Shade: Part One

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“…and at least six Strained spaced around the perimeter. That is all.”

Gallan rubbed his forehead. That was quite the defense force…but it was also the right amount that they just might be able to pull it off. That must mean…

“It’s a trap!” Dask spoke up.

“Yes it is,” Gallan sighed. “I’ll bet the Western District doesn’t even need that shipment of vaccines…but they know that we do.”

“How would they know that?” Darret asked.

“It was their virus, they knew what vaccines we needed before we did,” Dask pointed out.

“Yes” Gallan mused. “That’s why they’ve been doing these shipments every week. They’ve been waiting for us to catch on and then try for it.”

“Why do you sound happy about that?” Dask asked.

“Because it means they don’t know when we’re going to hit it. They know that we are, but they don’t know whether it’s coming tomorrow, next week, or a month from now. That gives us something.”

“Seems a very small something to me,” Husk brooded. “Seems to me that we shouldn’t be sticking our necks out at all. The survivors we rescued from the city aren’t providing us any value. We’ve already done them a great service by comforting them…”

“So that’s enough and we let them die?!” Gallan snapped.

“We can’t save everyone, Gallan.”

Gallan shook his head, but his adviser had a point. “I know I make too many promises,” he admitted. “But it’s the only bargaining chip we have. People believe in us to be able to do the things that no one else can, and because of that belief they pitch in and help make the impossible happen. Once we start saying that can’t keep a promise then their belief is gone and all our power crumbles.”

“You make a good argument,” Dask said. “But I think you don’t give the people enough credit. They’re hardy. They’ll keep with us even if we aren’t perfect.”

“Maybe so,” Gallan nodded. “Maybe so. And maybe I really should stop making so many promises. But this one I have made, and so this one we need to see through.” He paused to let the statement sink in. “That is my decision.”

He looked around the room and everyone was nodding.

“Well alright then,” Husk said. “But it’s going to take some doing. The fact that we know that they know does give us a strategic opportunity. We could coordinate another hit somewhere else the day before. Go grab some minor resource or something. They won’t be expecting a second strike so quickly after that. And we’ll have our scouts looking specifically for the trap. Watching for those that are watching.”

“I think we stage it at this narrow pass here,” Dask tapped the map.

“Yes,” Darret nodded. “It’s pretty certain where any hidden forces would be concealed: between these three ridges. So we run through those beforehand and clean them out. But we’ve got to be quiet and quick about it, can’t let them signal that there’s trouble…”

Gallan watched approvingly as each member of his team contributed their various insights, combining their strengths to enact his will. Because they trusted him. Because they were sure that he would be right….

How he hoped that he was.

*

Eight days later Gallan stood perched on top of a boulder, staring down to the narrow pass below. A heavily armed caravan rumbled through, moving forward at a steady, military crawl. Gallan was flanked by an elite strike steam awaiting his word to begin their assault. Husk was at his side as well.

“It’s far more trucks than the ledger would suggest,” Gallan muttered. “They’ve surely got something brewing in there.”

“But we know that they do. And we have our own surprise for them as well,” Husk clapped Gallan on the shoulder.

“Yes…. Alright, I’ll punch right at the center, stir them up while you lay down suppressive fire. I don’t want to commit to anything more specific until we’ve been able to spring their trap and know what we’re dealing with. You move in the assault teams according to your own judgment.”

Husk nodded.

“Ring formation,” Gallan said to the strike team. “Give me about fifteen seconds to clear the landing zone. We’ll land on truck four, and make our way directly towards truck seven. Leave me a good opening along the way.”

The armored warriors nodded.

“Alright…alright…let’s go.”

Gallan sucked in a long, lingering breath and exhaled deeply, stoking the fire inside of him. He felt that same, old fear that came before every operation, and he turned it into his fuel. He lunged forward, taking strong, confident strides across the rocks, moving to get centered with truck four down below.

He wasn’t particularly quiet about it, and he heard the shouts from down below as the caravan caught sight of him. His split-shade allowed him to watch them raising their weapons at him, even as he focused his eyes on the uneven terrain that he bounded over. He saw both views, and by them expertly bobbed and weaved around zipping bullets and stray patches of gravel.

Gallan kicked off of a slanted boulder and flipped sideways, hurtling out into open space. For a long second he remained suspended in the air, then plummeted down to the forces below. A couple lucky bullets caught him as he fell, and his split-shade burned brightly around the wounds, healing them almost instantly.

