Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
Behind Valyen’s family’s home stood another structure, made from the same white stone as most dwellings in the city of Zhakitrinbur. It served as a waystation for the garage’s out-of-town customers, and even the occasional space-faring ones. When Kviye and her father first moved in, the whole place smelled like a meal prepared years earlier by one of the off-worlders. Whatever aromatic thing had been consumed within those walls, it did not come from Tanfana. Now, six months after they were forced to sell their family home in Vingu, the house in which Kviye’s mother had passed, their new accommodations did not quite feel like home, but between the family meals, working with Valyen in the garage, and Adri, Kviye thought it was almost there.
Her own bedroom was at the very top of the building, so when she’d get up in the morning, the first thing she’d do is look out the window, and catch a glimpse of the bay peeking over the buildings of Zhakitrinbur. Today it had been the rich green of foliage and looked both alluring and foreboding at the same time.
“Are you up already?” Adri asked groggily from the bed.
“You know I am, go back to sleep.” Not needing to be asked twice, he fell back on the pillow and would be out until breakfast time.
Kviye wasn’t sure exactly how it happened. Adri was younger than his sister by a couple of years, which made him and Kviye almost the same age, and they’d known each other since they were kids. It was his attentiveness as she was recovering through the worst of her injuries that made her see him in a different light, and now, though the nights he had spent in her bedroom were not exactly a common occurrence, they were becoming more frequent.
His sickness, the same one that had taken Kviye’s mother, still hung over them like a shroud, progressing slowly though it was, yet there seemed to be an unspoken rule between them to never address it and take whatever it was they had day by day. It had worked for Adri and Valyen’s parents, before their father passed, so perhaps it could for them.
For a moment, she watched him sleep, a messy head of straw-coloured hair that had fallen somewhat over his shut eyes, his light-skinned face not showing any of the grey splotches that served as prelude to his bad days. Instead Adri, tall, not quite frail but slight of build, with his small nose and ever-concerned eyes, even in his sleep, almost made her consider crawling back into bed and skipping her morning routine. He was going to have one of his good days.
Her own days started a few hours before anyone else’s, even Valyen’s, who was compelled to put in some work before breakfast otherwise she was never able to relax during her meal. Ever since she was able to do move her leg, Kviye had devoted her mornings to exercises that aimed to strengthen it with the hope of getting back full use. The doctor said it was definitely within the realm of possibility and she was getting close, save for the pain at the end of the day. She had recently incorporated morning runs into her regiment, and worked her way up to five kilometres daily.
From an irritating necessity that only served to remind her of the fate of the skiff, the runs quickly turned into her favourite part of the day. It hardly ever rained on this side of the continent, so after a few city blocks, she arrived at the shore, running along boardwalks, dirt paths and through dockyards, all overlooking the brilliantly shimmering green ocean of Tanfana. Soaked in the briny breeze coming off the water, she watched the city of Zhakitrinbur wake up before making her way back home, just in time for breakfast.
“Good run?” Valyen asked, coming in from the garage that abutted their house to wash her hands.
“Just some discomfort towards the end. Otherwise can’t complain. Oh, and Kolei told me to let you know he’s got a fresh catch of zholteska fish, in case you were interested.”
Valyen rolled her eyes. “You tell a man one time three years ago that you enjoy the occasional zholteska and you subscribe to a lifetime of updates on the latest zholteska catch, I swear,” Valyen said, finishing up and then following Kviye in for breakfast.
“Morning Kviye,” said Valyen’s mom as Kviye entered the combined kitchen and dining room to help set the table.
“Morning Gos Morozo,” Kviye greeted Valye’s mom with the usual term of respect for elders.
“Kvee, I thought we’ve been over this. She’s Gos Morozo.” Valyen’s mother nodded in the direction of Valyen’s grandmother, a grey-haired woman who was one of those uncommon people on Tanfana who were lucky enough to live to see their grandchildren grown. “Me you can call ‘Ma’.”
“Thank you,” Kviye answered, knowing full well she wouldn’t be able to; to take the step of calling someone else by the name she’d always called her own mother would feel too much like abandonment.
“Morning, Ba,” Valyen said as she gave her sitting grandma a hearty squeeze.
“Morning, Ba.” Kviye followed suit, putting a big smile on the woman’s face. Never having met either of her two grandmas, this felt more acceptable.
“Ah, see Lian, that must mean that I’m the favourite,” Grandma Morozo called to her daughter-in-law.
“I just know that you would beat me with cane of yours if I don’t.”
