Working Title: When Daylight Bows to Darkness
A team of excavators returns to Zezefeni with a thrilling discovery: fragments of an ancient song found on Orino-Rin, believed to date all the way back to the First Ones, the original race that seeded the solar system. The fragments appear to challenge the long-held belief that Zezefeni is the prime planet. The Susu Nunyaa, the elite order tasked with interpreting the lost language, is thrown into turmoil. Some take the fragments literally and fear that they will undermine Zezefeni’s power, some feel that the meaning is unclear and requires further investigation, while others panic, convinced that there is a conspiracy at work.
As the Susu Nunyaa elders struggle to reach a consensus, a group of initiates embark on their final test before taking their vows and joining the Susu Nunyaa: pilgrimage to the treacherous Zezefeni coast. One of them, Ruah-Mmaru, is going through a crisis of faith. She has spent all her life working towards initiation, yet her own mentor, Inatani Ahlafa, spreads rumours of cover-ups and conspiracies. When Ruah is separated from the other initiates during a storm, an elderly outcast, Shad-Dahri, saves her life. The outcast is one of the few who choose to live outside the safety of the biome, subject to the dangerous, ever-changing elements.
There’s something familiar about Shad-Dahri – she bears a resemblance to the leader of the excavation team that discovered the fragments. (I would like them to be the same person, but several decades apart. Not sure how or why. To be explored further in a separate story). Troubled by this sinister fact, and by the outcast’s irreverent attitude, Ruah decides to stand up for her beliefs and falls back on her sense of duty. Upon returning home, she finds that Inatani Ahlafa has slipped into delirium, driven mad by the mere possibility of change. Ruah tries to stay firm in her faith, telling herself that no matter what the fragments say, Zezefeni’s role is still to guide the other planets. They are the Children of the Light. Yet doubt continues to plague her. The vows are for life – if she takes them, there’s no turning back. She must hear the fragments for herself and know the truth.
The Susu Nunyaa release the fragments, deciding to give the public a verbatim interpretation. To Ruah’s dismay, the fragments turn out to be just that – fragments. They provide no solace, no clarity, only more questions. She realizes at last that there can be no certainty – that is the point of faith. This realization frees her to take her vows and devote herself to a life of service.
A note on the title: The working title comes from some of the fragments that were discovered, which speak of long, freezing nights, as if daylight has completely surrendered to darkness. The implication is that the planet the First Ones originally seeded was one with cold, dark winters, i.e. Wimbo, not Zezefeni. The meaning of the songs is felt first, on a visceral level, and translated later. Because the modern-day folk of this solar system have lost touch with the Sauuti tongue, it’s not easy to get accurate translations of the spoken words in the songs, hence the debate. However, the feelings the sounds evoke are unambiguous. The fragments evoke feelings of cold and darkness. The confusion is about what the cold and darkness mean. To people from Wimbo, there is nothing unusual about harsh winters. To people from Zezefeni, however, it’s a different matter. They know about winters on other planets but the actual experience of it, through hearing the fragments, evokes a sort of primal terror, a sense of utter wrongness. Their reaction to the fragments is not just brought on by the fear of being wrong about their place in the order of things, but also being wrong about the very nature of things. This is why they have such dramatic responses – complete denial, panic, etc.
The Susu Nunyaa: elite order of scholars and sorcerers who transmute and translate the highest, oldest sound frequencies for the public (from susununya, Ewe word for knowledge obtained through reflection or deduction rather than direct experience)
The leader of the Susu Nunyaa: The SeKarah (from se, meaning hear or listen in Ewe, and karabo, meaning answer in Setswana: i.e. the one who hears the answer)
Protagonist: Ruah-Mmaru (from boammaruri, meaning truth in Setswana)
Ruah’s mentor: Inatani Ahlafa (Inatani is the title given to all mentors in the order, taken from inati, meaning mother in Amharic, and alafa, meaning to heal in Setswana)
Another mentor: Inatani Reretsang (from reetsang, meaning listen in Setswana/Sesotho)
Outcast/excavation team leader: Shad-Dahri (from Shadari, meaning one born in winter in Hausa. Chosen because she was born on a colder planet, possibly Wimbo, but also because she is so foreign to Ruah; cold is symbolic of “otherness”)
Ruah’s friend: Narahii (from Narai, a Hausa name for a Wednesday-born girl)
Ruah’s younger brother: Kokosi (from Kosi, meaning Sunday-born boy in Ewe). Kokosi fell into a trench as a child. Ruah could have helped him out but she panicked and fled to find their parents. In her absence, Kokosi tried to get out on his own and broke his arm so badly it never fully healed. Ruah blamed herself for making the wrong choice and lives in a state of perpetual anxiety, never wanting to make the wrong choice again. This desire for certainty is what drives her to join the Susu Nunyaa.
