Short Story: A Bridgetown Christmas

[NOTE: I wrote this over a few days in mid-December 2019 as a way to test out whether I could use the 750 Words site while at the office at the Former Day Job. (Come to find out, I could, which saved my sanity for a while.) I thought it would be fun to feature the Bridgetown gang in a Special Christmas Episode. I also wanted to prove to myself once and for all that yes, I CAN actually write a short story if I put my mind to it. And yes, it is considered canon in the Mendaihu Universe.]

*

It felt so comforting, so freeing to finally go to a Winter Festival without having to worry about her job. Caren couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone to one of these without that hint of tension lurking somewhere in the back of her sensing. She could even walk around Tower Park now without that feeling of sorrow and dread and being reminded of that riot in Kendall Fields. That was all behind her, a good couple of years now. It had taken such a long time, but she’d come to terms with that fateful day and moved on. The pain was still there, hiding so deep in her spirit, but it was no longer an obstacle. Just a reminder.

She walked slowly down the wide promenade with her arm in Anando’s, taking in the lights and the people and the scents of baked goods. The level of positive energy here was intoxicating in a pleasant way, just enough to bring her own spirit some holiday joy. Even though it was early December and a cold snap was going to be coming in late in the evening, there was nothing that could break this mood for anyone.

Anando was bundled up in a heavy coat, knit hat and fingerless gloves, but he emanated such a warmth both physical and spiritual that she didn’t want to let go of him just yet. He seemed to be oblivious of the dropping temperature, focusing more on the people and the sights and everything else. He wanted to stop at each booth they walked by, either to say hello or to try the foods they were selling, but she kept him moving. They were due to meet Poe and Akaina at one of the large seating areas up ahead, and she didn’t want to keep them waiting.

“You’re in a hurry,” he said in amusement, after she’d nudged him on for the fourth time.

“And you aren’t,” she retorted, giving him a playful nudge. “We can visit everyone again after we have dinner with Poe and Kai.”

“I know…” he said, waving at yet another booth attendant. “I just don’t want all my friends to think I’m ignoring them.”

She cocked an eyebrow at him. “So you know pretty much every single person on the Western Path of the Winter Festival grounds, is that what you’re saying?” she teased. “Because I’m telling you now I’m not nearly as much of a social person as you are. And I meet a lot of people on the job.”

“Yes, I do,” he said, and gave her a peck on the head. “You’ll just have to deal with it, Karzi.”

She giggled and hugged his arm tighter. She loved it when he used that name with her. “I guess I will,” she said, and pointed at one of the larger stalls further on. “Hey, isn’t that…?”

Anando hummed and made a beeline for it. “Yes, that’s Mancka alright. I’ve rarely seen her since she retired, come to think of it. We should at least stop and say hello, yeah?”

They stepped up to the booth together, the both of them sending a small wave of love and cheer her way. Mancka Udéma had been an extremely important part of keeping the Ninth Season running as smoothly as it did, helping keep the Governor’s council from intruding and possibly making things worse. After Denni’s final ascension and freedom, Mancka had considered her role complete and slid back into the shadows. They’d stayed in touch for a little while but then Mancka had gone off the grid for nearly a year. Caren had never learned why, and chose not to ask.

“Karinna! Anando!” she said, beaming and reaching over the booth boards to give them hugs. “Somfei, somfei, my sehnadha! It’s wonderful to see you again! How are you?” She pulled back, but didn’t let go of either of them right away. She held their arms tightly, full of excitement. “I’m so glad the two of you are still together. How is everyone from the circle?”

Goddess, she really had taken herself out of the loop! “Everyone’s fine,” she said. “They all miss you, emha. We’ve all wondered where you’d gone off to.”

Mancka waved a hand and smiled. “Oh, here and there. Outposts, stuck in the Tower, recuperating at home, up on Trisanda, that sort of thing.”

Anando blinked at her. “When were you on Trisanda? I never sensed you there and I was up there almost constantly for five months after everything was over!”

“Oh, much later than that,” she said. “Almost a year later. I had some business to attend to with Ampryss and Dolan.”

Both Anando and Caren raised their brows at her. “Business…?” she said warily. “Dare I ask?”

Mancka waved her concern away. “Nothing terrible. The Season may have come to a close, but there’s still so much to do to keep this Awakening alive. We just want everything to work, yeah? We’d rather not leave anything to chance.”

Caren nodded solemnly. This had been one hell of a Season of Embodiment, what with her younger sister being the One of All Sacred and Caren herself being a Warrior and Protector of the One. “Denni’s doing fine,” she said quietly. “She’s up in New Boston, her first year in college.”

Mancka’s eyes widened. “Oh, that’s right! I’d forgotten how old she is now! She’s studying under Alec’s brother, isn’t she? Majoring in literature?”

“With a minor in art, believe it or not. Given the last few years, she felt the need to study something close to her heart instead of what everyone expects. I’m proud of her, taking that chance.”

“I’m glad,” she said. “Tell her I said hello when you have the chance. I miss her terribly. We had some really interesting conversations back then.”

“I will,” Caren said with a wide smile, and started nudging Anando down the wide path again. “Alec and Akaina are here, by the way, I’ll send them your way after we have dinner with them?”

“Certainly! Pashyo, it’s good to see you again, Caren. Look me up when you have the time.”

They waved their goodbyes and continued their walk towards the dining area. She checked her watch; it was nearing seven, which meant that Poe and Kai were most likely already at a table, waiting for them to arrive. She pulled at Anando’s arm again and double-timed it.

*

She felt Poe’s spirit well before she saw him or Kai, and that helped her find them easily. He held himself as quiet and closed as possible most of the time, but he’d left that one connection between them wide open. She did the same for him; they trusted each other that complicitly. She gave him a wave as soon as his eyes lifted towards hers. Kai, who had been facing the other way, had perked up quickly and turned around, beaming at her.

“Hey!” she said, getting up and rushing towards them, giving them both a big squeeze. Caren could feel the baby bump in Kai’s belly pressing up against her. She shivered with joy every time she thought of these two friends of hers starting a family; this was a blessing for both of them. Kai gave both of them kisses on the cheeks and brought them back to the table.

“So good to see you two!” she said, dropping back down in her seat. Her spirit was in such an excited state that she could hardly sit still, and shifted between them. “Ashan and I have been so busy at the northern outposts lately, I miss everyone!” She reached over and touched Poe’s hand, squeezing it tightly. “Especially this one here,” she said, smiling at him.

