Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
When they left the building where the consulate was located, sunset was still over an hour away, but most of the heat had already drained out of the day. Beachgoers were largely replaced by leisurely strollers around the promenade, though the cluster of people gathered outside their front entrance seemed starkly less relaxed.
“Any idea what’s going on there?” Angzal asked Rzena, who seemed determined not to look in their direction.
“Oh, just Humans being Humans.”
“What do you mean?”
He crossed the street to put some distance between them and the small crowd.
“Every couple of months Humans find something to get really excited over. So some of them show up with their posters and slogans, and sometimes the local police have to keep them at bay, but after a couple of days they’re gone and everyone’s moved on. Bottom line is, ignore them. Eye contact is like gasoline to these people.”
When they were at what she considered a safe distance, Angzal threw a glance back at the protestors, trying to see if Reyes was among them. Or was this something she would be involved in behind the scenes, rather than on the frontlines?
Instead of familiar streets, Rzena led them to the historic district of downtown Malbur, where some of the ancient glass monolith towers that survived the Great Fire still stood. The rest of the denser city core was marked by large multi-terraced buildings with inner courtyards, green roofs and hanging gardens. Though Humans still built the occasional glossy spire to rise above these sprawling complexes, there was an austere sternness to the old giants which withstood millennia since Humanity’s first Space Age, as if they were vertical pools holding up a mirror to a darker time. Rzena explained that on other continents, historic city centres were often a thousand or even multiple thousands of years older than what could be found in Malbur, an age which would put them in much closer competition to the cities of Mrabr.
To Angzal’s surprise, the plazas nestled among the roots of the giants were full of quaint boutiques and eateries. Rzena found them a restaurant, all wooden tables and wooden partitions dividing the space for a more intimate meal, with a large aquarium in the foyer and part of the dining room, and a menu that naturally leaned towards offerings from the sea.
Initially, she was going to go for the more familiar Earth staple of a carnivore diet – a lightly roasted pâté made from crushed arthropods with small meat cubes for dipping. Rzena convinced her to make a more exotic selection, even if the dish involved some kind of grain, which was essentially grass, which was not really food, but food’s food.
When their dishes arrived, Angzal had to admit they looked appetizing, and Rzena explained to her that it was somewhat fortuitous that they even had the opportunity to order them, as many of Earth’s aquatic species were on the brink of extinction before the Great Fire, and when Humans rebuilt their civilization from the ashes of the old one, they approached the task in a far more respectful way to the planet than their ancestors had. Rzena was brimming with historical information about the local species and the hapless planet that had the misfortune to be their home, a curious accumulation of knowledge that Angzal remarked on.
Rzena made a noncommittal sound as he chewed his food. “Someone like me has a lot of time on their hands to travel and visit museums and read every single plaque I can get my eyes on. If I’m going to spend the rest of my life here, whatever that’s worth, I might as well get to know the place. I know some expats who’ve hardly spoken to anyone outside their own species. A huge waste, if you ask me.”
“Have you ever been back home?”
“You mean since I moved here? No. Considered a trip after the first couple of years but that idea died out so slowly I barely noticed. Between the cost, the length of travel and how much time it’s been and how much must’ve changed, feels like setting myself up for disappointment. None of my litter is back there anyway – my daughters are on other colonies and my son’s on the Vaparozh homeworld. Go figure.”
“Do any of your litter come to visit?”
“They used to, here and there. Earth isn’t exactly the kind of place you crave to visit more than once. My little one was here last, but that must have been … about six years ago now.” The look on Angzal’s face made him wave off her concern and continue. “They’re all grown now, two of them have litters of their own and one of them decided to keep going and find another mate. They’re busy, I get it. Doesn’t mean I like it. So ‘home’ for me is basically just this job – a series of tasks to be completed without much connection to any sort of real place.”
“And what happens when the job’s gone?”
“Ha! That’ll be the day they find some other idiot to fill my shoes. But I suppose I could retire to Guawana. They have a proper Mraboran community there. You can even score an agmari steak if you’re lucky.”
“True story. Even raimzau, too. If you’re ever over on that island, I’ll let you know where the good places are. Here, they’ve got two Hatvan nightclubs and a Thorian food court and they think they got themselves an interstellar city. There was an Iastret cabaret for a while, but that closed down. At least in those other cities, if you squint hard enough, you can pretend you’re almost near civilization.”
“Well it’s good to know not everywhere on Earth is as bleak as this.”
“Ah don’t let me get your hopes up, it’s a far cry from what you’re used to. Still, I’ve spent almost twenty years in this city, but I’d sooner retire to be closer to our kind than be neck deep in Humans all day.”
A low growl escaped the back of Angzal’s throat and prompted Rzena to laugh. “They are a trying bunch, aren’t they?” he asked.
