These two story segments represent two failed attempts at writing chapter //022 of City of Angles. Rather than simply scrap them, I figured they’d make interesting blog fodder, as I explain WHY I’m scrapping them.
Ultimately this story is going to be about Dave and Kelsey. The viewpoint will be wobbling back and forth between Dave and his Citadel counterpart, Private Dave. I knew exactly how I wanted it to start; Private Dave escorting a Builder to some location to fix up a broken wall. That’s the kickoff event which delivers the rest of the plot.
That’s great as a starting point, but I wasn’t sure how to START on that starting point. Ideally I wanted to present some Citadel lore regarding how new arrivals appear in that dream, compared to how they appear in the City of Angles. So, I tried writing using different viewpoint characters…
He had to be dreaming. There was no other rational explanation.
Go to bed on his new king sized mattress, the one he’d bought with his wife not three days ago. A bit too firm, he felt, but she claimed it’d be better for his posture. They’d argued about it before he fell asleep. But even that firm surface was nothing compared to the harshly uncomfortable army cot he woke up on the next morning… without his wife at his side.
"Former occupation, please."
The house was gone. His home town, the one he grew up in and intended to die in, was gone. His world was swapped out for this… this bizarre army camp. Other confused looking people, some in pajamas, some in day wear, all sitting around being interviewed by men in green fatigues. While other men in green fatigues watched on, rifles in hand, overseeing the entire procedure—
"Sir, I need your former occupation. For our records."
"Accounting," he replied. "And what do you mean, former occupation—?"
"Place of residence? State, then city."
"Foxborough, Massachusetts. —Massachusetts then Foxborough, I mean. Look, what’s going on here? Where am I?"
"I’m just your recruitment officer, Private Davis, not your instructor. Information will be provided after your psychological assessment and uniform fitting."
"Uniform fitting? What?!"
"Simple enough. You’re joining the army, in glorious defense of your new home. The Citadel. Now, can I please have your social security number?"
"No, you may NOT have my goddamn social security number! And don’t call me Private Davis! I haven’t enlisted in any army. I want to talk to your supervisor, and I want to know what’s going on, and I want to go home."
At this… the so-called recruitment officer groaned out a little sigh, rubbing a thumb across his temples.
"Look, I’ve had a very long night processing new recruits," he complained. "Hour after hour of it, and now I’m stuck doing the morning shift because some jackass managed to get himself killed. Do you have any idea how ugly morning shift is? East coast hours, especially. All these people waking up thinking they’re having a bad dream, refusing to answer even the simplest of questions—"
"You’re not recruiting me for anything," Davis declared.
So-called Private Davis got out of his chair, letting it scrape on the concrete floor. Sounded awful, but that was the point, wasn’t it? A simple act of protest.
The stereotype of accountants was that of the meek little number cruncher, unable to speak up, unable to look up from their calculators. He wasn’t that sort of accountant. He frequently stormed out of meetings at the firm when he disagreed with the direction his partners were taking… in fact, his firm existed here today because he stormed out one day with enough junior accountants in tow to start his own business. Run it his way. Davis got things his way, every day. At least, non-mattressy things.
Damned if he was going to roll over for this delusional weirdo today.
"Everybody, listen up!" he called out, turning in place, making eye contact with some of the other confused new recruits. "If you’re like me, odds are you’ve got no clue what’s going on, either. But one thing’s for sure, we did NOT sign up for this crazy summer camp or whatever the hell it us! I think we’re owed some answers, some phone calls. I’m not telling these jackasses one more word until I find out what the hell is going on!"
He’d rallied people to his causes plenty of times before. A natural leader, unwilling to compromise when it came to making the right decisions for long-term financial strategy. He would have been a great champion for the Citadel’s army, rising to the rank of captain.
Instead, the on-duty commanding officer put one round in the back of his head.
"Anybody else uninterested in answering questions?" the officer asked, after holstering his sidearm.
His new recruits became remarkably motivated after that. Funny, how often it worked.
With the situation at the recruitment center dealt with, Leftenant Michaels turned his attention to other affairs around his camp.
