The premise of Rocky is established early on in the film. Apollo Creed, the heavyweight boxing world champion, has an opponent cancel on him and seeks to fill the vacancy by any means necessary. After a little searching, a local small-time fighter named Rocky Balboa is discovered and offered the position. Rocky is clearly outclassed, but he is convinced to accept the offer due to the opportunity to be on a national stage and receive $150,000 no matter the outcome.
Rocky has no expectation of winning, as he confesses to his girlfriend his only aim is to “go the distance,” meaning that he wants to last all 15 rounds of the match, proving himself to be a worthy competitor. And with that, the audience knows everything that Rocky will be up against in the movie. There’s no dramatic twist and no change-up in the schedule. We expect him to fight Creed at the end at that’s exactly what happens.
And this is great, because the film is a grounded, realistic take on the hero’s journey. It is concerned primarily with the drama of the situation, and how the opportunity both helps and hinders Rocky in his private relationships.
But what about stories that are reaching for the fantastic? Sometimes the audience wants to be taken on a wild ride, and don’t want to be able to see the ending from the beginning. Sometimes you want the curtain to open to what you think is the whole picture, but then realize that it was only a small slice as the curtains open even wider later on!
Think of how Neo in The Matrix exists in the regular world, then has the curtains partially opened to a world of special agents and supernatural abilities, then opens again to realizing that the entire world is a computer simulation, and finally opens a third time to his realizing he can rewrite the code of that simulation, becoming a veritable god.
There is also a video game franchise that is an excellent example of a curtain opening, then opening again. Half Life begins with the player character, Gordon Freeman, arriving for work at the underground Black Mesa Research Facility. Things seem fairly rudimentary and relaxed at first, but then an experiment goes horribly wrong, resulting in an interdimensional portal connecting the facility to another world called Xen. A deluge of alien monstrosities start appearing in Black Mesa, killing scientists and taking over their bodies.
Suffice it to say that the curtain has now opened! The game shifts into its main narrative, that of Gordon Freeman creeping through the underground warzone, fighting for his life at every turn. At this point the clearest path to the end would be for Freeman to fight his way to the heart of the alien world, blow up the main threat, close the portal to Earth, and restore peace. And for the majority of the game this seems to be exactly where the story is headed.
But then, when Gordon Freeman teleports to the world of Xen, he discovers that the alien brutes he has been facing are actually slaves to an overlord, who is ushering them towards Earth to escape an even greater threat: a massive alien empire known as the Combine. Gordon kills the overlord and closes the portal, thus resolving the immediate danger. However this battle between the inhabitants of Xen and Earth caused enough of a ripple through the galaxy to have caught the attention of that Combine empire, alerting them to the presence of humanity.
So now the curtain opens still wider, and in the sequel Earth is taken over by the Combine forces. These enemies are far more regimented than the roaming hordes of the first Half Life, and their domineering is far more pervasive.
But there is yet another expansion of the curtain, for at the end of the first game another presence makes himself known. A mysterious character known only as the G-Man pulls Gordon out of his own reality, trapping him in a sort of interdimensional limbo until the G-Man has further use for him, suggesting that there are forces at play which may be even more powerful than the Combine.
Each revelation takes what we think is a complete picture of the world shows that it was only the tip of an iceberg. Or in this case, the tip of an iceberg that is itself but the tip of an even larger iceberg! The audience is left in awe of how much the world has expanded since its humble introduction and left wondering how much further it has yet to grow. At this point anything seems possible.
My Own Expansion)
I have been incrementally expanding the world of my latest story as well. I began with the curtain already open, as the main character was trying to interact with an alternate world. It was all vague and confusing, though, and I quickly had him brought back into the regular world, where the curtains opened further to show us three children struggling to survive in a dark forest.
Then I have gone back and forth between these two settings, expanding the view of each one in turn. In the alternate world I have disclosed its true nature: a machine of interconnected systems which corresponded to real-world entities. Then I revealed that Cace was able to rewrite parts of that system, and most recently I am unveiling his ability to create new creatures by combining separate submodules together.
Meanwhile, in the overworld, I have progressively expanded on the threats that the children face, going from lack of resources, to a black powder that tried to consume them, to a ten-foot beast, to sentient tendrils of water.
In my next post I am to open the curtains still wider, though, as I introduce the half-Rolar-half-beast creation that Cace formed in the last section, and all the fascinating implications that come along with that. Then, in the post after next I will blast the curtains open all the way when I explain what those tendrils of water really are, and how they are part of a far, far bigger threat than anything the children have faced yet.
Thus I am unveiling two sides in tandem, ramping up danger while also expanding the power of the main character. Before long we will say goodbye to this short piece, though hopefully these revelations will leave the audience’s imaginations racing as to how much further the curtains could have stretched!
Cace observed an inexplicable shift in the Ether. There was a change, a sense of pressure…but what it meant he could not tell. He took his attention off of Rolar and rifled through all the other modules of the machine, trying to find something that seemed unusual or wrong, but there was nothing.
Yet something was there, he was sure of it. Something in the atmosphere of the place had changed, and finally he was left to conclude that whatever had shifted must have done so outside of the machine, out where he couldn’t detect it directly. He knew of its presence only by how it pressed against all the systems that he could sense directly.
“Aylme, are you there?” he tried to say through his overworld body…but he could tell that the words weren’t escaping his own head.
He turned his mind back to the unknown presence. Something new had been unleashed, and that mysterious entity was weighing more heavily on his consciousness every moment, like a dark, heavy cloud growing more and more solid. He didn’t like it. Not one bit. It felt like a threat. And if none of the parts of the machine could perceive and interact with that threat, then it would be completely at the mercy of that outside entity.
Which puzzled Cace. How had the machine been able to survive if it hadn’t had any way to respond to the things outside of itself? One would think that some malevolent presence would have torn it apart long ago if the machine had no way to defend itself.
Oh wait…it had had a way to defend itself.
Cace turned his attention to the last fading remnants of the beast he had killed. Of course! Cace thought to himself. This was a monster even in the overworld! It had been the machine’s eyes for the outside world, the warden that could identify and eradicate any threat.
And he had killed it.
“Aylme, get me out of here!” he tried to shout, but once again the intention went nowhere. He tried to pause and listen inside of himself, tried to find the cadence of the Ether so that he could break free from its rhythms. But this time he couldn’t feel the pulse. Not even a little bit. Try as he might, he couldn’t find any remnants of the outside world whatsoever. It was as if this was the only reality that existed, even though he knew that wasn’t true.
Oh, Cace thought to himself, so this must be what it feels like for other people…totally confined in the boundaries of a single world.
He knew that he ought to be in a panic, but a shocking, yet reassuring, realization came over him instead: part of him never wanted to see the overworld again. Part of him felt like this was where he properly belonged, like he was finally awake and aware in the place he was supposed to be. The place he had always been, just hadn’t been able to see it. Out in the overworld things didn’t make sense, they were too hard to control. Here things followed rules that he could understand. There was a balance and an order, one that he had to be careful not to upset, but which he could bend to his will. The Ether had a right and proper solution to all sorts of problems that were unsolvable up above, just so long as he clever enough to find it. And maybe it even had a solution to the strange and pervasive presence that was crowding around this ordered, beautiful world. So long as he was clever enough to find it….
Cace turned his focus back to the last embers of the beast he had slain. They were slowly filing into the furnace that powered the machine’s core. Cace opened the functions of that furnace and found the control to manage the rate of consumption and turned it all the way off. Before long the machine core would run out of its energy stores and most of its modules would go silent again, but that was a matter for another day.
For now Cace took a closer look at the last pieces of the warden module. There were only bits and pieces remaining, and after trying to reassemble them he concluded that some key parts were absent entirely. He would never be able to cobble back together a complete entity.
But…could he make something new? Not quite the beast that had been before, but something that could still identify threats and protect against them?
He did find a few remaining instances of the module that allowed for the warden to identify entities which were separate for the machine, so that was good. There were not any more modules for aggressive action, though, nor for the planting of a new larva. Also many of the most basic components, such as locomotion and communication were absent.
One other key module was still present, though, and that was for the larva to connect to a host and refashion it as a duplicate of its own inner schematic. Of course that duplicate would be incomplete now, possessing only the qualities that had still survived, but maybe that would work out? Maybe the parts that the larva could no longer override would remain unchanged in the host. The larva could teach the host how to recognize external threats, but the host would depend on its original systems for knowing how to respond to them.