I’d be the first to admit that I’m not the handiest guy around. This isn’t a point of pride, by any means; and I’m generally not a fan of having pride in one’s ignorance. The fact that you don’t cook, don’t read, or can’t change a tire isn’t a personality trait, so no need to hang any part of your identity on it. For me, it’s just a hole in my knowledge that developed without any effort. My dad wasn’t terribly handy either and I’ve been privileged to get by with other people being able to do this work. That said, I can hang a picture straight, and where the situation calls, can turn to Google if necessary.
The situation called loud and clear on Saturday night when the cold-water handle of the kitchen faucet popped right off as I was washing the dishes just before midnight.
Let’s just say containing a gushing geyser with my bare hands while my wife tries to keep the baby asleep in the other room isn’t my preferred way of spending a Saturday evening, but we don’t always get what we want.
Fortunately, she was able to step away and come to the rescue, grabbing a thick towel which allowed me to cover and contain the flow long enough to switch off the tap underneath the sink.
But now what? It was too late to call the handyperson and with the water flow contained, it was no longer an emergency. What I also had to keep in mind is that during the pandemic we’ve been pretty hunkered down, and not letting people into our house when we have the choice was a key part of our COVID mitigation strategy. So now we have to organize the plumber to come in just as we’re almost out of the worst of it (fingers crossed). Seemed like such a waste.
So I rolled up my sleeves and made a second attempt at getting to the bottom of this faucet handle – a faucet handle that was now at the bottom of my sink. I’d tried once before, when it first started leaking, but couldn’t get past the “remove the handle” stage. The instructions said either undo the screw or pop the handle off. I couldn’t find a screw and the handles wouldn’t pop off, so that dead-end made me feel less than clever, to put it mildly.
Having the handle now in my hand allowed for a closer look, and found a sneaky hex-socket screw (the typical IKEA Allen wrench screw) that got out with some serious wiggling. One of the two never got back in, but I’ll just focus on the victories for now.
Having the inner workings of the handle now available, the diagrams on the internet made that much more sense. Turns out, I had a busted o-ring in my cold-water handle, which didn’t create the right seal. Not only that, but the fact that my handle managed to pop off with the water pressure meant that the main screw that held it in place was also loose for a while. The “how” of “how it happened” though was far less important than the “how” of “how to fix it”.
I dismantled the hot water handle to compare the two and to switch o-rings and then put the faucets back exactly as they were, turned on the water pressure … and found both the hot water and the cold water were now flowing through into the faucet itself without me having to turn the handles.
Somehow I’ve managed to eff it up even worse.
What followed was a long trial and error process that uncovered that I had loose rubber seats that were supposed to stem the water flow from the pipe to the handle, which I then put back in. This solved the problem for all of a minute, returning the moment I turned the handle, which then led to discovering that the cold tap was missing a little spring that was supposed to hold the rubber seat in place. The spring from the cold water tap lay loose in the sink o the verge of falling down the drain.
After about three in the morning, everything was in place except for a broken o-ring now on the hot water handle, but otherwise the sink was perfectly usable until I could get my hands on the spare parts to take care of that last remaining leak.
The feeling of satisfaction I experienced though was quite surprising – this was something that had sadly been completely outside of my wheelhouse, but that I was able to puzzle through. For many, it probably seems like a simple task and they’d chuckle at the amount of grief it gave me. But for me, it was a new problem I managed to solve all thanks to one of the indisputable advantages of the internet – the accumulation of nearly all of human knowledge at my fingertips.
Hopefully trying to install that new o-ring won’t leave me botching the whole thing entirely, but I guess we’ll wait and see.
Twice over the course of that conversation the Ambassador referred to Angzal by the formal address “Angzal gan Mreniyaur”. The feelings that the first such instance had stirred were buried by the discussion that followed, but the Ambassador’s inclusion of Angzal’s full name as she bid what could generously be described as her “farewell” dredged them up again. A Mraboran’s full name came from their litter, which was in turn derived from the names of the parents. Litters usually comprised three to six individuals, and were restricted to one per parent pairing, leaving Mraboran to choose between unlimited procreation and monogamy. The majority picked the latter, Angzal’s parents among them. This left Angzal with only four siblings, scattered across the Known Reaches, and none closer than a month’s journey away. So on her way back to the office, instead of dreading the meeting upon which her entire career now apparently hinged, she was composing letters to her brothers and sister; letters she knew she was long overdue in sending.
To Rzena’s credit, he did seem to make a serious attempt at hiding the look of glee when Angzal asked him to schedule another meeting with Reyes.
“Could you just, let me know when you’re about to call her to set up the appointment, so I can be out of the room?” Angzal requested. “I want to see neither your face nor hear her voice over the line.”
