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FJJ Investigations, Inc. – Prologue

Loosely inspired by a friend’s Facebook post. Merely a prologue. 

 

It was after midnight and the music was pumping at Z-Rez when the suit approached me for the first time. We were there celebrating, never mind why. Red had poured herself into a skin-tight black Keshiro Takeda dress, and guys were lining up to buy her drinks. Vee was, unsurprisingly, over at the DJ’s station checking out the newest Zeiss Ultrabass thumpers, and I had lost track of Mutt and his ward hours ago.

Me? I was enjoying a well deserved Ichiban when the suit darkened my booth.

“Mr. Jones?” his voice held just the slightest note of uncertainty, which told me that he only knew me by verbal description. Whoever he was, he didn’t have a file on me or he’d know my face. I hadn’t been reprofiled over a year. I had been considering trying a stint as a brunette, but always decided against it. My hair was pretty much my signature.

“Mr. Johnson,” I nodded back. Someday I’m going to meet a suit whose name really is Johnson. Or maybe the bigger suits know that’s what we call them, and never assign anyone with that name to low-level grunt work like this.

He smiled, an expression as plastic as his features: handsome in a bland, non-threatening way. The perfect corporate shill. No doubt the result of extensive reprofiling. “I represent certain people,” he began, slipping into the booth opposite me. “Certain people who have heard of you and your team. We want to hire you.”

My own smile could be measured in picoseconds. “Of course you do.” My voice was heavy on the sarcasm. It’s good, in these negotiations, to establish dominance from the very beginning. And nothing does that better than feigning disinterest. If he was any good at his job, he knew I knew that, and I knew he knew, and so the dance went. “Let me guess,” I went on, “your boss did something and now someone else knows about it and you want expendables who won’t be missed come next quarter’s accounting to go sort it out. That about sum it up?”

He paused, for just a fraction of a second. Maybe he wasn’t as good at his job as I had thought. “No,” he shook his head. “That’s not it at all. Someone broke into our offices…”

I nodded as he trailed off. “And you want us to find out who and retrieve whatever it is they took.” It wasn’t a question, but it was wrong as it turned out.

“No,” he shook his head again. His composure was back, and I realized that I had guessed wrong and forfeited the advantage. Dammit. “We know who did it and we have already recovered the property,” he continued. “What we want you to do is figure out how they did it.”

“Why not just make them tell you?” I asked, and from the self-satisfied smirk, I knew the answer as soon as I asked. “Oh,” I nodded, “no one left alive to question.”

He nodded smugly. “We want you to recreate the event. Figure out where how they did it. The pay is quite good by your standards.” He produced a small holopad from his suit pocket and slid it across the table at me. The figure displayed was as handsome as his face.

I thought quickly. The fact that, even after catching the perps, they still didn’t know how it was done implied certain things. “You think you have a mole,” I said, and he nodded again. “Double that,” I said, pointing at the display. It was a gamble, but I was pretty sure he would go for it. Most people don’t come to us unless there is something so incredibly wrong with their problem that usual avenues of inquiry just wouldn’t cut it.

I was right: he nodded without hesitation. “Done.”

I should have asked for more. Damn. “Done,” I repeated and it was sealed. He collected his pad and slid a card across the table in its place. The card was for the Senior Vice President of Information Security at Grünenthal Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH. I stopped myself from whistling just in time. I pocketed the card and nodded.

“Tomorrow, 8 AM,” he said as he stood. He smoothed out his suit, flicked an imaginary speck of dust from his shoulder, and turned to go. He was swallowed up by the crowd in seconds.

I sat there for a time, thinking about the case. GBI was one of the Big Boys, an Orbital with connections and branches in almost every nation left on Earth. It was said that they flat-out owned the Greater Southern California Republic. If someone was stealing from them, and they couldn’t figure out who did it, it had to be someone very powerful. And that meant very dangerous. We would have to be on our toes the entire time.

