Category Archives: Alternate history

Abandoned Fragment #11- The Chase

Chuck Wendig threw down a flash fiction challenge today in honor of the new Mad Max movie. The challenge is to write a car chase. Everybody loves a car chase, right?

Unfortunately, I am a lazy scum-sucking low-life cheater from Cheatville. Instead of writing a new piece, I remembered a car chase embedded in one of my abandoned novels, an alternate history story, and thought it might work. I plead the excuse that I have been backing away from doing flash fiction in general the last couple of weeks, as I am trying (really, I am) to focus on Princess of Fire, and so don’t have the energy to spare to write a new piece. Feel free to resent me; I understand.

Please note this is an excerpt, not a complete story; because of that, the end is a little abrupt.

It is incumbent on me to post the following warning–

DO NOT READ THIS PIECE IF GRAPHIC VIOLENCE AND BLOODSHED OFFEND YOU!

Really, it even icks me out in places.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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The tunnel went down, a slight but noticeable slope. Roberts floored the accelerator and the walls of the tunnel shot past. The vehicle’s headlights were an ever-retreating patch of light in front of them.

Nathan dropped the windscreen. If there was gun-play ahead it would keep shards of glass out of their teeth. He locked the screen down and the wind buffeted them.

Nathan checked the shotgun and tried to calculate the geometries of the chase. Surely the Delhites had no more than a few minutes lead; the fight had not taken long. On the other hand, they could be counted on to be moving at the best speed their vehicles could make, and Nathan and Roberts had no advantage. Nathan prayed that the tunnel would open out onto a single road; if the Delhites turned off before the Americans caught up to them they would get away for sure. Even if they did catch up, there were two enemy cars between Nathan and the one carrying Halima. And Raneesh?— was the thin man dragging Halima the Maharaja of Delhi? He hoped to find out.

The tunnel leveled out, then began to climb. Roberts downshifted once; the car hardly slowed. They shot up the incline, and the walls of the tunnel became rougher, as if the closer to the exit the less trouble the Delhites had taken to make their work clean. Nathan‘his hands gripped the shotgun tight.

The car’s headlights flashed on something ahead. Nathan peered ahead. “Slow, slow,” he shouted; but Roberts was already braking.

At two hundred yards the headlights barely gleamed off the dull brown metal of the cars; but Nathan could see well enough the Delhites scrambling around the vehicles. In front of the machines a patch of red daylight and purple sky was growing; Nathan glimpsed silhouettes of men against the sunset, shoving the doors open.

“They had to stop to open the door!” he yelled to Roberts.

The door was open, a rectangle of ocher. The officers scrambled back aboard their cars. Nathan threw himself into the back seat of their car, as Roberts downshifted and braked again. The cars blocked the exit; they were suddenly very close. The headlights shone on the enemy. Nathan saw one of the Delhites look back at them with wide, terrified eyes as he tried to climb aboard the last car.

The first vehicle shot out the tunnel’s mouth on to the dirt track that lay beyond. The second followed, and then the third, its rear wheels fishtailing. Nathan held on to the seat in front of him and Roberts floored the gas again; the car streaked out of the tunnel into the sunset air, into the enemy’s dust.

The car jounced and slewed. Roberts worked the wheel and the accelerator and the gear-shift as if he directing a concert. Nathan, blinded by the dust cloud, wondered how Roberts could see where he was going. He knew a sudden fear they would lose the Delhites.

The car broke out of the dust-cloud. Roberts slewed the wheel, and the car turned hard right on to a tarred road, so sharp it came up off its right wheels. Nathan held on to the front seat with one hand, the shotgun with the other, and yelled in triumph; the last Delhite car was fifty feet in front of them.

“Get them!” he yelled.

Roberts worked the gear-shift and the gas; somehow, beyond all of Nathan’s expectations, the car accelerated. The air whistled around them. The last car grew big. Nathan braced himself.

