I’ve come to love the Silence.
The words echoed scratchily on the bridge of the Rackham. No, really, I do, continued the dim ghost of the officer on the viewscreen. Yes, it’s an old rust-bucket that Earth Fleet should’ve scrapped eons ago. Yes, it barely makes warp factor two, it’s got one working bathroom, and our weapons systems are shot all to hell, but hey. It’s got character. Why, years from now, I’m going to look back and…. Ah, forget it. I hate this ship. It’s a lousy assignment, and I’m counting the days till I get enough service points to-
The man vanished in static. “That,” pronounced the executive officer, “was the last entry in the personal log of Captain Roland Caine, E.F.S. Silence. It’s the only log recovered. The Silence had a crew of 109, with an additional passenger complement of 37. There were no survivors.” His voice wavered just a bit. He had been on several recovery missions before. Someone had always made it.
The captain looked shaken. “Who was on that ship? Colonists?”
“Some,” the exec reported. “One in particular, though, that Earth Fleet wanted to know about. Lieutenant Woodman, formerly science officer on the Dove. Apparently he’d made some big discovery and wanted to report it in, but he didn’t want to risk long-range transmission.”
“So he picked a safe little transport that no one would care enough to blow up,” finished the captain. “Except someone did.”
“Looks that way, sir.”
The exec hesitated. The bridge by now was crowded with senior and junior grade officers, and a scattering of ensigns, staring as the shattered bits of the Silence drifted by on the viewscreen. The captain got his point. “Mr. Merrick,” he snapped to his gawping tactical officer, “do a full scan, make absolutely sure there’s no life signs. Then start tractor beams and see what else you can recover. The rest of you, go on about your duties. Mr. Painter, my ready room.”
When the captain and his exec were alone, Mr. Painter took a breath. “Apologies, sir, but Earth Fleet said this was strictly classified stuff. Didn’t want the ensigns to hear. What Woodman said he found…”
“Don’t tell me. The Holy Grail.”
“No, sir,” Mr. Painter said. “Not quite that big. What he found was the Orb of the Whangdoodle. Or at least a clue as to its location.”
“You’re kidding,” said the captain. “The Orb of the what?”
“Who would name something…. Oh, never mind. I assume this is something very valuable that should under no circumstances fall into the wrong hands?”
The captain sighed. “Fine. We’d better report-”
The ship jolted violently beneath him. The lights dimmed, and alarms blared everywhere. The captain charged back onto the bridge. Mr. Merrick yelled something panicky at him, gesticulating wildly at the viewscreen. The captain didn’t have a chance to see what the trouble was. The Rackham disintegrated in a single bloom of light.
Every so often I try to alternate posts of fiction with nonfictional topics, as a way of providing some variety in the usual routine. I have ideas for more stories, a whole boatload of ideas: for one thing, with the help of a friend, my mutant space otter character in The Diamond Job finally has a name. He’ll have a story soon, too.
Sadly, however, the prompt I usually rely on in this week is written in the first person, and my space otter, Oswald Stamper, formerly of the Space Otter Corps, doesn’t strike me as a first-person character. This is probably because I am not much of a first-person writer. Third person omniscient works well with my preferred style of writing: it allows one to be so much more snarky. In any event, there it is. I could attempt to challenge myself and try a first-person story; if an idea strikes me between now and Thursday, I will bang it out and send it off to the newly moderated speakeasy grid.
In the meantime, I thought I would share an interesting coincidence. This past summer, I sat for the bar exam of my state. It’s a two-day affair which redefines the word stressful, even when there isn’t a rock concert practicing next door to the facility where you are taking the exam, and even when your essay-question software hasn’t glitched for three or four hours. On the second day, after it was all over, I went back to my hotel room and watched the series finale of Frasier. In that very well done episode, the titular character quoted a certain poem by Tennyson. I found it to be singularly appropriate. Then, a week or two ago, while I was waiting for results (spoiler: I passed, I’m a lawyer, woot woot), I finally got around to watching the phenomenal James Bond movie Skyfall. In that movie, Judi Dench, playing the role of M, quoted the very same poem.
