You know when you’re reading a book or watching a movie/show involving beloved characters and it’s all coming to a head and you know somebody’s probably going to die, but you aren’t sure which one? Well, I’m the guy who usually knows who it’s going to be. I’ve got a system, you see, and it’s relatively foolproof (though not perfect). Let me show you how it works:
Step 1: Who Has Plot Armor?
Writers have characters who are essential to their story. If they kill them, they risk breaking the story or ruining the good thing they have going. These characters, if they ever die, will only die at the very end of the story arc, whenever that is, after they are no longer needed, since the story is about to end, anyway. Such characters are referred to as having ‘plot armor’ – they are, essentially, immune to death. Good authors, of course, keep you in suspense over this, anyway, but you all know, in you heart of hearts, that Luke Skywalker isn’t going to die.
These characters are usually fairly easy to spot and you can eliminate them as possible character deaths in most instances. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but they are rare.
Step 2: Which Characters Have Reasons to Stick Around?
Secondary characters are usually the ones lined up for the firing squad, but not all secondary characters are created equal. Ones that have essential purposes to the conflict or plot can’t die until that duty is fulfilled. If that duty is ongoing and they cannot be replaced, they cannot die. Now, once they reach that expiration point, their purpose is fulfilled and they are immediately candidates for termination, provided a few other factors are fulfilled.
Very often, it becomes apparent that particular characters, while they had been interesting, compelling, and important to the plot, are no longer in that category. The writers have milked their usefulness to the fullest and, they discover, (as per Step 3) that the character would be more useful dead than they would alive. As soon as this happens, boom – no more character.
To take Lost as an example, Boone was handy for a little while as a protegé to Locke and as a point of conflict for Shannon, but this got stale. After that, they needed him to help the plot but didn’t want him hanging around gumming up all their scenes, so *splat* – no more Boone.
By the transitive property of Character Death, Boone’s death meant Shannon was much closer to the chopping block, since her character had one less thing to keep her around for. Oh, and thank God they killed her, too – damn, she was annoying.
Step #3: Which Characters are More Useful Dead than Alive
Once you’ve established whom you can kill without derailing the plot, then it becomes a matter of ‘which character is better off dead’. This, ultimately, comes down to a certain degree of taste, and the best way to predict is to try and figure out what kind of story the writer is going for. The death of a beloved sidekick is a great motivator for the hero, but the death of the comic relief can take a lighthearted adventure and make it grim. The death of a beloved, comical sidekick does both things, which automatically bumps them ahead on the hit list, provided that the author needs to motivate his or her hero and wants the story to take a grim, frightening turn. Then again, there might be characters that are simply a drag on the plot and, by killing them, you kick the story out of a rut and start hurtling towards your third act.
Point in case: Joe Pesci in Goodfellas had it coming from a mile away. They needed to keep him for a while to give the movie some spice and, even, some cruel levity. However, there came a point when it simply would be too arduous to keep the character present and have Henry Hill do what he had to do. Bam! Dead Pesci. Now, granted, Goodfellas was based on a real-life story, so I doubt the *actual* mob killed the *actual* Joe Pesci character for the sake of plot development, but, then again, I don’t know if that part is factual, either.
Step #4: Which Character Will the Audience Miss the Most?
Okay, once we’ve narrowed down our list of characters to those non-essential, secondary characters whose deaths will actually help the overall plot somehow, we might still have two or three guys standing around. Who to pick? Well, the one that will hurt the worst, of course. Writers want to evoke pathos, and you don’t evoke pathos by killing Jar-Jar; nobody will care or they will be actively pleased, which is the opposite of what you want. You want tears or anger or bitter snorts and shakes of the head. You want people to feel it in their gut somehow. If you don’t, why are you killing a character at all? So, you pick your crowd favorites. You pick the nice, fat geeky kid (sorry, Piggy from Lord of the Flies) or the kindly old tutor (eat it, Dumbledore) or the positive father figure (here’s a bullet just for you, Willem DeFoe in Platoon). That way, while Charlie Sheen is weeping in the Huey on his way back to the States, the audience is weeping, too. Pathos. Catharsis. Yes.
Now, good writers wouldn’t be good writers if they weren’t inherently aware of this equation. Some of them buck the trend intentionally, killing off the characters you least expect when you least expect it (George RR Martin, looking at you), or decide they aren’t going to kill anybody at all, after all (let’s face it: Lando Calrissian dodged a bullet in Jedi, and you know it). Sometimes, breaking the equation means ‘breaking’ your story just to begin telling another one–a kind of plot calculus bait-and-switch. This is a risk, of course, and it doesn’t always pay off (looking at you again, George RR Martin), but it is bold storytelling. All that said, there is nothing wrong with the equation above, just so long as you are careful in managing the variables and keeping the audience guessing until it’s too late.
Violence, battle, and peril are a constant in RPGs. I’ve explored the why of this elsewhere on this blog in various places, so I won’t go into it here, but suffice it to say that such things are what make the genre tense and exciting in many ways. Few are the games that don’t involve some kind of man-eating monsters, bloodthirsty villains, perilous cliffs, and exploding doomsday devices. It stands to reason, then, that death and, particularly, the deaths of the occasional PC are bound to occur. When this happens, however, it can be a bit of a shock to the players. It can, if mismanaged, create bad feelings between the players and the GM. Of course, if the GM never allows it to happen, bad things also happen. So, how to manage this? Well, here’s my advice on the subject.