The spiritual name of the Zezefeni ocean: Meshe-Shekhiiyem (from mesheshegiya, meaning haven in Amharic)
Long-living marine creatures that excavate sound: the Mahu-Mahadii (from bahumagadi, meaning queens in Setswana) are tentacled, asexual sentient creatures native to Zezefeni that live thousands of years and communicate through sound waves. The oldest ones are massive, like whales. The youngest are as small as kittens. They are much smarter than humans and able to communicate with all kinds of creatures. They are the only non-humanoid life form that has a long-standing alliance with humans. The terms of their agreement are that humans on Zezefeni are not allowed to engage in any activity that will adversely affect the ocean, and in return the Mahu-Mahadii help them excavate ancient sounds. The recent sounds (a few thousand years old) are easy – the Mahu-Mahadii remember them directly. The more ancient sounds are trickier. They have to dive very deep and send out sound waves, and then see what comes back. The same process applies when the Mahu-Mahadii are taken off-planet. Only the young ones make the trip. The old ones don’t like to travel. When they get close to death, they stop moving altogether. When they die, their bodies provide food for other marine life. Although the Manu-Mahadii are amphibious, they prefer to stay in the water.
Spiritual capital of Zezefeni: Zezelam (from selam, meaning peace in Amharic)
A note on Zezefeni
Although the entire planet is called Zezefeni, the people of the planet tend to use the term Zezefeni to refer only to the land mass that they live on, and more specifically the protective bubble that spans the entire land mass. Most people live within this bubble. There are a few exceptions, outcasts who are exiled for terrible crimes or those who choose to live outside for spiritual or other reasons. They are subject to the dangers of the harsh environment. Only the hardiest of them survive. They have a small nomadic community, but there are also outcasts who live alone.
The ocean is seen as a sovereign, divine territory that the Zezefenians respect and do not interfere with unless they have no choice. To enter the water, permission must be obtained beforehand from the Mahu-Mahadii through the utterance of certain words.
The Susu Nunyaa and Zezefeni religious beliefs
The order is deeply devout and follows the old religion of Zezefeni, worshipping the creator sun goddess Zuuvah and her creator god consort (or son?) Juah-ju. The most important natural feature on the planet is the ocean, Meshe-Shekhiiyem, because the oldest and most powerful sounds on the planet come from the depths of the sea. This is why Susu Nunyaa initiates must make a pilgrimage to the coast before taking their vows. If Meshe-Shekhiiyem lets them return home in one piece, they are strong enough to serve. It can be said that while most people on Zezefeni focus their religious attention on the gods, the Susu Nunyaa focus their attention on Meshe-Shekhiiyem.
The Susu Nunyaa believe that Zezefeni has the divine mandate of guiding the “nightlings” or the “ones lost to darkness” (i.e. the people of the other planets) into the Light. Their attitude towards foreigners on the planet is paternalistic – they want to “rescue” them from their backwards ways and encourage immigration to Zezefeni as a form of “rehabilitation” for foreigners. They are oblivious to their own hubris. Their intentions are good, in their eyes, and they tend to be so blinded by their convictions that they can’t see when Zezefeni is in the wrong. For the most part, they stay out of interplanetary politics, leaving those matters to the High Council. Their focus is on unearthing, studying and transmuting sound artefacts into data and energy for Zezefeni’s use. They are like scholars who spend so much time in libraries, learning about the past, that they have no clue what’s happening in the present. They have a deep sense of civic duty and loyalty to their people. Their role is to serve, above all.
They live and work in the Temple in the Zezefeni spiritual capital Zezelam. They are revered by the ordinary folk, but the members of the High Council don’t take them very seriously and keep almost all relevant information from them. Since Zezefeni is a meritocracy, initiates earn their way into the Susu Nunyaa through skill and talent. They have to be intelligent, devout and willing to die for Zezefeni, if necessary. Most importantly, they have to exhibit an affinity for magic (a sensitivity to sound and a unique ability to manipulate it).
There are several organizations on Zezefeni that specialize in sound excavation. These organizations are run by the High Council, but the employees are almost entirely foreigners (because foreigners are expendable), all of whom undergo rigorous background checks and are bound by magic blood oaths to keep their work confidential. The biggest excavation outfit is Sauu3 and they specialize in using the sound waves of the Mahu-Mahadii to unlock ancient sounds from excavation sites. At this point, most of the ancient sounds on Zezefeni have already been logged and archived. Now they transport the Mahu-Mahadii off-planet in tanks, to explore other sites. The Mahu-Mahadii are in constant communication, not just with each other but with the environment, giving off vibrations that evoke a response from the environment. When their vibrations hit the right frequency, they create a sort of ripple in time and space (let’s just pretend that makes sense), which allows sound from the past to reverberate all the way into the present. Theoretically, that would mean sounds from the future can also be captured, but no one is looking for those sounds. Yet.
