Nathan made one more look up and down the table, but absolutely no one was willing to meet his gaze.
“Well…” he said softly. “Alright then. I guess there’s no further discussion to be had.”
He lifted the poison pellets off of the table and started to put them into his backpack.
“Uhh…” Samuel Iverson raised a finger. “What do you intend to do with those?”
“Find somewhere else that their purpose will be appreciated,” Nathan replied.
Samuel looked sideways to Doctor Hogue. Nathan, of course, knew exactly what was going through their minds. He had been in this exact situation several times already. On the surface he maintained a calm and nonchalant demeanor, but inside every muscle was tensing.
“We’ll put you up for the night,” Doctor Hogue offered. “I’m sure it’s been an age since you had a nice dinner and a bed.”
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Nathan said, fingers fumbling slightly as he closed the zipper, “but I won’t impose any further on you. Really, the sooner I get going the better.”
He stood up, and at the same time so did everyone else. Nathan, unfortunately, wasn’t the closest to the door. There were three people between him and the exit.
“Nathan–” Samuel Iverson said softly.
“No!” Nathan shot back. “You’re supposed to be a civilization! You’re supposed to be better than this! What’s the point of your fancy homes and walls if you’re no better than the nomads?!”
“Nathan, we are not trying to steal from you,” Doctor Hogue said forcefully. “Like we said, we have no use for your pellets and we wouldn’t try to profit from them, either.”
“What do you want, then?” Nathan demanded.
“Well…” Samuel took a step back from the table and came to a tool chest by the wall. He withdrew an everyday hammer and laid it on the table. “If you will kindly destroy those pellets, Nathan, then we’d be happy to let you along your way.”
“I’m sorry, Mister Prewitt,” Doctor Hogue added, “but we just can’t trust you. We think it far more likely that you’ll persist with your original plan just as soon as you leave.”
“Like I said, I’ll head somewhere else with them. I think this is the best place for it, but that’s alright. There’s plenty of other good that can be done elsewhere.”
Doctor Hogue and Samuel Iverson shook their heads. They didn’t believe him…which meant they weren’t fools.
“I’m sorry,” Doctor Hogue repeated, “but you didn’t come this far just to give up because we asked you to. So we’re going to need some assurance.” He tapped the hammer.
Nathan weighed things carefully. He could always just hand over the pellets, pretend to give up like he had with Red Stella…but no, he was sure they wouldn’t fall for that. Stella had been unhinged and ego-centric, but these people were more rational. They wouldn’t buy his façade unless they had to take the pellets away by force. They were going to have to see him hurt.
“And what if I refuse?” Nathan darted his eyes around the room. He unzipped the backpack and took the poison pellets back out, clenching them tightly in his fist.
“We simply can’t take the risk of you endangering us,” Samuel Iverson slowly started moving around the table. Everyone else in the room took a step nearer as well.
“So what if I refuse?” Nathan repeated, taking a step back.
“You said it yourself earlier,” Doctor Hogue picked up a chair and turned its legs towards Nathan like he was taming a wild animal, “we all have to make difficult choices in our line of duty. Leading a people means doing whatever it takes to protect them…no matter how unpleasant it may be.”
“That’s easy to say,” Nathan grinned darkly, “but have you actually had to kill someone who didn’t deserve it?” He retreated another step and his back hit a wall. He pressed his hand along it, feeling for something that he could use. His fingers closed around a stake being used to anchor the zinc walls to the ground.
“There’s no need for it to come to that,” Samuel said as he and the other elders advanced until they were just outside of Nathan’s reach.
“But have you ever done it?” Nathan made the quickest of glances upward, measuring the distance to the roof. He had to be careful to not actually kill anyone, or else there was no telling what they might do to him out of vengeance!
“All of us have had to do things we’d rather not.”
“And that includes me!” Nathan gave a sharp twist with his wrist and the rusted stake snapped off in the dirt. He lunged forward, swinging the weapon high over his head, angling it straight for Samuel Iverson! However he intentionally made his jump too high, thus carrying the weapon into the roof of the building, puncturing a hole in the corrugated metal and wedging itself inside of it.
“NO!” Nathan pretended to be surprised. Then he was swarmed by all of the elders rushing at once!
“HOLD HIM DOWN!” Samuel shouted. “HOLD HIM DOWN!”
Nathan took a sharp, bracing breath. He wasn’t sure what would happen next. Crowds of angry people were unpredictable. But if he had played his cards right, and if he continued to do so, then he might just get out of here with his life…and with the one item that actually mattered…his backpack.
