The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part Two

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Part One

It was a dense and gray thing, utterly impenetrable twenty yards in. The morning light was a cool gray, diffused through the fog until it became ambient volume. The illumination didn’t appear to have a single source, seemingly emanating from every direction at once, so that there weren’t any shadows to be seen in any direction. It made the setting dream-like, ethereal and tranquil if not for the knowledge of what was coming. It was a single, mutual death-shroud, draped across them all.

“Fog? How can we have fog way up on this hill?” Private Holt asked incredulously.

“You’re from Minnesota, Holt,” Hastings drawled. “Not all fogs are mists sprung out of a lake, you know, some of them are clouds dropped down from above.”

“They wouldn’t charge in the fog, would they?” Private Dunny asked.

But they would. It was still early when the shelling stopped, and then it didn’t take long to hear the churning of boots. But of course no matter how hard you peered into the gray no forms could be made out. Even the sounds were muted and diffused through the mist, seeming to come at them as a formless wall, impossible to make out distance or direction.

Private Bradley pulled his rifle close to his cheek–Hastings was still in command of the mounted machine gun–and had a brief fantasy that there was no army coming. They existed behind a curtain, and that curtain might as well be an entire world. Yes the enemy marched, but only in his dreams.

“Ready! Fire!” another Sergeant some forty feet away called, and then all the other squad leaders echoed the call, their voices running on each other like the lapping of a brook. All at once the crack of gunfire rang out, and streams of bullets fired into the mist.

Though they fired blindly, sharp cries of pain rose up to mingle with the steady rhythm of marching. Of course Bradley never knew if he had been the one to hit his foe, or whether the man next to him had. So each successive shot was just as much a roll of the dice as before.

Fiery tracers scorched further into the great marshmallow than the other ammunition did. Sometimes they would make it eighty yards before their ember was snuffed in the soup. And then, all at once, one of those tracers from Bradley’s own rifle made contact with an enemy helmet, eliciting a bright shower of sparks against the void of white. Just like that the trance was broken and the threat was real. It had been seen!

Bradley fired again and again. At the end of each clip, as he rammed in the next, he would glance to the side where Hastings manned the big gun. Was Hastings sweeping the gun at the right height, Bradley wondered? Was he taking down enough of their foes?

It seemed that more bullets than usual were raining around Hastings, and the thought occurred to Bradley that the machine gun’s muzzle was probably the only one bright enough for the enemy to see. He was about to say something to that effect when one of those bullets cut Hastings down without so much as a whimper.

“Oh–” Sergeant began, but before he could even process what had happened Bradley dashed over to take the gun. He didn’t even pause to check whether Hastings was already dead or not. He knew.

The familiar rumble of the gun’s handles reopened the blisters that had been forming on his hands since last night. He grit his teeth, pressing his helmet tighter on his head, so that there only existed the narrowest slit between it and the top of the trench for his eyes to rove behind. Ricocheted bullets clattered against his skull like a haymaker, and flecks of rock and mud kicked into his face.

The enemy was shouting now, and Bradley kept expecting to see them burst onto the scene, a thousand men right in front of them all at once. His hand was shaking, and his grip on the trigger slipped. He clutched back on to it, and pressed his elbow against the earth wall for steadying support.

Through his narrow line of sight he could see the first evidences of the approaching enemy. It was grayish patches against the wall of murky white, oversized forms, not yet recognizable as human. But as the soldiers that cast those shadows drew nearer, the forms grew smaller and more like a man’s, so that when at last they did burst out of the mist it seemed as though the shadows had given birth to flesh and blood.

Which blood flowed in stark ribbons of crimson against the pillow of white. Bradley kept his gun on its steady swivel. His arms ached, his fingers bled, and he ground his teeth together to keep his aim straight. He held the line, not out of loyalty, but out of purebred terror. Vaguely he sensed the enemy flowing into the trench just twenty feet to the left. No matter, he couldn’t worry about it. They would have to deal with it there, just as how his squad had to deal with the soldiers leaping in front of them.

Another foe burst out of the mist after another. Three of them all at once. Bradley cut them all down, but in the meantime another five had sprung out.

He took four of them and Sergeant took one.

Another seven appeared.

All seven were cut down by their joint effort, but now there were nine, and they were already half of the way from the fog’s end to the trench.

