Horse Tamer– Chapter 6 – Memories in the night

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
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Ana woke. For a moment she did not know what had awakened her. Confused images flickered and faded in her mind.

She sat up. The night was not far gone– it might even still be short of midnight. She had laid aside the book of laws early this evening– it had been a long, long day. Denacles had paraded her for some of his cronies, in a private session. Actually, a second session– in his effort to turn Ana’s gift to his own ends, he had taken to having Ana give selected individuals an initial ‘reading’, emphasizing all the while how ‘fragile’ her abilities were. He then told the persons to come back the next day for their fortunes. Once they were gone Ana would tell Denacles what she had Seen, and Denacles would tell her what portion of the truth she should feed back to the person. In instances where Ana discovered nothing of particular interest, at least to Denacles, he had her spew back vague but happy-sounding generalities.

Ana knew she had no choice, but she hated the fraud. In most instances, what she discovered was not so much the future, but the present, as expressed in the person’s thought and feelings. She continued to hide that aspect of her Gift from Denacles. Either way, she took no joy in crawling through the lives of strangers. In two or three instances she had uncovered sordid truths. This delighted Denacles, but left her shaken and depressed. In most people, there was such a distance between what they appeared to be and what they were. It wore her down– by this past evening, she had not had to pretend to be exhausted.

It only made it worse that Denacles was charging heavily for the fortunes she told– unless, of course, the subject was Highborn or powerful. Then he supplied the reading as a ‘favor’. Who Denacles gifted with a reading was no surprise to Ana– they were almost all men who could help him climb toward citizenship. She sometimes wondered if he would be as keen for that status if he knew the truth about some of these men, how they laughed at him once they were beyond his walls. Other times, though, she was sure he wouldn’t have cared.

There were things about some people Ana did not tell Denacles, however– things she thought might be useful to herself. She wondered if this made her a hypocrite. Perhaps– but she consoled herself with the thought that she did not discover these things from her own design, and that she had little room to be choosy, if she wanted to be free– the slave of a foreigner, in a city that disdained foreigners.

She had expected to sleep through the night, but something had dragged her right out of slumber. She sat and tried to remember. A dream? No– she was certain she had not been dreaming. Perhaps a vision– but, no, she knew what those were like, and this was nothing similar.

Something passed by– very nearly the same as if a person had brushed past her in a crowd. A presence; she hardly had a better word for it. It did not feel malign or a threat, but it had been powerful. It was strange, but, at the same time, oddly familiar. It reminded her of the day she’d received the Gift.

The harvest was in; she and her brother had had a moment away from chores. Corm was four years older, bigger and so much stronger than she. He had insisted on exploring back up into the high barrens behind the family stead, careless of the tales that said they were haunted. Ana had followed him, mostly to show she wasn’t scared, although she was. They had climbed and climbed, until they reached a fold in the hills neither of them recognized. There, beneath twining vines, they’d found what looked at first like the foundations of an old homestead; but when Ana had pulled the vines away, she’d realized that the jagged outline in the ground was not stone. It was some strange material, gray and smoothly slick. It frightened her, and she’d begged her brother to go home. But then Corm had discovered the cavern in the slope above the strange foundations.

Ana had cried, but Corm pushed aside a disk of the same gray material that partly closed off the cave entrance, and crawled in. Ana followed, not because she wanted to, but because she didn’t want to be separated from her brother.

They’d crawled only a few yards when they entered a large chamber and stood up. Somehow, they had no trouble seeing the hulking mass in front of them. The child Ana had been could make no sense of the thing; only later, with the memory burned into her brain, did Ana see it as a great, crystalline mechanism of panels and spheres. Once all of its parts must have been clear, but time and dripping water had dimmed and clouded much of it. She could see the interlocking parts, although its purpose she could not guess. It seemed to have been there a long time.

“Come away, brother,” she’d cried; but Corm had stepped forward, fascinated. Ana had reached and tugged on his arm.

Light engulfed them; Ana could see nothing, but she heard much– voices, the roaring of water, the songs of the stars and the whispering of time. It all crashed in upon her, flooding her, drowning her. She would have screamed, but she could make no sound of her own– she was filled up with other voices, other heartbeats.

When next she knew herself, she lay out on the slope of the hill, under the open sky. Her brother lay beside her; he appeared to be unconscious. She quickly found she could not move, nor speak. How long they lay there she was not sure, but the sun was low in the sky when her brother stirred. He woke; Ana would have cried with happiness, but she still could not move. Her brother, mazed and unsteady, panicked when he could get any response from her. He picked her up and carried her back, weeping the whole way, back to their village. When they arrived the place was in an uproar, looking for them.

Ana had lain paralyzed in her father’s house for three days. She obviously lived, but her father and aunt despaired of her, believing she was dying or damaged in her mind. Her brother seemed unharmed, but he professed to remember nothing of what had happened, despite their father’s threats of heavy-handed punishment. Ana tried to tell her father not to blame Corm, but she couldn’t speak.

Until, on the third morning, it was as if a constricting cord was suddenly cut from her throat and her body. She sat up in her bed and asked her aunt for water. Her aunt ran screaming from the room, to bring back her father. In the celebration that followed it was a little while before Ana got that drink.

