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Friday, December 23, 2011

Operation Christmas Gift by R. L. Copple

Jeremy stared blankly at the video screens stretching across the Titan station's wall as they scanned Earth's video feeds for crimes in progress. Glimpses of Christmas trees flashed across them as the world he called home, almost a billion miles away, prepared for Christmas the next morning.

"BJ, do you think we'll see Santa from here?" Bridget turned to watch Jeremy's eyes.

He barely cracked a smile. That would certainly get his mind off all the events of the past year. "No, Sis, I seriously doubt it." Jeremy met her eyes. Her short, brown hair brushed her shoulders. "Santa operates under the radar."

She huffed. "You make him sound like a bad guy."

"He does break into people's houses."

She slapped his arm. "To give stuff, not take it."

Jeremy felt his gut sink. "Christmas took my life from me. It took our parents from us." A year ago, he had parents, a normal life. All gone now. All because he had received that stupid helmet for Christmas, had put it on, had become involved with another world's battle, had saved them, then had become the hero who saved Earth from the revenge of the Similarians, but only after they killed his parents. A year later, his life turned upside down, the world moved on as if nothing had happened. He played virtual superheroes instead of living a normal life. Another Christmas came, but without the Mind Game this time. But he still had the hero game going.

She slumped in her seat. "I was trying not to think about that."

"Hey, Bucko."

Jeremy swung around to see Mickey stepping up behind him. "Hey, Mick. What took you?"

"Family returned late from a Christmas Eve service. Said I wanted to go to bed right away, like I couldn't wait until tomorrow." He smiled. "But I don't have to."

Jeremy raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean, you don't have to wait?"

Mickey slapped Jeremy on the back. "Because I have Astro Man right here. Just use that xray beam of yours and I'll know what they are tonight!"

Jeremy shook his head. "Mick, you're crazy."

"Oh, come on. I'm hoping they snagged the latest game--"

Jeremy jumped out of his seat. "What? Another game? Are you crazy?"

Mickey grimaced. "Bucko, what's the deal. It's just a video game."

Jeremy rubbed his forehead. "That's what we thought last year. Just a game. A game that stole my life from me."

Mickey's eyes grew wide. "Ah, of course. Christmas would be triggery for you. I'm sorry."

Jeremy sucked in a deep breath. "Forget it, Mick. It's all I can think about right now."

"What you need is some action. Anything on the vids tonight?"

Jeremy shook his head. "Christmas Eve is pretty quite all over the world it seems."

"Santa," Bridget's voice rang out.

Jeremy spun around to Bridget. "What?"

She pointed at a video screen. "There's Santa. And he's breaking into a house."

Mickey slapped his hands together. "There's our action. Let's take down Santa."

Jeremy held up a hand. "Mick, this is suspicious. Think about it. How would a live camera crew know about a break-in to a home as it happens and be there to record it?"

Mickey shrugged. "Happened to be in the right place at the right time? They've probably called the cops, but are filming it for the drama."

"Maybe." Jeremy stared at it a bit longer. "Aren't there movie plots about Santa stealing things?" Micky stared at him. Jeremy called out, "Computer, find movies where Santa steals." A screen went blank and then a list of titles appeared. The highest rated link read, "The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus" in 1914. Related links followed it.

Mickey read the results. "Are you saying the Zorians are behind this? Else I'm not following you. Santa thieves have been around forever."

"Yes...I mean, no. I doubt it is a Zorian. But it still makes me suspicious."

"Okay, so maybe it's a trap. Maybe it's not. And if it's not, guess who loses?"

Jeremy ran his fingers through his hair. "Yes, you're right. But stay together. My gut is saying something is wrong here."

"Agreed," Mickey responded.

Bridget jumped from the chair. "Sure, but we'll be virtual. We can't get hurt."

Jeremy stood. "Then as you say, Mick, let's do this."

Mickey grinned. "This will be good for you. You'll see."