Why it Needs to Happen
At some point as GM, you probably need to step up and kill a PC. The reason you need to do this is the same reason that cliffhangers and adventure stories have a tendency to kill characters from time to time: it makes the danger more real. If every time a player gets his or her character in a fatal predicament they are allowed, somehow, to escape it (through the GM fudging the rules, through random deus ex machina, and so on), the party is going to catch on that they are, in essence, invincible. This is very bad, and for several reasons.
Firstly, the players will cease to feel threatened by the dangers that the GM places before them. Just like in a bad adventure novel, the GM has given the players ‘plot armor’ that they know to be impenetrable. This makes the game boring, suddenly. Obviously they’ll be able to jump over that chasm as the castle is collapsing around them. Clearly they can live through their death duel with that vampire lord. How do they know? Well, they know the GM hasn’t the guts to do anything about it.
Secondly, and derived from the first problem, the GM can suddenly become ‘bullied’ by their players. The players can have their characters do outlandish things in the utter confidence that, even if they don’t work, there is little risk their characters will suffer for it. This can begin to break the mood of the game (unless the *point* of the game is to be invincible and do outlandish things, like Toon and the like), and things rapidly become more and more absurd. The game begins to morph from a stylized, internally consistent story to a bad improv long-form show. As someone who has been in his share of bad improv long-form shows, they might be funny, but that’s about all they have going for them. The game goes from adventure to joke. I’ve played in campaigns like this in my time, and the novelty wears off quickly.
Of course, how often and why to allow PCs to die depends greatly on the style of the game. Gritty, violent, and noir settings obviously feature death around every corner, and PCs become much more cautious in their play and less attached to their characters. Heroic or swashbuckling settings feature death much less often, and when it happens it represents a serious dramatic event. Still, even with the most heroic settings, death should be possible and it should be clear that they are possible if things go wrong. Even if the GM doesn’t really want to kill the character if they do something stupid, they should seriously consider permanent disfigurement, maiming, or similar permanent consequences. Consequences are important to create tension; tension is essential for adventuring fun.
How to Manage It
As mentioned above, how to handle killing a PC depends greatly on the mood of the setting of the game. The likelihood and frequency of fatal situations should be made clear to the players prior to the beginning of the campaign. The GM shouldn’t be setting quotas or anything (i.e. I intend to kill one PC every three sessions! Mwa-ha-ha!), but she should say things akin to ‘there will be no holds barred in this game–if you screw up, you’re dead’ or ‘I don’t intend for characters to die for stupid reasons, but they will die if dramatically appropriate or compelling’. This gives everybody a good idea of how dangerous the campaign is, and this is very important for the players to know when constructing and playing their characters. It also should preempt some of the bad feelings that might develop otherwise should a player lose his or her favorite character.
Beyond this, I have a couple rules of thumb:
- The Good Death: Unless the game you are running is exceptionally dark, grim, or violent, PCs should never be killed due to silly accidents, random events, or simply poor luck. They should be killed by important villains, by exceptionally deadly traps (that they are aware of and attempting to evade), or while knowingly placing themselves at fatal risk due to their character’s traits or behavior. In short, they should die thanks to their decisions (good or bad), not due to their luck. Their death should be dramatic, motivating to the other characters, and serve as a significant plot point for the campaign. It should mean something.
- Get Them Back in the Game: Unless the death occurs at the very tail end of a campaign (where it would be silly to introduce a new character that would be played for 2-3 sessions tops), always allows the player to make a new character and introduce them into the game as soon as possible. Death should not be a punishment of the player.
- It Isn’t a Punishment: This bears repeating–PC death is never, never a punishment. If you are a GM forced to use it as a way to regain control of a campaign, you have done something wrong and haven’t correctly set up the expectations of danger in the campaign in the first place (leading to bullying by your players, necessitating death). This is bad news. Ideally, players should think their PCs’ deaths are cool–they get a cool death scene, and they should be allowed to play it up. Then, they get to play a new character (that is every bit as advanced and powerful as their last character, more or less).
- Make the Death Matter: This is the hardest of the rules to manage, but also very important. A PC should not die and be forgotten. Their death should have a major effect on the campaign and the other players; when they die, something new should be revealed, they should be contributing to the story somehow, and something interesting should happen. Don’t kill for no reason (unless you’re running one of those super-deadly games where life is cheap, and then everybody should be on board with that so it shouldn’t be a big deal).
Beyond this, if you find your players getting into circumstances where they really should die, but it wouldn’t fit with the campaign and wouldn’t make much sense, really consider simply maiming them or otherwise afflicting them with a kind of permanent consequence that makes the character interesting to play, but doesn’t allow them to get off scott-free.
Anyway, whatever the circumstances, one cannot run a campaign without the possibility of fatal consequences. If you are GM-ing such a game, it is your narrative responsibility to allow it to happen. You should do it, however, with caution and care to guard the player’s expectations and to maintain the fun they’re happening. If you’re a player, you should also understand that the death of your favorite character is as important as his life in contributing to the fun of the game. Don’t get upset, just roll with it; after all, it’s just a game.
