Sound

This is dedicated to one of my best friends, Song, for his birthday yesterday. At least I think it’s yesterday. I’m about 70% sure. Could be May 9th. Now he refuses to tell me because I forgot and so failed the friend test. Dammit Song. Happy (maybe belated, maybe early) birthday.

Note: This is the first part of a two part story. Click for part one.

“Greg, c’mon, don’t do this, man,” Terry urged him. Gregory had the cloak around him, but it wasn’t active yet, so it was nothing more than a tacky black cape. What had Terry feeling nervous was the small gun in Gregory’s hand, which was pointed right at Terry.

“Get out of the way, Terry,” Gregory pleaded. “I don’t want to hurt you but I really have to get out of here.”

“Where are you going with my cloak?” Terry asked without budging. He loved that cloak, even though technically it wasn’t his. And nobody was supposed to remove the cloak from the room except for specific Kyle-approved missions.

“I made it, so it’s mine and I can do whatever I want with it,” Gregory said as he waved the gun at Terry. “Move,” he spat. Terry moved aside, keeping his eyes locked onto Gregory’s. Something wasn’t right; Gregory wasn’t violent, so he must have a good reason for stealing the cloak. Wherever he was going, it seemed that he didn’t want to be found.

Gregory carefully manoeuvered his way around the tables and shelves of gadgets, all the while keeping the gun and one eye on Terry.

“You do know it’ll only last half an hour, right?” Terry asked.

“That’s why I built a bigger battery and I have spares in my pack,” Gregory replied. That explained the bulky backpack. Terry nodded.

“Where will you go?” Terry asked again.

“I can’t tell you,” Gregory’s replied was more pained and desperate this time. He’d reached the door and paused, lowering his gun. “Tell the others I’m sorry,” he whispered and shut off the lights. The room was plunged into darkness and Terry felt more than heard the vibration of the cloak. It was so gentle, so subtle, that if he didn’t know what it was, he wouldn’t have noticed it at all. Terry heard the door shut, slightly muffled by the cloak and sighed. With the cloak on, there was no way to track Gregory or contact him. Even physically following him was a near impossibility, as he’d be a little more than a mirage in the day time and practically invisible at night.

* * * * * *

“What happened?” Anthony Briggs demanded, the last of the group to arrive. Terry had called them all shortly after Gregory had left. It’d had taken him a while to pick the door in near complete darkness that Gregory had locked, before managing to make his way up from the subterranean levels of the compound to the surface where there was a cell signal.

“Gregory stole the cloak,” Terry replied and told them everything that had transpired only an hour ago. Anthony sat down and the room was silent while he processed what he’d heard. After a moment, he turned to Kyle and said, “Thoughts?”

“The doesn’t sound like something Gregory would do. We think he might be in some kind of trouble,” Kyle said evenly. “Even if he’s not, we’ve got to find him and figure out what’s going on.”

Anthony nodded in agreement. “What do you think we should do?” he asked.

“Rachel’s already trying to hack into Gregory’s workstation to look for clues,” Terry said. “We don’t want to take it to the police because they’ll just slow us down with questions and besides, they won’t find him. Like Kyle said, it’s not like him. We should give him the benefit of doubt.”

“Okay, but how are we going to find him?” Anthony asked. Kyle and Terry grinned.

“It’s ironic: the best person to track the cloak would’ve been Gregory himself. But Terry managed to come up with an ingenious plan. We want to find Gregory by sonar,” Kyle said smugly. Anthony looked at them incredulously and Terry continued, “The cloak adapts to absorb and cancel out any wave of sound that hits it. What if we use sonar to cover an area, then look for the spot where the sonar doesn’t bounce back?”

Anthony blinked. “That’s brilliant,” he said, and Terry beamed proudly.

“Rachel’s hacking into a sonar satellite as we speak and she set up my computer to alert us if Gregory’s mobile phone pings a cell tower. We figure he has to take it out of the cloak sometime,” Kyle said. “In the meantime, Terry and I are working out how far he could have gone, based on mode of transportation.”

“It’s gonna take a while,” Rachel piped up. “The satellite’s not in range yet. And once that comes in, we only have a fifteen minute window before it passes over and I have to hack the next one.”

“Why such a short time?” Anthony asked. “And why can’t you hack into the next once before it arrives?”

“The satellites with sonar capabilities stay in range for about an hour at most, usually less. It takes me a while to find such a satellite, then attack it. Depending on the security protocols, it can take anywhere between five to twenty minutes to crack. And, awesome as I am, I can’t hack a satellite that’s not within range.”

“Oh.”

The three guys sat while they watched Rachel type furiously at her machine. Minutes ticked by and Rachel kept tapping at her keyboard, until finally, she commanded, “Boys, map.”

Kyle spread the map and showed her the locations to send sonic pulses. First was his address, which got them nothing.

“Try tracking the route back towards HQ,” Terry said. “If he’s on foot then he’s probably not home yet. I’ll bet he’s probably on foot anyway: his phone signal hasn’t appeared, which means it’s still under the cloak, and I should think it would be hard to drive or flag a cab with the cloak active.” Rachel obliged him, slowly working her way back from Gregory’s residence. They all waited with baited breath and suddenly, a blip of silence appeared on the screen.

“Huh. That was easier than I expected,” Rachel commented. She stopped and scanned the same area several more times, each return signal showing the small black blip moving closer and closer to Gregory’s home.

“Looks like he’s going home,” Anthony said. “Let’s go pick him up. Good work, Rachel. Would you stay here and monitor his progress? Let us know if there’s any changes.”

Rachel nodded they left.

* * * * * *

Twenty minutes later, Anthony, Kyle and Terry sat in Anthony’s car outside Gregory’s address, all of them staring open-mouthed at the mansion that was supposedly where Gregory lived.

“I had no idea he was loaded,” Terry whispered.

“I knew, but I didn’t expect this,” Anthony whispered back.

“So are we going in or what?” Kyle prompted, shaking them out of their reverie.

“There aren’t any lights on inside. Call Rachel first,” Anthony said and Kyle did so.

“Hey, it’s me… Yeah, Kyle, who else?… Yeah we’re outside his place now… uh huh… okay, hang on,” Kyle said. “Rachel says he’s in there and hasn’t moved since he arrived about five minutes ago.

“Okay,” Anthony said. “Let’s go, and tell Rachel to stay on the line.”

They got out of the car and proceeded to Gregory’s front door. Terry knocked on the door, but they got no answer. “Guys,” Rachel said and Kyle relayed her words. “He’s not moving. I zoomed in to focus on his house, but he’s just staying in one spot.”

“Gregory!” Terry called out as he pounded the door again. Still no answer. Terry glanced at Kyle, who hesitated, then nodded. Terry took out his gold plated lockpick set, a reminder of a different life which felt like a long time ago, and knelt to examine the lock. In a minute, he’d picked it.

“You’re slowing down, old man,” Kyle joked.

“I’m nervous, ‘kay?” Terry muttered and slipped his set back into his pocket.

“Stop playing around,” Anthony chided, taking a torch out of his own pocket. “Ready?” he asked. Kyle and Terry nodded and Anthony pushed open the door. As they stepped in, Terry noted how quiet the house was and felt a slight murmur in his chest.

“The cloak is definitely here. I can feel it,” Terry said under his breath. They crept further in cautiously into the dark house, with Terry leading the way. Without warning, he stepped on something soft and tripped over it.

“What the hell?” he exclaimed. Anthony shone his torch over where Terry had tripped, but they saw nothing but a slight visual distortion.

“Greg!” Terry shouted, reaching his hands towards the distortion. He got a grip on the cloak and pulled it off, revealing an unconscious Gregory. Terry tossed the cloak to Kyle, who cut the power and the cloak shimmered back into view. Anthony knelt down and checked Gregory’s pulse, but upon feeling nothing, immediately started CPR.

“Rachel, call an ambulance. Tell them Greg is unconscious, possible heart attack,” Anthony calmly raised his voice in Kyle’s direction. Anthony checked Gregory’s pockets and found the gun he was carrying. “Terry, take the cloak, backpack and gun and run back to the car and stow them there. Then get the first aid kit and defibrillator from the boot. Kyle, hold my torch.”

Terry hesitated, then burst into action, grabbing Gregory’s possessions sprinting to the car. He found the medical supplies easily and hurried back as fast as he could.

“Open the defibrillator and take out the pads,” Anthony instructed as he removed Gregory’s shirt.

“C’mon Greg,” Terry muttered as Anthony placed the pads onto Gregory’s chest. They all stepped back and the defibrillator charged and shocked Gregory. Anthony checked his pulse again and sighed with relief.

