Dilliproduct, a young writer who surprised and delighted me by quoting me on her blog, asked me today if I’ve posted any of my fiction here and of course I had to reply that I haven’t yet. I have been planning on it, however, so I decided I would post something now.
The First Word is the new title for the revision of a story I wrote in my early twenties; it was sort of a collaboration with a close friend, Robert Norris. Some of the characters are based on his concepts, especially Crazy Hawk, Lonesome, Ereflur, and Sombr (Crazy One, Lonely One, Loveflower, and Zombie); and the plot of book one, Ring of Life, is based on an idea created by Robert Norris. All other aspects of the work, The First Word, are mine, including: the overall plot for the series; the development of all characters and the creation of most; the setting; themes; etc.
Oh. I nearly forgot to mention something very important. Robert is no longer with us, but he will always be remembered fondly by many people. He was a close friend; he was a member of our family. I know this book would not exist without him and that my life has been enriched by knowing him.
Originally I called this story The Matrix Wars: The Protectors of the Matrix. The series title has been used since then and I’ve decided I don’t like it anyway. For what I plan to do with it, The First Word is more appropriate (although when publishing it probably won’t matter). The manuscript starts with a seven-page prologue that is all exposition, back-story. When I began to revise, I decided to keep the essence of the prologue but turn it into a chapter that focused more on action.
I’ve accomplished that, in two chapters, anyway. It still needs a lot of work, although I have already addressed one of the main concerns, that the invasion happens too abruptly. I cannot be sure I did it well, so any thoughts would be appreciated.
I have not revised the second chapter yet, so I will only post the first. I recently changed some things to make it seem like the planet appears barren. I’m not sure I’m going with that and I may change it again. Anyway, it is a future fantasy and it starts in the POV of the antagonist (so if you don’t like him, that’s why).
One thing I hope to accomplish is weeding out too much back story, especially in the beginning. Unlike some of my peers, I think one or two lines of exposition, perhaps woven into a character’s thoughts or in dialogue, are okay, as long long as I leave it at that and get on with the story. It is something first-timers should avoid if they plan to publish with one of the big houses; otherwise, I don’t have a problem with it.
If anyone sees more exposition that I overlooked, please show me so I can correct it, if necessary. Also, if the info-dumps are not woven into the story effectively and you find it boring, let me know.
Overall, I’d really like some general impressions, but if you want to dig in and give me a thorough crit, I’d love to hear what you have to say.
Anyway, without further ado, here is chapter one of Ring of Life. I hope you like it!
P.S. I hope no gets the impression from this story that I am religious. I’m just a lazy geek who sits around the house all day writing!
Chapter One: Invasion
Sombr bent forward with arms pressed into his burning abdomen. Ereflur placed a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
“Sombr?” said his sister. “Are you ill? Is it separation sickness?”
Then he turned to Ereflur, suppressing nausea by force of will, and tried to smile. “Yes, but I’ll be fine. I can stay a while longer. It’s only what I deserve, anyway.”
Ignoring the pain, Sombr compelled himself to move forward.
The maze always had been his favorite place on the grounds—even when he’d been too small to see over the hedges and begged Uncle Vendrehain for shoulder rides. Heat shimmered over the grassy path. If the hedge had been real, the leaves would be dry and brittle this time of year; instead, they were green and unchanging. Authentic or not, Sombr was glad to be there, as he was in no other place on Illusio.
Ereflur frowned and brushed his elbow with her fingers. “You didn’t know. How could you? So why do you feel responsible?”
“Because I am responsible, Ereflur.” He leaned on his sister’s shoulder for support. “How would you feel if you’d convinced hundreds of people to live on an outpost they can never leave without dying? Hallucien is a death trap, and I led them there. Knowing I can leave, even for a short time, is worse. I know they love me anyway, but I’ll never understand why.”
If I weren’t so obsessed with the Nexus System, they’d be here with their families—where they belong.
The physical pain faded and Sombr stepped away from Ereflur. They continued their walk, entering the next path. The center wasn’t far now.
Despite the consequences, he wondered how anyone would not be obsessed with the universe’s point of origin. How could anyone not be haunted by the oddities of both worlds orbiting the Nexus?
Still, he had learned something from his research. Sombr had communed with the core of Hallucien, which turned out to be a living entity. He wanted to reveal this secret to Ereflur but he hesitated.
“Always shining, always so beautiful here,” said Ereflur.
Beautiful indeed. The triple suns of the Nexus System, which also orbited the invisible point between the two worlds, shone on the surface of Illusio—highlighting the hedges and dispersing shadows as if they did not exist. All while defying every law of physics known to humankind.
When they arrived in the center, Ereflur adjusted her dress to sit on one of four pseudo-marble benches, which surrounded a statue of their father, Kurin Eranahei, then patted the place beside her.
“Please sit, Sombr,” she said. “You look pale.”
