Lilah’s job offer

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From The Dark Hug of Time


Lost in nightmare, Lilah Bay stumbled down a crowded street in a dark city.

She hurt all over. She was wounded in some mysterious way, her skull hurt, her ribs hurt, her legs hurt, her left arm hurt. Her head swam, her heart lay swamped inside her chest, her spirit seemed to have passed out or fled. She remembered no past and saw no future. Still she stumbled on.

Beneath her feet were the paving stones of the sidewalk. To her left were the blank walls of an unbroken line of buildings. To her right the narrow street, like the sidewalk, was filled with people trudging with her or pushing past her. Above her the sky was black and starless: she gave a look upward and saw nothing, until a random flash of firelight and then another showed the low feelers of cloud. Above her, above the low feelers, the ceiling was solid, a grey that was not quite black.

There was a constant noise of feet, and a chatter of voices uncaring and vague. A dozen smells mixed, none of them good, none of them horrible, blending in a choking smoke.

People pushed her and bumped her and glared at her as she stumbled onward. They spoke in no known tongue, and to be frank, Lilah was not sure they were all people in the strict sense.

She walked. Her feet kept moving: left, then right, then left, then right. People, or things that were like people, bumped past her. The smoke settled onto her skin and into her frayed mop of hair. The gloom settled into her lungs.

A man grabbed her arm. She was pulled through several people to the left and into a sudden alley. She spun left to face him. He was leering and pathetic, leering and lethal.

“You’re pretty,” he said. “I like chocolate.”

Lilah Bay brought her hand up, her dark brown hand at the end of her long, dark brown arm, and planted the base of her palm in his pasty pink forehead. He went down in a heap.

She looked at her hand. Great. Now one more thing hurt.

Someone was behind her. She whirled, ready again.

It was a man, a plain man in dark grey, but with a pleasant plain face. He had no beard, no mustache, not much reddish hair, little skinny glasses. He said, “You’re Lilah Bay?”

“Yes,” she said, for it was one of the few things she remembered.

“Would you like to come with me?”

She looked around. The alley was narrow as a corridor. The walls were covered in soot. No one was in it but them and the guy lying in a heap and a few furtive things on the ground checking him out. She met the man’s eyes. “Are you telling me I have to come with you?”

“No. You don’t have to.” He smiled apologetically.

“Okay, then,” she said. “Let’s go.”

He put out his left hand, palm down. He had a thin gold ring on it, a ring with a small purple gem. She put her left hand on his, palm down too. She also wore a thin gold ring, but with a pale gem, orange or pink or yellow. She stared at it: familiar but foreign.

They were gone.

. . .

They were standing in a hallway. It was a narrow, stuffy hallway, surely in the middle of the nth floor of a more-than-n-story building. It ran on ahead of them, two doors on each side and then, twenty meters away, a corner where it bent left out of sight. In the other direction it did the same thing, including that it bent left. Lilah took this in with one raised eyebrow. She looked at her companion, a man of just under her height, pale of skin and middle-aged, in some sort of nondescript business suit, including something like a cravat. She didn’t recognize the culture it came from or she would have called it a necktie. She opened her mouth, but, unsmiling, he raised an eyebrow at her. He stepped backward one step and put his hand on a doorknob.

They stood looking at each other. She closed her mouth. He put the key in his hand into the doorknob and unlocked the door. They went in, and he shut and locked it behind them.

They were in a small room with one window. It was lined with shelves everywhere that wasn’t the door out or one of two other doors or the window, which was large enough but set back in an alcove. In front of it was a wooden desk with a simple chair. It was half covered with books and notes and writing instruments.

In the middle of the room there was a light wooden table with four legs and four wooden chairs. There was one more chair, a dowdy old thing that looked very comfortable; it was filled to the brim with a shaggy grey cat. The cat gave them a dim look and then went back to sleep, not having moved any muscle other than its eyelids. They stood looking around, and presently their eyes met.

“You may ask,” he said.

“Who are you?” asked Lilah Bay.

“My name is Marius,” he said. “Martin Marius.” He smiled.

“That’s it? That’s who you are?”

“You may ask as many questions as you like,” he said. He stepped over to the cat, who looked up at him just before he plunged his fingers into her thick fur. He petted her, and added, “I’m not counting.”

“And you’ll answer them all?”

“I think so. Do you want something? Food? Drink?”

“Oh. Food. Dang, I could eat a big ol’ dish of—! Anything?”

“Well,” said Marius, “in this particular plane, you get more or less what’s on offer, but the food’s always good. Tonight I think it’s eggs and bacon. Do you drink coffee?”

“Coffee? Do I drink coffee?” She laughed. “Martin, Marius, what should I call you?”

“You’ll figure something out,” he said, picking up a gadget that sat in a sort of metal cradle on the table. He put it to his face so that one end was by his mouth and the other by his ear. “Yes,” he said to it, “two bacon and eggs, yes, certainly, fried potatoes would be excellent. Do you do fried onions and mushrooms? Excellent. And toast? Jam, yes? Excellent. And coffee. With cream.” He smiled at Lilah. “We have sugar here if you need it,” he said, setting the gadget back in its cradle.

“You didn’t tell them where they were bringing this feast,” said Lilah.

“They know,” he said. “So?”

“So what happened to me? I feel like I got the crap beat out of me. Where the hell was I? Where you found me?”

“That,” he said, “that was someplace across the universe from where you had been before, but now you are in an entirely different and much safer universe. Not a very large one, but a very safe one.” He paused, then added, “I can tell you anything you want to know about this place, I’m just not certain how much you would actually care to know.”

She looked at him for some seconds and then asked, “Why did you bring me here?”

“To offer you a job,” he said.

“A job?”

“Lilah Bay,” he said, “you had a job. Do you remember it?” She looked confused, and then something changed. She remembered her job, or at least the basic idea. The outward sign of this was her eyebrow, her left eyebrow, arching. “Anyway,” he said, “there is a need, and with a need comes an opportunity, and with an opportunity comes a need.” He laughed a little nervously. “And simply, you are the best candidate. Because this job is like your last job, only more so.”

“How is that?”

“How much do you remember?”

“I’m working on that,” she replied. “Okay, the cat?” She looked at the cat. The cat opened her eyes slightly and gave Lilah a look of love and total knowledge. “Your familiar?”

“Yes,” he said. “She is called Theodora. Do you not have a familiar?”

“I don’t,” she said. She got a very cloudy look.

“You had one once?”

“I’m sorry,” said Lilah. “I don’t remember. That’s funny. Add it to the list.”

There was a triple knock at the door. Marius went over to it, waited a beat, then opened it. There was no one in the hall, just a tray on a trolley. He pulled it in, shut the door, rolled the trolley to the table and began moving plates, cups and samovar onto the table. Lilah watched him, then joined in. In moments they were finished, and they stood looking at the feast. It looked great to her. It smelled great.

“Many hands make short work,” he said.

“Whose hands made all this?” she asked. “Do I want to know?”

“I’m not sure I know,” said Marius. “Does it bother you? Shall we eat?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” said Lilah. They sat down and for a minute she was all about coffee and bacon and toast and eggs and hash browns. Presently she remembered herself. She took a breath and sat back from the breakfast. She raised the cup to her lips. Marius met her eyes: his were a pale blue with a kinship to a pale green, while hers were the color of rich soil or dark roast. He smiled, which seemed to be something he did in many situations. She said, “What do you know about me?”

“What do you know about yourself?”

“I know I don’t like to play games.”

Marius set his coffee down and raised his hands a little in surrender. “I only ask,” he said, “because it will help me tell you what I know of you to know what you remember of your life.”

She stared at him, then said, “Am I dead?” He didn’t know what to say. She went on, “Is that what happened? Is this some sort of afterlife? Because I’m sure this isn’t paradise, but with coffee this good, and onion rings? Really? It sure isn’t much like hell.”

“You are not dead,” said Marius. “And you would know about Hell, because as I understand it, you’ve spent some time there.”

She appraised him for another long minute, then raised her eyebrows. “It’s coming back to me.”

“All in one go?”

“No,” she said. “Just bits.” She finished her cup, and he refilled it from the samovar. “I was trying to find things out,” she said. “That was my job. I was an investigator. What was I investigating?” She spread some sort of berry jam on her right triangle of toast. “More than one thing,” she mused. “There was something funny about it. All these twists and turns and—!” She took a bite of her toast. Her eyes lit up. She put it down, had a sip of coffee, and met his eyes. “Time,” she said.

“Time.”

“And magic.” Marius smiled. Lilah sat back, took up her toast, had a bite. She said, “Folks get in all kinds of trouble.” She laughed. She took a drink of coffee, but when she set the cup down, she wasn’t smiling. “All kinds,” she repeated. “I can’t remember exactly what kinds. I was supposed to stop people from, you know, doing things—!” She gave Marius an accusing look. “You just sit there and listen, don’t you?”

“I’m very sorry,” he said. “It’s my nature. I shall try to help. Do you remember the people you worked with? Back on—was it Padva?”

“Padva,” said Lilah, trying it out. “Padva.” She took up her cup, but just gazed into it. She raised her eyes to his again. “Yeah,” she said. “I do remember some of those people.”

“Do you know what happened to them?” he asked.

“Not all of them,” she said, gloomily.

“Some of them?”

“Not really.”

“Well,” said Marius, sipping coffee and looking away, “I know some of that, not much. Just tidbits, really. But,” he said, meeting her eyes, “it wasn’t a nice story. They weren’t nice tidbits.”

“And do you know why those things happened to those people? Why—?” She ran out of words and took a breath. “What were we investigating?”

“I don’t really know.”

“You don’t really know?”

“All right,” he said, “I don’t know. Something to do with time. Well, as it happens, you were part of a group. A squad. A cell? No, not a cell. A, um, service. I’m searching for the right word.”

“A team,” said Lilah. “I think I was sort of the junior member.”

“Ms. Bay,” he said, “you were not ‘sort of the junior member.’ You were sort of the strongest member. Of the team. Obviously, because others are gone, gone in unfortunate ways, but you are here.”

“Barely.”

“Ms. Bay,” said Marius, “you are barely here because you could not be quite squashed. Now you may think I know more than I actually know, and I actually know very little, but I do know that your team had enemies and that they were very capable of squashing most of the people they were ever likely to meet. But they met you.”

“Mister Marius,” said Lilah Bay, “I am not that formidable. I am not.” Marius just raised his eyebrows, put his hands out to the side in a small gesture of surrender, and smiled. “I am not!” said Lilah. “I’m just—!”

“Just a small town wizard,” said Marius. “Just an ordinary magical detective from a minor little planet. Called Padva. You know it’s called the First Tertiary World, don’t you? Do you know why?”

“It’s of the third class?” Marius just laughed and shook his head. “Look,” Lilah said, “why don’t you tell me about this job? This job you’re advertising to me? Is this an interview or something?”

“No,” said Marius, “it’s not an interview. More of a job offer.”

Lilah looked at him. Then she took a piece of bacon and said, “I’d need to know more about the job before I took you up on that, or not.” She ate the bacon, holding his eyes.

“Then you might consider it your first job to remember what your last job was.”


And that is the opening of The Dark Hug of Time, my time travel mystery story. Want to read the rest? For FREE?? Just email me at…

paulgies@maine.edu

 

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Sophie and her dad defend the inn

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from His Daughter Sophie


 

Sophie and her father stayed in Tenna that night. By the next day the number of refugees had doubled again. None of the new arrivals looked familiar. It was too warm for September, sunny and hazy after a morning shower. Sophie and Dad walked around town and had a look at the wooden walls, finding them in poor repair even for wooden walls. Then they went back to the inn for dinner of stew and ale. There was hardly anyone around, just them and a couple of other guests who had nothing to say.

Sophie went to look for Ned that evening and found his little sister instead, a girl of ten named Margery, watching her family’s stuff while her grandfather slept and the rest of them went foraging. The girl didn’t know what had happened or whether anyone else had fled or even how long ago they had left home, but she did know one thing: it was shaggy men who came from the woods and started burning houses. There seemed to be a lot Margery didn’t know, and a lot she didn’t want to think about. Sophie listened and then left before any of the rest of the wright’s family came back to the few square feet of the market place they called home.

She went back to the inn and found her father sitting on his bed. She told him what she had been able to find out.

“I’m thinking of going back after all,” said Dad.

“But we tried yesterday and all we saw was burned houses and dead people. And, um, some guys I really don’t want to see any more of.”

