Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
As I spend a Sisyphean eternity editing my first novel, I’m busily working on my second one. It went over the threshold from “idea I’m toying with” to full on project sometime in 2018, but overall it’s been slow going since.
As a result of my weird pandemic productivity boost that I experienced in the months before our third baby was born, it more than doubled in word count and is now at a respectable 40,000, though I recognize that a sizeable chunk of it is first draft bloat. I’ve been enjoying this particular project immensely, and a little while ago I talked about how I was using Google Street View to explore the city of my childhood.
Despite the level of enjoyment and how well it’s been progressing, I have run into some growing pains, which I think is an important subject for writers to be able to talk about freely. Sometimes there’s this tendency to subscribe to one of two extremes – either you’re a writer to the core and enjoy every aspect of it because it is the essence of your being, or you’re a tortured artist’s soul who is but a vessel for your writing, which rips you to shreds as it crawls out of you. Cute, but not the way things work.
I think there’s nothing wrong in recognizing the stumbles we all experience. Writer’s block isn’t a sign of weakness or a disease to be cured – it’s a natural part of the process. It also comes in all kinds of variations from writer to writer and within writers themselves. Not every case of writer’s block is a 100% stupor where no amount of internal turmoil will bring even a single word onto a page. Nice for relatable writer comics, but hardly ever happens.
What I’m going through right now with Maple Vodka (placeholder title, so bear with me) is something I like to describe as a “working” writer’s block. Kind of like “working notice” – where you’re fired from a job but stay on for the duration of your notice period. So in my case, it feels like writer’s block, but it’s not stopping me from actually continuing to write, or rather, I’m not letting it. The symptoms I’m currently experiencing are the following:
The current chapter is overwrought: I feel like the section I’m writing is entirely too long for the pacing of the novel and how much it actually brings to the plot. It started with the protagonist going to work and then moves into him remembering the long journey that led him to this dead-end job. Sure, it’s important to establish that his career stalled, but is this the best way of doing it? I’m not sure. I’ve certainly found the character exploration fascinating, but will it fall flat with readers?
There’s not enough here for a novel: this fear is closely related to the first one – because this particular fiction feels like it’s padding word count, I’m wondering if there’s even enough idea here to stretch into a novel length, or is it all just filler? Sure, it looked good as a synopsis, and then as a full-blown outline, but sometimes when I put meat onto the skeleton I quickly run out of material and end up with a half-dead being of abject horror. Is this the fate of this particular work, or are my perceptions suffering from recency bias, and I just need to get through this stretch to greener pastures?
It’s poorly written: hardly any of us do their best work when we’re forcing ourselves. So the last dozen or so pages haven’t felt like the kind of writing that I should be doing. Maybe that means the whole work is utter garbage and I shouldn’t subject anyone to the final product. Equally likely is that I’m too close to this particular piece of writing, and need some perspective in order to properly assess its merits.
As I’ve summarized them, these might seem like fairly sizable problems. On a bad day, it’s enough to discourage someone from continuing their work, throwing it in the discard pile, and moving onto the next project hoping this will be the perfect fit. As much as I do think sometimes you do just need to cut ties with something you’re working on, a technique practiced even by the most seasoned authors, I think it’s too early to do a post mortem. Like I said, difficulties are a natural part of the process, and it’s an intricate balancing act to learn when those difficulties are truly insurmountable.
In this case, I don’t think the threshold was crossed. Why? I’m not sure. There’s no bright line test here so at the end of the day, I have to trust my gut and believe that the solution to all three of the stated misgivings is: keep writing.
As one of Vice Commissary, Seshathirlin’s key roles was to act as the primary contact with the Presidium, the decision to subject themselves to him as Vice Commissary had always puzzled and troubled Kalirit.
They found Seshathirlin implanted firmly in his office with the door closed. The Vice Commissary’s office was even more impressive than that of the High Commissary, with a shard of glass floor next to one of the windows to mimic the effect of standing at the top of the Cliff District in Vain Sarshi, the capital city of the homeworld. When they came in, Seshathirlin had been looking down that chasm and feigned surprise at the presence of his visitors. He formed an imposing shape against the tinted window that shielded them from the Varakan sun, a figure that backed up his blustery temper. Jowly for a Thorian, most of his facial features, from his cranial bumps to his lips, stuck out accusingly at anyone who haplessly wondered into his line of sight.
Eitherorik helped himself to one of the chairs across from Seshathirlin’s desk while Kalirit chose to stand leaning against a support pillar with her hands behind her back. While the Vice Commissary looked like he will be accidentally set off like a neglected bomb from a bygone era and Eitherorik was eager to launch any second like a freshly-minted missile, Kalirit’s presence created a pocket of resoluteness, eyes constantly reading.
“Vice Commissary, you must be a busy man, I’ve hardly seen you these past few weeks,” Kalirit started.
“Sometimes I think it’s my own fault that the Company can’t afford my retirement, but I’m sure you both have been busy as well.”
“Has there been any word from the Presidium on the news from this morning?” Eitherorik cut-in.
“If the Presidium had word, I would have known about. And I’ve heard nothing.” Seshathirlin took his place at his desk and gave Eitherorik a long look.
“Am I right to assume that a dispatch will be sent to them immediately?” Eitherorik asked.