Nathan’s eyes darted down to the backpack he was clutching to his chest.
“Don’t do it!” Manny said hotly. “We always said we’d protect it, no matter the cost!”
“But what difference does it make?” Nathan shot back. “She gets it either way, better that we’re still alive after she does.”
“Would you just trust me, Manny?” Nathan gave his compatriot a meaningful look.
“Glad to see you can be sensible,” Stella smiled. “Now hand it over.”
With a deep sigh Nathan loosened his grip on the backpack and slowly undid the zipper over the top. He reached in and pulled out a large mechanical device. The body of it was flat and rectangular, with three buttons, a dial, and a switch along one side. On top of the box a small satellite dish was mounted, about the size of a hand.
“Explain to us how it works,” Stella commanded.
“It’s really quite simple. Hook the cord up to a power source, though it does need to be 220 volts, so you’ll probably need a converter. These three buttons toggle between sawtooth, sine, and square waveforms. The worms will eventually adapt to one type of signal, so once you see them coming out of their frenzy just change the waveform and they should go back to attacking themselves. The dial is to raise and lower the amplitude. Each worm will respond best to a slightly different signal strength, so you just have to experiment to see which level gets the most consistent reaction out of them. That’s it.”
“Alright,” Stella held out excited, trembling hands. “Give it to me!”
Nathan paused before handing it over, though. “Stella…” he said slowly, “you tell us that you’re no mercenary, that you’re not going to use this for profit, that we can trust you. But the problem is, can you say the same about your own men?”
And with that Nathan casually tossed the device through the air to the guard that was standing to Stella’s left. The man raised his arms in surprise and caught it, eyes flicking left and right as if unsure what he should do.
Stella’s own eyes went wide and without a word she reached her left hand up to right elbow, pulling out the blade sheathed on her upper arm.
“Hey!” the other guard shouted as he wrapped his hands around her arm, holding her back from stabbing out with the blade. “He hasn’t even done anything!”
But Stella reached her free hand and took the blade into it, then plunged it into the guard restraining her. The other guard cried out in rage and leaped at her, fumbling with the firearm on his side.
“COME ON!” Nathan roared, grabbing Manny under the arm and hauling him to his feet. Stella and the two men were two busy struggling to stop the two prisoners as they plowed their way out of the tent.
“Nathan, wait–” Manny tried to turn back but Nathan forcibly dragged him towards the trees, ducking low to avoid being seen by anyone else in the camp. “But Nathan!”
“Will you shut up?!”
There came the sounds of shots and shouting from the tent as Nathan finally wrested Manny into the tall, thin trees at the edge of camp.
“But the Wave Emitter!” Manny hissed. “You can’t just give that up! If we go back now we might be able to get it off of whoever’s left.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Nathan replied as he continued to lead Manny deeper into the trees. “It was a red herring all along.”
“It was just something I threw together from the scraps left at an old Best Buy. It doesn’t actually do anything.”
“Look, you’re absolutely right that we’ve got to protect the prototype at any cost. So of course I haven’t been showing anybody the actual thing!”
“But you always told me–“
“I’m sorry, Manny. When I first met you I couldn’t trust you with the truth either. I suppose I could have later, but it always seemed safer to keep the truth to as few people as possible. To myself.”
“What truth? Is there an actual prototype or isn’t there?”
Nathan looked over his shoulder and determined that they were far enough from the camp to pause and explain things.
“Shine this on me,” he handed Manny his flashlight and lowered the backpack from his shoulders. “We did make a prototype and it can kill the sand striker worms. I just lied about it being a wave frequency device that puts them into a frenzy.”
“But we’ve risked our lives for that device! Numerous times!”
“No. We risked our lives for the backpack. And the back still has everything that matters.” Nathan pulled sharply on a tab that hung from the inside of the backpack’s main compartment. A false bottom rolled to the side, revealing a rectangular package divided into ten compartments. “This is the actual prototype we made.”
“What is it?”
“It’s poison pellets. Ten poison pellets. This is the real hope of the future. This is what we have to get to your people in New Denver.”
Nathan’s senses were pulled back to the present moment as Samuel Iverson finished his hushed powwow with the messenger boy.
“…and if that doesn’t work, have Janice restart the generator entirely and hope for the best.”
The youth nodded to everyone in the dimly lit room and shuffled out the way he had come.