Then Bradley knew that there would that there would be fighting in the trench for his squad, too, and the only question was how long he held to his machine gun before turning to his knife.

Could he let go of his gun at all? For if he paused to cut down a man beside him, the benefit of it would be undone–and then some–by the greater number of foes that would make it to their line a second later. He would have to hold to his station, and hold to it until he was cut down. It would be up to his comrades to–

Click!

The belt ran out again, and there was no more Private Hastings to replace it!

Mad with terror Private Bradley kicked open the box of ammunition and seized a fresh line. He felt the forms of four enemy soldiers spilling into the trench. His comrades fought them while his back was turned. He raced the belt up to the top of the gun, opened the top, threw the bullets across, closed the top, pulled back the ball, and…

There was no one before him. In those critical moments without his aid, the enemy had still made their retreat. His knees buckled before he knew anything, and his arms threw into the muddy wall for support. His face pressed into the moist earth, cooling his feverish brow as his air exhaled in great gusts, as if it hurried to escape him for want of a safer host.

“Up! Up!” the Sergeant cried. “Shoot them as the run! Don’t let them think about turning around now!”

It was the only notion that could have roused Bradley back onto his feet. Fresh fear pumped through his veins, and gave him strength to stand and shoot another five minutes until they were truly sure that no more specters would emerge from the cloud.

“Why–why haven’t they started shelling again?” Private Dunny asked after another quarter hour had elapsed.

Strangely enough, the sound of shells had become a relief to them, as it had proven the final confirmation that no more waves of enemies would approach them for a few more hours.

“You men better stay hot on your feet now!” Sergeant ordered.

In his head, Private Bradley knew that this was probably just a mind-game from the other side. Save their shells, but send no men. They knew the prolonged terror that would evoke, constantly staring at the fog, straining one’s ears for an approach, and unable to rest the nerves because of it.

But what else could Bradley and his men do? The entire value of such a tactic was to leave the trench-defenders exhausted, so that they would be easier overrun when the assault finally did come. And so the assault would come, sooner or later, and a constant watch had to be maintained for it.

Or maybe the artillery had broken apart. Or maybe they really were trying to mount another charge right now, before the fog had wholly lifted.

What else could Bradley and his men do other than wait and watch?

And so they stood there, peering out into the whiteness, each minute feeling like an hour, and going past one-by-one until actual hours had elapsed. Then the deep exhaustion began to set in. This was no run-of-the-mill fatigue, either, they could feel the weariness deep in their bones. Every muscle was at least doubly-expended, every nerve had been fired to the point of burning out. There was nothing left to give.

Still they didn’t dare lower their heads, but they stared forward with blank and vacant expressions, unseeing though with eyes wide open. No words escaped their lips, neither idle chit-chat nor irritated grumbling. They did not live in this moment, they merely occupied a physical space for a time.

They did not even stir when a courier came down the line, passing a message along to each Sergeant. Though words were spoken audibly enough for them to hear, they did not process them.

“I’m sorry,” Sergeant said to his men. “It seems we won’t be getting relieved today. More fighting off to the East and they had to take our reinforcements down that way.”

“Mm,” Private Bradley said. Really a part within him felt very sad about that, but he just didn’t have the strength to do anything about it.

There was only one sound that could pull them out of their reverie, and at last they heard it: the stomping of boots in the distance.

“How are they able to keep sending men at us?” Private Dunny asked. “It can’t be the same ones over and over, they couldn’t possibly get anyone to do that fool charge more than once!”

“Oh no?” Private Holt replied dryly. “Yet how many fool charges have they been able to get you to repel?”

Now there was no more discussion to be had. Once more the trenches came alive in a row of fire, a thousand burning bullets streaking into the mist, lost from sight, to puncture bodies and kick up mud in another world. Another world that was invading on their own, and growing closer every moment to breaking upon them.

Private Bradley’s hands protested as soon as they touched the rough iron of the machine gun’s handles, his blisters burst in bloody fountains immediately, knowing it was vain to try and hold out against the constant chafing of the machine rattling back and forth a million times per second. But there was nothing for it. Private Bradley couldn’t leave the line, so his hands couldn’t leave the gun. Both of them just had to see the ordeal through.

