I recently heard back from the Writers of the Future contest, and, alas, I did not place. Looking at my submission in comparison to pieces that have won their contest in the past, I definitely see some things that I’ll need to work on. Namely, I need to send something more complete and less introductory–a story with beginning, middle, and end. And I need to lose a few cliches that I didn’t know were cliches until I heard from the judges.
But I want to share what I sent them for a few reasons.
First, it is very…me. Unlike the last short story I shared on the site, this one is pretty settled in my voice, although I would lose some of the melodrama/poetics upon review. And it’s full with characters and concepts that have grown with me over the years. (Fun fact: Arthur, Spencer, and Caelestis used to be named Drajon, Koron, and Candora.)
Second, I think it’s cool. *shrug*
Third, it’s another example of a story that didn’t win its contest but solicited advice.
And finally, it’s hopeful. Although the novel will complicate the Atlantian obsession with remaining sequestered, I think the story here does a good job showing a few of my leaders processing an attack on their world and ending up somewhere hopeful. After a heavy weekend, it felt good to re-read it.
* * *
“The Hole in the Sky”
One morning in winter, Magic awakened Spencer and told him to go and watch the sun rise over the Edge. Spencer doesn’t like winter, and he doesn’t really much care for morning. He huddled over his tea for a while, blinking away the sleep, and then he dressed slowly in crimson down and crackling leather, filling his pockets with ginger snaps, the most petulant of cookies. But eventually he went and found two other men awaiting him there, as Magic had awakened them, too. Cheering a bit, he walked up between them.
To his right stood Arthur Pendragon III, his dearest childhood friend, comrade and warrior to his tactician and historian, and something even beyond a brother. To his left stood Caelestis Zoranov, his most demanding professor, advisor, and something even beyond a father-figure.
Cael sighed and looked at the sun. “Why are we up so early? If I’ve seen one sun rise, I’ve seen a thousand. They’re becoming a bit gratuitous.”
Spencer popped a cookie and looked out at the sun, as well. It punched its way through the clouded grey sky like candlelight flaring off the surface of a looking glass. The bay leading up to the cliff face, the Edge, sparkled with silvery white caps and smelled of sea foam. “I don’t know exactly. Magic woke me up and led me out here and said I would find the start to my story if I watched the sunrise.”
“Magic says a lot of things,” said Arthur. “Magic once told me to lay naked in a field sipping wine at midday and engage in conversation with a crow, and I didn’t do that.” The two other men turned away from the sunrise to stare at him. He shirked his long coat further up on his shoulders. “Well, I didn’t.”
“Then why did you come here?” asked Spencer.
Arthur rubbed his beard and crossed his arms. “Felt different. Give me one of those.”
Spencer passed over a ginger snap and nodded. It did feel different. Out here on the Edge, things usually did, but this morning even more so. He glanced to Cael out of the corner of his vision and saw that, despite his initial grousing, the sprite had closed his eyes and turned them upward into the oncoming light.
It is difficult, even if you happen to be as old as Cael, to steel yourself against Atlantis for very long. Her grasses are green excepting in those places where they are plowed under into thick black soil full of thickening sprouts. Her skies are cobalt blue, unless they turn ruby with sun or obsidian with storm. Her ruins are more storied than all the annals of human history. And her air is charged with the swirling, sparking residue of Magic, rendering every breath, every movement, every glance out the window, an experience. Akin to the otherworldliness you perceive just after a lightning strike, and the way it rolls up your spine. The near painful, delicious shiver that takes you as you turn your face into morning wind, and welcome a dove grey dawn with all its rose colored edging.
The edging was slowly falling off of this dawn, though, replaced by a fierce and crystalline orange. Cael registered the change in light and fluttered his eyes open, raising both of his arms out in front him, palms up. A lattice work of cross-hatched shadows fell across the fabric of his burgundy topcoat. He lowered his arms.
Spencer looked out across the sea to the source of the shadows, a vast array of backlit scaffolding. Support beams plunged into the bay for about a mile’s width, two across with a walkway between them. From the walkway, another five stories of scaffolding sprouted up into the sky, thick with ladders and safety nets and scrambling engineers. The edges of the scaffold were no longer in use. Repairs had already been accomplished in those sections. But the heart of the apparatus shuddered with footfalls and the gusting wind that rushed in through a harsh, bright blue gash in the great domed exterior of Atlantis—the dome that separated the human world from that belonging to Magic.