For those of you who don’t speak Klingon (don’t worry, I don’t either), the above translates as “today is a good day to die”. It is a battle-cry, meant presumably to show the warrior’s willingness to die in the pursuit of victory. The funny thing about it, though, is that Star Trek isn’t where the phrase originates. Supposedly it was first spoken by Crazy Horse, the Sioux war leader. Under what circumstances he said it, I’m not sure. I’m betting it wasn’t just before taking a nap, though.
Along those same lines, I’m reading Beowulf again, in preparation of teaching it to my lit survey class over the next few weeks. I just recently gave them a rundown of Anglo-Saxon culture during the Dark Ages. It involves a lot of war, a heavy emphasis on a warrior’s code of honorable conduct, and a preoccupation with dying in battle. Chiefly, in accordance with most Norse and Germanic tribes, they needed to die in battle (eg: with a sword in their hand) or go to hell. If you’ve ever seen pictures of medieval knights being laid out in tombs with swords on their chests, that’s part of the cultural mythology that placed them there, even after the rise of Christianity. They, of course, had their own traditions of chivalrous conduct in war and so many battle-rituals that it boggles the mind.
Throw on top of this the warrior mystique of Japan’s samurai, the harsh martial customs of Sparta, the glitter and glory of the Roman Legions, and even the romantic and frightening popular image of modern special forces teams like the Navy SEALS and Green Berets, you gotta ask yourself a few questions:
- Who are the real Klingons, here?
- Why the love affair with a violent death?
- What’s this have to do with geeky things like video games and RPGs?
Who are the Real Klingons, Here?
Science Fiction and Fantasy is filled with ‘warrior cultures’ because we humans are, in the end, made up of a bunch of warrior cultures. Granted, many of us have sort of moved on from that idea (though by no means all of us), but the mystique of living as though death is waiting around every corner and we are ready for it is still powerful. What is important to remember about those old warrior cultures, though, is that the reason they believed those things isn’t because they were awesome, but rather it was because life sucked.
Do you know what the average life expectancy was during the Dark Ages? Around 35. It wasn’t a hell of a lot higher in medieval Japan and certainly not much higher in Sparta. War was commonplace. Strange, bearded men might stumble out of the dark, wolf-infested forest and slaughter your whole clan on any given day of the week. Disease, starvation, exposure and more made it rather unlikely for you to make it to your golden years unless, of course, you were one mean son of a bitch. So, what’s a successful culture to do? Train people to be mean sons of bitches. Next thing you know, you and your badass Zulu buddies are kicking butt all across South Africa. Do you keep it up? Hell yes. Does this make it a form of behavior we ought to emulate or admire? Well, not really.
Why the Love Affair with a Violent Death?
In the historical sense, this is pretty easy to manage. If you died violently in battle, you did a couple things:
- You have successfully evaded a long, agonizing, and demoralizing death from disease, age, starvation, or infection. Yay!
- You protected your way of life to the bitter end. Kudos to you.
- You earned a little piece of immortality for yourself in the form of one crazy story. (“Hey, remember when Hrothgar went up against those six Romans with nothing but an axe-handle? What a badass!”)
Some that stuff still holds its appeal for us today in certain circumstances. More generally, though, the idea of the heroic death against impossible odds appeals to something quite primordial in all of us: the Fight or Flight instinct. By choosing Fight, you are throwing your cards down on the table and calling the other guy’s bluff. You are drawing a line in the sand. You are making a gamble on the future–you win, and everything is yours; you lose, and you’re dead. In a culture as heavily based on competition and shooting for the stars as ours is, there’s a certain animal thrill in watching somebody take that risk that we never could. Even if they die, you can stand there and whistle under your breath and say ‘there was one brave guy/gal.’ In a sense, it’s that same ‘immortality’ that drove the Anglo-Saxons and Achilles–you will speak their name again.
(cue theme music to Fame)
What’s all This Have to Do With Geeks?
Well, in my experience, most geeks are also dreamers. They want to shoot for the stars. They aren’t settling for what’s readily available, they’re going for what might be. They’re pushing the envelope, whether it’s in art, science, medicine, academia, or what have you. How did they get that way? Hell if I know–it’s a unique road for all of us, and I think a little bit of every person understands the geek desire to change the world around them and, thereby, earn its respect. In a very simple way, the Battle or Thermopylae or Beowulf’s clash with Grendel is an ego boost, a rush–the metaphorical representation of their own battle against their High School (or their Job, or their Love Life, or whatever it is that has them down). In a video game or when you’re in an RPG, you want your character to look danger in the eye and spit. If you lose, well, you gave it a shot.
But if you win…
There are two instances in which I have witnessed grown men get up and jump around hugging each other. The first is a sporting event and the second was during a variety of RPGs I’ve run during my life. I’ve already explained the first one above. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out the circumstances of the other one.
An acquaintance of mine, author Rich Steeves (check him out here), drew my attention on facebook to this post by comic writer Jim Shooter regarding violence, killing, and heroes. His overall thesis, in brief, is this:
My feeling is that each heroic character should be true to his core concept. Some few will not kill. Period. Most, I think, will kill in extremis. Some, of the new bad-boy “hero” ilk will kill when it is “fair” enough, but not really unavoidable. Some kill seemingly callously or carelessly. “It’s okay, they’re bad guys.”
