Sunday, June 6, 2010

Psychflare: Ninjutsu

I'm a bit shocked at my creative production this week. Sure, most of it is crap, and not a word of it has been in the one work I really want to finish, but still. 3 complete short stories, in a week? Considering my entire literary work so far, that's something.

Anyway, this Psychflare has lots of ninjas, pseudoscience, and pseudoscience applied to ninjas. It got way out of hand at some point, which I think might have been an improvement. But enough of my babbling.


“Fucking ninjas” I thought, while dodging shuriken. To be honest, I've always wanted to use that as an opening line, so I'm taking this chance to do so. But I'm starting this a bit late, and I'm sure it'd be too confusing. We should go back a bit.

An Unspecified Amount of Time Ago...

We were at Steve's place, bored out of our skulls. I was, I think reading some sort of comic book, and he was online.

“Dude! Check out this hilarious website!”

“Call me dude again and you die”

“Fine, fine. But really, though, this shit is funny”

The funny shit in question was an online encyclopedia cataloguing various narrative devices and other frequent occurrences in the worlds of movies and television. It was, I will admit, a decent time-killer, and we spent a few hours laughing like idiots and making comments. Nothing particularly fascinating, y'know, but that's the backstory.

At some point, we chanced upon an entry titled “Law of Conservation of Ninjutsu”. You know how when you see a single ninja sent to kill someone it usually means they are in deep shit, but if they send a whole army of 'em you can expect the one guy to beat them up like so many cardboard cut-outs? The idea is that there's only a limited amount of ninjutsu (“ninja skill”, basically) to distribute between all the guys on each side, so if you have a hundred attacking at the same time, each of them is one-hundredth as strong as they would be alone.

For some reason, we started to jokingly discuss an Asian movie marathon as a “field expedition” of our study of mass ninja fighting. S'what happens. In any case, Steve suggested at this point:

“And why don't we do it with real ninjas?”

“Sure, but where would we find any?”

“There's this martial arts place Dan said he was taking karate lessons at the other day. I think they had a ninjutsu class.”

“, wanna go now?”

“What the hell, beats staying here all day”

And so it was that we embarked upon that quest. I decided to bring along a camcorder, just in case we made a video out of it, maybe upload it to the 'tubes or something. One might think that our plan to stalk a bunch of weaboos was stupid and possibly unethical, but in our defence, we were really fucking bored.

So we went to the dojo, found a window that showed the appropriate class, and basically stood there watching, filming and making the occasional dumb remark. A well-wasted afternoon, you might say, but some seeds were planted that day. Seeds we only noticed when we re-examined the last few minutes of the recordings.

“Hey, wasn't this guy in the last fight?” he said, pointing at one corner of the room.

“You think? He doesn't... oh yeah! Yeah, he's the same guy. He moves different now.”

“Yeah... faster. Or, I dunno, more agile.”

“Actually, there's a handful of guys moving like that, now. For the last minute or so”

After a bit of rewinding, we managed to narrow down the moment when the quality of the ninja-ing jumped levels. Namely, near the end when about half the class had already left and a few were still practising.

“You don't think...”

“Nah, come on. These are the guys that stay last, right? So they must be the dedicated ones, y'know, the ones that never miss a class or some shit. So, when the noobs leave, they start going at it seriously.”

“Yeah, probably. But! This calls for... Additional Research!”

Additional research, as it turned out, meant more stalking. But the results were surprising. No matter who it was that stayed late (and we did some extensive cross-checking), anyone that was still in the dojo while most of the rest left experienced a significant increase in skill. Noob or pro, it didn't matter. Further recordings showed the phenomenon also took place during the beginning of the class, when most weren't yet there. Once again, for anyone who arrived early, for any reason.

Like decent scientists (ok, people pretending to be scientists), we tried to find alternative explanations. A plot-convenient narrative device was not a valid theory, now was it? And we were of course predisposed to see that pattern because that was what we were looking for in the first place, right? So we looked harder. We looked at every second of every video, so many times we could almost replay them in our heads by memory. We even joined the class (to get the “insider's perspective”), and we weren't that bad at it, if I do say so myself.

