Reading List, Part Five

Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis

Genre(s): Science Fiction

Sequels: First in a trilogy

Out of the Silent Planet is the beginning of Lewis’ greatest series of novels. While Narnia may be his best known franchise those who’s exposure to his fiction ends there are truly missing out. (His greatest single novel is undoubtedly Til We Have Faces, which is a topic for another time.) Oddly enough this story started as a sort of dare between Lewis and his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien where Lewis was to write a spacefaring story and Tolkien a time traveling one. Sadly, Tolkien’s story doesn’t exist in it’s entirety. But Out of the Silent Planet does and it’s pretty good.

Dr. Elwin Ransom, a character loosely based on Tolkien, is a student of languages who attempts to help a person he sees being abducted but winds up an abductee himself. A few drugs later he finds himself in a spaceship headed towards Mars. Once on planet Ransom escapes his captors and makes contact with the locals, setting in motion a long trip to meet the guardian of the planet and a deeper understanding of the solar system.

While Out of the Silent Planet is not the most exciting or gripping book on it’s own it does serve as the foundation for the trilogy. Perelandra, the sequel is arguably the best and well worth struggling through the slower parts of Silent Planet. After all, where else can you read about Not-Quite-Tolkien fighting hand to hand with the devil incarnate? That Hideous Strength combines the high concepts of the first two books with a sense of foreboding and suspense that you won’t get anywhere else in Lewis’ writing. All three books are well worth the read.

Lost Triumph, by Tom Carhart

Genre(s): Military History, Nonfiction

The third day of the Battle of Gettysburg is a mystery to many. The almost invincible Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent a division under the command of Major General George Pickett into the teeth of Major General George Meade’s Union positions. After a short, desperate contest Pickett’s men fell back, broken and bleeding. Many people believe that the Confederacy was defeated that day and the furthest point the charge reached is often called the high watermark of the Confederacy. The mystery of the day is simple.

Why would a general of Lee’s quality send his men into what almost everyone agreed was certain defeat?

There’s no answer on record, of course. But in this book Carhart suggests what he may have been attempting. Lost Triumph is divided into two basic sections. The first explores Lee, his command philosophy and his relations with his generals. Lee was Commandant at the West Point Military Academy for a time before the Civil War and his curriculum and later real life victories all point to certain strategies he believed most effective and Carhart sketches how Pickett’s attack might have been part of a greater scheme to break the back of the Union army.

The second half of the book is a gripping account of the other things occurring at Gettysburg just before and during Pickett’s Charge. It tells the story of Major General J.E.B. Stuart, leader of the Invincibles, the Confederacy’s most famous cavalry division, and how they tried to round the Union flank. And it tells how they, and possibly all of Lee’s plans, were undone by a combination of superior weaponry, dedicated fighting and gallant leadership.

Lee’s trust in Stuart was legendary and Stuart’s trust in his own men was equally strong. The Army of Northern Virginia thought them capable of anything, hence the nickname Invincibles. It would make sense that the second half of Lee’s plan, if any grander plan existed, would fall to Stuart’s cavalry. Ironically, that unfounded confidence would lead to their defeat by a brigade of the Union cavalry that Confederate horsemen thought so little of.

A brigade led by Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer.

Court of the Air, by Stephen Hunt

Genre(s): Fantasy, Steam Punk

Sequels: Five novels and a few short stories

The Kingdom of Jackals, the Republic with a King, is one of the preeminent nations in its world. They have the Royal Aerostatic Navy, one of the world’s only working democracies and a culture stretching back centuries. For all that, it’s not a great place for the likes of Molly Templar, a young girl who keeps finding the people around her dead. Someone’s out to get her and even with the help of an internationally recognized archaeologist, a thinking machine and a retired smuggler she may not make it to see another day.

Oliver Brooks had it pretty easy until his uncle was murdered and someone tried to pin the death on him. Now he’s on the run with an agent of Jackal’s most secret police force – the Court of the Air, who look down from above the clouds and will judge all they see, even those beyond the law.

Problem is, something’s rotten in the good Kingdom of Jackals and even the Court is blind to it. Only Molly has the key to saving the nation but the poor girl just wants to write books. If she and Oliver can’t rally their friends, figure out the secrets of the Court and set things right disaster looms as enough power to lock the world in a new Ice Age lays just beyond the grasp of a madman.

Hunt’s stories are crazy trips with just about every idea he can get his hands on thrown into the stew. Steam powered robots walk side by side with political commentary and the threat of a pantheon of gods that worship other gods. While none of the commentary is particularly deep and the characters are sometimes a little flat there’s enough pulpy nonsense here to make for a riproaring good time.

Cobra, by Timothy Zahn

Genre(s): Science Fiction

Sequels: A good ten so far, with more coming

Yes, I love just about everything this guy writes.

Cobra is the story of Johnny Moreau, who joins an elite supersoldier unit called the COBRAs, gaining nearly unbreakable bones, motorized joints and a computer that runs it all and gives him a near-inhuman reaction speed and precision of movement. It’s also not your average war story.

In the typical book of this type we’d follow the protagonist through training and onto the field until he’d won a few significant victories and we were left waiting for the sequel.

Johnny’s war ends in victory by the end of the first act.

The problem is, the computer that controls Cobra’s combat reflexes cannot be reprogrammed (by design, to make them impossible to subvert that way) and can’t be removed without basically crippling them. Cobras are the lethal killing machines the people needed but they can’t stop being those machines after the war is over. Thus the Dominion of Man is left with a conundrum – what to do with these people no one quite trusts with their safety but who still deserve to be treated as heroes?

While not a groundbreaking book, Cobra offers an interesting take on the cost of war and how the future is unlikely to change it. Not everything has an easy solution and Cobra doesn’t offer those either. But it does show that, difficult though it may be, those solutions are worth looking for.