Whether the characters at any particular level on the killing scale are “heroes,” I suppose, is up to the beholder. To me, the latter two categories might be protagonists, but aren’t heroes or heroic in my book. Doesn’t mean they aren’t legit protagonists, or can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done. Do them well, I say. True to their core concepts.
But be conscious of consequences.
I think this is both very true and something to keep in mind anytime we are writing about violence, heroic or otherwise, or even playing violent characters in RPGs. Killing–murder, by any other word–is a heavy and significant thing for a human being to undertake. It has weight–moral, psychological, perhaps even physical–and that weight ought to be taken into account.
If you’ve got a character who can blithely kill and then go about their business with no repurcussions, you are either dealing with a sociopath or someone who, through a variety of factors and psychological defenses, has somehow inured him or herself to the act. That’s a big deal from a characterization point of view. There are, of course, lots and lots of ways to interpret it, but I think forgetting about it or glossing it over is a bad idea. In the first place it portrays killing people as ‘no big deal’–this isn’t true at all in the real world and, provided we are writing about worlds that are close parallels to the real thing, it should be the same in our own fantastic and speculative realms. In the second place, it’s lazy characterization. You mean your 18 year old protagonist just shot some gangsters with her father’s shotgun, and she’s not thinking about it afterwards? Really? It doesn’t have an affect on how she talks to people? How she feels about guns? How she feels about gangsters? Come on!
I very much agree with Shooter’s assertion that we must be aware of our characters’ ‘core concepts’. These kinds of things are easily violated or changed–the fundemental moral makeup of who you are isn’t under as much of your own control as you think. Yeah, Conan doesn’t give a damn how many fools he kills in bloody fashion–it doesn’t phase him. Do you know why? He has lived a life of constant hardship and pain and been forced to adapt. He is a damaged person, fundamentally. That doesn’t necessarily make him an evil man, or even perhaps keep him from being a hero (depending on your definition of heroism, naturally), but it is an aspect of his character we need to understand and appreciate. If we are portraying characters killing people, it’s something we, as writers, actors, players, or whatever else, really need to give some thought. If you ever want to see how it’s done, just look no further than Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven.
We all have it coming. Think about that.
Author’s Note: In the interest of completeness (backwards, but still complete) here is an excerpt from the first chapter of The Rubric of All Things, the book which precedes the book from which ”Hond’s Interrogation” was taken. I’ve been shopping this book around for a while now and had a few nibbles (two full or partial manuscript requests), but no full-on bites yet. I’m putting it here because, well, it can’t hurt and hopefully can give interested parties some idea of just how far the reader is taken from here to Hond’s non-room. Anyway, hope you enjoy it:
Cal’s heart pulsed in his chest like a diesel engine. The sweat on his face mingled with the cold March rain while his lungs, like a pair of steel-mill bellows, fed oxygen to the fires in his quads and calves. He was going full speed along the Charles river, blazing past casual joggers in an intimidating display of athletic prowess. He was the fighter jet and they were the two-seater prop-planes and ponderous jet-liners. They stayed out of his way.
It was early, and the gray waters of the river shuddered and leapt with each rainy gust of wind.Calfelt good, even considering the miserable weather. He was on pace for a four-and-a-half minute mile, he guessed—not a personal best, but the best he’d done in a while. More than the time, though, was the feeling of getting back into the regimen of his morning run. At this speed his whole body felt like a well-oiled and tuned device, as simple as it was elegant. He wasn’t some messy pile of meat and juice wrapped around a jigsaw puzzle of bone struts—he was a functional, precise thing, like a watch or a bicycle. It meant a lot to him to feel that way. Things had been crazy lately.
Cal’s cell phone broke into the first few bars of Suicide is Painless. It was the kind of sick joke a homicide detective would find funny, particularly one like Cal’s partner, who had selected it. Slowing to a manageable pace,Cal answered. “Lyons here.”
“Morning, Superman!”Cal’s partner, Detective Theodore O’Brien, or ‘OB’, sounded cheery, which was generally a bad thing.
“What’s up? I’m not on duty for another hour.”
OB’s chuckle was mostly static over the phone. “You’re on duty now, buddy. We got us a good one.”
“What is it?”Cal inwardly hoped it wasn’t messy—he and OB had just finished working a murder-suicide where an old woman had strangled her husband, drowned herself in the bathtub, and wasn’t found for two weeks. He had only just gotten the stink out of his jacket, and he had to buy entirely new shoes.
“Well, see, that’s the problem—we haven’t decided what it is, yet.”
Calblinked. “Whaddya mean? Have we got a corpse?”
“He ain’t dancing, if that’s your question. Look, just get your spandex-clad butt over to Charlestown. You’re gonna have to see this for yourself.”
Cal memorized the address.OB hung up with a giggle and a “We’re gonna love this one, Supes.”
* * * * * * * *
Cal sprinted home and changed without showering. Altogether, it took him a little over a half hour to get to the scene. It was on a narrow side-street, where the roads coiled around Bunker Hill like so much discarded rope, and the blank granite face of the obelisk that stood there watched over everything. The freezing rain drifted off the eaves and gutters of the surrounding buildings in misty swirls and umbrella-eviscerating gusts of wind raced down the alleys. When Cal pulled up, there was a cruiser blocking the end of the street and another parked just outside the entrance of a narrow building with worn concrete steps. This second car was parked just outside the tell-tale yellow tape that indicated the perimeter of the crime scene, which ran in a rough triangle in front of the building. Next to the second car, a huddle of uniformed police gathered around a single golf umbrella, which was doing its best to pull a Mary Poppins and sail into space. Cal got out, flashed his badge to the first uniform to challenge him, and then spotted the massive frame of OB chatting it up under the umbrella.