Things ran very smoothly at Camp Washington. Privates always had a hard time accepting their new living situation, yes, but he had techniques for ensuring compliance. The staff psychologists always complained when he culled the noisemakers from his herd, but honestly, if any of them couldn’t handle someone getting popped like that, they’d be useless on the frontline anyway. As far as Michaels was concerned, he was doing the shrinks jobs for them by immediately pointing out the weak cogs in the war machine. Besides, he got results, and results were all the higher-ups in the Bulwark cared about.
This also meant when problems did arise in his camp, they got taken care of. The Bulwark looked after the officers who kept the war machine cranking. Need more rations? No problem. More razor wire and live explosives for the training courses? Easily handled. No resource issues here, no sir.
And notably, when the black-eyed bastards blow a hole in the fortifications around his camp with mortar fire? No problem, sir, we’ll send a Builder out right away, sir.
Michaels wound his way between the standing structures of the camp, making his way to the recently opened gap in his wall. He’d posted round the clock guards and erected a few temporary barricades… not enough to hold back the Enemy for good, but enough to keep them from exploiting the hole. His camp would stand. It must stand, for the sake of the men and women who landed here every day…
(Camp Washington was one of the few places in the Citadel where new recruits appeared, copied in from Earth and then dropped neatly into the bunks. It’d be a shame to lose this place to the Enemy; the scientists at the Bulwark still hadn’t figured out how to change the drop zones. Without those bunks, without this camp, people would simply appear in the middle of nowhere. And then be slaughtered.)
As Michaels approached the gap, his best men offered salutes. Good men, veterans all. Some of them recruited at this very camp, in fact. He had an excellent memory for faces, even from deep in the past of his twenty-year career as an officer.
"Builder’s on the way," a soldier informed him. "Got word on the wireless. Any minute now."
"Good, good. How’re you holding up, son?" Michaels asked. "Eight hour shift on the gap’s a rough ride…"
"I’m remaining strong, sir. The Enemy won’t get past us."
Strong yes, but still exhausted. Michaels could tell in their eyes. And even if he didn’t have a lick of sympathy for the mewling little kittens who dropped into those bunk beds, he took good care of the men who fought at his side. The ones who stood up instead of crumbling in the face of the Citadel’s reality…
Fortunately those strong men wouldn’t have to stand another eight hours. The telltale black van was already pulling up to the gap, on the road along the outer wall.
"Right, stand down," he ordered. "Good work, men. The handlers will take it from here. Don’t want any on-the-job injuries if you get caught up in the construction."
As the men in green left, the men in white arrived. White lab coats. The toadies of the Bulwark’s science division, researchers for the Builder Project… and the uniformed guards who kept them safe. And, of course, the Builder.
Michaels didn’t fear the Enemy. He’d stared right into the empty void of their eyes, returned the same grin of gleeful death they flashed at him. The trenches and foxholes, rocked by explosions and choked with thick smoke, held no terrors for him. He didn’t even fear the higher officers, the ones who could crush his career or end his life at a whim. He held firm command of his feelings at all times.
Except when dealing with the Builders. A tingle started at the back of his neck, crawling down his spine… as the Builder was led out of the van, lurching forward with every tortured step.
Even worse, this one was a female. The creepy girls were always the worst.
Stringy blonde hair, cut short to keep from falling in her eyes. Arms wrapped around her body, firmly secured in the straightjacket which kept her from lashing out. Her
…and then I completely lost interest in writing any further.
Why? Because this entire series of scenes was focused entirely on Michaels, a character who ultimately would have no further role in the story. Michaels wasn’t a particularly brilliant character, either; a generic pragmatist bully, the sort we’ve seen in spades already from the Citadel. Plus, the entire "recruitment" scene felt too far over the top… that the Citadel couldn’t seriously be THAT stupid about expecting new arrivals to fall in line so quickly, even with brutal motivation.
I figured the problem was squarely on the viewpoint character, Michaels. So, I tried again, using new viewpoint characters.
This time, I switched from "pragmatist bully" to "selfish wheeler-dealer," another major Citadel archetype. Someone who isn’t really an awful guy, but is kind of an awful guy. Plus, I could use these new characters through the whole story; the situation they find themselves trapped in would become the catalyst to move the plot forward…
It wasn’t his fault, not really. Camp Washington’s low turnout of usable recruits certainly wasn’t his fault, despite his name scrawled at the bottom of every form that crossed his desk.