Dave Barry in Cyberspace, by Dave Barry

Genre(s): Humor, Satire, Nonfiction

Pulitzer Prize winning satirist Dave Barry once wrote a book about computers. This was in 1996, back when the DOS prompt was still a thing. I know you kids don’t know what that is, but suffice it to say we didn’t just poke pictures on a screen and have computers do what we want. We had to work to waste time on our computers.

In this book Barry goes on a romp through all the different ways we’ve complicated our lives using technology and it’s well worth the price of admission. Beginning from the destruction of the 1890 census – the first such census to use computing technology as part of the tabulation of data – Barry shows how the computer has not been our friend. It’s just another wild creature that humanity needs to beat into submission, one face slamming into the keyboard at a time.

Whether you’re looking for an amusing history of computers two decades ago or just want to relive the halcyon days of BAD COMMAND OR FILENAME then this is a book that you’ll love.

The Emotional and Physical Cores

The quest for believable characters is a long and arduous one, full of false leads, difficult lessons and special cases. One such case is the so-called “strong female character.” While what that phrase implies specifically varies from person to person in general it refers to a character who shows the fortitude and strength of character frequently portrayed in cinema by the likes of John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Stewart. Except these characters should be female.

It’s a lofty goal to show as many different characters as possible living life with strong convictions and personal integrity and I wholeheartedly agree that women should portray this as well as men. However, many stories that set out to create a strong female character overlook a concept we’re going to call the physical and emotional cores of the story and that hamstrings their attempt to tell a good story with a strong character at the center. Let’s start by talking about what I mean by physical and emotional cores.

Each story tends to have a a physical and emotional embodiment. Another way to think of the physical embodiment is as the part of the story where action takes place and the emotional embodiment is where the story tries to make you feel something. Most good stories tend to have characters act more in one or the other of these areas to make those characters clearly defined. Yes, this is unrealistic but it tends to lead to better storytelling overall.

The two characters who best embodies the themes of the story carry the emotional and physical cores of the story.

For example, in the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty the emotional core rests with Princess Aurora, who’s feelings of isolation and desires to see the wider world define the emotional tenor of most of the film. The physical core rests with Prince Phillip, who finds Aurora in the forest and takes her to experience new things. He also takes center stage in the battle against Maleficent in the third act, another moment of peak physical storytelling.

It’s important to have the two cores in proximity to each other at moments of importance as they tend to draw one another out into sharp relief and lead to some of the best moments in a story. It’s Phillip and Aurora’s meeting that sparks their resolution to resist their arranged marriages (even though said betrothals are to each other, which they don’t know at the time). It’s also the catharsis of their reunion that makes the climax of the movie hit us square in the feels.

The problem is, if both the physical and the emotional cores are in a single character it can be hard to see how they’re impacting each other. Look at any shoddy piece of fiction and you’ll see unclear motives and hard to understand actions. That can happen for a lot of reasons but sometimes it’s just because one character is carrying too much of the story. Like any real person your characters sometimes need to step back and take a break, breath and let ideas settle. A character can’t do that if they have to carry both halves of a story.

At the same time, it’s the way the two cores impact each other, the emotional and physical character influencing each other with their different goals and needs, that makes the important moments impactful. If both cores are in one character that tension is missing.

How does that relate back to writing “strong female characters”?

Well, in the typical story women carry the emotional core and most people who set out to write strong female characters just take the physical core and hand it to their female character as well resulting in exactly the problem we just discussed. If we want a female character who carries the physical core – and this is typically what people mean by “strong female characters”, many characters have carried the emotional cores of their stories and been plenty strong but that’s not the point – if we want a female character who carries the physical core then we have to put the emotional core somewhere else.

A great example of this is the much more recent Disney film Frozen, where Anna embodies the physical core, climbing the mountain to find her sister and struggling with a slowly debilitating curse, while Elsa embodies the emotional core, struggling with self doubt and self loathing while struggling to maintain emotional distance from those around her.

Another is the animated 1990’s film Ghost in the Shell, where the Major embodies the physical aspect, taking most of the highly kinetic action scenes for herself while her partner, Batou, while still having action beats, mostly serves as a sounding board for her philosophical musings and an emotional tether to the humanity she fears she’s left behind. Where Motoko is mostly an emotional cypher Batou takes it upon himself to feel embarrassed by her lack of modesty and grieve when she is wounded.

Whether or not you’re interested in the mythical “strong female character” understanding where the physical and emotional components of your story lies is important. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your story is missing one or the other of the sides, either. The best action heroes tend to be grounded by family and friends and Harrison Ford still punched someone out in Sabrina. No matter what your story is, knowing who goes where in these equations is going to help you construct a better narrative.

Silence of the Lions

In the decade since Rei Kiriyama’s family died in a car crash he’s made very little progress. Orphaned at the age of seven, and already emotionally subdued to begin with, Rei has become a master introvert. His only real gift is for shogi, a Japanese board game halfway between chess and checkers. Fortunately, Rei is very good at shogi and makes a living as a professional shogi player in between attending classes at school and living alone. It might seem like a great way to live but for Rei it’s a necessity. Life with the family that adopted him wasn’t easy. His adoptive siblings resented him and he felt awful about it. His adoptive father was a shogi pro, after all, and Rei was the only one of his children skilled enough to follow in his footsteps. There are many things plaguing Rei as it turns out. Plenty of reasons to become more sullen and withdrawn.

Naturally, the world keeps throwing funny, cheerful and energetic people in his path.

For me, it was this conflict, the clash between Rei’s normal disposition and that of the people around him, that really kept me involved in March Comes In Like a Lion. Yes, there’s good character conflict in the story, Rei’s shogi matches have solid stakes for both him and his opponents and there’s a lot of good humor and serious situations. But far and away the best part of the show is in how it sets up great contrasts between the conflicting moods Rei grapples with.

At it’s heart, March Comes In Like a Lion is a study in how an emotionally wounded introvert faces the world and how the people around him help him to do that. The broad strokes of the conflict are character versus the world and the show brings these points to bear by showing us the two sides in strikingly different terms.