Whereas her brother could not remember anything about the cave or the machine, Ana could remember everything. But when she tried to speak of it, her throat constricted and the power of speech left her until she spoke of something else. It frustrated her father and aunt, but in the end they stopped asking. The haunted reputation of the barrens, however, was enhanced.

It was three weeks later when she had her first vision.

It came to her as a dream, from which she woke crying. Her father had passed it off as a nightmare, but it was far more vivid than any mere dream Ana had ever known. She told him of it, but he didn’t believe her. Then, two days later, their neighbor Pasdan lost his leg when the cart ran over him, just as Ana had foreseen. Her father had been disturbed, but tried to explain it away.

Too soon, though, Ana was warning of things to come nearly every day, the visions coming to her in her waking hours. When the swans came to the lake, when Gerta’s baby would come, when the hailstorm would strike. By that time the whole village was listening to her, and the barley was brought in and stored safe before the storm descended from the mountains.

She became famous, at least as famous as a young girl in a remote village in the Kyr back-country could be. Elders from other villages came to see her, and the local Protector sent scribes to write about her in the canton chronicles. Even one of the gethwyn came from Kyrtelam– a severe woman with hard features, who spoke to her and asked her questions she either couldn’t answer, past the constriction of her throat, or truly didn’t know how to answer.

One thing Ana did not tell her– had, in fact, told no one. From the time of her first vision onward, she began to sense the very thoughts and feelings of people close by. It frightened and confused her, but somehow she knew not to say anything about it. Prophecy was one thing– her whole life she’d heard of seer-women and how people revered and feared them. But to know others’ thoughts would have smacked of black sorcery, something that might make friends and neighbors willing to cut your throat and bury your body in a bog. By the time the gethwyn rode into the village, this secret ability had grown in Ana to the point that she could immediately tell, when ushered into the officer’s presence, that the woman was filled with hard skepticism and resented being sent on what she considered a fool’s errand. Her questioning hid an impatience, and a mind already made up. Ana made no efforts to change the gethwyn‘s mind– she quite happy to see the woman ride back out of the village the next morning.

Over the next few months Ana learned, by trial-and-error, how to shield herself from all the voices and feelings around her. It saved her sanity, but she knew she had lost something she had never known she possessed. Seeing the raw, underlying passions and thoughts people normally hid behind their faces was a curse. It hurt, for instance, to glimpse her father’s roiling mix of feelings– he loved her, but now he feared her, too, while being paradoxically proud of her. He feared for her, as well, an emotion Ana did not come to understand until months later.

That moment came the next summer, when she discovered that her Gift was not perfect. A feverish flux struck the village, weeks before the harvest. Ana had no inkling of it. In a matter of days, it took her father and her aunt both, and dozens of their neighbors. For many days the hale worked to bury the dead; the countryside was dotted with plumes of smoke, as the Protector sent men to burn the steads of those who had died, in an effort to control the plague.

In the end, Ana and Corm were left in the care of their uncle, Rou. He was a angry, heavy-handed man, frequently befuddled with wine– but not befuddled enough to keep him from selling Ana to a man from the Empire, who came and laid more gold before him than anyone in the village had ever seen. Very early one morning the man took her away, before she could even say goodbye to Corm. She had not seen him since.

That was how Ana came to the household of Vyrkanus. In many ways he was a man like Denacles, except that Vyrkanus’ ambitions were of a much smaller scale. He only wanted to be important in Bharu; Denacles wanted power and prominence in the heart of the Empire. Some people, Ana supposed, would think coming to this household a step up in the world. Ana, personally, doubted it.

She lay back down. She did not know what had awakened her. She did know Denacles had her doing another set of initial readings tomorrow. She needed rest. Her old friend, the Moon, had already risen high enough to shine down through her slatted window. Sleep beckoned.

It did no good, remembering the past.

A disturbance in the Force….

“I’m going to read this,” the father said, holding up the book.

His daughter stared at him. “You haven’t already?” she said, her disbelief radiating brightly.

“Well, no– I just never got around to it,” he said.

“What are you reading?” his wife said, stepping in from the hallway.

He showed her. She looked worried. “Oh, be careful reading that on the bus,” she said.

“Why?”

“Well, you sit in the back among all those drug-dealers and punks,” she said. “You know, they’re all homophobic.”

He blinked. “So a guy my age who reads this book is gay?”

“No, no,” the wife said, “but they’ll think you’re gay.”

His daughter wore a I-can’t-believe-she-went-there look on her face.

His son came up the stairs from where he’d been battling aliens in the basement family room. He spied the book in his father’s hand, and his eyes went wide. “I sense a great disturbance in the Force,” he said.

“You’re too young to be that sarcastic,” the father said.

“It’s just…I’ve never seen you read anything other than sci-fi,” the son said.

The father grimaced. “‘Doth not the appetite alter? a man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.’ And vice versa.”

His son looked dubious. “Ok, when you start quoting Shakespeare, Dad, it’s time to exeunt omnes.”

“You’re so behind the rest of the world,” his daughter said.

“Just be careful,” his wife said.

“I’m going to work,” the father said, through gritted teeth.

At the bus stop, he pulled the book out of his backpack as the bus approached. A young woman, waiting in the crowd, eyed the cover. “Are you a professor?” she asked.

“Good grief,” he said.

