Tag Archives: alien-characters

The Testing – an excerpt from book 2 of Vokhtah

My favourite villains have always been the ones who were made, not born. This excerpt features both the Yellow and its Assistant, Death. I’ll leave it to you to work out which of these villains is which. But please do remember that all of the intelligent life on Vokhtah is sociopathic to some degree. 🙂

Two days later, Death stood quietly by the wall as the Yellow addressed a half-circle of Messengers, none of them more than sixteen. They had been told to bring their sleeping pallets and nothing else. Now all eight stood next to their rolled up pallets, cowls lowered respectfully as they waited to hear why they had been singled out.

“Being chosen for special training,” the Yellow began, its voice stern. “To save Settlement from rogue Escapees. If Escapees finding out, plan failing so what learning here must remaining secret from everyone. Even other Messengers!

The thought of being chosen for important work must have reassured the youngsters because most responded by flicking back their cowls and standing a little straighter. Only two continued to look wary. Death took special note of their faces; when dealing with the Yellow, caution was a sign of intelligence.

“Until training being finished,” the Yellow continued, a hint of menace creeping into its voice, “only leaving cavern for guard duty outside door. If betraying secret in any way, being punished. By self.”

This time all eight looked worried. Messengers generally had less to fear from the Yellow than ordinary iVokh, but this threat was aimed specifically at them.

“Training being conducted by Assistant,” the Yellow said, gesturing towards Death with one hand. “In matters of training, Assistant speaking for self. Any disobedience being punished. Understanding?”
Eight heads bobbed up and down in unison.

“Any questions?”

None of the eight made a sound, but Death knew the questions, and the rebellion, would come. The only unknown was how many. One or two would be acceptable, but any more than that would cause problems.

“Assistant?” the Yellow said.

Stepping forward, Death bow to the Yellow before turning to the Students and shouting, “Respect to Honoured!”

The young Messengers all snapped to attention and bowed so low their cilia almost swept the sand. They remained that way as the Yellow turned and stomped down the passage towards the door.

“Up!” Death cried. “Placing pallets against wall then returning here.”

While the young iVokh milled about, choosing a place to sleep, Death walked over to the table and picked up the large ceramic gourd that waited there. Returning to the centre of the cavern, it placed the empty gourd on the sand at its feet and composed itself for what was to come.

When the last of the stragglers had made it back to the centre of the cavern, Death struck an imperious pose and said, “Not being Master but may calling Teacher. As for selves, not being Messengers any more, or Acolytes. Being… Apprentices.”
The young iVokh exchanged shocked glances as they digested the implications of their drastic demotion. The hierarchy of rank was strictly enforced in all eyries, but in the Settlement, the Healers and their Acolytes occupied a level above all other iVokh. By demoting the young Messengers to the rank of Apprentice, Death had effectively placed them above drudges but below all adult commoners. The choice of rank had been a deliberate first step with worse to come.

“Apprentices learning here, feeding here and sleeping here,” Death said once it was sure that none of its new students intended to leave. “Can using pool in bathing cavern, but trips outside to waste pit requiring supervision. By Guard or by self.”

That caused another ripple of unease, but still no one left. Time to increase the pressure.

“Taking off chains.”

That drew audible gasps from the Apprentices, but eventually all eight removed their chains.

“Now placing in gourd.”

This time no one moved.

“Why?”

The question came from one of the cautious ones, but Death knew it was articulating what all of them were thinking.

“Because until end of training, only Guards being allowed to wear chains. And only while being on duty. Everyone else remaining naked.”

“But why?” the Cautious One cried, cilia rigid with distress. “Why needing to remove chains to catch Escapees?”

The moment of truth. Rising to its full height, Death stared down the Apprentice before saying, “Escapees mixing with commoners. Probably pretending to be commoners. Therefore, if wanting to catch Escapees, Apprentices must pretending to be commoners also.”

Cries of horror greeted Death’s words, but one voice rose above all the others. “Ki! Not surviving Quickening so can being commoner again!”

The voice belonged to a tall, muscular Apprentice with an imperious expression. Matching action to words, it slipped its chain back on and marched down the passage towards the door. After a moment of hesitation, a second Apprentice scurried after it.

