Sometimes you have to be merciless….

Seriously, there are times when you have to harden your heart and just do what is ugly, but necessary. Mercy, sentiment and compunction have no place in this business– you must be utterly ruthless….

I am, of course, talking about cutting your work in progress.

I have just cut about 10,000 words out of the heart of Princess of Fire. This is on top of earlier cuts to the tune of about 20,000. The poor little things were the innocent victims of my rampant pantsing of this novel earlier this year. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that with this project I let my normally healthy and productive instinct to write without an overall plan or structure in mind run out of control– at the start I was far too optimistic all the boss and utterly epic scenes in my head would fit together without major difficulties– surely I just needed a few transitions and a couple of patches, and everything would knit itself together into a glorious narrative that would set Kathy up for the finale, Princess of Stars, with some dandy, really big explosions along the way (gotta have explosions).

This delusion carried me to about 96,000 words. The beginning and the end were all written. All I needed to do was address the middle…and that’s when I started to slow down, and to doubt, and the whole project staggered and shuddered to a stop, in a cloud of steam and noxious gases.

The middle, unfortunately, is where the most intense action of the story happens (well, duh, thank you, Aristotle)– and I began to find it difficult to tie things together, and to get down the missing pieces of action. Worse, I started reduplicating scenes, as I tried to find some avenue through what increasingly appeared to be a brick wall.

In the end I did something I rarely ever do with a work in progress– I decided to start over. Not from scratch, but from about one-third of the way through the narrative, while also preserving the final third, or thereabouts.

And this is where the merciless part comes in– I had disjointed pieces that belonged to that middle third, some of them quite extensive, some of them duplicates, thousands of words that I now had to liquidate. I had to because I found they were actually impeding my progress– I kept thinking “okay, surely I can fit this piece here” or “I can retrofit this scene”, which was preventing me from starting fresh. So I cut them. Despite the screams.

Writers, it should be noted, are not completely rational. We are also frequently extraordinarily untidy. Our stories don’t always smoothly flow off our fingers, with the plot and characters all pitch-perfect and correctly structured. Usually, quite the opposite. Writers can, in fact, write themselves into serious corners– a particular danger with serial story telling, such as comics and TV (yes, I’m going to mention Lost, my personal touchstone of how to screw up a great concept). The effort to get out of some of the entanglements of serial story-telling has given rise to the term “retcon”, which is as ugly in action as it is to say.

For fiction writers, this is where the second draft is both a blessing and a necessity. It is the chance to change course, to correct the mistake, to find a better way of saying something. Anyone who publishes a long narrative without re-drafting is a either genius or a fool.

(Of course, this is essentially what I am doing with Horse Tamer, and since I am certifiably not a genius, then….)

So, despite the trauma of doing away with essentially a novella’s worth of words from Princess of Fire, I feel better, and I think I now have a clear path in front of me. Maybe– maybe– thirty to forty thousand or so words, done the right way, will get me across this stubborn wilderness of a middle I’ve been wandering around in for the last several weeks, and give me that genuine, unified first draft that is always my initial goal for any of my novels.

I hope so. I am getting pretty parched and sunburned out here.

There is a moral in this– if you pants, at least use a pair of suspenders. And for the love of God, put the damn things on one leg at a time….

Horse Tamer – Chapter 3 – Down to the Dead

Here is Chapter Three of Horse Tamer. As promised, I am starting to introduce other viewpoint characters. I’m not going to try to imitate George R.R. Martin and do each chapter strictly from the viewpoint of one character, but I want to make sure everyone gets the page time they need. I have a lot of characters who want to have their say.

Fair warning– we’ve just started this tale, and what I have in my head promises to go on for a while. Everybody draw up a chair and get settled.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel.
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Crisonia steeled herself, and stepped through the Portal of Weeping. Only Nema came with her; the other household slaves stayed on the pavement outside the temple, gray hoods cast over their heads, weeping. Crisonia wondered how many shed genuine tears of sorrow, and how many faces were wet for show. Probably she would never know.

She herself had not shed any tears. Not yet. But they were not far away.

Within the tall bronze doors stood two temple attendants, slaves whose tongues had been removed at birth so that their voices would never disturb the serene silence of the entryway to the underworld. They bowed to Crisonia. Holding lamps, they conducted her down a flight of stairs.

How far down they went, Crisonia did not dare to guess. Being preoccupied with other things, she didn’t think to count the steps as she descended them. It was deep, however; the light from the portal above faded to nothing as they went down.

At last, the stairs ended in a wide, level corridor. More lamps burned here, but their light was mingled with that of a number of nolere, more than Crisonia had ever seen in one place. The cool light they gave off made the corridor bright and shadowless.

Off the main corridor were chambers, cut from the native rock, each lit by a single lamp. In these chambers stood a slab. Most of these rooms were empty– in one, though, she spied the body of a man on the slab, with a woman sitting, red-eyed but silent, by it.

The slaves conducted her to a chamber midway down the corridor. Here stood a lictor of the Senate, in his robes of office, attended by two burly guards. Are you afraid of me? Crisonia asked him silently. Good.

On the slab lay her father. The body was naked. Crisonia had never seen her father naked; now, in death, it made him look shrunken and pathetic. She closed her lips tight. The last indignity.

“Crisonia of the Karvanii,” the lictor said, in an official voice, “the Senate greets you. Receive now the body of Massanio Karvani, condemned as an attainted traitor and malfeasant in full trial by the Senate of the Venian people, who has suffered the just punishment of his crimes. All charges, indictments and allegations have been discharged against him and his house. The Senate clears you of all implication in your father’s crimes, and, out of mercy, leaves you free and without taint.”