He found a seat in the back. The kid in the baggy pants sitting across from him saw the cover and sneered. The father resolutely opened the book.

Now, let’s see what I have been missing.

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’.

I have made a deal with myself….

Really– I have. I had to. This is getting out of hand.

One of the most dreadful aspects of my process as a writer, historically, has been how easily distracted I am. And in my particular case, one class of distraction stands out as the evil nemesis of my writing.

I am, of course, referring to PC games.

First it was Aces of the Pacific. Then it was Privateer. Then came Doom, from which I almost didn’t escape (and they’re coming out with a new version…). After that, Everquest. Then Halo (actually, that should be HALO, in flaming letters five feet high). Then World of Warcraft.

And finally, World of Tanks.

All of these games, along with others, have taken man-years away from my writing, but some reason the last five months have been a special horror-show because of World of Tanks. I mean, this is silly– grown men (doubtless along with many kids and some women) sitting at their computers, driving these virtual tanks around a virtual landscape, blowing each other up (virtually) and getting overbearing when they win and pissy when they lose (the in-game chat is all-too-often appallingly juvenile). Entire YouTube channels are devoted to replaying battles. The standard account is free, but the makers of the game are apparently having no trouble selling millions of fans premium accounts, because, according to reports, they are raking in some serious real-world money.

And, I admit, this is doubly-silly in a man my age who worked on the real thing in his youth. I mean, it’s embarrassing. Particularly as I am not really very good at the game.

Nevertheless, most evenings at some point you will find squinting at my computer screen, wondering where that M-5 Stuart went, and worrying about whether I’ve angled my armor properly to bounce a shot from that T-34. Usually right before the T-34 disassembles me with a single shot.

Distractions, in general, are the bane of a writer. Sometimes it is just easier to start puttering away at something else– cooking, gardening, surfing the web– than it is to force yourself to buckle down and face that blank sheet of paper or the empty document page. Writing requires daily discipline, which is one of the hardest habits to develop, and one which can be easily damaged by the distractions thronging around most of us.

Of course, the reason we let ourselves be distracted in the first place is often unrelated to how much fun or immediately important the particular distraction may be– we’re tired, or we’re discouraged, or things are just to damned chaotic in your personal space to focus on the writing. This may be, in fact, a species of writer’s block. In my case, I think it was the fact that for a long while now I have not really been loving what I have been putting down for Princess of Fire. The state of my self-publishing effort was also a source of discouragement (about which I have already blogged). So it’s been easier, on too many nights, just to log into WoT and dodge shells in Kharkov or the Northern Desert for an hour or so before bedtime, and not deal with the hard business of straightening out PoF.

Therefore, I have made a deal with myself. In exchange for 500 words on Princess of Fire each day, I get to play World of Tanks. I have to complete the 500 words before I log in to WoT. Period. No 500 words, no armored combat. So far, I have often exceeded that minimum, so I am rather pleased with the bargain. Further progress reports to follow.

Of course, eventually I expect the novelty of World of Tanks will wear off, just as it did for Privateer and World of Warcraft. I will once more find some balance and be able keep my priorities straight.

At least until Star Citizen comes out.

Pray for me….

Suspension of disbelief and its limits

My recent post on The Guardians of the Galaxy got me to thinking about a part of story-telling that gets mentioned every now and then, but which (it occurs to me) is actually extremely critical, in any genre, anywhere, anytime. I’m talking about the reader/viewer/listener’s suspension of disbelief.

I’m not sure this is talked about a lot in writing classes, and I hardly ever heard about it in the various writing groups I’ve been associated with over the years- at least, by its full name. Many times, however, readers would say to me, “That just threw me right out of the story.” In other words, something about the narrative prevented the reader from suspending their disbelief in the fictional world I presented to them.

Suspension of disbelief– the ability to say “I am going to temporarily accept the baseline premises of a fictional universe in order to enter into that world and enjoy the sensation that the world is real and happening now.” That’s a little long-winded, but I think it covers all the bases.

Here’s the point– suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader/viewer/listener is essential to the story’s success. Without it, without the implicit agreement between the story-teller and the recipient of the story that they are going to pretend, for just this moment, that this fictional universe is real, the recipient of the story cannot enter into the tale, and cannot enjoy it. Period.

And this is true for all fictional endeavors. Science-fiction and fantasy have to work harder than some other genres to achieve suspension of disbelief, but SoD is in operation in every sort of narrative story, because it permeates every critical aspect of a story– world, characterization, action. If Jane Austen had written Lizzie Benet in Pride and Prejudice as her independent self in one chapter and a compliant mouse in the next, her readers would have said, “This threw me out of the story” (or early 19th Century words to that effect)– in other words, they would have been unable to suspend disbelief.

In an important sense, this was what I was complaining about in my review of Guardians of the Galaxy– there were moments (thankfully not that many) that threatened my suspension of disbelief. That giant head, for instance, for me just doesn’t work as an object in a science-fiction story– my brain starts gnawing away at questions like how is it possible to have a giant organism in space, and how are the bodily components of a giant space alien valuable? etc., all of which immediately interfere with my enjoyment of the story. The head violates what I assumed were the basic premises of the story.

