On Moral Ambiguity

“There are precious few at ease / with moral ambiguities / so we act as though they don’t exist.”

That’s a lyric from the show Wicked, in which the Wizard – here portrayed as wholly a bad guy, rather than an ultimately harmless ‘humbug’ – sings about why he deceived the ignorant and superstitious people of Oz. I find that rather funny: here is a character who is thoroughly villainous, singing to another character who is thoroughly virtuous about how morally ambiguous their situation is. This in a play that is almost painfully black-and-white in its ideas of morality. The ‘ambiguity’ is simply that a character who, in the context of the story, is considered a good guy by most people is actually a bad guy and vice-versa.

I was never that impressed with Wicked as a story (the music’s very good, though), partly because it is so very one-note. Elphaba is a good girl whose only flaw is that her attempts to do good always backfire, and to whom the world is completely unfair for no other reason than that she has green skin. She never accomplishes anything of note, nor, apart from precisely one song, does she ever come close to cutting the impressive figure of the Wicked Witch of the West, to the point where you have to wonder why anyone is afraid of her (even if it’s propaganda, why would the corrupt government try to build up someone who is in fact so thoroughly ineffectual?). She even needs to be rescued by her boyfriend at one point, mostly because she doesn’t actually know how to do magic; she simply has ill-defined powers she doesn’t understand due to circumstances outside her control (Why is this show considered ’empowering’ again?). Meanwhile, the Wizard is completely villainous, though equally unimpressive, while Glinda is only character who could seriously be called ‘ambiguous’ just because she’s too shallow and ditzy to do the right thing until the very end, when she abruptly grows a spine. And the people of Oz are portrayed as complete hypocrites or superstitious morons, ignorantly confident in their own rectitude while viewing the world through the narrowest and most empty-headed of lenses.

There are a lot of ways to describe this, but a depiction of moral ambiguity isn’t one of them.

This is something I notice a lot in modern fiction: modern writers always seem so confident that they are more realistic and complex and full of ‘moral ambiguity’ than stories from the past, when it’s most often quite the reverse. All they do is portray figures who were generally shown to be good before as being evil and vice versa and call that moral ambiguity, or realism, or some such thing.

For a good example of what I mean, compare the original King Kong with Peter Jackson’s remake. In the latter film, Kong is almost entirely a positive character. Sure, he’s implied to have killed many people before, and he kills many people here (the film is extremely inconsistent in its tone), but he’s never really portrayed as wrong for doing so. Ann stops being afraid of him pretty quickly, and she’s completely on his side by the midway mark. Meanwhile, Denham is, if not evil, at the very least a very unsympathetic character; a thoroughly myopic buffoon who causes most of the problems of the film and continually endangers the people around him while doing little or nothing to redeem himself. The same with the ‘human world’ of 1930s New York, which is pretty much played completely as something to be despised.

Now, in the original it was different. Kong was neither the good guy nor the bad guy, he was simply a wild animal; magnificent and sympathetic at times, but always dangerous and unpredictable. Ann never stopped fearing him, for the very good reason that, even though Kong protects her and seems to love her after his own fashion, he’s still a very dangerous creature with little idea of consequence or morality (as shown in the scene where he curiously starts stripping her clothes off). Moreover, his compassion extends only to Ann; everyone else he pretty much kills without a second thought (including a random innocent woman he mistakes for Ann). We sympathize with Kong, but he’s not portrayed as a positive force.

Denham is also a more ambiguous character. Like Kong, he is admirable in his own way, but also rather dangerous. He’s willing to expose other people to danger, but he’s also always going to do what he can to protect them (note his story about the cameraman and the rhino). He takes massive risks, but he isn’t callous about his people, and he’s perfectly willing to put his own life on the line for Ann’s sake (in fact, everyone of the crew practically jumps at the chance to run to her rescue, to the point that they have to turn people down). Yes, he makes a huge mistake in bringing Kong to civilization, but he does it for understandable motives and he at least tries to avoid any unnecessary risks, warning the reporters off when their flashbulbs enrage the monster (in the remake, Denham urges them on to take more photos).

In short, Denham in the original is a basically good man carried away by hubris. Denham in the remake is a callous moron who carelessly gets people killed. Kong in the original is a magnificent, but dangerous wild animal tragically destroyed by his encounter with civilization. Kong in the remake is a victim of the myopic greed of men in the benighted past.

Or take another example: in the original Mighty Joe Young we had the character of Max O’Hara (also played by Robert Armstrong), the show promoter who convinces Jill Young to sign a contract bringing Joe to the States to put him on stage. When she decides she’s had enough, he promises her that after one more show they’ll send Joe home…then keeps pushing the final show back further and further to squeeze a little more cash out of him, until Joe finally snaps and goes on a rampage.

Now, in a modern film, O’Hara would almost certainly be portrayed as thoroughly bad guy: a heartless corporate suit whose only concern was money. But he isn’t: he’s genuinely a decent, kind-hearted man (we see him defending one of his cigar girls from some loutish drunks) who was simply carried away by greed. After things fall apart, he comes to his senses and puts everything on the line to make amends.

That is real moral ambiguity: fundamentally decent people doing bad things because they were tempted or carried away in the moment or because it ‘seemed like a good idea at the time.’ Or ultimately positive forces (such as the civilized world in the original Kong) committing grave errors or being forced by circumstances to destroy something magnificent because there’s no other way.

Wicked has no moral ambiguity; it’s just a good person being ostracized because the people around her are mostly horrible, then ineffectually opposing a corrupt government and bigoted populace. It is only the fact that these characters are ostensibly ones we know from another source where they played different roles that makes it appear to be anything else (ditto for Maleficent).

And this is pretty much how most of the supposed ‘realism’ and ‘ambiguity’ works in contemporary fiction: take a label that the writer imagines means “good guy” for the audience and slap it onto the villain. So, the ‘ambiguity’ is that the police officer is corrupt, or the priest is a hypocrite, or the US Military is evil (was anyone surprised in Daredevil when the Punisher’s former commander turned out to be a bad guy? Does anyone actually expect Muslim extremists – rather than evil veterans – to be behind terrorist attacks in contemporary fiction?).

In fact, of course, this is actually far more one-note and black-and-white than older fiction tended to be. In The Longest Day, for instance, there’s a scene where a US soldier guns down some Germans trying to surrender because he didn’t know what ‘Bitte! Bitte!’ meant (it means ‘please! please!’). That doesn’t mean the Americans are suddenly the bad guys and the Germans the good guys. It doesn’t even mean that this particular soldier suddenly becomes unsympathetic; it’s just one of the tragic mistakes that happens during a war (The Longest Day has a lot of that sort of thing: these days it probably would be condemned for being too sympathetic to the Nazis). Likewise, there’s the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Sam wonders whether the dead Haradrim soldier was really evil after all, or whether he was just a normal person who would much rather have stayed home.

Now, both The Longest Day and The Lord of the Rings are fairly ambitious and sophisticated works, but as the examples from King Kong and Mighty Joe Young show, this extended to lighter fare as well. Just consider, say, The Mummy, where Imhotep is a monster, but also somewhat sympathetic in his deathless love. Or the way Creature from the Black Lagoon created sympathy for the murderous Gill Man, far more so than for at least one of the human characters, who is nevertheless mourned when he gets killed and goes down in the process of partially redeeming himself. Or take The Thing From Another World, where the obsessive Dr. Carrington’s insane actions are discretely erased from the record after the monster is defeated.

I could go on; the point is that I see much more genuine moral ambiguity in old works of fiction that came from a real understanding of right and wrong than in modern works that self-consciously try to be ‘edgy’ or ‘subversive’.

Nanowrimo Sample

Nanowrimo is in full swing and I’m actually on a path to completing it this year! I thought I might share the first chapter that I’ve come up with, just to see what people think. Keep in mind that, as a first draft written more for speed than precision, anything or everything in it is subject to change.

The Sun Spark

Chapter One

            The meteor streaked across the night sky, turning it from black to silver as it sped towards impact.

Theoan Ilokar watched it fall as he rode out from his father’s farm. It was a strange meteor, he thought; too slow, and falling at an odd angel. Yet it moved much too fast to be a descending ship, and besides that it was traveling north to south, in the direction of the desert where no ship would be landing anyway.

Meteors, he knew, were the tools of Veiovis, the King of the Gods and master of the stars. Veiovis used them to alert his people that great events were about to take place, or to mark the changing of dynasties. They also could serve as his most terrible weapons of vengeance, but that he reserved only for the most irredeemably wicked of creatures.

As he sped off into the night, heading south into the wilderness on his skimmer bike, Theoan wondered what this particular meteor might portend. He doubted very much it signaled anything concerning Uanmu: the desert planet and all its inhabitants would hardly merit such a display from Veiovis. There was nothing there except for some scattered farms, like that of his father, and a couple of small settlements. It was far removed from the power of any of the three great nations of Metia, Alaxdria, and Saedemon, and nothing of any importance ever happened there, unless you counted the machinations of the drug trade as being important.

Perhaps that’s it, Theoan thought. Perhaps the gods mean to put an end to the trade. Though I don’t suppose Veiovis would consider it to be worth casting a meteor to herald that.

No, Theoan suspected the meteor was a sign for someone who was only stopping at Uanmu briefly; perhaps some great lord or mighty warrior who, for whatever reason, had paused on this most desolate of worlds on his way to more important places, where there were wonders to find and glory to win.

Theoan sighed to himself. He would dearly love to be able to leave this world and seek adventure and honor amid the suns, to see the great nations and their glorious planets. But, though he suspected his father would allow him to go, it was difficult to find any opportunity. Few ships came to Uanmu, except those connected with the drug trade, and Theoan would sooner stay on this world the rest of his life than soil his hands with that. The more respectable ships, when they came, tended to be small traders stocking up on supplies before venturing off to distant colonies, with neither the ability nor the desire to take on passengers. True, there were a few sky liners that would stop off on Uanmu to pick up and drop off travellers, and he could board one of those, but then where would he go and what would he do? Theoan didn’t know anyone outside of Uanmu, nor did he have any clear idea of what he meant to do if he ever left.

So he had to be content to slack his thirst for adventure with hunting trips to restore the family’s scant supply of meat. Livestock was in short supply on Uanmu, and difficult to keep alive. Theoan’s father had attempted to raise cattle once and had lost the entire stock before the end of the season, so the family relied upon hunting for their meat.

Theoan was secretly glad of this, though ashamed of himself for being so. He loved hunting and loved the opportunity to journey and explore the wilds, if only for a short time. It gave him a respite from the tedium of farm life.

He rode for about thirty miles, well away from any settlements of man, and parked his skimmer beside a great boulder that gleamed ruby-red in the light of Koina, the great, red, solitary moon of Uanmu, which lit up the world in a rusty twilight. Hunting, travelling, and much else was best done at night on the desert world; the sun, Vulmen, was fierce and no friend of man, sun though he was.

Theoan dismounted, but before he shouldered his pack or his rifle, he opened a small compartment on the side of the skimmer and took out three yams, the freshest they had, a small earthen bowl, and a tiny box of incense. He found a flat stone beside a tangled thorn bush and on this he set the bowl and three yams, then tossed a pinch of incense into the bowl and lit it with a quick blast from his hand torch. He knelt and bowed his head as the sweet scent rose into the night air.

“Oh, Aytea, mistress of the wild places, huntress most fair and free,

As I honor thy law and as reverence I thee,

What thou givest to thy hunting beasts, give, lady, unto me.”

He stayed a moment before the makeshift altar, hands clasped in prayer, then rose and, leaving his gifts to the lady of the wilds, he took his pack and his rifle from the skimmer and set off into the night.

Theoan always made sure to offer proper obeisance to the lady of the flashing hair before each hunt. She, he knew, was less friendly to man than most of the gods, preferring the wild beasts and open places and resenting man when he invaded her territory and violated her law. But for that very reason, she was generous to those who honored her and kept her commands. Theoan never set traps, never killed mother or young, and had never once come home empty handed.

There were tales of hunters who had pleased Aytea so much that she permitted them to catch a glimpse of her, beautiful beyond mortal imagination, racing through the wilderness with her hounds at her heels, her flashing hair streaming out behind her like a banner. It was an honor not to be asked for, but only accepted, but Theoan couldn’t help hoping that, someday, the goddess might consider him worthy of it.

For tonight, though, he would be content if could only bring home a supply of meat for another week or two.

He soon struck a game trail and followed it south and east, across the rocky, thorn-strewn wilderness, past dry streams and tangled, bare thickets. Insects fluttered about his ears, or else scurried into cover as he past, some of them nearly as high as his knee. He went with care to avoid stepping on anything venomous, but long experience had taught him how to be cautious without sacrificing speed, and he made a good pace.

Nevertheless, as he traveled further south, he began to grow a little uneasy. He was now very near the edge of the northern plateau, and the Uan might be about. The desert people were sofia – they had language, understood signs, and practiced religion – but they were certainly not civilized. They were mostly pacified by now, and could even be seen in the streets of Kath trading with men and other creatures, but out here, far from any retribution and near the desert where men could not follow, they were liable to be dangerous. Theoan’s father, who had been among the first settlers of the planet and had helped to wrest control of the plateau from the desert people, said the Uan, though they accepted their loss, regarded it as temporary. The “sky people” they said would leave one day, and the Uan would take the “cold lands” back.

