(This is a short story I am putting together around a character I created for one or the RPGs on the site. I wanted to give a glimpse of him to those who weren't around when the RPG was taking place)
The Killing Jar
Mack Grundy smiled. No one saw the smile, so no one was chilled by it. Down here, among the dregs of a dozen worlds, he was the Hammer of God, chosen to break them and render them harmless.
He was looking forward to breaking the new prisoner. Not yet positively identified, the small, pale man was brought in three hours ago, rounded up near the smoking ruins of a government installation that had been invaded by a small band of mercenaries.
Manacled and with a full tranquilizer load in him, he should have been a rag doll with a pulse. But as two of his guards stepped away so the remaining two could shove him through the narrow doorway into his cell, he attacked. One guard went down, his kneecap shattered by a snap kick, and the other was soon gasping for breath with the prisoner’s manacles around his throat. The remaining two guards rushed him with neural prods. One fell, his larynx crushed by a well-placed kick, but the fourth guard managed to immobilize the prisoner with the prod as the second guard collapsed to the floor, unconscious.
Mack checked the new prisoner’s video monitor, but the view was obscured. He had half expected this, so he stepped silently to the steel door of the cell with the neural prod ready. Snapping the view panel’s cover aside, he jammed the prod against the opening and pressed the trigger, and smiled grimly as he heard a muffled gasp and the sound of a body landing hard on the floor. Only then did Mack look through the opening.
The prisoner was small and wiry, with a pale face marked with several scars that looked like burn marks. Beside him was a small stun gun he must have taken from one of the guards during last night’s struggle. Clearly he had prepared to ambush whoever opened the view panel. But he has never dealt with me, thought Mack.
He opened the cell door and stepped inside. He picked up the stunner, and covered the prisoner with it as he checked the camera. Although it was recessed behind an electrified wire grid, the prisoner had manager to cover the lens with his own feces.
Mack kicked the prisoner hard, and was surprised to see him curl up in pain. He should still have been immobilized by the charge from the prod. The prisoner began to try to stand, so Mack swung the stunner. A bright red gash appeared across the bridge of his nose and crossing his right eyebrow, and the prisoner collapsed to the floor. Mack left the cell and slammed the steel door behind him. He left orders that no one was to enter the cell for any reason without Mack standing by.
Jared struggled to stay conscious, and lost. Beneath the searing pain that invaded even his unconscious mind floated a clear memory.
He was surrounded by brown dust and leathery plants under an unrelenting sun’s glare, poking the dry dirt with a stick. Around him, the occasional hot breath of the desert breeze made the spiny brown plants shiver with a dry hiss.
The dirt erupted at the tip of a stick, and a twig-like grey scorpion fled, seeking a new hiding place. Jared snatched it up by the tail, just below the wicked-looking sting, and examined his catch. It tried to grab his finger with its pincers, but was unable to reach any vulnerable skin.
Jared lifted the cover from the glass jar next to him, dropped the scorpion inside, and covered it again. He wrinkled his nose at the fumes from the wet blotter at the bottom of the jar, and watched as the scorpion’s frantic movements slowed, then ceased.
Then Jared’s dream shifted to the nightmare that visited him every time he closed his eyes to sleep.
(to be continued)
At any given moment in fiction, the story is being told from some point of view. In literary terms, that point of view is described in terms of narrative person: first person is told as if the narrator is the same as the character currently in the spotlight, third person is told as if the narrator is observing the currently active character. I’m referring to the character in this way instead of main character, because in a particular scene or passage, the character in focus may not be a main character of the story at all.
But before going any further, the narrative person should not be confused with the grammatical person of any particular sentence. The grammatical person refers to the sentence subject and verb. Pronoun subjects may be first, second or third person, singular or plural, but noun subjects are third person singular or plural. The verb must agree in person and number with the subject.
The narrative person, on the other hand can generally be considered singular, because the words are presumably narrated from one mind at a time, unless the narrative is delivered by a hive consciousness. Also, the narrative voice is usually first or third person, although second person has been used to tell a reader what he or she is perceiving. Personally, I abhor second person POV; it’s like treating the reader like a hand puppet, and don’t ask where the hand goes!
