I'll give you an insight into what I'm trying to achieve. Thanks to the comic book flicks hitting cinemas one after another, a book has to grab its audiences by the balls too. So I've written and rewritten this opening with a view to grabbing you by the balls (or nipples) and insodoing -
>introduce my hero
>introduce the peculiar circumstances of the world (200 years in the future, and an Ice Age Scenario)
>demonstrating our hero's extraordinary ability (he has what some psychologists refer to as 'ancient remnants, or 'racial memory', in other words, via his memories he can - it seems - see through time).
>the landscape itself activates some of these 'archaic remnants'.
Question is, have I rendered these in the best way possible? Do they work? Is the technique effective? What do YOU think?
Also, I open the story not only by providing a setting, but an initial plot point. It's not immediately obvious here why he is pursuing a group, or who he is pursuing (I'll tell you, it's his mother, who he ultimately never sees again). But as a result of this excursion another main character is imperilled and about to be executed, which sets off the urgency and tension of the remaining characters.
Does it work?
Is it overly descriptive or too long?
You decide - please communicate these thoughts either on Facebook, Twitter, by commenting below the post, or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After many miles of fast running, the slender man overtakes the collie just as the elevation tips upward. Soon the dog falls behind his master's heels, although the eagle flying low over the pair of them barely needs to move a feather. Its eyes glance away from the blur of paws and fur clad feet, but not a single mouse nor hare darts from their route. The trio are in pursuit of a larger party that came this way when the sun shone its anodyne light over a brutally cold and clear late afternoon. Now, as the dogs falls behind his master at last, the rim of the hill and an unearthly darkness that hulks directly behind it draws closer. As soon as his foot crests the ridge rock, he stops. The eagle too is blown backward, into a ball of feathers by a vicious wind filled with razors. The dog’s tongue lolls for just a moment but then the animal hastily closes it.
The lean man has a medieval look about him. He carries a sword, his lower legs are wrapped in furs, his chest – the ribs trying to contain the efficient heaving engine beneath – is covered in a light grey cambric shirt. Vapors erupts from his smooth white skin. Enormous plumes balloon out of his mouth and are whipped away by the sharp wind surfing along the hill crest.
But instead of a view, or even a glimpse of the party he pursues, something monstrous obscures the landscape. He considers a route around it, but the storm is simply too enormous. Also, since it is moving towards him, it is inevitably that he will encounter it.
The storm is brewing as is moves. Will he wait it out, or try to run through it before it can unleash itself. Neither.
The iris stiffens, the pupil swells. A pair of unsympathetic grey eyes register the twirling storm with implacable patience…as it advances toward the hill line where he stands. Though he is in a hurry to catch those ahead of him, he waits.
A dull roar builds along the base of the hill and finally breaks outward and upward over the hiss and scratch of frigid coils of sky. To the untrained eye the churning cell appears to be no more than massive maelstroms catapulting common debris in a stupendous but mostly harmless aerial ballet… but he instantly recognises the pink discharges for volcanic lightning. It bursts from swilling frag plumes that swell out and invade the upper atmosphere in curtains of thick impenetrable ink. The detonations tear at the fabric of the air itself. Each one is hundreds of times more powerful than ordinary lightning.
The ruined ground shakes under his feet. Even so he takes a few slow steps forward towards the long neck dropping down from the dark skies…culminating in a lazy snake sniffing the earth with that darting poisonous black tongue. More bolts fly out and pound the earth with terrifying force. He continues to walk slowly downhill towards it. Through the slow gripping and ungripping of the wires in his legs, he feels the metal of his sword resonate to an alien tune. Where it presses against his femur his own bone seems to jar in tune to this infernal power. His sharp eyes know those churning ribbons only too well, for they are not made of mere water vapour but the toxic choke of radiated silica, aluminum silicates, titanium dioxide, talc, and metals. The atmosphere is filled with the flotsam of the fried, the nuked, the burnt and the frozen. To the uninitiated that vase coalescing into a shiny upside down cobra is nothing less than the accumulated accretions of the world’s bombs and machines. It is all the world turned to smoke. Every child and woman and man’s body conjured by his own weapons into nameless vapours. And then his own weapons in turn had been blown to ash. Yes, the particles and flakes, the leaves and chips giving the sky its rough haze are the dead –swarms of man mixed into swirls of trees, animal prides and insect colonies all spun into the same ozone soup, all churning in this lifeless pall, a cloud of specks that float with every twist and turn of the wind in the sullied air. He watches it all with eyes dispassionate as the sun. In fact, while he appears to be aware of the storm, he does not seem to see it.
