In mathematics we learn that one vector defines a single-dimensional space. It is a line or a direction, a single, unchanging thrust into space.
Two vectors, however, can define a two-dimensional space. A field, a landscape, or an infinite blanket of ideas.
Three vectors and you get a three-dimensional volume. Length and width are joined by depth, form and figure emerge, a complex structure that has to be considered from different perspectives to understand the whole.
This principle holds true when developing a story as well. The genesis of most stories occurs when the writer’s mind finds an interesting connection of different vectors. Ideas that had seemed unrelated show a surprise connection, and as the mind explores that space it concocts a story to aid in the process. And like turning the knobs on a faucet we are free to crank one of the core ideas up and dial the other back, to leave one out entirely and then gradually introduce it to full force, each combination has its own potential. Notice how many story pitches are delivered in exactly this way: describing the intersection between different ideas.
“A romantic comedy, but one of the characters is blind and the other is deaf.”
“A classic Western, but it takes place in space!”
“The story is 1980s America, but if the Cold War had escalated to actual combat.”
Through these combinations we find a field of discovery, a curious volume to explore, an entire story of material…maybe even multiple stories of material! Entire worlds are discovered and our story is the spaceship by which we tour them.
In The Favored Son: Alternate there was a very specific aspect of children, conflict, and play that I wanted to consider. I thought of all the times that I have seen children playing a game that shifts from innocent fun, to lively competition, to hurt feelings, to an all-out fight. Children at play and children at conflict are sometimes not very far apart!
I explored that concept in this story by continually returning to the competitions that the boys undergo as part of their training. At the outset these appear to be light-hearted affairs, just a group of children pretending at war and hoping to win. But the further the story goes the more these scenes shift into actual conflict. By the end they aren’t playing at all, they are at literal war and not all of them survive it.
Next came The Time Travel Situation, in which the element of play was cranked to the max and never became mean-spirited. There was conflict in the story, but it was only pretend-conflict, a fight where all of the children were united on one side against fictitious enemies on the other. Thus the conflict was never serious, it was all for fun.
It is, of course, an interesting question why we find pretended conflict to be so entertaining, and there are all sorts of theories that have been posited on the matter. For now let’s just accept the fact that we do. Our stories, even our happy stories, are almost always centered around this idea of opposition and conflict. But if we do intend to keep the conflict “fun,” we have to disassociate it from reality. Thus the badguys are totally fictitious beings, like comic book supervillains, or they are extreme caricatures, like moustache-twirling weapon dealers. Conflict is only fun when it is pretend, so I made my story all about a literal game of pretend.
The Punctured Football lays somewhere in between those two others. The conflict in it is not just pretend as in The Time Travel Situation, the characters are sincerely at odds with one another. But it is not nearly so grim as in The Favored Son: Alternate either. The two characters show plenty of hurt feelings, but there’s never any danger to either one. Also the play is more pronounced than it was in The Favored Son: Alternate, but not nearly so exuberant as in The Time Travel Situation. In short this story was all about finding a middle ground that was more realistic than either extreme. The other two stories each had a strong fantasy in their own way, while this one was more firmly grounded.
I am going to write one more piece in this series, and with this one I want to incorporate both forms of conflict: the more realistic and the more fantastic. I am going to therefore have two conflicts that occur, one that is between the children and a fantasy enemy, and one between the children themselves. The first being more pretend, the other being more grounded. As for the sense of play, I am going to incorporate that by having one of the characters explore the rules of a newly discovered world.
And by this I will be following a most popular template for stories. As it turns out, there have already been many tales that explore this same intersection of children, conflict, and play. It is the template that C. S. Lewis popularized with his Chronicles of Narnia series. Consider the first entry, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the children have a conflict with a magical queen, but also a more grounded feud between quarreling siblings. And though there is great danger in that tale, one cannot help but feel a sense of playfulness in how the children are able to explore such a fantastic realm.
It is also the template of Peter Pan, where siblings again intermingle their squabbles with the life-or-death conflict with Captain Hook. And all the while there is that same playful exploration of mermaids and the Piccanniny tribe and finding the ability to fly.
It is Harry Potter having a spat with Ron Weasley, while also being hunted by the murderous Lord Voldemort, while also uncovering the magical world of witches and wizards.
Tharol tried vainly to communicate to the other boys.
“Stop,” he mumbled, still half-dazed. “It’s a trap– it’s all a trap…. You have to stop Reis–I don’t know what he’s doing…but you have to stop him–“
Either they couldn’t understand his fragmented speech or they just didn’t care. They didn’t respond to him the whole way to Master Palthio’s quarters, and Tharol was nearly back to his full senses when they knocked on the Master’s door.
The door opened and Master Palthio’s voice came out weakly from the darkness. “Yes?”
“Sorry, Master,” Bovik said. “We know you need your rest, but we found out who poisoned you. We thought you’d want to know.”
“Oh…of course. Come in.”
They shuffled into the room as Master Palthio lit his lamps.
“What is this?” Master Palthio said in surprise as they placed Tharol in the middle of the room, wrists still firmly tied together.
“It was Tharol,” Bovik declared. “Tharol poisoned your dinner.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well for one thing he cooked dinner,” Golu spoke up. “He demanded to do it. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but it gave him the perfect opportunity to poison your plate.”
Tharol kicked himself inwardly. Once again he was his own worst enemy, making himself look suspicious to the boys that should have been his friends. Why did he keep doing that?
“But that’s not all,” Avro added. “Yesterday Tharol came to dinner late, said he had to patch a hole in his tunic or something. But Golu and I passed him rushing toward the cellar right before.”
Of course, Tharol thought, right after I saw the note about the wine being sabotaged. Avro wasn’t finished laying out evidence though.
“And last week when we did the combat practice Tharol was last to come to dinner again. Bovik, Reis, and I had just left the barracks and I looked back and saw him still inside, standing on a chest and looking at something over the door.”
This one took Tharol a moment to recollect. Then he realized Avro was talking about when he had investigated how Reis beat Golu in their duel. “I was just looking at the shield over the doorway,” he explained.
“That’s right,” Bovik said. “And guess where we found the wine?”
Ah, Tharol thought, so that was where Reis had planted it. He assumed Avro must have said something to Bovik and Reis on that day about seeing Tharol mess around with the shield, so Reis had known that hiding the bottle there would get Avro to connect it with him.
“And last time we brought in wine was when Tharol went to market,” Janeao chimed in.
“Hmm,” Master Palthio nodded thoughtfully. “Well that’s certainly quite the array of evidence. In fact it seems to me that you’ve all been keeping an unusually close eye on Tharol these past few weeks…”
“Yeah, Reis told us he thought something was up,” Janeao answered. “Told us we should keep tabs on him whenever we could. And clearly he was right.”
“Clearly,” Master Palthio repeated. “And where is young Reis now?”
“He took over the evening watch so the rest of us could bring Tharol to you,” Bovik explained.
“Yes, very sensible. Well alright, you all run along. I’ll take things from here.”
“What? Leave you alone with him?” Avro said in bewilderment.
“But he’s dangerous!”
“And I am a Master of the Order. Don’t fret yourselves, I really am feeling much better now. Our district needs you out there. Go now.”
There was a finality to his tone that quelled the unspoken protests in the boys’ eyes. Reluctantly they all shuffled out of the room and Master Palthio closed the door behind them.
“Master I know this doesn’t look good, but you’ve got to believe me!” Tharol blurted out. He still didn’t know whether Palthio was to be trusted, but frankly he didn’t have any other choice but to take his chances. “Reis is a traitor and he’s planning something very dangerous!”
Tharol braced himself for one of two reactions. Would Master Palthio be completely shocked, aghast that Tharol could make such a claim against his best student? Or would he round on Tharol in a rage, furious with him for having figured out his and Reis’s scheme?
The one reaction Tharol did not expect from Master Palthio, though, was annoyed indifference.
“Yes, yes, of course he is,” Palthio waved his hand dismissively, turning to his desk and rummaging through its drawers. “He has been since the first day he joined our order.”
Tharol’s mouth dropped. Was Master Palthio making fun of him?
“I’m serious!” he said hotly.
“So am I,” Master Palthio looked sharply up and Tharol could see that he meant it. “And I was serious when I told you to stop playing other peoples’ games, too. But you’ve gone and got yourself really mixed up in it now.”
He drew a long dagger from the drawers and came towards Tharol.
“Forgive me, but my extremities don’t have all their feeling back. I wouldn’t be able to untie that knot.” So saying he gripped Tharol’s wrists and quickly sawed through the rope. It fell to the ground and Tharol was free.
“You know?!” Tharol could still hardly believe it. “You’ve always known? Well come on then, we’ve got to go stop him.” He bounded for the door, but Master Palthio raised his hand behind Tharol and the door locked itself fast.
“Tharol…there is no stopping him,” Master Palthio said sadly. “Don’t you think that I would have already done something about it if there was?”
Tharol turned around, confusion etched all across his face. “You’ve got to let me out, Master. I have a plan. Reis isn’t going to get his way tonight.”
“Reis is the least of your problems, Tharol. Please take a seat,” Master Palthio gestured to the seat behind his desk. Tharol didn’t budge. “Tharol, I am going to let you out of here…but not until you hear what I have to tell you. Take. A. Seat.”
It was the last thing Tharol felt like doing, but there wasn’t any other choice. He marched over to the chair and perched on the corner of it, foot tapping impatiently.
“Thank you,” Master Palthio said, lowering himself into a seated position on his bed. “I’ll try to be brief.”
The sun had seemed to set extra quickly that evening, what with all the commotion that had occurred.
“Maybe we should stay up with you,” Avro offered Reis when it was time for the Night Watch to begin. “None of us are going to get much sleep anyway.”
“No, no,” Reis said. “We’ve had a ruffle, but we’ll carry on as we had intended, business as usual. Best way forward is to stick to our duties.”
Reluctantly the other boys retired to their barracks, leaving Reis alone on the wall. With hands on the ramparts he eagerly watched the sun fading behind the rolling hills, waiting for his moment of triumph. Already the first stars were appearing up above, and soon the moon would take over the realm. How fitting a symbol, Reis thought, for the power changes that were about to take place.
