The Angle

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

But then….

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

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

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

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
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Timothy crawled.

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

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

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

Get away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he had never seen her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You just lean on me,” the boy said.

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….

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

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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?