The bumper of their car slammed into the rear of the enemy vehicle. The Delhite car slewed back and forth on the road, the driver fighting to control it. Roberts tried to ram again, but the Delhite driver jerked his wheel hard and the car slid rightward. One of the passengers in the back seat twisted around to face them. Nathan saw the pistol in the man’s hand as a black blur. He slid down in the seat, Roberts bent low over the steering wheel and slewed the car leftward; the officer’s shot went over their heads.

The bumper of their car hit the Delhite’s fender. Metal screeched and ground; the car shuddered, then jerked leftward again. Nathan found himself staring at the back seat of the other car, the two vehicles racing side-by-side. The officer, left hand braced against the back of his seat, was standing up, trying to get a bead on Nathan.

Nathan leveled the shotgun one-handed and fired. The recoil nearly knocked him out of the car; he barely held on to the seat in front of him and the shotgun both. His helmet flew off, bounced off the car’s boot, disappeared. The blast ripped the side of the other car and converted the Delhite officer from a man to a ruin of blood and red meat. The two men in the back seat with him screamed, peppered with pellets and bone fragments. The corpse toppled backward out of the car and disappeared in the grass along the road.

Nathan worked the lever of the shotgun, ejecting the smoking, empty shell. He braced himself and aimed at the back of the driver’s head. He hesitated; the man was helpless, unarmed, his back turned. It suddenly felt like murder. Nathan cursed, and pointed the muzzle of the shotgun at the Delhite’s left front tire. The flash of the blast was bright in the twilight, against the dark-surfaced road. The tire shredded; the driver cried out and struggled with the wheel.

“Shove ’em off!” Nathan yelled. Roberts, grinning, tweaked the wheel hard. The car slammed sideways into the Delhite. The driver’s cry changed to a scream as the car careened rightward, off the road and down the embankment. Nathan looked back, as it flipped and rolled. Bodies flew. He wondered if a quick blast would not have been more merciful.

Roberts stomped on the accelerator; the car zoomed toward the next Delhite. This driver knew what was happening; he weaved back and forth, denying Roberts the chance to slip alongside. The batman swerved, trying to see a way past. The right front fender of the car clipped the Delhite’s bumper; the headlight shattered with an ironically musical sound over the roar of the engines. The Delhite vehicle shuddered; the two cars locked bumpers. Metal crumpled and screeched. Roberts cursed, fought the wheel.

The car jerked loose suddenly, as the Delhite car’s bumper gave way and bounced on the roadway, sending up a cascade of sparks. Their car skidded hard left; Roberts yelled in fear. Nathan grabbed hold of the seat, fighting to stay in. The vehicle kissed the edge of the blacktop, hung there for a perilous moment, then shot back.

Nathan lost his balance, slammed into the floor of the car. He pulled himself up. They were now even with the Delhite car. Roberts jerked the wheel; the two vehicles slammed together with a song of bending metal. Nathan found himself staring into the faces of a pair of Delhite officers in the back seat.

He leveled the shotgun, pulled the trigger. Nothing happened– the hammer clicked. “Dammit!” Nathan said. He jerked the lever. The chamber was empty. The bandolier of shells trembled on the floor beside him; he reached for it.

A weight landed on his back. A sudden memory– a summer’s day when he was sixteen, the Carter family’s barn where he had hired out for a day’s work, the smell of the dust of the barn’s floor, mingling with the scent of the hay-bale that had fallen on him. Nathan slammed hard into the floor of the car. His face hit the floorboards, skidded on the metal, the bandolier under him. He returned to the present, and smelled starched cloth and sweat. One of the Delhites had jumped into the car on top of him.

Nathan twisted under the Delhite. The man had fallen part way over the seat, off balance, but he scrabbled for Nathan’s neck. He kneed Nathan in the gut, his dark face fierce.

Nathan swung the shotgun. He had no room for a windup, but the barrel connected with a sharp smack against the man’s jaw. The officer grunted, fell back against the door. Nathan pushed himself up. The Delhite swung hard and slammed his fist into Nathan’s face.