Failure to maintain SoD is a threat to the very success of a story. Do it too often, or to too great a degree, and the audience turns off the television, walks out of the theater, throws the book across the room. Worse, the disappointed are likely to spread poisonous word of mouth– Yeah, that book/movie/show sucked, it made no sense. Not making sense to a reader or viewer is the kiss of death.

Or it should be. However, suspension of disbelief is actually a personal thing. Elements of a story that might absolutely destroy the experience for me might go completely unnoticed by others. It is, in fact, a factor of personal taste.

Which brings me to this–

In ordinary circumstances, the thought of a new Mad Max/Road Warrior movie would leave this particular fan-boy gibbering with delighted anticipation. Watching this trailer, however, fills me with dread. The original Road Warrior had a simple, gritty sensibility, which was actually enhanced by its low-low-low budget. Among other things, its effects and stunts had to be practical and guaranteed not to kill anybody. This gave it more verisimilitude than you would have expected from a stark description of the film (post-apocalyptic survivors fight over gasoline).

This film, on the other hand, looks like a badly-made video game– overblown, filled with explosions, hurtling cars, hurtling bodies, and pieces of action that either seem to violate basic Newtonian physics or just not make any sense (people on poles? Why?). It looks as if George Miller, now that he’s George Freakin’ Miller, is bathing in money, and has thrown most of it at this production. But to me, it is the apparently nonsensical and over-the-top action that has already set my SoD to trembling. To my eyes, the action doesn’t look plausible– and, as a consequence, I will hesitate to dive into this particular film experience without at least seeing a goodly number of reviews. Lots of reviews. And I sure as taxes will not be camping out at the Cineplex waiting for opening day.

Of course, judging a movie by its trailer is probably even more problematic than judging a book by its cover. This movie may yet redeem itself to me. But here’s where the part about SoD being an expression of personal taste comes into play. This movie will doubtless make buckets of money, because, quite simply, there seem to be an incredible number of people nowadays who, in my opinion, are undiscriminating action junkies who will watch anything with a sufficient number of very large explosions and/or fast moving objects. Think Fast and Furious or Transformers. We’re talking about people for whom, apparently, no explosion is too big, no piece of action too outlandish. People whose SoD, it seems, has acquired a nearly infinite elasticity. As a consequence, classics like The Road Warrior are betrayed by junk sequels, and movies (and story-telling in general) are left all the poorer.

I seem to have slipped over into a rant. I will therefore stop here, leave poor Max alone, and just come to my point. Suspension of disbelief is one of the absolutely critical elements of the story-telling art. Not pushing your readers or viewers into disbelief, not breaking that implicit contract with them to create a plausible world, is essential. Every creator of a narrative needs to pay attention to it.

Unless you want your story to feel like an overblown cartoon.

‘Nuff said. Later.

Horse Tamer – Chapter 5 – The End of the Road

Here is Chapter 5 of Horse Tamer. I am late delivering it, chiefly because it went through three different permutations before it achieved a final form. If people notice that this chapter is largely an information dump, I will plead guilty, but state, in extenuation, that you should have seen the first version– 5000 words from characters nattering at each other and not doing anything in particular. Yes, it took me that long to notice how bad it was– at times, I’m kinda thick.

When I started this novel I said that this would be more-or-less a first draft, straight off my fingers. Well, this chapter is evidence that statement is not quite true– if I see myself committing a serious mistake I can and will back it out, although it may play hob with my schedule. Doing this story as blog posts also affords me the opportunity to retcon, but hopefully that will not be needed very often or to any great extent. Hopefully.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
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In the long red light of evening they rode down from the crest of the Hill of Souls. Mankin rode with the reins loose, not pushing his tired horse. There was no need to rush. Besides, he wanted to take in the sight before him.

The tales did not lie. Mankin had been prepared to be let down, but this first sight of Venia took his breath away. Still high up on the hill, with the Road of Hope running straight before him down to the Great Northern Gate of the city, he could see it all.

Venia stretched very nearly from one horizon to the other, across the four mouths of the River De. The river curved in from the west, flowing out of gorges into the great amphitheater in which the city sat. It emptied into the bay from which the city ruled the Inner Sea, which reached out toward open water through channels between sandy islands. The setting sun glimmered on the waters. From this vantage point he could look down on the islands outlined by the different channels of the river. Every square mile of these was packed with human construction– temples, great houses, tenements, the market-squares and the docks along the rivers’ edges. Three great pyramids poked their summits above the congested streets, standing behind their own walls in protected precincts that each had to be dozens of acres in size. Smoke rose from the tops of these pyramids– the evening sacrifice, Mankin supposed, the thrice-daily propitiation of the gods for which the Venians were famous. Close by the pyramids stood great, long buildings, which had to be the basilicas of the city, the seats of the Imperial and city governments. Any one of them would have dwarfed the Thing House in the Hegemony.

Here and there Mankin glimpsed bridges spanning the river channels, connecting the islands to each other and the mainland. The city was famed for these as well, the high bridges that were marvels of construction. Mankin looked forward to crossing one or more of these to reach the Hegemony’s embassy, deep in the city.

Most of this tangled complexity of buildings and streets was contained within huge city walls, which ran for miles in a great polygon around the landward side of the city. The wall was high, and some of the forts along its length would have been fortresses in their own right in the Hegemony. But Mankin could see places where the city had spilled beyond the walls, both on the northern side and far to the southwest, across the furthest mouth of the De. Those areas would have to be abandoned at once if anyone attacked this city. In six hundred years, though, no one had dared.