Around him, away from this pantomime of death, in every direction is a seeming eternity of ice. But for a dark fortress, he appears utterly alone – unless one can count a dog for company, or the great eagle that sits under wind ruffled feathers watching him from a nearby rock.
It is then that a machine emerges through the storm. A white star flashes off each wing, and the uppermost tip of the tail. The drone swings through the tendrils of the storm like a fish immune to the poison of the anemone. The storm, violated, sends violent sparks that crash blinding lights and flame upon impact. But explosions dissipate like films of water over blue shields of liquid energy projected by the drone’s alloyed-resin hull. The drone itself is completely immune, not even the incinerated air burning around it dislodges it from its smooth trajectory. The storm seems as ephemeral as a ghost.
The grey eyes know better; they track the black machine and watch it as it moves directly overhead. The way the lids and the frame of his brows hood the keen gaze of the eyes gives them a haunted aspect. The man is certainly more disturbed by the drone than the storming, looming like a tsunami over him.
The drone moves in a slow arc around the storm, and his neck turns a little to follow it. If the drones sensors have detected him, they show no sign of it. Finally the drone makes a final pass, more bolts conducted via a raft of capillaries to tickle the craft…before it disappears. But then the storm shoots a dozen blinding, deafening bolts into the foundations of the Earth, as if to celebrate another elemental victory: the expanding forces of this planet versus the soundless invulnerable machine diminishing southward.
The man with the silver hair steps faster now and begins to move even further down the hillside. The animals follow him, but unsteadily and with obvious trepidation. He moves confidently towards the enormous vacuum pipe of the storm in the direction of the sea, and a small protected cove with a harbour behind it. The cell is not yet a tornado, but remains an ominously rotating thunderstorm cell. The jaws open as if to engulf carpets of turf, whole boulders and clumps of soil. But only a slim layer of cycling snow lifts like the veil of a bride, and joins a dark conveyor of convetti thronging around its throat.
As the approaching system wraps more and more veils of cold moisture around itself, dark gusts impregnated with lead descend heavily to drown out a flank filled with light-filled cathedrals. Immediately apparent is both the enormity of the system (in a few moments its dimensions have doubled) and the self-possession of the man who is watching it while he continues to move towards his target. Even when the static from crackling pink bolts of lightning tint the long, straight bridge of his nose, and lift the long silver strands of hair in opposition to the push of the storm, he does not deviate. It is… as though he knows exactly how the system will behave. And what path he must take.
He does, because he has seen it before. He can feel the gargantuan thing, its scraggy electric pulse, that intricate lacework charged with ozone and watery connectivity… the ebb and flow of its rough, slippery momentum. It moves now like a giant grey vase, the base of it drifting lower and nearer while its torrid arms swallow up the sky. His own arms fold about him, the water and salts giving his blood and tissues an odd electric charge…one that instead of being a lightning rod on a flat surface makes him appear – at least chemically – part of the landscape. Meanwhile, at the horizon a bright yolk drips its western drops before it disappears beneath lengthening tail feathers. A few more murky tendrils drop off the mass, like worms sniffing the inert soils for signs of life.
The few grasses that poke through the snow are bent almost horizontal now in these screeching high winds. Instead of looking at the bizarre electrical fireworks of the storm, he looks through it: at its silhouette, and the shape and gait of the field before him. He looks even further into the landscape and penetrates the memories that swim through them. So many men crossing these moors. All innocent tourists, loud and proud, staking their claims before yielding to the next crowd. They come one by one, then in bursts of family units, then migrating clans, then warrior echelons offloaded by ships… in wave after endless wave. The gaels, the picts, the Vikings, the angles, the Romans. From this cacophony of different faces and tongues they hybridised and bastardised each other…new peoples emerging from merging tribes, like the Saxons, the Celts and Scotts. Who alive today is not some well honed, bastardised version of tribes alloyed into infinitely sturdier individuals? They called themselves by their first names…but these were followed by men whose second names spoke of their claims and connection to the land.