“Now then,” Iverson rubbed the bridge of his nose, “where were we?”
“Manny agreed to accompany me out west,” Nathan reminded him. “He believed in my cause enough to risk everything.”
“And when exactly did you say Manny died?” Doctor Hogue asked.
“About a year ago, when we reached Old Denver.”
Samuel Iverson and Doctor Hogue frowned at that. Evidently it wasn’t important enough of a death for their friend.
“I’m sorry,” Nathan said. “I did everything I could for him before the end. Fortunately he did not die in vain. By that point I was near enough to Utah that the locals could point me from one landmark to another until I found you. And now here I am.”
Whatever Nathan expected at the end of his tale, it wasn’t total silence. A heavy weight pervaded in the room and Nathan didn’t like it. Perhaps he was being paranoid, but he couldn’t help but wonder if the leaders were thinking it suspicious for Manny to have died before he could confirm or deny the story that Nathan was telling. For all they knew, Nathan had forced their friend to assist him at gunpoint, then killed him as soon as he no longer of any use.
Of course, if they were thinking that, none of it was true. Except for that one part about Nathan having killed Manny.
“There’s no elders around to see,” Bovik rotated his head on a swivel. “Show us, Reis.”
“You think it’s a matter of being caught by the elders?” Reis frowned disapprovingly. “You don’t think anything of the principle of the matter?”
Bovik sighed. “Explain to him that it’s not like that,” he said to Marvi.
“Reis…no one wants you to do anything you shouldn’t,” Marvi purred softly. “We just–we just thought there was something that you could show us. Something without breaking any rules or anything like that.”
“There might be,” Reis mused, but then he turned and continued leading the group deeper through the stone-hedge. As he went the columns twisted and contorted, re-arranging their layout, opening a path before the gang of youth as they walked, then closing it behind them. Thus they could progress deeper into the maze, but could not be followed, and any of their number who hesitated, or failed to keep up, would also be shut out as unworthy.
Reis took a glance over his shoulder then began to charge forward aggressively. He made one quick turn after another, his gang of followers struggling to keep pace. After a particularly tight hairpin turn he raced up a steep incline and leaped out into the air, a leap of faith, trusting that the stone columns would bend to catch his feet from one step to the next. They did so, spiraling up from the ground to meet his feet with each bound, fifteen feet up in the air.
Marvi, who was directly behind him, followed in perfect sync. Reis could feel her presence without even looking. He unexpectedly paused on his current pedestal, one second longer than his prior steps, then leaped forward again. It was just enough of a change to his cadence to throw her off. She had anticipated his movement, already committed herself to the air, and now the stone pedestal would not leave his control and reform itself where she wanted it in time for her to land on it. She fell all the way to the mossy ground below.
Reis let himself descend back to the surface level and took another glance back at the few of his compatriots still in pursuit. He turned all the way around and locked eyes with Bovik and Talo, the two front-runners. Reis began spinning left and right erratically, side-stepping as he did. The stone walls on either side began fluctuating in response to his movements, rapidly thrusting out barricades and then receding them.
The two boys grit their teeth and tried to follow the dance. They watched Reis’s movements, anticipated the changing walls, and dashed forward or held back as appropriate. Or at least they did until an unexpected riser came sliding across the ground and took Bovik’s feet out from under him.
“Oof! That one was from you!” he snapped at Talo.
“Sorry,” Talo shrugged. It couldn’t be helped that the two boys’ movements were adding an extra complexity to the churning Reis had already started. “We’ve got to go one-at-a-time.”
And so he left his comrade and pressed on ahead, disappearing behind a particularly tricky spiral-turn. Bovik leaped to his feet and followed after, trying to stay far enough back to not be caught in Talo’s wake, but not so far back as to lose Reis entirely.
Fifteen seconds later he found Talo laying on his back, massaging his side.
“He hit me!” Talo told him indignantly. “And not with a wall, mind you! I had just finished dodging a sweeper and he actually, literally reached out and punched me!”
“He wanted to see if you were distracted,” Bovik shrugged, reaching down to pull his friend back up to his feet, “and I guess you were.”
“Well it was still a cheap move.”
“Ahh, don’t worry about it. This isn’t the real test anyway. Keep up with him isn’t what this is all about, now is it?”
Talo thought for a moment, then his eyes lit up as understanding set in. “Oh! Of course. We’re supposed to know where he’s headed and just meet him there.”
“The centrifuge!” they concluded together.
