Writing fiction is weird. Sometimes the scenes flow through me, from my mind straight to the page, in nearly final form. During these times, the words I write feel destined, predetermined. I've received a precious glimpse of an established alternate reality, and do my best to capture the "truth." My characters are unquestionably real, existing beings in possession of pasts, futures, motivations, foibles, prejudices, and inconvenient emotions, and telling them what to do is about as effective as telling your friend to break up with his borderline-abusive SO or telling your roommate to quit her crummy job.
Other times, what lands on the page isn't quite right. I write through two, three, four or more drafts, drastically altering personalities, environments, governments, favorite foods, you name it.
That's the beauty of creating worlds. Sometimes it's all about getting into the flow and spilling inspiration across the page, and sometimes it's a deeply logical and intensely thoughtful puzzle that needs solving.
In the following alternate scenes, you'll read about two wildly different versions of Kiellen's parents. In one version, they're supportive and simple laypeople, relieved to find Kiellen alive and well. In the other, they're rulers of the land, banishing Kiellen for her treachery. In the published version, they're barely even mentioned, as the dystopian Citadel society places little weight on familial bonds. However, Kiellen as a character is boldly recognizable throughout, a cocky, impatient, brave, unchanging thread that ties everything together.
Do you like thinking about how your favorite stories could have been different? Or do you prefer having one solid and unassailable version of the truth? Share your thoughts below.
Hope you enjoy!
Kiellem slipped through the dome’s membrane and back into the glass departure tube. In her absence, someone had taken the time to patch the hole she’d left with a tarp and some stickstrap. Her heart hammered as she wondered what kind of reception she’d receive. She watched as huddled figures gathered around the arches and stairways leading to the citizen quarters, jockeying for better views. On the side of the Sciencer buildings and Mechalarum barracks, guards gathered with their weapons leveled at her, but did not shoot.
Part of the crowd shuffled, and a moment later two figures burst out and ran towards Kiellen. She brightened in recognition, but couldn’t help but cringe as she saw the looks of utter relief on her parents’ faces. Her gaze flicked back towards the guards, and her eyes narrowed. She tensed herself to fly in case the Council made the choice to take out their anger over her actions on the defenseless citizens rushing to see her.
“Stop!” a voice boomed over the loudspeakers in the plaza.
Her parents slowed their approach, torn between embracing their returned daughter and disobeying the direct order. Kiellen saw another group of figures walking out, including Jolorn, the head of the Mechalarum pilots and Chief Council Advisor. She scooted back to the far side of the glass tube and settled into a half-crouch, ready to burst upwards at any moment.
Jolorn flicked a finger across a spot on his throat, then slowly raised his hands in a gesture of goodwill. His enhanced voice tapped into the loudspeakers and broke the tense silence. “They have every right to welcome their hero daughter.”
Kiellen saw the crowd animate, though the glass walls kept their voices from reaching her. Jolorn shut off his connection and spoke softly to a Sciencer at his side, who rushed forward to unlock the door to the glass tube. Kiellen stepped out onto the broad plasticrete platform as her parents rushed forward and up the wide stairs, but didn’t take her eyes off of Jolorn, even after being enfolded in a hard embrace.
“I’d ask what the hell you were thinking, and call you an idiot, if I didn’t know any better,” her mother said through a catch in her voice. “You’ve got a lot of contenders for ‘most stupid life moments,’ but this has got to be near the top.”
Before Kiellen could answer, Jolorn’s voice rang out again. “Kiellen has stopped the disruption of the sandstorm. Though she chose an, ah, unusual way to go about it, we must officially thank and recognize her for keeping us safe from discovery by a dangerous foe.”
“Hear that? I saved you from a ‘dangerous foe,’” Kiellen said, relaxing a bit now that it seemed she was no longer in any immediate danger. “If you’re measuring stupidity by the outcomes of my actions, this isn’t nearly as bad as the time I stole the prototype flight unit and free-dived off the tower.”
Kiellen’s father shook his head, opened his mouth to respond, then fell silent. Kiellen looked up to see Jolorn and his contingent approaching. When they reached her, the Sciencers instantly set about performing the standard ritual of suit analytics and checks. Kiellen barely registered the familiar tugging and shifting of her equipment as she drew to attention and gestured her respect to her superior.
“I’m impressed to see that the suit fared so well in its first official fully-functional flight test,” Jolorn's words were pleasant enough, but Kiellen wasn’t entirely happy with the pressure of his hand on her shoulder or the hard look in his eyes.
“Look, you don’t have to pretend to be happy with what I did. I think I deserve-” Kiellen said, then glanced at her parents, realizing she was about to break bad news without warning. She changed her tack slightly. “I don’t think you can argue with the fact that I’ve proven my worth to the Mechalarum Corps.”
Jolorn sighed, and his gaze dropped. He looked suddenly tired and old.
“We have very good reasons for insisting that our pilots follow a set of stringent rules,” he said, then returned his sharp stare to Kiellen’s face. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t admit when we’re wrong. I stand by my earlier statement. Furthermore, I invite you to a private discussion in which the Council will debate our next steps.”
Kiellen's mother gasped. Kiellen fought to hide her own surprise. “I’d be honored.”
“Very well. We must gather at once.” Jolorn turned to leave. “I trust that you don’t have any more pressing concerns to deal with at the moment?”