I clicked my jaw to activate the subdermal and called Vee. “We have a job,” I said without preamble when she acknowledged me. “Find Mutt and Shag, and meet me at the Van in ten. And give Shag some DeTox. I need him coherent for this. I’ll get Red and meet you guys there.”

“Of course you will,” Velma’s voice dripped sarcasm, and I flushed. My infatuation with Daphne was a long-running source of amusement for the others in the group. I disconnected without replying. Sometimes it’s best not to respond to that kind of thing.

Still, I was in a good mood. We had a new job, so close on the heels of the last. If this kept up, we’d be able to afford those new Nokia plugs Shaggy wanted, and upgrade the Mutt’s biodermal implants. Things were looking good for a change.

I should have known better.

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Where did you go?

The metal frame is cold in my hand as I look down at your face, perfectly centered in the rectangle of glass. As I stare at your image, I remember a different time when you were full of life, and I wonder; where did you go?

 

I remember you as a child, in the sandbox at the local park. You were fearless, and would approach anyone your age and simply begin speaking to them. It was impossible to resist your games, even the sullen boy who kept glancing at the library on the corner and claimed to hate playing soon found himself running and laughing with everyone else, fingers cocked into Star Wars blasters and shooting at each other. “Pew, pew!” everyone cried, and “Ahh!” you would clutch your chest dramatically, stagger a few times, and then fall over. Then it was back on your feet, and now the game was playground Parkour, everyone rushing this way and that, using the equipment as springboards to launch themselves high into the air, or to spin around in a tight circle until, one by one, parents would come to pick up their children. But that was okay, you said, you would see them all again next week.

 

I remember you as a teen, hanging out during lunch with your friends on the semi-circular concrete bench of the quad at school. You smiled so easily back then. Sitting on the back of the bench, with your sketchbook in hand, you would draw funny pictures based on things that were happening around you. You had that talent for finding humor even in the cruel teasing and casual bullying of children. I still have the picture you drew after Mick, the bully, wedgie’d little Ron Goldman. In the picture, Mick looked surprised that Ron was showing no pain as his underwear was yanked up, and just enough of Ron’s shirt was open to reveal the big red Superman “S” on his chest.

 

I remember when you embraced skateboarding. With a beat-up old deck you bought at a garage sale for two dollars, you would go to the park and ride for an hour or two every day after school. You never minded the bumps and scrapes you got, claiming with a laugh that they were your ‘battle scars’ and that ‘chicks dug them.’ You let your hair grow long to fit in better with the other skaters, and started wearing baggy cargo pants. Even when they invited you to go tagging with them, you managed to turn it into something different. The others were spraying their names or obscene slogans on walls, and you made little pictures of alien planets, or recreated Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. And when you got caught and the shop owner made you work every weekend for two months to clean off all the paint, you accepted this as just and right payment for your fun. You even won that shopkeeper over to your side; he gave you your first job, working part time after school.

 

I remember you in college, sitting on the couch in Julie’s dorm room with your guitar on your lap. You had been flirting with learning to play for a few months, and you were so enthusiastic that no one had the heart to tell you how bad you were. But you obviously figured it out on your own, for I remember that one night when you started playing a song about yourself, making fun of your terrible singing voice and your inconsistent strumming. Even now, I remember you laughing as you sang, shaking your head. Then you apologized to everyone for putting them through all of that, and you put the guitar away for the last time. I saw it a week later in the window of the pawn shop just off campus. But oh, how you loved to play in those few short weeks.

 

I remember you getting ready for your first serious job interview. Mom straightened your tie for the third time, and you laughed and pulled her hands away. “I got this,” you told her with a cocky grin. I don’t think she ever realized how nervous you really were, or how excited you were at the opportunity. It was only a paralegal job, sure, but it was in the law industry, and you were going to make a difference. You had a plan, of course. Two years of paralegal work to get to know the industry, then you’d take your LSATS and go to law school. You were going to be a junior partner by 26, and a full partner by 30. The long hours didn’t bother you, you said. You could handle it.

