Purpose / Warning: This article deals with the final refinement of my novel Sagitta. Particularly, the fleshing-out of the two lead characters: Mog, the alien starship commander, and Morgan, the human teenager. The decision to revise the book yet again came after getting tons of awesome feedback from my beta readers. Warning: this blog post contains spoilers. For those currently reading the earlier version, these chapters are inserted after existing Chapter 11.
One of the problems with Mog is that we typically only see him on the bridge of his ship, in the middle of an action scene, or in a flashback. He never had a scene where he was off-duty in the current time, a scene where he could reminisce over the destruction of Mauria and consider what he lost.
Additionally, there was precious little interaction between Mog and the younger crew members of the Narma Kull. By adding a scene where a junior officer goes to her commander for guidance, I am hopefully able to show some of Mog’s other characteristics. There is more to being a leader than just giving orders. Is he a good counselor? Can a crewman’s troubles facing the immeasurable loss of the Maurian home world bring to light some of Mog’s own? This chapter is included below.
One of the problems with Morgan is that he is a protagonist who is not protagging yet. By this, I mean that everyone reading the book knows that he is going to eventually become a starfighter pilot, but all that is in his future (and takes place towards the end of Sagitta). The book is an origin story, but that origin needs to be interesting.
Morgan’s initial goal isn’t to become a fighter pilot. It’s actually to just go out with Liz. But, as an awkward and shy teenager, he has a very difficult time working up to nerve to ask her out. In the previous draft of the book, Morgan actually does this off-camera, so to speak. I realized I was missing out on a critical scene: one where I can really challenge Morgan by raising the stakes. Will he be able to face his fears and ask her out? What if she says no?
The goal was to make Morgan more interesting as a character. That chapter is included below as well.
The New Chapters (please let me know if you catch any typos):
Being back on the bridge of his ship was the best medicine Mog could have hoped for. It anchored him, offering purpose in a shattered existence. As such, he was justly piqued when the ship’s doctor ordered him to his quarters, citing the post-discharge care regimen.
Kalesh var sai. Too bad Saran wasn’t sent to the dark place by the Ta’Krell.
Of course that was exaggerated sentiment. Mog had often butted heads with the old surgeon, but Saran was a valued crewmember and, if not a friend, a steady acquaintance. This was just a proper continuation of their relationship. In a way being sent to bed was a relief. Even now, after all that has happened, some things stay the same.
Mog stripped off his uniform and threw it in the corner for the steward to collect in the morning. He showered, ate the simple meal of stew and bread that the cook had laid out for him, then rolled into bed.
“Lights off.” He darkened his bedside window, pulled the blanket over him, and closed his eyes.
In stories, ancient seafaring captains maintained they could find no rest on land. After a lifetime spent plying Mauria’s rolling seas, the steady earth was as alien to them as it was to Mog. It wasn’t the motions of space that calmed him, although there was a certain imbalance to the ship’s gravity that he missed whenever he wasn’t aboard.
No, it was the sound of his ship that he loved.
The Narma Kull was an old ship, built a half century ago near the end of the last Talurian war. She lacked amenities of modern naval vessels—things like painted walls, synthetic forests, and acoustic damping of the space frame. She had been built to end a war, and these things had been far from the minds of the designers when they drafted the blueprints for the mighty Vinitavi.
When Mog had assumed command nine years ago, he had been taken aback by the unapologetic simplicity and undiluted power the old ship exuded. She made the three-year old Navy corvette on which he’d cut his teeth seem like a luxury liner, and he’d had a hard time adjusting. Now the subsonic throb of her reactors soothed him like his mother’s cooing had when he’d been a pouchling. Narma Kull. It was an old name, from a tongue mostly forgotten in the kingdom, but not completely unknown to the clans and tribes of Ganjon. Dire Wolf.
He was just sinking into oblivion when the door chimed.
He waited, wondering if this was another hallucination of Isamal’s syndrome. He still wasn’t free of them, although since he’d been back aboard he’d learned to recognize them for what they were.