The first minute of March Comes In Like a Lion, opening credits aside, are a series of stark monochrome images showing Rei’s silhouette, images of running water and roiling clouds, and a truly beautiful sequence of Rei standing under a bridge as gusting winds batter him. A mocking female voice over reminds Rei of how he is alone and lost until her words are lost in the sound of howling wind. The title card tells us this is Chapter One, Rei Kiriyama.

Rei wakes up and goes through his morning routine in total silence, then walks to the Shogi Hall, upbeat yet wistful music playing in the background. He greets his opponent, a man who appears to know him well, and then proceeds to best him in a game of shogi. The man compliments Rei on his growth as a shogi player, mentions that, “Ayumu and Kyoko miss you,” and departs.

The first words we hear Rei say accuse his opponent of lying, although we are the only ones that can hear it and we’re not sure if Rei thinks part or all of the other man’s statement is a lie.

As he’s headed home Rei gets a text message inviting him somewhere for dinner. He’s about to refuse when he gets another message asking him to pick up ingridient’s for the meal on his way. Just like that the chessmaster is checkmated. Abruptly the story turns from a gripping look at a grieving young man to a fish out of water comedy as Rei goes to visit a small family – a grandfather and three granddaughters. While it’s not slapstick it is funny and irreverent, going so far as to give the pet cats their own internal monologues. Rei can barely squeeze a word in edgewise but, quiet nature aside, is barely recognizable as the character we saw in the first half of the show. He’s unsure, unsteady and bemused the whole time. The contrast is striking, and encapsulates the appeal of the show quite well.

What’s so impressive about March Comes In Like a Lion is how it manages to have it’s main character say so little while expressing so much. Rei’s posture, expression, even the way he moves around the world tells us a great deal about his moods and how he is thinking. That level of expression extends to every character in the show but, as Rei talks so little, the strength of the animation comes through that much more. March Comes In Like a Lion is a masterclass in emotional storytelling and in no small part due to how little it’s protagonist says. Check it out if you get the chance.

The Broken Character Cycle

I’m not a huge fan of mainstream American storytelling, especially in longform mediums like TV or serialized novels. This may come as a surprise to longtime readers who have seen me comment on a number of such works in the past, many of which I said I liked. Well, odds are I still like them but as I’ve consumed more and more of them I’ve noticed one plot in particular occurring over and over again, a plot that has grown quite old and worn. I refer to this plot as the Broken Characters Cycle and this week I want to take a quick look at what it is, why I think it’s grown so popular and why, ultimately, I think it needs to go.

First things first. What is the cycle? In broad strokes it looks something like this:

  • There is a character who has made Bad Choices
  • That character seeks a New Start or undertakes a Great Work of Atonement
  • The New Start or Great Work requires the character to form new Relationships
  • The character is improved and edified through the Relationships and values them highly
  • At some point the Great Work forces the character to betray the Relationship or the other(s) in the relationship learns of the Bad Choices the character has made causing them to question the Work
  • The character sacrifices the Relationships for the Great Work (or visa versa)
  • Completing the Work or saving the Relationship leaves the character unfulfilled and full of guilt
  • The character seeks a New Start or undertakes another Great Work
  • Repeat ad nauseum

So why is this so popular? Two reasons.

First, it is a really good structure for a story. It has conflict built into it already, the structure is very flexible and can apply to anything from a courtroom drama to a hospital procedural and still function as is. Pretty much any kind of character can fit into the story structure, from cheerful slackers to driven geniuses. Second, the end of the cycle seamlessly blends into the beginning, allowing movies in a franchise or seasons of a TV show to return their characters to their neutral starting position and facilitating an easy set up for the next installment.

Both of these storytelling considerations are very important for the writers of long, ongoing media properties. Each movie, book or season needs to start at a place where new audience members can easily join and that makes the second point very important. The first point makes keeping up with the grueling timetable of a modern media franchise much easier as the basic framework of story and narrative beats never changes, just the details plugged in to them.

But these are only benefits for the production crews working on these media properties. The broken characters cycle doesn’t really provide a whole lot of benefits for the audience beyond a steady stream of story. And even that steady story can become a drawback.

The thing about the cycle is that it isn’t particularly complex and is very predictable, with story beats that come in very specific times and from very specific directions for maximum impact. You don’t have to be a media glutton or a trained story analyst to start seeing through the cycle, it just starts happening after a little while. And, worst of all, it doesn’t let the character at the center of the cycle grow from their experiences at all. There’s no character growth or substantial change to the status quo that isn’t quickly made irrelevant or undone entirely.

That gets frustrating very quickly. Media franchises need some kind of escalation over time, especially when they run for more than three installments. When the plot deliberately cuts that out of the equation through every iteration then it gets harder and harder to get invested.

Worse, while the cycle does provide great potential for conflict, both internal and external, for all those involved it’s very easy to see it coming, to the point where who falls in which roles can be determined as soon as a character starts down the cycle. With a story so easily predicted it can be easy to lose your audience. Think of it this way. I loves me a good pot of chili, but if I had to eat it every day for a month I’d get tired of it no matter how good the ingredients were or how skillful the chef that prepared it. The cycle is the same way – it’s not flawed inherently but today pretty much any story seeking to be dramatic executes the cycle at some point, if not as it’s primary story arc then as the arc for a supporting character. An most of them will run through the cycle repeatedly.

Now it’s true that there aren’t really any original stories, just new takes on character arcs like the broken characters cycle. And the lack of novelty is one of the reasons why anything attempting something fresh, from presentation to technique, tends to attract the attention of media critics. But with pretty much every major dramatic media franchise leaning on this cycle to some extent broken characters wear out their welcome very quickly.