The vast majority of the surface of Uanmu was uninhabitable by man; an endless desert of silver sand, baked to a blazing point by the fierce rays of Vulmen. It was said that, down by the equator, the heat was so intense that life of another sort flourished, and that there were whole forests of heat-loving fungi growing out of land burned nearly to glass, though no man had ever seen them unless it was from the sky.

However, in the far north there was a vast plateau rising thousands of feet above the level sands, and up here it was cool enough for more familiar creatures to, if not thrive, at least survive. Here there were deep springs of water that periodically welled up here and there to form small streams or pools, about which clustered spiky thickets or bushes. These could lie dormant for years and years, only to spring to sudden life again when the water returned, so that different regions would become green at different times, and it was beyond any art the men of Uanmu possessed to predict when or where this would be. Theoan had seen time-lapsed images taken from space of green patches flashing and failing on the surface of the plateau like sparks flying from a motherboard.

The chief game animals were the colbucks; shaggy, horned creatures about the size of a small horse that roamed about the plateau in small herds seeking the spots where water and green had briefly returned. The trick was to pick up their trail and follow it until you found water, and then wait. Sooner or later they would come.

The only question was whether Uan would come first.

At last Theoan found what he had been seeking; a wide, still, muddy pool surrounded by thick thorn bushes and stunted trees in full leaf, all dyed red by the moon. The pool, however, was only about a hundred yards from the Burning Road: the pass that lead down out of the plateau to the desert. No man ever went that way, for the desert was death; the Uan had made it in ages long past, and though they didn’t often use it after they had lost control of the plateau, Theoan didn’t much like being so close to it. But he must hunt, and since Aytea had decreed that this was the hunting ground, he would trust her and do so. Still he took care to position himself facing the road and with a boulder at his back.

Once in place, with a good view of the pond, Theoan laid his rifle on his knees and waited, listening. A hot wind blew up from the desert, rustling the trees and spreading a burning smell across the land. A few insects and small mammals scurried about in the underbrush. Theoan gazed up at the stars and suns blazing overhead picking out the ones he knew. There was Argea, the sun of Alaxdria, the nearest of the three nations. And Delo and Faunit and Mistu, which held the forested world of the Nelians, and, faint and golden, Vergina the fair about which spun the blessed world of Achaea. He could identify them, though he had of course never been to any of them, and he never ceased to marvel at the idea that he could lie here on the outskirts of the galaxy and look across lightyears of the Kenon – the empty void of space – upon these great and famous places.

So he sat and waited and thought of the places far away that he could see as mere points of light. Slow hours crawled by and Koina passed across the sky, rose to her height, and began to descend.

At last, as the night wore on to its end, he heard what he had been waiting for; the soft ‘flump-flump’ of the colbucks’ padded feet upon the stony ground and the low chuffs of their breath as they came down to the water to drink.

In the red light of Koina, he soon saw them; a herd of about seven; three juveniles, two females, one adolescent male, and one old, dominant male with great backward-sweeping horns.

That would be the one. As the colbucks plodded down to the brink of the pond and began to drink, Theoan very slowly lifted his rifle and aimed at the old male. But he did not fire; the others needed their water, and he would allow to drink before he took his prey. To remember the needs of the beasts whom you do not hunt was part of the Law of Aytea.

So he waited, but the herd had hardly begun to drink when the young male, who was acting lookout, suddenly stiffened in alarm. For a moment, Theoan thought they had scented or seen him. But no; the beast was looking to the right; toward the pass. A moment later, it gave a great bark of alarm and the whole herd leapt off as one, thundering out of sight into the bushes. They were fast creatures in spite of their bulk, and the echoes of the warning bark had not faded before the whole herd had disappeared.

Theoan lowered his rifle, cursing his ill luck. If he himself had made some mistake and so lost his chance, that would be one thing, but the herd hadn’t spooked at anything he had done. It had been something else; perhaps another hunter, one clumsier than he?

If so, Theoan thought angrily, rising from his place and making his way around the pond to investigate. I’ll give him a lesson!

He soon circled the pond and came to the Burning Road, where he paused to listen and look. He saw no sign of living creature, whether beast or sofai, but he heard, coming up the pass, the sound of footsteps upon the rocks.

A man, then, he thought after listening a moment. And making no more effort at stealth than a ship taking off…but what’s he doing in the pass anyway?

Immediately before him, the road turned a sharp bend behind a ridge as it went down into the pass. Impatient, Theoan strode forward and turned the corner, where he found himself face to face with the interloper in the dull red light.

He froze.

For a moment, he thought his hope had been granted and that here, beautiful beyond mortal thought, was the goddess herself. But the thought lasted only a second, for he saw that the girl before him was swaying, weary and near fainting, which showed her to be but mortal. She staggered forward, her dazed eyes on him, and she seemed to be trying to speak. But before she could articulate a sound, she stumbled and pitched forward in a faint.

Theoan recovered from his shock in time to catch her. She was unconscious now, her head fallen back and her face turned unseeing to the sky. She was pale, dirty, and exhausted, and still Theoan thought he had never known beauty until now.

She was slender and lithe of frame, her skin as clear as starlight. Her long, shining hair rippled down past her waist, and her face was soft and lovely. She was dressed for travel, in a pale dress belted at the waist and covered over with a grey cloak that fell back from her shoulders in her faint.

Theoan touched her forehead and felt the fever. Hastily, he carried her to the pond and bathed her in it, scooping some of the water into her open mouth. She swallowed, which he took to be a good sign.

Suddenly, there came a long, keening cry. Theoan looked up sharply. About a quarter mile off he could see a low hill, on which, silhouetted against the star-filled sky, was a squat, insectile shape. A moment later it was answered by another cry, this one from much farther off.

They couldn’t stay here. With luck, they might make it back to the skimmer before the Uan were on them, but only if they left now.

Theoan slung his rifle and pack over his shoulder, then lifted the girl lightly (Theoan was a strong young man, and the girl was light and slender of build) and set off at a run back up along the trail.

But whether the Uan had been content to drive him off, or whether their calls had not been meant for him at all, Theoan saw no other sign of them that night. His skimmer was standing where he had left it, though he noticed the offering to Aytea was gone. He briefly wondered whether she had guided him to that particular hunting grounds specifically to be ready to find this girl. But that was no matter now.

He stood the bike up and stowed his pack and rifle, then took his seat, gently holding the girl across his lap, and switched on the engine. As usual, it sparked once or twice, then died. He tried twice more, gently cursing the machine in his impatience, before it caught and the repulsor engine flared to life. He pulled a lever and the stands retracted, leaving the bike suspended about two feet off the ground. A moment latter, they were skimming across the land, rising over rocks and hills, taking the fastest route back to his father’s farm.

***

Theoan looked nothing like his father, Anchises. Anchises was a thickset, rather short man with a swarthy face, a heavy beard, and thick black hair. His son, on the other hand, was tall and lithe of build, with sandy brown hair and his face was finely lined. He had taken after his mother, more than his father, though he now could but dimly remember her as a distant image of beauty and gentleness in his early youth.

His younger brother Ergen more closely resembled their father, both in looks and temperament. He too was of a broad, swarthy construction, though taller than his father. Now all three were gathered about the unconscious form of their strange guest as Anchises applied salves to her forehead.

In the lamplight Theoan could see that, if anything, he had underrated her beauty under the moonlight. More than that, her face, though pale and sickly from the heat, was kind and noble as well as beautiful. Yet he also saw that she was young: barely older than he was. Say, nineteen or twenty at the most. Here, surely, he thought, was a lady of some great family; someone of importance in the galaxy. He was staggered to think that their humble house in the wilds of Uanmu was hosting such a guest.

Ergen, however, was frowning.

“You say she came out of the desert?” he said. “What was she doing there?”

Theoan remembered the ‘meteor’ he had seen.

“She must have crashed out there,” he said. “I saw a ship go down, or at least what I think must have been a ship. Looked like a meteor at first.”

“That’s odd. What made it crash, I wonder?”

“Hopefully she’ll be able to tell us soon,” said Theoan, looking a question at his father.

“She’ll be all right,” the old man grunted. “She’s just got a touch of the heat is all; lucky for her she landed at night, else she’d be a dried husk out in the sand.”

Indeed, even as he spoke the girl stirred in her sleep. Her eyelids fluttered, and one hand went to her breast. Suddenly, her dark-blue eyes snapped open and she sprang up as though in alarm, leapt off the table and backed away from the three men, but she stumbled with the effort.

“Woah! Easy there, lady,” said Anchises. “You’re safe, no need to worry.”

The girl was breathing hard, one hand still clutching at the front of her dress, looking from one to the other. Her eyes came last to Theoan.

“You,” she breathed. “I saw you, did I not? In the desert?”

“Well, not quite. In the wilderness, rather, but I guess you came from the desert,” he answered. “You fainted, and the Uan were about, so I brought you here.”

It seemed to take her a moment to process what he had said.

“I see,” she said. “Then I owe you a debt.”

She looked around at the three of them and inclined her head. Her hand at last relaxed and drifted down to meet its fellow across her stomach.

“Thank you, all of you,” she said. “I apologize for my ungraciousness just now.”

“No need for that, m’lady,” said Anchises. “Natural enough; waking up after a faint to find you’re in a strange place. But you ought to sit down; you’re not near well yet.”

“Of course,” she said, feeling her forehead and swaying slightly. Anchises guided her to the couch, where she sank gratefully onto the rough cushions. They gathered respectfully about her, waiting.

For the first time, the girl looked around at the place she had woken up in. It was a low-ceilinged, wide, stone room, with no windows, only a flight of steep steps on one corner running up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. There was a table set with three chairs in the middle of the room, a set of two beds set in the wall at one corner and a third, larger one opposite them. At the other end of the chamber was a work bench and sink, and in the center of one wall was a small shrine, with plinths set with idols of Aytea, Pellinor the Valiant, god of war, journeys, and heroic deeds, and Chloem the Bountiful, goddess of farming and harvest. Beneath the three was a bright model of Vulmen, the sun of Uanmu. A spear, telescoped all way down, hung on the wall beside the shrine, next to a badly battered buckler.

The girl seemed to take comfort from what she saw, for she smiled and turned her face back to her hosts.

“Please sit,” she said. “I am not so great a person as that.”

They did so.

“If you please, m’lady,” said Anchises. “I’m sure we’d like to know just who you are and how you ended up in a place like this.”

“As to the latter I’m not quite sure myself,” she said. “Since I do not know where I am.”

“You are on Uanmu,” said Anchises. “About twelve miles south of the port of Kath.”

“Uanmu!” she exclaimed. “I might have known, but that is far out of my way. As to who I am, my name is Nata, and I am daughter to one of the humbler lords of Metia. My father is attached to our kingdom’s diplomatic corps, but he is aged before his time and is unable to travel, so I took his place on an envoy to Achaea. The mission on which we embarked was of tremendous importance, not only to the Achaean League, but to the galaxy as a whole, and it was thought to be kept a great secret. But, alas! My ship was waylaid by pirates and driven off course. The villains finally caught up to us in this system, and I was forced to flee. I…I do not know if any others escaped. I sought to land near the cities that I could see from the sky, but the escape craft was unresponsive and I crashed in the desert. You who live here must know well what I experienced in travelling from the downed craft to the head of the long pass up into the hills. I believe it is only by the help of the gods that I am yet alive. And, of course, by your help,” she added, smiling on Theoan, who felt his heart leap at the radiance of her smile, and still more at her words.

“I think we have the Lady of the Wilds to thank for that,” he said. “She led me to where I might find you.”

“Many thanks to her, but you are the one who cared for me and bore me back here,” she said. “What is your name?”

“Theoan, my lady. Theoan Ilokar. This is my father, Anchises, and my brother, Ergen.”

“Pardon me,” she said turning to Anchises. “I ought to have asked you first. I suppose I am not quite recovered.”

“No worries, m’lady,” he said. “Now, I guess you must be starving after all that. We don’t have much to offer you, I’m afraid; not much grows here, but what we have you’re welcome to.” He turned to his sons. “You two get supper on; best we have, understand?”

They nodded and hurried to the storeroom to get the yams and melons and the few bits of salted meat that still remained from Theoan’s last hunting trip. These Ergen, who was far the better cook, set to frying while Theoan prepared the table and got out one of their precious flasks of wine. Meanwhile, Anchises sat talking to Nata, and Theoan’s eyes kept drifting to that end of the room. Her beauty seemed to increase rather than diminish every time he looked at her, possibly because she was now awake and animated and seemed to be fast recovering from her faint. She was talking to Anchises about his farm, inquiring about Uanmu and its situation and history, and seemed perfectly at her ease. Every time she moved her head, the lamplight seemed to glitter off of her long, honey-colored hair like the sun on rippling water.

She glanced his way, and Theoan abruptly realized he’d been standing still, staring at her, for several seconds. He hastily returned to preparing the dinner. As he turned back to the counter, he saw Ergen throwing him a rather stern look, and he felt himself growing red with embarrassment.

Soon everything was ready, and when they had poured out a libation for the gods they set to. Nata was evidently starved, for though she maintained her poise and grace, she ate ravenously and complimented them on their cooking in a most gracious manner. As they ate, Nata continued to ask Anchises, and now the other two as well, about Uanmu. Theoan tried hard to eat and not to look at her more than was necessary.