“I thank the Senate,” Crisonia said. Thankfulness was the furthest thing from her heart at the moment, but she was expected to say the words.

“We shall leave you,” the lictor said. He bowed to Crisonia, who did not return the gesture, and left, trailed by his guards.

Alone– Nema had stayed by the door– Crisonia stepped to the slab. Her feet seemed suddenly unsteady. She forced herself to stand firm, and looked down at her father.

They had not cleaned him. A wide fan of dried blood crusted his torso and belly, from where it had flowed out of the gaping sword wound in the center of his chest. Massanio’s eyes were half-open, as if he were just dropping off to sleep. Shuddering, Crisonia reached and closed the eyelids. The dead flesh was cold, waxy.

“Mistress,” Nema said.

Crisonia turned. In the doorway stood Rebonius.

“General,” Crisonia said, startled. She bowed low. “You do me and my father great honor.”

Rebonius entered the chamber. He, like Crisonia, wore the gray cloak of mourning. He threw back the hood. His shaven head, as massive as a boulder, shone in the lamplight. “No more than is deserved,” he said, his voice a low rumble. He came to the slab and gazed down at the body of his old comrade. “Ah, Massanio,” he said. “How did we come to this?”

“We came to this,” Crisonia said, hard and bitter despite speaking in no more than a whisper, “because of hatred and greed. And because my father made mistakes that left him vulnerable to his enemies.”

Rebonius sighed. “I would not have said it out loud, in the presence of his mortality, but it is true.” His face darkened. “Nothing deserving of public execution in the arena, though, as if he were a slave, and not one of the Highborn.” He glanced at Crisonia. “Nothing that should leave his only child without the means to live.”

“I have an inheritance from my mother,” Crisonia said.

“A small inheritance, child,” Rebonius said. “It will keep you from starvation, but not much more.”

“It will be enough,” Crisonia said.

“Perhaps– but I came, in part, to let you know that you can call upon the protection of my house, and all my allies. I will not leave the daughter of my best friend alone in the world.”

“I thank you sincerely, General,” Crisonia said. “You are most generous.” And how was it the thought of that generosity brought her to tears? She had held off all through the trial and the execution– why did the kindness of an old friend cause her to weep? “I should tell you, though, that you may not want to be too closely associated with me. Considering what I must do.”

Rebonius stepped closer. “I will not tell you, do not,” he whispered. “You must do what you must. But I counsel caution, and patience.”

“That is hard,” Crisonia said.

“But it is wisdom.” The general gestured at her father’s body. “Your father was sacrificed on a political altar this day, out of all proportion to his crimes, because our state has entered a dangerous time. Our enemies grow ruthless, and they begin to manipulate the apparatus of the state for their own ends.”

“The Empire must find a new path,” Crisonia said.

“Yes– you and I know that. Convincing others is the difficulty, especially when they do not want to be convinced. The old guard is determined to cling to power by any means. If they suspect you oppose them, powerless as you seem to be, they will not hesitate to strike you down. Better that you play a long, slow game, child. Lull your enemies into unwariness. And remember you are not alone.”

“I understand,” Crisonia said. “And I thank you again, from the bottom of my heart.”

Rebonius nodded. “I will leave you– you have rites, and grieving, to do, and having an old soldier hanging about will not help.” He threw the cloak back over his head. “I have men standing by to help with the body, when you are ready.” He left.

Crisonia turned back to the slab. Rebonius’ words warmed her, a little, but they could not do away with her grief, nor with her anger. And they changed nothing about what she needed to do.

Her face was wet now. She wiped her checks dry; then, with the moisture clinging to her fingers, she touched the dried blood where it had poured out of her father’s chest. Heart’s blood.

The wetness liquefied the crusted brown, and a little clung to each of her fingers. Enough. Quickly, she dabbed her forehead and streaked both cheeks.

“Father,” she whispered, “with your blood upon me, I swear I will avenge you. Those who murdered you will feel the wrath of the Karvanii. I will do this, and our ancestors will see it from the Afterworld and rejoice. However long it takes, whatever I must do, I will pay back each and every one of those so-called men who killed you. I swear this before all the gods, of light and of dark, and before all our ancestors. Your blood, on me, bears witness.” She breathed deep, taking in the scent of blood, of damp stone and lamp oil. She wanted to remember it. “I will kill them all.”

Horse Tamer – Chapter 2 – Vikeres

Rather ahead of schedule, here’s Chapter Two of Horse Tamer (I retconned the title just a smidge). I don’t really intend to do a chapter every other day, but this one came off the keyboard pretty easily, so there seemed little reason to delay posting it.

As this story goes on, it will be expanding to other viewpoint characters, and I anticipate some of those chapters will be quite challenging. After all, I’ve never been a woman, or a gladiator, or a slave (except, perhaps, to chocolate)….

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
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Chapter 2

Vikeres

Mankin waited for his grandfather in the cool of the Old Longhouse. The ancient structure had been spared in the fighting when the loyalists retook the holding. Through its open windows he heard the busy sounds of hammers and saws; rebuilding the Clan’s essential buildings was a boon to the local peasants, who saw a chance to make extra money before planting, and were making the most of it. In the meantime, the Clan leaders had to make do with what was still standing.

Mankin had been here during that fight. The western army had come up the valley of the Jilan, taking towns and other clan holdings– the Silver Spear, the Crimson Shield– at the run. But at the Bronze Mask the rebels had made a stand. Mankin had led his troop into a house-to-house fight in the alleys and across the commons of his own holding. The Moot, the House of the Elders, the Temple of the Powers, all of the warrior-barracks and most of the stables had burned to the ground. Half the holding, and all the important buildings, had gone up in smoke in an afternoon.