Jeremy entered the coordinates. "Suit, appear as Astro Man."

The room faded and a breeze blew across his chin sticking out from below his helmet. The half-moon cast a dim glow over the residential neighborhood. A street light flickered a few yards to the right. Activity buzzed to his left where a camera crew recorded the house, waiting for the thief to exit. A siren blared in the distance, indicating the police were indeed on their way. Mickey was probably right. They would save someone's Christmas from being stolen and make some kids happy, at least.

Mickey appeared beside him as Blue Nova. Jeremy could barely make out the blue-green suit, blue briefs, and dark blue cape in the moonlight.

Bridget materialized as Rainbow Girl to his left. Her sparkly mask flaring at the end reflected the meager light.

Jeremy caught her eye. "Rainbow Girl?"

She smiled. "You catch 'em. I'm make 'em cooperative."

Jeremy nodded. "Sounds like a plan. You stay out here. Blue Nova and I will grab this guy." He turned toward Mickey. "I'll use my blinding flash on my gun, and while the crew is blinded, race in there and grab him, bring him to Rainbow Girl, and she'll make him giddy with cooperation."

Mickey saluted. "Sir, yes, sir!"


"Lighten up, Bucko. Have a little fun with this. You're way too wound up."

Jeremy pulled his gun out and set it for the light blast. "You should never let your guard down. Assume nothing."

"It's just a lone Santa thief. What could go wrong?"

"I hope your right." Jeremy pointed the gun toward the camera crew. "Hide your eyes. On three. One, two, three!" Jeremy squeezed the trigger and a blast of light lit up the area. The camera crew rubbed their eyes and swore in the quiet neighborhood. Within a second, Mickey flashed back with a squirming man in his arms. Mickey dropped him on the ground.

"What the--" The man stayed on the ground.

Bridget extended her arms and flow of rainbow colors enveloped the man.

Santa's eyes blinked and a grin spread across his face. "So much for my Christmas. But that's okay. I'm happy anyway."

Jeremy pointed to the street. "Go sit on the curb and wait for the police. Give yourself up when they arrive."

"Oh gladly I will. I was so bad to try and"

Jeremy's eyes widened. "What did you say?"

The back of the news van flung open. A line of soldiers carrying automatic rifles streamed out the door. Jeremy raised his gun to set it for shields, but before he could, a rain of bullets spread over them. He could feel the bullets hitting him. He would have called out to exit the suit, but dying in the virtual body would accomplish the same thing. This did appear to be a trap, but what trap? They would wake up and come back again. Apparently they didn't know much about how virtual bodies worked. But why did the army set this trap?

As life ebbed from the virtual body, he saw Mickey drop out of nova speed and fall to the ground. He hadn't reacted fast enough, despite his super speed. He felt himself falling onto the grass as blackness swept over him.

Jeremy jerked his eyes open. He tried to focus, but the ceiling he saw was not the stucco of his uncle's house at the top of a Montana mountain. Instead, polished metal greeted his eyes. He pushed himself up.

Thick hands wrapped around his arms and another pulled the cowl off his face. "Commander, Operation Christmas Gift has been completed, sir."

Jeremy groaned inwardly. Their bodies had been captured while they were virtual. Two men on either side of him kept a firm grip on his arms, another two stood toward the foot of his bed, rifles aimed at the floor, ready to use. No doubt another two stood behind him.

A higher ranking solider beside his bed examined the cowl. "Very interesting. I'm sure our scientist will have a field day with this."

Jeremy noticed the American flag attached to their uniforms. US military. "Earth's best scientist couldn't figure out how the helmets operated. What makes you think this will be easier?"

A smug smile creased his lips. "We've actually made progress in figuring out some of the Mind Game helmets. But we're missing a point of reference."

Jeremy squinted at him. "What?"

"Point of reference. The helmets, as you know, don't work. And even when they did, the destination was in another galaxy. But with these in hand and the destination being in the same room, they'll be able to trace the energy field being created, and hopefully come up with the remaining pieces of the puzzle."

