TWA #11 Short Story “The Weight and the Balance” by Albert Berg

The Weight and the Balance

 

By the time the sun was just past its zenith Jonathan could feel each jolting step of the transport mech in the very marrow of his bones. Heat radiated off the polished steel frame of the lurching mech, roasting everything inside the sealed cabin. Sweat soaked his clothes and stung his eyes with salt.

“What are you doing out here, sissy boy?” mocked the voice of doubt. “You got no business out here in man’s country. Go back to the city where you belong.”

He wished he could go back. Back to a time and a place when things where simpler, where he understood his place in the world. Or at least far enough back to change his mind about the transport mech and take a horse instead.

Never mind that he barely knew how to ride. Never mind the bands of spider-mounted Indian raiders. Death by scalping had to be better than this.

A stark-looking woman with ramrod posture sat across from him, her eyes fixed straight ahead, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. Women intimidated Jonathan, but now, almost delirious with the heat he reached for the courage to break his silence. “What brings you out to these parts?” he asked.

She shifted her stern gaze to his. “Teacher.”

Jonathan nodded, letting a too long silence pass before saying, “You look like a teacher. Like a teacher I had when I was a boy actually.”

She didn’t say anything, but he’s talking now, and talking means he’s not thinking quite so much about how hot it is. “Her name was Mrs. Mueller. Me and my brother gave her more trouble…”

“My brother and I,” the woman corrected.

“Right. Anyway, it was really David that did most of the trouble-making. I was always the good boy.”

He thought about David, that mischievous grin, that impetuous attitude.

He knew David would never have let himself be cooped up in this lurching hotbox. When David had taken this path, he had ridden, regardless of the danger. He imagined his brother shouting his presence to the world, daring the Indians to try to take him on. David had burned so brightly in his life. And now…

“What is your purpose heading into the Beyond?” the woman asked, and Jonathan saw that some of her sternness had faded, and that behind that piercing gaze was a young woman, not particularly pretty, but what some would call “striking”.

Jonathan opened his mouth, thought about the gun in the bottom of his traveling bag, and closed it again. Finally he replied, “Business.” Then added, “I’m an accountant.”

These statements were both broadly true, and he hated himself for not having the courage to lie outright.

The voice of doubt said, “How do you think you’re gonna to avenge David’s death if you can barely face this fool teacher? You think you can kill a man, but you can’t even lie to a woman?”

And the voice was right. This was all wrong. David was the reckless one. David was the brave one. David was the one who had charged out into the Beyond on little more than a whim.

David was dead.

“It’s a beautiful land isn’t it?” the woman said, bending slightly to look out one of the thick, narrow windows. The desert seemed to go on forever. A few balloon-weeds dotted the cloudless skies.

“Yes,” said Jonathan, “Beautiful.” But the land wasn’t beautiful. It was a dead land, full of dead men.

 

—–

 

This is how Jonathan found out that David was dead.

There was a knock at the door of the accounting house where he worked; midday mail delivery. Jonathan had barely looked up from his adding machine, foot pumping the treadle, fingers clacking over the keys. He had lost himself in the land of numbers. It was better here, safer. Both sides of the equation always balanced out.

A hand from the real world, the messy world, tapped him on the shoulder, brought him out of his trance. An envelope, dry and gritty with sand from some far off desert, passed into his hand. He turned it over, recognized his own fastidious handwriting spelling out David’s address at Fort Futility. Across the address stamped in dried-blood-red were the words “Return to Sender.” Below this in slightly smaller letters a second stamped message read, “Unable to deliver. Recipiant deceased.”

His left eye twitched slightly, something in him rebelling against the misspelling before he could process the message itself. The thought crept into the edge of his mind like an insect. David is dead. David is gone. You no longer have a brother.

It was five minutes before he realized the head accountant, Mr. Anderson, had his hands on his shoulders, trying to shake him out of his state of shock. He asked if Jonathan needed to go home, have some time to himself, but Jonathan said no. He sat back down at his adding machine and went back to work.