OB saw him coming, and ducked out from under shelter and into the rain. His trenchcoat was sodden and his Red Sox ball cap was looking a shade darker than usual. Still, good humor was evident on his broad, meaty face. He clapped his hands together. “Beautiful morning, ain’t it?”
“I hate this crap.”Cal said, and added, “You interrupted my run.”
OB shrugged. “Get your high like everybody else—drink coffee. Come on.” He led him over to the two other officers under the umbrella. “Boys, you know Detective Lyons.”
Officers Amaral and Lopez nodded. Lopez added. “How’s it going, Superman?”
“Fine, Mike.” Cal resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He liked to think they called him ‘superman’ because of his stellar work at fighting crime, but the fact was that ever since everybody on the Boston Police had gotten wind of his competing in the Ironman triathlon a couple years back, the nickname had become permanently affixed. He tried not to let it irk him—he knew it was done in good humor—but the fact was it simply reminded Cal of how a lot of guys on the force would never accept him as one of their own. The smarty-pants kid from the suburbs turned city cop would always, in their eyes, be analogous to an alien from the planet Krypton.
OB pointed at Amaral. “Steve found the guy this morning on a call from one of the local residents. Mike was in the area, so he helped him secure the scene.”
Amaral nodded. “Nobody’s touched anything since we got here. There were a couple bystanders, but it’s still early and the weather sucks, so…”
“…so what happened?”Calcut him off. “What have we got? Accident? Murder? What?”
The three of them exchanged glances and then turned around and looked. Cal followed their gaze. Just past the tape and dead center in front of the building’s steps was a telephone pole adorned with a skirt of bright yellow police ponchos affixed at waist height. This perplexed Cal at first, but his initial confusion melted away as soon as he noticed that around the base of the pole was a puddle that was much too red to be pure rainwater.
Cal looked at OB, who took a deep breath, reached forward, and tore back the ponchos. Then all Cal could do was stare.
The corpse was a white man in his mid-sixties, wearing a cardigan sweater, tweed jacket, and half-moon spectacles. His lips were pulled back into a grimace, as though he had just stubbed his toe. He had not. He was, rather, impaled through the exact center of his torso by the telephone pole and was suspended three feet above the ground. A human ka-bob.
Cal said nothing. Everything—the rain, the wind, the cold—seemed to fall away from his notice. It was just himself and the spectacle of the corpse. He scanned the telephone pole from top to bottom—no cuts, wires still intact at the top. The body was not mutilated; the man’s clothes didn’t even look mussed. It was as though he had simply materialized inside the telephone pole, realized his error, and died instantly.
Vaguely, he heard Amaral talking. “…him this morning. No witnesses—nobody was walking around in this crap. Called the coroner, but we couldn’t figure out how to get him out, so we called public works, too. Then we were waiting on you guys.”
Cal pulled on a rubber glove, never taking his eyes from the bizarre body. “ID?”
Lopez pointed. “We think that’s his wallet on the stairs, but we didn’t move it.”
OB, gloves on, retrieved the sodden leather wallet while Cal gently prodded the dead man’s ribs. Amaral asked, “How do you think it happened?”
“I have no idea.”Cal answered as he walked around the pole, looking at the corpse from every angle. “Can you guys knock on some doors and ask if anybody’s power or phone service or anything went out?”
As the officers dispersed, he looked up at the top of the pole, twenty feet up. “Maybe somebody disconnected the wires, stuffed our man down the pole, and then re-connected them. Whaddya think?”
OB snorted. “Gimmie a break, Cal—what’d they do, rent a goddamned telephone truck? There isn’t even any blood on the damn thing above his body.”
Cal threw up his hands. “You got another theory? Did they show up with a giant robot, lift the freaking pole out of the sidewalk, and stuff him up through it?”
OB shook his head, still staring at the telephone pole. “Jesus. Could this be an accident or something?”
“Yeah, sure. Telephone poles sprout up through people’s guts all the time.”Cal snatched the wallet fromOB’s hands. “Gimmie that.”
“Easy there, big guy. Don’t have to get mad at me.” OB chided.
“I hate when things don’t make sense.”Cal snarled.
OB chuckled. “Cal, we’re in homicide. When does anything make sense?”
The wallet contained a variety of paper currency from five countries, a smooth blue stone, a collection of business cards following no obvious pattern, and an expired license. It read ‘Aldous Hambury,’ and sported a picture of the dead man wearing a blue bow-tie and smiling wider than anyone in the DMV had a right to. Cal handed it back to OB, who looked himself.
“Aldous? What kind of name is that?”
“British, I think. Notice anything weird about that license?”
OB held it up to the pale light. “No hologram—it’s a fake. Why would you fake an expired license?”
“Why would somebody stuff an old man through a telephone pole?”
OB snorted. “Screw that, Cal—how do you stuff an old man through a telephone pole?”
