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"It's All In the Details"

by  Wayne Faust 

© 2002 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved


    July, 1863

    Chamberlain wiped the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes. So much gun smoke. He could barely see the rebels charging up the wooded hill, but what he did see looked like a gray tide, men moving forward with their lips set in determined lines. They kept coming on, no matter how many of them fell. How many times had they charged his lines? How many more times would they come one? Probably until his men ran out of ammunition. What then?

    What would he do then?

    A bullet struck him in the chest. It felt like a giant fist and he fell backwards to the ground. He lay still, blinking. 'So this is it,' he thought. 'Now I'm going to die.' But Chamberlain didn't die. He reached his hand beneath his tunic and felt his canteen. It had stopped the bullet. 'Someone must be watching over me.í He nearly laughed. He got to his feet and noticed his knees were shaking. Several of his men had seen him go down and they looked at him in dismay.

    "Carry on, men," he said, his voice cracking. "They just hit my canteen.

    See?" He pulled his canteen out from under his tunic and showed it to the men. He tried to smile, but he was still shaking too badly.

    The rebel charge ran out of steam and the survivors backed down the hill, firing a few shots in retreat. Chamberlain's men took a few deep breaths and patiently prepared for the next assault.

                                                                                              *****

    "Mr. Yeliab, will you please read aloud to the rest of the class? I've placed the text onto your viewing screen."

    Yeliab looked up, startled. "Read aloud, Sir?" This was almost never done in Dunderclop's class.

    "Yes, that's what I said. Please read aloud."

    Yeliab glanced down at his screen. The other eight students in the class looked at him expectantly. He scratched one of his appendages, cleared his throat, and began to read in a soft, hesitant voice:

    "The Battle of Gettysburg was the high water mark of the Confederacy. Lee's army, at the peak of its prowess, had won a long string of battles, from The First Battle of Bull Run onwards. It has been argued that had Lee prevailed at Gettysburg, the outcome of the war would have been very different.

    "Critical to the battle was the second day's fighting on a hill called Little Round Top. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (pictured above) and his First Maine battalion were ordered to hold the far left of the Union lines. During the first rebel charge up the hill, Chamberlain was hit by a bullet and knocked to the ground.

    Miraculously, a canteen he carried reflected the bullet and probably saved his life. 

    He was uninjured and continued the defense. His unit fought off several more southern charges before running out of ammunition. Chamberlain then ordered a desperate, daring bayonet charge which sent the southerners into retreat, heading off disaster for the union forces.

    "From 'An Illustrated History of the Civil War,' Harper Collins, New York, 1987."


    Dunderclop perched on the front of his desk like a range cat. "Now class, who can tell me what's wrong with that passage?" he asked.

    No one spoke, especially not Yeliab, who had been working on this world all semester. He didn't want to hear about any problems now, six weeks before final exams.

    "Well, since no one else seems to be able to see it, I'll ask Mr. Yeliab. Mr. Yeliab, do you recognize what you just read?"

    "Of course, Sir. It's from the world I'm working on. That passage was from a history of a war they had."

    "And that history is accurate?"

    "As accurate as most histories, I guess."

    "And you expect us to believe it?"

    "Believe what, Sir?"

    "That part about the canteen. And the bayonet charge."

    Yeliab felt an uncomfortable rumbling in one of his stomachs. He didn't like the way this was going. "But Sir, I can vouch for that one. I watched the whole battle as it happened."

    "Nonsense. You wanted the north to win the war, so you decided to do a little tampering."

    "What? Why would I do that? I didn't tamper with anything."

    "You don't expect me to believe that a canteen hanging in precisely the right place could change the outcome of a whole war, do you?"

    "But Sir, that's the way it came out."

    "Mr. Yeliab, you are a fine student, one of the brightest I've had in a long time, but let's face facts. If, in the unlikely event that someone's life was saved by a canteen, he certainly would not have had the frizzlebutt to then order a bayonet charge against a fully-armed attacking force. We're not talking about one of the Gods here. We're talking about a man. It's simply preposterous. Change it."

    Now Yeliab felt a rumbling in all of his stomachs. "Change it?"

    "Yes. Change it. Go back and fix the problem."

    "But Sir, the world is already 150 years ahead of that point." Yeliab shuddered. To go back that far was a nightmare. World-building was like a very complicated game of fall-blocks; you set up a playing surface, programmed in a pattern, and then watched the blocks spread out in all different directions. You couldn't just blindly take out a whole section and expect a new pattern to develop in harmony with the rest of the blocks. You would probably cause the rest of the blocks to fall down, all the way back to the beginning. The only way to change anything was to carefully remove each block, one painstaking step at a time, until you got back to the point you wanted to change.

    "I realize it won't be easy," said Dunderclop. "No one ever said this class would be easy, but you will not get a passing grade from me unless you fix the problem."

