This might look awfully fast, but it has been a few months since I wrote the first one. I just didn’t post it for quite some time!
Serene in space, the gossamer relic hangs about the star at its heart, draped like a crystal cobweb. Who built it, what it even really is, no-one knows. Its interior is all but fractal, here graceful and soaring, there blocky and compact. Gravity changes smoothly or sharply, so that people might be seen walking at all angles. And though the relic has never been fully mapped, it is full of people — for explorers come from all over the galaxy to seek out its secrets.
I actually wrote this a couple of months ago, probably sometime in late summer but I’m not entirely sure when, and then just left it kicking around as a backup story for a slow day. Today is definitively a slow day. Or at least it’s a day where I don’t really want to expend any more energy doing something complex. Thus, rather than leave it drifting around even longer to maybe eventually fiddle with it later, I figure I might as well post this one!
People come from all across the galaxy to explore the relic. Trained and untrained, rich and poor, prepared and clueless, they come, they land, and many of them never leave. They call it a relic, but really, no-one even knows if that’s the appropriate word for it at all.
Seen from several AU away, it looks like a glowing thistledown, ephemeral and fragile. A ship closing in at sublight speeds could watch it grow, slowly, the initially fluffy appearance growing ever more complex. At its furthest extents it’s more than 2 AU across, filling and overspilling a volume of space similar to that enclosed by the orbit of the Earth, and it’s lit all through with the light of the star at its heart. Close up, it begins to look almost fractal, with delicate detail on every scale.
Another ship lands, and more explorers disembark. They come every day, to seek and to study. Some enter the many and varied training programs that have sprung up around the landing sites. Others shoulder their packs, pick up their cases, and begin to walk.
The areas surrounding the landing sites are well-mapped, and even so, now and again an explorer will find a new surprise. But it’s further out that the real finds lie, strange and true. Some have still never been seen by human eyes. Some may be worth vast amounts — but most explorers of the gossamer relic aren’t in it for the money.
This short story just wrote itself in my head while I was doing something entirely different, so I suppose I might as well let it out. Run free, little story!
What do you do when you’re trapped in a town run by a crook and ruled at its heart by fear? Even if he funds the roads and the schools and all the other public services, if this was a real town (shocker: nothing here is real), I really wouldn’t want to live there.
A Timewarp Tale
I never saw the dancers again, though not for want of trying. Strange and alien, tantalisingly familiar, they spin in my sight even now, on the edge of dreams, half seen, half real. But I watched the pub, week after week, my comfortable and familiar friend. It never seems to change.
It’s a bright and sunny afternoon, the sun shining down from a blue sky. I’m coming from a different angle to usual, heading for the shop on the end of my route. I always look at the pub as I pass it, wondering what will be the same, what will be different. But this time… something feels wrong.
I can’t put my finger on it. It feels as though something has shifted in the world, as though something is out of place. Something so subtle I can’t see it, so obvious I can’t ignore it. I look at the Oak Tree over its lengthening grass. It’s the same shape, the same colour. The grass has grown; everything grows so fast in the summer. Yet it looks… sad. Strange. Alone.
And something is wrong. I’ve slowed down without realising it, and I’m only getting closer one small step at a time. It’s the middle of the afternoon, and the sun shines down on me, and it’s hard to believe on a day like this that anything could be wrong, but something is. And, just like that, my eyes are drawn up, to the sign that hangs high above the street.
It should be an old and familiar friend, but now it looks wrong. The strange, fey landscape in its washed-out blues and purples is white and red now, not repainted, because it’s as faded and worn as ever, but somehow changed. Now a deep and dull crimson soaks the ground beneath an almost ghostly, almost bare tree, as if a lake of blood has soaked through the world and changed everything. As if an end has come and a world has fallen and something has shifted forever.
I look again at the building, and the doors seem shabbier than they ever have, the bricks duller, the tiles faded. I can see through one of the windows with its motionless curtains open, and something, maybe a light fitting, is hanging askew from the ceiling. I don’t want to approach, because for once the place is uncomfortable rather than cosily inviting, and I’m almost afraid.
Perhaps the sign only looks different because I don’t normally see it from this side. Perhaps. But I walk on and turn around, and there it is again, a faded tree awash in a ground soaked through with blood, against an eerie sky. It didn’t always look like this, I know it didn’t. My memory can’t be playing tricks on me to this extent. Have I never seen it by daylight before? Of course I have.
I can’t find an explanation. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t want to approach it, so I turn around again to continue on my way, more unnerved than any building has any right to make me. And then I see a new change, a new difference, something else that’s wrong.
The ground on this side has been dug up and overturned, raw earth instead of lush green. Some rubble leans up against the wall, and I look at the building, and instead of that cosy-cat look I’ve grown to know, all I can see is decay.
Something has changed, and an era is over. And I don’t think I like the new one that’s dawning. Curiosity impels me, caution warns me, and something… something draws me. I look around. No-one’s there, and once again, though I can hear the traffic in the distance, I might be the only person in the whole world. Another secret moment, another slice of time alive with mystery – and with dread.