Well and good. Mankin was glad for the burning. The holding could now be rebuilt clean, especially since the exorcists had worked hard to purge the stain of kin-slaying from the grounds.

But then, memories really didn’t reside in places….

The northern door of the longhouse screaked open. Mankin stood. He’d had time for a hasty bath, and a change of clothes, after arriving at the holding that morning. He still felt tired and scratchy. His uncle, his men and Mankin had camped rough at Five Willows, although the night had been pleasant. But Mankin had not slept much, especially after his uncle had tried to talk to him, or at him, before they bedded down. Sunone meant well, but he was too short-tempered and too impatient to deal with a nephew who didn’t want to talk.

Mankin forgot about his uncle, though, as his grandfather entered the longhouse. Preceded by two warriors– no one important in the Hegemony went without guards these days– Vikeres came in, dressed in his own blue and gold. A tall man, unbent by his years, he nearly had to stoop the avoid cracking his head on the top lintel. Mankin had the same problem; he had often reflected that his ancestors must have been very short people, or they didn’t mind hitting their heads every now and then.

Vikeres’ beard was white, his hair was white, but there was nothing old about the look he gave Mankin. The guards remained by the door. A single scribe followed Mankin’s grandfather, a self-important little man name Kukerene. He did not open his tablet or uncork his ink-bottle, though, but stood to one side, ready if called upon.

A private chat, then. Or as private as they got with his grandfather. Mankin wasn’t sure if that made him feel better or worse.

“Boy,” Vikeres said, the barest of acknowledgments. There were chairs by the dining tables in the middle of the longhouse– its chief occupation at the moment was as mess for the warriors– but Vikeres ignored them. Perforce, Mankin remained on his feet. He had the sudden sensation of a tardy schoolboy hauled before the headmaster, a feeling that irritated him.

“Did you enjoy your ride yesterday?” Vikeres asked. As sarcasm, it was the most dry species imaginable.

Mankin’s lips tightened. “Some parts were good. Other parts were…unexpected.”

Vikeres peered at him. “You really intended to do it?”

“Yes.”

Vikeres grew grim. “You have disappointed me occasionally, Mankin, but this is the first time I have ever been ashamed of you. How dare you besmirch the name of our family….”

“All right, that’s enough,” Mankin snapped.

Vikeres stared, his tirade stopped in mid-stream. Kukerene looked as if he were about to drop his tablet. “What did you say?” Vikeres said.

“I’m not a naughty child, to be scolded,” Mankin said. “If you want to talk to me, talk to me as a man. Otherwise, I’m leaving.”

“How dare you….”

“What, stand up to you? About time someone did.”

Vikeres glowered. “I am your grandfather and High Chief!”

“And I’m a man who’s past caring about that,” Mankin said. “You could execute me where I stand, and I would be grateful. So you might as well be civil.”

Vikeres stepped back a pace, not a retreat, but as if he genuinely needed to get a better look at Mankin. “You,” he said coldly, “are not the first man to lose a wife and child in war.”

It was more than that, but this was not the time to explain it. “No. But it’s the first time for me. And it wasn’t war– it was murder.” Ripped from her belly….

Vikeres grimaced. “As may be. But you still have a duty to your family and Clan, and I can’t believe you would throw your life away….”

“Believe it. Until you do, we have nothing to say to each other.”

Vikeres pondered him, and seemed to shift his ground. “All right. I am sorry about Alektl and the…child.” Mankin didn’t believe him, but there was no point in throwing the words back in Vikeres’ teeth. “The war was hard on everyone. Don’t think I don’t understand that, Mankin. Three of my grandchildren dead, two sons, my own brother….”

“Don’t count Arad in the total,” Mankin said. “Without his ambitions– without his greed– none of this would have happened.”

“Granted. But allow me to grieve the loss of a brother, who was once dear to me. And all the dead, on both sides. The Hegemony will be years rebuilding.” Vikeres gestured toward the windows, where the sound of work went on. “And not just the buildings.”

“I know, Grandfather,” Mankin said. “Right now, it’s just not the first thing on my mind.”

“It is on mine,” Vikeres said back, but without heat. “I have to use all the tools I have to bring the nation back together. And I am not a young man.”

Mankin restrained a snort. He reckoned Vikeres would go on and on, for years yet. This was a man who had already buried four wives, and was working with a fifth to produce aunts and uncles for Mankin young enough to be his children. Vikeres kept hours and a pace of work that ran younger men ragged. No, Mankin wouldn’t hold his breath waiting for his grandfather to drop dead.

“So,” Vikeres was saying, “I have to ask– are you done with this business of killing yourself?”

Mankin hesitated. “For now.” Figuring out the meaning of the lions would take time.

“Good. Because if you mean to live a little while longer, I have a task for you.”

“I’m not interested.”

“Hear me out. You can still serve and find a purpose for living. A small one, perhaps– but it is important. More than that, it will take you away from here, which might be the best thing for you.”

“I said,” Mankin snapped, “I am not interested.”

Vikeres didn’t snap back at once. “I would think,” he said, after a moment, “that out of all that pain you would want one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“To keep Alektl and your daughter from having died in vain,” Vikeres said. “And all the others, too. Because if the Hegemony fails to hold together, after so much sacrifice, their deaths will be for nothing.”

Mankin glared at Vikeres. “You manipulative bastard.”