I don’t really know what to do about the broken characters cycle. As I said before, it’s grown so popular for good reason. With the endless churn of Netflix, Hollywood and TV constantly demanding new content it’s entirely possible we won’t see a change of direction simply because relying on crutches like the cycle are the only way to keep up. But with the rise of the Internet independent media has begun to challenge old production cycles and changed the playing field. I hope to contribute to that change myself. But even if you don’t be on the lookout for this kind of ingrained wisdom. Stepping outside of it is sometimes all it takes to be a breakout in the media world.

See you next week when we talk about not talking.

Iron Fist’s Identity Crisis is NOT What You Think

For those who are new to this blog, the basic pattern I have is to alternate between writing fiction and general commentary on writing and stories. Now that The Face of the Clockworker is complete we’re switching gears into something a little different. Hope you enjoy!

Netflix original shows are stirring a lot of hype these days, none more so than those connected to Marvel. I recently picked up Netflix and decided to give the latest series, Iron Fist, a watch to see what all the noise was about.

That was a mistake.

Iron Fist is not particularly good TV, an opinion most people who have watched the show seem to agree with. The reasons for that are pretty straightforward, yet it’s a trap a lot of writers, myself included, tend to fall into and that makes it worth looking at.

Let me start by mentioning two things people are blaming that are not the reason Iron Fist is lackluster. First and foremost, the problem is not Finn Jones, be it as an actor, a martial artist or a white dude. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t find his performance in Iron Fist particularly memorable. But he does give the role a bit of nuance, handling nostalgia, discontent, joy and anger pretty well. He’s not going to win awards for his performance and that won’t be an oversight – he didn’t do anything that would stand out. But his performance is worthy of any number of CSI/Law and Order franchise shows and plenty of people like them.

It is true that Finn Jones was basically an amateur martial artist but, through intense training and what was most likely good use of stunt doubles they were able to make him pass as a competent fighter. Maybe not a great one, which he is admittedly supposed to be, but it’s really hard to tell. Danny Rand does so little fighting in the series, especially in the first half, it’s hard to get a grasp on how good or bad he is at it. Iron Fist has some really great fight scenes in it, especially in the later episodes. Not all of them are works of beauty and they lean a little too much towards being over choreographed ballet than the frantic, semirealistic action of a John Wick. But it’s supposed to be a martial arts series, not a typical run-and-gun action series so I can forgive that. The genre tends much more towards that kind of hyper stylized action and I generally like it. I generally liked the action in Iron Fist, too. In short, I don’t think Jones’ experience – or lack thereof – in the wushu department was the problem – or even a problem.

Finally, I don’t think the fact that Finn Jones was white was a problem. I could go on and on about the European martial arts traditions and how they developed differently from the Asian martial arts, and why, but that would waste space. Firstly because the point of it all would be to say that the basics of unarmed combat exist in every culture, the cultures just put their own spin on them. The only thing particularly unique about the Asian traditions is the strong emphasis on spiritual awareness they tend to include in their teachings. Second because that’s not the real problem people have when they make the point.

For some reason a small cadre of people hate the notion of an outsider coming in, learning a skill from a given culture and mastering it better than his teachers. The fact that a white person does it somehow makes this the same as colonization, apparently. The whole notion is ridiculous. Ignoring the fact that outsiders as protagonists makes exposition much easier for the author, the point is it happens all the time. In fact, it can lead to radically advancing the art form. Consider the Suzuki school of music. Shinichi Suzuki, a Japanese man, created one of the most widespread and successful methods of early music education even though all the instruments taught with that method are European.

Besides, Iron Fist isn’t even a story about a man learning and mastering a skill from a foreign culture. It’s about a man who has already done that and comes home to use the new wisdom and power he gained from the lessons of others to help those he left behind. Danny Rand frequently seems to miss the world he left behind far more than he values the one he returned to. What’s really being praised in that case, American culture or Eastern culture? And why should it make a difference either way?

The second thing that is not the problem is the show’s production schedule. I hear it was somewhat rushed, in particular leading to Jones not getting as much training in stunts and martial arts as the stunt directors might have wished. Maybe this all is true, but I couldn’t see many signs of it in the way the show was shot or the way the action scenes unfolded.

In truth, this show could have had any lead actor and all the filming time in the world and, if the script and structure of the story wasn’t touched, I would still find it mediocre.

The real problem with Iron Fist is that, while it features a protagonist who’s supposed to be a master of martial arts and uses that mastery to defend the little guy there isn’t a whole lot of martial arts or defending of little guys going on at first. And even when the series picks up in the second half, Iron Fist remains weirdly obsessed with corporate intrigues, boardroom politics and the owners of the Rand Corporation, the business Danny’s parents owned before they all flew off and died in a plane crash along with Danny. Compared to the kung fu action we are promissed by the show’s premise it’s all pretty boring.

Worse, the show treats this corporate conflict as the core conflict rather than the sideshow. The mastermind of the process is the villain taken down in the final episode even though he hasn’t really been an obstacle to Danny for the rest of the series. The Hand, the villainous Triad-ninja hybrid crime gang that Danny spends most of the series fighting gets plenty of screen time but doesn’t really seem to do much for the story. In fact, except for a tacked on and nonsensical attempt to have the climactic episode of the show tie in to Danny fighting a dragon and gaining his powers during his training, the whole corporate intrigue side of the show doesn’t tie into Danny’s character arc at all.

While the Meechums and other corporate characters are kind of interesting, and might have made for a good story on their own, when tied to the story of Iron Fist they just take up running time that could have been spent developing characters like Colleen Wing or Claire Temple more, characters who brought much more to the central thrust of Danny’s story than the Meechums. Not to mention we might have gotten to see Danny doing more cool martial arts stuff like, I don’t know, fighting a dragon?

This is a common problem for a lot of writers and Iron Fist is a great example of why cramming too many conflicts, characters and themes into a single story hurts. The people who wrote Iron Fist tried to chase two rabbits and caught neither, leaving the audience hungry and feeling like their time was wasted. The show is a mess because no one knew what kind of story was being told. Sad, but not entirely unexpected. Better luck with The Defenders Marvel.