“Ah, that I might,” Valyen’s grandma noted seriously and then followed with a wheezing laugh.
“Smells great, Uncle Dekan,” Kviye said as she grabbed two plates from the counter next to a gaunt man in a loose-fitting shirt with a beard that seemed equal parts well-groomed and neglected. Valyen’s mother’s younger brother moved in shortly after Valyen’s dad had passed away. His own wife had succumbed to the grey at an early age, so he was eager to abandon the house he would never raise his family in and moved in to help out the household and his favourite niece.
Kviye knew Valyen would probably yell at her if she found out, or else she’d already noticed but said nothing because she knew it made Kviye feel better, but the reason Kviye took it upon herself to bring the food from the counter to the table, was to ensure she either picked up the smallest portion to begin with, or else an extra sausage or piece of bread accidentally made it from her plate onto someone else’s.
Coming Off that Wedding High
I can’t get over how much I love weddings. Wish I knew more people just for the purposes of attending them, so I cherish them any time they come around (thank goodness for my wife’s large family – the happy source of most of the weddings we attend).
This weekend though we had the privilege of being invited to the wedding of a colleague of mine from the university, at a beautiful country club about 50km out of town.
The wedding aside, which I will come back to, the experience was a sensory overload. I’ve talked about before how we took the pandemic pretty seriously, and haven’t gone out much at all over the last sixteen months. This was not only our first real social gathering after COVID hit, but also our first evening out after baby number three was born last September (special shout-out to my sister-in-law and her husband who watched all three of our boys and also their two kids for the whole day). So not only was there an odd sense of liberty there, but it was also being surrounded by more than one hundred people in an indoor space, which I never thought would feel weird, but here we are.
Also, I haven’t seen any of my coworkers really since our office was shut down last March, so it was like a reunion as well. In short, it was a perfect milestone to celebrate the brightening at the end of this pandemic tunnel.
And then there’s the wedding part, which I’m reminded of every time I go that I’m a total sucker for. Even when I’m in a room full of strangers, being enveloped in that atmosphere of hope and celebration is a feeling that never fails to bring me up. And not to mention the happy couple themselves, who may be surrounded by all their friends and loved ones but who really just exist in their own world – their day of making the ultimate promises and telling the world that this is who they will be for the rest of time.
One of my favourite parts is actually the slideshow, so I’m always appreciative when one is prepared, because at first it follows these two kids and teenagers, living their completely separate lives, never suspecting that they’re on this journey to meet the one person that will complete them. And then the pictures of the couple show up and you can see that for both there was this tectonic shift – the division of their life into the “before” and the “after” and oh God there’s someone cutting onions here again.
I also have to admit, because writers are going to write, that these events fill me with so much inspiration sometimes I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t include much romance in my writing, not that I’m opposed to it or anything, and every time I’m at a wedding my mind goes into overdrive and I sit there contemplating whether or not becoming a romance writer will just be more fun instead. The next day sees a more sober mind take control, and I brush away any delusions of grandeur. However, who knows how all those plotlines can weave their way into my other stories. Love is love and it is everywhere and sorry to those who sanitize their books of it just because they don’t think it’s cool.
Now, I know neither the bride or the groom reads this blog, but on the off-chance they encounter it, I want to thank them again for including us in their special day. It was nice to get away, to see people, to immerse ourselves in such a happy occasion. Wishing them all the best on this exciting new leg of their journey together.
And if anyone wants to throw another invite our way? Well, we’d be hard-pressed to say ‘no’.
Just a short aside before hopping into the rest of the post – but this officially marks my 100th blog entry since I launched this site more than three years ago. It has been, and continues to be, an exercise in patience, but all that is to say that I’ve been enjoying myself. Thought I’d mark the occasion with a significant entry, so hopefully you find the following useful.
Sometimes I want to use this blog to provide more advice for other writers. However, impostor syndrome and a relative lack of publication credits makes me wonder who the hell am I to be giving advice to anyone? What about my writing career suggests that I can help anyone else in their own? I realize though that I’m having these doubts despite coming a place of some privilege where, sparse as they may be, I do have publication credits, whereas many writers don’t. So despite feeling like I still don’t know anything, obviously I know more than nothing, and quite clearly I know more now than I used to know before.
Perhaps what I should try to do is reframe my mind and consider the question as follows: what advice would I give to the me from fifteen or twenty years ago? See, now instead of presuming I know more than my fellow writers, I’m just presuming to know more than past me, which is not presumptuous but quite accurate. The fact that there are other writers out there who are currently in the stage of their careers where I was ten years ago is simply a fortuitous coincidence, and if they have something to learn from the lessons I learned myself, then all the better.
