I ended the last chapter of Covalent with the main character coming to an important decision. Previously Cace had been scolded by Aylme for his visits to the Ether. She felt these excursions were too dangerous and asked him to stop taking them. He never actually agreed to stop, but it was clear that he respected her and wouldn’t betray her wishes lightly.
This thread was interrupted, though, when the two children discovered Rolar, passed out at nearly dead from a strange intoxication. It was a traumatic experience, and all of the children were shaken until Rolar soothed them with the promise that so long as they kept watching out for each other, they would never fail. Rolar pledged to fight for Aylme and Cace, and Aylme for Cace and Rolar.
With that Cace came to the decision I mentioned earlier. He decided that he would fight for the other two as well, and that meant going back to the Ether and solving its secrets. To do his part to save the others he would just have to defy Aylme’s instructions.
Having this scene of Rolar’s endangerment was important, because I didn’t want Cace to just shrug off Aylme’s request. I made his determination be the result of an intense need so that the audience could agree with what he was doing.
That’s the way things work in the 1953 film Shane as well. The overall plot of this movie is very simple: a retired gunslinger comes to a new town, trying to find a peaceful life. He starts to care for the people there, and when those people are threatened he sets aside his peaceful ways to gun down the villain, then rides away.
Shane doesn’t want to fight, but in the end he does fight. Of course the movie could have forced him into the fight in the first five minutes, but then there wouldn’t have been any story. The story is in how powerful forces pull at him, he resists for a time, but ultimately must give in.
First the man he is staying with, Joe Starrett, tells him how a cattle baron, Ryker, is trying to force all the homesteaders off their legal land. He hears the stories…but does nothing about it. Then he is insulted in town by Ryker’s men, they pour a drink on him and try to egg him into a fight…but he does nothing about it. He and Joe Starrett later get into a brawl with that cattle baron’s men, but still he keeps his guns sheathed. Another rancher, Torrey, is taunted into a fight and gunned down in the street by another gunslinger Ryker has hired…but still Shane does nothing about it.
But then, finally, a trap is set for Joe Starrett, and it becomes clear that sooner or later Ryker must die or Joe will…and Shane knows that it will be Joe. This, at last, is a cross he is not willing to bear. This, at last, make Shane decide to become the gunslinger once more. Like Cace, his decision is brought about at the moment of highest intensity so that the audience will approve his decision.
But where this would be the inciting incident of most westerns, it is the concluding one in Shane. After Shane finally makes his decision there is only one scene left and the movie is over. It is less a story of what the man does than of what finally gets him to do it.
In the Middle)
The Big Country does things differently from Shane, but also differently from other westerns. In this 1958 Western, sailor James McKay arrives in Texas to marry the daughter of the powerful ranch owner and cattle baron Major Henry Terrill.
No sooner does McKay arrive than he is hazed by a group of local ruffians, led by Buck Hannassey. This offense is the inciting incident of the movie. The Terrills hear of it and immediately set off to even the score with the rival Hannassey family. McKay, though, is strictly opposed to the whole thing. He’s frankly too honorable of a man to care about a few drunks being rowdy. He doesn’t condone their behavior, but he came to no serious harm, and he knows that retaliation will only lead to escalated violence.
And so McKay’s unwillingness to be incited against the Hannasseys creates a rift between him and the Terrills instead. Bit by bit he becomes disillusioned with them, including with the daughter he had been intending to marry. He starts a campaign to protect both of the feuding families, including the Hannasseys, which offends the Terrills deeply and McKay calls off the wedding and leaves the ranch. McKay then watches as an outsider while the two families continue their downward spiral, until they meet in a ravine and finally kill each other.
The hazing that occurred at the beginning of the film incited the families to violence, but McKay’s arc is one of standing firm against that pull, rejecting every reason to contribute to the senseless killing. Throughout the picture he does fight when necessary to defend himself and others, but then he moves on, never getting caught up in the vengeance spiral of the others.
McKay came to a determination, just as Shane did, and just as Cace did. And the similar theme in all of them is that they are in opposition to what other people want, or even what they personally want. This is what gives the inciting moment its impact, it is a forceful declaration against outward influence or inward hesitation. It is breaking free to do what must be done, not what is wanted to be done. This opposition inherently causes drama, which is the lifeblood of every story, the very reason why the story is told.
And I will be leaning into that drama with Covalent. Of course Cace’s determination to travel into the Ether is going to be a point of escalating contention between him and Aylme, and even within himself. But whether he and she or Rolar wants him to or not, it is what he must do, he has been incited into it.