For the first time, Vikeres cracked a tiny smile. “You know, your mother called me the same thing, once. Right before she left the Clan. You remind me of her.” The smile widened a little. “Of course, she always reminded me of me, in most ways.”

“Stop complimenting yourself,” Mankin said, “and tell me what you’re talking about.”

“You remember your cousin, Senitendre?” Vikeres asked.

“Vaguely.” Mankin had a host of cousins– a corollary of Vikeres’s multitude of wives and children. Senitendre was years older than Mankin. They may have meet once- Mankin wasn’t sure.

“He was an aide to our Speaker to the Triumvirs, in Venia,” Vikeres said. “Not sure what exactly he did for Deremoi, but it kept Senitendre out of trouble here. Unfortunately, he found trouble there– six weeks ago it seems he managed to get himself knifed in a tavern brawl, of all things.”

Tah,” Mankin said. It was an old expression of his mountaineer father, expressing surprise or dismay, and it slipped out without conscious thought.

“If that is meant to convey your surprise and grief at this news, well, that’s about all the energy you need expend on it. I would have thought Senitendre old enough to know better, but then…well, let us not speak ill of the dead.” Vikeres peered at Mankin from under his brows. “You, on the other hand, are not the sort to frequent taverns. And if there are no lions about…”

“What are you saying?” Mankin said, although he was starting to get a idea.

“It is always a great advantage to us,” Vikeres said, “to have one of the High Chief’s blood in Venia– if not as Speaker, then at least to show himself about. I am of a mind to send you to replace Senitendre. You would be a diligent aide, I think– and, as I said, it would get you away from the Hegemony, and all its memories.”

“Venia,” Mankin said, thinking hard. He was rather taken aback. “The Empire did us no favors during the Rebellion, grandfather. Despite our pleas for aid. Despite the fact that we continued to pay tribute to them, right through the whole war.”

“And yet, the Empire is a fact we have to continue to take into account,” Vikeres said. “Look you, Mankin,” and he stepped closer to his grandson. “Despite your…impulse of yesterday, despite my harsh words a little while ago, you are a steady, sober young man. Too sober, in some ways. I need a sober young man in the Imperial capital right now, someone I can depend on. The Empire– well, the world’s becoming more and more uncertain by the day. I need eyes there to see, and a brain that can understand what’s going on, and hands to write to me with the truth. It will do us no good to rebuild here, if the wider world becomes dangerous. So– if you’re done, for the time being, with trying to fatten lions, I need your help. Will you give it to me?”

Mankin hesitated, then met his grandfather’s eyes. “Being elsewhere,” he said, slowly, “might be a good thing.”

Horse Tamer- Chapter 1- Called Back to Life

Here’s the start of something new for me.

I’ve mentioned before the character Mankin, my swordsman and horse-tamer, who has been with me for a long, long time. I have previously posted a couple of abandoned fragments and a short story featuring him. But this character has always cried out for an epic treatment. I have had bits and pieces of a complete story for him floating around in my head for a while, and I’ve decided to try to knit them together into a novel, which I intend to post as a serial story on this blog. I will try to post a short chapter a week, and we’ll see if I get farther than I did with Dinosaur Planet.

Some of you may be saying, “But what of Princess of Fire?” Progress continues to be made, at least in sporadic fits– but I recently cleared one obstinate roadblock, and hopefully the pace will pick up. At a chapter a week, I don’t think Horse Tamer will seriously impede Princess of Fire– and I very much want to tell Mankin’s story.

NOTE: There will be violence and some graphic scenes, as well as language, and possibly sexually suggestive situations. Less than Game of Thrones, but more than Cat in the Hat. I think.

Also, as with Dinosaur Planet, this will be more-or-less first draft as-it-rolls-off-my-fingers, so I will have to beg the reader’s indulgence. I will try to fix any major faux-pas before posting.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel

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Chapter 1

Called Back to Life

The sacrifice done, Mankin rode out into the waste lands. The sun greeted him riding north, through fallow fields filled with green, waving grass. He rode at a steady trot, not wanting to tire his animal. There was no need. He had plenty of time.

It was mid-morning before he crossed over into scrub and mesquite, and well after noon when he finally spied what he was looking for. A rocky kopje, topped by a locust tree, extended two hundred or so yards across his path. Tumbled rocks lay scattered at the kopje’s foot. Perfect.

Mankin stopped well short of the rise. No need for his horse to suffer along with him. He dismounted.

He unsaddled the stallion and removed the animal’s reins and bridle. The stallion seemed puzzled, but settled in to cropping the short grass between the mesquite bushes. Mankin piled the tack to one side. Perhaps someone would find it and have a use for it.

He removed his sword and sword-belt. He removed his hat. He removed the blue and gold jacket, the jacket that marked him as a warrior of the Clan. He hesitated as he held the jacket. He ran a hand over the cloth. He had been so pleased the day his grandfather had overseen him donning it for the first time. That seemed like a long time ago.

All of these he laid down with the saddle and bridle. Certainly anyone coming across this equipment would be able to puzzle out who it belonged to. What had happened would be no mystery.

He loosened his linen shirt, but he kept his pants and boots on. He had no desire to walk barefoot across this ground; it was covered with sticker-burrs. And something in him rebelled at doing this half naked. He smiled at himself.

He undid his queue. It took a few minutes; usually he had someone to help him with it. Doing it by feel with his hands behind his head was frustrating. Finally, though, he got it loose. His hair, now freed, streamed out in the breeze, waving about his head. That seemed a shame, in a way– his hair was so wavy that putting it in a warrior’s queue was a long and difficult labor. And now it was undone.

It is all undone.