He landed feet-first on top of the truck with tremendous force. The fall would have been fatal if not for his split-shade taking the brunt of that blow.

Split-shade was not the correct term for Gallan. His condition was so rare that there was no appropriate name for it. Perhaps it should be “shared-shade.” The other soul that possessed his body with him had always been there, even before he had ever recognized its presence. It had first come to his attention during moments of duress when he had had to achieve things that seemed impossible. Moments like now.

As soon as Gallan touched the ground three squads of soldiers rushed at him, two to his left and one to his right. Gallan thrust out his left hand, imposing the will of his other shade upon the men there. That was the benefit of a split or shared shade, the “loose” soul could reach out of the body and impose its will upon the shades of those around it.

The two squads of men were pulled downwards by a great force, slamming into the ground with their limbs pinned fast. Gallan spun his head around to the other side where a nearby soldier was fumbling with the gun at his side. Gallan thrust his hand out and touched the man’s arm. His shade flowed through the man’s body, unclasping the gun from its holster, sliding it along the surface of the man’s body, and into Gallan’s palm. Gallan withdrew his hand and started firing rapidly, much too quickly to properly aim the weapon. Even so each bullet found its mark, their paths bending through the air, directed by his will. Within a few seconds every squad member on that side lay motionless.

A sudden pang dropped Gallan to his knees, his brow dripped sweat and his teeth grit together. Back on his left side the two squads were trying to throw off his invisible restraints. Imposing his will on others took great reserves of energy, especially when they fought back. He tried to maintain some level of control over them as he dropped the sidearm and reached for his assault rifle. Hopefully it would have enough bullets in its clip to take care of them all.

Before he could, though, twelve blue blurs slammed into the ground all around him. It was his personal strike team come to give their support. A clatter of gunfire rang out and the enemy squads were no longer a concern.

“That couldn’t have been fifteen seconds already,” Gallan panted.

“You looked like about ready for us to drop in,” the team leader grinned.

The the team rushed into the ring formation Gallan had requested. They stood in a circle around him, facing outwards, with an opening left at one end which he faced.

Gallan gave the order and they all moved forward as a single unit. Each man covered his own zone, firing off controlled bursts at the enemy units popping up to challenge their advance. They were the best trained units in all of Gallan’s little army, and they acted with lethal precision. Wave after wave of enemies took it in turns to try and break their group. Every now and again a stray bullet would catch one of them, but so long as it wasn’t instantly lethal all Gallan had to do was reach out and touch them and they would be healed. This was why he stood in their center.

As they advanced towards truck seven gunfire rained down from above. Husk and his men taking care of threats whatever threats were hidden from the small strike team. All was going smoothly until–

“Strained!” one of Gallan’s team members shouted from the left.

“Spin!” Gallan hissed, and the team shuffled around so that their opening pointed towards the approaching foe.

A “Strained” was not a person who possessed two shades, but rather one whose shade had been nearly severed from their body, almost to the point of death, which allowed it to now “strain” beyond its mortal confines. They weren’t as powerful as Gallan, and there were some definite drawbacks to their power, but they were certainly still a force to be reckoned with.

Gallan sized up the Strained charging at them now. She was bounding over the tops of the trucks like a wild animal, eyes locked directly on him.

“Strained!” another of Gallan’s team members shouted from behind and to the left.

“Strained!” another one called from a bit to the right.

“Try and keep the back one preoccupied,” Gallan told his team. “I’ll be quick with these other two.”

He gave a mighty kick and propelled himself high into the air. He met the first Strained, the woman, in the middle of one of her bounds. He grappled her arms and pivoted through the air, swinging her around, over his head, and throwing her away from his men.

With a snarl she thrust out her arms and reached out with her shade, compressing the air around her to the point that she could clutch at it with her hands. She gripped tightly on that invisible wall, and then flung herself back at Gallan. As she rocketed into him she swung her hand wide, revealing a razor-thin blade tucked along the outside of her arm. It was so thin that Gallan didn’t even feel it as it cleaved clean through his arm, cutting it in two just above the elbow.

Instinctively Gallan reached down with his other hand, grabbed the falling limb, and held it back against his stump. He instantly fused the two back into one with an outburst of shade-energy and his arm was made whole. Well that had hurt.