“Diplomacy, especially Company diplomacy, is very unlike your area of expertise, Eitherorik. I can’t just scramble the nearest gunship to hover menacingly above a work camp. This takes finesse, and finesse takes experience, as I’m sure you’ll one day learn.”
“And I’m sure your experience is unparalleled, but can we afford to hang back? The Presidium has been treating the Anthar Kai not as the lifeblood of the Empire but as a nuisance, and perhaps it’s time we started voicing our concerns more strongly.”
“And do you think their opinion will change if we bombard them with communications like an impatient child? There’s also the shareholders to consider. A lot of powerful people, money older than you and I could even comprehend, are going to be as displeased as we are, and they will start banging on the door of the Presidium and the Senate. They can break down the doors so we don’t have to get our hands dirty. High Commissary, what do you think?”
Kalirit put on her imitation of a warm smile. “I will defer to your extensive expertise on the matter, Vice Commissary.” Back then she thought that the Presidium would toy with them only for a few days, that Seshathirlin’s outrage would displace his dithering and he would send them hours of footage of him banging his fist on the table in lieu of punctuation, but instead she ended up personally preparing a dispatch, feeling not as a child who was impatient, but one that was being scolded.
“I can’t believe the Company’s highest authorities are just willing to sit back and do nothing.” Eitherorik shook his head.
“I am not sitting,” Kalirit observed.
“And I am not doing nothing,” Seshathirlin added. “Perhaps, Eitherorik, it would be best if you gathered yourself and headed to Vesh Takar and waited for the inevitable call to pacify the local Krevali populace and to keep the posturing Mraborans and Hatvan on a short leash. High Commissary?”
“I agree. You would likely be of more use on Vesh Takar for the time being.”
Eitherorik, with his eyes still on Kalirit, spoke to Seshathirlin. “I wish I could share your optimism, Vice Commissary, but I’m sure you’ve noticed the Presidium has hardly relied on us since the Last Gasp. Mind you, a major reason why we lost that war in the first place. Had the Thorian military engaged the Anthar Kai like they have in wars of conquest for thousands of years, we would have easily overwhelmed the Vaparozh and the Iastret and would have laid waste to the meddling Human fleet. But no, somebody decided to shrug off tradition and try something new, and if it was the novel experience of defeat they were after, then I guess they succeeded at that.”
Seshathirlin waved at him and his cheeks wobbled. “Don’t you go quoting me the Last Gasp, Eitherorik. That war happened practically in my backyard and let me tell you that we threw it deliberately.” Eitherorik sent a pleading glance in the direction of Kalirit but her expression was implacable. “The whole affair was orchestrated to coax the others into letting their guard down. Let them think they stand any kind of chance against the Empire and when the time is right, overwhelm the Vaparozh and then those arrogant Iastret and the others would soon fall.”
Eitherorik let out a long sigh. Only the older generation could cling to the myth that everything they did had some hidden wisdom to it. “There is no grand plan, there is only almost five decades of unforced errors by the most stagnant Presidium in generations. Some fresh blood might do well to put the Empire back on track.”
“And we will watch your political career with great interest,” Kalirit said and got an under-the-breath chuckle out of Seshathirlin.
Eitherorik stood up then, and without further ceremony said, “I know when to take good counsel. If you need me before my departure for Vesh Takar, you know how to contact me. Good day to you both.” And with that he walked out of the office, his jacket’s coattails billowing in the wake of his determined stride. Kalirit let herself wonder whether that determination arose out of a need to vacate Varakan or return to Vesh Takar.
“He’s young, that one. He’ll figure things out in time,” Seshathirlin said.
“He’s not so much younger than me.”
“You know what I mean. He doesn’t know a world before the Last Gasp, so he’s angry. It’s no wonder it was their generation that popularized that term.”
“And you disagree?”
“We’ve all got a lot of breathing left in us.”
That conversation had been the last time she had seen Seshathirlin in weeks, which for Kalirit was unfortunate, because in turbulent times like these he would have been a helpful window into the collective mood of the Empire, which ordinarily shifted in gentle ebbs and flows, and scarcely affected Kalirit. Any subtle shifts could be deduced by observing her colleagues, their posture, their tilt of the head, the way they carried themselves into the office and out. But times of great upheaval made for dangerous waters.
A couple of months ago I posted here about waiting for our new baby to arrive any day now, and then about a week later I disappeared off the face of the Earth, with only regular The Bloodlet Sun updates being posted through Weebly’s handy queuing system. I suppose everyone could have guessed what happened, but long story short, at 6 am on a Tuesday, my wife’s water broke, and a couple of hours past midnight on Wednesday, we welcomed into the world our new baby boy.
For those of you keeping count, that’s now three boys in our family. The temptation might be to think that we had this one because we were going for a girl, but there’s no truth to that. Sure, it would have been nice to add a splash of variety, but we know boys, we’re good (knock on wood) with boys, and so we’re happy with boys. I guess the only one who experienced any kind of disappointment is our eldest, who already had a little brother and was really hoping for a little sister. The rhetoric for the first couple of weeks was “I wish he was a girl but I still love him” and even now that’s gone out the window.