“That is some kind of transcendent hideous,” muttered Arthur. He stomped his feet to warm them and glowered at the scene.
Spencer really couldn’t agree. Although the mingling of atmospheres was dangerous for any number of reasons, and although the events that had caused the damage to the dome had been a transformative sort of ugly, he found the combined talents and efforts of the engineers rather beautiful. They were weeks into the healing of the wound in the sky, and they still stood fearlessly and hopefully at the division between worlds, letting go of their breath in tiny silver puffs as they splayed their hands and cast repairs.
He turned to Arthur, ready to retort, but Cael interrupted, bringing his hand up into the air. Maybe twenty paces ahead, where the plateau sheered down to the bay, the Alchemist had appeared. Standing just over seven feet tall and wrapped in a long and slim black cloak, he silhouetted against the sunrise like a slice of Halloween.
Cael twitched one eyebrow ever so slightly, furrowing a face that was otherwise frozen somewhere between youthful and ageless beauty. “Why now…?” he said. One of the Alchemist’s long, pointed ears tremored, and he turned his head slightly to the side. Cael took that as an entry to conversation and stepped forward to speak with him.
Spencer couldn’t tell what was said between them. Cael was a study in implacability, and the Alchemist looked out over the bay. He figured it wouldn’t do much good to ask, either, but Arthur was a slightly less subtle sort of person.
“Well? What did he say?”
“Most pressingly, that we should move back,” said Cael, continuing on past the other two. Arthur sighed and mumbled something under his breath but followed dutifully along with Spencer.
The Alchemist waited until they were settled and then raised both his arms in front of him. One of them, he left outstretched. The other he turned downward toward the ground. He took another deep breath, as though in resignation of what was about to happen, and lowered his head.
First came the anchors—spidery metal legs that spouted from the Alchemist’s downward turned palm like multiple tripods or the beams of a large tent. They unfolded and pierced the ground, holding the Alchemist steady while also rolling over the cliff face and fortifying the rock wall. Shining silver reinforcements crept out from under his boots, as well, and Spencer had a sickening sort of feeling that they had pierced the soles of the Alchemist’s feet as well as his shoes. Even from afar Spencer could see the set of his jaw, gritted in pain, but the much older man held steady.
Then came the full machine.
Spencer jumped back before he could stop himself. He had never actually seen the machine before—in fact, Cael himself had only seen it a handful of times in his long life—and it was suddenly apparent why it wasn’t a seen thing.
It was like watching the exposed bones and tissues of an anatomical drawing come to life. Metal cords about the width of a thumb exploded from each of the fingertips of the Alchemist’s outstretched hand. Actually, thought Spencer with another turn of his stomach, the cords were replacing his fingers altogether, bursting the skin and breaking the nails. The Alchemist shuddered as the cords oozed out of him, drops of blood falling to the earth as the wires arced into the air like curls of particularly cruel smoke. They writhed in front of him, twitching this way and that like so many snakes—or one giant snake with many tongues—tasting the air and clarifying their positions and objectives. Then they came together in a thick braid, forming a single metal core, and shot forward as a collective thing, tightening and gliding onward. The Alchemist stood paralyzed, suspended between anchors and the lengthening coil.
The engineers across the bay were not expecting the Alchemist’s addition to their work. The speculative papers had suggested that himself might attend to them, but Energists of reason had disregarded all the cover stories.
No one in the past five centuries had seen the machine.
No one was going to see it now.
So, when the braided silver cord slipped through a hole in the scaffolding, silent and silken, they gaped and stared like children. It plunged through the bottom lip of the gash and then curved back and pierced the top, over and over again in quick succession, stitching the sky and drawing the edges of the dome together for the mending.
Presence of mind caught up with the foreman, and she hollered out to the collected engineers. Hundreds of hands flew into the air at her call, and on her mark, castings poured from each Energist.