The chime sounded again. No, not a hallucination. He grunted and called for lights. The steward had laid out a new robe, this one embroidered with the insignia of the Naval Command Office. Mog looked around briefly for his old night robe and, not finding it, threw the gaudy thing on.
“Enter,” he growled.
The doors parted, revealing the ship’s young helmswoman. Meela hesitated in the corridor. “Commander?”
Mog wasn’t sure if that was a greeting or a request to enter. “Boardman,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
Meela’s eyes darted uncertainly from side to side. “I was wondering—I know you just got back, but I wanted to know if I could talk to you. About what happened.”
Meela was the youngest member of his bridge crew, assigned shortly before the start of the Ta’Krell conflict. She was a great pilot, but he knew little else about her. He’d always regretted that he’d never had the time to get to know her like the others. War has a way of doing that.
He tipped an ear. “Come in.” He gestured at the small circular table where he took his meals.
She bowed and sat down. Mog closed the doors. “Tea?”
She bowed again without meeting his eyes. “Please.”
Mog ordered up two mugs of hot Talurian tea with extra spice. He sat down across from Meela. She’s won’t look at me. Why is that?
“Sir,” she said, as she picked at her claws. “How does one do it?”
“How do you go on? How do you live after everyone you’ve ever loved is gone. Your mother, your father, your sisters…your lover.” She met Mog’s eyes then, and hers were full to overflowing. “Did you lose anyone, Commander?”
Mog felt his lips pulling back in a snarl and had to fight to control it. If he’d know this was what she’d meant to talk about, he wasn’t sure if he would have let her in. “Of course I lost people. We all did.”
“Then how do you do it? How did you walk back onto the bridge like nothing happened?”
Like nothing happened? The room swayed, and suddenly he was in the foothills beneath the mountains. The Ganjon forest burned. His mother was screaming for his brother. Nam, run! Get away from here! Get to the ocean! But Nam couldn’t run fast enough. They were bombing the coast from orbit…streaks of fire and flame ripped through the air into the cliffs beyond, and the earth split apart. No escape!
Mog started at the door chime. It was the steward with their tea. He excused himself to let the man in. By the time the steward left, the imagery had faded from his mind, leaving only the faint smell of burning wood. No, no that’s the tea.
He took a sip of the tea, which was much too hot and burned his tongue. He winced, then took another sip. The pain was bringing him back to himself, grounding him. “I lost my only brother,” he said quietly. “And my parents. They were old, but still lived in our ancestral home in the mountains. I suspect I also lost many more than that. Old friends…to tell you the truth Meela I haven’t yet tallied my loss. I’ve only had my mind back in order for a short while, and to keep it that way I focus on the task at hand.”
Meela bowed her head. “I’ve tried that. But I’m a combat pilot trapped on a ship in space dock. Sir, I don’t know how to weld hull plates or solder circuits. When I’m on duty I sit there waiting for someone to give me some mundane task to do. I’ve calibrated the helm console a hundred times. Do you know what I do while the computer is running its diagnostics?”
Mog tipped an ear.
“I pray to Ramas for the souls of my family. I pray that I’ll get a message from Vurl, but I know in my hearts that he’s gone. He wasn’t even on Mauria, but the merchant ship he served on hasn’t been heard from in months.”
“Me too.” Meela pushed her tea away. “I’m sorry sir, I shouldn’t have bothered you with this.”
As she stood to leave, Mog reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s no bother. Please stay.”
She hesitated. “Are you sure?”
She sat back down, wiping at her eyes. She’s too young to have to go through this, barely older than Nam. Mog looked out the window at Sledgim. Why couldn’t this planet have died instead of Mauria?
Meela was watching him uncertainly. He cleared his throat. “My parents were old when they had me. The doctors said they were too old, and that it was a bad idea to try. But they had met late in life, and had both always dreamed of a family. So, they tried anyway. When I was born, my mother was nearly seventy years old. And when Nam came, she was seventy-five.
“There were complications with my brother. One of his hearts had a hole in it at birth, and they almost lost him then. The surgeons gave him a new heart, but it was never the same. He always was slow to develop. If you were ever to look through the old family image files, you would see that my clan has always been large of stature. But not Nam. He was always so small…he could fit in dad’s pouch until he was six years old.
