Discover more from Write More with Simon K Jones
Rubbish: part 2
Exploring the refugee camp
The Triverse is
Mid-Earth, an alternate 1970s London
Max-Earth, a vision of the 26th century
Palinor, where magic is real
Previously: Detective Lola Styles is assigned to be liaison to the city state of Bruglia, on the other side of the London portal. She is currently touring a refugee camp on the outskirts…
Writing books requires a lot of time and effort. Support Triverse and catch up on the whole story by upgrading your subscription and downloading the ebook 🙏
A strip of blue formed the ceiling, a vivid roof over the canyon, the very tops of the cliffs glowing white in the sun. None of that fresh light reached down into the depths where the camp sprawled, wedged between the two walls and always cloaked in shadow save for a brief moment when the sun was directly overhead. With the arrival of the colder months and the shorter days, sunlight would never reach the ground and the temperature would remain low.
It was Brightsun, though, which meant everything was hot all the time, and the shadow was welcome respite. Lola wrinkled her nose at the collision of competing smells: unfamiliar foods, herbs and spices being roasted or smoked, the waft of rubbish and the general stench that comes with too many people in too small a space. Down in the camp itself she couldn’t see very far - there were makeshift structures immediately surrounding the exit from the lift, built from corrugated metal, rock and fabrics. As with everywhere else in Bruglia there was no wood used in construction, it being a scarce resource. Wood meant wealth, and the people here had none of that.
A young aen’fa child ran up to Lola. She couldn’t tell if they were a boy or a girl. The child’s skin was turquoise, their hair a green that didn’t look artificial like dyed hair back on Earth. About shoulder height to Lola, they were still pretty short. They sported a line of earrings and studs from the pointed tip of one ear down to the jawline. They looked up at her with big eyes and spoke. “Maono ku mau ke o kuwo?”
Lola smiled and look sideways at Jyna for assistance. Although she’d heard Palinese languages spoken on the streets and even during meetings with locals, it had never been spoken in her direction. As such, she’d never found herself in a position of being unable to understand a conversation. Such were the benefits of living in Bruglia, close to the portal to London.
Jyna stepped forward, waving her arms and ushering the child away. “Me kake aupa koi? Hopa mepo hi kumake o.” The child pouted, turned and disappeared into the warren of passages between the structures.
“What was the kid asking?”
“She wanted to know if you were going to take them to Mid-Earth,” Jyna said, rolling her eyes. “Ever-hopeful, for some reason.”
“Do you know where she was from? What language was that?”
Jyna nodded. “Pi’aian, from the equatorial regions almost directly south from Bruglia. A long way south, obviously. Lots of water. They live off the sea.” She kicked at the red dust underfoot. “Must be different being here.”
“Everyone speaks such good English here that I forget it’s not used everywhere on Palinor.”
“Typical Earther,” Jyna said, glancing at her witheringly. She looked at the other guards. “Come on, let’s do the rounds. Detective Styles, stay close.”
Lola thought about the kid, wondering at their prospects on Mid-Earth. The hardest part about crossing the portal? What comes next. She’d heard that somewhere. Or it might even have been a quote from a Max-Earth book or film. The specifics slipped her mind, but it seemed apt. An aen’fa not speaking English wasn’t going to get a warm welcome in London. Didn’t matter their circumstances or skills: it would be a flat no from most employers. It didn’t escape Lola’s notice that she’d been able to not only waltz through the portal without any complications but also be paid for the privilege.
She stayed close to the guards, keeping quiet, observing. The camp had everything you might find in a city. There were people busying themselves with trying to keep the place running, whether by clearing and cleaning spaces, cooking communal food or generally keeping the piece. Lola detected a social hierarchy of sorts, obtuse and impossible for her to parse as a visitor. The makeshift structures gave way to tents of varying sizes, mostly small but with the occasional larger space. The bigger tents were hardly luxurious, instead being filled with more occupants Entire families crammed into an area smaller than her house’s kitchen. She was momentarily startled as a koth flew overhead carrying large barrels of something. It seemed impossible to her that someone who could fly would choose instead to be down here in the shadows.
“This place is the closest thing to a jungle you’ll find this side of the Bethenine River,” Jyna said. “We have to be careful. It only takes one match to make this whole place go up.”
Lola assumed she didn’t mean literally.