The man was big; it was like being slammed with an oak board. Nathan saw black, swimming spots, skidded back and hit the other door. His head made an odd, hollow, coconut sound as it hit the door’s paneling. The Delhite leapt after him. They grappled, as the cars tore apart.

The officer got his hands on Nathan’s throat. His grip was a steel band on Nathan’s windpipe. Nathan knew at once he would never pry the man’s fingers off his throat; instead he slammed the heel of his hand into the Delhite’s face, over and over. The third blow broke the officer’s nose. Blood flowed, spewing with each breath the man took. Nathan followed with a knee to his groin, as blackness closed in on the edges of his vision.

The car slewed left. The officer fell backward; his hold on Nathan broke. Nathan, coughing, shoved himself to his knees. He grabbed a handful of the Delhite’s dress shirt; he noticed, with odd irrelevance, that the blood was wilting the man’s starched creases. Nathan slammed his fist again and again into the fellow’s face, concentrating on his nose. The flesh pulped under his hand. Nathan head-butted the man, then hauled him up with rage-enhanced strength. The officer clawed at him, but he was having trouble breathing; his face was a mask of red. Nathan pulled him up and pushed him out and over the lip of the door. The Delhite cried out once, fell between the cars and hit the black-top. The body rolled fifty feet, limp as a doll, before it stopped.

Nathan hardly noticed. He picked up the shotgun and the bandolier. He shoved shells into the gun, as the cars ground together again. This enemy driver was giving as good as he got; Nathan’s car slid sideways several feet before Roberts got it under control. No hesitation this time; Nathan jacked a shell into the shotgun’s chamber, stood and blew the enemy driver’s head off. Blood and brain blew through the other car’s shattered windscreen. The headless corpse still clutching the wheel, the car veered and sailed off the road.

The last car was a hundred feet ahead, its taillights a beacon in the growing night. “Go, go,” Nathan told Roberts, as he loaded more shells into the shotgun. He wiped the officer’s blood off his hands onto his battlesmock.

The taillights veered off the road. To Nathan it was as if they had vanished. He blinked, then saw the car jouncing along a track, toward a village in the middle distance. “Follow them,” he said to Roberts.

“Do we have to?” Roberts said back; but he turned the wheel and the car trundled off the road.

Nathan sat down to keep from being thrown out of the car. He finished reloading the shotgun. His hands were shaking. There were a dozen spots on his body sending warning signals that tomorrow they would be in agony. Nathan ignored them, kept shoving shells into the gun. This isn’t finished.

The last enemy car disappeared among the white-washed houses of the village. Nathan could see where the track, which passed through the hamlet, where it came out beyond and twisted away into the distance. He watched; the car did not appear. “They’ve stopped,” he hollered to Roberts, leaning forward. “They’re going to be laying for us. Pull up and stop outside the village.” Roberts nodded, looking grim.

The track led them, rattling, over a dry stream-bed. The palm trees loomed large over the houses. The car climbed the track. Roberts braked; the car stopped in the shadow of the outermost house.

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Another bit on exposition– Abandoned fragment # 10– Uncle Zedekiah’s Bible.

I haven’t done one of these for a while. This is another snippet from my abandoned series of alternative history novels, an alternate beginning I never completed. In it I attempted a bit of incluing. It seems clumsy now, but I think it works as an example of how you can go about it. The main purpose of the scene, though, is to establish the relationship between Nathan Cooper and his grandmother, and to show what Nathan is leaving behind. The incluing is in the background, as it should be.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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It was surprising how little twenty years amounted to.

The recruiting officer had told Nathan he was allowed only one bag. The only bag the family had that he could reasonably carry in one hand was an old carpetbag that had been up in the attic for at least thirty years. He took it down and knocked the dust and cobwebs out of it, run a moist towel over the interior and then set it out in the sun all day, until finally it no longer smelled like an old carpetbag that had been in the attic for thirty years. Or, at least, not as much.