Jeremy let himself fall back to the cot. The soldier’s hands loosened but remained firm. "No one can use the mask but me. Same with the other mask Mickey and Bridget have. They are programmed to respond only to our voices."

The man shot a stare at Jeremy. "You'll forgive me if I don't trust you."

"Be my guest." Jeremy turned to meet his eyes. "But how did you find us?"

He waved his hand. "Simple deduction. When the superhero appearances began to be reported all over the world, and you're friend and sister's personas helped in defending Earth, it became obvious that the same virtual reality of the Mind Game was at work. From there you were the most logical culprits. We tracked down your locations and set the trap to grab you."

Jeremy stared at the wall. He should have foreseen this possibility. "Why, though? Why revert to kidnapping us?"

The soldier stuffed the cowl into his pocket. "Control, Jeremy Goodhue. The Army likes to have control over situations. And I didn't suspect you'd approve of us gaining that control. But if we can duplicate this technology, our forces would be invincible. We can fight wars on the ground without losing a life. With a legion of virtual Blue Novas to speed in and hit the enemy before they even blink, we could maintain control for decades. Centuries even. Can you imagine the progress? Can you see the peace we could uphold?"

Jeremy knew he didn't want to tell the man anything else. Let him think he could succeed. As soon as the Zorians caught wind of it, they'd shut off the virtual energy going through the wormhole and that would be that. No more superhero days for himself, Mickey, and Bridget. But then again, that didn't sound so bad. He wouldn't mind putting the whole thing behind him, and salvage what he could of his life.

"Peace?" Jeremy breathed deep. "By killing?"

He smiled. "Youthful idealism. I'm afraid the world is a dangerous place. Some people only understand one thing. Brut force."

Jeremy grumbled under his breath, "That's what all bullies think."

"What?" The Commander stared at him for a couple of seconds. Then turned and headed for the door. He paused as he opened it. "By the way. Merry Christmas, Jeremy." He left and shut the door behind him.

Jeremy groaned. "We may have killed Rillian, but his spirit lives on."


The Commander returned to the room after an hour had passed. His face grim, he faced Jeremy lying on the cot. "You were right. We have to use you to get the mask to operate. Come with me." He turned on his heels and headed to the door.

Arms pulled Jeremy off the cot. He stumbled along beside the soldiers as they exited the room and marched down the hall. The Commander stopped in front of a door and pointed at the window.

Jeremy moved to look in, keeping his eyes fixed on the Commander's stoic gaze. He peered in and saw Uncle George sitting on a cot, coveralls and hat as if they'd snatched him while he milked the cows.

"Just want to ensure your cooperation. If you resist or try anything foolish, it won't go well for your uncle, sister, or friend."

Jeremy met his gaze. "We're United States citizens. What about our constitutional rights to due process? You can't threaten us like this."

A smile cracked on his lips. "To the government, the Congress, and the Constitution, we don't exist. You'll have a hard time suing an organization that doesn't exist."

"How do I know you have my sister and friend?"

The Commander nodded down the hall. They stopped at the next two cell doors. Bridget sat on the cot rocking her feet under it. Mickey circled his cot as if deep in thought. "Satisfied?"

Jeremy nodded, and followed the soldiers down the hall, a right turn into another hall, a left, and a few doors on the right, they entered a room. Waist-high tables lined the walls. Chairs sat scattered in front of them, and soldiers worked on different projects. Centrifuges, Bunsen burners, test tubes, microscopes, and various other lab equipment littered the table-tops.

But in the center of the room stood a dentist-like chair fastened with heart monitors, IVs, and a foil ring that swiveled off the top of the chair's back, as if it would fit on someone's head. A moveable light hoovered over the chair. Jeremy guessed the light wasn't to get a better view of one's mouth.

The soldiers jumped to their feet as the Commander strolled to the center of the room. He patted the chair. "Lay down here."