“Tharol, this district has been dying for a long while now,” Master Palthio began his explanation. “There was still the shadow of honor when Lord Oraliah–that’s Lord Amathur’s father–reigned over the district. There was still a great deal of corruption all around him, but he was mighty enough to keep it at bay. Then, once he died, he left a vacuum that was immediately filled by all those opportunistic, unprincipled vultures! The only reason we didn’t have a civil war was because his own son was the worst of the lot, willing to make every concession to keep the dukes and senators happy. I won’t go into all of the politics of it, but I believe even you have seen the effects of it. Order and decorum are a joke, scheming and underhanded deals are the norm, and no one has any sense of duty. All they care about is their own agenda.”
Tharol stopped tapping his foot so impatiently. He nodded sadly, but then added, “Well not all of us have lost our sense of duty.”
Master Palthio smiled. “No, you are correct. Forgive my cynicism. That, of course, is the other sickness that has pervaded our streets. A sense of hopelessness, a belief that we are beyond repair. That cynicism has been my own vice, and I have not fought against it as well as I ought to have. It has compromised me as much as if I had been another of the selfish opportunists. That cynicism has paved the way for even more dangerous enemies to the city.”
Reis heard a noise behind him and turned to see Inol mounting the stairs, large cup in hand.
“What’s this?” he asked in pretend surprise.
“Master Palthio’s orders,” Inol smiled. “The Night Watchman is to have a chalice of wine to keep him company through the night!”
Reis met the smile and took the cup. “Well that’s very thoughtful! Thank you, Inol.”
Inol nodded and stepped backwards, but his face fell slightly as Reis placed the cup down on the wall.
“You’re not going to take a drink from it?” he asked.
“No, not yet. I’ll save it.”
“Well…at the very least I had thought we should toast your commission.”
“Thank you, Inol, that’s very thoughtful. Wait here a moment and I will.”
“Reis is cynical, isn’t he?” Tharol asked.
“Yes. Extremely so. He hates the opportunists, the Beesks and Inols of this city. He wants to burn them to the ground and build a stronger, stricter order on top of it all. And he is not the only one that does. There has been a growing tide both within our walls and without that want to destroy this city for its weakness. And these revolutionaries know that they can manipulate the opportunistic fools into opening the doors for them. Offer them something that they value and they’ll let you get close enough to drive a dagger through their hearts.”
“But…you knew all about this and haven’t done anything?!”
Master Palthio sighed and looked downward heavily. “Tharol…I have tried. In quiet ways, I admit, but I really have tried. Maybe I could have done more, I don’t know, but I have tried. You have no idea how outnumbered we honest folk are. Every gate has been compromised. Every district. The very city core! Speaking up for principle has become a dangerous vocation. Sounding alarms that no one wants to hear gets you stifled. I know what Reis was came to our order for. I know what Beesk and Inol are doing behind our backs. But if I removed any of them there would just be more cynics and opportunists to take their place. If I kept weeding out the likes of Beesk and Inol Lord Amathur would have had me removed for cutting into his side ventures. If I kept weeding out the likes of Reis I would be assassinated! You can try to fight the inevitable but it will happen anyway. There is no stopping the coming tide.”
Inol shifted uncomfortably next to Reis. The statue lady was supposed to show up any moment now and the boy still hadn’t taken his drink. Inol would have to think of something fast or Reis would see her approaching!
“Well…I should really be getting to bed,” he said. “Why don’t we do that toast now and then I’ll get my rest.”
“Very soon, Inol. Very soon.” The last of the daylight had faded, leaving the sky a murky, navy blue. Reis kept his eyes fixated on the horizon, trying to still make out the line of hills in the dark. Suddenly he became aware of a thousand pinpricks of fire lining the most distant ridge. “Oh,” he breathed excitedly. “Come over here, Inol, I think the time for that toast has come!”
Reis’s back and arms were tensed in excitement. He didn’t turn a single degree as Inol stepped beside him and followed his gaze out to the rolling hills beyond. At first Inol couldn’t make out anything in the moonlight. The only movement was the tall grass waving in the wind upon the distant hills. But then, with a shock, Inol remembered that grass didn’t even grow on those rocky crests. And there was no wind. What he actually saw was a mass of people, an entire army silently marching towards the city wall. With a gasp he looked left and right, and he saw that the line continued as far as he could see in each direction. Thousands upon thousands quickly approaching, billowing out to meet each of the district’s gates!
And in all that empty air there was not a single sound of warning. No alerting bugle. No clash of swords. All the other gates must be seeing the approaching horde just as he did…but none of them were doing anything to stop it!
“Drink with me, Inol,” Reis smiled broadly. He lifted the goblet and looked over its rim in a salute to the coming masses. “My triumph has arrived!” Then he raised the cup to lips and took a long and deep draught. He was so flushed with success he didn’t even notice the unusual warmth of the liquid, the bitterness that was mingled with its rich flavor. “What’s the matter, Inol?” he said with a laugh at his comrade’s wide stare. “Aren’t you feeling well?”
Then, without warning, Reis’s whole body trembled violently. His eyes expanded in shock and he flung the goblet to the ground, clutching to the nearest brazier for support. He convulsed again, and fell the rest of the way to the ground, fingers scrabbling madly against the wood. He opened his mouth in agony and let out a single, long scream!
On Monday I compared my current version of The Favored Son to my first attempt at writing the story and I considered the elements that were stronger in each. From my freshman effort I specifically called out the greater creativity and heightened drama, and I stated that I would attempt to incorporate some of those elements here at the climax of my second version.
We got the first example of that in this highly dramatic scene of the army approaching and Reis being poisoned. The tension of that moment was built up more than any other scene in the story. It felt more on the level of that dramatic moment in the first story when the teachers suddenly assaulted their own students.
Here at the climax of this story it feels particularly fitting to cut loose in a loud moment of catharsis. Reis has been smugly pulling the strings on all the other boys for the entirety of the story. Now we finally get to see his mastery of the situation burst into pieces, and it works well for it to be a highly dramatic moment. With the next chapter of the story we will also see more magic coming to bear.
It’s certainly been a long time getting to this finale. There’s still two more chapters left to go, making this the longest tale I’ve published by a significant margin. We are finally coming to the end, though, and that means it’s time to take a step back and review all the lessons we’ve been learning along the way. Come back on Monday as we look back at it all, and then come on Thursday to see how the story continues.
Reis and Tharol walked to the end of the central dais and to the other side of a wide column, which nearly shut them out of view of the other youth.
“Alright, what is it?” Reis demanded as soon as they were around the pillar.
“I don’t want to embarrass you, Reis,” Tharol explained, “that’s why I had us come here, you understand? I just wanted to ask you why you told the others those–those stories about me. That I was the one who wanted to investigate them, that that was my own idea and not yours?”
“It as good as was your idea. You made it clear that you don’t trust all the rest of them either.”
“Reis…that’s not true. I’m worried for them, but I think that they’re good. And it wasn’t my idea, not even a little. It was yours.”
“So that’s what you’re here for? To accuse me? Try and get some dirt to make the others doubt me?”
“Reis, please stop this!” Tharol sighed in exasperation. “No one is here to hurt you. I just need us to be on the same footing. Why are you so convinced that I’d be a traitor anyway? Why are you telling them things about me that aren’t true?”
“Well I–I still don’t know that you’re not a traitor–“
“Well I don’t, I just know that someone is. It could be you.”
“What makes you so sure that one of us is? I only saw elders attacking us back there.”
“Raystahn…it told me!”
“It did!” Reis was speaking very quickly and excitedly now, unable to hide his eagerness to share his secrets with Tharol. It’s what I was showing to the rest of them here at the centrifuge after you left that day. There was that first set of symbols you heard about, the ones that change whenever you move, but there were also symbols that changed much more slowly. They would stay the same for days at a time, and then shift ever so slightly.”
“And you interpreted them?”
“Not all the way. I had my suspicions, but I wasn’t sure of them until I saw what happened today in the amphitheater.”
“What were the symbols.”
“Just shapes, circles and triangles. But the triangles were breaking the circles, pressing their points into them and splitting them in two! From when I first saw it I could tell whatever that meant it wasn’t good.”
“And after what happened today…you believe the triangles are the elders and we’re the circles? I suppose that could be…though it’s not sure. And I don’t see where the theory of a traitor comes from that either.”
“Because there’s always been another symbol among the circles. One that is also circle, but which has a triangle inscribed within it.”
Something about that struck Tharol very deep.
“I suppose you think that doesn’t mean anything either,” Reis shook his head. “But I can’t explain it to you. It does have a significance, I can just feel it.”
“No, I believe you,” Tharol said, his mind trying to make sense of his intuitions. “But–but it isn’t just elders against acolytes and a traitor in our midst–that’s close, but that’s not quite it.”
“It’s an invasion.”
If possible, Reis’s eyes went wider than before.
“You think–? You think this is what the Invasion looks like?”
“I–I think so…”
Reis looked skeptical. “But what the Cryptics described made the Invasion sound far more…extreme.”
“I think this is how it starts. And from here it gets even worse.”
“Well…then we would still have a traitor. Even worse, actually. Someone among us who’s actively being taken over by the Invasion.”
“And you assume that it’s me.”
“Well–yes? I didn’t think so at first, but then…you were the only one who wouldn’t make a pledge. And you ignored me when I told you about my suspicions.”
I didn’t agree with you, so you assumed I was evil. Tharos thought to himself in exasperation.
“But…you see the importance of what I’ve been saying now, don’t you?” Reis continued. “Now you understand why we need the pledge, now you see why we need to investigate and root out any Invaded. Don’t you?”
Reis was offering to let Tharol back into the circle, but Tharol couldn’t help but sense the implied threat if he didn’t.
“Well of course I see that things have to be different now,” Tharol said. “We’re on our own…we’re facing extinction. We need to be bound to each other, yes, of that I’m certain.”
“So you’re willing to make a pledge to me now?”
“A pledge to everyone. I want all of us to make a pledge to each other. Me to you, and you to me, both of us to Bovik and him to both of us, and so on and so on.”