I don’t really believe in coincidences. In any event, here is the relevant excerpt from the poem. I hope you are as moved by it as I was.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Truly we live in an age of wonders. For instance, Amazon now allows you to make e-books available for pre-order, before you actually release them. So. Since I’ve recently finished Hadley’s Story, I decided to do with that what I did with Volcano Rain and The Angel and the Kaiju, and release it as an e-book, slightly edited to account for misspellings and the occasional continuity error. (Side note: I don’t care what they say, kaboomed is too a word). Even better, however, you will now be able to pre-order it before the live release. The Color of Danger will officially go live on Saturday, September 14th, but you can pre-order it at any time before then. As I understand it, if you pre-order you then get it straight to your Kindle or other device on Saturday without further trouble. Hooray for technology!
She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen the stars. Madeleine didn’t even know who they were anymore. She hadn’t seen a movie in ages, and she’d let her Netflix subscription lapse badly. Thus it fell to the police detective to explain to her who the apparent victim was. The detective was a little shocked. He had assumed everyone knew about Pamela Percy, who’d taken television by storm last season. “Don’t you remember?” he asked curiously. “That show. The one where-“
“Didn’t see it,” Madeleine said absently. “So. Fell from the cathedral, huh?”
“Fell, jumped, pushed…” the detective listed. “We’re not sure yet. Thing is, she didn’t land. Just stepped out the window and vanished in mid-air. Flash of green light, she’s gone. Figured this was your department.”
“Figured right.” She paused, looking up at the cathedral. “Where was she when…”
The detective pointed to a window. Madeline could’ve flown straight up, but she didn’t want the attention just yet. So she took the stairs inside. Madeleine pushed her way past the yellow crime scene tape and examined the room. There weren’t much signs of distress. No note, no marks of struggle on the floor or walls, no scorches from errant laser beams. Pamela Percy had, it seemed, gone straight to the window, stepped out into air, and teleported clean away. For all Madeleine knew, the television actress was in another dimension by now. This assumed that she had in fact materialized elsewhere. She might have been reduced to a random squiggle of matter drifting through space.
Madeleine couldn’t teleport herself. Her powers were more of the flying brick variety, with a bit of flame thrown in. Fortunately, she knew people who knew people. She was on the phone to one of them within five minutes. “Audrey,” she said. “You know teleporting. I think I’ve got someone who just vanished right out of a cathedral here. I need help figuring where they’ve gone.”
Audrey wasn’t just a teleporter; she was also a ‘pather. She didn’t even use spoken word unless absolutely necessary. Her reply was, therefore, brief. “Where are you?” she rasped.
Madeline gave her address. Without warning, not even so much as a bamf sound effect, Audrey was standing next to her. Madeleine jumped involuntarily. “Would you mind not doing that?”
Sorry. Audrey’s voice echoed in Madeleine’s head. The teleporter looked over the room, then outside. Curious. No inter-dimensional residue. No transport energy signatures. Your Pamela Percy, whoever she was, did not teleport, not in the standard way. She just ceased to exist.
“Not good enough,” Madeline said. “People don’t just blip out.” Then she paused. “What do you mean, whoever she was? I didn’t know her, but the detective said she was on that show. The one where-“
Never heard of her. Are you certain the detective identified her correctly?
Madeline froze. She grabbed for her smartphone and did a bit of swift Internet searching. There was no record that anyone named Pamela Percy had so much as auditioned for a car insurance commercial, let alone starred in a major show. “Oh, crap,” Madeline said. “This is a time thing. I hate time things.”
Last time, in the Catrina Chronicles, our heroine had accompanied Lady Susan Blackacre (destined to become our heroine’s arch-nemesis) to take in a parade in Sarajevo, on June 28th, 1914. But it’s not as if anything historically significant was going to happen that day….right?
Susan and Catrina were just finishing a late-morning snack at a small delicatessen in Sarajevo when they noticed a shiny black car approaching. They instantly recognized the occupants: Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess Sophie. “Ah-ha!” exulted Susan. “My destiny isn’t ruined after all!”
Catrina felt she had to stop something; the trouble was, she didn’t know what it was she was supposed to stop. How was she to know what event had turned Susan evil? If she didn’t know, how could she prevent it and keep Susan from going bad? Should she keep Susan away from the Archduke, or try to get them together? What was she supposed to do?
“For one thing,” said Catrina, “I’m not going to stand around while my narrator proposes a series of profound rhetorical questions.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Sorry, Susan. I was just talking to, er, myself.”
“Ah,” Susan said. “Well, if you’re done with that, maybe you could help me get the Archduke’s attention?”
“Do you even know on what subject you’re going to converse with him?” Catrina demanded.
“No, but I clearly have to meet with him! It’s my destiny!”
