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The following is an excerpt of an early chapter from Book II of my fact-basted five-part WIP set in the First World War.  I consider it very much a rough draft still. In the scene below, the future "Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen receives some on-the-job training from Imperial Germany's first master fighter pilot, Oswald Boelcke.

Most of my beta-readers so far have been fellow pilots, and their feedback on my flying scenes has been pretty positive--but I'm really more interested in what non-pilots make of it. For all I know, this could be completely incomprehensible gibberish to everyone else. So please, let me know what makes sense and what doesn't. Am I losing you, or do I have you strapped in tight? This stuff isn't easy to describe without using your hands...

 
**NOTE: Please scan down a few posts for an updated version with a bit of trimming, and re-shaping. I think it represents something of an improvement.**

Over the Front, southwest of Bapaume

It was always humbling to fly on Oswald Bœlcke’s wing, especially for a beginner. Manfred was not exactly a beginner anymore; but the copious amounts of vin rouge still swishing about in his ears from the night before made him feel like one. Never again, he told himself. And he meant it. Alas, he couldn’t even hide his mistakes by being last in formation today. Bœlcke had him up front—where his shoddy air-work was on full display.

At least it wasn’t up to him to find the enemy.  The atmosphere above the Somme that afternoon was awash in billowing cumulous and shimmering curtains of rain. Any number of enemy planes could have been hiding in that surreal landscape. Or none at all. Yet Manfred had already come to accept that his captain had senses beyond those of ordinary men. He and his comrades followed Bœlcke’s lead without question. Together, they skirted massive vertical walls of mist. They swooped down into splendid, sunlit valleys. They darted through impermanent caverns in the clouds. The beauty all around was intoxicating, hypnotic.

Tense and miserable though he was, there were moments when Manfred’s hands would go light on the controls and the plane seemed to fly itself. For those few seconds, he was no longer an Earth-bound ape, strapped to a mechanical kite. For those few seconds, he was a natural-born creature of the air instead; weightless, and in love with the wind.

Then reality intruded. War.

Bœlcke rocked his wings and pointed down. Five hundred meters below, a flight of dark-colored aeroplanes were briefly silhouetted against the chalk-white moonscape of No Man’s Land. Before Manfred could count them all, they disappeared under a thin stratum of cloud. A nervous flutter tickled his lungs. Up front, Bœlcke held his course—and did nothing. 

A few moments later, Manfred saw why.

Black puffs of smoke started broaching the milky haze below; flack, from the German front-line batteries. Like footprints in the snow, the steady barrage left a trail for the hunters to follow. And follow it they did, tracking east across the line. Eventually though, flack bursts petered out.

What now? Manfred wondered. Up ahead was a wide break in the clouds. Beyond it lay a dazzling white ribbon of arrow-straight highway: The Bapaume-Cambrai road. Bœlcke led them straight there, as if he knew something. Another minute or two passed.

As they reached the edge of the cloud deck, Manfred looked down, his expectations low. The sky was vast. Aeroplanes were small. What were the odds that—

Ha!  There!

A distinct, oblong blur flickered across the terrain below. Manfred blinked twice, wiped the condensation from his goggles and looked again. Yes! The shadow of an airplane! And six more spots of shade alongside!

The planes themselves materialized, and it was the same gang of brutes from before. “Vickers,” in the parlance of The Front: big, ungainly, two-seat lattice-tails—typically armed to the teeth with guns and bombs, and always intent on some sort of mischief.

Manfred looked to his leader, eager to follow his every command—

Except the one that was issued.

No, no, that couldn’t be right, thought Manfred. He stared blankly at his flight leader, forcing the man to repeat the same series of hand-signals. In disbelief, Manfred tapped his own head, and pointed tentatively down towards the English formation. Bœlcke smiled and nodded vigorously.

Manfred felt his mind go blank, like a nervous student, suddenly handed a test he hadn’t studied for. Bœlcke was asking him to lead the attack.  His first ever. On a whole enemy staffel. And what choice did he have? If he showed cold now, he might as well fly back to Velu and pack his bags.  Already, Bœlcke was sliding back behind him, while the rest of the formation spread out laterally.   

Schiss…

Manfred drew a quick breath. It rattled around in his lungs like a pfennig in an empty tin can.