“Oh, you’re not missing much with him,” Caren laughed. “He’s been his usual dour self.”

Poe snorted at her. “Okay, I’ll give you that,” he said. “The Season might be over, but the level of casework we have to do hasn’t changed at all.”

“True words,” Caren said, and turned back to Kai. “So, girl… tell me about your brother. He’s doing okay? I haven’t seen him in nearly eight months. No one has. He’s been… scarce.”

Kai pursed her lips slightly, then let it go. “He’s… he’s doing okay, if that’s what you mean,” she said quietly. “He’s got a lot on his mind lately, eichi. He won’t say much, but I have some ideas why he’s been acting the way he has. Not here, though. After dinner. If you aren’t busy, you can come to our place and we can talk about it.”

Caren knew better than to press further. Besides, this was Winter Festival, and they were all here to see each other and be happy and sense the joyous spirits around them. She let it go for now.

*

Poe’s apartment had not changed much at all over the years, other than that it no longer had that stink of cigarette smoke. He’d quit for good at the end of the Season, and had not touched one since. It was also tidier, thanks to the major cleaning party they’d had soon after everything was over. He’d made good on his promise and kept the place clean and tidy. Kai had moved in after a few months, and they’d gotten married soon after that. Caren and Anando were in no rush to go down the same road just yet. Seeing a domesticated Alec Poe still threw her for a loop, though. She’d known him for so long that such changes still surprised her.

Poe leaned through the kitchen door and smiled at them. “Coffee all around?”

“Please,” Caren said, pulling the small blanket around her shoulders. Though the heat in his apartment was going full blast, she was still shivering from being outside for so long. “If you’re spiking them, I won’t say no.”

“Spiked it is,” he smirked, and ducked back into the kitchen.

Kai sidled up next to her, providing additional warmth. “So, eichi… tell me what’s been going on in the city. Ashan and I have been unplugged for the last half year. Anything we should know about?”

Caren knew a pointed question when she heard one and smiled. “Nothing out of the ordinary, if that’s what you mean,” she said. “It’s been business as usual. The occasional request for security during mass rituals, a few small arguments to settle, things like that. It keeps us busy enough. The Elders have been poking at Alec and I about joining one of their collectives in Swope Heights or across the river, but we keep saying no.”

Kai studied her for a moment before answering. “Personal?”

Caren shrugged in response. “You could say that. It’s not that we don’t trust them, it’s just that…” She glanced at the kitchen doorway, knowing full well that Alec was listening in. She exhaled again and continued. “It doesn’t sing to either of us.”

Kai touched her shoulder and nodded. “I understand. Sometimes we follow our own path instead of a collective one. Alec has told me before about the Elders, especially the collective down near Webster Park. They’re Reverend Miriam’s old group, if I recall.”

Miriam! Caren hadn’t heard that name in quite a long time. He’d fallen off the face of the planet soon after the Season had ended, and everyone had assumed that he’d travelled to Trisanda and stayed up there. No one blamed him, after everything he’d gone through over the last two Embodiments. He deserved the rest.

“They’re…” she started, then stumbled to a stop. How could she put this delicately…? “Well. Remember Amna at the warehouse near the end of the Season? When everything started going wrong?”

Kai took a slow breath and put a hand on her belly. “When the chaos set in, you mean,” she said quietly.

Caren nodded. “It feels like that. I don’t necessarily sense anything wrong about to happen, but…”

Poe came out with a tray of steaming mugs and placed it on the table, and glanced at her. “…but they’re being uncharacteristically pushy about it,” he said, and sat down next to Kai. “You and I talked about this about a month or so ago. Remember when I told you about Elder Thomas?”

“Oh, that’s right,” she said, waving a finger at him. “I’d told Ashan about it afterwards and he said not to worry too much about it.”

“I’m not worried,” Caren said, and turned to Anando. “I’m just concerned. I doubt they’re in full crusade mode. A bit zealous, perhaps.”

“That’s what concerns me,” Anando said. “As a non-Elder, they’re really trying to pull us lower level adepts in.”

“And I do not want Denni involved,” she said, turning to the others. “If only because I know she’ll want to do something about it.”

Kai sat back and thought about it for a bit, slowly sipping her tea. “I’ll tell you what Ashan is worried about,” she said. “It’s the extremes. Not the extremists, mind you… just the fact that we have Elders trying to raise their numbers, the occasional recently-awakened that takes it all just a little too seriously… and those who are using it all for their own ends.”

Caren hummed. “Everyone with eyes opened but no one looking anywhere,” she said.

Poe smirked at her. “I’m usually the one who quotes Kelley James. But yeah, that’s it exactly.”

She turned to Anando again. “Is that what you’ve been sensing?”

“Yes, I think so,” he said. “It’s hard to tell, especially when there’s still so much noise out there. It’s like on the surface level they’re fesh crahné, but deeper within they’re fesh piann.”

“And still not enough sehn-dayenné out there to steer them in the right direction,” Kai said. “That’s part of why Ashan and I have been spending so much time in the outposts. It’s the best place to start teaching.”

Poe hummed and leaned back. “You know…”

Kai huffed at him and put down her mug. “Alix, we talked about this.”

“I know we did,” he said, his voice calm and quiet. So unlike him. “But seriously… if it comes to it, I’m willing to take that step. If it’s necessary.”

Caren raised an eyebrow; clearly this was something Poe had chosen not to share with her, even as her ARU partner. She didn’t fault him, though. “What step is this?”

“Become a sehn-dayenné myself, of course,” he said with a smile. “Maybe not as psychotic as Elder Crittiqila of course. More like, I don’t know… our girl Denni.”

“That’s blasphemy, you know,” Caren said with a quick grin. “But I see where you’re coming from. After all, you are the Dahné Mendaihu, last I checked.”

Kai sighed in resignation. “That’s what worries me,” she said. “It’s a full time job and it’ll put a strain on all of us.”

Caren continued sipping at her coffee. Why could she not get warm? Even with Anando by her side, she couldn’t shake this chill from her body. It wasn’t just because of the weather, either. She’d been feeling it all day long, and the more she thought about it, the more it felt like an inner chill than an outer one. She was in proximity of multiple kiralla in this room, but that wasn’t it either.

Perhaps her own spirit was trying to tell her, warn her, about something within.