“That’s a shame, I was planning on putting it on speakerphone.”
“Have I ever told you you’re funny when you’re toying with death?”
At that, Rzena made a sound that was half laugh, half old-man-grunt and returned to the absorbed silence of his work.
To say that Angzal’s first conversation with the Ambassador did not go the way she had envisioned it was to put a mild spin to the fact that Angzal replayed it over and over in her head until she started to feel claustrophobic. The worst part was she couldn’t decide whether she was relieved she hadn’t said all she wanted to, or angry that she chose to hold back. This was further amplified by the fact that she imagined multiple scenarios where she did choose to speak up.
“Is that it? The Thorians are at their weakest and we’re still going to cower in our own corner?”
“I hadn’t realized that the whole reason for our species’ existence had been reduced to being thorns in the Hatvan’s side.”
“So it’s true what they say, the only ones the Protectorate is willing to protect are the ones at its top.”
Although each new invented retort scratched an itch inside her, even in her own fantasies none of these scenarios resulted in the Ambassador being rendered speechless, or sputtering or somehow being put in her place. Rather the long-term outcome was invariably Angzal never getting off this rock again. This was, she admitted darkly, a future that may have already been sealed for her. What she really needed, instead of masticating on the events of the day by herself, was someone she could vent to. Her sister shared some of her frustrations, but had the better sense to keep them to herself when it best suited her. Unfortunately, she was also the furthest of her littermates, and even if Angzal sent her something today she wouldn’t hear back for almost a month. Her brothers, though closer, were decidedly more useless in this respect and would provide no comfort and only the empty platitudes about believing in the infinite wisdom of government. The only thing less helpful than them in this situation was the clock that insisted on dragging this day out past her breaking point.
There was a number of emails sitting in her inbox about a reception with an Imsogon trade delegation, most of which pertained to the menu – frivolous questions that did not mesh well with her current lack of appetite yet were somehow the most palatable of her unattended work.
Despite its gargantuan efforts to the contrary, the work day did indeed succumb to the laws of time and space and concluded. Rzena took his stubborn few minutes before he started packing up, as if this was simply a natural break in his work and he wasn’t counting down the minutes before he could leave. This, in turn, delayed Angzal’s own exit as a result of her own equally tenacious insistence that she never leave before him.
How many thousands of times had he packed up this desk, and how many of them have been any kind of distinguishable from the others? He did it with a distant look, as if he was already gone or had never really showed up, the fur around his eyes already starting to take on a lighter colour, unlike the darkness of the Ambassador’s face. After the day she had, Angzal thought she could see a glimmer of her own future in his expression – spending your days in a far-flung corner of the Known Reaches to provide a voice to your people when they’ve long stopped listening to yours.
“Hey Rzena,” she called out and he looked up mostly with disinterest. “You want to catch dinner or something?”
If it elicited any surprise in him, he hid it well. Instead, he paused, as if rifling in his mind through a normally busy social calendar. “Sure, got anywhere in mind?” he asked.
“Anywhere but here.”
“I might know a place.”
Ah the month of April – when university students finish off their spring semesters and leave campus for exciting summer opportunities (though something I’ve sadly not experienced directly this year because I’m still working off-campus). It also happens to be when many journals finish clearing their backlog and send tiny little daggers into the hearts of writers everywhere. The circle of life.
Mind you, I don’t begrudge this process in any way. Many literary journals are attached to colleges and universities and it makes sense that this would be a time for a heavy flow of rejections. Doesn’t make being on the receiving end of that process any easier.
This year, I didn’t have too many things in the pipeline. The one part of my writing that suffered the worst during the pandemic was my motivation to send my work off to publications, so there wasn’t a whole lot of candidates floating out there and awaiting their inevitable rejection.
Still, my lackadaisical year did nothing to spare my feelings, and I still a received a nice spring bouquet of “no thanks”.
It’s one thing to receive rejections in general – I’m no stranger to it and fully accept that being able to handle rejection is a crucial trait for a writer seeking publication. That amount of resilience is greatly tested though when the rejections keep pouring in. That’s okay, I didn’t need this self-esteem anyway. Worse yet, they’ve all been generic rejections. No, “please don’t call here every again” ones, either though, so that’s something. I’m not actually sure if they exist but I like to pretend they do because it makes me feel better about the neutral ones I do receive. Especially since it’s been a while since I got my last positive rejection, but let’s not dwell on that particular fact too much.
So I’ll just take my lumps as they come, update my spreadsheet with my newest rejections and move on. Summer tends to be a slower time for open submission windows, but September (again, those school semesters) is when the rubber will really hit the road, and this time I’ll be ready; to send more stuff out, to update more cells in my spreadsheet, and to set myself up for another flurry of the proverbial cuts, hoping they never do reach that thousand.
