The Chaotic Neutral By MJ Collins

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Law implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside, lawfulness can include closed-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability.

Chaos implies freedom, adaptability, and flexibility. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility.

Someone who is neutral with respect to law and chaos has a normal respect for authority and feels neither a compulsion to follow rules nor a compulsion to rebel.

Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, Skip Williams, Dungeons   and Dragons: Player’s Handbook, 2003

You awake in semi-darkness. As your eyes adjust you find yourself in a child’s bedroom that has long-since been outgrown by its former inhabitant. Yet still you are here. Stuck to the fire alarm above you is a parachuting soldier toy Nils won and gave you that first night together. A prize in those rigged games at the tipsy arcades off Market Square. You can try to roll 2ps into an ever-moving hole or slip your money into one of those coin pushers with a mechanical bar that shoves them up behind each other endlessly, like miniature tectonic plates, until a couple of the coins tip over a ledge carrying down whatever lies on top of them. A jolt of endorphin as the metallic terrain shifts. Mostly they don’t do that. That’s rare. Mostly they just shove repeatedly until you get bored or run out of coppers. You think about an earthquake in Nottingham a couple of years ago – how Nils didn’t believe you at first that Notts had earthquakes. Sometimes the earth here just shook uncontrollably beneath you. 3.8, 3.9 on the Richter scale. You still remember how it feels in your muscle memory, like the time after swimming in a strong tide. How could a place so dull make the earth move? The news said they were getting more regular and stronger. You add it to the list of ills. It was common enough now to feel you could be exterminated anywhere, anytime.

The toy soldier glows a sickly, Simpsons-y nuclear-waste green in the half-dark. You remember unwrapping it from its parachute after it had dropped into the slot. A mummified corpse. A tiny sleeping bat. A vampire. It looks like it was thrown up there by an explosion that emanated from the child whose room this once was. Is. These things don’t feel like your own. They have an aura that means that they seem to be always receding into the background. They have no longevity. Signs of destruction lie everywhere. Jumpers and jeans pell-mell like so many lost body parts. You hear your mother’s voice in your head: It looks like a bomb’s hit it. The parachutist could fall any moment. When it does it will drift down slowly like you imagine angels descend and bestow its blessing like a drug with a kiss squarely between your eyes. Our soldiers are a blessing. You can’t turn your head. You’re not sure even how to blink.

You feel tired, so tired, but have clearly just slept for a long time flat on your back because your neck and sacrum are signaling with dull pain for Medevac. You think of how beneath your wan and sticky skin the bones and joints of your body (your “cervical”, “thoracic” and “lumbar” vertebrae) should be sliding over their cartilage – coins in an arcade machine – tipping you up and out of bed. Your brain is sending out a chain of potassium-based messages to the motor neurons of your arms to move, of your torso to roll, of your bladder to tell you to urinate, but the synapses appear to fire only blanks. You should be lit up inside like the flares Nils lifted from a camping shop on the Derby Road that you set off under the Clifton Bridge. You skated by their light, made videos, etched secret occult symbols on the dank concrete to mark out a special space of resistance all your own, and played D&D till the red phosphorous burned out. Your war against the world. He held you and you watched the crimson of the night replaced gradually by the giant pink glans of the rising sun. It was a Shepherd’s Warning but felt to you then like a blessing. “Things can only get better for us now”, he said, openly in revolt against the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

You hear the sounds of a world that is still, improbably, alive outside slipping in with the day beneath blackout blinds pulled carelessly down. You hear what you think are words. You think of the sound shoving in the light from behind. First there was the word. You want to keep in the darkness. You are a self-confessed Creature of Darkness.

 

He is gone.

 

You can get up and go pee. You can roll over and hope to sleep again. Maybe you won’t wake up piss wet or crying. You can open the blinds. You can rescue the suspended paratrooper. What do you do?

 

***

She wasn’t permitted to see his casket coming home, but she was there to see him leave. Life, she learned, is so many leavings. We are free to want and wanting is moving away from wherever you are. There is no Home when there is wanting. But, if that was what wanting was she wanted most to be free of it.

