Certainly it should not go unmarked. My first thought is to offer the same prize I did in a previous contest: the winner provides the opening sentence and I write a silly story based on that. It was a fun prize, especially since Bob (Bill Bob’s brother’s brother) came up with an excellent opening that resulted in Elephants of Doom.

Is there a better prize? Leave your ideas in the comments!

Note to Chrysler Marketing: is Free

I was waiting at a traffic light today, thinking about the name of the car in front of me. Thinking about it more, perhaps, than the Chrysler marketing department did.

The car is a modern, sporty car, with aggressive and unique styling. It looks fun to drive. The name: Chrysler Crossfire.

Crossfire. As in: “If you get caught in the crossfire, you could be killed.” Crossfire. Military planning is filled with ways to get your enemy in crossfire.

Though maybe it’s a good name. Maybe the Chrysler Crossfire is a car that’s pretty exciting — unless you’re in it.

Lucky Picture

While we’re on the subject of photography, I’d like to share this bit o’ serendipity. I got this picture while testing some of my new flash gear:

My Sweetie running her eBay empire

It’s a little dark but if you click on it to see it larger it works.

“But Jerry,” you say, as your ever-vigilant eyes scan the above photo, “there’s no sign of any flash in that picture at all.” And right you are, Sparky! The strobe was set up out in the living room. “But if the flash is in a different room, how is the picture possibly a test of that flash?” you ask, unflagging in your quest for a more perfect understanding of the world around you. Good on you!

To make a short story long, recently I was doing a shoot with my sweetie and the strobes stopped popping, right in the middle of the shoot. The cable from the camera to the master strobe was bad, and if it weren’t for the fact I had another the shoot would have been a major pain (back to lighting with desk lamps). These cables fail pretty often, I understand, because as you move the camera around the connectors are constantly being loosened. Even the guys who preach not spending a single unnecessary penny on gear recommend getting good radio transmitters to fire the flash units.

So, this picture was taken the day the new transmitter and receiver arrived. I had a flash set up in the living room and I was seeing how far away I could get and still have the flash go off. (The answer to that: not very far. The radio worked fine, but it’s a very small apartment.) So I shot the above from my hip (quite literally), with no intention of keeping it.

But, when I looked at it, I liked it. If you look really closely you can see there’s some camera shake, but overall it looks pretty good, if you ask me. So, enjoy!

Hair Haloes

Today’s exercise: separate the subject from a busy background by backlighting the hair. Fortunately I had a model handy with plenty of hair to backlight, and that model was willing to keep experimenting as long as I was. Me. Unfortunately, the challenge of getting a good shot when using a new technique takes a lot longer when you can’t look through the camera as you’re setting up the shot.

I’m sure there’s a more technical term for an accent light shot directly through the subject’s hair, but I don’t know it. I thought it was “hair light”, but it turns out that’s something else.

Self-Portrait, April 23, 2011

Self-Portrait, April 23, 2011, experiment with hair haloes.

Still, it was a pretty successful day. I took more than 100 shots and after a while I was confident enough in the setup that I could concentrate on taking self-portraits that were actually interesting to look at. Nineteen shots remain in my “keeper” bin, though I have no idea what I’ll do with them. Looking at the keepers, I can see that I have a weakness for the overly dramatic. I suppose it’s nice to even have a recognizable style at all. All these images are straight off the camera with no tweaking or even cropping. I swear they weren’t all this over-the-top. Really.

A slightly less overdramatic (and therefore less-liked by me) self-portrait.

These photos don’t necessarily represent the best (my opinion of which changes every moment anyway), but the most representative of the technique. There’s no rocket science here; I got the main lights as close to me as possible so I could turn them down pretty low. That meant less light hitting the busy wall behind me. Directly behind my head is a third light that backlights my hair. I probably should have played with different intensities of that light more.

Even though there's a lot of shadow on me, the hair halo really separates me from the background.