Back when I was a teenager and shamefully, also into my early twenties, I was an obnoxious submitter. Exciting to think that the world might be interested in my sub-standard scribbles most of which make me embarrassed to think about, I sent out my stories for publication without any sense of decorum. I wouldn’t be surprised if I landed on some blacklists that I still haven’t been taken off. I wouldn’t hold it against the editors if this was true. So from my very cringey past, I present to you a list of things to keep in mind when submitting their work. This will seem obvious to most readers, but for those just starting out and bursting with excitement, this might be a good way to avoid the mistakes I made.
For some added context, back when I first started sending out my short stories for submission, there was virtually no online submissions (few even accepted submissions through email, let alone a dedicated portal) and not a lot of journals had their own websites. For this reason, I went into the process mostly blind, learning everything I thought I needed to know by skimming The Canadian Writer’s Market, and putting my stories into big manila envelopes after organizing dozens of submissions on the living room floor and hoping no wrong cover letters were sent to the wrong publishers.
Things are far more civilized in the online world, particularly since every publication has a website now, and you basically have no excuse to not know any of the below.
One piece at a time
There are very few, if any, publications who want to consider more than one piece of short fiction from you at one time. Most accept multiple poems, though this number varies, and some might accept several pieces of flash fiction. This info will be available on a publication’s website, so make sure to double check this before submitting.
What you should expect is that nobody wants three identical manila envelopes showing up at their office and where you thought you’d be getting more of your writing out there for consideration, you just risk all of them going into the garbage.
Study the publication
This one I find is easier said than done. I have read many journals where the range of works that they publish escape any pigeonholing by my non-trained eye. Sure, I can pick up when a journal focuses on more experimental fiction, and therefore likely wouldn’t be for me in any case, but otherwise just when I think I understand what kind of story a publication prefers, they take a hard left. The number of times I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a soft sci-fi story in an otherwise literary journal is heartening, though equally confusing when this story is an exception and unless I’ve read the entire back catalogue I wouldn’t have expected it to succeed. That is not say this is an impossible task or a task that can be ignored. You don’t want to be in a position where a publisher immediately picks up from your story’s style, tone or content that you have done zero homework. This is a huge waste of their time, and can be a waste of your time (and money) as well.
This is largely only relevant for those publications that still only do email or physical submissions since online submission managers will be turned off when the window is closed and will sometimes helpfully identify when the journal will be accepting submissions again. That said, not everyone has switched to using submission managers, so you need to make sure the journal that you’re sending your work to is actually prepared to read. Again, if you think you’re being clever by sending it to them when they’re closed and you want to be on the top of the pile, you might want to rethink your plans – the only place your work is heading is into the shredder.
Pretty much the only requirement I fully respected when I was teenager, so apparently I wasn’t entirely a lost cause. This one is pretty easy to find on any publication’s website and pretty easy to follow. Some journals don’t have posted word counts at all, so use your judgement there based on the max length of stories other journals you submit to have. And don’t mess around here either for no reason, thinking your 3005 words aren’t “a big deal” when the limit is 3,000. Don’t be surprised there is a hard screening process at the beginning, and those five superfluous words land your story in the trash before anyone’s even read the first sentence.
A publication’s stance on simultaneous submissions refers to whether the journal is willing to consider a piece that you’ve submitted for consideration elsewhere. This is how publishers and editors choose to protect their time; by deciding whether they’re willing to take a risk investing into reading and considering a piece that might be pulled from under them before they get a chance to accept. It is vitally important for authors to respect this, instead of how the teenage me simply sprayed his submissions everywhere hoping something sticks. Publications’ positions on simultaneous submissions generally fall into the following categories:
Silent on simultaneous submissions – I think it’s safe to assume that simultaneous submissions are accepted.
Accepts simultaneous submissions: This one is pretty simple – fire away to any other journals without restriction, but always always always inform them immediately if the story was accepted elsewhere. No one wants to go through the process of selecting a story and then finding out that it was already spoken for, and the author didn’t bother to inform them as much. For this reason, make sure whatever system you use to track your submissions is robust enough that you know exactly where to fire these off.
Accepts simultaneous submissions but they must be noted as such: Same as above, but your cover letter must identify that the submission has been, or will be, submitted to other publications
Does not accept simultaneous submissions: just don’t, I mean it. You’re not being cute or sneaky, but rather like that child in the experiment who wants to eat the marshmallow now instead of saving it for later. If you want to potentially turn your successes into disasters that make you lose credibility in the industry, go ahead.