“Ungrateful beasts!” Jeret snarled as he swung his arms, sending the little attackers buzzing for safety. “I’m sorry it’s not a perfect world, but I gave you everything that I could. I tried over and over!” He picked up a rock and threw it at the nearing cloud. The Seclings easily swerved to avoid it, but it gave them pause. They hovered in the air, waiting for more numbers.
Jeret took the opportunity to reach down to his waist, where a self-made belt held the cylinder. He waved it, throwing haze all about him in the air.
“A dome,” he said. “Transparent, but thick and strong.” A vague bubble start to form all around him. “It’s made of glass, and has minute holes to let air in, but they are all much to small for any creature to pass through.”
The dome popped into existence just as the Seclings rushed forward in their attack. They bounced harmlessly off the glass-like surface, entirely unable to penetrate its protection. Jeret stared at them darkly.
“But why?” he asked them. “I’m not a Firling, I’m not an Impli. I did make them, but you don’t know that, so why would you attack me?”
Even as he said it he knew the answer was not based on reason or logic. It was just in their nature. He might as well ask why he had picked fights with strangers back home on Amoria.
Jeret shook his head, trying to dismiss the thoughts. That was then, but this was now. And now he had every justification for the destruction that he was about to cause. Waiting for these species to destroy each other naturally was no longer an option. Who knew what sort of trouble they might get up to if they were left alive together? Things would have to be expedited.
What would he use? A flood? A fire? Bolts of lightning? Drop a mountain on them? A cloud of poison? Creation was miserable and hard, destruction was just so much easier.
Jeret grabbed the cylinder, readying it for use. He would dig a tunnel out of here first, get beyond the gardens and up on a tower. There he would be out of reach, but could still see everything. And then he’d kill these miserable convicts.
Jeret’s hands started to shake, it felt like the world was somehow spinning beneath him. He fell onto his side, head cradled in his arms. Maybe…maybe he did know why he got into so many fights back home. And maybe he knew why the Seclings behaved this way as well. They had been hit so many times, that now they were in a perpetual fear of where the next strike was going to come from. No creature could be trusted, and it was better to destroy than be destroyed. Something about Jeret had always been afraid, and he had always fought. Fought against his neighbors, against the community, and even against himself.
“My poor little children,” he wept. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make you better. I tried. I wanted you to have a chance. If someone else had made you, you might have been happy. It’s not your fault.”
Jeret lifted his head, and touched his hand to the dome, pressing it against the point where the Seclings clustered most densely. They were still trying to break through to him.
“I’m sorry that I made you… when I was always just going to kill you in the end. Hopeless. It was hopeless. You were always doomed. And now I’m going to kill you, and whatever I make to do it, then it’s going to kill me, too.”
The words came out without a thought, and even as he spoke them he was surprised at their sound. But somehow he knew they were true. Everything he tried to do here, it escalated. Every violence always came back round in the end. He didn’t know how, but if he destroyed his creations, he would destroy himself, too.
But maybe that was the right thing to do.
For the first time Jeret felt that he deserved to be here on this forsaken piece of rock. He really was unfit for society, wasn’t he? Given utmost power, and all he could do with it was destroy.
Jeret looked down to the cylinder. He would die violently, that much was certain. But did he have to die fighting anymore? Maybe there was still a chance for peace inside at the end.
His hands worked quickly, as if afraid that if he paused to think about it he would lose his nerve. He raised the cylinder and traced some haze against the dome.
“A very hot rock, cupped against the glass. A piece of burning metal, held in a steel cradle, melting through the dome.”
The Seclings started to lift off of the dome surface as it became too hot to bear. Even Jeret could feel the heat growing from where he sat.
“And the glass is melting, opening a wide hole to the outside.”
A glob of molten glass dripped down to the ground. No sooner had it cleared than the swarm of Seclings funneled in, making straight for Jeret. He closed his eyes, accepting the end. He felt their insect-feet perching on him, felt the small shift in their bodies as they lifted their stingers high, felt the sharp pinpricks score up and down his body.
The toxin flowed into him and he felt numb all over, as if fat cotton was being pumped through his veins instead of blood. His thoughts went fuzzy, and he was vaguely aware of falling backwards, though he did not feel the impact of his head against the ground.
The sounds all about him were fuzzy, too. The buzzing of wings sounded distant and echoing, not unlike the sound of the surf crashing on a beach. Even his thoughts were slowing down. It was as if he watched the ideas and sensations flow by like a river, and the water was receding until he could see each thought individually and clearly. And then he didn’t see the stream at all, he was alone on the shore of nothing. He was only aware of his awareness. And then that awareness lapsed, and came back, and lapsed again. And then he had only a vague notion of himself. And then the vague notion was gone, and it was just himself. And then…
And then, inexplicably, there was something. Not nothing, as he had expected, but an actual something.