The bottom line is, both kids absolutely adore their new baby brother. Gabriel, who is now the middle child and who, I swear, was born a middle child, is thrilled any time he has to throw out a used diaper, and both brothers rush at the opportunity to keep the little one company whenever their mom or I need a few moments in the kitchen.
With the difficulty of the pandemic pregnancy, it’s nice to be on the other side and happy. This wasn’t a year that anybody had planned so having this sunshine in our life is a welcome relief.
For my own part, I’m doing what I can to support my wife and our family. I was fortunate enough to be able to get four weeks off work as vacation time to help with the transition, and had some generous coworkers fill in for my files during that time. I know lots of men aren’t given the same opportunities, something I decry whenever I can, but if you are at least presented with an option that makes sense financially, do take it. Not only does that set a good example for other dads and puts the pressure on governments and employers to extend better leave benefits to fathers, you will benefit immensely from it by being able to provide support to your spouse and to spend so much quality bonding time with your newborn.
Another undeniable silver lining of the pandemic is that with remote work, I’m able to be there more and to continue to spend my time with those that are most important to me. I hope that’s one lesson that the world can learn from this unfortunate situation is that the majority of people would sooner be spending time with, or at least being closer to, their family then ploughing away at an office.
I’ve been back at work for almost a month now, and judging by the tardiness of my blog entry on our baby you can tell I’m not quite fully into the swing of things. Sleep is currently a fickle concept but some nights are better than others. In any case, even when I’m up with him it allows me to keep current on the Mandalorian and allows me to catch up with all sorts of shows I’ve been behind on. While I do look forward to getting some rest, I will enjoy my current ability to be reckless with my sleeping habits.
As for the rest of the writing outside my blog, the creative juices are sluggish but not entirely dormant, so I am producing a little bit here and there but nowhere near what I was immediately before the baby came. Good thing I’m currently sitting on a The Bloodlet Sun buffer that stretches into March. That said, no complaints from me – they’re this little only for so long, and I have the rest of my life to write.
It had been the Anthar Kai’s historic duty and the very reason for its existence. When the nascent Thorian colonies started producing anything of worth, a centralized system needed to ensure that both colonists and the homeworld had benefitted from the relationship, and so the Presidium, with the assistance of wealthy investors on the homeworld, established the Anthar Kai, to ensure that both the needs and the wants of the growing Empire were met. For thousands of years as new worlds were added to the Empire, the Anthar Kai was there to pacify and integrate the native populations, to set up supply lines, and graft the new living space like an additional body part with its own unique function onto a vast living organism. Yet as a culmination of an unspoken rift that had begun during the Last Gasp, when Anthar Kai military support was rejected, the newest species to be integrated into the Thorian Empire would not have the benefit of the millennia of experience accumulated within the corporation. And the senior leadership of the Anthar Kai would only learn of the insulting decision through news dispatches with no advance warning from the Presidium.
The day the news had reached them, Eitherorik arrived at Kalirit’s office unannounced and blew by Gaingat, who refused to give Eitherorik the satisfaction of groveling and telling him that the High Commissary was ever so busy. Instead, he allowed the door to the office to slide open and for Eitherorik to make a few confident strides before he shook a data pad in front of him and asked, “Have you heard about this?”
Eitherorik’s frame seemed to be custom-made for barging in. He was tall, even for a Thorian, with wide shoulders that tapered into a slim build. He kept his hair short, which only accentuated a thin but prominent nose that seemed to form a kind of keel that could penetrate into any room. Wherever he may have picked up the habit of invading places with his presence, Kalirit took it upon herself to break it. She took her time to finish writing the sentence that she was in the middle of and slowly looked up at Eitherorik. “And have you heard about waiting to be let in?”
He assumed, and then hoped, that it was a joke, but Kalirit continued to stare up from her work in silence. “High Commissary, this is important.”
Kalirit did not budge. Eitherorik waited another few moments and then crossed the rest of her office to put the data pad on the desk under her nose. Her eyes didn’t move while he declared, “The Presidium are laughing at us.”
A thousand responses bubbled up in Kalirit’s throat but she forced them down like bile, instead gesturing with her eyes towards the door. Eitherorik lingered in the most menacing way someone could linger in the presence of someone who was separated from them by the desk of the highest office of the corporation. Finally, but without ever letting his indignant expression falter, he headed in the direction of the door. Just as he was about to cross the threshold, Kalirit cleared her throat, and reminded him that he had forgotten something. The walk back to her desk to retrieve the data pad and then again to the door couldn’t have been over soon enough for Eitherorik and lasted not long enough for Kalirit. With the door now shut firmly behind him, Eitherorik asked to be let in. Kalirit took a breath, and started writing another sentence which again she took her time finishing after she had permitted him to return.
Before Eitherorik could open his mouth, she said, “I’m assuming this is about the administration of Krevali.”
“I don’t understand how you’re not more outraged.” Eitherorik slipped the data pad back into his pocket.
“Right, and in order to express that outrage, whose office should I be barging into all huffed up like a varishim lizard in mating season?”
Eitherorik chewed on whatever was left of his pride and responded, “Seshathirlin’s?”
“Has anything arrived from the Presidium?” It felt like groveling, even if it was only to Gaingat, and Kalirit let her annoyance seep into her voice.