To illustrate why narrative voice and grammatical voice may differ, consider these two paragraphs:
I felt a fat wet drop splash on my face. I looked up and saw a grey wall of rain approaching from the east, and I ran for shelter.
A fat wet drop of rain splashed on my face. I looked up. A grey wall of rain was approaching from the east, and I ran for shelter.Both of these paragraphs are written from a first person point of view, but the second paragraph alternates between first and third grammatical person in the individual clauses. To me, the second paragraph flows better, feels more natural. So when someone suggests you write a section from a particular person, they are usually referring to the narrative person, and it does not mean you should change the person in each and every sentence to match.
In terms of drawing a reader into your story, you need to establish a point of view (POV), and maintain it. Yes, it is valid to shift POV, but if you don’t choose the transitions well, you can leave the reader “floating”.
If you have not worked on holding a consistent POV before, you should probably write a story or two with a single POV throughout, so you can more easily pay attention to when you slip out of that POV. Here’s an example:
Benjamin hurried up the grassy slope, puffing from the exertion. As he crested the hill, the settlement of Fort Matthews sprawled in the valley before him. The settlement, founded in 1843, had provided a haven for travellers from Indian attacks for thirty years.Do you see where the story fell away from Benjamin’s POV in the third sentence? Suddenly Benjamin is alone and forgotten at the crest of the hill, while someone else begins giving a history lesson.
There may be times you want to switch over to an omniscient POV, but you should never do so in the middle of a scene. Here’s the same paragraph, but keeping Benjamin present:
Benjamin hurried up the grassy slope, puffing from the exertion. As he crested the hill, the settlement of Fort Matthews sprawled in the valley before him. Benjamin wondered whether travellers still fled there from Indian attacks, thirty years after the settlement was founded. He suddenly felt very exposed atop the hill.You want to keep the reader hooked into the scene, especially at the beginning of your story. Maintaining a well-anchored POV will help you immensely in this regard.
One subtle thing to watch out for is narrator intrusion:
He heard a low rumble, and saw the sand grains dancing on the floor.
A low rumble sounded, and the sand grains began dancing on the floor.In the first sentence, you are watching the character as he hears the rumble and sees the sand grains begin moving. But in the second sentence, you are the character. I call the first one a popcorn POV, because the perspective is as someone in the cinema watching the action take place, whereas in the second sentence, you are fully embedded in the scene. Whenever possible, you want to avoid the popcorn POV and get the reader into the character’s shoes.
Another common mistake is to think of your POV character as a perfect recording device, instead of a person with limited focus. In other words, you might be tempted to describe everything the character can see or hear, instead of what he or she would actually notice and pay attention to.
For example, when you run into a friend you have seen nearly every day for the past decade, you won't notice her auburn curls tumbling about her narrow shoulders. You would notice that it's Erica, and she seems excited about something.
So make sure that what you describe is not only what the POV character can observe, but also what he or she would observe at that time and place.
Entire novels, and excellent ones at that, have been written using a single POV. Others tend to restrict the perspectives to a small number of viewpoints, often two. But no matter how many points of view you operate from, maintain the focus carefully and only switch when you have a good reason to shift the focus of the story.
That is, of course, all from my point of view.
This is something I wrote for a poetry contest on the site nearly a year ago. I hope you enjoy it.
I sat myself down with the leather-clad poet
My mission: to capture his essence in ink.
The sleepy eyed singer of Doors fame waited
as my head filled with nothing; I forgot how to think.
The Lizard King put up his feet on the table
and hummed a few notes as I stood on the brink
of finding the ultimate question for him
He pulled out a whiskey – we both took a drink.
The questions were flowing, and so was the booze.
The answers I wrote soon became indistinct
Jim drank most of the bottle, I’m sure! He was soon
yawning in Technicolor into the sink.
Jim dropped his pants, mooned the world from his door
and shouting he stumbled, then fell to the floor
I wish I could write the account of our meeting,
But my notes begin “Jim,…”; I can make out no more.
This is a revision of my winning entry in Short Story Competition 22, the theme of which was a Chase.
Virgil Lambreaux was a dead man, and he knew it. He had nearly a sixteen hour lead, but there was no possibility of escape.
