I met Maryanne Knight four or five years ago at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and was immediately impressed by the science fiction novel chapters she read in Matt Pallamary’s workshop. Her writing is dense and intelligent. I did worldbuilding in a near future novel, but was staggered by the amount Maryanne did for her book. I can’t say when dystopian fiction began, though Maryanne and are in agreement that the Book of Revelation is the worst dystopian/science fiction ever. Generally, the two old classics are Brave New World and 1984. However, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell were more philosophical authors making social commentary than science fiction writers. Philip K. Dick combined sci-fi with dire prophecy delivered in a pulp style for his dystopian fiction. In the 21st century, dystopian has sadly become The Hunger Games, and the offspring of that series. Maryanne Knight’s work is part classic dystopian, but owes more to the vast creations of Frank Herbert in his Dune series. Her book is less a warning of a bleak future, and more about how people, including an alien being who can shift into multiple forms, are dealing with a troubled world sixty years in Southern California’s future. Maryanne is the Information Technology Manager for a local municipality. She lives with her husband Paul and her two cats, Mungus and Starbuck. It is an honor to present the beginning of Biotrash: Gwhetta’s Trial, by Maryanne Knight in Luna Review.
Prologue – 65 million BCE, Yucatan Peninsula – Gwhetta’s Exile
The strike came without warning, an impact that vaporized all of Gwhetta’s active bodies, forcing every thread of his consciousness into the only spare form he had to absorb it. The stone relic sat on the far side of a nearby mountain, a whimsy he made to amuse his beloved Ongtalia, whose cries echoed in the sensory void of the rock form–until they were abruptly disconnected.
Gwhetta shifted the relic into a reptile with membrane wings, a pointed head, and excellent vision to find out what destroyed his pollinators and dropped his connection to Ongtalia. The sky was orange and brown, heavy with ash and the scent of burning vegetation. He launched into the valley, the wind almost knocking him out of the sky when he crested the hill. He perched on a rock wide enough to bear him then propelled straight up until he was above the wind and smoke. Remnants of a meteorite glowered in the center of the newly formed crater where their transport and field lab previously stood.
Gwhetta found Ongtalia and her grove engulfed on the outer rim, their roots still clinging to the soil, leafless branches reaching up and away from the flames. He called to them, one by one, but not a single member answered. He shifted into water, a heavy cloud that he rained down on their charred trunks. Evaporate, liquefy, descend. He repeated the cycle until the flames and smoke were gone, but it was too late. Ongtalia and the others were silent. There was no life left in the grove.
Gwhetta lay in puddles on the ground or soaked into the throbbing trunks of his clan. He let himself evaporate and fall until he lay in a single swampy muck surrounding the remains of the grove. He couldn’t endure the deep and terrible ache of Ongtalia’s absence in any other form. Only the passivity of water could calm the fierceness of his anger and despair, but he had to guard against the urge to dissipate himself into the real thing.
Gwhetta surrounded himself with an imperceptible membrane to keep the native water out while allowing other forms to pass through. Instinctively, he collected information on everything organic or mineral that touched or passed through him, adding to the repertoire of forms he could mimic or fully replicate.
He mimicked the simple rooted forms that clung to the submerged trunks to burrow into Ongtalia’s remains until he found a piece of her natural body unspoiled by fire or water. Gwhetta wrapped it in a membrane shield and let it drop into the soil next to her decaying trunk. This would allow him to keep a piece of her, always.
Ongtalia’s thoughts had twined with his for so long he barely remembered how to think alone. His ran dark without her upbeat counterpoint, the harsh realism of a scientist lost without the moral perspective of a Grove Mother. They argued over settling here, both citing the faint taste of Gresti in the life forms as a reason to stay or go. She was too trusting, unwilling to believe any of their age-mates could be so deceitful as Karsu had been. Ongtalia brokered Gwhetta’s release and followed him into exile, bringing her offspring with her. Karsu must have been amused by her plans to start a new colony.
Now they were all gone and he was alone. He fantasized about reforming, taking root, hoping for another strike to end his life, but he couldn’t. He knew too well what happened when a single Gresti entered the breeding state.
Gwhetta abandoned his brooding in favor of physical relief. He focused on every living thing in which he resided, sought the dying and pushed his own consciousness into the forms. Millions upon millions of deaths, small little snippets of life, quickly formed and extinguished around him. Some went quickly, others slowly and painfully. Some drowned inside him. Each death took a portion of his grief with it.