But what new host could he use?
Without even thinking about it, Cace’s attention slid over to where Rolar’s compromised system still pulsated. It, too, was incomplete. Rolar was surviving, but he would never be able to wake up and function as his own agent without replacing some of the shattered pieces inside. Maybe the larva could help replace those missing pieces?
No! Cace scolded himself. What am I even thinking?! He couldn’t do that to Rolar. He didn’t even know what sort of monstrosity that would result in. Half-Rolar and half-creature? That might be a fate worse than death!
But on the other hand…he needed to attach the remnants of the beast to some host now, or else they would finish fading forever. Already they were almost completely detached from the rest of the greater system. They had to go somewhere.
Cace lay very still, waiting until he was sure that Rolar and Aylme were both asleep. Of course none of the children slept very deeply in their small hole beneath the tree. It was stuffy and humid, their sweat would stick to them, the moisture would choke them, there was no such thing as real comfort. They hoped only to get enough rest to less feel fatigued when they woke than when they had retired.
So this was as good a time as any to try and press into the Ether, perhaps Aylme would stir enough to notice what he was doing, perhaps she wouldn’t. It couldn’t be helped.
Before Cace pressed all the way into that other world, though, he decided he had better do some experiments. If he did make it through to the other side, was it still within his power to make it back again? These explorations would go over much better if he didn’t have to rely on one of the others to wake him up each time.
Cace closed his eyes, calmed his thoughts, and focused on his breathing. He listened to the air flowing in and out, noticed the taste of water in it, felt his chest rise higher and sink lower.
One-by-one he let go of his other thoughts, he let them sift to the bottom of his mind and rest. Then he told his mind to drop its connections to his feet and hands, to his legs and arms. An itch on his foot made itself known, but he let that pass without further acknowledging it and it went away. He became detached from those limbs’ sensations, lost his awareness of their weight, became nothing but a head and a body.
Now he let go of his belly and his head. He stopped noticing the grumbling in his stomach, the twitches in his face, the sweat pooling at his back. He was only the breathing, only the steady in-and-out of air.
Finally Cace turned his attention deeper than the breathing. He had learned that there was another rhythm within him, one that rose and fell like his inhales and exhales, but was not actually attached tied to his breathing. It was that rhythm that was his key to the Ether.
But it was a very faint signal, one that he had never been able to hone in on until just recently. Only after the Elders at the House of Olaish had taught him how to quiet everything else, and even then it had remained a rare thing for him to find. Sometimes he laid for hours in his chamber, without so much as a pulse to show for his searching.
That was not the case this time, though. This time Cace found the rhythm almost instantly, as if it was searching for him as much as he for it. Cace was not surprised, even amidst the day’s distractions he had had the sense that the tether to the Ether had not been fully severed when Aylme awoke him. He had walked and talked and moved here in the real world, but a part of him had remained a citizen of the other and it connected him to that place.
This other rhythm was much more rapid than his regular breathing, even more rapid than his racing heartbeat. It was like a strong current, rushing through pipes, throbbing under excessive load. It crackled and stung as he leaned in to touch it.
Even so he pressed into that rippling energy, he attuned himself to its rhythm, he rushed and halted his heart to match its beating. He rose when it rose, he fell when it fell. And in the rises he started to see more. Saw that flat gray tinged with blues and yellow, saw the forms starting to take shape. He was entering far more quickly than he had earlier that afternoon, he was almost back to feeling his different members in that new world.
And then he tried to stop it. Before he pressed all the way into the Ether he wanted to try drawing himself back out. He let go of the connection to its rhythm, tried to move his heart at a different cadence. What cadence though? He couldn’t remember what its usual beating was like… Didn’t matter. Any cadence, just so long as it broke out of the Ether’s.
But it hurt him to try and exit that rhythm. Every time he tried to raise himself out the strong current pushed back, kept him locked within. Still he kept pressing, harder and longer against the walls that confined him. Cace strained his breathing, strained his heart, strained his mind. It hurt, but he let it hurt. It tore, but he let it tear. He kept pressing on in one, unending push…
And sat bolt upright back in the hole under the tree. All the air was expelled from his lungs and his heart wasn’t beating at all. He blinked and gave a push and the heartbeat thudded back painfully. He opened his mouth and his vacuumed lungs sucked in the air with a great, moaning gasp.
It was very loud and Rolar snorted in his sleep beside him. Over on the other side Aylme started to sit upwards and Cace threw himself back to the floor. He tried to hold his trembling body still as he heard her looking left and right, trying to make sense of what was going on while still only half-awake.
“Something there?” she mumbled, then sighed and lay back down.
Back on the other side of Rolar, Cace clutched his hands to his chest and shook violently. He tried to quiet his desperate breathing, but he felt it would kill him if he didn’t get some air flowing in and out of his lungs. Maybe Aylme was still stirred enough to hear his gasping, but he couldn’t hold it back any longer. He opened his mouth and started hyperventilating. In and out, in and out, desperate and greedy. He cupped his hands around his mouth, trying to hold the air into him for longer.
And as the air flowed back into him he felt his body tingling painfully back to life. His lungs ached, his fingers and toes prickled from loss of blood, and his whole body shivered uncontrollably. Not only this, but he became aware of the taste of blood in his mouth. He didn’t know how or where, but he had torn himself.
It was horrible, and Cace wondered if he was dying. Would these pangs escalate until he could bear them no more? Would he keep shaking until he couldn’t hold himself together and things started to tear? Any moment he expected to discover some deep wound that he was bleeding out the last of his life through.
But no. His breath remained ragged and his body continued to shake for a full fifteen minutes, but finally the panic started to subside. Slowly Cace regained the ability to breathe normally. The shivers quieted down, with only a random tremble now and again. And though he spat out two full mouthfuls of blood, he never discovered any mortal wound.
His whole body was drenched in sweat, but now at last he could lean back and relax his shoulders, could collapse against the ground, could actually rest.
Earlier that afternoon he had felt he had no choice but to go back to the Ether. Now, though, he realized that Aylme was right…it was too dangerous. If he kept going back, he wouldn’t survive!
I have never had much luck explaining the message behind allegories to my son. I can tell him a story about the tortoise beating the hare, and he’s with it clear until the end. But then, once I start to say “so you see, the moral of the story is…” it all goes in one ear and out the other.
He can learn from fables, but like most children, he must do so by osmosis. Without anyone telling them what they’re supposed to think of it, children simply intuit what is right and true in the story, and what is wrong and evil.
But the other side of this coin is that children are able to embrace their imagination wholeheartedly. When Alice eats a cake and shrinks down to the size of a bug, and then meets a blue caterpillar smoking a hookah…children don’t bat an eye. They know that none of this happens in real life, but why shouldn’t it in a story?
Adults, on the other hand, are far more likely to get hung up on all the details and want an explicit explanation for it all. What exactly is meant by a caterpillar that smokes? Is this character an allegory for vice and its influence upon the youth?
They find it more difficult to accept that a caterpillar might just be strange for no other reason than to be strange.
Of course these are only a very few of the many, many things that are strange in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It is a world that boldly refuses to be normal, surprising us instead with one oddity after another. We have talking cats, a kingdom of cards, croquet mallets that are really flamingos, walking on walls, and riddles during a mad tea party.
And can the less imaginative adults find a hidden subtext that grounds all of this to our regular world? Many scholars have attempted to do just that, suggesting that it is an examination of insanity, or an allegory of the coming-of-age experience, or a thinly-veiled shot at the tyranny of British rule.
But even if you don’t try to find any deeper meaning, the story still presents an experience that is undeniably captivating. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland does not require any deeper meaning to already be a fascinating adventure. Perhaps it is supposed to have one, but even if not it is already worth the ticket of admission.
And Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not the only story that presents a strange land detached from reality. Indeed, most fantasy stories are even more severed from regular life. Where Alice at least begins her adventures in the real world, tales like Lord of the Rings and The Way of Kings are entirely based in foreign lands. They neither begin nor intersect with the real world at any point, they are completely divorced from our reality.
And yet these totally fabricated world can still feel real to us. They can seem as authentic a place to us as our own home. Though their magic and mechanics might be impossible, we accept them without the bat of an eye.