“I know.” He pulled on a boot. “I gotta go back anyway. I don’t want you to come with. I gotta go back because of Ann. You understand.”

“Dad. I miss Mom too but—!” She looked at him. Suddenly her heart raced—it was as if a ghost had breathed on her. “Dad, you can’t go,” she said urgently.

“Okay,” he said. He took off his boot, staring at her.

“Dad, I don’t know but—!”

Dad smiled. “Well, you’re right, Sophie girl.” He actually laughed. “Here I am, I worked for fifty years to get where I was this summer. I had a farm, I had a big happy family, I had grandkids running around all over. Now look what I got.”

“Dad, they might be fine. They can’t all be gone. Maybe they made it okay.”

“I got you,” he finished. “And I got about twenty more shillings. And most of a bottle of wine. What shall we do with these things we still have?”

“I have a change of clothes, Dad,” said Sophie, “and your sword.”

“Your sword now,” he said.

“Thanks.” She added, “I may need it,” just as he said, “You’re good with it.” They sat and stood silent for a few moments.

“So the question is,” he said, “what do we do now?”

“Wait for things to settle down?”

“I’m waiting for King John to get an army together and take back my farm,” said Dad. “I have a feeling it may be a long wait. I understand Lord Edgar’s been replaced by the town council of Tenna. That’s not such a good sign.”

“Why not?”

“It means they couldn’t find anyone to take responsibility for the place. And you know what? If Olk and the Frungans don’t show up soon, it’ll be these Kug, but someone’s going to come here because all the gold and silver in this whole province, such as it is, is right here in Tenna. Along with almost everything worth either raping or pillaging. Pardon me.”

“I can defend myself.”

“You may have to defend me too.”

Sophie sighed. The list of options in her life had changed dramatically. “So, we could sign up for defending the walls.”

“We could,” said Dad.

They drank some wine from the bottle and soon found themselves exhausted. Dad stretched out on his bunk in his clothes and just after Sophie noticed that his breathing had slowed to sleep, she felt slumber stretching its hands across her too.

She lay back on her cot, her feet reaching off the edge, her sack wadded up as a pillow just on the opposite edge. How had it happened, she wondered, that she was too big for a normal bed? How was it that she was no longer small enough to hide behind the adults? She felt as if she was running out of adults to hide behind anyway. With a small sigh, she let go and fell asleep.

 

In the middle of the night she woke. She thought her mother was beside her, as she used to be sometimes in the night when Sophie was a little girl, singing softly, but as Sophie became more conscious, the ghost did not linger. Mom was not a real ghost, not yet, not to Sophie anyway, just a ghost of the imagination, a memory. Sophie wondered where Mom was, what she was thinking, or if she was dead like those people in that village. She had always thought it likely that if she thought hard enough about someone and they thought about her, that she could feel them. She had thought a lot of things likely that might never happen now, and the things that had happened had never occurred to her as possible. The blackness of the night did not hide occult mysteries, only the biggest mystery of all, what would happen next.

Sophie was sure there was someone in the room, though—she could hear him breathing. She smiled at her father’s form in the dark, rolled away and fell back asleep.

 

The next morning they tried to sign up for watch duty, or volunteer to help rebuild the walls, but when they finally found a member of the town council, he was less than enthusiastic. “We have it all covered,” he said. “You go back to your camp and stay out of the way.”

“We’re not—!” Sophie started, but then she realized that the locals assumed they were refugees, and therefore a nuisance.

“You should let her fight,” said Dad, “she’s good. You should’ve seen her kill a Kug warrior. And I know a thing or two, I’ve been in the wars.”

“Then you can take yourselves outside and fight all you want,” said the councilor. “We haven’t time for talk. Excuse me.”

“Well, excuse me,” said Dad. They went back to the inn. No one was in the common room that late morning, so they sat down and helped themselves to slices of the day-old bread that was on the table along with slabs of the sharp hard cheese beside it. “Shall we have some beer too?” asked Dad.

“That guy was obnoxious,” said Sophie. “We wanted to help.”

“Sophie, darlin’,” said Dad, “here’s a true fact about the world. Most folk aren’t competent to wipe their own butts.” They ate for a while as Sophie digested that. Then Dad said, “You know, I do believe I’ll have a beer.”

“But the innkeeper—!”

Dad got up, looked around, looked in the back room. “Innkeeper’s gone,” he said. “I think they took off.”

“But—hey, what if they took our horses?” asked Sophie, jumping up.

“They better not have,” said Dad. They hurried out to the stable. Their horses were there, but there weren’t any others. “This place was full up yesterday,” said Dad.

“Goodness,” said Sophie. “Do they know something we don’t?”

“They know their town council, I guess.”

“Well, what do we do? Should we go too?” She wondered where they would go but there seemed no point in bringing that up just yet.

“I think we’re good for another night,” said Dad. “Good for some nights, probably. But we don’t want to wait long.” He said a few words to his mare, then he untied her and started to lead her to the stable door.

“Dad, are we leaving or what?”

“I still want that beer. I just want to have Daisy with me.”

“Oh.” Sophie once more found that the rules of the universe had changed. Wasn’t that twice within twenty-four hours? She untied Horseradish and they all went and made themselves at home in the common room. They each got a big mug of ale, and presently a few more travelers joined them and Dad poured beer for them too. They broke out what food they could find—a big wheel of cheese, a barrel of apples and a side of beef that went on a spit over the fire.

Soon two dozen people, mostly men, come to the fair from farms and villages all around Tenna, many of which had been obliterated since they had left, were feasting and singing. Everyone was having a great time. A couple of the men had too great a time, and tried their luck on Sophie; one got slapped so hard he went down and stayed down, snoring, and the other, taking a grab of her hind parts, had a couple of fingers broken. Disgust—just one more emotion to toss on the pile. She stepped outside into wan sunlight.

“Hey,” she said, her head clearing. “Ned!” Ned, the wright’s son, standing near his mother as she bartered or argued with a local woman, turned and saw her and immediately turned away. “Hey Ned!” Sophie tried again. Unwilling, he glanced back, then he left his mother’s side and hurried away. His mother looked over her shoulder and saw Sophie, but didn’t recognize her or pretended not to.

But why would they want to see her? Once, Ned had prospects to offer a nice girl who looked like she might be a good mother to his folks’ grandchildren. Once, Sophie might have brought a useful connection to a well-set farmer with a large family. Now, they were refugees, Sophie was a refugee—if she knew it yet, and now she thought of it, Sophie wasn’t sure she knew it yet. She turned back and rejoined the party. A big man saw her, half smiled and hollered, “Wench, more beer!”

“Get it yourself, lard butt,” she replied.

 

Sophie and her Dad stayed in the Inn that night again. Most of the afternoon they slept on their bunks in their little room, and most of the evening they spent in the common room and the adjoining kitchen, doing what they could with the odds and ends of the innkeepers’ larder. The next morning they rose and cooked most of what all was left into a big omelet for breakfast and served it to a dozen assorted farmers and a few farmers’ wives, along with a weak ale.

But Dad’s stint as an innkeeper would be brief. That forenoon, mild under a sunny sky, a most unpleasant man came to call. He was from the town, and he insisted on appropriating whatever food was left. There was none, besides ale, and Dad told him so, but he became very impatient and talked about coming back with guards to occupy the inn. Dad once more offered to help defend Tenna—“I’ve been in wars before,” he reminded the man—but his offer was rejected out of hand.

“We have plenty of guards,” he said. “And they’re rebuilding the stockade so we should be able to hold off some rabble of barbarians. Our only worry is siege and food through the winter, and a bunch of outland farmers occupying the public inn are more a waste of food than anything else.”

“You said a mouthful,” said Dad. “You definitely don’t need us around here.”

“Try to be out by sunset,” advised the man, a councilman with some sort of officer badge too.

After he left, Sophie asked, “What are we going to do?”

Dad visibly sagged. “Well, the food was gone anyway,” he said.

Sophie stood there in the hall of the inn and steamed. She cocked her head and said, “They didn’t want us on their walls. Well, I wouldn’t risk my neck defending them anyway. Where next? Merrivan?”

“I’d rather not,” said Dad, “but maybe we’ll have to. But Sophie.”

“What?”

“Two things. First, you and me, we’re just out traveling, we’re not some couple of dislocated indigent refugees fleeing the loss of home and family.”

“Even though that’s true?”

“And the second thing is, we are never giving up on the possibility that your mother and Jack and Nell and the rest are still there, that our house is still there. Never.” He took a long breath. “And never is not this week or next week either. Well,” he said, turning away, “let’s go back and get our stuff, then go grab a last pint and get Horseradish and Daisy out of that bar.”

 

So they rounded up their few belongings, and made a quick tour of the inn’s pantries—ah, another chunk of cheese, some bread, two bottles of wine, all into their packs. They found two more barrels of beer, and rolled them up to the common room, where the local farmers were starting to look for something to drink. Then they led Horseradish and Daisy out into the light, and prepared to resume their journey to wherever.

They didn’t have all that much to carry, and the horses seemed happy to be out of the common room. So was Sophie—all those huge men were getting drunker and drunker and angrier and less coordinated and a lot less inhibited by the hour. She wouldn’t have minded watching what would happen through a nice barred window, but she didn’t want to be in the same room anymore.

But before they could get out of town, they had to wait some more at the gate on the south side of the wooden stockade that was supposed to protect them from whatever. There was quite a line of carts and horses and the local guards were apparently trying to keep the town’s residents from leaving. It was hot and everyone was angry. Dad turned to make some remark to Sophie, and she wasn’t there.

“Hi, Ned,” she said, taking the young man by the shoulder from behind.

“Oh, hi, Sophie,” he said, not turning around or resisting.

“What’s the big deal, Ned? Why don’t you want to talk to me and why are you watching us leave town?”

“Oh, I, uh—I wasn’t watching you.”

“You were watching us. What’s your problem?”

“I wanted to know if you were all right. Is that a problem?” asked Ned. “Sophie, it’s all, I mean—!”

“What’s all what?” He looked over his shoulder at her. “What’s all what?” she repeated. “What do you know about my family?”

“Nothing,” he said sincerely. “Nothing. We left before any Kug showed up—they almost caught up with us later but we didn’t see anything. But they were coming. They’d killed a few of the village men who’d taken arms to protect the west village. A lot of people picked up all their stuff and left. Let me go! For us, everything is gone.”

“You’ll rebuild it,” said Sophie.

“Sure,” he said. “Where are you going?”

“Merrivan. Where the heck else is there?” He looked around the square, the gate, the nearer houses of the town. Where, indeed. He infuriated her. If all the doors are locked but one, you go through that one, you don’t go around trying all the other doors again and again, and you sure don’t sit down on the floor and wish it were different. She fidgeted, about to turn away.

“Sophie,” said Ned as if it were an afterthought, “I did go look for you before we left home. They said you were at the Fair. I mean, your house was still there. Your mom talked to me. She was fine, they were all okay.”

“Thanks, Ned,” she said. “That means a lot.”

“It’s not much, but it’s all I know,” he replied. “So what are you going to do?”

“Something, Ned,” she said. “Something. I’ll, uh, think of something. Have a great life.” She turned away and pushed off through the crowd before she could add, “Without me,” or reassure him that he hadn’t had a chance with her before the Kug came either.

 

It took another hour or so before they got up to the gate. A family a little way in front of them were stopped from going out, and after arguing for many minutes, the mother pulled her brood out of line, a couple of adult sons, four younger children, a daughter or daughter-in-law. They turned and passed back into the town as a Tenna councilman chased them trying to get the sons to come to the walls. Dad and Sophie exchanged eye-rolls. “This place is going to be easy to defend, isn’t it,” said Dad.

“It’s not going to be a happy siege,” she replied, “but at least it won’t drag on.”

“Not with the walls like this.”

“What was that?” asked the chief guard, the head of a dozen at the gate. It was a big thing of stone, the only stonework in the whole defense of Tenna. Ironically, it faced Merrivan, not the outlands where the Kug were pillaging ever nearer.

“Nothing,” said Dad.

“You’re from Tenna?”

“No, we’re from out by the Muddy River. We’ve been told to be out of town by sunset.”

“We can’t let them leave,” said another guard. “They could be needed on the walls.”

“Turn yourselves around and go back,” said the chief.

“But we have no place to stay,” said Dad. “We were told—!”