Slowly awareness was coming back. Jeret couldn’t move, couldn’t open his eyes, but his mind was moving again. Slowly sensation was coming back as well, and his body felt…normal. There wasn’t any toxin in him. Or if there was, then it wasn’t toxin any more.
Jeret blinked and he was laying on his back, looking up at his garden. There was a pleasant buzz of Secling passing overhead. He sat up and a wave of them took off from his body. As they passed by his eyes he noticed that their stingers were falling from their abdomens. Somehow he knew it was because they didn’t need them anymore. Because all of their toxin had dried up.
There was a sudden rustle at Jeret’s side, and he looked down to see three Firlings wrestling on the ground. It was play. They were not trying to harm one another. They were not trying to hunt the Seclings flying all about.
They had changed. Even though they had been fully defined before, somehow they had changed.
And then came the strangest sensation of them all. A rumbling directly beneath Jeret, and the whir of machinery. Jeret squinted at the garden paradise around him, and had the distinct sensation that something was hiding behind it. Not only behind the garden, but behind the entire asteroid that was his home. Behind his entire consciousness, as if it was only a screen, and another world was underneath.
“And he’s coming out of simulation now.”
The garden wavered. Something was behind. If Jeret could just see beyond what his eyes told him he saw…he could almost discern it now. He felt his body regaining its sensations again. And not the pretend sensations this time, the real ones.
All at once Jeret opened his eyes and the garden was gone. He was in a dark room, with a ring of dull, orange lights around the perimeter which were slowly turning brighter. He was laid back on a half-reclined chair, facing a man pressing buttons on a control panel. Every now and then the man glanced up, to see how well Jeret was coming out of his hallucination.
There was a sudden stripe of white light across the still-mostly-dark room, a door had just opened off to the side. Jeret turned, and against the blinding brightness he could see the silhouette of a rotund man, balding on top, but with a tangle of stray hairs bursting from the sides.
“Mister Jeret!” the man boomed jovially. “How are you feeling?”
Jeret’s brow furrowed in confusion. He had seen these men before, but his mind was still trying to remember where. Oh that’s right, it was the men who had administered the sedative immediately before his exile, the last people he had seen on Amoria. What was so confusing, though, was that his mind seemed to be of two ideas whether the time on the asteroid was real…or only a dream. Perhaps he had never left this room?
“Looks like you’re still coming to,” the man concluded when Jeret did not answer. The perimeter lights were now bright enough that Jeret could see the two men clearly enough to make out their details. Somehow, the more he saw them, the more his mind was pulled towards reality.
“I was…dreaming?” Jeret suggested.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“There was no asteroid?”
The man smiled.
“A–a simulation. And you put the cylinder there on purpose?”
“Jeret, I’d love to stay and chat, but really I’m just here to ask you one thing. Do you think you are ready to rejoin society now?”
“What? But I’ve been exiled?”
“Yes, yes. So you were told. But that was when you insisted on being a threat to everyone around you. So let me ask you again, are you a threat anymore?”
“No I–I rather think I don’t want to hurt anyone at all anymore.”
“That’s what our records show as well. Congratulations, man, you’ve been rehabilitated.”
The man extended his hand. Jeret winced slightly as he pushed himself off of the chair and to his feet. His muscles were still tingling from lack of use. He felt awkward taking his first, fumbling steps, but the man in the doorway smiled patiently and waited. Slowly feeling returned, and Jeret reached out and took the man’s hand.
“Let’s get you back home now.”
And together the two of them walked out of the room.
So here we are at the end of our story. I mentioned on Monday that this story had two possible endings. The first option–the tragic and violent end–was more in line with Jeret’s initial trajectory. He came as an unrepentant and bitter man, and the natural culmination of that character would be an act of self-destruction.
But then he would not have developed as a character, which was something I very much wanted for him to do. And so I wrote about him learning to care for other life, and to take responsibility for his actions. By exploring the power of creation, he slowly lost his need for destruction.
Hopefully this transformation was communicated effectively enough that the new ending felt earned. It would not have made sense for him to have had that conclusion from the outset at the story, but I think he deserved it by the end. Similarly, had he still received the somber ending after his transformation, I think it would have felt off.