“That’s not all Ashan’s been up to,” Kai said, leaning back into the soft cushions of the couch. “Between the teaching and everything else, he’s been running himself ragged. I’m worried about him, but he won’t listen to reason.” She let out a frustrated sigh and sipped at her tea again. “He’s my eicho and I love him dearly, but he’s been so distant to everyone this year, especially me. Either he’s going through a personal change of spirit…”

“…or he’s holding something from us out of safety,” Poe finished. “Last time I talked to him about a month ago, he’d closed himself off damn tight. Amiable in his own way, sure, but you can sense a damn thick barrier between himself and everyone else.”

“I’m worried about him,” Kai said quietly. “He’s never been like this before.”

Caren hummed in response, wanting to say more, but held her tongue. Ashan had always maintained a level of cold distance from most everyone other than his sister. And he had been dealt a painfully heavy blow near the end of their Season, when he’d nearly lost her forever.

Perhaps that was why she felt cold today. Without thinking, she’d laid her left hand over her right, rubbing her thumb against the skin. She’d gone through her own heavy battle at the end there as well, nearly getting torn to ribbons by one of the final battles between Denni and Saisshalé. She rarely used her touch-sensing abilities since then, finding it just that bit…alien.

Perhaps Ashan was feeling the same thing. The sensation of something so integral, so heavily entwined within his soul, suddenly vanishing. Even if that something was returned whole, it wasn’t the same ever again.

“Karzi…?” Anando whispered in her ear. “You’re okay?”

Caren shifted out of her thoughts and gave him a quick smile. “Fine,” she said. “Just thinking.”

“Well,” Poe said, breaking the silence. “I won’t push him. He’ll come to us if he needs to. I trust him.”

Kai took hold of his hand and squeezed it. “Thank you,” she said quietly.

“Right,” he continued, and pushed himself up. Everyone in the room felt a small but significant wave of love and affection emanating from him. “It’s Winter Festival, it’s the first significant amount of time we’ve all had off, so I think we should celebrate! What do you think, Kai?”

She laughed at him, sending a wave of love his way in return. “Who am I to stop you, Alix? You’ve been so twitchy about this for the last two weeks!”

Caren eyed the both of them. “Okay, what are you two up to?”

Poe gave her a ridiculously wide grin and held up his fingers. “Wait right there,” he said, and dashed off into the other room.

“Kai…?” she said. “What’s going on?”

But she just shrugged. “He’s from a big family, you know how he is.”

“He didn’t… Poe!” Caren called out. “You better not have presents in there! You told me you wouldn’t!”

“I lied,” he called back.

“We didn’t get either of you anything!” she said, feeling embarrassed. “I thought we agreed. He’s done enough for me, I don’t expect anything else.”

“That’s what makes it so fun,” Poe said, coming back out with two small black boxes. She handed one to her, and the other to Anando. He was equally surprised and took it from him, wondering what was inside.”

“Alec…” she said.

“You two deserve this,” he said, sitting back down next to Kai, taking her hand. “We don’t want anything in return.”

She eyed him, first with contempt, then with a grudging acceptance, then with frustrated affection. He was always doing this, going so far out of his way to make everyone happy. She could only hope he’d finally learned to include himself in that equation. She and Anando glanced at each other, then at the boxes.

Inside, there were two beautiful gold rings, one in each box. Both with inlaid stone set in the shape of the Shalei sigil, two intersecting circles. With a trembling hand, she pulled it out of its box and looked closely at it. On the inside, she saw it: allei aiya, cho-shadhisi inscribed on the inside of the band.

She turned and looked at Anando.

He had the biggest grin on his face. “Allei aiya, Karinna Shalei. Please be with me throughout all the universes,” he said, tears forming in the corners of his eyes.

“Oh…” she said.

“Took you long enough,” she heard behind her.

“Oh…!” she trembled, up and on her feet.

Denni stood there in the doorway, having just Lightwalked into Poe’s front room without a sound.

Caren darted around the couch and ran into her sister’s arms and held her tightly. “Ai…!” she cried. “What are you doing here? You weren’t supposed to come back for another week! I’ve missed you!”

Denni giggled and held her close. “I wouldn’t miss my sister getting engaged for the worlds, you know,” she said.

She gasped a third time, realizing the ring was still in her hands.

This had been planned far, far in advance, and she’d had no idea…!

“Ai…” she sobbed. “You’re going to kill me here!” She burst out into laughter she felt throughout her entire spirit, and made her way back to Anando. He was still sitting on the couch, the other ring in his hand. Waiting for her to respond. She walked over to him, lifted him to his feet, and pulled him into a warm embrace.

“Allei aiya, cho-shadhisi,” she whispered in his ear. “I will be with you throughout the universes.”

She heard cheers and whoops all around them, felt a ridiculous wave of joy and love emanating from everyone in the room, but at this moment she only paid attention to one person, the one currently in her arms.

“I love you, Anando,” she said.

Bridgetown Maps: Evolution

I’ve mentioned this before: I’ve been fascinated by maps since I was a kid.  My dad had put up nine US Geodetic Survey maps of the local North Quabbin area on the wall of his downtown office (he used it as reference, as he was a local reporter), and I would stare at the things for ages.  The topography lines helped me imagine what the areas I’ve never visited looked like.  When I did eventually visit those areas, my visual guesses were rarely far off the mark.  My fascination soon expanded to the roads I carved into the dirt in my side yard for my Hot Wheels, and by 9 or 10 I was drawing maps just for the fun of it.  They weren’t of anywhere in particular; I’d just make them up as I went along.  It became a relaxing way to pass the time for me.  And once I went to college, you’d see map doodling all over the margins.  I still do it to this day; if you see me in the audience at a con, leaning over and doodling, chances are I’m drawing a map while I’m listening to the panelists.

Bridgetown Central 1993
Artwork ©1993 Jon Chaisson

When I started the Vigil project in the winter of 1993, I knew map drawing would have to be part of the world building.  If not for the publication, at least for my own reference.  I had certain areas of Bridgetown laid out in my head, but I wanted to have a physical layout I could use.

I hadn’t quite gotten the hang of size and perspective in these early maps, but they at least gave me an idea of what the Sprawl looked like.

This first map to the left was drawn that winter, with a much smaller layout of the city (it’s more like a small city here than a big giant sprawl it ended up being), but certain parts of it remained to the end of the project: the gentle curve of Branden Hill Park (called Johnson Park here), Sachers River and its island (with Vigil’s island location laid out), and the major north-south highway splitting through the middle.

