#FlashFiction: On the stroke of Midnight

The mouse’s nose twitched as it lurked in the very entrance of it’s lair in the wainscoting.  The scent of cheese was a tantalising strand in a web of such odours that richly filled the small, cramped workshop, and it drew the mouse out into the candlelit night.  A clock on a shelf struck the first note of midnight.

The cheese and it’s accompanying bread belonged to the figure hunched over the workbench, and had been long forgotten.  Bahrd, Edgesmith, in exile from his people and his guild, picked up another delicate piece of mechanism and fitted it into it’s assigned place in the clock he was building.  It’s twin sat to one side of the bench, already complete.  There were two curious features about clocks, one of which the clockmakers of this benighted land knew, and one which they did not.  They knew, though not why, that even two such identical clocks could not keep perfectly in time, one with the other.  What they did not know was that, to some extent, this deficit could be overcome by attaching both clocks to a single spar.  Bahrd could have explained the physics that kept the pendulums in sympathy with each other, but this was a Guild secret, and, too, it was doubtful that anyone here would understand.  Still, Lionel the Venturer was paying well for these clocks and he must finish them before daybreak.

Bahrd reached for another tiny cogwheel that needed to be placed just so, picked it up delicately with a pair of tweezers and just as he was putting it in its appointed two place, two other things happened at the same time.  His ear caught the clock starting to strike midnight but the mouse twitching its nose again went unremarked.

If it had been capable of making such distinctions, the mouse might have felt that the note struck was rather sonorous for such a small clock.  But the mouse was incapable for two important reasons.  Firstly, it was a mouse; secondly, it had been frozen in time.

It was only when the piece was in place and he was thinking about the next that Bahrd realised that he had only heard the bon- and no accompanying -ong.  He looked around and saw the mouse.

(-ooonnnn-)

The mouse did not move in ten heartbearts, and neither did the clock on the shelf.  Bahrd sighed and pinched the bridge of his sharp, pointed nose.

(-ooonnnn-)

He lined up his delicate watch making tools.  Thus soothed, somewhat, he glanced around the room.  The fire in the grate had long since burned down to the merest sullen embers; the candle had burned down too, but the flame was still bravely dancing above the last half-inch of wax.  Or it had been until it too had been frozen in place, bent mid-flciker.  Bahrd sighed again.

(-ooonnnn-)

Barhd thought for a moment and then took a delicate glass goblet down from the shelf and filled it with water from a carafe.  A pattern of ripples formed immediately.  Bahrd dipped a stubby finger into the water and then made the goblet sing by delicately wetting the rim and running his finger around it.

There was a modulation in the note that rang out, but it was very faint, and Bahrd could not discern meaning, although he was sure that it was there.  He quickly improvised a hearing trumpet, such as an elderly person might use to stop younger people from shouting at them.

Bahrd help me!

“If you can reach out this far and stop time, what need you of me?  I cannot match that power.”

In this I am powerless.  I need an agent, one who knows our ways.  My daughter is trapped.

“And there is no other?”

No other.  Please come.

Bahrd grumbled under his breath, but more for the sake of form than from any real belligerence.  He pulled on boots, a many pocketed waistcoat with various tools tucked away, just in case.  An Edgesmith may not always have the perfect tool for any situation, but where there is a will, there is a way…  Hard grey eyes interrogated the room.  Was there anything else that he needed?  On slightly more than a whim he grabbed the carafe and without waiting further touched his fingers lightly to the water.  A moment later, only the still frozen mouse kept vigil in the workshop.

*****

At this point in the long hot summer, the mighty river Socatoa was a whisper of its winter-self.  Still, there was enough power here for the river-god to have transported Bahrd over a thousand miles from his workshop.  The light of dawn washed across the river, causing points of brilliance to dance redly even on this green-brown silty surface.  A bubble formed within the torpid water and rose to the surface, disgorging the Edgesmith onto the bank.  Bahrd drew himself up to his full five feet and looked around.  He was on the shore formed where a tributary joined the river.  The stream had dwindled under the heat of the sun until the barest trickle meandered between the rocks on the bed to join its parent.  As if to underline the obvious, a finger of water pointed up the tributary, attempting to make jabbing gestures as it rolled with the flowing water.

Bahrd carefully put the carafe on the bank and hoisted himself up beside it.  In some ways, the easiest path might be to follow the course of the river, but who knew what might be found further up.  Picking up the receptacle, he noted landmarks and set off.

He did not find the spot where he needed to be until early in the afternoon.  By now he was in amongst some low hills and the passing of ages had cut the normally fast flowing stream deep into the earth.  He’d come out a little higher up the valley then he needed to be and so started to find a way to scramble down.  The gorge was surprisingly green; the sides were thick with trees of many different types and ages.  Several had fallen, perhaps loosened from precarious perches as the ground dried out around their roots.