    Yeliab was near panic. His education had been going so nicely until now, and he was almost finished. How could this happen, especially when he hadn't done anything wrong?

    "Sir, I saw that battle happen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a genuine hero that day - a remarkable fellow."

    "If he was really that remarkable, he would have become an emperor. I notice that that didn't happen."

    "But Sir, that's what's so remarkable. He was just an ordinary fellow thrust into an extraordinary circumstance. My world is full of people like that - that's why I like it so much."

    Dunderclop was clearly not convinced. "If your world is full of people like that, I guess I should have looked at it a little closer. Maybe the whole thing is a fraud. Maybe you have been tampering with it all along."

    Yeliab felt himself getting in deeper but he couldn't stop. The ideas were zinging around in his head like nortrons. "I've been thinking quite a bit about this, Sir, and I think our own civilization is a lot like my world. Our history is full of ordinaries who became great. Events make heroes. Where would Trestermain have been if his parents hadn't been killed in a freak, space crash when he was young?

    He would probably have gone into the family business and become a clerk. How would he have learned to be a world-builder then?"

    Dunderclop's eyes flashed bright yellow. "That's nonsense and you know it, Mr. Yeliab. Trestermain was a genius, one of history's great figures. It doesn't matter what happened when he was a child."

    Yeliab visibly shrunk under his professor's onslaught. He should have known better than to have brought up the name of Dunderclop's greatest idol. He felt his hopes slipping away. "That's precisely my point, Sir. Trestermain started out as an ordinary, but events gave him the opportunity to show what he..."

    "Diddlycock! I've studied Trestermain all my life, and if he was ever an ordinary, then I'm Bazzelfreep. I don't need to stand here on my three legs and listen to a University student slander a great artist."

    "I'm sorry, Sir, I meant no disrespect. It's just that when we examine history, we realize how much of an impact one individual can have on events."

    "Thank you for your input, Mr. Yeliab. Now I suggest you take some of that misplaced enthusiasm and use it to correct the fanciful tampering you've done. Up to this point your world has been excellent. Don't ruin it with something ridiculous."

    "But, Sir..."

    "Good day, Mr. Yeliab."

                                                                                         ****

    Chamberlain wiped the sweat from his forehead, just as a piercing pain clutched at his stomach. 'Oh no,' he thought. 'Not here. Not right now.' But the pain wouldn't let up. Stomach cramps. They had been plaguing him for the last few days, but this was a really bad time for them to show up again.

    Chamberlain gave a few cursory orders to his men and moved towards the rear to look for a bush. As he left the field, he had a nagging feeling that something monumental was going to happen soon. He would have to hurry back.

                                                                                           ****

    "Go ahead, Mr. Yeliab. The rest of the class will find this very interesting."

    Yeliab hated this. He really hated this. He cleared his throat and began to read:

    "The turning point at Gettysburg was on a hill called Little Round Top, where the First Maine, led by Joshua Ward Chamberlain (pictured above), was ordered to hold the far left of the union line. Chamberlain himself, forced off the battlefield by an attack of dysentery, was not present when the crucial fighting took place, and his unit was forced to fall back. Lee exploited the weakness and the entire Union army had to retreat in the face of Lee's army to protect Washington, DC .

    "Two days later, The First Maine again found itself in a crucial position during the Battle of Washington, and it was only Chamberlain's heroics that kept Lee from taking the city and, most probably winning the war.

    "From 'An Illustrated History of The War Between the States,' Harper Collins, Richmond, 1927."


    "Double diddlycock."

    "But Sir..."

    "Don't 'but Sir' me, Yeliab. That was very unscholarly. First you have Chamberlain saved by a canteen, and now you have him moving his bowels so he's not on the battlefield when the bullet in question flies towards his waiting flesh.

    What is it with you and this fellow? Don't you know that forming an emotional attachment to one of your subjects violates the Ninth Commandment Of World-Building?"

    Yeliab looked down at the floor. "I had to do something for the guy. When you made me take away that canteen, he would have died."

    "So you sent him into the bushes to move his bowels."

    "It was all I could think of, Sir."

    "And then he became a hero again anyhow, two days later."

    "I suppose so, Sir. He really is a remarkable fellow."

    Dunderclop sat on the edge of his desk and took off his specs. He assumed his 'kindly professor' pose, the pose that most of his students never saw.

    "Look here, Yeliab, I once made a mistake very much like yours. It was in my last year at University. I built a beautiful world, maybe my best ever. I can still smell the green grass after all of these years. I watched my project grow and prosper and I was very proud of myself for creating it. Late in the semester a particular woman was born in that world, a princess. She was destined to become a queen, and, given her obvious talents, most probably an Empress. She was beautiful and charming, one of the finest specimens my world had produced. I became very fond of her, just watching her through the viewer every night as I lay in bed. Then she fell off of her horse on the way to the palace and died. Just like that. I think you know what I did then. I decided to do a little tampering."

    "But Sir, I didn't..."