“No High Commissary, I’m afraid they’ve been completely silent.”
In measured steps she walked to the back of her office and sat down at her desk, her fingers flicking away at the computer displays sprawled before her. The half-melted archways so common in Thorian architecture loomed above her, their shape and dark colour reminiscent of the cliff-side cities on Kai Thori.
“I’ve also prepared a dispatch to the Presidium,” she said without looking up. “Have that sent right away on the most rapid stream you can find.”
“Immediately, High Commissary.” Gaingat made the slightest of moves to head out of the office when Kalirit continued.
“It is becoming more and more apparent that I will have to appear before the Presidium myself. I will likely be gone within weeks.”
“Shall I inform Vice Commissary Seshathirlin?”
“No, not at all.” Kalirit looked up then, resting her elbows on the table with the sides of her forearms facing out, a subtle gesture of threat when directed at a Thorian, but that signaled to Gaingat that his job was about to get that much more interesting. “In fact, I want you to make sure that he’s the last person to find out about this. Eitherorik will be deputy High Commissary in my absence.”
Even Gaingat couldn’t restrain himself from making eye contact. He was smart, Kalirit knew that. Smart enough to know that the biggest power struggle within the Anthar Kai was between the High Commissary and the commander of the Shoaman Kai, Anthar Kai’s military branch, and her relationship with Eitherorik was no exception. That look alone was the limit of how much Gaingat allowed himself to judge her decision making.
“I’m well aware of the reporting lines, Gaingat.” She assured him. “But interesting times call for interesting solutions. You will keep me apprised on my secure line as always.”
“Of course, High Commissary.” He paused and a small smile crossed his face. “You’ve left me with no additional instructions and I’m as puzzled as anybody.”
“Precisely.” She leaned back in her chair, flipping through everything that had come in since she permitted herself to leave her desk and admire the sunset. The piracy report from Eitherorik arrived at the expected time, the moment the Varakan sun dropped below the horizon. Dark news for a dark time. Another speculative report came from the managers at the exchange, recommending immediate diversion of haskbib seeds to the Mraboran Protectorate due to their popularity in making Thorian effigies in these trying times. And here was news that Creeper had allegedly spread as far as the Vaparozh holdings, but this was yet to be substantiated.
Regardless of the light outside, “nighttime” for Kalirit was a hollow concept. A hundred suns continued to shine on her empire and the linchpin that held it all together could not be beholden to any single clock.
“Gaingat,” she said to the Ntaos who waited silently for her to finish. “Once you’ve sent the dispatch to the Presidium, you may leave for the night.”
“And the dispatch to Governor Fainreshlin?” He asked before his body even as much as twitched in the direction of the door.
“He can wait. It would do him good to learn a little patience.” She looked down at the data pad and made a waving motion with her hand.
“Yes High Commissary. Thank you.” And before she could even raise her eyes to watch him leave, the door slid shut behind him.
Even in the silence of her office she could sense that the collective consciousness of the Thorians writhed in response to the turmoil and hope spurred on by the invasion of Krevali. This shared empathy was what had bound her species together and allowed it to dominate the Known Reaches, but she, along with an inestimable number of other severed Thorians, was blind and deaf to it. If she could somehow reach out and touch it, find a way for it to flow through her, maybe she would have a better idea of how to steer through the times ahead. Instead, billions of beings conspired quietly against her, and it was only fair that she return the favour.
Her only regret about her intended course of action was that she would not see the consternation on Eitherorik’s face as he scrambled to get to Varakan from Vesh Tarak, where the Shoaman Kai was headquartered, wondering the whole time whether he did something brilliant or utterly obtuse in order to be picked as deputy over Vice Commissary Seshathirlin. Not to mention Seshathirlin’s own inevitable oscillation between outrage at being bypassed and relief at avoiding any additional obligations. He would ultimately settle on huffing when anyone was looking and then counting his blessings behind the closed door of his office.
Vice Commissary wasn’t a real job in any case, more a way to say thank you for your service, you’ve been a great asset to the organization, here’s a shiny desk and title, now please stay out of the way like the good hapless fossil that you are. Seshathirlin relished in the pomp that came with the position, but just as responsibility shrank away from Seshathirlin, Vice Commissary Seshathirlin shrank away from responsibility.
So when the first reports from Krevali came in, naturally he was nowhere to be found. Normally, by Kalirit’s estimation, Seshathirlin’s ramblings were the biggest waste of resources in the entirety of the Anthar Kai, just going by the amount of productivity he leeched out of those around him. But it was Eitherorik that ended up calling their first meeting, even though he was practically on the transport back to Vesh Takar when the news first struck that the Anthar Kai would not be managing the governance and resources of Krevali.
The weeks, and especially the final days, leading up to last Tuesday felt like the crushing anxiety experienced towards the start of the pandemic – what was happening to the world, and how were we going to get out of it. Opening Twitter and the news in general became downright unpleasant, the same crush of negativity I had identified years earlier and now was willingly succumbing to, like pressing “refresh” on the whole world. A single country was likely deciding the direction of an unwilling world – not a definitive path to the destination, but rather how close that path was veering towards the precipice of darkness.