Bridgetown Central 1995
Artwork ©1995 Jon Chaisson

The Vigil project ended up more like a lot of world building than doing much actual prose writing (I think it had more to do with me trying to figure out what story I wanted to tell and how).  By the summer of 1995 I expanded the above map by taping the original to my apartment window, covering it with blank newsprint paper, and building it up.

The layout was still a bit wonky, but I was getting there.  The big circle in the lower right corner is the first visual suggestion of the Mirades Tower (called the Underwood Tower here — I think I originally wanted Jenn’s family to be tied do it but never expanded on that plot line).  I’m kind of fascinated by this one, because by that time I’d watched a lot of anime and wanted something like the GENOM Tower from Bubblegum Crisis.  I was well aware of security issues with major driving arteries going underneath this tower, but I thought it was kind of a neat idea anyway.

Mirades Tower Looking South
Artwork ©1998 Jon Chaisson

Come 1998, I was about halfway through writing The Phoenix Effect, and I had a much better idea of what Bridgetown looked like.  At first I had an idea to draw certain visuals, such as the one to the left here: a view of the Mirades Tower, lording over the entirety of the Sprawl (the circle of buildings is a reference to the initial awakening process that takes place at the start of the book…ie, the Ring of Fire).  I wasn’t too happy with the artwork though (mainly me being a perfectionist and being annoyed at how wonky the Tower looks here), but it did its job.    I even got a better idea of how wide the Sachers River needed to be.  In fact, looking at this now, I realize this is very similar to the view I have out Spare Oom window, looking across the mouth of the Golden Gate towards the Marin Headlands!

Bridgetown Central
Artwork ©1998 Jon Chaisson

Probably within a month or so after that above drawing, I drew what would end up being one of the official reference maps for Bridgetown, complete with the district boundaries.  I would refer to this one page constantly during the TPE revision and the major rewrite as the trilogy.  Very little has changed in Bridgetown since then.  A few street names have changed, and I still hadn’t quite gotten Sachers Island drawn correctly, but for the most part this can still be considered a semi-accurate reference map for all the stories that take place in this city.

Note: Also seen on this map are the rough points of the hrrah-sehdhyn attack that takes place in A Division of Souls.  I’d added these a few years after the original map was drawn and just before I wrote that scene so I could get the layout correct.

 

But wait, there’s more!

During the years I wrote the trilogy, I would often flesh out ideas during the slow hours at my Day Job at the candle warehouse.  My buddy Bruce would often make fun of me when I did this.  I’d snag a piece of scrap paper (or more to the point, the blank forms we used for the pallets we built) and commence with that day’s outlining for whatever I’d be writing later that evening.  Or I’d draw detailed maps, sometimes even working on certain sections of Bridgetown.

Branden Hill Park
Artwork ©2001 Jon Chaisson

Here’s a great example of that:  My favorite section of town Branden Hill Park, which had been a point of interest since the Vigil days (the original Vigil story starts at the northeast corner of the park).  This is probably the best example of what Bridgetown truly looks like in my head.  I even went so far as to draw subway lines, considering that subway kiosk in the park shows up multiple times in the trilogy.

Note: You can even see where I put Nehalé’s apartment (the HB in the top left corner, referring to his old name of Halley Brown).

I do like the idea that even though the trilogy takes place at least 300 years in the future, there really hasn’t been too much of a change in terms of street layout or architecture for that matter.  I used the reasoning that Europe still has some of its original medieval roads, not to mention architecture that’s been around for a few centuries.  Besides, I really wasn’t all that keen on using the SF trope of multi-level cities and mountains of detritus.  The Meraladians helped us get past that economical and ecological snag sometime ago.

Mirades Tower Park
Artwork ©2003 Jon Chaisson

And lastly, I wanted a general layout of what Mirades Tower Park looked like — it would be used as a major setting throughout the trilogy, and numerous scenes take place there in The Balance of Light, so I had to make sure I got it right.  I think this one definitely gets the dimensions correct, as the Tower really is that huge.  I also deliberately left the surrounding neighborhood empty…since this is the financial and governmental center of the city, the entire area would be filled with skyscrapers and business towers, so the map would really end up looking like a bunch of large squares inside a square grid of streets.

I’m sure I have more maps and building drawings lying around.  I know I’d made a rough sketch of what the Branden Hill ARU headquarters looked like (hint: one of those arty curvy buildings, but without all the bizarre useless angles).  I’ll have to scan more of them when I have the time.

All these drawings definitely helped me visualize Bridgetown as I was writing the stories that take place there.  Without them I’m sure I’d have gotten a lot of the directions and distances incorrect.  It also helped me narrow down the images I wanted for my book covers; I knew that they would have to be busy metropolises, though not necessarily with the dark cyberpunk attitude of Bladerunner.  Both A Division of Souls and The Balance of Light use Shutterstock pictures of Singapore, which is just about the right level of sprawling city I was looking for.

 

 

 

 

 

Meme Extra: F is also for Dylan Farraway

In doing the A to Z Challenge last month, even though I couldn’t come up with anything for X, Y or Z, there were numerous characters and ideas that I didn’t hit, due to something already laying claim to that letter.  So without further ado, here are a few more entries that you may enjoy!

* * *

Dylan Farraway - Kevin Spacey

Q: What is Farraway’s origin?

A: Along with Alec and Caren, Dylan Farraway was one of the newer characters in the Phoenix Effect reboot.  I’d originally pictured him as a takeoff of Chief Aramaki in Ghost in the Shell: bald and kind of weird-looking, bound to blow up at his staff on a daily basis.  I soon backed away from that idea and recreated him as an even-tempered, highly intelligent but extremely overworked boss.

Q: How is he connected to the Mendaihu?

A: Well…it’s kind of complex.  But I can say that he’s quite efficient at obtaining and retaining his various contacts outside of the ARU, so he knows quite a few Mendaihu and Shenaihu.

Q: That’s Kevin Spacey in that picture.  Did you base Farraway on him?

A: Actually, no!  It wasn’t until maybe about a month ago that I realized he’d be good at playing Farraway.  Just like when I chose Kathleen Turner as Madeleine Jakes…I had a general idea of what they looked like and how they acted, but didn’t have anyone in mind until recently.

Q: He has quite a close relationship with Alec and Caren.  Is there a reason for that?