Jeremy didn't see he had any other option. So he crawled into the chair and laid his head against the back. Jeremy watched as the Commander reached onto the table where one soldier stood at attention, and picked up his cowl. He saw Bridget's and Mickey's masks laying beside it.

The Commander held the mask in front of Jeremy. "You will put this on, then appear in this room as one of your characters. If you do not appear here, I will order the termination of one of those we are holding."

Jeremy's jaw dropped. "Murder?" He had to be bluffing.

"Oh, it would be an accident. Your Uncle falls off the mountain. Your sister drowns in a lake. Your friend shows up in an automobile accident while walking home. All after we terminate them and plant the evidence. We could even implicate you in their deaths if we wished. Now you don't want their blood on your hands, do you?"

"Investigators would know they didn't die that way." Jeremy gritted his teeth. "You couldn't get away with such things!"

The Commander stared into Jeremy's eyes. "We have, we are, and we will again. Now are we clear?"

Jeremy bore into the Commander's eyes. If the man was bluffing, he couldn't tell. Nor could he take the chance he wasn't. "You're clear. I'll cooperate."

"Good." He handed Jeremy the cowl.

Jeremy slipped it over his head and leaned back. The ring was snuggled down upon his head. He whispered in hopes they wouldn't pick up they words, but the mask would. "Suit, appear here as Astro Man."

The room dimmed, then reappeared, except he now stood to the side of the chair watching his body breathing in front of him. Feet scurried behind him. "Hand's up!"

Jeremy raised his hands. He saw fingers wrap around his gun and then yank it from its holster. The soldier held the ray gun in his hand. A slight smile spread over the man's lips.

Jeremy nodded at the gun. "Careful with that, dude. Whatever you do, don't pull the trigger."

The Commander jumped to the soldier and pulled it from his hands. He turned it over as he examined it. "Why? What would happen."

Jeremy forced a grin to stay hidden. "Trust me. The last thing you want to do is pull that trigger."

The Commander continued to scan the gun. "Sargent, start the energy trace from the body to the virtual body."

"Sir, yes, sir." Several of the men turned back to their work.

The Commander lifted the gun's barrel and rested it over his extended left arm. He pointed it at the far wall where stood a two-feet thick titanium three by three foot wall. A blackened area covered the center of the metal wall as if lasers had hit it countless times.

"Sir, do you think that is a good idea? We should interrogate the prisoner first to know what it does."

The Commander turned and stared at the officer for a long five seconds before responding. "You're out of line, soldier. This is a ray gun. This dial on top sets the strength. Anyone can see that."

The soldier shrank back to this table. Another officer called out, "Yes, sir. But I saw--"

The Commander ignored the officer and pulled the trigger. The last setting Jeremy had used being the light blast with the camera crew, the room filled with a blinding light. Rifles clattered to the floor as everyone hid from the light.

Jeremy, protected by his helmet's visor, dove to his ray gun falling from the Commander's hand, caught it in midair, spun around, and landed on his back. He flipped the gun to the stun ray before anyone could regain their sight or respond, and spun himself around on the floor, dropping everyone in the room with a series of thuds and clanks.

"Suit, appear here as Inviso Dude." The room darkened and returned with the bluish glow of the invisibility field. He leaped to his feet and grabbed Bridget and Mickey's mask from the table, then scooped up his own body lying in the chair and flopped it over his shoulder. "Man, I've got to lose some weight."

Jeremy stopped by the Commanders unconscious body. "I told you, you didn't want to pull that trigger." He wondered if the Commander had ever read the story of Briar Rabbit. And he thanked God that the Commander was numbered among the men who didn't think they needed to read the instructions.

With the invisibility field cloaking both his virtual and real body, he stepped through the door, down the hallway, and into Mickey's cell. He pulled Mickey's mask from his pocket and threw it onto the cot.

Mickey stopped his pacing and jumped. "What the..." His eyes widened. "Bucko?"