And the worst part was knowing that as much terror as he felt now, this was only the beginning, and that even if they made it through this charge as well, that success wouldn’t be achieved for another eternity. He would have to swallow an entire epoch of trauma, much too large for any man to stomach, just as he had each time before. Each time he had known he didn’t have it in him to see this through, and perhaps this time he would be right.

Even so, that inconvenient instinct to cling to life still persisted, and somehow made him shoulder the burden of his own survival. If he was going to fall, it wasn’t going to be for a lack of trying to stand. They may cut him down, but that is what they would have to do: cut him down. No one would walk by him easily.

Suddenly the cloud burst apart in a thousand warriors all at once. New troops, fresh troops, ones that had sprinted all the last fifteen minutes to catch the trench-men unawares!

“Oh no!” Private Dunny screamed beside Bradley.

And then, there came the most horrible miracle that Private Bradley had ever witnessed, a blinding yellow light blossomed at the feet of those men and heaved them into pieces. A terrible shockwave rent the air, and spat mud and dirt like shrapnel into Private Bradley’s squad. They were all flung backwards in an instant, nearly buried in the avalanche of filth.

And then another shell pounded into the turf. And then another.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

I mentioned last week how I wanted the audience to feel the depth of Private Bradley’s struggles, and how I was attempting to accomplish that by presenting a detailed description of all that occurred to him. We’re now several thousand words into his experience, and still going strong. I personally feel that all this material is interesting in its own right, and so I don’t mind that it’s taking its time.

This ability to stretch plot points into full and interesting narrative requires an unusual skill that I am still trying to develop: that of making lists interesting. When you get right down to it, everything that takes place in stories can be reduced into a series of lists. The overall outline is a list of plot points, the dialogue is a list of information to be exchanged, and even character arcs are a sequential list of changes that happen over time.

In the initial stages of developing a story you have to review those lists, fill in the ones that have holes, and make sure that each item logically follows the one prior. And then, after you’ve gotten everything into a nice and tidy list format, you then need to relate them to the reader in a way that hopefully doesn’t sound like they’re just being read a list!

On Monday we’ll discuss a bit more of how lists work in the structure of a story. We will also consider what makes the difference between a “good” list and a “bad” one. I’ll see you then.

It’s Tough to Be a God: Part Two

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Part One

“Well,” Jeret said. “Why don’t I make myself something to get back to–to the base?” He had almost said “to get back to home,” but he refused to do that. It was not his home, it was the central point of his prison.

Jeret painted some more of the strange haze in the air, and started to imagine a Tramporter System. He pictured the wheels and platform, and the guideline pointing out in the proper direction. He even tried to imagined the Tramporter System Node back at the base, tethered to this first one.

The results were…disappointing. A couple of wheels materialized, and the general shape of a standing platform, but they all collapsed to the ground as separate pieces. He tried again, this time thinking of axles running through the wheels, keeping them connected to the body. And so they materialized, but still a bit wonky, and still without any power.

Well how exactly did a Tramporter’s power work? Jeret didn’t know. And it didn’t seem that this tool was going to figure it out for him. If he wanted to make something with it, he would have to understand that something in greater details.

Well maybe it didn’t have to be a Tramporter, then. At last he had a sort of cart now, even if it was misshapen. All he really needed now was something to pull it.

Jeret waved his tool around the end of the cart, imagining a metal ring bolted to the end, and from that ring a cable running out into the distance. Then, along that cable he started to imagine a pack of dogs tied by leashes. As they started to come into form they were frightful to say the least. Disproportionate body parts, matted fur, excessively shiny eyes, and making strange guttural noises constantly. Why was it so easy to think an idea, but so hard to actually picture it properly?

Jeret thought of them running off in the distance, and all at once they popped into existence and bounded off with the cart!

“Oh!” Jeret barely managed to fling himself onto the vehicle before it was whisked away. The whole thing suddenly jerked to the left, and he fell to all fours! Then the cart jerked as suddenly to the right and he gripped the bolted ring for dear life.

The ground was perfectly smooth, so there were no bumps in the ride, but the dogs did not know how to run together. Indeed they couldn’t, so unequal were their different limbs. One dog on the left was at a particular disadvantage, with two limbs too long and two limbs too short. It would alternate between bounding and limping, which transitions accounted for the sudden jerks in the cart.