“Angzal gan Mreniyaur.” The Ambassador’s formal address was short and to the point and she faced a camera that was positioned well below her eye-level, just to drive that point home.
“Ambassador.” Angzal pressed her ears as flat as she could against her head, a gesture of calmness and docility in front of someone whom one would never dare challenge.
“I take it you are now well-settled into your position.”
“Yes, thank you, I had hoped to be able to –”
“I understand that you met with Congressmember Frances Reyes earlier today.” The image was clear, and the signal delay was minimal, even so, speakers would normally pause to make sure the was no cross-chatter, so the Ambassador was quick to establish that Angzal had earned no such courtesy.
“Yes, Ambassador I had the, uh, opportunity to meet – well, you can imagine how it went.”
“That I can.” The Ambassador absently looked away from the screen.
“She insisted that she wanted to speak to you directly.”
“My only solution for her is that she unwant it.”
“You, on the other hand,” the Ambassador returned her gaze to Angzal, “will need to schedule another meeting with her as soon as possible.”
“I’m sorry, Ambassador?”
“I’m sure you are. But we need the Human Congress to pass this vote, and she represents the most reasonable faction that could be swayed to our cause.”
“I’m not sure ‘reasonable’ is a word I would use to describe her.” Perhaps an early retirement was in order, to live off the family estate as hired help if that was all that was available to her, then recommend Rzena for a promotion and find happiness in knowing he was the one who had to deal with this instead.
“You’ll find that Congressmember Reyes is not such a unique specimen among Humans. If you think this is an impediment to the duties of your current assignment then we can always –”
“No, no, not at all,” Angzal cursed the signal delay that couldn’t cut the Ambassador’s admonishment fast enough, “I just meant that maybe there was not another way.”
The fur about the Ambassador’s face turned a shade darker as her eyes narrowed on the viewscreen, and Angzal wondered what sacrifice to the bloodthirsty gods would take to restart this day.
“If you’re already aware of some kind of alternative, please share.”
“No, I’m sorry Ambassador.” Any flatter and Angzal’s ears would have to roll into little tubes and crawl inside themselves. Angzal was well aware the ensuing silence by the Ambassador was deliberate.
“There’s someone here on Mars I’ve had several discussions with, another representative in the HID Congress.” Hearing that during Angzal’s tenure the Ambassador had time for multiple meetings with a Human made Angzal strangely jealous.
“Congressmember Ferrety is one of a handful of colonial representatives willing to support our request. He told me he should be in Malbur in two days, ahead of next week’s vote. The Winti Reagent has already said they will follow whatever decision the Human Interstellar Dominion makes, and the Fusir hardly have any opinions of their own. As long as we can break this deadlock in the HID government, all the other pieces are already in place. What I need from you, is to get Ferrety and Reyes in the same room, and make sure they don’t leave until Reyes can pledge enough votes for the motion to deploy the ORC fleet to succeed.”
The Ambassador once again stared off languidly past the screen, suggesting to Angzal that her importance had run its course and to close off the conversation. Angzal, evidently not intent on learning any lessons that day, continued.
“If you permit me asking, Ambassador, but it may help me to know why we’re so interested in the Humans and the ORC sending their fleets to Krevali?”
The Ambassador’s expression, her cowl darkening further, suggested she was not used to being asked questions, especially such rudimentary ones.
“I know it must be difficult for you to comprehend, being so far out from home, but the Thorians’ obtuseness about Krevali has complicated matters. Dismissing our involvement in the Nabak Insurrection as mostly humanitarian had pacified things back home initially, though the unforeseen losses that we sustained turned the tide against any such future intervention. That said, there are many who believe that despite the fact that the Thorians had not posed a significant threat for more than two generations, this Krevali business is all a portent of more sinister machinations. If the Thorians have gone so soft in the head as to start something bigger, then likely the Hatvan will be ready to take advantage. The Humans, for their part, share a much closer relationship with us than the Hatvan. Not to mention that they’re potentially promising almost the entirety of their fleet. Having the Humans there sends the Hatvan a strong message, while keeping all but a cursory part of our forces safely occupied elsewhere.”
Angzal chewed over Reyes’s admonishments of the Mraboran Protectorate and the Hatvan Empire and her own belief that the Protectorate had become too content to define its identity and direction through constant contrast with their neighbours and oldest rivals. Despite the incessant twitch in her ears she decided this is where she’d draw the line and chose silence instead.
“Thank you, Ambassador, I will do my best.”
“The Protectorate doesn’t need your best, Angzal gan Mreniyaur, it needs the best. Figure out what that is, and report back to me with good news.”