“What? Well that wouldn’t mean anything,” Reis scrunched up his nose.
“That would mean everything. We’d all be bound in every direction. We’d all be equal, as we should be.”
“No, that’s not it. You just don’t want to follow my lead still. Why not?”
Tharol bit the inside of his cheek. Reis could be a pompous fool, but when it came to a shift of power, he didn’t miss a trick. He was right of course, the last thing Tharol wanted was to be directly bound to Reis. Reis was too proud, too distrusting, and Tharol would rather follow anyone else instead.
“It’s–it’s like you said before, Reis. We all have different strengths, and we’re meant to unite them together. This is how we do it, by sharing the responsibility together equally across us all.”
Reis snorted. “Please. The others need a leader and you know it. And that’s my particular strength: leading. That’s how we band together. Everyone else sees it. Everyone else has already made their pledge. Whether you like it or not, Tharol, the new order has already been formed, and the only question is if you’re with it or not.”
Reis was right, the other youth had already committed themselves. And if Tharol couldn’t convince Reis, there wouldn’t be any convincing them either. They would just defer to whatever they were told, and view any argument against Reis as an attack against them all.
We have to stay together, Tharol thought to himself. Even if it’s an imperfect banner, what matters is that we all stand united under it.
“Alright then, Reis. I’ll make a pledge.”
A few moments later and the two of them came out from behind the stone column, over to the dais where the rest of the youth were collected. Reis was practically beaming with his triumph.
“Well you were quite a while,” Marvi pouted. “I was starting to get worried.”
“It’s fine,” Reis waved his hand dismissively. “I told you that I’d handle things.”
“So what’s the situation with him,” Inol tipped his head towards Tharol.
“We’ve talked things over, and it seems there was a misunderstanding between us. Tharol sees the importance of what we’re doing here now, and he’s made his pledge to our new Order.”
“Are we really our own order now?” Bovik breathed in awe.
“Well certainly we’re not part of the old one anymore,” Golu said bitterly.
“I still don’t understand what happened,” Inol spoke up. “I just can’t believe that every order is supposed to end with its elders trying to kill all of their followers.”
“I don’t think it is,” Tharol shook his head. “They were supposed to just pass on. Did you see how most of them meditated into nothingness? That’s what they were meant to do, resign their lives so that there was space for us to take over.”
“But not all of them did.”
“Yes, well, clearly not every elder was as ready for such a sacrifice. I think Master Orish anticipated that when he made his speech. Maybe that’s how it is every time. Maybe there’s always those who would rather keep their place, even if doing so meant killing the next generation.”
“But why would those be the only choices?” Bovik demanded. “Why can’t they just live alongside us until they die naturally?”
“I…don’t know. Somehow it doesn’t work that way.”
“And would that mean that the elders who defended us were in the wrong, too?” Marvi added. “Do you mean that they should have just blinked away into nothing instead of helping us?”
“I don’t know…maybe.”
“Yes, he doesn’t know,” Reis cut in, frustrated that Tharol had become the center of questions. “And making idle guesses isn’t going to help us right now. What we need now is to act swiftly and strongly. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d say I saw five times as many elders trying to kill us as trying to defend us. It’s only natural to assume that anyone who was going to be a help is already dead. If we see an elder from this point on, they’re our enemy.”
Reis paused a moment to let that notion sink in.
“So…if we see an elder…you want us to kill them?” Bovik asked slowly.
“It’s kill or be killed, simple as that.”
“We could run,” Tharol countered.
“Not a chance!” Reis spat. “This is our Order now. Our chance to earn our future. You heard what Master Orish said, it’s ours, but only if we’re able to take it.”
“But we don’t know how to move and fight like they do,” Tharol shook his head. “They’ve had so many more years and learned so much more.”
“Yeah, they’re old! And weak! Sure, they got the jump on us earlier when we weren’t expecting anything, and things didn’t look so good then. But now, when we know what we’re facing, we’ll cut them to pieces! Or is that not how you escaped?”
“I…did kill two of them. But it wasn’t me. Master Palthio was helping. He was…honestly I don’t know how to say it other than he invaded me! But he was doing it to help, just for a very brief moment. I wouldn’t have had a chance on my own.”
“Well…I guess martial skills never were your forte,” Reis scoffed. “Plus you’re forgetting the most important matter of them all. This is the Invasion. I’ve seen it in Raystahn. So it wouldn’t matter if we were outmatched a hundred-to-one, the simple fact is we have a duty to do. We make our stand here and now. Stand to protect the world from being Invaded because we’re the only ones that have the training to do it.”
Tharol opened his mouth, intending to point out that fighting the Invasion just created strife, which the Cryptics taught could only further Invasion. But before he could say a word Marvi shouted “Hear! Hear!” and then all the other youth rushed in to join her.
Well that’s that, Tharol thought ruefully. The leader has spoken.
Tharol kept himself aloof from the rest of the conversation that evening, while Reis and a few of the others planned how they would retrieve weapons and launch a counterattack against the elders. Tharol felt muddled inside, more than ever before, and he preferred to have some time alone.
So he took up watch at the eastern edge of the centrifuge. There were two youth assigned to watch at every forty-five degrees of the clearing. One youth roamed outside the centrifuge, patrolling the halls of the hedge maze in that area, while the other stood within, demanding a password when the patrolling youth came back inside.
Then the two would swap places and continue their joint patrol/watch. Passing back-and-forth through the centrifuge was exhausting work. Every time you exited, the only way to return was through some totally new mechanic. It became a great mental taxation then, puzzling out one solution after another.
Perhaps the inconsistency of approach was the reason why none of the elders had attempted to invade the centrifuge yet. It couldn’t have taken them long to scour every other corner of the Abbey, and it wasn’t as if the youth’s fascination with the area was much of a secret. But how could the elders plan a proper assault where every member of the attacking party would have to come into the centrifuge by a different method, and thus break into it at different times? The youth would be able to cut them down one-at-a-time.
That was just as well as far as Tharol was concerned. The fact was that he had no desire to kill the elders at all. He had seen how Master Omil’s face had changed from hate to remorse right before he had vanished at the end. He felt that he had seen the real Master Omil in that final moment. Not a monster trying to eat him, but a man who was regretful and broken. Tharol got the sense that Master Omil had not been in his right mind when he attacked. There had been a shadow over his face, and it was that image which convinced Tharol most of all that this was the work of the Invasion.
And perhaps some of the elders had done something wrong. Perhaps they had not been vigilant enough. Perhaps the Invasion had taken them over because they were too naïve or stupid or careless. Perhaps it had taken advantage of their fears, had been invited in by their hesitancy to move on. But now were they to be executed simply for having been human?
“Brilliant,” Reis clapped Inol on the shoulder over at the central dais, praising him for some scheme the youth had just concocted. “They won’t be able to draw near without being cut to ribbons!”
On Monday I spoke about stories that exist in more than one iteration. I even shared how I was considering releasing more than one version of The Favored Son, just so that I could explore all the possible different variations on it that I was thinking of.
And I may yet do that, but for the time being I will write this version to be the fullest, most complete vision that I can, and perhaps after I’ve done that I’ll no longer feel the need for a new interpretation. I’ll see when I get there, and until then I am free to write this first version exactly the way that I want.
That freedom has helped me a great deal to let go of the old ideas, and build on the new. And with that freedom I have worked a recurring pattern into the story that was not in my original design. And that recurring element is the youth in the centrifuge. The story began with them there, contemplating the changing of the Order. Then, after the attack they have returned to it to take stock of the situation and plan their next step. Next they are headed off to battle, and I will have them return to the centrifuge a final time at the end to review the aftermath of that effort.
Thus I will have used the centrifuge as a place for the youth to recollect themselves after every major plot development. It is a place to pause, reflect, and solidify themes and intentions. Of course, mine is not the only story to feature a recurring location like this, a safe zone where characters and readers can collectively gather their thoughts. This is actually a very common trope. Come back on Monday where we will examine the value of a recurring refuge in a story, and how it has been utilized in other tales.
Thus from that Void sprang Life and Invasion. Or using the terms of the Ancient Prophet: Creation and Destruction. And in them began the cycle of possibility and impossibility.
For Creation, or Life, cannot occur, unless there was first an absence of Creation. A space that was first dead or unformed must exist, so that there is room for the new Creation, or Life, to occupy.
And as the seeds of all Life thus find their roots in a place of death, so all Life has the tendency towards decay and death. That which we make comes of naught, and so must return to naught. And in its dead ashes we find again the space for new Life. Were it not so, all would be created, until there was space for Creation no more, and it would have defeated itself. Instead, inherent in Life is the force of destruction, the tendency to undo itself, the strife to unmake what has been made.
The Third Recitation of Master Eidoron
Thus any effort to prevent the Invasion is folly. Indeed the Invasion is encouraged by strife, thus any effort to prevent it is also strife, and to resist it is only to hasten its coming.
In the Realm of Theory only is it possible to prevent Invasion. And in that realm the Invasion could only be quelled by a life that was totally devoid of strife, which as we have seen, would be a force of Creation that was unrestrained until there was no longer any space for Creation, and all became motionless and dead. And in this paradox we see that the Invasion must be.
Of course this notion may naturally suggest despair to the mind. If the Invasion must be, then what is the value of effort? Why even attempt to maintain one’s independence from it?
The Fourth Recitation of Master Eidoron
The answer to this conundrum comes in retaining a clear distinction between the inevitability of the whole and the freedom of the individual. Yes, mankind as a whole will give rise to the Invasion time and time again. But just because that fate for mankind, as a whole, is predetermined, the fate of the single individual is not.
Thus entire societies may be lost within the Invasion-mind, yet a single individual within that society might escape. All about us may fall away, but it is not fated that we must fall away, too. This truth is made evident in the miraculous deliverances of Abji’Tolan, the Merchant of Azuyl, Popaiyoh and Seeve, and countless other stories in the Cryptics. All these examples show a great truth in common: We can concede the loss of the masses, yet still retain faith in the salvation of the individual.
The Fifth Recitation of Master Eidoron
In fact, not only can individuals prevail, they must. For if all were silenced within the Invasion, then all disparity would cease. All would be dead. All would be lost within one totality.