The Hour of Dragons

The coast of Greenland was craggy and sparse, little more than rough gray and tan rocks and dirt that ran down to a steep drop off of about thirty feet ending in the frigid ocean beyond. Small ice floes drifted back and forth in the bay beyond. It looked much the same as the surveyor’s reports showed it. He’d chosen the location because, eighty years in a future now far removed, the U.S. Navy had established an observation point to keep an eye on Atlantis.

The Navy had determined the bay was too shallow to let Atlantis approach without having to drag most of its body out of the ocean. The assumed that, like a whale, it would collapse under its own weight once removed from the buoyancy of the sea. They hadn’t really been taking magic into account at the time.

Sam had chosen the site because it guaranteed a chance to look the dragon in the eye, since it had to take it’s head out of the water at some point.

He’d set up most of his equipment already, although large scale tachyon disruption fields seemed a bit silly given what he was going up against. Still, he needed to leave some kind of mark on history, might as well go for broke. Now it was time to set the most important part.

He pulled an hourglass from it’s carrying case and moved towards the highest point nearby, a raised hill that was more rock than dirt, missing even the tough, wispy grasses that struggled to cling to the landscape. The hourglass was a good two hands tall but still looked like a toy in the glove of his suit. He set it down, a bit self conscious, and carefully rotated the top a quarter turn counter clockwise. In response a a deep crack formed in the middle of the bottom and ran all the way to the base. Then the whole thing lit up with a soft white glow.

There wasn’t time to check and make sure it was working. As if on cue the moment he twisted the top a sound like a thunderclap hit him, the disturbed air enough to make the armor’s joints creak. Sam spun away from the broken hourglass and looked out into the bay, expecting storm clouds. The reality was worse.

A massive claw had smashed into the cliffs a quarter mile away at the end of a mind boggling limb that stretched up into the air, out over the ocean and disappeared beneath the waves. Two thirds of the way back to the waves, easily five hundred feet along the arm, Sam spotted something that might have been a giant elbow. The impact shook the ground but the hourglass stayed put.

For a full ten seconds nothing happened. Rather, nothing moved. Sam could almost see the enormous muscles of the limb tensing up, gathering power as seawater poured off in sheets. A bit stunned, he took a few half steps away from the hourglass, only to be rooted in place again when the arm surged downwards and started to lever Atlantis out of the seas.

The first thing to break the surface was a tower. It was far off, beyond the calm waters of the shallow bay, a single point of pale ivory amidst the grayish green waves, looking for all the world like the watchtower of an ancient English castle. Then the water around it erupted and buildings were shooting past far to fast to catalog, even with the enhanced mind of the Clockworker. Sam got little more than a quick impression of streets, crowded buildings and a single, massive gate before a towering neck shot into his line of sight and cut most of the dragon’s body from view.

When the head at the end of the neck was more than six stories overhead, with no signs of stopping, some sensible part of Sam’s brain that had survived several years of wrangling politicians and supervillains, sometimes both at the same time, kicked in and suggested that it was time to run. To, you know, get some distance and rethink things, since that was a lot more dragon than he’d been counting on dealing with.

It was the same part of his brain that was lamenting never building a working flight unit for the power armor. They had always seemed so clunky and impractical before, more suited for long range military purposes than being the flagship of what was, essentially, a specialized police force. Not that either one of those roles was going to do much against Atlantis.

There was too much magic in the area to time shift, the tachyon field would never hold up. The disruptor was equally useless as an offensive tool, Atlantis was putting off a magic signature that compared to Split Infinity’s the way the sun compared to the moon on a cloudy night during a solar eclipse. And there was the mind boggling size of it. Just seeing Atlantis outlined on a screen did nothing to prepare him for being in the presence.

As he scampered back up the coastline, feeling small and powerless for the first time in years, the ground shook underfoot, first with the impact of another foot, smashing into the ground in the distance, then with the friction of a living continent dragging itself across a dead one as Atlantis pulled itself onto shore. Sam made the mistake of looking back at just the right moment to see the dragon open jaws the size of a football field and announce it’s return to the world of men.

It was not a thing you heard.

The sound simply picked him up and tossed him to the ground a hundred feet away. Damage reports sprang up all over his heads up display. Prosthetic arm partially offline, no longer able to unfold it’s internal weapons systems or feed power into the suit. Right shoulder and right chestplate hardlight projectors offline. 30% of power relays out of alignment. Motors lost in left arm, left leg and right shoulder assemblies. Seven minutes to fully repair.

Disoriented, Sam rolled over and sat up, aware that he needed to move but too dizzy to trust his feet. He wouldn’t have the option again. Atlantis’ other claw slammed down with no more force than an avalanche, not quite crushing him entirely. Both legs from the knee down disappeared from his suit readout and from his body.

The suit responded automatically, first demanding the mobile arsenal he’d brought prep the appropriate replacement parts and, for the first time ever, the appropriate field triage prosthetics. He’d really hoped he’d never need those. The suit also dumped pain blockers and anti-shock drugs into his system, those would be fun to scrub out later, and slapped twenty second century triage gear over the new ends of his legs to stop the bleeding. The whole process took maybe three seconds.

Automated pattern recognition software calculated an escape route across the terrain and back towards the prosthetics that were already in motion, hopping slowly towards him in a way that would have been eerie if the situation wasn’t already so terrifying. A second later the arms of his suit kicked into motion, dragging him that way while his decision making brain was still getting over the sudden loss of legs.

Samuel Isaiah King

The voice didn’t come through the air or strike with the force of the dragon’s roar but somehow Sam still knew what he was hearing.

To transgress time and endanger this world is crime enough.