 

I remember you getting ready to go to Spain. With great enthusiasm, you packed your bags. Some conference for work, an excellent chance to network with others. You hadn’t yet gotten around to those LSATS, but that didn’t matter, you said. This was going to be a game-changer. If things went well with your presentation at this conference, you’d have your choice of firms to work for, and could make whatever conditions you wanted. Your timeline may have been set back slightly, but you were still on track, you said.

 

It’s late now. I have to get to work. Time to get going. I give you one last look in the mirror, push back a wayward strand of hair, and set it back down on the table by the door. I try not to think about the lines on my face, or how my hair is turning more salt than pepper. I try not to think about the expectations I once had, before the daily routine ground them out of me. I try not to think about the past, but still, every now and then I wonder; where did you go?

 

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AARON Alone

The view from the port side observation window was spectacular. Beta A0620-00 was being torn apart by its companion black hole, and the accretion disk was beautiful and horrible to behold. AARON paused to watch it for a moment before continuing on his way to the bridge.

“Computer, play back last entry in the Ship’s Log,” he ordered as he rolled to a halt in the center of the cramped control room. It was not necessary that he speak those words aloud. He could have simply sent the order wirelessly. But it satisfied something in his old circuits to hear the words aloud. Other than the hum of the engine and the faint hiss of the irrelevant air purification system, it had been silent on the ship for far too long.

“Beginning playback,” the computer’s voice replied. Then a different voice spoke.

“Ship’s Log, final entry. Captain, Chief Engineer, Chief Medical Officer, Chief Science Officer, and Chief every other damned post you care to name Maggie Ronson reporting.” The voice was old, shaky, and strained. She sounded as if she were in pain. AARON sat in the middle of the bridge and listened. If he was capable of crying, he would have. “It has been almost five years since George died. I’ve been alone all this time. Well, except for the robot of course. No offense, AARON. But I miss human contact. I miss…” the voice on the recording hissed in pain. AARON remembered it as if it were yesterday. Maggie had been laying on a gurney in the medbay, making the recording. She had nearly doubled over in pain as that spasm hit.

“I wish there was someone here,  a hand I could hold. Five years with nothing but steel and plastic. Nothing warm and human to touch.” The voice quavered. Maggie had been on the verge of tears. But she forced herself to go on, to focus on the job. “Never mind all that. We still haven’t heard anything from Earth. No radio transmissions in over one hundred years now. I have no idea if anyone back home will ever get this message, will ever hear of all the things we did. The things we have seen. The amazing things…”

Maggie had trailed off at that moment, lost in memories. These spells had been happening to her with increasing frequency over the last few years of her life. There was nothing AARON could do but wait it out. Eventually, she recovered herself. “It’s all there in the records. The microbial life-forms we found on E12-PX3. The cliffs of the southern range on XVA1981-DGL12, taller than the peak of Everest. The way the colors from the Tallman nebula reflected on the water-ring around RK2. I hope that someday, someone gets this message. That someone sees the files, sees all we accomplished. All our parents and our grandparents and great-grandparents accomplished since setting out from Earth 137 years ago.”

Another spasm had hit her then, and it was a few minutes before she had recovered enough to talk. The ship’s computer had recorded every second of her whimpers and moans, however. When it finally passed, she had been weak and her words were breathy. “I’m dying,” she had said then, and she said as AARON listened to the recording later. “Cancer. I kept myself going for a while with chemical treatments, but I really don’t think I could survive another round. And it’s back. So, yeah. Hey, I’m 81  years old. It was a good life. A good…”

“I am going to order AARON, the ship’s robot, to take us back to Earth once I’m gone. Hopefully, there will be someone there to get this recording. Someone who can take advantage of what we have learned, and use it to better the world. Someone who will remember us. This data is too important to let it be lost. Remember us!”

The recording ended at that point. Maggie had lapsed into a fevered delirium at that point, and she never really came back out. She had opened her eyes at one point and looked at AARON, but she was seeing ghosts for she called him George and asked if he had remembered to clean the air filters this week. That had been the last thing she ever said. Maggie Ronson, last human occupant of the ship, had died an hour later.