Cal crouched down to get a better look at the underside of ‘Aldous Hambury.’ He was looking for…well, heck, he had no idea what he was looking for. Blood, guts, a calling card—some kind of explanation written in physical clues. What he found was that the telephone pole seemed to have neatly punctured through Hambury’s jacket, as well as his body. He shook his head. “This isn’t possible.”
OB stepped forward and prodded Hambury’s side with a gloved finger. “Well, he’s here, ain’t he?”
“The goddamned pole has to go through his spine, OB. The spine holds the body together. If he hasn’t got one then…” Cal trailed off, circled the body twice more, and wound up standing next to OB and staring down at Hambury’s strange grimace.
OB nodded. “Fifteen years, Cal, and they just keep getting weirder.” He pulled off a glove and produced a small plastic box that rattled as he shook it. “Tic-tac?”
Star Trek 5 is an abysmal movie. No, no, Star Trek Nation, don’t bother defending it–you only make yourself look ridiculous. The plot is stupid, the action is boring, and the vast majority of the movie is pure drivel. There are only two moments worth remembering. I am going to include them here (courtesy of YouTube) so you don’t need to see the movie.
The first is the camping scene:
The second is this:
These two scenes, essentially, sum up what this film is about (despite the filmmakers best efforts to the contrary, apparently). It’s about death and pain and just how important they are to who we become and who we aspire to be.
One of the things that science does badly is explain motivation. Yes, it can tell us that we eat because we need materials to continue breathing, or that we are afraid because we fear harm or destruction. What it can’t do is explain to us why it should matter that we are harmed or destroyed. This is because, by every logical measure, it doesn’t matter. There are very, very few living things that, were they to die, it would actually matter. Hell, there’s even a really healthy debate to be had about what ‘matters’ at all, if anything.
Life comes hand-in-hand with pain, death and a lot of other things that we might not want. We try like hell to avoid them, but we can’t. We make mistakes, we are hurt or hurt others, we make poor decisions and are buried in regret, and so on. This stuff is inevitable. Do we wish to undo it? Are we the less for such experiences?
The pat answer, and the go-to sideplot to most if not all time travel ventures, is ‘yes, let us undo the badness that has occurred.’ Let’s go back in time and catch so-and-so’s cancer before it’s too late. Let’s patch up that relationship we had before it is irreversibly gone. Let’s go on that vacation and keep a keen eye on our passport. Let’s have a do-over and do things ‘right’ this time. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. We’ve all cursed the skies and said ‘if only I’d _______’.
The thing is, though, is that by going back and fixing those problems–by erasing them from our souls, whether actually (via time travel) or mentally (via what Spock’s Brother offers Kirk)–we erase who we are. Star Trek shows this to us time and again, and not just in Star Trek 5, but through Picard’s interactions with Q, through Sisko’s negotiations with the Prophets of the Wormhole, and in many other instances, too. Yeah, maybe you can go back and fix things, but that won’t make you any better. It probably just makes you different and, possibly, a lesser person for it.
So, Kirk’s question at the conclusion of ST5 (and, seriously, don’t see it), when he asks the ‘Supreme Being’ “What does God need with a Starship,” can be looked at metaphorically, I suppose. The starship is a journey–a promise of adventure or ordeal, depending on perspective–and God might ‘need’ it not to get around, but to show us something that we need to understand: Change is inevitable, pain is assured, and the only thing that really matters is how you chose to deal with it. Are you Captain James T Kirk, hero of the Federation and savior of worlds?
Or are you this dope:
The spec-fic world, be it Fantasy, Sci-Fi, or one of its hybridized relatives, has an obsession with immortality. It’s perfectly natural, of course–death is widely considered to be the most terrifying thing one can be presented with. Humanity and, indeed, all life is obessively preoccupied with not dying; it’s hardwired into our systems. The idea of circumventing death, whether via technology or magic or deals with Below or Above seems glorious, wonderful, even ideal.
In the end, however, it isn’t all that bad to die. I don’t mean that it’s a wonderful experience, per se, or that it should be desired before it’s time, but the idea that we are mortal isn’t such a bad one. Immortality, personally, strikes me as a pretty terrible fate for a human being. This idea isn’t new, of course–various properties have explored the concept in varying amounts of detail. The Highlander television series, in particular, explores the alienation and perpetual lonliness inherent in a never-ending life, as do various vampire stories. They also couple it with a fair amount of glamorous living, richness of experience, wonder, adventure, etc..
We kind of perfer to forget the real cost of immortality, and it isn’t a permanent feeling of ennui. It’s that we will, by all reasonable measures, cease to be human. Hell, we won’t even really be ‘alive’. Think about it–death is one of the defining, constant characteristics of all living things. With the exception of certain cancer cells (which are abominations) and viruses (which aren’t even really alive), everything dies eventually of old age or wear. The idea of permanence–of never needing to contemplate mortality outside of the odd swordfight (which, as Methos shows us in the Highlander TV show, are easy enough to avoid for milennia at a time)–would change you irrevocably. You would not understand things that humans instinctively react to, as you would have no frame of reference. Even if you had one, you’d eventually forget it.