“At first, when he came, I didn’t pay him much attention. But then as the years went on and my parents had to spend more and more time with him, I grew to resent him. For ten years I hated my little brother, and I made sure he knew it. Yet, for some reason, he still loved me, still looked up to me.”
Meela shifted in her seat. Steam wafted from her forgotten tea. After a long moment, Mog pointed at it. “That should be nearing the perfect temperature right about now.”
Her ears twitched. “Sir, why are you telling me this?”
“Because Talurian tea is no good cold.”
“No, I meant—”
“I know what you meant.” He closed his eyes. I will not cry. “I’m telling you because I’ve never told anyone, and if I don’t do it now I never will. Now, where was I?”
“Your brother loved you.”
“Yes, yes he did. I still remember the day when I told them all of my decision to join the Navy. My parents begged me not to go, but Nam said nothing. I thought at the time he must be glad to finally be rid of me. It wasn’t until my father’s stroke five years later that I learned differently. I went home, for the first time in two years. Nam was there, and we had this long talk.
“I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that he was proud. He didn’t want me back there, because he knew I could do things out here that he could never do.” Mog waved a claw around. “He was selfless, my brother. Mother was too old to care for our father, so Nam left the university where he was studying to be an architect. He stayed at home with my parents. He was there in Ganjon right until the end.
“He never blamed me for not returning. In his letters, he always seemed so proud that his older brother was a boardman in the Navy. It was strange, Meela, but in absence I grew closer to my brother than I’d ever been when we were children. A year ago, there was this family reunion that Nam organized. Father was ailing, and Nam somehow convinced even the most distant members of the Old Salt River clan to come back to Mauria.”
“It must have been something special,” said Meela.
Mog looked away. “I don’t know. I…I made an excuse. I didn’t go. We were on a mission—this was just before you joined our crew. In fact it was the mission where our old helmsman deserted. When that happened, I remember wondering if we were still fit to carry it out. Kah is a decent helmsman in a pinch, but…”
“He’s no ace,” offered Meela.
“No,” said Mog. “And if there’s one thing that mission required, it was good flying. Still, we pressed on, and were successful. But if there’s one thing I regret, it was not turning around that instant and setting course for Mauria, orders be damned. And, I never saw Nam or my parents again.”
Meela said nothing. She’d stopped looking at him some time ago to hide her face in her hands. He listened to her ragged breathing for a moment, then stood and went to his desk, withdrawing a folded note from one of the drawers. It was strange to hold paper—why he’d printed it he couldn’t say.
“Here,” he said, handing it to Meela. “I want you to read that.”
She took it without looking at him. “What is it?”
“The last thing Nam ever said to me. A hyperspace letter.”
She unfolded it and began to read. When she was done, she folded it neatly and handed it to Mog. “He wanted to help too.”
Mog slipped the note into his robe’s pocket. “You asked how I carry on like nothing has happened. Well, I carry on, and I may look like I’ve got it together on the outside, but on the inside I burn.”
“Why don’t you end it then?” said Meela. “Like Laleg did?”
“Do you want to end it?”
Meela gazed out the window. “Sometimes, when I’m walking back to my quarters, I take the long way around. I go past airlock two, and I think about how easy it would be to just slip inside and close the door.”
Meela turned back to him, her eyes razors. “Why not?”
Mog reached out and took her hand. With his other, he patted the note in his pocket. “All I know is that my brother would be here on this ship if he could, trying to help. That’s what he did.” He indicated the planet. “On that dreary rock, and perhaps lost in the black, running and afraid and alone, are people just like Nam. People like…what did you say your mate’s name was?”
“People like Vurl. Right now, if they’re alive, we’re the only hope they have at life. And if they’re dead…we’re the only ones who can avenge them.”
Meela sniffed. “How will you do it? How will you avenge them?”
“I don’t know. It might not be possible for a long time.”
“But if it is. If we can rebuild our fleets of war, will you?”