And then the cities rose and fell in a great inferno that turned this planet’s sky to fire. And after that…a silence…occupied by a cold wind, and dark clouds.
His foot scrapes the soil and he stops. It is the jaw bone of a man that died here from starvation. He tries to see the storm, he does not mean to think of the name that once belonged to this man who sleeps in the soil. He closes his ears to the man’s words. He simply stands while the storms curtains and cheeks suck and cough and roar at him. The throat gulps a little as it passes, though his own throat remains white and impervious, like the shielded skin of a drone.
Well, there are no more waves after him.
Another discharge makes the dog cower at his master’s heels, and snaps the eagles wings open like an unhinged umbrella.
As more jagged bolts bite into the earth, the creature’s wings stay open, guarded, trembling. The dog begins to press its chest against his master’s shin. It whines but the sound is drowned out by the roar of the blitzkrieg breaking around them.
The tall young man closes his eyes and the landscape begins to swim through time. It rises and sinks with the flux of continents, the pull of the moon and the planets, the tectonics exerting their plastic deformations and tossing him like a boat upon its mantle. Behind his eyelids he sees a fourteen year old boy that used to be him leading an army to victory on this very field.
This field, this landscape, is filled with stories. With memory.
His lips move.
It is the ancient name for this place. The modern name has been lost…the history books, and maps, and every hard drive…like everything else, torched and turned to dust…all reduced to an anonymous burnt smear that infects storms and floats in the empty bombed out sewers that were once rivers. His eyes open and he is back...washed upon the shores of The Now, a time two hundred years beyond the last civilisations of men.
The storm is upon him now, and so he whistles for the eagle. She bounces twice through the air, and lands on his fist. He places her head against his shoulder, and covers it with an arm. Then with timing only he can account for, he walks slowly through the frag. Pillars of scalding light bounce and roar around him. One melts down beside his back, turning the knuckles of white skin protruding along his spine, and the bones and blades protruding from his shoulders to the color of toast. He holds his breath and closes his eyes for a few moments, as the snake’s tongue darts around him… and then it is past, and the blackness is softened at once by drifts of snow, and the searing cocoon of sulphurous heat…all cooling, softening, all tempered by just the restless wind of the storm’s tail.
At his feet his dog coughs. He unfurls his arm but initially the large bird remains inert as though hypnotised. When his master utters a soft whistle its yellow eyes open, the beak drops open in quiet defiance, and it pulls itself aloft into an opaque twilit sky.
The grey eyes drift behind him again, to the rear of the storm. From this vantage point it looks entirely different. It reminds him of the intricate patterns, the delicate beauty of another system…elsewhere. As he begins to find his pace again his lids close for a moment…and…
the landscape races across time and the surface of the planet to…
Saxony, a north German coast trapped in the deep recesses of another time. It is the year 841AD, and the great empire of the Carolingian inheritance is – for the moment – precariously intact. These are the time of Viking raids, of looting, of long ships and Dukes of Normandy.
A patchwork of kingdoms has arisen, with a smorgasbord of tribes. Kings clash with one another, then marry one another’s daughters and murder their brothers and fathers.
Soon, when Louis the Pious dies, war will break out between Charlemagne’s three grandsons…it will split Europe down the middle, then fragment further into territories resembling northeast Spain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, large parts of Germany, and north Italy.
It is late afternoon in summer, when a Saxon peasant…a descendant of the Danes…called Kal, with bright grey eyes returns home from a sweaty day at work in the fields and woodlands. As he returns, the villagers see both a black army from neighboring Frisia swarming down the mountain, and at the same time, a storm drops its funnel onto the middle distance.
Kal tries to outrace both horrors, but finds himself lifted by this storm and dropped through a maelstrom of bloodied pine needles and thatch, sharp as sandpaper, onto the deck of a boat.