My first mistake of the night was tuning into our local national channel, the CBC, instead of figuring out how to get access to CNN and all the juicy second-by-second analysis and glorious maps that I would hear later about. Instead, I had to make my own pundit room, which was basically just hitting refresh on the Associated Press results page. The first thing I focused on was Florida, which lit up light red with a relatively small margin, and I reminded myself that things were still early.
I was right, the pink margin shrank, and the state turned light blue. Florida was a good indicator, Florida meant that everything was going to be all right. Not sure how long that listed, seemed like a couple of heartbeats before that margin shrank, Florida descended into pink and then was called in favour of Trump with a comfortable margin.
Then came the other disappointments – the hope for a landslide had quickly fizzled, but then the Rust Belt results came in and there was no longer any breath left in us. Sure, there were the mail-in ballots – we knew there were a lot and we knew they’d heavily skew Blue. But we were also told Hillary was all but assured a win and that evening four years ago ended in crushing defeat and dwindling hope for the future.
Cynics would likely ask what do I care, that’s not my President. Well, who do you think I want running the world’s largest economy? The guy who wants to revive the coal industry or the guy who had the audacity to say, on a campaign trail, that we must prepare to phase out oil and gas? It may not be my president, but he’s still presiding over the future of my kids and my grandchildren.
So seeing Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin all show up red, even though they were not yet called, seemed to give very little permission to breathe. My wife and I, who’re normally so chatty in the evenings that we have to pause our TV every ten minutes or so, probably spoke a handful of sentences during the whole night.
Our CBC pundits, instead of finding rays of hope and providing hard-hitting analysis of mail-in votes and paths to the White House, seemed as hopelessly lost as we were.
And then, the mail-in counting started. It made no splash for our CBC commentators, but I watched the margin of Trump’s lead in Michigan change from 11, to 9.2, to 8.9. I didn’t want to think about what it could mean and reluctantly went to sleep, finding Wisconsin and Michigan switched blue in the morning and the elephant finally lifted off my chest and waddling towards the exit.
This last week seemed to all but solidify the true result, and I hope it stays after the country goes through all the motions it needs to ensure a fair process that arrived at an accurate result.
It was an odd sensation being on this rollercoaster ride with so many millions around the world.
Granted, both short-term and long-term, the journey isn’t over. The power hasn’t been transitioned, coronavirus still runs rampart in both our countries, climate change is still a crisis, and millions of voters who thought Trump was the best man for the job hadn’t miraculously changed their mind over night. The political, social and economic realities that created this mess are still simmering and ready to boil over, and the stewards of this unrest aren’t quietly going away either.
After a couple of days of confusion, it seems the staunch supporters of the darkest night are rallying their forces and positioning their pieces to make the next steps as difficult as possible.
Someone on Twitter had described this feeling perfectly – the monster in the horror movie had been defeated, but there’s still twenty minutes left. What we do with these twenty minutes, both America as a country, and the world as a whole being influenced by the ripples of the behemoth that is the States – need to firm up the direction they’re going to take.
The battle may not be over, but the election did something that had been sorely missing – provided a ray of hope, and as long as we don’t allow ourselves to become complicit, we can build that hope into something concrete.
The setting sun covered the city below the spire in a red glow, and Kalirit was reminded of home. In this light, she was able to take off her sunglasses and rest her eyes as she surveyed the metropolis before her. Thousands of years earlier, before Thorians landed on Varakan, the landscape would have been nothing but endless fields begging to be cultivated to feed the nascent Empire. In the millennia since, the planet had grown to be the headquarters of the Anthar Kai, making Varakan the de facto capital of its own quasi-empire that Kalirit had now ruled for over two decades.
Having her office sit at the tip of a dark tower that reached more than a mile into the skies above Varakan’s main city seemed needlessly regal to Kalirit when she first moved in – a remnant of a time two centuries earlier when the Anthar Kai was at the peak of its influence, before the other races began to grow stronger, and the Thorian Presidium on the home world of Kai Thori began clawing back some control. She had built her career on being close to the ground, visiting as many worlds under the control of the Anthar Kai as she could, preferring to do business out of cramped quarters on freighters rather than the comfort of a proper desk. But she had grown to like such an expansive view, and now that her own construction projects were nearing their final years, she could see the renovated central district take shape as a microcosm for the colonies under her influence.
She readily admitted, but only to herself and at the end of a long day, that it was partially a vanity project, but as one of the youngest to have ever achieved the post of the High Commissary of the Anthar Kai, she knew she needed to seize the opportunity to throw her energy into a lengthy transformative endeavor. For twenty years the central district had been substantially rebuilt to organize the governing, logistics, freight-forwarding and other administrative offices by the worlds they represented. Not only would this inject some much needed efficiency into the bureaucracy, but would also give the millions of staff who worked in the city a clearer idea of the scale and distances of the empire they were tasked with running.
In the far distance to her left was the new complex that represented the outer Vaparozh colonies that formed some of Anthar Kai’s newest acquisitions, whose administration was granted to them by the Thorian Empire after the defeat in what had become known as the Last Gasp. Drawn against the setting sun were the dark shapes of the buildings that were responsible for the furthest Anthar Kai worlds on the very border of Dead Space. And below her, the finishing touches were being put on the dome of the grand pavilion that housed the governing structure of nearby Ntaos, home of the species that formed a sizable demographic of the workforce on Varakan due to the proximity of their homeworld.
