Looking for a Friend

Here’s a little vignette written for Quantum Conscience, my sci-fi visual novel releasing this summer. This scene happens years before the visual novel begins.

*

Korah yearned for sleep, but the silence of her lonely metal home seemed to ring in her ears, forcing her to listen to her turbulent thoughts.

For as long as she could remember, she had anticipated the day she would obtain her own Household. Any helot who served faithfully until the age of sixteen, proving her ability to fulfill the tasks of her Cypher, would acquire her own Household. She would stay alone in this small metal house until the age of twenty-one, at which point she would marry the man Terra chose for her. Until then she had five Terra-blessed years of solitude—years she had dreamed about every night at the factory dormitories, where she would listen to other kids squabble in the beds around her, or hear bugs and rats skittering restlessly in the walls. Once she had her own Household, she had promised herself, she would kill all the bugs and rats. She would keep everything clean—perhaps she would even decorate—and at night she would sleep deeply enough to remember her dreams.

Now that she had her own Household, she did in fact keep everything clean. She set out traps for small rodents and squashed every bug she came across. The peaceful quiet within her little dwelling surpassed all she had imagined, until it became something terrible. She had not expected loneliness to become a new monster.

She could always hear the wind shoving against the thin metal walls of her structure, hissing through the cracks as if attempting to speak. Sometimes Korah thought she discerned words in the wind’s voice, but not enough to make sense, like a sputtering old woman missing most of her teeth. Other times she heard the sounds of gorgans walking down the road outside: their large metal paws scraping against stone, their eye-scanners humming as they searched for helots breaking curfew.

Tonight, she shifted from side to side in her tiny wooden cot and wondered how long she’d been trying to sleep. Minutes? Hours? When she closed her eyes, the monotonous events of her day replayed in her mind: arriving to work at the factory, measuring fabric, then cutting, folding, and marking it for sewing… over and over again, just like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, ever since she was seven. All of it melted together into an intangible mass, an ugly span of eternity that stretched all directions. It felt like enough to drive her mad. She would have given anything to be surrounded by the noisy children and nasty rodents of the factory dormitories, if only to distract her from the agony of inner reflection.

When a loud knock shook her front door–once, twice, then a third time–she shot up in bed and briefly stopped breathing. She felt a moment’s relief from her own dark thoughts. But she feared that whatever person might bother to knock on her door in the middle of the night would be far more dangerous than mere cogitation. If it was a helot breaking curfew, then she should not offer refuge, or she would be punished as severely as the perpetrator. If the visitor was Militar, such as a Cypher-G or O, then he must be here to punish or restrain her somehow. He might even want to take her to a synch-station and pilfer her memories, a process that often involved random selection. Every possibility seemed horribly grim.

“Open up! I SAID OPEN UP! I am a Cypher-P, and if you do not obey me I’ll have you flogged in the street!”

Without wasting another breath, Korah scrambled out of bed and pulled on her robes. A Cypher-P: a Politician! That was even worse than a Militar. Cypher-Ps had authority second to none but the Q himself, the dictator of all Teballai. Why would a Cypher-P bother himself with her Household? Had she passed him on the street and met his gaze on accident, or done something else to offend him? She would have remembered. She couldn’t imagine what the reason must be, but the possibilities made her heart pound with terror.

“So help me Sol, I’ll break down the door and I’ll—”

She swung open the door before he could finish his sentence.

She was not supposed to look into a Cypher-P’s eyes. But tonight, given the circumstances, she couldn’t help herself. The tone of his voice suggested he would unleash his anger upon her, one way or another. So she gawked helplessly at the young man in her doorway, as if upon her fate, and what she there saw surprised her.

He was close to her age, maybe sixteen or seventeen, his body tall and slender. If not for his station and apparent distress, he would have not have seemed intimidating at all. He wore fine clothes: an embroidered shirt with puffy sleeves, a short cloak festooned with gold loops, slim trousers and embroidered boots. As a tailor, Korah could not help but admire such beautiful clothing. Nearly every single day she worked on drab tunics and robes. Only on very rare occasions would she assist with the creation of a truly fine garment, usually for someone important enough to work in the Q’s Tower, like a Cypher-P or honored D.

