Found this from a few months ago–
We love you, Joss, but I have to agree with this poster– hands off the Austen! ‘Nuff said.
Found this from a few months ago–
We love you, Joss, but I have to agree with this poster– hands off the Austen! ‘Nuff said.
Didn’t make as much progress on the hard-copy changes for Princess of Shadows last night as I wanted to– it’s hard to type when you’re falling asleep over your manuscript. I guess the four hours a night average I’ve been putting in lately for slumber finally caught up with me. I finally packed it in and went to bed about 9 PM, which is quite early for me.
However, I did make progress and I’m down to maybe 45 pages of changes left to put in. Four or five days should do it.
Meanwhile, I’ve decided to post one more abandoned fragment. One thing about going through my old trunk novels and stories is that I am forcefully reminded of why so much of this material is un-publishable. To put it simply, until perhaps the last ten or so years, my writing has generally sucked. It’s been harder than I thought it would be to find pieces I would be willing to post. On the other hand, I think I could publish a non-fiction book on “how NOT to write” with my own failures as examples (maybe I’ll mark that down as a future project…).
I’m not even sure I can genuinely call this piece ‘abandoned’, even though the three novels I wrote (plus a large portion of a fourth novel, short stories, novellas and a plethora of fragments) in this universe are all un-publishable. The chief protagonist of these stories, Mankin son of Tolen, was my first serious fantasy character, who came to me one summer’s day in 1977. For a long time I wrote no stories but his, and even now, years after I basically abandoned the universe, I come back to this character from time to time to try and figure out how to revive him. Somehow, though, I have never been able to quite make it work. I don’t think the problem is with the characters or the universe; it’s with the execution. I’ve read a lot fantasy over the years, but for some reason my own attempts in the genre come off wooden and clunky. Perhaps I have some residual high-fantasy template in my head I have not been able to completely get rid of. The one fantasy story I’ve published, Diggers, succeeds as well as it does precisely because I changed the setting around to reflect modern-looking elements I can relate to from personal experience (machine-guns instead of broadswords…), and which I could populate with characters I knew and understood from my own history. I have always regretted my inability to get Mankin’s world to work in as satisfying a manner.
This piece is from the opening of one of the later revisions I attempted. Maybe, just maybe, someday I can pull it together.
Copyright 2013 Douglas Daniel
On the sixteenth day men began to die.
The first to go was Tianmere. Two days before he had been stung on the arm by a red scorpion the size of Mankin’s hand. At first he had seemed to be all right, riding on in the early evening and joking with the others. Soon enough, however, it became clear that he was in pain. By the next dawn his arm was swollen to three times its normal size. Soon Tianmere was raving, going back in his mind to the war and the friends he had lost. As the party rested in the heat of the day his ravings and struggles became louder and more violent; it took three men to hold him down. Before sunset he died, screaming in agony. In the twilight they buried him in a shallow grave, and rode on.
Shuneme was next. Crossing the salt flats of Gerasahna by the full of the moon, with the men all drowsing in their saddles and the horses walking with drooping heads, Shuneme strayed too far off the path. His horse broke through a crust of dirt and salt crystal and sank into a morass of saline quicksand hidden underneath. Shuneme gave out one startled cry before he was engulfed; Mankin saw one hand wave above the ground, and then disappear. Nothing more.
On the evening of the twentieth day, as they were looking to start out, they saw a distant shadow on the northern horizon. Within minutes it grew into a howling blizzard of sand. They could not ride; dismounting, they led their horses while hanging on to the tail of the beast in front of them. They stumbled into a rocky ravine, where they huddled under an over-thrust of rock with their animals until the storm was over. When they emerged, the sky was clear; but Chitmere was gone. No one had seen him since the storm began, and he was nowhere to be found afterwards; it was as if the wind and the sand had wiped him from the face of the earth.
Two days after that the water in their skins ran out. They gave the last to their horses, reasoning that if the horses died, they would die as well. Komerte told them they would have to find water soon, or else die.
“Tah,” Jukormu told Mankin as they mounted up. “We must thank him for that brilliant insight. And does he have a plan about how we’re going to find water? Does he have any idea how he’s going to do it? Or is this just another one of his grand gestures, like getting us stuck in this poisoned shit-hole in the first place?”
“Leave it be, Jukormu,” Mankin said. He’d been listening to Jokormu complain since they’d left the Hegemony, and he was sick of it. Only the scale of the man’s complaints had changed—they had started out with mosquitoes and were now about whether they would die of thirst. For his part, Mankin was too tired to rail against anyone. He felt brittle and dried out and ready to snap in two.
There were ten of them left now; Komerte, Jokormu, Lerte, Saname, his brother Soname, Gederte, Kurghin the Shulanite, Terekhani, Kerrensene, and Mankin. The party had started out small and was getting steadily smaller. Mankin wondered if any of them would reach the River Kingdom, or if their whitening bones would just trail off somewhere in the desert, ending up nowhere.
They rode through that night, with the moon rising before them. At least they had no trouble establishing their direction; the skies had been clear since they’d entered the Red Waste, and they were never in danger of losing their way. The River Kingdom was to the east, ahead of them, the Hegemony behind them to the west, and that was all they needed to know at the moment.
When the moon rose there was a moment of excitement, even joy, for the moon rose up from behind a shadowy line of mountains they had not seen before. Mankin, raised in mountains, reckoned they were yet at least ten days away; but a few minutes the men in the party stood in their stirrups and whooped with joy. “It has to be the Mountains of the Western Rivers,” Komerte declared. “We’re in sight of our goal!”
Mankin reckoned that both optimistic and not terribly accurate. Even if those height were the western mountains that bordered the River Kingdom—even if they had not strayed off-course, a grave possibility in Mankin’s estimation– they were not the expedition’s ultimate goal. Their ultimate goal, in fact, was no place at all. It made the business they were on terribly ambiguous.
It did not take long for the men to calm down and resume their ride. As the night passed they left the dunes behind which they had been travelling for three days, and descended into a flat, stony waste that seemed to stretch forever before them. The one advantage Mankin could see to this ground was that it was a good as a road in terms of traveling; but it would be a frying pan in the heat of the day. They would need to find shelter of some sort well before the sun rose.
They did not. For a good portion of the night Komerte and Kurghin talked as they rode; when everyone stopped for a rest, while the sun was still down, Komerte told them, “Kurghin is sure there is a water-hole close by. He says that if we push on we can reach it before noon. But we can’t stop here on this flat. We have to push on.”
“And if the Shulanite is wrong,” Terekhani said, “we will die.” The old soldier’s face was sunburnt and caked with dust, so that his eyes appeared to peer out from within a mask.
“We’ll die if we stay out here,” Komerte said. “There’s no shelter. Kurghin says there is an oasis in a ravine, where there is shade and water both. He says the Asani people lived there, in the old times, and built a temple.”
“‘Kurghin says’,” Saname mocked. “Always it’s Kurghin says. We’re in the mess we’re in because we’ve followed the word of this dirty-assed foreigner.”
Kurghin, sitting his horse next to Komerte, turned to look at Saname. The Shulanite was not supposed to know that much Attau, but apparently he’d gotten Saname’s gist. “Go home then, horse-tamer,” he said in Trade. “Go back on your oath. Go home to dishonor, with your tail tucked. All it will prove is that your mother coupled with a rabbit, and not a drop of man’s blood flows in your veins.”
Saname growled, and reached for his sword. His brother grabbed at his arm, as Komerte shoved his horse forward. “Don’t you dare draw your blade!” he told Saname. “I mean it, Saname—let go of your hilt. Now.”
Saname glared at him, then slammed his sword back into its scabbard. Mankin had seen three inches of naked steel. He breathed out a quiet sigh of relief.
“Fighting among ourselves is pointless,” Komerte said. “Kurghin is our only guide, and we have to trust what he says. You all swore an oath. You knew this was not going to be a stroll through a flowery field. It’s not Kurghin’s fault, nor mine, nor yours, that our friends have died. It’s the Red Waste.”
“But if we can get out of this damned desert and to the Western Mountains, we’ll have a chance to live and fulfill our oaths. So, yes, we’re going to listen to Kurghin. Unless someone else has crossed this desert before?”
It was not a rhetorical question; Komerte waited for someone to speak up. All of them were silent. “Right. So if we’re done bickering, let’s ride.”