As the city plunged further into darkness, the lights came on in her office, and on cue, her assistant rang the telecom to be permitted inside. Kalirit could not resist the brief smile that crossed her lips at Gaingat’s innate knowledge of the little slivers of day where she should not be disturbed, but by the time the door opened, the smile had been erased, and the face of the High Commissary was positioned carefully into place.
“High Commissary, an urgent message from Governor Fainreshlin.” The diminutive Ntaos began. No Ntaos stood over four feet tall, their square bodies hunched over into a constant deferential posture that made them the butt of so many Thorian jokes. Kalirit knew a fool whenever she heard anyone quip either about their far-set eyes that never looked straight at you, or their mottled yellow skin that was always wet with perspiration. She was capable of acknowledging that their bent spines formed the backbone of the Anthar Kai and therefore the Empire, and anyone who dared make light of that fact was, in the eyes of Kalirit, akin to someone who would saw the branch they were perched on.
“Has it now?” She picked the data pad from Gaingat’s stubby fingers. “That’s faster than I would have expected from Fainreshlin.”
“The Governor is punctual, isn’t he?” The other thing most Thorians commonly missed about the Ntaos is that they actually possessed personalities, something that would shock most staunch supremacists, who preferred to see the universe in easily categorized and generally unflattering broad strokes. Gaingat, for example, exhibited the frequent trait of bitter cynicism that was masked by a gaze diverted at the floor and missed by most Thorians, since they could not even begin to conceive that a peculiar turn of phrase was a subtle stab in their general direction. Kalirit chose to cultivate this particular trait in Gaingat as she was starved to work with those that actually dared express their opinions in her presence.
“Punctual is certainly a kind way of describing the Governor, and we wouldn’t want to be going soft on old Fainreshlin, would we?”
“I think the Governor has an easy enough time going soft on himself, High Commissary.” Kalirit gave her assistant a long look, debating whether she should permit herself to laugh or smile, but the moment had slipped out of her hand. “Sorry, High Commissary,” Gaingat quickly added.
“No need, Gaingat, you’re absolutely right, of course. The Governor is getting somewhat comfortable in his position, and there’s no reason why we should go out of our way to make his comfort our priority. Have we confirmed receipt of this yet?”
“He’d sent it certified.”
“Typical.” She could see Fainreshlin now, in the pompous robes of the old Governors, a self-described traditionalist that worshipped only those traditions that suited his own image of himself. She let her pause linger in the hopes that Gaingat would pick up on her desire to have news of the communication that she was waiting for with far more anticipation than the inevitable ramblings of Fainreshlin.
Kviye returned from those infinite worlds and back into her chair to the sound of her instruments gone haywire. Or rather, she would have been lifted out of that same chair as if by the buoyancy of the summer sea if she had not been strapped in. The new panel had been extinguished and displayed only the familiar blank screen, while everything else that was still functional was blaring an admonishing “I told you so” at her.
How long had the ship been listing? She thought that she couldn’t have been floating in space for longer than a few minutes, but the chains of the moon were unmistakably pulling the skiff back into its solid embrace. Kviye looked behind her and found the panel from the device had almost made it cleanly through the wall of the engine room and out into the passageway connecting it with the cockpit. “Oh no,” she muttered and then checked the altimeter. The instrument that had recently heralded her greatest success was now counting down, at increasing speed, towards inevitable failure.
Unbuckling, Kviye lifted off her seat and maneuvered her legs so that she could push herself off the control panel and out of the cockpit. She undershot, and used her arms to pull herself towards the entrance of the engine room and the sharp shard of metal sticking through the wall next to it. Gravity, though still weak, was shifting perceptibly in the wrong direction. Inside the engine room, she found the device where she had positioned the spheres was indeed missing a door and was surrounded by concentric ripples of buckled metal that reached up to the ceiling. The assessment of the extent of the damage would have to wait, though it constricted her stomach in an uncomfortable fist.
The largest of the spheres, the one she picked up from Valyen earlier that day, lay at the bottom of the device, noticeably shrunken, along with three of the pebbles. She scanned the room for the missing ones but finding no trace of them tried to reassemble the array with what she had.
After a few minutes of fiddling with the black orbs, the whole time trying to brace herself against the wall to avoid drifting away and trying to ignore that the ship was gaining speed and bringing heaviness back into her body, she decided it was a futile effort and shoved the remaining ones in her pocket. Turning again and pushing her feet against the wall, she launched herself back through the door and towards the cockpit. About halfway there, she realized she overshot, and with a “no, no, no” that culminated in a grunt, slammed with her back against the control panel of the skiff.
The ship had made significant progress towards the surface of Tanfana, which made it easier for Kviye to scramble back into the seat and buckle her restraints. With some gargantuan effort from the little propulsion that the ship could muster, Kviye manage to face it in the correct direction, in the sense that she could now observe the ever-approaching expanse of the green moon. She pivoted the nose of the skiff towards the bay on which Zhakitrinbur stood and using all the functioning systems that she had left at her disposal, steered the ship’s descent in its general direction.