“I came with the first wave of settlers, ‘bout twenty-odd years ago,” Anchises said. “That was just about the time of the Darien War, and we were looking for somewhere out of the way, where we could manage our own affairs and not get caught up in the League’s problems, begging your pardon. Anyway, Kath was the first place we founded, and we had a stiff job keeping the Uan off. They didn’t have much use for the plateau, or the ‘cold lands’ as they call it, but they weren’t gonna give it up without a fight. Savage they are, and I don’t think they know what fear is. We lost a lot of good people in that fight, but in the end we won out. Helped that they didn’t know about shields, so we could hit ‘em from a distance, else I don’t know if we could have done much.

“Anyway, in the end we beat them badly enough that they acknowledged our rule of the plateau in exchange of us swearing that we wouldn’t touch these certain places that they count as sacred. These were mostly high rock places we couldn’t get to without a jetpack anyway, so it wasn’t much to us.

“Only, just after we beat the Uan, that’s about when the cartels showed up. Suppose we should’ve seen it coming; a functional space port out in the middle of nowhere, far from League authority, naturally it’s gonna attract an unpleasant crowd. So, about a year after we secured our land from the Uan, we found we were under the heel of the drug dealers. Our great campaign for freedom didn’t amount to much in the end.”

“Then why do you stay?” Nata asked.

“It’s our land,” said Anchises. “Lot of good people died for it, and we don’t mean to make that go to waste. Besides, the cartels don’t bother us farmers too much; they all stay in Kath and Maut and places like that. They buy our wares and we each mind our own business for the most part. Won’t pretend we like it, but we get by.”

“I see,” she said. “Now, as for me, you have been exemplary hosts, but I must be leaving at once. My mission, as I have said, is vitally important, and I am already delayed. Which is the nearest space port?”

“That would be Kath,” said Anchises. “But I think you ought to stay at least another day. Still surprised you survived the desert at all, even at night.”

“No, I am afraid I cannot do that,” she said. “But I am all right, really; your care has been excellent and I am perfectly well to travel.”

“Well, that’s for you to say, lady, but what do intend to do?”

“I must find transport to Achaea,” she said. “Can such a thing be found in that city?”

“I suspect so,” said Anchises. “There’s usually a liner or two coming in on their way to better ports. Only, you should know that Kath isn’t the sort of city where anyone should go alone, especially a young lady like yourself. I’ll have my boys go with you.”

“Thank you,” she said, though she looked a little uncertain. “If you think it is best…”

“It is,” he said. “I’d also recommend you wait until nightfall; travelling during the day isn’t the best idea, and you’ll be less conspicuous at night.”

“No,” she said. “I’ve already lost too much time, and my errand is an urgent one. Day or night, I must be going as soon as may be.”

“If you say so. In that case, we best get started. You just wait here and rest, m’lady, and we’ll make ready to start.”

The journey to Kath was not far; a matter of twelve miles or so (none of the settlers would dwell farther than a night’s journey on foot from the settlement), and so their gear was light; water rations, cooling packs (which they always took whenever they traveled anywhere), a few small tools, and of course their ‘Peks’ – Personal Energy and Kinetic Shields – which just about every civilized person wore if there was the slightest chance of trouble. These shields didn’t guard against fists or blades, but could repel energy blasts or projectiles, at least below a certain size, which was certainly a comfort, especially since the Uan could use rifles.

Once they’d gotten on their gear, the brothers ventured upstairs (their rooms were underground as protection from the heat) to prepare the skimmer, which needed to have its sidecar put on if all three of them were going to ride it. They’d done this many times before, and it wasn’t a long job, though with the sun up and the hot wind in through cracks around the door, it was more unpleasant than usual.

Just as they were finishing, Anchises came up, alone. He had his spear in hand, still telescoped down.

“Before you go I want a word with you two in private,” he said. “First of all, you’ll take this just in case,” he handed the spear to Ergen. “Take your rifle too,” he added to Theoan.

They looked at him in surprise.

“You think we’ll run into trouble?” Ergen asked, accepting the spear automatically.

“I don’t know what to think, except that I suspect she isn’t telling us everything,” their father answered.

“She said herself she wasn’t,” said Theoan. “But so what?”

“I don’t mean that,” said Anchises. “I mean something about her story doesn’t ring true to me. Why is she the only one to get away from the ship if it was attacked?””

“We don’t know if she was; others might have landed elsewhere.”

“Ain’t likely; escape craft tend to hone in on each other and stick together unless they’re told not to. If that was the case, why? If not, why’s she the only one who got off?”

“What are you saying?” asked Theoan.

“Only that there’s more going on here than she’s telling or that we know,” said Anchises.

He frowned, looking back down at the trapdoor.

“I don’t necessarily think she’s lying or doing wrong,” he said. “But she is dangerous. The sooner she’s gone, the better.”

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: The Lepus in ‘Road Work’

Author Note: The characters and setting of this story is one that I’ve been working on for years, and whipped this one up mostly as a fun means of practicing their voices and interactions. I present it for your consideration, with a request for feedback, especially as to the characters themselves. 

 

Not far from the small town of Mineral Springs, Colorado, a side-road ran down to a little wilderness beside a mountain stream. Picnickers, hikers, and young couples often came down to this little spot in fine weather to enjoy the view, the clean air, and the music of the water as it ran over its stony bed.

On one cloudy morning in August, when the weather was too hot for most people to be out there, you nevertheless would have found, had you gone down that road, a battered old camping van and two teenage boys sitting out in the oppressive heat.

One of the two, a long-limbed, gawky boy with curly brown hair and somewhat quizzical face, sat on a folding lawn chair reading under the shade of a tree. His friend, a skinny, freckled youth of average height and with eyes so dark they appeared uniformly black, stood by the side of the stream, throwing rocks across it. The stream was good fifteen feet across, and what was more he was aiming for a tree that stood an extra twenty or thirty feet back from the river’s edge. Yet the hefty stones with which he practiced more often than not soared straight past the tree, or else struck it with a crack that proclaimed they had considerably more travel time in them had they not been stopped.

“I definitely prefer this kind of environment,” said Harry Davila without looking up from his book. “I think close contact with real substances is much healthier for people than constantly dealing with manmade ones. You know; real stone, real wood, unprocessed water, that sort of thing, as opposed to metal or plastic. I suspect that’s one of the reasons cities are so full of crazy people.”

“If you say so,” said Adam Richard, weighing another stone. He sent it hurtling across the stream, where it struck the tree with a resounding crack.

“Missed,” he muttered.

“You did? What are you aiming at?” Harry asked, looking up.

“That knot in the trunk; you see it?”

Harry leaned forward, squinting across the stream.

“No.”

“Oh. Well, I can, and I’m trying to hit it,” said Adam. “I got it on my first try, but I can’t get it again.”

“It’s usually that way,” said Harry, leaning back and returning to his book. “First time is just pure instinct, then you start overthinking it and miss.”

“Hm, that’s first time I’ve been accused of overthinking anything,” said Adam. He threw another stone, which missed the tree entirely. He made an oddly high-pitched sound of frustration, then scratched his mousy brown hair irritably.

“It’s so hot,” he said. “Think I can take the wig off? There’s no one around.”

“Di’ll flip if she comes back and sees you letting your ears fly free,” Harry reminded him.

That was too true to argue with. Their friend, Diana Watson, was the conscientious one of the trio. She was also the most irritable, and though that could be fun, Adam decided it wasn’t worth it in this case. She’d gone into town for supplies, insisting on going alone as the other two had a tendency to buy a lot of junk food, but she would be back soon.

“Oh, speak of the devil,” said Adam, his nose twitching. “Here she comes!”

He grinned and leapt about ten feet high and thirty-odd long, landed behind the camper, then repeated the feat several more times, soaring through the pines until he landed beside the main road, where Diana was puffing along with three heavy bags full of groceries and other necessities.

“Hi, there,” said Adam as he landed beside her. “Need a hand?”

Diana jumped slightly at his appearance.

“What are you doing?!” she snapped in a low voice, looking around. “You’re supposed to be keeping a low profile! What if someone saw you?”

“No one around but you,” said Adam, tapping his nose. “I can smell it.”

“Okay, but what if a car happened to be passing by, and…”

Adam tapped his ears, which were hidden under convincingly human facsimiles that were part of his wig.

“What’s the good of having all the powers of a rabbit if I let young ladies carry their own groceries?” he said, relieving her of the bags.

“And what’s the good if trying to stay hidden if you go jumping around a public road?” she answered.

Adam looked at her, smiling a little. Diana had untidy gold-red hair, heavily tanned skin, turquoise eyes behind square glasses, and was wearing dirty overalls, a work shirt, and a perpetual scowl. In his seventeen years of life and their recent travels across the country, he had yet to see anyone better worth looking at.

“You know,” he said. “If we really wanted to keep a low profile, we should have sent someone less likely to attract attention into town. You know, like Valerie Blake in a bikini.”

Her eyes flashed indignantly. Talking about her beauty was one of the surest ways to annoy Diana, so Adam made a point to do it every day.

“Oh, don’t start that!” she snapped. “And who’s Valerie Blake?”

“Uh, the actress?” said Adam. “The insanely gorgeous actress? She was huge in the fifties and sixties. At least in certain strategic areas.”

Shifting the bags to one hand, he traced an hourglass with the other.

“We gotta get you cultured,” he said as they turned down the side road.

“Says the boy talking about the breast size of a woman who must be in her sixties by now.”

“Hey, once a beauty, always a beauty, as you yourself will learn one day.”

Her scowl became more pronounced.

“I don’t think that’s true at all,” she said.

“Oh, don’t talk like that!” he said with faux concern. “Things may look bad now, but I’m sure we’ll all live to a ripe old age, whatever the Brotherhood or the government tries to do.”

“That’s not what I…” she threw up her hands in exasperation. “God, you are so immature!”

“Green as a bean,” Adam agreed. “Speaking of which, did you get beans?”

“Yes,” she said. “I got everything on the list, plus a few cans of beef soup for Harry and me.”

“You know, I kind of miss meat,” said Adam sadly. “It used to taste so good, and I used to have good taste. Though I suppose I still would if anyone cared to stew me up and serve me with red wine.”

Diana, as often happened, had to take a moment to untangle his stream of ideas. She was a certified genius when it came to mechanics, to the point that she had attended MIT by the time she was sixteen, but word play was outside of her range of expertise.

“You are disgusting,” she said, though Adam had seen the corner of her mouth twitch.

“Hey, Di,” said Harry without looking up as they approached the camper. “How was town?”

“Hot,” she said. “How was doing nothing?”

“Cool,” he answered. “And I wasn’t doing nothing; I was contemplating reality. I was saying to Adam that I think places like this, with constant contact with real substances like stone and wood and so forth is really much healthier for the human soul than when you’re surrounded by artificial substances like glass and metal.”

“I don’t think it makes a difference,” she said, flopping down into a lawn chair and gratefully accepting a glass of water from him. “Fundamentally, it’s all atoms anyway.”

“Ah, but that’s not the fundamental substance,” said Harry. “It’s the stone that is the reality…”

The usual debate between Harry – who read philosophy – and Diana – who was an engineering prodigy – was this time cut short when the phone in the camper rang.

“Oh, what does he want now?” Diana sighed.

The camper had been a gift (or what he called an ‘investment in word of mouth’) by their good friend, C. Honesty Martini; a travelling salesman who seemed to have more and more unusual connections than anyone in his job ought to. The camper phone was, as far as they knew, only linked to him.

“Hey, kids!” he said over the speaker. “How’re my three favorite customers?”

“We’re doing okay, Martini,” said Adam before either of his more cynical companions could answer. “What’s up?”

“You, uh, you don’t happen to be anywhere near Lamar, Colorado, do yah?”

Adam looked at Harry.

“About two hour’s drive,” he answered. “As if you didn’t know exactly where we were.”

“Oh, now that’s hurtful! Listen, I just got word from one of my buddies in WEFUA…”

“’Wefua?’” Diana repeated dubiously.

“The official government ‘We Fouled Up Agency,’” he answered.

“That’s not a real thing,” said Harry.

“Sure it is!” said Martini. “It’s just not the real acronym, but it is more accurate and, you know, technically none of us are supposed to know about it.”

“Where have we heard that before?” said Adam.

“Well, anyway, the point is that it seems a truck carrying a, uh, certain chemical got hijacked not so long ago, and last report is they’re probably heading in your direction on the way to Colorado Springs.”

The three friends looked at each other.

“What kind of chemical?” Diana asked.

“The ‘lots of people die’ kind,” said Martini. “What I haven’t mentioned yet is that the hijackers were your old friends the Brotherhood of Alecto. I think you know what they’ll do with it.”

Adam shuddered. The Brotherhood were a conspiracy of intellectual fanatics who believed that society was doomed to collapse and that the best thing they could do was hasten its fall. Them having poison gas and heading for Colorado Springs was a recipe for disaster; one that they could blame on the government, thereby not only killing a lot of people, but fostering unrest and dissent. Exactly the kind of thing they liked best.

Harry, however, was frowning.

“Martini, are you completely sure that’s what’s going on? I mean, you’re not going to accidentally send us to attack an Army convoy, are you?”

“Now, come on!” said Martini with a hurt tone in his voice. “Kid, has Martini ever been wrong yet?”

“We have no way of knowing that,” Harry answered.