"Put it on, Mick, grab your body once you've gone virtual, and then hold onto me. I'll extend the invisibility shield around you so we can walk through the door."

Mickey flopped onto his cot and yanked the mask on. "Suit, appear here as Blue Nova." Blue Nova materialized beside the cot. He pulled his body onto his shoulder, grabbed hold of Jeremy's arm, and became invisible. Jeremy headed for the wall and they stepped into Bridget's cell.

"Sis, put this on." He threw her mask onto the cot. She smiled and jumped up clapping. She put on the mask and became Comet Girl. Jeremy knelt down and pulled Bridget's limp body onto his other shoulder. "Hold onto me everyone. We have one more person to get. They walked through the next wall and into Uncle George's cell. Uncle George latched onto the chain of people. Jeremy could feel the energy drain on him. "Quick, though this door. I can't hold the field much longer."

Jeremy kept his focus on the energizing the field as they entered the hallway. They released Jeremy, causing Bridget, Uncle George, and Mickey holding his body to become visible again. Jeremy breathed easier.

Mickey glanced down each hallway. "Now how do we get out of here? Wherever here is."

The sound of footsteps sounded down the hallway. Jeremy frowned though no one could see it. "I think they've discovered my breakout. Mickey, give me your body and do a quick recon. Knock out the soldiers coming, and find out where the way out is."

"You're wish is my command." He slipped his body to Jeremy, who piled it on top of his own. Jeremy thanked Holbreth for giving Inviso Dude super human strength.

Mickey sped away into a blur. Jeremy motioned to the rest. "Follow me this way. Comet Girl, scatter some knockout comet dust behind us. Mickey won't be affected by it because he's going too fast."

She nodded. "One dose of sleeping dust, coming up." As Jeremy led Uncle George down the hall away from the coming boots, Bridget extended her hand and scattered dust into the air as she walked backwards.

Sounds of grunts and guns clattering to the floor echoed down the hall. Jeremy doubted they ever saw Blue Nova hit them. Uncle George glanced back. "Is he all right?"

"He's fine. Don't worry about him." Jeremy rounded a corner to find four soldiers pointing rifles at them. Before Bridget could follow him, Jeremy yelled, "Back!" Bullets whizzed harmlessly through him. "Comet Girl, send dust this way."

Bridget stuck her hands around the corner and showered the men with dust. They collapsed onto the floor. Jeremy said, "It's clear." The pair followed him again.

A steel door loomed in front of them. A blue streak stopped in front of Jeremy and Blue Nova appeared. "It must be this way. I checked a few hundred bunk rooms, eating rooms, bathrooms, rec rooms, laboratories, cells, etc., and they were all dead ends."

"Very well." Jeremy stepped through the door and examined the area beyond it. A hanger greeted him dotted with jets. Multiple soldiers worked on the aircraft and guarded the area. A big door that Jeremy bet led outside stood on one side of the massive walls.

Jeremy stepped back into the hallway. "This is certainly the way out. But there are a lot of soldiers on the other side of this door. I'll step you through, Blue Nova, then you can take out as many as possible while I break a hole through this door and we can escape."

Mickey nodded. "Let's do this."

Jeremy held onto Mickey's shoulder until he was through the door, then released him. He watched a moment as Mickey zoomed from person to person, knocking them out with a hit to the head. Jeremy pulled back into the hallway.

"Suit, appear here as Astro Man." The hallway faded to black immediately returned, but seen through the visor of his helmet. "Now I'll use my gravity ray to blow a hole in this door. Stand back, you two." He reached for his gun.

"Halt!" the Commander's voice rang out.

Jeremy jerked his head around. His gut twisted at the sight. The Commander stood, arms crossed, surrounded by ten soldiers pointing rifles at Bridget, himself, and Uncle George.

"Deactivate your virtual personas now, or I'll fire on your uncle." The Commander's eyes bore down upon Jeremy, daring him to disobey.