A few hours later, the sun rose, a blazing eye of death. As it climbed up the eastern sky, Mankin could feel it sucking the life out of him. It was now a race between the sun and finding this oasis Kurghin spoke of. If it existed.
Riding with the sun blasting at him, Mankin’s thoughts drifted away into some place midway between memory and delusion. For a moment, in the shimmering heat that rose off the desert, the men and horses ahead of him seemed to be insubstantial hallucinations. He felt disconnected from himself, from here and now—was he riding in the Red Waste, or was it the long march from Harrow to Skull Bluff, with the stink of rotting men and horses by the wayside in his nostrils? That ride had been hot, too, and the wells poisoned by the retreating insurgents.
But Alektl had been with him then. His wife had insisted on traveling with the army, even though she was very near her time. “The baby will be the son of a horse-tamer,” she’d told him. “He needs to get used to being on horseback.”
But the child had been a daughter. That had been proven when the insurgents cut the baby from Alektl’s belly.
Someone shouted. Mankin, dazed with the sun, his head aching, the scar on his face hurting like a ribbon of fire, didn’t understand the words. He shook his head, blinked, and squinted into the heat and sunlight.
It was Komerte. Yards ahead of everyone else, he stood in his stirrups and shouted again, pointing ahead. “The oasis! We’ve found it!”
The men and their animals nearly stampeded down the path into the ravine. The gap in the earth was perhaps a couple hundred yards wide and a hundred deep, and the path down into it might have allowed three men to ride abreast with ease. No one paid attention to the width of the path, though, in their eagerness to reach the stream at its bottom. Mankin was just thankful to the Unchanging that no one was shoved over the edge.
The water was sweet and cool, flowing over smooth stones. The stream was lined with tall palm trees that cast a cool blanket of shade over its banks. The men threw themselves down beside the water and drank, laughed and splashed one another, and then drank again. The horses drank beside the men, until Kurghin and Terekhani began to gather reins and pull the animals away. Under the palms, though, there was plenty of grass, so there was no difficulty in distracting the animals until they had cooled down in the shade.
Once everyone had drunk their fill, they filled their water-skins to bursting. Then they sat for a while in that shade; and now that their minds were unoccupied with thirst, they noticed the walls of the ravines.
Everywhere they looked ruined, tumbled walls stood.
There were ruins on the floor of the canyon, and more ruins higher along the walls on terraces. Crumbled staircases connected the different levels. Now that they had the leisure to look, even the path the Attau had come down showed signs it had once been a road. The ruins stretched out of sight in both directions along the course of the ravine.
There was no sign of living inhabitants, save birds and some bats. The Attau, staring about themselves in wonder, listened, but heard no sounds but the wind.
Komerte called them together. “Kurghin says that this was a high city of the Asani, before the Winter War,” he told them. “The Asani were allies and vassals of the Kunai, but it did them no good. They’re long gone.”
“We should still be careful,” Terekhani said. He looked better now that he’d washed his face. “This would be a good hiding place for bandits and outlaws.”
“Yes,” Komerte said. “We all should keep our guard up. Kurghin says the stream flows out of a cavern, a mile down the ravine. We can shelter there.”
Kurghin led the way. The Attau led their horses. All the way to the cavern they passed more and more ruins; in some places it appeared that mansions had been carved into the ravine walls, alongside lesser dwellings, temples, granaries, and a wide marketplace on both sides of the stream. All silent, all empty—the Attau moved in a hush, oppressed by the ancient eeriness of the place.
They reached the cavern, a wide, circular opening thirty feet across. The stream flowed right out of its mouth. Just inside the Attau made camp, built a fire and mixed the last of their corn meal with water to make cakes. Kurghin took his bow and went off to see if he could bring down some water fowl.
Once the horses were staked out and the fire was going, Mankin had no duties. He felt a tug of curiosity. This cavern was not dark; diffuse sunlight shone from within, suggesting it was open somewhere in its inner reaches. Feeling a good deal better now with a gallon or so of water in him, he decided not to bother Komerte with asking permission to explore. Mankin quietly walked upstream.
The light grew brighter as he went. A hundred yards in, he found that the stream cascaded down from an opening, high up on a rock wall, into a pool about knee-deep. The cavern itself continued some yards further back. Just over the cascade the cavern roof was gone; a ragged gap fringed with stone and dangling ferns framed blue, blue sky.
Mankin stood in the pool beneath the spring and let the water fall on his face. It was like the kiss of an angel. He opened his mouth; the water tasted like life itself.
Having quenched his thirst again, Mankin climbed out of the pool and wandered back further into the cavern. If, indeed, it were a cavern at all; in the filtered sunlight he could see mortared stone lining the walls on either hand. He walked on and under the sand he felt the even hardness of paving stones, buried a few inches deep; here and there the sand had washed away to reveal the paving itself.
He walked on; a few more yards and the space opened out into an echoing chamber, with a high ceiling that admitted beams of sunlight in one or two places. Here stood columns, holding up what was left of the roof, in a double row. The columns still showed the faint outlines of sculpted friezes—twining vines, flowers and leaping gazelles. But the carvings were worn and crumbling; two or three of the columns exhibited rather frightening cracks down their length. Old, Mankin thought—older than anything in the Hegemony, of a certainty.
The columns ended before a high wall of masonry, discolored with moss and stained by water. On a dais before the wall stone a giant statue. It was of no god or goddess Mankin recognized; a mammoth stone idol, with a benignly smiling face that could be either male or female. The sense of ambiguity was reinforced as Mankin noticed the multiple breasts the statue bore on its chest, which juxtaposed oddly with the huge, jutting phallus between its legs.
But for Mankin the most disturbing aspect of the idol was its arms. It had a multitude of them, ten at least, and possibly more that had been broken off. Arms that were raised, or extended, or resting akimbo on the idol’s hip; arms holding out an empty hand in welcome, holding up a sword, or extending a stone scythe as if to reap worshippers like ripe grain. To Mankin it was alien and repulsive; the idol seemed to loom over him, threatening him with a false face.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, all at once. It was not, he realized, the idol. Perhaps it was something in the still air, some shift that was less than a breath, but more than nothing. Mankin froze, listening. To his ears came the faintest sound, the barest skit of one stone slipping on another. Genuine fear swept through him, washing away his repulsion for the statue. His left hand stole to his sword-hilt, but he sensed it would be folly to draw. Instead, he backed away slowly, going back the way he had come in.
He backed all the way out into the pool. Only then did he turn and run.
This could be truly epic if I ever figure it out, because from here it goes on to disaster, intrigue, battles, quests and love. Someday….
The last few days I’ve been dealing with a sudden crisis in the third draft of Princess of Shadows. There I was, innocently going along, inputing the hard-copy changes, when I was ambushed. Horrible cross-fire, screams, confusion, casualties mounting. Things looked grim.
To translate this into writer-speak, as I put in the changes (which has been amounting to a second read-through of the manuscript) I suddenly realized that an extensive passage right in the middle of the text just didn’t work. The passage was too long; even worse, things weren’t going badly enough for Kathy– there wasn’t enough tension and danger.
The sense that bad things need to happen to your characters is related to a concept that some people call “the Joss Whedon Principle”–
Mr. Bourbeau’s blog is in specific reference to creating and running a horror RPG campaign, but the principle is derived from Whedon’s writing for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and his other creations. And, as far as I am concerned, it applies to any fictional universe.
This is how I phrase the principle– in a dramatic work, particularly a piece of action-adventure, you have to– have to— put your characters in jeopardy. The jeopardy has to be real– and, as a consequence, real prices have to be paid. People suffer and die. Even victories must be purchased with blood and suffering. The principle is applicable even to genres where the peril is emotional or spiritual, rather than physical. Whatever peril your protagonist is liable to get into, it has to be real.
Of course, Joss Whedon didn’t invent this idea– it’s been around since the Iliad. But his particular application of this concept is unique and pretty much a hallmark of his work. You fundamentally don’t know what’s going to happen to his characters, and that brings a fresh sense of life to his writing.
(More spoilerish stuff herein doth follow. If thou wisheth not to be spoilereth, avert thine eyes).