It was a cold, dragonbreath morning. Stupid o’clock. A bus would pick him up by Lenton industrial estate where he would then report to a recruiting station at Long Eaton for dispatch to basic training. He was to be one of the Mercian Regiment. In the distance, she could see the medieval parapets of the Games Workshop factory – its Teutonic eagle emblazoned on the door. A fortress. They saw students in their motley raiments leaving “ISIS” nightclub and trooping home like crusaders; laughing, hollering, and clinging to one another – powerfully, chemically in love.

They were early enough to watch as sallow-eyed migrant workers huddled beneath a floodlight with their hands in their pockets, waiting to be piled into the back of a white van that might or might not come; a daily ritual of hope and humiliation. They knew how they were talked about here. Stealing the jobs we need, or taking the jobs we won’t do. They have no choice, so the people decide to hate them for making choices they wouldn’t make. Work. Life. Freedom of movement. The long war made plasticine of all words; they could be made to be anything. We are to everything is a matter of individual choice. But Freedom isn’t Power. Real power is the right to say what Freedom is.

She had a strong sense in that moment of time having always been like this. The changing same. A looping back endlessly. Any moment of history transferable into any other. A fully upgradeable, adaptable game system. The eternal return made a mockery of quests, crusades. Different clothes and parts but the same incurable time. She thought of it as a grand campaign. Banners waving. The Women seeing their Menfolk off to war. Beneath them lay the mossy weight of Deep England. The middle of the country. The centre point of everything is not the eye of a storm that rages around it out there. It is not something that with time we will pass through. The centre point reveals the fact of that it is all like invisible chaos. She rolled words around in her mouth like smoke. Mercia. Mercian. Regiment. Regimented. Mercy. Regimen. Regime change. Mercying. A mercy-ing regime change. Merciless. Mercenary. ‘Merica. America. America’s Regime. She stamped her feet against the concrete to warm them and for the reassuring solidity of it.

“Did you hear they found Richard III in a car park in Leicester?” she said, not unsticking her eyes from the glinting, reptilian bus that was moving down the road toward them.

“Some fate…”

“A parking space. A parking space. My Kingdom for a parking space.”

“Nice…”

“He didn’t really have the hump.”

“I bet he had the hump when they stuck a carpark on him.”

“Nice…”

With their black hoods up and blank expressions they thought they were practically invisible so the bus almost didn’t stop for them. It was quite the opposite, in fact.  They were if anything too visible. They were used to that, of course. Two chitinous cockroaches. Two rogue wizards; the embers of their cigarettes glowing in the night like wands. What two goths armed only with what they carried always upon them (Sharpees, a couple of trading cards, a zippo engraved with a picture of the devil, a crystal-like icosahedron “die” – Not dice. Never dice) could do against the vehicle she could barely guess, but they still got The Look. She fingered the d20 ritualistically in her pocket. She would do this endlessly later on. She carried a die. She carried die with her. She carried death. She imagined rolling 20, a Critical Hit, the Party cheering as in a once in a lifetime shot she slipped an arrow right through the one chink in the bus’s diamond-like scales, puncturing a vital organ and stopping it dead. They would decamp to the Tavern to celebrate and divide up Gold and XP. Level up. She supposed the bus driver could not imagine this punk kid was heading off to fight a foreign war. Nils was peak Goth. He was Brummie for starters. That’s where they made them. He even had a Swedish Dad who lived in Stockholm, which she always thought was totally sick.

“You know I only loved you because you were Swedish. It’s so vague. What even does a Swede believe? It is also definitely Metal and maybe a bit porny. We should burn down some churches or whatever someday.”

“That’s Norwegians. But, yes, let’s definitely do that, someday.”

“When you come back?”

“When I come back.”

“Tarrah, then, I s’pose.”

“Tarrah, then.”

Oh. He turned before he boarded and handed her a Magic card: Angel of the Scales. On it was a bombastic, glossy painting of a pneumatic female seraph panting chestily, a sword in one hand and a set of scales in the other. Justice as manifested in the minds of horny boys who want so much what they also deeply fear. It has the power of “Balance”. It uses White and Black magic. She wasn’t sure if she saw him wipe his eye or his forehead.

“Have this. It reminds me of you.”