I turn again, and I step onto the path, avoiding the soil. I can’t go to the window I looked through before, I don’t want to step on that turned earth, so I go the other way, to the one with the open curtains and something hanging from the ceiling.
And it could have been forever
Since the world I saw before
I once saw them dancing
But they’re not there any more
The sun is shining on my back
But all I feel is cold
I peer into the darkness
And it seems to have a soul
The darkness sees right through me
The darkness knows my thoughts
The darkness is just waiting
For all that I have brought
I dare not blink, I back away
Until I reach safe ground
The Wild Hunt is hunting
And I dare not be found
Brought to you from the epic city of Grehstadt with the kind permission of its creator, my friend JD, I give you this rather unfortunate tale, Paralysis! My last weekend was spent travelling in order to go to two excellent roleplay games, hosted and run by some of my friends. In the particular one I’m writing about, my character, Jax Lightweave, found himself conscious but immobile after the entire party was hit with knockout gas by a paranoid and perhaps slightly nutty human biologist. The end result was, for him, decidedly traumatising. And, since things like that tend to stick in the head (hopefully not literally…), I wrote a little story about the aftermath from Jax’s point of view – which I am absolutely delighted to be able to share with the world!
Note: his nightmares aren’t necessarily quite representative of what actually happened… although they’re also not that far off!
A Timewarp Tale
I pass it every week on my way to the shop. It never seems to change. Sometimes the signs outside will alter, or there’ll be a different banner up. Sometimes the curtains are all closed; sometimes some of them will be open. But the paint is flaking from the doors and windows, and I’ve never seen them open, and even with the curtains open it’s too dark to see inside. Nobody ever seems to go in, or park outside it. It’s just… there, a fixture that makes no sense but never seems to change.
It doesn’t even belong in this town. A mining town, old now. Aged rows of brick houses for the Aged Miners’ Association. The mines are closed, but the town’s still here, quietly functional, added to over the years with a new development here and a new development there. And right in the middle of it sits the Oak Tree, the strangest pub I’ve never quite known.
It’s an odd shape, curved rather than angular, not quite like anything else around. The brick’s the wrong colour, sandy yellow instead of red. It’s not a low building – it’s about the same height as anything else around – but it seems to sprawl across its grounds like a shabby but contented cat curling up in the sun. Which is odd, given that there’s nobody there.
The sign’s odd, too. For the longest time I remembered it as green and gold, like you might expect for a pub named after a tree. It’s not. It’s purple, like a strange-tinted wintry morning, or like something has washed all the yellow out of it and all that was left were the blue-reds, save that it’s too dark for that. It’s oddly otherworldly. Not exactly haunting, just ever so slightly alien, as if it’s from somewhere at just a little bit of an angle to here.
I’ve often wanted to see inside, but the only way to is to go up to the windows and peer in. That would mean walking on its land, and I have no good reason to be there, no explanation. Just curiosity. The closest I’ve ever come was on one sunny day when the curtains were open and I could dimly see the outlines of some comfortable-looking chairs. Even that, I only saw once.
I never see anyone open the curtains. I never see anyone close them. I never see anyone change the signs, or so much as go indoors. And yet, there it is.
As I walk past it, empty shopping bags in hand, I wonder yet again what’s inside. If it’s open, but never busy, or if it’s closed, but still has someone come in every day to maintain it. I want to go in, but there are no visible lights and the weatherbeaten doors look very firmly closed.
It’s a dusky evening. The moon is bright, almost full, and the last traces of colour are fading from the sky. Thin, high clouds reflect pearly white and seem to increase the moon’s radiance. The sign looks almost natural in this light, as if it belongs here.
I’m the only one around, and it puts a spring in my step the way all the secret times of day do. When there’s nobody else but me, and maybe the birds, the secret times that can happen anywhere and make a bright new mystery of a grey and boring day. It seems as if the air around me is alive with possibility, with mystery.
The curtains are open. I mean to walk to the shop, ordinary yellow light spilling from its ordinary glass door. I mean to for all of ten seconds. And then I keep walking, towards the window, like a homing pigeon seeking north. For the first time, I dare to step on the trimmed grass.
The interior is all blackness as I get up close. I hold my breath so as not to fog up the window, and lean in until my nose is almost touching it. And it’s then, just then, that I see movement, shapes lit in a light that doesn’t quite reach reality, raising glasses, talking, dancing. They’re like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and I’m frozen for a moment as the first drops of rain start to fall from the sky above.
And I thought I saw them dancing
As I gazed into their world
And, just for a moment,
I convinced myself I heard
The distant strains of music
Like nothing that I knew –
I looked in and out of time
And knew that it was true.
I might have seen the future
I might have seen the past
I might have seen forever,
But forever didn’t last.
I blinked just once, I closed my eyes
And when I looked again
They were gone, and I was left
Just standing in the rain
From the perspective of its passengers, the shuttle platform drifts serenely, the universe rotating gently around it. From a purely physical perspective in the local reference frame of Earth’s centre of mass, it orbits at hundreds of kilometres an hour, adding even more speed to that in order to switch to a more distant orbit, precisely timed to draw near to – but not to intercept – another hurtling space object.