The bean counters in the Bulwark, the ones who allocated the resources, they were to blame. Why allocate more budget towards a recruitment center that performed poorly? Gee, maybe because it was performing poorly and continually delaying shipments only made things worse? Simple math, way he saw it, simple math that the bean counters seemed incapable of handling.
The shrinks whose one job was to get new recruits ready for life in the Citadel, they were to blame. Didn’t seem like that hard of a job, really. In his day, all they had to do was shoot a loudmouth or two and everybody else would step in line. Certainly worked on him, when he was recruited. Plenty of motivation from knowing that acting like an entitled little rich kid in the middle of a war gets you killed. Psychological counselling to ease people into the idea of being soliders was overkill… and it’s not like it worked. Nobody wanted to fight, no matter how soft or hard you were with them. It was an idea you simply needed time to accept.
And of course, the Enemy was to blame… the Enemy, who blew a hole in his wall two days ago.
He’d actually slept through the mortar strike. The frontlines had been moving closer and closer over the months, to the point where the sound of shelling was commonplace. First time a shell had actually smashed down the defenses of Camp Washington, though. Woke up that morning, listened to the morning Radio, had some cornflakes, and walked out to the courtyard to find a smouldering crater where the north wall was. A little gift from the Enemy, just for him.
Leftenant Sherland wasn’t at fault, no sir. Everybody else was out to make him look bad.
He wired up to the Bulwark for reenforcements, barricades, or maybe a Builder to come fix the damage. Minimum ETA, three days. Maybe. Possibly. Some sob story about the shifting front and damage to the outer shell of Ward Six. Leftenant Sherland, hung out to dry, as usual.
Fortunately, Sherland wasn’t completely without allies. In fact, it was in this very recruitment camp that he made friends with exactly the right man for this particular job.
Before sunset, the telltale red van was pulling into his compound. Doctor Watson emerged, pulling a bottle of single malt whiskey from the pocket of his white lab coat.
"Sherlock and Watson, together again!" he called out in greeting, wandering on up to his old camp buddy.
"Oh god, don’t let the recruits hear that," Sherland begged. "I have a hard enough time keeping their respect already. The latest batch to show up in the bunks are an unruly bunch of bastards. One of them keeps demanding to talk to his lawyer…"
"Have you shot a loudmouth yet?"
"We’re not allowed to. Commander’s edict. They gave me a pile of psychoanalysts instead."
"Seriously? That’s just sad," Watson declared, unscrewing the cap from the bottle before passing it over. "Hey, you know the City? The other world that’s been on the Radio lately? Sounds like they get copies of people and copies of buildings."
"Really? Huh. How’s that work?"
"Nobody knows. It just… happens. They get random buildings. Copies of places from Earth, packed with salvage. No Builders needed! It’s crazy. You ask me, we should be focusing on trying to recreate that effect…"
Sherland took a fifth, before returning the bottle. No need to overdo it, even this late into the evening. "Wouldn’t help," he suggested. "Earth’s not geared for war. We need stronger walls than that if we’re gonna keep the Enemy at bay. Speaking of which…?"
Watson took a glance at the wide gap in the fortified stone wall, across the courtyard. It was guarded around the clock by the best troops Sherland had on hand, which was to say three guys with rifles. This was a recruitment center, after all, not a fortress. The guards were mostly there to keep the recruits in line, those poor souls who dropped into the bunks downstairs, waking up to a world they’d never seen before. Actually taking on the Enemy directly wasn’t something these soldiers were used to; recruitment centers were supposed to be cushy positions.
"Holy crap," Watson admitted. "I thought you weren’t on the frontline?"
"Yeah, funny thing about lines… they’re written in pencil. So you brought me a Builder to patch up my little boo-boo, right…? I can’t plug the hole with whiskey."
The little telltale shuffle to Watson’s feet was telling.
"Okay, look, I wasn’t supposed to bring her here at all," Watson admitted. "We rotate the Builders to prevent burnout and she’s been used pretty heavily lately. Bates said that—"
"Bates? The creepy weirdo with the scarf and the number on his hand?"
"Yeah, him. He said she deserved some quiet time, and hey, he’s the expert. But she’s the only one that was available, and you’re a buddy, so… I figure you won’t tell anybody I took her out of the facility, right?"
"Hey, my lips are sealed," Sherland promised, complete with a mimed zipping of the mouth.