These are once again posted on a publication’s website and an easy-peasy Ctrl+F search for “simultaneous” will ensure that you don’t miss it.
Check Their Website
If you still haven’t gotten the gist from the above, here it is again as its own piece of advice – always check the publication’s website. And do so before each submission, because all of these things can change since your last submission. Here you will also find other things a specific publication requires such as the type of information in your cover letter, submission formatting including where your cover letter goes (some ask for it to be included as the first page of your submissions while others have a separate field where you can copy and paste it). Again, do take this seriously, not only because editors are hard working folks and often do it gratis, but also because some of them use this as a way to weed out writers, like my teenage self, who just don’t take the process as seriously as they should.
There are of course, other things to consider – other tips and advice you can use to improve your odds of getting accepted (other than, you know, that minor factor of actually being able to write well), and I encourage you to seek out this information where you can, and from more seasoned writers than me. This was meant to be a very basic guide, and one I wish I had handy when I first set out on this journey almost twenty years ago. Good luck with everything!
There was an emergency kit in the cockpit. It was one of the first things Kviye’s mother had shown her when Kviye had first boarded the ship, tapping on its metal cover and going, “If you’re ever in trouble, everything you need is in here.” Kviye remembered exactly where it was, but couldn’t recall what had actually been in it, as she’d never had to use it before, and right then she hoped it didn’t solely contain a picture of her parents as some sort of cheesy metaphor. The real problem was that even though it was located only a couple of metres to her left, the distance seemed insurmountable from where she was sitting. It was either force herself to move her leg or wait and hope for the best, and Kviye never considered herself as a particularly patient person.
Attempting to shift herself out of the seat, Kviye found that her other leg could still support her weight. Even so, the smallest tug trying to get her right leg free sent a stabbing reminder that something was very wrong with it. Without wasting any time mentally preparing for the maneuver, Kviye heaved herself out of the chair hoping that it would dislodge her. Her leg had been freed, but nearly so had her consciousness.
Propped up on her arms on the floor, she threw up, and ignoring the new searing sensation in her chest, Kviye crawled forward, dragging her right leg behind her. Although she had known the ship inside and out since she was a child, in her state and with nothing to guide her but touch, she wondered if she would somehow veer dangerously off course in this simple task, and spend her last hours in the engine room instead. As it turned out, reaching the wall was the easy part, and now she had to leverage her body and one good leg to push herself up to the hatch where she kept the emergency kit.
Finally, her fingers found the metal ring of the latch and after a few pulls, the slightly warped panel came open and she slid back down to the floor with the kit, propping herself with her back against the wall and her legs thrown out in the front her. Inside the kit, she felt a hand-cranked flashlight – a useful tool in theory but with her cracked ribs, an agonizingly complicated contraption.
Through gritted teeth she wound the flashlight enough to survey the ship and confirm what her own imagination vividly suspected. The beam of light revealed gutted wires and protruding sinister shards of paneling. The passageway that led to the engine room was blocked by a mangle of metal and Kviye wasn’t even sure if there was any ship left on the other side. Above her, a gash in the cockpit a couple of feet across exposed the silver needles of rain illuminated by the flashlight.
Inside the kit, she found the basics: bandages, painkillers – something she briefly considered but decided she preferred having her mind cloudy with pain instead of drugs – and other basic survival materials including a red flare. She considered the hole in the ceiling and the distance to where she sat and concluded that on a good day it was an easy shot. Only having one crack at it, with perhaps her entire life hanging in the balance, made for less than ideal conditions, but with Valyen’s calls barely reaching Kviye through the wind, the time for second-guessing was quickly running out.
Kviye positioned the flashlight in her lap, pointing up at the roof of her skiff and the narrow window that was her target and held onto the flare with both hands. They were shaking. Beyond her hands, her right leg was bent at a nauseating angle. She finessed her aim trying to keep her breathing slow and steady without forgetting to breathe altogether, a task she failed several times and had to take a deep breath and reorient herself. Finally, she dropped into a steady rhythm, let out the slightest exhale, and released the flare, which, after bouncing off the edge of the hole, hurtled upwards, and went off somewhere outside the ship.
As she lay back against the wall of her skiff, of her mother’s skiff, of the skiff of a hundred generations before her, going back to a people she now knew were intrepid voyagers, she wondered if the calls for her name were getting louder because someone was nearing the ship, or because she was nearing those who had come before her.