“He’s back,” he told Kyle and Terry. “Gregory’s back.”

* * * * * *

15 hours later

Gregory stirred, opening one groggy eye. The first thing he noticed was the steady beeping coming from his right. He glanced over and saw a heart rate monitor. Where was he? What happened? He closed his eyes in confusion and tried to remember. Okay, yes. He’d gotten home, locked the door behind him and he was moving to his living room. There was a sudden sharp pain in his chest and the world went black. He vaguely remembered pressure on his chest and a tingle, but not much else.

Gregory’s eyes snapped open. Where was the cloak? The beeping increased. He tried to sit up, but was too weak to do so. He tried to bring his right hand to wipe the sleep from his face and found that it was cuffed to the railing of his bed. White sheets, white blanket, beeping monitor: he was in a hospital. Gregory became aware of a soft whirring or purring noise and looked around. Kyle was was gently snoring in a chair beside the bed, covered by a jacket.

“Kyle,” Gregory said. Or tried to. All that came out was a soft grunt. Gregory worked his mouth a bit and cleared his throat. “Kyle,” he repeated in a clearer voice this time. Kyle popped awake.

“Gregory,” Kyle said, a little coldly. “Glad you’re awake. We know why you stole the cloak. For a nerd, you’re not very bright.”

Gregory looked confused.

“Don’t play dumb. Rachel went through your phone and found everything. Your sister – Grace, is it? – was kidnapped and the cloak was demanded as ransom, wasn’t it?”

Gregory held Kyle’s gaze for a moment, then nodded, tears pricking his eyes.

“What I don’t understand,” Kyle continued. “Is why you didn’t tell us. We could have helped you.”

“The kidnappers know about you. They said they’d kill her if I went to the police or you guys for help. At first I thought they wanted my money – I have a huge inheritance,” Gregory added and Kyle nodded. “But they specifically demanded the cloak.”

“Well, Rachel’s already trying to track the number that sent you the demands. We started looking for her while you were out cold.”

“Yeah, about that, what happened? And how did you find me?”

“We think the cloak’s vibrations countered your heartbeat and your heart stopped. You wore the cloak a lot longer than Terry used to use it, so it seems like it takes some time to neutralize your heartbeat.” Kyle explained how they found him with sonar and Gregory snorted.

“Ironic. The main thing the cloak was designed to hide me from was used to find me. Perfect.”

“Don’t beat yourself up. It’s a good design and the first of it’s kind. You couldn’t have predicted all the side effects. Oh, by the way, a package came for you earlier,” Kyle said and tossed a small box wrapped in brown paper with Gregory’s name and address neatly printed on top.

Gregory unwrapped the box and opened it. A slip of white paper with red splotches flew out and drifted onto the floor, which Kyle automatically bent down to pick up. When he straightened up to return the note, he saw that the blood had drained Gregory’s face and he was staring at the contents of the box. Kyle took one look inside and threw up into the dustbin.

It was a single human toe, the nail painted a light shade of pink.

Gregory picked up the bloodstained note with trembling hands and unfolded it. It had an address and a time for tomorrow afternoon printed on it, with three more words at the bottom.

Don’t faint again.

* * * * * *

“Okay, here’s what we do,” Anthony commanded. “Kyle, since Gregory is out, you’ll take over communications. Terry,” Anthony turned to face him. “Just go in, get her and get out, okay? Avoid all conflict.”

“Yes sir,” Terry said.

They were several hundred meters outside a seemingly abandoned warehouse, in their ops van, preparing to get Terry in and rescue Grace Thomas. They’d found out it was one of their past clients and, thanks to Rachel, they’d tracked the signals to this warehouse.

“Rachel, eyes up yet?” Anthony asked. They were waiting on Rachel to hack into the cameras around the building.

“Last one and… okay!” Rachel said triumphantly as the last screen popped into life. “This one is the closest to the building,” she said and pointed to one of the screens. “There aren’t any cams inside. Not any I could find anyway.”

Terry wrapped the cloak around himself and stuck an earpiece into his ear. “Check, one two,” he whispered and heard his voice echo in the van. Kyle nodded and gave the thumbs up. Terry pulled the hood up and activated the cloak. Terry’s world reverberated and then went silent. Kyle waited a moment then said into his mic, “Terry, can you hear me?”

Terry heard him, very faintly even though the volume was turned all the way up. The cloak muffled all noise inside itself, so they had to send the sound directly into Terry’s ear for him to hear them. Of course, when the cloak was active, he couldn’t reply, but he could take action. He deactivated the cloak and the sounds of the night floated back.

“Okay, I’m going in.”

One last check of his gadgets and Terry was out of the van, heading towards the warehouse. He crept around the corner and paused.

“Clear,” Kyle whispered. Since the receiver was at maximum volume, they had to speak softly when the cloak was inactive. Terry hurried to the door and poked a small wire under it. At the end of the wire was a camera that relayed it’s feed back to the van.

“I can’t see anything inside,” Rachel said. “It’s too dark. Try going around to the window.” Terry moved on to the nearest window and peeked in. Not this one: there were men inside. He padded to the next window and cautiously looked inside. Empty. Good. He pulled out his picks and said, “Cloak on,” before activating the cloak. The world was silenced once again and Terry took his time to pick the lock on the window. After a minute, the lock opened with a satisfying click, which got silenced by the cloak. Terry cracked the window open and climbed in as quickly as he could, not worrying about noise. Once he was in, he shut the window and paused for a beat, then deactivated the cloak, telling the others “Cloak off.”

“I’m in,” Terry said. “Okay where is she?”

“Basement level. Two levels below you. Staircase to your right after you exit the room,” Kyle said, tracking Terry’s progress on the blueprints that Anthony had managed to obtain. Since this was a past client, Briggs Security Consulting had blueprints so that they knew where best to install their security system. Anthony had covertly made a copy.

Terry poked the wire camera out the door to check that it was clear before moving out of the room. He tiptoed quietly, one finger on the cloak’s activation button, ready to fade quietly into the shadows at any moment. He made it to the stairwell without incident. Peeking down through the railings, he checked that no one was there before descending.

“Okay guys, I’m at the bottom. Where is she?” Terry whispered. He paused for Kyle’s reply, but heard nothing. Crap, he thought. He was too far underground and the signal was lost. It looked like he was going on alone, so he stowed his wire camera and proceeded the old fashioned way: take a peek and hope no one caught him.

The corridor was empty. There were several windowless doors on either side. He carefully turned the closest doorknob and found that it was locked. Terry sighed. Picking all the locks would take some time, so he got to work.

The first door opened to some sort of storage room. Everything was in brown crates, and it was obvious that Grace wasn’t in here. The second room was unlocked, but completely empty. Terry moved on. As he was picking the third door, he heard a low moan from inside the room. He froze and listened, but nothing happened. Terry unlocked the door and opened it, revealing a petite girl gagged and chained to the far wall.

“Grace?” Terry whispered. She shrank back and whimpered. Terry glanced at her badly bandaged foot and felt a flare of anger for her captors. He also noticed her pink toenails. “Grace,” Terry repeated, this time more confidently. “Shh, it’s okay, I won’t hurt you. My name is Terry and I’m gonna get you out of here.” Terry knelt beside her. “I’m a friend of Greg’s. Can you look at me to show me you understand?” Grace weakly lifted her head and gazed into his eyes. Something stirred in Terry’s chest and for a moment, he was lost for words.

“Um… I’m going to remove the gag okay? Don’t scream,” Terry said. Grace nodded and closed her eyes. Terry carefully undid the gag and she coughed, but made no other sound. Terry started working on the shackles that bound her to the wall. Precious minutes ticked by, and finally Terry picked them all. Terry tried to lift her up in his arms, but he wasn’t strong enough to carry both her and the heavy cape. Now he regretted not taking physical training more seriously.

“C’mon, I’m going to piggy back you,” he said as he undid his cloak. He managed to hoist her onto his back, then draped the cloak around them both. It barely covered them both and Grace grunted as she felt the dense cloak’s weight. He gave her the button to activate the cloak so that he could support her with both hands, and said, “When I tell you to press that button, press it quickly and don’t move. Okay?” She nodded and they both left the room. Terry was very conscious of her arms hugged tightly around his neck and chest.

As Terry started climbing the stairs, he marveled at how easy the rescue mission was. As if on cue, the door of the floor above them opened. Terry hissed “Press it!” and quickly shrank into the corner, crouching down so that the cloak completely covered them both. The world went into silence again and Grace squeaked in surprise. The man that came out the door went past them, down the stairs and back through the door they’d just escaped from.