Mog looked down at Sledgim, at the dreary rock whose mines had fueled the Maurian war fleets for a millennia. They had resources. They had shipyards. And, so far, they were hidden. How long would it take? How long could he wait? Maybe the Ta’Krell would never come. Maybe they thought they had silenced the Maurians once in for all. In that case… Out of the silent planet comes death…death to the Ta’Krell.
“Would you do it?” said Meela again. Her eyes bore into his very soul. “If you could find the planet where these monsters came from, would you destroy it? Would you avenge your brother?”
In his mind, Nam screamed as he burned.
“Commander, would you kill them all?”
Mog’s answer was hardly a whisper. “Yes.”
At breakfast on Monday, the question Morgan feared had been ripening within his mother finally burst out of her like a zit. “So, have you called that girl yet?”
It was too bad Morgan couldn’t grow a beard like his dad. On occasions like this one, they were useful for hiding blooming cheeks. “Come on mom, it’s only been a day!”
“It’s a fair point,” said his father from the other side of the table.
Helen shot her husband a look, and he quickly went back to pushing his eggs around on his plate.
Morgan stared down at his bacon. That’s the reason. If I called right now it would be obvious that I’m desperate. Got to play it cool.
It wasn’t until Tuesday morning when he realized he’d been kidding himself. He pointed his toothbrush at the mirror. “You’re a coward!” He spat, straightened his hair, and went back to his bedroom, snatching his phone from the nightstand. What do I say?
Now that he’d come this far, he realized he hadn’t thought about the actual asking. He couldn’t just call her and say any old thing now could he? That was a surefire way to screw it up. He needed a script.
It was a good thing the research lab had loads of hiding spaces. He spent much of the morning between crates at the loading dock, slowly indexing pallets while recording and re-recording sentences into his phone. He played the latest version to himself, then promptly deleted it. The trick is to sound excited and disinterested at the same time. That last one was way too eager.
Later that day, when he went back to the house for lunch, his mother showcased her multi-tasking ability by grilling salmon and her son at the same time. “Morgan, stop making excuses and call her already. People make plans! If you don’t call her now someone else will.”
Morgan grimaced, wishing he’d taken a working lunch back at the lab building with the scientists. “I know, I know, I’ll call her tonight,” he yelled back towards the kitchen. I will. I really will. He set his jaw, but beneath the dining room table his knees were trembling.
“If you want, I can give you a few pointers,” said his dad from across the table. “I’ve got some good one-liners from back in the day. Worked pretty well on your mother.”
“Ick,” said Morgan. “No thanks, I’ve got this.”
At work on Wednesday, Morgan was a zombie. He disliked coffee, especially the stuff served at the lab’s autocafé since it gave him indigestion, but today he welcomed the bitter brew. He was on his third cup by nine o’clock as he did his rounds, inspecting the hydroponic samples. It wasn’t a necessary task since the growth indices could easily be recorded by the lab’s computer, but summer jobs often demanded such work, if only to keep teenaged interns out of everyone’s hair. Today Morgan didn’t mind at all.
He’d slept terribly. His mind had run amok all night, imagining the horrible and demeaning ways a guy could get rejected. With respect to Liz, it boiled down to four scenarios. He’d imagined them all as stick-figure cartoons, because for some reason that was a little less painful.
In scenario one, a dopey stick boy calls a pretty stick girl with the intent of asking her out on a date. She answers (gasp!). Stick boy then proceeds to choke up as she repeatedly says ‘hello’, until finally he disconnects. Sometimes, this one ends with the phone being thrown across the room.
In scenario two, the boy calls the girl but the girl is not there. Immensely relieved, the boy hangs up the phone, glad that no stick friendships will be ruined this day.
In scenario three, the boy calls the girl and she answers (gasp!). Somehow, he actually gets the words out of his mouth. Cue awkward silence (or, in a few of the scenarios, muffled giggling). The girl, being very nice, lets him down gently with one of a variety of excuses. Friends-zone is preserved, but boy still feels like he’s been eviscerated. He hangs up phone and morphs into a stick-figure dog, which then slouches off with his tail between his legs.