Farther ahead, Reis continued charging forward at a blistering pace. He could not see any of his compatriots over his shoulder any more, but he wanted to be absolutely sure that there weren’t any hangers-on before he made his way to the center of the maze.
Of course it wasn’t just about reaching the physical center of the maze. This was a living, morphing place after all. To truly find the center, you had to approach it in the right way. And that right way was different every time you tried to find it, and different depending on which direction you came at it from.
So at last Reis slowed his run, stopped churning the stone walls around him, and instead starting paying attention to the maze itself. How was it unfolding itself to him this day? What was the pattern–the rule–that naturally dictated its openings and closings?
He came to a full stop, breathed deeply, and took in all his surroundings. Then he took a single step forward and watched how the stone shuddered as a result. A step to the right. A step to the left. A quarter turn. Then ten paces forward in a straight line.
“Alright,” he said to himself as he walked. “Openings naturally on the right side, obstacles naturally on the left.” He continued walking down his current aisle until it came to a 90-degree turn then continued along the next chamber. “Openings still naturally on the right. So I’m circling round. Go a layer deeper.”
He stepped into one of those openings in the right-hand wall and came into a neighboring path. He continued his walk down it now.
“Openings on the left…obstacles on the right,” he frowned. It had flipped. The maze was trying to suggest that its center was in the opposite direction of where it had been just a moment ago. He stepped through a hole to the left…back to where he had been before…and again the openings were on the right, not the left. “So what? Back and forth between the two? A test of persistence?”
That didn’t feel right. Every time he stepped right the maze wanted him to go left, every time he stepped left the maze wanted him to go right. There was a puzzle here, and he was supposed to somehow use this mechanic to progress in only one direction. But that was impossible, wasn’t it?
Reis’s body was wandering as much as his mind now. He carelessly strode down the pathways, stepped through the openings, back and forth, just trying to let something click. If he stepped through an opening to the left, then back to the right, did the path he came back into appear different from before? No. If he went through one opening, went around a right-hand turn, and then stepped through the opening back to the previous path had things changed…hmm, no, that didn’t seem to help anything.
Perhaps it had something to do with how one went through the opening? He tried stepping through very slowly, no change. Headfirst, no change. Backwards…wait! He had gone backwards through an opening to the right and the rule had flipped. Now the openings in the next pathway were still on the right-hand side!
“It’s not right or left!” he crowed. “It’s that the openings appear behind you as you step through.”
Grinning, Reis continued his retreat. He didn’t dare turn his head to see where he was going, for fear of breaking the effect. He just trusted the maze to guide him. Path by path he moved deeper and deeper, until at last he passed the carved stone pillars which he knew so well. He turned around and saw the centrifuge before him: a massive stone column fragmented into many pieces, each spinning at its own rate and in different directions.
And Tharol was standing before it.
“You’re here already?” Reis cocked an eyebrow.
“Didn’t waste time trying to keep up with you.”
“You understood right away?”
“Of course…you’re obsessed with this place.”
Reis grinned and paced leisurely around the central column. “And why not? It is an obsessive place.”
“Have you seen this?” Tharol, all business, gestured to a small, spindly something perched on the ground. It was as if a thousand tiny, black sticks had been fused to one another until they were roughly in the form of a four-legged, lanky creature.
“It’s still growing?”
“Well it’s never showed any signs of slowing, has it? Definitely some sort of creature.”
“But still no head on it.”
“The elders still don’t know what to make of it.”
Reis shrugged. “This is a place of mysteries. Be all the more unusual if there weren’t unusual things growing here.”
“Well I don’t like it.”
“Doesn’t it strike you as–I don’t know–like something from the old legends? Creatures springing out of the rocks sounds straight out of the Cryptics!”
“And nothing good ever game out of the Cryptics,” Reis repeated the well-known saying. “I don’t know. It’s not a creature springing out of rock, it’s the statue of a creature. It’s not as though this thing shows any sign of life.”
“Well I don’t like it.”
“So I’ve heard.”
There was the sound of crumbling rock behind them and they spun around to see Inol dashing through a tear in the wall. Then came the sound of rapid footsteps to the right, and they turned to see Bovik and Talo come bounding over the top of the wall there. Marvi entered next from the left, fixing Reis with a scowl, evidently none too pleased for having been dropped during the chase.
“Sorry,” he said. “I did make sure we were over the moss at least.”