And if this were so, it would unmake the Invasion. For, by necessity, the Invasion requires there to be an entity outside of itself to oppose itself, otherwise there would be nothing to which it could perform its function of invasion. Thus all would be invaded until there was space for Invasion no more, and it would have defeated itself.
And so we have the greatest paradox of all. Life and Invasion, Creation and Destruction, each destroys the other, yet also depends on the other to exist. Each must try to prevail over the other, yet must also give ground to the other. And so conflict must continue forever.
Tharol sighed and lifted his eyes from the passage to look out the nearby archway. He was stirred by passages like these…but he could not claim to truly understand them. They seemed so full of contradictions, so impossible to resolve in the mind. No doubt Master Palthio would tell him to not try to resolve them in his mind, to simply let them be, but if he didn’t strive to understand them, then surely he would never understand them?
Strive. Even as he thought the word, it echoed to him from the passages of Master Eidoron. Was his “striving” to understand these passages only hastening the coming of the Invasion?
“Why do you read those if they distress you so?”
Tharol spun around, startled by the voice interrupting on his thoughts. Reis stood a mere arm’s length away, hands clasped behind his back, scrutinizing Tharol as he read.
“I said why do you read those when they clearly upset you?”
“They don’t upset me.”
“Yes they do. I can see it on your face.”
“They–confound me, I don’t understand them–but I’m not upset about them.”
“Well even so, why read them then?”
“What would you have me do? We have to understand these, don’t we?”
Reis shrugged. “I don’t know. Master Abu’Tak says that he’s never been able to make any sense of them, and that hasn’t stopped him from being a part of the Order. I get the sense that each of the elders have their own personal doctrines that they are best attuned to, and their own blind spots that they can’t make sense of.”
“Interesting…Master Palthio said something similar to me just the other day.”
“We all have our own strengths Reis. That’s why we’re an Order and not a group of hermits, so that we can unite our different strengths.”
“Yes…I like that….But what then? Am I to just ignore the things I don’t understand? Not even try to better myself?”
“I would say put your strength when your strengths lie,” Reis said, now pacing back and forth like he was giving a lecture. “Why not put your energy where you get the best return on your investment? No one would deny that you do have other great talents.”
“Oh? And where exactly would you say that my strengths lie?”
“You’re a pursuer, Tharol. Once a thought arrests you, you chase it without relenting.”
“I suppose. So?”
“And we are in a dangerous time. As I was saying the other day, our Order is so close to changing hands, so close to being our own to run. And while that is exciting to all the other acolytes, I don’t mind telling you it makes me very nervous. It is a dangerous time, a time of uncertainty. If I were the Invasion-mind, this is the moment where I would attack.”
Tharol shifted uncomfortably. “You don’t trust the student body?”
“No. I know that I called them my friends there in the stone hedge. I had to win their trust, had to put on a face of confidence and try to unite them…but I have deep suspicions among them, don’t you?”
“I don’t–I don’t know. I think they all…mean well.”
Reis’s lips widened in a tight smile. “So you do see it. They ‘mean well?’ Yes, of course they do…but they’re fools, aren’t they?”
Tharol looked down.
“You don’t deny it. And you know as well as I do that fools who mean well can easily be made pawns for someone else. No, our peers aren’t malicious…but they are dangerous.”
“What is your point in all this? What does this have to do with my talents?”
“As I said, you’re a pursuer. And I trust your judgment. In our new Order I want you to be Master of Inspection.”
“What does that even mean?”
“You would be responsible for investigating the others, for identifying those who were suspicious and you would watch their comings and goings. There is no one I would trust more to find our traitors, to weed out our spies. No one I would trust more to protect the flock.” His broad grin made it clear that he felt he was offering Tharol a great honor. He extended a hand of friendship to Tharol.
Tharol’s eyes furrowed in intense thought. On the surface there was a great deal of truth in Reis’s words. Yes, their peers did seem susceptible to outside influence. They were vain and naïve. He always had felt bad that he saw that, worried what it said about him–that he was too judgmental?–yet he was sure it true even so. And yes, he could see how this was a dangerous time, one that required an extra dose of vigilance.
But spying on his peers? Perhaps Tharol struggled to understand the Cryptics, but even he could tell that this would be wrong. This would be acting under a motivation of fear, and by that fear he would be sowing doubt. This would be secrets and paranoia and division. This would be creating…strife. For a moment a smile crossed his face as part of Master Eidoron’s message finally made sense. This effort to control the Invasion could only hasten it.
He looked up to tell Reis as much, but as he looked into his friend’s face he realized the other half of what made him uneasy about the offer. Yes, their peers were susceptible. They were prone to follow a silk tongue, to sell themselves unwittingly to a devil. And as it was, the one who had them the wrapped around his finger most was…Reis.
Tharol closed his partially-opened mouth, and he did not take the offered hand of friendship. A deep scowl crawled across Reis’s face, and Tharol wondered how much the youth guessed of his private thoughts. Reis did not say anything, just stared back, summing Tharol up.
The tension of the moment was broken by the crashing of a cymbal. It was the summoning gong being rung from the inner sanctum of the abbey. They were being called by the elders.
“I–suppose we’d better go” Tharol said stiffly.
“I suppose we should.”
The two youth were nearly halfway to the amphitheater before Tharol realized he knew what they were being summoned for. Though he didn’t know why, somehow he could feel in his heart that they were about to begin the Trials.
The Trials were the culminating ritual for every generation of their Order, the crucible which would somehow see the old guard passing on and the new blood taking up the cause. Exactly how the old guard passed into the shadows had never been detailed to them, though. The way the elders spoke about it suggested that they did not simply take a back seat to the ruling of the new generation. Everything they said on the matter seemed to reinforce the idea that they would be permanently gone. But was that in exile?… Or in death?
The elders had never been forthcoming about how things were when they took over the Order, either. Indeed they never said a word about who their own mentors were. To the rising generation there was no other Order but the one maintained by their elders. The only clues they had of prior generations were the scriptures and recitations which their elders had chosen to preserve.
A stray thought crossed Tharol’s mind: was it possible that Master Palthio had personally known Master Eidoron? He did not know whether Master Eidoron wrote his recitations a single generation ago, or ten.
Tharol shook his head. He had far more pressing matters before him. Not only did he not know how the Trials brought in the end of an era, he didn’t even know what the Trials themselves were composed of! It was never spoken of in any greater context than its name. What was about to transpire between him and his other acolytes?
Tharol’s ruminations were interrupted as he and Reis stepped between the stone pillars and into the amphitheater proper. It was a wide, level circle open to the heavens above. The dirt was packed until it was hard as stone, with one side giving way to ascending seats. All the student body was in those seats, while the elders stood in a line at the center of the circle.
Reis and Tharol hurriedly took their seats, far apart from each other. All their fellow-acolytes looked forward in nervous anticipation, excitedly waiting to see what sort of tests they were about to be put to. They did not have long to wait, for Reis and Tharol were the last to arrive, and once they were seated Master Orish stepped forward to address the congregation.
“Pupils! Thank you for gathering here today. We welcome you to the End of Times. The Refining Scorch. The Trials! Today, we have brought you forward, that you may determine the future together. What that new horizon will be is yours to craft, and yours alone.”
There was no smile on his face. No light in his eyes. Though his words were impressive, Tharol could got the sense that this was not a moment of triumph. After a pause Master Orish continued.
“That future is not given to you, though. It must be claimed. And if it is not claimed…then it will not be. Some of you have assumed that your future is a free gift, that the Trials are merely a way to test yourselves against each other, to determine what role you will have in the new Order. But you are wrong. The Trial is to determine if you are even worthy to have your own Order. I give you a moment’s warning: defend yourselves.”
He turned his back and returned to the line of elders, each of whom stood motionless, heads bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped together and trembling. Tharol glanced sideways to his fellow acolytes, and saw on them all the same look of confusion and apprehension.
A bloodcurdling cry snapped the tension. It came from Master Foraou, who leaped past the line of elders, whipping a sword out of the folds of his tunic. He kicked off the banister at the edge of the field and flew through the air towards the mass of acolytes!
On Monday I spoke of stories that lead the reader to a particular frame of mind, and then, knowing what they are thinking, either affirm or subvert those expectations. In this section I attempted to setup a train of thought for the reader, and do both an affirmation and a subversion on it.
First I had the moment where Tharol because suspicious of Reis. In previous sections I have written Reis to be proud and insincere, and so I am leading the audience to suspect him of becoming the villain in this story. Thus they are already on the lookout for nefarious behavior from him, and his request of Tharol to spy on his friends is the affirmation of it.
Which affirmation is meant to create a moment of calm in the mind of the reader. They now know that they are in sync with the protagonist, that Tharol is pulling on the correct thread, that he isn’t missing anything that we think he should be picking up on. Thus there is danger, but Tharol is already alerted to it, and should therefore be able to handle it. And having thus created this sense of surety in the reader’s mind, I then subvert it with the horror of the elders unexpectedly attacking their own pupils.
You may find it interesting to know that I did not plan for this moment of surprise until the very moment I was writing it. It surprised me as much as I hope it surprised you! Originally the Trials were going to be something very different, and I had been trying to write the introduction to them without any success. The words just weren’t flowing, and I paused to ask myself what should be happening in this scene instead.
But we’re out of room here, and I want to look into this in greater detail. So come back Monday as we consider how an author can pause to consider what a scene needs, and go along with the answer, no matter how surprising it may be.
And so began the long tedium. Each man took his rest, the others continued rowing during the interim, and then all progressed forward as quickly as they could. Though each of them knew that the island could not possibly appear during these first days, still they could not help but gaze along the horizon, watching for any shadow where the sky met the sea.
And they saw nothing. Always nothing. Again, this was only to be expected, yet even so it began to weigh on their hearts like a stone. Every additional hour that the horizon remained stubbornly unchanging, the more impossible it seemed that it could ever be otherwise. Indeed one started to wonder whether such things as land and ports and the country of one’s childhood had ever truly existed. It almost seemed more likely that all their lives had been spent in this eternal sea, and they had only ever dreamed the existence of soil and grass and trees.