“Well, the answer’s no,” said Martini, with a trace of irritation. “So, if you’re not too busy, please go relieve the Brotherhood of that death truck before it hurts anyone?”

“And the reason you’re not going to the government with this information is…” Harry asked.

“Working on it, but you know I am just a salesman from Brooklyn; I don’t exactly have the ear of the President, kid.”

“We’ll take care of it,” said Adam. “Let you know when we’re done…”

“Or when we’re dead,” Harry put in.

“Oh, come on, Harry!” Adam said. “I was just telling Di how she’d live to a ripe old age!”

“And how would we let him know if we were dead?” Diana asked.

“Oh, trust me; there are ways,” said Harry with an evil grin.

“You can tell us about it on the way,” said Adam. “Meanwhile, let’s suit up!”

 

The scenic overlook gave a glorious view of the highway as it snaked its way back and forth up the slopes of the Rockies on its way to Colorado Springs. The camper was parked near the top of the pass, and three friends stood peering down over the miles and miles of road below. Adam and Harry were looking through binoculars, but the helmet on Diana’s ‘Daedalus Project’ included a built-in zoom function.

“I see it,” she said. “There’s the truck, and three escort Humvees; one in front, two in back.”

Adam turned his binoculars in the direction she indicated.

“Got ‘em,” he said. “Probably some pretty decent firepower in there, though I don’t suppose the Brotherhood has the manpower the Army would have; it’s probably mostly for show.”

“If they don’t have the manpower, how did they hijack it?” Harry asked.

“I suppose we’ll find that out,” said Adam. “Though, I suppose before we start kicking and punching people, we should just make doubly sure Martini isn’t wrong this time.”

“I don’t see why,” said Harry “It’s not like the government can be much angrier at us after we blew up Fort Ovid.”

“Yeah, but I’d really rather not actually be what they accuse me of being,” Adam replied. He pulled his brown cowl over the top of his face and rotated his long, furry ears. If nothing else, it felt good to get them into the fresh air. He double-checked the blunt claws on his hands and feet and thumped the ground once or twice. His ‘costume consisted of the cowl that covered the top of his face and a simple brown jumpsuit that left his hands and feet bare so as to utilize his claws.

“The Lepus is ready,” he said. “How about you, Garuda?”

Diana stood erect. The Daedalus Project consisted of an integrated system of servo-powered gauntlets of a light, strong metal, gas-jet boots of the same, the face-concealing helmet, and, most striking of all, great metal wings that sprouted from the armored back and shoulders. Beneath it she wore a form-fitting outfit of crimson leather that left her midriff bare for ventilation. All of this had been her own design and creation, utilizing technology she herself had invented.

“Garuda ready,” she said.

Harry, who wore a simple mask, such as might be found in a masquerade ball back in the nineteenth century, double-checked his wrist-communicator, of which Martini had provided all three of them for one low, low price (“Guaranteed clear sound and impossible to hack”).

“Aristo ready,” he said.

“All right; let’s go be good guys!” said Lepus. He climbed onto Garuda’s back, holding tight to the handles. She fired the gas jets in her boots, launching them into the air, where her wings carried them aloft with powerful beats. The climbed higher and higher, almost to the cloud level before Garuda banked out and began soaring in the direction of the convoy.

“Drop me off on the truck,” he said. “I’m just gonna make sure…”

Garuda nodded and began her dive. They had practiced this maneuver many times. It probably would have been suicide for a normal man, but for the Lepus, with his muscles and reaction times Enhanced by rabbit DNA, it was perfectly safe, just a little tricky to time correctly.

Garuda dove on a straight path for the truck, her brilliant mind calculating the angle of interception almost without conscious thought. Then, just as they were about thirty feet overhead, she suddenly spread her wings and swept up in a steep arc. And just at the bottom of the arc, as they passed directly over the truck, the Lepus let go of her back, turned a summersault, and landed neatly on the roof of the cab.

He didn’t waste a moment, but almost before he’d fully landed he caught the edge of the roof, swung himself onto the running board, and opened the passenger side door.

“Hi, there,” he said, leaning in and smiling at the driver, who was in army uniform. “This may sound like a strange question, but are you really with the U.S. Military?”

He had no sooner finished speaking than a long, black, hair-lined leg shot out from the man’s back and whacked him with the force of a sledgehammer. The Lepus yelled in surprise and just managed to hang onto the door, which swung outward with him clinging precariously to the edge.

“So, that’s a no, then,” he commented as he flung himself from the door to the hood just before two of the bio-mechanical spider legs reached out and tore it off.

“Lepus? What was that?” Garuda demanded. “What happened?”

“Martini’s never been wrong yet,” he answered dryly as all four of the driver’s telescoping spider legs reached out of the cab for him.

“Should you really be driving, Arachnus?” Lepus asked him conversationally as he ducked under one leg. “I mean,” he caught another and used it to swing himself over a third. “What’s you’re vision rating?” A complicated mid-air twist to avoid two at once. “Five–five–five–ten–ten?”

Arachnus’s five red eyes glared at him, but he said nothing, of course. He wasn’t a talker.

Dodging four biomechanical spider-legs, each one capable of shooting a sticky, web-like substance or impaling him straight through, was obviously a no-win scenario. Lepus sprang off the hood just as one of the legs sought to hit him with its webbing. The webbing only pinned one of the other legs to the hood, while the Lepus soared in a high arc and landed on the back of the tanker trailer itself.

Behind him, the men in the pursuing jeeps had not missed what was happening. The first jeep swerved left, and a man leaned out of the window, a rifle in hand, aiming at the Lepus.

Before he could open fire, Garuda swept down like a bolt of lightning, hit the road in front of the jeep, and swept out her wing. There was no time for the driver to even attempt to avoid it. As the jeep flew past her, the razor-sharp edge of her wing sliced into the side of the vehicle, tearing apart the tires and ripping into the undercarriage. The jeep, running suddenly on two bald tires, jerked violently left, flipped and rolled several times before crashing up against the guard rail on its side.

But even before it had begun its spin, Garuda had to fling up her wing to guard against the barrage of automatic rifle fire coming from the rear jeep as it zoomed past. She fired her gas jets, launching herself into the air, still shielding her vulnerable body with her metal wings as she turned a summersault over the cliff and out of sight, where she finally spread her wings and soared back into the air to rejoin the chase.

As she did so, Garuda saw that the men in the jeep had put away the rifle. Instead, one of them rose out of an opening in the roof carrying a belt-fed machine gun: a weapon that her wings had never had to block before, and which she doubted they would be up to. She banked hard as the man braced the bipod on the roof and opened fire.

Just as he did so, however, the Lepus suddenly landed on the roof of the jeep, caught the gun barrel and shoved it downward. As the weapon was no longer braced on his shoulder, the recoil jerked it violently back and into the man’s face. Lepus then snatched the machine gun out of his hand and chucked it onto the road in front of the jeep, which rocked as it ran over it.

Before the gunner had quite realized what had happened, the Lepus seized him by the back of his shirt, pulled him out of the jeep and tossed him onto the road. That would hurt him, but he figured the guy would survive, as they weren’t going too fast: only about forty miles an hour. This done, he hopped down the hole himself into the back seat. It was then he saw that there were two in the car; the driver and another man in the passenger seat. The latter was already drawing a pistol. As he brought it to bear, the Lepus kicked it upwards, sending the gun rebounding against the roof and probably shattering the man’s hand in the process.

“Back seat driving!” Lepus declared as he leaned forward, seized the driver’s head, and slammed it into the wheel, resulting in a quick honk of the horn and the car skidding and sliding back and forth as though trying to evade enemy fire.

“Ooh, what’s this do?” Lepus seized what he was pretty sure was the emergency break and pulled. A truly terrible sound resulted as the brakes ground against the wheels, probably doing considerable damage to both.

Meanwhile, the man in the passenger seat, though with one hand shattered had yet one more with which to fight. With this he drew a large, wicked-looking knife and stabbed at the Lepus. But the latter’s rabbit-like senses had already detected the move before the weapon had even cleared the scabbard, and it was child’s play for him to catch the attack, turn it, and thrust the blade deep into the wiring under the steering column.

The driver, though dazed, still tried to slam his elbow in the Lepus’s face. Again, he easily caught the attack, dropped it, and punched the man in the side of the head, then reversed into an elbow for the passenger seat.

“You know, I don’t have a license, but I think you really should stop this car,” he said. Then, to make sure he got the message, Lepus braced himself on the two front seats, swung his legs up, and kicked the steering column with enough force to nearly dislodge it entirely. The jeep, now completely out of control and skidding on its brakes, slid straight in the guardrails, though not with enough force to go through them.

“Told you so,” said the Lepus, and leaving the two bruised and dazed men to the care of the airbags (only the passenger side had gone off properly, due to the bent steering column), he leapt straight up through the roof and, as he had expected from hearing her approach, caught the outstretched, gauntleted hands of Garuda.

“Two cars down,” he said as he swung up onto her back.

“But neither of them the one we need,” she said. “And I don’t think crashing it is the right strategy for something carrying thirty tons of poison gas.”

“No, I see your point,” said Lepus. “Aristo, any ideas?”

“Maybe,” came his voice over the wrist communicators “How strong is that tank?”

“Pretty strong if it’s carrying chemicals,” said Garuda.

“So, what happens if you just detach it from the truck?”

She considered.

“It’ll tip over for sure, but probably won’t break. Do you know how to uncouple a truck?”

“Doubt it,” Lepus answered.

“Well, there are a lot of safety procedures we’re going to have to ignore, but basically there’s a release lever under the trailer. Unhook it and pull it out, and tractor should be released; there are also a few wires between the cab and the trailer that you should remove first, because it’s going to be unstable enough as it is without them tugging it along.”

“Lever under the trailer,” said Lepus. “Got it.”

“I’ll keep Arachnus busy while you’re at it.”

“Just be careful; you know what he can do.”

“You be careful; you’re one trying to unhook a thirty-ton trailer while it’s in motion.”

She soared over the truck, and Lepus dropped behind the cab. He saw a pair of wires connecting the cab and the trailer. Garuda said to unhook them, so he grabbed them and just pulled. Hot air blew out of one of them, sparks flew from the other. He dropped them, leaving them to bounce against the ground dangerously close to the wheels. This done, he looked under the front of the trailer and saw what was probably the release lever, though in order to reach it he had to position himself almost completely under the trailer itself, not to mention that it seemed to have to be pulled to the side. Uncomfortably aware of the racing concrete mere feet from his face, the Lepus dug the claws of his left hand into the bottom of the truck bed and reached with his right to take hold of the lever.

It absolutely refused to budge. The pressure of the thirty-ton tank being pulled at forty miles an hour up the slope of a mountain made it absolutely immovable. He tugged repeatedly, but to no avail.

As soon as she had dropped off the Lepus, Garuda landed on the hood of the truck and swept her wing through the front of the cab, shattering the windshield and slicing through the frame. She would have sliced Arachnus’s head off had he not ducked, as she had expected him to do. He came up with one leg driving straight for her side. She blocked it, and a second shot a stream of web at her face, which her other wing caught. The acetylene torch in her gauntlet blazed to life and she sliced through the sticky substance before he could pull her off the truck.

Two more legs swept out, and Garuda fired her jets to fly above them, beat her wings to flip herself over and land on the roof of the cab, which, having had the frame severed, sagged under her weight.

Arachnus sent two legs up even as she landed, catching her under her wings and tossing her back into the air. She steadied herself with a heavy beat, but streams of web shot out from both legs, snagging the wings. She fired the torches in both gauntlets and burned through the web, then banked hard to avoid another shot.

Meanwhile, Arachnus’s lower two legs twisted around the cab and stabbed at the Lepus, who had just managed to make the lever budge slightly before he was forced to release it to roll out of the way of the leg that stabbed down into the truck bed. He caught the other as it thrust at it and used it to leverage himself up, then kicked the first, leaving the end limp and broken, but that wasn’t enough to stop it from whacking him straight up into the air, where Garuda caught him under the shoulders and flew him out of range of Arachnus.

“That didn’t work,” he commented, watching as the working legs sprayed their sticky webbing over the coupling, ensuring the release lever would be even more soundly stuck in place. “But at least I cut those wires you told me to.”

“That just means the trailer has no brakes now,” she answered.

“Oh, well, that seems short-sighted,” he said in a disappointed tone as he swung up onto her back. “You mean now we can’t either uncouple it or stop it?”

“It’s not my fault!” she snapped. “That just the way these things are built!”

“Hey, guys?” said Aristo. “Just so you know, at this rate you’ll be over Colorado Springs in about five minutes, so maybe stop them sooner rather than later?”

“Yeah, we’re working on that,” said Lepus. “Sort of a two steps forward, three steps back kind of thing…”

He paused, suddenly eying the front jeep, then the truck.

“Hold on,” he said. “I think I’ve got an idea. A good one this time!”

“I told you…”

“Garuda, you uncouple the trailer; you’ve got the torches, you can just melt the darn thing, right?”

“I guess, but what about…?”

“I’ll take care of itsy-bitsy, but first drop me off in the at front car.”

“I don’t get it,” she said, putting on speed to catch up to the jeep.

“You’ll see; just wait for the signal.”

With that, he rolled off of her back and dropped onto the jeep even as she called after him, “What signal?!”

He landed square on the roof, then, hearing the commotion inside, caught the luggage rack, swung himself out of the way of the bullets tearing through the roof, and kicked through the rear passenger window.