Faces painted with pain and stress and things that cannot be unseen stared back at her as they walked the camp. These were people with stories and she wanted to talk to everyone she saw, but knew that wouldn’t be possible. Not on this visit, at least. In her official capacity, she had no justification to start questioning anyone in the camp. She could return after hours, perhaps, but would still need assistance to operate the lift. Another barrier - although there were no doubt many wielders among the refugees. The camp wasn’t a place to be romanticised. It was ugly and uncomfortable and stifling, dirty and crowded and smelly. The headlines of countless newspaper articles back home floated through her memory and she ground her teeth. Nobody would choose to come here unless they had no other choice.
A hulking koth emerged from a tent nearby, stretching their wings out and up, such that they blotted out the sky momentarily. Lola stared, always in awe of their physiology. Skin colour aside, aen’fa could pass as human at a glance - or vice versa - but koth were unmistakeable. The koth looked down at her and frowned. Two of the guards closed ranks, attempting to form a wall of sorts, but it was evidently a pointless and somewhat farcical gesture.
“Earther glat,” the koth said. “Fspija ktikt u rut?” They smiled, revealing long rows of pointed teeth, and shrugged. “Why are you here? Come to mock?”
Swallowing, Lola forced herself to return the koth’s stare. “Not at all. I’m hoping to learn.”
A bellowing laugh from the koth. “Vro di prapu ikste ourpron uptat.” They spat onto the floor. Other people nearby laughed, and someone whistled. “You don’t even bother speaking our language, but you’re here to learn. You mean you’re herr to gawk. To visit our zoo. Along with your zoo-keepers. ”
Jyna took Lola’s elbow and led her away, further into the camp. “Stop talking to people,” she said. “Unless you’ve got them a ticket through the portal, they’re not interested in anything you have to say.”
Reluctantly, Lola followed, considering at the same time the near-impossibility for a human to speak koth languages. It required developing entirely new sounds, with the human larynx woefully inadequate. She’d been taking lessons in the most common aen’fa speech - unfortunately not what was being spoken by the child at the lift - but had been warned off even attempting to speak koth. Understanding it was possible, of course, but there had always been that disconnect between koth and humans.
Several kids ran past, jostling the guards and clearly unbothered by their presence. They were a mix of human, aen’fa and koth children, and looked like excited children might anywhere; the hardships of the camp temporarily forgotten. “Where are they headed in such a hurry?”
“The dump,” Jyna said. “We should go check it out. Here, you’ll need this.” She reached into a pocket and pulled out a small face mask, just large enough to cover the nose and mouth. Lola took it and turned it over in her hands inquisitively. “If you think the smell is bad here, just wait.”
Holding the mask by one of the ear straps, Lola followed as they weaved through the camp. The towering canyon walls were useful navigation references and the only way she could remember roughly where the lift was. Otherwise, the camp was a maze without any consideration to layout. Faces stared at her: hopeful, sullen, distant, accusatory.
The concentration of tents began to thin, giving way to an enormous pile of rubbish that stretched from one side of the canyon to the other and was half as high again as a tall human. Lola hurriedly fixed the mask to her face as the fumes reached her nose: the stench was indeed atrocious. At a glance the tip was a mixture of discarded food and farm waste, mixed with household items like furniture and even broken carriages. Anything unwanted, it seemed. A gelatinous fluid seeped from below, running in sticky rivulets back towards the camp. Atop the putrefying mound scampered the children and others, all of them bending down to examine what they’d found, actually digging through the filth like archaeologists excavating a find.
“What are they after?”
“Anything useful. Anything they can sell.” Jyna stood before the piles of rubbish and grimaced. “This is bigger than last time we were here. These dumps are illegal, but they pop up where we’re not looking. It’s not a priority, but it’s going to be a real health hazard.” She looked up at the top of the canyon. “Not just for the camp, either. These are perfect incubators for all sorts of airborne diseases. Last thing we want is a swarm of something nasty flying up and into the city.”
Lola moved closer and bent down to examine the detritus. As her eyes adjusted to the visual noise she began to pick out recognisable items. She poked at the nearest pile with her feet, dislodging an object the rolled out and onto the ground. It looked like a wing mirror from a rickshaw back home, albeit smashed and warped. Walking along the mountain of rubbish, she picked out more. A child’s toy that she’d definitely seen in shop windows the previous year in London. A shattered telephone. Plastic items, which couldn’t have been manufactured on Palinor. The longer she looked, the more she identified.
“A lot of this is from Mid-Earth,” she said, returning to Jyna.
“What? Show me.”
Pointing out the objects, Lola explained what each of them had once been, and as she did so it became increasingly apparent that the majority of the dump, at least in the area where they were stood, might have had Mid-Earth origins.
