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Monday, 26 January 2015

Fighting in Science Fiction

When I grew up watching Star Trek, the outcome was often decided by a fist-fight or brawl at the hands of Kirk and Spock. Even as a kid, I thought, come on, really?

When I read Iain Banks' Excession, I thought now this is more like it, space battles fought in microseconds with ship minds controlling the battles way faster than humans ever could.

But, I decided, there are likely to be hand-to-hand combat situations - close quarters fighting - in any war or conflict, but it is simply unlikely to be decisive in the larger frame.  And so, being something of a martial arts fan and amateur practitioner most of my like, I relished for example the Sword-Masters of Ginaz in Frank Herbert's Dune series, with their anachronistic neo-Bushido style. And I'm reading Snow Crash right now where the protagonist (who is called Hiro Protagonist, in true Neal Stephenson style), brandishes two Japanese swords.

And so in my own series, I included a warrior sect called Sentinels, dating back to the Middle Ages, and gave them the nano-sword, and a Ninja philosophy, and the very first Sentinel in the Eden Paradox, Gabriel, became a hit.

I wanted them to have a warrior's creed, but to be tech-savvy at the same time, and to use advanced biochemical techniques. The scene coming up was influenced by the film Equilibrium, itself a precursor to the more famous film The Matrix (personally I prefer Equilibrium). In this film the hero projects likely  lines of fire people will take when trying to shoot him as a moving target, and so he aims simply never to be where they are shooting. You have to seriously suspend disbelief in some of the later scenes in the film, but the idea seems reasonable, at least for a few seconds of fighting or gun-play, if you could be that fast...

But it's never just about fighting. There has to be more to it, more at stake than winning the bout. The film Equilibrium is rendered far more powerful because of what the hero loses, not what he wins. I try to do the same in my writing.

In this scene from Eden's Endgame, the fourth and final book in the series, the Sentinel Ramires has been captured by the enemy and is hopelessly outnumbered. He also believes himself to be the last Sentinel, but is he?