Those aren’t haystacks down there, he reminded himself, looking down at the lattice-tails. No indeed. They were men with guns. Men who did not wish to be killed, and would fight for their lives. Bœlcke made killing such men seem easy—a matter of geometry and arithmetic—but Manfred was not convinced. The longer he hesitated though, the more likely they would see him coming.

There was only one thing to do. Commit. Now.

Let them be haystacks, he thought. Rote training took over after that.   

Throttle—idle. Nose up.  Steady, steady . . . Now! Roll right—

The world flipped upside down. Manfred hung in his straps, weightless. Picking one target from the middle of the formation, he pulled back on the stick until he had the Vickers of his choice captured within the narrow slot between his engine and his upper wing.

Now stop! Roll again—stick and rudder together, carefully. . .

Eyes fixed on the lattice-tail, Manfred forced the sky to pivot around it. Everything swapped places again as he rolled back upright. The enemy crate only wobbled a little in the center of it all. Not bad.

Aim. And hold . . .

Peering through his starboard gun-site, Manfred rested his thumbs on the spade-like control-column triggers. There was one for each gun, and third to fire both together—but he knew better than to shoot too soon.

Closer. Kill with first bullet.

As the British machine swelled in size, the big, colorful roundels on its wings stared back at Manfred like the hypnotic false eyes on a butterfly. Fixated, he waited a moment too long, before mashing the trigger.

Now!

A short, jagged burst erupted from his guns, rattling Manfred’s teeth. He was falling out of the sky like a meteor by then, every rational instinct crying out in warning. With the Vickers filling the whole of his vision, Manfred shoved the control column forward with fear-strength—until his fists struck the instrument panel. Blood rushed to his head. The whole flight of lattice-tails rose up like cardboard stage scenery, yanked heavenward on invisible wires. One moment, they were below him; the next he was looking up at their tan-colored underbellies.

Cursing, he yanked back on the control-stick. Hard. At once, the air was driven from his lungs under the weight of an invisible giant, crushing him into his seat.

The world turned grey, but he held fast.

The belly of a Vickers loomed. Manfred fired. The tracers fell harmlessly away. An instant later, he was bracing for impact, slicing almost vertically between one machine and the next. His plane bucked violently, passing through a stream of propwash. Then he was through.

Manfred relaxed on the stick and took an overdue breath. Color returned to his sight, vivid as a Spring day, but his mind had gone strangely blank. Time slowed. All around him, the sky was filled with rolling, diving, swirling aircraft. Bright-orange tracers danced across the air like fire flies on a summer evening. It was breathtaking and terrifying all at once, and he had no idea what to do about any of it. A cowardly urge to flee slipped into his consciousness; his inner-schweinehund, beckoning softly with the promise of safety.

He wanted to run.

He wanted to hide.

He wanted to sleep.

Of course, all the while, the nose of his machine was still pointed almost straight up, his airspeed fading away like a half-remembered dream. With a shudder, the Albatros keeled over, cartwheeling sideways.

That did it. Shocked from his reverie by seeing the Earth and sky swap places, Manfred froze the controls in what he hoped was a neutral position, just as Georg Zeumer had taught him. He held on tightly.

Then Fate intervened. Or luck.

After a brief gyration, the heavy-nosed Albatros pointed its bullet-shaped snout downward and started flying again. By raw happenstance, one of the British lattice-tails flew right below him as he regained control. That presented Manfred with a split-second decision—

Run. Or fight.

Inner-schweinehund be damned, Manfred made his choice.

Fight!

Tony Fokker’s magic synchronizing gear did the rest. Two perfectly-timed streams of rifle-caliber bullets passed without interference through the Albatros fighter’s whirling prop. The shot was almost perfect. Manfred led his target as though he were shooting partridges back home in the Nonnenbusch. But at the last instant, the British pilot rolled his crate to the left. Instead of cutting a deadly swath through the Vickers’ cockpit, Manfred’s guns stitched a line of holes through its wing instead.

From that point on, there might as well have been no other planes in the sky over France that day. The only one that concerned Manfred was the one before him—

He dove in behind.

Overshot. Turned back.

Fired wide. Overshot again.

Rolled behind once more.

