Hard Lessons

Peoples of the Future! I write to you from the distant past! Some of you will be reading this year(s?) in the future (like, maybe, almost 24 hours after I post it *cough*). I can only imagine the wonders your eyes have seen. The advances humanity has made in that time. The jokes, the memes, the pop cultural references of which I cannot even conceive. I envy you, future peoples.

I ponder many things. Probably more and more often than I should. Regardless, one of those things (and I suspect it’s a thing many writers ponder, and struggle with) is how to hold onto enthusiasm for a project. At the beginning, it’s easy. At least it is for me. I’m just discovering the world, getting to know the characters, and it’s all new and exciting. Novelty is a big part of why I started reading. The world I knew was boring, and unpleasant. (It’s less boring these days, and arguably less unpleasant. The latter depends on the day.) Finding new worlds with new people, and rules that made sense, or at least consequences that felt less capricious and arbitrary, made it worth getting up each day and enduring the frustrations of life, at the time.

That’s a large part of why I write. (That and the pesky voice at the back of every writer’s head that says, “I can do that better,” or even worse, “huh, I wonder what if…”) I get flashes of new worlds full of interesting people and I need to explore them. It just so happens those explorations are in a format that allows others to explore them, as well. And hopefully, get to know some new friends. (And pay me for the privilege *cough*)

But what happens when, inevitably somewhere in the middle of writing it all down, things get stale. The characters aren’t cooperating (that’s another post), or the plot is plodding (yet another post), or you’ve written yourself into yet another corner (yep: another post), or it’s just, well, kinda boring. It’s harder than it is fun, which is what we’re really talking about.

Me, I try to talk to somebody about it. That often seems to help. I’ll find myself getting excited, again, about telling them the bits and pieces. Often, those are the bits and pieces I’m pretty certain aren’t going to actually make it into the story, but which feel like they greatly enrich the world. The details that turn it three dimensional, at least to me.

I don’t know whether that’ll work for you. I hope so, as it’s a pretty simple fix. Another thing I work at is art. For some, this is making covers for their books. For others, it’s drawing, or painting, or sculpting. For me, it’s painting gaming miniatures. Mostly because I have a bunch without a spec of pigment upon ‘em, and also because I hope to have a chance to actually, y’know, game with them. Some day. Maybe. Regardless of just how you do it, it’s a matter of getting into a low-stakes flow state that allows you to refill the emotional reservoir upon which writing (and, y’know, freakin’ LIFE) empties. At least it does for me. I hope you’re different.

***

I don’t know how long I spent in the dark, puzzling my way through the Book. I quickly became used to the motions necessary to turn pages, and began flipping whole chapters at a time, just because I could. Well, they might have been chapters. I didn’t really know. There didn’t seem to be any major breaks, or significant points. Occasionally, I’d come across something with a diagram, using notation I didn’t recognize, with explanations I couldn’t fathom. In fact, the deeper I dug, the more frustrating the experience became.

Whatever it actually was, the seemingly stable hallucination can’t have simply been a recorded document. There was an unusual quality to it. I looked for things that would help me draw order out of the visual chaos. Instead, it became significantly more complex, and after not terribly long, the alien characters seemed to crawl before my eyes. If, instead, I just idly leafed through the Book, I seemed to find bits that became almost useful.

With a growl, I slammed the Book shut. Again. And with another growl immediately opened it, again, though this time to a random page. I’d at least figured that part out.

I wanted something different. Something that would be more useful than turning the characters of a long-dead civilization into nonsense syllables, more or less. Just because Prometheus had conveniently included a more or less alphabet translation to Standard. Unfortunately, Promethean — as I’d taken to calling the language, at least in the confines of my own skull — seemed to form words in odd ways. Or at least in a way that didn’t make any damn sense to me. Far be it from me to question my deceased benefactor, but it’d have been nice to include something like a phraselog you occasionally found for the more backward planets.

