Saturday, February 7, 2015

First 5 Pages February Workshop - Taylor

Name: Carissa Taylor
Genre: YA sci-fi

If I could feel, maybe I would have sensed them– their vibrant hum writhing up from the smooth metal panels beneath me. But I couldn’t. I inched forward on my stomach, craning my neck into the dark, pollen dust filling my nose.  I wasn’t designed for this. For life on the Asteris. For life on Earth either. I was designed for another planet entirely.

One I’d never see.

I paused, flicking the lavender-green light of my beam against the void. It flared back at me, tracing the impurities in the ductwork in spidery streaks of yellow and blue. Soon they’d grow into cracks, then fissures: a lacy web out of which the air would seep. Away from the ship’s cycling system.

But air wasn’t the resource I was here for. My charges were much less predictable.

I dragged myself onward. Wrist, forearm, shove; wrist, forearm, shove; every movement calculated and heavy against the leaden press of the walls. The air was stale with the hot scent of over-clocked computers and fried autorations. Humid and oppressive. I adjusted my sensor glove, the webbing dark against the dull gray sheen of my outstretched hand. Beyond it, beyond the safe semicircle of lilac glow, a blackness so long I couldn’t see its end.

I double checked my light. If something went wrong and– my throat hitched. I pushed out a slow, measured breath. Calm. I could do this. Jesry had done it, and he was seventy years old.

Only Jesry hadn’t had any reason to be afraid of the dark. 

I felt like I’d been crawling for hours. Days. My mother would say I was exaggerating. I say it’s all a matter of perspective.

At the next intersection, I saw the first signs of the bees. Flits of pollen danced yellow in the dark eddies of the main duct that bisected mine. Tiny flickers dusted the vent in a path of farlight that no one else on the ship would see. No one but the bees and I.

I was only cyborg on the outside, but it was why I was here and not a GenPure. I was only cyborg on the outside, which was exactly enough to matter to most people. The ability to see in ultraviolet was the reason – they said – that I’d been assigned the job of beekeeper. But it wasn’t the real one.

The real reason wasn’t about my strengths at all. It was about my weakness.

Back on Earth, there’d been keepers who’d just let a few swarms go. Let them set up a new hive and a new life somewhere else. But here on the Asteris, we couldn’t afford to sacrifice a single pollinator. And a fire-scrub was set to sweep the vents in less than 72 hours, incinerating everything in its path. One bee might be explained to the Council, worked off in a month of rations sacrifice. A whole colony? Disaster.

Gold dust streaked the walls and floor where they’d brushed by on the way to their new home. Clumsy little things. Sometimes I wondered how they managed to survive, bumping around like that. As if to prove me wrong, one sailed over my left shoulder, executing a perfect turn in the bend of the vent.

I narrowed my eyes at it. Now I had them. Another bee. And another.

They were coming faster now. A group must have left the hive at around the same time. I edged to the right, trying to leave passage for the bees.  My light flickered, the tunnel in front of me wavering.

I froze. A vision flashed.

Me, alone, in the dark, with a swarm of bees.

“Amelia?” I said. “Vitals.”


My lungs clenched. I had to stay calm. To think rationally. My light wasn’t out … yet. The blood pounded in my temples. I could almost hear the bees massing.  Waiting for their moment.

 “Amelia?” I tried again. “Vitals?”

Her calm voice flooded my earpiece. Heart rate: elevated. Core temperature: 97.6 degrees. Blood levels: normal.

 “Amelia: set vitals to auto-report in 15 minute intervals.”

Of course.

Normally she only reported to the MedBay on an hourly basis, but in here I needed to be more cautious. In here, there was no way of knowing whether or not I’d been stung once, twice, or a thousand times. I’d never realize until it was too late.

I stared at my hand, its pale silver hue luminous beneath the stringy black webbing of my sensor gloves.  Without the gloves I didn’t feel anything. All my nerve endings were buried deep beneath my titanium-enriched skin.  On that level, me inheriting the job of beekeeper made sense, sure. It made sense unless I was stung by fifty of them at once without knowing, and my windpipe collapsed. Which, coincidentally, was a scenario becoming more and more likely by the minute.