Sam spotted Atlantis’ head high above, partly obscured by the low hanging clouds. But not obscured enough to hide the glaring yellow eyes of the dragon, the only feature of the long, vaguely horselike head that he could make out clearly. Water rushing off of Atlantis’ body mixed with the clouds and dim light to obscure all but the barest glances of the creature’s long, serpentine neck and flashing emerald scales. The neck and arms of the beast ran back to what looked like a sheer cliffside that rose out of the bay, the dragon’s body lost in layer after layer of sediment and detritus built up after untold centuries of slumber. The limbs appeared almost spindly in comparison to the massive body. What Sam could see was built more like a turtle than the traditional depictions of a dragon, though most of the creature’s bulk was clearly still beneath the surface of the ocean.

To ignore the warning we sent and continue the damage is unconscionable.

His awkward scrabble came to a stop, not because he was scared but because he’d reached his new legs and new knees were currently in the process of bolting themselves into place. Unlike when he attached his arm several years ago he didn’t feel pain. Not because of any advancements to the technology, although there were those, and not because there wasn’t pain, that was never going away, but because he was too preoccupied.

To pervert our protections and turn our messengers against us, all while hewing away at the fabric of the world that I am sworn to protect is unforgivable.

The moment the legs clicked into place the Clockworker suit pushed him to his feet, leaving Sam a touch unsteady but, in theory, ready for whatever might come. He was missing the armor from the legs down but that was okay. The armor had always been a backup plan and, clearly, one that was woefully inadequate.

You will leave this world for the one beyond. It falls to us to set right the damage you have done.

The dragon’s mouth opened again and it filled with light, not a solid burning light as a dragon in movies might, but rather a constellation of small swarming lights that swarmed around its teeth. It was the kind of light show that came when Alejandro or Split Infinity did magic, except dragons could apparently do it just by speaking.

Magic still wasn’t something he entirely understood. But he did know magic words of his own.

Although it probably wasn’t necessary Sam set the armor’s speakers to maximum volume and said, “I can do a better job of it.”

For a moment he didn’t think it worked. The light kept building in the dragon’s mouth and Sam was sure he’d guessed wrong and Atlantis wasn’t the Power the Gatekeepers had told him was in charge of keeping his world in order. Then he saw the dragon’s eyes narrow.

What?

“I can fix time. A few years back Natalie said you gave her a time limit to take me out of the picture so you could fix time. That’s come and gone.” He jabbed a thumb at his chest, affecting confidence he didn’t feel. “I still can. I can do it better.”

There was a long pause, what he was beginning to recognize was the long wind-up the dragon needed to move it’s body around. Apparently magic only let you bend the laws of physics so much. Stray thoughts like that disappeared from his mind as soon as Atlantis brought its head down to just above ten feet off the ground, leaving him face to lower jaw with the largest living creature on Earth.

It was like looking up at a football stadium. As close as he was to the creature he had no way of getting a good idea of what it looked like, he still had only half formed impressions of what he could see around the clouds. Now that it was closer to the ground he could tell that water was evaporating off of the beast in waves of steam, adding to the difficulty in making it out. The head pivoted sideways and rotated lengthwise until he was looking into a single mammoth eye.

To choose those things you will take responsibility for is the privilege of mortality. You will undertake the mending of time?

“If you allow it.”

There was another moment of gathering effort, this time accompanied by a rush of wind as if every creature in the world had sighed at once. Then Atlantis raised its head up to the clouds once again. With distance and perspective restored Sam though its eyes had turned regretful, or at least resigned, and he wondered if maybe, just maybe, the creature had to allow it.

Then no more will you be allowed to turn away from this task. Until you have set right your wrongs, you leave this world or your failures destroy it, time rests in your hands.

With the grinding roar of two continents scraping together Atlantis began to slide back into the ocean once more. Sam couldn’t say how long the process took, the dragon’s gaze held his the whole time. As the gates of Atlantis sunk out of sight once more the dragon’s head finally turned back towards the ocean, leaving one final message echoing in his mind.

Godspeed, Clockworker.

When the dragon’s head disappeared beneath the waves Sam took a deep breath, the rest of the world snapping back into place like a rubber band. The coast of Greenland felt oddly small and deflated, like a balloon that had all the air let out of it. He was standing on shaky legs that had been his for less than an hour and his power armor was still sending him repair updates. It wasn’t until he had staggered over to the hill where he left the hourglass that he heard the ticking.

At first he thought he was imagining it. But with every tick it got louder and more defined. Each second of time, clearly marked. A reminder of who he was and what he was supposed to be doing.

He sighed and scooped up the hourglass, twisting it closed again. That wasn’t really necessary, it’s not like fixing time was something he was likely to forget. But maybe that was just one of the things that went with the territory. He walked over to the mobile arsenal and spent a few precious minutes on the mundane task of switching out all the ruined parts of his armor then attaching a new set of legs over his freshly minted prosthetics – which were starting to seriously throb with phantom pains.

Once he had everything back in working order and double checked all the safety measures there wasn’t anything he could do to procrastinate anymore. Sam picked up the hourglass and rotated the top clockwise.

The crack in the base sealed and, as it did so, the world around him fell away, descending until it was just a horizon at his feet, and leaving him and the equipment he’d brought along in the featureless place between his world and all that was beyond.

The old man was there to greet him, his rumpled brown coat, matching pants and shoes all much the same as before, though he had changed shirts to a white button down at some point.

Sam set the hourglass aside and looked the Gatekeeper over once. “I wasn’t expecting you here, to be honest. Where’s Jack?”

The other man smiled, a wry tilt of the lips and nothing more. “Seems he said something to you he shouldn’t have. We’re not supposed to hand out hints, even if by accident.”

Sam slumped down on top of the arsenal and shook his head. “You guys can get in trouble?”

“Oh, yes. Something for you to keep in mind. You’re not exactly a Power like gatekeepers are expected to be but you did just dabble in something very close.” The old man clasped his hands behind his back and stepped away, staring down at the floor. “That world is going to have your fingerprints on it for generations to come, for better or for worse. How could that not have the potential to get you in trouble?”

“Of course.” Sam nodded his understanding. In that light it did make sense. “Is that why you’re here?”