I'll spare you the endless discussions that took place over the following months. The gruelling, mind-numbing effort dedicated to understanding what the hell was going on. But the fact is, we were more convinced with each passing day that we were on to something, something that made little sense at all but we could no longer deny. In time, we stopped bothering to look for sense. And it's that, I think, that allowed us to see what was hiding underneath.

It wasn't the kind of think you'd focus on, for a number of reasons. But at some point, one of us, I'm not sure who, brought up whether the Law was the straightforward distribution of whatever that we imagined. You see, we'd never really considered it in any other way. Any way other than: There's this Stuff, floating in the air or something, that powers up ninjas, and it's equally divided amongst all “practitioners”, you could say, in a given area. And maybe, we thought, maybe it's not quite like that. Once that was on the table, it opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

That was not enough, though. It allowed us to really start, well, we called it our “project”, but it lead to further months of obsessed late-night theorizing. We were working on models, you see. Some kind of model that could explain exactly how ninjutsu conservation worked. It was a tricky, almost slippery business, trying to get to define in any meaningful, consistent way something that we only understood as people (ourselves, sometimes) moving “better”. Sure, you could quantify speed, or reaction time. That's fairly straightforward, if tricky to measure. But how did you quantify agility, or flexibility, or an ability to read your opponent's moves? Well, we found something, by chance.

We were working on the latest model, I think it was the gravitational-catalytic, or possibly the focal-osmotic. Doesn't really matter. Anyway, we were working on it, like I said, and we started down a path like many others, born of one random idea thrown out. A succession of... not exactly equations, but that's close. Exchange rates, really, improvements in one area and how to compare them to those in another. The chain of reasoning led us to strange places, and I think both of us, to ourselves, thought it was a dead end. Perhaps, alone, we wouldn't have followed it. But together, just when one of us thought this is it, I'm quitting, the other saw the way forward. Time after time, chasing down the ghost of something, keeping on just not to discourage each other, at first. After the first few hours, it was pride, and maybe not wanting to admit the time waste. By the time night came around, we knew it was the solution.

We called it the Lee, after probably the most famous martial artist of our age. Not that he was a ninja, of course, but we thought he deserved it. The unit of measurement of combat skill, defined carefully and in detail, and checked against everything we could find. It wasn't the final piece of the puzzle, but it was the one after which fitting the rest is so much easier. Once we had the unit, it was a relatively simple matter to find a working theory. It still took effort, but maybe a week later we had the basics covered, and another week or so later we had finished polishing it.

Soon enough, we got to the practical testing. It was shocking, seeing how knowing some numbers and symbols helped us jump from “talented amateur” to “how the fuck did they do that?!”. But when we saw that our theory worked far better than we expected, we grew arrogant. We began to show off what we could do, how the simple understanding of how to manipulate ninjutsu made us nearly superhuman. And we were careless.

We were still working on the theoretical aspects, of course. What had first inspired and confused us was the mechanics of ninja working in numbers, and we had made significant progress in that area. Our magnum opus was the “Chandler-Farshine Principle of Ninjutsu Optimization”, a rather elaborate set of equations and instructions that surpassed the (we know realized) terribly limited Law of Conservation. It described how to take advantage of the interaction between every ninja's own ninjutsu, the environment, and the opposition's, in groups of high numbers. We had reached about 12 at the moment, but the strategy was still ineffective past the dozen. We had our notes with us that day, and we probably talked about a bit too loud, because after class, we noticed they had been stolen.

“Shit, shit, shit!”

“Come on, it's not a big deal. We have back-ups of them, we just need to go to your place and make another copy.”

“It's not about that! Don't you see it? We just gave ninjas the key to performing group manoeuvres that were beyond their possibilities for centuries!”

“Seriously, what are they gonna do? Steal the rest of our research? We keep it hidden....”

“Obviously not as well as we should.”

“...and 90% of it won't make a lick of sense to anyone but us.”

“Not immediately, but with time, who the fuck knows how much they'll get?”