“Hi, don’t mind me,” he said as the man in the front seat aimed a pistol at him and he batted it aside, laying open the man’s hand with his claws. Another passenger had been dazed by his entrance and Lepus quickly elbowed him to ensure he stayed that way. “I’m just picking up something…”

He pulled himself over the back seat into the trunk, where several heavy steel boxes were waiting with ammo, weapons, and so on. He began to quickly rummage through these, ignoring the shouting and scrambling men in the front of the vehicle. Hearing the driver reach for his own pistol, Lepus chucked a box of 7.62 rounds at him, hitting him square in the forehead, and resumed his search.

“Eureka!” he exclaimed, finding what he sought. He pocketed it, pulled himself back through the rear seats and leaned into the front past the dazed driver.

“Here, I know a shortcut…” he said, grabbing the wheel and spinning it sharply to the right. The jeep swerved violently and drove straight for the ditch that ran along the highway. Before it could impact, Lepus kicked open the rear door and jumped out, leaving the Brotherhood men to plow unceremoniously off the road.

Lepus hit the ground running just as the truck barreled past him. Fort miles an hour was nothing to the Lepus; he matched the truck’s speed, then passed it, his long, clawed, powerful feet tearing across the asphalt. He jumped and caught the side of the hood, then swung himself on top of it to face the driver.

Arachnus was clearly furious; his lips were parted and his glistening black mandibles were deployed. He thrust a leg at the Lepus, who ducked, then jumped the next attack, caught the upper leg, and used it to swing himself into the cab.

“Pull over; we need to check your brake lights.”

Arachnus drove another leg directly at Lepus’s face, but this time Lepus caught it, bent it, and as the sticky web squirted from the end it stuck something to the dashboard: something Lepus had just produced from his pocket.

“Cry baby, cry,” he said, as he pulled the pin out of the tear gas grenade and pulled himself up onto the roof of the cab before leaping back onto the trailer. A second later, there was bang, and the entire cab was filled with choking white smoke.

Garuda, seeing this, swung low and landed on the truck bed before the trailer.

“That was the signal?” she asked as she bent down and started work on the coupling.

“Obviously,” Lepus answered.

“And it was really that hard to just say ‘wait till the gas grenade goes off’?”

“I consider alliteration appallingly unprofessional,” Lepus answered. “Look out!”

Arachnus had left the cab and now stood over it on his lower two spider-legs. His five eyes were milky and clouded, and he seemed to be having trouble breathing, but all that just made him more enraged. His two upper legs drove down at Garuda, and Lepus jumped at them, gathering them both in his arms and swinging them out to the side of the truck as if they were vines, pulling Arachnus around with him and nearly upsetting the cyborg’s balance.

It was as he did this that the Lepus’s keen senses noticed two things. First that the steering wheel had been webbed into place. Second, that they were rapidly running out of road.

“Okay,” he said into his wrist communicator. “We’re heading for a hair-pin turn with no one at the wheel.”

“And no brakes either!” Garuda reminded him.

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” said Aristo in a resigned voice.

Before Lepus could respond or suggest a solution, Arachnus suddenly swung his legs back the opposite direction, and Lepus now found himself being flung through the air like a rock from a sling. He hit the road, rolled to his feet, and raced after the truck as fast as he could go, which was considerably faster than the truck, but not quite fast enough.

Arachnus drew both legs back, aiming at Garuda, who was furiously trying to cut the trailer free. In a moment he would either knock her off the truck, or stab her, or web her to the truck bed, any one of which would certainly result in the truck crashing and releasing the chemicals, not to mention probably kill her.

Without breaking stride, the Lepus swept a good-sized rock from the side of the road and without pausing to think or aim flung it at Arachnus. It hit him square in the face, knocking him backwards and out of sight.

Then, even as he caught up with the truck, the trailer suddenly came loose. It dropped forward onto the road, missing Garuda by feet, and sending up a shower of sparks and shattering asphalt as it skidded and turned. The Lepus sprang onto the roof, Garuda launched herself into the air, braced her feet against it and beat her wings as hard as she could, trying to slow it down, to steady it, but it was far too heavy for them to have much effect. It slowed, turned, and tipped onto its side with a crash.

Meanwhile, the truck continued to charge forward. They saw Arachnus, who had somehow managed to hold on, rising over the roof and the smoke, glaring back at them…then he seemed to realize his position and turned just in time to see himself and the truck crashed through the barrier and fly out off the cliff.

Garuda and the Lepus both let out sighs of relief as the found themselves finally standing still.

“We all safe and intact?” the Lepus asked.

Garuda scanned the tanker with her visor.

“Looks like it,” she said. “I’m not detecting any leakage.”

“That’s good to know, but I meant you.”

“Of course I’m alright,” she said with a slightly defensive air.

The Lepus smiled and turned to his communicator.

“Hey, Aristo? All clear here. Best call WEFUA and let them know their poison gas is waiting for them to pick it up.”

“I’ll try the State Troopers; they can pass the message along,” Aristo answered. “Everyone still have all their parts?”

The Lepus felt his ears.

“I do, and Garuda’s parts look as good as ever.”

“Excuse me?!”

“I meant your wings,” Lepus said.

“No, you didn’t,” said Aristo. “You guys heading back?”

“Probably best we keep an eye on it until the coppers arrive,” said Lepus. “You know, we did leave a lot of Brotherhood folk along the way, and it’d be embarrassing to do all that work and then just have them walk up and open it when our backs were turned.”

“Right. See you later,” said Aristo.

The Lepus and Garuda sat down together on top of the overturned tanker full of poison gas, resting their feet on what had been the top catwalk and enjoying the moment’s peace. Diana lifted her visor, her face shining with sweat, and Adam looked at her a moment, smiling.

“Not a bad day’s work,” he said. “Great job cutting this thing through, by the way.”

“Thanks,” she said. “And that was a good throw.”

“Wasn’t it?” he said. “I think I’ve got a gift: maybe I should try out for the Majors.”

She rolled her eyes.

“You’d have to not be a wanted fugitive for that,” she said.

“Yeah, I suppose,” he said. “Plus there’s a prejudice against rabbits.”

“What?”

“Goes way back,” he said. “See, in the nineteen twenties, the Yankees tried to field a jackrabbit as shortstop. Thing was, it always could catch the ball, but then it just sat there and chewed it. Of course, that wasn’t the reason they dropped it from the team; the real problem came when they signed Kyle “Carrottop” McGraph as Third Baseman. Turns out jackrabbits don’t quite get the ‘nickname’ thing.”

Diana’s serious façade suddenly collapsed in a fit of laughter.

“You are such an idiot!” she gasped, and her voice suddenly held a distinctly Texan twang.

Adam laughed along with her, less at his own joke than in enjoyment of seeing the way her smile illuminated her already beautiful face.

That completes my to do list, he thought. Beat the bad guys, and make Di laugh. That’s what I call a good day.

 

 

 

 

How to Write Stupid Characters

Writing my Flat and Complex Characters post, describing the flaws in how Launchpad is written, it struck me that a major problem with him and similar (again, Soos from Gravity Falls) is that their stupidity is done in a very lazy way: they simply say or do whatever is most inappropriate or most idiotic, and yeah we laugh, but it’s not very interesting and doesn’t make for engaging characters. Again, the characters are just being clowns, just trying to make you laugh.

I remember Roger Ebert wrote something that’s always stuck with me. Commenting on A Fish Called Wanda he said, “It’s not funny to watch someone being ridiculous: it’s funny to watch someone do the next logical thing and have it turn out ridiculous.”

Just having people do stupid things for the sake of doing stupid things may get a laugh, but it won’t make the audience want to come back.

So, what’s an example of a stupid character written in a smart way? One of the best is the evil Doctor Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb.

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Now, this is a very, very smart show, and it’s full of very smart characters: characters who trade jokes about the Trojan War, or existential philosophy, or advanced physics (one song contains the lyrics: “sometimes photons behave like a wave, but they’re particles when you reflect ‘em”). Even the muscle-headed bully is multi-lingual and quotes Voltaire. About the only genuinely stupid major character is Doctor Doofenshmirtz (Candace is a debatable case, since she’s more immature and obsessive than actually stupid). But even Doof’s not just a complete idiot oblivious to the world around him; he’s what we might call stupid in a smart way.

In the first place, there’s the just the fact that Doofenshmirtz is functional. He’s an idiot, but he can take care of himself and understands basic concepts and doesn’t need to be practically led by the hand by the other characters (contrast, say, Andy from Parks and Recreation). That’s another way of saying that his stupidity is limited. It applies in certain situations and not in others. Actually, he sometimes makes fairly astute observations, like when he comments on the pointlessness of making resolutions you have no intention of keeping, or when he points out that Perry’s latest escape makes no sense. And, as noted in a previous post, some of his gripes are completely legitimate (e.g. he built a functional laser canon for his childhood science fair, yet lost to a baking soda volcano).

But more important is the fact that Doof’s stupidity is comprehensible. You can follow his thought process, which is usually fairly reasonable except that he’s missed a glaringly obvious factor. For instance, at one point he recounts how he once tried to take over the Tri-State Area with an army of robots. Since he always puts a self-destruct button on everything he makes, he decided the best way to prevent anyone actually pressing it would be to put it somewhere no one could possible reach; the bottom of their feet.

You can see the logic there: no one could reach the self-destruct button there, which means his robots would be practically unstoppable…except for the obvious problem (“And…march!” *BOOM!*).

Or when a new building blocks his view of the drive-in theater across the street, Doof decides to invent a machine to teleport the entire building to a random location…rather than moving his chair to the next window (if he did that, the lamp cord wouldn’t reach, you see).

In other words, Doof‘s stupidity tends to revolve around severely overcomplicating things and missing the obvious. Likewise, he tends to obsess over silly or minor things, like blinking street signs or pelicans, or the kid who beat him at shadow puppets as a child.

A few things to note about all of this. First, allowing for the subjectivity of humor, it’s rather deeper and more sophisticated comedy than just having Doof say or do something idiotic. Because most of us can recognize Doof’s mindset: we’ve all overreacted to silly things, or made simple problems way too complicated because we missed an obvious factor or didn’t want to have to do some specific chore. Doof’s stupidity is something almost all of the audience can relate to, which both makes it much funnier and makes Doof himself a more engaging character.

Relating to that is this brand of stupidity makes sense with regards to Doofenshmirtz’s personality. He’s established to be an emotionally-stunted eccentric genius. Thus, overcomplicating and missing the obvious fits his mind perfectly, as does his obsessive pettiness. Even the fact that he can simultaneously be stupid enough to forget the existence of boats and brilliant enough to bend reality to his whim is consistent with his characterization.

Thus, Doofenshmirtz’s stupidity isn’t just comedy, but fits his character as it’s been established. It’s not the sum-total of his personality, only one notable element that harmonizes with all the rest and influences his reactions in an understandable way.

So, to sum up, a smartly written stupid character has a recognizable thought process, his stupidity fits his established character, and it can’t apply always and in every situation, nor can it be the entirety of the character.

Lazy Writing and Lack of Consequence

Something I’ve noticed about a lot of contemporary films is that they seem to have an almost childish inability to consider real-world consequences. I’m not talking about complex things that the average person wouldn’t think of; I’m talking major factors about how people behave or how the world works.

Let me illustrate with two particularly egregious examples from two popular films.

The first is in The Force Awakens. Midway through the film, the ‘First Order’ activates a weapon that destroys an entire solar system in one shot, wiping out the New Republic (we’ll leave aside the question “so, the Republic ruled over a single solar system and had no assets, presence, fleet, etc. anywhere else?”). Now, there are many, many things wrong with this, including that it’s a lazy attempt to one-up the original Star Wars, and the fact that it’s patently absurd that a small splinter group could create such a monstrosity without anyone in the galaxy being aware of it. For right now, however, we’ll focus on the consequences.

The world-building in the Star Wars sequels is terrible to an embarrassing degree, but the idea seems to be that that First Order is a relatively small, covert group of former Empire troops and officers. In any case, they do not have a great deal of power or presence in the galaxy, only in certain portions of it. They’re like ISIS, for a real-world comparison.

Now, imagine that ISIS got hold of and detonated nuclear weapons in, say, New York, Washington, and London. Millions of people dead, the world rattled. What do you think the reaction would be from the world at large to this kind of monstrosity? The rubble wouldn’t even have begun to settle before half the planet came roaring to their doorsteps. No nation would dare harbor them, and it would only be a matter of time before they were wiped off the face of the globe.

In The Force Awakens, the universe at large apparently ignores the event, leaving the couple-hundred survivors of the Republic to go after the First Order with a fleet of twelve small ships.

You see what I mean? The Force Awakens was written with absolutely no idea of how people and nations actually behave in the real world, or even with the idea that they’re a factor at all. It’s a child’s perspective: whoever has the biggest gun can do whatever he wants. The big kid can demand your lunch money simply because he’s big and can hurt you.

Now, you might say “it’s Star Wars: it’s not supposed to be realistic.” Except that the original film actually did take this sort of thing into account. For one thing, it was conceivable for the Empire to create a weapon like the Death Star because it ruled with an iron fist and controlled most of the galaxy. But even so, the word of the weapon got out before it was quite finished and the Rebellion moved to stop it, being hampered by their own comparative smallness.