"Knew I could count on you. Okay. PRIVATE!"
The rear doors of the van swung open, producing a man in a green uniform and the Builder he was tending.
The Builder… a young woman, from the look of it. Hard to tell with the straightjacket all the Builders wore, and the typically identical haircut all the Builders sported. A haphazard snow-white mess, trimmed by some staff barber who couldn’t care for people who were beyond caring. Still, something about her suggested "woman" to Sherland, likely to his libido, which hadn’t had a workout in ages.
(Past camp directors used their position to seduce the recruits, promising "a return trip to Earth" if the ladies played nice. Sherland was hardly a saint, but he wasn’t a devil. Being without sex for months was preferable to pulling THAT despicable con.)
Of course, once the Builder approached, whatever libido was tickling at Sherland’s lower brain ran away screaming. Hairs began to rise on his neck. His feet backpedalled a step or two, on instinct.
All quite natural and expected.
"I don’t see how you guys can be in the same room with these things without freaking out," Sherland mumbled.
"It’s just a psionic aura of fear, due to the imprinting process," Watson explained. "You get used to it, eventually. My good buddy the Private here is one of our best handlers, isn’t that right? Doesn’t flinch, doesn’t squirm, doesn’t budge an inch no matter how many Builders are around…"
The Private actually snapped off a salute. With the hand not holding the Builder’s iron chain-link leash.
Weirdos, the both of them. How Watson ended up working deep beneath the Bulwark in that facility remained a mystery to Sherland.
It takes a special sort of individual to endure the horrors of what must be done, the Radio had explained once. Someone who can make a friend of horror. …the Radio could be very morbid, sometimes. But the guy that they hired to play announcer, he had a voice which could convince you of the rightness of anything. So, pesumably someone higher up the totem pole knew what was best, and Sherland could accept that.
He could accept Watson getting a research post while Sherland was stuck in this dead-end camp for the rest of his mandatory enlistment. Perfectly reasonable. It had to be, since it wasn’t perfectly reasonable, he’d be perfectly upset about it.
The merry little band proceeded across the courtyard to the wall, ready to plug it up. Sherland knew the procedure, even if he’d never seen it first hand… a Builder is kept sedated nearly 24/7, until it was go time. Then you activate them with an injection of stimulants, and the process begins. …exactly what the process was, that wasn’t exactly a trade secret, but wasn’t widely discussed. Few wanted to discuss it even after witnessing it.
The start, at least, was quite simple. Watson had a prepared injector in his coat pocket, and pressed it to the Builder’s arm using a small circular window in the straightjacket fabric. As he depressed the plunger, he leaned in to whisper in the woman’s ear…
"They’re coming," Watson warned her. "They’ll kill us all unless this wall is repaired. Repair the wall. Make it stronger."
—and the Builder’s spine snapped straight, then arched back, then her mouth opened wide and a scream resounded off every surface of the recruitment camp.
Panic immediately overtook Sherland. He had to get away, had to hide. They were coming. The Enemy. Had to escape had to run had to hide no no no—
Bricks were manifesting. One by one they simply existed where there were no bricks before. Better bricks. Rebar laced throughout, secured against explosive damage, superior to the wall which existed before. New gun turrets even appeared on top of the wall, ones which were never there in the first place, machine gun nests in miniature bunkers ready to repel any invaders…
Soon, Sherland regained control of his senses. Seeing his rickety old wall, constructed decades ago when Camp Washington went live, replaced with something even better gave him a measure of confidence back. Helped him focus on the here and now.
Watson’s smile was not particularly pleasant.
"Creepy as hell, right?" he joked. "Like I said, you get used to it eventually. Like the turrets? She’s one of our best Builders, got a great imagination in that skull of hers. Hell, you should petition to tear down the rest of this sad excuse for a wall and—"
—no no no no NO NO NO NO NO NO PLEASE NO
NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO PLEASE NO NO NO NO NO MAKE IT STOP NO NO NO
NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO MORE NO MORE NO MORE STOP IT CAN’T BREATHE CAN’T CAN’T
NO NO NO—
When Sherland came to, Watson was slapping his cheeks lightly.