For me, the BtVS moment that proved this principle was “Becoming”, the finale of the second season. Angel, as the monstrous Angelus (cuddly Angel minus soul = meany Angelus), is about to awaken the demon Acathla and open a hell vortex that will destroy the world. The only thing that will seal the vortex and save the world is Angelus’ own blood. Buffy fights Angelus even as Willow, her buddy and budding witch, attempts to restore Angel’s soul remotely from her hospital bed (these guys have already been through some pretty rough times). Just as Buffy overcomes Angelus, Willow restores his soul and he becomes Angel again. But the demon is awakening, the hell-vortex is opening, and despite the momentary joy of Angel’s restoration, Buffy still has to stab him through with a sword and shove him into the vortex. World saved, but Buffy is left broken and hollow because of the sacrifice she has had to make.
I watched that episode when it first aired with my then-writing group. I remember our collective reaction as “No, NO, NOO!” But, personally, that precise moment was worth an entire graduate-school writing class for me. It brought home clearly the idea that dramatic writing needs conflict, peril and resolution, and maybe not always the happiest possible resolution, either.
So, regarding Princess of Shadows, in the first place I realized radical surgery was needed to cut the excess flab out of the sequence. As a result I cut about 5000 words in the interest of moving the action along. More than that, though, I needed to ramp the danger back up. I tried several things, some of which actually made the problem worse, but I have finally hit on what I think is a solution. A very sad and unhappy solution, but then Kathy is in a very sad and unhappy place, all of which makes for (hopefully) a better story.
One caveat– I’m not just sticking random danger into the story, like wandering monsters in World of Warcraft. The elevated peril Kathy finds herself in develops organically (I hope) from the tensions and dangers already established in the story. I just needed to exploit the possibilities of what I had already laid out. You don’t want random danger– the peril should (in theory) build toward a climax that ties everything together.
I think I am now on the other side of the ambush, having assaulted my way through. I will resume putting in the hard copy changes and hopefully, maybe have all of them in by October 1st. Shortly thereafter I can start handing over this puppy to my beta readers.
Assuming the bad guys aren’t setting up another trip-wire on the trail ahead….
I made good progress last night on putting in changes for Shadows, but I am at the point where I need to take time to make some minor additions (a few hundred words each) in different places to iron out thin spots or rectify some piece of action that just didn’t work. I anticipated having to do so, so I am not terribly worried about it. More critically, though, at this point I have only cut the text down to something just under 169,000 words, which is still too large (as a comparison, Tolkien’s Return of the King is only about 137,000 words). It seems unlikely now that I will get this novel under 140,000, a number I had in the back of my head as a target size. I don’t want to engage in radical surgery, but I don’t want Shadows to drag like a boat-anchor, either. I will just have to see.
Meanwhile, I have another fragment to pull out of the dust-bin. This segment is from the same alternate-history novel as fragment #1, but precedes it in the story’s chronology. The Confederation sends out a reconnaissance (a ‘recce’) to investigate a mysterious Spanish base in Holland.
Copyright 2013 Douglas Daniel
The jet cleared the cliffs and left the coast of Scotland behind. Ahead lay the North Sea, aglimmer with moonlight and the reflected lights of the shore. The pilot could make out the glow of the coasts of Europe ahead as a distant haze of light, but beyond that there was only the night.
“Well, if they didn’t know we were coming, they do now.” The nav-widef operator’s voice was laconic and amused in the pilot’s headphones; but he could still hear the younger man’s tension.
“They were going to twig eventually,” the pilot replied. Inevitably they had passed over towns and hamlets as they crossed Scotland; even it wasn’t so sparsely peopled that a straight-line course could avoid every human habitation. And they had to fly a direct route, no fuel margin for anything else. The pilot felt an irrational twinge of guilt; beyond doubt they had left a path of ten thousand broken windows in their wake, flying nape of the earth at transonic speeds. They’d leave ten thousand more on their way home– if they made it that far.
The pilot eased the RJ-22 down closer to the surface of the water, shedding the altitude that had carried them over Scotland. One hundred-fifty feet, one hundred, eighty…there he hung it. Any lower and they might get caught in their own spray.
“We’re putting up a mighty big rooster tail,” the navigator said.
“Just so we stay ahead of it,” the pilot said. “Keep the nav and widef reports coming—I don’t want to smack a fishing-boat’s mast without at least a formal introduction.”
“Roger. We’re on-course, waypoint Midge coming up. Nothing on the forward scope.”
“Understood.” So perhaps all the multinational fisherfolk who crowded these waters by day had gone home of the night. Good. This mission was chancy enough without hitting a boat at these speeds.
They’d waited a week for a clear night on which to fly this mission. The pilot would have preferred flying by the dark of the moon, but his commander had said that waiting two more weeks was out of the question. Supreme Command wanted pictures of the complex by the Zuyder Zee yesterday– so that meant that the full moon would be their cheery companion while they were over the target. “Just keep moving,” was what the commander had said. The pilot had resisted the urge to tell his superior officer what he could move.
While waiting for clear skies the pilot had studied the available maps and intelligence on the target until he was seeing the complex in his sleep. Four targets, scattered across miles of flat pastureland, polders and islands at the southern end of the Zee—together with enough anti-aircraft emplacements, both guns and surface-to-air missiles, to shoot down a whole bomber fleet. That much protection around a Spanish site had apparently excited interest somewhere up the food-chain; but no one had bothered to share their guesses about what the Spanish were up to in Holland with the pilot and his navigator.
Get in, get the pictures, get out; the three Gets of Recon. The pilot wished it was that simple. Truth was, no one had ever tried an aerial recce this deep into Spanish territory before, and certainly not with a fast-burner. They’d talked about sending in a prop-driven RP-101, which certainly had the range. But the brass had realized that the slower craft would spend too much time in Spanish-controlled airspace and would almost certainly be shot down. The RJ had a better chance of getting in and out fast, and staying ahead of interceptors. Their fuel-margin would be next to non-existent, though, since they had been flying firewalled and nape of the earth since entering Spanish airspace. The pilot thought about that and wondered why he had volunteered.
A two-tone alarm sounded softly on the control panel. “External tanks empty,” the navigator announced. “Switching to internal.”
“Understood,” the pilot said. He eased the plane up, cautiously. “Jettison the externals.” He added another smidge of altitude; it would be really embarrassing for them to be knocked out of the sky by their own fuel tanks ricocheting off the surface of the ocean.
“Roger.” There were twin thumps on either hand. The pilot glimpsed in his rear-view mirror the white spray the tanks created when they hit the water.
“We’re clear,” the navigator said.
“Good.” The pilot eased the plane back down. The tanks had gotten them much more than halfway to the target, just as planned. They were what had made the mission possible in the first place; on internal tanks alone the RJ-22 would have run dry about 900 miles short on the way back, somewhere over the very cold waters past the Faeroes. The tanks, outsized and custom-designed for the mission, had been so heavy that the pilot had barely been able to get the jet off the runway at takeoff. He’d cursed them then; now he took back every word.
They rode in silence for a long time, seeming almost to skim the water. The pilot tried to stay alert; they had known that this would be the hardest part of the mission until they actually reached the target. Not just because they were running down an alley with Imperial widef coverage on three sides, but also because the slightest mistake or inattention could plow them into the sea before they could blink.
“Waypoint Midge,” the navigator said at last. “Dutch coast up next. We’re on course, no hostiles on the scope.”
“At some point they’re going to have wake up,” the pilot said.
“Hopefully everybody still thinks we’re joy-riding hotshots of the brave League Air Force,” the navigator said. “You know the type—scarves, mustachios, a little sestina at the café before a leisurely siesta and a fifteen minute evening patrol.”
“Sounds like the life. Let’s hope you’re right.”
“It’s sure thing, captain. I…dammit, surface contacts! Dead ahead, ten miles—one, two, three, five fishing boats or trawlers.”
“Coming up,” the pilot said. He took the RJ higher, nudging her over one hundred feet and leveling off. At better than nine hundred miles an hour the plane would cover that ten miles in less than a minute. “How big do they look?”
The forward-scanning widef on the jet was sensitive enough to resolve the ears on a man’s head. “Small fry, sir; you should clear them easy.”
The pilot grunted. “Good.”
At that moment the pilot spotted the fishing boats, outlined sharply in the moonlight against the water. They seemed to be hove to for the night. They loomed for an instant as silvered shadows, and then flashed past beneath them. At once the pilot eased the RJ back down.