A gorgan stood on the street behind him, a silent guardian, its jagged metal body reflecting the city watch-lights like tiny daggers of light. But its red eyes stared into the shadows of the street; the fearsome robot did not seem concerned with Korah in the slightest. If Korah didn’t already know that gorgans felt no emotion, she might have thought it bored.

“I’m looking for a Cypher-P named Blaire,” snapped the young man. Korah turned back to him, trying to avoid his gaze this time, but not quite succeeding. His brown hair was disheveled, his face red and puffy. His voice sounded dry and tight. His whole body trembled, even as his fists clenched into bulging knots. “Did you hear me, drudge? I’m looking for Blaire P. Shorter than me, blonde hair, blue eyes, smirks like a bastard.”

“I… I am sorry, Master P, I have not seen this person. Even if I had, I would not remember, because I’m not to look at a Cypher-P’s face.”

“Don’t you dare lie to me, you miserable drudge! I’ve knocked on every helot’s door for miles. How could none of you have seen Blaire at all? How could someone so memorable vanish without a trace?

The last word was almost a scream, his voice cracking in the middle. The gorgan turned its large metal head towards him slightly, but could not find a threat, and thus looked ahead again. But Korah saw the threat–one a gorgan could not. This Cypher-P was about to burst into tears. His lips quivered, his eyes crinkled up, and he held his breath as if to repress the explosion. She feared the outburst would only be more violent as a result.

She must have been mad, for she suddenly opened her door wider and said, “Would you like to come in?” She didn’t know what she was thinking. She must not have been thinking at all. How else could she explain the fact she felt sympathy for a Cypher-P?

“I… I…” He tried to protest. But he failed. He was falling apart at the seams, Korah thought. He was a Cypher-P. He had wielded incredible authority his entire life. He spent time every day with the dictator of the entire planet. He could make helots bend to his every whim and desire. He could search their memories, demand their labor, or even kill them without consequence. But tonight, none of that seemed to matter. He was just a young man searching for his friend.

So he stepped into her house, then he burst into tears.

That was the night Korah first met Veramus.

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Walking with Water

 Another vignette from the galaxy of Quantum Conscience, this time providing a glimpse into Amalek’s background.

***

Amalek Nikat from "Quantum Conscience"

Amalek Nikat from “Quantum Conscience”

The captain’s quarters of the Free Fin rolled and lurched as the oceans of Alqualin surged against its hull.

Amalek clutched the sides of his chair until his dark knuckles turned pale. He had known to expect rough movement on a traditional wooden ship like Captain Yorna’s, but this exceeded all expectations. He felt as if someone trapped him in a box and then threw it down a steep hillside. No matter how he tried, his body could not harmonize with the movement of the vessel. His stomach swayed and dropped while his limbs struggled to follow. Meanwhile his mind raced in many directions at once, wondering why the power of the ramming waves did not smash this wooden ship to pieces.

He heard a chuckle behind him, and fought to keep his gaze steady while he turned to view the observer.

Captain Yorna swaggered past with the graceful gait of a woman weathered by a hundred storms. She half-sat against her desk so she could cross her slender legs and sneer down at Amalek from a comfortable height. She wore a neoprene suit that wrapped her lean body like a big rubber glove, and its black surface bore the bright yellow stripes of an Alqualin captain. A leather cloak also suggested her rank, hugging one shoulder in the typical fashion of a high-sea sailor. She wore her auburn hair in dozens of tiny braids that spilled down her neck and shoulders like a dark waterfall.

As she studied Amalek from her perch, he wondered how he looked to her. He was twenty years old and fresh out of sea school, though people tended to mistake him for older. He had done his best to dress the part for the job. He wore a neoprene suit with the dark blue stripes of an average deck-hand. He had bound his long black hair in two braids that currently swayed against his chest. He tried to sit up and stare back at her with the same intensity she fixed upon him, but failed, because he could not shake the feeling that the whole world was spinning.

She laughed again, a coarse sound that somehow managed to beat back the roar of crashing waves. “Amalek Nikat. Don’t tell me this is your first time on a high-seas ship?”

“Of course… not.” He struggled with the last word amidst the sensation that his gorge was rising. “I just don’t remember it being so… unstable.”