One-by-one more of the youth arrived, until there were thirteen of them in all. Reis waited quietly as they came, seated on a crumbled pillar, until there was a period of five minutes without any new arrivals. Then he stood up and clicked his tongue.
“I guess everyone that is going to be here is here.”
“You’re going to show us the amulet now?” Bovik asked eagerly.
Reis frowned at him, not pleased at all with being interrupted.
“I will show you what I will show you. And what I show you will be what I already chose to show you…not because you asked to see it.”
Bovik looked down to his feet and took a step back.
“Now then…” Reis glanced around, as if to dare anyone to interrupt him again. “Master Palthio’s instructions were that I keep Raystahn private, but I interpret that as private between myself and close friends. I feel that I may share it as I see fit, so long as I do so with prudence and care. Each of you,” he nodded to the gathered congregation, “I consider worthy of seeing.”
Without any further explanation he reached into the folds of his tunic and drew out a golden amulet. All the youth leaned in closer. Even Tharol, who usually maintained a more aloof air about such artifacts, squinted at it curiously. It was golden disc, with many layers and sections and foil strands twisting from one edge to another.
“There’s some sort of markings between the arms,” Marvi observed. “But they look more like patterns than writing.”
“Patterns can convey knowledge as well,” Reis stated. “And they aren’t static, watch this.” He took a step towards Marvi, and as he did so the etchings rearranged themselves slightly. “They change based on their context.”
“A compass!” Talo exclaimed.
“A compass only tells you which way you’re headed,” Reis tutted. “But these, I believe, tell one where they are.”
“A map, then.”
“Something like that. Only I still need to figure out how to read the symbols properly.”
“Have you asked Master Palthio what he knows about it?” Bovik queried.
“No, of course not. An amulet is a very personal thing, not some everyday tool with a manual. You’re supposed to figure this out for yourself. In fact, from now on I’d better not lead you on with what I’ve already puzzled out. You may observe, but keep your thoughts and discoveries to yourself.”
Everyone was silent for a few minutes, craning their necks from side-to-side, taking in all the complexities and hidden compartments on the device.
Reis grinned at their fascination. “There is something else I could show you about it. I won’t say anything about what I think it means, but you would still find it fascinating.”
All the youth locked eyes with him eagerly. All except for Tharol.
“But…like I said. This is very personal. Really I’m the only one who should know all this stuff about Raystahn. If I’m going to share more with you…I need you to be a part of me,” his eyes flicked meaningfully from one youth to the next. “I’m going to need…an oath.”
On Monday I wrote about how we cast characters in certain ways, making them likable or unlikable to the reader, so that the reader will accept or reject them accordingly. But of course, the reader is not only accepting or rejecting the character, they are also accepting or rejecting all the character’s ideas and everything that they stand for. The character is the Trojan Horse, hiding the writer’s agenda within.
With today’s post I introduced characters only, and did not yet reveal their ideologies or beliefs. In this way I have the reader already drawing opinions on them, even before they really know them.
My belief, and my intention, is that readers will find Reis a pompous and insincere character, one who they dislike, and are prepared to reject the agenda of. Almost all the other youth I intend to be seen as simpering and weak-willed. Tharol is intended to come across as likable, but cautious, someone that the readers wish to be closer to. And as we will see in the story, all these feelings that the readers hold towards the characters will be perfectly aligned with the messages that the overall story communicates.
As I suggested on Monday, there is an undeniable element of manipulative design in all this. The onus is on me to remain honest and sincere in the messages that I put forth this way, which is part of the reason that I am writing these paragraphs down here in the first place. My intent is not truly to manipulate, if it were, I would not be pointing out how the manipulation is being done. My intent is to help us all be more discerning readers and more sensitive writers.
For now, though, I’d like to move on to examining another piece of this story. This opening segment, with the youth traversing the maze, is ultimately not a critical element of the story. It is to give a little flavor of the world, but as soon as it ends we’ll get going on the main thrust of the story.
This is not an uncommon approach to story-telling, where a sort of prologue piece gets the audience warmed up before the main tale goes forward in earnest. Let’s come back on Monday and reflect on a few examples of this, and why we use it in our stories. Then, on Thursday, we’ll really get going on The Favored Son.
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!
Stories have the unique ability to show us things about their characters that we could never know about another person in real life. At their most intimate, they detail for us the moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings of the character, to a degree that we will never have, even with our closest friends.
Indeed, in the most detailed of stories we come to know a character better than they even know themselves, as we are able to flip back through the pages to recall things that they cannot. Their lives are literally an open book to us.