“Whoa—they all rolled like bowling pins,” the navigator said. “They stayed afloat, but I doubt anybody’s still asleep on any of them.”
“Pretty close for a sonic boom,” the pilot said. That was something he could have done without; their own parting advertisement, trailing just behind them. Anybody with half an ear would know that a transonic plane had just scorched their roof-tiles, or, in this case, pilothouse; and the Spanish didn’t have many jets that fast. One more thing he couldn’t do anything about, like the sweat pooling under his armpits.
The pilot made a decision. “Going to light enhancement.”
Holding the stick in one hand, the pilot used the other to slip the goggles riding on his forehead down over his eyes and activate them. At once the night disappeared, and the world turned a grainy green. The pilot could see the ocean below, see the gentle waves on its surface; the moonlight glimmer became a sparkle. The pilot marveled at this machine, even more remarkable than infrared goggles; he could even see wispy cirrus clouds far overhead. He reminded himself to be cautious; although with the moonlight the light-enhancer’s made the night very nearly like daylight, his field of vision was quite restricted, and things like high-tension power lines and the tips of wireless antenna towers would still be hard to see. And the batteries in the device wouldn’t last forever. But he felt better being able to see what was ahead.
“Keep the widef reports coming, Paul,” he told the navigator. “I can’t see everything, even with these new eyes.”
“Yes, sir. We’re on course, Waypoint Nudge and the Dutch coast in three minutes. We’re painting it now; no sign of hostiles.”
Beyond a few miles the green faded into indistinct mists; not actual mists, but the limits of the light enhancement devices; except, here and there, the pilot could pick clusters of light, man-made illumination– farmhouses, hamlets, off to the left a major glow that could only be a city. That was good; once they started to pass over inhabited areas the light-enhancer could only improve in performance.
And then the coast emerged from the mist, resolving into a low shoreline with sand dunes and tidal marshes. “Coast in sight!” the pilot called.
“Waypoint Nudge– now,” the navigator said.
The coast rushed at them and passed underneath. The pilot had to gain very little altitude to clear the dunes; now he understood what they meant when they called this place ‘the low countries’. The jet thundered across polder and marsh, its sonic boom shaking the land and the backwaters.
“Come right five degrees,” the navigator said.
“Coming right five.” The pilot careful put the jet over on its new course. At once they were over water again– the Zuyder Zee itself.
“That’s it! You’re dead on course; four minutes to the first IP at Harderwijk.”
“Arming cameras.” Those were the only weapons the RJ-22 possessed; one stereoscopic camera with light-enhancement, an infrared camera, and a high-speed camera linked to a strobe light that could take a hundred frames a second. They would need every ounce of their speed; with the jet making almost twelve miles a minute they would be over each target for only moments. That was one drawback of using a jet for this work. Another was the fact that the RJ-22, while as fast or faster than most fighters, was nowhere as nimble; they would have to come back and line up on each of the targets after making turns that would carry them back out over the Zee to the north and nearly halfway to Arnhem to the south. The targets were clustered between Harderwijk and Nunspeet in an arrangement that seemed almost calculated to frustrate aerial reconnaissance. Which perhaps it was. They would each have to have a run of their own.
The pilot had told himself he would not do what he now did; he looked to his right. Just a glance; enough to see the bright glow, in the distance, of Amsterdam. It was as close as he was ever likely to get to his ancestors’ home; their very good and prosperous home, before the Spanish won the war against the Dutch Protestants. And here he was, generations later. The pilot reflected that God must love irony.
“Thirty seconds,” the navigator said. “We committing?”
Get tight, the pilot told himself. “Committing.”
There was the coast again; and now the pilot could see the glow of the two towns that were his boundary markers, on his left and on his right. He brought the jet up, to just under a hundred feet, partly for safety, partly to give the cameras a better field. They cleared the salt marshes and thundered inland.
The pilot could hear the navigator taking in a breath. “IP One…now!”
“Cameras on.” The pilot thumbed the master switch on his joystick. He could hear the whine of the cameras over the roar of the jet’s engines.
The light-enhancer showed the pilot that they had hit their first target dead-on; a huge complex of barracks, workshops, and motor parks. They shrieked over the buildings and were almost immediately over countryside again.
Light flashed, and the plane bounced; airbursts decorated the sky above them. “Goddamn,” the navigator said, “there is someone awake down there.”
The pilot glanced overhead. “They mis-fused the first volley. They aimed too high. Won’t happen on the second pass.” He checked the cameras; they had shut off automatically on schedule. “Give me a course.”
“Keep hanging it straight for thirty seconds, then come right one-three-zero degrees.”
They rocketed off over the countryside, leaving the flash and rumble of the antiaircraft behind. The pilot did a quick inventory of the plane. He could see nothing that indicated battle-damage; the plane’s speed was good, fuel level steady, no alarms.
He looked up from the half-second glance. What he saw, the navigator saw on his widef scope at the same instant.
“POWER LINES!” they both screamed at once, a synchronicity that would have been hilarious under other circumstances. The pilot pushed the stick down, resisted the panicked urge to shove it hard. The plane dipped and shot under the low-arching wires with what looked to be only inches to spare. Steel towers flashed past on either side, looming monstrously close and tall.
Then they were clear. The pilot eased the plane up again before it found a tree trunk to smack into. The sky was clear, the horizon empty of further snaggy obstacles.
There was a long moment of silence in the cockpit. “Sir,” the navigator said at last, “I have to report that I have pissed myself.”
At that moment the pilot found nothing funny about the statement. He told his own stomach to stop leaping about and making such a fuss. “Don’t think you’re the first navigator to ever do that,” he said. “Forget about it; stay focused. What’s my course now?”
The pilot heard the navigator take a deep breath. “Come left one-six-three degrees.”
The pilot swung the plane around in a broad arc. He glimpsed pastures and plowed earth below their left wing; in one meadow, he spied a herd of cows. The animals were on their feet and running; running, he realized, from his plane, which to them was an unholy noise out of the clear night sky. He liked cows; he felt another unreasonable flash of guilt.
“Here come the lines again, sir,” the navigator said tightly.
Forewarned now, the pilot eased the jet down in plenty of time. They cleared the lines with ease and pulled up smoothly on the other side. “See,” the pilot said, yielding to a speck of humor, “it’s not so bad when you practice a little.”
The pilot sensed rather than saw the navigator giving him the finger. All the navigator said was, “Twenty seconds to second IP, sir. You’re on course.”
Now it was the pilot’s turn to perform a sphincter-check. There was an old joke that it was ill-advised to make a second run through an antiaircraft zone you had just riled up. The pilot reckoned that preparing to do it for the second time out of four tries marked you as certifiable. I may be crazy after this. If he lived.
“Second IP!” the navigator shouted.
“Cameras running,” the pilot said.
The airbursts started at once, much closer this time, shaking the jet. The pilot held on to it, knowing they had little margin for recovery if they were hit. Running AA at ten thousand feet, where you had room to think of something before hitting the unforgiving ground was one thing; doing it at ninety feet where the least mistake could plow you into the earth, with no time to eject or even think oh, shit, was another. His back was drenched with sweat as he concentrated on keeping the plane level and watching for more power-lines or aerials.
The second target rolled past under the plane. There were two zones; the first was a huge complex of what appeared to be ammo bunkers, although the actual number of bunkers was small, only about thirty or so within a vast system of concentric fences and gates that would have outdone any prison in the Confederation. One of the bunkers, however, was huge; it passed under the plane and the pilot heard the navigator whistle. The thing was half-buried, but the pilot could see that it was easily five or six acres in area, and appeared to be massively armored with steel and concrete.
Just beyond the bunker complex was an airfield, a large complex in its own right, with three runways, a concrete and steel control tower, hangars, and large fuel points. The runway looked long enough to handle any size aircraft.
Then they were past it. The pilot brought the jet up a little, to clear the coastal dunes. Almost at once they were angling out over the Zee.
Something kicked the plane in the tail. The pilot cursed and fought to control the machine. If they had been twenty feet lower the plane might have plowed into the Zee. As it was the pilot screamed with the effort to get the jet’s nose back up. It seemed to skim the waters– surely that had to be the pilot’s imagination– before angling up and shooting back skyward on its engines.