He needed to lose himself in the numbers once again; it had always been his safest retreat. He pulled the lever to advance the readout tape and drove back into his work.

But something was wrong. The numbers had always danced for him, but now they had lost their rhythm. The world of logic had tilted; the equations were ever so slightly out of balance.

He pushed on, trying to find the source of the problem, deeper and deeper, only emerging into the real world when he again felt Mr. Anderson’s hand on his shoulders, and distantly heard the old man telling him that it was after dark and the counting house was closing for the night.

 

—–

 

David was dead. That was bad enough. But there was more to the story.

The certificate of death they sent to him had listed the cause of death as “Unknown,” but Jonathan knew. David had written him a letter just a few weeks back, talking of a man with only one good eye –appropriately named “Dead-eye Dan”– who had taken an intense dislike to David. “It might come to fighting before it’s all said and done, brother. He doesn’t like me much and I can’t say I like him too much either. He’s a mean old cuss and plenty tough, but I reckon I can take him in a fair fight, allowing he don’t stab me in the back first.”

David had always believed in fairness of one kind or another. He had always tried to give people the benefit of the doubt. Even their father, whom both of them had hated was occasionally excused as “someone who just never got taught any better.”

Their father was dead. Now David was dead. And both of them haunted his soul.

 

—–

 

With each passing day Jonathan’s world seemed to shift a little further out of balance. His brother’s life had been taken and there was no one left to balance out the scale, to make the equation even. He tried to lose himself in his work, but even there he found no solace. The world wasn’t right anymore, and pretending that it was left him nervous and on edge. Even the world of the numbers began to crumble around him, leaving his nerves more frazzled until one day, Mr. Anderson came to him with a column of figures, and asked, ever so politely if he might check over them once more.

He saw the mistake immediately, corrected it, but nevertheless there had been a mistake. He had never made a mistake before, not once in the ten years he had worked for Mr. Anderson.

He lay awake all that night trying to find the place where he had gone wrong.

The next morning, he had bought a gun.

And through the whole of the next year, for two hours every day, he’d practiced.

 

—–

 

And now he was lurching across the desert in an armored oven with the gun in his bag, and a nervous woman across from him. It was almost like one of those adventure books he had read as a child. He could see the title of his story now: Revenge in the Beyond!

“That always was your problem,” said the voice of doubt, which also happened to be the voice of his father. “You were always reading, never doing. What kind of man spends his life locked up with letters and numbers all day?”

 

—–

 

They reached the Great Fissure, three days later. He saw its clouds of billowing steam rising into the sky a full day before they reached the huge crack in the earth’s crust. They made the switch to a crawler when they got to East Rim, crossing over the iron bridges suspended over the Great Fissure. As they crossed Jonathan looked down into the red glow of hell itself, and he waved to his father. And then they were in the Beyond, the earth here no longer jagged and dry, but smooth and rolling, covered by a sea of swaying grass.

Unlike the heavily armored mech, the crawler was shielded only by a thick wire cage, hardly a suitable defense against the arrows of the natives of the plains should they come raiding, but at least it let the stale wind carry away some of the sweat that drenched his dusty clothes.

The empty hours gave him too much time to reflect on his purpose in coming here, too much time to listen to the mocking voice of doubt.

He knew how this was supposed to go. If he had been a character in one of his adventure books he would be filled with hatred for the man who had killed the only person on earth he had ever really loved. He would be stony-eyed and tough and he would have hunted down the man responsible for his brother’s death until the injustice had been righted, and the man lay dead in the ground.

The voice of doubt laughed at this. “You’ll never kill a man,” it said. “You’ll never pull the trigger. You don’t have it in you.”

He pictured the man with the dead eye, turning as Jonathan walked into the room, his one good eye widening in surprise as Jonathan leveled the gun and pulled the trigger. But it didn’t square and he knew it. What kind of man was if he couldn’t take the life of the man who had killed his own brother? His brother was rotting in some shallow grave on the wind-blasted prairie. If he didn’t have the wherewithal to set that right, he might as well dig his own grave and join him.