His fate was sealed the moment he walked into the Icarus Base transport bay and recognized the brunette near the cargo lockers. “Rissa! What brings you down here of all places?” He hurried toward her, but his grin faltered at the cold glare she gave him as she turned and pointed at him. He dove to the deck and scrambled for cover behind a crate. A searing pulse from the plasma pistol in her hand barely missed his head and charred an elliptical pit in the deck plate. He crawled quickly between a loading jack and a mobile welder. Rissa cursed loudly from near where he had been standing.
Virgil moved behind the welder, and silently picked up a wrench left by one of the workers. His stomach tightened as he saw a motionless figure on the floor nearby. The smell of burned hair invaded his nose and his stomach lurched. Sensing movement behind him, he spun around. The wrench struck Rissa’s elbow. The plasma pistol jerked away, and then swung back toward him.
He swung the wrench again, hard, and felt bones crunch. Blood from Rissa’s head soaked Virgils hand, and she crumpled to the deck. Virgil gripped the side of the welder unsteadily, and retched convulsively.
This was not the Rissa Swan he thought he knew, had admired and flirted with. Surprisingly, her attempt to kill him dampened his attraction toward her. She had also killed three workers in the transport bay, and had been breaking into one of the cargo lockers when he arrived.
Rissa had always been passionately outspoken in condemning her notorious father, Colby Swan, who was widely believed to be in control of most of the organized criminal activity in this region of the Belt.
The cargo lockers along the wall were airtight safes for valuables. The one Rissa had been working on was damaged but still secured. Whatever she was after, it had to be worth a lot, judging by the carnage she had inflicted.
But Rissa was Colby Swan’s daughter, and he would take Virgil’s life for ending hers. So Virgil picked out the fastest scout vessel in the bay, and fled for his life.
An hour out from Icarus, he berated himself over his decision. He’d have stood a better chance losing himself among the population of the base. The ion-driven scout ship was leaving a trail of charged atoms that could easily be tracked, no matter what course he followed. And as fast as the scout ship was, there were faster ships, especially if his pursuer had the resources of Colby Swan.
It was too late to turn back. Rissa’s corpse could already have been discovered. Virgil closed his eyes and tried to dispel the image of her lovely body, mutilated through his actions. But it was self-defense! he thought. She was about to kill me. His conscience answered with a single word, repeated insistently: murderer. Virgil sobbed, and began a frantic search for cached booze or drugs. But there was no oblivion to be found. He altered his course toward a dense cluster of asteroids and cometary debris, hoping against hope to find a hiding place among the drifting rocks and ice. Then he curled up in a fetal position and slept fitfully.
Eighteen hours out from Icarus, Virgil was torn awake from a nightmare by a deep voice, as smooth and dangerous as an oiled dagger. “You may as well shut down your drive now. You cannot outrun me.”
Virgil flailed in panic, and gasped as his arm struck the pedestal of the flight seat. Then he realized that the sound was coming from the comm. panel. No one was on board the scout ship but himself.
Virgil recognized the voice of Colby Swan. The top man decided to kill me himself, he realized, and an icy fear flooded though him.
Colby spoke again. “I know you have it. I want it back. I’ll even let you live, if you surrender now.”
Virgil did not expect this. He didn’t for a moment believe that Swan would let him go free. But what was it that Swan thought he had? What had Rissa been trying to steal?
Someone else must have finished what Rissa had begun, he realized. And Virgil was left to take the fall.
For the first time since he left the transport bay, he felt a glimmer of hope. If Swan thought he had – whatever it was, Virgil might have a bargaining position. At the least, it would probably mean Swan wouldn’t fire on the ship and risk destroying the prize.
Virgil turned the scout’s sensors back toward Icarus. The pursuing craft was shaped like a squat cone, with the apex pointed toward him. He could see the glow from the three fusion engines mounted on the base of the cone. Swan must be pushing the engines hot to reach him as quickly as possible. Virgil estimated that Swan would begin his deceleration within two hours, and catch up with him in four, maybe five hours. He scanned ahead, and found a large, jagged wedge of frozen ice and rock, but his heart sank when he realized it would take him seven hours to reach it. Finally, he saw another, smaller mountain only three hours away. The scans indicated that it was approximately eight kilometers along the longest dimension, a slab of frozen methane, ammonia, and water ice studded with rocks, and riddled with crevasses and deep pits. He altered course toward it and set to work modifying a mining sled for his purposes.
