Friday, March 12, 2010

Interview with an assassin, part II - revenge of the killer fungus!

Earlier this week I posted a first interview with Shayla. That gave me a lot of ideas to help describe her emotional state on her quest. This interview focuses more on her preparations and physical state, which eventually told me that I needed to be much more sympathetic to the difficulties she faced. This also helped to explain some lapses of judgment on her part which on or two critiquers had noted.

Shayla Carver - on being an assassin

Shayla, tell me something about the training you had. What made you such a deadly assassin?

[She raises an eyebrow] Just how far back do you want to go?

Well, I suppose the obvious place to start is your legendary fighting skills.

Right back to the beginning then! [She laughs, but sobers quickly] OK.

Let's see ... I can't even remember a time when I wasn't into some sort of combative sport. I guess I had a lot of excess energy to burn up. I was a junior master of Jivan wrestling by the age of ten, and was well on my way to the bronze standard in Shohan Calinda.

The Knife Dance?

That's the popular name, and I guess it does look like a dance in its more stylised forms. But it's actually a range of disciplines covering all sorts of hand-held weapons. Knives, swords, sticks and pikes, that sort of thing.

Then after Eloon was ... cleansed, I kinda threw myself into that. I suppose I had some vague idea of fighting my way into the palace and taking on the Emperor in person.

Things got serious when Brandt and I made our pact. We realised that we had skills that we could put to use, but all this unfocussed rage was getting us nowhere. We needed to set ourselves a goal and take steps, conscious steps, towards it. Childish fancy of course, but it led me into the Firenzi military at seventeen. I learned the difference between ritualised fighting for sport, and fighting to kill.

[She pauses, looking thoughtful] That experience hardened me. Once I'd killed for the first time, I knew I could see this thing through, but I also realised pretty quick that the military was a step in the wrong direction. The Firenzi forces would never take on the Empire, not in direct battle, and even if they did I would never be in a position to take out the kind of personal revenge I was looking for. I needed to get into the Special Service to get the kind of chance I needed.

How did you manage that? It's not exactly an organisation you can apply to join.

No shit! I had to get myself noticed by their talent scouts, so I started volunteering for scouting and behind-the-lines assignments. A chance to show the skills the Service would be looking for. The breakthrough for me was retaking Scorflac from the Family Wala. I was able to infiltrate the Wala base at Dojon and cripple their command centre with a small pulse bomb. After that, the navy was able to retake the planet without resorting to a full scale ground assault. Big brownie points!

This used something other than fighting skills then.

Yes. I managed to pass myself off as an emissary from one of the local grain barons. Scorflac is remote and right on the Wala-Firenzi border. It's been Firenzi for over three thousand years, but only just. It keeps flipping allegiance, with help from the Wala. The local bigwigs are constantly sucking up to one side or the other, so it was a plausible cover.

So you see, combat skills are only part of the story. In fact, my best trick turned out to be disguise. Not fighting, but blending in. I had this talent for it. And some hi-tech help in the last few years of course.

Your implants?

You bet! Something the Firenzi want to keep secret as long as possible. No surprise there. If you don't know about them they are such an effective disguise. But once people know what to look out for they'll be too easy to spot. They'll become obsolete. Well, the secret's safe, for now. And I'd never have gotten through any close scrutiny without them. But man! Those things were a pain in the butt.

How so?

Think about what the implants do. They give you conscious control over your appearance. Facial features, skin tone, hair colour. Can't do much about height, but the implants can absorb water and plump you out some.

Sounds marvellous!

It is. But remember what I just said back there. Conscious control. It's like flexing a muscle. It takes effort to morph, and effort to sustain. Slacken off and your features will revert.

So you woke up each morning as Shayla Carver instead of Brynwyn?

[She snorts and shakes her head] Not quite. It takes time. Nobody would notice much difference after only a few hours, and it takes several days to become recognisably yourself again if you simply relax. Quicker if you make a conscious effort.

But morphing your appearance in the first place is slow work and both physically and mentally draining. I normally take about four days to put on a disguise. On Magentis I did it in less than two. That was tiring.

And as for keeping the disguise up, just try walking around all day with your stomach muscles permanently tensed and your arms held high over your head and you'll start to get the idea. I spent most of my time on Magentis half dead from exhaustion. That led to a few lapses of judgement, which could have been serious.

[She leans back, gazing up at the ceiling] So, you see, the implants have their drawbacks. And I try to forget what I went through getting them in the first place.

[She looks at me again, with a sly grin] You know they were engineered from some strain of fungus? The implant process is ... painful. And creepy. You have these filaments growing under your skin from the implant sites. It's like an infection. It is an infection really. And it totally knocks you out for weeks. You're under constant medical supervision, feeling sick as a dog, but they're not trying to cure you. They're encouraging the infection, guiding it to all the right spots until it's taken over every inch of your skin.

Sounds gruesome.

It is! And then they give you a killer drug to stop it metastasising further. It knocks you sideways, but you don't mind that because you're just hoping like crap that it works!

What if it doesn't?

[She shudders] Then you really do have an infection. A nasty and terminal one.

So obviously it worked for you.

Yes. But that's not all. Once you've recovered, the real training starts. By now the filaments have made a whole network and tapped into your somatic nervous system. But it's like a phantom limb that you never knew you had. You have to learn to control it. It took me nearly two months before I started to make a conscious connection, and a full year before I had enough control to put on a decent disguise.

[She smiles] Boy was that a frustrating time for me. You know me. I'm all about action. I can be patient when I'm stalking prey, but I need to see progress. I was ready to bite heads off after the first few weeks. [She giggles. I find the incongruity unsettling] I don't know how many trainers I went through! I think the Special Service ended up offering danger money just to get them in the same room as me.

What about preparation for this particular mission?

Well, physical appearance and a shedload of painstaking factual research of course. But to effectively take on Brynwyn's persona, it wasn't enough just to look like her. I had to learn about her life, her family, her history. I had to immerse myself in her beliefs, her religion, the whole Vantist mysticism thing, the meditation and fanatical devotion to duty. I had to learn the holy books inside out, not just to recite quotes, but to get inside the mind of a believer and understand what the texts were saying.

Sheesh! What an eye-opener. I'm so glad I'm good at compartmentalising. I'd have gone gaga trying to get my head around all these conflicting beliefs and personae.

And of course, the devil is in the detail. For example, I spent weeks not just learning the Chensing tongue from scratch, but studying the dialect and colloquialisms that a Chensing speaker would bring to the standard Imperial tongue. And not just any Chensing speaker either. I got very specific about that broad north coast accent. A detail like that would be obvious to many residents of Magentis. But I knew Brynwyn mixed in refined circles in the politics of Toomin Barza, so I had to soften it just a little.

Well, you get the idea.

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