Her amused sneer faded suddenly. “I selected you because I thought you were the best. High test scores, strong muscles, impressive stamina…”

“I am the first in my class,” he confirmed, sitting a little higher. But somehow his voice did not resound with the confidence he needed. “Ask me anything about this ship and I can tell you. It uses spider-thread rigging. I can tie a triple-noose knot in ten seconds. I can climb a—”

“You can’t stand up for ten hacking seconds without falling flat on your face,” Yorna snapped. “Tell me. Have you spent your whole life underwater?”

“Most of it,” he confessed. His stomach was churning violently now. He needed to close his eyes so he could stop feeling dizzy. But he tried to pretend that he was reflecting deeply upon his past. “I grew up in the underwater city of Balka Reef. But I’ve also spent time on submarines. And I’ve been on the surface on several occasions. Just not—”

He couldn’t hold it back any longer. He leaned over the side of his chair and heaved his breakfast upon the lovely red fibers of her carpet.

For a moment, both of them just stared in disgust at his body’s excretion. Then Captain Yorna snorted and shook her head. “I should have known better. Test scores mean nothing if you can’t walk with water. You won’t last a week on these waves.”

“I’ll adjust!” His green eyes were open now, his voice filled with the deep roots of conviction that even sea-sickness failed to eject. Now that he had finally vomited, he actually felt a little better, and met her gaze with fierce intensity. “Captain Yorna. You did not make a mistake. It’s true that I’ve spent most of my life underwater. I have swum the ocean’s darkest depths, and mastered every test that Alqualin Academy can offer. But I still do not know our Mother Okeanos.”

“You want to know the ocean, do you? Want to make her your mistress?” This time Yorna offered a gleeful cackle. “I can save you a lot of trouble, Amalek, and buy you a seaside prostitute. You might have more fun swimming her darkest depths.”

“I speak of Okeanos,” he snarled, “the spirit of Alqualin. I have lived in the ocean’s womb, surrounded by the silence of her dark depths, always within her but never beside her. I want to learn to walk with water as you do. I want to breathe fresh air and feel the sun upon my skin. I have read every book I can about man’s mastery over this planet. But I still feel like its servant. I want to see the true face of Mother Okeanos. And then I’ll decide which one of us truly reigns here.”

“Nice speech. Was that from your graduation essay?”

Captain Yorna still spoke with a note of mockery. But her voice was softer now, her gaze measuring. He gave up impressing her with flowery speech and held her stare with equal weight, ignoring the pitch and roll of the ship around him, forgetting about everything but his unquenchable desire to prove himself on the high seas.

She looked away first, and he felt a slight moment of triumph. But her voice had regained its tone of amusement as she said over her shoulder, “I’ll give you a week.”

Published in: on December 17, 2013 at 1:08 pm  Comments (2)  
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Sky of Teballai

This is another little scene I wrote as backstory for the characters of “Quantum Conscience,” my current project. Blaire is the main character. For the next few weeks or more, my vignettes will probably focus on the different planets and characters of “Quantum Conscience” (unless someone requests I write a vignette for a different story, and please feel free to do so!). I find it both fun and useful to write little scenes like this on the sidelines of the main story. A great deal might be left unexplained in each vignette, but such is their nature. I hope you find them interesting all the same!

*

We stood on a balcony of the Q’s tower, watching night smother the city far below. We were only fifteen years old, but felt that the world was ours for the taking. We were not far from wrong.

A fog hovered over the world, softening the edges of the stony landscape beneath us. Where the smoky plumes brushed light, colors blossomed in the mist: red, yellow, green. At the time I did not consider it unusual. Strange fumes drifted endlessly from the rocky depths of Teballai’s surface, harmful to breathe, but beautiful to watch. If we forgot to take our medicine—or, in the case of the less fortunate, could not obtain any—we developed raucous coughs and bloody noses from the toxic gases. But Veramus and I always took our medicine, because we were class Cypher-P. We had everything we desired, because we were too stupid to realize we should have desired more.

The winds bombarded our bodies, harder than usual. Our cloaks flapped against our torsos like furious wings. I took a swig of korkal. The bitter spirit burned down my throat and punched me in the chest. I let out a squeal of unrestrained delight.