Sombr smiled again to reassure his sister and sat on the bench.
Ereflur sighed. “It will be time for the evening service soon. The people expect to see their Queen, and they miss their Prince. Uncle Vendrehain will be disappointed if he doesn’t see you today. Although I know how hard it is for you.”
She meant the separation sickness of course, but Sombr could not help thinking of Vendrehain’s well meaning—if annoying—attempts to steer his nephew back to the church. As a scientist, Sombr did not share his family’s religious convictions. “The Children of God’s Love” was a very peculiar sect, and not just by Sombr’s standards. Many Terrans openly scorned them, which had played a large part in the Children’s decision to leave the home world.
Sombr turned to his sister, ready at last to explain his discovery, when they were interrupted. A man in a starship uniform rushed into the center of the maze, churning up wads of grass with his boots, and sank to one knee before Ereflur. Sunlight reflected from the crewman’s black lightweight armor, and Sombr had to shield his eyes.
“Your Majesty,” he said. “The starship’s monitors have detected a large fleet entering the Nexus System! Lord Vendrehain’s attempts to communicate have failed.”
The Kingdom possessed only one armed star-ship. God help us if we ever need to defend ourselves. Sombr hoped they would not need to now.
Ereflur’s eyes grew wide with alarm. “A fleet? It couldn’t be from Terra, could it? Surely they have no reason to send a fleet here.”
While Sombr knew there were many on Terra who would like nothing more than to subdue the Children, regardless of the distance between them, he did not believe they had enough power to launch an invasion. Not yet, at least. But then, whose fleet was it?
“I don’t know,” he said, as much to himself as to Ereflur. He stared up at the sky, waiting for something to happen.
“Perhaps another colony? One that supports the World Church?”
“No. They’re subject to their charters, all of which have connections to Terran companies. If they invade another colony, even ours, they’d lose their support.” Then he snapped his head back and glared at his sister. “Wait—why don’t you know this?”
“I do know, brother, but whoever is out there has the advantage. Even colonists might become rogues. What else is there?”
Excuses again, Ereflur? She still did not know how to govern a kingdom. Why had his father allowed his followers to crown him King anyway? There had been no real kings in hundreds of years! But she had a duty to her people to learn.
He looked toward the sky again and said, “We’re wasting time. I doubt there’s anything we can do to defend ourselves, but there may be a way to negotiate.”
“You’re right,” said Ereflur, nodding. “I will summon the Council immediately. Will you assist us?”
The air above the grounds rippled like the surface of a pond and flashed with green light. A low hum filled Sombr’s ears, and he was sure he could feel the air vibrating around him. His skin tingled for a moment, then started to itch. Ereflur looked at him. By the way she rubbed her arms, she wasn’t feeling any better. The knight remained still in his dark armor.
This world is blessed? I think we’re about to learn otherwise.
The itchiness was suddenly more intense, enough to overwhelm the recurring pangs in his stomach. Something swirled in the sky above the palace grounds. Ereflur and the knight turned their heads upward too. As they watched, the swirl turned red, frothing like a great storm cloud. Then a large black object materialized high over the palace, large enough to blot out the sunlight. The cloud erupted into hundreds of slender trails, black smoky wisps that wavered outward from the ship and evaporated before reaching the ground. Both Sombr and Ereflur shot to their feet. Everything they had discussed seemed trivial—and perhaps futile—to him then.
Sombr tried to determine the ship’s configuration but failed. Long, roughly cylindrical, and covered with random green and brown … “growths” was the only word he could summon to describe them. The surface, or what he could see of it, was porous and slimy, like the skin of a massive beast.
“What—what is that thing?” said the Queen, her voice trembling.
“Whatever it is, it isn’t Terran.” Sombr kept his tone even, despite the cold tendrils that curled around his heart. He had little time to wonder how a ship could just appear like that before more of them began to dot the sky, enshrouding their world in darkness.
In darkness. On Illusio!
Large bulbous glands on the undersides of the ships began to glow—bathing the landscape in what Sombr suspected was bioluminescence. As sure as he was that Hallucien lived, he believed the invaders had a highly advanced biological technology. Those ships were alive, and something dark and malevolent occupied them; Sombr could feel it, like a vibration in the ground before an earthquake.
And he had no doubt they were invaders. Why else would an entire fleet appear over their heads with no announcement, no warning?
Aliens. Humans had colonized over thirty star systems since the discovery of Eldritch Mechanics, and so far no one had encountered extraterrestrial intelligence. No one except Sombr, of course, when he counted Hallucien. They had to come from very far away, whoever they were.
Ereflur’s eyes dropped and her face grew as pale as she had described his earlier. Then she attempted to smooth her skirt, straightened her back, and turned her eyes toward the strange ships.
“Sombr, we can’t fight this.”