The sound of the wind that day is like no sound men had ever heard. The high pitched screech and roar of…
100 Boeing 747’s touching down…
The ancient memory of Kal recedes behind his grey eyes, and the storm of the present day advances back into sharp focus. Given the thin material covering his skin, if the remnants of this storm drench him, if his clothes become wet from the least bit of rain he will surely perish from exposure to his own wet garments. But he seems to know that the storm will not precipitate this late in the day. Instead, he watches with enjoyment as the vigorous thunderstorm advances up and over the hill, filling and emptying its stomach with ice and dust. One side of the system turns and spreads a vast silvery blue wing while the other makes a holy yellow light under its tail…it decorates this golden cauldron with more erratic brilliant discharges that send thin blue cracks over the distant egg-like orb that is the setting sun. The sounds are becoming more distant.
It occurs to him that our history is a lot like a storm, a system of spun up materials, that carry themselves into something corporeal, and apparently real, something with its own energy, but something that remains amorphous, recondite and somehow unreal in the moment. The storm, crossing a vale of tears, tells him to let go of the past, even as he honours it. The network of coils and ropes, ribbons and sails swilling before him remind him that his own human body is just an arrangement of air and water and dust, a radiant recombination of vitality and plague, stress and adaptation, fire and cold power. The storm now simply swims elsewhere, its slow, mesmerising vortex trailing away, loath to transform into anything better or worse. As the curling tissues of cloud recede, his purples lips move. The words make no sound, and there is none but a collie dog at his feet to hear them, but the words are:
“So we beat on, boats against the current…”
They are not his words, but the last words in the last sentences of a thin book, another burnt souvenir floating in the anodyne light of the anonymous atmosphere. It came from a story about a man who was not who he said he was.
He turns his haunted grey eyes for the umpteenth time back to the veil. The storm has delayed him in his pursuit; he rather expected it would. And now, more than likely, the men and woman he pursues will escape his efforts.
He steps forward nevertheless. The ropes tense in his legs. And as he runs his dog rushes to remain at his heels. As he moves the gloom turns white with falling specks. As night deepens fresh snow blankets the bones of a dead Earth.
It is late in the night when the man reaches the coast. He finds her ship has sailed. He stands, kicking a piece of ship rope that lies on the rickety old jetty and gazes at the slow heave of the dark ocean.
Then he turns his back on his own myopia and walks back.
At this point I suppose I should allow myself to enter the story.
Give me a moment or two to add a few more touches to my rough sketch.
As he walks he wonders through the tides of memory and penetrates our (nearly extinct) generation – a vague word that encompasses the cultural bloodstream of one’s time. He knows and sees the very secrets that make us who we are, and make him what he is. He sees that… having succumb to their addictions, distractions and finally their madness, the age of man is ended, but…he looks back briefly at the shipless sea behind him… not entirely concluded.
Even so, the future of the world is here. With him, with the community and fortress here under his charge, here where we – (and I) – are (am).
Given the shift in our collective fortunes you will want to know some cold, hard facts. I will leave it to the facts themselves to determine how cold or hard they may be to you. Let us start with one. More is too much for me to bare. It is after all up to me to bear witness, and if I am to tell the whole story, I will need to pace the information that I have hardly the heart to impart to you.
He knows the world numbers less than a hundred thousand men all told. He knows the tally exactly, though he keeps this to himself. He knows that billions have given back their spirits to the world, and yet Death’s wicked grin is undiminished. Survivors in realms far beyond this one must make hasty retreats to still stand a chance on this planet. If they can find their way here, to him, the odds for their survival and perhaps mankind’s as a whole increase by a notch.
We have always been better at holding off the shadow of death when we’ve stood together. But even within the relative safety and security that he provides, mustering the will to live in these climes requires enormous reservoirs of private resilience. Not all share his.
Look. Even as he walks under the fuming night his eyes are calm, his bearing noble in its lack of apprehension. His stone-faced serenity, his implacable resilience…is this the zenith of the human form, or is it some alien manifestation of grace, something unemotional and cold – the way reptiles and machines are distinctly cold and different from mammals – and logical. Has cool calculated logic ultimately eluded the species that once upon a time called itself ‘homo’. And from homo he sprang into innumerable swarms of the supposedly ‘wise man’. In the end, he devolved into carbon copies, homo-geneous versions of the same stupid thing: users and gratuitous consumers. A zombie who had carelessly forgotten the legacies of life stored up in his blood. For a mindless primitive creature, its brain-dead-brain activated by its enslavement to sugar it did an impressive job of stripping both itself and the rest of the planet of its diversity. Success in this sense meant self destruction, and the virtual destruction of a planetary domicile.