The next time Kviye opened her eyes she was floating towards a bright light. The light was pouring out of an open doorway and Kviye thought that there was some poetic beauty in her version of the afterlife being Valyen’s family home. Of course, it had been Valyen’s home in Zhakitrinbur, on the east side of the single continent of the moon of Tanfana, circling a grey gas giant, and the floating sensation she was experiencing was her being carried along, one arm slung over Valyen’s shoulder and the other over the shoulder of Valyen’s uncle. Someone was standing in the doorway, black against the light, and as Kviye drew nearer the dark figure let out a yelp that was a mixture of horror and relief.
As she was rushed into the house, Kviye recognized the person in the door as Valyen’s mother. Kviye tried to tell her that she was okay, but instead produced a sound that seemed to upset the woman even more, a hand coming over her friend’s mother’s mouth.
Valyen’s younger brother Adri had poked his head out of his bedroom door, groggy with sleep and then startled wide awake by the sight of their approach.
“Don’t just stand there catching flies. Go call a doctor,” Valyen ordered him.
Adri said something Kviye didn’t catch and Valyen snapped in response, “I don’t know, I’m not a doctor, that’s why I told you to get one.”
Now they were lowering her onto a bed, her body screaming in relief at the horizontal position and the slight sinking sensation of the mattress. If only she had also been dry. Then, remembering the blood on her leg and not wanting to ruin Valyen’s bedsheets, Kviye tried to rise. A firm shove to her shoulder forced her down, and the admonishment of “Don’t be ridiculous” sent her back into unconsciousness.
Hushed worried tones reached Kviye through a dark veil. They were talking about her, like she wasn’t there, and for all they knew she wasn’t. It was just that her eyes were so heavy, she thought it would be easier lifting the skiff and throwing it back up to the stars than opening them, so instead she listened. Only when Valyen put her face close to hers and shook her did Kviye manage to pry her own eyelids apart.
“Hey,” Valyen said. Her face was smeared with dirt, hair matted down to her face and somewhere during the rescue she got cuts on her forehead and cheek.
“You look terrible,” Kviye wheezed.
“Ha!” Despite the outburst, Kviye could see fresh tears form in Valyen’s eyes. “Good thing we didn’t drag you in front of any mirrors.”
“Me? I’ll be okay.”
“Damn right you are.” Valyen blinked away whatever was in her eye. “The doctor will be back in a couple of hours to set your leg. Other than that, and a couple of cracked ribs, somehow, you’re in one piece.”
Kviye rolled her head back on her pillow to stare up at the ceiling, from which the memory of her mother’s photograph gazed down at her. Somehow indeed, she thought.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Valyen pacing. Her friend had been right and wrong about how Kviye’s voyage would go. Kviye’s breaking the atmosphere with relative ease revealed that the skiffs were meant to head into open space – it was probably where they’d come from in the first place Valyen though was right that in Kviye’s excitement, in her allowing her dreams to block out everything else, Kviye had underestimated what it would take to get there. Valyen knew something like this would happen. Kviye saw it in her face as the skiff took off from outside her garage earlier that day; that her friend had been preparing for this and worse. And now that it came for her, that she lay broken but alive in Valyen’s bed, there didn’t seem to be even an inkling of desire to tell her “I told you so.” Even if Kviye’s own mind now repeated it as a mantra, she knew she’d never have to hear it from Valyen. Even when they’d be old and grey and watching the sun set over the sea, Valyen would never even joke about how that time many years ago Kviye should have listened. And if she did, Kviye would still have agreed; that yes, she should have, and that she should have probably been better at learning from her mistakes. Yet there she now was, feeling with a sense of relief the little black sphere in her pocket, the one that had let her see the stars, and already calculating the ways in which she would be able to return.
“I saw, them, Val. I –”
Either not hearing or pretending not to, Valyen walked up to the bed and interrupted.
“We’ve radioed your father. He said he will get out of Vingu as soon as he can.”
“And the ship?”
“The ship?” Valyen repeated startled, looking away for a moment and then turning back to Kviye. “There’s only spare parts and scrap metal left, Kvee. There’s no ‘ship’ anymore.”
Rain was driven in sheets against the windows of their home on the outskirts of Vingu. It was always dark here; a quirk not only of the ceaseless circling motion of the moon they called home around the grey gas giant that held them tightly in their grasp, but also of course the rain, which lent its name to the rainy season, which might as well have been a single continuous season, a constant mirage of dullness. Kviye wandered through her home in a fog. It wasn’t very large, two bedrooms, an office from which her parents ran their courier and transport business, and a kitchen, but it felt that she had been walking around it for hours, if not days.