He stood for a moment and looked around. This was a good place, open under the sun. Doubtless in the summer it would be hotter than a gunner’s match, but on this spring day it was merely warm and pleasant. Good. Mankin would have hated to do this in the heat of summer, or the wet and cold of winter, for that matter.

He walked forward. He made no attempt at stealth– there was no point. He walked, weaving his way between bushes, and the ground opened up even more as he approached the kopje.

A ripple of movement– to his left, at the base of the kopje, amid the rocks. A flash of brown– and then Mankin saw the lioness. It was peeking out from the rocks, watching him.

He walked on ten, fifteen more yards, before he stopped. Another lioness appeared beside the first, watching him just as intently.

The ground here was quite open. Mankin knelt down. Doing so made his scars ache, even the one on his face. He knelt down, let out a breath, and waited.

Slowly, the lionesses came out from among the rocks, suspicious, looking about for other men. The Clans hunted the rock lions of the scrublands often enough that the beasts knew men came in groups, with horses and dogs, spears and arrows. A lone man puzzled them.

Behind them came a male. The lion was huge. It padded out, tail twitching, tasting the air. It, too, seemed puzzled. After a few paces it scrambled up on the kopje itself, as if to get a better look around.

Mankin waited. He’d anticipated the lions would take their time. These were cautious beasts, living this close to the horse and cattle herds of the Clan. He was patient. Nothing better to do at the moment.

The lion came down to the flat ground again, apparently satisfied that a hundred men were not waiting somewhere out there in the scrub. By now the lionesses had advanced closer, with one on each side of him. They paced back and forth, not closing, but not going away, and still watching him.

The lion came toward him, walking slowly. Mankin watched it come. So you are my death, he thought. Good.

The lion came to within ten feet of Mankin. It stopped. Mankin could hear the deep panting of its breathing. It looked about, clearly still suspicious.

Come, Mankin thought. There’s no need to be afraid, friend. Help me.

Send me to my wife and daughter.

The lion padded forward again, moving slowly. Mankin waited. The rush would come– there would be a brief, sharp pain, not as bad as the pain that had created the scar down the right side of his face. Mankin had seen how the lions killed their prey. It would be over quickly. He smiled at the great beast.

The lion stopped. The animal was within arm’s reach. Mankin looked right in the lion’s eyes– great, yellow orbs in its massive face. Man and lion stared at each other for a long moment. Mankin felt the lion’s breath, warm and moist, on his face.

The lion stared at him, blinking. The beast snuffled once, then twice. Then it turned away.

Mankin was sure he felt the brush of the lion’s whiskers on his face as it did. The lion walked away, not looking back, as if it had dismissed Mankin from its mind completely.

Mankin stared after it. If it had been a man, surely he would have run after it. As it was, he was too stunned to move. Mankin watched as the lion, now followed by the lionesses, padded back to the rocks, and disappeared from view.

He knelt there in surprise for long minutes. He didn’t know what to do. He had rehearsed this moment in his head over and over again since making his decision, and it had never turned out this way.

At last, slowly, he stood up. He had no idea what this meant. Except that he was not supposed to die. Not yet, at least. Not this way.

He turned and staggered back the way he had come. His legs felt strange under him, as if they didn’t want to carry his weight. He managed, stumbling, to reach his clothes and weapons where they were piled. He dressed himself and strapped on his sword back on with trembling hands.

What do I do now? His pain was no less now than when he had walked down to the kopje. It was a wonder he did not break in two under it as it was, even without the help of lions.

Unchanging, Unchanging, he thought, why not let this be simple?

His horse had not wandered far. Mankin had just got its bridle back on when he spied the dust in the south. A dozen or more riders. Mankin instantly knew who they were. He went ahead and finished saddling his horse.

In a short while, Mankin could make out horsemen at the base of the dust cloud. They were coming fast, pushing their horses. A sudden guilt twinged Mankin—it was dangerous for horses to be run that hard for long.

He stood and waited, his horse’s reins in his hands. Once they spied him the horsemen slowed down. As they came up Mankin recognized faces—Telekhade, Deledre, Cherumaka, and his uncle, Sunone. As he rode up his uncle wore an expression of towering rage mingled with the most profound relief. Sunone pulled his horse to a stop and glared at Mankin through swirling dust. The other riders surrounded them, obviously worried about lions. Don’t worry—they’re my friends.

“So here you are,” Sunone snapped. Dust covered his face and only made his scowling worse. “What are you playing at, nephew?”

“Nothing, as it turns out,” Mankin said. Without his intending to, some regret leaked out.

“Give me none of your smart-mouth,” Sunone said. “I just thank the gods I thought to question that useless cob Vin. The young idiot thought you were leaving the Hegemony, ‘til he told me which way you’d gone.”

“Freedom probably set his head to spinning,” Mankin said. He had manumitted the boy as what he had thought would be his last act.

“I doubt it—he doesn’t have that much of a head,” Sunone said. He leaned forward over his saddle-horn and blew out a breath. He had the air of a man in the grip of a profound relief, who didn’t want to show it. “In any event, we came as fast as we could. I’m glad we got here in time.”

“You didn’t, actually,” Mankin said.

Sunone peered at him. “Eh? What are you talking about?”

“Never mind, uncle—it’s moot now,” Mankin said.

“Hm—all right,” Sunone said, obviously dubious. “We need you back at the holding, Mankin, as soon as possible. We won’t make it back tonight, though– we’ll have to camp at the Five Willows. Do I have your promise not to do anything foolish?”

Mankin sighed. “Yes, Uncle—you have my promise.”