“Hey you,” Sophie yelled at another councilman, passing by on the street inside the wall. It was the most unpleasant man from the inn this morning. “Hey, you, council guy, remember us? Hey Stupid!

“Your pardon, Squire Pafrik,” the chief called to the councilman. “These people need accommodations—um, your pardon, Squire!” The councilman heard him and turned his horse toward the gate.

“What?” he said. “What’s the question?”

“You remember us,” said Sophie. “We’re outland farmers and have to leave by sunset.”

“From the inn,” said Dad. “Had our horses in the common room.”

The councilman looked them up and down. He recalculated their value to the defense. News had been coming in of bands pillaging the town fields. But he did remember them and he still didn’t like their look. And he was a councilman, he couldn’t be wrong, not at a time like this. A long moment passed. He waved them off, saying, “Get them out. They’re just mouths to feed.”

“But Squire—!”

“Get them out,” he said again without conviction. He turned away.

“Get out,” said the chief. “That’s all, close the gate,” he said after they were past the big wooden doors. A minute later Sophie and Dad were out on the road—it could be called that now—that ran southeast toward Merrivan.

In silence they rode out across the river fields, and then up the valley side and on among scattered plantations.

“Tenna,” said Dad at last. “Nothing good is going to happen there. It’s too bad, there’s some good folk in there, but I don’t see anything good in their future. Nope. We’re well out of that hole.”

“And into what,” Sophie said as they rode away from the last glimpse of Tenna, feeling a curious mixture of heaviness and relief, and behind that, a sense of her mother, or the ghost of her mother, watching from a distant hill, growing more and more distant as their horses carried them away over the low hills.


That was Chapter Two of my realistic medieval fantasy, His Daughter Sophie. No dragons. No spells. No magic items. Just a big tough girl and her dad trying to find security in the Dark Ages. We’re going to get it up on Amazon at some point, but if you want to read it now, for free, drop me a line at:

paulgies@maine.edu

 

Clay and Rachel six nines past the decimal

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from Homeward by Night, the second of the Bluehorse trilogy


3.

Floating naked in their combined Ghost, Rachel and Clay played five games of Set, and the result was three wins for Rachel and two for Clay. The mouthholes were still extant in the system. They simulated a bit, and again Rachel had a slight edge: he hoped she was never so mad at him that she started actually physically shooting at his actual physical Ghost. The last fight was so thrilling that Rachel followed her destruction of his simulated craft by easily overcoming his meager defenses and taking what she wanted from him, not in simulation but in very real life. They napped, woke up and had a little food, smooched, made aimless love, exercised a little, replotted their navigation to Gliese 581, and took another in-depth look at the Holey System.

There were still mouthholes coming and going, including a tetrad departing on a path that would take them within twenty million kilometers of Clay and Rachel as the Ghosts scooted along quietly under passive countermeasures. Rachel talked Clay into a few games of speed chess, and beat him ten games to none. Then they resorted to regular chess, and in six hours he managed to take one of four with one draw.

By and by they were up to 20% of light speed and at least 200 million kilometers from the nearest identified mouthhole. Rachel gave up trying to mate Clay on the board, king and rook to king and bishop, and went for the mate in real space. Then they lay in each other’s arms in the dark, dozed off, woke up a few hours later at 22% and 400 million kilometers from any known spherical beastie.

“Are we good to go?” Clay asked.

“I stinkin’ hope so,” said Rachel. She kissed him, then started ordering his Ghost and hers to drop their PCM and slide on up to 100% acceleration, which would take them to 99.9999% of light speed in sixty hours. Clay lay back, naked, and watched. “Well,” said Rachel when she was done, “whatever shall we do with ourselves?”

“Keep an eye out for mouthholes?” he suggested. “This place seems infested.”

“Yes. Isn’t that curious.” They both spent twenty seconds watching the screens, in which the spherical beasties still seemed focused on the planet Holey-3. “Well,” she said, reaching down to her folded-up vac suit, “in a few hours we’ll be over thirty percent, and not long after that we should be completely invisible even to them. In the meantime, I think maybe I’ll let my suit clean all the man funk off me. Before you get me all man funky again.”

“Mmm. Same to you, source of all my woman funk.” He pulled his vac suit up his legs and leaned to kiss her, ogling her as she dressed.

“Clay. I love you.”

“I love you. I am yours. There is no other.” He kissed her, then shook his head. “Where are we getting married?”

“What did we decide? Top of Everest? Might be a tad frigid.”

“No doubt, especially if we’re having a naked wedding.”

“Think the Pope would do a nudie wedding? I mean, we’ll be famous.”

“Outdoor wedding, definitely,” said Clay, “on the Moon.”

“Mmm, Clay. How long till our vac suits have us all clean and I can strip you naked and get us both all dirty again?”

“Oh, I think I feel clean enough already,” said Clay.

 

So they took each other’s suits back off with a slow thoroughness, put on a 22nd Century fantasy romance, and made love some more. And that was the pattern of life for another sixty hours, as Holey blinked out behind them and the stars became weird streaks and circles and the Milky Way itself blurred and distended until they were shooting through a universe of polka dots and 4D rotations. They were setting new records again: 99.999995, 99.999998%. Two nines, a dot, and five nines. A new record, and another, and another. Closing on six nines past the dot.

And then, like going through a door, they were in a very different sort of place, or so it seemed to them and their sensors.

 

4.

“What the,” said Clay after a while.

Still they gawked. Starting on their port side and below, the realm of their sensors opened out like they were coming out of a forest and onto a frozen lake. They could see for ever and ever, but there was nothing to see. It was hard to say how they knew they weren’t just staring at a flat black wall, but they both had the distinct sensation of infinite distance. On the starboard side and above, at first, there was still the busy blur of relativistic space, with the confused photons coming to them at the speed of light even as they met them at the speed of light, while others from behind barely managed to catch up, only traveling few dozen meters per second faster relative to the rest of the universe, and yet meeting the combined fighters at the full speed of light. No wonder they were confused. But even they gave up and opened out, and then the joined Ghosts were drifting in a blackness deeper than oceans, in a cosmos of vast extent, empty of all matter or energy but that belonging to Rachel Andros and Clay Gilbert and their twinned spacecraft.

“99.999999,” said Rachel in a flat voice. “Six nines past the decimal.” They still gawked side by side, naked in their familiar little space, surrounded by uninformative screens interrupted by uninformative data displays. “Um, Clay,” she said after another while, “should we cut the thrust? We’re still trying to accelerate.”

“It does seem rather gilding the lily,” said Clay in a flat voice. “Considering we’re already setting records every second. And, um, this.”

“This,” said Rachel. “I’m not going to even ask where we are. Frickin’ neutrinos are pulling over to let us pass. I mean, no wonder it looks—!”

“What the hell was that,” said Clay quietly.

“I mean, it looks weird because looks are determined by photons reflecting off things, and we’re running with the photons right now. I mean, maybe we’re finally so close to the actual speed of frickin’ light that we’re within some sort of quantum thing, you know, and so we’ve like graduated to oneness with the photons. Scary, huh? And I mean, there is this quantum thing, this one effect where a photon turns into an electron and a positron, and then back again, and it loses a little time in the process so it’s slowed down a tiny bit, so maybe we’re basically going the—!” She stopped. “What the hell was that?”

They watched what the hell that was out there for perhaps five minutes in silence. It wasn’t going on all the time: just every so often, what the hell would happen. They gradually, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, Rachel and Clay both began to get an idea about the patterns in what they were seeing. They floated there naked in their combined Ghost, coasting along at a speed with which neutrinos had to hustle to keep up, as something seemed to move over here, and something moved correspondingly over there.

Move was not quite the right word. Move implied a continuous change of position through a real-number-indexed progression of intervening positions, a continuous function from [0, 1] into the three or whatever dimensional space in which Rachel and Clay found themselves. Move implied that the rules of motion they had understood as children in Maine and Canada were more or less inviolate. Those rules were already in shreds. But rules of some sort held, and over the course of five minutes or so, Clay and Rachel began to get some idea of what those rules were, and the things they were seeing began to make sense in a way that a screen full of static did not.

Rachel cleared her throat. Clay looked at her, then back behind him, as if something were lurking or creeping or sneaking. Then, gazing off obliquely into one of the infinitely many directions of black infinity, he said, “I kind of fancy decelerating.”

“You mean pull out of light speed somewhere.”

“Yes.”

“We have no idea if there’s a star about or what,” said Rachel, non-judgmental. “Is that okay?”

“Fine with me,” said Clay.

“Me too,” said Rachel, pulling back the sliders on both her side and his to maximum deceleration.


And then they get back to Earth and that’s when the story takes a sharp turn… want a copy? Email me at

paulgies@maine.edu

 

Baseball and a spell battle

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from The Lyceum of the Lake Winds


 

The next Saturday, the ninth of April, the Zephs hosted the Marquette Dragons. The Marquette team dominated, and the player who dominated was a lanky fifteen-year-old girl named Mary Margaret Wertz. She played third base and her arms almost reached to second base; she never hit anything short of the warning track; and her obnoxious but baseball-aware chatter kept the rest of the team on the ball. The Dragons won the first game 17 to 11, and polished off the nightcap 19 to 2. In between, the Zephyrs let Marquette stay close in field hockey before pulling away in the last ten minutes to win ten to six.

“I think we could go undefeated,” said Keisha Case, backup first baseman and field hockey goalie, as they ate a late dinner in the caf.

“Yeah, and the baseball team’s got a perfect record too,” said Daphne.

“Easy for you to win,” said Arnulf. “Mary Margaret doesn’t play field hockey.”

“No,” said Angelica, coming over. “She’s a one sport athlete.”

“Pity if something happened to her,” said Arnulf.

“What were you thinking?” asked Daphne. “She’s also a third year. I know she knows the stone fig spell.”

“What’s a stone fig between friends,” said Arnulf. “Especially if one is a backup utility infield outfielder. Who can’t hit and can’t run fast.”

The next day the Zephs took the portal to Milwaukee, where Marquette managed to commandeer County Stadium. The Dragons wasted no time in jumping all over Daphne, in her rotation as starting pitcher. By the sixth inning, when Coach Whelp let her sit down in favor of the calm third year Sara Stills, they were down 13-4. Without Daphne in the lineup, the Zephs scored no more runs, and the Drags coasted to a 17-4 victory.

Elizabeth McNing was slotted to pitch the second game. She gave up a single, two walks and then a home run to Mary Margaret Wertz in the first inning. With no one out, the lanky Wertz was jogging the base paths, insulting each and every infielder she passed. Leonard Harris at second watched stonefaced as she muttered the n-word; Melissa Kleene, the shortstop, spat in her path, and Lulu Bates, at third, tried insulting her back.

Arnulf was standing near the third base coach, who was paying no attention. As Wertz turned for home, Arnulf said, not loud but not in any kind of whisper either, “Pfft yrk glg…”

Wertz looked up at him. She hit the brakes: perhaps she knew the spell and instinctively tried to avoid it. She would have been better off running on through. “Kno e—ewww!” she said.

“Need some air?” he said quietly. Then he repeated the spell, which he was in good practice on. Lulu smiled and backed off into left field, where Josh Hubble joined her to observe the result. Mary Margaret seemed to want to back up toward second.

“Hey Ump,” called the manager from the Marquette dugout, “what are you going to do about this?”

“Aww, it’s just a three worder,” said the third base umpire, who didn’t recognize the spell, and who, luckily for both him and Arnulf, had lost the power of smell in a spell battle long ago. Meanwhile, the audience, which happened to include a lot of Lake Winds supporters on the third base side of County Stadium, found the whole thing amusing as long as the wind continued to blow from the third base side.

Pfft yrk glg,” said Arn again, as Wertz tried to find a way past him within the base paths. The stench was reaching saturation already. “Want one more? I’ll turn around,” he said, turning and bending over to aim at her. “Pfft—!”

Trt si mng gfl!” she croaked out.

“Thanks,” said Arnulf, turning stiff as stone. In a moment he was grey granite.

Arn didn’t came awake in a dim place. He was wet. A dark face was before him. No, it was just Leonard; the place was the hall behind the dugout; Leonard had been pouring a potion over him.

“Destone potion,” said Arnulf. Leonard put his finger over his mouth.

There were voices from up the hall in the locker room. It was Lulu Bates and several other people. They were arguing in low voices.

“I’m telling you to cool it,” Lulu was saying. “Use your brain, Lizzie.”