“Give me a report!” the pilot demanded.
“Looks like we took a burst pretty close off our left rear, sir,” the navigator said. His voice was strained. “Engines are still good, but we’ve got some fairly impressive holes in the number two left aileron and the vertical stabilizer. How are the controls?”
“A little hard to move, but we still got them.” Actually, the control surfaces were as stiff as an old preacher. But there was no jars or hangs in the rudder and aileron action; the pilot could still control his craft. He swept his eyes over the fuel gauges. They didn’t seem to be losing fuel. “We’re flyable.”
The pilot suddenly noticed the navigator’s voice. “Are you all right?”
“I took some frags,” the navigator said, his voice tight with pain. “Mostly my arm, I think.”
“How bad you bleeding, Paul?” The pilot instinctively tried to turn around to look, but his light-enhancer was in the way.
“It feels like a flesh wound; I’m functional.”
The pilot permitted himself one moment of dithering, then said, “Get yourself bandaged as best you can. What’s my course for the third IP?”
They turned right in a broad, looping circle that carried them, by necessity, far to the north and down to the east. The center of their circle was Nunspeet, a splash of white brightness close by the dark, shallow sea, always on their right. As they crossed back over the coast and leveled out on course for the third IP, that brightness suddenly winked out. The pilot had an instant to wonder if the light-enhancer were failing, when the lights of the base complexes ahead began to go out as well, and then the further glow of Harderwijk disappeared.
“Was wondering how long it would take them to get around to that,” the navigator said. The pilot realized that he was witnessing a belated blackout going into effect. Were the air-raid sirens sounding only now down below? It seemed typically Spanish; late by half.
They began to pick up AA again, more scattered than before, as if the Spaniards had blinded themselves in turning off the lights. “Ten seconds to third IP,” the navigator said, sounding a little sluggy but carrying on.
“Roger.” The pilot put his finger on the camera button.
They hit the IP and the cameras whined. The pilot pictured what was going on in the camera compartments; the ultra high-speed film screaming through the cameras, moving from one cassette to another. If the film were to break it would jam itself into the recesses of the cartridge and the photo boffins would have to open the whole mechanism in a completely dark room if they hoped to recover any images at all, and the pilot wondered why he was worrying about such things as the first part of the third target passed underneath.
This was more ambiguous; a series of buried chambers or bunkers, marked only by the great steel doors that opened onto a huge apron of concrete. The hardstand was linked to a set of well-paved roads. There were eight or ten of the chambers, apparently cylindrical in cross-section, but well-buried.
“Shit,” the navigator said. “We got a widef signal painting us…they got a lock.”
“Feed ’em chaff,” the pilot said.
The plane shuddered. “Chaff away.”
The pilot pictured the chaff grenades exploding in the plane’s wake, the shimmering streamers of foil drifting and twisting in the plane’s wake. Then he forgot about it completely as the second part of the target appeared. This was another underground facility, but its purpose was more clear; the lines of concrete-armored piping leading away from the facility suggested fuel or liquid gas of some kind. The camera whined and shut off as they left the tank farm behind.
“Shook the lock…no, dammit, it’s back. Shit, we got a missile launch!”
“Flares!” The pilot shoved the plane even lower and prayed there were no big trees in their path.
Light burst in their wake. “Give me a course away,” the pilot demanded.
“Come left ninety degrees– and watch out for those damn power lines.”
“Turning.” The pilot swung the plane left; the ground seemed very close.
The sky erupted in flame behind them. The plane bounced and shimmied as a shockwave shook it. “Missile hit one of the flares,” the navigator said, triumphant. “Thank God for second-rate Spanish missiles.”
“Don’t count your missiles before they’re launched,” the pilot muttered. He leveled out.
An alarm went off, a high-pitched whistle. “We’re bingo for fuel,” the navigator said. “You want a course out of here?”
The pilot hesitated. His navigator was wounded, the plane damaged, and they had just escaped a surface-to-air missile by the grace of God and a twenty-crown flare. In the end, though, there was no choice.
“We gotta hit that last target. We got a few hundred pounds extra margin. It’s on the way out of here, anyway.”
“More or less. All right, I’ll give you a course as soon as get past those power lines.” The navigator killed the alarm.
They shot under the lines for the third time this night; the pilot was becoming almost comfortable with them. Almost. He felt sinfully proud that he was dealing better with them than the navigator.
“All right– run her for twenty seconds, and then come left one-seven-five degrees.”
They ran out, turned, passed under the lines again, and the pilot could hear the navigator’s audible sigh of relief. He pulled the plane up to one hundred feet; their last target was a strange, dike-like structure close to the coast, and he wanted to make sure he cleared it. He shrugged to himself at the added risk from ground-fire. Surely God wouldn’t let them eat a missile now, when they were so close to finishing. The pilot hoped God agreed with him.
“Fourth IP in ten seconds.”
The pilot could already see the fourth target ahead in the light-enhancer; a berm or dyke like a wall a mile long across their path. He nudged the RJ-22 up higher. Oddly, they were taking no AA fire.
There was something strange about the top of the dike. Huge concrete pads or plates lined its top, with a couple hundred yards separation between each of them. One of these, however, appeared to be out of place; a small tower of some sort stood beside it. They were on it, bouncing over the wall like a runner vaulting a fence, before the pilot realized what he was looking at.
“Holy SHIT!” he yelled, even as the missile– a huge missile, being lowered into some sort of lighted cylindrical cavity deep enough to hide the whole machine– flashed past underneath. “Was that what I think it is?”
“An SICR,” the navigator whispered. “A fucking Strategic Intercontinental Rocket. I thought we wiped those out last year.”
Both men had had friends in the bomber force that had destroyed the Lisbon rocket base the previous year. Many of them had not come back. “We didn’t knock the knowledge of how to make them out of the graybacks’ heads.” Suddenly High Command’s interest in the base became clear.
AA bursts erupted around the plane. “Dammit.” Now the Spanish were shooting– which made sense, since the RJ-22 was headed away from the precious rocket. The pilot reasoned that the graybacks must have been testing whatever platform raised and lowered the rocket when the Americans started their camera runs over the base, and for some reason had not been able to lower the missile at once. The pilot shoved the plane down on the deck again.
“Going home. Give me a course.”
The navigator didn’t answer at once. “Paul?” the pilot called.
“Sorry, sir– just feeling a little woozy….”
“Dammit, Paul, don’t you pass out on me! I need you. Give me a course.”
The pilot could hear the navigator take another deep breath. “Come right…thirty-two degrees.” He hesitated. “Aw, hell…I’m tracking multiple high-performance targets. Looks like…they finally got those fighter jocks out of bed.”
“Screw them. Let them eat our exhaust.” With even a few miles head start the recon jet could outpace the Spanish fighters. If the fighters didn’t have missiles. If the Americans didn’t run out of fuel. “Just give them the finger for me, huh?”
The navigator didn’t answer. “Paul?” Still no answer. The pilot glanced in his rear-view mirror. The navigator was slumped to one side.
The pilot looked ahead, across the moonlit sea. Just get him home. The pilot sent up a silent prayer and pulled the jet over to the course the navigator had given him, pointing its nose toward Iceland.
The novel this came out of was entitled A New Heaven and A New Earth, and it was the longest and most complex novel I had written to that point (nine years ago)– 131,000 words with multiple story-lines and characters. In the novel there were several sub-stories, such as this one, which were not part of the main story-line but whose events influenced what happened to the main characters. This one almost stands on its own as a short-story, but not quite. I hope it was enjoyable.
I am now better than a third of the way through entering the red-pen edits on Princess of Shadows. I’m making good changes, and the word count is coming down (not quickly, but it’s getting there). As drawn-out as the process is, its visibly making this piece stronger with each page I complete.
Every time I do this sort of editing, though, I re-learn a truth– even what I have marked down on the hard-copy is subject to negotiation. I will enter entire pages of edits, and then something will catch my eye, I’ll read a particular passage again, and I’ll think, Well, I can get that even tighter, or I really should put that back in. I’ll hit a certain passage and realize it needs a little expansion, or I’ll wonder how the hell did I miss that convoluted piece of grammar?
If this were simply a matter of entering changes I could do fifty pages a night and have finished the business by now. Instead, I do find myself thinking and rethinking as I go (this is quite aside from the extra minutes I spend trying to figure out what I meant by now-obscure scribbles). The end result is that most pages have at least some extra thought going into them.