But then, a part of the mind would refuse that resignment. Then they would be taken by a flurry of fits, their limbs twitching violently, them pivoting about in their seats, and only barely stopping short of throwing themselves into the water.
“Calm down, man!” Captain Molley would shout.
“I can’t–I can’t help it!” Julian would cry. “It’s–it’s claustrophobia. I have to get it our or I’ll go mad!”
“Claustrophobia?” Bartholomew asked dryly. “Out here in the middle of the ocean?”
“It’s a claustrophobia within!”
And so it was. It was the part of the soul that dared hope feeling the grips of despair crowding around it, smothering it, burying it in the grave. And it would whimper and it would protest, and then, just when it was about to be extinguished, it would thrash about violently and refuse to go down.
“Laugh all you want, Briggs,” Julian shot back. “You don’t seem to think it so funny when the fits grab you!”
And so they did. At times they even came over Captain Molley, though usually he suppressed them to only a twitching of the eye or the trembling of the hand.
When the men weren’t having fits, they would sometimes suddenly leap to their feet, shield their eyes, and scan all the harder along the horizon. As if believing that if they could just stare hard enough, then they would will their refuge into existence.
Worst of all, on occasion they really did see something, and had a moment of pure joy, only to realize that they were mistaken.
“There! Over there!”
“It’s the shadow of that cloud.”
“But this! Over here!”
“A breaching whale.”
And so it continued until Julian finally saw a dark mark that could not be denied.
“It’s land!” he breathed. “As I live and breathe, I swear it! It really is land this time.”
“But–it can’t be, Bartholomew protested with a nervous lick of his lips. “We aren’t far enough.”
“You had it wrong. Hard to tell distances in a ship compared to rowing. We got there sooner that you thought.”
Captain Molley said slowly shielded his eyes, staring out at the dark spot in the distance. “I think it is land.”
His words went through the other two men like a bolt of lightning. He was, by far, the most grounded of them, and if even he could see the feature, then surely it wasn’t just another mirage!
“But it is very small,” he sighed. “Probably just a sandbar.”
“Bartholomew said it was a small island,” Julian suggested enthusiastically.
“Not that small,” Bartholomew shook his head. “No, that isn’t our cove, but it might be something else. Even if it is just a sandbar, then perhaps there’s a larger breach somewhere near by.”
“That’s our best chance,” Captain Molley agreed. “Just make sure you don’t run us into any shallow reefs. We haven’t the strength to be dragging this boat over shoals.”
Yet in this moment they found strength that they didn’t know they still had. All of them, even Captain Molley, began to row with a fervor.
Julian, in the front, leaned forward, eyes fixed unblinkingly on the distant mark. He watched for it to grow larger and larger, and his expression grew dourer and dourer as it did not. Rather it felt as if the closer they got, the smaller it became, and the hopes of finding trees and shade and food and fresh water began to be crushed in him.
Captain Molley, in the back, didn’t watch the nearing shore at all. He knew it would not be a place for refuge. Instead he looked beyond, scanning for any sign of a larger landmass yet to come. But he saw no birds taking wing, saw no dark smudge on the horizon, saw no change in the color of the water. He quietly resigned himself to the knowledge that there was nothing else here.
Bartholomew, meanwhile, was entirely absorbed with his two companions. His eyes flitted forward towards Julian, back to the Captain, trying to read their expressions. Were they dejected? Were they angry? He knew that he was still the odd one out in this crew, the one most likely to be targeted if violence broke out. And there was no telling what would break out when men grew desperate.
And then, at last, the ship scraped sand and Julian flung himself over the edge. Bartholomew and Captain Molley followed more reservedly.
The sandbar barely even lifted itself above the water level. Their feet splashed in the water, then squelched along the damp shoreline. Not a single plant grew in the eight feet of bare earth, and then everything gave way back to the water.
“There must be–somewhere else out there–” Julian pirouetted to look in every direction for another breach of land.
“There’s nothing,” Captain Molley said with finality.
“No,” Julian gasped, and clenched his fists while salty tears flowed to his scraggly beard.
“The pirate’s cove is so valuable a secret because it is the only one like it in the entire sector,” Bartholomew stressed. “That’s the one we have to watch out for, and when I see it, I will know it.”
Julian rounded on him like a wounded animal. “Is there really any cove?!”
“What? Of course! So because there wasn’t anything here…that has you thinking that I’m lying?”
Something about that answer stirred Captain Molley the wrong way. “Bartholomew,” he said slowly, “these are not uncharted waters, you know. The trade line is a profitable course, it has been sailed by many ships, at many variations. It seems a strange thing that this cove of yours would have escaped their net.”
“Aye, well, like I said, not worth the ink. Maybe it was seen–once or twice–but no one would have thought anything of it.”
“Not even if they saw one of your pirate ships docked against it?”
“It’s not like we stay there very long. And when we do dock we have a little inlet that we hide the boat in. You could barely make it out in the shadows.”
He said it all with such a refined clarity and confidence. His voice suggested that he was entirely unconcerned with this line of interrogation, yet his eyes shifted about from one man to the other, constantly calculating the situation.
“Let’s leave him here,” Julian moaned to Captain Molley. “You’ve said it yourself, you don’t trust him and I don’t either. Aren’t things bad enough as they are, without worrying about him taking us on some random goose chase?”
“Why would I being lying to you?!” Bartholomew protested. “It doesn’t do anything for me! If the cove didn’t exist it would have been in my own best interest to keep rowing up the trade route, too!”
“No, because you know we’d turn you in as a pirate, and they’d send you to the noose!”
“In which case I would still live longer and die more quickly than suffering out here at sea!”
“No one is being left behind,” Captain Molley stressed. “We’ve had to leave behind too many already.”
And he said nothing more on the matter, he just turned and made his way back to the boat. As he lifted himself into the vessel he gave a sudden groan, and his hand flew to his side. Almost immediately he righted himself, and glanced over his shoulder to see if the other two had noticed. Julian’s eyes were on him, but as soon as he saw Captain Molley noticing his gaze he looked away. Bartholomew was already staring off at a distant cloud, and seemed entirely oblivious to anything that had happened. Perhaps too oblivious to be believed.
The men pushed off and continued forward with their zigzag course. Julian and Captain Molley still did not trust Bartholomew, but they had no alternative path to follow. In the end, even a doubtful hope from him was their best hope.
A few hours later Captain Molley took his turn to rest, and Julian and Bartholomew were left rowing on their own.
“So…” Bartholomew ventured, after he was sure that the captain was no longer conscious. “Where were you hiding during our battle?”
“What?” Julian snapped.
“When me and my crew was fighting with yours. How’d you make it out alive? Where were you hiding?”
“I wasn’t hiding, I was in the rigging with my mates, getting up a bit of canvas that your grapeshot had snapped the lines of. The sail was just billowing about, messing up all of Captain’s maneuverings.”
“Ah, but why are you still here then, but your mates who were helping you in the rigging are not?”
“Their misfortune. Why? Where were you?”
“By the time our captain said to board I already knew the cause was lost. So when I found a moment, I ducked down with the barrels on our ship. Barely made it off in time before your Captain sunk her.”
“So you’re a coward.”
“That’s right. But at least I’m willing to admit it, unlike you.”
“Why I’ve never done anything yellow in my life! I’ve never even–never even–well I’ve never done anything cowardly at all, and that’s all there is to it!”
Bartholomew laughed coldly. “Let me give you some free advice, Julian. There’s a right way and a wrong way to tell lies. When you lied about desperately trying to save your ship up in the rigging, that was very good. But that bit about never doing anything cowardly? Please.”
“If you were smart, you’d just be quiet now!”
“And here’s the difference. A man can tell lies, but he has to know that he’s lying. He has to be honest enough with himself to know what he’s being dishonest about. You knew you were lying about why you were up in the rigging, and so you said it very carefully. Said it like you’ve been rehearsing it in your mind. But your testimony for never doing anything cowardly? You’ve convinced yourself that that’s actually true, so you try to speak from the heart…but the heart betrays you and chokes the words up.”
Julian looked daggers back at Bartholomew, then his eyes flicked past him to Captain Molley–only for an instant–and back again.
“Don’t worry, he’s still asleep,” Bartholomew smiled. “You know that he knows, don’t you? And that scares you. Well it should. You know he’s just keeping us alive now to finish his righteous duty, but if we ever make it ashore he’ll turn me over for being a pirate, and you for being a deserter.”
“Stop speaking…or I’ll kill you,” Julian turned his back on Bartholomew.
“So yes, Julian. I’m a coward and a liar, but at least I’m honestly and boldly so. You’re a coward and a liar, too, but you’re too yellow to be honest about it.”
Julian whipped back around, oar swinging through the air. It caught Bartholomew right in the head, and the pirate fell into the bottom of the boat with a sickening crack!
On Monday I spoke about characters who keep some of their information close to the chest, not even divulging their secrets to the reader. I mentioned that a major reason for this is to create suspense in the story, as the knowledge that there are untold secrets often builds anxiety in the reader.
In this story we have several layers of secrets. First there are secrets that characters are trying to maintain, but failing utterly to do so. Consider the fact that Captain Molley is trying to conceal his wound, not wanting to betray a weakness to the other men. The audience knows what he is doing and so do the other men, but the fact that no one is talking about it makes it an area of tension between them.
A slightly deeper secret has been what Julian was up to during the pirate’s attack. Bartholomew is accusing him of hiding while his own crew was murdered down below. This accusation may not have occurred to the audience before Bartholomew suggested it, but hopefully it provides a clarifying insight to Julian’s behavior. In any case, the audience should certainly be skeptical of him now.
And then, of course, is the secret of whether the pirate’s cove really does exist or not. Bartholomew is untrustworthy, which colors everything he says as suspect, but that doesn’t have to mean that everything he claims is false. What will become of this tenuous alliance if the men find it? What will become of them if they do not? By not letting the audience know whether the island can possibly be found or not, they can’t anticipate how things are going to fall out in the end. This is my pivotal secret meant to build up tension and uncertainty in the audience.