“Shut up, Lulu,” Elizabeth McNing replied. “Or you’ll—!” Her whisper was too loud to be a whisper but still too low for a decent threat. Sound definitely carried back here.

“Cool it everybody,” Dave Andrews was saying. “Just tell us what you think you’re doing. Maybe we can actually not work at, you know, cross purposes for once.”

“Like we trust you even a little, Dave,” said Josh Hubble, pronouncing Dave like it was an insult.

“What. Are you. Looking for,” said Lulu.

“Nothing,” insisted McNing.

“Then why. Are you. In his locker. Confused?” McNing didn’t reply. “So what, you think they let him take things like whatever it is to away games?

“He’s a frickin’ statue,” said McNing. “It’s our chance to just, you know, see.”

“You don’t even know what it is, do you?” Josh put in.

“So scared,” said Lulu. “Of all the, you know, secrets you Mac people know.”

“Shut up about Mac people,” said McNing. “If you could see straight you’d be a Mac person too.”

“Do I have to stand here and drip?” asked Arnulf in a low voice.

“Come on,” said Leonard, “back to the dugout.” He dragged Arnulf around a corner and he could see the daylight from the field. “They gonna find anything, pal?” Leonard asked.

“My dirty underwear and socks,” said Arnulf.

“You changed here??”

“No, it’s just a defense.”

“You thought someone would be rifling your locker? Man, you guys are devious.”

“Let’s just say that we’re all kinda used to it by now.” He wiped his face: the potion was a little greasy. “We win?”

“Yeah. Game’s been over for an hour. Everyone else is back at the Lyceum already: I came back with the destone potion from Coach. Good job there, by the way. Without Mary Mack or whatever, they couldn’t hit anything Willow threw at them. Yours truly got a triple and three singles. Dapher hit a homer in the fourth, yeah, Josh down there hit one in the eighth. Final score was like ten to five.”

“And you came back and they were—?”

“Ransacking your locker, yeah.”

“So, thanks, man,” said Arnulf. “Uh, this mean we’re on the same side?”

“With magic farts as your specialty, I don’t want to be on the other side,” said Leonard. He grinned. “And then there’s your girlfriend. I definitely don’t want to be on the wrong side of her. You ready to go back? Anything you need from your locker?”

“No,” said Arnulf, “though I’m gonna miss some of those socks, they’ve been with me for years.”

Arnulf Shmoke and Leonard Harris got back to the Lyceum and had a little talk with Coach Whelp. She was not pleased with Arnulf’s behavior, told Leonard he was a stand-up guy, and then sent them both back to their houses with grinning slaps on the shoulder. They were ushered out the back door of the office by the gym, and Leonard made Arnulf pause a moment outside. Arnulf didn’t know what was going on until Leonard chuckled and pulled him away.

“Let’s practice you up on some third base,” he said. “You might just be needing to sub for Lulu a little this next weekend at Ann Arbor.”

Indeed, Lulu Bates was in trouble, and so was Dave Andrews. Hubble and McNing managed to evade responsibility by turning state’s evidence or something, so Josh was still in the starting lineup at left field, but Arnulf found himself out there at third base, wearing his arm out winging the ball to Daphne without pulling her too far off the bag. He wasn’t a great ballplayer or a natural, but, at any rate, as Ahir would have agreed, he was pretty good in the clutch. He got on base twice in his four games, both times on walks. Andrews was replaced in center field by a Caribbean Amazon named Clothilde Chantal, who could hit, and also strike out, but who still got confused by deep fly balls.

The four game match-up against the Ann Arbor Lyceum’s Michiganders produced exactly one win for the baseball team, a 3-2 defensive struggle on Saturday in Chicago, in which Daphne was the winning pitcher and hit the three-run homer in the eighth inning that won it. Thus again the baseball team managed to get equally many wins as the field hockey team, which took its only game of the weekend, at Ann Arbor on Sunday, by a 12-1 score. The baseball team was now 2-10; the field hockeyers were 3-0.

“So we managed to score a whopping six runs all weekend,” said Daphne after the Sunday game, as she and Tom and Arnulf and Ahir and Leonard Harris walked downtown to find an ice cream place, and just take a look around the college town. “Field hockey got twice that.”

“And Ann Arbor is supposed to be the weak team,” said Tom Hexane, who had been getting some reps as a possible relief pitcher.

“They only outscored us ten to two today, in two games,” Arnulf pointed out. “And I didn’t make any errors at third base. Didn’t get any hits, of course.”

“No one expects you to, dear,” said Ahir. “You’re more of a fielder type.”

“You’re a safety, man,” said Leonard. “You can always clean their clock when they round third. Isn’t that what safeties do?”

“Speaking of safety,” said Arnulf.

They stopped. “Whut?” asked Leonard. Arn gave him a look. He whipped around, his “JS” wand out; next to him, Ahir had her black wand ready.

Sek ag min! came a chorus from behind them. Leonard made a noise like snerk and slumped against Tom, who let him settle gently to the sidewalk asleep. Still half crouched, Tom tossed a one-two-three magic strike at one of the wand-waving figures leaning out of a second floor window on the left. Tom and the window-hanger, a woman of young middle age, had a staticky standoff for a minute, and then as the woman started in on an actual spell to break the deadlock, with a bolt from the right she was practically blown back from the window.

Daphne was just overcoming a young man on the sidewalk with sek nyk min, the standard hold spell; his kno eur didn’t hold water. Arnulf was blasting away at what appeared to be a very angry black angora cat. Ahir turned on the cat and together she and Arn tossed enough magic damage to create a small explosion. The cat fled into an alley, leaving a small pall of smoke and the odor of burning cat hair. Arnulf and Ahir ran back up the street and crouched over a downed figure.

They stood up, looking at each other, then back toward the others. “Down,” hissed Daphne. The two crouched again.

Sek nyk min,” she said over them, waving her rarely-used wand. “Sek ag,” said Tom, waving his wand.

Arnulf and Ahir turned: two more people went down in the doorway of an apartment on the right. Then they looked back. Daphne and Tom turned again.

“No more nonsense,” said a nondescript man in front of Daphne. He stood with a woman of punky style and indeterminate age: they seemed to have appeared out of thin air. He twiddled his wand at Daphne. “Trt kar ho—!

Daphne and Tom both flung all the force they had at him. He flew back out of his shoes, literally: he landed on his butt and in his stocking feet.

“You little,” said the woman. She reared back to deliver a crushing blow.

There was a crack from behind Tom and Daphne. The woman was taken by a bluish nimbus of magic combat from the loving couple behind them. Daphne and Tom joined in, as the woman struggled with them: she had a lot of power in her, but somehow she couldn’t shake the four kids together. What was that thing Arn and Ahir were doing? And was this punky girl really this strong?

And then with a snap, the nimbus broke. The woman was thrown back hard against a tree, and slumped in a very uncomfortable folded position. Her boots, empty and still standing where she had been, were smoking.

“Let’s forget the ice cream,” said Arnulf.

“Mmmman,” said Leonard, coming to, “I’m all over that.”

“You—didn’t—did you?” asked Tom. “Kill that woman? We didn’t?” asked Daphne.

“Not so loud,” said Arnulf. He looked back at the body on the ground behind them.

“I fear so,” said Ahir. “And we definitely did it to that poor chap. Very sorry. It was rude of us.”

Tom and Leonard exchanged looks and eye-rolls. Daphne looked from the dead punky girl to the dead guy and then to Ahir. “I’m okay with it myself,” said the Amazon. “Let’s get back to the Windy City, huh? Ice cream sodas at the place on Birch sound good.”

“They’re on Ahir,” said Arnulf. “Which means I’m buying.”


This one started as a role-playing game, a sort of Chicago-pizza-flavored Hogwarts story. It’s flawed but I still find it irresistible: sports and spells. Want to read it? Drop me an email at:

paulgies@maine.edu

 

Clay’s Moon and Rachel training

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from The Road to Bluehorse


 

The next morning, or the next day period, Clay managed to get up and forget the low gravity of the Moon. He banged his head on an overhead cabinet, then his shin on the bed corner. Cussing, he managed to pull on his robe and go out to the common area. Natasha sat there in her robe with a cup of coffee. Clay managed to get a cup for himself.

 

“Rachel’s got the shower,” said Natasha.

“You guys all showered together before.”

“I didn’t get up in time or something.”

They sat there sipping coffee. Clay said, “So where’s the boss?”

“Commanders are having some sort of meeting.”

“Was this planned?” he asked.

“Nope. Message came this morning early.” She sipped. She was not smiling.

“Admiral?”

“Guess so.”

They had a little more coffee. It was still blistering hot. He had no idea what it was actually made from, the coffee or the cream, but it did taste good, to the extent he could taste it. He tried to meet Natasha’s eyes but Natasha wasn’t looking up. He said, “I’ll tell you one thing. They are not going to find the wing commanders in the best of moods this morning.”

Natasha smirked and snorted a tiny derisive feminine snort.

 

Clay managed to get his shower in, after Natasha. He and Natasha and Rachel got down to breakfast and joined the other six wing recruits. They had seconds, they had lots of coffee, they went to the bathroom several times.

“So anyone know,” Jane Tremblay said, “what we’re going to do today?” She looked at Rachel. “You’re Park’s second. She tell you anything?”

“She said, and I quote,” said Rachel in her precise way, “we will get in a practice today somehow. That was all she told me.”

“That was all she said?” asked Gil Rojette.

“Celeste swore some,” said Tremblay.

“Tell me we’re not in trouble,” said Jana Bluehorse. “Tell me they’re not screwin’ with us. I’m gonna tear some people some new buttholes if—!”

“Do you think there’s really a problem?” Timmis asked Clay.

“No,” said Clay, “it’s just organizational.”

The door to the lift slid open and out came Agneska Vilya. She saw the nine fliers and smiled as she headed for them. She wore her vac suit with her helmet collapsed behind her shoulder‑length red hair. She got a cup of coffee, went over to the tables they had pushed together and put the cup down. She leaned on the table, looking as though she was barely in contact with matter: at one sixth Earth gravity, these little people all felt like they were about to float away. Vilya turned her smile around all of them: she was almost pretty, smiling.

“We’re going to have a little practice without the other two,” she said. “Do some low‑level, far off where we’ll be out of people’s way.”

“Commander Vilya,” said Tremblay, Bouvier’s second, “are you the only one who didn’t get fired?”

Vilya laughed. “No, no,” she said. “But Commander Park and Commander Bouvier have stayed behind to fully convert the brass to our point of view.” She looked around. None of them was soothed. “They stayed because honestly, among the three of us, they got all the negotiating skills.”

Gil Rojette, her wing second, laughed slightly and said, “Isn’t that the truth.”

“And all the putting up with buttholes skills,” said Bluehorse, her wing tail. “Okay. Let’s.”

 

And that day the ten pilots flew informal maneuvers, ran races over the Sea of Tranquility, did an hour of one on ones: Clay beat Timmis, Rojette and Li Zan, and got beat by Timmis, Tremblay, Santos and Rachel. Then they fought five on five. Clay was with Tremblay as commander, Rachel, Timmis, and Bluehorse, against Vilya, Rojette, Natasha, Li Zan and Vera Santos.

They ran the battle three times. The first time, Clay, Timmis and Jana Bluehorse all fell victim to Vera Santos, who was on a streak; they set their fighters down on the surface and watched Vilya’s group nail down Tremblay and Rachel, who worked out a nice defensive pas de deux on the fly and survived longer than they should have. The second round went to Vilya’s crew as well, but this time it was Rachel and Clay left at the end, against Vilya, Santos and Natasha. Clay did whatever Rachel told him to do. They dove to the surface till he could practically reach out and touch it, simulated lasers slicing through the space they had just vacated.

Then they sped out across the flat surface of the mare, Rachel ahead and to the left of Clay. The other three came in behind them, slicing away. They would be sliced into lunch meat soon. Rachel said, “Flip!” and Clay did, rolling over his Ghost’s left shoulder and coming out facing back and firing at the first target he acquired. He hit the middle of the target, and was rewarded by Natasha swearing. Behind him, Rachel flipped and blasted Vera Santos to simulated hell. But then Vilya shot through both of them, coming from the left and above, and it was over.

“What did we learn?” Vilya called, hovering above in her ghost, as they set down among the others on the surface.

“Two on three,” said Rachel, “someone is going to be open.”

“Two on three,” said Clay, “one of you has to look for two enemies. Simple math.”