This process also, once again, rubs my nose in my bad habits. I think I’ve internalized avoiding excess adjectives and adverbs, but for some reason my viewpoint characters’ perceptions of things are highly tentative and qualified, at least in draft– to them most things ‘apparently’ ‘perhaps’ ‘seem to be’ about to happen. It’s like these guys don’t trust anything in their universe to be what it is. I’m spending a lot of time correcting this sort of thing, but it may eventually come down to a search and destroy mission with find and replace.
I hope to maintain a better pace over the next week or so, but life is still lobbing mortar shells at me at odd intervals. Most especially, my day-job situation is far from resolved. I wish I could say that this is the moment I begin my career as a full-time writer, but my sales on Kindle are nowhere near what they need to be to justify that sort of transtion (they are, in fact, rather close to what you would call ‘zero’). So the best I can do at the moment is to do the best I can do.
I have resumed progress on Princess of Shadows. I mean it. Really. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share some thoughts on another subject.
A few days back I went to see Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing.
I really looked forward to seeing this– I mean, oh, my God, it’s Joss Whedon! Doing Shakespeare! That’s almost as good as Joss Whedon! Doing X-Men! (ahem). Add to that the fact that Much Ado is one of my favorites of Bill’s plays, and the anticipation level was high.
And I will tell you what I thought of the movie just as soon as I figure out what I thought of the movie.
Actually, that’s stretching it more than a little. I liked the movie; but my initial reaction to it was very odd. This version, filmed on a tiny budget in Whedon’s own home in a few days, in black-and-white, no less, has so many actors Whedon has worked with before– Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Sean Maher, Clark Gregg, etc, etc. It was fun watching all these very good actors together, most of whom I remember from staggeringly great TV and movies, doing something different. Alexis Denisof was good as Benedict, and Amy Acker was a great Beatrice. Of course, I think Amy Acker is one of the most incandescently beautiful women in show business and I would watch her reading government press releases. As Beatrice, she is perhaps the standout actress in the ensemble– by turns funny, sad, fierce and sharp-tongued– and, man, can she do a heroic pratfall.
Another standout is Clark Gregg, who plays Leonato. Gregg is one of those actors who you always see in films as characters but who never seems to draw a lot of attention to himself– except, of course, he is now getting a lot of attention (at least among the fan-folk) for his roles in the Marvel Iron Man, Thor and Avengers movies. He broke everybody’s heart in Avengers in which he had one of the best death scenes in recent comic-book movie history. As Leonato he starts out quiet, until the wedding, when he explodes, torn between shame over Hero and vengeance for the Prince and Claudio’s insult.
And that brings me to my reaction to the movie. Basically, this movie is so very, very low-key that I had trouble at first tracking it– at least, until the wedding. In the first part of the movie, everybody delivers their lines easily and matter-of-factly and the action is easy-going. Beatrice and Benedict do spark off each other, but their repartee is cool and restrained. And that’s where I realized that my perception of Much Ado has probably been distorted by the Kenneth Branagh movie version from 1993. That version is fun, but it’s infamously over the top, especially with that cavalry charge opening sequence.
There’s no cavalry charge in Whedon’s version, and not just because they couldn’t afford horses on their budget (the Prince and his entourage show up at Leonato’s in cars, and not even limos). Whedon’s Much Ado is so laid back that I have to think it’s an intentional directorial choice– a decision to be the anti-Branagh with this material. As such, it’s refreshing– it’s just my own head that needed to be readjusted, because the acting is consistently good and the tension does build.
The first sign of trouble, naturally, is Don John. Sean Maher does a good job with Don John, establishing his malignant intentions, while, at the same time, creating a very different take on his relationship with his henchmen, especially a female Conrade. His scheme to destroy Claudio and Hero’s intended wedding unfolds pretty smoothly, and is played out rather more convincingly than in the Branagh version.
After being so laid back, as well as quite funny, during its first portion, the movie’s tension and conflict suddenly escalate by several orders of magnitude at the wedding, as you might expect. Everybody with speaking parts in this sequence is good, but especially Gregg and Jillian Morgese (Hero). The following sequence between Benedict and Beatrice is wonderful, and fully plays out the admission of mutual love and admiration these two people have for each other, against the backdrop of a disaster. For me this scene has always been the core of the play, the pay-off for all the tension and conflict between Benedict and Beatrice, and Denisof and Acker pull it off and make it look easy. The rest of the movie stays at this high level to the final resolution, relieved by the (again understated, but funny) Nathan Fillion as Dogberry.
Basically, this movie works, and works well, but don’t expect over-the-top. It’s easy-going and filled with humor until sudden disaster strikes, which is probably very close to Bill’s original intention, with a powerful contrast between light-hearted conspiracy and witty “skirmishes of wit” at the beginning and the horrifying catastrophe of false accusation and betrayal in the second part. Just make sure you see it with no preconceptions. Especially about horses.
–Marvin the Martian.
All Marvin was trying to do was blow up the Earth, which is starting to look like an easy task compared to getting Princess of Shadows completed. For two days external events have pulled me away from putting in the red-pen changes, including a job interview that I don’t think went very well. I’ll have to wait and see on that one.
Meanwhile, I am going to indulge myself in something I have been thinking about for a while. I have more than my fair share of trunk novels, partial short-stories and abandoned tales, the inevitable consequence of taking more than the usual amount of time to achieve a minimum competence at writing. As a whole, none of these abandoned writings are worthy of publication, but some bits and fragments out of this great morass are not utterly without merit (I think). Therefore, when I am not bemoaning my lack of progress on my current work, or posting another episode of Dinosaur Planet, I intend to occasionally post a fragment from one of these abandoned tales that I don’t want to lose completely to the dust and spider-webs of my garage.
This first fragment is from an alternate-history storyline involving an America ruled in the early 21st Century by a refugee Tudor dynasty (in the alternate history Elizabeth I married Robert Dudley and had a daughter, Elizabeth II, who fled to America when the Spanish conquered England) at war with a Europe dominated by Spain. I wrote three complete novels in this storyline, but none of them ever saw the light of day, and now I’ve moved on to other stories. I couldn’t make these tales publishable without a Herculean rewrite, and in fact I’ve strip-mined elements from these novels for the Divine Lotus series. But I like this sequence, so I’ve posted it here. Warning– this fragment contains strong language and depictions of military violence.
The discovery of a dire danger in Holland prompts the Americans to launch a long-range raid on a secret Imperial base.
Copyright 2013 Douglas Daniel
The transport climbed higher into the night sky. Nathan held on to one of the treads of the cockpit stairs, the weight of his gear pulling him backward. Ahead, through the cockpit canopy, he could see Libra and a bright spread of other constellations. It was as if they were flying straight to it.
The captured transport had flown nape of the earth for three hours since leaving Iceland, cutting straight across Britain to stay clear of the air battle over the North Sea. Whether by the pilot’s skill, the good planning of Supreme Headquarters, or the hand of God, they had not been challenged once. Now it appeared they were on time and on target. Nathan determined he would buy every Air Force type onboard a drink, once they were all done with this job. He hoped they would all have a chance to share it.
“Five minutes,” the pilot said. He glanced over his shoulder at Nathan. “Your men ready, Captain?”
It was the third time in the last hour the man had asked the question, but Nathan didn’t feel like begrudging him the answer. “Yes, sir.”
The pilot’s look lingered on Nathan’s face for a moment. “By God, captain, I don’t know if that paint’s going to scare the Spanish, but it sure as hell intimidates me.”
Despite the shaking in his gut Nathan had to smile. The woading on his face wasn’t very historically authentic, but he felt very close to his Celtic ancestors at the moment. “Thank you, sir.”
“Leveling out—we’re at two thousand feet,” the copilot said. “They should have us on widef now.”
“Spanish IFF is running,” the flight engineer announced.
The pilot visibly stiffened his spine. “Here goes,” he muttered. He keyed his throat microphone. “Nunspeet, Nunspeet, this is Flight 3405Delta out of Glasgow, we are declaring an emergency, requesting immediate clearance to land, over,” the pilot called in impeccable Spanish. Nathan bit his lip, just to make sure he said nothing. It wasn’t likely the Spanish on the other end would pick his voice over any of the open mikes in the cockpit, but he wanted to take no chances—his own Spanish accent was reliably reported to be monumentally bad.