Aqueducts, five or six that Mankin could see, ran down to the city from the north, east and west. These were massive works, with arches marching across the landscape– but Mankin wondered at the vulnerability of them. Blow up three or four and the city would get thirsty very quickly.

Denetoi pushed his own horse up beside Mankin’s– no mean feat, as the road was crowded and Denetoi led their one mule. “Quite a sight, ain’t it, Cap’n?” the old soldier said. “Remember the first time I saw it– about pissed myself with surprise. And it’s grown since I saw it last– all that stuff outside the walls, wasn’t there twenty years ago.”

“City’s been growing, everyone says so,” Mankin answered. Silently, he gave thanks to the Unchanging he had brought Denetoi. On the long journey here the man had already proven an asset. Having someone who knew Venia, even after a gap of years, would be very valuable.

Vikeres had wanted Mankin to take an entourage, guards and stewards and slaves. Mankin had refused. For one thing, he was done with slaves; for another, he had wanted to travel light. He and Denetoi had made the four hundred leagues from Takeri to this spot in twenty-six days, a good pace that left no time for sightseeing. Once over the Imperial frontier they had followed the Northern Imperial Road to where it struck the Suman River. A river barge had taken them downriver one hundred leagues in four days, to the terminus of the Eastern Road. They had bought a new horse each and a new mule, and then covered the remaining two hundred leagues in fifteen days. Mankin was tired, but pleased.

They had not spent any time sightseeing along the way, but that did not mean they had not made of note of items of interest. Vikeres had told Mankin he wanted a report of conditions in the Empire, both close to the border and deep in the heartland. Mankin had tried to obey that order– and in truth, there was a lot to see, even for a traveler in a hurry.

The borderlands, he thought, were strongly held, but in the interior of the Empire there was trouble. They had moved fast, not just in the interest of getting to Venia quickly, but also because at almost every stop they heard rumors of bandits and outlawed men in the back-country. They crossed the provinces of Husan and Brea, the breadbaskets of the Empire, most usually in the company of merchant mule-trains, all of which were heavily guarded. The two of them ran into no trouble themselves, but they heard plenty of stories of large bands of hungry, disaffected men roaming the countryside, making life miserable for peasants and freeholders alike. Talking to locals he met in inns and along the road, Mankin gathered that the previous harvest had been lean, and that there were many, many people who had been left with no choice but to leave their homes in search of work and bread. Some of these, inevitably, slipped into brigandage– although Mankin got the impression in some regions that there were problems with deeper roots than one bad harvest.

He’d tried to carefully inquire about what the Empire was doing about the trouble. He gathered some of the garrisons were well-commanded, and had spent the winter chasing down troublemakers– but in other places, many other places, the Imperial troops he saw didn’t seem much interested in straying very far from their cantonments.

He had noted other things, as well. On several occasions their route had crossed the lines of the Imperial telegraph system, one of those wonders for which the Empire was famed. At Imliana the post chief watchman, with evident pride, had allowed Mankin to ascend the tower and watch messages being received and forwarded. He had noted the great telescopes, trained both on the previous tower and the next in line-of-sight, the junior watchmen and signalers jumping to the chief’s orders, and the great signalling arms overhead, rattling and clattering as they moved to spell out messages. The chief watchman had boasted that, given clear weather, a message dispatched from Venia could reach the uttermost limit of the Empire in ten hours, and Mankin saw no reason to doubt him.

Except that, other posts he saw along the way did not seem to operate at the same level of efficiency as Imliana. At several stations, the watchmen on duty were drunk. At one, at Germoni, the whole station appeared to be abandoned. Mankin reflected that, as with most things, ‘wonders’ were the fruit of not just invention, but also diligence.

As two Attau traveling through the heart of the Empire, Mankin and Denetoi occasionally attracted attention, and some of it had not been friendly. They had quit more than one wayside campsite because of the muttering of other travelers, and there had been a bad moment in Turi, where they boarded the river-barge, when it looked as if a tavern crowd were determined to pick a fight with them. In that instance the local garrison commander had intervened and given the two foreigners lodging in the cantonment until they could board the barge the next morning.

For the most part, though, they had had little trouble– in an unprecedented display of efficiency, the foreign ministry at Dansmere had gotten the correct passes from the Imperials for Mankin and Denetoi, and sent word ahead, so that the two of them had no difficulties with the authorities. As for the local people, on the whole Mankin had been impressed with their hospitality. Householders, some of whom did not seem to have a lot to spare for themselves, often pressed bread and beer on them, telling them it was duty they owed the gods. At inns, Mankin and Denetoi often quickly collected a retinue of children, who seemed fascinated by the foreigners. Denetoi, Mankin found, excelled at pulling faces that made children laugh, and that usually poured oil on any uncertain waters with the local folk. In Asana a local lord had insisted on their guesting with him overnight, and had provided them with a splendid meal and fine beds. And more than that, in Denetoi’s case– the sergeant had ridden out the next day wrapped in a nearly-visible glow of heavy-lidded satisfaction, as he had not slept alone, nor much.