The woman was spinning on her heel, bringing the blade back around for a second pass, this time angling it for his neck. Gallan was prepared this time and punched out with his fist, compressing the air around it. Her blade hit his invisible shield and burst into a thousand shards. As the metal pieces fell towards the ground Gallan made silent note of them, imprinting in his mind the memory of their structure.

A second split-shade landed next to Gallan and the woman. It was a burly man, with a long beard tied in a braid down to his waist. Well that was good, it had come for him instead of his team. What was less good was that now he brought down a fist the size of a car tire and smashed it over Gallan’s back. Gallan took the blow and fell to his belly. At least he had the presence of mind to angle himself so that he fell onto the shards of the metal blade. Some of them cut into him and he winced in pain, but that subsided as he absorbed them into his body.

“So much for their hero,” the burly man snarled. As he spoke he reached down and pulled Gallan to his feet, then wrapped his arms around him in a crushing embrace. Gallan’s bones held together, but only because of his second-shade’s extra fortification. They would not last much longer, so he grit his teeth, focused his will, and reassembled the metal blade, positioning it so that it projected directly out of his chest.

“Ugh!” was all the burly man managed to say as he was pierced straight through his heart, then he rolled backwards and fell to the earth.

“One down, one to go,” Gallan thought, but before he could round on the woman he felt the tremor. It was like his heart had stopped, held for a moment, and then thudded extra hard.

Even though his back was to truck seven he could already see through his shade that its door was open and its inside was vacated.

He was here.

“Hello Reish,” he said softly as he turned about. The woman was shrinking off to the side, leaving the way clear for the tall, strange creature that approached. It stood on narrow legs, with the knees bent back the wrong way. Its torso was a hulking mass, and its arms were long and thin. The head was a regular man’s on the left side, but flat and featureless on the right. The creature raised its hand and Gallan’s entire strike team was instantly snapped to the ground by invisible bonds. It was the same as Gallan had done to the squads of soldiers, but the binding was far more absolute, none of Gallan’s men could even quiver in fear.

“You shouldn’t have come here old friend,” the left half of the face spoke.

Part Two
Part Three

***

On Monday I shared how an author can create expectations in the reader, even without them realizing it. I decided to illustrate this point by writing a short piece that takes place in the middle of a larger story. This story is full of references to peoples and powers, none of which are properly understood by the reader.

We do not know anything about Gallan and his team, why they are here, and what their ultimate objectives are. We do not know the history between Gallan and Reish. We do not know why there are these “split-shades” and “shared-shades” or even what the full mechanics of these people are.

And yet, for all that lack of foundation, I believe that most readers will not feel lost. This short piece has all the trappings of a generic hero’s journey: right from the beginning we are introduced to a sympathetic central character who seems to be fighting a losing battle. That character is intimately acquainted with another individual, one who is far more powerful and has destructive intentions towards central character. With this the reader is able to get their bearings, identify the hero, the villain, and the conflict between them. It doesn’t matter that they don’t know anything else about the world, they have already put together the “narrative” and they have done it entirely subconsciously.

This, then, allows me a clear opportunity to subvert expectations, which is what I am going to focus on in the second and third sections of this story. It isn’t going to be a twist ending where it turns out that Gallan and his people are really the bad guys, but I do believe it will go to a place that is unexpected, even if foreshadowed.

Before that, though, I want to pause and consider the use of violence in this story, as it hits pretty hard when compared to most of my other tales. I’d like to talk about how an author balances capturing a mood with maintaining their personal tastes, and about the difference between being authentic and being excessive. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then come next Thursday for the second section of Shade.

Instructions Not Included: Part Four

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Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Curtis listened well, only ever asking the occasional clarifying question and otherwise taking the information in. At times he raised his eyebrows, not so much in skepticism, only surprise. He had, of course, already noticed things floating strangely through the tubes during the past few days, Gavin hadn’t done anything to try and hide them on his desk. If he had, Curtis would have noticed and confronted him about it all the sooner.

“So it’s not just some art thing,” Curtis concluded after Gavin closed his notebook. “It’s a…machine of some kind.”

“Yeah, I guess so. I hadn’t really thought of that.”

“But we still don’t know what it’s for.”

“No…does it matter though?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I think if it did something useful that would be really cool…but really I just like playing with it and finding new things about it.”