What’s more, the film makes it clear that the Death Star is a gamble for the Empire. We learn early on that there is, or has been, an Imperial Senate, which could make trouble for the Emperor if it found out about his plans. Later some of the Imperial officers are shocked to find that the senate has been dissolved and wonder whether they’ll be able to maintain control without it.

So, the original Star Wars, often seen as a simple adventure for children, had a better sense of how the real world works than The Force Awakens.

Now another example: Black Panther (yes, I do rather like picking on that film). The plot of that movie is kicked off (about two-thirds of the way through) when Killmonger returns to Wakanda and takes the throne from T’Challa. We won’t discuss how stupid it was for T’Challa to even accept the challenge in the first place, nor question how our hero managed to lose to a guy who had never trained with the weapons they were fighting with. Let’s just pick up at the point where Killmonger becomes king.

One of the very first things he does is order the destruction of the flowers that convey the Black Panther powers, thereby effectively ending the continuity of the monarchy (again, we won’t discuss how stupid the flower thing is. You starting to see a pattern?). The next thing he does is inform the high council that they’re going to abandon their tradition of isolation and lead a global war of genocide against the white race and anyone else who stands in their way, explicitly promising to kill women and children.

So, a complete outsider who has never lived in that country comes in, assumes the throne, destroys the monarchy, and announces they’re going to abandon all their traditions in favor of mass-murder of the innocents, all in the space of about a day, and no one does anything about it? He doesn’t instantly lose the support of the army, the governing council, the priesthood, or any of the civilian population; they all just go along with it except a handful of die-hard T’Challa loyalists? The only time anyone even questions any of this is when the one lady protests the flower burning until he chokes her into complying.

Again, this is a child’s view of kingship: he’s the king, so he can do whatever he wants and everyone else has to obey. That’s not how real monarchies work. If a guy no one’s heard about comes waltzing in and somehow takes the throne, then suddenly orders them to start a campaign of genocide with nothing better than “I killed this one guy you didn’t like,” he would instantly lose all authority. Assuming the military didn’t rebel against him for ordering them to commit atrocities, the council would decide that someone else actually has a much better claim to be king and depose him.

Heck, something like that happens in the film, with T’Challa’s friends going to the gorilla guy. Realistically, the entire Wakandan government should be knocking on his door begging him to take the throne and promising the support of the entire military. Actually they should never have allowed Killmonger to even approach the throne in the first place, as they guy is practically wearing a neon sign that reads “angry psychopath.”

Real-life kings can’t just arbitrarily order their subjects to do terrible things or abandon all their traditions, or destroy the continuity of the government in the space of a single day and expect their people to put up with it. Even Hitler had to work his way up to genocide through propaganda and building a powerbase, and he still had to give his people an at least semi-plausible pretext for war. Killmonger just goes in and says, “you’re going to murder the innocent because I say so,” and Wakanda is only too happy to comply, even though it’s contrary to how they’ve done things for thousands of years. Considering they’re supposed to be the most civilized and advanced nation in the world, their government structure is more primitive and has fewer checks and balances than that of an actual tribal monarchy.

You see my point: these kinds of big-budget, hi-profile blockbusters all too often read like they were written by children, with only the broadest, vaguest idea of how people behave or how the real world works. Things happen because we say they happen; if we want the bad guy to have a super-duper weapon, he’ll have it. Never mind how he would have gotten it or how the rest of this world would react to his using it. The bad guy is in charge, so he can do whatever he wants, even if it’s to effectively destroy his own government while ordering the army to commit genocide.

This is the kind of thing meant by ‘lazy writing:’ the writers want something to happen, so they simply declare that it is to be, without considering how it fits into the world of the story.

For a contrast, consider Rampage; the goofy video game adaptation starring the Rock. It’s a silly movie, but plot-wise it’s actually fairly solid. For a specific counterexample of what I mean, the entire plot is kicked off by an evil corporation performing illegal genetic experiments. Yes, that old cliché, but note how it proceeds: they don’t just get to do what they want because they’re rich (contrast Ready Player One, where the corporation had it’s own prisons), they have to do their work undercover, on the side. As soon as their secret begins to leak, they have the FBI show up and demand all their computer servers in no uncertain terms, and that’s even with their attempt at a cover story.

A lazy writer would have made them impervious to official harm, leaving our plucky heroes to take them down, maybe giving them their own private military or something equally stupid. This film presents a more realistic image of a fairly normal company run by a sociopath who runs covert illegal operations on the side, but who has to tread carefully lest the law come calling.

Rampage is a film that, for all silliness, was clearly written by adults. The Force Awakens, Black Panther, and similar films feel like they were written by children, or tossed off in a first draft because the writers figured they could rely on the other elements to carry them through.

 

The Difference Between Flat and Complex Characters

Now that the Ducktales revival is about half-a-season old, I can say that, while it is good, it’s not quite as good as I had hoped it would be. Part of the problem is that they go for the joke far too often, preventing the characters from developing much weight and consequently from engaging us in their struggles. They don’t do this all the time, but often enough for it to detract from the show (e.g. a potentially intimidating mummy monster is defeated by folding it up in a giant burrito).

This especially applies to Launchpad. Now, I haven’t gotten around to revisiting the original show in a long time, so I can’t remember if he was portrayed as this stupid in that one, but whichever is the case, it definitely is to the show’s detriment. See, Launchpad isn’t only an idiot, he’s just an idiot. As in, that’s basically his entire character: genial moron. He’s completely incompetent at what he does (raising the question of why Scrooge hired him in the first place), more childlike than the children, and most of the time seems barely functional. Yes, he’s gets a laugh fairly often, but he’s a very flat character.

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Take a recent episode that focuses almost entirely on him; he’s afraid of losing his job if Scrooge decides to go with a robotically-driven car being marked by a business rival, so he challenges the machine to a race to see who will get the job. There is the potential for genuine character development. But, no; the whole thing becomes just another ‘Launchpad’s an idiot’ joke, with him filling up his windshield with reminder notes, crashing immediately, and trying to finish the rest of the race on different vehicles.

That’s what I mean by Launchpad is a flat, one-dimensional character: if you say “he’s a genial idiot,” you’ve basically described everything there is to know about him, and everything he does proceeds from this description.

Contrast this with a complex and three-dimensional character: Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony.

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You could describe her as a lovable goofball, but that’s not all she is. For one thing, though she’s the source of much of show’s humor, she’s not just an idiot. Actually, she’s not an idiot at all; she’s shown to be very intelligent, just eccentric and happy to play the fool if she think’s it’ll get a laugh. But she can be thoughtful and perceptive, especially on matters that interest her (for instance, she’s the first one to notice something wrong with the way the ponies in Starlight’s village are smiling, since “I know smiles”). She puts in the time and works hard in pursuit of her goals, and is a recognized expert in her own subject of baking and throwing parties (By contrast, Launchpad doesn’t even understand the controls of his own plane and destroys it trying to figure out what a specific blinking light meant).

Pinkie’s also shown to have very clear motivations: her mission in life is to make others happy, and her whole being is directed to that end. However, this sometimes causes problems if the person she meets doesn’t share her tastes in fun, or if she misreads what they want, or if she’s too preoccupied with having fun herself to realize the other person isn’t sharing it. Thus she constantly has to work at balancing her own immediate desires with her more fundamental motives. Coupled with that is the fact that she does work very hard and can easily be hurt or depressed if it seems her efforts aren’t appreciated (e.g. there’s an episode where she finds out that Rainbow Dash has been secretly throwing out all the pies Pinkie’s made for her, which causes Pinkie to explode with anger at her).

So, Pinkie’s allowed to be very smart and very competent on her own ground, and she has clear, multilevel motivations. But what really makes her a well-developed character is that she has a full range of human emotions and reactions. She’s not sunny and optimistic, or even just funny all the time; she has moments where she gets honestly angry, frustrated, depressed, sad, and hurt. She experiences self-doubt, she makes mistakes and learns from them, she’s forced to recognize her own limitations and try to overcome them. She has a clear motivation that she has to balance against her immediate needs and desires. None of that applies to a character like Launchpad, whose role is only to make the audience laugh.

For instance, there’s an episode where Pinkie takes on a babysitting job, only to find herself overwhelmed. Then, midway through, Twilight shows up and offers to take over. Pinkie’s all but desperate to have her do so…until Twilight innocently comments that some ponies simply aren’t up for the responsibility of watching little kids. Pinkie then immediately turns her down, determined to prove that she is responsible. That’s a very real, very human progression: Pinkie finds herself overwhelmed and wants someone to bail her out, then realizes that bailing out would mean admitting that she’s just as irresponsible as everyone seems to think, so she determines to see the thing through no matter what.

You can’t picture the new version of Launchpad, or a similar character like Soos from Gravity Falls going through that kind of progression, or experiencing that blend of desperation, doubt, and hurt pride: of being stung by what others think of you even as you fear they might be right.

Or you have things like Pinkie genuinely trying and failing to like her sister’s new boyfriend, then working to figure out how to react to this, or her progression from suspecting Rainbow Dash’s friend Gilda of being a jerk, to suspecting herself of being overly possessive, or trying to figure out how best to help someone who insists they don’t want to be helped.

Basically, even though she’s comic relief, Pinkie Pie is convincingly a person, whereas Launchpad is just a vehicle for jokes. Pinkie’s character makes sense on its own terms and in relation to the others, and she’s perfectly capable of carrying a dramatic scene without breaking character (heck, Pinkie gets some of the strongest dramatic moments in the series). Despite her goofiness, her emotions and reactions are convincingly real, which means we feel them right along with her.

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Launchpad’s presence is dictated by the writers (there’s really no reason for the other characters to keep him around) and he could never convincingly create drama because he’s too inconsequential. He’s so stupid and his reactions so overblown and ridiculous that his emotions don’t matter: we don’t ‘feel’ his pain because we never see him as anything but a source of humor.

That’s the difference between a one-dimensional and a three-dimensional character: Launchpad exists to be comic relief. He has very simple motivations, very simple reactions, and he predictably will always be used as a joke. Pinkie Pie, though a major source of comic relief, is an integral part of the cast with her own multilevel motivations, her own conflicts, and her own struggles. Launchpad is a tool for the writers; Pinkie is a person.

How I Would have Written ‘Black Panther’

As I’ve said before, the more I think about Black Panther the worse the writing in the film gets. As a side effect, I found myself thinking about how I might have done it instead, had I been in charge of writing it. The result was the following rough outline, which I now present to you (by the way, I don’t know how much this fits with the ‘Black Panther’ comics, but from what I’ve seen of the comics, I don’t particularly care).

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We open on darkness, a child’s voice says “Papa, tell me a story.”

The voice of T’Chaka then begins narrating in a kindly, fatherly manner:

“Many, many years ago, a mountain fell from the sky in a blaze of fire. Its arrival was so terrible that for many years no one dared approach it. But in its fall, ten pieces of it were thrown off and scattered among the tribes. And wherever they landed, they brought strife and violence, for they were worth more than all the gold and gems in the world. Warriors fought one another like beasts for them, and all the land was in woe.

Then, one day, a great warrior, seeing the chaos, said to himself ‘I shall take these fragments back to the fallen mountain, so they may trouble us no more.’ For years he travelled the length and breadth of the land, winning each piece by defeating the ten greatest warriors in the world.

At the end of that time, he had all ten pieces and was the richest man there ever was. He could have used them to rule a mighty empire. But he kept to his vow and, taking the precious fragments, climbed to the summit of the fallen mountain.

Upon the summit, he met Basth, the Panther Goddess. She was so struck by his courage and his honesty that she said to him: “Of all the men on the earth, you are the first who has touched my heart. Therefore I shall marry you, and give you all this mountain for my dowry.”

The warrior and the goddess were wed, and founded their city about the slopes of the Fallen Mountain. The goddess taught him how to use the mountain’s bones to make tools and weapons, and by her craft she wove it into a suit of armor modeled after her beloved panther, and the ten fragments became its claws.

Thus they brought order and peace between the five tribes, and Wakanda was born.

For many, many years, the warrior and the goddess ruled over the five tribes in peace and justice. But the warrior was mortal, and so grew old and, in time, died. Basth was inconsolable with grief, and returned to the sky to mourn her lost love. But before she went she took her son and the leaders of the five tribes to the top of the mountain to give her final command.

“All this land, from the river to the white peaks, is Wakanda,” she said. “It is your forever, my children, and none shall take it from you. But I warn you: never, never seek to expand its borders beyond these limits. For your own land is enough for you, and your own treasure enough to guard. If ever you attempt to become a cruel empire and rule over your kin, this mountain, and all its treasure, will be taken back to the sky.”

Then the goddess departed, and ever since then, her descendants have ruled Wakanda and guarded its treasures, and shall do so until the sun falls.”

We now see the jungle at night. A cloaked platform is hidden among the trees, from which M’Baku, a skilled warrior and a giant gorilla of a man, is peering along what looks to be a blowpipe at a line of vehicles wending its way through the forest.

“I make five,” he says.

“Six,” comes the answer. We pan up to see the outline of the Black Panther crouched on a tree branch, watching the convoy.

Another figure in a horned mask, wearing scale armor, sits in the tree beside M’Baku. This is Eklabu. He orders M’Baku to take out the lead vehicle, but Black Panther orders them to wait until the convoy crosses the border into Wakanda.