If you can’t die, how do you understand fear? Can you appreciate Shakespeare? Do thrillers remain exciting? Yes, you can understand on some level how mortals might find them thrilling, but you will move from empathy to mere sympathy to simple alienation. It isn’t simply that you can’t have friends for very long before they age and die, it’s that all of your friends suddenly become boring. The only people you can have real, satisfying conversations with are immortals like yourself, and they’re both rare and (in the case of Highlander) want to cut off your head. Vampire societies aren’t much better.
Add to that interpersonal boredom and new level of boredom–running out of interesting things to do. Give somebody eternal youth, and how much can they experience? Travel (sure!), study (yes!), have fun (probably), but just how long do you keep that up? A century? Two? At what point does everything just look like everything else. Furthermore, consider what you no longer can experience–aging, illness, death.
Sounds good, right? Well, not to my mind. Aging, illness, death, decay–these are things all of us go through. They teach us, they build us, they make us who we are. Our emotional and physical connection to death are difinitive for the human experience. What’s more, they are essential to narrative. Every story needs an end; immortals, by their very nature, are robbed of a kind of catharsis their mortal counterparts can only experience through their demise, no matter how it arrives. They trade that in for what–a lifetime of partying, learning to kick ass, and sex with a never-ending stream of comparatively shallow and clueless creatures? An eternity of solitude?
No thanks. I’d rather die.
Death would come in the form of a thousand screaming Kalsaari slave-soldiers. They were close enough now that Ortega could see them through the clouds of dust kicked up by their march–short men, wiry like cats, their brass helmets and brass shields made dull and orange by the dirt and grime of a hundred league march.
They charged at the open gate with a kind of breathless urgency that meant they expected archers to be manning the walls. There had been, but they had all fled that night when they saw the cookfires of the enemy, counted the columns on their fingers and toes, and then eyed the flimsy arrows in their quivers. Ortega had not been surprised to find them gone. Levies were seldom reliable. Had Ortega a mind for irony or politics, he might have snorted at the idea that men would fight less fiercely to keep their freedom than those who had never tasted it.
Ortega, though, was born for war. It was all that occupied his thoughts as he waited for his killers, standing calmly in the open gate of Porto Nessum, his mageglass longsword point down, his gauntleted hands resting on the pommel. Feather light and sharp as broken glass, he knew the sword would serve him well today. He would not die alone.
The shields were what would do it, eventually. The leather jerkins they wore would barely slow down Ortega’s sword; their sabers were not equal to the plate-and-mail he wore as easily as a tunic and hose. The shields, though–it only took for his blade to get stuck once, and it would be over. Then he would be knocked off his feet, tackled to the earth, and their blades would find the places where he could be cut–his groin, his armpits, his face, his elbows, his knees. It would be a grisly death, slow and bloody. Part of Ortega relished it, wanted it to come. He knew suddenly that he had been waiting for this day for a long time, though it was seldom spoken of among the paladins of Rhond. He thanked the Great Shepherd, Hann, for bringing him to this place, this time. For bringing him this death.
Ortega did not know how many remained in the little town behind him. Many or most had fled with the levies the night before, despite his warnings. They would soon be run down by Kalsaari outriders, trussed up like cattle, and dragged back as slaves for market. None of them would get more than five leagues and the nearest fort was twenty distant. The Kalsaaris would not want word to spread of their attack, and they would see to it that it would not.
Not long now–perhaps two hundred yards. Ortega could hear them, shrieking in their foreign tongue. They could see him now for certain, and no arrows were falling from the wall. Some of the slave-soldiers slowed their pace, perhaps expecting a trap, perhaps willing to let their fellows get the first crack at the knight in the gleaming mail that stood blocking their way. The gate, barely wide enough to admit two carts side-by-side, would mean Ortega would face them no more than four or five at a time, anyway. There was no rush; they had all day to wear him down.
One hundred yards. Ortega took several long, deep breaths. The world narrowed into a sliver–himself, the gate, his sword, his enemies. The hot, dry air and the slow, idling breeze was like a balm to his racing heart. Was this fear? He had expected to be afriad at this moment. Most men would be afraid.
Fifty yards. It was not fear, it was excitement. Ortega assumed a ready position, his legs spread just beyond shoulder width, sinking into a half-couch. The sharply-tapered blade of his sword snapped up, pointing towards the first of the slave-soldiers. His hands wrapped around the hilt, holding it loosely enough to give him flexibility, but tightly enough that it could not be slapped from his hand. He took another breath.
Ten yards. The first man he would kill was no more than seventeen, a whispy beard clinging to his cheeks like moss. His dark eyes were wide; he saw his freedom in Ortega’s death. Such was the reward for good soldiers in the Kalsaari army. Ortega let the thought of it fill him with hate. A cold, dark feeling sank to the bottom of his stomach. He was ready.
A cut in fourth position, the boy’s saber held out too far, his shield away from his body–sloppy. Step left a half pace, beat the blade away, return stroke up along the same line as the boy’s arm to his neck. Ortega barely felt his sword pass through the boy’s neck. He heard the head hit the flagstones beneath his feet with a ‘clop’.