Death made no attempt to stop them. Instead, it looked at each of the remaining Students in turn, gauging their reactions. Most were unable or unwilling to meet its eye, but one glared back, eyes narrowed in calculation.

Cautious and clever, Death thought, pleased that at least one of its students had potential. If the young Messenger could be taught to dissemble, it would become the perfect spy to send amongst the Acolytes.

Just then, a shrill cry echoed from the passage leading to the door. A moment later, a single Apprentice stumbled back into the cavern, blood dripping from its face.

“Being warned,” the Yellow hissed as it too emerged from the passage, dragging a body by one arm. The body belonged to the Imperious Student and it was very dead. Dumping the body just inside the cavern, the Yellow advanced on the wounded Apprentice.

“Forgiveness!” the young iVokh cried as it backed away. “Not saying any-” Its desperate plea ended on a long, drawn out keen as the Yellow grasped it by the shoulder and sank within.

And then there were six.

“Any more not understanding need for secrecy?” the Yellow asked as the body fell to the ground, still twitching.

The remaining Apprentices all shook their heads, amber eyes round with terror. They had been trained to inflict pain on others but were too young to have experienced violent death at first hand. Now, they knew exactly what it looked like. Some things could not be taught; they could only be witnessed.

Once the Yellow was gone, Death pointed to the gourd and said, “Now.”

Six chains dropped into the gourd in quick succession.

“And those two,” it continued, pointing to the bodies sprawled on the sand.

For a long moment none of the Apprentices moved, then the Clever One shook its head and strode over to the nearest body. A moment later, the last two chains dropped into the gourd.

Well pleased with how the testing had gone, Death closed the gourd and placed it back on the table, right next to the Claw. As a reminder, if any were needed, of what happened to those who displeased the Yellow. Then it proceeded to teach the Apprentices how to dispose of unwanted bodies. Another valuable lesson in survival.

As always, I’d love to hear your reactions in comments! And yes, I was listening to Stillness Speaks as I wrote this scene. 😀

cheers
Meeks


My Favourite Bits…Vokhtah

It’s that time. Sorry. Rather than posting an excerpt from Vokhtah today, I want to talk about language, and how it is the true, living history of a race or culture.

Think about Shakespeare. The Bard died in 1616, yet many of the words he made up…yes, made up…are still in use today. According to litcharts.com there are 422 words that almost certainly originated with Shakespeare. Many are nouns turned into verbs, or two words smooshed together, but they did not exist in that form until The Bard made them so. Want some examples? Here we go:

https://www.litcharts.com/blog/shakespeare/words-shakespeare-invented/

You can find the complete list by following the link to litcharts.com, and I guarantee you will be surprised.

Yet why should we be surprised? We know that jargon/slang changes from generation to generation. Who would have known 30 years ago that ‘my bad’ could mean ‘I apologise/I’m sorry/I was wrong’? Language always changes to reflect the needs or concerns of the time. It’s just a different way of looking at history.

So why am I making such an issue of language? Well, it’s because one of my favourite bits of Vokhtah is the language I created to express who and what the characters are.

There’s a Vokh-to-English dictionary at the back of the book, but in reality I didn’t use many of the words in the actual story. Readers quickly work out that ‘ki’ means ‘no’ and that a wingspan is fairly wide in relation to the size of the body. Fingerwidth is pretty self explanatory too, but the pronoun ‘it’ is where the conlang [constructed language] becomes most noticeable.

Remember how I explained that all Vokh and iVokh are hermaphrodites? Well, how can you use ‘he’ and ‘she’ when the character is both? Take away the gendered words and all you have left is ‘it’. Once you start using the word ‘it’ though, other words become problematic…like ‘I’ and ‘you’.

I solved that problem by using ‘one’ or ‘self’ instead of ‘I’, and just for fun I turned the word ‘you’ into a very nasty swear word. But then I really started to dig myself into a hole. How on earth could I write dialogue without pronouns? Try it. ‘Tain’t easy, and sounds really…ugly.

I’m not a linguist, but I do speak a smattering of seven languages [only two properly!], so the sound of the language was really important to me. I was seriously thinking about not having any dialogue in the story at all when Hungarian, and to a lesser extent Japanese, came to my rescue. Pronouns do exist in both languages, but who is speaking is often obvious simply by the form of the verb.