We see from the vehicle point of view as they cross a rickety bridge over a raging river into Wakandan territory, rolling over the border gate and ignoring the signs forbidding entrance. They draw further into Wakandan territory before Black Panther orders M’Baku to take out the lead vehicle.

M’Baku affixes a small cylinder to the end of his pipe, takes aim, and blows. We then see that the ‘blow gun’ is actually a rail-gun. As soon as he puts the little stone suspended in the cylinder into motion by blowing it, it is swiftly accelerated to just below the speed of light. It hits the lead vehicle with the force of a bomb.

The convoy stops in a panic and the mercenaries get out, armed to the teeth. Then Black Panther swoops in and begins expertly disabling them. He doesn’t kill them, only rips their weapons apart and knocks them out. Eklabu appears as well, attacking from the rear. He savagely tears into the men, brutally massacring them by stabbing and slicing with his spear or simply beating them senseless with his super-human strength and agility. One of the mercenaries throws down his gun and tries to surrender. Eklabu picks him up and bashes his brains out against the side of the truck so hard that he dents the fender (we only see the resulting blood-stained impression).

Black Panther furiously orders him to stand down as Okoye, his Amazonian bodyguard and her troops appear from the bushes. Black Panther checks on the human cargo, tells them they are now safe, and orders Okoye to take them back to their homes before leaving with Eklabu.

Back in the forward base hidden among the trees, T’Challa and Eklabu both take off their helmets. T’Challa angrily rebukes him for his savagery, while Eklabu answers that the men were scum who deserved to die.

T’Challa: “Not when they are trying to surrender!”

Eklabu then angrily points to the suffering going on all around them while they sit in their borders and do nothing.

Eklabu: “Right across that river people are being slaughtered and enslaved, and we do nothing. Then they travel two miles out of their way, suddenly it matters to us.”

T’Challa says their duty is to protect Wakanda; that is the purpose of the royal family. Furthermore, once they start trying to fix other people’s problems, it will never end, and they are liable to only make things worse. We learn here that they are cousins, and that Eklabu’s father was killed during a mission that went bad during a war in the Congo.

The argument escalates, and finally Eklabu snaps “you are not king yet.”

They return to the capital, where we meet T’Challa’s mother and sister. His sister, Shuri, is a tall, extremely dignified young woman; every inch the daughter of a king. She, we learn, rules Wakanda in her brother’s absence.

Everyone treats T’Challa with immense respect bordering on fear. He carries himself as a king at every moment and his people bow reverently whenever they see him.

T’Challa next visits the armory, where he meets Zurai, their lead scientist. He is a venerable, gray haired man in charge of a scientific team. He is also grooming his rebellious daughter, Nakia, to one day take on the mantle. Nakia is a cute, sunny young woman with a great love for western culture. She also is the only one who can tease the king and get away with it, which she proceeds to do by pestering him about whether he got Iron Man or Captain America’s autograph. T’Challa takes it in stride, smiling benignly on her and humoring her. During this time, Zurai describes the Wakandan power grid, which is formed by the resonance of all the vibranium throughout the country, creating an infinite supply of energy.

As T’Challa leaves, we see Nakia gazing longingly after him, only for her father to smack her upside the head and remind her that the king will not give a thought to the likes of her. She answers “doesn’t mean I can’t give a thought to him.”

We next get another scene of T’Challa and Eklabu, in the latter’s chamber where they seem to reconcile. T’Challa tells him that he needs his support, as guarding the borders will be Eklabu’s duty, and that he is open to the possibility of taking a more active role in the world, especially after what he saw with the Avengers, but only if they can find a way that will not jeopardize Wakanda. The cousins then share a moment of levity.

The next day is the coronation, wherein T’Challa assumes the throne. This takes place at the summit of the Fallen Mountain (not in some stupid waterfall arena), where legend has it the warrior first met and wed Basth. The five tribes and the Royal family, together with certain dignitaries (including Zurai and his daughter) are assembled, and the high priest reads out King T’Chaka’s achievements before offering T’Challa the throne. He then asks whether any one wishes to dispute T’Challa’s right to be king.

To everyone’s shock, Eklabu does so. He announces that T’Chaka murdered his father, that he saw it happen as a boy, and that “twenty years with a murderer on the throne is long enough.” During his description, we see a flashback to him as a boy hiding behind a corner while T’Chaka and his father argue. Suddenly there is a gunshot, and when Eklabu emerged he found his father dead.

T’Challa is enraged and the ceremonial combat begins. The two savagely beat on each other using their superhuman speed and power, with Eklabu pouring out all the anger he’s kept bottled up for two decades against T’Challa and his father. It finally ends with T’Challa being thrown off the cliff, presumably to his death. Eklabu then assumes the throne, promising to restore the dignity of the throne.

Late that night, the distraught Nakia sneaks out of the city to try to find T’Challa’s body. She is caught by M’Baku, who turns out to have the same object. They search, but find nothing. Then, all of a sudden, T’Challa himself comes crawling out of the forest, incapacitated by a spinal injury, but alive. He wants to challenge Eklabu at once, but the others remind him that, one, the ceremony is over and he has no right to do so, and two, he is no state to try even if he could.

T’Challa thus decides to leave Wakanda to heal and plan his campaign. Nakia insists on going with him, as does M’Baku.

We cut to the palace where Eklabu finds Shuri standing by a window. He walks up to her and expresses his surprise that she remains. She comments that her place is beside the throne. When Elabu asks whether it isn’t a risk for her to remain within his reach, given his hatred of her father and brother, she answers “to be killed by you would put me in better company than to rule with you.”

His claws (he’s wearing the Black Panther suit) start to come out at that, but she then adds that he would not dare lay a hand on her. He’s surprised, then laughs that he is the king and can do what he likes.

Shuri: “And I am a princess. Do you think the people of Wakanda would stand it if you raised a hand against a member of the royal family?”

He grins. “I am the Black Panther. What could they do?”

Shuri smiles and begins describing the composition of the wall he is standing behind, before concluding “Do you know how much resistance that would provide to a rail gun aimed at your unprotected head? None at all.”

This disturbs him visibly, and she adds “A king only rules as long as his people will allow him to. Perhaps you should have thought of that before you killed my brother.”

Eklabu retreats to his chambers, where he prays and has a vision of his father. He discusses the future, and his father agrees that Wakanda will not be easily swayed to break its long isolation. Eklabu says he will give them no choice, and declares that he’ll take all of Africa before he’s done.

T’Challa, Nakia, and M’Baku flee Wakanda and end up in a neighboring nation call Buandi, where they find a ‘doctors without borders’ station to have T’Challa’s spine looked at. The doctor is amazed that he is still alive and able to move with his injury. He is reluctant to operate, and M’Baku angrily orders him to obey. The doctor protests that he might kill him, and M’Baku says that if T’Challa dies, he dies.

Doctor: “Well now I’m definitely not gonna try!”

T’Challa intervenes and assures the doctor that he will be him no grudge if anything goes wrong, ordering M’Baku to stand down.

The argument attracts the attention of Everett Ross, the CIA operative, who walks into the tent and whistles in recognition of T’Challa.

Ross: “Your highness. I’m sure there’s a reason the King of Wakanda is in an aid tent, but you don’t look in the mood to tell me.”

The doctor says he wants him to perform a spinal surgery, Ross advises him to try as “He’s pretty good at surviving.”

The doctor operates, resetting T’Challa’s spine while the king refuses morphine and grits his teeth. Nakia impulsively tries to hold his hand, but he doesn’t take hers.

The surgery completed, he lies there while his superhuman cells heal his injury, and Nakia and M’Baku tell Ross about Eklabu’s coup.

Ross: “Where I come from we have elections. They’re nowhere near as civil, but people generally walk away with intact spines.”

T’Challa asks what Ross is doing there, and Ross says that he’s interviewing survivors of the latest massacre. When the Wakandans express confusion, Ross explains that Buandi is in civil war and has been for years; the rebels prey on poor farming villages and travellers, while the government forces focus on protecting such business interests as the country has and avoid engaging with the militants if possible. This, he says, is because the rebels are armed with hi-tech weaponry.

Hearing this, T’Challa sits up, wincing, but looking fierce.

T’Challa: “What kind of weaponry?”

Ross: “Funny you should ask. You, see I’m here looking for their supplier, and I have an idea you’ve met.”

Cut to an old ivory station in the jungle. Here Ulysses Klaue has his base of operations. We see him interrogating one of his workers and accusing the man of dealing under the table. His right arm a mechanical nightmare that lives up to his name.

Klaue tells the man that, in his organization, “you’re only allowed to cheat when I say so.” The man pleads, obviously terrified of Klaue, that he’s innocent. Klaue acts surprised at hearing that.

Klaue: “Oh, innocent? Well, that changes everything. I’m sorry; I had no idea.”

He turns away, feigning distress, then suddenly whips around and fires a blue laser from his mechanical palm, blasting the man to ash.

Klaue: “I’ve got no use for innocent people in my organization.”

Klaue then goes into his chambers to look over some new weaponry. Suddenly the Black Panther drops from the ceiling. Klaue, apparently unconcerned, gives a mock bow.

Klaue: “Your royal highness. This is an honor, and so soon after your coronation too! Allow me, as one who so admires the throne of Wakanda, to express my congratulations.”

Eklabu removes his helmet and asks how he knows so much. Klaue answers that even in Wakanda there are people on the bottom of the ladder who are willing to sell what they know. Eklabu smilingly asks whether he’d be willing to give the names of these people, Klaue answers that it depends on what he’ll bid for them. Eklabu asks whether he thinks he’s there to bargain, Klaue replies that, if he weren’t, they wouldn’t be speaking.

Eklabu tells Klaue that he wants the Buandi war to spill over in to Wakanda. He wants Wakandan blood spilled on Wakandan soil. Klaue laughs that he’s buying the deaths of his own people.

Klaue: “You’re a trader in death. A killmonger.”

Eklabu answers that a little blood is necessary to wake his people out of their stupor. He tells Klaue to name his price…and to throw in the names of informants as well, as “A king needs his spies.”

Klaue laughs and pours them both a drink.

Klaue: “Is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship?”

Eklabu: “I wouldn’t count on it.”

Klaue (toasts): “Good answer.”

We cut back to T’Challa, who is talking with Ross. Ross suggests that, if T’Challa intends to retake the throne, he might consider cutting a trade deal with the US in exchange for aid. T’Challa feigns ignorance; what does he think Wakanda has to offer? Ross says he has an idea:

Ross: “I see the king of a third world country running around in the most advanced body armor I’ve ever seen, then I think about how you’re also the only place that produces the most valuable medal in the world, and suddenly I start to wonder whether Wakanda is quite so poor as it makes out.”

T’Challa: “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

Ross: (Smiles) “Alright. But if you change your mind, remember the US is pretty good at changing governments.”

M’Baku: “Pretty good at taking over governments, you mean!”

Ross: “That too.”

T’Challa says that he will not sell the honor of Wakanda for his throne.

He leaves Ross and walks into the jungle, where, out of sight of everyone, he punches a tree so hard he shatters the trunk.

Nakia: “Careful! I think that one’s endangered! Can’t start our lives in the outside world by offending the environmentalists: according to the internet they basically run the place.”

T’Challa: “Do not follow me.”

Nakia: “I am sorry. I only thought…you might not want to be alone.

T’Challa: “That is exactly what I do want. I need to think…to plan how I am going to regain my throne.”

Nakia looks troubled, then begs permission to speak.

T’Challa: “I am not king, Nakia; you do not have to beg permission.”

Nakia: “But I think I should, because you are not going to like what I have to say.”

She suggests that trying to retake the throne might make things worse: like it or not, he lost the fight and so has no real claim to it anymore. As long as Eklabu keeps the support of the tribes, T’Challa would only, at best, bring civil war to Wakanda. At worst he’d get himself killed.

She shrinks back in alarm when glares at her, but then he slumps to the ground and says that perhaps he doesn’t deserve to king anyway. If what Eklabu said was true…Nakia says it wasn’t. It couldn’t be.

T’Challa: “I’ve seen, and felt, hatred like that before. It does not come from nothing.”

He asks her to leave him, and he begins to engage in fervent prayer, communing with the spirit of his father, who appears to him in a vision. T’Challa confesses how much he misses him, and that he feels he has failed.

T’Chaka answers that he is the one who failed. T’Challa asks whether it is true he killed his own brother, and T’Chaka hesitates, which to T’Challa’s mind confirms it. The vision ends with him roaring his agony to the sky.

Suddenly, he hears gunfire coming from what Ross says is the direction of a nearby village. T’Challa draws a deep breath, pushes his own suffering down, and begins running through the forest.

Meanwhile Ross is on the phone trying to get UN troops to come and help. When he fails to get through he grabs a rifle and asks M’Baku if he’s any good in a fight. M’Baku laughs and shoulders his rail gun.

We cut to the village, where women and children are being herded to one corner while the men futilely try to fight. The militants all have vibranium armor and carry powerful energy weapons. One man is seen defending his wife and children with a farm tool, which shatters against the militant’s armor. The bad guy laughs at the blow, beats the man to the ground, and prepares to decapitate him.

T’Challa (wearing a black mask over his face), comes flying in from the trees with a noise like a panther roar, dispatches the militant with a few quick blows and relieves him of his blade and knife. The other militants turn on him, and with his new weapons he begins utterly decimating them with his speed, agility, and raw power, slashing at them like a cat with his blades.