Veramus only glared at me, his mouth a flat slash across his face. I watched his long dark hair whip around his head as if trying to yank free of him, and this made me laugh harder.

“Blaire, we should get inside,” he grumbled.

I barely heard him over the rising gale. Just for the crux of it I pretended I couldn’t hear him at all. “What was that?”

“I said we should go inside!” He spoke louder now, the muscles of his face tightening and making his forehead bulge. “Looks like we might get a wind storm.”

“Please Terra no,” I groaned. When wind storms struck, everyone had to go into their homes, shut all the doors and windows, and not come out until two days after the storm had passed. We depended on mechanical creatures called gorgans to run errands and clean up the city until it was safe for re-entry. The Q’s tower was a sturdy stone construction, so I never feared for my life. Rather, I dreaded the impending boredom of house arrest. “If that’s the case let’s stay outside for as long as we possibly can!”

“Hacking fool,” hissed Veramus. He might have thought I couldn’t hear him. But I did. And although Veramus often fell into grumpy moods, I rarely heard him sound so venomous. “You’ve had too much korkal. If these winds get any stronger they’ll throw you off the balcony.”

“Oh! I’ve always wanted to fly.” Laughing, I took another gulp of korkal. Then another.

“Idiot!” He made no attempts to hide his fury as he grabbed my bottle, ripped it from my fingers, and flung it off the balcony.

I watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as the glass flew far over the city, driven by wind. “That’ll hit someone.”

“As if you ever pause to think of the consequences!” He was yelling at me now. I stared at him in a state of helpless perplexity. His long, angular face was nothing but a series of sharp lines, slicing me from afar. “You can do whatever you want, and somehow you always get away with it. Why?

“Veramus, what the crux are you talking about?” The wind blew furiously now. I had to grip the balcony railing to keep my footing. Somehow, Veramus held nothing and stood as sturdily as the tower itself. “You’re a Cypher-P just like me,” I reminded him. “We can do whatever we want.”

“That’s not what I mean. The last test. How did you pass it?”

“Eh?”

“The last test!” He reached over and grabbed the front of my tunic, pulling me closer. In one sense I was grateful, because he provided an anchor in the wind. But his fingers tightened the collar of my tunic around my throat, and his dark eyes drilled into me without mercy. His hair lashed me like dozens of tiny whips. “I studied for months. Trained my mind to harmonize with the machine and enter the program. You forgot about it until the day before, and even then, you ran off to play pranks on the O’s instead of training. Then you got the best score!

“Who cares?” I wriggled a little, wishing to escape his grip, but realized that the wind would snag me if Veramus let go. I reached out and grabbed his tunic in return, a hand on his shoulder, like a brotherly gesture. But my fingers dug in as sharply as his, making him wince. “The Q wants us to harmonize with a hacking computer program. Who gives a shit? Maybe your problem is that you take everything too seriously. You make it so hard to have fun sometimes. Maybe you’re just a tight-ass and that’s never going to change.”

A strange look came into his eyes then. The wind stole my breath away. I’d never seen an expression like that on his face before. He looked at me as he might look at a dumb peasant on the street. No… worse. Truly, I thought he might throw me throw me off the balcony and be done with it.

Then his gaze shifted, and I realized he wasn’t looking at me anymore. He stared up into the sky. His eyes continued to widen, then his mouth dropped open slowly. “Blaire… look!”

I followed his gaze to the sky.

Something had changed. It took me a moment to realize what. The sky looked so different I almost didn’t recognize it. The fog had cleared. Beyond lay a vast expanse of endless darkness. But not just darkness. There were specks of light, hundreds—maybe thousands—of them, twinkling across the abyss. Here and there I saw larger orbs, with a hint of color, hovering as if on the edge of existence.

I felt dizzy. Veramus must have, too, for we clung to each other desperately, staring at the beauty above us in a state of terrified awe.

“What is it?” gasped Veramus.

“The night sky?” I said dumbly.

“Yes, but… those lights… that darkness… I feel as if it goes on forever. And it’s not empty.” I felt his heart pounding against his ribs.

“It’s amazing,” I agreed.

Then the wind surged, howling so loudly now we could no longer hear anything else, and we both began to fall.