This is what the present and past tense of the verb ‘To Go’ looks like in Hungarian:

https://www.verbix.com/webverbix/go.php?&D1=121&T1=megy

For more on Hungarian grammar, please follow the link to the website.

Hungarian is my mother tongue so I’ve always known that in common speech, you almost always leave off the pronoun because it’s obvious from the form of the verb. In the graphic above, if you ignore the pronouns [shown in green] and just look at the verb forms, you’ll see that the verb changes… for each pronoun. In fact, the form of the verb is unique for each pronoun.

Thus, if I wanted to ask where you [plural] are going, I’d say:

Hova mentek?
[Hova is ‘where’. Mentek is the plural form of [you] go because the ‘you’ is known from the verb form itself]

From there, it was a fairly easy step to reach: ‘”Where going?” it asked.’ The number of iVokh ‘going’ is understood from the context of the paragraph. If you’re talking about multiple iVokh then the question implies more than one. If only one other iVokh is present then the question implies the singular.

From the Japanese, I borrowed the short, sharp form of the men’s language to allow for commands. Thus: ‘”Hold!” it cried.’

And then, because I’m a bit of a masochist, I added a bit more biology in the form of the cilia. Cilia are like tiny pipe organs, and they are how my aliens breathe and speak [the mouth is used only for eating].

But what is the most noticeable thing about pipe organs? It’s that they play chords – major [happy], minor [sad] and variations on discord. Thus the words are automatically coloured by an emotional element, making it unnecessary to say “Self feeling sad” etc.

Finally, I added one more bit of biology – scent glands at the base of each cilia. I blame Golli for this one. Golli is a cat, and when I pick him up for a cuddle, he always rubs his cheek against my shoulder. Yes, it’s a sign of affection, but it’s also his way of scent marking his territory via the scent glands in his cheek. So he’s really saying “I love you, and you’re mine!”.

The Vokh and iVokh never show signs of affection, but those scent glands do produce cues that sometimes ‘leak’ into the air as they speak. Think a whole range of sneaky farts that all ‘mean’ something different. So the spoken language of Vokhtah – the actual words used – can be quite rudimentary because two other emotional cues provide richness and context.

On the cultural side, I decided to make life even more difficult for myself by not having public ‘names’, only titles or ranks. There are strong biological and cultural reasons for this, but I can’t tell you what they are because the published story hasn’t revealed them yet. Suffice to say it’s all because of the big, nasty Vokh. 🙂

The cover of Vokhtah, book 1 of the Suns of Vokhtah series

One of the very first people who read Vokhtah said that I should change the dialogue into everyday English. I did think about it, for about five, very unhappy minutes. Then I realised the obvious: Vokhtah was going to be a difficult book to read no matter what, so asking Readers to get used to the dialogue was peanuts. And really, how could I change the language without changing the very core of the story?

Inevitably, this begs a whole slew of uncomfortable question: why bother creating such unappealing, difficult aliens in the first place? Why go to so much work and effort to write a story only a handful of people are likely to read? Why not use the tried and true trope of having a human main character who could ‘explain’ the bits that really needed explaining?

I guess the most honest answer to all those questions is the same as for the question: why climb Mount Everest? It’s because I wanted to.

Like almost every speculative fiction author I know, I wanted one shot at creating something new. Something that hadn’t been done before. A world that was not Earth, and an alien that was not human.

There’s a lot of ego involved in trying to climb the writing equivalent of Everest, but it’s also a rite of passage because it’s hard, bloody hard. For that reason alone, Vokhtah will probably remain the best thing I ever write. Also the least commercially viable. C’est la vie, n’est ce pas? [That’s life, right?]

Thank you for following me down this linguistic path, and if you know anyone who might be interested, Vokhtah will be free for five days starting on March 16, 2021 [that’s not until tomorrow for Southern Hemisphere readers]. I’m not expecting to make money out of Vokhtah, but I would dearly love to see one more review to bring the total up to 20.

Okay, that’s enough honesty for one day! lol

Much love,
Meeks


Music for a Villain?

I’m a pantster and I love characters ‘on the cusp’, so I’m not sure yet which side of the Good vs Evil divide Death will occupy, but as soon as I heard this piece on Soundcloud, I knew it was Death’s theme.

Enjoy? Maybe?
Meeks


Arnie – my hero!