Which was unsurprising, Mankin told himself. Denetoi was an old professional soldier, and had been a sergeant in Mankin’s company through the whole war. They had saved each other’s lives more times than Mankin could count, and when Mankin had found him at loose ends, discharged with a grant of land and a promise of a pension, sometime in the future, he’d asked Denetoi to come with him to Venia, as his servant and aide. Denetoi had jumped at the chance to go back to the city, which he recalled with fond– and very explicit– reminiscences, with which he regaled Mankin through most of the journey. Mankin had always found Denetoi an honest man, but some of his reported exploits sounded highly unlikely in any sort of physical sense. But Mankin did not dispute the sergeant’s tales.

As for himself, Mankin had slept alone that night. He had politely declined the lord’s offer of soft company. He was as far from wanting that sort of companionship as the stars were from the Earth, or death from life.

While they journeyed, when Denetoi wasn’t distracting him with tales of what Surghani girls could do, or the time he bought the really expensive wine for the flaxen-haired Kitaman woman, Mankin pondered what he had started calling, at least to himself, ‘the miracle of the lions’. He wondered what it meant, and why he yet lived. He’d prayed, meditated, offered roadside sacrifices. In spite of all that, though, despite the miles they’d covered, he had not found any clear answers. It remained a mystery.

In his doubtful moments he told himself that there was surely a rational reason for his survival– the lions had fed that morning, something about him had not smelled right– something that would explain away what didn’t happen. But even if that were true– if the lions’ lack of appetite had an explanation other than the hand of the Unchanging– he was still left with the question of how he was supposed to go on. Death no longer attracted him, but that did not mean he felt any less hollow and pointless. He rode because he had a destination; he laughed, or blushed, or both, at Denetoi’s tales because the older man seemed to expect him to. He noted the little details of the country and the people because his grandfather had asked it of him. But it was all as if he were wind-up toy other people made move. Surely when people stopped demanding things of him, he would wind down and come to a stop, probably in the middle of the street.

It did not help that the war kept coming back to him– in dreams, in memories, in odd moments when a smell or the flash of sunlight off burnished metal seemed to take him back to some horror or another. More than once on the journey Mankin had awakened, panting and covered in sweat, from a nightmare. Denetoi, old soldier that he was, seemed to understand what was going on. In those moments he usually had some means at hand of distracting Mankin, even if it was just more ribald tales. It gave Mankin another reason to be grateful he’d brought Denetoi with him.

Had there been a purpose to the war itself? Mankin desperately wanted to believe there had been. Arad and the Black Party had wanted to take the Hegemony backwards, to recreate the days when utau peasants bowed in the mud along the roadsides whenever Clan warriors passed, and when slaves were merely things to be used, or used up. Vikeres and the Loyalists had promised a new way. In reality, of course, their ‘new way’ was merely the recognition of an existing order, where a ‘peasant’ had as much chance of having Attau blood as utau, and where slaves had, in some ways, become the keepers of their own masters. But that new way was better than the old path of pride and stupidity, and for that promise Mankin had fought. And lost a great deal.

Maybe– just maybe, if the promise was fulfilled, Alektl and their child would not have died in vain. Vikeres had tried to manipulate him with that idea, but that did not make the thought any less powerful. It was hard, though, to see much purpose in so much destruction. The Hegemony had suffered through three years of bloodshed and fire. It needed time to rebuild, and to sort out the changes the war had brought.

The promise had not yet been redeemed, though. And Mankin knew how promises unfulfilled had a way of festering.

Maybe you can help Deremanoi– and so do his part to make the new way real? Perhaps, although exactly how was a mystery to Mankin. The war had left him with very few illusions about himself or his abilities. He pictured himself running errands for the Speaker, delivering messages, maybe fetching firewood. Beyond that, nothing came to mind.

“Look at that, Cap’n,” Denetoi said.

Mankin looked up. They had come down the hill, and the city wall rose before them. In the twilight the Northern Gate loomed over them. The gatehouse stood huge and solid, a bastion a hundred feet high, two hundred wide, no place Mankin would ever care to assault. The people entering the gate– merchants, soldiers, workers returning home for the night– were dwarfed by the bronze-inlaid doors that stood open to receive them, and the doors, in turn, were dwarfed by the gatehouse.

“By the Unchanging,” Mankin breathed.

“Welcome to Venia, Cap’n,” Denetoi said. “The Great Mother of Empire. Or the Whore of the World.” The sergeant grinned at Mankin. “It’s all just about the same thing!”

They rode through the gate, and into the city.

Guardians of the Galaxy– kind of a review, but more of a confessional…..

As of yesterday, I have now seen Guardians of the Galaxy three times–

And I think I’ve finally figured out what’s wrong with the movie.

Okay, okay, put down the pitch-forks and the nooses– let me re-phrase.

In reality there’s nothing seriously wrong with the movie– it is actually, in my opinion, the best movie of the summer and possibly the year. It’s funny, and heartfelt, dramatic where it needs to be and irreverent in exactly the right places. The cast has chemistry out the wazoo. Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill/Starlord plays off Zoe Saldana’s Gamora perfectly, quarreling while building up a mutual attraction that feels genuine precisely because it never goes too far. Dave Bautista is great as Drax, and Bradley Cooper’s voicing of Rocket is excellent. The action keeps you going, although the final battle might be just a little too frantic. Certainly, three viewings have allowed me to catch more detail, including all the pop culture references.