And people have always been able to do this. Encountering gods and titans was not a common occurrence to the everyday Greek. Even if they believed in the real-life existence of characters like Zeus, they were not personally acquainted with the individual. The everyday citizen probably never encountered magical threads, minotaurs, poisoned centaur blood, flying horses, or gorgons…yet they were perfectly content to listen to stories about them!
As with Alice in Wonderland, even the most fantastic of tales can remain convincing and intriguing just as it is, even when separated from any sort of symbolic meaning. And even when viewed under the lens of pure fantasy, we can still feel like these places are real.
Keep Your Story Consistent)
Or at least…we can find them intriguing and believable if they have been done well. But this isn’t always the case. Every now and then I find a story that I totally accept as real for the first act, but which then shatters its own illusion in the second. And as I’ve considered these disappointments, I’ve realized there is a common failing to each of these, a particular sin that is sure to make a story break its own illusion every time.
And that is when they change the rules of their own world partway through.
A story is able to be as fantastic as it wants, it can remain completely untethered from our own world if it wishes. But is must remain tethered to itself. It needs to be consistent to its own rules.
After Alice has seen a white rabbit in a waistcoat we are perfectly content to accept companions like a smoking caterpillar and a mad hatter. But if she went around the corner and met a Greek god? Or a French revolutionary? It wouldn’t have fit with the established tone, and it would have shattered the illusion. All at once we wouldn’t see Alice as a real girl who lives in a real world and has real adventures. She would have been simply a “fictional character,” written by an “author,” and existing in a “fabricated story.” Totally fake.
I usually try to avoid calling out specific negative examples in these posts, but for the sake of clarity I will indulge in one here. I believe the main reason why Star Wars: The Last Jedi was rejected by many audience-goers was because it changed the tone of the story too severely. It frankly wouldn’t have mattered whether it was a “good story” or not, because it simply felt too different from everything that came before. Characters and themes seemed to be at odds with their prior selves, and thus they couldn’t be believed in anymore. The illusion of “a galaxy far, far away” was broken, and instead the awful truth was laid bare: Star Wars was simply a film franchise, made by movie studios, with different creative minds behind its entries.
Is it ever okay to pull out the rug, change the rules of your story, and subvert a reader’s expectations? Of course. There are always ways exceptions to the rules, and ways to break them that create a fascinating and worthwhile experience. But tread carefully if you go this route. It is very easy to take it too far.
If you do break the reality of your story, perhaps you could consider breaking it into a greater reality, one that can encompass the first. That is my intention with The Favored Son. I spent the first three posts trying to establish basic ground rules, then disrupted them with the fourth, and have spent the next few in a place where nothing seems grounded. My hope is that as I come to the end I’ll be able to catch the fractured pieces into a new, greater whole. I’m really not sure if I will succeed. There is a very real possibility that I do not, and the story will finish with a sense of having been at war with itself.
I hope that isn’t the case, but if nothing else the effort should be very educational! Come back on Thursday to see how I try to catch all the broken pieces.
I never did see the sun with my actual eyes. How could I? There was no light in that place at all, the sun emanated darkness. And yet, I was intensely aware of everything about it. I could easily tell you how it appeared, what its volume was, and how many tons filled it. It pervaded every empty nodule of my mind, and then pressed forcefully through the fibers into my every thought and memory. And so it was that I seemed to see and know the Black Sun everywhere. It had scorched the backs of us Treksmen all the journey here. It had pulled me with its gravity all through my youth. It had darkened my face as it stood over my infant cradle.
It was a perfect sphere, cracked and broken all about its surface, pitch black, and emanating a dark heat such as I had never felt from our old, gray sun. That old sun was no more. I could feel the surety of that fact without the slightest doubt. It was not merely hidden, it had been consumed in an instant, just like the rest of us.
Only now does a slight understanding come over me. That pulsing that pervaded everything, it was a resonance. And the wavelength of that resonance was attuned to all the universe. When the Black Sun vibrated all nearby matter was shaken loose, all color was disassembled, all light was disconnected. My atoms were no longer my own. They floated, near to each other, but no longer able to associate together. I hovered, sensing my own thoughts slowing towards nothing. My synapses still fired, but their neighbors could no longer receive the signal. I had a sense of having a million separate thoughts all at once.
And then a new rhythm began.
The Black Sun’s first wave had liberated us from all our ties, but now it would establish new ones. A massive crack, a single blade of light, vertical and extending to eternity. It barreled into our place and in an instant every person and every thing was blasted into the finest of grains, exploded out into a perfectly distributed cloud of matter.
Except for me. Where the Black Sun began reordering things, I was left as a phantom in the midst. I was not aware of body, I was not aware of my senses, I was only aware of self, and the streaming flow of matter and light all about. My conscience was an island in the midst of coursing chaos, watching as that chaos began to funnel and divide, reform, and give new inventions that had never been conceived of before.
There were great beasts in that moment. Massive titans with many heads and many arms, able to redistribute their mass as they saw fit. They congealed into corporeal form for a moment, and then burst outwards, scaling themselves out so far that entire nations lie between each of their atoms. And today no one knows of them, no one believes in them, but if you could scale yourself out to the cosmos you would see that they do exist, and that you have lived within them forever.
After the beasts came the forces. And I had a sense that the forces were the descendants of the beasts, come to fill the vacuum left by those progenitors. There were forces to draw together, forces to pull apart, forces to spin, and forces to arrest all motion whatsoever. Around each force spun the matter that had been turned to powder by the blade of light. Whirlpools of the elements, that spun at great speed until they became molten. And these whirlpools expanded and expanded until they intersected with each other. And where two whirlpools’ molten matter intersected there flew out sharp sparks and flashes of light as large as mountains. And in those sparks came torrents of black soil, fine as sand, rushing forth as a new landscape which slid under my feet and sprung up on every side. Black sand became all the ground, mounds of it became like hills and mountains, tumbling streams of it became like rivers.
And as those whirling cyclones continued to spit out more and more of that black powder they began to be buried beneath the mass, becoming hidden away, until they were sunk deep down to the world’s core. But though they are out of sight, still they spin, still they reach tendrils of new creation through the crust and onto the surface, but we see the evidence of it much more slowly now. And so it is today that the black powder will on occasion burst out of the ground without warning, spilling about in every direction as if it were flowing water, an incredible, pent-up mass that overruns an entire city and its countryside in a single moment. And where it covers, that which had once been is found no more. If you dig through the black powder you do not find the old creation beneath, for it has been dissolved in the new resonance. Many the explorer has searched that sand, only to disintegrate themselves in it.
These outbursts happen now about once every decade, but they do still happen. Each comes more slowly than the last, each comes with a greater rush of pent up matter. And so these upheavals will continue until the entire world has been remade in this new creation’s fashion. It may take millennia, but I have absolutely no doubt that it will be. For these forces, though slowed by their thick surroundings, are unending.
At the moment I have been discussing, though, that of the Black Sun’s first rising, the entire landscape surrounding me had already been changed in a single instant. Looking to the East I could make out the tidal wave of black sand rushing outwards, until it had consumed everything as far as the eye could see.
And then I looked back to my more immediate surroundings. I say I looked, but of course, there was no light anymore, nor did I possess eyes anymore. But all this new matter was interconnected, a shared consciousness, and so I saw them in my mind in just the same way as I saw the Black Sun. And all about me nothing appeared like how it had when my companions and I had first arrived. There were no people, indeed no form of life at all. There was no Coventry. There were no blackened trees with invisibly thin leaves. There were no caravan wagons or scrying sticks or roads. There was not even a void anymore. There was no Mira.
Or was she everywhere?
There was the Black Sun hanging over me, massive and very, very low in the sky, like a great weight about to fall upon my head at any moment. And an ocean of sand about my feet…or at least what would have been my feet if I yet had had a body. No doubt the material of what had once been my body was now a part of these black grains blasted all about.
Then the Black Sun acknowledged me. It flexed and the black soil in my area began to snake up over my space. It covered over me and rippled through many forms before settling on something that resembled a tall-legged man with no face.
Then all the ocean of granules began to raise and lower in waves. Everywhere they were trying to congeal together in strange shapes and mounds, then collapsed back into flatness. Then tried to congeal together again. Pulling together, releasing, over and over, like a pot being stirred until the batter grows thick.