Now it came down to what he would take with him. Nathan laid his belongings out on his bed by the yellow light of his room-lamp. One change of shirt and pants, two of underwear and socks, a towel with his shaving kit and toothbrush rolled up in it— and there he stuck. In desperation he added an old pullover. He doubted he would need it in New Albion, but it was better to be prepared. There were mornings here in the Washita that turned cool, even in June. He would also be wearing his duster, although that was mostly for the train ride south. He wouldn’t need more than one pair of shoes, he figured, and he would be wearing those.

Even with the addition of the pullover, there was still a lot of empty space in the bag. Nathan was tempted to add more clothes. The recruiter, however, had made it clear that he shouldn’t burden himself with too many civilian clothes he would have to either mail back home or give away to charity. He looked around his room. The desk with its own lamp was obviously staying. The rug on the polished floor served no military function. The bookcase wouldn’t fit into the carpetbag.

He hesitated. My books. The product of years of scrimping, doing odd jobs, carrying golf clubs for Banker Nugent and Mr. Pinter who owned the feed store, doing carpentry and hauling trash and doing without a noon-day meal sometimes—he was going to have to leave them behind. Somehow that had not sunk in until this moment.

He ran his hand along the spines. Hermann’s History of the Confederation, Georges’ Works and Ways of the Native Fathers. Rabelais and Montaigne and two or three of the permitted Shakespeares. Cassidy and Simonides, Livy and Plutarch, Josephus, and Clark’s Tales of the Americas, which he had almost worn out through years of reading and re-reading. Modern historical novels and the speculative fiction that earned so much of Gran’s scorn. The complete set of Everett’s histories– The Wars of Faith, The Fall of England, and The First Fleet. Ickes’ Principles of Science, and the math and Latin texts that had once been the bane of his existence and with which now he didn’t want to part. A crowd of friends he was leaving forever.

Nathan sat down on the bed. He felt homesick already, and he was still at home. He hadn’t expected it to hit him this hard. His anger had carried him a long way, and his resentment even further. Now, he wasn’t sure anymore.

A floorboard creaked. It was Gran, come to stand in the doorway. She stood straight, but with her arms folded in that way of hers that told Nathan she was perplexed or upset. Perhaps both, this time around.

“I am trying to understand,” she said. It was a continuation of their argument before dinner.

“That puts you ahead of Anna and Cee,” Nathan said. “They’ve locked me out of their hearts already.”

Gran didn’t respond to that. “I know you’re disappointed….”

“It’s beyond disappointment, Gran.” Nathan sighed. “It’s just the last of a long series of insults.” He hesitated. “What do you think there is for me here?”

Gran did not answer at once. “I supposed,” she said finally, “that you could follow in your father’s footsteps…in mine. Help with the school…perhaps restart the gazette….”

“The gazette?” Nathan snapped. “And what good would that do? What good did it do Father? It’s not worth it if you can’t tell the truth in it. And the school— Gran, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I have no desire to spend the rest of my days trying to scratch out a living teaching snotty kids who’d rather be gigging frogs down by the river. You know I wanted more.”

“I know,” Gran said. “And your Uncle Richard has been very cruel. I do not excuse what he did. To give you every indication that he was about to help you, when he knew how badly you wanted to attend university, and then….”

“Don’t say it.” Nathan couldn’t bear to have it all rehashed again. The useless acceptance letter lay in one of his desk drawers. It had briefly made him the happiest young man in Garrison. The illusion had lasted two whole days. The apogee of my life.

“I do understand,” Gran persisted. “What I don’t understand is why you think going for a soldier is an answer.”

Nathan gave a short laugh. It was an unhappy sound. “Bare minimum, it’ll get me out of this town. Right now that looks really good all by itself.”

Gran sighed. “That’s not a sufficient reason throw away everything you have….”

“What do I have?” Nathan said, his voice rising.

“Do not raise your voice to me, young man,” Gran said back, glaring.

“No, Gran—I honestly want to know what you think I have.” Nathan knew his face was ugly with resentment, but he didn’t care. “Do I have a future here? To work at the family school, under Anna’s sharp tongue? To do odd jobs trying to make ends meet for the rest of my life? And you know there’s always the chance that I’ll get taken in a levy anyway. Better to go as a volunteer than be dragged. What other choice do I have, Gran? Please tell me.”