Catrina rolled her eyes. “Honestly, you go on far too much about your destiny. How do you know you’re supposed to be some grand heroine of a thrilling story? Why can’t you just be you?” She spoke from experience, as she had pondered her role as a character in a story for some time.
“I don’t want to be just me,” protested Susan. “I’m a daughter of a minor noble family. My father is well off, but that may not always be the case. I’m basically sitting around waiting to get married off to some bore or other, or else I’ll keep on sitting alone until I die of old age. I don’t want to do that, don’t you understand? I’d rather run off with some random stranger, like that man over there!” She pointed to a nearby dark-haired gentleman, who was staring intensely at the passing car. All at once the car stopped, and the driver appeared to be attempting to back up. The dark-haired gentleman produced a pistol and stepped forward.
Catrina didn’t know about history, or temporal paradoxes, or the various strictures about time travelers not interfering with fixed points in the time stream. What she knew was that someone was about to shoot someone else right in front of her, and she decided that she didn’t care for that to happen. She didn’t have Mlrning (the Shovel of Thor!) with her; it was locked safely away in her trunk at the hotel. She could’ve psychically summoned the mighty Shovel to her, but that would take time, and the would-be assassin was raising his gun to fire. Catrina threw herself forward and launched into a flying snap-kick that sent Gavrilo Princip hurtling back into a nearby flour barrel.
There was a sudden blinding flash. History had just been changed. Space and time broke apart like they had been in a relationship, and space had called time up again last night, but time was like we-EEE are never ever ever getting back together. A rift in the space-time continuum opened up, as rifts are wont to do. Unfortunately, it opened up right in front of Susan. In an instant she glimpsed the hurtling vortex of the universe. But not exactly in the same way that someone else in the actual real world might glimpse it. Susan, after all, was not a real person. She was a character in a story, the same as Catrina, the same as everyone around her. They were in historical fiction, yes, but they weren’t real, none of them. In that moment the truth of her existence blasted into her brain like a sledgehammer squishing a grape. Some people, facing that, might have reconciled with it and managed to move on with their imaginary lives. Some, like Catrina, might have even reveled in it. Susan, on the other hand, snapped.
“This can’t go on,” she said, staggering back. “I’ve got to end it.”
“End what?” said Catrina, who up till then had been fairly pleased with herself. Then she saw the rift, and the Swirling Vortex of Imaginary Time. She guessed what had happened. “Now, look, Susan-“
“You’re not real either!” Susan shrieked. “None of us are! We were before, I was before, I had parties and balls and I hated them but now I find out they aren’t real either, they’re just quick sentences in a paragraph! That thing changed it! It’s responsible! It is!” She glanced frantically around, and as ill luck would have it, her eye fell on Gavrilo Princip’s pistol, which he had dropped when he was snap-kicked into the flour barrel. “I’ll end it, right now! I’ll make everyone real again! That’s my destiny, I knew it, I told you!”
Catrina knew it was probably a bad idea to open fire on the Swirling Vortex of Imaginary Time. She started towards Susan, but too late. Susan pulled the trigger, and the bullets meant for the Archduke blazed into the rift instead. There was another blinding flash.
When Catrina could see again (the thing about blinding flashes is that they do get, y’know, blinding), she found that she wasn’t in Sarajevo anymore. Instead, she was in a library. Catrina wasn’t much of a bookish person, although she had begun to appreciate the written word more, being married to an assistant librarian and all. But she couldn’t fail to be impressed by the size of the collection around her. Scroll upon scroll piled up, nearly to the ceiling, Cool marble columns towered around her, and Catrina felt a distant breeze against her face, a breeze that smelled of the sea. “Oh my,” said Catrina. “This is certainly a lovely library.” She took a step forward, hoping to explore the palatial structure. The scrolls appeared to be entirely written in Greek and Latin, and Catrina was notoriously poor at languages. However, through an open door on her left, she saw a beautiful garden, all bubbling ponds and verdant greenery. She thought, for one second, that she might have a chance to relax.
Then there was yet another flash (she was beginning to think that she should invest in sunglasses). Susan tumbled through, screaming in fury. Unfortunately, she landed smack on an oil lamp, knocking it over onto the marble floor. Oil splashed everywhere. Susan was still waving Princip’s pistol around like a mad woman. She saw Catrina, and loosed a shot at her. Catrina frantically dove for cover. The bullet skipped past her shoulder, ricocheted off a statute, and smacked into the oil-slick floor. Sparks flew. Sparks, oil, and dry papyrus are not a good combination. Flames blossomed out, licking across the priceless scrolls and racing up the walls with their beautiful tapestries and hangings. Anguished librarians burst in, yelling in Egyptian and attempting vainly to fight the fire. Catrina put the Egyptian, and the library, and the fire, all together in a burst of realization. “Oh, blast,” she exclaimed. “We’ve just torched the Library of Alexandria!”