The movie overall is just well-written, with plenty of character and dialogue that keeps you interested. You believe that this is a hodgepodge band of losers who find a new purpose with each other, and it makes you wish the next movie was in the can and coming soon. As a child of the Seventies, I appreciated the soundtrack of golden oldies, which are not only perfectly deployed in the film but reinforce the emotional core of Peter’s character.

And yet…

(mild spoilers from here on in)

Each time I’ve seen the film, I have caught myself feeling oddly dissatisfied at different points in the story. It took me a while to figure out what was bugging me, but in the end I got there.

This movie is based on a comic.

And at this point you’re probably saying, Oh, no duh– why am I reading this nimrod…?

Allow me to explain.

It has often been said that science-fiction does not really work in comic books. The confines of panels on a page somehow make it difficult to convey the vastness of space or the intricacies of technology. There are exceptions, but all too often “sci-fi” in comics has been more metaphorical than scientific.

It seems that some of this metaphorical approach leaked into Guardians. When the team/gang approaches the outlaw mining operation called Knowhere, it is described as the gargantuan head of a dead “Celestial being”. This is straight out of the comic, but to me it is on the same level as the giant space slug in The Empire Strikes Back– both throw me out of the narrative. My suspension of disbelief, at least for a moment, goes spung. Some other elements of Guardians do the same thing to me– for example, the shiny, colorful Xandar, which looks like one big mall. And, dammit, Yondo, the chief Ravager and oddball father-figure to Peter, has a piece of plastic down the middle of his head (alien Mohawk?), which probably worked far better in the comic than it does on-screen, where I found it really distracting. In general, with the exception of Rocket and Groot, the aliens in the film don’t give me much of a sense of being, well, alien. I found myself almost wishing for the Brood to show up.

To sum up, the fault lies not in the movie, but in my own damn pickiness. I have a prejudice for the gritty, and a preference for sci-fi that tries to create a workaday world that at least looks scientifically plausible. Guardians does that in some places, but falls down in others.

Science fiction is hard; movie science-fiction, I have concluded, is doubly so. Getting right the feel of the visuals of a future or alien universe is difficult. There are movies and TV shows that do this well– Alien/Aliens, Blade Runner, and Firefly (although, admittedly, all of these films and shows had various issues with plausibility). But all too often writers, directors and production design folk don’t make the effort to do it right, and instead they fall back on tropes that suggest alien-ness (plastic Mohawks) or futurity (Xandar Mall). There is just enough of this in Guardians to leave me with a sense of unease and disappointment, at least with the visuals.

I willingly admit that this carping is unfair, especially regarding a movie that didn’t set out to be Blade Runner in the first place. The film, in general, is really well-done– for example, for all my dislike of Yondo’s appearance, his character is great, and I loved Michael Rooker’s performance. My complaints do not destroy my enjoyment of the movie– but the little things that nag me about it leave me wanting just a little bit more of something– more grit, more plausibility, a universe that is a bit more gray and shadow, like the universe I live in. It keeps me from giving the movie a perfect 5 trolls (you have to see the movie), but more like 4.75.

In the end, as a review, everyone should take this with a grain of salt. I doubt very many people even noticed the issues I had with the picture. This basically comes down to a statement about my own personal taste in sci-fi, and an acknowledgment that I am a picky, grumpy, contrarian old fart who wants things his way and complains loudly when he doesn’t get it.

I will eventually, I expect, get over it. And then there’s Interstellar. :)

Later.

The Angle

Chuck Wendig’s latest challenge is 1000 words of action. I pride myself on my action, it’s one thing I think I do pretty good with, but Chuck’s further injunction to make it a story caused me to hesitate. I’m not so good turning short fiction into a tale with a beginning, middle and end. I fumbled around with a couple of ideas, but nothing stuck.

But then….

I have been reading Ralph Peters’ Hell or Richmond about the Union’s 1864 invasion of Virginia during the Civil War. Peters does a good job conveying the horror of the campaign. This was where and when warfare changed from occasional battles and armies maneuvering for advantage to constant battle and victory through attrition. The fighting prefigured the slaughter of World War I (too bad nobody in Europe was paying attention). One of the worst battles in this campaign occurred on May 12th to 13th, 1864, as part of Hancock’s assault on the Confederate salient known as the Mule Shoe. A Union division moving in to support Hancock hit the Confederate lines on the western side of the salient, and for about twenty-one hours a two hundred yard section of the line was turned into possibly the most savage slaughter-pen ever seen on the North American continent. Ever since it has been called “The Bloody Angle”, which is actually a mild term, considering what happened there.

Thinking about the Angle, I realized I had something I could write, although I will leave it to others to judge if it works as a story.

Warning: this is possibly the most graphic action piece I have ever written. It contains extreme violence and images. Even so, I probably didn’t really capture the essence of what happened at the Angle. I doubt mere words could.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
*****************************

Timothy crawled.

Screams, thunder, darkness, fire. Curses from men pushing forward, howls of pain from men falling, lances of flame as rifles went off in men’s faces. Rain.