I was only cyborg on the outside, but most of the time that was where it mattered.

I scooted up a few inches and flicked my light around the corner. The empty glare fractured and bounced back at me. A split. There was no way of knowing which way the bees had gone.
I sat back and waited. And waited.

My flashlight flickered again. If the light went out, I wouldn’t be able to see my hands.

I’d be touchblind.

People take for granted the importance of sensation. Most kids take two years to learn to walk. I took seven. There were certain movements I knew by heart now. I’d practiced them over and over in front of a mirror until I could do them with my eyes closed. Sitting. Standing. Walking. Lying down. Getting up. I made checklists. Which muscles to activate and coordinate, contract and release. I could jump, step sideways, push my hair behind my ear.

But there were certain things I didn’t have a checklist for. I didn’t, for example, have a procedure for “trapped in air vents, need to back up and around corner to escape.” I don’t know. For some reason it wasn’t included in my copy of Holden’s Physical Therapy for the Neurologically Challenged.

The beam wavered again. Instantly, I reached back, groping the thigh pocket for my spare light.

All I felt was smooth bioprene against my leg.

I checked again, running my fingertip sensors along the inside of the pocket, digging into the corners. My chest clenched. Nothing.

I groaned. It must have fallen out. And because my family couldn’t afford a whole body sensor-suit, I hadn’t noticed. I’d crawled right over it and left it somewhere back there in the abyss.

Heart rate: rising. Blood levels: normal. Amelia reminded me.

“OK!” I yelled at her, as if she wasn’t doing exactly what I’d asked. “I know!”

The dark seemed to well up around me, a black wave waiting to surge.

I clicked off the UV, switching to Vis-only: less power drain. I was just about to choose a passage at random, when a bee buzzed by my ear and into the right-hand tunnel. I wrenched myself forward contorting my body around the tight angles of the ductwork. According to my handheld, I was nearly on the outer perimeter of the starship.

“You’ve got no place left to hide,” I said, gritting my teeth as I wriggled around the bend.

But I was wrong.  As I shone my light down the corridor, ten meters away, the beam flashed back at me.

A dead-end.

A dead-end and no hive.

This was. Not. Happening.


  1. Welcome to the workshop, Carissa!

    You have a wonderful writing style. Sharp, clean, strong. You did an excellent job of setting up genre in the first paragraph, and opening with action. I felt for her and was nervous for her as she was running out of power. Excellent tension throughout the scene, coupled with inner thought and forward movement. I also really appreciated the sensory details, such as the "hot scent of over-clocked computers."

    I also appreciated how you mentioned pollen early on, which made it logical later in the scene when she mentions the bees. Oh, and Amelia was cool.

    I was a wee bit confused about bees, and why she needed to follow them, and maybe that's how it's meant to be. Totally fine with me, because I don't mind digging in deeper until I know more about the gears turning the story.

    My main issue was the first line. It's intriguing and beautifully written, but I just wanted to mention a logic issue. If she can't feel the panels, how does she know they're vibrating? Maybe she sees the dust bouncing? Or hears the hum? One option would be to begin with "I wasn't designed for this." IDK, your choice. But if you keep that opening line, which is cool, I'd mention some other reason she knows the panels ARE vibrating.

    This is a fresh, original idea, and you've executed it beautifully. Good luck on the next round!

  2. Hi Carissa,

    I'm totally intrigued by your premise! I love the idea of pollinators (bees) being important on a ship/orbital (whatever the Asteris is, and I'm okay not knowing yet). I like that you let us in on it slowly. You have some great lines, too. "But air wasn't the resource I was here for." "and Jesry was 70 years old" "Which, coincidentally, was a scenario becoming more and more likely by the minute." The scent one that Julie mentioned.