Despite his careful steps, there was a nasty moment when he slipped and the carafe leapt from his hands, seemingly determined to dash itself to pieces.  He reached a hand to it just in time, kept it from the ground and juggled it back under control again.  His reckless downhill progress brought him to the bank of where the stream should have been, and he saw what had happened.  The water, much restricted, moved only through certain channels at the bottom of the river.  The Naiad had become stuck in a pool left orphaned by the low water.  Whether by design or misfortune, the pool was rimmed with rocks of magnetite, and even Socatoa could not reach through this barrier.

“Hail!  Your father has sent me to aid you.”

A limp hand appeared, from the surface of the water.  Bahrd approached and saw that the stones were polished and rounded.  They did not appear to have been simply tumbled into place, but had been positioned with purpose.  He suspected that the naiad had wanted a place where she could be private and not in constant commune with all her kind.  Things had nearly gone very wrong.  He placed the carafe in the pool and quickly rearranged some of the stones.  They should still provide the privacy required in the future, but now there would be a way to escape too.  A face flitted across the pool and appeared to nod in approval.

Bahrd picked up the carafe and worked his way back to the bank and then followed the water course further upstream.  He didn’t have too far to go until he found a waterfall and a deep pool of water beneath it.

“Here?”

A bell-like note rang from the glass carafe; he knelt and gently emptied it into the roiling water.  A shape he couldn’t quite make out leapt and dived and leapt again from the water, joyfully exuberant.  Suddenly a hand reached from the water, much more animated than the first time he had seen it, and ran gently up his arm, coming to rest on his shoulder.  He didn’t even have time to curse as, unexpectedly, the hand took a tight grip and pulled him into the water.

*****

-ooonnng.

He stood once more in his workshop, bone dry, the stroke of midnight complete.  Barhd broke off a piece of the cheese and placed it in front of the mouse.  Sitting back down on his stool, he picked up the tweezers, and with them the next piece of mechanism.  There was still a clock to complete, after all.

© David Jesson, 2020

 

#Secondthoughts: Building the party

Time flies, so they say, when you are having fun.  There are some scientific explanations for this – which I’m not going to go into here.  Suffice it to say that I can’t believe that it is two years since I suggested that you could use the principles of roleplay games to help you develop your characters’ backstories, and indeed to help you make your bit part characters less one dimensional.  (If you’ve forgotten, or are new to the blog, that post is here).  I decided to do this follow up some time ago, but life.

Lots of stories focus on a single character: the lone wolf detective, the commando behind enemy lines, the vigilante seeking a brand of justice – or perhaps just someone trying to find their best life without the benefit of a support network.  Equally, there are lots of stories about teams, pooling their skills to bring about the best result possible, and dealing with whatever shenanigans come their way.  So what I’d like to do in this post is revisit the roleplay gaming angle, and throw-in a bit of management theory.  You read that correctly: management theory and RPGs.  (You might be surprised at the synergies here; I’ll try not to make this to cringe-worthy).

Let’s take the Management bit first.  There are all sorts of different models people have come up with for talking about different personalities, how to get different people to work together, and how to get the best out of individuals.  Some have better scientific foundations than others, some are more like a psychology tarot, but I’m not here to debate that.  As an example let’s look at Belbin’s team roles.  Meredith Belbin’s model identifies nine team roles, eight of which have features of personality types, and the final one is the “specialist” – someone with unique skills who may or may not be part of the normal team.  The types are:

Action Oriented Roles Shaper Challenges the team to improve.
Implementer Puts ideas into action.
Completer Finisher Ensures thorough, timely completion.
People Oriented Roles Coordinator Acts as a chairperson.
Team Worker Encourages cooperation.
Resource Investigator Explores outside opportunities.
Thought Oriented Roles Plant Presents new ideas and approaches.
Monitor-Evaluator Analyzes the options.
Specialist Provides specialized skills.

(Table adapted from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_83.htm)

When you study these sorts of models in Management training, one of the things they teach you is how to put a team together.  Think about Jim Phelps, flipping though his Impossible Missions Force folder: a lot of what he is doing is putting the specialist skills together, but he’s also thinking about the personalities, and the team skills they bring.  When you complete the test, you get a primary role and a secondary role: one of the tasks of the chair and team leader roles is to get the best out of people by playing to their strengths.  Another is to recognise that all the roles will need to be filled sooner or later and so people might end up having to work outside of their comfort zones, and they’ll need to provide extra support for people in those circumstances.  One of the typically exercises that trainers will do with students is to put them together in extreme groups: a group of ‘plants’ for example, never tend to get beyond the ideas stage…  There’s another team where we can see some of these roles coming through very clearly…BAAdeBA badeBA beBAdeba ba de bebeBA BAdeBAA ba ba BAA.

In the A Team, Hannibal clearly demonstrates the qualities of the Shaper, Coordinator and the Plant – perhaps it’s unusual to have three such strong characteristics, but they are a small team.  If it’s possible to find anyone who is more strongly a Resource Investigator than Face, then I would be pleased to have your suggestions.  He also has to work overtime as the Team Worker, lubricating the machine to make sure that Murdoch and BA don’t kill each other.  The whole team have unique talents that they bring to the party, but Murdoch, Howling Mad though he may be, is the Specialist’s Specialist: there is not an aircraft he can’t fly, not an aircraft he can’t land even in adverse conditions.  I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the thing that he and BA have in common is that they are both Completer Finishers…  BA though is very much the Implementer.