Sunone nodded. “Good. Otherwise I’d have to tie you up and drag you back. Your grandfather would not like that.”

“Grandfather?” Mankin said, puzzled.

“Yes,” Sunone turned his horse. “He’s the one who wants you back at the holding. Now.”

A quote for the day

Madeleine just about says it all–

“What I believe is so magnificent, so glorious, that it is beyond finite comprehension. To believe that the universe was created by a purposeful, benign Creator is one thing. To believe that this Creator took on human vesture, accepted death and mortality, was tempted, betrayed, broken, and all for love of us, defies reason. It is so wild that it terrifies some Christians who try to dogmatize their fear by lashing out at other Christians, because tidy Christianity with all answers given is easier than one which reaches out to the wild wonder of God’s love, a love we don’t even have to earn.”

—Madeleine L’Engle

Survey Report 15AlphaQ-198Tzed- ‘Humanity’

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel

*********************************************
TO: The Supreme Investigator, Department of Cultural Survey and Contact, the Shanzar Hegemony.

FROM: Gartishan, Eggling of the Fifth Prime, Tenth Spawning of Loor, Commander of the Upsilon Quadrant Survey Expedition.

Subject: Cultural Survey Report 15AlphaQ-198Tzed- ‘Humanity’

Boss– per my hyper-wave of the last cycle, I am forwarding this informal abstract of the formal cultural survey of system 15AlphaQ, reference 198Tzed, which is following via standard channels. I wanted to get this abstract before your eyes as soon as possible, so you are aware of some pretty oddball stuff, and one big problem.

I’ll spare you the technical details of the particular solar system in this survey– it is utterly ordinary, even sub-normal in some respects– for example, some of the planets don’t even have ring systems. The inhabited world is small, Class Zed122, but quite habitable, with an active and diverse biosphere.

At least, in its natural state. The biosphere is currently suffering serious degradation, largely because of the activities of the sole sentient race on the planet (although there may potentially be other sentient species extant we had no time or opportunity to closely observe– see Appendix A of the full report, “On Dolphins, Dogs and Ants”). It is unclear why the primary sentient species is in the process of destroying its own habitat– several members of the Cultural Ecology team believe that the damage is accidental. Considering our overall assessment of the species, we cannot exclude this explanation.

They call themselves Homo Sapiens, which means “wise person” in one of their ancient languages. This is surely one of the greatest pieces of self-delusion we have ever seen in an alien species.

In twenty-five epochs of survey work I have never encountered a more bizarre, confusing, and paradoxical species. On the technological achievement scale, they rate a 12.6, just shy of the contact threshold– in fact, they are probably only a few generations away from star flight, for they are on the verge of describing the functioning relationship between gravitation and quantum mechanics. And this from a technological civilization that is not yet three centuries old. Even our glorious hegemony took three thousand to go from steam power to fusion. This rate of development is unprecedented.

Paradoxically, however, on the socio-cultural scale they cannot be rated any higher than 3.4. That’s not an error– we ran the numbers several times. In the first place, this species’ planet-wide population is currently divided among several thousand extant, distinct cultural traditions. One tradition, entitled “The Western” for no logical reason we can discern, has managed to impose a sort of global dominance, particularly in relation to technology, but in many planetary regions it is no more than a patina– basic cultural assumptions vary widely across human populations. I don’t need to tell you how out of the ordinary this is– with a 12.6 on the technology scale, this race should already have achieved at least a 9.3 on the socio-cultural, representing the achievement of consensus of a common cultural pattern species-wide. Instead, these humans rate no higher than the egregious Turlanians, and we both know what kind of disorganized slobs they are.

Worse, this cultural chaos is spread, very unevenly, across dozens of political units of wildly varying sizes and strengths. Were a decision taken to contact this species (not recommended– see “Conclusions and Recommendations” in the formal report), we would have severe difficulties negotiating the intricacies of planetary politics.

This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that, at any given moment, any number of these political units, called “nations”, are at war with each other. That’s right, war– the kind of conflict between organized political units that nearly all other sentient species leave behind at about 10 on the tech scale. Worse, sometimes the conflicts are between factions within nations, or between conspiratorial groups, often with obscure goals, against nations or other groups. And this is not ritualized warfare of the sort most sentient species understand– it is often unlimited, bloody, and utterly vicious, as if the two sides were members of two separate species and not members of one.

Within the last century this species has survived two conflicts large and far-reaching enough to termed “world” wars, encompassing the entire (or, at least, the majority) of the planet, and causing casualties in the tens of millions (yes, millions) and widespread destruction. Among the humans there is considerable speculation about the possibility of a third world war, with the understanding that it might spell the extinction of their race, but little of substance is done to prevent it.

These beings fight each other over just about everything—land, economic domination, ideology, affronts to “national honor” (a strange concept that supposes that an abstraction such as a nation can have an honor to be offended). These humans even fight each other over religion. Religion, boss. That concept was so shocking that one of our junior ethnologists cocooned herself and went into a hysterical hibernation, from which we have to yet to rouse her.

As a corollary, these nations expend huge proportions of their economic outputs on weapons and military formations. One of the largest nations, Murica, spends more on its weapons and military than most of the other nations combined. Paradoxically, it nevertheless has not launched a campaign to conquer the rest of the planet. Our historiographers are still trying to explain that one.

When they are not fighting each other, these humans spend much of their time engaged in trading goods and services, mostly for symbolic units of value (called “money”), often, gill-scratchingly, with other nations that are potentially—sometimes actually—enemies. This economic exchange consumes enormous amounts of energy, but the humans have taken no real steps to rationalize the process so that goods are equally distributed among groups, which means that many sectors of the planet are impoverished compared to other sectors, just because they don’t have enough of those symbolic units of value. Sometimes large populations in localities actually starve to death because of this, while wealthier sectors go about their business.