—like a crow harassing a buzzard, he circled his little scout around the much-larger British crate in a series of fluid, diving turns, forcing it lower and lower. The big Vickers proved surprisingly agile, and its pilot had no shortage of pluck. So too, the gunner. The man was literally standing on the nose of his crate, firing a swivel-mounted Lewis gun over his pilot’s head to ward off Manfred’s every attack. His courage was a magnificent.

Forced to cut to the outside of the turn yet again to avoid being struck, Manfred finally let his building anger and impatience get the best of him. Disaster struck: one moment, he was turning hard, wings clawing at the air; the next, he was upside down, hanging by his shoulder straps. Stall! Verdammt!

His recovery was clumsy this time. He tumbled; fell through a scattered layer of clouds before he could submit the plane to his will again. Worst of all, he lost sight of his enemy. That was a cardinal sin in the Dicta Bœlcke. Close to panic, Manfred searched all around.

Nothing . . . Nothing . . . Nothing . . .

God Damn it! Where was that blasted lattice-tail?

A shadow fell across his cockpit, and Manfred drew a startled breath. Hovering above and slightly behind him, in the perfect killing perch, was the Vickers. The observer’s Lewis gun was pointed squarely at his face.

That should have been the end. Should have been—but wasn’t.

Instead of firing, the Englishmen swept his gun the other way, and the lattice-tail sailed serenely by. Manfred was almost too surprised to react. What? he thought, wondering how he was still alive. Then it came to him.

He can’t see you.

Through some strange alchemy of light, the layer of mist between them must have been totally opaque from above.

Manfred could have escaped then, easily. None would have been the wiser. But if the thought even entered his mind, he pushed it aside so quickly it failed to register. Instead, he fixed his eyes upon his adversary—his prey, now—and steadied up on the controls. Moving like a hunter on the stalk, he slipped under the Vicker’s tail and coaxed his own machine upward through the mist.

Higher. Closer. Higher. Closer.

The British crate was just an oblong silhouette against the glare of the morning sky; a shadow growing ever larger. Manfred let it. He waited until it blocked out the sun entirely.

Then, he unleashed Hell.


 
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Just a quick update to this. I've taken Albatross Man's advice and attempted to streamline this opening, and have managed to knock about 400 words off the previous fragment. I've posted the update here, minus the little 'prologue' section and due to the lower word count, I've also included a bit more from the rest of the chapter. The total is still around 1,980, but those words are now going significantly further. Anyone wanting to let me know what they think, and especially how this compares to the original, please feel free.


A sharp intake of breath filled the room, and a moment later the woman struggled upright as if awakening from some terrible nightmare. Her eyes were rolling frantically, and her breath was coming in laboured gasps that sounded all the louder against the pervasive silence. Something caught in her throat and she gagged, leaning sideways and breaking into a bout of hacking coughs. With a last fit of violent choking, something thick and coppery filled her mouth. She spat, and a disgusting globule of clotted blood and mucus slapped onto the floor tiles below.   

Repulsed, but able to breathe clearly again, she straightened and scrubbed the back of her hand across her mouth. It came away crusted with more congealed streaks of blood.

With her breathing finally becoming more regular, the woman used the brief respite to take stock of her surroundings. She was sitting on a steel slab in the centre of a large room. Its walls were an antiseptic-but-aged white, save for the one directly in front of her. It consisted of a grid of square, steel doors, each one with a thick handle. 

She shivered. There was a chill in the air, and it was then that she realised, she was naked from almost head to toe. The only thing present that even approached clothing was a thin white sheet gathered across her legs and hips. Her chest tingled, and she reached up to rub gingerly at it, surprised when all that she could feel beneath her fingertips was smooth skin. Another shiver ran down her spine, not due to the cold this time, and she grabbed for the sheet, wrapping it around her shoulders in an attempt to protect her modesty, although from who, she was not really sure.     

Looking around the room once more, the truth of the woman’s present circumstances began to become apparent, and a queasy feeling started to grow in the pit of her stomach. Besides the wall of metal lockers, the room was primarily occupied by a row of five steel slabs, including the one she was sitting on. Above, a series of neon tube lights ran in straight lines across the ceiling, but only those few immediately overhead were actually lit. They bathed her own slab and the one beside it in a harsh white luminescence. 

The woman’s eyes widened. Another person lay upon that second slab. They were stretched out in quiet repose and covered by a similar white sheet to her own. It was pulled up past the figure’s head and obscured all of the body save for their feet. One those feet had what looked like a luggage tag tied to its big toe. 