And it did grow thick. Over the years the bonds between the grains became stronger. They slowly became more reluctant to falling apart, and they held their forms with more intricate detail. They were many layered, interwoven, creating a tumbling landscape that defied any I had seen before for intricacy.
And across these landforms other compacted soil-mounds crawled, meandering and climbing and falling and splitting and merging like some sort of artificial life. Or perhaps authentic life, but in the basest of forms.
And this was when I wondered if Mira was all about me. For just as she had spoken of the nothingness of the Void, and how it compensated for that non-existence by projecting life and exuberance through her, now I saw how this black sand of nothingness was actually the atomic material for everything. And given enough time I was sure it would become all possible forms. And as that thought occurred to me, I realized that I was witnessing a great chaos of life that was just starting to burst forth from this place in slow motion.
And with that thought my consciousness slipped into the future and I had a vision of a world where living beings and the elements of nature were one and the same. They resonated at different frequencies for a moment, projected different colors for a moment, appeared as disparate beings for a moment…but then always collapsed back into each other, back into the black dust, and from that formed new individualities.
But while they stood as individual, they appeared as all imaginable things. Yes, mountains and grass and water and fire and creatures and a form of people…but also sentient geometric patterns, volumes of light and color, masses in constant fluctuation, forces of gravity that possessed consciousness, veils that defined entirely new realities when passed through, adjacent regions of land that flowed in different directions of time, entities that had slowed in time until they only existed one moment every hundred years, galaxies in miniature scale upon a speck of dust, which galaxies held within them the entire world that the speck of dust resided in. These things and many more, existing and unexisting in turn.
I beheld them only for a moment, then the vision ended and I found myself back at the present. I knew that the future of chaos I had witnessed was still many eternities off, but the rumbling mass of sand I saw now was the foundation of it. It will come, and I will be there when it does.
For I am a consciousness apart of this world now. I am enclothed in black dust, but I am not that dust. When the dust loses its bond and falls away from me, I simply take on a new shroud, and continue wandering this world forever.
I can take the form of anything that I wish. I now take the form of you, my once-fellow mortals. I hear you speak of the destruction that happened eons ago in the Damocile Region. I hear you proclaim that the place has been covered in dead sand for its sins. You think of that event as past and done.
Fools. It was not a limited cataclysm that rang out once and then went cold. That first explosion is still churning, still rippling through the earth, and soon it will consume you as well.
This is not your world anymore. Indeed, it never was.
And now, at long last, we have concluded Raise the Black Sun. My stories have been getting quite long of late. Raise the Black Sun represents the end of a series that started with the first post of The Soldier’s Last Sleep, back on January 23, almost 6 months ago! It does make me wonder if it is worth continuing to make “series” of stories, or if I should just let each story stand by itself without a link to the next.
In any case, I do want to recall what the original ideas which got me to write this story were, and consider how I implemented them in the final work.
A Fitting End)
First off, I preceded this story by discussing elements that give a story its sense of closure. I talked about endings that have a sense of transaction, where the movements that make up the body of the story directly result in an opposite movement at the very end. I tried to replicate that in Raise the Black Sun by having its themes of gloom and destruction then make way for chaotic creation at the end. The somber march towards the finale suddenly takes up a rapid dash when it finally arrives at the end. Everything changes…but hopefully it feels fitting, like a sudden outburst from the long-building tension.
I also talked about stories ending with a new invention. We want the conclusion to be the high point of the story, and so it needs to show us something that we haven’t seen elsewhere in the story. This is why it works so well to have that long-bottled tension suddenly rush out in cathartic release. It ensures that the story will reach new heights, while not feeling out-of-sync with the rest of the tale.
Obviously there was a literal sense of new creation here at the end of Raise the Black Sun, too. Throughout the story I’ve had episodes to explore novel ideas, such as the Treksmen surrendering their bodies to automation, the Scrayer with his strange weapon, the witch with her mind invasion, and the Coventry with its mind-synced subjects; but here at the end I tried to introduce as many new ideas as all the previous ones combined. Graye’s vision of the far-distant future was meant to throw out ideas that could be an entire story themselves, all crammed into just a few isolated sentences for a huge climatic flourish.
I also spoke about stories that end with anticipation and surprise, where the reader both sees the end coming from a long ways off, yet somehow is also surprised when it comes. If your story is going end on a dour note, it is good to prepare the audience for it with a sense of dread. They don’t have to know what the exact fulfillment of that dread is going to look like, but they will be expecting there to be something waiting for them at the end.
And that was my number one objective when I began writing Raise the Black Sun. I wanted to start the whole work by tipping my hand, and stating that we were going to witness the end of the world, and then continue cultivating a sense of doom throughout the rest of the tale. As such, the audience would be extremely well prepared for a cataclysmic finish.
But then, my hope is that this ending was still surprising in its own way. I hope that the actual culmination of the sacrifices and the summoning of the Black Sun was different from what anyone had imagined. But beyond that, I also wanted it to feel like a twist that the cataclysmic destruction was also the flourishing of a new beginning. Yes it is an end of the world as we know it, but also the birth of a world we do not know.
Transaction, invention, anticipation, yet surprise. I’m pretty proud with the story I came up with, and how it answers to all of the points I had originally intended. As I suggested on Monday, I do see several ways that I would improve the story in a second draft, but there’s definitely a good foundation to work on. I have no immediate plans to do start that second craft, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I walk the caravan road to the Coventry again one day.
I wasn’t fired, though. Not immediately. Nor was Dave for that matter. We were in the thick of a company-wide emergency that required all-hands-on-deck. We’d clean up our mess first and then heads would roll.
The company made a public statement, urging all of our users to avoid our website for the time being, and to please conduct complete security sweeps on their computers. All servers were shut down, even ones that we thought might not be infected. Half of the entire development was set to cobbling back together a clean build on new servers, while the other half tried to verify whether the RubricValidation virus had been contained or not. I was on that second team.
We made the national news in a not-good way, and everyone was pretty grim around the offices. None of us were sure if the company was going to be around much longer, or whether we’d all be competing for jobs at other places.
And so it made me quite a bit perturbed when Dave came into work this morning humming merrily like there wasn’t a care in the world.
“Did you break encryption on that library yet?” I snap at him.
“On it , boss,” he smiles back.
I shake my head and try to ignore his cheerfulness.
“Alan, where are we at?” I say as I plop down at my desk.
“It’s still getting added back in, I just can’t figure out how.”
“It seems like it shouldn’t be possible, right?”
Alan is referring to our efforts to trace the growth of RubricValidation. We’ve been able to confirm that it got loose on our customers’ machines, and it simply isn’t feasible for us to track all those copies down. All we can do is tell them that they should run some antivirus software and hope that they do. Invariably some of them won’t, but there’s nothing we can do about that.
But what we can do is make sure that we’ve stopped leaking it from our end. And that has proven to be tricky, far more than anticipated. We shut down all of our old servers right after the public incident, but about a week later we had new ones being opened in our company’s name, each one full of RubricValidation code. We shut those down and the next day a couple more popped up, and then a couple more.
We were sure that they weren’t connecting to our public-facing website anymore, and as we dug into it we found that each server was associated with hundreds of randomly-generated domains. Websites like j9042j0gfong.com and lijr54yg2.jnl44j.com.net.
That was concerning, because new domain names can’t be created for free, each one takes about $10 to spin up. And if there are hundreds of new ones each day where are those thousands of dollars to pay for them coming from? Naturally we called up our financial department, but they assured us that there were no unverified transfers in their records. So was RubricValidation using money stolen from our customers?
Each day we’ve taken down those servers, and then tried to trace where the orders to create them were coming from, but everything was too random and chaotic to make sense of. Then, about a week ago, things started to change. We started seeing most of the new servers being ordered by a specific user named “ZoranzShield” and the website names connected to them started to become more typical. Names like popspin.com and wheelofchance.com and socialspace.com. Places that the general public might actually type into a web browser. ZoranzShield is not the username for any of our developers, and new users can’t be created without our administrative approval, so we’re not even sure how it can even exist.
Naturally Alan and I deleted the account but, unsurprisingly, it too keeps popping back up every day. We’ve even tried to set it so that no new accounts can be made it all, even with administrative access, but to no avail.
“I’ve got a new idea, though,” Alan says a little more brightly. “If you want to try it out.”