Finally, she found what she was looking for – her mother was sitting at the kitchen table, her arms folded in front of her and her eyes cast down. What Kviye had actually been looking for was the kitchen itself, but finding her mother there, Kviye forgot what it was she thought she needed in the kitchen in the first place. Kviye was vaguely aware that her mother was supposed to have been dead, taken many years earlier by a disease called the “grey”, one that afflicted her people for centuries and was slowly erasing Humans from her moon and possibly the universe.
Her mother was right here in the kitchen though, which meant it had all been a big mistake. She must have gotten lost on one of her delivery runs, and all this time she was making her way home, across undulating stormy marshes, and grass forests taller than any Human. She looked so very tired, so Kviye’s theory made sense. Her mother must have sensed Kviye’s lingering presence at the entrance to the kitchen because she looked up, her eyes sad and distant. “Kvee?” she asked, except it was not her mother’s voice, familiar, but someone else’s, and sounding oh so far away.
“Ma?” Kviye wanted to come closer, but she couldn’t move; chained to the spot with invisible threads.
“Kvee.” Again, her mother’s voice was paper thin, delivered to her across eons from another world. Kviye needed to cross that distance – the immeasurable expanse that had grown between them.
“Ma. I’ve seen them. I’ve seen the stars.” Kviye wasn’t sure if her mother could hear her. She was right there in front of her, yet how could she make her words reach across the same expanse from which her mother called her. “They’re even more beautiful when you’re up there.”
“It was our little ship that took me there. It’s where we came from Ma, I know it. And it’s where we belong.”
Her mother raised her hand, and reached out slightly, as if putting it against Kviye’s cheek from across the kitchen, and had she been able to, she would have known that it was wet with tears.
“Kvee? Where are you?”
“I’m here Ma. I’ll always be here, no matter where I am.”
“Kvee.” It was the last thing her mother said, with a sense of relief this time, and before she, and the kitchen and the whole house disappeared, Kviye’s mother smiled.
Kviye woke up in the belly of darkness. Rain was lashing what she realized was the hull of the skiff, and with the cockpit having been sheered open, many of the drops were making it onto Kviye. From somewhere within the tempest, that familiar voice called out to her. Kviye tried to take a deep breath in response, but the sharp pain shooting through her chest told her that the seatbelt restraints had worked as designed, and took some of her ribs with them.
She groped for the buckle in pitch blackness – the ship didn’t even have the decency to catch fire in order to give her a light to see or be found by, or else whatever wimpy effort it mustered had already been snuffed out by the rain. Freeing herself from the harness had exhausted Kviye and her back and forehead were wet as much from sweat as from the raindrops that invaded what was left of the skiff. She thought that maybe it would be best to return to the sleep from which she was so rudely roused, but realized at the last moment that it was a terrible idea and tried to lift herself up from her pilot’s chair.
She cried out at the pain that had gripped her right leg with a voice she had a hard time recognizing as her own. At least there’s still legs down there, she thought, taking deep breaths to keep herself from slipping under, glad for the first time to not be able to see her situation in its entirety.
“Kvee!” The voice broke through the rain and wind – Val’s voice, moving further away in the wrong direction. Kviye tried to recall the last few minutes of her crash to figure out where she had finally brought down the skiff. She had been aiming for the marshes in the river delta north of Zhakitrinbur. Before that, she was kissing the stars; the beautiful stars. She was going to return to them someday. Her eyelids grew heavy and those perfectly stoic stars drifted in from the darkness to dance in front of her eyes. All she needed to do was reach out to them but no, it was too early to return, and certainly not like this.
How could Val possibly navigate the rivulets in this light? Kviye wondered if the marshes here were deep enough to swallow the skiff whole and if the dampness she felt at her feet was blood, rain, or the landscape trying to reclaim her. It didn’t matter though, this was Val, she wouldn’t make any mistakes. She’d be looking in the exact right direction. Kviye just had to make sure she nudged her the rest of the way.
Hours later, Hilosh stood at the mouth of a recently unsealed tunnel while the elevator platform shrieked metallically as it hauled the bore machine and its load up to the surface. They said that it may have been in this very tunnel that the cursed black pearl had been found, or perhaps one of the adjacent ones. Either way, it seemed like today was not the day they would find anther one, but soon perhaps. As he watched the cargo shuttle take off in the direction of the orbital transfer facility, Hilosh permitted himself, for the first time since arriving at the mine, to believe that there was hope buried somewhere within these rocks.