A: In general, yes.  Farraway knew Caren’s parents quite well, having come up through the ranks around the same time they were high-level agents themselves.  He was never their chief, but he would work alongside them on many cases, and got to know Caren personally in the process, while she was at the ARU academy.  He’d become Chief Inspector at the Branden Hill HQ around that time, and had personally put in a request to have her assigned to him when she graduated.  So in the process, whoever Caren has worked with, he has connected with.  He was also the one to decide that Caren and Sheila should remain close workwise, ensuring she remained as part of the Team Two setup.

Q: Anything else?

A: He lives not that far from the HQ, actually…he walks to work.  He has a wife, but she unfortunately never made it into any of the stories.  He’s quite aware of Alec’s connection to Vigil; in fact, he deliberately says nothing because he knows it’s a safe and very lucrative connection for them.  He always plays his cards close…even with his agents, he never reveals everything unless absolutely necessary.  He won’t even reveal who his own outside connections may be.  He does have some psionic strengths (he’s quite good at clairaudience and clairsentience), but refuses to use them as a crutch.  He speaks softly, but he can really raise his voice quite loud when need be.  He drinks way too much coffee.

#atozchallenge: U is for Nehalé Usarai

Q: What is his origin?

A: Nehalé Usarai [neh-HAH-ley ooh-SAH-rye] one of the few non-Vigil characters that survived nearly every single iteration of these stories, all the way back to the late 1993 original.  His name and background evolved numerous times over the years, but his role in the entire story remained the same for the most part: a catalyst.  In Vigil he was to be a violent anarchist; in True Faith he was an Edward Snowden-esque whistleblower.  He was a not-so-violent anarchist in The Phoenix Effect.  And finally in the Bridgetown Trilogy, he became the spiritual leader we all know and love.

Q: How is he connected to the Mendaihu Universe?

A: Aside from the obvious connection in the very first chapter of A Division of Souls, he feels he has the role of Reluctant Shepherd.  He’s conflicted; on the one hand he fully believes it’s his responsibility to help usher the newly awakened Mendaihu and Shenaihu towards their own enlightenment…but on the other hand, he doesn’t want them to become blind, passive followers either.  Because of this, he likes to work behind the scenes.  He continues to be a catalyst in this respect, preferring to inspire and instigate changes instead of performing or enforcing them.

Q: He’s an exceptionally strong Mendaihu, given his actions.  What’s that background?

A: I go into it very briefly in ADoS; in his youth he was chosen by Mendaihu Elders to have accelerated training, due to his naturally high spiritual strength.  For a time these Elders would bring the young initiates to a small outpost village west of Bridgetown, where they’d go through various exercises and projects to show how well they could utilize their abilities.  Nehalé not only showed promise, he surpassed all expectations and became one of the youngest awakened Mendaihu of his time.  He chose not to be an Elder, however, instead being a mentor for others who are in the process of awakening.  This is how he met Anando Shalei, and why the two men remain close friends.

Q: Is he based on anyone in particular?

A: Not really, and I think he’d rather like it that way!  His early incarnations had him more talkative and abrasive; I think I may have seen him being played by Denis Leary, who was big box office at the time.  The TPE and Trilogy incarnations are more laid back, more pensive and reserved.  In fact, Nehalé is one of the few characters that I’ve never been able to completely visualize.  I’ve always seen him as a typically tall Meraladian, somewhat gawky; strong but definitely a beanpole sort of guy.  He’s not one to focus on his physical image all that much, so he’d be one of those guys you’d lose in the crowd.  The only reason he doesn’t is that so many others in Bridgetown know him by spirit signature.

Q: Anything else?

A: The ‘i’ at the end of his name denotes that he’s a distant cousin of the Usara clan.  Even the strongest Mendaihu have day jobs; Nehalé, up until the beginning of ADoS, worked for DuaLife as a Re-Gen (reconstructive genetics) Therapist.  He’s a philanthropist who likes to give to local shelters, churches and community centers.  He can be quite stubborn at times, often to his own detriment.  He’s performed quite a few awakening rituals before the one at the beginning of ADoS, but none as strong or as wide-ranging as that, and he’s not even sure if he has the ability to ever do it again…in fact, he feels he may have caused irreparable damage to his spiritual strength after pulling that off.

#atozchallenge: T is for Trisanda

marquee_all_of_us_borea_forest_alt2
boreal forest, Canada

My original idea of Trisanda (trih-SAHN-dah) was that it was a forest planet.  Inhabited but not even close to Earth’s population at this time.  There’s evidence of civilization, of course: there are buildings, halls, chapels, houses, and so on.  Most of them are settlements of maybe no more than ten to twenty thousand people spread out over a good number of miles.  You could very well argue that my first thoughts of Trisanda was that it was an entire planet that looked like New England!

It’s more built up than that, of course.  There are cities as well as villages, forest lands as well as tropical ones, and so on.  In a way, think of it geologically as a possible Earth if we hadn’t evolved into a messy, dirty and somewhat irresponsible Industrial Age.  Trisanda is what Earth would be if we’d kept nature quite high up there in importance when it came to our cultural, communal and productive evolution.  [Not to say I was going to turn it into a political diatribe on ecology, far from it.  I admit to not being entirely well-read on that, and didn’t want to go in that direction anyway.]

We make multiple visits to Trisanda during the Bridgetown Trilogy, but for the most part we stay near a community called Bann Dassah (bahn DAH-sah).  That’s an extremely important spiritual center for the Trisandi, including a great meeting hall*, a Landing Field**, a Meeting Table near that***, and a wide path that leads toward the center of the community.  Bann Dassah, just like all the other communities, also has a spiritual leader of sorts, who acts both as a seer and as a teacher; her name is sehndayen-ne emha Eprysia Kaalen [ey-PREE-see-ah KAY-lenn], often known to many as Ampryss (a conjunction of ’emha Eprysia’).****  She too pops up from time to time in the trilogy.

As this planet is extremely spiritual in nature, a visitor is able to sense a marked difference in the spiritual energy around them, even if their ability isn’t the strongest.  It too works on a similar yin-yang balance; this world is the starting point of the Mendaihu-Shenaihu balance, as well as its imbalance.  It too reacts with equal force to whatever might be done to it or is taken away from it.  Many consider Trisanda and Gharra (Earth, that is) two planets with a related spiritual balance as well.  Therefore it’s considered an extremely holy land and its visitors give it the most utmost respect.