Some of the engineers were builders with knowledge of the exact method for duplicating the original dome. As the wound pulled closed, they added new portions, making the job of the machine that much easier. Other engineers were trained in reinforcement, and they reached out with their castings to check the elasticity of the material, knit together the edges of the rupture, and close the punctures left by the machine. Still others handled energy as fuel, and of all the engineers, they were the most baffled by the appearance of the machine, this due to the fact that the pulsating cords were spewing wave upon wave of unallocated energy.
Unallocated energy could be used by any Energist of any element at any length and for any purpose, all without concern for disrupting the delicate balance within the dome. It was rare and delicious and intoxicating, like top shelf liquor, and anyone who had ever touched it before had only ever had a very little, and filtered at that. But here it was, all the same, scattering and sparkling like a cloud of fireflies right over their heads. As they pulled it down and carved it out, shoveling it in toward the other teams, they started up the cheering. It didn’t take long for the rest of the engineers to realize what was being given to them, and by the time the machine recoiled, leaving one last dusting of energy in its departure, the celebration had become deep and throaty and raucous. A few Energists fell straight into the sea in the midst of the revelry, while others swung out on ladders to kiss the dome or ignored the ladders and kissed each other.
Atlantis was cloistered once again, and wasn’t it six kinds of wonderful.
The cord snapped back to the Alchemist as quickly as it had erupted. The ricochet forced his arm backwards at an alarming rate, mangling flesh and leaving what remained of the appendage askew. The sickening snap in his shoulder was followed by a roar of pain and frustration, and as the anchors surged back into his body, he fell to the ground without ceremony, his good arm twitching as the reinforcing legs slithered back inside it.
Cael suffered a small outburst at the sight, as sprites are wont to do when great feeling strikes them. His form, which was really just a conglomeration of energy and casting residue, dispersed into thousands upon thousands of tiny pin-pricks of light, reconfiguring his senses. He was already on the move when he began to reassemble from the core outward, and Spencer followed on his heels, as it were, chasing after a bobbing globe of light that was swiftly sprouting legs.
The sprite knelt beside the prone figure while the machine began to work. It rolled a series of articulated metal plates with a claw on the end out of the Alchemist’s ear and grabbed hold of his shoulder. It pulled with a yank, a click of metal, and number of snaps. Face down and unconscious, The Alchemist didn’t make any sounds of pain, but Spencer winced in sympathy. Then the plates retreated, and a series of wires emerged from the exposed musculature of the arm, knitting together as a delicate web of veins.
“At least he’s breathing,” said Spencer.
“Of course he’s breathing.” Arthur strolled up beside them and nudged the Alchemist with the toe of his boot. With a hundred and fifty years of experience on the battlefield, that was all the more worry he could muster. Cael scowled at him all the same, and Arthur gave a wide-eyed shake of his head. “What?”
“You know he has stopped breathing before,” Spencer said. “It takes him much longer to heal when that happens.”
“Oh.” Arthur softened his stance a bit, tightening his lips in an almost apology. “In any case,” he said, “I guess no Casting Games this year. That was a whole hell of a lot of unallocated just got used up.”
“Come on, Art, I’d say this was slightly more important.” Spencer gestured to the rapidly dismantling scaffold and the newly patched dome.
“Yes, yes, of course. Just saying.”
“Arthur, I do hope that if you ever set foot in a field hospital, it belongs to your enemies.” Cael rose to his feet and put his hand out over the Alchemist, lifting him from the ground and rotating him to face upward as though on an invisible stretcher. He turned and started walking back to their initial travelling point. Spencer and Arthur fell into line on the other side of the Alchemist and walked back over the plains to another round of rousing cheers from behind them. Apparently, the engineers had noticed their savior being ported off to the hospital.
“Well, I’d say Magic didn’t lie this time,” said Spencer. “When I ship this off to Chicago, I’m probably going to leave out the bit about the mangled arm, though….” He eyed the dark red drops staining the ground at intervals and took a further step out to the side. “Don’t want to turn anyone away from the rest of what I need to say.”
“Leave the blood in,” said Arthur. “Atlantis isn’t for the squeamish. Not as it is now.”
“Atlantis has never been for the squeamish,” said Cael. He buttoned his coat with his free hand and pulled his scarf closer. “Leave in the blood. We’ll bring back all the stolen children. But let’s find the fearsome ones, first.”