The ship, which comes into view like a leviathan from the deep as the shuttle rotates, shines silver in the light of the Sun, eight light-minutes away and radiating into space the energy that gives life to Earth and powers the civilisation upon it. The watchers let out their breaths in a collective sigh of amazement and awe, even those who have seen it before. From their angle, it faces to their left, a vast and vertical gently conical disc with four flattish domes and a stubby spire protruding from the back of it, a bulge at the tip the mighty engine assembly that will one day propel it into outer space on a long journey between the stars. Supposedly, the short fins around the engines are there to help radiate excess heat, but everyone knows they’re more aesthetic than anything else. This monumental, colossal project has taken the devoted attention of the entire Solar System for a human lifetime, and every care has been lavished upon it. Books have been written about it; countless dreams are dreamt about it. For this is the eternal it: a quest into the unknown, seeking a brave new world with no guarantee that the explorers or their descendants will ever come home again. And despite the dangers of a one-way mission through the blackness of space, even with a target precisely identified at its end, more than ten times the number of people the mighty ship can support have applied to travel aboard it. Selection processes have been employed to whittle them down, taking only the brightest and the best in their respective fields, and those with the psychological makeup to help them enjoy, rather than grow to resent, the home that will be theirs for the rest of their lives. From the talented engineer to the optimistic and willing street sweeper, every place on the ship has been assessed and filled.
For the first generation, the ship will have a command crew, the ship’s computer programmed to respond to the nanites in their blood. Augmented in order to interact and interface with it most effectively, the command crew will guide their miniature world through the first years of its mission, reacting flexibly to problems as they arise while the governmental system that will ultimately take over from them grows into maturity. Even if the small number of crew wished to hold onto power, they wouldn’t be able. Too small to form a viable gene pool amongst themselves, their descendants’ stock of nanites will be diluted by outbreeding, giving no-one preferential access to or control over the ship that will bear them onwards for generations more. Only occasionally will chance recombination throw up an individual the ship will recognise as a valid crewmember, a sort of final safeguard in case the carefully-framed society were to somehow collapse. It’s this command crew who look out over their new home now.
“She’s beautiful,” the captain observes on a gentle sigh. “I thought I’d get over it, but I never do.”
They all know the magnitude of the task before them, and they embrace it. In a week, they will board the mighty ship for the last time, and never again leave. In six months, the ship itself will leave, boosting its speed with a slingshot course out of the Solar System and accelerating. The gently conical disc at the front will come into its own then: a vast ramscoop, further augmented by an electromagnetic field, that will draw fuel from the depths of space itself to power the ship’s primary and backup fusion reactors. Travelling between the stars, in a sense the tiny ship will carry its own with it, generating light and heat and power through the same processes that drive the sun itself.
There are a thousand million things that could go wrong on their journey, particularly during the tiny fraction of it the crew will live for, when everything is new and nothing entirely tested, because there are no adequate tests for a generations-long mission save the mission itself. Yet, as they gaze at their future hanging in space before them, it is not fear, but awe and honour that they feel at bearing this responsibility and taking humanity to the distant stars.
Would you like to go back in time to an unspoilt Earth?
I looked at the leaflet again. Yup, still the same. Same promises, same stuff about some new habitable planet. Somewhere wild and unspoilt, and not overcrowded by eight billion or so people attempting to inhabit even its most inhospitable places.
Come and learn why Gianel is the perfect new home for humanity! Time, place, date. As if anyone needed selling on the idea that it’d be nice to live in a pretty, unspoilt paradise, and have the chance to keep it that way right from the start. Really, who needs selling on that idea?
Reserve your own plot of land FREE!
No, the thing all these scams have in common is the thing they don’t mention. The question they slide right past to get to the bait on their hook. I’m sure most of them really believe it, too, they’re good people, after all, trying to do others a favour. Most people are.
But what gets me every time is this: How Do They Know? Great, so you reckon this habitable-zone Earth-mass planet will support life like ours. It’d be really, amazingly, super-ultra-mega-big news if observations had actually confirmed that, but they haven’t: we don’t have the capability quite yet. The whole world would know the moment we did. And then there’s the other problem they don’t talk about: So, you’ve got a ship that can actually get us there, do you? It’s all hems and haws and something muttered about training and hey you should start training with us to become a space pilot so you can get there! Which, great, but again, where’s the spaceship?!
Asking if I want to go visit another Earth-like planet is like asking me if I want to eat delicious cake: of course I do. It’s also completely irrelevant. I’m hardly going to give up my life to start training to become an astronaut on a spaceship that can’t be built going to a planet that doesn’t exist. But people do. People sign up for this stuff, sometimes by the busload. Because by asking the wrong questions, the scammers distract people from thinking about the right questions: the ones about having a look at the data, or at the spaceship.
I sigh, and put the advert to recycle. Show me your ship, show me your planet, and you have a deal. Until then, you’re asking the wrong question. And it isn’t helpful at all.