The dissolving of the black that had enveloped her was even more jarring than when it initially appeared, as if she had been drowning and went for a breath of fresh air, and now her head was again swallowed by the waves. With the return to Tanfana’s atmosphere, the ship shook harder, and the heat slowly crept through the hull and into the cockpit.
Sweat streamed down the back of Kviye’s neck as her fingers gripped tighter around the steering. An attempt to deploy one of the skiff’s exterior breaks caused it to rip clean off the ship and almost sent her into an uncontrollable spin had Kviye not managed to get a handle on the steering. Still, her angle of approach remained too steep and Zhakitrinbur grew in the distance with alarming speed. The whole world seemed to shrink into that single shortening line and its stubborn angle. Every other thought that bothered to try to enter into her head – her father, coming home to find the skiff and Kviye missing, her mother’s photo watching her struggle with the controls, the stars, in their glamorous endless glory – all had been rebuffed and pushed away.
Only one image kept worming itself into her mind and stinging her eyes along with the sweat that she couldn’t brush away for fear of letting go of the controls. Somewhere on the ground, Valyen stood and watched the whole thing; her slow and then rapid ascent that sent her clear out of sight; had she cheered, despite herself? Kviye believed that she did. Something subdued, like a single clap or a slap against her thigh. And now, faced with her agonizingly slow descent, that left behind a trail of fire and debris, would she have looked away? No, not Valyen. She was too practical. She’d watch until the last second so she could tell where the ship went down, so she could make her way there, alone if she had to. She wouldn’t be able to tear her eyes away, same as Kviye from the marshes that grew monstrous in front of her, looking for a soft damp spot but not one that would swallow the ship whole and deprive Valyen of her closure. Just look away. Close your eyes. Please, Val, look away.
One day, they had been sitting at the dining table, eating for the fifth meal in a row a thin vegetable soup with some floating cracked bones in it, as the incessant rain pelted against the window.
“Dad?” Kviye asked, and her father seemed startled by the sudden intrusion of sound into their lives.
The question, which she wished had been asked earlier so that the person she most wanted to answer it would have had a chance to do so, hurt her throat with its jagged edges as it came out. “Why did mom love flying?”
Their words lapped at the shores of silence, long pauses between each of them speaking. “It was just her job.”
“I know it wasn’t. Sometimes I could hear her take off in the middle of the night, and then she would come back a couple of hours later. I’d check the log the next morning, and there were no jobs. So what was she doing?”
Her father took a deep breath and closed his eyes, rubbing his temples with his fingers. “It’s the one thing I never understood about your mother, and like you, I waited too long to ask. I think I was mostly scared of the answer, that if she told me how she felt I would never shake this feeling that we were not enough for her. There was something about her and the sky and those stars.” He looked at the window, where the hangar with its cold and quiet skiff stood barely visible through the rain. “I’d guess it’s something you know more about than I do.” He smiled then, the first smile that had entered her world in so long she wasn’t sure she remembered how to do it. But she did remember, and she did smile back, and put her hand over her father’s as it rested on top of the table.
She wanted to say “I do” but the words jammed in her throat, and tears formed in her eyes. Her father’s eyes too, glistened in the dim light as he nodded in the direction of the window and asked her if she wanted to go out.
She wiped her eyes and managed to say “yes” before giving him a hug.
Half an hour later, when she brought the skiff above the clouds and into the warmth of the sun, she made herself a promise that she would find a way to climb higher and higher, to bring herself to someone else’s distant sun, where they would know of a cure to the affliction that took her mother.
Not even Valyen knew that this was one of the biggest reasons Kviye had been chasing the little black spheres all these years. With Adri getting sicker, she didn’t want to give her any hope; hope she knew would more likely than not come crashing out of the sky in a manner of minutes.
The altimeter indicated that she was about five hundred feet below the point where her last experiment nearly ended in complete disaster. She leveled her ascent, and took the skiff away from the city, so she could line up a trajectory that should have had her out of the atmosphere within Valyen’s field of view. As she took the ship around, it began to quiver with the realization that the air would soon be too thin for it to continue, but Kviye patted the controls and in a hushed tone told the skiff that everything was going to be okay.
Even if it was going to all go well, and she would descend triumphantly back to Zhakitrinbur after kissing the underbelly of the great black frontier, and give that “told you so” smile to Valyen who would then take it in stride because all she wanted was for Kviye to return safe, this would only be the first baby step. Valyen was right, the ship didn’t have anything resembling a skimmer, and even if she could put something together from spare parts that came through Valyen’s garage it could take years for something workable to be constructed. And that something had as much odds of blowing her out of the sky as her current experiment did. Was there a point at the end of all this, a reason for her trying that was more than the trying itself?
The voice inside her head, which unsurprisingly sounded much like Valyen’s, asked her one last time if she still thought it was a good idea. By way of answer, Kviye swiftly brought the skiff to maximum velocity, tipped the nose upward, and flipped a switch on the dusty control panel.
The panel blared in either alarm or excitement and a new kind of shiver passed through the ship. Somewhere behind her, the lid of the device blew open with a crash. For a moment, it seemed as though nothing would happen, but then Kviye felt the weight of the whole moon press her into her seat and then incrementally release her as if something within the ship itself helped Kviye in her struggle against this new force. The altimeter blazed past her previous record and kept rising. The ship shook and bucked in protest of this new sensation as Kviye made the necessary adjustments to spare herself from being pulverized against her seat. She took a quick glance at the altimeter, and it was either broken, or she was about to leave the only world she knew behind.