“Hmm…yeah, that’s why you were able to keep playing with it after I got bored. Maybe if I started helping out now I’d just make you frustrated by trying to make it do something?”

“I dunno…maybe,” Gavin felt bad saying it, but it was the truth.

“No, it’s cool,” Curtis started to move away.

“No wait,” Gavin said suddenly again. “I have an idea. If we can find a way to grow discs, then we could recreate everything. Make two sets of it all.”

“Each have our own copy,” Curtis grinned.

“Exactly. Play with it exactly how we want and neither one of us feels frustrated.”

“Do you really think we can grow a disc?”

“I mean I haven’t tried, but I’ve already been able to get it to do all these other things. It seems like there oughta be a way.”

“What are some of your ideas?” Curtis sat back down in the seat, lifting one of the islands to take a closer look.

“Well I know I can make a whole rod with clay, so what if I had an already-completed rod in there, and then I made a clay disc at the end of it. So I feed the tube, it makes the black stuff, the black stuff moves down the rod, and start changing the clay into a disc.”

“Yeah, yeah, good idea. But that clay will have to hold its shape for days.”

“Oh shoot, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Here hand me that disc. Look we’ll just lay the clay out flat on top of it. It’ll support its shape. And maybe each day we have to touch it up a little bit…”

The two boys kept chatting away, feeding off of one another’s energy late into the night.

Neither of the two boys knew at the time how endless the project would be. It was probably for the best, or else even Gavin might have balked at the commitment. The fact was it would be years of experimentation and discovery, each of them with their own set, each of them doing their own tests and sharing notes whenever they found anything exciting.

It was usually Gavin who would make a new breakthrough, like when he discovered how a series of islands could be combined as nodes around a larger shell, allowing for more massive structures to be built.He further discovered that these larger shells could be used as nodes for something larger, and so on and so on, recursively increasing the scope to any dimension required. If they had had the space for it, they could have built a tube the size of the an airport terminal, the material never buckled under its own weight.

Curtis, meanwhile, was the one who found all of the practical applications. It never buckled did it? With that in mind he went the other way and began crafting smaller and smaller levels of detail, forging links that he wove into clothing. It was extremely crude, but his initial tests made clear that robust body armor was a definite possibility for the material.

Gavin never said that he disapproved of those experiments, but he always seemed bemused by the idea of taking a technology so purely alien and applying it to mundane everyday things. His approach was always to explore what he felt the pieces “wanted” to be.

Curtis understood that the operation of the pieces was lenient. It allowed for variation in the pieces it crafted, and that meant it was intended to bend to another’s will. It was a tool to make whatever the wielder wanted it to make.

In either case, both brothers found enough to fascinate them for more than a decade. At first they tried to find places in their room to hide the experiments from their parents, and then in their later teens they pooled money from their summer jobs to rent a storage unit. They moved all the material into that and worked with it in there.

High school came and went, college did too. They were bright, and already trained in an engineering mindset. As they gained education they became aware of how significant some of their discoveries truly were. They realized this was an entire science unto itself. Even so, they still maintained the secret of it all. Boyhood promises to one another were hard to break. It had always been their project, not for anyone else.

Curtis was the first to question these old commitments. He suggested that they were holding themselves back by not bringing other minds to explore with them. At the very least he said they could create commercial applications which would fund larger experiments for them. They wouldn’t have to patent the inventions, no one would be able to reproduce what they made without the material anyway, so there was no need to disclose how it was done. It could still be their secret.

There was a flaw in that plan and Curtis knew it. Gavin knew it, too, and he didn’t hesitate to point it out. Their experiments had concluded that any piece of this material could be used to reverse engineer all others. To give away one element was to give everything away.

Other people wouldn’t figure out its secrets, Curtis said.

Not most, Gavin agreed, but some would.

Curtis pointed out that it wasn’t even their discovery anyway. Someone else put these things in that cardboard box in the first place.

Probably that person hadn’t even known what they were, Gavin said. “Someone must have been throwing them out.”

But that was not the case, as the two would soon find out.

The two of them were seated at their separate desks inside of the storage unit. A power generator hummed in the corner, powering a number of lights and two fans to keep each of them cool in the tin oven. Curtis now had his own house, but it felt fairer to keep the materials in the storage unit like this. It was their No Man’s Land.