Looking to her own toes, the woman noticed that an almost identical tag was fastened to her as well. Heart pounding in her chest, she reached down and snatched at it. It tore free easily, and with what little strength she had, she hurled it away as best as she could manage, not even wanting to think about what its presence meant. 

Her breath rattling in her chest, she slid off the side of the slab and lowered her feet down to the tile. She had no idea how it was she had come to be here, but she had her suspicions of just where ‘here’ was, and she knew she could not stay. Something was out there. She could feel it in every fiber of herself, a deep and penetrating sense of wrongness that screamed at her to get away – far away – and preferably as fast as possible. 

As she moved, her head swam and the walls seemed to heave around her. She clutched tightly at the slab in an effort to steady herself. After a moment or two, she decided to make a move, uncertain if her legs could take her weight, but not wanting to waste any more time either. 

Releasing the slab, she managed a few tottering steps before listing sideways into a wheeled cart that she had not noticed before. It toppled with a crash, scattering what looked like surgical tools across the floor. Collapsing to her knees, the woman only just managed to avoid a face-first fall into the wicked-looking knives and bone saws by catching herself with outstretched arms. She remained that way - propped up on all fours - for what felt like minutes, unable to tear her gaze away from the sharp angles and serrated edges that were gleaming back at her. The mere sight of them was enough to make her chest start tingling again.

Slowly, she reached out with a tremulous hand and grasped a particularly sharp looking scalpel, all the while feeling a strange sense of morbid fascintation growing within her. Settling back onto her knees, she rubbed at her chest and stared at the blade. The shining metal conjured images of a too-wide, perpetually grinning mouth; one lined with teeth sharper than knife-edged steel. She flinched. Those teeth were no mere flight of fancy. There was something about them that was frighteningly more real than that. 

The sound of muffled voices coming from somewhere behind her snapped the woman back to the here and now. Craning her neck, she sighted a pair of large double doors that were set into the wall to her rear. Set in each at roughly head height were a pair of small round windows. The voices were coming from somewhere just beyond them.   

Tightening her grip on the scalpel, the woman grabbed for the slab and heaved herself back to her feet. That deep-seated urge to run was so overpowering now, she was having trouble keeping her thoughts straight. 

This time, her attempts to walk were more successful. Bare feet padding against tile, she actually managed a shambling half-run over to the doors. Once there, she pressed her back up against the wall beside them. Harsh, fluorescent light was streaming in through the small windows from outside, but she did not dare to risk even a glance through them. Those voices were so close, she would almost certainly be seen if she were to stick her head into view.   

“...telling you, I heard something,” came a man’s voice. He sounded nervous.

“Seriously?” a second man replied. He did not sound nervous at all, but rather irritated. “I get it, okay. It’s creepy down here. Still don’t have to let it spook you so much.” 

“I am not spooked,” the first man sounded indignant. “But you weren’t here when the paramedics wheeled ‘em in. Seeing that girl all torn up was bad enough, but the old man... They really went to town on him. Looked like he’d been mauled by a wild animal. I’ve never seen anything like it.” 

The second man chuckled. “You’ve been watching too many horror movies. It’s not like we don’t get people who’ve been cut on in here all the time, but you’re talking like it was Michael Myers or something.”

They were right outside the doors now. The woman took a deep breath and tried to force herself even further back against the wall. There was sweat on her brow and her fingers were gripped so tightly around the scalpel that her knuckles had turned white.   

A moment later, the two men were through the doors and into the room proper. Both had their backs to her and were dressed in green hospital scrubs. The shorter of the two stopped dead in his tracks almost immediately. Clearly, he had noticed the empty slab. 

His partner was still speaking however, and did not seem to be paying as much attention. “I mean c’mon man! This isn’t Zombieland! They’re hardly about to get up and walk--” he stopped short, finally realising what it was that had given his partner pause. “...away.”

“Told you I heard something,” the first man hissed. “You think she’s still in here?” 

The second man had already started backing out of the room. “No idea,” he said, his voice cracking slightly. “Probably wasn’t laid out properly and just slipped off the slab. Tell you what; why don’t you check, and I’ll go and grab Doctor Simms?” 