Something else I want to touch on is how Julian’s attack at the end of today’s piece has him firmly pinned down as the villain of this tale, if he wasn’t already. Even though he isn’t the pirate, he has been the most shiftless and toxic of all three characters. Yet Bartholomew is certainly not a “good man,” and has probably done even worse things than Julian.
With my next post I’d like to take into consideration what it is that makes a character likable or not, and how to win audiences over to the side you want them to support. We’ll see how I have implemented these patterns in Boat of Three on Monday. See you there!
This last Thursday I shared the first part of a story, in which a small band attacked a military caravan. This assault resulted in a few moments of violence, including people being shot, an arm being severed, and a man being stabbed in the chest.
Now I did not dwell on any bloody or gory details, but I am aware that the mind can readily supply them to the imaginative reader. On the other hand, the more conservative mind will be able to envision these details as happening “off-screen,” and thus be spared any gruesome visuals.
I personally prefer this approach to violence in a story. I am one of those “conservative readers” that simply does not care for strong depictions of harm. Therefore I am quite appreciative when a writer doesn’t try to force unwelcome images in my mind.
And yet I do still write stories that feature violence. I have published quite a few pieces here that include monsters and killing. Terrible things have happened in my stories, though I have tried to not describe them in explicit detail. Is that hypocritical? Does it really make sense to avoid violent descriptions for actions that are inherently violent? And just why do I feel the need to include any scenes of violence in my stories at all?
Why Include Violence)
We might expand that question to why do so many stories feel the need in include violence? There’s no denying that the mainstream media is saturated with all manners of death and destruction, and it has been so for quite some time. Are we a sadistic race of psychopaths that require violence simply to be entertained?
I think not. Certainly scenes of action give us a boost of adrenaline, which can become an addictive experience. Certainly there are those that crave violence for its own sake, and certainly we have shameful examples of how this has been exploited in our past. We may feel far removed from ancient Rome, but let us not forget it was our own race that made sport of gladiators killing one another. We should be very conscious of these unhealthy trends, and we should take great care for what behavior our stories promote.
All that being said, these are not the reasons why I either write or consume media that contain mild depictions of violence. Nor do I believe these are the reasons why most authors and audience-members do. The real reason is actually much more basic.
We have violence in our stories because conflict is a central theme to them. Almost always we have characters, we have an opposition, and therefore heat and friction between them. Violence is simply one of the most straightforward ways of depicting that conflict, in fact one might argue that it is the only way.
I have written several stories which might appear to be devoid of any violence. Consider The Storm, Harold and Caroline, and most recently Hello, World. In these stories no one gets shot, no one dies, no one so much as slaps another.
But if you think about it, even these stories do feature a sort of violence. They include people that make one another feel angry or sad, which is an emotional violence. They have characters that wish ill on one another, which could be considered a mental violence. They even speak criticisms and threats to one another, which is certainly a form of verbal violence. The only line that they all stay behind is that there is no physical violence in them.
Levels of Conflict)
This would seem to suggest that violence is inherent in conflict, though it may not always be physical. And there are degrees of violence, which seem to directly correlate with the level of conflict in the story. A tale with deeper conflict most often has stronger depictions of violence.
Thus the question of to what extent a story should show violence is simply a matter of to what degree the conflict warrant it. One of my stories, A Minute at a Time, is about a father who is trying to care for his sick child. There is friction between them and each is frustrated and exhausted, but also they still love each other. They have a conflict of opinions, but it is very tame and the story features absolutely no physical violence.
Glimmer, on the other hand, was an epic between the forces of good and evil. The protagonist holds to a worthy cause, even as the opposition escalates to a frightful degree in front of her. The tension and inherent conflict is extremely high, thus it only felt fitting for it to conclude with a violent fight to the death.
Maintaining Proper Focus)
Does this mean that any level of violence might be appropriate for a story, just so long as the underlying conflict is strong enough? Any answer here can only be subjective, but my personal opinion is no.
I personally believe that there comes a point where violence exceeds any level of communicable conflict. A scene that is horrifically gruesome no longer seems to be connecting to any narrative arc, it has just become a spectacle unto itself. One has to wonder what are the moral implications of a scene that chooses violence as both its means and ends.
Aside from any ethical question, there is also a functional aspect to it, too. A story that elevates any spectacle too far will undermine whatever greater meaning it was meant to convey. When the audience walks out of the theater, does the director want them to be discussing the jokes, the CGI, the violence, or the sex? Or do they want them to be discussing its message?
It’s a very fine line to walk, a balancing act that takes great care. Especially given what we have already said about how violence is very closely coupled with conflict. In all of my stories I want the focus to be on the conflict, because I have found that it is only in the conflict that anything a story is going to say will be said.
So how do I find that balance? How do I include the appropriate level of violence so as to communicate the underlying conflict, but also not go so overboard as to smother that conflict’s message?
My approach with Shade has simply been to be quite clinical about it all. I state that the violence happened, but I do not delve into the details. I leave it up to the reader’s mind to then choose the appropriate visualization to match the themes that they are sensing in the story. It’s certainly not the only possible approach, but I hope that it is serving the story well.
In my next post I will share the second section of the story, in which the physical violence will take a back seat as we spell out all the layers of conflict and tension. My hope is that those details will ring true because of how I setup for it with the first part of the tale. In either case, come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.
“…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.”
“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.
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.
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.
On Thursday I posted the second half of my story Harold and Caroline, and then promptly admitted that I had some problems with it. To be clear, there are things about it that I liked, and there were new things I learned from the experience. Also it’s true that most stories have some degree of disappointment for their author, its just that this one was more than usual for me.
The thing is, I think Harold and Caroline could have been better. It wasn’t flawed clear through to its core. In hindsight I have found specific things that if I had done differently I would have been more satisfied with the work. Let’s take a look at those.
The main problem with the story is that it establishes its central conflict with the very first scene: Harold and Caroline do not get along, but it never evolves on that idea until the very end. Basically it is a series of disconnected sequences that only serve to express that same initial tension over and over until the final scene brings a moment of reconciliation. Because of the lack of development or escalation in the body of the story, I felt that conclusion felt particularly limp. Sure, Harold is donating his kidney to Caroline’s son, but I just don’t care very much.
Which was quite a letdown for me, because I was quite excited at the initial idea for this story. Basically I thought to myself: wouldn’t it be interesting if two office workers hated each other, but were anonymously doing one another a great service? On the surface that sounded great, it had shades of both Shop Around the Corner and The Gift of the Magi, each of which are wonderfully satisfying tales in their own right.
But after seizing on that premise, I simple couldn’t find the right narrative thrust to carry us from the initiating scene to the surprise conclusion. Every story needs some form of a forward momentum to carry the reader from one end to the other, but I couldn’t figure it out for this one. Harold and Caroline has a beginning and an ending, but absolutely no middle.
I previously mentioned the film Shop Around the Corner. It was remade more recently as You’ve Got Mail, and both versions are quite good. In each interpretation we have a man and a woman who are writing to each other under assumed names. These two also happen to be interacting in real life on a daily basis. While through their written correspondence they are falling in love with each other, their face-to-face relationship is filled only with revulsion. Of course they eventually find out one another’s true identity, feel the whiplash from that, and then resolve their conflicting feelings for each other.
Why that story maintains interest from start to finish, though, is because their real-life interaction is based off of a store that is of mutual interest, one that is tottering on the edge of collapse. The store is made up of a colorful cast of characters, which provide a constant stream of drama for the two protagonists to get enmeshed with. Each side-plot is amusing in its own right, but also provides a new backdrop for the dueling lovers to continuously mount the stakes against one another.
In Harold and Caroline there isn’t a single one of these side-plots for the reader to get lost in. I started to develop something about Caroline’s friends putting together a fundraiser for her, but then I drop that thread almost immediately. It could have been a Trojan Horse that had its own satisfying arc, while smuggling in opportunities for Caroline and Harold to spar on the side.
But that brings up to another problem in my story: Caroline simply won’t spar. Going back to the example of Shop Around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail, both protagonists in that story are hotheaded, full of pride, and dish out their insults rapid-fire. It makes them endlessly entertaining to watch from start to finish. The secret to a successful give-and-take is that it needs to go both ways. Each character needs to be able to take the criticism and return a volley of their own.
Consider how in real life we tend to be drawn to those that exude the strongest personalities. We like to follow individuals who are confident, regardless of whether they are right or not. Drama, therefore, most commonly springs up when two strong personalities are unwilling to yield to one another. The two alphas fight for dominance, and their peers watch with rapt attention to see the outcome.
Whether a story features a battle of wits, a popularity contest, or a tense shootout, this sort of tension will only be sustained if both sides feel evenly matched. The reader must believe that either side might pull ahead. Sadly this wasn’t the case at all with Harold and Caroline.
In my story the male protagonist was pretty sharp-tongued while the woman was a mouse. Their interactions don’t really go anywhere because she never stands up for herself. The criticism only ever flows in one direction. It isn’t a battle of alphas, it’s a leader picking on the runt. As I thought of the beginning and the ending of the story this character-type made the most sense for Caroline, but once again it left me nowhere to go during the middle.
Easier to Critique Than Write)
As I paused to reflect on Harold and Caroline these two flaws were the ones that stood out to me the most. Either would be sufficient to doom the story on its own, let alone when combined together. But if I’m able to pick out these flaws, why did they ever manage to get in the story in the first place?
I think there’s an important lesson here: that it is always easier to critique a story than to write one. It is easier to say that the story needs to have more sideplots than to actually craft intelligent and meaningful arcs. I can say “Caroline should be a stronger character” in only six words, actually giving her a distinct and powerful personality takes many more.
Really, though, it is a blessing that we have powers of analysis stronger than our power of creativity. It means we will always know the path to improvement, the next steps necessary to elevate our work. I might not have written Harold and Caroline very well, but I do know what I need to write the next story better.
And speaking of next stories I’ve decided that I’m going to a do-over. My original idea was to write a story where a character despises another, but then comes to see him in a fairer light. Later this week I will post my new interpretation of that theme. In will be an all-new character with an all-new setting, but it is going to borrow heavily from the lessons we’ve discussed here today. Hopefully it will be a lot more successful as a result! Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.