His grandmother met his look. “Child, I am not going to play your game. I hear your disappointment, but I also hear a good deal about yourself and your wants. God is not in the business of giving us what we want, least of all when we throw tantrums over it. If this is a trial, the Lord wants you to meet it with humility and faith.”

“It’s a little late to be bringing God into it, Gran,” Nathan said. “If you wanted to tell me that it was my God-given duty to endure and stay put, you should have mentioned it before I took the King’s coin and signed the paper. Unless you want another Cooper spending time in a royal prison.”

Gran said nothing for a long moment. “So that’s that.”

“Yes,” Nathan said, “pretty much.”

Gran hesitated, then said, “Wait here,” as if he were about to jump up and run away. She turned and left.

Nathan had just enough time to wonder where she was going before she was back. In her hands was a small Bible. Nathan recognized it as one of the old Bibles she kept on a shelf over her writing desk. Gran held it out. “This was your great-uncle Zedekiah’s Bible. He carried it with him when they took him in the levy for the Patagonian War. The one thing I know they allow you in the Army is a Bible. Take it.”

Nathan stared at it. “Gran, I can’t. It’s an heirloom.”

“It’s the only Bible we have of its size,” Gran answered. “You surely can’t take one of the study editions. It will make me feel better knowing you have it. So long as you promise to actually read it.”

Nathan, hesitating, reached out and took the Bible. The leather of its cover was worn; he could barely make out the lettering spelling out Holy Bible on its front; the former gold gilt was nearly all worn away. “Thank you, Gran.”

Films that inspire me– “Things to Come” and the history that wasn’t– Part Two

(This is the second part of my discussion of the movie Things to Come)

Part Two– how this film inspires me.

My previous post was an appreciation of Alexander Korda’s Things to Come, discussing how it is a powerful, if sometimes disturbing, early science-fiction film classic. One of the powerful aspects of the film is that it took contemporary events and concerns of 1936 and projected them into an effective “future history“. There were many thunderstorms looming on the horizon that year. Germany was rising again under the Nazi dictatorship, which had no scruples about telling the whole world what it meant to do, especially in Eastern Europe. Asia had already seen the Japanese takeover of Manchuria in 1931 and would see all-out war between Japan and China in 1937. Civil War broke out in Spain in July, 1936, in what most historians now see as a dress-rehearsal for World War II. It didn’t take much prescience to see that another general war was coming.

The course the film lays out for this new Great War is a reasonable projection of the first Great War, which was deadlocked for most of its history. Supposing that the war could go on for year after year of bloody stalemate was not a wild leap of the imagination. In that stalemate the breakdown of civilization and the previous world order was all-too-reasonably a possibility.

The fact that the actual history did not turn out the way Things to Come thought they might teaches us some lessons about the business of alternate history. It also teaches us something about irony.

In its classic form, alternate history takes a single, critical event and changes it– Lee Harvey Oswald misses Kennedy, Hitler dies of poison gas in World War One, Harry Truman loses the 1948 presidential election– and examines how that one change alters history. When it’s done thoughtfully and well, alternate history can create worlds that are tragic, or evocative of what might have been, and can teach us important lessons about the contingency of life and history on decisions which might even appear trivial at that moment.

Watching Things to Come reminds me of all the ways history could have turned out differently in World War Two. The period is loaded with potential branch points for an alternate history, and it’s been a favorite of sci-fi writers for decades. World War Two is also a rich field for alternate history writers because the moral implications of a Nazi victory in the war would have been so profound– a nightmare that barely bears thinking about. Even short of that catastrophe, postwar history could have turned out a thousand different ways, right down to the very personal and intimate. What if Anne Frank had survived the war? What if Eisenhower and Kay Summersby had really hooked up? What if Hitler had immigrated to America in 1919 and become an illustrator for science-fiction magazines– which is the actual premise of Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream.