Without waiting for an answer, he turned and fled from the room, sneakers squeaking against the floor tiles as he ran.   

“Hey, wait a second!” the first man shouted after him. There was no reply save for the sound of another pair of doors somewhere outside banging shut. 

The remaining man grunted before turning back to examine the room once more. “Well, shit,” he muttered to himself under his breath. 

After a moment or two or peering into the gloom beyond the slabs, he began to shuffle forward. “Hello?” he called out, voice quivering in the dark. “Is anyone there?” 

The woman started after him. 

“Hello?” the man called again as she crept closer. 

The woman bit her lip and lifted the scalpel. She did not know what she was going to do with it, but she wanted answers and if this man had them, then she was going to get them... one way or another. She was almost within arm’s reach of him and was about to make a grab for his shoulder when the doors behind them swung shut on their closers. 

There was a loud bang, and the man started, whirling on the spot to face the source of the noise. His eyes widened in shock as he caught sight of the woman he had thought dead now coming right at him with a raised scalpel. “JESUS!” He began to backpedal furiously, only to find her slab barring his way. 

She lunged for him again but this time he ducked sideways, narrowly avoiding her clumsy attempt to grab hold of him. She cursed as her balance failed and only managed to stop herself tumbling headfirst to the floor by grabbing at the slab. 

The man did not waste the opportunity, backing away from her and circling back toward the doors. Growling in frustration, the woman righted herself and moved to cut him off. 

“Easy, easy!” he said, lifting his hands with palms open in a soothing gesture “Go easy okay! I just work here!” 

“Where’s here?” the woman’s voice cracked harshly when she spoke. It was as if this was the first time it had been used in months.

“You’re in Fairfield District Hospital.” Unable to reach the door, the man was now moving to try and keep the slabs between them.

“Doesn’t look like any hospital I’ve ever seen.” 

“Well that’s because we’re in--” the man stopped short, as if he had just realized what he was about to say and even he could not quite believe it. 

“In the what?” the woman hissed. The man just stared at her, dumbfounded as the reality of what was going on slowly began to sink in. She gritted her teeth and jabbed the scalpel in his direction. “In the WHAT?” 

The man’s mouth opened as if to speak, but no sound came out. Eventually, he swallowed and tried again. His voice was little more than croak. “It’s because we’re in the morgue.” 

The woman pressed her lips together tightly. She had known the words were coming; did not make them any easier to hear. “Why am I in the morgue?” she said stiffly. There was a dull ache in her throat, and she found herself blinking to keep back tears.

The man’s face turned ashen. “Hey, c’mon now, I’m not a doctor, okay. We can talk about this later all you want, but first, you have to just put the knife down and--” 

“WHY AM I IN THE MORGUE? JUST TELL ME!” 

“Okay, okay!” The man winced. His eyes darted warily to the scalpel. “It’s because you were dead, alright?” 
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It's my pleasure.
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Wow, thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
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Review My Work / Re: How is this opening? 545 words of a novel
« Last post by Kit on April 21, 2019, 01:08:56 PM »
Thank you jt, Stayce, Pat and Albatross Man for taking time to read and respond to my writing.  I’m happy you all found it interesting.

I also appreciate your thoughtful critiques.  It’s so helpful for me when you point out things I had not thought of – I guess that’s why we are all here!  You’ve given me a lot to think about concerning phrasing, active/passive voice, and the effect of the timing of a character introduction.

Thanks again and I will look for your writings as well to offer a critique.

Best,

Kit
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The Gallery / Others, Before Us -Poem
« Last post by heartsongjt on April 21, 2019, 10:33:17 AM »
Others, Before Us

Others, before us, walked through life
Not knowing what lay ahead...
Many were homeless, beneath the sky,
a pile of leaves for a bed.
 
Many were not rich in worldly things...
But by the labor of their hands, and
the sweat of their brow, their families
were clothed and fed.

Many were lowly born, with, only, their
love for God and family, to keep them going.

Many a faithful soul, before us, endured,
in Jesus' name, that their offspring who
followed in their foot prints, might find
some amount of comfort …
In the legacies they left behind.
                          -Jan Tetstone

10:12pm April 21, 2019
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Review My Work / Re: Feedback for Opening Chapter (Science Fantasy, 2137 words)
« Last post by Stayce on April 21, 2019, 04:17:53 AM »
Hi there! Just thought I'd offer some feedback. Do feel free to take on board as much or as little of this as you wish, as a large portion of what I'm about to type is based on my initial gut reaction to the story.

