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from The Knot


 

She looked up and around. The dense dust lanes of a great galactic arm glowed in a swath across the stars from south to north. The planetoid was in no way unusual: judging by the curve of the horizon, it was around a hundred kilometers across, and judging by the terrain, it contained no element beyond iron on the periodic table. She walked a little way—gravity about what one would expect in a 100-km planetoid, just a bit more than necessary to keep one from reaching escape velocity with a strong upward leap. She walked a little, then turned at ninety degrees and walked a little more, enough to convey to her the strong impression that there was nothing of interest within walking distance.

“Then why did you dump me here?” she silently asked her ring.

Her ring didn’t answer. Its big gem kept its secrets to its pale blue self.

So here I am, she thought, the only person I know in the entire cosmos. She wasn’t used to it: the lack of Nayori. The lack of Cesestis was also quite noticeable. The lack of Tarhan. The lack of Lily. It was good she had a job to do. She was tired of blubbering.

So, a knot in time? Enough to tangle up the trajectory of a time warrior sent to investigate? Enough to pull in a certain ring tumbling among the spaces?

Jacky looked up at the sun. It was a pretty thing, just barely visible as a greenish disk. If it was medium-sized, it would be perhaps a light-hour away. She wondered if it had planets besides this pathetic lump.

There was no sound.

There was still no sound when the sun burst into bright bits and blew outward, swiftly diminishing into faintly gleaming veils.

“Goodness,” muttered Jacky soundlessly.

She watched the poof of star stuff expand, just perceptibly, for a few minutes, knowing that the veils were actually spreading at several percent of the speed of light. She rubbed her head, rubbed her jaw, ran a hand through her black hair, her blue eyes fastened onto the spot where there had been a sun.

Then she shook her head as if to clear it, and twisted her ring again.

 

Now, three hours earlier, she stood on a lane of stone along the edge of a city park on a non-airless planet. Grasses of some sort, trees of some sort, birds that seemed a lot like mice or bugs: and humans, many humans, enjoying a beautiful day, lovers walking hand in hand, children playing, old folks laughing as they walked along the lanes and down to the shore of a lovely lake.

For just a moment, Jacky Clotilde fought off the familiar feeling of being alone in a crowd. She knew no one on this populated planet, she knew no one in its history, history that was due to end in three hours, she knew no one in this universe, unless Arnulf was in it somewhere. And he was no substitute for her lost partner. Arriving in a new universe and walking down the streets of its cities, she couldn’t help herself. She closed her eyes and imagined what Nayori would suggest. She laughed.

Jacky looked up. The Sun was big and high in a sky without a cloud. It was bright and healthy and happy-looking, and it was just perceptibly green. It had three hours to live.

The city was crowded but not poor. It had a high technology level, but technology didn’t overwhelm the casual visitor. Jacky liked it immediately: she supposed it had terrific beer. People walked together along lanes made for walking; there were no personal vehicles; every other block had a light rail line in the middle. The buildings looked like buildings: they were made of stone and glass and a sort of concrete and a sort of wood. Jacky touched the painted metal frame of a park bench: steel a la vanadium, with a hint of tantalum.

Everyone seemed so nice. It didn’t seem like the sort of planet that deserved to have its sun blow up all of a sudden.

Video screens lurked here and there and attracted small crowds to highlights of athletic events, concerts, interviews and travelogs. A young, well-dressed man stood in the lane in front of what might have been a bank, talking to someone Jacky couldn’t see, using a device she couldn’t see. There was writing everywhere, much of it in lights and moving. Talk came from all directions. Jacky looked at the signs, looked in the shop windows, spent a little time reading a public notice: the written language, anyway, wasn’t all that difficult. Half a block further on, she found free newspapers, and availed herself of one.

So she walked, in the just slightly greenish sun, trying to catch words from the people passing by. Perhaps she could detect a sense of alarm or panic. Perhaps that was just because she knew what was going to happen in about three hours. She had never been proficient at telepathy. Perhaps that was because she was so proficient at languages.

Three hours. Of course it would take five or ten minutes for light from the sun’s end to reach the planet. The radiation wave would probably kill everything off in a moment, but Jacky wasn’t sure: perhaps people on the back side of the planet would be shielded from most of it, and survive long enough to starve in the cold of an endless night.

Several blocks from the park, Jacky found herself with a choice of what were obviously pubs. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a wallet with a variety of bills, coins, cards, stamps and bonds—yes, and that piece of scarf. Nayori, lost love, still with her. Jacky used it to tie back her hair, and then she went into one of the pubs.

It was modestly crowded, modestly decorated, clean and well-lit for a tavern. People were eating and drinking and talking as if there weren’t no tomorrow. Music played, not loud for a pub in Jacky’s experience. Video screens here and there showed things she didn’t pay attention to at first, the sound turned down but not off.

A minute later, she was sitting in the corner, a dark-haired woman in black pants and a blue shirt, sipping a black bock and trying to read the newspaper. Like her skill at walking in low gravity, her skill in picking up languages was ingrained with long practice. And she had been right: the beer was terrific.

The star system was called Kellajann. She presumed this was the first, second or third planet. It was a prosperous, peaceable but independent-minded major player in something called the Galactic Council. It had a planet-wide government: there was something like a president or a governor, a man of the people, with a flair for the dramatic, regarded as overly religious and possibly unstable; there was also a prime minister, of the opposite party, a woman who was trying to push through a reform of the health care system. She was seen as sensible and honest but given to inappropriate remarks, impatient with fools. A picture, which must have been the Kellajann version of a political cartoon, appeared to show the prime minister, grinning, about to whack the governor with a frying pan.

There was a lively theater scene. There were various sporting events. And there was a row of drunks nearby holding forth on the fine points of various athletes. Jacky Clotilde listened for a while. She noticed that near her a video screen showed some sort of news show. There seemed to be some sort of bulletin. Then the screen split between two views: one was of a man about to give a speech.

Jacky couldn’t help notice that the right-hand side of the screen seemed to be given to an attractive woman at a desk, about to interview a tired-looking woman in black pants and a blue shirt, her hair tied back with a familiar bit of scarf.

Jacky sat up straight. “Goodness,” she said to herself. “That’s me.” She looked around: no one had noticed her, speaking in her native Rionese. “Huh,” she went on to herself, “does this mean I don’t even get to change my clothes?”


Like it? You can read it, just by emailing me at

paulgies@maine.edu

But, unlike pretty much every other excerpt I’ve posted this month, this novella, currently around 50,000 words, stands a good chance of being upgraded to a full length novel soon. The idea of a self-involved maniac running a nation (in rivalry with a sensible and sarcastic female administrator) and threatening to do things that could destroy the entire world seems somewhat more topical now than it did in 2011 when I wrote the above.

Paul

 

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