The wireless receiver crackled. “Flight 3405Delta, this is Nunspeet Air Control, state the nature of your emergency,” a voice said.
The pilot began to list a long litany of problems—attacked by Confederation aircraft, one engine dead, an on-board fire, fuel dribbling away. All the while the co-pilot and the flight engineer cut into the conversation with their own panicked-sounding reports of the supposed perilous state of the aircraft. Nathan thought it sounded very realistic; more than that, feeding all that half-garbled information to the Spanish controllers ate time, and with every second they closed in on the enemy base.
The pilot ended his spiel with a breathless exclamation of not being sure how much longer they could stay in the air, and that they needed clearance to land at once.
“Standby, 3405,” was all the controller said.
The co-pilot killed his mike. “I’m not sure they’re buying it.”
The pilot killed his microphone as well. “They don’t have to; they just have to haggle over the price long enough for us to pick their pocket.” Despite his glib words Nathan noticed a fine sheen of sweat on the man’s forehead. It looked to be a fair match for the one on Nathan’s face. The pilot glanced at the mission chronometer. “Two minutes. Coming down to nine hundred feet.”
The wireless came alive again. “Flight 3405, repeat your originating station.”
“Yes, confusion, excellent.” The pilot keyed his mike again. “Glasgow Transport Command.”
“Flight 3405, Nunspeet is restricted airspace– can you reach Arnhem Field?”
“Negative, negative, Nunspeet, Mother of God, we’re barely hanging on to the sky as it is.” Nathan was watching the mission chronometer—in countdown mode, it was just now creeping down to one minute. The altimeter read less than seven hundred feet. Even if the Spanish started shooting at them now, they were committed anyway. “It’s imperative we land immediately.”
Another voice came on the wireless. “Flight 3405, maintain course for Arnhem Field. You do not have permission to land at Nunspeet. Repeat, you do not have permission to land at Nunspeet.”
The pilot grimaced. “Nunspeet, this is a Class One emergency, we might not even make your field. Please have crash and rescue standing by.”
“Flight 3405, this is General Tanner, supreme air controller, Nunspeet. You are not to land at Nunspeet. You do not have authorization to touch down here. If you attempt to do so you will be fired upon.”
The pilot deadened his mike. “Friendly bunch of bastards, ain’t they? Jake,” this to the flight engineer, “kill the IFF.”
The pilot shoved the transport over hard. Nathan’s feet left the stairs for a moment. It was not a happy moment—the sweat stood out heavier on his forehead and he gripped the rails of the stairs hard.
The pilot pulled the plane back up into a shallow dive. The altimeter read one hundred feet. “We should have just dropped off their widef like a gut-shot crow. Between that and the IFF cutting off it might look like we just augered in.” He looked around at Nathan. “Captain, you better get down to your men. Looks like we’ll be going in hot.”
“Yes, sir.” Nathan charged down the stairs.
In the hold everyone was already strapped in. “This is it,” Nathan announced as he found his seat. “Less than a minute to the airfield.” Some of the Catholic boys crossed themselves. Others, Denton among them, looked to be praying. A few men checked their weapons one last time; more tightened their seat straps.
Thor was seated beside Nathan, looking positively green. “How you doing, Thor?”
Thor shook his head and gripped the H-12 in his lap tighter. “I’m just glad we’re gonna find solid ground, sir—-I’m getting sick of this bumping-around-at the-mercy-of-the-Air Force shit.”
Nathan tried to laugh, but nothing came out. He fished out a magazine to load into his rifle. His hand was shaking so hard that he had to catch the edge of the magazine against the receiver well to line it up properly.
He had previously exercised a privilege of rank, and claimed a seat by the starboard observation blister. He glanced out it now, and was shocked to see by the starlight mud flats and swampland below the plane. Ahead were lights, a vast field of them, and an illuminated strip of concrete.
“Airfield in sight!” he yelled. “Hang on!” The men braced themselves, linking arms and jamming boots against floor plating. Nathan sent up a quick, silent prayer of his own, chiefly that the cable tie-downs on the cars would hold; but somehow the prayer covered a lot of other ground in those two or three seconds– Celia and Anna and Timothy, Thomas and Perlman, William and Isabel. Elizabeth and Christina were both in there, as well, in some confused fashion Nathan had no time to untangle. So was every man on the team, in a very different way he had no trouble deciphering.
The transport hit the runway. The jolt knocked Nathan’s teeth together. Somebody cursed. The plane, still going almost full speed, slewed hard to the left. Nathan saw, out the window, that the pilot had turned off the runway on to a taxiway. A huge building with a control tower on top lay directly ahead.
“Get ready!” Nathan yelled.
The pilot slammed on the brakes and dropped the ramp at the same moment. The ramp hit the tarmac with a shower of sparks and the sound of rending metal. The braking slammed Nathan sideways in his straps. The plane screamed, between the sound of the ramp scraping along the concrete, the howl of the machine’s brakes, and the screeching of its tires. Out the porthole Nathan saw the transport’s right wing clip the tail of a smaller airplane parked in front of the terminal. It knocked the Spanish aircraft’s tail clean off, as if it had been guillotined.
The plane stopped. There was a smell of burnt rubber and heated metal. The open cargo ramp showed smoke and dust and the corner of the terminal building.
“Go!” Nathan shouted.
The company poured out of the plane, in a cursing, shoving scrum. The men leapt off the ramp and surged across the open concrete between the aircraft and the terminal in a mass. The greater number charged the terminal; others broke left and right. Somebody fired a burst from the building’s roof; Nathan didn’t see if the fire brought anyone down, but some of the men stopped to return fire.
“Follow me!” Nathan shouted. He veered to the right; the tower assault team followed. The control tower was on the south side of the terminal, a structure taller than the one in Reykjavik. The windows were lit and figures moved on a gallery that ran around the top floor. Someone shouted down at them– Nathan caught part of it, a question about what was happening, and then they were at the base of the tower.
Two steel doors at the base were locked. “Blow them!” Nathan said. Denton slid forward as the team got out of his way, sheltering against the concrete of the tower. The firefight in the terminal was growing, small-arms and grenades going off; windows shattered and smoke began to pour out a side door. There looked to be a fight on the roof of the building itself. More firing to the north, where Stamford was supposed to be racing to the field’s widef platform, and to the east, where Greenspan’s men were to cover the main gate of the field. Nathan grudged the delay; he wanted to know what was happening, but they had to take the tower first. In five minutes the rest of the brigade would be parachuting in, and they had to have control of the field when that happened.
Denton slapped plastic explosive on the doors, stuck in an igniter, and pulled the ring. The fuse lit with a puff of white smoke. “Fire in the hole!” He sprinted out of the way, scrunching against the wall next to Nathan.
The doors blew in with a sharp crack; the shattered metal crashed inward. “Go, go!” Nathan said. The team stood and rushed into the tower through the smoke.
Inside utility lights gave a bare illumination. The ground floor of the tower was filled with power conduits and a backup generator. The remains of the doors were scattered over the lower steps of a central stairs that circled upward in the center of the space.
Fire erupted from above, from somewhere on the stairs. One of the scouts next to Nathan, Forrest, went down. Nathan lifted his rifle and fired back, blind. So did Kalanu and the others; the ground floor rang with the fire. Ricochets sparked off the metal stairs and the concrete.
“Keep going,” Nathan said.
They went up the stairs. Nathan and Kalanu were in the lead, and they laid down a steady wall of fire as they climbed. A shadow moved across one of the lights. Nathan hosed a burst across it. A Spaniard in an Air Arm uniform fell down the stairs past him.
They went up, through a level with desks and typescribers up into the control room itself. Someone fired a shot past Nathan’s ear as he emerged from the stairs. He vaulted the railing and took cover behind a widef console. Tom fired a burst as he came up. A Spaniard fell backwards through a shattered window on to the catwalk outside.
“We surrender, for the love of God!” someone shouted in Spanish, as the rest of the team poured into the room. Nathan stood. The stench of cordite was strong in his nostrils. Three or four Spaniards had their hands up, Air Arm techs behind their consoles. Half the room’s windows were broken, letting in the sounds of the firefight outside. But the consoles and the other electronics in the tower were intact, a side benefit that McLaw would surely appreciate. One dead Spaniard lay sprawled on the floor, half his head shot away, a victim of Nathan and Tom’s walking fire.