 

* – The meeting hall is mentioned many times in the books, but I never quite made it there.  It may show up in future MU stories, however.  We do visit a massive living quarters nearby in The Persistence of Memories, however.

** – Landing Fields are dedicated clearings where Lightwalkers can arrive safely on Trisanda.  Each field is partitioned into circular segments with shorter grass, with the sigils of the various Trisandi clans set into them with darker wheat-colored stalks.  You’ll see these quite often in the trilogy.

*** – Meeting Tables take various shapes, depending on how each community has them set up.  Bann Dassah’s is a long, continuous table that takes up most of the field.  Feasts are prepared twice a day, every day, regardless of weather.

**** – Anjshé vocabulary lesson time!  Sehndayen-ne (sen-DEY-en-ney) = teacher. Emha (EY-mah) = general feminine title (i.e., Miss, Ms., etc)…the masculine title would be edha (EY-dah).

 

#atozchallenge: S is for Saisshalé

Saisshalé - Andrew WKQ:  Okay, wait, I gotta ask this first:  Really?  Andrew WK as the villain?

A: Heh.  Yes, and no.

Yes, Andrew WK!  When I picked the Bridgetown Trilogy back up in 2010 and started rewriting and revising it, it occurred to me that my original physical description of the character wasn’t quite working.  I’d originally envisioned Saisshalé as a cross between a beefcakey dude, a bouncer, and that crazy guy you cross the street to avoid.  That didn’t quite jive with his true nature, though, so I started thinking about it a bit more.  A short time later, I’m listening to one of my older mixes and “Party Hard” comes on, and it dawns on me: AWK is actually a SPOT-ON physical match!  So I ran with it, and come to find out, the more I saw him playing the role, the better my revision of the character started to be.  So it all worked out just fine.

And no, he’s not the villain.  He’s merely the spiritual opposite of the One of All Sacred.  He gets a few unnamed cameos in A Division of Souls, but he’s in quite a few scenes in both The Persistence of Memories and The Balance of Light.

[As an aside: it really is hard to find a serious picture of Andrew WK online that doesn’t involve him partying hard, making faces or jamming with his pizza guitar!]

Q: What’s the origin of Saisshalé?

A: Saisshalé [say-SHAH-ley], as mentioned above, is the spiritual opposite of the One of All Sacred.  I came up with him around late 2001 when I needed to have someone just as strong spiritually as Denni was.  He was to be her equal across the board: whatever action Denni took, he would respond with equal force.  This presents a serious conflict between the two, because they’re both refusing to back down from what they believe is the right thing to do.

He originally had a much longer, more tongue-twisty name, but during the 2010 reboot I chose to change it.  I wanted to hint at a kiralla background, so I chose to go with the very sibilant sounds, and referred to my Anjshé glossary.  It comes from the words sa’im (sah’EEM, a qualifier used to add grandeur or excitement) and D’haff Sshalé (djaff SHAH-ley, lit. ‘dark-minded reptile’ but usually refers to someone stubborn and/or cruel).  In short, sa’im + Sshalé = Saisshalé.  In a way, his name translates to ‘Grand Reptile’, a rather cocky reference to his spiritual history.

Q: What is his history?  He’s kind of a weird character.

A: He is that, but I love writing him, because he’s a let’s see how far I can take this kind of guy.  I go into more detail in TPoM, but the short version: he was known as a vengeance deity during Trisanda’s very early spacefaring years: he was known as a brilliant tactician who was able to plan out and execute incredibly complex war plans.  He ascended to deity status similar to Denni, actually.  However, just like Denni, he hasn’t completely ascended yet.

Q: Why is he feared?

A: Basically because he projects the personality of a sociopath.  He can be extremely friendly, but his actions can very frequently be seen as amoral.  He often claims that he only acts this way ‘because he must’.  [And here’s the rub: if you actually sat down and analyzed his actions with what incited them, especially with comparing his actions to the One of All Sacred’s, he’s 100% correct in saying that.]  That’s not to say he’ll tear off your head for no reason; he would never do such a thing, and would be offended by such an accusation.  In short: he’s a pure Shenaihu, driven completely by spirit and reason, even if that reason goes against expected social mores.

Q: Anything else?

A: Saisshalé is quite tall, about the same height as Governor Rieflin.  His connection to the One of All Sacred goes a bit deeper than anyone knows or expects…and we’ll see more about that in The Balance of Light.  His voice is low in range, but not quite bass; when he speaks, he uses both vocal and innerspeak at the same time, so his words hit you especially close.  He also uses both his muscles and Lightwork for his physical actions, so he comes off as frighteningly strong.  Despite his reputation, he can actually be quite friendly and chatty.  And absolutely no one knows what he does during his down time, not even me.

#atozchallenge: R is for Anton Rieflin

Q: What’s the Governor’s origin?

A: Provincial Governor Anton Rieflin originally started out in The Phoenix Effect as more of an obstacle for Caren and Alec, as he’d originally been slated to be the token ‘guy in charge who obviously doesn’t know what’s really going on.’  That kind of character frustrated me, however, because it could be so predictable.  His character expanded significantly when I started A Division of Souls, when I decided he’d be a lot smarter than he let on.  I also gave him his own subplot, having to deal with the frustrations of city politics while something completely non-political was affecting his city.

Q: How is he connected to the Mendaihu Universe?

A: As soon as Nehalé Usarai’s mas awakening ritual calmed down, I started to think: the governor’s not going to like this.  This kind of ties in with things I notice with this kind of story: something huge happens that affects thousands of people…and either the government is nonexistent, or they’re the stubborn wrench in the works that keeps our heroes from getting things done.  I chose to play it a little more realistically:  the government is well aware of what just happened and want to do something about it.  Rieflin’s conflict is that his councilors have stalemated: half want to follow the Mendaihu request of remaining hands-off for now, but the other half want to get involved and stop it by force if they have to.
As far as he knows, he’s neither Mendaihu nor Shenaihu, so he has the added conflict of not exactly understanding what’s going on in the spiritual realm…but he’s open minded and willing to learn.

Q: Is he based on anyone in particular?

A: No, just someone who makes an impression on you partly because of his size (he’s quite tall at nearly seven feet, and is often mistaken for being Meraladian, which he’s not), and partly because of his personality.  He honestly does have the best of intentions, and is well aware of the intentions of the citizens he governs.  He’s just an all around nice guy, even despite what the naysayers and the cynics say.  His name is a Tuckerization of two drummers:  Anton Fig (David Letterman’s house band) and Bill Rieflin (Ministry, KMFDM, etc).  In my head, his last name is pronounced RYE-flinn.

