05 May 2015


I. Lines

     Picture a line stretching down the block.  Oh, not a totally grim line -- the weather's good, near seventy, and the people are brightly dressed, contrasting with the concrete and block of the buildings, the gravel and concrete of the streets -- but a serious one.  Picture more lines, many more, a world of lines, a place where if you didn't work for one of the big outfits, or on a robot farm, or at the "School," an occasional missed meal was just how it worked.  But how can you begin to know what it was like if you don't know why and how?

     The world was called Ryall.  It wasn't good for much -- halfway through a glaciation, which meant the temperate zone was a belt around the Equator a little over five hundred miles wide.  But it was warm enough to grow crops and raise animals, the local weeds were neither poisonous nor allergenic, it had metals and fuel, and best of all, it was well behind the straggling, uncertain "front" between the Far Edge refuseniks and the Earth-based NATO forces searching for them.

     Once the Edgers realized they hadn't fled far enough and Earth wasn't willing to let them be, the University of Ryall, until then an otherwise struggling institution that by chance had an excellent 'Drive physics program, was cultivated as a major research institution by grants directly from the Federation of Concerned Spacemen (the shadowy Edger non-government) and its various military contractors, most notably "General" Filiaggi's Mil/Space.

     The population swelled as the War years dragged on, with people looking for a safer place (especially after the disastrous attempt to reclaim "Peace-And-Prosperity," the planet better known as Linden and, later, Lyndon), various professions and trades following work, along with farmers, administrators, manufacturers and the Far Edge's commercial military organizations.  Agriculture struggled to keep up.  Distance made luxuries (smuggled from Earth or P&P, built or grown on Trinity or Frothup) expensive and uncommon and by the time the War idled to a stop in 1989, Ryall was a distinctly difficult place.  Government was small, hard-pressed, and inadvertently oppressive.  Mil/Space and defense contractors dominated employment.  Thirty-plus years of war and rumors of war had left more than a mere mark; FCS was reportedly considering intervention, as it had done twice before elsewhere to rein in too-powerful local governments.

     A decade earlier, it had already been a hard, gray place for a long time, a place more than a world, and one with a job to do and little time or resources to spare for nonsense--


     He recognized her as they both stood on one of the endless lines that had come to dominate life in Landingport, lined up for a chance to purchase onions or cheese, lined up to register or reregister for a work permit or a housing permit or a travel permit, lined up for inoculation or delousing, lined up because you saw a line and didn't want to miss out -- or face arrest for not lining up.

      Even though she was an unperson these last seven years, her poetry deemed wasteful, unnecessary, he recognized her. "Aren't you Sara-the-bard," he asked, but it wasn't a question. Students had called her that, back in the hopeful beginning, before walls had gone up around the School, before passes and air-raid drills and Security. "You're her, you are," he exclaimed, incredulous, delighted.

     She never made eye contact. "I was," she said, almost whispering, and turned away.

III. A Gap In Space

    Mathematics and poetry sound like an odd combination of talents to most people.  Yet they're often found co-existing, happily or not, in the same mind.  Oppenheimer translated Hindu epics; Ada Lovelace struggled to subdue her "poetical nature," and Dodgson, well, you already know him as Lewis Carroll.

     Before the war, Sara-the-former-Bard was celebrated for poetry, valued for insights into multidimensional physics too abstruse to explain, insights she'd loved for the beauty they revealed, insights applied physics and engineering of wartime  had turned into windows into terror.  Or so she feared; compartmentalism had slammed down with her on the outside and all she knew of the most recent developments was rumor.

     (This is the opening of a planned novel, set on the same world as my short story, Things Lost Under Bridges.)

19 April 2015

One Evening On Kansas II

    I was living on Kansas II at the time, having parted company with my previous starship under less than auspicious circumstances.  Don said he had a surprise for me, but we needed to be on the road an hour before the sun was down.   Occasionally brilliant and often-annoying Don, who was then my fiancĂ© and now, damn him, is nobody to me, our timelines torn apart by his choice and my travels.  He’s much older now.  I’m not.

     But at the time, our life together was as rosy as the Eastern sky, Kansas II having a very nice magnetic field but the temerity to spin the wrong way.  We were driving more or less south, where wheatfields give way to unimproved Nature at a wide, meandering river.
     The road ends at long bridge across the river.  The bridge ends in a lift section, a nice, ugly Chicago-style bascule drawbridge that normally stays up. There’s a warning sign.  To lower the bridge, you’ve got to put at least hundred kilograms (plus or minus – KS2 runs to 0.98 G) on a sidewalk slab in front of the bridge for ten minutes. 
     They can’t make you read the sign but aside from muddy water below, sky overhead, a long bridge ending in wheatfields behind and raw, rolling, red and green pseudo-veldt on the other side, there’s nothing else to see:
Beyond this bridge, the land remains as it was before humans settled Kansas II. Cross at your own risk.  Persons who are allergic to whirlweed or who have not yet had and recovered from planetary fever should not cross.  Emergency services are not available.  Buffalion, trap-door weasels and all other native animals are not to be molested.  The larger species can injure or kill an unprotected person. BUFFALION TRAILS AND HERDS ARE PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS.  AN AUTOMOBILE WILL NOT PROTECT YOU.  If you encounter a buffalion herd, move away immediately at ninety degrees to their direction of travel.