Finding no need for additional fanfare, or for a final word from Angzal, the Ambassador ended the transmission.
I think I’m starting to lose my mind.
I’ve been with my current novel a long time. You can read about it’s more detailed history here if you’d like, but long story short, I started writing it more than a decade ago and the first draft was finished about five years ago. That’s five years of editing that I have poured into this thing, and I’m having a hard time figuring out where I go from here.
My first draft wasn’t great. Even my wife said so which really probably means that my first draft was much closer to a steaming pile of crap than I would have hoped. That said, I’ve been banging away at it for years since, sometimes crossing out entire paragraphs and pages, adding new chapters, and heavily revising everything in between. If I had to estimate, I would say at least half of the original novel had been binned entirely, while the rest has been revised, reduced, chopped up and rearranged.
It’s not the novel that formed my first draft. But is it good enough?
I’m familiar with the feeling of never being quite satisfied with your own work. The saying goes that an artist should always be one’s harshest critic and never happy with the work produced. I think that last part is taking the general advice too far – not sure how good it is for your mental health to never be happy with your craft. If you’re not happy with your craft, then really what’s the point? Yes, it works for some people to fully assume the role of tortured artist, but for most of us, you have to draw the line somewhere and be satisfied.
Problem with this particular work for me is I’ve been with it too long, and it’s been with me through pretty much my entire growth as a writer. I’m miles ahead of where I was when I first started writing it, and there’s still shades of that old author that can be found throughout that book. I’ve tried my best to purge it, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if I think someone is a good idea or sentence because it’s actually good or because it’s been with me so long that I can’t let it go.
All I know is I’m getting close. Maybe not to the sense of satisfaction I yearn for but at least that cutoff where I say that it’s the best it’ll ever be and I should repurpose all my energies that I’m still putting into this project into something else.
Where I’m losing my mind is I’m not quite sure how to get there. Should I still be adding more chapters, doing major cuts and moving things around? Or should I focus on polishing my prose by micromanaging my word choices? This week, I’ve decided to focus on the latter.
I opened up my spreadsheet that helps me track my editing efforts and went to what I lovingly refer to as my “shit list” – the list of words that are either week or overused. Examples include ‘like’, ‘just’, ‘very’, ‘know/knew’ and ‘feel/felt’. Words that don’t necessarily need to completely not exist in my writing, but those I could use less of.
Earlier edits would simply highlight the words throughout the text and I would edit them out as I go, but this time, my approach is more methodical and far more mind-numbing. I’m going through each word in the list and then using Ctrl+F to find each instance, spending some time to figure out if it’s a candidate for deletion, revision, or keeping around. Going through two hundred instances of the word ‘like’ in a 70K word manuscript is probably the least glamorous thing I’ve done as a writer. It hurts not just for its tedium but also not being fully convinced that I’m actually accomplishing something.
It doesn’t matter how well it’s written if it’s just not good.
Yet these are the depths I’ve descended to with Wake the Drowned. It’s my first novel – the first amongst many that have drowned before reaching the end of the first draft. I feel like I owe something to this accomplishment – to sink my absolute most into a story that has become so intimate to me, and not just because of how long we’ve been together. Maybe I’ll get completely sick of it before I finish editing and it will go into that dusty drawer of “also rans”.
Whatever happens at the end, I’m sure I can mine enough lessons learned from the project to fill many my blog entries. And heck, maybe I’ll actually learn something while I’m at it.
For a while, Angzal sat watching her washed-out reflection in the blackness of her desk monitor.
Big scraps from a big carcass. Congressmember Frances Reyes may have gone, but she had left behind a whole host of words that took residence in Angzal’s mind like a ghost only she had the burden of seeing. Rzena was focused on his work which largely remained a mystery to her, though he appeared to derive a somewhat begrudging contentedness from his position. Or was this simply a form of unofficial exile, where having outgrown his ambitions or outliving his usefulness, he now served a life sentence? No mate with him here, nor his litter – he was a solitary figure in the still paltry Mraboran community on Earth, destined to leave no lasting footprints on a world that had become his home and his prison. This all made Angzal feel a bit better about her own situation, though she admitted a lot of the sheen had been rubbed off her new position.
“Are you heading out to lunch?” Rzena asked, sounding almost as if he might genuinely be concerned in her comings and goings, though Angzal figured it was probably because he’d hoped to get the office all to himself for a little while.
“No, I’ve had enough of Humans for today.”
Whereas Mraboran subsisted on a single large meal eaten before bedtime, Humans had the habit of breaking up their whole workday to eat. It was a trait of Earth culture that Angzal normally enjoyed, either getting together with her Human colleagues or heading out into the vibrant commercial district by herself. Today, however, was going to be a desk day, even if she suspected that half the time Rzena was just watching her work and silently judging, though she was yet to catch him doing it.