Enter upon this vanquished stage the new man, this man, whom we may (for the moment) call Homo Ulysses. It’s uncertain whether this nomenclature refers to an angry man, a wrathful man, a man with a leg wound, or a man known for his eloquence. A final possibility lingers, but it is perhaps too much to hope for. If this specimen derives his name not from Indo-European, but from Latin, (thus a word that comes to mean ‘odyssey’ at the end of the day), then perhaps we are simply looking at a man about to do what man has always prepared to do in the world: the hero preparing for an adventure, the man about to undertake a great journey?
Here’s another fact. The man’s name is Christopher Ulysses. More will be revealed about him, about his talents and the long line that conjured his existence.
For now, let us pretend that this is simply an ordinary man, standing over a field of Earth at night in the Northern Hemisphere. Let us pretend for a moment that we are unaware of the extremeness of the cold night, ignorant also of his ability to absorb the signs in the soils, the slope of the hills, and the tug of the atmosphere upon his shoulders. Let us ignore the echoes of the extinct and extant, man and beast, rock and crystal that play upon the fields of his mind.
As a starting point, let us accept that he, like many intuitive primitives before him, is simply in tune with the natural world. Like them, he is aware of the world’s wilderness racing to expand at every turn. But it is difficult not to notice…that he seems not to notice the incessant gnaw of the cold. Or the feral remoteness taking over every place. Nevertheless he feels it all under his feet, touching his skin. It’s like a shifting carpet under him. He can feel the entire extent of the tree of life swimming through the soils, reaching with great snaking arms into the enormous proportions the world knew before. And along with this global reset of the natural order, he senses both the brace and the weight, the scope and the scale of the great caps of ice shifting their bulk like a great wedding dress…the heaving mass makes its inexorable way…cracking and breaking… across one desiccated latitude after another. The floes and bergs groan and hiss as they try to fit themselves over the spines of sunken valleys. The veil crawls along coastlines, stretches bawdily across the shoulders of entire mountains ranges. The ice skirts the girth of cities and their suburbs, burying toppled towers and bridges until every road, every footpath and without exception, each gentle anonymous Arcadia in every place is razed under it…erased to a disarming white, to be held prisoner for an Age.
But the wilds and the utterly unknowable forces driving them are not beyond the faculties of this young man’s mind. What he sees he has seen before, in racial memories across vast swaths of time. This encyclopedic knowledge is intricately embedded under layer upon layer within his very blood. With the same dispassionate gaze as the sun, he looks upon fields filled with memory…fields that echo with mighty races of men. They have been cut down in their millions, in their billions, like wheat. The slaughter has slowed of late, but the counter of humanity still rattles down our diminishing destiny.
If he is dispassionate, there is nevertheless a trace of sadness. If anything, the new world is a more colorless place. It may be filled with wild things, but wolves and hares are somehow not enough to replace the loss of green things, and flowers. There’s an eerie silence in the air, beyond the howl of a wolf, or the rustle of a small critters. What’s missing is the buzz of insects, the bounce of butterflies, the shiny, merry dance of beetles and bees.
And of course, man is absent, along with his machines, his industry, his shops and the cacophony that was once his world of distraction. That electrical buzz saw is also permanently turned off. In this world day is a bright blast of white. Night is pitch dark and haunted by owls.
Fields are no longer farmed. Under the sheets of snow the vegetation is blackened and inert. The chaff and stalks of every crop have been burnt to their very quick. The entire fabric of all earthly empires is undone, our cities turned to piles of ash and rust, the rivers bombed to black, empty sewers. The whole ball of yarn that once was us – all of us – has unravelled to just a few pieces of tattered string strewn across the last step of a desolate stairwell. We are down, and almost out, but not quite. Because a young man with long silver hair stands there on the cold moor, holding a pair of dead rabbits in his right hand, while an enormous black fortress rises before him…