 

—–

 

One evening when they had made camp for the night he heard Miss Martha inquire, “Is all this nonsense about the Indians worth fussing about, really? To hear it told back home you’d think you couldn’t set foot west of the Fissure without getting an arrow through you, but we haven’t seen the first sign of them or their storied spiders.”

The crawler driver spat in the direction of the fire, and the wad of saliva and tobacco sat there on the sand, gleaming in the flickering light. “I reckon it might not be as dangerous as all that,” he conceded, “but it’s uncommon to have no sign at all of them buggers for a long stretch like this. Word has it there’s a big injun confab down south a ways.”

“You mean like a meeting?” Miss Martha asked. “Whatever for?”

“Don’t reckon I could say I know much about it one way or the other. May have something to do with the spirits they’re always carrying on about. Might be something more. All I can say is, it’s good to be shut of ’em for a little while at least.”

“Have you ever killed an Indian?” Jonathan asked.

The crawler driver looked at him as if he had forgotten Jonathan was there, and then nodded. “Once,” he said.

The silence after seemed to indicate he had done speaking on the matter, but Jonathan needed to know. “What was it like?”

The crawler driver gave a grunt that might have been a laugh. “Just like killing anyone else.”

 

—–

 

They were two days out from Fort Futility when they found the bodies of two men in uniform lashed to tall poles on either side of the road. Jonathan knew little enough about military business, but even he recognized the coal grey uniform of the Battle Mech Division.

He said as much to Miss Martha who asked, “If these were mech pilots, where is their machine?”

For this Jonathan had no answer.

As they got closer he could see they were missing their scalps. The blood had dripped down from the open crowns of their heads to streak their faces and stain the shoulders of their uniforms. One of the men had an arrow through the eye, and the second one had two in the gut.

Miss Martha turned away and put her hand over her mouth, but Jonathan watched intently as they passed, steeling himself against those empty eyes. I can do it, he thought. For David I can do it.

He tried to visualize the moment in his head, the gun steady in his hands, the murderer’s form centered in the iron sights. He would squeeze the trigger, and the gun world roar, and the murderer would fall, never to rise again. I am strong enough. The sick feeling in his gut said otherwise. But whether he was ready or not, he was running out of time.

The last night before they reached Fort Futility he lay awake staring up at the stars all night long, his mind running like a rabbit, wild and erratic and scared.

What if I can’t find him? he wondered. What if he has friends to defend him? What if I can’t do it? What if I miss? What if I can’t pull the trigger? What if..?

And then he was thinking of the time when he was nine and he’d been swimming in the Blackwater River, and somehow he’d swum out too far and couldn’t feel the bottom beneath his feet. And David, bigger and stronger and braver even then, had swum out to him and dragged him back to shore, throwing him up on the rocky beach, and pounding him on the back until he coughed up the water in his lungs. “You owe me one,” David had said, with that ever-present grin plastered wide across his face, and then had promptly splashed back into the water as if nothing had happened.

He’d never brought the incident up again. For all Jonathan knew it had slipped out of his mind as quickly as it had happened. But Jonathan never forgot.

He owed this to David. The ledger was out of balance. The debt had to be paid.

 

—–

 

Morning came and the crawler rolled on. And round about noon, Miss Martha said, “I think I can see it!” and pointed excitedly toward the horizon.

Jonathan turned to look, feeling his pulse quicken and his stomach tighten. There it was on the horizon. Only…

“Looks like they’re having some sort of bonfire,” Miss Martha said, a confused look crossing her face.

A thin column of smoke rolled lazily into the sky from the fort, and Jonathan, as inexperienced as he was, knew that this was no bonfire.

 

—–

 

They came across the first body an hour later, a fresh-faced blue-uniformed boy, with an arrow through his heart. Next was a man who had had the left side of his face torn off by a blast of some sort, followed closely by an Indian warrior, shot through the neck and trapped beneath the still-twitching corpse of the spider he had ridden into battle.

After that Jonathan stopped counting the dead.