Timothy pulled himself forward. He couldn’t see more than a yard; the rain was coming down so hard that each drop threw up a spray of mud and water in his face. The feet and legs of soldiers– he wasn’t sure which unit they belonged to– trampled about him, over him, on him. One man, then another, tripped over him and fell, cursing. Timothy fought to keep his head above the mud.

Get away from the works. He knew, in his bowels, if he stayed here he would be trampled down and out of existence, like a dog in the middle of a road. Thousands of men were coming on behind the first wave, all cramming into this little section of the line. Along the enemy line, rifles raised as clubs swung downward, the sound of skulls cracking like gourds beneath a hammer. Indistinct forms of men struggled and stabbed one another.

Get away.

Each time he pulled himself forward agony ran through his arm and leg like electric fire. He’d already puked from it, a sickness unnoticed in the muck all around him. His leg had been shot through; he couldn’t stand on it. Even if he could have, he wouldn’t– the air whined thick with Minie balls. Men charging forward were hit more times than Timothy’s distracted brain could count. Some of them just came apart.

His arm– the worst pain of all– dragged useless at his side. He’d been hit twice there. The ends of the shattered bone grated on each other.

Over the thunder and the gunfire, the shouts and cries of pain, Timothy heard officers urging men forward. It was if they spoke a strange language, pointless in its babble. There was no order here. It was some savage corner of existence where the normal laws of life were abolished.

More trampling feet– some soldier or another, anonymous in the mass shoving forward, slammed Timothy in the ribs with his brogans. A fresh, white-hot pain shot through him. He gasped, sucking in mud and rainwater, coughed them back out, making the pain flash through him again. Ribs. It would have been almost adding insult to injury, if it hadn’t hurt so much.

Weeping, his salt tears unnoticed in the rain that soaked him, he crawled on. Every inch was purchased with agony. More men stumbled over him. Was he invisible? Was he already dead? No, death would surely mean the end of pain, and pain was his present reality.

Mud in his eyes– he tried to shake his head to clear them. At the moment a shell burst high above him in the tree-tops. Bright light and a crack beyond thunder, and the tree came down, crushing men beneath it. One man was speared right through by a branch and pinned to the earth, where he writhed like a bug on a pin.

Out of the rain, a captain appeared, waving his sword, urging men forward. A volley tore the top of his head off. The officer fell right on top of Timothy. Blood and brains spilled over him; Timothy hardly noticed, as the officer’s weight crushed him into the mud. Every one of his wounds shrieked. Timothy, for just a moment, knew nothing but a white haze of pain.

He came to with muck choking his nose and mouth. He got his head up, spat it out, gasped for air. He tasted dirt and water and blood.

For a moment, the dead captain pressing him down, the feet of other men trampling him into the mud, Timothy knew he had no more strength. The sounds of the fighting faded. It would be easier, so much easier, just to rest and let it end.

He remembered a garden, a shading tree, the side of a house– Janie, sitting on that bench behind her mother’s house as he proposed to her. She had looked beautiful then. She had always looked beautiful to him– it didn’t matter about her nose, and the freckles. Timothy had never minded the little imperfections of a woman who made him want to be a better man.

This will be hard on her. To be a widow; more than that, a widow with a young baby. Clara, born the fall before. In his imagination Clara had her mother’s red hair.

But he had never seen her.

With a scream as much of rage as of pain, Timothy forced himself up on his one good leg and hand. The dead captain rolled off him. Balancing himself with his wounded leg– ignoring the lances of agony this sent through him– he crawled forward, with a sort of odd, lurching motion. The pain this caused him was expected now, reminders that he yet lived. With his unbalanced posture, he was going as much sideways as forward, but he was moving. Soldiers still moving toward the works saw him now, and dodged around him….

…until one of them didn’t, and blundered right into him. The soldier went one way and Timothy the other. He was blinded by more pain as he rolled down a slope, the back side of one of the undulations in the ground they had crossed in their attack. He came to rest on his back.

When he could think again, Timothy realized he was in a pocket of calm. The ground here was just low enough to shield him from enemy fire. Timothy lay panting. He was utterly spent. He could not go another foot. I’m sorry, Janie.

Other wounded lay scattered around this stretch of ground. One boy, who could have not been more than sixteen, lay against a felled tree, holding in his entrails. He gave Timothy a pleading look. Timothy wished he could do something for the lad. But there was nothing more he could do for himself.

He may have lost consciousness then, for it seemed as if a face suddenly appeared before him. It was young, and round, and smooth-cheeked. It took Timothy a moment to realize it was the face of a youth, leaning over him, peering down at him.

“Hey, there, corporal,” the boy said. “You still on this side of the Jordan? So you are, by the Lord God. I was afraid you’d gone on, like those other poor fellows.”

Timothy managed to lift his head and see that the boy wore the uniform of a drummer. “It’s bad out here, corporal, as bad as I ever seen it, and worse. Good thing you managed to crawl down here– can’t go up into the field to get any of the boys, that Reb fire’s cutting men to pieces. But now you just put your trust in the Lord Jesus and Jim Mahaffey. I’m Jim, not Jesus, by the way, just in case you’re confused. Between the two of us we’ll get you out of here.” The boy reached down and got his arm around Timothy’s shoulders.

“You just lean on me,” the boy said.

Thoughts on the daily struggle to write, with reports from the front line.

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