“Yes!” Susan exclaimed in wild delight, the fire dancing in her eyes. “Burn, baby, burn!”
This has been another exciting episode of the Catrina Chronicles. For previous episodes, go here, or visit the Catrina Chronicles tab on the home page. You can also find adventures of Catrina on my Amazon page, and I’m on Goodreads as well. I self-publish, so I have to self-market, you see. And as always, thanks for reading!
He waited for an hour. Finally, his patience was rewarded. The guard meandered past, laser rifle swinging lazily alongside. In a few moments, the guard had rounded the corner and was gone. Seventy-three minutes would pass before the next patrol. A lot can be accomplished in seventy-three minutes.
He emerged from the shadows and padded unhurriedly to the door. Some of his colleagues in the Corps would have rushed up and blown the thing, but that was partly why he had left. He didn’t want to defend the galaxy from alien threats. What he wanted was very simple: a small, uninhabited little planet, where he could live in undisturbed solitude and swim in a quiet pool, like any normal mutant space otter would do. Unfortunately, it required a good deal of money to buy a planet, even a little one. That was the reason he had come to the Miranda Five Academy.
It took nine minutes to crack the lock. The combination was biometrically coded, so he had gone in the old-fashioned way, by slicing through the metal casing and delicately splicing the wires inside. The door hissed open and he slipped through. He ignored the deserted classrooms. All they had were blank computer screens, scraps of paper, and the occasional lost pair of scissors, seeming out of place in this advanced age. He wasn’t interested in scissors. What he wanted was in the rear of the building.
The Academy’s museum wasn’t the best in funding or attendance, but it had a few glories nonetheless. Its prime possession was the Virgo Diamond. The diamond had arrived all the way from distant Earth. It had also been part of the laser cannon on board the Earth star-cruiser Virgo. The ship had slashed its way across space in a blaze of glorious battle before being vaporized in the Nebula Disaster of ’93. The ship’s name alone remained, attached to the diamond by faded tradition. The Virgo Diamond had seen untold adventures, but of course he didn’t care for that. He knew one predominant fact about it: a trader on Verin Prime had offered him enough money to buy two uninhabited little planets in exchange.
The diamond was not unprotected. It had lasers, force fields, and two robot sentries with firing reflexes faster than any sentient being’s. The Academy builders had spared no expense, installed every technological marvel. The whole system even ran on dedicated power cells, so that if the Academy building itself lost power, the diamond would still be protected. He had spotted, however, the one weakness. The Virgo Diamond defenses still required some power. That meant they were vulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse bomb, which he just happened to have with him. A favor, from his remaining friends in the Corps. A blue flash, and that was that. No more defenses. He didn’t even spare a glance on the dead robots as he reached for the diamond.
Then he heard a frightened squeak. He whirled. The students shouldn’t be awake at this hour. He thought he had timed their sleeping schedules perfectly. Apparently he was wrong. Little Melinda Raxenpaxerflirk stood gaping in the doorway, her tentacles quivering in alarm. “Who… who are you?”
His proton blaster was set on Level Five. A simple press of the firing pad, and that would be that. The Corps wouldn’t have hesitated. They wouldn’t have reported it, but they wouldn’t have hesitated. Yet another reason why he had left. “I’m with Maintenance. The defense system’s glitched, you see. I’m taking the diamond for safekeeping, then I’ll bring it back by morning once the system’s repaired.”
“Oh,” said Melinda Raxenpaxerflirk. She wasn’t quite old enough to understand lying. “If you’re with Maintenance, could you fix my nightlight? It’s gone out.” This was a grave concern for her, as she had been told stories by her older siblings of the terrifying humans that lurked in the shadows.
He checked. Thirty-two minutes. He had just enough time. “Sure. Why not?” He pocketed the diamond and followed her to her dorm. The nightlight took less rewiring than the security lock. Melinda, satisfied that the universe was right again, crawled into her pod and was asleep in seconds. He made it out of the Academy with eight minutes to spare, well within the buffer time he had allowed for contingencies. You never knew when you might need to aid a small squidling who was afraid of the dark.