Colby Swan’s rage threatened to swallow him. Whoever this thief was, he would never see home again. Swan and his personal guard had entered the cargo area to collect his property. The buyer was primed, ready to pay nearly twice what the prototype was worth. But the locker stood gaping open, mocking him. With a feral growl, he slammed the door so hard it jammed with a screech. Then he saw his daughter, lying in a sticky stain of her own blood, and his fury turned glacial. She must have surprised the thief, and paid with her life, he realized.
Swan ordered his guard to make sure his yacht was ready for him. As he hurried to his personal docking platform, he wondered if the thief knew whom he had killed, and how personal this had now become.
The yacht was designed for comfort, but also for speed, and it was discretely armed. Swan used the small vessel for smuggling and other illicit operations, and he had spared no expense to ensure that it had the teeth for a fight, and the legs to avoid one. His guard began to board behind him, but Swan turned and glared. The guard backed away without a word. One of Swan’s flight crew, on board making the final preflight checks, didn’t notice Swans mood, wrapped around him like a thundercloud.
“Out!” Swan spoke quietly, but the man nearly fell over himself in his haste to get out of the ship.
Now, several hours later, Swan was approaching the frozen asteroid where the ion trail ended. He couldn’t see the ship itself; the rugged surface had too many places to hide. He began scanning the surface for stray signals. Finally he found a faint electronic emission, emanating from a cluster of sponge-like holes in the surface. He set down on the far side of a nearby ice ridge, and shut down the engines. Then he donned an EV suit, chose a pair of sidearms, and disembarked.
The brittle frozen surface crunched under his boots, even in the low gravity, and wisps of vapor curled up from his footprints. Several minutes later, he stood on the rim of a deep pit at the source of the signal. In the shadows, a mining sled was half buried in the grey wall of the crater. Coward, Swan thought. Ok, I’ll secure the prototype before I end his miserable life. He climbed down to the sled, and cleared off the debris.
His rage flared as he realized that the sled contained only spare suit radio, rigged to emit low level static. It was a decoy, to waste his time and give the thief a chance to escape! He hurried back to the yacht. No more games! He would destroy that arrogant sonuvabitch, even if the prototype was destroyed along with him!
Back on board, he removed his helmet but did not even take the time to remove the pressure suit. He strapped in and powered up the engines. But the yacht didn’t move. He cursed and applied full power.
The comet lurched sharply under the scout ship, and Virgil rebounded painfully from the bulkhead. He caught hold of the flight seat and steadied himself. Outside the viewport, he was floating free of the frozen asteroid surrounded by tumbling comet debris, and a bright sphere of expanding ice crystals swept by him. The scout ship had suffered some minor damage, but nothing critical. As he started the repairs, he speculated on what had happened.
Virgil had concealed the scout vessel in a crevasse nearly three kilometers from the sled. He had hoped that Swan, who had never mined the belt, would land with the engines still hot. With any luck, he’d have melted the surface, which would then have refrozen around the engine cluster, trapping the ship on the surface. Starting the engines might have damaged them in the confined space, but nothing short of a full power launch could have caused a catastrophic failure. The comet fragment itself had been fractured into three major pieces and numerous smaller fragments. Virgil could not identify any debris from Swan’s ship.
Soon the repairs were complete, and Virgil pointed the scout back toward Icarus and brought the ion engines back on line. As he began his flight back toward a home the had thought he would never see again, Virgil harbored fond thoughts toward whomever had outwitted both Swans and walked off with the stolen goods.
This was my non-winning entry in the Short Story Competition for A day in the life of the Grim Reaper.
He had a feeling in his bones that this would be one of those days. There were no fiery letters in the sky, nor whispers from the hollow dark; but a degree of prescience was part of the job description.