As I stated earlier, my intention with this series was to wrestle with all sides of responsibility and duty, particularly related to the guiding of wayward children. Jeret was himself a wayward child, completely devoid of any sense of responsibility. His family cast him out (seemingly at least), but gave him an opportunity to be a father in his exile. As we just discussed, the weight of that power had a redemptive effect on him. Yes, power can corrupt, but I also sincerely believe that it can refine us as well. None of us can improve if we cannot choose, and none can choose where they do not have at least some power.
In either case, I feel I have had my fill of these themes, at least for a while. Come back on Monday when we’ll go somewhere new!
Talce had gray, reflective eyes, devoid of any perceivable irises. Indeed they appeared less like eyes than polished, metal balls that had been inserted into his sockets. Those eyes had been the greatest source of shame to him all his days. They were the sign of the terrible curse and burden which he bore, that of being a life-taker. From his early youth he had learned to walk with his head perpetually bowed downwards, hiding those eyes from those who passed him by. It simply was not pleasant to witness the way people would recoil in revulsion and fear whenever they saw his face.
And there was certainly great fear in them, it was the root that lurked behind all of the hatred the villagers showed to him. That was a hard thing to be responsible for, and yet, he was also greatly indebted to it. For it was only that fear which held the local villagers in check, preventing them from outright cornering and killing him. The definition of a life-taker was, as the name implied, that he could instantly snuff out any creature’s life with no more than a blink of those shining eyes. And so it was with good reason that the people feared him, shunned him, ignored him, and anonymously tormented him… but never would they dare face him in open hostility.
Of course he had never actually done something so horrible as exerting his power on another…. Except once. While in his youth he had been chased down an alley by a massive and furious dog. Though he had not seen where it had come from, it had surely been been set on him by the village boys. No doubt they saw it as an opportunity to enjoy either of two potential outcomes. Perhaps, if they were lucky, they would rid themselves of him once and for all in a tragic “accident.” If not, they would finally be able to catch a glimpse of that terrible power he held. For though they hated what he could do, he knew they were also in awe of it.
Well, whichever dark corner they may have been watching him from, they got their wish. Backed against a wall, with his heart thumping in his chest, he had felt himself what the fear of death was like. Though he had never unleashed his shade he had always known by instinct how to do so. It was a reflex in him as basic as breathing. It had taken less than a moment, a single rush of a dark mist, and the dog moved no more.
There was a common misconception that life-takers’ eyes did not function as those in other people, simply because of how featureless those eyes appeared to be. But they could see, and they could cry. Talce had cried in that moment. Not because of his fear of the dog, but because of the fear of himself.
He was crying again, years later. His head was bowed at this time, too, even though he was in the presence of the one man that had never shunned him.
“Son, look to me” Ekal’s voice croaked from the bed, reaching down to the young man’s chin and turning his face upwards. “Let us see each other this one last time.” Ekal had been about to say something more, but then his face was contorted by another spasm of pain.
A spasm of empathy crossed Talce’s face as well.
“Talce, we do not have long,” Ekal gasped out when the agony had finally subsided. “Give me your hand,” he extended his palm outwards.
Talce did not respond to his father’s request. Instead he looked downwards again. “Who did this?” his voice was barely a whisper, and even so it quavered with seething rage.
Ekal’s face contorted once more, though this time not because of the physical pain. “Talce, do not dwell on this,” he pleaded earnestly. “What is done is done. All that matters now is your liberation.” He thrust his open palm out more urgently to his son.
There was only one way by which a person could be rid of their curse. They could relinquish it to a willing soul, one that was crossing from this life to the next. No ordinary person would offer to carry any sort of curse into the eternities, let alone the burden of a life-taker. Ekal, however, was no ordinary person. And the townspeople knew it. The logic had been simple: mortally wound the old man and let him take the hated curse to his grave.
“Malkil. Tohvy. Harras. Banu.” Talce spat out the names. He had noticed them awkwardly watching from across the street when he had entered the home. Quite likely they were the same men who years earlier had set the dog after him, now emboldened by both age and drink. “Was it them?”
“It was fools!” Ekal shouted back, raising himself on his elbow at great effort. “Worth less than the thoughts you’ve already given them.”
“You think they will spare me once they no longer fear me?! That they will welcome me with open arms after all these years?”
“No,” Ekal sighed. “You will have to run.”
Talce shook his head bitterly. “And leave you unavenged? My own father?”
Ekal tried to keep himself propped upwards, but his arm began to shake and he was about to fall back onto the cot. Talce instinctively threw his hands around his father’s head to lower it down gently. For the cot was thin, and the wood underneath it was hard. Ekal smiled at him, even through his pain.