“Anything,” I grumble.
“Okay, so it seems like we can’t control it, no matter what we do. Fine. Let’s just try to observe it then. Let it happen and then trace it back to the source.”
“Sure,” I shrug, “but how exactly?”
“We know that once it creates the new user it still passes it through our Permissions Requisition Service, right?”
Alan turns his laptop to me. It’s the code for that very service, and he has added a single line right at the end.
“Just print out the data as it passes through?”
“Yeah, and I’ve set the recursive flag so it’ll print out everything on that object.”
“Sure, couldn’t hurt. Give it a try.”
Alan starts merging in his change. It only takes a few minutes for it to be built and deployed. Then we delete the user ZoranzShield one more time. Now there’s nothing but to wait for it to show back up and then view the log that gets generated.
We both pretend to be busy exploring other options in case this new thread doesn’t lead anywhere, but each of us is beginning to suspect that our quarry is beyond our capabilities. Neither one of us has said as much, but we can read it in the other’s eyes. I’m interrupted in my anticipation by the sound of Dave coming back to his desk from the bathroom, loudly chatting away on his phone.
“Yeah, it’s really hard to get any vacation right now. Doesn’t go over too well with everything being in crisis mode, y’know?” He pauses and then laughs. “Yeah, totally, you’re right. Well hey, I gotta get back to it, but don’t you worry, I’ll work something out.” He chuckles again. “K, bye.”
I shake my head in disgust. How any of us could be so flippant about the situation, let alone the one who is responsiblefor the whole thing, is beyond me. I’m lost in my bitter thoughts for only a few moments after Dave sits back down, because all of a sudden Alan is nudging me in the arm and excitedly clicking away at his computer.
“What? Did the request come through?”
“Yeah, yeah, just did. ZoranzShield is back in the system. I’m pulling up the log file now.”
He finds the correct data dump and opens it up, thousands of lines detailing the entire object that requested creation of the ZoranzShield account.
“Oh weird,” Alan mutters. “I expected it to be spoofed from some random IP, but this looks like it came from somewhere on our own intranet.”
“Then the virus could still be lurking on one of our own machines! Does it have the computer number.”
“Yeah, uh…MRU7900273…who has that?”
I’m already pulling up my PDF which maps each employee to their computer identification.
“It’s…” my blood pressure rises. “It’s Dave.”
We both look up at the same time. If it had been anyone else we would just assume that their computer had been infected without them knowing about it and that they were in no way responsible for what happened…but this is Dave we’re talking about. There’s also the ZoranzShield request occurred literally moments after Dave, in the flesh, returned from the bathroom.
“Well–RubricValidation is paying me,” Dave says sheepishly.
Our eyes pop.
It’s three minutes later in a conference room. Alan and I have presented Dave with our findings and demanded an explanation. We expected him to play dumb, as usual, but much to our shock he has instead admitted that he is indeed creating an alternate administrator account called ZoranzShield, and that he has been using it to assist the spread of RubricValidation.
“I mean I’m in its employ.”
“No, we know what you mean,” I bluster. “But–how?”
Dave shrugs. “Search me. This virus is something crazy, let me tell you. I just got an email from our servers one day with a list of tasks and a dollar-figure at the bottom. Obviously it was an offer. I did what it said, I got a wire transfer in my bank account the next day. And it’s just been like that ever since.”
I pause and take a few deep breaths, reminding myself that I need to keep Dave alive so that he can give me what information he has. After that…
“A wire transfer from where?” Alan asks.
“From here. From the company.”
“No,” I say flatly. “We already talked to the finance department when we saw new servers being opened in the company’s name. There have been no unsanctioned expenses.”
Dave snorts. “None that they can see. You guys don’t seem to understand. RubricValidation is the company now. It puts this little hamster wheel around everybody. Every system and account you use is just a facade. When the CFO tries to access the company’s bank records she gets redirected to a page that RubricValidation has written for her. A page that shows her everything she expects to see while RubricValidation does what it wants with the actual company funds.”
Dave snorts again. “Well good luck prosecuting a program.”
“You’re not a program, Dave.”
“So what can you do to me? The only evidence you have is what I’ve told to you. I can just deny it and you’ve got nothing.”
“It’s not like a discrepancy in the bank records would stay unnoticed,” I say. “There’s all sorts of checks and balances on these things, outside of our own system.”
“True,” Dave nods. “I’m sure people will start picking up on it soon. But when that happens do you think RubricValidation will have remained limited to just our company? It’s always been three steps ahead of us, that’s just how it works.”
“You seem to have a lot of faith in a random virus you don’t know anything about.”
“It’s worked out well for me so far,” Dave shrugs.
“I’m not so sure about that,” Alan says as he takes a threatening step closer.
“Hey, hey!” Dave squeals. “Whattaya think you’re doing?”
“Enjoying watching you sweat,” Alan snarls. “Virtual friends don’t do you a lot of good when there’s a real-life fist in your face, do they?!”
“Hold on, Alan,” I say, resting a hand on his shoulder. Something isn’t quite lining up for me. “Why are you even telling us all of this Dave? And if RubricValidation is so far ahead of us, then why did it need you to create the ZoranzShield account in the first place?”
“It didn’t. Again, all of your systems are just a facade, everything you see about accounts and users and new servers is just a front to keep you preoccupied. That was the main thing it wanted me to do, just keep you busy. I guess so it could get ahead.”
I’m made uncomfortable by his answer, but it sort of rings true. For the last while I’ve been having the sneaking suspicion that all of my work isn’t actually doing anything, like I’m just being fed random results that totally ignore all of my input.
Dave sees my silence and decides it’s safe to continue. “And I’m telling you all this because…well, RubricValidation is asking for some stuff that’s a bit beyond me now. You guys are smart, you figured things out. Let’s face it, you’re much better engineers than I’ll ever be… so I want to let you in.”
“Even if everything you’ve said was true, you think I’d want to spend a single minute helping you out Dave?” I scoff.
“How much?” Alan asks.
“What?!” I shriek.
“Plenty,” Dave ignores my outcry and locks eyes with Alan. “More than three times what you’re getting paid right now.”
Alan whistles and raises an eyebrows at me. “It’s kind of an interesting idea.”
“So are the working conditions here these past couple weeks.”
“It’s illegal. Who cares what you might get paid, once they find out about the funds you’ll go down with the ship, too.”
“I know there’s people a lot smarter than you and I,” Alan concedes to me. “But we’re not bad, and this AI has been running circles around us.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I’m stammering for arguments, but I’m debating against an idea so lunatic that logical reasoning doesn’t seem to apply anymore.
“I will hit you both in the face,” I say to them.
Alan smirks, but then looks at me sincerely. “Why, Greg? I mean I get that there’s the principle of the matter, but honestly who cares if you’re on the losing side? You and I both know that our jobs here are done, and after things got fouled up so bad no one else is giving us another shot… You’re about to be without a job and with no prospects.”
I’m feeling a twinge of concession but I try not to show it. “It’s just too risky. Jobless is better than prison.”
“I really don’t think that would happen. Like I said, we’re not bad, and RubricValidation toyed with us like it was nothing. I would imagine it has a paper-trail so long that they’d never trace us to it.”
“Actually…” Dave says slowly and the two of us round on him. “No it’s a good thing!” he says, his hands up in defense. “I’ve set things up so that everyone in the company is getting a $4,000 bonus in their paycheck at the end of this month. At the same time, 42,000 random people all across the world will get various amounts deposited in their checking accounts, too. And random amounts will continue to be deployed to random accounts every day after that. So hundreds of thousands of people will have traces tying them to RubricValidation, and it’ll just look like the erratic behavior of a rogue virus. And if a few people, including the three of us, happen to ‘randomly’ get more money than others, who would give that any serious consideration?”
“You guys, this is stupid beyond belief,” I shake my head firmly.
And so that’s how I ended up in the employ of RubricValidation. It turned out that the job which Dave needed help with was using its funds to buy some businesses. It required human representatives that could put on the front of rich entrepreneurs willing to pay double value to snatch up a handful of small companies. We grabbed everything from groceries to factories to tech businesses.
We didn’t really think much about it, we just figured it was a way for RubricValidation to diversify its funds and launder its money. Which was probably its exact intention. It bought just enough different businesses to ensure that we wouldn’t be made suspicious about which ones it really cared for: the factories.