He lived this way until long after the remains of his clan slipped below the surface, broke down and filtered into the soil. Their decay thickened him, giving him more capacity to shift. He found his membrane-wrapped piece of Ongtalia before he shifted a small part of himself from water to a body that could appraise his situation, a mimic of a predatory bird that lived by his swamp. He learned many species in those dormant years of grief, and more beings than he wanted to count lived inside him or depended on him as their water source. Those lives would be at stake if he shifted all of himself at once, instead of carefully replacing and extracting himself from the ecosystem.
Gwhetta surveyed the new landscape, looking for native water outside the swamp. He had to go up high to see the outline of the impact crater. He found a stream nearby and shifted to a small cloud to absorb water from it to replace himself from the swamp. He had grown so much it would take years to fully remove himself this way. I will not abandon dependents he chanted, as he rained out the fresh water and evaporated himself from the swamp.
I will not breed alone.
Thursday, May 10, 2074, Santa Barbara, California: Gwhetta Lives as the God Olokun
Gwhetta stretched the sleep out of the limbs of the orange tabby, Mr. Oh, then settled into the furrow between his companions, Amani Maguire and her husband Sol Sanchez, to savor their last bit of sleep. Amani’s eyes started to flutter, her breath slowing. Mr. Oh pushed his back against her side and followed her into the dream.
It was the same one she’d been having for months, crying babies locked in cupboards, premature, malnourished, dying. Amani’s fingers bled as she fumbled with hundreds of useless keys, tears breaking her voice. Help is coming, little ones, just hold on…
Mr. Oh made a figure eight around her legs and the set of keys dropped to the floor. Goddamn it, Olokun, you’re not helping!
He pounced and swatted the keys down the hallway, tired of watching his favorite human play out the same anxiety drama again. Mr. Oh was half-tempted to help her conceive, to fill her womb with a composite of the couple’s genetic code, but that baby would be more Gresti than human. Amani and Sol deserved their own offspring.
A simple melody echoed through the dream, dissolving it into the familiar comforts of the family bed. Sol rolled away and Amani swatted at her phone to silence the alarm, then wrapped her arm around Mr. Oh, her fingers entwined with his belly fur.
His purr rippled through every cell in the fifteen year old body. With a sigh, he relaxed into the rhythm that vibrated in his blood, a rattle in his lungs echoed by a tingling in his toes. Oh, how delicious it feels to be a well-loved house cat.
A kiss on the top of his head told him she was awake. They snuggled until the second alarm drew Amani out of bed. He followed her to the bathroom and took his spot on top of the hamper, eye level with Amani as she used the toilet.
“Sol’s premiere is tonight, so we won’t be home until late, Mr. Oh.” Her sing-song tone countered the current of anxiety in her thoughts. She rubbed the crease between her eyes and forced a smile.
Gwhetta pushed his own memory of the last orb-release party into her mind. Amani and Sol with an old friend, Amani’s hazel eyes two diamonds against radiant skin, copper ringlets woven with silver and gold ribbons into a sparkling sleek updo.
Amani smiled and leaned forward to scratch the cat’s ear, unfazed by his memory of an event he didn’t attend. “Yes, let’s hope this one goes as well as that one did.” She looked him straight in the eye and sent her own thought back to him. Please, Olokun, don’t let anyone get hurt over this.
Gwhetta sent an image of a cougar jumping out from behind a buffet table at a crowded party, morphing into a caterer as he joined the crowd.
I’ll do what I can. Mr. Oh closed his eyes, the cat version of a smile.
Amani gave him another kiss on the head. “Thanks, Mister. That’s all I can ask.”
She turned her attention to her morning routine and Mr. Oh settled in to observe. There was more going on with Amani than just her concern about the release of Sol’s orb, As a Thief in the Night. She was hiding something from him this week, a brilliant knot in her thoughts that he pretended not to notice. It lacked the sour taste of self-harm so he left it untouched. She would share it when ready.
Amani got in the shower.