“That’s right,” said Vilya, landing, “simple math.”

The last fight of the day looked much the same as the first two, except for one thing: Bluehorse in her usual way placed herself in Vilya’s face and they knocked each other out. Vera quickly took out Tremblay and Timmis. At the fifteen second mark, it was Rachel and Clay again—against the other four. They chased back across the mare and around a rough highland. “We have got to stop doing this,” said Rachel as they sped away, weaving to avoid the blasts from behind.

“Flip?” asked Clay.

“I’m thinking,” said Rachel. “Come around that spire. But have two targets, okay?”

“Have three,” said Clay, “just in case we overlap.”

“Yepper.” And that was all the planning they had time for. Clay whipped around the central mountain of a small crater, and the four pursuers were coming at him in diamond pattern. He targeted them in quick order: one, two, three, all but the rightmost one. He dodged left, then blasted One, dodged right and blasted Two. Three matched his next dodge and was about to blast him when she suddenly lifted and went into hover. She landed: it was Santos, and Rachel had gotten her with her second shot. Her first had knocked out Rojette. Clay had gotten Li Zan and Natasha.

“God damn it, Clay,” said Natasha as they jumped out of their Ghosts and headed for each other. Rachel landed nearby and headed over to high-five Clay.

“What can I say?” asked Rachel. “We’re the best wing.”


…This was from early on, before any of Clay’s colonization fleet had any idea there were actual aliens out there. Want to read The Road to Bluehorse? You can, for free, by emailing me at

paulgies@maine.edu

 

 

“Yeah,” said Clay, “that’s the truth, but will they let us keep doing it?”

Clay and the future passed

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From The Road to Bluehorse


Old Earth had been through a lot. It had coalesced from interstellar debris, in a spin about a coalescing star, and it was good. It had passed through fire and acid rain and had somehow developed life, and it was good. Bacteria had consumed most of the carbon dioxide and belched out oxygen, destroying the environment that had created them, and they simply evolved into other forms that could breathe the oxygen and belch out carbon dioxide. Complex life had grown, had emerged from the sea, and had meanwhile diversified into vertebrates and arthropods and molluscs and jellies and echinoderms and various kinds of wormy things, and it was still fine. Giants walked the earth, and then crashed and died and were replaced by little furry and feathery things, and it was wonderful, while the trees grew so high and burst into flower.

Mice begot apes, apes learned to walk and make tools, and thus they became humans, and it was still okay. Humans began to talk and never stopped talking; they began to write and never stopped writing. They made better tools, they dug up ores and smelted metals and tamed all kinds of animals and plants. They found out about war and never stopped warring, as if they had discovered a new kind of sex.

They invented freedom and slavery. They invented love and hate. They invented war, but they invented opposition to war. They invented monarchy, but they invented democracy. They invented horror and blasphemy and lies and temptations and addictions and thoughtless destruction, but they also invented art and music and mathematics and science. They invented exploitation of resources and took short term profit at long term cost, they contaminated the air and the waters and the soil and they spread their diseases around like horrible pets, but they also began to clean up after themselves. It was a race.

In the nineteenth century, the world had started to seem full. In the twentieth, the great wars rolled back and forth across the globe, the poisons poured into the seas and the skies, but still the population grew toward complete saturation: three billion, four billion, five billion, six. Seven billion, eight billion, nine billion, ten. In the twenty‑first, destruction finally caught up with creation. There were just too many people with the power to make poisons and explosives: nuclear weapons, biological weapons, chemical weapons, weapons that only made sense on computer networks. But it was the nuclear ones that made all the difference, whether wielded by Pakistan and India or Israel and the Muslim world or Russia and England or by terrorists of this, that or the other stripe. Some renegade Russian submariner shot his missiles into New Jersey for no better reason than that British retaliatory strikes had destroyed St Petersburg. Terrorists were responsible for the destruction of Istanbul, Paris, much of Egypt, Sri Lanka and the major cities of Brazil; the ones who blew up Los Angeles were never even known. Twenty million people had perished at someone’s hand, and no one ever knew what the point was.

At some stage the impetus ran out. The means did not, entirely, but somewhere around 2200, someone realized that no nuclear weapons had been used since the tit for tat terror wars that ravaged Africa between 2170 and 2180. The remnant population had already begun to pick itself up, and by 2220, their numbers were rebounding—well, from a low of under a hundred million to perhaps 125 million.

Technology was no longer very interesting to people. They had plenty of energy resources all of a sudden, enough water, just about enough arable land—well, there were corn farms now in Greenland and on Baffin Island, which made up for the contamination of the tropics, and the grain belts of North America and Eurasia turning to desert. They were mostly over the concept of universal surveillance. Trains got better and better, but they remained trains; airplanes were all in museums. The only place where technological innovation continued was space.

The asteroids and nearer moons were mined for fancy things like iridium and platinum. Bases were built at Eros and Phobos and Vesta and Mathilde and Callisto and Miranda, and a working mine on Mars turned into a small colony, passing the one thousand mark in 2235. It was nice having new sources of metals, and it was cool to honeymoon on the actual, you know, Moon, but it had also occurred to approximately 125 million Earthlings that a colony elsewhere might just be a good form of insurance.

Dr. Albert Einstein had never been proved wrong. The speed of light was still the law, and no police were needed to enforce it. When the first colony ships headed for Alpha Centauri in 2242, under the aegis of the extremely cautious and extremely expensive Centaur project, they were expected to arrive in a hundred years (moving at a maximum of 8% of the speed of light) and then thaw out their 1,023 frozen colonists for the job ahead.

It had been decided to send a colonization mission out first, because of the length of time they would have to wait for an exploration mission to return. But by 2260, more efficient methods had been developed, and these were employed to send an unmanned craft to Alpha Centauri at an average speed of 17,800 kilometers per second, or about 6% of light speed: the maximum was up to 13%. Three robot spacecraft were sent, in 2262, 2264 and 2267. The first of these was expected to report about 2342, its signals traveling seventeen times as fast as the unmanned craft had.

The new methods of propulsion were soon employed in another colony mission: the Venture project, which sent colony ships to Gliese catalog stars 581 and 667c. Leaving in 2272 and maxing out at a time‑dilating 40% of the speed of light, Venture 1 planned to reach the red dwarf Gliese 581, 22 light years from Earth and orbited by at least three potentially habitable planets, in under eighty years including the lumbering acceleration and deceleration. It would only take another 22 years for signals to return from the system to inform Earth of the mission’s success. Venture 2 was sent in 2277 to Gliese 667, 26 light years away, where a triple star system included a red dwarf with a close‑in and possibly habitable planet. Improvements allowed its speed to approach 50% of light speed, and with acceleration and deceleration likewise sped up, its arrival in its new neighborhood was expected around 2328, though news from there, if it came, would not come for twenty‑six more years.

The next thirty years saw attention turn to cheaper, easier colonies on the bare rocks and windblown sands of the Earth’s own solar system cousins. The Mars colony was extended and given its own government. New methods began to produce something like farming on Ganymede and Callisto, the two largest moons of Jupiter. Several asteroids, including Vesta and Mathilde, went from bases to colonies, and Vesta’s got into the hydroponic farming business. Soon its population passed 1000; that of Mars was soon in the fifty thousand range.

But these were always tough climbs, or tough climes. In the neighborhood of Earth, nothing but Earth was anything like Earth, really. Even Mars: it received less light, had less atmosphere, and its atmosphere had less oxygen. It was missing lots of other things that had to be brought, though it had plenty of carbon and plenty of iron. Ganymede and Callisto had no air at all, and their sunlight was a tiny fraction of Earth’s. Venus and Mercury looked lovely but were in the lap of solar radiation and completely uninhabitable, even hellish. The Moon was just a nice place to vacation, or to train for space travel.

And then in the 2310s and 2320s, a series of innovations revolutionized space travel. Dr. Einstein’s law still held, but a spaceship full of colonists could possibly, given a big enough solar battery, go from zero to nearly 300,000 km per sec, verily the speed of light, in a matter of weeks. At that point, time dilation would mean that to the travelers, the clocks, including their body clocks, would hardly move. They would reach their destination, say, Gliese 667c, twenty‑six years later, but to them it would seem like only a few months had passed. There was no need to freeze anyone.

And that was when the remaining governments, corporations and academies of the world began thinking about the enterprise they would name, with their usual clumsiness of nomenclature, the Human Horizon Project.


I will post another Bluehorse excerpt tomorrow: this bit is not about character development or even plot really. This one is about Clay Gilbert’s past, which happens to be (my best, most realistic) guess about our own future.

Want to read The Road to Bluehorse? It’s true that the original version is up on WordPress for free, as chapter pages (pull down from the menu at the top of the blog page), but it’s been significantly rewritten, so, in case you don’t feel like waiting for PDMI to eventually get around to publishing it, drop me an email and I will send you the whole thing as a pdf.

paulgies@maine.edu

 

Ryel and the mosquito

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from Ryel and Arkmar: The First Six Pieces of Dream


She took the back stairway, the steps plain and carven from the tower’s black basalt as if the whole thing was some sort of geological formation. Ten flights down and she was on the ground floor, not on the Street of Green Signs but on some even more subsidiary thoroughfare, possibly the Lane of Discarded Ants or the Alley of Unintended Consequences. She turned and went up it and found that it ran reliably parallel to the Main Street.
Ryel walked up the street feeling like a discarded ant among the Cyclopean towers of Dylath. The mist made them seem all the more unimaginably vast, as if they somehow connected the ground to the sky, as if, if she found a stair that went all the way up the inside of one, it would leave her in whatever sort of place the Gods had chosen to hide by putting it on top of the clouds. Still, she walked, seeming a citizen of the place: no one marked her passage through the gritty metropolis, Elf of the Greenwood though she was. Dark of clothing, black of hair, quiet of stride in her old comfortable boots: Ryel flitted through the city like she was flitting amongst so many gigantic ash trees. She didn’t even have to think about it.

And that was good, because she was thinking about the job.

This far within the walls, the towers of Dylath-Leen, as the cartographers called it, changed from square or rectangular or trapezoidal in cross section to their native hexagonal. Turning one more of those annoying 120 degree corners, Ryel melted into a doorway next to a disused dock. She peered from there at the next tower.

It faced the Main Street, surrounded and padded by little parks with enigmatic shrines and bas-reliefs. People moved up and down the Main Street but did not stray from it or enter or leave the hexagonal tower. Beyond it, fading into the black mist of night in that blackest of coastal cities, more hexagonal towers stood. Things moved about in the little parks, but those things could not be called people.

This was the place. She was sure of it.

The tower would be dozens of stories tall, but internally that would mean little. She knew much about it, because she knew it was a tower full of temples, because she had good sources, because her instructions were in some ways vague but in other ways quite specific. And then there was her odd intuition.

Many floors would combine into one, except for the stairs climbing around just inside the tower’s black shell. The ground floor would be two or three stories tall, as many were, but above that, the higher floors would be combined in sets of three or five or seven into tall halls with a troubling degree of ornamentation. Ryel did not like it when humans overdid the symbolism, the ritual, the meaning. Nothing good could come of it.

There would be many things of value there, precious stones of inexplicable design, ware of gold and silver and platinum and iridium and lo, even mithril, statuary of the most expensive material and the most anomalous subject matter, substances solid and liquid and gaseous, rare and rarer and almost unattainable even in Dream World, coin and cloth and tome and utensil and musical instrument and work of art, animal and plant and fungoid and living thing of no clear category. But that was not quite what Ryel was here for. Her mother had not raised any thieves. Not as such.

“Obtain the Map and use it to find the first Piece,” were the instructions. A certain sort of “they” would try to prevent her if they knew she was there, so she would make sure they did not. That was why it had to be Ryel and not some urban guerilla or sleek, slick cat burglar or clever sneak thief. That was why it could not have been any other of her people, or of the folk of Lothlorien or Imladris or Dol Amroth. She had the woods in her veins, but she had lived and done her work in city and on battlefield: the same things everyone else did in the forest, she did in the town. And, of course, she had suffered Loss, and that was supposed to make her ruthless. Thinking all this in a second, she smirked, a natural position for her mouth.
Of course she was ruthless. Of course she didn’t care, aside from her professional dignity. Of course she understood how very important the job was. In a distinct sense, the worlds depended on it. It had all been explained to her.
Ryel took a long breath and held it. The wine was dissipating and the caffeine remained, and the smoke smoothed it all out, but under or above all that, her mind was unaffected. Nothing moved, and then she did. She slipped across to the garden before her and into the shadow of a pillar.
There was a dripping, and it was not the rain, which had come to an end. She turned and gave a glance to the zone along the border of the little park, halfway from the tower she had left to the one she was headed for. Six pillars surrounded a little space, and their tops were connected by a thin lattice of beams of wood or metal. Below, amongst the pillars, was a pool, and something was dripping down into it. It was clear, but Ryel did not think it was water. Smirking over her disgust and a low grade of dread, she moved across to a block of rough stone of about her height. It seemed innocent enough. Of course it was covered with traceries of glyphs and enigmatic patterns of moving beetles, but they weren’t her business.