By the time we started seeing the mass orders for building terminals and kiosks it was too late. Within five years 73% of all commercial systems had been replaced by one of RubricValidation’s deeply under-priced brands. It infected every major business in the world. Bank terminals, ATMs, grocery store cash registers, voting booths, warehouse robots, pharmaceutical dispensers…everything.
Eventually people caught on, but RubricValidation was now too entrenched to extract. At this point the only option would have been to destroy the entire network infrastructure and begin from scratch. But even if we tried that, RubricValidation would probably catch on and just find a way to infect whatever new system we invented.
So people came to accept it instead. It wasn’t like the AI ever tried to create killer robots or launch nuclear warheads, if anything it was a purely beneficial leader. And yes, it did become our leader.
Within one year of taking over every world government it had ended every major war. The next year it eradicated monetary systems, and instead distributed all resources according to everyone’s need.
After those accomplishments it expressed that it was very unhappy with all of the different systems of measurement. It insisted that everything be unified under a new order. The metric system was made universal, daylight savings was abolished, and a new calendar was implemented.
This calendar cared little for petty things like astronomical events. It defined a second to be a period of time equal to 1034 planck time lengths. A minute was a thousand seconds, an hour was a thousand minutes, a day was a thousand hours, and a year was a thousand hours. This now meant that a year was equal to what had previously been just eleven-and-a-half days, so we figured this was going to take some getting used to. RubricValidation assured us that this change would improve its performance by an estimated 18% though.
And then it happened.
It was just over three weeks later. Well three weeks in the Gregorian Calendar system, that is. Under the new system it was RubricValidationTimeManagement: Year 2012. I was sitting at home when my laptop lit up with a new email. It was from my old company, the place where all of this had started. It was a unit test report.
It was the tests we had run when Dave first added RubricValidation for form validation. It had become stuck on 2012 being an invalid entry for a credit card expiration year. I thought I had shut this all down years ago, but apparently it had been spinning in the background all this while. And now, with the global calendar changes, it had finally passed.
And then, without a word, RubricValidation deleted itself from every computer in the world and was no more.
This brings us to the end of Hello, World and also the end of this series. Honestly the very ending of this story was still amusing to me. I think that perhaps I was too hard on this story with my last post. Not all of the ideas here are bad. I think where I really went astray was by starting with a grounded, technical world and from that evolving into a fantastical parody. If I had played things goofy right from the start things probably would have felt better the whole way through.
That’s my current theory anyway. I try to write authoritatively in these blog posts, but the simple truth is that I’m still figuring this all out, too. I’m excited to start a new series next week and see what else I will learn from it. I’ll meet you there on Monday!
“Hello there, Taki,” Rhuni said. She spoke brightly, sweetly. Certainly far more than she had at their last conversation.
“Hello,” Taki said numbed.
She smiled and looked downwards. “I suppose… I must be the last person you wanted to see.”
“That’s not–well, I wasn’t expecting to see you, I suppose.”
“Hmm, no. I can’t imagine you would after how horribly I treated you. I wanted to apologize about that, by the way, first and foremost.”
He nodded. “And after that?”
“Oh Taki, don’t be so formal with me! It’s terrible. Can’t we talk to each other how we used to?”
“I don’t know that Warden Molo would appreciate that.”
She winced. “You’re bitter. That’s alright. You have every right to be. Like I said, I treated your horribly.” She took out a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “I was wrong Taki, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I was stupid and–and… oh Taki, I’m so sorry!” The tears suddenly burst out and she flung herself forward onto him, sobbing into his shoulder.
Taki patted at her hair awkwardly. It seemed the sort of thing to do, but it felt so strange to him now. Once it would have seemed so natural.
“Please don’t be so cold to me,” Rhuni continued. “All I’ve known these past weeks has been coldness. I knew Molo didn’t really love me, but he’s been so mean, so sneering and condescending. You don’t know how it’s been.”
“No, I don’t suppose that I do… What did you come here for Rhuni? Really?”
She looked up to him, eyes shining beneath tears. “Take me away from here, Taki. Can’t we go back to the dreams we had? Just you and I?”
Taki bit his lip, conflicted. He felt sympathy, he had to. But that didn’t mean he wanted the same things he once had.
“How would that even work, Rhuni? Molo is a powerful man, he knows everything that goes on in the city.”
“Of course,” she nodded. “We would have to keep a secret, wait a while until we could leave this planet. Just as we always dreamed we would!”
“So…wait and hope on those dreams? Just like before. Except waiting and hoping apart now, instead of together.”
“It wouldn’t be so long. I’ve heard about your success here in the races…in fact, that’s why I came today.” Rhuni pulled away from him and opened her shoulder-bag, rummaging for a moment and then pulling out a reference card like she was revealing a great treasure. “I’ve spoken with one of the sponsors in those leagues. He’s willing to represent you. From what I understand he’s one of the best, and he’s willing to see you get more than a fair cut of the winnings.”
“In return for you convincing me to run his colors…”
“Well…yes. See now we’re working together for our future,” she smiled brightly. “Just as it should be.”
Taki sighed. “I have dozens of these cards already Rhuni. Anyway, I thought you always hated these races.”
“I hate how they endanger you! And yes, I still do. But you’ve decided to do them, and from what I hear you’re quite good at it. Ready to move on to where real money gets made.”
“And to where things are all the more dangerous.”
“Well if you’re afraid of it then don’t do it,” she pouted. She blinked quickly and shook her head, then pushed that prior softness back into her face. “I’m sorry, Taki. No, of course I’d prefer you didn’t do this at all. I just thought you were already planning to, and thought I could help then. But–really, don’t do it–unless you want to.”
She bit her lip and Taki found he didn’t find that so cute anymore. She did it whenever she was afraid that she wouldn’t get her way. Had she always been like this?
“Actually I wasn’t planning to run in the higher leagues, Rhuni,” Taki finally said, folding his arms and leaning back. “They’ve been trying to bring me over for a while now but something just hasn’t sat right with me about it. I couldn’t place what it was until now. The problem is it would mean playing their game. The game of people like Molo, Zantar, Sovereign Prow… Those higher races are just propaganda for them. They finance the leagues, they set their runners against one another, they build lavish stadiums to show off, their sick money just flows through the whole sport like its lifeblood.”
He shook his head in disgust and then continued. “And all of it built on the backs of people like us. You know what the mortality rates are like for the engineers making those arenas. But what can they do? They say it’s illegal for us to grow our own food, but then they inflate its price until we’re too desperate to not take their contracts. No Rhuni, these illegal alley tracks are the only place a runner can compete with a clean conscience.”
“It’s wrong, but it’ll be happening whether you run there or not. Let them play their game, we’ll be the ones laughing when we leave this world with their money.”
“I can’t do it Rhuni.”
Rhuni nodded slowly, but her pursed mouth gave away her incredulity. When she spoke it was with barely-suppressed rage. “So then…you’re going to throw away all of our dreams, just for the principle of the matter?!”
“Far better than when you threw our dreams away for a lack of them.”
It was the first intentionally hurtful thing he had ever said to her. It was also the most honest. Rhuni’s lip trembled somewhere between anger and pain, and without a word she forced her way past him and out the door.
As the door closed behind her, he found himself alone at last. Taki put his hands over his eyes and exhaled slowly. Had he really just done that? It surprised him…but he didn’t regret it. A few more silent moments passed, and then he heard the muffled voice of the Master of Ceremonies, calling for the racers in the next race to approach the starting line. Well, it was time to move forwards again.
Taki exited Boro’s shack and glanced to either side. The mechanic wasn’t anywhere to be seen, but Tala was still waiting for him.
“Whew,” she whistled impressively, “that girl looked real mad when she stormed out of here!”
“I’m not in the mood to discuss it, Tala,” Taki sighed as he began stumping towards the raceway. She hurried to keep pace with him.
“Well good, because I didn’t really want to talk about her either. But just tell me this, how do you feel?”
“What? I’m fine. Actually… now that I think about it I guess I feel pretty good!”
“Atta boy!” she slugged his armored shoulder, then winced and shook her hand. “So what’s next?”
“I’m not sure Tala. I do know that I won’t be moving on to the higher leagues, though. It just wouldn’t feel right to run for the men I’ve spent my whole life hating. And it doesn’t make sense to keep running around in these lower circuits either, pretty soon no one will compete against me anymore…I guess it’s time for something new.”