“Janet said you wanted to see me?” Caroline asked cautiously from the doorway.
“Yes, yes,” Harold cleared his throat. “Don’t just stand there, come in.”
Caroline closed the door and shuffled forward timidly, coming to a stop a few feet from his desk. She had her arms wrapped around herself, as if trying to shrink herself into as small a form as possible.
“Please sit,” Harold sighed. Why did she always have to be so diminutive and awkward?
She tried to smile politely, though it came across more as a grimace, then perched herself on the edge of the leather-cushioned seat. She did not appear comfortable at all.
“How are you Caroline?”
She nodded. A few seconds later she actually processed what he had said. “Oh, sorry! I’m fine. How are you doing?”
“I’m fine Caroline” he sighed again. “Why don’t we just get right to what I called you in for?”
“Yes, good idea.”
“Alright, well that last week I said we didn’t have any of those overtime opportunities you were hoping for… But, I think I’ve found something that you might be able to help out with if you’re still interested.”
She nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, I’ll take whatever I can get! Thank you.”
“Well, let me explain it to you and then we’ll see if you’re still interested. In six weeks I’ll be taking a sabbatical for a while. I’m not entirely sure for how long, but perhaps as much as two months. Gus will be flying in to cover for me during that time. He’s a good man and he’ll handle the day-to-day things just fine. But he will have his hands full, and I don’t want to burden him unnecessarily.”
“The thing is we have a few faxes that don’t come in until after hours. It’s basic invoicing from the Western shore after the factory closes, and I usually stay late enough to get those. They have to be received, transcribed, and filed before 8 pm. If you want it, then you’d probably be able to pull an extra hour or two each day taking care of that.”
“You don’t think that Janet would be better able to handle that?”
“I try to not keep Janet after hours when I can help it. I’m sure she would be willing if I asked her, but I thought I might as well offer it to you first, since you requested the overtime after all.”
“Oh I see. But would she be better at it?”
“It’s really not difficult. I would show you how I do it one evening and that’s all the training you would need.” Harold smiled. Clearly he felt he was doing a nice thing for Caroline, but she didn’t even try to hide the discomfort in her face.
“So…you said starting in about six weeks?”
“Yes. The fourteenth of June.”
She nodded. “I had been thinking to take some time off myself then, actually…I’d been hoping to get some overtime before then if possible.”
Harold shrugged. “Well I still don’t know of any overtime opportunities before then. If anything comes up I’ll let you know. On your way out could you tell Janet I’d like to speak with her?”
“Well, I’m not saying no,” Caroline piped up.
“Then what are you saying?” Harold said tersely, not at all amused by how she meandered around her decisions.
She bit her lip, and spoke out loud her inner reasoning. “I’ll just have to figure things out at home. I don’t know…but we can’t afford not to.” Caroline nodded resolutely to Harold. “I’ll do it.”
“Alright then,” he said slowly, as if waiting to see whether she would change her mind again. “When we get a little closer I’ll have you stay after hours and show you how everything works. That will be all.”
“How’s your son, Caroline?” Betty asked one morning after they had their first gap between calls.
“He’s doing really well,” Caroline asserted. “I mean, well, he’s still in a lot of pain of course, but he’s so patient and understanding with it.”
Betty tutted sympathetically. “It just kills you, doesn’t it? I always told my kids if you’re hurting go ahead and yell! It breaks my heart when they think they have to be so grown up all the time.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“How are you and Dave holding up?”
Caroline sighed. “We’re tired. It’s really going to help things having some overtime pay, but the timing of it couldn’t be worse. I’ll hardly be there for Zach during recovery at all, but I guess its for the best. I’m just anxious about keeping myself going with the extra hours–”
A sudden voice from behind made both Caroline and Betty jump in their seats. “Yes, especially given that you can’t even keep up with your regular hours already!”
Both women spun around to see Harold standing behind them with a scowl on his face and hands on his hips. He slowly pointed an accusing finger to the blinking light on Caroline’s phone which designated a waiting caller.
“Sorry sir,” Caroline gasped, clutching her chest as her heartbeat raced. She inhaled and exhaled deeply, trying to regulate her breathing so that she wouldn’t huff and puff during the call. As she picked up the phone and answered she heard Harold’s feet stumping away.
“Tech support? Please hold while I transfer you.” A silent tear trickled down her cheek.
“Yes, come in.”
“Hiya Harold!” Lucas said brightly as he strolled into the boss’s office. He was holding a small woven basket with a pink bow on the front.
“Lucas,” Harold said in a measured voice meant to counter the other man’s overbearing cheerfulness.
“I’m not sure if you heard, but Caroline’s got a son who is going into surgery next month. Expensive stuff, and we figured we could do a good thing and ask people to contribute to help her out a little bit. I know it would mean a lot if the boss-man made a healthy donation himself!” He laughed and extended his basket expectantly.
The “boss-man” peered with a wrinkled nose at the crumpled bills already sitting in the basket. “You’ve been going around to the employees and asking them for money?”
“Yes, well…it’s for a good cause, you know!”
“The cause doesn’t matter, its against corporate policy. People aren’t supposed to feel pressured by their peers to contribute while at the workplace. Don’t you think if people heard that their manager had made a ‘healthy donation’ that they would feel obligated to do the same?”
“Oh, uh–I suppose you’re right,” Lucas’s face suggested that that was exactly what he had been intending.
“Lucas,” Harold sighed as he massaged his temples, “the company provides proper methods for those who need extra financial aid to receive it. There is the Family Hardship Fund which provides large contributions each year to qualifying employees. However–”
“Yeah, Caroline said she already tried that but you said–but she was told that she couldn’t get any help.”
Harold frowned at Lucas’s weak attempt to iron the accusation out of his complaint. “She only started here four months ago. Certain programs are only available after employees have been here for a year. But my point was that there are proper channels for this sort of thing. Another option that’s available to her right now is if you coworkers diverted a percentage or two off of your paychecks towards a general fund. Then include a note that you want the contribution to go to Caroline, and I’ll see that she receives a lump sum. That way everything stays anonymous and no one feels pressured to do anything they don’t want to do.”
“I see,” Lucas said flatly. “Thank you, sir.” He turned to go.
“And make sure you hand back the money you’ve already collected!”
“Well this is never going to work,” Betty scowled as she looked over the flyer Lucas had made. He dumped a tall stack of those fliers on Caroline’s desk. She also took one to look over and quickly frowned. Printed on the flier was a detailed list of instructions for how one could donate a percentage of their paycheck to aid Caroline.
“It’ll never work,” Betty repeated. “It’s way too complex.”
“I know,” Lucas groaned, “but Harold says that’s the only way.”
“What that man’s problem anyway?”
“He hates people.”
“It’s alright,” Caroline shrugged. “It was really nice of you guys to try anyway.”
“Caroline,” Harold’s stern voice rang as he marched into their cubicles.
“Uh-oh,” Caroline whispered.
“Caroline these forms are all wrong,” he said in exasperation as he dropped a stack of papers on her desk. “See that top one there? It’s the order sheet for Asper Co. and you’ve filled out the contact information for Jake Sutherland. But I know Jake personally, and he’s from DeltaRay!”
“What?–oh.” Caroline thumbed through the papers. “I must have gotten a sheet or two off from my call list. I’m sorry!”
“That’s nice that you’re sorry,” Harold rolled his eyes, “but we can’t bill any clients if we don’t know which company they’re representing now can we?”
“No, of course not. I’ll fix these up first thing tomorrow–”
“That won’t cut it, your team’s quota is due today. You need to stay and take care of this now.”
“Oh but she had plans,” Betty piped up, earning a frown from Harold.
“I don’t like asking people to stay late, Betty. I make a point of not imposing unfair demands, but when a team has made a commitment and then they don’t deliver on them that’s on their own heads.”
“Well I could cover it for her tonight.”
“Do you think I hired Caroline for you to do her work, Betty?”
“If I’m not made confident between now and my vacation that she’s capable of handling things on her own, then maybe she won’t belong in this company much longer! Do I make myself clear?” With the last question he steered his focus back to Caroline.
“Yes, sir. I’ll take care of it right now, sir.”
“I’m sure that you will.”
Harold turned a strode away, leaving the three in stunned silence. Caroline clenched her fists, screwed her eyes shut, and for a moment her whole body shook in stifled aggravation.
“That…man,” Lucas seethed. His pause between words suggested that ‘man’ was not the first word that had popped into his head.
“I’m never going to survive doing that training with him,” Caroline moaned. “The two of us alone for two hours, can you imagine?!”
“Well sure, he’s a monster,” Lucas agreed, “but so what? I get him angry at me all the time and you know what I say? I say ‘so what, I’m still going home at the end of the day and there’s nothing he can do to me.'”
“I just…when he gets angry he shouts and I really don’t like it when people shout. If I’m around him I feel like I’m waiting for a bomb to explode! I get so self-conscious, I make silly mistakes, and then he must think I’m making those sorts of mistakes even when he isn’t there! And even if he doesn’t shout, there’s still just the way he looks at me. It’s like he sees right through me! Somehow he knows everything I’ve done wrong and he despises me for it.”
Betty tutted sympathetically. “Just remember that you’re not doing anything for him. This is all for Zach, and that’s all that matters.”
On Monday I discussed how many stories treat the protagonist’s biases as gospel. If the hero views another character as evil, then that character is evil. In these stories there is little space for different perspectives, ambiguity, or misunderstanding.
And depending on what the objective of your story is, that might even be the best approach. But obviously for a more nuanced tale, you would probably also want a more nuanced take on the characters. That approach is my intention with this latest short story.
To help with this objective, I decided to not portray the story from just one character’s perspective. By using a third-person voice I am able to avoid having one character cast shade on the other exclusively.
Next it was obvious I needed two characters that were both flawed. I imagine most readers will take the dimmer view toward Harold. He certainly is harsher than he should be, but it is also understandable why he is frustrated. Caroline is legitimately incompetent, though sympathetically so. My hope is that characters can empathize with Harold’s frustrations, even while wishing he would give the poor woman a break.