She thought she imagined it at first, or that she was losing consciousness and her vision was blackening around the edges, and then she understood what was happening. The sky that had long hung over her like a protective blanket had parted, and she found that all this time it had been a veil that concealed from her the most beautiful sight.
The black expanse towered over her like an endless possibility, and as her eyes adjusted to the light, the stars, without their familiar twinkle, revealed themselves around her. Below her, the greenish pearl of her moon hung like a tear drop off the solemn grey cheek of the gas giant. Kviye reached out and touched the cold glass of the viewscreen. The stars, just beyond her fingertips, appeared close enough to reach, no longer a dream, but a material thing she could touch, as long as she pointed her ship the right direction and kept going.
Kviye briefly popped into the cockpit and came back after discovering radio silence from her father. She wondered if he even noticed that she was gone, or if he was still in town, trying to get word on whether anyone needed anything, as long as it was profitable, even if that profit was hardly worth Kviye’s time to get the ship’s engines running. She returned to Valyen, shaking her head.
“I guess that means I’ve got time to try.”
“You have a better suggestion?” And before Valyen could open her mouth, Kviye added with a laugh, “I mean before ‘never’.”
“I don’t suppose I can find any other way to stop you?”
“Val, I can hardly hear you above my heartbeat. I need to try this.”
“Okay?” Kviye raised her eyebrows.
“Okay. If that’s the look you’re going to give me because you can’t wait another five minutes, I’m not sure I could handle looking at your face much longer anyway.” Kviye cast her glance down to the floor, but when Valyen added, “Now let’s go get this thing fired up,” Kviye quickly looked up at her friend.
“Sure,” Valyen said coolly, though Kviye noticed the perspiration suddenly form under her hairline. “Can’t let you have all the fun.”
“I’m not sure either of us will be having much fun with you hugging your seat with your eyes closed and moaning the whole way through.”
“That was one flight.”
“That was your only flight!” Kviye laughed and put a hand on Valyen’s shoulder. “Besides, I need someone on the ground so they can point to whatever swamp I end up crashing this thing into.” Kviye’s words cast a shadow over Valyen’s smiling face.
“You’ll be fine,” Valyen said as Kviye pulled her in for a hug.
“I’m just going to see the stars and be right back.”
“C’mon,” Valyen’s voice was tense as she wiggled out of Kviye’s embrace. “Before this starts feeling like a goodbye.”
Kviye thought Valyen looked like she had something else to say, but instead she gave Kviye a thin smile, and headed towards the loading ramp.
Kviye sat in the cockpit performing a third check of all her instruments and displays, including a new panel that had been black and dead her entire life and that until today had been used to display her mother’s photo, which now watched Kviye taped to the viewscreen. The panel was dim and emitted an incessant ticking sound and Kviye could only guess at how long it had not been maintained for. She had decided that further rumination and divination would not help her understand it more than she already did, a passing familiarity based on her experience with other instruments that would hopefully mean that at the very least any avoidable disaster could indeed be avoided.
She took her straight black hair, which normally hung just past her shoulders, and pulled it together with a tie before slipping on her flight helmet – a safety precaution she normally dispensed with, but perhaps not when she was so brazenly tempting fate. Taking a long look at her mother smiling back at her from the wide viewscreen, Kviye brought the propulsion engines to life and the skiff lifted off the landing pad. Kviye angled the ship away from the garage and caught a glimpse of Valyen standing in its doors, her hands tucked into her armpits and a look on her face that Kviye didn’t much want to dwell on. She gave her friend a small wave, knowing that Valyen could not see her through the reflective windows, and pulled away into the skies above Zhakitrinbur.
Kviye gained altitude in a wide spiral over land, the edge of which hugged the bay around which the city had nestled itself. Everything was going well, insofar as her fiddling with the device did not interfere with the regular operation of the skiff – all seemed normal but for the novelty of the flashing panel distracting her out of the corner of her eye.
It was beautiful weather for tempting fate, the kind of day her mother had said was perfect for flying, as long as you liked it easy and didn’t fall asleep at the controls. Her mother preferred flying through a bit of chop, the rain lashing sideways across the hull and the ground hardly visible beneath the murk. This caused no small amount of grief for Kviye’s father, especially when Kviye started joining her on her runs, rain or shine.
It had been nearly seven years to the day since she had left them after succumbing to the grey, a wasting disease that seemed to affect more and more people on their moon every year. In the last few months of her life, she had been unable to fly, and Kviye took to making her first solo short-haul runs, always flying with the fear that her mother wouldn’t be there when she returned. During the final week, she grounded herself completely and while her father stayed in the other room unable to face his stricken wife, Kviye stayed by her mother’s bedside as the disease took her sight, her speech, her hearing and eventually the rest of what it had left.
After the funeral, it had rained forever in Vingu and they did not speak for so long that Kviye wasn’t sure if she had a voice anymore. Valyen’s calls were left unanswered and became less frequent, but still every two days, right before sunset, like clockwork. The colour had all been washed away from the world, and out of Kviye’s life.
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.