In the span of a breath, everything changed. Oswald Stamper had intended to drop in at his usual watering hole, a crowded spaceport tavern known as the Dingy Duckling. He had an old friend there, a salty sea dog of a captain named Marian, and he had meant to ask her what she knew about the whereabouts of the Orb of the Whangdoodle. But when he rounded the corner and saw Marian being dragged into a police cruiser (all the while squawking about her rights and loudly insisting that she’d never teleported under the influence), Oswald decided that he should try more respectable sources of information. So he turned right back again, went home, and pulled out his old Corps uniform. He hated the thing, and its memories, but one didn’t simply walk into the Lady Amber Club without proper dress.
At seven that evening, Mr. Stamper presented himself at the doors of the Lady Amber, his green uniform in tip top shape, glistening in medals. The head waiter bowed politely, confirmed his reservation, and ushered him to a seat in a small alcove, where he and his guest would not be visible to the majority of the restaurant’s guests. A second member of the wait staff appeared, and gurgled respectably at him while producing a wine list. By coincidence, her name was Sarah May Raxenpaxerflirk, older sister to Melinda, and she had taken the job at the Lady Amber as a way to put herself through medical school. Mr. Stamper made his selection (Centauri ’47, a very good year), and Sarah May withdrew.
Moments later, the being he had been waiting for drifted into the seat opposite him. It was a highly evolved and intelligent cloud of gas, which had developed the ability to project thought outward so it could communicate with others. Greetings, it projected politely. Have you been waiting long?
“Not really,” said Mr. Stamper. He could observe social rules when circumstances required, and so he made agreeable small talk about the weather, the dinner, and the cloud’s health. Meanwhile, Sarah May had arrived with the ordered bottle. She uncorked it carefully with her tentacle, and poured Mr. Stamper’s drink. Then she hesitated. How did one pour a drink for a sentient cloud of gas? Did it even drink? Should she ignore it, or would that be unforgivably rude? Sarah May reminded herself of medical school, gathered her courage, and poured an appropriate amount into its glass. The gas cloud flickered warmly red at her; she hoped that meant it was gratified. She then retreated decorously, as the conversation continued.
As the gas cloud condensed slowly over its drink, Mr. Stamper decided the time for small talk had ended. “I need your help,” he began. “I’m looking for the Orb.”
Which one? There are, you know, quite a few.
“The Orb of the Wha-“
You should not say that! interrupted the gas cloud, aghast. No one may speak the name of the Orb That Should Not Be Named!
“I got that,” said Mr. Stamper. “Fine. So where is it?”
The gas cloud looked a little piqued. It had expected to be asked about clues, and be given dark assurances that the Orb must not fall into the wrong hands. It liked the mystery of these things. Mr. Stamper always tried to take the fun out of things. The Orb is buried underneath the old tree, in the shadow of Charlotte’s Moon.
“Good enough. Thanks,” the space otter said. Then he paused. “Which moon?”
“Yes, you said that, but which moon is Charlotte’s Moon?”
Hers is, obviously.
Mr. Stamper sighed. The cloud just had to be cryptic. “You wouldn’t happen to have star coordinates, maybe the location of a nearby hyperspace lane, that sort of thing?”
That, projected the gas cloud smugly, is all I know. The old tree in the shadow of Charlotte’s Moon. There you will find the Orb.
The space otter knew he would get nothing else useful. He motioned at Sarah May and requested the bill. Mr. Stamper left a reasonably generous tip, which delighted Sarah May. As he and the gas cloud left, Sarah May gurgled her cheeriest, “Thank you for your visit, and do see us again!” Little did she know that she never would.
The days of the week lined up like buckets, ready to catch whatever fell in. Mr. Stamper’s calendar was his pride. Every important event was marked in neat red letters, every anniversary labeled. He had his weekly routine too, meticulously worked out. Thursdays, for instance, were Supply Days. And so, every Thursday, he would pilot his small shuttlecraft to the spaceport, land it neatly in Shuttle Bay Four, and then march to a particular canteen where he knew the layout and the proprietor by heart. Mr. Stamper was much put out when he had to alter his routine, but it couldn’t be helped. One couldn’t ignore a summons from a lawyer.