“You corny fuck. Her tits are anatomically impossible. Heaven knows how she swings that sword. She’d topple right over. Balance. Like fuck.”

“I suspect Heaven does know.”

“Ha. It’s Starter Pack stuff. It isn’t worth shit.”

“I guess I can spare it, then.”

***

You have to choose your future, Nils. You keep doing this. You had a chance to start again when we came here, but it’s just like it was before. You think you’re smarter than everyone else? You think you don’t need to choose? You are unreachable. You are a ghost. You are so secretive. So invisible. You get close to you and you retreat before my eyes. You lack all will. You don’t seem to care about anything. You cannot keep up this charade forever. You are always playing your stupid childish games. You chased your Dad away. You made him leave. You were too great a stress on us with your hiding and your stealing. You were not a good boy. You must try to be a good man. Your father was not a good man. You can’t roll a dice to decide this. You can’t escape it. You are like a child sometimes. You are a grown-up child. You won’t amount to anything. You were a mistake. You are wasting your potential. You have so much potential. You… you…

***

You. We want you. You can make the difference we need to make. You can get trained. You can learn what they won’t teach you in school. You can learn secret things they can’t teach you here. You like making models, huh? You can become an engineer. You can build bridges. We are all about building bridges. You like games. We play games. We learn with games. You can sign here. There’s a form. It is easy to follow. Here is where you sign. You are making a great decision young man. You are doing a great service to your country. You are a good man.

***

“It’s an ugly war. We don’t know why we are in it, but we are. We need good men to make good choices and help to make a change. I’m neutral, really. I’ll be keeping the peace.”

‘We? Who is “we”? Where does this “we” come from? This is America’s war. You don’t really want to kill Arabs, do you? Why? How can you be neutral with a gun in someone else’s country, anyway?”

“What if it works? What if we can? They’ll be better off in the long run. We should be responsible. Act responsibly. Take responsibility. We have a duty to live up to the values we claim we have. Democracy. Freedom. Choice.”

“When did you start speaking like that? Who is making you say this? It is some macho, patriarchal, racist shit. You talk about choice but you don’t sound like choice is driving you. It sounds a lot like you mean “must” the way you say “freedom”. Can you not see that duty to freedom is an oxymoron?”

“Evil will triumph when good men do nothing. I want to do something.”

“Burke, really. There’s a reason his name is Burke. He’s a berk. Evil has already triumphed. We are swamped in it. It is there when good men do practically anything. Any choice is an evil choice. It all goes the same direction. Evil won.”

“I choose not to believe that.”

***

You choose him. He is kind. He likes that you are smart. You are you with him. You wear his pentagram pendant and his Tool hoodie. Lamb of God. You touch his hand in the corridor. You study for biology together. You love biology. He teaches you his games. He is Dungeon Master. You are an Elf Maiden, Ranger class. You are saved many times by your Wisdom score. You are home with him, your father is out again. You know exactly where, and why. He tells you “you are in a Tavern”. You say “Not a Tavern. Please”. “You are in a large hostel. You come across a young, handsome Bard Level 10 singing the sweetest ballads that remind you of your lost home among your Elf kind. You exchange glances. He gestures to a small room. You see a bed there. You begin to take off your clothes. You unclip your bra because it is really tricky and he can’t work it out.” “Cheeky bastard”, you say. “You love it”, he says. You do. You go with him first and it does not hurt like you were told. You want him. You choose him. Tracy George says it didn’t hurt because you have a slack pussy because you were born a slut. She says it didn’t hurt because he has a small dick. You punch Tracy George in the stomach and then feel guilty about that kind of internalized patriarchal bullshit. Still, you like it when bodies make contact. In love and hate.

You make one big mistake and are not saved by your Wisdom score. You are free to choose. You learn later he never makes any choices. This time that makes you happy. This time that is kind. You are also so confused. You speak about it together. You want him to tell you what to do. You are ashamed that you want him to tell you what to do. You don’t believe anyone should tell you what to do about yourself. You know he would be a good father someday. You know that time is not now. You tell your dad. You scream at each other and are nearly thrown out. Your dad relents to show you the power he has over your fate. Mercy is Power, too. But Nils never tells you what to say or do. You go together. He holds you. He is kind. He brings you gifts. He brings you your own d20 so you can always know what to do. Or, at least, what will happen. You know he is kind. You grow sad and that saddens him because he is kind. You pull away slowly, frustrated with his gentleness.

The night he says he is leaving you take the superglue from the table where it lays with his models, soldering irons, bits of polystyrene and paints. You make a steeple with your hand and his, a church, a home, a holy place. A holy space that can stay. You take the superglue and stick your fingers to his. “This is a bit on the nose”, he says. “I’ll show you on the nose”, you say. You smack him on the cheek with your free hand, also smeared with adhesive, and become stuck to his face. You run to the bathroom like Siamese twins laughing in panic as you douse his cheek in white spirit. You pull away and it leaves a bloody tear in the perfectly smooth surface of his skin. “It hurts”, he says. “Good”, you say. “Good”.

***

You always try to be good and kind. You try to tell them to stay back. You try to learn Pashto so you can make people keep their distance properly. It looks like Elvish. You have a facility with languages. You find that a geek’s love of strange words is a magic power in war. You are surrounded by them. It’s good to hear new words. You don’t try to be a hero. You aren’t a hero and will never be. You man the checkpoint every day. You check out the credentials of the men that pass through the checkpoint. You check points on manifests. You see how new types of checks for enemies manifest each day at will. Manifest destiny. You don’t know where orders originate from. You are told not to ask. You gaze into the distance. In the distance is open space, the neutral democracy of the plains. You hear explosions. You hear the Nu-Metal the Americans blast from Humvees to scare the locals: Drowning Pool’s “Bodies”. Shock and Awe. This war is properly Metal. An aura of perpetual adolescence suffuses everything. You can even hear it in the way the men on both sides speak of Law or Tradition in heavy metal capitals – like tallying points on the alignment scale. Some of the veterans mention Tora Bora (The Black Cave) and the complex within it. You think of “Ye Old Trip to Jerusalem” nestled in the hollowed-out sandstone caves of Nottingham Castle. You think of Rock City. The overwhelming blast of sound that washed you clean. Where you learned helplessness. The chaotic neutral.

You don’t sleep anymore. You stare. You okay, Gollum? You think you are called Gollum because you got caught reading Lord of the Rings in the Mess Hall. The reality is that they call you that because of how nervously you smile, and because your eyes look dead and bugged out after two months, and you are so squirrelly and jumpy they worry you will flip any time. They find it hard to get a read on you. You got like this when you had to shoot a man. He rushed you screaming.

If you don’t step back you will give me no choice. Sir, you are giving me no choice. You shoot him square in the chest at point-blank. The shell tears through his skin and explodes out the back of him, spread-eagling the back part of his rib cage. As you look at him you remember a book you loved as a boy with a gory illustration of how Vikings left victims who were beyond the dignity of death. An angel getting his wings. Perhaps you will now reach Valhalla. An alarm sounds. Tiny shards of bone will lodge in the faces of people queuing behind him to replenish water. His blood contaminates the well. Something about his sick child, sir. Private, you weren’t to know. You did the right thing. You learn his son is fine. It was a misunderstanding. His boy is later caught with stolen putty, a soldering iron, cabling, a rudimentary detonator for an IED. You watch as he is shot at his workstation going for what your comrade thinks is a pistol, but is a glue gun. You recognize these objects as what you have left in your own bedroom at home. You both make miniature worlds in which you can live and play at meaning. You is he and he is he and he is You. Yet you are not alike, really. You live incompatible evils. You understand that he intended revenge on the British soldiers who murdered his father. You do not feel like a murderer. You are a murderer. You are not a murderer. There are Terms of Engagement. You violated nothing. You know the importance of the rules. You have learned the rulebooks always have the answers.

You go AWOL while on patrol, tear off your dogtags, and step across the border into the Federally Administered Tribal Territory where the Good Land and Bad Land are marked by a dotted line and reshuffled daily. Dehydrated and incoherent you walk into a small village where the locals live in fields of gentle blood-red flowers. You are ashamed of England. You revert to speaking what you think of as your father’s Swedish. You don’t speak Swedish. You might be speaking Elvish. You are a cipher. You were looking for the horizon, you say. You were looking for the balance. A quest. You were looking for a bright neutral line to shove back the law and the chaos. You know that once the politicians made choice an imperative there became no space between chaos and law. 

You were made to carry special, secret cards with the names and pictures of men you need to check for and can kill on site. Some are little more than children. You are used to carrying cards. You trade them with the American soldiers. Amir Khan Muttaqi: Badass rating 4. Oooh, beats mine. She used to joke that you were a “card carrying geek”. A pun. Very funny. You give the cards to a man without him even asking. You are kind. Giving cards is kindness. You are a now a traitor to your nation. You are quickly taken by men who dress all in loose-fitting black clothes. You should know we don’t like traitors. You should be loyal. They put a black hood over your head, strip you from the waist down, and bind your body in their flag. You feel the comfort of it like nicotine, like Cherry Cola, the night of the Clifton Bridge flare, soft Nottinghamshire rain. You appear in the videos they make. This is how you are found, starved and beaten, in the private world of your own cell when the tanks roll in. Shock and awe have left you a figure of pure form alone; a fertile canvas for the projections of cruel men. You looked like Blind Justice as they led you away. You do not recover. You wither like a poppy in toxic soil. You asked them if they could show you Lothlórien – The Dreamflower. 

***

My firm has been charged with the duty of managing the bequests of Nils Khaled. He stipulated in a Letter of Wills drafted shortly before his deployment with the Mercian Regiment to Afghanistan that you are to be contacted in the event of his death to act as his executor. You are requested to attend a reading of the will at 10.00 on the 29th September at our Stoney Street offices. Enclosed is a copy of his Letter of Wills, which is, as he notes therein, not a Will in itself, nor is it an interpretation of a Will.

The letter was a generic template. She wondered how much he enjoyed the gothy names legal things have as he sat down to write it. The Guardian. The Executor. A protector. A divider. Law. Chaos.

To My Executor:

This letter expresses my feelings and reasons for certain decisions made in my will. It is not my will, nor do I intend it to be an interpretation of my will. My will is the sole expression of my intentions concerning all my property and other matters covered in it.

Should anything I say in this letter conflict with, or seem to conflict with, any provision of my will, the will shall be followed.

I request that you give a copy of this letter to each person named in my will to take property, or act as a guardian or custodian, and to anyone else you determine should receive a copy.

I drafted this letter to let you know how much I trust you and how much I feel for you. I have no money to speak of. My games and cards and miniatures should be traded or shared with others. Trading is like equalness. Sharing is a kindness. You are the kindest person I know. You and I shared so much.  I trust you to make the right choices.

 

At the reading, she is not made welcome for she is not Home. They all gathered round the table and the solicitor described the treasure, assigned roles, and offered them choices. Her exact status was unclear and I’m sorry I’m sorry I really am but that makes it ultimately contestable. She was stripped of her right to act as executor by his mother and father who orbit around each other in the perfect balance of equally charged atoms; negative, positive, the effect is the same. His father looked just like him; one figure filling the position of another. Generations are as incessant as shark’s teeth. His letter meant nothing because all Wills are contestable and can be shaped by the demands of the next of kin. He cannot will a will. They wanted to hold on to his things tightly so in time they could be allowed to move on. Love as another form of leaving.

She was blamed for his decision to go. She was asked if she knew if he was likely to try to defect or to commit treason.

She tells the truth, that she did not-not.

She is asked if they were together at the time he went. She says that they were not-not.

Ours is The Great Age of Faith.

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MJ Collins

MJ Collins is a writer and academic from Kent (by way of Nottingham, The Netherlands, and Bermuda). He is a Senior Lecturer in 20th Century U.S. Literature and Culture at King’s College, London. He has written and edited academic books and articles on the short story, American realism, intelligence testing, and podcasting, including The Drama of the American Short Story, 1800 -1865 (Michigan, 2016) and The Cambridge Companion to the American Short Story (forthcoming 2022). He is trying to write fiction now, which requires him to stop pretending he knows what words like “discourse” and “episteme” mean.

@dr_mjcollins (Twitter)
mikecollins7017 (instagram)
https://www.kcl.ac.uk/people/dr-michael-collins

Image by Mitaukano from Pixabay

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