All of this is fertile ground for science-fiction writers, and looks to remain so for a long time to come.

At this point, though, you might be asking what Things to Come has to with alternate history– it was created as a future-history, not alternate history. To put it simply, all future-histories are fated to become alternate history. Eventually every future sketched out by an author finds itself diverging from factual history, real-life events having no obligation to adhere to some writer’s conception of what path they should follow. When this happens, some authors try to retcon their stories, but others throw in the towel and say, “It’s alternate history”. As an example, the future history of Star Trek, as described in the original series, has now diverged from factual history (no Eugenics War in the 1990’s, etc.).

In the case of The Shape of Things to Come, Wells’ original 1933 novel, his future history was obsolete almost at once. Things to Come did a little bit better, but by 1946 or so it was already diverging from real life– Western civilization did not fall into a recurring cycle of hot wars lasting a generation, but rather a Cold War with peripheral bush-wars and serious economic and political competition between East and West.

So why didn’t the future of Things to Come become our factual history?

The answer is pretty damn ironic– nuclear weapons.

Suppose that nuclear science took a different path in the 1930’s and that no one on the planet in 1940 has an inkling that nuclear weapons are a practical possibility. That means no Manhattan Project, no Tube Alloys (the code-name for the British bomb project), no German nuclear weapon program, no Soviet effort, no Japanese investigations– every major power had some sort of nuclear research going on on during the war. In fact, one of the poorly remembered aspects of the history of World War II is that, in certain circles, there was real fear the Germans were years ahead of the Allies and might deploy a weapon before them. In fact, for several different reasons, they were years behind.

Just as it was in the factual history, in our alternate history the war in Europe would have been won by conventional forces in the spring of 1945. The immediate result of our small alteration would almost certainly have been that the planned invasion of Japan in the autumn of 1945 would have gone forward. The Allies anticipated a long, hard campaign to subjugate the Japanese home islands, including a million casualties (killed, wounded, missing). There is no telling how devastated such a invasion would have left Japan, over and above the destruction already wrecked by aerial bombing.

Suppose the conquest of Japan adds two additional years or so to the war, so that World War Two ends in 1947 or 1948 (GIs in the Pacific anticipated this– their poetic formula for the end of the war was “Golden Gate in ’48”). America’s instinct then, as it was in the factual history, would have almost certainly been to demobilize the Army.

But….

In the absence of a nuclear deterrent, it is conceivable that the Soviets, under Stalin, would have seen the weak occupation forces the Western allies had in Germany (and they were weak), and been tempted to use the still powerful Red Army to try and scoop up West Berlin and then the rest of Germany. If so, the war would have resumed as the former allies fell out (as former allies tend to do)– and Wells’ generation of war would have been well under way.

In the factual history, though, nuclear weapons made even Joe Stalin think twice about resuming conventional warfare in the heart of Europe. The salient irony of nuclear weapons in the Cold War is that they were practically useless, in any traditional war-making sense– nobody ever figured out a meaningful definition of “victory” in a nuclear-armed standoff. As a result, a kind of quasi-peace settled over Europe, allowing it to rebuild and affording two generations of Europeans the time and space to buy Mercedes and Audis and time-shares in Majorca, rather than having to scratch for food amid the ruins of Birmingham or Paris.

This is what makes alternate history so much fun, seeing how one factor can change the whole historical equation. It’s also what makes it very hard to get right.

But I intend to keep trying.

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My next post on a film that inspires me– Aliens. Oh, yeah– this is the big one. Buckle up.

Films that inspire me– “Things to Come” and the history that wasn’t– Part One

(I have so much to say about this film and how it inspires me that I’ve broken this post into two parts– an outline of the movie itself and how it gets my creative juices going)

Part One– The movie

I love history, and, as a corollary, being a science-fiction fan, I am deeply in love with alternate history. The exploration of how history might have turned out fascinate me. At one time or another, most science-fiction authors have tried their hands at alternate history, while some have make it their chief stock-in-trade (S.M. Stirling and Harry Turtledove, for example).