So far so good.  But what about the RPG angle?  Isn’t that just Wizards and Warriors?

No.  For a start, there are a whole range of RPGs out there, with myriad settings.  But let’s stick to a Fantasy setting.  Different systems use different terminologies, but in general we can talk about types and jobs.  Types are usually reduced to the classical four: Academic, Rogue, Warrior, Ranger.  ‘Jobs’ provides the opportunity for some subtlety and for career growth: a straight up wizard might turn to the dark side and become a necromancer or daemonologist.  A humble guard might work their way up the ranks and perhaps even become a knight.

But we were talking about Belbin and management – what’s that got to do with RPGs and characters?   Well, essentially, the RPG angle gives us the opportunity to bring in special skills, but if we want a team, rather than a rag-tag group of friends, then we need to think about our characters, and their roles in this roleplay.  Which brings us to the team of characters in a story – or are they a team? Perhaps the conflict in the story arises from the lack of a Team Worker, holding the group together.

Another aspect of management theory that could be helpful when pulling your team together in your story world has a name which I’ve forgotten, but essentially points to the stages that you go through when pulling the team together.  The Magnificent Seven gives us some pointers in this regard: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing.  We pull the team together and get to know each other, people argue whilst they settle into their roles and establish demarcation, the team practices and gets slick, the mission is accomplished (or not…).

If you think that RPGs are just about bashing orcs and ogres, rescuing princesses, raiding dungeons and so on, then I invite you to read Jeremiah Tolbert’s take on this – you might be surprised.  Also, in my previous essay in this area, I referenced Kristen Lamb’s blog post, which was one of the articles that got me thinking along these lines in the first place.  Last time I was pointing to the different personality types (Lawful/Chaotic, Good/Evil etc), but in the same article she makes an excellent point about adding conflict to your team.

In summary, I’m not suggesting that writers should always go and and play a game of AD&D or something, but there is a surprising level of depth to the games, depth that can help a writer when it comes to thinking about their characters, and the way these characters behave when they’re forced to work in a team with people who don’t necessarily have the same values…

© David Jesson, 2019

Last night I dreamt I went to Barsoom again

I lay down in my hotel room, far from home and low in spirit.  In place of the usual Gideon’s, to my surprise, was a copy of “A Princess of Mars” – a first edition, no less.  I flipped through the pages in a desultory fashion, at once recalling the the adventures of John Carter and Dejah Thoris and puzzling over the mystery of this volume’s presence in my room.

My eyes started to drift shut, and I placed the book back where I had found it in the bedside drawer.  I found my accustomed sleeping position – and immediately fell asleep.

I woke, almost at once it seemed, but with a groggy-start, as if from a deep sleep. I sat up, shook my head and looked around, trying to find the light switch.  As I continued the rise from the depths of sleep, I realised that it was already light, about as light as on Spring day.

I looked around.  This was most certainly not my bed, not my hotel room.  The ground I was sitting on was cold, and covered with greenish-lichen.  I got to my feet: the lichen crunched underfoot as a turned around, looking at the terrain.  The depression of ground spread out for tens of kilometres in every direction; off in the distance, I could see hills, low and red.

I jumped.  It was not as graceful as I had hoped, but John Carter’s first attempts had warned me of what to expect. Leapt and bounded to the top of rise, covering tens of metres with every stride.  From my vantage, I looked around and saw two clouds of dust closing on each other.  I wished I had binoculars, but had little doubt that two tribes of the fearsome, fearless green warriors of Mars were closing on each other ready for battle and conquest.

Dare I go closer?  No.  I was sure to be seen and captured, if I did not stop a radium bullet fired with malice or by mistake.  I continued to look around, warily returning to view the distant fight from time to time.  I saw a flotilla of airships, perhaps from the fair double city of Helium itself, crest the hills.  Gracefully they floated across the arid desert-bowl.  I stood between the ships and the Green Martians and did not know where to look.

I gazed too long at the airships and, when I turned again, I saw that a part of Green Martians had broken free of the battle and were racing towards me.  I turned and ran, taking long jumping strides.  I was just able to keep my lead, but I was no Fighting Virginian and quickly became winded.  I landed a little too heavily on a rock that shifted underneath me.  It threw me off my stride and I tumbled headlong, striking my head on a rock.

Blackness.

I woke in the middle of falling out of bed, and landed on the floor of my hotel room with a bump, that would have been embarrassing if there had been anyone there to see it.  I landed on my shoulder, but not too heavily.  I sat up and saw the glowing red figures of my travel alarm o’clock.  Surely I could only have been asleep for minute, two at the most.

I got back into bed, and wondered why my ankle hurt, why the bed felt gritty.

© David Jesson, 2018