Thus Harry Potter might moan about his latest disagreement with Ron, and wonder whether this really and truly the end of their friendship…and we just sigh and wonder how long it will be until he realizes that they are pals forever. Silly Harry, doesn’t he realize he’s the protagonist and Ron is his confidante? Narrative archetypes demand that they remain on speaking terms!
That, perhaps, is the greatest truth which we know about these individuals that they do not: that they are a character in a story. Harry might wonder if this is really the end for him when he encounters Lord Voldemort at the end of The Goblet of Fire, but we know this only book four of seven, there’s no way he isn’t going to make it out of this alive!
Flip the Script)
Given that this balance usually tips in favor of the reader, it can make things interesting to instead reserve some information related the main character, and refuse to share it with the reader.
This, for example, is what makes Tyler Durden such an unsettling character in Fight Club. The unnamed narrator is an open book to us. He tells us all his feelings, we’re with him at every critical point of his story, we understand him through and through. But Tyler Durden?
The man is a complete enigma. He’s charismatic and winning, but we’re never quite sure what to really make of him. He escalates his plans to more and more extreme behavior. He always seems to be on the cusp of committing some horrible crime against humanity, but then pulls back at just the last second, double- and triple-bluffing us at every turn. We are sure that he is holding secrets close to his chest, and we are both fascinated and terrified as to what they might be.
Which of course is what makes the twist of that story so compelling. It turns out that our “open book” narrator is the one harboring secrets, not Tyler Durden. Or perhaps one could say that the narrator is Tyler Durden’s closely guarded secret. For the two men are one-and-the-same, alternate personalities living in the same body.
And this is the heart of suspense. Suspense is not about popping something shocking at the reader. Suspense is about having them fully anticipate the something shocking…but leaving them uncertain as to which way it will come at them from. It isn’t enough just for a character to have a secret, the audience has to actually know that they have a secret, but no one can tell when or how it will be unveiled.
Consider the sequence in Schindler’s List where the title character tries to convince the psychopathic Amon Goeth that true strength is in having the power to hurt another, yet choosing not to. It is a nice speech, it clearly makes an impact, and as a result we see Amon fighting down the urge to lash out at the Jewish prisoners he watches over.
But even while he strives to maintain composure, we can see that it is eroding out from under him. Just what is his personal limit? We do not know. We anticipate a breakdown, and every encounter has us anxious that this might be the moment where he finally snaps. Which, tragically, he does.
Strong levels of suspense eventually stray into the realm of terror. And this is where some of the most compelling villains in stories arise. A character that is antagonistic, but one-dimensional and perfectly understood, can certainly be disliked, but usually fails to imbue the audience with the same terror that the protagonists feel. In Lord of the Rings we may be anxious for Frodo and Aragorn’s well-being, but we do not feel personally uneasy about the specter of Sauron’s all-seeing eye.
Villains that are an enigma, however, can terrify us directly. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula we have the no-secret villain in the titular vampire, and we do not fear him very greatly. But we also have a deeply-secretive adversary in the form of Renfield. And Renfield, as a result, is straight up unsettling, breathing a sense of menace right into the reader’s living room.
His mind is immediately a mystery to us by virtue of his being insane. We read about the experiments he performs in his cell at the asylum, first feeding flies to spiders, and then spiders to birds, and then eating the birds himself when he is denied a cat. He mutters about how he is trying to accumulate more and more life energy through the consumption of so many others.
We also know that he is connected with the vampire Dracula, but that he harbors motivations and intentions that are in constant, erratic flux. At times he seems genuinely friendly to our heroes, and at others to the vampire. We never know when or how he will take his stand, and so we feel very unnerved by him.
True to his volatile nature, he proves to be unpredictable right to the very end, both unlocking the door for Dracula to enter the domain of the heroes, but also fighting against him to his own demise. In all, he is a rather minor character, but he remains deeply memorable for the many tantalizing secrets that he has been wrapped in.
I mentioned in my last post that one of the main characters in my story had reasons for the decisions that he made, but I chose not to disclose them within the narrative. Doing so was meant to make him feel more unreliable. Indeed, I want all three of the characters in my story to be brimming with unsaid motivations and secrets. Each one of them has their own nugget of information that they are not sharing with the others or the readers, and each of them is going to become highly unpredictable when the others near it. Come back on Thursday as we push this tension further, and hopefully create a strong sense of suspense in the reader!