Jeremy glanced at Uncle George. Uncle George stared at the rifles with wide eyes and backed up against the wall. Jeremy checked on Bridget. She'd closed her eyes and bowed her head as if admitting defeat. He knew there was no way he could pull his gun fast enough to initiate the force field or take any action before they pulled the trigger. And Blue Nova, trapped on the other side of the door, couldn't help either.

"Now, Jeremy!" The Commander lifted his hand to give the order.

Jeremy held up a hand. "Okay, you win." He breathed deep. "Suit--"

A blast of light filled the small hallway. A force knocked Jeremy off his feet. His helmet's visor protected him from the light, but he flew through the air, slammed against the wall and crumbled to the floor. The helmet had protected his head from serious injury, but his body felt like it had been hit with a giant hammer. The force rebounding off the door smashed into Jeremy's body and shoved him ten feet across the hall. Every bone in his body ached, and he could barely move.

"BJ, I mean, Astro Man, are you all right?"

Jeremy felt a hand on his head. He cracked an eye open to see a blurry Comet Girl standing over him. "Was that you?"

"Uh hu. Sorry I couldn't protect you, but I felt keeping a protecting field over Uncle George and our bodies was more important."

Jeremy nodded. "I'll reset myself. Suit, appear here as Astro Man." The room faded and with it, the pain. It reappeared and now he could see clearly and felt strong. He hopped to his feet and examined the pile of unconscious bodies. "Comet Girl sure knows how to pack a punch."

Bridget giggled. Uncle George rubbed her head. "You can say that again."

Jeremy pulled the ray gun from its holster and dialed in the gravity ray. He pointed it at the door and pulled the trigger. It burrowed into the metal, and a red glow spread across the door as the beam dissolved the molecular cohesion, disintegrating a hole into the thick metal.

Blue Nova flashed to a stop in front of Jeremy. "About time. What took ya?"

Jeremy pointed at the pile of men. "Needed to clean up after ourselves."

Mickey smiled and slapped Jeremy on the shoulder. "Way to go, Bucko. That'll teach 'em."

"It wasn't me. Thank Comet Girl here. I was ready to surrender."

Mickey tussled her hair. "I should have known when I heard an explosion in here." He turned back to Jeremy. "But now what?"

"First, let's get out of here. No doubt they have cameras all over this place. We can't discuss plans here. You take yours and Bridget's bodies. I'll take Uncle George's and my body in my ship. Comet Girl can fly. We'll meet again once we are clear of this place and figure out where to go from there."

Mickey nodded. "Sounds good. Let's do this."

Bridget gave a thumbs up. "Yes. Let's."

Uncle George said, "Anything to get out of here."

Mickey picked up his and Bridget's bodies, and Jeremy grabbed his own while Uncle George and Bridget followed him through the doorway. "Watch your step. The edges of the door are still hot."

Once into the hanger, Jeremy called out, "Suit, call ship." A dark jet-like aircraft materialized in the center of the hanger. The wings slicked back and pointed upwards at the tips. The rear tale marked the shape of a V. The glass hatch raised open from the back where the ship's nose narrowed to a point and angled slightly downward. Uncle George crawled into the back seat.

Jeremy settled his body into Uncle George's lap. "Sorry for the tight quarters, Uncle."

"Just get us out of here."

Jeremy saluted. "Sir, yes, sir." Then he hopped into the pilot's seat and lowered the hatch. After firing up the space jet, it rose from the ground. Jeremy aimed the ship's gravity ray and blasted the hanger doors. A red glow spread from the center followed by the disappearing wall. Sunlight poured in as the hole grew. Jeremy shoved the throttle forward. The ship accelerated toward the door and into the air of freedom.

Jeremy engaged the radio in his suit. "Mickey, I'm going to send the government a Christmas present. Give me a minute."