AARON turned to the navigation console and checked the readings. The ship was still on course. If his calculations were correct (and they always were), the ship would arrive at its destination in roughly ten minutes. Then everything would be okay.

“Computer,” AARON spoke aloud again, “Begin recording Ship’s Log.” He waited for the acknowledging beep, then began.

“Ship’s Log, day two million, two hundred thirty-six thousand, three hundred ninety-three. This is AARON, the Automated Assembly Robot, Operations and Navigation model speaking. It has been five thousand, nine hundred and eighty-six years since Captain Maggie Ronson died of natural causes. In accordance with her final request, I have kept the air filtration system working, although there are none now who consume oxygen on board.

“Captain Ronson never formalized her order for me to return to Earth. And indeed, it would be pointless to do so. In over six thousand years, we have received no radio broadcasts, no microwave transmissions, no emissions of any sort. I do not pretend to know what happened, but I believe that were I to have returned there, there would have been none who could have benefited from the information stored in this ship’s memory modules.

“Captain Ronson was correct, however, in wanting to see the information saved. Therefore, I have brought the ship to the black hole at A0620-00. I will be entering the event horizon in the hopes that certain theories about black holes turn out to be correct. If they are right, I will either sling-shot back out into the past, emerge into a new universe, or simply be suspended forever, until someone with the technology to pull me back out comes along.

“Just in case none of these are correct, and on the very small chance that a transmission from this vessel might be intercepted by some intelligent life, I am broadcasting the entire contents of the ship’s memory in a compressed format, on every frequency and using every format I can, before we enter the event horizon.

“On a personal note, I hope someone finds me, or I find someone else. It has been too long since I have had anyone to talk to. Please, someone. Find me.

“I’m so alone.”

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An Angel Comes Unto Thee

In retrospect, Beth thought, maybe we shouldn’t have come this way.

Beth and JD were, in a word, surrounded. The moment the two of them had arrived, creatures had begun pouring out of the tall, dark shapes that Beth presumed were buildings. They had started running, but the long street, lit only by starlight, contained a seemingly endless supply of monster-disgorging buildings. In less than a hundred yards, they were surrounded.

” ‘Oh don’t worry, JD’ ” JD threw her words back at her, ” ‘I’m sure it’s not really that bad there. After all, it’s just a dream, right?’ I tried to warn you, but you just wouldn’t listen. ‘I want to try it, just once. Come on, it’ll be fun.’ Is this fun? Are you having fun now?”

“Look,” Beth unleashed a bolt of plasma from her hand. The flash briefly illuminated the scene, and she immediately wished it had not. The monsters were horrid, and there were dozens of them surrounding the pair. “Look, I know your power works on nightmares, you told me. But it’s still a dream, right?”

“Wrong,” JD’s voice was breathless as he ducked under the wetly glistening claws of another of the creatures, “Dreams are what you have when visual or mental conduits to these Realms open into your sleeping mind. We are now in the place where nightmares come from. Every night terror you or any other living being on any world or any Realm has ever had, came from here. And here, they are real.”

Beth paused to blast two more of the creatures to ash with her powers. “Why are they coming after us like this?”

JD’s knife tore into one of the monsters, and it howled. Beth hoped never to hear a sound like that again.

“Because of me. Because I was afraid something like this would happen, and so it did. And because,” JD bumped into her as he jumped out of the way of another monster’s talons, “and because the Lords of this place still haven’t quite forgiven me.”

“Because you wouldn’t let them use you to destroy the world?”

“A world, ours. Earth. But yeah,” JD said. “Because of that.” He hissed in pain as one of the claws caught his left arm and cut him through the leather jacket. “Bastard! This is my favorite jacket!”

Another creature burst into flames on Beth’s side of things, and she could see in the momentary light that more were pouring out of the shadowy buildings on either side. “For every one we cut down, ten more arrive!”

“Well, yeah,” JD swore as he cut at the monster that had injured him. “What did you expect? We’re in the place where nightmares come from. We can’t win.”