    I confess I was a little bit confused by what "I was only cyborg on the outside" would mean. I'm used to reading fantasy and sci-fi, so I'm willing to hold the question in abeyance, but it seemed like you were dropping hints that I wasn't picking up on. For example, the mention of the sensor glove talked about the gray sheen on her hand, but I didn't take that to mean metal, I just thought it was dark in the vents. Then we get to titanium-enriched skin, and I think, oh she's metal! But then how could she be stung? (Of course, you didn't say metal, you said "enriched." :) ) Then when we get to "Holden's Physical Therapy for the Neurologically Challenged" I think I finally got what she was. I don't think you necessarily need to change your order of hints, I'm just saying I had to keep revising in my head what I thought was going on more than you might want.

    You do a great job of dropping 'jargon' naturally -- things like "sensor glove" and "fire scrub" -- words that we don't use but we can guess what they mean. Another great example is "touchblind." That really helped me figure out what she was afraid of. The first part I get that she's laboring in the dark, she's afraid of the dark, etc., but not why -- the fears were maybe belabored (haha) a little too much without explaining what exactly they were. You could get to some of the specifics faster. Of course, you don't want to explain too much, then you just get exposition heavy. One of the dangers of sf is having narrators who are too self-aware, and thinking about things they wouldn't ordinarily explain for the sake of the readers. (For example, she has vivid descriptions, but I'm not sure that anyone would think of a light as both "lavender-green" and "lilac" -- although if she's constantly trying to explain to people how you can see in UV, then maybe she would. Everything is permissible if you're doing it on purpose for a reason. :) )

    So, overall, great premise, great action introducing us to a problem ("What is with the bees??") and lots of intriguing questions to keep us reading. You have dropped great details everywhere to help me understand the MC and the challenges (and discrimination) she faces (although not her name, so I'm just assuming it's a her... :) ). I hope to learn some more!

  3. Hi Carissa –

    Cool, cool, cool! Loving female-led sci fi! AND LOVE that it’s about bees. I read a book called What has Nature Ever Done for Us and have since been passionate about our buzzy friends. I’m HOOKED! (wait, I suddenly realize we don’t know it’s a she… is it a she?)

    Below are some nit-picky points… I think this is a fantastic premise of a book I would love to read, so please just take or leave my comments.

    The first sentence threw me a bit. “If I could feel, maybe I would have sensed them.” As a reader who doesn’t know what’s coming, the comma after “feel” was jolting, a sudden, unexpected pause. And the rest of the paragraph doesn’t help me understand what that means: “feeling” – is it emotional? Physical? Is it essential I know this to get the story going?

    Honestly, I loved the next bit: “I inched forward…” through to “One I’d never see,” which, I’d suggest, could move up to the first paragraph. If you start there, I’m totally hooked. Leave me the bit about not feeling to discover further on as I find she’s a cyborg. Rather than being puzzled, I’ll be totally fascinated.

    I struggled with paragraph 10. “was only cyborg on the outside.” I TOTALLY misread this. Many times. I thought you were trying to say “I was THE only cyborg on the outside (referring to a spaceship or something). I was completely thrown until – after several goes – I finally got it. Only the outside of me is cyborg… ah ha!

    The third repetition of the same phrase “only cyborg on outside” feels a little heavy-handed.

    “I narrowed my eyes at it.” Perhaps: “My eyes narrowed as I watched it”?

    LOVED the paragraph about sensation and learning to walk, etc. Brilliant! But is she part-human? Is that why she has normal human emotions? If so, perhaps a clarification there?

    I liked the description of the spare flashlight falling out, but I wonder if there could be a reason she accidentally breaks her flashlight, rather than it just starts flickering. Surely, if she’s afraid of the dark, she’d have checked it was working well before she started? It’s flickering just kind of struck me as a little convenient. We know she doesn’t like the dark and her flashlight breaks – just a bit too expected?

    I’ve been detailed here, but like I said, I’m nit-picking on a fabulous, exciting, intriguing premise! Can’t wait to read again!

  4. Carissa, I wanted to read more! Loved the pacing and your voice. Very exciting and a creative idea! I loved threading the pollen into the story and then I understood why it was there! Great set up!