Jyna stood with her hands on her hips. “So your lot have been illegally dumping all of this shit in our city.”
Lola thought about objecting to being lumped in with ‘your lot’, but decided against it. “Seems so. Maybe this can help figure out how this is all getting here?”
“I’d never examined the actual contents of the dumps,” Jyna said, shaking her head. “But yes, this could be useful.”
“I can help,” Lola said.
There was a surprised cry from atop a nearby pile as it began to shift and collapse, a miniature avalanche, a scavenging child caught in the sudden motion. Lola looked up just as the child’s leg disappeared beneath the surface.
The guards hesitated but Lola was already clambering up the side of the newly-settled rubbish, finding it harder than she’d anticipated. The pile shifted beneath her feet as she climbed, like sand or snow but made instead from sharp-edged metals and plastics. The aen’fa child was clearly in pain, blood seeping from the top of her leg. The pile of rubbish had compacted around the limb, gripping it tight. Caught by discarded waste from the very place she was hoping to reach.
Thanks for reading!
I was glad to see my article on storytelling in games go down well earlier in the week - you can find it here if you missed it:
In the comments there were many fascinating observations. One of the best things about writing on Substack is the way communities can easily form. In particular, it was noted thatis now on Substack. If you’re interested in game design, do check out his GMTK:
Before I jump into author’s notes, it’s the last chance for these ebook giveaways:
Language is something I’ve not covered in Triverse up to this point. It’s so often handled in a very hand-wavey sort of way in science fiction and fantasy, with characters from different places conveniently speaking the same language, or through the introduction of a ‘universal translator’ device. Characters being unable to communicate easily can be highly inconvenient for the plot.
That ‘inconvenience’ is a part of travel, and of experiencing different cultures, and I wanted it to be a factor in Triverse. Of course, I’ve already established that our Earth-based characters are able to go to Palinor and have a grand old time without any language issues. The rationale I’m going with is that in the 200 years since the portals opened, English has become the default portal language. Slightly lazy, but then also perhaps inevitable given that the primary portal opened in London. With English being a common language on Mid-Earth and Max-Earth, Palinese languages were never going to take hold. As such, Bruglia is a multi-lingual society. Stray from that city, though, and you’ll encounter other languages.
You can assume that the conversations in the ‘Distant Rebellion’ chapter a couple of weeks ago were not actually in English. As there were no Earth-based characters present, though, it made sense to write it normally, without invoking made-up fantasy stuff.
This chapter presented an exciting opportunity to introduce some of the languages, though. I needed koth and aen’fa languages to sound noticeably different to each other, and there would also be many sub-languages and dialects within those cultures. Now, I’m 100% not a linguist, so this was going to be something of a challenge.
Then I discovered Vulgarlang, an online tool for generating fictional languages. This thing is remarkably detailed, allowing you to specify phonology, grammar and all sorts of linguistic elements that I don’t understand. There’s a lot of depth and I need to work at it further, but in the short term it helped with today’s chapter.
Specifically, we have the first two Palinese languages: Pi’aian, spoken by equatorial aen’fa who live along a tropical coast, and Kveti, one of the languages used by koth from the eastern mountains.
Our koth friend Ganhkran, from the ‘Random acts of violence’ storyline, could introduce themselves with “ba kto dvent kvarkhotesh Ganhkran.”
Alternatively, if we’d met Laryssa (from way back in the ‘Traffic’ storyline) under better circumstances, we might have asked “kū paupā hī aele?”
And she could have replied: “Pau aele kau au Laryssa.”
Now, I’m not a linguist and am historically quite bad with real languages. I studied French, German and Italian at school and struggled with them all. French I enjoyed and can still understand a bit of - I suspect if I went and immersed myself in French culture for an extended period I’d pick it up OK. All that is to say that anyone who is an expert on language could probably spot all sorts of holes in these snippets if they looked too closely.
That said, I’m not planning on having entire chapters in which character speak in made up fantasy languages. That would be…interminable. 😆 But I think there’s definite value in making the point that there are diverse languages, and also in having some consistency in their presentation. The real benefit of Vulgarlang is that it can help me retain the right sound. As always, it’s about verisimilitude and the appearance of reality, rather than reality itself.
Anyway, all of that aside - hope you enjoyed the chapter. See you down in the comments. :)
Oh, and if you know someone who might enjoy Triverse, do pass it along:
For use in the actual chapter, I simplified the alphabet and use of accents and so on. I’m not sure whether this is the right approach or not.