Unfolding himself from the comfort of his cold, dank crypt, he wrapped himself in one of his identical hooded black cloaks, and selected a scythe from the stand next to the entrance. He paused, and exchanged the scythe for one indistinguishable from the first. Then he swung the marble doors silently open and glided out into the crisp morning air.
The Reaper stretched one bony arm skyward, and a scroll materialized in his grasp. He unrolled it and read a dozen or so names scrawled in dark red script. it was not a long list, by any means, and yet he could not shake off a sense of foreboding.
He slid silently out of the graveyard into the city streets. Early morning commuters bustled by, somehow managing to step around him even though they showed no sign they even noticed him – which they did not, with one exception.
A large woman in her thirties, puffing and red-faced, paused at the crosswalk and pressed the button for the crossing signal. She leaned against the signal post, wheezing heavily, and looked straight at the Reaper. The color drained from her face, and she crumpled to the sidewalk and lay still. The Reaper consulted the scroll, and the name Mildred Stevenson faded to grey and blew away into the breeze. Cardiac cases were always the easiest, especially when combined with emphysema.
By noontime, the list had shrunk to three names. The next one was Louis McLeary, age 67. The feeling of dread the Reaper had felt all day peaked sharply. This one would be trouble!
The Reaper drifted toward the First Federal Bank downtown, guided by the sense that always pointed the way to the next soul to cross over. Gliding smoothly into the lobby, he spotted Louis standing in line for the next teller. His dark blue coverall’s were spotted with engine grease, and he held a dirty denim cap in the same hand as a smudged check.
As the Reaper watched, a short, nervous man wearing oversized sunglasses produced a revolver from his jacket before he could point it, the guard by the door shouted, “Freeze!” Louis jumped at the sound and dropped his cap. As he bent to pick it up, the robber fired the gun, and the bullet passed through the space where Louis had been standing. At the same instant, the guard fired two shots at the gunman, who fell to the floor screaming. The teller at the window looked down in surprise at the crimson rose blossoming in her chest, then crumpled behind the counter.
The Reaper looked at the scroll. The name of the gunman, William Kazinsky, turned grey and whirled away in a dusty cloud. But a new name, Lynne Bartholomew, appeared in black with a red border – Untimely Demise.
When the Reaper looked up, Louis McLeary was staring at him with his jaw hanging like the door of an open letterbox. In an instant, he was scrambling toward the door, the cap and the check lying forgotten on the bank floor. The Reaper followed.
Louis looked back with terror in his eyes, and darted across the street. Horns blared and tires squealed, With a resounding crash, a crosstown bus slammed into a fuel truck, and a fireball erupted. Six more black scrawls appeared on the Reaper’s list, followed seconds later by a seventh and eighth. Louis darted through an alley, and headed toward an elementary school.
“Wait!” the Reaper called in dismay. This would not do at all! The adult Untimelies were bad enough, but should the same thing happen at a school! Louis stopped and turned at the sound of the echoing sepulchral voice, terror lighting his eyes. Before he could turn and resume his flight, the Reaper called out again, “I’ll make a deal with you.”
Louis stood his ground, trembling. “What kind of deal?”
The Reaper glided up to him. “You’ve already upset the Balance today. Before it gets any worse, I’m prepared to let you go.”
Louis looked suspiciously at the tall shrouded figure before him. “What’s the catch?”
“You have to leave this town, and abandon your name. No one must know you have outlived your time.” The Reaper waited, as Louis considered.
“I suppose that’s fair. I really don’t want to die.”
The Reaper leaned forward. “This is only a respite. Next time we meet, you will have to cross over.”
Louis nodded slowly. “Thank you. I suppose we have to shake on it, huh?” He looked nervous. “By the way, you don’t really cut people down with that thing, do you?” Louis pointed a shaking finger at the crooked scythe.
The Reaper laughed with a sound like pebbles sliding down a windy slope. He lifted the scythe behind him and ran the tip up and down his spine. “It gets those hard to reach places.”
Louis chuckled in relief, and took the Reaper’s bony hand in his own. He shook it vigorously, and the Reaper rattled all over like castanets. “We have a deal, then. My friends call me Lucky.”
Of course they do, the Reaper thought wryly, as he turned and slid off to deal with the final appointment of the day.
Separate names with a comma.