It hadn’t been an hour since Reyes’s exit from her office, which time Angzal spent going through her messages and accumulating a to-do list she had no intention of tackling until tomorrow, or possibly ever, when Rzena informed her that she had an incoming call.
“So? Send it through.”
“It’s from the comms hub.” Angzal could clearly see the flash of fang from Rzena, mostly because he made no effort to hide it.
“Oh great.” She was sure the timing was no coincidence.
“Don’t look so happy,” Angzal said as she walked by Rzena’s desk, even though he actually didn’t look like anything at all, which Angzal was certain was intentional and intended to irritate her.
Angzal took the stairs up five floors to the comms hub. Humans had an infatuation with elevators; really with anything that moved them from place to place. Sometimes she’d catch them taking elevators up only one or two floors, and though they seemed to feign embarrassment at their submission to sloth, she knew full well they had every intention of doing it again. At least in the stairwells she was pretty much guaranteed to only bump into other Mraboran, so if she could only ignore the wood paneling that was so ubiquitous in Human architecture, it was almost like being back home.
It wasn’t a busy time at the comms hub. The only other user was a bored Human sitting in the reception area waiting for the requested call to patch through. While calls out of system had to do be done through one-way messaging, live calls that were off-world but within the stellar system needed to be handled through designated comms centres as no personal tablet or terminal could handle that kind of load. And there was only one individual within the system who would have any interest in speaking to Angzal.
“I will let the Ambassador know you’re here to take her call,” the comms operator told Angzal and she also took a seat. The way these calls worked, one party would either show up at their comms hub, make a call, and wait for the other person to arrive at their respective comms room, or else the originator would place a call request, and then the other would confirm their availability and wait for the originator to return to their call. Either way, someone was always waiting. If ever one needed to discern the relative social status of two individuals, all one had to do was find out who waited for whom during off-world calls.
In the end, Angzal was forced to sit almost a half hour, which made her thankful she’d brought her tablet, and since the waiting itself was part of her job, she figured there was no need to do double duty and spend even a minute of that time working. The Human that had been in the waiting room with her must have been particularly low on the pecking order because he was still there when the comms operator called up Angzal.
The Ambassador’s image appeared on the wall-to-wall screen of the sound-proof call booth, her yellow eyes standing out starkly against a cowl of dark fur that marked her for an individual of particular rank and prestige. Her clothes too, which for most Mraboran consisted of tan leather straps crisscrossing each other in various arrangements, stood out with their shades of austere dark green and brilliant blue.
Time to share a success story! Spoiler alert: it’s a pretty tiny milestone, but when you’re a writer that barely has one foot off the ground floor, I think it’s important to focus on the little things. As I’ve mentioned recently, I started posting my science fiction (space opera or science fantasy, labels are so passé) web novel The Bloodlet Sun, on Royal Road on the same release schedule as I do here. And now over the weekend, The Bloodlet Sun reached ten followers there. To put that in context, the best fictions on RR have followers in the low thousands. For further context though, how many fictions have no followers at all?
For those of you unfamiliar with Royal Road, following a fiction is essentially just saving it as a bookmark, which, again, doesn’t seem like much, but it’s crucial to look on the bright side of things. Don’t see it as “just” a click on the “Follow” button. See it as someone who read your work, and found something in there that was worth spending more time on. That’s how I choose to see it, which makes that round little number that much more exciting. Also exciting then are the two people who chose to click the “Favourite” button, therefore showing that in their mind my work is at least somewhat elevated above the others things they read.
I feel like, when it comes to little rays of sunshine in your writing, you have to sweat the small stuff. You deal with so much criticism, constructive or otherwise, and so many rejections for a craft that is deeply personal. It’s like taking your heart out from your body, where it has the protection of your sternum and ribcage, and putting out for the world to handle. A world that frequently ignores the “Caution: Fragile” label. So when it comes to the negative stuff, sometimes it’s in your face, hard to ignore and easy to internalize.
Which is why successes, no matter how small, are a precious thing that require all your attention. They’re good for your motivation and even more importantly, they’re good for your mental health. Plus, if you choose to put them all together into a single mental reel, then you’ll be better able to see your worth as a writer above all that noise.
Not only that, but successes snowball. Sure, I have ten followers now, and sure, that might be the only ten followers I ever have. But that’s for the universe to decide, not for me to dwell on. Those ten followers could be the first ten followers out of that coveted thousand, or two thousand. That’s how I will choose to see them. If someone else chooses to think it’s not a big deal and thinks that I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill then guess what, every mountain starts with a molehill and I’ve still got a bucket and a shovel.
The request for assistance from the Protectorate to the Humans was another piece of information that would have been very helpful for Rzena to have passed on. Forget snapping his tail in half, she should just bite it clean off at the base.