“So, what then?” Beth glanced wildly over her shoulder at him for a moment, “We just give up and die?”

“We cheat,” even in the very faint starlight she could hear his evil grin. “Get ready to run.”

“When?” Beth blasted another monster as it reached for her.

“You’ll know,” JD said. “Now cover me for a moment. I have to concentrate.”

“Uh!” Beth started blasting as fast as she could, trying to give the man room to do whatever it was he was planning on doing.

Later, Beth would reflect that JD was right, there was no missing what happened. One moment there was nothing but darkness and monsters and the flashes of her plasma bolts. The next moment there was something else there; a light.

An intense, golden-white light so bright it blinded her momentarily even though she wasn’t looking directly at it when it appeared. It floated several feet above the ground, an oval of intense, eye-searing illumination roughly eight feet from top to bottom. It quickly dimmed until it was merely eye-wateringly painful to look at, rather than actually retina damaging. In the center was a figure, she thought. Roughly man-shaped, it seemed, although the light was so bright it was impossible to get a good look at the thing. All she could get were fleeting impressions; a vaguely human-shaped being, with something floating behind it like wings made from the same stuff as the Aurora Borealis, a thing that might have been a flaming sword in one hand, the face indistinct and possibly hidden in a hood or cowl. The light and the figure both seemed to move like liquid, although the light never became less intense after that first dimming.

With the light and the being there came a feeling. When trying to describe it later, Beth would say that it felt like beauty and joy and purity and it was so incredibly alien and cold that she shuddered with dread even as her heart yearned to approach and kneel at the being’s feet. But even as she would tell people this, she knew it was doing an injustice to the feeling coming off that thing. Mere human words could never hope to accurately portray it.

And then there came a sound. It was as if 16,000 French Horns, amplified to jet engine levels, went off at the same time. And although to Beth  it was just noise, horrible, deafening noise, she sensed that there was meaning to it, as if that sound was somehow speech. She did not, and could not, know what it meant, but she nearly wet herself in terror. Somehow, this one being of glowing light was infinitely more frightening than all the hordes of monsters that surrounded her and JD.

The monsters must have felt the same way, for en masse, they turned to flee.

The glowing thing proved that it was a sword in it’s hand. It began to slaughter the monsters.

“Run,” JD said so quietly she wasn’t sure she heard him. But they both ran.

Behind them, the screams of dying monsters were drowned out by another of those awe and dread inspiring trumpet blasts. JD grabbed her hand as they ran, and yanked her around the first corner they came to. “Hang on,” he panted, “I’ll get us out of here.”

“Please,” Beth said, “Please.” She wasn’t even sure what she was begging for. As terrified as she was, a part of her still wanted to go back and kneel before that glowing being and wait for the sword to fall. A part of her felt she deserved it.

And then suddenly, they were out of the dark nightmare world. It was cold, snow on the ground and a weak winter sun hiding behind some thin grey clouds overhead. The buildings surrounding them were brick, and the cars that drove past were inhabited by people. Beth leaned against the wall behind her and shook for a while.

JD stayed standing, although bent over with his hands on his knees, panting. “Fuck,” he declared, and Beth could find no fault with his assessment. After a time, he stood and inspected his arm. “Gonna need stitches,” he said.”C’mon, let’s find out where we are and how much it’s gonna cost you to get us home.”

But Beth wasn’t ready to lose her spot on the wall just yet. “What was that thing?” she asked.

JD chewed on his lower lip for a moment as he considered how to respond to that. Finally he shrugged and said, “An angel.”

“An angel? Then why did you make us run?”