Terry nudged her to deactivate the cloak. “Crap,” he murmured. “He might be going to check on you. We gotta move fast.” He climbed the stairs as quickly as he dared.

“What happened just now?” Grace whispered softly as they ascended. “How come he just walked right past?” Terry’s heart fluttered again at the sound of her voice.

“Invisibility cloak,” he muttered. “Well, not totally. The stairwell was dimly lit, so as long as we stayed still, he wouldn’t see us. The cloak adapts to any waves of energy that hits it and cancels it out. We probably looked like a dark corner to him. Another brilliant Greg invention.”

“My brother made this? Amazing,” Grace wondered at it. “How does it work? What’s it made of? When did he make it?”

“Later,” Terry panted. Finally, they reached the top of the stairs and Terry’s earpiece crackled to life again.

“… Terry… come in Terry. C’mon Terry…” Kyle was whispering repeatedly.

“I’m back,” Terry panted, out of breath from the climb. “No signal underground.”

“Ah Terry! You were out for nearly ten minutes. We thought we might have to come in after you,” Anthony called, relieved. “Did you find her?”

“Yes, I’ve got Grace, but we might have a problem. Some guy might be going to check on Grace’s cell. What’s the quickest way out? Grace can’t climb out the window I came through.”

Kyle quickly gave him instructions. “Come out the back. We’ll be waiting to pick you up. Hurry!” Shouts started coming from below them. Terry weighed his options. They needed speed more than caution now. Terry said, “Cloak on,” and Grace pressed the button. He followed Kyle’s instructions to the back door, ignoring all the open doors he passed. He knew he and Grace were no more than a silent shadow.

Luckily, nobody else passed close enough to notice them and reached the back door without incident. Terry opened the door and stepped into the night. He saw the van approaching and started moving towards it. He nudged Grace with his cheek again and she deactivated the cloak. Grace breathed in the cool night air and revived a bit more. She gave him a small kiss on his cheek and he blushed.

“Thank you for rescuing me, Terry.”

-Jace

May the Fourth be with you

I’m back! On International Star Wars Day! Hooray! I wanted to start on May 1st, but that was a Friday. Thought it would be better to use that spot for a birthday short that I owed for April, letting that be the psuedo start of my return to blogging. Side note: That story was supposed to be a stand-alone short, but in the wee hours of the morning I was supposed to release it (yes I procrastinated until then), I had this brilliant idea to incorporate it into a two part story, with the second one dedicated to Song for his birthday. Also, these two shorts are different from my previous three birthday shorts in that they’re more science fiction than fantasy. The first part wasn’t supposed to be science fiction, but I pulled it away from fantasy so that it could match up with the second part. And now I’ve saved the fantasy concept for another story. Hooray!

Anyway this marks my official return (because it’s a Monday and I like to start things on Mondays)! So a few exciting things happened in April. Also a lot of mundane ones and several awkward ones. I (kinda) enjoyed my break, but it went by way too fast. Every time I return from a blogging break, I always have an update post, so this is it.

Let’s start off with relationships. How do you help someone who refuses to be helped? I have a friend who’s like that and for obvious reasons, I won’t reveal the name or gender. I mean, I’ve literally been in said friend’s situation of putting in effort into something and not being appreciated for the work I’ve done. I’ve felt the frustration, loneliness and despair, feeling like I’m not good enough, asking myself why I’m even doing this in the first place. I made my One Speed philosophy, which, although it works the way I want it to, doesn’t make me feel any better. It solves the logistical and expectational problems but not the negative feelings. I know almost exactly what my friend is going through, so I offered my support, encouragement and everything else I would have liked when I was going through this situation myself. And yet, all my efforts are rebuffed, making me feel exactly like my friend: frustrated and helpless. Ironic, huh?

It’s tough to go through a difficult situation alone but it’s just as hard to watch someone go through it themselves. All I can do is continue to provide support and be ready to help if and when I’m called.

On a lighter note, I had another bar night with my bros and this time we had two more guys, so there were six of us in total. This was technically our second bar night, but it was supposed to be our third. Song, Dawei and JiaKiat had come over to my place to watch movies the last time we’d scheduled a bar night, because I was still sick with my stomach bug and I didn’t want to not be near a clean toilet for any period of time. This time, I was feeling better, so we went to explore a bar called Harry’s @ Cuppage. They had cider, which I was very happy about, and I ended up ordering two pints. To be honest, there wasn’t much kick to it. I think this version was much more tame than the first time I drank a bottle. It just tasted like apple juice with bubbles. But I refused to have any other alcoholic drink, so I guess I can’t complain. It was a very good heart to heart talk and we went round the table talking about – what else? – girls.

Which brings me too my second part about relationships. I had downloaded a new dating app called LunchClick, made by the LOLA team in collaboration with Lunch Actually. I also started playing around on OkCupid (which I eventually ended up deleting). In the last month, I managed to go on dates with two girls (one from LunchClick and one from OkCupid). See, I’m taking action. But I have noticed a trend that irks me: the last four girls I dated all had similar traits, both physically and personality-wise. They were all (for lack of a better non-offensive word) square-shaped and all not ambitious. I’m not saying those traits are bad, just that they’re not for me. I’ll expand on this in a post in the near future (probably within the next week or two). The point is, it made me realize that I’m attracting the wrong kind of girls and/or I’m looking for what I want in the wrong places. That’s all I’ll say for now.

Projects. Well, I started and completed my Soylent Experiment. Programming-wise, I have made absolutely no progress with iOS app programming *hangs head in shame*. However, Dawei has roped me in to do MS Excel projects for Aon Hewitt. In fact, I just got paid $100 for completing the last one and we have three more projects in the pipeline, which makes me feel kinda like this:

01 Greed

I also got my PDL, which was initially supposed to be a secret project so that I could surprise my parents with my actual driving license, but mum questioned where I’d gone on the day I took my BTT, and I didn’t want to lie outright, so… ah well. My parents offered to pay for half my driving lesson fees, so that’s a bonus. I’m slowly documenting my process (inclusive of all the costs), so when I finally get my driving license, I’ll finish the post and release it. Hopefully, it will serve as a guide for future potential drivers, like my mission series reports for Ingress.

Speaking of which. I finished two more mission series with my dad! Perdition’s Road and You Mad Bro? (which is still being written at this time). I’ve also reached Level 13, which is awesome, but other than that, there’s nothing else noteworthy for Ingress.

Hearthstone, on the other hand, I picked up again after quitting because they released the mobile version (for both iOS and Android)! So, quick review.

Pros: It’s on your mobile. Plays exactly like the PC version. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take up a lot of data.

Cons: The app is huge. Initial download with all the files took me about an hour. It’s currently still quite buggy, with persistent connectivity issues. Also, it drains a lot of my battery, not only because it’s a big app and uses a lot of RAM, but also because I tend to spend more time than I think I do on it.

I started playing again because I could play with my guardroom guys. Playing games in the the guardroom is acceptable to me, but not wasting time at home. Since six of us play the game, we had a small tournament last Friday. Round robin, best of three, basic cards only, winner gets treated to zi char by the rest of the players. Needless to say, I didn’t win.

And lastly, Magic. I’ve given up trying to keep up with the market. I’m just going to be a collector: Sphinxes and Pre-release Cards. I’m not going to actively trade my cards, just attend pre-release events and purchase what I don’t have. And play Cube and Commander. Because they’re casual.

Okay! Update complete! Wow, I thought I’d lost my motivation to write (which was why I procrastinated completing Safe until the night before its release), but this post was actually quite easy to flesh out.

Before I sign off for now, remember: Fear is the path to the Dark Side. But the Dark Side has cookies.

02 Dark Side Cookies

-Jace

Safe

This is dedicated to my friend Da Wei, whose birthday was three days ago. Happy Birthday, bro!

Note: This is the first part of a two part story. Click for part two.

Kyle did his best to control his breathing. Measured breaths, in and out. He had to be calm, but his heart was pounding with excitement in his chest. Kyle glanced left and right at his seven competitors in their respective lanes who all, like him, had their hands splayed open in the air. The Locksport Games were about to begin.

“Three! Two! One!” The referee shouted and blew his whistle, signalling for them to start and the crowd cheered them on. Kyle tuned them out as best as he could and focused on the locks in front of him while he reached for his tools on the table without looking. His left hand found the torque wrench and his right, a basic pick. Smoothly inserting both tools into the lock, Kyle dexterously picked the first lock in about five seconds. The second was even easier, giving way to Kyle as if it hadn’t wanted to be locked in the first place. Kyle pushed the door open and sprinted to the next check point.