Q: Even though he’s the province’s leader, he defers quite often to Nandahya Mirades, his Meraladian second in command.  Is that regular protocol?

A: Yes, it is.  The Provincial Governor’s Council is set up with a certain amount of balance: each councilor represents a specific department, and there is also a corresponding councilor for a related department.  For instance, we have Commissioner Allen Tatreaux of the Alien Relations Unit balancing out General Stephen Phillips of the Special Forces Guard.  Nandahya Mirades [Nahn-DAH-yah MEE-rah-dees] is considered Rieflin’s balance, so whenever a deciding vote is needed from the leader, it must come from both of them.

Q: Anything else?

A: As Provincial Governor, he has living quarters in the Mirades Tower, not far from his offices, but he also owns a house on Sachers Island.  He’s single and has no children at this time, but his parents and siblings live across the river in the suburbs.  He’s a very intelligent and curious person; he holds degrees in business, political theory and history, all acquired at Bridgetown University.  He’s well aware that some citizens view him as a puppet and/or an idiot, and he likes to use that to his advantage…that way he will often surprise them by doing exactly the right thing at the right time.  He likes to be able to trust those he works with, without needing to constantly monitor them or question their motives.  He has a very low tolerance level for bullshit and will call people on it without holding back.  He has a very high appreciation for art, and isn’t so bad an artist himself.  Among the few paintings he has hung in his Tower office, he also has a framed painting he did himself, of Bridgetown as seen from the Crest at Breed’s Hill.

#atozchallenge: Q is for LGBTQ in the Mendaihu Universe

It took me a bit to think about this particular entry.  I wanted to do it justice, and I definitely didn’t want to make it sound like I was saying Hey, I have [certain kind of person] in my books!  Ain’t I progressive?  Where’s my gold star?

I try to give my characters some kind of depth when I’m creating them.  Some of them pan out, some of them don’t*, but most of the time I’d like to think I give them some kind of unique personality.  Someone I’d run into on a random day, have a conversation with, get to know as a coworker, and so on.  I’m fascinated by the quirks and habits of people, their strengths and their weaknesses, and how they use those bits of their personality throughout their life.

I didn’t set out to include any token characters when I started writing A Division of Souls.  In fact, I was doing my best NOT to do that.  Almost from the beginning my game plan was “Nah, that’s a trope/stereotype, it’s an easy out.  How do I take that one extra step to make it different?”  It’s kind of funny, really; each time I did try to write a stereotypical character, I completely failed at it.  I’d get a ways down the road in the story and get completely bored by this flat-minded idiot I’d created.  It’s the nonconformist in me, I guess…heh.

Anyway, when it came time to write the Bridgetown Trilogy, I wanted to create the most realistic characters I could, so I decided to pick up on various personality traits of people around me.  I was working at the candle warehouse by the time I started A Division of Souls, and it was quite the large warehouse, so I met and worked with a LOT of people of different stripes.  No character is based on a specific person from that time; it was just various traits I borrowed from quite a few people.

Did I plan on Caren and Sheila having a short romantic relationship?  I don’t believe I did…it was just a background thing that I’d come up with when I wrote the Questioning Room scenes in ADoS.  Caren was there to calm her friend down, and I knew they had a long and very close friendship, but it wasn’t until I wrote that scene that it just seemed right; it felt right to have them be very close physically and emotionally just then.  I thought about it for a few moments: what were their sexual preferences?  Sheila’s loud and free-spirited, and would probably be open-minded on that subject, so I felt she should at least be bisexual.  As for Caren…she’s more tense, more reserved, but she’s also quite open and honest with her emotions, so she might not have been truly bi, maybe just curious.  They never show any romantic feelings towards each other in public, but the reader can tell there’s still a deep connection there, even after the relationship is over.

As for Saone and Kryssyna…that was a little more deliberate.  I wanted Saone to be someone who did not fit in at all.  She’s intelligent, but not as smart as her sisters.  She’s Shenaihu, but she doesn’t measure up to her father’s high expectations.  She’s resourceful, but no one bothers to ask her for help.  She has all this great potential, but it seems everyone she’s supposed to impress won’t give her the time of day.  The only person who sees her for who she really is, is Kryssyna.  But why?  Because Kryss is honest, both with herself and with others.  She’s an ARU agent who has no time for judging others by their status.  She sees past Saone’s rank and place, and sees that potential.  This relationship, then, was going to be less about any sexual attraction than it was a personal one.  Kryss loves Saone for her drive and determination, especially when it’s to do the right thing.  And Saone loves Kryss because she’s always there to take care of her; she inspires her to keep going.  I knew then that was going to be a very strong, very long-lasting relationship.

I have no idea how other writers decide how to build their characters, to tell the truth.  I just know how I do it to my satisfaction.  There are a few other LGBTQ characters in the Trilogy, because it just made sense to put them there.  I won’t set out to write a specific type most of the time, I’ll just choose one at random and roll with it.  I’ll admit there is a bit of self-conscious selection: I may deliberately want to have a character be gay or lesbian, but I’m not going to shoehorn that trait in if it’s not true to the character.  Nearly all the characters in the Bridgetown Trilogy came to me at the inception of the scene, really.  I just choose to keep a very long and extremely varied list of possible traits to choose from and go with what seems to fit.  And that seems to work out just fine.

 

* – My trunked novel Love Like Blood was a good example of flat characters.  I had some neat ideas in that story, but it was my attempt at completely commercial fiction.  Most of the characters ended up all flash and no depth.  It was definitely not one of my best works.

#atozchallenge: P is for Alec Poe

Alec Poe - Keifer Sutherland

Q: What’s Alec’s origin?

A: Alec arrived the same day as Caren, on that very first day I started writing The Phoenix Effect.  I always make sure he and Caren are always standing on equal ground in whatever they do.  I based their work relationship a bit on Mulder and Scully from The X-Files, but more of it came from Kusanagi and Batou from Ghost in the Shell, as well as Deunan and Briareos from Appleseed.  They work extremely well together and are very close, and yet their personalities are quite different.
As for his name, I wanted one that sounded slightly out of fashion from everyone else’s.  He’s almost always referred to as “Poe” by Caren and his fellow agents.