This page, though, was … something else. There was an image, of a human hand, and arrows pointing to specific locations on the palm. The more I stared at the characters inscribed in it, the more they almost made sense. It took a few minutes to figure out how to read the words in bold text. Or at least, how Prometheus, who had all of a couple of minutes to a few hours of experience with Standard filtered through my experience, thought his language should transliterate into Standard. It sounded like nonsense to me.

I said it, anyway.

Look, everything I’d experienced for nearly a decade had been more than a little out of the ordinary. For whatever reason, humanity by and large was still on the ancient pattern of mature-build-procreate, and it almost always took the shape of a lifelong trade skill, a spouse of the opposite sex, and a couple-few offspring. I’d gone from what I’d dreamed about growing up — the freedom of a ship-owner and trader — to an Assault Corps enlistee and then officer, to the Empress’ Guard, and almost to Prince Consort of Thebes. And then to prisoner, and now I found myself some kind of bizarre lab experiment, stuffed full of alien tech-magic I was mostly unable to access. Chanting something that might well be a magic spell just didn’t seem that farfetched anymore.

And it worked. Well, sort of. Maybe? Each time I said one of the words annotated in the book, a part of my hand tingled, just a bit. On a whim, I strung them all together, which was a distinct mouthful. In response, pearlescent light limned my outspread fingers. Just for a moment, and then it faded, leaving me in darkness once more.

I glowered at the Book.

“I need something useful, Void take you to vacuum!”

The pearlescent light suffused my hand once more, seemingly spilling out from inside of it. The tingling in my hand built until it felt like I had an hundred zef-hornets buzzing angrily within. The tension continued to build, to the point where the buzzing became discomfort, then flashed over into outright pain. Tears started from my eyes, and I convulsively gripped my forearm with my other hand.

The light around my hand built in tandem with the pain. A groan escaped my clenched teeth. It seemed to go on, and on. And then a light, as of a blinking indicator from my control boards back on the Daring Endeavor just barely caught my strangled attention. One word pulsed in time with the pain still growing in my arm. I stared at it for what felt like an eternity, and then something clicked.

“Va-DAM!”

The light coalesced into an eye-searing point. The ball flashed into the opposite wall so quickly it left a glaring streak in the darkness. A noise more felt than heard beat against me, and I lost consciousness.

When I came to, seconds later and flat on my back, I traced my sigil to get enough light to see by. The book still hung in my vision. The crucial phrase wasn’t flashing any more. I reached up with shaky hands and closed the book. Throughout the process, it didn’t catch any light or shadow from the sigil or my hands, which I took as further evidence it was an entirely personal hallucination.

I pulled myself back to my feet, and leaned on the wall for support. I seemed unhurt, which was strange. A quick snap of my fingers showed my hearing was fine. Which was also wrong. I shook my head. I felt surprisingly good for having been tossed across the cave and knocked unconscious. I should have given myself a concussion, if not pulped some organs from the blast. There was a disconcerting lack of damage to my body from my mishap, aside from the gnawing hunger in my middle which seemed, if anything, worse.

I pushed off the wall and looked around, and froze, stunned. A hole smoked in the opposite wall, as big across as both my clenched fists. I coughed as the acrid gases caught at the back of my throat, and realized I’d been smelling burnt stone since I came to. Along with what I’d have said was a surprising amount of volatiles if I hadn’t seen how the rock in the area had been formed.

I unconsciously wiped sweat off my forehead, and then stared at it. The energy discharge had raised the temperature in my cave enough to be almost uncomfortable.

“This is getting entirely too weird.” I snorted. Too weird had been passed long ago. Hours, maybe, but experientially, it felt like years had passed.

I walked over to hole I’d made in the wall. The energy I’d somehow harnessed can’t have come from me. There just wasn’t enough potential in the human body. Which wasn’t precisely true, but true enough for the science I’d grown up learning. Of course, who said what I thought of as science still held true? I was able to create — or summon, or some equally disconcertingly mystical word — light out of nothing. Harness energy sufficient to blast a hole in rock. If my dreams were true, an entire suite of capabilities I simply had no way to access.