Mr. Oh put his cat body into REM sleep to commune with his base consciousness, living in the body of twenty-three year old Graduate student, George Martinez. Gwhetta could no longer rely on metabolic activity to anchor his thread to the permanent body of the cat. The feline struggled to maintain autonomy since George came to study with Amani Maguire. The dream kept Mr. Oh’s thread from slipping away altogether and re-attaching to Gwhetta’s dominant form. He triggered the dream to pull the thread back to Mr. Oh at a touch, or the sound of his name, and reached out to George.
A gentle head butt to his jaw woke George Martinez, a mimic of his good friend and mentor Amani Maguire’s cat Mr. Oh, warm and comforting on his chest. He slept on an antique black leather couch under the window in the cramped studio he shared with the DV6K, his Data Vault 6000, and collection of antique hardware stacked in piles on the floor in the perpetual twilight behind drawn curtains. A membrane along the apartment’s perimeter cooled the room to a pleasant 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
The cat’s thoughts came to Gwhetta in quick bursts. Amani’s worried about tonight. She’s still keeping that secret.
George rubbed Mr. Oh’s ears. This cat was the most independent of Gwhetta’s observer bodies, fiercely loyal to the family of humans he was sworn to protect, and the only one who knew George personally. They kept the conversation brief, as usual, until Sol Sanchez’s voice echoed along Mr. Oh’s tether and the mimic of the cat disappeared.
George pulled the fleece blanket off the back of the couch to replace the missing warmth from the mimic’s body and scanned the packets of thought left by his other observers.
Amani wasn’t the only one of the humans Gwhetta was sworn to protect who expected the Warriors of God to react with violence to Sol’s new orb. The orb detailed their rise from a fringe White Supremacist group to a sovereign political entity ruling over the ruins north of Langstrom City. While Amani worried about the personal threats of death and torture against herself and Sol that began when he started working on the orb, the Free People living in the ruins south of Langstrom City were gearing up for war. Another of Gwhetta’s observers, a long-haired silver tabby cat named Ollie, watched their unofficial leader, the Langstrom City Spymaster Sekoya “Squeak” DuBois. Squeak was more direct, ordering up hawks to patrol the border between the Warrior camps and the free ruins.
The Free People were often a target of the Warriors’ aggression. The Warriors called them “Skavs” and accused them of being violent criminals. As far as most of the world was concerned, the Free People didn’t even exist, so no one cared or noticed if the Warriors sent raiding parties or assault teams after them. The Warriors made no secret of their desire to expand their territory into the ruins around and south of Langstrom City, but the City always pushed back.
Lately, Squeak’s spies reported rumors whispered in the Warrior camps, lies about a conspiracy between the Free People and Sol Sanchez, and warnings for good people to stay in tonight. Something bad was going to happen.
George sat up and found his phone on the floor next to his feet. With a few taps he activated the screen genie over the desk next to the DV6K and jumped to the News Central feed out of Glendale. He paged through all his other local sources and moved on to the national and international news sites. There was more talk about Sol and As a Thief in the Night than he expected, much of it conjecture about the reaction from the Warriors of God and their followers, the so-called Warheads. Multiple sites posted the hotly debated question, Has Sol Sanchez gone too far this time?
“Tomorrow they’ll accuse him of becoming a Warhead for his portrayal of the General as a folk hero.” George muttered, mildly irritated by a flash of human pride. His research for Thief was already a milestone in his career as a Historical Consultant to the orb industry, which he found surprisingly rewarding as far as human professions go.
George had enough of the news. He cut over to his music queues, selected the modern World Pop stream and got in the shower. Perhaps he crossed the line when he befriended Amani in his human form and let her accept him at face value as another human. And how should I have introduced myself to her? As Olokun, the God her family thinks I am, or Gwhetta, the Gresti I really am?
Gwhetta had gone too far already. He would not pass on what he learned from Squeak, not let on to Sol or Amani that the Warriors had vengeance planned for tonight. Telling them wouldn’t do any good, anyway. Once General St. John started an attack, whether on the ruins, or on his own people, there was no stopping it, and the National Guard wouldn’t interfere regardless. Whatever the Warriors of God were going to do was set in motion the day Sol arrived in their camp to make his orb.
Gwhetta did his best to balance the Gresti Vow of Protection he swore to this family of humans with the scientific doctrine of non-interference, which required him to be an observer of events, not an instigator or obstructor. Tonight, the vow would put the doctrine to the challenge.