“In that case,” Angzal replied, visions of violent retribution dancing before her eyes, “I hope your Congress eventually makes the wise decision that recognizes Humanity’s role in a greater world.”
“If I were you,” Reyes’s tone suddenly grew glacial and her body assumed a far more relatable stillness, “that’s not what I’d be pinning my hopes on. If we do somehow vote to send our fleet, and if Human lives are lost, there are those here who will put the blame solely on the ones they think should’ve been fighting instead, and I’d have great concerns about the safety of your people both here on Earth and elsewhere in the Human Interstellar Dependency.”
Had this been another Mraboran, Angzal would have freely laid out in grotesque detail everything she thought about Reyes’s brazen threat against her people. Other species though, and Humans in particular, had more delicate sensibilities, and it took all her strength to keep her instincts from bursting onto the surface, probably to the eventual deep regret of Rzena.
Angzal measured each word carefully so that none of what she actually yearned to say slipped by.
“That sounded an awful lot like a threat, Congressmember.”
“Coming from me? No.” Reyes’s tone was frustratingly casual. “But I’m not the one you need to be worried about.”
“So what is this, then? A warning on their behalf?”
“It is what you make it to be,” Reyes answered with a slight shrug. “I would imagine someone with your influence would consider this a call to use that influence for the good of her people. Or is it that the Mraboran have that little regard for the lives of others, even their own kind?”
Angzal was aware one of her fangs was showing.
“What influence do you think I’m able to wield, exactly?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Reyes briefly glanced to the side, as if she was growing bored with the conversation. “I’m not going to pretend to know how the intricate web of nepotism works in the Protectorate. Almost fluent in Earth Standard Commercial? Consular position at such a young age? A lot of aging diplomats wouldn’t mind having this view for a few years in what you consider a quiet backwater, yet here you are.”
Angzal recalled what she knew of her predecessors, and Reyes wasn’t completely off the mark.
“I’m one of a litter of five, Congressmember. Trust me, whatever it is you think I get is scraps from the dinner table.”
Reyes gave her head a slight shake and gave a crooked smile. “Big carcass – big scraps.” And before Angzal had found something in reply, Reyes continued. “If the issue is that you simply can’t appreciate the potential gravity of the situation, I would be more than happy to speak to someone who can. Maybe a direct conversation with the Ambassador would be more productive?”
“I’m told the Ambassador is off world,” Angzal replied, ignoring the rising heat in her ears.
“I’m sure she is,” Reyes said and put her hands behind her back. “I think I’ve wasted enough time here.”
Evidently finding as much use for goodbyes as she did hellos, Reyes headed for the door, sending one last volley without even turning around, “Next time, I expect to be able to speak to someone more senior.”
Angzal waited for her to reach the door and open it.
“Congressmember?” Angzal said and Reyes paused, still facing her back towards Angzal. “As would I.”
For another few beats Reyes stood with her hand on the door and then stepped out and closed it behind her.
It had become almost uncomfortably quiet after Reyes left the office, an eerie calmness after the passing storm. Angzal continued to stand for a few moments, as if expecting the door to swing open again and a disembodied wagging finger to fly into the room telling her what’s what, but it looked like the silence was here to stay, so she turned back to the window.
The sky over the bay was a bright blue that tapered off into milky grey towards the horizon, not much different from clear days on her homeworld. If she kept her eyes upwards, she could almost imagine being back on Mrabr, at the family estate, shady purple fronds looming just out of view. Her gaze drifted downward though, and the illusion was broken by the expanse of the bay, and the multitudes of weekday beachgoers spending their time on the sand and in the water.
The blasted Thorian she ran across on the journey here had been right – Humans were jittery and unpredictable. She had never before met a species so full of internal discord; it was no wonder they had nearly blasted themselves out of existence. The question now was, were they capable of doing it again, and would they drag anyone down with them?
The handle of the door to her office clicked, the individual on the other side hesitating, and then fully opened.
“Rzena, you coward, I will drown your litter in your own blood.”
Rzena hardly even looked in her direction as he made his way to his desk. “My litter is older than you are, and there’s three of them. Don’t think there’s enough blood.”
Angzal emphasized each word through clenched teeth. “I will make do.”
Rzena plugged in his personal tablet into his terminal and then peered over his desk-mounted monitor at Angzal.
“I take it your meeting with Congressmember Reyes went well.”
“Well as can be expected.”
“You’re alive, so that’d be accurate.”
“A little advance warning would’ve been appreciated.”
“Really? I’ve always been a firm believer in a practical, hands-on approach to learning.”
“The only practical thing I learned is I’d derive great pleasure from a hands-on approach to your neck.”