“I can’t just blow holes in the wall to climb out of here.” Talking out loud wasn’t my normal way of solving problem, but nothing else seemed to be working particularly well at the moment. “Even if all the energy doesn’t come from me, part of it sure seems to. I’m a lot hungrier than even a couple of days without food would suggest.” My stomach growled in agreement.

“Have to be something else, then.” I thought back to the surreal dreams. The portal in space sure seemed like a great idea, but I had no idea how to go about it, or even if I could draw sufficient energy to make it happen. Carving slabs out of stone and gently floating them down to the floor was an equally likely solution, and equally inaccessible. Probably. I growled at the thought of pulling the Book back out, but if that was what it took- Well, I had to get out of this hole.

I pulled the Book out of whatever corner of my mind it happened to inhabit, and opened it to the diagram of the hand. I ran through the words again, and the same pearlescent light flickered over my hand, and quickly faded.

“Well, repeatability is good. Still,” I addressed the Book, “you’re going to have to give me something more than a pretty light show if I’m going to manage anything actually useful, here.”

I’d had better results from randomly leafing through the pages of the Promethean instruction manual — if that’s actually what it was — than trying to brute-force wrest meaning from the alien text by an effort of will.

So I leafed. Despite the constant low-grade frustration the process stirred in me. And after a surprisingly short few minutes, a passage leapt out at me. It seemed to stand out against the hallucinatory page with subtle sheen, not enough to arrest attention if you were deliberately searching for something, but with just enough visual grab to encourage me to look at it a second time.

I immediate translated the characters into Standard, then shut the Book. I positioned myself with my back braced against the wall. No getting flung by enormous forces this time. I held out my hand, took a deep breath, and spoke the words.

And got nothing.

I stared down at my clenched and shaking fist, and forced my fingers to relax. On a whim, I said the words to evoke the pearlescent glow, and then spoke the words I’d transliterated from the Book.

The light flashed out and coalesced into a broad, flat field in the shape of a blade. But, you know, glowing. My fingers trembled within the field, but the light never wavered.

I turned to the wall, and brought the tip of the luminescent field into contact with the stone. I took a breath, and pushed the field into the stone. And gasped, as the field slid smoothly into the wall. I ripped it back out, and bits of rock cascaded to the floor with a clatter. They weren’t even hot. I held the glowing force blade up in front of me.

“Looks like I don’t need a vibropick, anymore.”

5 comments

  1. I’m very much liking this story.

    I don’t recommend my “got stuck” solution to anyone here: I haven’t continued. That’s fine for someone who doesn’t publish. Not so much for a working author.

    I’m stuck on two interactions that are just starting. I’m bad with that in real-life, too. Strangers are easy to deal with and so are friends. It’s moving people from the former category to the latter that’s difficult. There are mentor/trainee-to-be and girl-meets-boy relationships to get moving.

    I think I just need to accept the “fix it in post” philosophy and push through something/anything and deal with it later rather than bringing (having brought) everything to a grinding halt.

    1. Yes, that is frequently the way to deal with it – move on down the road, come back to fix the pothole later.

      The thing is, you have done a very important task. You’ve planted a marker: “Interaction here, with a result of this.”

      “Aaargh! Elena is changing, but that DOES NOT mean that she suddenly turns into a slut from what she was! And ALEX! He’s supposed to be a ladies man – and here he’s acting like a fourteen year old the first time someone with different parts actually talks to him!”

      Real example, there… I’m still not completely happy with it, but that is because I haven’t gone through several other places (and some minor surgery on the world build) to make the scene work at all, which it doesn’t right now, no matter how much I fiddle with the dialogue.

      BTW, the scene after this one is fantastic (in my most humble opinion).

  2. When I was young, I discovered the trick when you keep getting stuck in stories. You sit down one day and read through the half-finished stories.

    The problem can LEAP out at you.

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