“Hilosh?” His mask radio crackled to life with the sound of Viri’s voice.
“I hear you.”
“You, uh, better come up to comms.” What fresh hell could the meteorologist have cooked up to torment him with now?
“Are you serious, Viri? I’ve got an extraction operation I need to supervise.”
“Yarmar is already on her way.” Naturally, one of them had to have been contacted first; he just wished it would be him for once.
“Alright, I’ll be right up.”
He was hoping to at least catch up with Yarmar before reaching Viri, but she likely had a head start and he could only move so fast without attracting the attention a supervisor hastily leaving a worksite would garner. By the time he had taken off his gear, the whole time thinking ahead to when had to put it back on again and cursing Viri for his shortsightedness, and walked up several flights of stairs from the airlock to the comms room, he found Yarmar and Viri already huddled over a sector map display.
“What happened?” Hilosh asked.
“The Raire missed their check-in ping today,” Yarmar announced, turning away from the screen.
“That doesn’t seem too bad.” It was customary for supply ships to check in with their destinations on a daily basis to confirm schedules, though this was an Anthar Kai vessel and Thorians were no strangers to following rules and customs only when it suited them. “Is that them?” Hilosh gestured with his hand toward a slightly brighter blurry blip on the map.
“As far as I can tell, still moving and on schedule,” Viri confirmed.
“So what’s the problem?”
“Well I didn’t think there was one,” Viri replied. “At first. And then I got curious and reached out to them, twice.”
“Not exactly.” Something about the shimmer in Viri’s eyes put a cold hard chill through the mass of flesh at the back of Hilosh’s head. “I think you guys need to hear this.”
At first, Hilosh appreciated the courtesy that the two of them at least waited for him to join up before diving into this next part, but when the message they received from the Raire actually played, Hilosh wished that they had instead neglected to include him, purged it from the system and let him blissfully go on about his day.
The recording opened with growling noises – five distinct voices, not quite animal, that prowled in the background. Then there was a clash of metal followed by yips and a whimper that rose above the other growls until a new voice spoke directly into the microphone. “Akir.” It sounded like it was on the verge of breaking, pulled up from such a deep bout of despair that it threatened to drag Hilosh down into it. “Akir?” It said again and Hilosh thought it sounded more like a question this time. “Akir? Akir. Akir!” The voice grew in urgency until cutting out and dropping the room into silence. Hilosh thought he could hear not only his own heartbeat but that of Viri and Yarmar as well.
Hilosh glanced at Yarmar and found her wide unreadable eyes affixed to the comms terminal.
“What was that?” Viri asked, searching the faces of his supervisors for answers.
“What is ‘akir’?” Hilosh asked and was surprised to find his voice come out as a hoarse whisper.
“Not ‘akir’,” Yarmar answered, “‘Akhir’. It’s Thorian.”
“Thorian?” Hilosh asked.
“Not Trade Thorian. Native Thorian. Means roughly ‘why am I?’”
“You know Native Thorian?” Suddenly the transmission they received had competition for being the oddest thing Hilosh heard that day.
“Enough to get by,” Yarmar answered without looking at him, then leaned in to replay the message from the moment the voice rose to be heard above the inexplicable growling in the background.
“Akhir? Akhir. Akhir!” The Thorian reached his agonizing crescendo to be rewound again and again by Yarmar. Hilosh heard Viri make a few laboured swallows and when Hilosh looked down he saw that Viri’s fingers had dug into the desk so hard he expected at any moment to hear Viri’s knuckles snap.
Yarmar played the recording back too far.
“What are those noises anyway? Some kind of animal?” Viri asked.
Animal, yes, in the strictest sense of the word, Hilosh suspected. “Let’s just turn it off,” he asked and Yarmar obliged. Her gaze softened and she took a full step back from the infernal comms terminal.
“Keep trying to contact them,” Yarmar instructed. “Every two hours. And if you get anything back, call us up before you even listen to it.”
Viri sagged noticeably and let out a small feeble breath. “Thank you.” He continued to sit, while his co-supervisors stood; all in silence.
Yet the Thorian’s final question and proclamation seemed to seep into the walls of the communications room and continued to play faintly into Hilosh’s eardrums.
“So what do we do now?” Viri broke the quiet, perhaps to escape the same ghostly echo.