A quick glance around showed he was one of three guys in the lead, but the rest would catch up soon. The second obstacle was a door with a set of three different interconnected locks that had to be picked within seven seconds of each other, otherwise, all three locks reset themselves automatically. Kyle quickly inspected the locks and chuckled, knowing he’d be able to pick them all easily, and he proceeded to do so with no problems. The door practically fell open at his touch as he opened the third lock and passed through quickly. Another glance to his rivals told him that he was currently in the lead.

The final obstacle was a safe protected by two masterlocks. Kyle hated those. He had a natural affinity for mechanical locks, having been raised by his traditional locksmith father, but masterlocks were very different. They don’t have a keyhole to pick. Rather, Kyle would have to crack the combination by trial and error and listening to the clicks. It was tedious and time consuming. But he had no choice: Inside the safe was the button to stop his timer and mark his completion of the course. Kyle sat down and started working.

The seconds ticked by as Kyle turned and twisted the knob, listening carefully to the clicks of the lock and mentally noting number sequences. He’d had enough practice to forgo the paper and pen method, but he had to maintain his concentration. One little slip up and he’d have to start all over again. That was not a mistake he was prepared to make. Finally, after three long minutes, he cracked the first one and started on the second. Glancing up, Kyle saw that all the others had arrived in their own lanes and were working on their own masterlocks.

Kyle quickly turned his attention back to the second masterlock and started working on it. This time it was easier, since he already understood the first lock, he was able to crack the second one in just two and a half minutes. Scrambling to get the safe open, he reached in a cramped hand and slammed the button inside, stopping his timer. Kyle sagged in relief, the tension easing from his stiff muscles and the roar of the crowd flooded back into his attention. He rolled back and lay on the floor, both mentally and physically exhausted. He looked to his left and saw his main rival, Terry, grinning triumphantly back at him. Kyle groaned and closed his eyes, slamming his first on the ground in frustration. He knew he’d lost first place to Terry. Again.

* * * * * *

“And the first place goes to… TERRY WALKINS!” the announcer shouted and the crowd erupted into cheers. Kyle mock snarled at Terry as he walked onto the stage with big grin on his face. Terry smirked at Kyle then accepted his prize: an official badge and a gold plated lockpicking set. Kyle looked at his own badge and sighed.

“Second place: first loser!” Terry teased Kyle. Kyle punched him in the arm and grinned.

“You only won because of the masterlock section. I was ahead of you the whole time before that,” Kyle replied with indignation.

“But this begs to differ,” Terry took out a golden pick and waved it in Kyle’s face.

It didn’t really matter anyway. The course was designed to test them on basic lockpicking skills; normal locks, electrical locks and masterlocks. Just the completion of the course officially inducted both of them as Level Three members. The first place prize was just a token of recognition.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” a male voice spoke from behind them. Kyle and Terry stopped bickering and turned to see a man in a suit, probably only a few years older than they were. The speaker smiled at them and gave a slight bow.

“Congratulations on your new Level Three statuses, especially to you, Terry. My name is Anthony Briggs Jr. and I work for Briggs Security Consulting. I may have a job offer for both of you, if you’re interested.” He shook first Terry’s and then Kyle’s hands.

Kyle and Terry looked at each other and raised their eyebrows.

“Wait, Briggs? Any relation to the CEO Gary Briggs?” Kyle asked. Anthony Briggs smiled in delight.

“Very good. Yes, Gary Briggs is my grandfather. I’m working under him as a talent scout of sorts. I look out for young people like yourselves who’ve proven to have advanced understanding and keen interest in locks and security. I can tell you more about the job now, but you’ll have to come in to our office for a proper interview, of course. As well as a small test of our own making,” Anthony added as he produced two business cards and offered them to Kyle and Terry.

“Uh, sure, okay, I guess,” Kyle said, accepting one card.

“Just okay? Man, this is awesome!” Terry exclaimed, taking the other card. He turned to Anthony and asked, “What exactly would we be doing?”

“Well, first we’ll provide you with some training to familiarize yourself with our security systems, but after that you’ll mostly be testing said systems. Looking for weaknesses, suggesting improvements, that sort of thing. Sometimes we’ll provide you with some of our competitors’ systems to see if you can break into them. And, we’ll also sponsor you to take part in locksport tournaments representing the company, if you so desire.”

“Doesn’t sound too difficult,” Kyle commented. “Looks like you’ve got Terry convinced. Why do you want me?”

“More minds, more styles, for starters. I was watching your event. You were in the lead until the last obstacle, which means you’re better at the actual picking of locks. Terry caught up with you at the end because he was able to crack the masterlocks much faster than you could. I would think that if you both were to join us, there would be some friendly competition between you two, which would be a benefit the company overall, don’t you think?”

Kyle and Terry looked at each other again and grinned.

“Take a day to think it over, gentlemen. You can call the office and arrange an interview. Both of you could be interviewed together, if you want. I have to leave now, so I’ll bid adieu to you,” Anthony turned to leave.

As he walked past, Anthony said to Kyle, “One more reason I want to hire you: Second place always works harder.” Anthony smiled, though not unkindly, and left. Terry sniggered.

* * * * * *

They had been best friends and rivals since childhood. Kyle, the son of a locksmith, started learning about the internal workings of locks from a young age. Terry was the more mischievous of the two and, after spending so much time with Kyle and locks, was the first to figure out how to actually pick a lock. Kyle preferred to just understand and learn about how different locking systems worked. Kyle’s father tried to stop them at first, but ultimately started teaching them proper lockpicking techniques, as well as the morals and philosophies of locksport.

You may only pick your own locks, or a lock that you have explicit permission from the owner to pick. You may never pick a lock that’s in use or any system that will compromise the security of another person.

This was the pledge that Kyle’s father made them recite every day and each time he taught them. That was his condition to them when he taught the boys his trade. That pledge was drilled deep into Kyle and that was what he was thinking of while he flicked and fiddled with Anthony Briggs’ name card. He felt torn and he didn’t really know why. Working with Terry at Briggs Security Consulting sounded great, the job didn’t seem to violate his father’s code, but he just had a niggling feeling in his gut that something was off.

Kyle wasn’t sure he even wanted the job. He was quite happy helping out with his father’s locksmith business and didn’t want to leave. On the other hand, his father had approved and this was a great opportunity to work with cutting edge security systems. If Kyle was honest with himself, he found thought of being able to provide his input on complex locking systems quite appealing.

Terry had called and settled the logistics of the interview for both of them. Besides, Kyle could always decline later, if he wanted to.

* * * * * *

“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” Kyle asked Terry.

“Of course I’m sure,” Terry replied. “Google Maps said it’s here.”

They were at the edge of the city, in front of an unmarked two-storey building that looked old and weathered. This was the right place but the problem was, the door was locked. Kyle knocked on the door and waited, but there was no answer.

“I’m going to call the office,” Kyle announced.

“Good morning!” A female voice answered the phone brightly. “Briggs Security Consulting, how may I help you?”

“Hi, my name is Kyle Brooks. My friend Terry Walkins and I are here for a job interview, but we’re not sure if we’re in the right place,” Kyle read the address to her.

“Ah, Mr Brooks! Yes, you’re in the right place. Just open the door and go in.”

“But it’s locked…”

“Open the door and go in, Kyle,” she said and hung up before Kyle could protest further. Kyle pulled his phone away from his ear and frowned at it.

“What’s wrong?” Terry asked. “What did they say?”

“Well, we’re in the right place,” Kyle said as he pocketed his phone. “She said to just open the door and hung up. Pretty rude of her, if you ask me.”

“She said that? Her exact words?” Terry asked.

“She said ‘Open the door and go in’. Why?”

Terry whipped out his tools and grinned.

“No, you can’t be serious,” Kyle shook his head. “We can’t pick a lock without -”

“Without what? Permission? Sounds like she just gave us permission,” Terry interrupted. “Besides, Anthony Briggs said they would have a small test for us. What if this is it?”

Kyle hesitated.

“Wait,” Kyle stopped him. “Let me call Anthony Briggs.” Kyle took out his phone again and dialed, but got no answer. Terry turned to the lock and knelt down to inspect it.

“Don’t worry,” Terry told Kyle while he worked. “If anyone gets into trouble, it’ll just be me.” As he spoke the last word, the lock clicked and turned and Terry opened the door with a flourish.

“Show off,” Kyle muttered and they both looked in. Inside was a warehouse of some sort, with shelves of random objects. Kyle’s apprehension grew, but they both stepped inside anyway.

“Well done,” a voice said from the doorway behind them. “Most people would have just stopped at the locked door.” Kyle and Terry spun around and tried not to look too guilty.