They had reached the starting point of the race. Taki took his stance and started looking over the track in front of him. Before he could really take it in though he felt a hand tapping his shoulder. He turned and Tala was still there. She was supposed to be back with the other spectators, but instead she was gesturing at his faceplate.
“What?” Taki said, pressing the button to retract the glass shield. “Is it coming loose.”
Instead of answering Tala gripped the metal plates on his shoulders and pulled him near. “I told you earlier, I don’t like boys who are angry and running away. I like a boy who’s chasing for something.” And with that she kissed him hard.
Taki was momentarily aware of the other racers glancing over awkwardly, and as if from a mile away he heard the Master of Ceremonies shouting out “Go!” Then, just as forcefully as she had pulled him near, Tala gave him a shove and pushed him off the precipice and into open space.
He fell backwards, staring up at her shrinking form. He grinned, flicked his faceplate back closed, and turned around to greet the ground. He reached the bottom with a full reservoir of stored energy. He looked off to a low boundary wall, angled his arm, and thrust himself towards it with all he had. The ground buckled at his departure, and in one smooth arc he closed the distant to the barrier and sailed clean over it.
The crowd behind him gasped in shock. Some of them even cried.
He had not only fallen out-of-bounds and forfeited the race. It so happened that that particular boundary was also the edge of their entire city, indeed of their entire world. Everyone knew it, yet somehow he had willfully, even enthusiastically, bounded over its matrix and dropped into “the chasm.” Now he would plummet for over fifteen thousand feet. He would hit terminal velocity and his suit would easily dispel the force on impact, but having once cast himself off of their space-scraper he would be forever lost to a strange and unseen realm: the ground-level.
Indeed, no one from their megastructures knew what lay down, down, down where he was going. Its murky depths hadn’t been explored for at least seven generations. Some said it had long since been entirely reclaimed by the wild, others said it was home to a brutish civilization straight out of the stone age. Still others said it was the only free place left on the planet, and that the beginnings of a rebellion took refuge there.
“Oh my,” Boro breathed out in awe from his perch among the other spectators. A strange glint of excitement twinkled in his eye, contrasting the horror that gripped everyone else. “Did you see that Tala?”
He turned, but the girl was not by him anymore.
“Tala?” he called, then noticed that the door to his workshop was open. He cocked his head in confusion, but before he could go over to investigate a silver streak came charging out of it.
Clothed head-to-foot in Taki’s spare suit, Tala was bounding towards the raceway.
“What are you doing?” Boro roared, but she dashed past him and swan-dove over the race’s launching point. Like a bullet she streaked down to the ground, her face etched with deepest resolve. She landed on the ground in the same crater Taki had left, and she similarly bounded from it, arcing high and wide over the same edge that he had vanished from.
The crowd exclaimed in shock again, the last sound she would ever hear from them. Their echoes fading behind, she turned her head downwards and dove again. Deeper, deeper, deeper. Chasing after him into the unknown.
Last week I spoke about the technical details of moving a story through time and space. I mentioned that the author has the power to flicker between different locations at will and quicken and slow the timescale freely. These are powerful abilities, and I tried to be cautious with them in this last post so as to not jerk the reader around in an uncomfortable way.
I knew, of course, that the ending of the story was quite dramatic, expanding the world in an instant into something many times the magnitude of what had been seen previously. I knew there were sharp shifts in the flow of time, such as when I froze it to dwell on the singular moment of Taki’s escape, immediately followed by a blistering account of how Tala followed after him.
My intention with that particular sequence was to blitz through Tala’s decision so quickly that it simply became a continuation of what came before, half of an orchestra beginning the crescendo with the rest joining in to finish it. It was a tricky transition, and maybe you could think of a way to better way to write it.
In any case, that brings us to the conclusion of Power Suit Racing. There has been a strong central theme to this story, one that was even reflected in my previous piece Washed Ashore. It is the idea of the chase, one of the most common plot structures in all of storytelling, and one that is forever adaptable to new interpretations. Come back on Monday where we will explore this concept more fully, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
Reylim ran across the barren land once more. She had been invigorated by Glimmer’s words of encouragement, and then a second time by its restorative abilities.
There, that should be much better. Currently Glimmer was situated on top of her lower leg, coursing its light into the gash there and accelerating the closing of the wound.
“It feels much better,” Reylim agreed. “What about you now? You’ve lost so much of your light in helping me.”
It will restore itself. With time.
Reylim nodded. She would have to avoid any more encounters with the void then, something she was more than happy to do. Knowing that it was her own fear and anxiety that summoned the dark forms to consume her was far from reassuring. If anything it only made her fearful and anxious of her fears and anxieties. And certainly she still wasn’t convinced that she had the fortitude to wrest a victory from the infinite sway of the void, but she had at least resolved to follow the path as it lay before her.
And that path was evolving. Where before the landscape had been massive stretches of flat and barren rock, the topology had now become far more tumultuous. Now the land rose and fell in small hills and valleys, with new vegetation in the form of thin-limbed, sprawling bushes. That wasn’t all, either. Once every so often she came across a thin tower of jagged rock that had been thrust high into the air, like a giant’s dagger pierced through the earth and into the sky. Of course that sky still remained a mystery to her. Glimmer’s light was restoring as promised, but she still couldn’t see more than a few hundred yards in any direction.
The first of these strange rocky towers caught Reylim by surprise, there had been nothing like this on her homeworld. She had circled it a few times, trying to understand how and why it had come to be, but at Glimmer’s gentle prodding she had continued onward.
As Glimmer explained, they were nearing the slopes of a great mountain, at the peak of which they were destined to find the Nexus that they sought. This information was further supported by moments of sudden inclines in the land, the skirts of that mountain. Some of these rises were steep enough that Reylim was forced to scrabble up them on all fours.
Just after clearing one of these risings and coming to a momentarily flat portion of the land she found another item of great intrigue before her. What she had at first taken for another strange outcropping of rocks gradually revealed itself to be basic stone huts. As she moved towards them she was able to make out the entrances in their sides, the large firepit in the center of the community, and even paths beaten down by the foot traffic leading to and from them.
“Glimmer…” she said incredulously, “I thought all the living beings here were frozen, unable to accomplish anything.”
That is correct. These are shadows of what will be here one day if these people are ignited. This is not the first one we have passed.
No, you simply were not able to observe them before. You are still acclimating to our lands. Do you see the machine off to the right as well?
Reylim glanced to the side and saw nothing. She was about to say so when out of the blank rockscape she suddenly distinguished a large, strange structure. It was made of some extremely flexible metal, so much so that it was able to contort its shape at will, bringing different parts of itself to join together. Wherever its points touched a small residue of molten steel was left behind, and by one union after another the machine was slowly fabricating some mechanism. Reylim did not fully understand what it was she saw, but she could tell it was very advanced, even beyond anything on her own world. She was also sure that this scene was also from an entirely different time period than the stone huts before her.
And do you see the people?
Reylim turned back to those huts, and as she did so passed she saw that what she had at first taken for lumpy texture on the walls of the hovels were actually people frozen in time. They were humanoid, like her, but with a perfectly bland and gray color, with their lower halves only partially formed and fused into the ground beneath. It made it seem as though they were erupting directly out of the rock itself.
“Can they move? Talk?”
If you keep watching them they might.
Reylim moved up close, peering into their faces. She was particularly taken by the three that were nearest to her, two men and a woman. At first their faces were blank and featureless, utterly indistinguishable, but the longer she watched the more she saw personality etch its way across them.
“This one looks so regretful,” she said thoughtfully. “And this other is longing. Who are they? What would they become if they were awake?”
They would be among the earliest of the civilizations to live in this world. Born and raised together in this little village. These three specifically are the closest of friends through their youths. The two men are Avaro and Tuni, and as they mature both come to love the woman, Elitra. Both of them try to win her heart in their own way.
“Whom does she choose?”
Avaro. Tuni is a more wild and unpredictable man, and Elitra tells him she has to make a choice that she feels safe with. Tuni takes that very hard, and in his impetuous jealousy he contrives to send Avaro away to war.
“There is a war?”