A jeep armed with a machine gun rolls up and opens fire on T’Challa, who dodges and ducks, but can’t get close enough to attack…then it blows up with a single shot from M’Baku’s rail-gun.

Ross: “…Can I borrow that sometime?”

M’Baku: (threatening growl)

T’Challa finishes up by beating up the militant leader, but refrains from killing him.

Back in Wakanda, Eklabu, together with the leaders of the five tribes, Shuri, and the queen mother are participating in a ritual honoring Basth. Suddenly, it is interrupted when a missile lands in the midst of the circle, killing the five leaders and the queen, though Eklabu saves Shuri, who escapes injured.

As the dust settles, one of the guards says that the weapon came from outside the borders, but was of Wakandan make. Eklabu says that this proves that someone has been stealing Wakandan technology, and that their borders are no longer enough to keep them safe. One of his cronies then comes forward saying that they have intelligence that T’Challa is alive and has been seen conferring with foreigners, together with Zurai’s daughter, who knows the secrets of Wakandan tech. Zurai is furious at the accusation, but Eklabu asks if he has a better explanation for what happens. With the support of the people, he assumes full control and tells them to prepare for war to avenge this atrocity and secure Wakanda against foreign treachery.

Back at the village, T’Challa, Nakia, and M’Baku help the villagers while Ross interrogates the militants. Nakia has a moment where she tenderly cares for a little girl who has been injured in the fight, cheering her up with a folk song. T’Challa watches with admiration.

Ross appears with the news that they now have Klaue’s base, but that it’s deep in the rebel-controlled zone where the military won’t go. He suggests that the three of them might be able to mount an attack. Nakia insists on coming as well, noting that they might need her to get around Klaue’s tech. She also repairs some of the weapons recovered from the militants.

M’Baku tries to prevent Ross from taking one, noting that only Wakandans are permitted to use them.

Ross: “Well, you know us white people: not big on respecting local customs.” (picks up the weapon).

M’Baku gets angry, but T’Challa stops him, noting that they’ll need Ross’s help.

That night, we have a tense scene of the four of them infiltrating Klaue’s camp. As they approach, they realize Klaue is about to make another shipment of weapons, these worse than before: long-range emplaced rail-guns that could be mounted on vehicles or behind fortifications. These could destroy any vehicle currently in use.

T’Challa takes out his guards one-by-one with stealth, then Nakia slips in to take down his alarm system and stop the shipment, which is being delivered by drone as added security. Klaue, meanwhile, senses something wrong and starts moving toward her position. T’Challa gives the signal and M’Baku and Ross open fire, distracting him and focusing his attention on them. Nakia succeeds, then T’Challa attacks, taking out Klaue’s guards before going one-on-one with him.

Klaue is extremely dangerous with his mechanical hand, as well as suit of vibranium armor similar to what Eklabu wore in the opening. Ross and M’Baku join in, then Nakia, who distracts him long enough for T’Challa to catch him off guard and tear his mechanical arm off.

Klaue, however, seems unconcerned, cracking jokes at T’Challa’s expense for losing his throne. He also reveals Eklabu’s falseflag attack, and that he killed T’Challa’s mother as well as the five tribal leaders, and that “Killmonger” means to conquer Africa and maybe the world. He also reveals that Eklabu has blamed T’Challa for the attack and for selling Wakandan technology to the outside world, meaning he’ll be arrested and executed if he tries to return.

T’Challa is furious and ready to kill Klaue, but he then plays his final hand: he’ll give T’Challa a recording of his meeting with Killmonger in exchange for one hour’s head start. And, he says, considering Killmonger will start his war in the morning, they don’t really have time to search for it…or to go after him.

M’Baku asks what’s to prevent them from taking the deal and killing him anyway.

Klaue: “Oh, I have much too much respect for the throne of Wakanda to think you’d do that. A king would never go back on his word, would he?”

Furious, T’Challa accedes to Klaue’s deal. Klaue gives him the recording and then disappears.

They then have to decide what to do about it: T’Challa must challenge Eklabu for the throne, but he fears whether he is truly worthy of it, given the history of his family. Moreover, Nakia points out that, with the five chiefs dead, Eklabu basically runs the government alone, and that they may have a fight to even get to position where they can use the recording against him. Ross offers the support of the CIA in exchange for vibranium, but T’Challa refuses.

Ross: “Well, not to play the white savior, but Eklabu has an army. An army that you claim is the most advanced in the world, while you have yourself, a girl, and a great ape.” (M’Baku glares at him) “I mean that in the best possible way. Let us help you!”

T’Challa refuses, saying he cannot bargain for his throne with foreigners, growing angry.

T’Challa: “You don’t care about Wakanda. You are just like all the rest of your people: only after what you can get.”

Ross: “I don’t care about who sits on a chair in the most isolated country on Earth? You’re right; I don’t. Why should I? What have you people ever done that I should care? At the moment, what I’m after is some way to convince my government that stopping this war, which is claiming the lives of thousands of innocent people, is in our best interests, and if we had an ally in the region, an ally who supplies extremely valuable technology and resources, that might be a reason. But I don’t suppose that matters to you.”

T’Challa lunges at him in anger, but Nakia stops him. He then demands to be left alone.

As the others leave, Nakia becomes upset and confesses to M’Baku that she’s afraid no matter what happens: if T’Challa fails, he’ll die. If he succeeds…she doesn’t finish, but he understands and gives him a comforting bear hug.

Meanwhile T’Challa prays once more, communing with his ancestors for guidance. He has a vision in which he sees, not his father, but an upright, elderly woman (in an ideal world she’d be played by Eartha Kitt). This, it turns out, is Basth herself. T’Challa admits to her that he is uncertain what to do and whether he is even worthy to be king.

Basth: “It is not the armor that makes you the Black Panther: it is what is beneath the armor. In here.” (she places her hand over his heart) “If anyone can stop you from being a king by taking your throne or your crown or your armor, then you never were one to begin with. But I don’t believe that for a moment.”

He returns to the present and declares that, by the next sunset, he will be on the throne or in the ground of Wakanda. Nakia and M’Baku volunteer to go with them, as does Ross.

T’Challa: “I told you I don’t want help from the CIA.”

Ross: “You’re not getting it. You’re getting help from a friend.”

Back in Wakanda, Eklabu gives a speech to his army as they prepare to conquer Buandi and the neighboring regions, declaring that T’Chaka was a murderer and T’Challa is a traitor, and that because of them Wakanda has no choice but to abandon its traditions and expand to remain safe.

Afterward, Shuri catches him and tells him he is a liar; that her brother would never betray Wakanda. Eklabu asks whether you can truly know anyone, and she answers “people like you cannot.” Eklabu responds that no one will question the king who rescued their beloved princess from her traitorous brother.

Meanwhile, T’Challa and his friends are preparing to cross into Wakanda. The plan is that Nakia, together with T’Challa, will slip into the palace to broadcast Klaue’s recording, while Ross and M’Baku keep the army from leaving Wakandan territory.

Ross: “Two of us against the most advanced army in the world?”

M’Baku: “Those are the odds I’ve always dreamt of!”

T’Challa and Nakia slip quietly into the city. As they infiltrate the palace, with her hacking the security panels and him subduing guards, she asks what will happen if the army leaves Wakanda. T’Challa says that, according to the legend, Fallen Mountain will be taken back to the sky. She asks if he believes that, he says “I would rather not risk it.”

The Wakandan army begins advancing to the borders, with numerous ships, vehicles, and hundreds of soldiers. M’Baku hands Ross the rail gun to cover him while he goes and plants mines to slow them down.

M’Baku: (handing him the gun) “Twist, aim, and blow. Can you do that?”

Ross: “I think my primitive savage brain can just handle it.”

M’Baku: “You certainly have wind to spare.”

T’Challa and Nakia slip into Fallen Mountain as a back route to the palace. As they do, Nakia notices something strange about the vibranium. They pause for her to examine it, and she realizes that it’s growing unstable:

Nakia: “Large amounts of vibranium form an energy resonant network; a natural power grid.”

T’Challa: “Right, I know that.”

Nakia: “Well, as long as the vast majority remains in one place, the grid is stable, but if too much moves too far at once, it…it’ll overload.”

T’Challa: “Overload? What do you mean? How bad?”

Nakia: “Give me a second…” (she does some quick calculations, then looks up in shock) “If the army goes a mile past the river, the crater will reach the Indian Ocean.”

T’Challa (stunned) “Why haven’t we known this before?”

Nakia: “No one’s ever tried moving this much vibranium away from the mountain at once! It’s only been bits and pieces. But this…”

They look at each other, then T’Challa gets on his communicator and tells Ross and M’Baku to stop the army at all costs.

Ross: “You said to try to avoid killing anyone…”

T’Challa: “Doesn’t matter now. If they cross the border, the mountain will explode.”

Ross: “Are we talking firecracker, nuke…”

Nakia: “It’ll blow Africa in half!”

(Beat)

Ross: “Okay then,” (aims the rail gun) “No more playing nice.”

T’Challa and Nakia reach the main communication chamber, but there they are caught by Okoye and her guards. T’Challa tells her that Eklabu has betrayed them, and that he has proof. She hesitates, unsure whom to believe the Eklabu himself appears in his Black Panther garb.

Eklabu says he expected as much from T’Challa, though he didn’t expect him to try to fight the whole of Wakanda with only four people. Shuri then suddenly shows up and hits Okoye with a tazer, correcting him that it’s five.

This sparks a fight, with Shuri, with a little help from Nakia, taking on the guards with her own physical powers (as she too is a descendent of Basth) while T’Challa clashes with Eklabu. Their fight spills into the throne room, where T’Challa grabs a spear from a rack. T’Challa tries to warn Eklabu that his plan will destroy Wakanda, but Eklabu will not listen, accusing him of merely wishing to steal his glory.

T’Challa: (contemptuous) “You sit on that throne, you put on that armor, and you think that makes you a king?”

Meanwhile, M’Baku and Ross struggle to survive and keep the army too busy to move. They are pinned down and seem about to die. They clasp hands and declare it has been an honor.

Eklabu, with the Black Panther suit, has a crucial advantage and gets T’Challa on the ropes.

Eklabu: “What a pathetic king you are.”

T’Challa: “But I am a king.”

With Shuri holding off the guards, Nakia puts in the data disk and projects it onto the shield surrounding Wakanda, so that the entire population sees it. The army pauses its assault to watch. The broadcast distracts Eklabu, allowing T’Challa to get the drop on him and tear the helmet off. The fight resumes, with Eklabu enraged by the sudden overthrow of his plans. He pins T’Challa against the throne and tries to tear his throat out with his claws, which T’Challa barely holds off.

Eklabu: “If nothing else, I will kill you and your bitch sister!”

T’Challa, in a sudden burst of rage, reverses the attack, grabs Eklabu’s head, and slams it into the throne, knocking him out. He then picks up the spear and prepares to kill him, when Shuri and Nakia come in. He sees their faces, then looks at the throne, which was cracked by the impact, and throws the spear away. Okoye and her guards come in, see the scene, and bow, beseeching forgiveness. T’Challa orders them to take Eklabu into prison and remove his armor.

The next scene is T’Challa, once again wearing the Black Panther armor, standing on his balcony overlooking his people. He announces that he has returned to claim the throne and asks if any disputes his right to rule. The answer is a cheer.

T’Challa greets M’Baku and Ross, who are bruised and bloodied, but alive. Ross says he hopes Wakanda and the United States will enjoy good relations in the future. T’Challa agrees, then comments that perhaps it is time their isolation comes to an end; if they cannot expand their own borders, they can at least share their bounty. He tells M’Baku that one of the tribes (from which he hails) appears in need of a leader, and he needs a general. M’Baku grins in appreciation and bows.

T’Challa adds to Shuri that, once they have settled things here, he may be away more often than not, as there is much to be done in the surrounding countries.

T’Challa: “Perhaps it is time the Black Panther becomes a sign of hope for more than just Wakanda.”

There is then a scene of T’Challa visiting Eklabu in the dungeon. He tells Eklabu that he now knows what happened: T’Chaka didn’t kill Eklabu’s father. He caught him selling Wakandan weapons to rebels the Congo, hoping to make a better life for the people there. But when T’Chaka revealed that those same weapons were being used to commit atrocities, Eklabu’s father killed himself out of shame before his brother could stop him.

Eklabu: “He may not have pulled the trigger, but he drove him to his death.”

T’Challa: “Your father chose his own path, as have you. I hope, in time, you will think better of it.”

He leaves him and goes to watch the sunset from the top of Fallen Mountain. Nakia joins him, complaining that she’d been waiting for hours and it’s cold up there. He asks why she thought he’d come, she says because she knows how he likes to brood, and that there’s no better spot in Wakanda for it.

Nakia: “I brood up here myself sometimes. Or listen to my ipod. Actually, mostly that, but some brooding.”

There is a pause. She comments that he’s king now. He agrees.

Nakia: “It’s funny; when you were deposed, all I wanted was to help you take back the throne. Now, I almost wish you hadn’t.”

T’Challa: “Oh? Why not?”

Nakia: “Well, a king wouldn’t even look at someone like me.”

T’Challa: (surprised) “You don’t know many kings, do you?”

Nakia: “Only one. That’s more than enough for me.”

T’Challa: “The way I see it, a king can look at whoever he wants.”

He pulls her close and they kiss in front of the Wakandan sunset.