This is the last shot of the day, and the fill light didn’t fire at all. (It’s set to flash when it sees another light flash, but all the lights were turned down pretty far and the fill light was behind an umbrella.) That left my head very dark, but the back light really pops me out from the background. All these photos have reflections of the lights in the glass behind me. In the one above you get a particularly clear look at the spokes of the fill light’s umbrella. Reflections are a bitch, man.

One of my favorite self-portraits ever! I really like the composition, how much my face shows, and how the colors in the jersey came out on this one. By keeping things just a touch underexposed the colors get nice and saturated.

I don’t know how often I’ll actually need this technique, but it turned out to be pretty easy. Here’s the setup:

The setup for Self-Portrait Saturday

For the fill light I could have opened the curtains just off-camera to the right rather than setting up a strobe, but then I would have had to worry about shutter speed, and that was one more variable than I wanted to deal with when I couldn’t look at the result after every shot.

The setup picture itself was taken with our older camera. I propped on a footstool and set it for two-second exposure. When I heard it click, I took a picture with the main camera, which of course caused the strobes to pop and light the scene for both cameras.


Movie Time!

Last week the Blockbuster Video store in out neighborhood closed forever. On the last day of operation my sweetie and I took a walk over to see what gems they had on their shelves that we couldn’t possibly live without. At three bucks a pop it seemed like a good chance to grab up a few good flicks.

The most exciting acquisition from my point of view is Black Sheep, a light horror film from New Zealand that features… yes, it’s New Zealand so it has to have… zombie sheep. I saw this flick at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival (The Cannes of the East!) with Fuego, at a midnight showing with a thousand other heavy drinkers. Fun was had by all. That disk is scratched up pretty badly and our DVD player is persnickety, so I won’t be able to inflict it on my sweetie until I burn a fresh copy.

Meanwhile, we’ve had some fun with some of the other movies. One night we watched Due Date with Iron Man and Zach Gallafanagashammalammadingdong, followed by Dinner for Schmucks with Steve Carrell and other people I’m told I’ve seen before. The two flicks are pretty much the same story (wacky interloper exposes then heals the vulnerabilities in the other guy’s relationship), but they’re told very differently and are both good date night options. Dinner for Schmucks I especially enjoyed, as Steve Carrell masters a moment of seeming contradiction and makes us believe it.

We also hauled in The Crazies (I think that was the title). Back in the day I’d seen previews for the film and I thought it looked promising. Still, those preview-makers are good at making shit look like caviar. Turns out in this case, while there were a fair number of WTF moments (Why aren’t they staying together?!) the film worked pretty well. The ending was… perfect.

That same night we watched a movie with John Travolta as a shaved-head kinda-wacko secret operative out to whack a bunch of bad guys in Paris. It’s a partner movie, and it’s the other character (played by what’s-his-name) who really grows. It was a fun movie, if you’re able to ignore: a) roughly 5,000 bullets are launched in the direction of the good guys, and only one hits flesh; and b) the writers had no clue at all about electronic countermeasures and routine security procedures. Near the beginning what’s-his-name does something that would be sure to cause a major international incident, but somehow it comes off as success.

So, the flick wasn’t perfect. It was still a fun ride. Audi might be the big winner here, as the car chase figured their logo prominently. My sweetie might have spoken their brand name out loud for the first time in several years.

We still have a big pile of movies to go, from that ridiculous movie with that chick in it to the one where all the people do intense stuff. I can’t wait!

Securing Dropbox

As I mentioned recently, Dropbox is awesome. When using it, however, it’s important to think about security. The dropbox guys lock up your data nice and tight – but they hold the keys.

Think of it this way: You’re on a cruise ship, and you have a priceless diamond tiara (don’t we all?). You know it’ll be much safer in the ship’s vault than in your cabin. The ship’s purser is only too happy to watch over your valuables in their very strong safe. Now you can rest easy.