“Mr. Briggs!” Terry exclaimed in relief and extended his hand to Anthony, which he shook.

“Mr. Briggs is my father. Call me Anthony, please. Welcome to my current place of work,” Anthony said. “I know, it doesn’t look like much, does it?”

“It’s umm… quaint,” Kyle said diplomatically.

Anthony chuckled. “Come with me,” he beckoned as he walked further in.

“Was that the test? The locked door, I mean,” Terry inquired as they walked.

“It was a test yes. I’m looking for people who are willing to push the boundaries a little. You will be working with state-of-the-art systems, after all.”

“Does that mean Kyle doesn’t get the job?” Terry asked. Kyle smacked him on the arm as Anthony laughed out loud.

“Au contraire! Kyle has shown that he has the right ethics for the job. He tried everything else first before you picked the lock. You two balance each other quite well. Besides, Terry, it’s not a competition. I’m looking to hire you both as a team. As an addition to my team.”

“What team?” Kyle asked. They had reached another door, this time with a retinal scanner. Anthony put his eye up to the scanner and waited. After a beat, the door opened for them to pass through. Kyle thought that was weird. Why such high tech security in a warehouse that was itself protected only by a simple lock which Terry had easily picked?

“This team,” Anthony waved Kyle and Terry into the room that was filled with more shelves of electronic gadgets, but organized a lot neater than the stuff outside. Two other people were in the room, seated at their respective tables, and both of them looked up when the door opened.

“Meet Gregory Thomas, electronics specialist. Graduated MIT two years ago, with Honors. He actually makes replicas of security systems and prototypes improvements.” Gregory was a nerdy looking guy who waved up at them. And the other person was –

“Rachel Rowan,” Kyle said, staring at her.

“You two know each other?” Anthony asked, surprised.

“We know her, but only by reputation. She’s known in the Locksport community because she cracks digital locks by hacking into their systems. Last I heard of her, she tried to hack into a government site and got arrested. Rumor has it she’s supposed to be working for some secret organization now. Wait a minute…” Realization dawned on him and he narrowed his eyes at Anthony, who nodded in confirmation and apology.

“Huh? What’s going on?” Terry looked from Kyle to Anthony and back in confusion.

“C’mon Terry, we’re leaving. I refuse to work with a boss who lies and a criminal who violated locksport ethics. No offense dude,” Kyle threw at Gregory, who shrugged and turned back to whatever he was working on.

“Wait, please,” Anthony pleaded and pulled Kyle aside. “Technically, I haven’t lied to you. I really am Anthony Briggs Jr. My father started this project and I’m helping to carry it out. We really do work for Briggs Security Consulting, building and testing security systems. Occasionally we get… external requests to do a job that requires our specific skill sets, or clients who would prefer more discretion. And I really would like to hire you both. This is a relatively old project, but a new team I’m putting together, and I value your lockpicking skills very highly.”

“Then you just need Terry. You don’t need me,” Kyle said quietly.

“I need a man of your morals. Someone to keep the team in check. If anyone would find all the possible legal and ethical ways of doing something, it would be someone like you. The fact that you’re so resistant to working in a questionable environment like this just proves my point. Also, we do develop and work with the latest security systems. Do you really want to give up that opportunity?”

Kyle hesitated.

“If you join us, you’ll have a say in what jobs we take. If you strongly object to any particular job or course of action, we’ll stop and look for alternatives. Tell you what,” Anthony added. “Work with us for a month. If you don’t like it, you can leave and I won’t bother you again. What do you say?”

Kyle folded his arms and considered Anthony. He seemed to be genuine enough. He glanced over at Terry, who had struck up a conversation with Gregory and Rachel, and sighed. Someone had to look out for him.

“Okay.”

-Jace

Oh give me a break!

Okay I’m going to stop writing for a while. It’s time for another break from blogging. I think it’s a combination of several factors. I’m struggling to write, even with writing prompts. I keep having to force myself to write, and I don’t think that’s a good sign. I also feel like I’ve bitten off a bit more than I can chew, with work, learning iOS app programming and now doing a new Excel VBA project with a couple of friends. Also, I’ve started to grow a tummy, so I need some time to work on my fitness and get back in athletic shape again.

This past week was kinda the breaking point for me, because I came down with a very bad stomach bug since last Sunday. I kept getting diarrhoea and watery stool and, while I felt fine in every other aspect of my health, I was more lethargic than usual. I did have a lot of fun making crappy puns and being the butt of my own jokes though. I don’t know what’s wrong with me and this stupid bug. At least, I hope it’s just a bug and not a tapeworm or some scary parasite like that. I was supposed to start my Soylent experiment last Friday and I when I got sick on Sunday night, I’d hoped that I would’ve recovered in a day or two. I never expected it to drag on for more than a week. At least yesterday I finally showed some signs of recovery; I went to the toilet less often and when I did, sometimes I just needed to fart. XD Over the last week, I learnt the hard way never to trust my farts and never to ignore the bubbling sensation in my intestines. Call it a gut feeling.

Ah well. Some posts will pop up now and again during my break, but they’ll only be the birthday posts. I don’t know how long I’ll be away from my three times a week schedule, but I’ll still write stories for my friends’ birthdays. I do have a few more cool concepts to write about, which I’m bouncing off Mark. Every time I talk to him about my ideas, we always result in more details or even better concepts. Very productive.

On the topic of productivity, yesterday was one of the laziest days I’ve had. Other than writing this post, I didn’t do anything productive at all. Stayed at home the whole day. I couldn’t go to dance practice in the morning because I felt I needed to be near a toilet at all times. I tell myself I just need to rest, but honestly I really could have done more than play games, watch The Mentalist and sleep the whole day. I really had no motivation to do anything more.

To be honest, I’ve also been feeling a bit depressed. Like, not suicidal depressed or even stressed depressed. I just feel like my level of happiness and satisfaction with myself is below average and I need to get them up again. Being “eternally” happy is a big part of my identity, so I guess it’s time for a little soul searching again. Also, apparently I’m not interesting enough. I’ve been playing around with online dating apps like LOLA, OkCupid and LunchClick, and so far all the girls I’ve talked to don’t seem to find me interesting enough to continue a conversation after a while. Since the common denominator is me, I must be the problem. I’ve faced a lot of rejection from girls before, and it doesn’t affect me anymore. Like Ted Mosby, sometimes you just gotta put your heart out there again and again and again. But not being interesting enough is kind of a new problem for me.

My resilience and unusually quick rate of recovery (both physically and mentally) are also large parts of my identity, so between the week-long stomach bug and this new thing of “not being interesting enough”, I’m feeling more than a little lost.

The last reason I want to stop writing for a while is because I want to read. I want to take a back seat and be entertained by other authors, rather than create my own stories for my own entertainment. It gets a little tiring after a while and I applaud those really awesome writers who write really awesome books. I know how tough it is to stick to a story after the original concept seems to have lost it’s appeal and you just have to plod on through. Sigh.

I promise I’ll be back again, don’t worry. Then again, nobody ever worries about this anyway.

-Jace

Emotional Response

This is dedicated to my friend Michelle for her birthday today. Happy birthday!

Present day
Heartless. Cold. Inhuman. Monster. Charlie had heard it all before, but made no difference. There were jobs to be done and anyone failing to do their’s would be fired. Charlie’s job was to do make sure others shaped up or shipped out.

The man sitting across Charlie was close to tears. She tried to feel something for him – sorrow, pity, regret, anything – she really did but, as usual, nothing. Logically, this was the right thing to do for the company. Purge anyone who hinders the organization, like this guy. Sloppy, careless and often late to work, she’d given him many chances and warnings in the past. Now, Charlie had no choice but to fire him as he’d become a liability to the company.

“No, please! I’ve been working three jobs, which is only just enough to pay the bills and feed my family. I need this job,” he begged.

“But you’re not contributing. You keep making mistakes. It was tolerable when they were just small errors, but now you’re costing the company money instead of helping to make it,” she replied dispassionately. Charlie looked at his employee file on her desk and continued, “It says here you have three kids. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Did you think you were able to support a family this large with skills you had?”

“Well… My wife and I love kids and my youngest just… sort of happened,” he replied wearily.

“That just shows me that you lack foresight, make poor choices and you’re on a downward spiral that this company has no obligation to follow you into,” Charlie shot back. “You’ve become a liability and you’re showing no signs of improving. I’m sorry, we have to let you go.” Charlie snapped her employee file shut with an air of finality.

“You’re cruel,” he said.

“No. I’m efficient,” Charlie replied calmly.