Jeremy banked and came back around to the hanger door. He flipped the ship's camera on and filmed the smoke rising from the side of a mountain. As he dove back into the hanger, slowed to a stop, hoovered around, and then blasted back out, he added the following audio narrative:

"Dear Mr. President and members of Congress. What you are seeing here is the secret base of a hidden military unit, or so I've been told. They kidnapped Astro Man, Blue Nova, and Comet Girl in order to steal our power. I was told you do not know of this unit, that it doesn't exist in the books. And they threatened to ignore our constitutional rights upon capturing us. Even threatening to kill innocent civilians if we didn't cooperate. You can see the coordinates displayed on the video of the site's location. I'm sure you'll figure out how to proceed with this information. Thank you."

Jeremy saved the file, then addressed an email to the president, top cabinet members, and key members of congress, attached the video, and hit send. Jeremy couldn't help but grin. Even if some were in on the plot, now that it was exposed it would die a quick death. And if it was truly a hidden organization, investigations and prosecutions were sure to follow.

Jeremy opened up the radio. "Blue Nova and Comet Girl. Operation Christmas Gift has been completed."

"What was the gift?" Mickey responded.

"The gift of truth. When truth is born, its light forces changes. Usually big changes. Just like it did almost two thousand and fifty years ago." Jeremy smiled. "See that plateau I'm headed to?"


"We'll all met there. We can't return to our homes now. We'll have to take our bodies to Titan and figure out a plan of attack from there. We'll discuss the details on the plateau."

"Will do."

Jeremy focused as he angled the ship for a landing. Now he not only had lost his normal life and his parents because of these powers, he'd lost the last semblance of normalcy he had left: a home.

Jeremy felt Uncle George's hand on his shoulder. "Jeremy, you've done good. I'm right proud of ya."

Jeremy smiled. He hadn't lost everything. He still had family and friends. And that mattered more than being normal. Now that was a real Christmas gift.

"Merry Christmas, Uncle. I love you too."

The preceding story comes from the world of Mind Game, and Hero Game, the next novel in the series expected in the Spring of 2012. Click the link to learn more about the series and to discover where you can buy Mind Game for yourself or as a gift. Ebooks in all formats available.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Agency Pricing Illegal?

Currently, the agreement between Apple and the traditional publishers, known as "agency pricing," is under investigation in the European Union and in the United States for being an illegal and unfair business practice. In both of these investigations, they are examining whether the agreements these businesses made violate anti-trust laws.

Before we get into why that may be true, first my savvy readers need to be aware of what agency pricing is. In the traditional pricing model for books, a publisher sells a book to a retailer at wholesale cost. The retailer is then free to price the book to sell at whatever price they wish. The publisher will have a "suggested retail price," but the bookstore is under no obligation to sell it for that amount. They can sell them for a dollar, if they wanted to, and eat the cost. But the need to make enough money to keep the doors open usually prevent that in any widespread manner.

Agency pricing changes it from being a wholesale distribution model to a leasing model. An "agent" (and thus, "agency" pricing) leases the book to the retailer, and in so doing, retains control over that book, including what the price will be. Being that the "agent" is the publisher, it means the publisher sets the price on what the book will sell for, not the retailer.

In a way, it is similar to the consignment model. An author or publisher puts books on a bookstore shelf, but doesn't get paid for them right away. Therefore, the bookstore doesn't own them, and can't change the price without the author's permission. Once a book sells, then the bookstore keeps their share and passes the author or publisher's share to them.

Most ebooks are sold that way. I put up an ebook on Amazon, and Amazon doesn't pay me anything for doing that. They don't buy several copies of my ebook from me. Then, when it sells, they keep their share, and I get my share. But I own the file sitting on Amazon's servers, and can decide to pull it at any time, change the price, or update it without needing to get Amazon's permission first.

This actually makes some sense when you think about it. Ownership would be if Amazon bought the book from me. I couldn't then tell Amazon what price to charge or to take it down. In such a scenario, Amazon and I would enter into a contract, much like a publisher, where they would pay me an amount for the rights to sell X number of books. Let's just say, 10 books. Once ten sales had hit, they could buy the right to sell another 10 copies from me, and pay me cash. Ownership happens at the point of the cash transaction.

