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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Dust and Sand – Chapter 20 – By Sean P. Wallace

General Richard Ryman stood at his office window, a draught of whiskey in his hand, and watched this rare tranquility. His men would soon interrupt it by drinking and singing, fraternising that the General didn’t approve of but couldn’t very well stop if he wanted to keep them on side. Particularly with how far they were stretched at the moment. So he would cherish the quietude while it lasted.

The General sighed. This absence of activity only highlighted how much he disliked this posting; he had always enjoyed being busy, working all hours God sent, and previously would have hated such stillness. Now, apparently, he longed for it.

What concerned him most was that three Solution made him long for the Mexican War. Not just because he’d been a younger man, a rising officer with a full life ahead of him, but because it had just been so simple back then. He and his men were tasked with taking this hill, killing that platoon, securing some fort… the orders weren’t simple, many men had to die to complete them, but their purpose had been. As had their cause; Texas belonged to America, the Mexicans disagreed. So there had to be a war. That was all there had been to it.

A horrible, bloody war and he was longing for it…

Life had a way of becoming complicated as you got older, trained gained prestige, he knew that. But at the Solution he had to drag in liquor and families, whores and priests, to maintain the fine balance between the hot-blooded men who risked their lives day and night and the more sensible scientists and researchers who didn’t. Daily, he went below and faced down demons and the men who’d somehow surpassed their evil and, more often than not, sparred with Dustin Longe afterward. Then there was the outside world, where he had to marry the conflicting priorities of a Senate that didn’t understand the Dixie Problem with the locals who knew it only too well…

He sipped his whiskey. It was old and rich, single malt, expensive but worth it because he hardly ever drank. He’d found a bottle like it in a dead officer’s trunk after his first battle, alongside stolen portraiture and three shining pennies. The loot, such as it was, went to command but he had shared the drink with his men that night. So whiskey always reminded him of victory. Of glory.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that he would never taste victory in this assignment which truly got to him. ‘The Solution’. It was a joke name, something thought up by some snake oil salesman in Lincoln’s government; there was no solution to the Dixie Problem, except to contain and pray.

The Solution’s scientists disagreed, though, so they toiled and searched for a method of harnessing the power of the Triangle to use against them. The very notion made the General uneasy in a religious way. Dustin Longe was bad enough but at least he was human. Mostly. You could talk with him, reason with him, control him. Tapping into whatever the Triangle used didn’t feel like it could be quite so controllable.

The General took another sip. Victory indeed. Maybe he should treat every day as a victory. Maybe he should think every sunset that someone got to see because the Solution were there a triumph. It was awfully short-term thinking, defeatist even, but having no clear, human enemy was getting to him.

How he’d love to have a proper battle against the Triangle, one big dice throw…

He sipped again. No, that would be throwing good men after bad. It wasn’t like him to be so callous. He must be worried about something.

Usually when the General worried it was about Dustin. All the other matters would take care of themselves eventually but Dustin… he was a walking dose of trouble. He and Eleanor had only been gone two days but already the General felt nervous. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Dustin to keep her safe, or that he didn’t trust Eleanor to not put herself in danger, but there was something about the mission that hadn’t sat right with him, some unsettling pattern to it that he couldn’t discern at the time and still couldn’t.

“You’d better come back, Dustin,” he said to the sunset.

As if in response, a carriage rolled over the horizon and barrelled toward the Solution. Then two more appeared, followed by a fourth. The horses were going at a good pace, not quite racing but not slouching by any stretch.

The General frowned, turned from the window. Under his desk, he’d had a small lever installed that rang a bell downstairs. He pulled it and watched it click back into place. Instantly, someone ran upstairs to see him. When they got to the office, they stopped and knocked.


It was Kyle Reeves, one of the younger recruits. He had a wild mop of hair the General would never have allowed in his army days but his salute was smart enough to make up for it. “Sir?”

The General realised he was still holding his whiskey. Putting it down now would be embarrassing, so he swirled it idly and said “Are we expecting guests, Reeves?”

Reeves glanced at the ceiling as he thought. “No sir.”

“Are you sure?”

Another glance. “Yes sir.”

The General watched his whiskey dance in his glass. Who, then, was thundering across the plains to meet them?

Someone else came running down the corridor. They saw Reeves saluting in the doorway but still knocked against the wall. The General did all he could to not smile; such manners were the sign of a well-trained force.

“Enter,” he said again.

Sean is an editor, writer, and podcast host at Geek Pride, as well as a novelist. His self-published works can be found at all good eBook stores.

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