Everything spun. My limbs flailed. My legs scrambled. Veramus and I clutched at each other. Fingernails raked across the stone floor. One moment I thought I was falling off the balcony—either to impale myself on the stones below, or somehow fly up into that endless expanse hanging above us. The next I saw walls around me, felt a door in my grasp, and noticed Veramus bracing his body against mine. We both grit our teeth and pulled with all our might, until I saw sparkling lights against my eyelids like the strange dots of the night sky.

Finally the door shut, sealing us in the tower, and we collapsed upon the floor.

For a long time we just lay there, catching our breath. The wind howled through the door, as if with angry curses, banging against the rock as if to break through and exact its revenge.

Then Veramus and I looked at each other. And for some reason I could not explain, grins burst across our faces.

“See?” I laughed breathlessly. “If we hadn’t stayed out that long, we never would have seen that.”

“Yes.” His eyes spun as he looked at me. “That was truly amazing. But what does it mean? I never thought there was anything above us other than the evil eye of Sol. Are there other forces of power out there?”

“You’re doing it again!” I cried, but shook my head fondly. “Don’t think about it so hard. Whatever’s in the sky, it’s pretty awesome, but has nothing to do with us.” I punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Now let’s find some more korkal!”

Published in: on November 26, 2013 at 11:05 am  Comments (1)  
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City of Lights

This might not technically be a vignette, but it’s a little piece of back-story I wrote for a character of my current project, “Quantum Conscience,” a sci-fi visual novel. So if nothing else, it’s a little glimpse into the galaxy where the story will be set.

*

Cikaiti. City of lights.

“Light is most precious where darkness presides.” This was a popular saying amongst the people of Cikaiti, because they knew that the name of their city led to grave misconceptions. Strangers visiting Cikaiti expected its brightness to blind them. Instead, they discovered a city covered mostly in darkness. Thick black clouds reigned over the entire atmosphere of Ludebba, Planet of Quiet, and wove the thickest webs of shadow over the grand capital, Cikaiti. Tourists who visited at the wrong time of year could linger in the city of lights for a full month and only glimpse a few shifting beams of sunlight, like the prongs of a rake scraping the spongy hills.

A little girl liked to play in these hills at night, for the people of Cikaiti did not fear the darkness. When Cikaiti became darkest, certain plants would unfurl and cast a glow from their bulbs, scooping out shadows and replacing them with velvety light. When this happened, the hillsides seemed to sparkle. The planet’s surface mirrored the stars above, until the heavens and earth blended together like spilled paint.

The young girl, Mierol, liked to search for a special red flower that only unveiled itself under certain constellations. Mierol’s parents had named her after this flower, the mieroldee, whose crimson petals matched the messy mop of hair on Mierol’s head. But Mierol did not spend any time studying star maps or trying to predict the mieroldee’s awakening. She enjoyed the ongoing search, and the occasional surprise of success. She liked to sprawl across the fibrous soil until she lost her orientation, and felt as if she swam with the stars. The earth would warm her back, for numerous micro-organisms thrived in the spicules beneath her.

Citizens of the planet Ludebba, like Mierol, understood that the appreciation of light arose from the predominance of darkness. They all anticipated the day of the Sun Bath, which only happened once a year, but not for the same reason as outsiders. Tourists who visited Cikaiti for the Sun Bath witnessed something quite normal: the sun came out, the clouds cleared, and light filled every crevice. City dwellers, meanwhile, stayed inside or wore protective lenses because the light overwhelmed their sensitive vision. They enjoyed—from a distance—the honey hue of the sunshine, and the emergence of every single plant which usually curled into the ground. On this day, the earth renewed itself. The plants drank every drop of solar energy and stored it for later. The spongy earth soaked the sun’s heat and swelled with fullness.

But one group of outsiders appreciated the significance of the Sun Bath more than anyone—more, even, than the citizens of Cikaiti itself. They realized that the plants of Ludebba had evolved to store solar energy more efficiently than any piece of man-made technology. They also knew that the plants would contain the highest amounts of energy on the first night after the Sun Bath. So on one such night, when Mierol was eight years old, the Pilfyres attacked.

*

Published in: on November 19, 2013 at 10:58 am  Comments (1)  
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