Hilosh looked at Yarmar. “We work,” he said and she nodded in reply. “The ship is still on its way, and we have ore to move. When it gets here, that’s a problem we can deal with at the time.”
“I’m not going to lie to you.” Hilosh addressed his crew with no prior preamble, but had the whole room turn in his direction by the end of the sentence. “The next time we all see each other, we’re probably going to wish we were dead, but, you know, we won’t be, which is the important part.” Too many young faces here to laugh. “The Raire is about a day and a half out and I believe if we work at full burn from now until then, we should have a decent shipment ready. So we’re going to have all boots on the ground for this one, including Yarmar and myself. Oh, and except Viri. We need someone to keep an eye on things here and I don’t want him accidentally falling into a gorge when no one’s looking.”
This elicited a few chuckles from across the room and a nervous groan from the part-time meteorologist.
“So get your fill, suit up, and I’ll see you all out there in a bit.”
This could have gone worse, he thought. Oh well, the real test would be to see if by the time the Raire arrived, whether it would not be him that they would be tossing into the depths below.
For the first time in weeks, Hilosh suited up into his outdoor gear, which was limited to heavy duty boots, gloves, a thin insulating outer layer, and a respirator that required a change of filters every few hours rather than a dedicated air supply. Light gear made for lighter work, and Hilosh admitted that all things considered, a Dead Space world could have been far more grueling than this. Thankfully, he hadn’t needed to head out of the barracks too frequently, an advantage of his position and what some would consider his advanced age, which was a good thing, because Aler would not have approved of those rickety guardrails. Hilosh’s wife warned him that if he wasn’t coming back in one piece, he shouldn’t bother coming back at all.
When the doors of the airlock hissed open, Hilosh was hit with a cold he could immediately feel even through his insulating outer layer. The forceful wind made him glad even for the shabby guardrails. The ground under his feet vibrated with the workings of the bore machines that were emerging from their hiding holes. He switched his respirator’s comm channel to the one that received everyone’s chatter simultaneously at low volume, the kind of din that could drive someone mad but that he found oddly comforting. It allowed him to pretend that they were working in the open air with everyone freely hearing each other, to keep an eye on the general mood of the site, and to immediately be alerted to any emergencies. When he first told Yarmar about it, she laughed and said that only the chronically bored mind of an old man would be able to withstand such noise, but ended up adopting it anyway shortly afterward.
It was a short walk to the bridge slung across the width of the gorge, and his boots left fresh footprints in the fine white powder that covered the brown, almost raw-meat-coloured stone. It wasn’t snow, and looked very much like salt, but no one here had been brave enough to confirm if it was. Hilosh had worked at sites where there’d be plenty of volunteers. The staff turnover at those was incredibly inconvenient for a co-supervisor, with much unnecessary paperwork. Though even here, where a general undercurrent of common sense prevailed, accidents were not unheard of, and the only medical help around for lightyears was someone who cut their teeth on a ranch and likely fell into this side business when asked if there was anyone in the room who knew how to do their best to reattach a leg and didn’t botch it up too badly after volunteering.
His first task that day was to oversee the removal of their lowest rig, making sure none of the less experienced workers were crushed between the slowly moving machine and the walls of the bored tunnel. Glorified babysitting though it was – they only seemed to ever be crushed when no one was looking.
Hilosh walked lower down into the canyon along the metal steps that doubled back on each other in a zig-zag pattern and could swear they were creaking harder after the storm. Perhaps a detail he ought to omit from his next letter to Aler. Truth was, the stairs had been there for decades before him, possibly through worse weather, and they would be there for decades after he was gone.
Above him, and seeming that much further away when squeezed between the two edges of the cliff, was a murky sky that never revealed its true colours or shown them any glimpses of the sun. To his Vaparozh eyes, evolved on one of the brightest habitable worlds in the Known Reaches, it was an altogether murky affair. From what he knew, it was much like the sky had been over the Vaparozh homeworld – a planet that had been dying until a centuries-long exodus freed it from ninety percent of its inhabitants and allowed it to thrive again. Many Vaparozh, including Hilosh’s own ancestors settled on worlds on the fringes of Thorian space not fully claimed by the Empire and loosely managed by the Anthar Kai, only to find themselves seven hundred years later satisfying the last greedy gulp of the Empire during the War of the Last Gasp. And then hardly a generation would pass until the children – no, Hilosh stopped himself. The only children that mattered now, his only real responsibility, were the young workers he was coming to assist; the rest, anyone outside of this cold rock, were not relevant.
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.