When there was a moment of calmness, Jeret waved his tool over the floor of the cart, fashioning an iron handle attached to it. This he held firmly, gritting his teeth as yet one another erratic jerk swung him wildly, and then another.

Still, they were moving, and in what generally seemed to be the correct direction. Also they were moving far more quickly than Jeret would have been able to on his own. And so, strange and uncomfortable as the ride was, Jeret could not help but feel a great swell of pride. He had made a transportation device, a tool to solve his problem. Already his mind was overflowing with ideas for what to make once he got back to his base.

He would have a feast every night. All of his favorite foods forever available. He would make tools, and resources, and he would build whatever he wanted. He would make creatures, people, and a beautiful home to keep them in.

He could build that tower he had been thinking of! And a parachute to safely glide back down to Amoria. He’d be able to go home, to find his old friends to–to get exiled all over again? No, what did he want with Amoria anymore. They didn’t want him, so he didn’t want them. Not in the same way as before, anyway.

Maybe he could build an army instead. An entire arsenal of weapons and machines. He could turn this entire asteroid into a giant cannon and blast the Communion to bits! Then, and only then, he could come back down. Come to rule and reign, to squash anyone that dared to oppose him! To make them beg him for forgiveness. To close them up in their own tombs of exile forever.

A glint caught Jeret’s eye and he turned his head. It must be his base, though still far off in the distance. The dogs were not pointed towards it, though, they were veering about fifteen degrees too far to the left.

“Turn boys, turn!” Jeret commanded, but of course the dogs paid him no heed.

“This way!” he said, grabbing the cable and tugging it to the left. The dogs startled and leaped high into the air. The sled followed, and Jeret gripped his handle all the more tightly as his stomach fell beneath him! With a thunderous crash they all came back down to the ground. One of the wheels gave an ominous splintering sound, and started warbling side to side, making the entire vehicle hum in vibration.

Every bolt and plank started to strain, and Jeret didn’t know how long the vessel might last. He certainly hadn’t thought out this part out very well! Frantically he looked all about him, and found himself staring down at the ground, whizzing by him at five yards every second.

This would hurt.

Jeret flung himself to the side, bailing off of the cart and onto the ground. He hit it forcefully, and his head smacked onto the rock. Senses reeling, he went into a rapid roll, skin rubbing off for not being able to turn quickly enough. He bounced into the air, and the next impact hit on the side of his knee. It throbbed in pain as he made another three full revolutions and finally came to a stop on his belly.

Every inch of him ached, his arms were scraped and raw, and any movement sent spasms of pain through his knee.

“I could…have made…a brake” Jeret snarled into the stone. Then, wincing sharply, he pushed himself to his feet and started limping back towards base. “A simple strip of steel on a pin, so that it could be pressed against the wheel and slow everything down. I could have made a cushion to fall on! Or a knife to cut the dogs loose!”

As he walked he created a stick and some ropes, binding them onto his leg for a splint. After a few efforts, he successfully made some bandages coated in soothing ointment, and wrapped them around his arms.

He would get back to his base, and he would make the deepest, softest bed ever known. And he would lay on it for days and not move an inch. And he would have a cool, frosted glass filled with golden Taroyl Ale, and it would constantly refill itself anytime he took a sip. That was what he would do when he got back!

And then a thought occurred to him. Why did he really need to make it back to the base? He could make a bed right here. And food right here. And a hole and a toilet right here. Anywhere on this rock could be his base and he would never be lost without resources again.

And so he set to work. The bed wasn’t perfect, a little lumpy, and with a hideous pattern, but it was good enough. And the toilet was nothing more than a small seat on top of a deep chute, but it was good enough. And the Taroyl Ale didn’t taste quite right, it had been a very long time since he had had the delicacy, after all, and couldn’t perfectly recall the flavor. But it did dull his pain, and it did lull him to sleep, and he was content.

And so the would-be ruler reigned, day-by-day his limbs stinging less, but growing more stiff. Then, day-by-day, they became less stiff, but more itchy. And finally, day-by-day, they came back to their normal, healthy function.

Of course the greatest problem that faced him in all this was the boredom. And so it was on the second day of recovery that Jeret thought to create some gladiators.

It was no doubt because he was in a foul, painful mood that he wanted to see things fight. It would give him relief to see others suffer more than he. At first he started to fashion another dog, but when he got to the point of making it menacing he thought better of it and erased the whole thing. A dog was large enough to be a threat to him, which was not a problem that he needed right now!

