Let’s Talk About Dueling With Ball Lightning

Writers are weird little machines, man. When our brains should be resting or thinking about bills or whether the lawn needs mowing, they often run off the rails behind the scenes trying to answer questions: questions like what would it be like to duel someone with ball lightning.

All the way back in the nineties when I first started conjuring images that would become Grailrunner’s Salt Mystic universe, certain concepts came out of the dreamspace whole, all on their own and fully formed (all page references relate to the Salt Mystic Sourcebook And Core Rules):

  1. A mountainside carved with the statue of a bearded man, whose outstretched hand cradled a mighty waterfall (page 46)
  2. A vehicle with articulated legs and a swivel chair that climbs vertical walls (page 40)
  3. A ramming war vehicle that moves in all four directions (page 41)
  4. People who are modified for perfect memories and powers of observation with forehead tattoos (page 28)

But one of my favorite images was two dudes dressed like cowboys in long coats, staring each other down with a weird weapon strapped to their arms like shields. I knew from the beginning the weapon fired ball lightning because I was fascinated by ball lightning, ever since it was featured in an old episode of Arthur Clarke’s Mysterious World. (Great show). I also knew the weapon doubled as a shield, meaning you could block incoming fire. That meant a trade-off – when you’re blocking, you’re not firing. When you’re firing, you’re exposed. I liked that. I called it the ‘ball lightning carbine’.

It was a vague, exciting idea till I got to write the first action scene using the ball lightning carbine in the 2015 novel, Tearing Down The Statues. It’s in Chapter 4, called “A Cannon Off The Rails”. I remember the thrill of writing it, because of a particular line of dialogue I worried over including:

Several gunfighters had surrounded a dangerous character named Cyprian, which I signaled with all my might to be a terrible idea. That was entirely my point, that this was their very bad idea.

“You want to see something amazing?”

That’s what Cyprian said, grinning, with his head lowered in the shadows, right before he turned into an avenging fury and wreaked all manner of havoc on those poor guys. I mean, I chuckled after getting that chapter wrapped up. It had been a long time since the picture drifted in like soap bubble, so it was fun to see it in words at least.

The carbine duel became for me a primary mechanic for action in the setting, as well as for the cards in the Salt Mystic tabletop game. In fact, I’m going with it for our primary (hopefully iconic) aesthetic for the random adventurer out poking in the wilds through abandoned oriel gates or mad War Marshals who’ve seen terrible things.

What’s got me thinking about this is I had a fascinating conversation recently with a tornado that looks like a human being who calls himself Doc Brock on this very topic. Incidentally, I interviewed him back in 2020 – you should go read that. Although he’s the designer and creator of a fighting game (Future Fighter), he’s also a musician and pathologist. Most importantly for our topic today, he’s studied martial arts for over 35 years and has a process-oriented mind to break down a topic he’s asked about.

I wanted to know what he’d do with a carbine strapped to his arm.

“When you’re talking about million degree plasma, it takes martial arts out of the equation”, Brock explained. “The main consideration is to avoid getting hit. If you get hit at all, the fight is over.” (I’m paraphrasing his comments).

This was interesting to me because I was thinking about Kung Fu movies, where the guys are sizing each other up considering different fighting styles before rushing in to whirl about like mad in a complicated, blurry flash. In my mind, you could either hang back and focus on accuracy (like they say Wyatt Earp used to do, steady and aiming and using the opponent’s panic to your advantage) or rush in close and combine gunfire with hand-to-hand combat moves (like smashing a dude’s face with the carbine itself).

“You’d have to consider your opponent’s size and weight. A bigger guy, say 6 feet, 250 pounds, can’t move around quickly and is a big target. With him, you might try and lead him in the direction you want him to go. Maybe a shot to one side to get him to move into the line of your next shot. Either way, always aim for the chest though. Always.”

He agreed that it’s a terrible idea for someone in a carbine duel to drop to the ground for any reason, “It takes an incredible amount of time and energy in a fight to get off the ground, and when you’re down there, you’re completely vulnerable. That’s something you should never do.”

After asking me how long the charge lasts on the carbine, he made another strategic point, “It seems to me the key is to drain your opponent’s weapon. Once they’re out of ammo, this fight is over. No one is surviving a shot from one of these.”

And that comment caught my attention, because I honestly hadn’t given a lot of thought to how many shots one of these could get off (I said roughly 30 to avoid sounding like a writer who hasn’t considered his own creations). It struck me that some carbines (like Cyprian in the novel and Waymaker, a card in the Salt Mystic game) have modified carbines with dual breakers that fire twice. That creates some new tension and a trade-off, now that it’s clear such a modification would drain the charge twice as quickly. I liked the story possibilities there!

“What’s the range on these plasma balls?”

And he got me again, because the only thing that came into my head was “2 inches”, that being the scale distance range in the tabletop game.

Which led us to talking about wiffle balls.

I suggested to Brock that the only reason these spheres have velocity is due to the electromagnetic rails inside the housing which capture the ball lightning once it’s generated by the breaker and slings it outward when the palm trigger is clutched. I used the analogy of a wiffle ball, those plastic, perforated balls that go quickly about six feet when you throw them before the air catches them and they slow to a crawl and drop.

My thought was the ball lightning would move at a blinding speed for a few feet, then slow and eventually just hover like soap bubbles should they fail to strike a target.

“That paints a whole different battlefield if they hover like that. I can imagine a mine field around these guys as they fight.”

And that’s a picture somebody needs to write or paint. I mean, that’s awesome. I may take that one on at some point.

Overall, it was really fascinating to chat with somebody willing to break down what a carbine duel would look like, what a person trained in martial arts would think about facing somebody packing one of these. I wish I’d taken better notes – he was full of suggestions, even directing me to a particular episode of a TV show called Farscape with a similar weapon (cool, but ugh since I thought this was unique).

It also makes much more sense now why so many of these guys are wearing the long cowboy coats – it’s disorienting in the panicked gunfight how large someone is and where their body actually is.

Anyway, what do you think a carbine duel would look like? What approach would you take if there’s a guy staring you down and packing one of these? I’d like to know…

But till next time,

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