Charlie got up and left the room, leaving the man in his misery. As she shut the door, she inhaled deeply, the tension in her head finally ebbing away.

* * * * * *

15 years ago
Charlie lay in her bed and stared at the ceiling, unable to fall asleep. She listened to her parents argue, as they did on most nights. She was intelligent for her age and understood most of what was happening. She wondered when they were going to tell her.

In front of Charlie, they acted sweet and caring to each other and to her, but Charlie knew they had issues. She wasn’t exactly sure what they were or how she could help resolve them, and her parents would just brush her off each time she asked.

Her parents voices drifted up to her again. They got a little louder until finally, Charlie heard a door slam and there was silence. She liked the quietness. It was peaceful and calm. Charlie turned over in her bed and fell asleep.

* * * * * *

Present day
Back in her home office, Charlie sat down and opened her desk drawer. She picked up an employee file – the file of man she’d just fired earlier that day – and slotted it in the drawer, behind numerous other files. Files of people who had worked in the company, up until she’d paid them a visit. Charlie ran her finger over the files, remembering and relishing the memories that they brought back.

Charlie laid back in her chair and closed her eyes, enjoying the serenity of her sanctuary. She lived alone, ever since her father had passed away last year. She missed him, missed taking care of him. At least her life had purpose then.

Without opening her eyes, Charlie opened another drawer, smaller than the first, and reached into it. Her slender fingers found a little velvet box and she picked it up. Her eyes still closed, Charlie nudged open the box, revealing a beautiful, very old-looking ring. It had a silver band and had a large oval shaped gem set on top. She never wore the ring, preferring to keep it safe in her home than risk losing it.

After her father died, Charlie had inherited this ring. It was a family heirloom, passed down for many generations. Charlie was a pragmatist. Everything she owned was practical and up to date. If an item had outlived it’s purpose, she sold it, threw it away, or gave it to someone else. Charlie kept nothing of sentimental value to her. She looked at the ring.

Well, almost nothing.

* * * * * *

15 years ago
Something was wrong. Charlie had yet to fully awaken, but she knew something was off. She opened her eyes.

Sunlight streamed into the window. Charlie could hear the bustling of traffic outside. She looked at the clock and saw she’d overslept by about an hour. She frowned, puzzled. Usually her mother would wake her up and get her ready for school. Charlie kicked off the blankets and went to investigate.

“Mum?” Charlie called as she padded to her parents’ bedroom and knocked on the door. There was no answer.

“Mummy?” Charlie called out again and knocked harder. She heard the bed springs groan as her mother got out of bed. The bedroom door opened and –

“Dad?” Charlie said, confused. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work? Where’s Mum?” Charlie peered around her father to look into the room, but her mother wasn’t in bed.

“She’s gone, kiddo,” her father told her sleepily and rubbed his face.

“Gone where?” Charlie asked. “She’s supposed to take me to school. When is she coming back?”

Charlie’s father scooped her up into his arms, took her inside the bedroom and sat her on the bed. He knelt down so he was at her eye level. Charlie saw that his eyes were red.

“Your mother’s gone. She left us. Last night. She’s not coming back.”

* * * * * *

Present day
The phone started ringing, breaking the tranquility. Charlie despised that machine, but she knew it was a necessity. She sighed, put down her fork and got up to answer it.

“Hello?” Charlie greeted.

“Charlotte?” a vaguely familiar female voice responded. Charlie froze. Nobody called her Charlotte. She’d been Charlie ever since her mother walked out on her and that name had finally died with her father.

“It’s Charlie,” she replied frostily. “Who is this?” she demanded.

“Charlotte, dear, don’t you recognize your own mother?”

Charlie remained silent. Part of her knew the caller was her mother, but the other part didn’t want to deal with it. She’d placed all her memories of her mother into a mental box and locked it far away in the darkest corner of her mind, never to be opened again.

“Charlotte?” her mother called out tentatively. “Just hear me out. Please. I know you’re there, dear, and I know you’re angry. You have every right to be. I’m sorry I left you and your father all those years ago. It’s just that, when I found out… well, I couldn’t bear it. I was weak.”

Charlie still hadn’t said a word, but she wasn’t angry. She felt nothing but emptiness inside her. Actually, she was a little curious now. What had her mother found out that caused her to abandon them? Charlie heard her mother sigh.

“The reason I’m calling is to talk about Dad. I know he died, but I only just read the letter he left for me. I couldn’t bear to open it until now and after reading it, I knew I had to find a way to contact you. I know this is a long shot, but would you meet me? Please? It’s about the ring he left you. You do have it, right?”

Charlie saw no point in denying she had it and now her curiosity had gotten the better of her.

“I’m not giving it to you, if that’s what you’re asking,” Charlie warned her.

“Oh no, dear, I don’t want it. You need it, but you don’t know what it does or why Dad only gave it to you now.”

“And I suppose you do?” Charlie asked, her interest now fully piqued.

“Yes. And I’ll tell you. I’ll show you. If you’ll meet up with me… Charlie.”

Charlie paused.

“Okay.”

* * * * * *

11 years ago
“Daddy,” Charlie nudged her father, who was sleeping on the sofa. “Dad, wake up.” Her father groaned and waved his hands at her.

“I made breakfast, Dad. C’mon, share pancakes with me,” Charlie wafted the smell of pancakes from the plate she was holding. Her father sniffed, opened his eyes and smiled at her. He sat up and moaned as the hangover hit him.

“Here, Dad, I made pancakes and scrambled eggs. They’ll help to absorb the alcohol. You’ve got that meeting thing today, don’t you?” Charlie’s father looked at his watch.

“Right, yes. Thanks kiddo,” he said appreciatively. Charlie helped her father off the sofa and onto a chair, where he started on his breakfast.

“Don’t eat so fast, Dad!” Charlie exclaimed, smacking him playfully on his arm. “Relax, I prepared your suit and the documents you need for your presentation already, so that you could sleep longer and wouldn’t have to rush. Your shoes and socks are at the door and I made sure that the car has a full tank.”

Charlie’s father slowed down and looked at her with admiration.

“You just think of everything, don’t you?”

“Of course. If you don’t do your job, we won’t have money. If we have no money, I don’t get to buy myself pretty things,” Charlie said airily. “I’m just looking out for myself.”

The two of them stared at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing together.

* * * * * *

Present day
“Charlotte! I mean, Charlie, dear. My, you’ve grown,” Charlie’s mother tried to hug her.

“That’s usually what happens when you don’t see someone for 15 years. They grow,” Charlie replied, holding her mother at arm’s length. “So, what did you want to talk to me about?”

“You brought your father’s ring?”

Charlie nodded.

“Good. Before I tell you what it does, I need to tell you about your father and what kind of man he was.”

“I didn’t come here to hear you talk bad about Dad. He was a good man. Not perfect, but a better parent than you were,” Charlie glared at her mother. Charlie’s mother faltered.

“I guess I deserve that. I don’t disagree with you. He was a good man,” she said. “But what you didn’t know about him was that he was a psychopath. I didn’t find out until a few years after you were born. That’s when our fights started.”

“No, Dad wasn’t a murderer. I don’t believe it and I don’t think I want to hear anymore,” Charlie got up to leave.

“Charlotte – Charlie – wait! I never said he killed anyone. You misunderstand. Please, sit,” Charlie’s mother waited for her to sit back down. “A psychopath isn’t necessary a killer. A psychopath, by definition, is someone devoid of emotion. Someone like you.”

Charlie looked at her sharply. Charlie knew she was different, knew what she was and, over the years, she had learnt to conceal it and blend in with the social environment. Sometimes, her emptiness was useful, allowing her to make difficult choices based purely on logic, which made her perfect at her job.

“Your father told me when you were eleven years old. He knew what he was and he knew what you were. At first, I didn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe I’d married one psychopath and given birth to another. We had many arguments over that. Do you know why I loved your father? It was because he seemed to know exactly what I needed, almost as if he could read my mind. He knew when I was sad or angry and always gave me the right thing to make me feel better, whether it was a hug, words of reassurance or ice cream. I always felt safe, well taken care of. Pampered, to an extent. I wondered what I did to deserve such a sensitive man.

Then one night he explained it to me. I’d questioned why, since he was a psychopath, he was able to empathize with me. Was it all fake? A trick he’d learned over the course of his life? Then he showed me his ring. The ring allowed him to feel the emotions of others, which was why he was able to tell what I was feeling with undeniable accuracy. He didn’t have emotions of his own, but the ring let him use the emotions of others. What I saw in him was always a reflection of myself.”

Charlie scoffed. “You think I believe in magic?” she asked. “There’s no such thing. Besides, if the ring helped him, why didn’t he tell me about it himself, or give it to me to use?”