There are two of them now. Efficiency of movement–this is not a sprint. Ortega lets the one on the left strike down at his sword arm and merely pivots to let the blade glance off his shoulder pauldron. The second strikes low, a cut in eighth position, aimed at the shin. Ortega pulls his leg back, retreating a half pace. The second man is over-extended, but the first is ready to take another strike. A half-lunge and a short kick to man number two, right in the knee; he stumbles back. Hard cut at number one in sixth position. The shield comes up to block–the mageglass cuts through it like a down pillow. Severs the man’s arm–more blood. Ortega doesn’t hear the scream. Man number two holds his shield up as Ortega feints a high cut, but then swings low. His stomach is cut open, practically to the spine. His innards spill out.
Neither man dead, but neither left fighting. They fall back, dying in the dirt just before the gate. Three more replace them. How many seconds has it been? Five? Eight? Two? The three men advance as one, shields out (the damned shields!), sabers held at the ready. Ortega’s move, or he is boxed in. He advances, throws his shoulder into one shield–the man tries to meet him, but falls back. The other two strike at him–one, two, three blows. All hit his pauldron or breastplate. Their flurry of blows makes them sloppy with the shield again–it’s held out too low or too high. Step within the first man’s reach, bring the hilt into his face. The quillion takes him in the cheek, breaking bone and shattering teeth. Bring the sword down through the shield arm, backswing towards the second man–he retreats, but collides with his fellows. Men fall, swear, curse.
Ortega whirls, slashing out at another man, cutting his throat through, but not taking his whole head. Blood in his eyes. The world smells like blood.
They are on him now, too many to count. Ortega is a machine, every step and every cut an extension of his years of training. He hears his old master, Bolto, known as ‘Molto Bolto’, barking in his ear. Advance, cut, retreat, pivot, guard, again! Blade up! Watch the shields! Watch the damned shields, boy!
It is difficult work, slaughtering men. Ortega is sweating beneath his armor, his heart pounds like a marching drum. He hears the horns of the troopmasters now. The whip is cracking at his enemy’s rear. Step within guard, strike to instep with forward foot, cut in four, guard in six, pivot, retreat, beat in eight, return in five. The shields, boy!
Molto Bolto had one eye, lost in a crusade in some war Ortega could not now remember. It did not seem to have dulled his senses, though–he sparred without reserve or remose. The heavy wooden practice blades rained on Ortega’s hands and head and body for hours on end. Pain is the path to greatness, boy. No one ever became great in comfort.
Another head cut free from its moorings. The bodies have become and obstacle to his foes. They trip over the dead, they are clutched at by the wounded and dying. Some try to flee from him, and Ortega lets them. It is chaos at the gate. He keeps them to his front and flanks as much as possible, but still men get behind him. He whirls and cuts, keeping himself in control, but he is frantic. The bloody shields! His grip in the hilt is sticky with blood and sweat. His armor is dented, spattered crimson. Not long now. Guard in four, short kick, pommel to brow, pivot, advance, cut to three, watch behind you!
Would they build a statue to him? Ortega didn’t know. These things were decided by priests and merchants, not paladins. Anyway, he wouldn’t be there to see it. Watch behind! Your cape, boy! Keep it on! It guards your back, makes the enemy uncertain where to strike. Drop it now and it will tangle your legs. Guard in six, riposte to four, pivot, pommel to brow, repeat! Again!
The first wound is to his calf–a weak cut, not deep enough to sever tendons, but painful. The hot blood runs down into his boot. Footing is already slick. The man who struck it dies with Ortega’s sword thrust through his spine. A man from behind siezes his cape–Ortega slips the clasp and lets it go. The man who took it lost his shield–he dies easily. More blows rain on him; they are pressed in close now, corps-a-corps. Not long now.
The slave who tackles him is a giant of a man, a full foot and at least sixty pounds heavier than Ortega. The paladin’s helmet strikes the flagstones hard enough to make his teeth sing. The big slave, though, is already dead–Ortega’s sword thrust through him to the hilt. Stuck. Gone. It was almost over.
Ortega rolled, remembering the wrestling lessons Molto Bolto had given him. He had hated wrestling. Bite, gouge, spit, pinch, twist–there is no honor in wrestling, so have none. No, boy! Make it hurt! THIS is how you bite! THIS is how you gouge!
The helmet spared the slaves his bites, but his gauntleted thumbs gouged the eyes out of some as he rolled and kicked. He did not scream or swear–he hadn’t the breath. He needed to fight, to keep fighting. He reached for his dagger–his arm was pinned. A blade cut into his elbow, slipped beneath his ribs. The pain was weirdly dull beneath the pounding of blood in his head and the stampede of his heart.
He thought of his sister. He hadn’t expected to, and it stunned him. Would she be married to a good man? Who would pay her dowry now? Would his death ruin her? He had never thought of that. The last moments of his life, and these were his thoughts? He tried to think of Hann as a snarling Kalsaari slave shoved a dagger through his helmet, cutting his cheek open. Blood filled his mouth–he put his fingers in the slave’s eyes and squeezed. They screamed together.
Hann’s face did not appear. There was only his sister, sitting beneath the olive tree in the garden, smiling at him beneath a wide, white hat. He could hear her laughing, see her opening her arms to embrace him, but there was Molto Bolto, hissing in his ear. Bite, gouge, roll, kick, spit, use the blood in your mouth to blind them boy! Make a name for yourself! Growl your last breath!
Ortega pushed him away. He instead spread his arms for his sister’s embrace. “I’m sorry.” he said through bloodstained teeth. ”This was selfish of me.”
The Death came, in the form of a dagger through the eye.