Another thing I experimented with in this story was to make hard cuts between each scene. This makes them feel more like isolated vignettes, like a sample of everyday life for these individuals. It’s been an interesting format to experiment with, but one side effect I hadn’t anticipated was the significant pruning I had to or else the story would become too distracted.
The surf did not break across the shore all at the same moment, but rather rippled down its length in a long, drawn-out rush. This was due to how the sandy beach was laid out at an angle to the flow of the tide. And so the waves sounded on the North-Western tip first, then worked their way South and East, where at last they rolled off in a curling white froth. Many the fish was caught in that circling current, and some of the weaker ones were unable to break free of it. They would die in its churning, then be deposited on the cold, wet sand when the tide drew back again.
It was a freshwater coast, and the white sand was dotted here and there with various bits of brown scrub and green needle-grass. About twenty yards back from the waterline the sand gave way to a more muddy carpet, and small gray crabs dug little burrows in that clay. The entire stretch of beach was backed by the black, porous bluffs that rose high above the scene. Sheer walls that were perpetually driven back by a continual process of erosion.
As that rock wall receded it left large, boulder deposits on the ground, sentinels that then crumbled to bits in slow motion. While they still stood their porous surfaces were turned into a thousand miniature lakes, each hole filled by the spray from the sea and then crowned by a ring of lichen. They all bore a head of hair as well, long, slick, green blades of grass that grew wild and unkempt, the same as could be found atop the bluffs.
The sky was perpetually gray, an endless stream of clouds ever passing over with no break to indicate where one ended and the next began. Winds frequently buffeted the small island, and rain flowed most days of the year. Not in torrents, usually, but in a constant drizzly weeping.
During the drier months the occasional gull would chance the voyage out to the island from some distant origin. It was a long and tempestuous route for them, but those that managed it would gorge unrestrained on the crabs, relieved from the usual squabbling of their brethren.
Further inland the grassy knolls were sprinkled here and there with small houses. The people that lived here were decent, quiet folk, as one had to be to make a home in a place so humble and gray. They were absent any ambition, and only worked the land for their own subsistence, never trying to raise a profit from its depths. All they wished was to enjoy the quiet tranquility, and the perpetual washing from the weeping rains.
Aside from their homes they had built only two other edifices for public communion. One was a church, whitewashed and prominent, with imported oak for the doors and the pews. It was at least five times too large for the small population of the island, but it had seemed disrespectful to make a place of worship that was too small. Each Saturday they all fastidiously cleaned it, and so it was the tidiest of any structure in town. As they felt it should be.
The other edifice was a pub. It was a long, low building, illuminated by orange lanterns without but left dark and smoky within. No one came here in a hurry, and every towns-person had their own seat for the long evening hours they whiled away within. One-by-one they came after the day’s work was done, and one-by-one they left at their preferred time for “turning in.” Unless, of course, there happened to be any visitors in the place, in which case they might stay as late as 2 or 3 in the morning.
These visitors were usually some fishermen who had stopped to make repairs on their vessel, and every now and again they some city-minded pilgrim would arrive after becoming hopelessly lost in the sea, seeking directions back home. More rarely, perhaps once every few years, an uncharacteristically powerful storm would arise, and then all of the nearby ships would be driven towards their refuge, skirting in like so many giant gooses caught in a gale.
It was the morning following one such of these storms, still much too early for the island to have fully awoken. Down on the soaking shore a dark form washed up, a mass of tangled clothes, sopping hair, and pale skin. The man coughed and his fingers clawed at the sand, but his eyes remained stubbornly clenched. The next wave came and engulfed him, and he sputtered a torrent of water from his mouth after it had receded. Instinctively he crawled on his belly a few feet further ashore.
He was a young man, surely no more than thirty. Yet the gaunt expression in his face aged him prematurely. His eyes were naturally sunk in deep, and seemingly all the more so with how his long, pointed nose extended out between them. Around the edges of his eyes was a scrawl of wrinkles, ones that extended uncharacteristically out and downwards, tracing onto the tops of his cheeks.
The man huddled his bony knees up to his chest, trying in vain to find some warmth as an easterly wind blew across in fitful gusts. Each of these breaths stirred him closer and closer to consciousness, until at last his eyelids slowly rolled back. His vacant eyes peered out unseeing, the focus slowly settled in, and at last the pupils lazily rotated to survey the scene about him.
He perceived the sand, the water, the wind, but all was strange and unfamiliar to him. His mind started working, trying to trace back where he was and why. What was the last that had happened to him?
He suddenly recollected all and tried to sit bolt upright. He barely made it halfway before he collapsed back on his side. He palmed his forehead, trying to ease the throbbing in his skull. After a minute had passed he tried to raise himself again, this time more slowly and cautiously. He winced as he dug his palm into the sand, propping himself up on that arm, and peering out into the wild sea. He scanned his eyes left and right, searching and searching again for some shape on the horizon.
He saw nothing, and with that blessed omission his mouth cracked open in a smile and a small laugh of relief escaped his aching chest. The wheezing chuckle passed, and it was immediately followed by one deeper and fuller. He clapped his hands in front of his nose and pressed his thumbs against his forehead, heavy sobs now mingling with the laughter, and eventually taking them over. His whole body shook as the moment of relief allowed himself to truly appreciate the trauma of his flight.
Could it truly be over? he wondered. After so long, so hard a chase? No matter. Time would heal all wounds, erase the memory of what had been. All that was relevant now was that the sea was empty, there was no more ship to be seen anywhere. It must have sunk, and taken with it all the men aboard. All but him. Such a terrible cost, indeed, but necessary. May a few dozen innocents die that the one great evil may be purged, and call yourself blessed that somehow you escaped the froth.
As his head bowed under the weight of his emotions he failed to notice the dark figure of another body washing ashore, some thirty yards from where he lay. That man was as motionless as the dead, though, and did not stir at all as the water continued to smother him with every wave.
At last the first man finished his heaving sobs and began to see about getting up on his feet. It was no small task, and he found that he would have to rub some life back into his legs before they would function properly for him. It was while he was in the process of this that he happened to look about him, and at last he saw the other man lying down-shore.
“Oh no,” he whimpered, his slight frame crumpling at the sight. The other man was dressed in fine, black clothes, or rather clothes that had been fine before the sea had so bedraggled them. Over them was a rich, red vest, with some stitching that suggested a station of some sort. His hair was blond and close-cropped, his mustache was carefully trimmed.
The first man stared long and hard at his quarry, and finally trembled less as he steeled himself for action. Probably the aggravator was already dead. It was better for the body to wash ashore in this way, now he would be able to know for sure. And if, by some curse, the hole in the other’s chest still beat, then better to end it now and be done with it. And so the first man began to crawl forward, his legs still acclimating to regular use.
That monster had to be dead. He had to be. It was miracle enough that one of them had survived, for both to have done so would be…would be a sign at that the gods had fated them to this infernal dance eternally. The thought made the man pause in his crawl, then he swallowed hard and continued.
Even if he felt no heartbeat in that body he might as well be sure of the deed. He’d open the man and stretch him out across the whole beach, pocketing only the heart, just to be sure it could never return to its master. Or perhaps he would dry the body out and grind it into a dust. He’d feed it to those crabs over yonder. He’d–
Of a sudden the second man lifted up on raised arms and gave a long, startled gasp, like a sleeping beast pierced in the dead of night. Immediately his head snapped to one side and his eyes locked on the nearing other. Those brows furrowed so deeply that they ran together as one, and he began to take long, sharp inhales, filling his lungs with biting, cold air and willing its energy to flow from thence to his limbs.
The first man recoiled in horror. Though he had been conscious longer, he knew he was not so well recovered as to overpower his adversary. And so he stumbled backwards. His feet had at long last discovering their strength in his terror, and so he rose and staggered away backwards.
That second man continued to hold himself on wobbling arms that ever grew more steady. His breath pumped in and out of his lungs, whistling around his clenched teeth, his face etched with a deep and hurtful desire. He seemed to breathe hate in with the air, using both to strengthen him. The second man could not continue to look at such a terrible sight. He turned, and sobbed bitterly as he ran away, wondering what the use of it was. Would it never stop? Would he never wake from the nightmare?
No. Evidently it was their fate to chase and flee forever. He would neither overcome nor escape his enemy, yet also he would never be overcome nor destroyed himself. Somehow he always managed to just barely escape his death, while countless other innocents perished in the wake of their clashing instead. It was his curse. Wouldn’t it be better to just stop and endure the agony and then sleep? Wouldn’t it be easier and quicker that way? More humane to the world? Maybe it would, but his courage failed him.
And so he ran, tears splashing around his feet as he went. Some for him. Some for the poor souls who chanced to live on this island, and would soon be swept away in the tide of violence.
My post on Monday was all about the mood of the story. My suggestion at the time was that it didn’t have as much to do with what you wrote as how you wrote it. For me the most difficult part of this piece was the very beginning, where I tried to first establish that mood, but once I found it the rest actually followed quite naturally.
One misstep I had at the beginning was that I originally began by talking about the villagers on the island. Right after I mentioned how the tide broke across the shore at an angle I wrote about how the locals had learned to listen to how long that breaking took, and from that extrapolate how many knots the wind was blowing at. I then said they would use that trick to impress the visitors at their cozy pub, whom they would then regale with stories.
It was a fine little detail, but it suddenly made the mood far too warm and pleasant. It made everything that followed lack that somber tone I was looking for. And so I cut it, and by the time I did get around to discussing the townspeople they were living under the tone already established by a muted gray beach, rather than the other way around.
Often that’s how it goes for me when establishing a mood. I have to ask myself “does this feel right?” And if it doesn’t I try other things until I find the one that does. Then progress continues as normal.
There was another element of this story that I would like to look at in greater detail, that of the motivation. I was intentionally very sparse on specifics for why these two men are so irreconcilably opposed to one another, we just know that they are. But isn’t the classic question for an actor “what is my motivation?” Don’t characters always need reasons to do what they do? Well, to put it simply it’s not that simple. But let’s take a closer at all of that come Monday, and until then have a wonderful weekend!