Except… there’s someone besides you who can open the vault. What if the government serves the purser with a warrant (or some other constitutionally-questionable writ) and takes your tiara? What if someone fools the purser into handing over your tiara? For most things, trusting the purser is fine, but that tiara is really something special. What you need, then, is a special box with a really strong lock. You give the purser the box and neither he nor anyone else can even see what’s inside, and you can make it a really strong box, so even if the purser hands over the keys to his vault, your stuff is still safe.

The same principle applies with Dropbox. It’s really convenient and pretty darn secure, but someone else is holding the keys. For most things, like my writing, no further security is necessary. Yet I have a few files that I don’t want to leave to someone else to protect, but I still want the convenience and data backup Dropbox provides. On my mac I’ve set up a very simple system that allows me to see my most secret files whenever I need to on any of my machines, but protects them from prying eyes. It’s actually pretty simple, and there’s almost certainly a direct analog on Windows.

The disk utility that comes with Macs can create an encrypted disk image using pretty dang strong encryption. If you put that image file in your dropbox, then any files you add to that virtual disk will encrypted and saved to your Dropbox when you unmount the disk. Here are the steps:

  1. Fire up Disk Utility (it’s in the Utilities folder).
  2. Click New Image
  3. Decisions, decisions….
    • Name your new disk. If you name it “secret stuff” that will just make people curious.
    • Size: For reasons I’ll go into shortly, I’d advise not making this any bigger than you really need. If you’re protecting text files, it can be pretty small. The 100MB setting is probably more than enough for most people.
    • Format: Just use the default
    • Encryption: I say, what the heck. Go for the maximum unless you’ll be using a really old machine.
    • Partition: just use the default.
    • Image Format: sparse disk image – this will keep the size of the actual disk file down. UPDATE – As of MacOS X 10.5, there’s a new option called “sparse bundle disk image”. DON’T USE THAT! It seems perfect at first (see below) but things get mucked up if there’s a conflict.
  4. Save. You will be asked for a password. You’ll not need to remember it, so make it good and strong, nothing like any password you’ve used anywhere else. Keep the “save in keychain” option selected. (If you need it later, you can find it with Keychain Access.) – Remember: this is the secret that protects all your other secrets.
  5. Voila! Put the disk image in your Dropbox folder. When you open the image file, a new hard drive will appear in finder. Anything you put on the drive will be added to the .dmg file you created.
  6. “Eject” the drive on that machine and open the .dmg on any other machines you want to share the information. While you remember your crazy password, get it saved in the keychains of your various machines.

A couple of notes:

  • The .dmg file will only update when you “eject” the drive. So I advise you not keep it mounted most of the time. Open it, add/access the files inside, and close it again. If you open it on two machines at the same time, you will end up with two versions in your Dropbox folder.
  • I advised saving your password on your keychain, but remember that anyone who can access your computer can also access your secrets. So you might want to consider not putting the password in your laptop’s keychain, for instance, if you think it might fall into the wrong hands.
  • Since your secret files are saved as a single blob of data, you won’t have automatic backups of individual files. If you need to recover one, you’ll have to find the right version of the image file.
  • Since your information is saved as a big ol’ blob, if you make a huge .dmg file it will eat up space in your Dropbox and burn up unnecessary bandwidth each time your save. ‘Sparse’ images only grow to the maximum as you use the space (but never shrink unless you intervene with Disk Utility).
  • UPDATE – Apple has created a new format that saves the image file as a whole bunch of little blobs, rather than one big one. With that option, when you make changes, only the little blobs that changed need to get updated. This was to make Time Machine work better, and at first I thought it would be perfect for Dropbox. Then I spent a few minutes testing and discovered that the way Dropbox handles conflicts (two computers updating the file at the same time) gets royally hosed when you use this format. Bummer. So, don’t use it.
  • It’s possible to set things up to protect individual files, but it’s complicated. Hopefully it won’t always be.
  • Important! If you only store the password on one machine – Save it somewhere else also!. If you lose that password (if your hard drive crashes or your computer is stolen, for instance), you’re not getting into your strongbox. Ever. That was the whole point, after all.