And like regular books, Amazon wouldn't have the right to the content, only the container.  That's what a copyright is for. The author owns the content of a book. You can't change it, copy it, or modify it. But when you buy a book, you own the paper and ink that the content is printed upon and with. In an ebook, the container is the file itself. In many retail transactions when you buy an ebook, you download it onto your computer or reader, and you have the file. Only you can delete it. You own the file, but lease the content.

That has changed some with Kindle, since the files reside on a cloud, and if Amazon decides to pull a title, it will get deleted off your Kindle as well. This is because the agency model of publishing has confused the leasing of digital content with the digital container it resides in.

In effect, the agency pricing model is nothing more than consignment selling model, but with one important difference as it is being practiced now. When you buy a book on consignment, the customer owns the container, but not the content. In agency pricing, the buyer owns neither the container or the content.

So, why is the agency pricing model potentially illegal if it is not much different from consignment? Here's why. The big difference is bookstores, as a whole, have rarely operated primarily, if at all, on the consignment model. They may agree to put a few books from a local author on consignment, but by and large, they purchase all the books that go on their shelves. And likewise, Amazon usually purchases one or more copies of physical books to put in their warehouse before selling them.

But ebooks are the first type of book gaining widespread sales and delivery on this model. Why does that matter?

On the surface, what Apple and the publishers agreed to doesn't seem to involve price fixing. After all, they didn't get together and and decide all books they publish between 195 and 200 pages will sell for X. Price fixing was evident in earlier times, because retail establishments, in order to avoid a price war with a competitor and so lose money, they would both agree to charge a specific price, usually much higher than was justified. The important thing to understand about this is it kept prices artificially inflated by reducing competition and discounting, and thereby circumvented the ability of the free market to keep prices at a fair level.

So, on the surface, it doesn't appear that the publishers did this. But publishing is a different business than selling gas or other products. Both gas stations are selling the same basic product. No matter which station I go to in most all cases, my car will run just as well on one's station's gas as another's. And whether it is Exxon or BP, my car will work. Doesn't matter the company that produced it, or which station I go to get it. However, while I can get Stephen King's latest book at any retail outlet, there is only one publisher that publishes that book. And guess what happens if that one source sets the price? It is price fixing, because it in effect reduces competition and keeps the price artificially high. That one product will sell for the same price no matter where I go to buy it.

If that same book was published by more than one publisher, then competition would enter into the equation. But if that one publisher sets the price, and it is the only source to get that book, that means there is no competition. It in effect becomes a system to circumvent the competition of the marketplace and is price fixing.

The collusion aspect of this is it took all the publishers operating together to force Amazon and other bookstore outlets to go with this model. Amazon could have held out with one or two publishers agreeing not to sell to them their titles, but when they all threatened to hold back their books, Amazon had no choice but to cave if it wanted to keep from losing money. Without the agreement between the parties, they wouldn't have had the clout to force Amazon away from their prior consignment/wholesale hybrid model and into agency pricing.

But the key to this as to whether it violates anti-trust laws is did the move by these parties reduce or eliminate competition in the market place. Well, yeah. It was one of the primary reasons Apple sought out this agreement with the publishers, was to try to straightjacket Amazon into pricing their books the same as what customers would find in the iBookstore, and cause Apple hardware customers to be happy to buy from Apple instead of Amazon or some other discount store.

Because of that, I predict these lawsuits will break up this agreement and return pricing control to the retailers, and that either the hybrid model Amazon was using will become standard, or something along the lines of buying a certain number of copies from the publisher that can be sold before paying for more, equating to buying wholesale.

What may get lost in all this, however, is the right of the buyer to own the container that the content comes in just as they do with a paperback. There should be no difference.

What do you think? Is this price fixing and illegal?