Penny Sybil, fussing about with a pile of holo-pads on her desk, looked alarmed as the space otter loomed in her doorway. “Er, Mr. Stamper? Oswald Stamper, formerly of the-“
“Yes,” he said shortly, “What do you want?”
The attorney was a little offended. “Ahem. I have been asked by my client to make absolutely certain of your identity before I disclose any details of the matter at hand. It’s very delicate, you see. So, again, you are Mr. Oswald Stamper, formerly of the Space Otter Corps? If I might see some identification?”
Mr. Stamper hesitated. It had been a very long time since he had been associated with the Corps. The last time had not been pleasant. The bewildered words of his commander (ex) flashed through his mind.
I don’t understand this, We won, didn’t we? Stopped the meteor, saved the lives of every being on that transport, stopped the Kellthians from overrunning Alistair Prime? Why would you want to leave now?
Sir. We broke Directive. We landed on a pre-warp world. We made unauthorized contact. We could have avoided it.
So what? his commander had said bluntly. They’ll live. And they’ll be better for it. They’ve got power now they didn’t have before. Better lives. What difference does it make whether we kept Directive or not?
Keeping Directive means we do not play God, sir. We do not decide which planets should be…better.”
Why the hell not?
That last question decided things. He had left without reply. His ex-commander had never understood. He didn’t think Penny Sybil would either. With a sigh, he produced the faded blue card.
“Ah. Yes. You check out,” Penny said, blinking at the readout on her screen. “Well. I suppose you’ll want to know why my client wants you?”
“No,” said Mr. Stamper. “I only want to know what the pay rate is.”
Penny, flustered at the space otter’s lack of curiosity, produced a holo-pad and slid it across her desk at him. She usually did this part at the end of the client meeting, not the beginning, and the arrangement disturbed her plans. “Fine,” said Mr. Stamper, looking at the pad. “What do I have to do?”
Penny had a whole speech prepared, but she decided it would be wasted on him. She came right to the point. “It’s the Orb that Should Not Be Named. My client recently lost two ships because of it. We want you to find it.” She couldn’t resist a rhetorical flourish. “It belongs in a museum, you know!”
“Of course it does,” said Mr. Stamper flatly. “I assume you have some data on it already?”
Penny gave him a folder this time, not just an antiseptic holo-pad. There were real papers in it, some dating back to before the Corps. Mr. Stamper was unimpressed by the weight of history in his paws. “Shall I deliver it here then?”
“Oh, er, yes. Do please.” Penny was taken aback at his jump from the folder straight past finding the Orb, to the question of what he should do once he had it. She had thought the matter of finding it might require more questions.
“Very well.” Having gotten the information he needed, he rose, bowed, and promptly left, leaving Penny Sybil still unsure whether he had accepted the job or not. She hated dealing with space otters.
Last time, in the Catrina Chronicles, our heroine had just been shot at by Susan in the Library of Alexandria. Fortunately, the bullet missed. Unfortunately, it started a fire…
Catrina gazed in horror at the flames licking towards the invaluable scrolls. “We’ve got to stop this!” she exclaimed.
“Why?” said Susan, her eyes wild in the light of the fire. “It’s not a real library, is it? It’s only a made-up copy of the real library!”
“It’s real enough,” snapped Catrina, and started for the nearest water, a bubbling pool in the next chamber. What she planned to do with it she hadn’t worked out yet. Chain gang, swig and spit, make a cup with her hands and splash: so many possibilities. She never got the chance to pick one, however. Susan blocked her way, waving the pistol of Gavrilo Princip.
“This thing’s still got bullets in it,” she said dramatically. “And I will shoot you where you stand if you do anything about that fire.”
Catrina slowly raised her hands. “Very well,” she began, “I see your point. You do have your pistol.” She paused, hoping her desperate plan would work, her eyes darting to the still open rift of the Swirling Vortex of Imaginary Time. A few seconds ticked by.
