“Behind an able man, there are always other able men.”
The thought didn’t seem to Kent a cheerful one. Instead, as he sweated and felt his muscles tighten and his bones flex as the men around him hit him with all their might, all their mal-intent, that the statement was less a truism about the nature of exceptionalism and more a warning. There will always be someone to take your place, someone waiting just behind you. He’ll let you tire, let you be the lead goose, break the ice as the prow bar, waste yourself making headway, and when you’re tired he’ll give you a push and down you’ll topple and all you’re looking up at is the soles of your followers’ feet as they beat a path behind the new leader.
That’s not how I got here, Kent thinks, as another man tries to knock him out, the punch missing and sliding off of his sweaty skin, grazing a discomfort instead of finding purchase.
Someone is always at your back, always waiting for you to tire, to get old. So you can’t tire, you can’t get old. You can’t be replaceable because as soon as you are you will be. Replaced.
Obsolescence is for the elderly; Kent’s said it enough so that the mantra has little emotional impact.
Impact, this one sticks and Kent is forced to sprawl to his right to avoid breaking a rib. Even with the turn, the air’s become leaden and his chest has suddenly filled with some dampening thing.
He sucks at the air but refuses to gasp, gasping is a sign of weakness, gasping is a signal to attack. Gasping triggers more spasms, gasping doesn’t help.
Hands cuffed behind him, nylon belt and ballistic plastic buckle digging into his stomach, shirtless. Grey haired, wet, slick with blood and sweat, mostly sweat, Kent refuses to be the smallest man in the room. Attitude is half the fight. His sifu had told him that forty years ago and for all the intervening decades he’d told his own students, his soldiers.
“This can end,” the only man in the room not sweating, the only one seated. Sunglasses in shadows meant to intimidate, but to Kent the idea of sunglasses inside seemed only childish, like something a recent fraternity initiate would try before a football game. Something to cow the cowardly, to hide weakness under bravado.
“This doesn’t have to be this way. Just resign and the rest will be… easier.”
Not even an implied threat. No emotion. Kent had been a hard man his entire life and there was no joy to be had in his interrogation, there was nothing soft for his interrogators to strike at, no padding against which to batter their fists. If, Kent thought, they want to rattle him, they’ll have to shake their own bones.
One of the men, the one whose punches had mostly connected, was rubbing his wrist. To say Kent could take a punch would be to say a fire hydrant could take an axe. Kent spat at the man’s feet.
“Who says this isn’t easy now?”
Breath was returning to Kent, but the pain in his side refused to leave completely.
“Colonel, be reasonable. You think we like doing this? You think –“
“You’d like a whole lot better if you boys weren’t all a bunch of try-hards.”
Like all serious martial artists, Kent’s body was different than that of a non-practitioner. His muscle had grown dense and fibrous, changing from something like chicken breast to something that, under a microscope, didn’t look entirely different from what might hold up a bridge. His bones had filled in with calcium and phosphorous, had solidified while his marrow had become more vigorous. At sixty-two, Kent out classed every one of the other men here. He’d earned his Iron Shirt through practice and dedication decades ago and had labored on it every day since. He was not like the juniors in the room, not like the heavy set man sat in shadow, attempting to stare him down. He was harder, older, and did not have the time to waste on this bullshit.
“I’ll tell you what. I’m tired of this shit. You boys want to try and kill me, get to it. These chats take up to god damned much of my time.”
Kent sat, and the other men in the room took half a breath, expectant, ready for the exhilaration of victory, only to have the breath catch as Kent rolled onto his back to pass the hand cuffs under his legs to bring his hand in front of him.
As the men all step toward him, as the seated man stands, Kent brings his feet under him. He seems to fall slightly forward, nearly onto his hands and knees.
The man in front of him is closest, but Kent doesn’t like the man behind, the one who he can’t see.
Before he can expel his caught breath, Kent makes the man behind him swallow it. The kick is high, higher than expected from a squatted man, from a grey man whose color had all seemed to drain.
The breath, unable to leave the man’s chest, exploded like a water bottle ruptured.
He fell and as he did he felt he knew he would die.
Kent struck the throat of the man in front of him with the chain of his hand cuffs and then dragged what now seemed an inert mannequin by its jaw so that it fell between Kent and the man to his left, slowing the former in a scramble against tripping.
Kent threw another rear kick but missed, the man on his right having stepped back instead of forward. Kent followed. He would have leapt but the pain in his side had spread with each movement, reminding Cesar that he is mortal.
The man continued to back away until he bumped into the dusty wall. It’s cruel, Kent thought, as he kicked the man in the groin anyway. There are no rules in this.
The final man had nearly come to Kent’s side, the bad side, and unwilling to risk softness, Kent turned and struck the man’s temple. Kent knew he might have actually killed that one, but there are no rules in this.
“Shut up. You want me to retire, you want to take over? You people can’t even set up a room to keep one man secure, what in god’s name makes you believe you’re fit to lead? You’re not even fit to lead your dick out of your pants to take a piss.”
Kent hates profanity, but there are times to use it.
The man who Kent might have killed exhales tortuously. Not dead.
“You put your men in a meat grinder and you let them get ground up. You just sit and watch. Fine, your call. Shit call, but it’s king’s prerogative. What’s unforgivably stupid, is that you built no wall between yourself and the enemy. You let your only army get chewed up and you don’t even have a river to cross or a bridge to block before the opposing army’s at your gates. Guess what, son, I’m knocking. Now let me out of this god damned room so I can get back to work.”
Today’s fortune lead to an unexpected piece, but that was the point of this exercise. I have no idea how, or if, I’ll use this introduction. I don’t have much place for grizzled sexagenarian colonels leading a band of the remnants of humanity through a politically unstable post-apocalyptic setting, but that isn’t to say Kent is entirely without a place.
I like subverting the inherent meaning in truisms, and today’s fortune seemed entirely too touchy-feely to leave alone.
I took the meaning of the cookie to be that all great people are only great due to their supports. It’s not that I don’t agree, it’s just that I feel saying as much is unnecessary. Moreover, we of the Western canon tend to favor singular heroes over competent groups. As such, I took the idea of a support structure and turned it into a statement of paranoia. Rather than those other able men acting as allies they act, in this piece, as rivals, as impediments. They are able, but their ability does not unify their purpose. That difference of intention was the spark to create tension for the piece and from their the idea of a darkened back room where a group of men tried, with their fists, to change the mind of the old guard, took shape.
I still am having trouble finding the line between too much detail in action scenes so that they seem to drag and too little so that the motions become confusing. I don’t often write action scenes, so this was good practice. As a martial artist, it is easy for me to picture how characters might fight or move against each other but transcribing what I can easily visualize into an intelligible piece of prose is the writery bit.
I enjoyed the exercise very much and I hope you enjoyed the kernel above. Should it develop into more and should that further development make it onto print, page, or script I’ll surely let you know.