Each of them was bent over their stack of materials, absorbed in their never-ending work. Then, all at once, the silence was shattered by a reverberating clang! Something had just slammed into the roof of their storage unit. The two snapped their heads up and looked to each other in surprise as a second crash sounded from one of the walls.

“Kids?” Gavin suggested. “Throwing rocks?”

“Maybe,” Curtis said, but he appeared entirely unconvinced. He stood up and grabbed a heavy wrench from his workstation. “C’mon.”

Together they lifted the sliding door and walked around to the side of the unit. There was twelve feet between it and the next unit, but that space was entirely empty. No kids, no burglars…nobody.

What there was, however, was a smooth white disc that was sticking to the wall. It was about the width of a hand and with little wings on opposite sides to each other. Gavin stared in disbelief, knowing what it was before he even touched it and felt the way it rippled his skin.

“It’s the same material,” he frowned.

“I didn’t show our stuff to anybody,” Curtis said, as if he was anticipating an accusation.

“Sure…” Gavin said slowly. He turned to look in the direction the winged disc must have come from. “But how–” his eyes went wide and grabbing his brother he pulled them both to the ground just as two more discs came hurtling through the air and slammed into their storage unit. At the same time they heard another thud from the opposite side, and another two hitting the roof.

“Get away!” Curtis shouted, crawling as quickly as he could along the ground.

Gavin started after him, but then paused to look at the open door to their storage shed. All their work, all their secrets were on open display. He turned and made his way back, the discs continuing to whiz overhead like bullets, three-to-five impacting every second. Gavin reached the entrance and cautiously raised up until he could grip the bottom of the door and pull it down along its track. He had the door about halfway down when another of the discs slammed into it, bending the steel shutters so that they refused to budge any further.

“Leave it!” Curtis roared, grabbing Gavin from behind and hauling him away.

“But it’s all of our work!”

“If they tracked us down here do you really think a little door-and-padlock is going to keep them out of the shed?”

They?”

Curtis jerked his thumb off to the side and Gavin turned to see what he was pointing at. The storage facility was on top of a natural rise in the land, with a single road providing the only access to it. A quarter-mile down that road, and making their way up to the facility, were two black pickup trucks.

From the bed of the truck in front came those white, winged discs. They were being flung up into the air, hung in empty space for a moment, then hurtled off in random arcs. Each disc curved through the air for a little while, and then suddenly zeroed in on Gavin and Curtis’s storage shed, each striking it from a different angle.

“You think they’re here for our stuff?” Gavin asked.

“You think they’d be here for anything else?”

“We’ve got to stop them,” Gavin’s voice was panicky.

“If they’re coming here like this…I think they mean business,” Curtis’s voice was calm.

“Then…we gotta run!”

“They seem to have accounted for that.”

Gavin looked back to the trucks, they had separated and were now approaching the brothers in a pincer. Being off the road, the trucks now kicked up huge clouds of dust in their wake, churning up the sage under their heavy tires.

Gavin stared incredulously at his brother, unbelieving of how he could be so resigned. But he was right.

“You let me do the talking,” Curtis quietly ordered.

*

Well, I said that I would finish the story today, but I’m going to need just a little bit more to cap it off. The good news is, I found out how I want to end this story! I mentioned on Monday that I would try to incorporate a couple themes here at the end. The first was going to be a theme of never-ending discoveries. The story is progressing to a cliffhanger, one where the brothers will move into a new stage of development and invention. I have that whole sequence all worked out, and I feel that it satisfies this story’s desire to forever explore the unknown.

Another theme I had toyed around with was how one needs to be responsible with their creativity and employ that power for good. Ultimately I don’t think that’s an idea I’m going to be able to deliver on with this piece. It’s a good theme, and I even sowed the seeds for it when describing the brothers different approaches to their inventions. If this were a full-sized novel, there would definitely be a pay-off on that idea later on, but I just don’t have enough time in this short-story format to give that theme its due.

This brings up a question of what scope fits a story. It is a very important consideration for an author. We often say in writing that one is limited only by their creativity, but that isn’t entirely true. There are other constraints, such as the number of words before a story becomes unwieldy. On Monday I’d like to talk some more about those limitations, and about the balance of depth and breadth that an author should consider in their work. After that I really will post the end of Instructions Not Included. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!