“Jesus Christ, do you have to be like that? Fine, what do you suggest?”

I weighed our options for few moments, but honestly we didn't know enough to make a decision at that point. The only plan that would work needed to be flexible.

“OK, what do we know? Someone has our notes on the Principle and might figure out more. If someone with connections to plenty of ninjas, like say one of the Senseis, finds out, they'll try totake advantage of it, and possibly want to keep the knowledge secret, which means dealing with us.”

“So, worst case scenario, a fuckload of ninjas will take a few days to decode our notes, then send a strike team, up to about 12, to steal the rest and kill us. Otherwise, it could be anything from a mistake, to someone operating alone who'll want more data, to a small band.”

“If they get the rest of the research, it'll be serious shit no matter how many they are. I say we burn it. Even if it's nothing, it's risky just letting it exist out there”

“Point. We have most of it memorised, and we can rebuild it back later if necessary.”

So we proceeded to destroy the work that had fascinated and taken over our lives for a year, and we waited. We needed come up with a plan.

It was five days later when they showed up. Three of them, just walking through the front yard and casually ringing the doorbell. They opened the door, it had been left unlocked. As one of them walked forward, the others following him a few steps behind, we checked them. Ninjato, shuriken, kunai, one of them even had some sort of hook. Not in plain sight, of course, but we had a few tricks for that.

“It has come to our attention that you two have very valuable information. We'd be willing to offer you a trade, I think you'll find it very generous,” the guy leading them said. “Of course, if you don't accept, we might have to resort to... other measures”

Now, at this point you might assume that this was just an attempt to intimidate us into cooperation. Thing is, it's not a good idea to establish yourself as an obvious villain when trying for a fair negotiation. Makes people iffy about whether you'll live up to your side of the deal. So either this guy was really bad at it, or....

“Distraction,” Steve whispered in my ear.

“I know”.

And that's when the other nine mooks burst into the room, and started throwing metal stars at us, which you might notice is where this narration started. You might also notice it was the worst case scenario we had considered. Paranoia, it pays off.

Two bangs, and two ninjas were dead on the floor. Chalk it up to the secret ninja art of “fast-draw-while-avoiding-pointy-death”. Two more bangs, and two other stains in the carpet. The remaining eight were thrown off-balance by this, and we didn't waste a moment.

You see, one of the tricky aspects of coordinating ninjutsu distribution across a dozen people is that, when certain factors (e.g. number) change, the strategy must also adapt, and fast. Otherwise, you fall prey to the old standards, and whatever is left of your forces is not of much more use than one guy. We knew this, and they clearly did not. Once the ninjutsu was on our side, we had the advantage even in a 2 vs 8 fight. That, and we had guns.

The leader went down next, just in case he managed to coordinate them again. By then, some of them had closed in and we had to do some serious grappling and throwing, but like I said, we had the edge. Three of them went down like that, the rest attempting to reassemble while we were busy. One shot, flow of the left side move broken. Another shot, right side dealt with as well.

It was 3-on-2, now. They tried to surround us and limit our control of the field, which was the cue for a quick jump in opposite directions. Dazed as they were, the one in the middle couldn't choose which one of us to fight fast enough. By the time he came after me, the other two were on the ground. Steve took him out from behind.

We were exhausted, but alive. It had been an exhilarating experience, and we began to laugh. It was cut short, though, when we remembered that we had 12 corpses on the floor and the neighbours probably had heard something.

“I think this is goodbye,” I said.

“Do you have a plan?”

“As for the immediate future, run away as fast as I can.”

“Same. Sure you don't want company?”

“They'll be looking for us together.”

I didn't see him again for years. I cut a deal with the government, once they finally caught up with me. Teaching courses in Team Tactics, armed and unarmed combat, the whole shebang. It was a decent life, kinda solitary, but I liked it that way. I've always liked the whole lone warrior against the huge army deal.

Steve, I know he took on a new identity and went to Hollywood. How he managed that, I'm not sure. He's some sort of martial arts double now. Fitting, isn't it? For him, the story starts and ends with ninja movies. Poetic, in a way.

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