    I don't think there's anything I'd change, but I'd like to know how you know there's a vibrant hum, if you didn't sense it? The difference between a cyborg and a Gene Pure?? And why it took seven years for her to learn to walk. Does she have a name? Some of this may be spelled out later, but these things intrigued me.

    Wonderful story. I'm hooked!

  5. I too love the premise. I don't read a lot of Sci-fi, but the idea of a cyborg bee keeper who might be a touch claustrophobic and possibly allergic to bee stings - yes, please! Sounds like a hook.
    I would love to know this a bit earlier than in the current sample though. Also, what is her short-term goal-- to trap the bees, save the bees, divert the bees? I wanted it to be more clear. Sometimes I felt the writing was a little fussy. For example: "flits of pollen danced yellow" and "dark welled up around me waiting to surge." If you simplify some of these lines it will help clarify things for the reader, I think, so we know exactly what you mean and can move along on your MC's journey quicker.
    I also got the sense that this story "started " in a few different places. There's the opening with her lying on her belly and traveling down a tunnel/vent. The para. that starts "I was cyborg on the outside" feels slightly different in tone/voice to me. And finally, the "People take for granted..." felt like yet a third opening to me. Try integrating the tone and voice more - you have a lot of great stuff to work with. Thanks.

  6. Hi Carissa! As the others have said, this is a fantastic premise! The combination of bees with the sci-fi setting was awesome, and I think you wove in the details of the world quite wonderfully. I also loved the way you built tension throughout the piece, revealing more about your protagonist’s job, and the dangers that come with it.

    Your descriptions were very vivid. Even though I’ve definitely never been in your MC’s position, I had such a clear view of the world. I could see every move she made, could see the vent, could feel the presence of the bees. The pollen mentions were awesome! They gave me such a strong view of the place. All of your colors were really vidid in fact. You have a great talent for descriptions!

    While I felt the world-building was AWESOME, I came away with a few logistical questions:

    First, the cyborg comments. From what I understand, a cyborg is someone composed of organic and mechanical matter. So if she had any percentage of mechanical matter, even if it was only on the outside, she’d still be a cyborg. Because a cyborg isn’t just the mechanical parts, it’s the combination of mechanical and organic parts. I think? Either way, I loved the idea of someone who was an organic human on the inside, but had mechanical parts on the outside, which would definitely have some benefits, but also, obviously would have a very big downside, because of her inability to feel. (In fact, I think the paragraph about her learning to walk was my favorite one. So powerful.)

    Secondly, I wasn’t 100% sure what she was going to do once she found the bees. Toward the end, I thought she was going to move the hive, but I felt the story could benefit from having that info just a little earlier on.

    Lastly, (and another commenter mentioned this already), but I wasn’t sure how the bee stings would affect her if she was covered in mechanical material and couldn’t feel. Did the stings/venom get past that somehow? If that’s the case, it’s totally understandable why she’d be so concerned, I just wanted a line or two articulating that more.

    All in all, I think a few small explanations throughout would help move things along. We can see *what* she's doing so clearly, but I could've used just a bit more *why.* Otherwise, I think you did a really fantastic job of bringing us into this sci-fi world. I would definitely read on to see what happens next! Thanks for letting me read this!

  7. Goodness, this is really intriguing! I love it!

    Really I only had a couple of suggestions/concerns. I had a hard time really digging into the story at first. It wasn't until "I dragged myself onward" that I felt like I was getting a handle on where I was and what was happening. And then I really clicked in when the bees showed up.

    Might I suggest revising the very beginning to be more specific and immediate? Since we don't know who "them" are and since we haven't seen your character in action quite yet, that first paragraph just feels like information without context. Personally, I'd rather see her crawling through the ducts after bees and then start to figure out the cyborg/backstory stuff.

    Also I'm not sure that the connection between her fear of the dark and her lack of touch is quite as clear as it could be? (I'm assuming they're connected, but it's not really overtly stated.) You did a great job of telling us why the bees are dangerous to her, but I'm still a bit unclear about the dark. Is it because she could back into something and hurt herself?

    This is a really amazing premise and setting, and I'm really excited to see where you take it. Good job.