microfiction: Sshteia

NOTE: This was written on 7 November 2018 as a 750Words entry, most likely during a slow time at the Former Day Job. I honestly had forgotten I’d written this soon after, having put it aside as merely an exercise in writing serious short fiction in a different style, and nothing more. I happened upon it a few years later and was pleasantly surprised at how well it stands up.

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Sshteia

Sshteia stood six and a half feet tall and preferred to the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’ even though her aspect was made up of thousands of sentient bee-like insects called Tnei gathered together in a wavering, buzzing human-like form.  Sshteia was the name of the queen of the hive, so it only made sense.  And she was one of the best coworkers I’d ever had in this company.

Sshteia and I had been matched five years ago when I started working for Yamato and Associates here on Adiamma.  We were part of a larger department of phystech workers; each human was teamed up with a hive of Tnei.  While the humans would do the computing, diagnostics and occasional heavy lifting, the Tnei hive would assume a humanlike form most of the time but break up into their thousands and insert themselves into the hardware and do the microscopic work as needed.  A human-Tnei team was considered one of the most efficient ways to do tech work nowadays, and Yamato was at the forefront of it all.

Thing is, they didn’t always understand that the relationship between humans and Tnei could sometimes go in strange directions.  For instance, Sshteia — or more accurately, her hive — seemed to love landing on my bare skin and walking all over me at the oddest times.   Then there was her request for wanting to move out of her next and live with me in my apartment.  I mean, I didn’t really mind, because we got along just great, but it could be kind of…weird sometimes.

When she spoke, her voice was half synthetic and half natural, so it sounded like a low feminine voice with just a small hint of flutter to it.  She said it was due to the fact that the voice simulator couldn’t quite match the speed of the natural clicking and chittering of the Tnei.  It took me a little while at first, but I soon found that the more she spoke, the more soothing it became.  She never lifted her voice any higher than normal speech; the one time she did, the voice sim couldn’t translate and it ended up as a bizarrely beautiful dissonant feedback.

Today Sshteia was once again in her humanoid form, ready to head out to the tech center with me, when I noticed that there were a few of her hive behaving a little twitchier than normal.  As queen bee (so to speak) she’d occasionally have issues with some rogue worker Tnei and would discard them from her hive and provide more.  She would lay numerous eggs every few months or so, leave some of the hive behind to help them gestate and grow into healthy young hivers.  She’d just laid a new wave of eggs a few weeks previous, and it seemed some of the older hivers weren’t too happy about it.  They felt they were being replaced too soon.

I did what I could to help, but to be honest there wasn’t much I could do.  I just kept her nest well protected and provided her with nourishment.  There wasn’t much I could do about rogue Tnei.

Sshteia ignored them at first; she’d sent her second and third in command — yes, each hive had its chain of command — to take care of them when necessary.  (It was sometimes kind of creepy and morbid to find dead Tnei lying on the floor below the nest, legs shriveled up just like dead insects.  Especially when the rogues were often dispatched by way of dismemberment.)  But by the third day, she could take no more.  Her synthetic voice had grown less intelligible and sometimes her humanoid form would spontaneously pull apart, turning into a wild and buzzing storm of lost Tnei.  I’d gotten caught in the cloud twice, and it wasn’t fun.

On the fourth day, Sshteia pleaded that I take three days off for health reasons — our job required both of us in peak form, and I could not do it on my own — and I obliged.  She requested that I leave her be in her nest in her room and leave the door locked.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and I didn’t want to believe the rumors.

She’d switched off the synth voice halfway through the first day.  I didn’t dare ask.

But on the fourth day, I heard a pleasant humming.  The same hum I’d heard when I first met Sshteia.  Through the closed door I asked if she was okay and if she needed me to come in.

She said yes, it was fine to come in.  I opened the door, and stopped short.

There, on the floor, was the largest Tnei in the hive… Sshteia.  Had she…?

She said her name was Nai, and she was Sshteia’s daughter, and the new queen.

I blinked and stared at the humanoid form of Nai’s hive.  Slightly shorter but no different.

My first thought was a tiny twinge of sadness; Sshteia had been my friend since we both started the job.  I would definitely miss her. 

My second thought, of course, was that we’d need to stop by HR to update the paperwork.

On Writing Short Stories

Image courtesy of K-On!

Or to be more precise: On Getting Over Avoiding Writing Short Stories. For years I’ve avoided writing them by making myself believe that I couldn’t write them, no matter how much I tried. My brain always slid towards The Big Epic Story Idea and I couldn’t parse how to come up with something so….short and finite. Or so I believed.

My first attempt at seriously writing a short story was during the spring and summer of 1995, and it’s an embarrassing piece of crap and I can’t believe I thought Asimov’s would be interested it. It was a poor shaggy-dog pastiche of the virtual-reality/internet/etc wave of movies that had come out that year, and it read like I had no flipping idea how to end it. At the time I just shrugged and thought well, maybe I don’t have the chops to write like that, and gave up short-story ideas for years.

So what’s changed between then and now? Quite a bit, really. I’ve read a lot more short stories, microfiction, novellas, and novelettes over the years, many of them for Hugo Award voting purposes but also because it’s become a more accessible format with e-books, anthologies and story collections. I studied their flow and volume; how economical the author is with the action and the information, and how it all gets resolved. I taught myself how to write my own short microfiction by riffing on small ideas for my daily words.

Currently one of my many writing projects is to write short stories in a common universe. In this particular instance the common universe is a college campus, but it takes place in the same world as Diwa & Kaffi. No characters from that novel are involved — at least not directly, anyway — but the mood and the setting is similar. The idea was to write several small vignettes focusing on several students (and possibly faculty) and how they’re all just trying to figure out their lives as they mature. Some of the stories are linked, others are standalone. It’s all just one big experiment, both for me and for the characters.

In retrospect, it makes me wonder why I never tried this earlier. I suppose it might be because I was so focused on the epic scope of the Mendaihu Universe and my dedication to it for so damn long. I wrote Big Things and I enjoyed it immensely. It became habit to the point that when I thought of any new ideas, envisioning them as novel length became the default. And most of them failed because I could not flesh them out to that size, no matter how I tried, and they ended up trunked. It took me a long time to break myself out of that school of thought.

I feel different about short stories nowadays, now that I understand the form so much better. I’m still new at writing them, but I’m getting better at it the more I practice. (And that’s why I still do my daily words on top of my novel work.) I’m already seeing them as a viable outlet for submission for my writing career…I mean, that was the original plan anyway, right?

It’s about damn time I stopped looking at it all as hard work and an impossibility and started seeing it as an achievable goal.