It makes you want to scream and swim in circles.

The humans do have a rudimentary global information network (it would be surprisingly, given their technology rating, if they didn’t), but, instead of being focused on information dissemination and education, major portions of it are dedicated to more economic exchange, entertainment, and, weirdly, sex—or, at least, the portrayal of sexual activity, in bewildering varieties and types (see Appendix B—“Sex and the Bipedal Primate”). As difficult as it is for us to grasp, humans are obsessed with sex. Doubtless this is because of their mammalian, and particularly, primate, origins, but they carry this obsession to extremes we have never seen in any other surveyed species. They appear to spend major portions of their short lives either doing it, thinking about doing it, or, (because of perversely complicated and wildly variant taboos) working hard to prevent other humans from doing it. Moreover, all this copulation or semi-copulation is largely divorced from actual procreation. That’s right, Boss—they’re doing it for fun. Seeing all this, the Chief Ethnologist told me, “Thank the gods we’re fish”, and it’s hard to disagree with him.

All of this may give you a clue as to our assessment of the basic psychology of human beings. In our view, they are quarrelsome, aggressive, cold-blooded (metaphorically speaking, of course), cruel, cunning, greedy, and untrustworthy. They routinely betray, enslave and murder one another. One shudders to think what they would do to other sentient species. They are, in short, unpleasant shits.

As to what their relations might be with other sentient races, we have but to look at what they have done and are doing to the sub-sentient species of their own world. Their planet, at this very moment, is undergoing a major extinction event, largely due to human activities. Terrestrial biomes have been ravaged, usually in the name of all that economic exchange. Also, the planetary climate and oceanographic biomes (and they have the most splendid oceans, boss, simply gorgeous) are undergoing radical, and detrimental, changes because of human actions. But, perversely, the humans continue to engage in these activities, which they know are damaging the biosphere of their world. Our Chief Cultural Psychometrician was left speechless for several cycles when he came to an understanding of this self-destructive behavior. He still can’t decide if this mere stupidity or a sign of some deep-seated, species-specific psychosis.

For the details of our recommendations, please see the formal report, but, in short, we advise—rather forcefully—that this planet and this species be placed under a Level Ten quarantine. I know that sounds extreme, but frankly these weird monkeys are frightening. Our historiographers came up with some projections (see Appendix C—“Probable Human Future Histories”), which, although mostly conservative in their numbers, are truly scary—particularly if the humans get star flight sooner rather than later. It is our assessment that this species needs to be isolated immediately, and kept in a state of ignorance from which they cannot threaten us.

Which brings me, unfortunately, to the problem I mentioned.

One of our junior ethnologists was Shinzankeehor, eggling of the tenth spawning of Talakeehor, on his first field expedition. Aside from his high status, he appeared to be a bright and well-informed cultural investigator. A few cycles from the end of our investigation and our departure date, however, his school leader informed that he was exhibiting signs of depression and agitation—not swimming during required exercise periods, not feeding with his school mates, failing to rest in the shaded pool chambers, and so on. As a consequence, knowing how this investigation had upset the entire crew, I went to talk to him privately. I took the precaution of recording our conversation; below is an excerpt—

Gartishan: I hear you’ve been down in the gills, Shinzankeehor. I wanted to check in with you, see how you were doing.

Shinzankeehor: Forgive me, Commander—I didn’t mean to distract you from your duties….

Gartishan: Nonsense, crew welfare is my duty. How are you feeling?

Shinzankeehor: …I have to admit, Commander, I have not been myself.

Gartishan: How so? Is there something about this investigation that troubles you?

Shinzankeehor: A great deal, Commander, a very great deal indeed.

Gartishan: Your particular brief is assessment of cultural linguistic artifacts, concepts and memes, is it not?

Shinzankeehor: Yes, Commander.

Gartishan: Has something in your studies disturbed you?

Shinzankeehor: Yes, indeed, sir.

Gartishan: Please tell me what is troubling you.

Shinzankeehor: Prayers and songs, Commander—prayers and songs.

Gartishan: I don’t understand….

Shinzankeehor: I have gathered and listened to the songs of the humans. Many are puerile, forgettable—but many others show something about humans you would never guess from their behavior. These beings dream, Commander—and not of blood, or conquest, or riches, but of peace, and righteousness, and a future where there is no want or pain.

Gartishan: Want and pain are part of life….

Shinzankeehor: And yet the humans dream of more—or have been granted visions—

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

Gartishan: What is that?

Shinzankeehor: A passage from a human holy book. There is much in their literature and their songs of such hope.

Commander: Hope for them, after they have conquered and destroyed all things?

Gartishan: No—at their best, their dreams speak of healing, and restoration. It is as if they know their brokenness–

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Gartishan: A lofty sentiment—but you would not see it in their actions.

Shinzankeehor: No, not very often—that is what troubles me—the dichotomy between what the humans dream and what they do. But every major religion now extant on this world speaks of the necessity of righteousness—and the unity of humanity and the other creatures with which they share their world–

Born of Thee, on Thee move mortal creatures; Thou bearest them-the biped and the quadruped; Thine, O Earth, are the five races of men, for whom Surya, as he rises, spreads with his rays the light that is immortal.

Gartishan: Ethnologist, you can’t let the rambles of a species as obviously…deranged as this one trouble you. It is because they are so broken they have to invent fantasies of redemption to assuage their guilt….