Once an ancient sound is unlocked by the Mahu-Mahadii, the excavators feel or sense it even if they can’t hear it, then “carry” it, harnessing the sound’s own energy to create a sort of hold on it so they can trap it in their drums, which cannot be opened again except by high magic. Excavators are not allowed to learn Sauuti or high magic, but they can sometimes infer meaning from the emotions the sounds evoke. They possess very specific and limited magical abilities, just enough to allow them to hold and move sound from one place to another, but they don’t have the key to unlocking sounds once they’re trapped in the drums. Only the Susu Nunyaa are allowed to do that, through a song so secret that it has been divided into four parts, with each person knowing only their part of the song. The four people tasked with opening the drums are called Ribehri (from beri, Amharic word for gate). The process requires tremendous precision and Ribehri train for years apart, then for several more years together to get the exact intonation, resonance, melody, etc. to coax the sounds out in the right way. Singing a single wrong note could potentially be catastrophic.
The creator goddess is referred to as the Mother, or the Haryerahye (from Toba’s pitch), not Zuuvha/Jua. The Susu Nunuyaa call the two suns the Mother’s Eyes (??? Maybe too cheesy, I don’t know).
Ngaphandileh: Outside the protective bubble of Zezepfeni, there is something in the air, a sort of vague menace that stalks the terrain. This is part of what makes pilgrimage so difficult for initiates. There are moments of inexplicable and profound silence or darkness, moments where suddenly gravity fails, where the impossible happens without any observable cause. (Unknown to them, these are pockets of unreality caused by the Ngaphandileh, who are moving through time and space, seeking a way to emerge from the state of being forgotten – from Toba’s pitch. At a later point in time, the Susu Nunyaa will learn about the Ngaphandileh but that is still far in the future.)
Timeline: The story takes place around the time of the second Boamariri. Zezefeni is at the height of its political influence, life is good and the Susu Nunyaa still enjoy the illusion of Zezepfenians being saints.
Sound excavation: At this point in time, sound mining is illegal on other planets, especially Ekwukwe and Orino-Rin (from Jude’s pitch) but Zezepfeni has secured a special dispensation to excavate sound for “archival purposes” on the basis of their exclusive relationship with the Mahu-Mahadii and their oath to share whatever they find at each Boammariri. At some point the other planets will grow weary of this one-sided agreement and the Federation will vote to strip Zezepfeni of their special license. This will be one of several factors leading Zezepfeni to explore increasingly nefarious means, e.g. the Seekers who steal sound from other planets (from Jude’s pitch).
The Susu Nunyaa are very privileged and therefore quite out of touch with reality on the ground. Their world is all about ideals: faith, study, loyalty and service. They decipher sound fragments (part of a melody, a line of a song, isolated words and sounds) and then try to put them together like a puzzle, while knowing only a few key spells in Sauuti. They might find the sound “Ah” and have no idea if it’s an exclamation, part of a word, a name, etc. Imagine hearing countless bits and pieces of different songs, speeches and conversations in a language you barely know. First you have to see which fragments fit together in the same song or dialogue, then you have to translate them.
The Susu Nunyaa have a natural talent for languages and music plus the ability to match the exact frequency of any sound they hear (or feel). This helps them use high magic (key spells in Sauuti). The spells help them interpret new words but it’s a painstaking process. The older the sound, the harder it is to interpret and manipulate. It’s not like using magic to heal injuries, move things, etc. Stuff like that is so easy for them that it’s a waste of their magic. Every interpretation has to be unanimous before they release it, and sometimes it takes ages for them to agree. In addition to interpretation, they transmute ancient sound energy, harnessing its power and storing it for future use, like fuel. They are scholars rather than warriors and everything they discover or produce is handed over to the High Council, presumably for the greater good.
Their clothes: they wear robes of barkcloth lined with silk. Yellow in colour, with brighter shades for junior members and closer to orange for the higher ranks. There are sacred symbols on the sleeves, hems or collars which indicate a specific role in the order. Initiates wear pale yellow robes with no symbols. After taking their vows, they switch to bright yellow robes with a thin row of symbols on the hem. As they move into specialised areas, the symbols change. The SeKarah wears rust orange robes with a high collar covered in symbols and a headdress also covered in symbols. I envisioned the symbols as something inspired by Ghanaian Adinkra symbols.