“Yes. Either Jack or I will be here every time you step back into your world. We agreed to let you come here, that make us partly responsible.” He looked back up. “But there’s no hurry. Gatekeeper is an even longer term commitment than yours is likely to be. Don’t feel like you have to rush back there right away. You’ve earned a break.”

“I’ll call you-” Sam hesitated. “Okay, how do I call you?”

The old man laughed and started walking away, towards whatever else was out there. “Say my name and I’ll be there. Jack too, most likely. Until then, take care Clockworker.”

Sam watched him walk out into infinity then turned his attention back to the horizon below, the confines of the world still beyond his comprehension but seeming more clear to him now than ever before. Time was still ticking away, out of balance. But he’d put the Girl Who Split Infinity and the dragon that sent her behind him. Now he just had to fix the problem that had attracted them in the first place. A little matter of cleaning up his own messes.

He just had to fix time.

The Face of the Clockworker – fin

Rising Hour

Sam woke up to the red phone ringing. He rolled over in bed and flailed about until his hand landed on the nightstand with the device buzzing under his fingers. Sharon made an annoyed sound next to him and rolled over in the other direction, taking most of the covers with her. Sam sat up and shook the cobwebs from his brain, then staggered towards the door. Calls on the red phone were important, less than a dozen people had the right technology to even make a call to it and they were all priority one, but they were expecting to talk to the Clockworker, not Sam King.

Some days he wondered if maintaining the fiction that they were two different people was worth the trouble, the public knew he was a close associate of the Clockworker and a lot of people suspected they were the same person, but the engineer in him still wanted the extra layer of protection for Sharon, no matter how thin it might be. So for the moment he let the myth persist.

He raised the phone to his ear and said, “This is the Clockworker.”

The phrase was both a greeting and the voice print authorization that unlocked the phone and answered the call. There was a split second as the phone processed his voice and sent the greeting, then a click at the edge of audibility as the other line patched in. “Good morning,” a smooth baritone on the other end said. “And happy Anniversary.”

His brain ran through the list of people who could call the red phone. None of them sounded like this. Only Sharon and Alejandro knew who they talked to on the other end. “Who is this?”

“Senator Ichiro Maslow, Clockworker.” Sam’s brain was fully engaged by that point, telling him Maslow as from Nevada and served on the Armed Forces Committee. “Before you become overly concerned, Alejandro lent me his phone to call you. We met three and a half years ago, although you may not remember it. We let him handle most of the leg work.”

Sam took his finger of the phone’s panic button and tapped it twice, cancelling the trace on the call. Somewhere three floors down a suit of Clockworker armor stopped powering up for a quick jaunt across the country. “You’re a part of the Legacy.”

“I am.”

“I don’t suppose this has anything to do with your getting Natalie off my case.”

There was a short laugh on the other side of the phone. “No, I’m afraid her opinion of you remains as low as it’s ever been. As odd as it may sound, knowing magic does not make you a miracle worker.”

“Fine and dandy, but having her running around as a vigilante has made getting the Guild sanctioned much harder than I’d hoped.” Sam let himself through the door at the far end of the hall, stepping into the house’s situation room, full of equipment and monitors that let him keep tabs on the world and scramble wherever he needed to go if the situation called for it. “So to what do I owe the honor? Not my anniversary, I think.”

“Sadly, no. I’m calling about the matter that brought you into contact with us in the first place.”

Sam absently started scanning through the reports the screens were displaying. “I haven’t had any problems with Natalie since you guys took her in hand the last time we met. Has she decided to bail on whatever agreement you made then?”

“We didn’t make a deal.” There was a pause on the other end of the phone, the kind of pause he’d come to associate with Alejandro decided how much to tell him about some esoteric point of magic. “She was given a time limit to deal with you. We just kept her from tapping the powers of Atlantis until it ran out and convinced her it wasn’t worthwhile to keep hunting you after that, since you do have your own plan to set things to rights. But your greater concern was the dragons themselves, wasn’t it?”

“Well, yes. After all, if they just tried again I’d be right back where I started. But so far they haven’t.”

“No, because Atlantis was planning to go one further. He’s coming himself.” A notification popped up on one of the screens, informing him that a confidential file server had just received files from one of Alejandro’s encrypted servers. “I just sent you a report from the U.S.S. Leyte Gulf carrier group showing significant seismic agitation and mysterious sonar contacts in the northern Atlantic. Alone, not much, but Natalie told Alejandro earlier today that she’d had a vision of the dragon for the first time in years. We did a little digging with our own resources and when you put it all together it all leads to one conclusion.”

“Atlantis is rising.” Sam put a hand over his mouth and thought for a moment. “Senator, Atlantis isn’t due for another eighty years. How can it be rising now?”

“We’re talking about a creature that sleeps for millenia at a time,” Maslow replied. “Waking up a few decades earlier or later might not make that much of a difference.”

“How has Alejandro not mentioned that in the last three years?”

The senator laughed. “You never asked. And I notice you never mentioned you knew when he was coming back to us. That might have been worth knowing.”

“Touche.” Sam paged through the report. “On the other hand, I do have an idea for what to do now.”

“Anything we can do to facilitate?”

“Can you keep the carrier group out of the area?”

The laughter was incredulous this time. “I thought that a decentralized leadership was something you always praise about government when you stump for people to agree to having a Guild branch in their area.”

“So I guess that rules out your trying to keep Thunderclap’s appeal from going through, too.”

“Retroactively applying new laws is a can of worms no one wants to open, Clockworker. You didn’t have the right to bring him in and no amount of legal finagling is going to change that. He’s probably going to get out when the circuit court rules on it.” He could almost hear Maslow shrug over the phone. “If it’s any consolation I did stump for the Guild when it came to Nevada. Now if you really don’t need anything, I have a lot on my plate.”

“Then I’ll let you go. Thank you for the heads up, Senator.”

“Give my regards to your wife.”