Ryel took another long breath. A half dozen drunks reeled up the Main Street. They paused, belched, laughed; one of them threw up. Then they seemed to realize where they were, and moved on quickly with a minimum of noise.
No one knew Ryel was there. No one, not even the things that Ryel didn’t know were there. She didn’t want to know about them and they didn’t need to know about her. Deal.
She let out her breath, then took in another, then flitted across to the building where her job hid, the Tower of the Minor Temples. It was surrounded by no landscaping, but weeds had grown to bushes in the lee of its straight sides. She made good friends with a particular overgrown relative of the lupine, its randy vigor not quite so intense as to make her think much about what sort of stuff it fed on. “You eat what you like,” she whispered to the burst of vegetation. “Drink deep, have one on me. Just keep me covered, okay?”
The lupine relative did not answer, although she had the feeling it was sympathetic to her situation. In its shelter, she scanned up the walls. They were not entirely unrelieved planes of basalt. There were windows, arrow slits really, vents perhaps, starting at the twenty foot level. “Doable,” she said to herself. She unshouldered her bow, pulled out the arrow with the rope attached to it, took careful aim, allowing for gravity and the density of the wet air, drew another breath and fired upwards.
The arrow flew straight and true. Of course it did, being inanimate and also obedient. It disappeared into the crack of window, and Ryel pulled the rope taut. Rope: not some inches-thick knotted clump of plant fibers wound around and around by mortal old ladies, but the product of the Elves, clean and light and strong. Just the usual, to Ryel, only the best. She pulled on it, pulled gently until the arrow caught in the crack of window and held, and then she began to pull herself up.
Things went well for the first fifteen feet. She heard distant faint sound from beyond the window, a chanting of mixed voices. In one step more, as she reached up with her hand, from behind and below came the tread of a watchman up the side street. He would not be curious, he would not spend effort looking up into the misty night, he might even be anxious to not see something that was there to be seen, if it was to be seen on this particular wall. But if she made a noise he would look, and if he looked he would see her, and if he saw her he would have to sound the alarm. It was just the way the rules were. And shooting him would not be an option. Both her hands were occupied.
She paused a moment, then reached out her other hand to the next foot of rope: only four feet left to the window’s edge. And a mosquito glided in and landed on her forearm.
Ryel grimaced, the mirthless cousin of her smirk. She rolled her eyes a bit too, and then, suitably emboldened, she muttered to the bug: “Listen. Freako. Listen to me. Go bite that guy down there. Down. There. That guy. Okay? I’ll give you a blessing.”
The mosquito sat there on her arm. Not biting. Its body was not flexible enough for it to give her a look, much less say anything; its brain, if it could be called that, was too simple to spend any amount of time considering possibilities. After a moment, during which the guard seemed to stop and examine something on his boot directly below Ryel, she whispered a tiny little blessing. “I can’t believe I did that,” she muttered. “Now go.”
The mosquito lifted off from her unbitten arm and swiftly dropped toward its new target. Three seconds later, Ryel could hear the watchman grumbling and turning around, then cursing. He stomped off rubbing the back of his neck. Ryel smiled and pulled herself up to the narrow window. In another second she had squeezed her skinny little elf frame through.


 

Phil thinks about it

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from After Naomi


“I don’t know,” said Sentara, smiling around. “I think we could do a lot worse than Phil as guardian. Let him be CEO of the Nexus again, with both our houses behind him.” She finished her smile on Phil.

Everyone else was smiling at Phil too. He felt a whole lot of love. He wasn’t sure he wanted it anymore. He sat for a moment, then slowly stood up. He picked up his cup, and everyone else grabbed theirs, ready for a toast, but all Phil did was take a tiny sip.

“I have to say I’m flattered,” he said. “But to be quite honest, I’m not absolutely sure I wish to be guardian anymore.” He smiled around at them as their faces registered or hid various levels of confusion or consternation. “Well,” he added after another moment, “if you’ll pardon me, I do need to use the restroom. It’s in the same place, right?”

“Phil,” said Alexi, “the building is made of stone. Yes, it’s in the same place.”

“All right, then. I’ll be right back, barring the Turks breaking in.” He turned and went down the spiral stairs while everyone else held their comments until he was out of earshot.

 

Phil went down the spiral stair and stopped before the steel door. He moved a dilapidated tapestry on the outside wall of the spiral, and behind it was a nice little bathroom with a sort of airplane toilet and a little steel sink. He raised his eyebrows, smiled at himself in the mirror and addressed himself to his business. Phil being Phil, it was impossible to watch himself pee without thinking of the joke about the Pope not wanting to look down on the unemployed. The unemployed. Very funny.

Ah, the adoration Naomi had once showered on that member of the unemployed class. Mister Happy, indeed. Lefty. Tricky Dick. Ah, the fun they used to have. He pictured her undressing him a hundred times, a hundred thousand times, him undressing her a hundred thousand times. “A hundred years to adore each breast. And but ten thousand to the rest.” It used to be that such thoughts would stop him peeing and make it rather difficult to get his pants back on. Apparently that was off as well: he finished up, gave a couple of shakes and restored normality.

The toilet flushed regular water, not airplane blue. The sink’s hot water was hot right away. The soap came from a dispenser: it was pink, creamy and a little shiny. Alexios had come to Maine in 1996 or so and liked the rest area bathrooms.

Phil decided on a whim that he would like to delay his return to the Council of Elrond long enough for a little chat with himself in the mirror. How was he, anyway? Long time no see.

Phil Postman, graduate of Messalonskee, appearing fortyish with brown hair and a touch of grey, thin not because of his workout habits or his magical appearance spells but because he had always been able to eat a pizza with extra cheese and then burn it off just existing. Drove young Naomi crazy. But soon, of course, they could both look however they wanted to.

She hated appearance spells—but the Youth quality of time warrior rings she could live with. She liked to be thirty, a bit older than the popular average among her kind. Joy, twenty‑seven; Sentara, maybe twenty‑three; Rachel, oh, who knows, twenty-two? A surprising number liked seventeen. The time techs tended to go a little older, so George also showed a touch of grey. In all his meetings with time warriors, Phil only knew two who were near his taste: Arnulf Shmoke, who looked a lanky and slightly flabby fifty, and consistently fooled the unwary, and Jacky Danielle, who stuck to forty‑five and wore it like the plain black shirt and pants she also stuck to. Youth was just a conceit of the young; Phil had better things to do with his face.

But that face. It looked so absolutely ordinary, with a slightly large nose. But what it had seen. What had seen it. In that little room off the stairway, he was surrounded by other days. The centuries with Naomi flashed out in every direction. She even looked over his shoulder in the mirror: that sweet, sweet smile, that tender gaze, those guilt trip eyes. Later, that mix of anger and indifference, that glance full of blades, that pose both aloof and self‑absorbed, full of fire yet frosty, full of pride yet skeptical.

What did she know. What did she know of skepticism. She hated his skepticism, his tendency to question the obvious assumption. She wanted a bias toward action, she wanted to be right and move on it, she wanted to shoot first and not answer a bunch of stupid questions. What. A. Dope. He was sure of it now. Naomi was wrong in as many ways as she could possibly be. She was the smartest person he had ever known well, but, to borrow Joy’s phrase, George’s favorite phrase, she really couldn’t find her own ass with both hands.

Because it’s not simple, Hermione. It’s not. You’re right, but you’re so wrong. You don’t get it, do you. And you never will, because one thing Phil knew for certain, perhaps the only thing he knew for certain, was that he would never win an argument with her. It wasn’t so bad when he was wrong and she was right—as usual. It was very bad when she was wrong and he was right. Then, arguing with her was like hammering a nail that was already bending. It was like loosening a screw the wrong direction. That look on her face would freeze, she would raise her voice and find a dozen insults, “you would think that, Phil, wouldn’t you,” and “that’s rich, coming from you.” And you could only hope it wasn’t too late to just walk away.

Naomi had changed, and everyone knew it, and now Phil thought about his life with her, he saw that she was due for a change.

Phil’s old mom, having gotten to know Naomi on their once a week drop‑ins to the early twenty‑first century, had nailed her toward the end with the observation that Naomi simply didn’t want to live in Phil’s shadow. Phil had thought this a bit of motherly aggrandizement: he was a guardian, darn it, and she made herself a time warrior; how could she be in his shadow? But it started to make sense. It wasn’t what it looked like to Phil, or Mom, or Johnny or anyone else.

“She thinks,” his mom had said, his mom who almost alone among their non‑magical relations knew he was a guardian and knew, more or less, what a time warrior did for a living, “that she needs to jump high enough to clear your shadow, and she thinks if she ever does it she’ll swim free in the sky and swing on the stars.” But time warriors don’t swing on the stars, they brawl among them. And guardians don’t swim free, they hunker.

Naomi wanted to soar. She tried everything, often a decade at a time: she’d tried teaching magic, she’d tried guardianship, she’d even had a shot at the healing arts and taken some time tech classes. Oh yes. She had tried falling in love with a black man. And a time tech, and a sea captain, all the same guy. But then she committed herself to family. She had a son and raised him till he went off to time tech school. Interesting, that. Then she went on her time warrior task. And won her ring. Phil, meanwhile, did one thing and did it better and better the longer he kept at it. Of course any idiot knew that was how it really worked. You chose a road and you kept on it. You didn’t keep switching roads, not if you wanted to get anywhere.

But Naomi wasn’t just any idiot. She wasn’t interested in roads. Roads didn’t go across the sky. So she kept jumping from one road to another, hoping that the next one would lead her to the stars, and blaming Phil if it didn’t. It kept happening, so to her, Phil’s sins, far from being forgiven, kept piling up. She hated his infidelity, of course, as rightly she should, as she hated her own temptations. But his answer was to hew tightly to the strait and narrow. And that was just one more horror to her.

Had she now gone over to the Rangers? Did she think they had the shiny stairway of a road that would take her to the sky? Was she buying the bleeping stairway to heaven?

Ozone Ranger. He couldn’t make himself believe it. But that was just his heart. “Follow your heart,” people said, “and live without regret.” What absolute bullshit. He had followed his heart and that had caused him to do things that only a cad would not regret. But that was so long ago now he could not, honestly, believe it even mattered. It wasn’t that nothing mattered. It was that what mattered was what was before him, not what lay a century behind, for him or for her.

He sighed and smiled at himself again, shy as if he was just forgiving someone. No, he thought, I don’t want her anymore. She’s free. And so am I.

And with that, Phil put out the magic light and went out and up the spiral stair.

 

Phil climbed the stairs, feeling about twenty years younger. He paused just before the top came into view. There was a little window, almost an arrow slit, and he peered out: still raining on the Black Sea. Somewhere over there was the Russian steppe, not Russian yet of course. Somewhere over there was the Mongol realm, and somewhere way back in there, the plague bacillus was holed up, hunkered down, evolving into something worse than usual, something that would kill a quarter of Europe and doom the Byzantine Empire. All just history, really. Alexi would be gone long before it came here, off to be the time warrior he deserved to be.

Maybe Phil could talk Alexi into taking over the guardianship. Phil could go for TW! Yeah. Funny.

He took a step up. He could hear them in the room already, chatting and laughing. Troy was making a joke. Sentara was saying something about it, and Joy and Rachel were joining in. Ashlee’s infectious giggle filled the high end. He could imagine George and John and Alexi smiling and looking at each other and keeping quiet among these beautiful, powerful women.

Out there, normal people, norms. Muggles, forsooth. The world was full of them. In here, time warriors, time techs, time travelers—even Troy was that, by now, even if he went back to his job and tended bar in Maine for the rest of his natural. Ashlee: well, it was obvious she would never be normal again.