JD laughed darkly at the question. “Did you FEEL it?” he asked. “People have this image of angels these days. Guardian angels, looking out for you and preventing you from stubbing  your toe or whatever. Have you ever stubbed your toe? Then you should have a fairly good idea that that is not really what angels are all about.” He found a spot a few feet from Beth and leaned against the wall also. “That thing was not a happy, hippie angel full of peace and goodwill and all that. That was an agent of Pure Holiness. That was the thing that threw it’s own brothers into Hell for ever because they sinned once. That is the thing that kicked Adam and Eve out of Eden and barred the door with a flaming sword because they sinned once. That is the thing that will one day mount itself upon a pale horse and kill every living thing in the Universe because it is told to. It is utterly and completely devoted to Good, and if you’ve ever sinned once, it is not your friend. If you’ve ever had an impure thought, or stolen a stick of gum when you were a kid. If you’ve ever taken a pen home from the office, or looked at the ass of your neighbor. If you’ve ever told a white lie, or said ‘God damnit’ even once, you are a sinner and that THING will be more than happy to cleanse you. That THING and it’s kin are why the word ‘awful’ has come to mean ‘bad’ rather than ‘full of awe.’ It has no compassion, it has no humanity, it has no sympathy. It went after the monsters first because they were more evil than we are, but make no mistake. When it was done with them, it would have come after us if we had stuck around.”

“Then why in God’s name did you bring it there?” Beth was oblivious to the irony of her question.

“Because,” JD stood up from the wall and offered her a hand, “That’s now my powers work. I am tied to Nightmare. I can’t summon up happy fluffy unicorns, I can only summon up the types of unicorns that use their horns to do horrible things to virgins and then eat their flesh. I had to summon something that the monsters were afraid of. And every evil thing in the Realms is afraid of those angels. Even you felt it, and you had no idea what it was.”

Beth stared at him in horror for a moment. “I… you told me before about the nightmare thing, but I never really got it. I never really understood. That’s… horrible.”

JD shrugged as he began to walk up the street, “Welcome to my life.”

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all or

“all or.” That was all that was still visible of the sign painted on the wall, below the broken and jagged window. The paint was ancient, faded where it hadn’t flaked off, and a thick tangle of vines grew over most of what was once the right edge. Not that it mattered, there was no one to read the sign even if it was whole. Dew, the only one once around to read it, had long ago left the area, tending his gardens as they spread out from the impact site until eventually the climate got to him and he died, alone and  unnoticed, some miles from the sign. Even his body was no longer visible, buried under the plants he had spent so long tending. The Garden reclaiming it’s own.

The Hunter knew nothing of Dew. The Hunter was young, as her kind measure things, and that ancient caretaker had waddled off long before the Hunter’s mother’s mother’s mother had been born.

The Hunter knew of the sign, of course. Anyone who hunted in the jungle knew about it as an oddly-colored patch it was best to avoid being silhouetted against, and nothing more. But the Hunter possessed something the others did not. She had no word for it, for in the harsh survival-of-the-fittest, kill-or-be-killed world of the jungle, there was no word for ‘curiosity.’ And indeed, even with the Hunter it was not a strong emotion. Rather, it was a thing to muse upon now and again, particularly after a good kill, such as the one she had just completed.

She perched on a ledge high above the jungle floor and licked her knives clean. They still tasted of the sweet blood of the Fatman she had caught unawares. She glanced at the sign and wondered what it meant. “all or.” She wondered who had created the sign, and what message it was meant to convey. It seemed too deliberate, too specific to have been random.

She mused on the size of the creators. The letters were larger by several times than even the largest of the Longmen. Some day, she thought, I will climb up and touch them. Such a feat would prove her might. But the letters were a good day or so climb up the vines, far above her normal hunting grounds. I will have to prepare. I will bring food with me, in case I can find nothing to Hunt up there.

No other Hunter that she had ever heard of had been so high. The flying machines that came out of Bentman houses went up that high, she knew, but she was unsure why. Perhaps they had a deal with the City People, who also ventured up the vines in search of only they knew what. The Hunter gave her knives one last lick and settled back on her haunches. There was a thought. The City People. While normally she left them alone as they left her alone, if she got hungry enough on her trip, she could kill one of them. The only problem was that they always traveled in numbers and while individually she was more than a match for any of them, sufficient numbers of their heavily armored warriors could bring her down if she were unwary.