 

—–

 

The gates of the fort had been blasted through by something massive, most likely the mech those two poor souls strung up by the side of the road had been piloting. There were all the signs of battle, but by the time the crawler came to rest inside what was left of the fort, it was clear the fighting was all but over.

Two Battle Mechs walked a patrol around the perimeter of the base, while what soldiers were left alive scrambled to put out the flames and tend to the wounded.

Jonathan disembarked from the crawler in a daze, with only one thing in his mind. A soldier stumbled past him with a bucket of water, and Jonathan grabbed him by the shoulder.

“I’m looking for Dead-eye Dan,” he said. He had to do this. He had to do it now before he lost his nerve.

The man looked at him as if he were crazy and then simply pointed in the direction of a pile of bodies. Jonathan followed the pointing finger and saw a particularly grizzled face, with a slash through one eye staring back at him. The face was attached to a head that hung upside down by a few tendons from a neck that gaped open, baring arteries, esophagus and all.

Jonathan looked at that face, shrouded in the roiling smoke and he felt his heart fill up with emptiness. It was all a joke. The world was upside down.

The voice of doubt cackled in his head.

A little way yonder, a ruined mech lay on its side, and beneath it an Indian boy crushed by its weight scrabbled feebly at the ground.

Jonathan walked over to the boy, pistol still in hand, and as the cackling laughter inside him grew to a crescendo he leveled the barrel at the boy’s head, cocked the hammer back and pulled the trigger.

The hammer fell with a snap, but nothing happened. For the first time in a thousand, the primer did not spark, the powder did not burn, the bullet did not fly. Jonathan cocked his head to the side, and looked into the eyes of the dying boy. Then he holstered the gun, and wandered off to see if he might make himself useful.

 

—–

 

The boy trapped beneath the twisted wreckage of the wretched machine watched the pale man stride away. He tried to spit at the man’s retreating boots, but instead he coughed up strings of blood. The pain was so great he could hardly think. He knew he would be dead soon. He hoped he had made his father proud. He had killed seven of the white demons, the pale men who had come to the Broken Lands with their monstrous machines and their terrible guns, taking what did not belong to them. His people would drive them out. If it took an eternity they would wrest the land from these invaders.

He would die. But his spirit would be reborn. He would fight the pale men through all his lifetimes, until the land had peace at last. The debt that was owed, would be repaid.

And as his life slipped away, the unbalanced world spun on into darkness.

 

 

 

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5 Comments

  1. I’m in awe of Al’s pacing and character development. He focuses so well on one thing and writes the hell out of it–in this case, the “red ink” that must be avenged. It was in every scene, almost every paragraph. Phenomenal.

    I thought the most interesting character in the story was the Indian boy at the end. I’d love to hear more…like what it feels like to ride a spider. Who knows, maybe Al will write more in this world!

  2. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    I agree with Ellie Ann. The pacing and character development were expertly done here. So much to love. The way the back story was revealed through memories of his brother in childhood, interactions with the teacher seated nearby, and through the main character’s own inner voice of doubt really brought me into appreciating what motivated him. The way his profession factored into the revenge story was perfect.

    I loved the concept of the dying boy at the end. It was an unexpected twist that underscored the sense of vengeance in an especially powerful way. However, it also seemed such a major momentary shift in perspective that I felt jolted out of the story a little bit. I’m really not sure what I would have wanted otherwise because I liked the twist. – that’s just the sense I got on the first reading.

    As far as being in and out of the story, though I will say this: I wasn’t convinced at all of the steampunk infusion – which in my limited experience of the genre tends to lean towards much more than what is hinted at here with the mechs and the spiders.

    I really dug the western flair, but to me it felt as though it was almost wholly a western story, but with a couple of steampunk decals stuck on to accommodate a steampunk label. Present as a small aside, but not an inherent part of the world. It was enough to pull me out of the story a couple of times.

    That being said, this is an awesome story with powerful character motivations and wonderfully descriptive language. Awesome work.