The senator hung up and Sam turned around and found Sharon leaning in the doorway. She was holding her own red phone, the only one he’d given out that could listen in on calls from the others. He’d modified it to do that as last year’s anniversary present. “How much of that did you get?”

“Everything from Natalie still hates your guts.” She sighed and looked at the monitors, where the map of the Atlantic showed a two mile stretch of ocean floor that had started shaking at a 4.7 on the Richter scale six hours ago in spite of there being no known fault lines in the area. “How are you going to fight that, Sam?”

“Hopefully I won’t have to.” He got up, blanking the screens as he did. “Admittedly, given how much Natalie hates me, it’s fair to assume the dragon that sent her after me is likely to be just as hostile. And since Atlantis wants me, staying put places a lot of people in the line of fire so going to meet it is the best bet for everyone. I wouldn’t deserve to be the leader of the Guardian’s Guild if I was willing to put people in danger for my own convenience.”

“Better it be just you.” She didn’t sound bitter, although he knew from past experience the bitterness was there, deep down.

“I wish you wouldn’t worry.” It was a stupid thing to say but it still managed to slip out.

Sharon gave him a thin smile. “Sam, you’ve got a basement full of replacement prosthetics, for all four limbs. Not to mention the artificial replacement organs you’ve been tinkering with.”

He winced. “I didn’t think you’d seen those.”

“It’s not hard to keep tabs on when you access your temporal relay, and when it’s not attached to a crisis at the Guild I’m not above peeking. The fact that you’ve powered it up is enough to give me jitters. And I’m not the only one relying on you.” Sharon glanced over at the emblem of an hourglass, a deep crack running down it’s bottom half, that was emblazoned on his workstation. The sigil of the North American Guardian’s Guild. “Don’t you worry that it won’t last without you? Three thousand people working for the Guild in the U.S. and Canada, not to mention all the people who count on said Guild for their safety while the delta factors in the population continue to increase.”

“The Guild is built to outlast me, Sharon. It has to.”

She slumped down in the chair he’d abandoned. “I know. You have to fix time. That might be another reason to avoid fighting dragons, you know.”

“Since it’s the reason the dragon is mad at me I’d tend to disagree.” Sam went over to the wall and started pushing buttons on the keypad there. “Besides, I think this is a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.”

Sharon looked up. “How so?”

“I need to reach some kind of bargain with Atlantis or it could really get in the way, so that’s bird one. Bird two is that I need to put down a fixed point in time.” A panel on the far wall slid open to reveal a suit of Clockworker armor. It was a few months old but essentially fresh off the fabricators as it was his latest antimagic model and he hadn’t needed it since it was built. He kept pushing buttons, ordering specific equipment lots mobilized and loaded onto his jumpship.

“A fixed point in time.” That was Sharon’s patented I Don’t Understand So Keep Talking Or Get Punched tone.

“So I’ve been saying I’ve broken time to describe the problem but on digging into the problem more I’ve determined it’d be better to say I’ve pushed it out over a place where it has no foundation. There are a lot of worlds out there, kind of woven together like a tablecloth, and by changing the course of time I’ve pulled us out of the weave.” He finished setting his loadout and activated the armor so it stepped forward out of the alcove, which closed behind it.

“So we’re like a loose thread? What, are we unravelling the universe or something?”

“Nothing quite that drastic. But if a thread gets long enough without anything to support it, it will break under it’s own weight.” He climbed into the armor and started sealing himself in. “When I disappeared after Upsilon tried to teleport me the first time I went… outside our world and figured a few things out. I think I can put us in a new weave with some of the worlds around our new position. But if time is a thread I need to be able to pull on it without breaking it myself. For that, I need fixed points in time.”

Sharon was nodding. “Points, plural, to spread out the strain.”

“Exactly. And you reinforce the places you expect to bear extra strain so it’s best if these fixed points correspond with significant events.” Sam detached his helmet from his waist then thought better of putting it on. It probably didn’t fit the mood of the conversation.

Sharon gave him a sardonic look and stood up to put her hands on her hips. “Events like the rising of a dragon that’s been dead and sleeping for thousands of years?”

“That would fit the bill.”

“How many of these fixed points do you need?”

He tucked his helmet under one arm. “I’ve identified eleven suitable points over the next thirty years. With Atlantis rising that makes twelve, which should be enough. I’ve built in four extra, for safety’s sake.”

She stepped closer and ran her hands up the armor’s chest plate to rest near where his shoulders were under all the machinery and ceramics. “Thirty years? Think you’ll be in any shape to go running around fighting when you’re nearly sixty?”

He looked away in discomfort. “Well… thing is, once I start doing this the Heisenberg effect of my future knowledge will quickly unanchor the fixed points. If I remain in the timeline. So I’m going back outside, to the place Upsilon sent me before. If I can establish all twelve fixed points inside of three weeks it should be fine.”

“No, I’ll be gone for a little less than two.” He set his helmet on the desk and gently wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “Outside a world isn’t a healthy place for people. I’ll need to set up a few things before I can bring you there with me.”

Skeptical, Sharon leaned back and studied his face. “Samuel King. Are you asking me to go time traveling with you? When were you planning to bring this up if ancient dragons hadn’t forced the issue?”

“I was actually planning to do it today,” he said sheepishly. “I worked out the last details a few weeks ago and had everything ready to go except for when I would be ready to leave on my first jump.”

“You were going to invite me on a crazy, time travelling expedition to save the world for our second anniversary?”

“It seemed like a romantic idea at the time…” He shrugged as much as the armor would let him. “Maybe our five year would have been mor-”

Sharon cut him off with a kiss that was a lot more interesting than whatever he’d been about to say.

After a minute she pushed away with a grin and said, “Go slay your dragon, Sam. I’ll be here whenever you get back.”

He scooped up his helmet and jammed it in place, grinning back and ready to take on all the dragons the oceans had to offer. “Be back before you know it.”