    "Let me finish. I don't usually confess this to my students, so you ought to listen closely. I went back and fixed things so her horse died the day before. It was a simple thing, really, just a stray lightning bolt. Guess what happened?"

    "I don't know, Sir."

    "I'll tell you what happened. The Princess lived to a ripe old age. She became Queen. She became Empress. It was hideous. She unleashed a whole new breed of ruthless barbarians and sent my world crashing back about ten centuries. I couldn't submit a world like that for my senior project, so I tried to go back and undo my tampering. I crashed the whole thing and had to start all over, four weeks before the end of the semester. I barely passed. And that's why it's never wise to tamper with our worlds. All we can do is conceive them, build them, start them going, and watch what happens."

    Yeliab sighed. What was the use of trying to tell the truth? Dunderclop was convinced that he had dreamed up the canteen thing. He might as well face facts - if he expected to pass this class, he would have to go along.

    "Okay, Sir," he mumbled. "I'll go back again and fix it."

    "That's better. Someday you're going to be a fine world-builder. They will come from across the Universe just to see your creations."

    "Thank you, Sir."

    Dunderclop gave Yeliab a fatherly pat and ambled out of the room.

                                                                                        ****

    Chamberlain wiped the sweat from his forehead. 'This cursed heat,' he thought, and for a moment he dreamed of the cool, Maine coast where he had spent the summers before the war. He was suddenly very thirsty. He reached inside his tunic for his canteen and brought it to his lips. He took a long swallow. Before he was finished something hit him in the chest. He fell backwards and hit the ground with a thud. He lay still, gaping up at the smoke, the treetops, and the faint blue sky. His canteen fell away into the dust, and he reached his hand beneath his tunic. Warm blood bubbled up and spread across his chest. Faces gathered around him - the faces of his men. They looked down at him in shock, and some of them had begun to cry. He tried to tell them to see to the rebel charge, to let him be, but something had a tight grip on his vocal cords.

    A hail of bullets came from behind his men. They turned to look, but it was too late. One by one they went down. Most of them lay still. A few moaned.

    Soon Chamberlain was the only one left alive in the little circle. He turned his head to the side and saw the colors of the First Maine being trampled into the dust. Tears welled up in his eyes. 'We should have won,' he thought. The last thing he ever saw in his life was the bare, bloody foot of the rebel soldier who stopped for a moment in front of him, before letting out a rebel yell and charging forward through the rear of the union lines.

                                                                                            **** 

    "So, Mr. Yeliab, how is it going today?"

    "Not very well, Sir."

    "Oh? And why is that?"

    "It's the Germans, Sir."

    "The Germans?"

    "Yes. They've won the war."

    "The American Civil War?"

    "No, that war is long over. The south won that one. They broke through at Gettysburg and continued on to Washington. They captured Lincoln and the British and French recognized the Confederacy. The north sued for peace shortly after."

    "So where do the Germans come in?"

    "The next century."

"You're confusing me."

    "I'm confused myself, Sir. You should see what it feels like inside my head. My brain is turning to mill mush, trying to keep track of it all."

    Dunderclop chuckled. All world-builders reached this point sooner or later. It came with the job.

    "So anyway, the Germans won in 1940. It was a world war, the second one. The Americans might have been able to help out but they didn't."

    "Why not? Weren't they on pace to become a world power?"

    "Yes they were - until the south won the Civil War, of course. After that they all still called themselves Americans, but it was really just a bunch of independent states. The south set the precedent when they won their independence. So there was no united America to help stop the Germans."

    "So now you have the Germans ruling the world?"

    "Most of it. Actually, itís the political party inside the country that's running things. They're called Nazis."

    "So, what's the problem?"

    "You should see these guys."

    Dunderclop chuckled again. This was not the first time that nasty things had happened in somebody's world. He thought back to his own experience with his Empress. "Will you have to start again?"

    "I'm afraid so, Sir. The Nazis have nuclears. They're using them against terrorists."

    "Nuclears? Against terrorists?"

    "Yes. As I said, Sir, you really should see these guys."

    "Well, good luck, Yeliab."

    "Thank you, Sir."

                                                                                              ****

    Later that evening Yeliab lay in bed, gazing sadly at the viewer. His world had ended in absolute failure. He watched fires burn on four of the five continents. Radiation levels soared everywhere he checked. Not much would survive.

T    here was only one good thing about this whole, sordid mess. Yeliab was sure now that he had been right. In spite of what his professor had said, he had proved that an ordinary can have an extraordinary effect on history, and he suspected that the same was true for every civilization. It was a radical concept. He decided to save the documentation about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in his files. Someday someone would be interested. It wouldn't be Dunderclop, though. He still thought Yeliab had planted that canteen.

    Yeliab switched off the viewer and turned over onto his side. As he drifted off to sleep he thought that maybe he might be better suited for a career in the insurance business, instead of building worlds.

END

 

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