“Clear them out,” Nathan told the scouts. “Search them, get them out of here. Gilley!”
The color sergeant came over as the others rounded up the techs. “Sir?”
“Stay here with a couple of your people– the Brigadier’s going to want this place kept secure.” The tower would be a perfect vantage point from which to conduct the airfield side of the operation.
“Yes, sir,” Gilley said.
“Tom, Roberts, with me.” Nathan hurried back down the stairs.
Outside they ran for the administration building. Its internal lights were all out, now. Rounds cracked overhead, but they were wide. They reached the building and scooted along its west wall to the front doors.
The glass doors had been shattered; the pieces lay scattered about and crunched under their boots. Beyond was an open space, very nearly like any other terminal building Nathan ever seen– chairs, counters, doors leading to other rooms or out the back. Many of the chairs were overturned and shoved aside, piled up out of the way; the counters along the back wall were bullet-chewed. There were no living Spaniards in sight, only a few dead lying here and there on the tiled floor. Along the north wall of the room were glass-windowed offices; almost all the glass there had already been shot out. A couple of American medics were tending wounded propped against the far wall by the light of battle lanterns. Two doors led out of the boarding area to the back offices of the building.
“Lieutenant Stamford, sir,” Roberts said, holding out the handset.
Nathan took it. “This is Velvet Green Six, go ahead.”
“Velvet Green three, sir,” Stamford’s voice said. “We have reached the widef tower. Demolitions are going in as we speak.”
“Excellent, Velvet Three– any sign of Spanish opposition?”
“Negative– you’re getting all the traffic.”
“Understood– advise when you’re ready to blow it.”
“Copy that.” Stamford clicked off.
Nathan clicked the mike twice. “Break, break– Velvet Four, what is your status?”
All Nathan got out of the wireless speaker was the sound of gunfire and garbled shouting. “What the hell?” Velvet Four was Lieutenant Greenspan’s team; they were to secure the field’s main gate, to the east of the terminal. “Velvet Four, somebody report.”
“Lake here, sir,” a voice said. “The lieutenant’s dead– we’re pinned down, we’re taking fire from outside the field perimeter.”
“What kind of….” Nathan started to say.
At that moment something went whizz-voom! and the whole building shook. More glass shattered along the north wall of the boarding area. Nathan dropped to one knee and hunched over as bits of concrete pelted him. An acrid coil of smoke drifted through the room. Nathan spat out dust, levered himself up. Kalanu and Roberts struggled to their feet as well; at least they didn’t seem hurt. The medics squatted hunched over their patients. A six-foot wide hole had appeared in the north wall of the terminal; Nathan could see right out into the night.
He shook his head to clear the ringing in his ears, lifted the hand-mike again. “Say again, Velvet Four.”
“Armored car,” Lake said. “With infantry support.”
“Shit,” Nathan said. “Tom, Roberts, come on.”
They went outside and clambered up to the roof by an external stairs. Another round– 1.2 inch, Nathan reckoned, typical armament for a grayback Lynx scout car– shot past them overhead, missing the building entirely. There was an antiaircraft gun emplacement up there, ringed by sandbags. The Spanish crew lay dead around it. Along the eastern edge of the roof six or seven scouts formed a firing line of sorts and were pouring fire toward the gate. Nathan recognized Thor, firing controlled bursts at something Nathan could not see.
As Nathan and the others came up on the roof a burst of tracers ripped the air around them. Roberts dived behind the sandbags of the emplacement; Nathan and Tom tumbled into the emplacement, taking cover within. “What the hell have they got out there?” Tom demanded.
Nathan looked up at the AA gun. “Tom, give me a hand.” He forced himself out of the safety of cover and climbed into the weapon’s gunner’s seat. Tom seemed to understand at once; he grabbed a six-round clip from the ready ammo close by and slapped it into the gun’s breach. Nathan blessed the cross-training they’d receive in Spanish weapons as he charged the gun.
“Somebody pop a flare!” Nathan shouted over the din.
“Sir!” It was Mason; Nathan hadn’t seen him, but there the sniper was, close by Thor. A pause, and then a red star shot upward. It burst at three hundred feet altitude into an orange flare, drifting down on its parachute, dripping sparks.
And there it was– three hundred yards away, beyond cyclone fencing that marked the field’s perimeter– a Lynx armored car. It was trundling toward the field’s main gate. He glimpsed a scattering of graybacks moving forward in its wake. He could not see Greenspan’s team, but tracers were bouncing off the Lynx from positions on the tarmac and from a drainage ditch close by the wire. None of the fire was making any impression on the car; it moved forward cautiously, but steadily.
No need for anything fancy– Nathan traversed the gun, laid the sight on the car’s body, and pulled the trigger. The gun fired, rattling Nathan’s teeth, arcing startling green tracers across the roof and into the car. The first two missed, tearing up concrete, but the next three scored sustained hits on the machine’s chassis, sparking as they penetrated.
It kept rolling forward. The clip ran out. Tom fed the gun another one. “Come on, die, you bastard,” Nathan shouted. He poured all six rounds from the second clip into the car. Nathan wondered if he were getting penetrations at all– and then the car suddenly slewed off the road and slammed into a guard-shack, splintering it and coming to a stop. Smoke began to pour out of the car’s engine space and from around the hatch-seals.
Tom loaded another clip, and Nathan fired that one for good measure at the grayback infantry. The other scouts poured their fire into them as well. Nathan glimpsed Spaniards scrambling backward under a hail of tracers, and then there was nothing left to shoot at. When the third clip ejected, Nathan stopped firing. There was a sudden silence, at least in the vicinity of the gate; elsewhere the night was filled with the crackle of small-arms, the occasional bang of a grenade, shouts, and the smell of something nearby burning. But the car was dead. Red flames were licking out of the vehicle’s apertures now. Somewhere on the tarmac men began to cheer.
“You sure you didn’t miss your calling, sir?” Kalanu asked. “You’re a pretty good artillerist for an infantryman.”
Nathan shook his head. “Artillery is too loud.”
“And what we do for a living is peaceful?” Kalanu said, raising an eyebrow.
There was a flash of light from behind Nathan. He turned in time to see another, and a third, all followed by ear-rattling booms. The widef towers shook, teetered, and then toppled sideways with loud crash.
“Three minutes,” Kalanu said. For a moment Nathan did not understand what the sergeant was talking about. Then he checked his own wristwatch. The glowing dial showed that three minutes had passed since the transport had set down. Nathan blinked in disbelief. Is that all?
Postscript a day later– posting this and reading it, I can see now weaknesses I never dealt with– pacing issues and problems with logic. This is essentially a second draft that was never completely edited for publication (I realized after finishing this novel, the third in the series, that it was unmarketable without the first two novels, which had been rejected into oblivion). Now I have to resist the tempation to work on it; it makes me a little sad that this storyline and universe has gone on the trash heap.
Future fragments will probably be un-re-edited, as well– while I want to pull some of these bits out of the shadows, I don’t want to add to my distractions, which are legion already, from current projects. Hopefully folks won’t hold it too much against me.
I have completed the hard-copy edit of Princess of Shadows. A process I thought was going to take two weeks (ha!) took just over four. I found a great deal that needed cutting, modification and re-thinking, most particularly the penultimate sequence. It’s weak and must, at the very least, be cut severely– it drags in a most horrifying manner, just when the action needs to accelerate toward resolution. I may, in fact, have to change it completely.
But starting tonight the red-pen changes start going in. I’ve cut a fair amount, but I won’t know exactly how much until all edits are in– I suspect this novel will still be very large in the final analysis. I hope that, even on the large side, the narrative will move along.
After missing so many deadlines, I am leery of setting one for getting the changes in, but maybe ten days is not unreasonable. Once that is done, I will format the doc into Kindle standard (I don’t even have chapter breaks at the moment) and then hand it over to my beta-readers. Assuming they don’t dawdle, maybe I can publish by the first of November. Then I can turn to all the other projects clamoring for my attention, like greedy children on Christmas morning (“Me, me!” “No, me next!” “Shut up, dummy, you’re just a novelette!”). You get the picture.