Much better to make something small, something that would only be a threat to others of its own kind. What sort of creature would be good for that? He tried a few different kinds, but he had the same problem as before with them appearing like some sort of nightmare versions of the original design. He gave up on them before they were finished. Then the thought occurred to him: why try to make something that already existed? Perhaps it would be easy to invent something new. The fact was, Jeret’s memory was shifting and fleeting, but crafting something purely from imagination was far more consistent.

First he thought of the basic details: a small creature, small enough to fit in the palm of his hands. It was a dark gray color, with speckles of black all around. It had a tall, curved back, which was covered in tough plates. It would crawl around on four, tough little legs. He watched it slowly take shape in front of him, but he wasn’t finished yet.

Now he moved on to finer details. The legs were furry and soft, as well as the underbelly. It had black, beady little eyes, and a narrow slit for its mouth. And emanating from that mouth was its single tusk. This was a long thing, curving slightly upwards towards the end. It was a very vocal creature. Not with loud shrieks or whoops, but rather a skittering sort of chatter, with the occasional shout if in pain.

And then he started to think of how it moved and behaved, and as he did so, it started wriggling to life before him. It was a nervous little creature, one that liked to hide in holes. And it lived off of small insects, and posed absolutely no threat to any creature that was larger than it. It gave birth to litters of three or four live young every year. And, of course, it was extremely territorial. Males would claim certain regions, and if two were ever in the same domain, they would fight to the death!

The creature came more and more to life, and as it did Jeret slowly shifted from defining it to observing it. Eventually it was real enough that gravity took hold and it popped out of the haze and fell to the ground. Once there, it immediately bolted under his bed and lurked there in the shadows.

Jeret’s leg twinged slightly as he got out of bed himself and lay on the ground, watching the animal. It was bunching its legs up around its body, and projecting its thick shell towards him, muttering with its strange little clicks.

“I guess you’ll need a home,” Jeret said, then set to work crafting a simple wire grid. He drew it out in an enclosed circle, and added a few rocks in one corner for the creature to live in. Then he made himself a net on a pole, and slowly reached it under the bed towards the creature.

It stayed immobile for as long as it could, then suddenly skittered off to the side. Jeret had anticipated that, though, and caught it in one quick swoop. He swung the net over the enclosure, and dropped the pet into its new home. Immediately it scampered into a small hole in the rocks.

“Good,” he smiled, and then began working on a challenger. This one was a little lighter in color, so that he could tell it apart from the first. He also made it a little bigger, but also with a shorter tusk. Other than that, it had all the same basic criteria as the first.

This one he fashioned in the air above the enclosure, and as he added the final details it popped into reality, then fell into the midst of the first one’s home. No sooner did it touch the ground than the first gave a little squawk and charged out from its hovel. The second turned, and rushed to meet it.

Then, much to Jeret’s surprise, the first one flailed its legs wildly, trying to halt its momentum. It was afraid of the new one’s size, and was trying to get away. The second pounced instantly, gripping the other’s shell with its two front legs. The second rolled the first over, exposing its soft belly and legs frantically running in the air. The second buried its tusk into the other’s heart. One, two, three, four, murderous jabs. The legs of the first twitched horribly with each plunge and it gave out a series of spasmodic cries. Then, all at once, everything stopped.

Up above them Jeret was trembling and tearful. What had he done?!

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

On Monday I talked about how Jeret was introduced in the most humble of circumstances, but then given a gift that could elevate him to the highest. Before his ultimate reclamation, though, I wanted the story to take an interesting arc in the middle. Here Jeret has more power than what he began with, but also becomes more morally debased.

Perhaps you, the reader, were horrified at his idea of “gladiators” as soon as it was suggested. Perhaps, like him, you thought it sounded interesting and inconsequential. In either case, I hope that the actual fight itself hit all readers as very unsettling and authentic. Certainly that is the experience of Jeret.

This represents an interesting line to walk. Because I wanted Jeret to have done something bad, but I did not want him to be irredeemable. How do I make his wrong actions matter, but not to the point of damnation? On Monday I’ll explain a little bit about how I approached this, and also discuss the wider notion of characters being flawed but redeemable. Come back then, and in the meanwhile have a wonderful weekend!