     It took both of us to start the bridge-lowering process.  I stood next to Don, reading the sign and wondering if he’d decided to take me out here and leave me.
     “Not exactly a friendly place you’ve got here, I told him.
     “What, the sign?  It’s an idiot-filter.  They don’t even keep the numbers updated; those are from two years ago.”  He grinned at me.
     I didn’t find it reassuring.
    My doubts must have showed, since he frowned and continued, “Really, it’s okay.  People come here all the time.  I’m surprised we haven’t seen anyone yet.”
     “And it’s a surprise,” I reminded him.  Can’t you at least hint?”
     His grin returned, impish, charming.  “Nope.  But you’ll like it.”
     I never could resist that grin.
     Once the bridge started down, we got back in his truck – a tiny SUV, a Bonzai or something, I never was very good with the names of cars – and drove on for another couple of miles.  A kind of gray shape started to loom above the rolling grass(like) land, and as we got closer, I could make out some specks or blobs on it.  Eventually the land flattened out more and in the dimming light, I saw it was a huge slab of rock, slightly tilted, rearing up out of the ground, maybe thirty feet high at the highest part.  There were a half-dozen trucks packed close to the steeply-rearing side.  The blobs on top were people, in pairs and one larger group.
     The ride smoothed out.  I looked lower.  We were crossing packed, bare earth – well, Kansas II dirt, anyway.
     “Don, this is a buffalion pathway, isn’t it?”
     “Un-huh.  Don’t worry.  They never get too close to The Slab.”
    We suddenly started getting jostled again, as the ground became rougher.  It stayed bumpy all the way to the very base of the rock, where he parked and turned off the engine.
     “There’s a picnic basket and a blanket in back,” Don said, “Help me carry it up before it gets too dark.”
    “Maybe.  Don, what is this?”
     “This?  It’s a geologic anomaly.”
     “Not what I meant.”
     He gave me that grin again.  “C’mon.  This’ll be fun.”

     We settled down at a relatively level spot, after a tricky scramble up a narrow but well-worn path to the top.  People were scattered across the top with plenty of room between them and for a while, we were busy unpacking dinner and eating.  By the time we were done, it was nearly full dark.  Don checked his watch, a quick flash of light on the dial.  “Almost time.”
     “Time for what, you scoundrel?  Shouldn’t you be telling me at last?”
     “Won’t have to.  Lay back and look up.  See the stars?”  He had laid next to me. Pointing, he said, “There’s the Lion, and just this side of it is the Hexagram.  See how the stars make a pattern of six lines?”
     I did.
     “Okay, watch just to the left of it and up—"
     Already, twinkling stars had started to look odd to me: stars ought to burn steadily.  I kept watching.  Suddenly, a line of light sprang into being almost where I was looking and raced across the sky!
     There was a low murmur from the people around us.
     The first streak was followed by another, and another, and another.  A meteor shower!  It was like popcorn popping; there’d be a few, and then a pause and then more, and then maybe a lot more and then nothing for a time.  With each one, we were oohng and aaahing as if it were fireworks.  In a way it was.
     I was laying there, comfortably snuggled up next to Don, watching the meteors in a kind of dream-like state, when I heard the sounds.  A kind of dull thud, then a bell-like tone and a softer thud. 
    Another set of noises answered, the belling slightly higher in pitch.   Then another, closer and lower: Plop! BONG! Pop.  It was a little worrying, but I didn’t hear anything from the other people around us except the occasional sigh when an especially impressive meteor drew a line of fire on the night sky.
     Overhead, the meteor shower continued, maybe a little more sporadic, while the strange sounds seemed to move around us, each bell in a different pitch, a sonic counterpoint to the light show overhead.
     “Don—“ I whispered.
     He rolled a little, hugged me and whispered back, “It’s okay.”
     I pushed up on my elbows and looked around.  I could barely see the nearest couples and they didn’t seem alarmed.
     Meanwhile, the chorus continued, accompanied by an occasional streak overhead.  I was just relaxing again when a huge, deep BONGGGG! rang out, echoing around the slab, and then the night fell silent.
     I realized I was holding my breath, waiting for the next bell-sound.
     “Bobbi, you can breathe,” Don said, very quietly.  “That’s the last one.”
     “What – was – that?”
     He grinned again. I could hear it in his voice.
     “Trapdoor weasels.  They do that.  Nobody knows why. ‘Bed check,’ I reckon.”
     They’re not weasels at all, but a large, spider-like creature that’s a nasty ambush hunter: they build their burrows across Buffalion runs and open the “trapdoor” after most of the herd has passed, hoping to trip up the young, the old and the weak.   They’re a pest on settled land, sometimes pathetic (their methods don’t work on tractors and trucks) and sometimes not; a new nest of them can do a lot of harm to cattle, horses or even sheep.  They’re about as ugly a thing as you can imagine.  I’d never liked them.
     Until that night.

     Don left me a year later for a younger and, as he by then was devastatingly pleased to tell me, much girlier girl.  Most men don’t like it when you’re better at small home repairs than they are.  It turned out he positively loathed it.  I don’t know if it was rewiring the second-floor bedrooms or replacing the water heater that did it, but somewhere along the way I’d stepped on his mojo too often, too unheedingly, and no amount of my (very good, if you ask me) home cooking and (ahem) native charm could repair it.

     But I’ll always have the memory of the meteor shower and the trap-door weasel belling and your little-boy grin when you shared it with me, Don, you sonuvabitch.