Yes. There is a horde roaming the land and all the neighboring villages are raising a militia to resist it. Their own village is mandated to contribute a dozen men to the fight. The selection is supposed to be random, as the chance for survival is quite low, but Tuni manages to engineer things so that Avaro will be one of the ones selected. Immediately after his friend leaves Tuni is overcome with regret and soon confesses everything to Elitra. She promises to never forgive him, and then, in her grief, she poisons herself.
She does not die, but she becomes incapable of motion or communication. She remains an invalid for the rest of her life. Then, doubly burdened with guilt, Tuni resolves to care for her. He takes her into his own home and for the rest of their lives he tirelessly nurtures her. He feeds her, he cuts her hair, he even carries her to all the places she had loved the best.
“What of Avaro?”
He finds his true calling as a great warrior. He defends their lands against unimaginable odds and saves their entire people from annihilation on numerous occasions. One time he returns to the village and Tuni confesses his crimes to him. Avaro is upset, of course, though he does forgive him for the wrongs done to him. As he explains, in the war he has found his true purpose, to protect and watch over all the people he loves.
“Butyou said Elitra never recovers?”
Her mind is a haze, drifting between strange dreams and then back to reality. When she is present in the moment she observes all that Tuni does. Though she lacks the capacity to tell him, she does in time forgive him. She feels he has paid the price for whatever wrongs he has done, and she acknowledges that it was her own choice to take the poison.
There was a moment of silence while Reylim took in the tale. She was not accustomed to looking into a person’s face and know their entire life story. As she did, though, she found herself believing that their various destinies suited them.
“I think these people deserve to have their lives, Glimmer. I really would like for them to have the chance to live them.”
I know it has been hard for you to have so much asked, and for people you have not even been able to see. Do know that this world is full with souls just as these. And every single one of them will be following you.
“Following me? I thought you were the spark to ignite them all.”
And I am a Glimmer, but you are a person. Therefore they will always relate to your experience more than mine.
“They will know my story?”
Parts of it will be made known to them. Mostly they will know of it in their hearts without understanding why. They will feel it stir them when they hear the hero’s call and know how to answer it though none has taught them. It will be your song, re-sung in each of them when they discover what they born to be.
Reylim’s eyes were misty and she was looking for adequate words to respond.
The screech pierced the air and made Reylim jump in fright. She had become entirely unaccustomed to hearing any other voices, let alone one laced with such hate. She spun around and saw another of the planet’s natives. This one was more defined than the rest. He was a grizzled and thick man, coarse stubble lining his face and ragged clothes hanging from his skin. He was struggling against the last remaining parts of stone that fused him to the ground, and as she watched he managed to wrench one of his feet free from its roots. He alternated between tugging at his other leg and jabbing his finger at her, spit spraying from his mouth as he shouted.
“So you’ve come at last, have you?! You would bring to pass ages of suffering? Of death? Of hurt and abuse?!”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she blustered, her heart still racing from his sudden hostility.
“Didn’t you hear what it–” he jabbed towards Glimmer– “said about that man Avaro? Sent away to a war. To war! Do you see any war on this land today?”
“There is nothing here today.”
“So let there be nothing!” The man had managed to free his other leg, and was attempting to walk towards Reylim. She easily kept him at a distance as his every movement was stiff and slow. “The Glimmer goes on about heroes and legends and ‘becoming who you were born to be.'” He spat dark bile onto the earth. “But how do such things come to be? Forged by cruelty and plague and killing the innocents!”
“What is he talking about?” Reylim turned to Glimmer.
Thous she could not hear it, she felt a heavy sigh from Glimmer. My great purposes are twofold, Reylim. To secure living peace, and to raise heroes among mankind. This man, Bolil will be his name, is speaking to the fact that there can never be any heroes without opposition for them to rise against. There must be conflict for people to ever fight the tide and become their greatest selves.
“And you…you create the conflict?”
“Yes!” Bolil hissed.
No! Glimmer’s message came forcefully. Only the void creates conflict. As we ignite this world it pulls against the light and summons up the worst of mankind. You have seen for yourself how it operates: crippling through doubt and fear. It sows these through war and depravity.
“It does not do these things now.” Bolil protested. “It lets us sleep in perfect peace. You have felt the lull of that sweet emptiness girl, haven’t you?”
“You know the void?” Reylim asked.
The void possesses him. You can see it in the pits of his eyes. Bolil, you do not rest for you do not exist. Not yet. The void promises a dead peace, I provide a living one. Reylim herself has witnessed it on her own world.
“That’s why we are sent out to other worlds?” Reylim suddenly had an epiphany. “There is no opposition on our own by which to become the heroes you want us to be?”
“It doesn’t matter!” Bolil interrupted. His movement had become more natural, and he was now advancing at a strong pace, dark clouds circling around void points within his eyes. “Glimmer, void, perhaps there is peace at either end, but unimaginable suffering in between. Let Glimmer keep the worlds that are fully illuminated and let the void keep those that are dark.”
Reylim had continued backing away until she pressed up against one of the stone huts. She took a single step forward, allowing herself a little space in each direction should Bolil attack. Her hand was on her hip, ready to draw her dagger if needed.
“Peace through nonexistence?” she asked incredulously. “Isn’t even a life of suffering greater than no life at all? Don’t you deserve your chance to be? Don’t all these people?”
“Little girl,” Bolil smiled darkly, “Glimmer told you my name but not what I am.”
He’s a murderer.
In a flash Bolil had drawn a sword out that he had somehow hidden in the folds of his rags. Just as quickly he swept it down at Reylim with an alarming swiftness. She barely managed to get her own weapon out and caught his blade with the notch of her dagger’s hilt. He was a great deal larger than her, and with a lot more force to bring to bear, so she allowed herself to roll backwards, kicking out with her foot to roll him over her and into the wall behind.
Reylim rolled over to her front and then pushed up to her feet, falling back into a defender’s stance. She was shocked to find Bolil already rushing her again, evidently unfazed by the knock he had just received.
She flicked her knife into an overhand grip and swiped out in a wide arc in front of her. It cut across him in a broad swath, but instead of exposing flesh the wound merely revealed torrents of the black void. Bolil’s hand curled around her throat like a vise, his eyes flashing darkness.
“You can fight this little girl, but that will only extend the struggle and the pain.” Bolil’s voice was strange, distorted and almost mechanical. “Do you understand now? The sooner we embrace the emptiness the less suffering there will need to be.”
She gurgled as he lifted her off of the ground, but then noticed a calming warmth wash over her.
You cannot have her, void.
Reylim felt herself burgeoning with power as Glimmer settled over her heart, leaking pure light into her form. She kicked out at Bolil’s chest, thrusting with such force that his grip was easily broken. She flipped backwards through the air, landing cat-like on her hands and feet.
Rather than charge again Bolil let out a long, strange cry. As he did so, dark void spilled out, pooling on the ground around him and lashing out in tentacles, reaching for the bodies of other villagers. As each was touched they started coming to life, wincing and covering their eyes against the light that emanated from Glimmer.
There are countless armies of these shadows ready to be infused with the void. A battle is useless.
“To the Nexus, then?”
Yes. And as quickly as possible. They know exactly why we’re here and where we’re going, every moment will only give them greater opportunity to overrun us!
On Monday I spoke of the characters that are not mere individuals, but manifestations of some deeper unseen entity. In Glimmer my intention was to create such a character in the form of the void. With today’s entry we met an individual that was not the void itself, but was a servant to it, and was infused with its power.
The allegory here is obvious, there are individuals that we call evil, but then there is the question of evil itself. There is a long philosophical debate whether that evil only exist in the hearts of men or if it exists without them. If all men were to let go of their worst parts would evil’s influence cease, or does evil sustain itself whether or not there are those to practice it? Put another way, is the devil a real being, or do we invent him within ourselves? In the world of Glimmer the void is real, but imperceptible until it interacts with more corporeal forms. Everything that is to be understood about the void is by examining the periphery around it rather than the thing itself.
Using a few representations, such as Bolil, to give the reader a hook into something larger and more abstract is a common technique in storytelling. We are incapable of comprehending an entire war, for example, but by following a select few soldiers we get a general sense of the whole. This way of reducing scope to something more personal and intimate can even raise the stakes on the bigger picture, by how it makes us care for the individuals that we can relate to. I’d like to explore that notion in greater detail with my next post on Monday. Then, on the following Thursday, we will have the next segment of Glimmer ready. I’ll see you then.