“He was too reliant on it and he didn’t want you to be like him. He also believed he could raise you to live a normal life without the ring’s help. I… disagreed. I was scared. Living with two psychopaths under the same roof was too much for me, so I ran away. If you don’t believe me, put on the ring now.”

Charlie hesitated. All her life, she just wanted to be normal. What her mother was offering was too good to be true. On the other hand, there was no harm in proving her wrong. Charlie slipped the ring onto her index finger and looked at her mother expectantly.

“See? Nothi-” Charlie gasped as her mother grabbed her hand and held on tight. Waves of unfamiliar emotions washed over her. Guilt, regret, sorrow and a bit of fear crashed again and again in pulses through her body. Charlie snatched her hand back. When the connection broke, Charlie was aware that she had tears running down her face. She had never cried before.

Charlie’s mother looked at her and patiently waited for her to recover. Neither of them said a word, just staring at each other in silence. The silence calmed Charlie and, after a while, she reached out her hand to her mother, who reached out to her as well. Charlie braced herself.

Instead of a rush of her mother’s emotions, it had diminished to a steady flow. All the feelings were still there, but Charlie was now aware of one more. It was warm and soothing and safe.

For the first time in her life, Charlie actually felt her mother’s love.

-Jace

Dragons of Tarkir Prerelease

Last Saturday, I went to the Dragons of Tarkir (DTK) prerelease at Games Haven (GH), sponsoring my two friends Nicholas and Malcolm two flights each, so I have a total of six flights worth of cards. I must have forgotten to a post for Fate Reforged (FRF), but I can’t remember if it was because nothing very exciting happened, or I was just plain lazy. Probably combination of both.

Anyway, DRAGONS!

So the three of us went two flights each, allowing us to play all five Dragonlord broods and one extra. I picked Dromoka because Malcolm said the D-20 was the nicest looking dice. All the Dragonlords more or less were hovering around the same price, so it didn’t make much difference.

01 Dromoka Dice
See, it really does look nice.

02 Circle of Dice
Clockwise from top: Ojutai, Silumgar, Kolaghan, Atarka and Dromoka.

Look, it’s the Circle of Dice.

But let’s back up a little. I’d lost touch with Magic, having not followed all the articles since CNY. I’d forgotten that Wizards had brought forward the release date of DTK to allow it to have more time in the Standard format before the new rotation structure takes effect.

This meant I was extremely surprised when Malcolm messaged me on Sunday night, just under a week before the prerelease. I was supposed to be working that day, so I had to use my only off day I had stored and I had been saving that for a Sunday where no one from the other shift wanted to swap duties with me. See, I want my Sundays for dance practice, and I’d already successfully swapped all the Sundays from March. Ah well, applying an off day on Saturday means I have six days of break time.

So I hadn’t done my research. I’d picked Dromoka as the extra purely on what Malcolm told me, because I thought I’d be able to play Abzan colours, quite forgetting that Wizards said that DTK wouldn’t be a wedge block. It turned out to be an ally coloured block with a Dragonlord for each ally colour pair.

Dromoka was Green-White. And I’m a blue player. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find that I lost that entire flight of matches. I eventually ended up with a sub-par Grixis coloured deck, or Anti-Dromoka colours. I really don’t like green. I kidded that this was what playing Hearthstone so much got me.

Flight Two was when things started getting interesting. I played Silumgar (Blue-Black), or Dimir colours, which was totally up my ally. I had a really good pool as well, managing to get Tasigur, the Golden Fang from the single FRF pack, as well as a whole bunch of useful Exploit creatures.

Right from the start I knew I wanted to play some form of control. I mean, the creatures were just so awesome for Exploit, and exploiting said creatures would fill up my graveyard to power out Tasigur.

I have a bad habit of creating “Limited EDH decks”, because I almost always play more than 40 cards. I tried to restrict myself when I played Dromoka, I honestly did, but I still made a 42-card deck. And it gets worse. I added in two more cards and another land when I changed it to Grixis colours. But the Silumgar pool gave me all the reason I needed to make a large deck that can self mill with Tasigur.

So I did just that.

03 Draw Package
I mean, come on, look at the sweet draw I had. I managed to cast Vulturous Aven exploiting Youthful Scholar several times, which drew me four cards and left a 2/3 flying body behind. Very sweet.

04 Exploit Package05 Exploit Fodder
Exploiters and their fodder

It’s worth noting that the Exploiters can exploit themselves, although I never once did that with this deck. In the first flight, I had two Sidisi’s Faithful, which I sometimes used as a Sorcery-speed Unsummon. Too bad I didn’t get any in this pool, but my deck was awesome enough already.

Also worth nothing is that Exploit is optional. Sometimes I just played a Qarsi Sadist early with no exploitation, just to have an early blocker on the field. And I never regretted doing that. Draining two life is sweet and all, but having a blocker saved me more life than if I’d waited to drain with it. Besides, I have recursion. I could always get it back and drain with it in the late game.

I had a suite of Counterspells, Removal and cards to slow the game down, so naturally I drifted to a late game Blue-Black control deck. I ended up with 49 cards in total.

06 Conterspells and Removal07 Early Game Stalling

I did eventually dip into green because I had some mana fixing and also green opened me up to a whole bunch of sideboard removal.

08 Mana Fixing09 Green Additions

Those were the only two cards I main boarded. The Den Protector I put in because I had a sub-theme of recurring things from my graveyard. Also, the Den Protector could be played without Green Mana and provided more fodder for exploitation. Hunt the Weak was just another awesome piece of removal that combo-ed with my Deathtouchers, creatures with death triggers and high toughness creatures.

Sideboard-wise, I had more specific removal, which I could swap out my counterspells for.

10 Sideboard

Self-Inflicted Wound was awesome for me and won me a whole match. My opponent had enchanted Ojutai Exemplars with Battle Mastery and another aura, then hit me for 12 damage, leaving me at five life. On my turn, I top deck-ed this card and managed to stabilize long enough to win.

I think the one mistake I made was putting this card main board.
11 Solo Kia

I thought that between the Exploiters and trading my creatures one-for-one, I’d be able to make a Loner situation. Turns out, that never happened when I had this card in hand. Never cast it and finally decided to get rid of it after the second round.

Financially, I think I did okay. Six flights means 36 booster packs, which is equivalent to buying a whole booster box. I won a total of ten packs, which I sold for $4 each, so I essentially paid $140 for 36 boosters, which is about the price of one whole box.

Plus bonus dice, bonus promos and fun. Very well worth it.

-Jace

Ingress – Land of … Mission Series

This was the second mission series I’ve done, which was created by Yi Hong (chikidi28). As I understand it, he took inspiration from Naruto. I’m not a Naruto fan, so I don’t understand the reference, but the missions do form a nice row of six badges. There’s no particular sequence to the mission series, so the missions can be completed in any way you want to (cue song from Journey XD).

After the 8-hour Uniquely Singapore mission series (which took twice as long as previously estimated), Dad decided to split these six missions into several different trips over a few days, so that we could spend more time collecting unique hacks and captures, as well as smashing smurf portals. I decided to write each mission as we did it, so here’s our experience in chronological order. Mission notes are at the start of each mission log.

15 Feb 2015 – Land of Iron
Mission Notes:
– This mission consists of hacking eight portals in any order. That’s it.
– All portals are around Raffles MRT.
– The portals are in a circuit, so it doesn’t matter where you start. (Exit E is a good start point IMO)
– Can be done in 10-15 minutes; 5 mins if you just blow through.

My dad (Crossbow88) and I did this mission with Joel (xhans). Dad had printed out a map of the area and divided it into several sections. We started by hacking, smashing and capturing portals around Raffles area first (each one of us taking a different sector), before moving in to actually do the mission. The point was so kinda mark out which areas we’d already captured and to give each player and equal chance to capture portals, so as to not step on one another’s toes. Dad also designated the actual mission area to be no-man’s-land, where the portals were available for any of us to take.

I spent more time glyph hacking and doing max value captures in my sector (self flipping Resonators L1 through L8, deploying two mods per portal and creating stacked fields), so I only managed to capture about ten or so new portals before heading off to do the mission. Also, when I started, I smashed portals and built them up only to Level 4 so that I could farm Level 4 resonators. This made me slower than the other two, even though Dad dropped me off first.