The doors to the atrium closed, sealing Ramires and Ash inside the Alician headquarters. Ash had his hands bound and was surrounded by six guards, so Ramires couldn’t count on any help from him. He walked calmly towards Louise, his left hand on the hilt of the nanosword inside his jacket pocket, his right hand concealing a skin-coloured wafer. Louise stood at the head of six armed Achillia, her personal guard. Ramires estimated that with the advantage of surprise he could take her down and maybe three of the others, though he and Ash would not survive. A fair trade.
Diagonal shafts of sunlight from high windows bathed the Alician leader and her entourage in an orange glow. She looked younger than he’d expected, but then Alicians barely aged once re-sequenced by the Q’Roth. Her eyes, though, reminded him of some of his fellow trainees back in Tibet who had gotten a taste for casual killing. His Master, Cheveyo, called them ‘shark-eyed’, because they had lost perspective, and were highly dangerous. Ramires noticed the claw where her left arm should be; no matter, the nanosword would slice through it, he’d tested it on enough Q’Roth.
Louise’s eyes narrowed, as if she recognised him, though they’d never met. Two more steps and he’d be close enough. He froze; she’d drawn a pistol unbelievably fast – one moment it wasn’t there, the next it was – her arm steady, the weapon aimed at his face; quicker than a normal Alician, quicker than a Q’Roth.
            “Ramires, isn’t it? I’ve heard so much about you.”
            Guns ripped out of the guards’ holsters, and pointed at his head. The moment had passed. He let the nanosword slip back into his pocket and stood, feet splayed, ready to spring in any direction. Ramires folded his arms, one palm concealing the wafer. He recalled a Sentinel maxim: never converse with the devil.
            Louise spoke again. “I watched the vid of you fighting two Q’Roth warriors back on Esperia. Impressive. The last Sentinel.” She put away her pistol. “Well, not quite the last.”
            Ramires kept his poker-face, but wondered what she meant. All the other Sentinels were dead.
            Her demeanour changed, a little more tension around the eyes and lips. “Where is Micah?” she said in a flat, controlled tone. “We have some unfinished business.”
            He stayed silent.
            “We could torture you, but I’ve studied the history of our so-called Silent War. Sentinels are notoriously resistant, almost as if you relish pain.”
There were twelve Alicians around him and Ash, all armed. Too many.
“Or we could torture this one,” she said, nodding towards Ash. “Looks like someone already started.”
Ramires wondered if Ash would hold up under torture. Perhaps he should kill him now with the sword. But Ash was four paces behind, Ramires wouldn’t get close enough in time.
“Or your wife, Sandy.”
Ramires outwardly showed no reaction. Inside, his heart slowed, and his muscles loosened. In nine hundred years of unseen war between Sentinels and Alicians, there was one maxim both sides shared: better to die than be captured, because the latter path never ended well. So be it. He was less sure he could kill Louise, but he could take out several of the guards. Better to die on his feet than chained to an interrogation rack. 
Without moving his eyes, he pictured where each man stood, and their most likely pistol aim trajectories, given that the wafer would catch them off-guard. He envisioned the layers of pulse-fire. In the initial confusion, blinded by the flash as soon as the wafer ignited, they would fire towards his trunk or head; he would have to duck low. A second later he would need to be above three intersecting layers of pulse fire. He estimated that there was a sweet-spot where the guards’ lines of sight would be conflicted: they would hesitate, in order to avoid killing each other in the crossfire. It would require a high leap but he could do it. Next he calculated the place where he would be least easy to target, but from where he could still shoot Louise. After that it didn’t matter.
The assessment had taken two seconds. He’d trained blindfolded hundreds of times back on Earth, and had continued to practice with the Youngbloods on Esperia. His right hand gently squeezed the wafer inside his fist so that it split open. Now it just needed a little air.
Louise studied him, then the corners of her mouth lifted a fraction. “Let’s see how good you are, Sentinel.” She took a step backwards then spoke to her personal guard. “Take him.”
Ramires took in a sliver of air, and then held his fists out in front as if to be cuffed, but as two of the Louise’s personal guards seized his wrists, he blinked hard and dropped the wafer. It burst into a curtain of blinding light that smarted his retinas even through closed eyelids. He locked the wrists of the two stunned guards, then drove them into each other. Ramires ducked amidst a sizzling eruption of pulse-fire that fried the two guards. Two down. He leapt up high and spun mid-air, flailing the nanosword around him, decapitating two more guards and slashing the arm off a third, releasing a pistol that he snatched before it reached the ground. He breathed in more air. Five down. He landed behind one of the collapsing bodies, and used it as a shield while he fired at the two guards on either side of Ash, striking them in the middle of the neck, sending them tumbling to the floor. Seven. A pulse strike speared through his pistol arm, rendering it useless. He took another sliver of air as he dropped the sword and grabbed the pistol with his left hand and fired at Louise, who had vanished. The pulse round found another of her guards; they moved in a zigzag pattern aimed to defend and distract. Four left. They shot Ramires’ corpse-shield again and again, blowing off its head and limbs, leaving Ramires with only the torso as a barrier, the tang of ozone and charcoaled flesh sharp in his nostrils.
Two more of Louise’s guards toppled backwards; Ash, hands still bound, had fired two weapons from a prone position. Two left.
Ramires’ legs exploded with pain, making him gasp in air. With a grunt, he flung the charred torso away from him and rolled to the right, firing two quick shots, dropping the last two guards.
Louise was nowhere to be seen. He reached for the nanosword, but it was gone. There was a ‘pfft’ sound, and Ash slumped forward, a feathered dart sticking out of his neck. Ramires fired towards the likely point of origin, but only hit shadows.
“Here,” Louise whispered, behind him.
Ramires made to turn, but felt ice on his neck, and found he couldn’t move. His chest muscles locked, and he rocked forward, his forehead striking the floor with a thunk, his eyesight growing blotchy.
She whispered two more words to him. “Not yet.” With her boot, she flipped him over onto his back.
Ramires struggled to remain conscious; whatever Louise had used on him was powerful. He let his face muscles, closed eyelids and neck go slack. He heard soft footsteps, like those of a cat, approach Louise.
“I didn’t need you to fire the dart, Toran,” Louise said, “everything was under control.”     
“This one is good, very good. I admit I could learn from him. I have the knowledge, the latent memories. Sparring with this one would activate them, translate them into real skills and reflexes. Your next set of guards could do with more training, though. They were complacent, unattuned to the shock of a sudden, violent attack. They have grown soft.”
            Ramires listened to Toran’s voice. He didn’t recognise it.
            Louise nudged Ramires with her boot. “That’s why he isn’t dead,” she said.
            “I doubt he’ll help you, Louise, even if you use Sandy as leverage. He’ll just as likely kill her quickly. It’s what I’d do. It’s what we were trained to do if the situation ever arose with a partner or children. We call it ‘releasing angels’.”
            Ramires’ mind sprinted. Louise had implied there was another Sentinel. And this man knew one of the most guarded secrets. Ramires thought about opening his eyes. But Toran started to walk away.
            “Where do you think you’re going?” Louise said.
            “He’s still awake. Some of the training school memories from my original host are still intact. I heard rumours about this particular Sentinel. We never knew each other’s names, but during early training nicknames were common. His was ‘possum’.”
            Ramires opened his eyes in time to see Louise crouch over him, and he felt the ice cold touch of something on his neck again. This time there was no resisting it. But as he slid towards unconsciousness, he quickly put the pieces together. Toran must have been cloned from a Sentinel, probably with Alician enhancements to make him even tougher. An abomination, yes, but that was irrelevant now. He could only exist for one reason: to infiltrate Esperia. Infiltrate and assassinate. Yet Toran was not ready; borrowed memories are not the same as honed skills. If Ramires could kill him, then the problem was solved. But if they fought and Toran survived, that could catalyse Toran into the strongest Sentinel ever.

            Ramires’ mind clouded, and he gave up on thinking about the never-ending war between Alicians and humans that had already consumed so much of his life, and thought instead about the one woman he cared for, the only person who had ever given him some respite, and happiness. He prayed he would see Sandy before the end.


Eden's Endgame, and the other three books in the series, are available in kindle and paperback from Amazon.

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