The final scenario was the worst, and it was the one that had kept Morgan up until four in the morning. It was still stuck in his head now, as he walked towards bay six to sample the fertilizer mix. In this one, the boy actually gets sensible words out of his mouth when the girl answers. The girl seems surprised. She pauses, saying nothing. The boy asks if she is still there, his heart in his throat. She answers. “Yes, I’ll go with you.” The boy jumps for joy and sprains his stick ankle when he trips over his own bulbous balloon feet.
There was a sudden crash as Morgan walked right into a cart containing the latest formulation of low-gravity wheatgrass. The whole thing went over with a bang. A woman in lab coats came running, saw the mess, and made a concerted effort not to laugh.
“Here, let me help you with that,” she said. Her name was Zeb. She was an old family friend that had been employed at the lab since before Morgan was born.
“I got it,” Morgan snapped.
Zeb’s eyes were glowing. Probably texting the other workers about how much of a buffoon I am. She better not be recording. Morgan picked the cart up off the floor and started rounding up the samples. Zeb was subvocalizing something.
“You can say it out loud,” said Morgan with a sigh. “I’m a klutz, I know.”
Zeb looked horrified. “It’s not that at all. It’s just, you mother’s on the line. She wants to know why you aren’t answering your phone.”
Morgan glowered at the scientist. “Tell her I left it in my car.”
Zeb nodded, appearing a touch puzzled. “Ah. She wants me to ask you something.”
“Have you called her yet?”
Morgan threw his hands up in the air and stalked off towards the other side of the lab.
Later that night, it was the dread of further questioning along with the strange bravery that comes with sleep deprivation that finally drove Morgan to pick up the phone. He retreated to his room to do it, mindful of his mother’s gaze as she watched him climb the stairs. For one gloriously terrifying moment, he thought the whole thing was impossible since Liz had never given him her number.
Of course that wasn’t a problem. When Liz had driven the Scorpion, the car’s computer had recognized her as the driver and automatically linked with her bioware. It was a simple matter to pull her number out of the Scorpion’s memory banks.
It was a much harder matter to actually dial it. He paced the floor of his room, palms sweaty, heart pounding. He’d rehearsed this a hundred times, but could never have imagined it would be so difficult. He started to laugh.
Just do it.
He pressed send and held his breath.
She answered instantly, throwing him off. “Hi Morgan!” Of course the phone was ringing inside her whippin skull. At least she sounds happy.
“Hi. Uh, what’s up?”
“Not much.” His phone vibrated in his hand. She wants to send video? He hadn’t thought of that. He reached out a trembling finger, hesitated, then pushed accept. Liz’s face filled the screen. She grinned and waved. Instead of deploying a camera, she was in her room looking into a mirror. It was a common technique used by some people when they were in their own homes. The video feed he was getting was a mirror image of her, as recorded by her own eyes.
She was just as beautiful as he’d remembered. He opened his mouth, but no words came out.
She laughed. “Hold you phone so I can see your face, silly! All I can see is your forehead.”
Morgan looked at the lens of his phone’s camera and realized it was pointing too high. He angled it down.
“That’s better. Man, you look beat. Hard day?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I spent ten hours working for my parents.”
They stared at each other. “So,” she said. She was twining a lock of golden hair around her finger. “It’s nice to hear from you…”
“Yeah.” Just spit it out! He tried to swallow but his throat was too dry. The phone flashed a warning that the anti-shake compensation was having a hard time stabilizing his outbound video feed. He sat down on the bed. “Liz, I have something I’ve been meaning to ask you.” He pulled the space show tickets out of his pocket.
“I…” he looked down at the tickets, gulped, and then suddenly the words were there, the words he’d been playing over and over in his mind like a broken record. Before he knew it they’d already exited his mouth.
Liz didn’t seem to miss a beat. “Of course I’ll go.”
She laughed. “Are you kidding? It sounds awesome.”
Morgan collapsed on the bed, the phone tumbling from his hand. “Yes,” he mouthed silently, pumping a fist in the air. “Yes yes yes!”
“Hey, where’d you go?” she said.
He scooped the phone back up. “Sorry,” he said, his voice as cool as he could make it. “I dropped you.”
She made a face. “You are a weird one, Morgan Greenfield. But that’s cool with me.”