“Please, son,” he said kindly. “Listen to me. You are a good son and I wish you to always be so. This thing you consider…it simply is not worth the risk.”
“I know they’ll be laying in wait for me,” Talce nodded. “Clearly they meant for tonight to be the end, one way or another. I wouldn’t fall for their trap, though. They’re fools, just as you say.” He nodded again. “This I can do, father.”
“I know it,” Ekal breathed, but there was a tremble of horror in his voice.
Talce felt himself a tremor in himself echoing with his father’s timbre. It was that same fear of self gnawing as it had that day in the alley with the dog. But over that another voice was raging.
“And what of it?!” Talce snapped. “There’s a justice in this. They brought it on themselves!” He blinked back angry tears. “You are my father! It is because of my respect for you that I must–”
“No!” Ekal interrupted firmly. Even angrily. “If you have any respect for me at all you will let this go!” He extended his palm again, reaching to find his son’s hand. But subconsciously Talce had closed his own hands into tight fists. “What kindness do you do me by losing your soul?” Ekal reproved. “If once you are willing to kill to get what you want, then where does that end?”
Talce scowled and looked away. He knew what his father meant. The men’s families and friends, the entire village, they would not tolerate a life-taker willing to unleash his curse. Not even in a cause of “justice.” What would he do when they raised up against him, too? Just let them kill him? Never. If anything, the few men who had beaten his father were only carrying out the will of the entire village, the surface manifestation of all that lied beneath. He could snuff out every life in this town and never once spill a drop of innocent blood.
For as featureless as a life-taker’s eyes were said to be, Ekal had still seen and understood the shadow that had passed across his son’s face with those latest thoughts. For the first time in his life, Talce saw the same horror in his father’s face that the townspeople had always reserved for him.
“Please,” the old man whimpered, his eyes fluttering with the strain of staying open. “They’ve already taken me. Please don’t let them take my son! Please, no.” Unable to extend his hand any longer Ekal merely laid it flat on his side, the fingers quivering for the feel of his child.
The loving plea swayed Talce for a moment. But the more he felt moved by the love of his father the more his corresponding hate for those that would killed the man swelled within him. All his life he had lacked the self-control and depth of character to shoulder this burden on his own. He did not have the mastery in himself to not use this power. He knew it and his father knew it. It was as much as love for his son as fear for him that made Ekal wish to unburden him. He was not ready for that father to leave him, yet leaving he was.
Hot tears rolled down Talce’s cheeks and splashed on the dying man’s covers. “I really wish that I could,” he strained out through gritted teeth. “I really do.” A strange guttural growl echoed from his throat, the strain of his very soul rending in two.
Taking their lives would just be so easy. So effortless. As easy as blinking his eyes.
Ekal’s eyes had closed, but his lips continued to shudder. “Talce, no” he moaned weakly. “No, Talce. Talce…” His hand groped in the dark, reaching but not finding.
Much as he hated himself for it, Talce could not be with his father like this. He could not bear the look of disappointment in his face and the piteous pleading noises. The brokenness. He turned his back and hardened his heart, striding out of the room, to the main entrance, and out into the street. He was already raising that dark mist, the shade that was his only remaining companion. They wouldn’t have a chance.
A common source of conflict and disappointment in our lives is nothing more than our expectations not being met. On Monday I discussed the rift we see between parents and their children, and I would argue a great deal of that divide comes from just these sorts of expectations not being met. Children begin life holding their parents in the highest regard, and at some point are disappointed to learn that they are not as perfect as at first believed. Parents disappoint themselves with their own failings, and are disappointed when their children choose something other than what they had intended for them.
Also, sometimes closer to the heart than even family love is personal pride, and when this is the case working out problems together is sidelined for championing one’s own desires. These were the sorts of things I wanted to emulate in today’s story. Talce truly does love his father, but he loves him on his own terms, not on his father’s. Further, he is a disappointment to himself, and has come to believe in his villager’s perspective of him, rather than Ekal’s. As such he is does not feel capable of meeting the loftier expectations, and rather assumes the more base role that he knows he can fill.
I’ve wanted to do a scene that could serve as the origin for a villain and I thought this would be an interesting way to do it. It’s an approach for such a character that feels more honest to me. Perhaps I’ll have to integrate Talce into some larger story at some point.
Now, though, I’d like to spend a little bit more time on these ideas of projected expectations, filling roles, and the nature of father and mother figures in literature. To sum it all up, I want to look at what how we are defined by others, and how that is reflected in literature. Come back next week when we’ll see what we find.