I know it’s probably not wise to admit to really liking big Arnie’s movies but, what the hell, I do! I’m not blind to the challenges he faced in the acting department though. Nonetheless I do admire the fact that he was smart enough to play to his strengths rather than trying to be something he was not.

Let’s face it, could anyone else have played the Terminator better? I think not. Some would say that his success as the Terminator was thanks to clever casting but I prefer to think that Arnie knew his limitations and was not too proud to admit to them.

There are all sorts of deep and meaningful things I could say about playing to your strengths and knowing your limitations but this is a personal blog so I’m just going to say that I learned about some of my limitations over the weekend and I’m not going to boo-hoo about them anymore.

As a writer I know that I am never going to give Shakespeare anything to worry about and I’m pretty sure I won’t be bumping anyone off the bestseller lists either. But. That was never my intention. I wanted to tell a story, a long story, in a way that hadn’t been done before. I still do.

Right from the beginning I knew my approach was risky because stories about aliens and alien planets are usually told from the perspective of a human observer. That human perspective makes the aliens accessible. It also gives the author some very powerful tools to work with.

I chose to tell my story in a different way and so I have had to find different tools to work with. Some work, some don’t but I have decided to stick with some of my choices.

One choice that will probably cause readers a lot of angst is my dialogue.

‘“Apologizing for disturbing important work,” the Messenger said without any trace of sarcasm.’

In normal dialogue this would read as “I apologize for disturbing your important work”.

That is how we, as humans, would say it but the Messenger is not human. It is humanoid but the differences are more than just cosmetic. For starters my humanoid aliens are true hermaphrodites, meaning that they can take on either the female or male reproductive roles. Which role a particular alien takes depends on who wins the mating battle. The winner takes the male role while the loser takes the female role. The consequences to the loser include an almost 100% chance of bearing an offspring. And the consequences of that can be dire.

This kind of biology directly affects the language as well as the behaviour of my aliens. When ‘he’ and ‘she’ have such personal and private connotations ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘us’ take on a different meaning and context as well.

Still on the theme of biology, these aliens do not have vocal chords or lungs as we know them. Their mouths are solely for feeding. Communication occurs via the cilia which are like the pipes of an old pipe organ. Thus even the most ordinary of speech involves harmonies and discords which are understood as giving tone and inflection to what is said.

Last but not least, the cilia are connected to scent producing glands which reveal the emotions the speaker is feeling. Most adults can control these tell-tale scents but in order to do so they have to try and ‘distance’ themselves from those emotions. This need for distance and control is again reflected in the grammar and phrasing of their speech patterns.

Then there is the question of courtesy. In a strongly hierarchical society courtesy can be a question of life or death. Drawing attention to oneself is neither courteous nor wise and how you refer to someone else can be even more critical.

There is precedent for this extreme courtesy amongst many terran languages as well. The two that I’m most familiar with – French and Hungarian – both have completely separate pronouns and verb forms for saying ‘you’ to a superior or ‘you’ to an equal. [For those interested they are ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ in French and ‘te’ and ‘ön’ in Hungarian. From wiki : ‘Here “you”,[in Hungarian} the second person, is grammatically addressed in the third person.’].

The language of Vokhtan solves this dilemma by removing pronouns from the language almost completely[except for ‘it’ and swear words]. In Vokhtan the word ‘you’ is considered so offensive that it is only ever used as a profanity. So if I, as a human said to the Messenger from the earlier example “Can you direct me to the waste pit?” I would probably be killed on the spot. Vokhtah really isn’t a great tourist destination.

For all of these reasons I made a decision to be true to the biology and culture of my characters in all ways, including dialogue. I’ll be honest, if I could think of a way of making the dialogue easier for readers to understand without losing the biology I would but it’s just not possible. Like it or not the Vokh and the iVokh are real to me now and I can no longer remake them into a more convenient form. So like Arnie, I’m going to play to my strengths and pray like crazy that my future readers will forgive me for making them work so hard!

I wish I could post a picture of what my aliens look like but my artist-in-residence is not happy with the original concept art so my hands are tied. When the Daughter speaks I yank on my forelock and slink away. After all, how many artists are prepared to work for nothing more than a roast dinner?

I know it’s only been a couple of days but I’ve missed you guys and it’s good to be back. 🙂


%d bloggers like this: