Humble Beginnings: The Importance of the Origin Story
Origin stories never fail to make me smile.
I think I’ve seen at least four tellings of Superman’s origins, the last one being Man of Steel which I don’t mind saying I enjoyed immensely. I still remember as a kid being so excited when, in reruns, ABC ran the pilot episode of The Six Million Dollar Man.
As we have seen, though, origin stories can all-too-easily be screwed up in their telling.
How so? Think about when you saw Darth Vader for the first time. You’ve just witnessed an all-out firefight, the bodies of both sides (of a skirmish you still didn’t quite understand all the details behind) littering the corridor of this spaceship, and then through the smoke and haze emerges the big man in black himself, his respirator the only sound you hear.
Pretty terrifying, huh? It was one of those unquestionable watershed moments of cinematic history…
…forever tainted by the whiny Annakin Skywalker we met in those god-awful Star Wars prequels. Now, whenever I look at Vader, I think, “Eh, it’s Annie in the suit. No big.”
So yes, origin stories are very easy to screw up.
It’s always good to never forget your roots, never forget where you come from. From those first few steps into a story, it’s the details of things—the sounds in the room, the weight of the blade in hand, the hard taste in your mouth when breathing deep a winter’s night—that build a character, a place, a setting. Ground rules are established. Crucial decisions are made, and from these humble beginnings, heroes and villains come to life. It’s those details that define your world and the people within it. Keep those details close. Within them is where the real story resides.
So yeah, I love a good origin story, and I was lucky enough to pen two of them in the summer of 2013. The first was with Valiant’s Bloodshot series, commissioned by Amazon’s Kindle Worlds. The other was in “A Nocturne for Alexandrina” from our recent anthology Ministry Protocol: Thrilling Tales from the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. Take a look at how The Ministry came to be.
It all started with a new queen on the throne, and a hot summer’s day at the palace….
For the first time since becoming queen, Victoria—unequivocally—was not amused.
Today was just one of those days where being queen really was more trouble than the title warranted, and certainly there was a lot of trouble to being queen of the British Empire. First, you needed to look like a queen. That went without saying. Getting up early enough to dress the part. Then there was the pomp and circumstance on the tiniest of life’s most mundane details. Just making it to the table to enjoy a hearty breakfast with her beloved betrothed, Albert, practically demanded an act from Parliament. Then came the maintenance of the Empire itself. Petition upon petition from her overseas representatives, all imploring the crown for more money. Many of these “imperative missives” from ambassadors were about as dodgy and as superfluous as a man trying to sell high quality sand to a Persian desert gypsy. This, however, did not try her patience so much when compared to the explorers wanting to “expand the Empire” with her financial help.
Antarctica? Really? Why in the name of God would anyone wish to claim any part of that frozen wasteland?
She then felt a light trickle against the back of her neck. I’m the Queen of the British Empire, she seethed, and with all this technology in my realm they can’t keep this palace cool in the summer? It’s not even two years old! Bloody hell.
Suddenly conquering Antarctica struck her as a good idea. A summer retreat there sounded quite nice. Perhaps this was the price of being “the first” of anything—a sacrifice of creature comforts.
What gave Victoria a real chill of dismay was that she had only been queen for just over two years. And this miserable, droll routine would be her life for the next few decades. No, becoming queen had not come as a complete shock to her. Victoria’s entire life and training had been leading to this, but certainly this predestination did not make the transition any earlier. Good Lord, just the news reaching her had hardly been an easy process. She could still remember that night involving a rather delightful dream of a Scotsman from good breeding, fine manners, and the kind of calf muscles, just visible from his kilt, that promised thighs and accompanying backsides a woman would take great delight in having within reach. She was enjoying a day’s riding and then a lovely tea—and that was when she knew it was a dream, of course, as a Scotsman, no matter how fine the breeding, would not enjoy a tea, nor describe an Assam as delightful. He was about to become quite forward when she was awakened at the break of dawn by Mamma, informing her that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were in her sitting room, awaiting an audience.
How disappointing. She would have preferred to return to her rather saucy dream, but instead she was to accept the charge of Queen of the British Empire.
Now, Alexandrina Victoria, crowned Queen Victoria, merely tightened her smile and gave the most imperceptible of sighs through her nose. Yes, even queens woke up on the wrong side of beds, even ones as plush and as comfortable as the ones in Buckingham Palace. She had to find a silver lining to this day, or remain trapped in this rut. For the rest of her life. She was queen; but she was human, too. Currently, she was bored and frustrated to the point of tears.
“Finally,” spoke her Lord Chamberlain, “we have a request for an audience.”
Then he paused. Queen Victoria crooked an eyebrow, inclining her head to the Lord Chamberlain. Yes. Yes. Out with it.
“This request is — well…” He went to speak again, but his words appeared replaced by a clumsy silence. “He wants permission to establish a new branch of Her Majesty’s government.”
“I see,” Victoria acknowledged with a nod. Let’s see, she thought, suppressing a wry grin as she dreamt up new ministries. We are in need of a Ministry of Truly Appalling Pub Songs. We have no Ministry of Tweed. I think there are some patterns that are in desperate need of regulation. And then of course there is the priority to establish a Ministry of Silly Wal—
“Your Majesty,” the Lord Chamberlain spoke, his voice shattering her witticism. “This branch he proposes would cover the entire Empire. It would be a global entity.”
That caught her full attention.
“Does this petitioner have a name?”
“Professor Culpepper Source.” The Lord Chamberlain paused to look over the papers in his hands, and then added, “He’s a scientist.”
“Is his name registered or recognised in any of our Royal Societies?”
“No, Your Majesty.”
She turned to look at him. “And the reasons behind how he made it this far in the petition process and why I am seeing him this afternoon?”
“It is the evidence he has presented to his patrons and, in particular, to me personally.”
“Are you saying you yourself have entertained this Professor Source?”
The man’s complexion blanched as he spoke. He looked so pale in that moment that Victoria believed he would succumb to the vapours. “I cannot impress upon you the importance of seeing this man.”
Perhaps Victoria’s silver lining was at hand. “We shall see this man straight away then.”
She was a tad disappointed at catching a glimpse of the petitioner when he came around the corner. The closer he drew, the fatter he became. He was a portly gentleman, with a rather bushy moustache that in some odd manner flattered him. The receding hairline, however, she found slightly irritating. Perhaps with a full head of hair, she would have found him quite dashing. In a rather plump sort of way. The suit seemed common enough. Not of any fashion she recognised, but of a tweed that did not speak of any fortune or elevated station.
A scientist. That is exactly what he looked like. A kindly scientist.
On this deduction, she gave a long, low sigh. This day, I fear, she grumbled inwardly, is not going to get any better.
“Your Majesty,” he announced, giving a deep bow. When he came up, he paused, taking in a deep breath.
“Something amiss, Professor Source?”
He blinked. “Beg your pardon, mum?”
Mum?! Victoria asked, her back straightening slightly. Did he just call me ‘Mum’?!
She began to worry about her appearance; she was only twenty, after all!
The man then released a little cough as he began what appeared to be a case of some sort. “Do forgive my impertinence, Your Majesty. I’m just a bit nervous, is all. I did not expect to see you upon such short notice.”
On that, Victoria softened. An honest man. What a refreshing change. “Well, professor, it would seem that Fortune favours you as we are having a rather slow day here at the palace. Still, our time for an audience with you is fleeting.”
“That it is, Your Majesty, so let us not bandy about.” He clapped his hands together and then motioned to her. “I desire your company tonight, and yours alone.”
That gave the collected court quite a shock. Victoria, on the other hand, raised an eyebrow. A bit bumbling. Sincere. Mindful of manners. And now, forward. With her.
This ought to be fun.
“This is a bold request you make of your Queen.”
“Yes. So bold that you may wish to have me thrown in irons, but what I wish to bring to your attention—more importantly, what I have to show you—are matters pertaining to you and only you.”
“Are these matters pertaining to the preservation of the Empire?”
The odd man nodded, his two chins jiggling as he did. “Of course.”
“Then why not share these matters with my Privy Council, with those whom I trust with my life and with the direction of the Empire?”
“With all due respect and honours, Your Majesty,” Source began, “you may trust them. I, however, do not.”
Her Lord Chancellor stepped forward, and Victoria started at the deep hue of red his face had turned. “How dare you, sir! You did not tell me of this outlandish—”
Professor Source spoke over his tirade. “Sir, may I remind you of our previous luncheon, or should I reveal those daguerreotypes shared in confidence?”
That stopped the Lord Chancellor. Quickly. His red blush quickly receded to a ghostly pale wash. He swallowed, glanced towards Victoria, and then took a few steps back.
“Is this true?” Victoria asked the scientist.
“Did I lie to your Lord Chancellor, Your Majesty? No. I am no cad. Did I withhold a few details in my petition?”
His eyes twinkled. “Yes. I am a bit of a rogue, on occasion I am afraid.”
She had worn a smile often in court, but this one was the first in a long time that was truly sincere.
“And why should we trust you?”
“Because I am the only one you can trust concerning the darkness that threatens your empire.” He gave his odd cravat a slight adjustment and then tipped his head back proudly. “I have been witness to things unparalleled and unexplainable, and while some of these revelations are fantastic and inspiring, there are phantasms and evil forces beyond our collected comprehensions that counter their purity and benevolence.”
Victoria felt herself shift from intrigued to positively enthralled.
“You are a most peculiar man.” She rose from her throne, and gestured him closer to her, though her guards flanked them as they walked. “You also have conviction.”
“Shall I expect for your company then upon the hour of nine?” He reached into his pocket and checked the time. “That should give you ample time to dress in something appropriate. Something that would allow for movement and—considering who you are—anonymity.” He then paused, as if a thought suddenly came to him. “Dress warm.”
She crooked an eyebrow at that. “Warm? But it’s summer.”
“I know,” he said with a nod. “Trust me. Dress warm.”
Victoria pursed her lips, looked to either of her guards, then leaned in and whispered, “Outdoors, are we?”
“At night?” She glanced over to one of her guards. He looked poised and ready for an order. She leaned forward to make certain her guard couldn’t hear her reply to the odd man with “Sounds like a lovely evening.”
The professor reached into his coat, and produced a small folded parchment held between two fingers. “I will be by the fire, waiting for your arrival, Your Majesty.” His eyes darted to the present gentry, and then he whispered, “Alone.”
“We can make no promises.”
“Nor do I expect you to.” He gave a wink, extending the parchment to her. “I could be mad. Or an anarchist. Or both.”
“Doubtful,” she retorted, taking the paper from between his fingers. “You are far too clever.”
He beamed in reply, stepped back from the Queen, and spoke to her again in a full, proper voice. “Your Majesty, my gratitude to you and your devoted court for your time.” He took up the small case by his feet, and then with a few more steps back, his body remaining in a slight bow, the man turned on his heels and walked out.
“Your Majesty?” the Lord Chancellor spoke finally, causing her to start. “Your Majesty, I am sorry, I had no idea—”
“He shared something with you?” Victoria asked. “Exactly what, may I ask?”
His complexion paled even further. “Documents.”
“Really?” She felt her twin shadows follow her up to the man. He flinched as she leaned into him, his eyes seeming to bore into the floor underfoot. “These documents must have some hold upon you.”
“Your Majesty,” he spoke, his voice hard and brittle. “What I saw…”
Tears welled in the man’s eyes, and Victoria stepped back. Now she was to be the one stunned to silence. She was the queen of the most powerful nation in the world; yet an odd man armed only with a large suitcase, it would seem, could win himself a private audience.
She opened her eyes, read the time and place on the parchment, and then folded it back up neatly.
Yes, a bit of intrigue was in order. Things were getting unbearably dull in court. Now free of Mamma’s influence and ruler of the British Empire, it was high time for her to stretch her legs and have a bit of fun.
Tee Morris has been writing adventures in far-off lands and far-off worlds since elementary school. Inspired by numerous Choose Your Own Adventure titles and Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, he wrote not-so-short short stories of his own, unaware that working on a typewriter when sick-from-school and, later, on a computer (which was a lot quieter…that meant more time to write at night…) would pave a way for his writings.
Tee has now returned to writing fiction with The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, written with his wife, Pip Ballantine. Their first title in the series, Phoenix Rising, won the 2011 Airship Award for Best in Steampunk Literature, while both Phoenix Rising and The Janus Affair were finalists in Goodreads Best in Science Fiction of 2011 and 2012. In 2013 Tee and Pip released Ministry Protocol, an original anthology of short stories set in the Ministry universe. Now in 2014, following a Parsec win for their companion podcast, Tales from the Archives, Tee and Pip celebrate the arrival of their third book, Dawn’s Early Light.
When Tee is not creating something on his Macintosh, he enjoys a good run, a good swim, and putting together new playlists to write by. His other hobbies include cigars and scotch, which he regards the same way as anime and graphic novels: “I don’t know everything about them, but I know what I like.” (And he likes Avo and Arturo Fuente for his smoke, Highland Park for his scotch!) He enjoys life in Virginia alongside Pip, his daughter, and three cats.