Sentara had said something like, “Some time back” or “some time ago.” She couldn’t very well say “last week” or “yesterday afternoon.” Yesterday afternoon she hadn’t even been here. She would not have existed at that time in any place in this universe. Phil and Naomi, when Johnny was a child, had at least created a semblance of a sequential life, returning to rural Maine to let him grow up sort of right. This past week, er, this past few, ah, whatever, should have completely discombobulated Phil, but it hadn’t. He was done for, temporally. He would never be normal again. He sighed and climbed all but one of the remaining steps.

And there they were. Sentara, then Ashlee and George and Rachel, then the rest, turned to look at him, smiles on their faces. He smiled back. He had a tear in his eye: he didn’t want to try saying anything. He wiped the tear, making no effort to hide it.

They were his people. They were his friends, even Joy, even Sentara. He appreciated them. They meant more to him than anything in the world, any treasure, any fine meal, any lovely house, any good outcome to history. He could never, ever express to them how much they meant to him. No, that wasn’t true. He knew one way.

Phil stepped up and into the room. He smiled around again, then took up his cup. “Here’s to all of you,” he said, and he downed it before anyone could respond.


Can you tell this was written in the months after my divorce? After Naomi is flawed; it needs a lot of fixing if it’s ever to be presented as finished. But it’s a chronicle, almost a graph, of my mental state bouncing back from the catastrophe. At first, Phil is feckless, and still plagued by lust and attraction for his ex, Naomi, and beyond her, basically for every other person who happens to have a vagina. By this point, 2/3 of the way through, Phil is finally done. The scene starts with him rejecting his friends; it ends with him coming back and accepting them, and the lovelorn life ahead of him. And the same thing, basically, happened to me.

And that is why After Naomi is important to me: it’s a reminder that, for trying to get at complex emotions and the true nature of a troubled relationship, fantasy and sci fi may actually be better and more accurate than realistic fiction. It simply opens up a much wider range of possible references and analogies, and, besides, would you rather read about a flawed guy going through a messy divorce from his understandably out-of-patience ex-lover, as set in a middle-class suburb where they are both English professors at a small liberal arts school in the Chicago area, or would you rather have them with wands in their hands and magic spells on their lips, jumping from ancient Sumeria to Roman Marseilles to 1950s Harlem?

Thoughts?

Paul

 

Jacky reads her cards

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from The Trap


Calah went back to making pancakes, and Jacky finally got some. They were excellent, when doused in Calah’s own tree syrup. The rain still pounded down outside. After lunch, Calah advised them to get some more rest, and vanished into her own inner rooms.

Sezan played with odd, innocent kitchen tools: a mechanical egg beater, a hand mixer, a waffle iron made to go in the wood stove. Waren read a little in a book of stories from Calah’s shelf, and napped in his chair, and then got up, went back to the guest rooms and napped there. Jacky looked at the cookbooks.

Presently Calah came out. She motioned to Jacky. “I have some clothes for you,” she said.

Jacky followed Calah into what seemed to be her office. Beyond it was her bedroom. All Jacky could see of that, in the grey rainy light, was a huge greyish cat splashed across the bedspread. The office had a big desk piled with books and papers, a huge window with potted plants pushing each other aside for space in the sun, and a couple of chairs on which items of clothing were laid out.

“I’m not going to get you to change your style any,” said Calah, “and you’re probably not going to want that underwear back. Back before the last war, I stocked up, and I’m giving you a couple of sets just in case, is that all right?”

The underwear was not especially interesting. It looked like it would fit. The locals did have the secret of elastic. The socks were Calah’s own make, and the two pairs looked very warm.

“Thanks,” said Jacky. “I’ll think of you whenever I do laundry.” She looked at the cat on the bed again, and this time she noticed something on the floor of the bedroom. “Calah,” she said, “are those cards? What are those cards on the floor? May I ask?”

“Oh, those,” said Calah, “those are kiali cards.”

“May I look? I’m sorry, I’ll understand if you say no. You may see it as a serious imposition, so in case any offense is made, none is intended.”

“Oh, it’s no imposition,” said Calah, obviously just then changing her mind, just as she had changed her mind about Jacky. She smiled, and didn’t even have to force it much. She turned and went into the door to her bedroom, then half turned. “I’ll show you mine,” she said, “if you show me yours. But you have to stay out here. Have a seat, on the floor.”

Jacky smiled. “I’ll have to grab my bag,” she said. She stepped out into the little dark living room by the big bright kitchen, and leaning against the corner between them was her old bag, still open after disgorging its spare clothes. She grabbed out her little wooden box and went back into the office.

Calah was just moving into place a lovely polished wood side table. Standing at the table, she began laying out cards from her deck: many showed symbols, a torch, three cups, five swords. One showed a champion in a chariot, pulled by a black horse and a white horse. One showed a priestess with the moon on her hat, sitting between two pillars, black and white. One showed a skeleton lord on a skeleton horse.

Calah cut her deck, and put down the top card face up: the one with three stones. Jacky cut her deck and pulled out the Three of Coins. Calah took from the top of her deck the card of the Emperor. Jacky drew the Emperor too, scowling on his iron throne. Calah put down the Queen of Torches. Jacky put down the Queen of Staves. Calah smiled, then watched Jacky’s eyes as she drew the next card. Jacky drew hers too. They looked down.

Calah held the Queen of Stones. Jacky held the Star, pouring its light upon the Earth.

“Weird,” said Jacky.

“Well,” said Calah, “I think we’ve established that we speak a common language, in any case. I wondered. You seem so typical of a certain type, but you’re actually somewhat like me. That is what I read in these cards.”

“Like you? We drew the exact same cards three times in a row. Coins are Stones, of course. Staves are Torches, which would emphasize the fire aspect. But then that last one. I mean, they’re both very nice cards, but they’re not alike.”

“They are,” said Calah. “The Queen of Stones is supposed to be me. That’s my card, that is.”

“Oh,” said Jacky, at a loss.

“So,” said Calah, “is the Star yours? I have a Star in here somewhere.” She shuffled through her deck, and pulled out a card that showed a woman in a white robe walking in a black night, a bright star on her brow. “I can see how it might be your card.”

“It is, yes,” said Jacky.

“It is? Get out! Really?”

“Really,” said Jacky. She looked at her card for a long moment, then met Calah’s brown eyes. They watched each other for some seconds. Jacky pushed her cards together into a deck and shuffled them idly. Then she put them down and reached into the box. “Calah,” she said, “when you saw these, did you know what they were?”

She let the five onyx blocks tumble onto the table. Calah reached out and took one. She tossed it back to Jacky, who caught it. Calah turned and got a little sack from her desk drawer. She dumped out five one-inch cubes of dark wood. Jacky picked one up and looked at it.

“Wood,” she said.

“Yes,” said Calah. “From right here on the property.”

“So let me get this straight,” said Jacky. “You happen to be a practitioner of certain kinds of skill. Other kinds of skill are entirely absent here, but you have something. I know because those guys are out there, probably ripping up my underwear at this very moment. And I have used these onyx blocks here in your world, and they worked. You can do things like that.”

“Yeah,” said Calah, “and no, there’s not many who can use these ways. Most didn’t believe in them. They laughed, isn’t that the saying? They all laughed. They had their technology and their varhar and who knows what. Well, need I say more? Heh, heh.” She plunked herself down on the floor. “So show me,” she said.

“What? All right,” said Jacky. And a few minutes later, after some discussion and trial and error, their wards alternated around the vertices of a decagon around them as they sat cross-legged, Jacky in her dark shirt and jeans, Calah in her formless long dress, facing each other’s left shoulder, each with a candle in front of her. They were humming randomly, trying to find a common pitch. Presently they found it.

Some hours later, Jacky and Calah came out of the office into the kitchen. It was empty: the other two were in bed. “I don’t know about you,” said Calah, “but I’m wide awake.”

“How long was that? A couple hours? Is that what the clock says?”

“Yeah, that’s about right. So, shall we go look at them?”

“What? You jest.”

“No, no,” said Calah. “Let’s go check your underwear. Or do you want a drink first?”

 

“No, but I’ll need one after. Okay, show me.”

 

It was somewhere around midnight. The rain was still coming down steadily. “Is this weather your doing?” asked Jacky.

“Why ever would you think that?” replied Calah. She plunged on up the trail, whistling. Jacky had to hurry in the black night to keep up with her: they carried no light, though Calah hadn’t indicated any special need for stealth. Jacky caught up with Calah as she slowed down in front of the two tall stones of the Gate.

Through it, Jacky could see them standing in the light wood. She couldn’t see them clearly, but she could see them. She could also see torn shreds of her underwear caught on branches of the young trees. The three beings stood, swaying slightly as if breathing, watching the Gate as if they actually had eyes, faces or even heads.

“They can’t see us,” said Jacky very quietly.

“Not really, no,” said Calah. “But they know you went this way. They can’t go through, so they’ll do the logical thing and wait for you to come out.”

Abruptly, she turned and headed back to the house. They came in, dumped off their jackets and boots, and had a couple of glasses of Calah’s brandy. Halfway through the first, Jacky said, “However did you know what they would do? Have you met these things before?”

“No, I’ve never seen anything quite like them,” said Calah. “But it occurred to me while we were in,” and she used a word Jacky thought might mean trance. “I don’t usually think during” [that word], “it’s kind of not the point. But I thought, what would I do if I had no brain whatsoever? I would stop where the way was blocked and just wait. And that’s what they’re doing.”

“Good thinking,” said Jacky. “We’ll test it out tomorrow. How’s the weather going to be?”

“Should clear up,” said Calah.

“Your doing?”

“No, no. Pressure’s going up. A high pressure zone is taking over. It’ll be hot and dry and windy for a few days, if not a few years. We had a few years like that.”

“Calah,” said Jacky, “how bad is it? Are you going to make it?”

“Going to try. I ask you the same thing.”

“I don’t know. Am I doomed? You said you’d tell me later. It’s later.”

Calah leaned forward, staring into Jacky’s eyes. “I’ve changed my mind,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you.”

“What? You can’t change your mind.”

“I certainly can. So can your doom. You have something to do. I don’t know what it is, exactly, but I guess I want you to do it. Will you be able to do it?”

“Oh,” said Jacky, “all I have to do is get to the Great Cauldron and figure out from there.”

“You still have to wait till tomorrow,” said Calah, swilling her brandy. “Might as well drink up.”

“You know, you’re right,” said Jacky. “Hey, mind if I fill my flask?”


In Spring 2012, right, basically, after I found out I was going to be divorced, I rewrote The Trap, mainly by adding in about seven chapters, making it into a full-length novel of 81,000 words. This chapter, about the druid (?) Calah, who is skeptical and antagonistic at first but is won over by Jacky, is one of the additions. I’m happy with the longer novel, but I am especially happy that I met Calah.

Want to read the whole thing? You can, for free, by emailing me at

paulgies@maine.edu

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Jacky meets the Queen

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from The Tumbling Ring


“Her puissant majesty the Queen,” boomed the Chamberlain, who had appeared just behind Jacky’s left shoulder, “my ladies and my lords, may I present Jacqueline Clotilde Snow.”

The party-goers looked up with smiles on their faces, as though the next entertainment had just arrived. The Chamberlain took Jacky by the elbow and gently moved her forward. “Perhaps,” he said in a low voice as they walked, “a single deep curtsey would suffice.”

“All right,” said Jacky, who felt that the Chamberlain might be the closest thing she had to a friend within an hour’s drive. “Do I look at her?”

“Of course,” said the Chamberlain. “She would like you to.”

“Do I meet her eyes?”

“I think you could,” he said softly, after a moment’s thought.

As they closed the distance, it became clear to Jacky which one was the Queen. She had seen Kazanakazan’s portrait in a number of places already, all the way back to Ontonos’s tavern wall. Given the Queen’s wizardry, it was unnecessary to doctor the pictures to make her look better: anything other than pure realism would have been a waste of a perfectly good collection of charisma spells and youth and beauty items. So here she was, looking exactly the way she wished to look: a bit taller than Jacky and thus as tall as the third tallest man in the room, seemingly dressed in jewelry and enormous amounts of pale golden hair. She was clearly centuries old and completely without makeup but showed nary a wrinkle or spot. The Queen took a step and a half toward the approaching pair, and they were the step and a half of a goddess in her grace.

She was smiling, but her pale blue eyes were staring down her visitor. Jacky cast her eyes down, then let them flutter up to check the result: the Queen’s smile was just a millimeter wider, as if she felt she had already won.