Kiellen bristled at the hint of mockery in Jolorn’s voice, but refused to take the bait. Instead she bid her family farewell, and turned to follow her superior’s departing figure. She had a sudden thought, and looked back, ready to ask her parents why Gage wasn’t there to greet her as well. But they were already retreating back to the crowd, and so she simply shrugged and walked away.
Kiellen closed her visor, swooped up over the tallest tower of the citadel, miscalculating slightly and almost creaming herself on the unforgiving stone wall, and gently lowered herself into the courtyard where people gathered with mouths open, hands clasped, and eyes shining.
There stood the whole Advisor's Council in various stages of undress, blinking owlishly and watching her with complete confusion. The Great Patrus, bearlike in his stature, stood out from the crowd, with his wife Aymil huddled by his side. His eyes narrowed as Kiellen descended and his mouth never relinquished its permanent frown. Kiellen's heart sank, even as she tried to keep it afloat with the recent rush from her victory.
Voices, sounds and hands assaulted her from all sides as she landed. She could only catch snatches and phrases in the muddle.
"You've saved us!"
"We thought you were dead!"
"So brave and strong..."
"Orhu is dead! Who are you?"
This last was repeated over and over by the crowd, as if the citizens and Council really had turned into a flock of owls, and a very insistent one at that. Kiellen realized at that moment that she didn't have to reveal herself. She could fly off somewhere and revel in her prowess, and no one would ever be the wiser.
It was then that she caught sight of Gage furiously waving her off. Kiellen couldn't bear the thought of listening to the boy who had never done anything but complain about her antics. She stiffened her shoulders, threw out her chest and clicked the locking mechanism on the helmet off.
The expressions on the faces of the gathered crowd froze as they recognized her face. Then their mouths opened and a low, moaning sound poured forth, like the wind whistling through Citadel walls punctured and pocked by an eternity of siege. The cries of "Who?" turned into shouts of "No!" as people slowly backed away from her, their eyes no longer on their savior, but now one and all turned to see the reaction of the Patrus.
Kiellen started a bit when she saw the look on his face. She'd thought she'd seen him in any and all stages of temper, but this time he looked different. All of the blood had rushed from his face to leave him pale and trembling. For the first time ever, Kiellen saw her father look ill, and old.
"Out," he said. His voice was a poor facsimile of its usual timbre and strength.
The crowd dispersed, the shock of the betrayal of the Patrus's heir so intense that even the most curious among them did not wish to stay and watch the drama unfold.
The Patrus stormed down the flagstone steps. His face went from pale to the deepest of purples. Now Kiellen knew that anger would come, and she thrilled and quaked simultaneously.
"What have you done?" he asked, his voice mechanical in its carefully measured tone.
Kiellen swallowed and raised her chin. The suit elevated her several inches, allowing her to look down on her father through her lashes. "I've saved you all, or at least, given you some time to rethink your war strategy."
The Patrus grabbed Kiellen by the collar of the Mechalarum suit and yanked hard until her face came level with his.
"What have you done? The suit was never tested on a woman, we don't know the effects. It's not suited to your genes, you're going to go through rejection, your body is going to degrade, not to mention you've disgraced our family, and you've completely undermined my leadership. Your continued lack of discipline is no longer something I can pretend to ignore."
"Screw you." Kiellen said, her voice low and quiet. No aggression, no anger, just flat and final.
The Patrus opened his mouth to respond, but Kiellen pushed him away. She lifted off the ground, and her father grabbed her leg and held on with surprising strength.
"If you leave here now, you will never again be welcome back," he shouted up at her.
"Arnus!" Kiellen's mother interjected, showing a bit of life for the first time in as long as Kiellen could remember. The Patrus ignored her.
"And if I stay?" she asked, an eyebrow cocked. "What can you possibly offer me that is of any worth? You've doomed our people by refusing to look at things from a different perspective, by refusing to evolve and change. So to answer my own question: if I stay, I continue to get screwed over, and then I die. At least on my own, I'll know that everyone around me is doing their damnedest to stay alive."
With that, Kiellen freed her leg with a powerful kick and vaulted into the air. She didn't look to see the upturned faces shrinking below her, though it would be the last time she saw any of them.
She felt no anger, no regret, no sadness, no fear - only a thrilling sense of possibility as she rose into the ever-clouded sky.
She flew all day, traveling as high as she could to peer into the mists over the top of the northern mountains, soaring east until the mountains melted into a turbulent ocean, exploring the land that she'd never seen as a prisoner in her own home. As night fell again, she returned to the Citadel, hovering high enough so as not to be seen. Hunger gnawed at her insides, and she tried to think of what she should do next. But she seemed to have shed her logic in the same way she'd shed her people. She looped about, indecision making her unhappy for the first time that day.
With each loop, she went lower, and she soon realized that it wasn't of her own accord. It was then that she remembered that the suits didn't have infinite power, and that they needed to be refueled at regular intervals. Sure enough, when she called up the status menu on the inside of her visor, a low power light flashed. Kiellen cursed and directed the failing Mechalarum suit so that it would land just out of sight of the guard towers.
The suit lost power a hundred feet from the ground, sending Kiellen plunging earthwards. Although the device was designed to withstand such an impact, Kiellen wasn't, and she promptly lost consciousness.