Q: He’s got a Mendaihu name as well.  What’s that origin?

A: Alix Eiyashné [ey-YASH-ney] is not just a Mendaihu name, it’s his given birth name.  Alec was given up for adoption almost immediately after he was born.  His adoptive parents, Angela and Daniel Poe, are both academics and gave him a very robust education growing up.  He chose not to follow up with his birth parents and never met them, though his adoptive parents did keep in loose touch with them, if just to trade information on health issues and whatnot.  He finds out more about them, and himself, in The Persistence of Memories, much of it quite unexpected.
He very rarely uses his Mendaihu name, for very personal reasons.

Q: That’s Kiefer Sutherland in that picture.  Is Alec based on him?

A: Almost from the start, I envisioned him playing the role.  Strong but soft-spoken, good-looking but weathered by life.  Out of all the characters, Alec is the one that’s changed the least physically throughout the various drafts.  Whenever I wrote a scene with him, I pictured Sutherland acting it out so I’d be able to get the mannerisms down correctly.

Q: He certainly does seem to smoke a lot, doesn’t he?  People still smoke in the far future?

A: I’ll totally cop to the fact that I wrote most of Poe’s scenes for the first two books while I was a smoker back in the late 90s-early 00s.  I needed to give him a nervous twitch, and that was the first thing that came to mind.  He’s extremely aware of his habit and how it may bother some characters, so he’ll only light up if others around him don’t mind.  Caren isn’t the biggest fan of it, but she lets him do it anyway because it’s a release for him.

And yes, that’s a very good question!  You don’t see smokers as much as you did fifteen or so years ago, thanks to state laws forbidding it in certain public places, but back when I first wrote many of these scenes, it was rarely frowned upon.  It’s a habit/pastime that has evolved over the centuries but never quite went away.  Even now, vaping already has fans and detractors.  I chose to keep it in the Mendaihu Universe, having it still a thing.  It’s still not that healthy, but it’s not a taboo either.  It just is.

Q: He has a unique relationship with Akaina Shalei, the Mendaihu agent.  What’s with that?

A: This was a relationship that took me some time to figure out.  At first I was worried that I was forcing a match on him (after all, I’d put Caren and Anando together not that long before), but there was something about his first meeting with her that stuck with me, so I chose to play it out.  He’s quite the moody guy, and I wanted someone other than Caren to give him some kind of mental/spiritual stability and balance.  Kai is full of patience and positivity, and she immediately noticed Poe’s startling lack of it.  She willingly opened herself to him almost from the start, and he wasn’t used to that, at least not outside his immediate friends, which intrigued him and attracted him to her.  In the process, Kai learns calm her sometimes overexcitable spirit by learning to slow herself down when he’s around.  Poe changes the most in the trilogy, mainly because of Kai.

Q: Anything else?

A: He still lives in the same apartment that he grew up in with his adoptive family; he bought it from them when they moved north to New Boston Province.  His demeanor can be off-putting sometimes, especially when he’s distracted by his thoughts.  [His habit of not finishing a sentence is totally me, which drives my wife nuts!]  Like Christine Gorecki, he feels more comfortable being on the periphery than being the center of attention.  He’s a voracious reader, thanks to his adoptive parents.  He has an older brother in that family, David; he also had a blood-relation sister from his birth family but she died during the last Embodiment.  He’s quite the cook at home, when he has the time for it.  He might be a smokestack, but he rarely touches alcohol.  He loves both Caren and Denni like family, and will do anything for them.  Despite his gruff outer shell, he’s a big ol’ softy.

#atozchallenge: O is for the One of All Sacred

Writing a character trope such as a Chosen One can be tricky, because there are so many ways you can fall into the trap of being predictable.  Too often they end up as the reluctant hero (Neo in The Matrix, Katniss in The Hunger Games) or the easily distracted and imperfect person who needs to learn how to ascend in status (Daniel in The Karate Kid, Karou in Daughter of Smoke and Bone).  But they sell, and readers love them, so I won’t say it’s necessarily a bad thing.

With Denni Johnson, I wanted her to be all of that — a reluctant hero, easily distracted and imperfect.  But I also wanted her to be aware that she was being put into that situation as well.  That’s part of her role as the One of All Sacred: she’s aware.  Which ups the ante with internal and external conflict, doesn’t it?  How do you play the role of deity without being pigeonholed into the role of savior or superhero?  That was one of Denni’s first pronouncements, even as she was entering Moulding Warehouse for the first time: she was a deity, but she was a human, just like everyone else there.  Don’t expect miracles.

The role of the One of All Sacred within the Mendaihu Universe is that of overseer, really.  They don’t necessarily have to change the world or make it a better place…their role is really just to make sure its problems don’t spiral out of control.  The spirit of the One is resurrected every twenty to twenty-five years (roughly once a generation or so) to keep an eye on things, gauge where we are in our evolution, and make a few changes or tweaks if necessary.

Denni Johnson is the Ninth Embodiment on Earth.  [There were many embodiments prior to Earth’s, both on Mannaka and Meraladh, but that’s another storyline entirely.]  Right away she’d decided that instead of trying to play the expected role, she’d change it to something that made more sense to her.  That in turn changed the expectations of all the parties involved.  Her personal choices affected everyone else in the process.  Instead of turning off Nehalé Usarai’s awakening ritual, she kept it going.  She saw it as a way to start with a bit of a clean slate; no one was prepared for this move, so everyone’s on the same page and fumbling a bit, including her.

Giving her the awareness of her situation was quite the trick; in essence, she’s in a constant state of paying attention to what’s going on and having the ability to change events if necessary.  She needed to be able to think on the fly, accept that she may make mistakes, and know when to let nature and/or fate take its course instead.

On a more spiritual level, I had to make sure that she wasn’t exactly seen as The Goddess That Is (an analog to the main gods and goddesses of current religions, and who pretty much runs — not rulesthe known universes).  The One is more of an Earth Goddess, the one in charge of the planet.  The position has been held by all kinds of people; young, old, man, woman, Meraladian, Earther, and so on.  Each Embodiment had their own strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures.  What makes Denni different?  Well…you’ll need to read the books to find out!

 

And then there’s Saisshalé.

As I’d said previously, there’s a yin-yang to everything in the Mendaihu Universe.  Yes, even the Dearest One has an opposing force, one who embraces chaos just as the One of All Sacred embraces order.  More about him on Friday.