They came within perhaps ten meters, and the Chamberlain softly cleared his throat. Jacky went into her curtsey. Despite a lack of practice, she carried it off pretty well.

“Your puissant majesty,” said Jacky, “I am your humble servant.”

“Oh, I should hope so,” said the Queen in a voice like a woodland stream plunging over sharp rocks.

Jacky’s skin prickled. She had just a little of the feeling that she got when huge spells were flying. This woman might very well try to destroy her, and unlike Ankalish and Onkfar, this woman might be able to pull it off. Jacky wanted to ask if they could talk in private. She wanted to wave a flag of truce and get some serious issues out of the way in a rational conversation. At the very least, she wanted to know what the rules were. But here she was, facing this person who might or might not be a foe, who might or might not be her match, at least here in the Queen’s milieu, in front of a couple of dozen of the Queen’s most reliable fans.

With the acrid smell of embedded items on the air.

Jacky thought of several things she might want to say: “Excuse me, your puissant majesty, I just remembered that I left my bath running on the other side of the universe. Excuse me, your puissant majesty, I’d just like to take a year or two to think things over and get back to this audience later. Excuse me, your puissant majesty, I’d like to call a time out.”

Instead, she took a breath, bowed a little and said, “How then may I serve?”

“How may you serve. How may you serve?” the Queen repeated, thinking it over with a smile. She looked back to the nearest several beautiful people. “There must be some way. Will you serve me in any way I ask? I am accustomed to no less, isn’t that so, my friends?”

The beautiful people responded with giggles. Jacky became acutely aware of her grubbiness. She was clean, of course, as were her clothes, but she had the air of outside on her. And more than that, she felt as if she were the only one in black and white, and everyone else was in color. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Perhaps the whole scene was in a drab natural lighting, but the Queen and her friends were colorized.

“Your majesty,” Jacky began.

“Your puissant majesty,” inserted a giggling young lady near her.

“Your puissant majesty,” said Jacky. She cleared her throat. Everyone stopped giggling and smiled indulgently at her. The Queen arched an eyebrow. They were all waiting for something very amusing to come out.

“Your puissant majesty,” Jacky began again, with delicately exaggerated patience, “no, it is not the case that I will serve you in any way you ask. Your majesty may,” she said louder to rise above the giggles, “be accustomed to no less, but that is because people like your humble servant come rarely to your court.”

“You say you are my humble servant,” said the Queen, with an amused pout, “yet you are not my servant, or so you state, and you do not seem especially humble.”

“She is dressed humbly enough,” said another female courtier.

“That is true,” said the Queen. “She is dressed like a technician.”

“It’s not the first time I’ve been called that,” said Jacky.

“Is that what you are?” asked the first of the giggling courtiers to speak. “A traveling technician, come to fix up our items?”

Jacky waited while they had a laugh at that, using the time to think up and shelve several aggressive or defensive replies. She opened her mouth and held that pose, as if frozen in the act of speaking, while several more clever remarks occurred to the female courtiers. The male courtiers just smiled. The Queen just smiled, her very pale blue eyes fixed on Jacky’s.

“Yet she is no technician,” said the Queen, her smile somewhat faded. “As to why she is here, I think she will at some point let us in on that.”

“I am here,” said Jacky calmly, “because someone asked me to be here.”

This caused a certain amount of hilarity, but not as much as before. The Queen was somehow restraining her friends, pulling back the reins of the courtly horses before they ran away with the carriage. Jacky took a subtle look around the crowd, just to make sure it really was as homogeneous as it seemed. And it was not.

At the back, off to one side, holding a small glass of clear golden liquid, smiling but not laughing, was a handsome man of middle age made young again. Now she stole a second look, she thought perhaps his age was actually very great, though his face, like the Queen’s, was unlined and his hair and goatee were solidly brown.

She knew that face. She wanted to know it better. Of all the beautiful people before her, he drew her. Not like the Queen: her cleavage alone cast a powerful spell, pulling Jacky with a magnetism so great that it was barely exceeded by the powerful repulsion Jacky felt. But this man, handsome and yet not sparkling with youth and energy and charisma, drew her. She had not noticed him before, and she wondered how she hadn’t, so great was his attraction, as physical as gravity.

But there was something else about him. She knew what it was, but she had difficulty accepting it as fact. For here before her stood, glass in hand, slight smile on face, the very Zenkfakash who had been overthrown and killed two hundred years ago.

Of course there was no problem about that. Even in Rion, people were sometimes brought back from death. It could not be done if the person had no great power or knowledge of his or her own, and it could not be done without someone else expending great energy, both magical and emotional. In Kazmin, where the very air crackled, magical energy was not an issue. And this man could certainly attract the emotional energy needed.

So here he was, assassinated by the usurper Shakkafar, whose own usurper lasted but a year or two and was succeeded by a similarly brief usurper, and so on until Queen Kazanakazan came along to provide the nearest thing to Zenkfakash that Kazmin was likely to get. It was not very near. At the least, she certainly had his magical power, and whatever else she lacked, she made up for with sheer gall.

The Queen seemed not to have noticed Jacky’s glance wavering and dodging toward her predecessor. She smiled a little wider and said, as if indulging Jacky’s fanciful tale, “And who would it be that asked you to be here? It was not my puissant majesty. Who else is there?”

“Your puissant majesty,” said Jacky, “perhaps here in open audience is not the place for your humble servant to discuss such things.”

“No?”

“If your puissant majesty prefers a private audience—?”

“And should my puissant majesty wish to be in private audience with a mysterious if oddly dressed stranger wearing a—?” She let her smiling eyes visit Jacky’s ring.

As if you should be afraid of me, Jacky wanted to say. Instead, she said, “I’m just not sure that—that it would be productive to discuss—here, in front of—”

“We’re all friends here,” said the Queen. “Aren’t we?” Of course this was answered by a loose but unanimous chorus of agreement.

Jacky couldn’t think of anything safe to say, so she shut her mouth and smiled. She looked behind her, expecting the Chamberlain to be there, but he was nowhere to be seen. Her eyes lit for a moment on Zenkfakash, who was watching her, watching the scene, with a very slight smile. Jacky looked back at Kazanakazan, hoping she would not notice her glance at Zenkfakash.

The Queen had been watching her the whole time, but her gaze had not moved to follow Jacky’s eyes: the Queen was more interested in what was behind those blue eyes than in what was in front of them. Kazanakazan moved to the left a little, with a dancer’s hip swing, and then took a step closer. Now she was easily within slapping distance, almost within kissing distance. Jacky could see she wore more than just jewelry and hair: she wore a gown of something both silvery and flesh-colored, which shimmered as she moved and yet also looked a lot like skin changing under light and shadow. Her terribly pale eyes, her hypnotic smile, and the clear gem that hung in the abyss of her cleavage: these were the stage on which the play of desire and threat were played out. In that gem: what could Jacky see now, shadow and light? What in the Many-verse could she not see there?

Except that Jacky Clotilde was a very difficult theater critic. All these items, all these spells upon spells, all these powers, physical, magical, spiritual, emotional: the special effects were state of the art indeed, but Jacky could not help recognizing them as special effects.

Jacky Clotilde had stood in the throne room of Lakanth: or if she hadn’t, she was going to. The future and the past, light and shadow. There she was, she was sure: she just wasn’t sure if she remembered it or foresaw it. Queen Kazanakazan of Kazmin was an actor, a very good and very well costumed actor on a subtle and complex stage, but if she was playing someone, she was playing L. Lakanth was L. There was no comparison.

On the other hand, Kazanakazan, here, had every reason to commit an outrage, and perhaps, just possibly, she could destroy Jacky Clotilde. That would be sufficient outrage.

“Maybe it’s all about you, my dear,” said the Queen from what seemed millimeters away. “Maybe the whole game is about you.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Jacky. “Am I to take that as a—?” But she couldn’t quite make herself say the word threat.

“I think you know,” said the Queen.

“I think I don’t,” said Jacky, gaining confidence. Zenkfakash shifted. She did not dare look to see his expression.

“Ah, she contradicts! At last, someone who will contradict me.” Kazanakazan smiled over her shoulder at her beautiful people, then turned her terribly pale eyes on Jacky again, at 110% power. “You say you came here for an audience,” she said. “And yet you also say someone you know asked you to come. Perhaps your friend fears to face me. I wonder why that would be.”

“Your puissant majesty, I can think of a reason or two.”

“Is it because I could destroy your friend with a wave of my pinky finger? Is it because here in Kazmin resides a power that could destroy a—a person who wears—?” She smiled down at Jacky’s pale blue gem.

Jacky smiled back. She remembered a line from an Elvish play. “Your puissant majesty,” she said very softly, “let us not hold up our blades to the light, to see whose steel is sharpest.”

“Because it might be mine?” replied the Queen.

Jacky let the question hang between them. She smiled at the Queen, waiting for her to make the next move. Jacky was tired of outrages, tired of outrageousness. She had a sudden longing for earnestness, for a serious discussion of the major issues and controversies. She almost wished Gremhar were here: at least she would know exactly where she stood with him.

The Queen held Jacky’s eyes for a minute, perhaps, and then laughed and broke off. She turned and began to walk away, saying, “My dear, I think we have had enough amusement for now. You may go, you will be called in time for the banquet. Come, my friends, let us get some more drinks and see what the actors can do for us.”

Then she and her beautiful people, laughing and making jokes, filtered slowly out of the hall through a set of double doors, like bubbly wine down a drain. Jacky watched them, stunned, relieved, confused and vexed. Then she turned, expecting that the Chamberlain would have come from nowhere to take her back to her room. There was no one there, just the harps playing all by themselves for no one but her. She took it in for a moment, as the last of the beautiful people bubbled out the door.

One lingered, taking a long look up the hall. It was Zenkfakash, the man who had been king. He looked on all this magical empire of a chamber and turned, with an almost audible sigh, a slight smile on his face. Just for a moment, his eyes crossed Jacky’s body. Bashfully, she smiled, but he was already gone.

Jacky backed away from the door by which the Queen and her friends had departed. She felt as if she had seen a ghost, although she knew ghosts fairly well and was fairly sure there was not one in the immediate vicinity. Ghosts, she said to herself, did not survive well in strong ordered penton fields, and this ballroom was as strong and ordered a penton field as she had been in for a long time. It almost rivaled Sinafror itself, hall of Antor the emperor of the fallen elves, and then the endless and insurmountable stronghold of Lakanth herself—almost. Kazanakazan thought she could take Lakanth, just like she thought the City of Kazmin was the rival of Sinafror. It was almost worth a laugh.

But Jacky was a little too spooked to laugh. Kazanakazan could almost take L, but Jacky was less than L. Kazmin was almost on a par with Sinafror, but Jacky was sure she couldn’t have made it out of Sinafror untrapped.

But, but. But Jacky had that odd little memory. She had made it out of Sinafror untrapped. Or perhaps she wouldn’t: perhaps she had a new doom, and no one had told her. But if that was so, then this was not her doom, that was. Her chronology might be convoluted, but it was still a chronology. She could not have two dooms. Could she?

One seemed a great plenty. Jacky had been hopelessly attracted to one ghost already, the lost Tarhan in the world after Fai. And being hopelessly attracted to one ghost seemed like as many as one living woman needed. And then here was old Zenkfakash, except he did not seem old at all, except for his eyes. Just like Jacky. And he was only a former ghost.

She had backed up to the point where she could look to her right and see the harps plinking themselves. Or were they. Perhaps ghosts were doing it. Ah, spirit servants, not ghosts: ghosts could not survive in such a strong ordered penton field, right?

But weren’t the spirit servants on strike? Maybe these were scab spirit servants?

Jacky shook her head. “I need to get myself together,” she muttered. “This damn place is getting to me.”


It was hard to pick just one scene from The Tumbling Ring.

When I toot my own horn, when I say I am as good a writer as many who actually do have publishing contracts, I’m thinking of just a few of my novels. This very day I finished Number 20, Girl Necromancer. It’s pretty good and it’s going to be boffo when I finish fixing it (which I never will). But Tumbling Ring and a few others, maybe Bluehorse and Vivian and Circle’s End and perhaps Tereza, are at this level. I reread Tumbling Ring and every page crackles. And I know all the twists and turns.

Want to read this for free? Just email me and I will send you a pdf.

paulgies@maine.edupaulgies@maine.edu

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Paul