Alternate history is what my mind turns to whenever I watch Alexander Korda’s Things to Come, (very) loosely based on a story by H. G. Wells, from 1936–

Starting in a then near-future 1940, it posits the advent of World War II (although the enemy nations are kept safely anonymous in the film) as the starting point of a new Thirty-Years War, a conflict that drags on and on until human civilization lies shattered. It is rescued by Wings Over the World, an super-scientific organization dedicated to peace and progress. The rest of the film depicts the world of 2036, as the scientific elite launches a Moon mission, against the resistance of narrow-minded romantics who stand against Progress (note the capital letter. We’ll come back to that later).

Alexander Korda tended to imbue his films with an ambitious sweep, and this one is no exception, starting out with the opening sequence, in which worrisome war warnings juxtapose with life-as-usual Yuletide merriment. The film loosely follows a group of people and their descendants through the destruction of the war, the aftermath, reconstruction and shiny future. Its whole point is that Progress is good and essential, and anything that gets in its way needs to be put aside.

In many ways the film was prescient in the way it depicts what is to come, particularly the effects of war on civilization. The sequences in the bombed-out ruins of the town meant to stand in for all of England (or, for that matter, all of Western civilization) could have been any number of actual locations in Europe or Asia in 1945. Aerial bombing and biological warfare are both part of the narrative, and major reasons why civilization breaks apart. The film loses its prescience to some extent when it enters its final sequence– the Lucite, Art Deco future in which everyone wears sandals and cloaks looks quaint now, but that doesn’t really take too much away from the overall vision of the filmmakers.

The film is not perfect, and one real imperfection is the fact that the locales are allegories (the town at the center of the story is called “Everytown”, just to hammer the point home), and most of the characters are archetypes. One exception is (not yet Sir) Ralph Richardson’s portrayal of the Boss, the local warlord of Everytown in 1970. Richardson brought a blustery avarice and self-aggrandizement to the character that reminds one most pointedly of Mussolini, and he owned the middle part of the film.

But an enormously more problematic aspect of the movie is its fixation with Progress. How much this fixation was Wells’ or Korda’s, or both, I don’t know, but it’s pretty much the axle around which the film revolves. As I’ve already indicated, we’re obviously talking about Progress with a capital “P”, progress that becomes a thing in itself, and in the path of which nothing, not even real, breathing human beings, can be allowed stand. In its radical form it assumes the aspects of religion, and has been used to justify everything from bulldozing forests to Communism. The final speech by Oswald Cabal (Raymond Massey), the head honcho of the Everytown of 2036, is all about life being a stark choice between extinction and Progress. It’s a little disconcerting to hear this in a film from this precise period, knowing as we do everything That Was to Come. The Twentieth Century drank the cup of that sort of “progress” to its dregs, and we nowadays can’t listen to this speech with the same innocence with which people in 1936 might have heard it.

(A quick aside– this period was also when J. R. R. Tolkien was rousing from his academic slumbers to first pen The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings. Quite a juxtaposition…there’s a master’s thesis or two in there….)

Despite this objection, this film still has power. The tattered state of civilization after the war still speaks to the human capacity for destruction, and resilience. The sequence leading up to the firing of the space-gun is tense, and still somehow evokes the sense of being in NASA Mission Control during a launch, thirty years before the fact. It keeps you riveted, and not many films closing in on their eightieth anniversary can say that. Things to Come is one of the few really great pre-World War II science-fiction films, and a landmark in sci-fi cinema in general.

Next– Part Two– how this film inspires me.

Abandoned fragment #2– The Recce

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.

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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.”

“Roger.”

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.”

“Roger.”

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.”

“Roger.”

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.”

“Roger.”

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.”

“Good.”

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.”

“Roger.”

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.”

“Roger.”

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.

“Fourth IP.”

“Cameras running.”

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.

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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.

Later.

Abandoned fragment #1– The Trojan Horse

“Delays, delays.”
–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.”

“Done.”

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.

Later.