Rzena made a low hum at the back of his throat as he busied himself at his terminal, while Angzal permitted herself to sit back down at her desk and release the predatory tension that had gripped her body since before Reyes’s arrival.
“The Mraboran Protectorate is doing everything it can within the limits of the Treaty of Krevali,” Angzal assured Reyes.
“The Thorians took a giant dump on the Treaty, so how are your empty assurances supposed to help the Krevali? Do you know who had just been appointed the transitionary governor of the planet? Vekshineth, the Butcher of Nabak.”
The appointment of Vekshineth to lead the transition of Krevali to Thorian rule was, Angzal admitted to herself, terrible optics for the Protectorate. Over the previous three years after the Insurrection, a conflict in which the Protectorate had a role that was less clandestine than they would have preferred, Vekshineth had been overseeing the repatriation of Nabak, which earned him a reputation across the Known Reaches that rivaled some of the historic Anthar Kai and Thorian governors of conquered or pacified worlds. The particularly troubling aspect of the situation for the Protectorate was that prior to the Insurrection, the Butcher of Nabak built his resume through a series of stints on Thorian worlds that had formerly been Mraboran and continued to have a majority Mraboran population, rooting out any ambition of independence that formed in the decades after the Last Gasp. This seemed like the kind of information Rzena ought to have brought to her attention, so Angzal reminded herself to snap his tail in half later.
All too aware that she skipped a few beats processing the news, Angzal finally responded, “I’ve been told that an impressive delegation from Mrabr, including several high-ranking government officials, are on their way to Kai Thori to discuss this with the Presidium directly.” Angzal was, of course, told no such thing.
“I find it funny that it’s only now that a delegation is being sent. It’s precisely what your predecessor told me in our last conversation, almost two months ago, even though it’s at most a five-week haul from Mrabr to Kai Thori. In any case, even if you’re not straight-up lying to me, how’s ‘talking’ the only thing the mighty Protectorate is able to muster? The time for talk was when the Thorians were amassing their forces in violation of the Treaty of Krevali and everyone who didn’t have their head up their ass or their tail between their legs knew exactly how this was going to play out. And now the Krevali, who’ve barely reached the frontiers of their own stellar system, are absolutely terrified fighting a war against a technologically superior alien invader, without any clue that there’s a greater network of so-called allies out there who’re doing absolutely nothing to help.”
Even for a Human, Reyes was strongly inclined to use her whole body while talking. Arms moved about freely as if on their own accord and fingers stabbed the air emphatically. To a Mraboran, the whole display was distracting, as their own species tended to keep perfectly still, especially during confrontation, which was one of the reasons many of them preferred to keep their tails strapped to their bodies. During the whole conversation, Angzal was motionless, standing between her desk and the window, wondering if the reason Reyes declined a seat was because it made it easier for her to gesticulate.
“Congressmember Reyes –” Angzal tried, but there was no stopping this landslide.
“No, whatever you have to say to me, it’s become quite clear that neither the Mraboran nor the Hatvan have any interest in upsetting the status quo. As long as you feel safe in your cozy Empires, you’re perfectly content to do nothing. Not even help your own people who are languishing under Thorian rule.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, Congressmember, but doesn’t the ORC have its own capable fleet that it could dispatch to the aid of the Krevali? Something that has the support of many of your own people?”
“Yes, there are supporters of this mad endeavour and they have their reasons. The point I’m making is this would not be the first time Humanity or the ORC had sent their ships into a conflict that should’ve been resolved by others closer to the source. Especially those responsible for what was happening because of their own complacency. We’ve been dying in wars on the other side of the Known Reaches for almost half a century, and have been paying a price for it at home. Meanwhile, species like the Mraboran are the ones benefitting from the peace our blood helps create. Enough is enough.”
That low growl again began to bubble in the back of Angzal’s throat and she reminded herself that this was an alien species and that they expected a certain amount of deference; however undeserved it may be. Still, she let herself slip just a little, responding with a bit of a gurgle in her voice. “The only reason a species like Humans was even able to have any meaningful participation in the Last Gasp was our convenient presence between you and the Thorian Empire, as well as our own complete lack of interest in you.”
“More like a complete lack of interest in anything beyond the pocket of Dead Space that lies between you and us.” There was nothing about Reyes’s smile for Angzal to like. “But that’s good to know, that the Protectorate’s greatest contribution so far has been its lack of curiosity and simply being in the way. Oh wait, there’s also the letter sent by the Protectorate to our government that had the audacity to directly request assistance in the mess that was largely their doing. The Senate, unsurprisingly, has already endorsed this lunatic course of action. Congress, on the other hand, so far has enough members without delusions of grandeur and who have no interest in sending others light years away to die in someone else’s war.”
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.