Shinzankeehor: And yet there is dignity and courage in their thoughts—a willingness to persevere through failure and loss—

Come, my friends,
It is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

They always believe they are bound for greater things, and a better way, despite their failures and sufferings. It disturbs me, sir– I cannot reconcile their dreams and their crimes.

Gartishan: Ethnologist, I am going to suspend you from duties, and order you to rest; you have obviously taken this all too much to heart. We are leaving this world in a few cycles, anyway, and after that, this benighted species will be someone else’s problem.

Shinzankeehor: Perhaps, sir, perhaps….

Boss, I thought I had settled the youngster down. But after we departed the human solar system we discovered that Shinzankeehor had left the ship just before we left orbit, without telling anyone, and obviously without authorization. Once we were committed to hyper-space and unable to turn back, I received a recorded message from him– “I must discover the truth about these people.”

Desertion is bad enough– but then we found that Shinzankeehor had taken two fabricator units, an educational unit– and a transmogrification device.

Boss, I promise you that every safeguard and lock-down was in place on the device, but somehow Shinzankeehor managed to overcome or bypass them. The Chief Somaticist tells me that, because our ancestors chose to adopt amphibianism and a bipedal stance, the transmogrifier may just be able to give Shinzankeehor a superficially human appearance– it would have been impossible, he says, if we still had more perfectly piscine forms. The process will be agonizing, but it is possible. So it may be that Shinzankeehor will be able to move among the humans with some freedom– and that we will have great difficulty in finding him.

This is why I wanted to send you this informal note before the full report arrives and blows up. Chew my tail off if you want, Boss– obviously I miscalculated with this youngster. I didn’t think he would charge off on some idealistic quest. I tremble to think what he might do. With the equipment Shinzankeehor stole, he could manufacture almost anything short of an FTL drive, and teach the humans how to use it. All our assessments of when the humans might threaten us may be obsolete very soon.

What are we going to do, boss?

Science fiction doldrums, or a sign of age….

…but doth not the appetite alter? a man loves the meat
in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.

Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing

When I was young– I think Gerald Ford was president– I was an omnivore for science-fiction books and movies. As a teenager I was known to read through entire sci-fi sections of local libraries, and demand more. I would read anything sci-fi, and watch almost anything that appeared to be science-fiction cinema or TV. In the process I read a lot of trashy sci-fi, along with classics many sci-fi fans today have never heard of (how many thirteen-year-olds nowadays have read through Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy? Just saying….), and watched a lot of turkey movies and TV shows, even Space 1999 and UFO, which, at the very least, sharpened my critical faculties.

Doubtless this hunger was driven (in part, at least) by the desert-like conditions of my natal culture, which revolved around westerns and country music. There is only so much Bonanza and Gunsmoke a youngster can watch before there’s a reaction. Perhaps an adolescent rebellion button was pushed, as well, since most of the people around me considered anything sci-fi to be (in the words of my father) “weird stuff”. You have to say it with a Texas accent to get the full flavor.

At the same, there was a genuine love the genre, and where good science-fiction could take me. Unlike my siblings, my imagination flew high and fast with Andre Norton, Heinlein and Asimov, just to name three out of so many. One hour of Star Trek– which I was mostly forbidden to watch in its first run, because it would “warp my brain” (another of my father’s declarations)– charged me like a battery. Even “Spock’s Brain”.

But, over the years, the voracious appetite faded. Doubtless this was inevitable– as we grow older we become more aware of what is good and what is bad, of what works and what doesn’t. But, for me, I seem to lost my ability to suspend judgment of a book I haven’t read. I have, in fact, become enormously picky.

The fact that the genre appears to be in the doldrums doesn’t help. When I go into a major bookstore or the book section of a large store like Target, I see shelf upon shelf of lookalike books– vampires, werewolves, undead, teenage girls with special powers, video game tie-in novels, and usually three or four space-opera series that feature some grim-faced person in a uniform on the cover, along with exploding starships. Everyone seems bent on creating endless imitations of The Hunger Games, or Divergent, or Starship Troopers (only with oodles of sex), or…. you get the picture.

Fantasy is even worse. It used to be that everyone tried to imitate Tolkien. Now everyone is trying to imitate George R. R. Martin. Or Twilight, God help us all (that alone could be a sign that our civilization is crumbling before our eyes).

There is good sci-fi out there– people like John Scalzi and Connie Willis often capture my attention. But they seem few and far between these days.

I still love the genre, but I nowadays find fewer and fewer things to get really excited about. I suggested that the genre is in the doldrums, but I have to admit that it could be, just as much, or as easily, me. For, like Benedick in Much Ado, I have to admit that my tastes, in my old age, may just be changing.

There is, in fact, some evidence of that. I have been seen reading Ragtime and The March by E. L. Doctorow. I just read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time ever. The one fiction series that has managed to capture and hold my interest in recent years has been Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series, in which I have a tremendous store of great writing.

There is even a rumor that I have a copy of Pride and Prejudice in the house.

In truth, I was never exclusively a reader of just science-fiction. I read The Thin Red Line at fourteen and War and Peace at sixteen. I have always loved Shakespeare, and I had a long John D. MacDonald period some years back. My focus, though, for a very long time, was on science-fiction and fantasy, and I’m beginning to suspect that I missed some good stuff. Belatedly, I am starting to redress the deficit.

I’m not giving up on fantasy and science-fiction, but I’m looking to balance out my fictional travels. And maybe I will find as much adventure in Jane Austen as in Robert Heinlein. Just with more tea and less powered-armor….

Lizzie Bennet in powered-armor…wait a minute….

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

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