Sombr was sure Vendrehain had sent a distress call to Terra once the fleet had appeared within the Star Core, but that did little good. Even if Terra decided to send help, which it probably would not, Sombr suspected the alien fleet was much larger and more powerful than the Terran Defense Force. There was nothing to be done, as far as he could see.
But Ereflur did as the Children always did when confronted with impossible odds. Indeed, as they did on a daily basis anyway. She dropped to her knees, spread her arms wide and began to pray, waving her arms in the air and singing like a child in the Sunday choir. He knew people all over the Kingdom were doing the same.
“Do you really believe prayer will do any good?”
Ereflur did not stop to answer him, but Sombr saw a tear emerge from her right eye and trail down her cheek. If there was little else he respected in her, she loved him and he knew it.
While she prayed, a number of large, glowing discs appeared hovering around the palace, each occupied by giant bipedal reptilian creatures whose appearance stunned Sombr. He didn’t know what to expect—surely nothing so familiar. Sombr counted about twenty of them, which varied in color. Some were blue, some red, and others green. He saw two that were brown and one yellow. They were too far away for him to make out any more details.
The one that floated in front was red. It raised its long taloned hand, or fore-paw, as if to silence the multitude. Sombr knew the Children would not cease their prayer to save their own lives, and he snorted. Regardless, the red alien began to speak. A guttural voice boomed over the land, accompanied by a subtle echo, a whisper beneath the English words.
A translation device?
“I AM HIGH LORD FYUS, IMPERIAL PRINCE OF THE DRACON EMPIRE. BY ORDER OF HIS IMPERIAL MAJESTY NOVU, SOVEREIGN OF THE UNIVERSE, AND GLORIOUS LORD OF THE STARS, THIS WORLD, ITS RESOUCES AND ALL ITS INHABITANTS ARE NOW SUBJECTS OF DRACO. LAY DOWN YOUR ARMS AND SUBMIT TO THE WILL OF EMPEROR NOVU!”
Sombr remembered Hallucien’s message. There is nothing else. He could not be sure what would happen, but it might be the Kingdom’s only chance. Kneeling beside his sister, he laid a hand on her shoulder and said, “Ereflur, I might know a way out of this.”
She opened her eyes. “How?”
“I learned something … unexpected … about Hallucien. It’s alive, Ereflur, and I spoke with it at length. It told me I could merge my mind with it and gain immeasurable powers. If I can get back to Hallucien, I’ll try it. Maybe then we can actually fight off this invasion.”
“Sombr, this sounds very dangerous, if it is really possible. I don’t know—”
Sombr bit his lip to suppress the rankled reply on his tongue, then continued, “Ereflur, it’s the only way I can see. I have to try.”
“But how will you get back? The aliens must have the ship immobilized, and I’m sure they’ve surrounded Hallucien’s outpost as they did the Kingdom.”
“I—don’t know, but I’ll figure something out. I hope.”
She frowned and her eyes clouded. “All right, Sombr. I wish you Godspeed, and I’ll pray that you make it.”
Sombr winced and quelled another biting reply before he could offend her. Pray all you want, sister, but I don’t believe it will help.
He nodded instead, then twisted around and dashed through the maze. Waxy leaves drifted past as he ran, brushing the skin of his fingers, disappearing behind him, the world blurred by the fog of sweat and wind that stung his eyes. Good thing he’d been through it many times as a boy, so he knew the way. Still, he cursed his luck to be caught in the maze at a time like this.
Because he rushed, he took a wrong turn and encountered a dead end once, and nearly did three more times, forcing him to retrace his steps to the correct path. When he at last emerged from the entrance, his chest burned and his stomach lurched, and he wished he could stop. But he had to reach the paved area east of the palace that served for a port. As it was, he kept pushing toward his goal, pumping legs, embracing pain.
Ereflur had said the aliens would “immobilize” the starship. More likely they would destroy it, unless they decided a lone ship was not a threat. This made sense, but that was not what he saw when he approached the port.
Starship Eranahei sat on the pavement surrounded by a glowing blue shield. Sombr knew the ship’s energy defenses were invisible, so he assumed it was alien technology used to keep it on the ground and defenseless. But when the red alien hovering over the palace spoke again, Sombr realized his mistake.
“YOU WERE ORDERED TO LAY DOWN YOUR ARMS. THE SHIELD AROUND YOUR SHIP IS AN ACT OF DEFIANCE THAT WILL NOT BE TOLERATED. DISENGAGE THE SHIELD NOW OR WE WILL ANNIHILATE YOU!”
Sombr wondered who or what might have activated the shield. Certain members of the Eranahei family, acting together, might have enough power to summon a psychic field this large, but it would also be invisible to anyone without extrasensory abilities. Which meant the “Dracons” had such talents, or someone else was involved—someone unknown to both the Dracons and the Children.
Neither possibility was reassuring. The Eranaheis were only inviting retaliation if they had raised the shield. Sombr hoped no one in his family would be so foolish.