22 Feb 2015 – Land of Earth and Land of Wind
Mission Notes:
– Land of Earth is at Bukit Batok. You can start at the MRT, like we did. It takes about 30-40mins if you go fast.
– Land of Earth requires a few capturing/upgrading portal waypoints, so note those.
– Land of Wind is at Buona Vista. This mission is more of a circuit, but it’s a very long walk. Took us more than an hour, but then again we were capturing and fielding.
– Land of Wind portals were all hacking waypoints (I think) except one visiting waypoint and one capture/upgrade portal waypoint.
– Both missions can be completed in any order.

Dad and I did these mission with Joel again and Bukit Batok turned out to be a mission of medium difficulty. Dad parked at the public carpark opposite the MRT station and we started from there after a quick toilet break and picture.

01 Joel, Daddy and I at Bukit Batok MRT

Although we started at Bukit Batok MRT station, it wasn’t a perfect route. There were a few portals on the west side of the station, not too far, that we snagged before moving eastwards. There was at least one capture/upgrade waypoint there. I was faster than the other two, so I snapped up most (if not all) of the unclaimed portals. Ended up netting 19 new unique captures over this whole mission.

There were more portals on the east side of the station they were spread further apart, that was a bit of a walk. Since the whole place was mostly green (meaning few unique captures), Dad had decided to blitz this mission and focus on the Land of Wind mission in Buona Vista, which was mostly blue.

The Land of Earth mission ended somewhere at Bukit Batok East CC about 40mins later, then Joel spotted a cluster of uncaptured portals on a hill near the Church of St Mary of the Angels. We raced to capture them and I stole about seven from him, while he only got two XD Because of our detour, we were late back to the car, so we had less time for smashing and capturing portals in Buona Vista and the Land of Wind mission.

Like I mentioned in the notes above, the Land of Wind mission is more or less a circuit, so if you start from Buona Vista MRT, it doesn’t matter which way you go, you should end up near the station again. I recommend spending some time fielding, as there’s a really nice cluster of portals at the south corner of The Star Vista (the shopping mall beside BV MRT station) where you can just sit by the fountain and reach all four, forming a very easy stack. Those portals are part of the mission anyway, and if you want to extend it to a third stack (which you should), the next nearest waypoint portal is a perfect extension point.

If you want to spend time capturing portals, I suggest you start from Buona Vista MRT and go anti-clockwise, capture the easy stack I mentioned, then spend the rest of your time taking portals at the Biopolis area. On a Sunday, it’s nice and quiet with nobody there to disturb you at all and not much traffic to look out for. More importantly, it’s very densely populated with portals for the taking. Make sure you’re fully stocked on items, or farm the area before smashing.

6 Mar 2015 – Land of Fire
Mission Notes:
– All waypoints are in Tampines area and they can be completed in any order.
– 10+ portals, all either hacking waypoints or capture/upgrade portal waypoints
– The portals are all spread out pretty far apart from one another, so some form of transport is recommended. You will literally travel almost the whole of Tampines.
– If you go with more than three people, prepare ADA/Jarvis viruses; some capture/upgrade portals are nearly Level 8

My dad and I did this mission together, just the two of us. Since most of the portals were spread pretty far apart, we couldn’t just park somewhere and walk, so I directed him to portal after portal. My dad drove and we were able to hit most of the portals without getting out of the car. For the portals that weren’t accessible from the car, there were parking spots nearby, so we could just pop out, hack and flip the portal, then move on.

Almost all the portals that we hit were green, so we didn’t need to spend time attacking and capturing. Rather, we took the time to flip each other’s resonators, so that we could increase our resonator deploy count, gain 65AP per deployment and reduce our inventory. We kept glyph hacking, so our inventory kept refilling itself.

Glpyh hacking really presents a happy problem. The more you hack, the more you want to play to use up your inventory. But the more you play, the more you’re tempted to glyph hack. Repeat ad infinitum. It’s a good way to keep us all playing Ingress.

Very clever, Niantic. Very clever.

Anyway, there was one portal that required a capture or upgrade and it was a Level 7 portal with two R7s and six R8s, just enough for my dad and I to deploy R8s and clear the waypoint. If we had one more person, we’d have needed to ADA the portal, which would have been a perfectly good waste of a fully modded and well linked EP8. So if you want to complete this mission, do take note of these sort of portals, especially if you’re on the right side Enlightened side, because the Enlightened agents in Tampines are very active and organized. It’s probably best to go alone, or with two others at most.

Even with a car, we took about an hour plus to finish the entire mission, including the time we took to glyph hack and flip resonators.

15 Mar 2015 – Land of Lightning
Mission Notes:
– All waypoints are in Yishun area around Yishun MRT and they can be completed in any order.
– 15 portals, mostly hacking waypoints but at least 5 are capture/upgrade portal waypoints
– If you arrive by MRT, finish the west side portals (Portals 1-13-12-15, see Mission Map below) before crossing to portal 14 and working your way back up to Yishun MRT station. This way it forms a circuit.
– The original Yishun bus interchange is closed for now because of a new condo being built I think, so you might have to sneak in somehow to get a few of the portals (Portals 9-10-11)
– Takes about 1.5 hours on foot, some form of light transport (bike, skates) is recommended
– The northern portals are a little annoying because there’s a lot of human traffic, but once you go south of Portal 9, the number of people reduces drastically because it’s mostly park areas.

It was just Dad and I again for this mission. We’d intended to finish off this mission and the last one at Seng Kang in one shot without smashing and capturing any smurf portals, because Yishun was mostly green and also because the next mission series we’re gonna do (Perdition’s Road) is at Seng Kang. Unfortunately, we ran into some problems with this mission.

At the second last portal we hit (Rain Garden) my dad’s GPS went haywire, making him jump everywhere but on top of the portal we needed. This was a capture/upgrade waypoint, so even if he did manage to drift within range, there was no guarantee that he’d stay long enough to upgrade one of my resonators. In the end, he skipped the portal, saying that he’d come back another day and finish it, which he did a few days later with no problems. Weird.

I had no problems at all, but we ended up spending half an hour there, with me capturing and farming the nearby portals. I netted 25 unique captures with this mission XD

Dad’s device is a Samsung. I forget which model, but as far as I’m concerned, Samsung is the Apple of the Android world. Also, while I was doing research on which smartphone to get, a friend of my told me she’d been having problems with Samsung devices, so that immediately raised a huge red flag for me. (Aside: Huh. I was looking for a post I did which explained why I chose to buy the Sony Z1 over anything else, but I realised I never actually wrote one.)

Anyway, let’s forget about electronic devices; this post is about missions!

This mission was a great opportunity to use Niantic’s new Mission Map feature. This is what it looks like:
02 Land of Lightning Mission Overview

The waypoints can be completed in any order, so the numbers are just the portal positions. Dad and I completed it top down, starting with Portal 4, moving down to Portal 15 before walking to Portal 14 (the one where Dad had GPS problems) and finally ending with Portal 7. The distance between Portals 14 and 15 was about 1km. Thanks, Yi Hong, I got my weekly route march in with this mission.

So yeah, the distance is quite long, so use a bike or skates. Best not to do it in the day time like we did, because of the heat and also because the brightness of the sun increases the need for a bright screen, thus draining a lot of power and you risk overheating your device.

22 Mar 2015 – Land of Water
Mission Notes:
– All waypoints in the Seng Kang area, not around Seng Kang MRT, but within walking distance
– Three Capture/Upgrade, One Visit and the rest are Hack waypoints and can be completed in any order
– Finished it in just under an hour. Didn’t really blitz this, but we also didn’t stop often. Most of the waypoints can be completed without breaking stride.
– SengKang MRT is just south of waypoints, 2, 3 and 4.

Mission Overview
03 Land of Water Mission Overview

This was a pretty quick mission, I felt, since we didn’t stop much. We’d decided not to focus on smashing and capturing and instead concentrate on the mission itself. We only took portals that were easy to destroy and I netted 46 new captures, I think. I only kept dropping R1s, R4s, R5s and R6s because I had a surplus of those and never bothered to fully deploy a portal. I let my dad do that then just linked whatever I could.

We parked at a multi-storey carpark beside Compassvale Primary (somewhere between Portals 10 and 12), then started the mission. We hit waypoints 12-11-13-10, then moved to portal 4 and completed the rest in a clockwise direction. Note that the northernmost three portals are in a cluster of other portals, so you might want to spend some time capturing and/or linking up the place.

After we finished, we started on the Perdition’s Road mission series. Moving on immediately to this series was why we hadn’t focused on smashing and capturing. And just two missions in, we were trapped by the heavy rain.

Very apt, seeing as we just completed Land of Water. By the time we got back to the car after completing the third mission, we were drenched and our shoes were soaked.

Thanks a lot, chikidi28.

And here’s what the whole series looks like.

04 Mission Complete

-Jace