“Are you going to finish your thought, then, or…”
“Just a minute!”
“Any time now. I could just go ahead and shoot you. It would be easier.”
Finally, Catrina saw a glint of metal. She smiled her trademark half-smile that spread slowly over her face. “As I was saying, you have your World War One pistol. But I have Mlrning. The Shovel of Thor.”
The mighty Shovel flipped through the rift in time and smacked into Catrina’s palm. She raised the Shovel high. There was a bolt of white light, and suddenly a blast of snow and icy wind tore through the Library of Alexandria like a veritable snownado. In a trice the flames had been quenched. Only one scroll had been singed after all, and it was the minor fanfiction of a passing Roman centurion who had attempted to write himself into the Battle of Cannae, riding heroically upon an elephant he had seized from the Carthaginians. The rest of the Library had been saved for posterity after all. “Huzzah,” said Catrina. “That’s two horrible historical events averted, all before lunch.”
She had forgotten Susan. The stricken daughter of Lord Blackacre shrieked, and charged at Catrina, waving her pistol round her head in an apparent desire to bash Catrina’s brains in rather than fire at her. Catrina stepped back rapidly, not in fear, but more in an attempt to give herself room to swing the Shovel of Thor. Alas, she forgot to mind her surroundings. She took one step back too far: right into the rift of the Swirling Vortex of Imaginary Time. Susan, howling like a banshee, dove in after her.
Catrina’s face hit dirt. She was eyeball to eyeball with an ant. She had, apparently, landed smack in an open grassy field. The light was dim around her, but slowly growing brighter, and she guessed that the sun was only just beginning to rise. She heard noises around her, shouts and scurrying sounds, and she pushed herself up and had a look round. “Oh, dear,” said Catrina.
She was not alone in the field. On her right gathered a small company of ragged farmers, nervously holding rifles and staring past her. Catrina turned, and saw a larger company of men in red coats, their bayonets glistening in the dawn. Both sides looked ready to attack each other. One of the redcoat officers, on horseback, yelled loudly at the farmers, “Disperse, ye rebels, ye villains, disperse! Lay down your arms!”
One of the farmers, who had the look of an officer type, called back, just loud enough for Catrina to catch his words on the morning breeze. “Don’t fire unless fired upon…but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
“Actually,” ventured Catrina, “I’d really rather not have a war begin here, if it’s all the same to you. I’ve only just landed, you see, and-“
Susan picked a most inopportune moment to tumble through the time rift. She landed hard on the field, sprang up, and saw Catrina. In her fury, her finger tightened on the trigger of Gavrilo Princip’s pistol. It was more sensitive than she realized. The gun barked in her hand, and a single shot rang out across the Lexington green.
“Oh, lovely,” Catrina said, rolling her eyes. “Right, Susan, what did you start this time?”
Susan didn’t have a chance to answer. The redcoats on Catrina’s left had just opened fire. White smoke blasted from their guns, and bullets ripped into the militia on Catrina’s right. Then she saw the redcoats start forward, bayonets raised. “Hey!” Catrina yelled. “Stop that!” She raised the Shovel of Thor and whirled it about her head, deciding that now would be a very good time to pull rank. “Drop your weapons right now! I am Catrina, Princess of Shmirmingard, and I command-“
In the smoke and confusion, the redcoats didn’t quite realize who she was. A number of them mistook her for a crazed provincial soldier waving his musket. They opened fire at her. Fortunately, they mostly missed. One musket-ball, however, zinged past Catrina’s cheek and left her a slicing cut. “Ow!” exclaimed Catrina, and her green eyes blazed. “Right, that’s it. You may have your musket things, but I have Mlrning! The Shovel of Thor!”
White bolts of ice and snow cracked across the Lexington green.
This has been another exciting episode of the Catrina Chronicles. For previous episodes, go here. For more of my writings, you can go to Amazon, or see descriptions of my stuff at Goodreads. And as always, thanks for reading.
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!