  3. This. Was. Awesome. Spider-mounted Native Americans? Sign me up!

    The character work done here is exceptional. I was especially touched in how you portrayed Jonathan finding out about his brother’s death. The little details – like noticing the misspelled word, the way time passes when he’s shaken by his boss – those are just fantastically-articulated details of the process of grief and what it’s like to lose somebody, and it immediately drew me into this character and world. I had to find out what would happen next.

    The scene changes are a little jarring, but also help to keep the pace of the story going, which makes the whole thing read like a breeze. I must admit I’m a sucker for westerns, so I’m glad you chose that setting for your steampunk world, something I wish more writers would do instead of just retreading that same old stuffy, Victoriana stuff (both occurred simultaneously in history, so a Western setting is just as valid for a steampunk tale). I’m also a sucker for deconstructionist revisionism, such as the scene in Unforgiven where the pulp writer is talking about an honorable duel Richard Harris’ character participated in, only to have Gene Hackman butt in and tell him how it really happened. You capture that same essence with this story; the pulpy, adventurous notions of giant mechs and heroic pilots dashed away with the gruesome reality of war and violence, and, once again, the details are just amazing, like how Jonathan’s gun misfires there at the end.

    The only real problem I had was the ending, which felt way too abrupt. I like the idea you’re playing at – showing the endless and pointless cycle of revenge and violence – but I just wish it was expanded on a little further, like maybe jumping forward twenty years where the Indian boy (or his reincarnated spirit) is just about to take his revenge on Jonathan.

    All in all, a fantastic story. Well done, Mr. Berg!

  4. I’ve got to start getting here earlier. People keep saying what I came here to say.

    This time, Nathan’s said more or less what I was going to. So let me concentrate on where our opinions differ.

    I came to like the ending, which felt like a kind of bait and switch on the first read. At first I wanted a satisfying conclusion to Jonathan’s mission, but on second read I realised that not getting that ending was the whole point.

    I disagree that this was a western with steampunk decals. I think the story lives at the edge of a steampunk world, that the frontier setting works really well and even if I’m slightly bemused about Indians riding spiders (how would you domesticate a spider?) I really want to hear more from the world where they exist.

  5. Mech! Spider-riding Indians! Booyah…?

    My thoughts on this one are complex because I’ve gotten to know Al as a writer and a person over the past few years. This challenge was thrown at Al *specifically* because of his stance on stories of revenge and how they can never be fulfilling because that isn’t how life works.

    So on one level I knew the revenge here was never going to actually happen. Or did I? I’s a big fan of doubt. I try to cultivate it whenever possible and remind myself that I actually don’t know much of anything. I mean I basically agree with Al about revenge stories…but what the hell do I know? With 8 billion people doing their thing out there every day maybe some people seek out revenge, accomplish their revenge, and say, “Yeah. That was great.” And they smile and nod and then move on with their life. Do I agree with Al about revenge being hollow because I know it to be true, because I believe it to be true, or because I’ve seen so many movies where the notion of hollow revenge is done so well that I’ve come to believe it *has* to be true? I dunno.

    However I was pretty sure I knew Al’s stance and things played out as I had hoped. This story is beautiful and an excellent entry into the notion of hollow vengeance. I felt the shift to the Indian at the end was a perfect way to step back and turn one person’s flirt with revenge into a more universal concept. It really was poignant.

    Except this is the arena…how cool would it have been to watch Al try and actually write a straight story of revenge? What if he had opted to set aside all his previous notions of how that works and come at it completely fresh with revenge being a viable option? Twist yourself to the breaking point, authors! The arena demands it! I mean not when it’s my turn naturally, but everyone else should be doing that!

    Okay that’s out of my system.

    Now on to the steampunk side of things which, as someone said earlier, felt like forced details just to meet the requirement. We’ve seen some pretty out there interpretation of the challenges so far, but those interpretations have all attempted to embrace the challenge. This, steampunk-wise, just fell flat for me. Mechs?! Indians on spiders?!

    Oh the mech is just sort of a train that people ride and we never see the Indians…

    🙁

    To be fair these details and their usage are amazing. But for me they did not make this a steampunk tale.

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