Gwhetta sent a fragment from George’s consciousness to a collection of feather relics stashed in the ruins for such occasions. He left the crows and sparrows and brought the hawks to life with a drop of consciousness, morphing each relic into a basic mimic that could fly forever without food, water, or sleep. He ranged over the border with the Warrior camps, spying for Squeak, tipping his wings to her sentries along the way. He left the rest of the bubble of consciousness with the remaining feather relics, to deploy when she called for them. He let the fragment slip away and disconnect from George.
George stopped for his usual breakfast at Salinger’s, then headed to the 2D Video Arts building on campus. He had three screenings today for Amani’s class tonight, opportunities for students to watch the episode of the turn-of-the-century cop drama The Wire on a large flat screen, in a group, as it was meant to be watched.
Midway through the third screening, a localized temperature spike made George’s body flush. A taste similar to pine tar filled the back of his throat and he braced himself in his chair, grateful for the cover of darkness in the small auditorium while he adjusted his respiratory and heart rates to accept the surge of energy. The spike pulsed through every one of his permanent bodies, a familiar rhythm from his life before exile. There was no doubt what it meant.
Gwhetta was no longer the only Gresti on Earth.
Q & A
Luna Review: What got you into reading science fiction and who are your literary influences?
Maryanne Knight: I’m naturally drawn to the world building of science fiction and fantasy. My older siblings turned me on to Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and Frank Herbert. I’m also inspired by the works of Mary Shelly, Marge Piercy, and Barbara Kingsolver.
Luna Review: When did you start writing fiction, and when did you begin work on this novel?
Maryanne Knight: I attempted in my early twenties, but I lacked the time and discipline and eventually gave up. I’ve had the idea for the Biotrash story in my head for over fifteen years, and I decided nine years ago to flesh it out into an actual book.
LR: As someone who has written science fiction, I’m amazed at the amount of worldbuilding in your book, and the detail. How do you keep characters, themes, and plot-elements straight? Do you have scribbled notebooks, computer files of information, or do you keep it all percolating in your brain-pan?
MK: Most of it’s in my head, where it’s become a huge, multifaceted reality. I document established facts that need to be tracked for continuity, like names, and anything that involves an element of time, or needs to be figured out. I sketched Amani’s family line back to the ancestor who took the vow of protection from Gwhetta. That allowed me to count the generations that had passed and estimate the number of descendants. That was a lot of fun. So was sketching the alien species who runs the intergalactic court where part of the story takes place. I’ve summarized historically significant events that don’t occur in the story but are important to it. One of those morphed into the prologue.
LR: Do you have special times when you like to write (morning, late night, rainy days) and when you feel more in the creative flow?
MK: I write on the weekends, since it’s my only chunk of free time. I like to start as soon as I’m done with my morning routine, the earlier, the better.
LR: Some science fiction authors write books to warn people of possible dark futures, others create something they envision, speculative architecture of a far-off civilization. Is your book a prophecy of what could happen to us earthlings, but you wish wouldn’t, or do you focus on a story based around plot and characters?
MK: I focus on plot and characters, and use the future time period to develop the physical and geopolitical landscape that best suits the story. It’s more freeing than sticking with the present, which is constantly changing, while my made-up future remains static. It has to be possible, given present reality, but I get to write the history that makes it so. That’s the joy of science fiction.
LR: Do you feel that weekend workshops, writing groups, and conferences are helpful to your writing?
MK: The best thing I ever did for my writing was to start sharing it with other writers for critical feedback. I got up the nerve to attend my first conference in 2013, in Santa Barbara. I had no idea what I was doing or if I was telling my story in a way that was interesting to anyone else. I’ve had comments and questions that propelled and tightened the narrative, or made me re-think how I was telling the story. One of the best things about becoming a regular at the conference is connecting with like-minded writers. I’m now a member of a small, tight-knit group that meets monthly in Ventura, to read and critique our work. The group keeps me engaged in the practice of writing, when it might otherwise slip through the cracks in my busy schedule.
LR: Does it frustrate you when some readers/listeners don’t grasp all your concepts right away?
MK: It frustrates me only in the sense that I haven’t done my job as the author. It’s valuable feedback for this story in particular. It’s been percolating in my head for so long that I easily forget what the reader would and would not know of this world and the species who inhabit it. Some people will say they just don’t “get” science fiction, which means there’s not much I can do with their feedback.
LR: Please, ignore those nincompoops.