I do think that the opening feels a bit uneven. I think it's partially that within the first couple of sentences we've been introduced to multiple concepts all with proper nouns applied to them. It feels a bit self consciously grandiose rather than mysterious and foreboding. We have absolutely no way of knowing what the Maelstrom is, or a Dualist Crown, or the Arch Lord, or the Sanctuary. It's all a bit too much. I would avoid naming everything and instead concentrate on the feelings and atmosphere of the scene you are trying to evoke; of this one man facing down a force of nature. If this only the prologue, there's plenty of time to explain away the hows and the whys later. For now, just focus on the immediacy of what is happening. 

The next point is a little more of a personal reaction to your lead character. Talryn doesn't really hook me in this early chapter. Other than an apparent sweet tooth, he seems a bit bland. Youthful, strong, handsome, generous, and patient to a fault; he feels a bit overdone. While this is relatively early in the story, and I understand there may be a lot more to him that you have planned, or not revealed yet, at the moment there's nothing that really stands out about him.

Besides these points, I think there's a lot good here. The world building you do once you are past your prologue is a lot more natural and easy to follow than at the beginning, as it is generally introduced more passively as a background to what is happening rather than being the crux of it. The dialogue is also has a nice back and forth to it, although sometimes sounding a little stiff and stilted. Overall, I think you have a decent beginning here, but I think I'd need to see a little more, particularly of Talryn to off much beyond what I already have.

Hope it helps, and I look forward to seeing anything else you wish to share.   
18
Review My Work / Re: Feedback for Opening Chapter (Science Fantasy, 2137 words)
« Last post by wkerwick10 on April 20, 2019, 11:54:18 PM »
Two quick suggestions: 
1. Because you can't put indentations in an HTML text box (easily anyway), hit return and skip a line between each paragraph, including dialogue. That will make it much easier to read. 

2. Minor point, but you use "the military base" multiple times in both narration and dialogue. Does the place have a name?  What particular branch of the military runs it (IE: is it an army base?).  Having lived and worked on military facilities on four different continents, I can tell you that no one who is stationed on such ever refers to them as "the military base."  They would use "on-base" or "on-post" or "on XXX" were XXX is the name (or nickname) of the base.

3. I know it is often suggested to kick off a book in the most dramatic way possible, but I think one should be careful not to immediately inject a reader into the middle of something they are unprepared to understand.  Admittedly, I am not a sci-fi or fantasy guy (more historical fiction and adventure) so maybe my mindset is too rigid to flex that hard right away without being lead to it. Basically, your beginning lost me completely.  I started skimming until I got to the part were there was some setting and action that I could make heads or tales of. Again, that could be just my problem, (and the lack of apparent paragraph breaks), but just a word of caution. 

Other than that, cowboy-up and keep writing! Thanks for sharing.

Thanks for the feedback! I fixed the paragraph breaks, and good advice about the military base!
19
Two quick suggestions: 
1. Because you can't put indentations in an HTML text box (easily anyway), hit return and skip a line between each paragraph, including dialogue. That will make it much easier to read. 

2. Minor point, but you use "the military base" multiple times in both narration and dialogue. Does the place have a name?  What particular branch of the military runs it (IE: is it an army base?).  Having lived and worked on military facilities on four different continents, I can tell you that no one who is stationed on such ever refers to them as "the military base."  They would use "on-base" or "on-post" or "on XXX" were XXX is the name (or nickname) of the base.

3. I know it is often suggested to kick off a book in the most dramatic way possible, but I think one should be careful not to immediately inject a reader into the middle of something they are unprepared to understand.  Admittedly, I am not a sci-fi or fantasy guy (more historical fiction and adventure) so maybe my mindset is too rigid to flex that hard right away without being lead to it. Basically, your beginning lost me completely.  I started skimming until I got to the part were there was some setting and action that I could make heads or tales of. Again, that could be just my problem, (and the lack of apparent paragraph breaks), but just a word of caution. 

Other than that, cowboy-up and keep writing! Thanks for sharing.
20
Great story! Had me reading it the whole way through.
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