"Hey, hey, stay with me! Christ… Sherland, oh man, oh man, this is bad…"
Lying in the dirt. Very unbecoming of someone in his position. They’d love to see him there, wallowing in the mud, just where they wanted him…
"…d’hell…?" Sherland mumbled, finally rousing out from his impromptu blackout. "The hell. What the hell was that…?"
The wall was overbuilt, now. Twenty feet too tall, branching out in every direction, laced with razor wire and electric fencing. This one slice of his wall looked completely out of place compared to the rest, defended against anything short of Ragnarok…
And as for the Builder? Sherland wasn’t the only one who fell.
The Builder lie flat on her back, eyes wide with terror, gazing up at the sky. Empty and dead.
Whiskey was not enough to calm their fears now.
Before anybody could spot a dead Builder lying around the camp, Sherland and Watson and their faithful young Private at arms hurried her body into the camp director’s office. Sherland barked a few orders to ensure their privacy while they sorted the mess out.
Once the whiskey ran out, Sherland had to dip into his hidden rum supply. Once that was gone, they were really up a creek.
"I’m doomed," Watson declared. "Doomed. They’ll send me to the frontline for this. Send me to the frontline armed only with a pointed stick… and you’ll be right next to me."
"What?!" Sherland blurted. "I’m not the one who burned out their prized thoroughbred Builder!"
"You’re the one who asked me to drag their prized thoroughbred Builder out to your crappy little recruitment camp for an off-the-record jaunt! If you’re LUCKY they’ll only shoot you!"
"Okay, okay, look. Nobody’s getting shot here. We just need to… figure this out. When will they notice she’s gone…?"
Watson slumped into the guest chair, which was not much more comfortable than the camp director’s chair. The Private remained guarding the door nearby, having no need for such comforts, questionable or otherwise.
"A few days at best," Watson replied. "Bates will absolutely notice, but he’s taking a few personal days. He’s always doing that, wandering off doing who knows what. Spends more time out of the facility than in it lately…"
"And the others, they won’t notice she’s gone?"
"We keep the Builders sedated when not in use. They’re fed and watered by orderlies, but there’s no need to do a head count or anything. Nobody’s stupid enough to sneak one out. Nobody except me…"
"So… we just need a replacement, right? Find some woman, give her a haircut and straightjacket and dope her to the gills—"
"—won’t work, they’ll know. This one was… special. Pulled from a recruitment camp at an early age, once they realized her potential. She’s been in the facility her entire life, one of their best and brightest of the freakshow."
…and again, I lost interest.
Finally, I figured out what the problem was. This isn’t a story about Sherland and Watson. Even if I laced them throughout the narrative, their craziness kicking off the plot as I’d imagined, it wasn’t supposed to be about them and yet I’d devoted a good 20k of HTML filesize to their wacky antics. FAR too wacky, too, with back-and-forth banter that felt too absurd to fit the grim Citadel I was trying to depict.
Ultimately, in situations like these, I’m forced to "drop back 50 yards and punt." This is what I call it when I need to scrap the HOW and focus instead on the WHY, so I can derive a superior sort of HOW. Writing is a matter of having a goal and then figuring out the steps to get there. The goal was the death of the Builder, and the need for a replacement. HOW I got there, what characters I used and where the scenes take place and who is the primary focus, all of that can be swapped out while maintaining focus on the goal.
I’m still debating exactly HOW I want to launch this story. My current thinking, which I’ll start writing up once I have enough time (my life has been crazytown lately) is to bring the focus back on Private Dave. He’s the one in the van with the Builder, he’s the one who’s involved in this mess, he’s the one we’re ultimately going to be tracking. Dave is the answer. Michaels, Sherland, Watson… they’re just plot devices. The story ultimately belongs to Dave, so why not start with him?
It seems so obvious in hindsight, like I tried too hard to be clever with a roaming viewpoint, when ultimately consistency is what I should’ve been aiming for. A consistent narrator (or a pair of narrators, as I’ll ultimately use) lets you stitch the reader’s perspective down and focus in on what matters most. Wacky tricks like a narrator who gets killed right after he’s introduced or a bumbling pair of bozos are fluffy and unrequired.
So, come back next week for (hopefully!) the true launch of //002. And come back Monday for a special blogpost, part of a "Writer’s Blog Tour." …or if you’re reading this way after the fact, uh, dig back in the archives a bit. Thanks.