And Sneer of Cold Command

My Sockdolager story is out! ‘And Sneer of Cold Command’ can be read here. (Mildly shamefully, I must admit that to read it myself, I had to blow up the page to 150%. Something something me old eyes something something. It was my birthday on Saturday and I apparently turned 80,000 years old.)

This story, so much from being written in a mad rush like ‘Willing’ or ‘The Evaluator’ was a slow, probing thing that took weeks to come together in its final form. All I had, when I began, was a single image: a huge ugly statue in a town square, somewhere in an anonymous, irritated, post-Communist eastern European country that had been battered by successive waves of conquering arseholes espousing various unworkable political viewpoints, till finally all the human leaders’ statues had been knocked down and there were only monsters left, the final oppressors. From that, the seed grew to encompass these language-less, menacing extradimensional beings – only ever referred to as ‘Them’ – working through human agents, the way these dictatorial regimes tended to do. If you have power, the thinking goes, then why waste it on the lowest of the low? No, it’s better and easier to find someone just a rung or two above your fodder, and deputize them so that you don’t have to work at, or even think about, your own cruelty; it’s better and easier to find pinch points, pressure points, places where you can extort or bully or coerce someone into becoming the spy and jailer of his own people. A family held hostage, in Krystof’s case; but it could just as easily be something like threatening a village, or a well, or a finger. Krystof seems like he must be the villain because he works for the villain; and Mortin, who used to work for the old party, seems like he is an ex-villain. But really, like a lot of my stories, it’s about people who act against their nature – people who are not brave being forced to do brave things.

And look at that word. ‘Forced.’ Who’s forcing him? He’s got the option to say no. Even to a request from Them or Their Agent (which is the same thing, as he explains), you’re allowed to say no. They’ll just torture and kill you, that’s all. But he’s also got an easy out – he’s been tasked to do something with no quality control. He can go back and lie. Can They tell if you’re lying? Can any of Their human agents? Would They be able to tell if Mortin, who did this sort of thingĀ for a living, is lying? Maybe. Maybe not. If you have lived a long life of risks, it would probably seem like a safe risk to take, that easy out. But when he takes it, he finds it isn’t so easy.

When we read war stories, we often pick out instances of exceptional heroism. A man lays down his life for his fellow man. Conspicuously, courageously, against insurmountable odds maybe. In desert dryness, jungle rot. And when the war is over, when sides have been picked, it’s expected that this behaviour will come to an end. Who do you need to die for any more?

And finally, it was that question that gave me my ending. I had been writing, I confess, with a certain sense of dread – light dread, writerly dread. I dreaded that ending. A sad ending would have been easy. An inflammatory one ditto. An ambiguous one even easier – I like those, though I always come down on the side of ‘Yes, but they drive a lot of readers nuts, and editors complain about them.’ But if the question is ‘Who do you need to die for in peacetime?’ the answer is ‘It depends on who brokered the peace.’ And so there is rebellion, there is courage, there is solidarity, which Mortin is in a position to watch in astonishment and hope. Even if his only role in the entire revolution was to spare Augusta once he found her, he can assume another role: that of witness. And there are times when you must be just as brave to watch.

Anyway. Did the story succeed? I don’t know. As usual, I haven’t gotten a ton of feedback on it. But I’m happy with the way it turned out, and the way it looks and smells and feels, and the mental map it gives me of the streets upon which the artists and fighters run. Go take a gander!

Update: Charles Payseur of Quick Sip Reviews went through the whole Sockdolager issue (the last one most likely – sadly) and said ‘Sneer’ was a ‘great read’! Validation! (Astonishingly, to me; I am in some very stellar company in this issue.) He mentioned that it seems a little noirish, and I was like “MOST EXCELLENT,” because when I was writing the story late last year I wasn’t thinking noir but it’s got the elements of what I like best about it – that hardness, that determination, the stubborn sticking to personal codes, the grief when those codes have to be abandoned in the extremity of duress. (As always when I write anything with a private investigator I remember the pulp detective series I finished writing when I was living in Calgary – 2006?? – yeah, a whole TRILOGY of bad noir, awyeah. I miss it. I wonder if it’s worth a rewrite.)

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