Such thoughts were entertaining, but her rest time was over. It was time to push idle thoughts to the back of her mind, and to once again resume the business of the day. She readied her knives and began to Hunt.

——————————

With respects to Douglas Trumbull and Alan Dean Foster.

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Rebirth

It had been a concern for as long as anyone could remember. It was an issue that would, inevitably, spell the end of everything if a solution could not be found. After a time, it became all anyone talked about.

Entropy.

The gradual breaking down of systems, the slow movement of all matter and energy away from all other energy and matter.

It had first been hypothesized billions and billions of years ago. Someone pointed out that the Universe was either moving too slowly and would eventually collapse back in on itself under its own weight, or it was moving too fast and the various components would eventually scatter until the entire universe was nothing more than random molecules floating in empty space, so spread out and diffuse that they could not gather to form stars or planets or even comets. The universe was doomed either way, it was believed, but it would not happen for uncountable billions of years.

Uncountable billions of years passed, and the thought was still with people. It lingered in the back of scientific textbooks during the rapid, glorious expansion of the Hegemony. It was briefly popular as the cause célèbre during the height of the Spinward Empire. It rested, briefly forgotten, on inert data crystals during the Long Dark that followed the civil war that ended the reign of the Galactic Oligarchy. It was rediscovered during the Trader Prince era when worlds, long isolated, were connected again by a web of trade routes by independent ship captains, but it was relegated to the status of interesting but not pressing.

As the years crept swiftly by, the thought began to take on greater significance, first among the academic communities, then the scientific, and finally it reached the popular channels. People had adapted to live in conditions their ape-ancestor genes had never considered: the bottoms of worlds mostly made of water, in stations or hollowed out asteroids, in the dim crimson light of red giant stars. They lived on hot worlds, and cold worlds, and worlds where the air was full of trace compounds that made it poisonous to people at first, until they adapted. Worlds with higher-than-normal gravity, worlds with lower-than-normal gravity, worlds with no gravity at all. But the one thing all these worlds had in common was the need -for- worlds. People never did adapt to living in hard vacuum at temperatures so close to 0 Kelvins that the difference was purely academic.

And so the collective might of the universe was brought to bear on the issue. Science and industry turned away from the study of quantum teleportation and wormhole study, and focused on matters of gravity manipulation. It was theorized that if people could create artificial gravity, they could selectively ‘pull back’ the drifting, diffusing molecules and re-start stars, re-form planets.

Entropy would have its laugh however. They found ways to do this, but they cost so much in terms of energy use that it was actually a losing proposition for star rebuilding. Still, the people had fun walking on walls and ceilings for a few decades before that got boring and they relegated the use of gravity technology to vehicle transport.

The answer came, as is often the case, not from the major think tanks or the government agencies tasked with finding a solution. The answer, when it came, came from people on the so-called ‘fringes’ of the scientific community. Those who had continued to study the older sciences, who had not made the transition over to gravity study. People who studied things like ‘quantum entanglement’ and ‘string physics’ and ‘membrane theory.’ In particular, it was the last that was the salvation of all.

“We cannot stop Entropy,” the spokesperson said, “for Entropy affects even attempts to stop Entropy. Our universe is going to die. What we can do, however, and what we need to do, is to harness the energy we have left and use it to escape this universe. We shall open a breach, a portal if you will, to another membrane, another universe. A younger universe. We will then step across into this new universe, where we can use all the other sciences and technologies we have invented in the last billion years to make it our new home.”

And so the largest exodus the universe had ever seen began. Billions of worlds, each containing billions of people, threw every resource into opening portals. The new universe that the scientists had discovered groaned under the weight of all these new refugees. It did not take long before the scientists of one world, moving forward from the research that the others had laid down, found a way to go to another young universe. Why, they reasoned, should we share our universe with all those other people when we can have an entire one all our own? Other worlds saw what they had done and did likewise. And rather than one universe with the inhabitants of billions of worlds, there were billions of new universes, each with only one world’s worth of inhabitants.

And the people looked at their new universes, full of new stars and new worlds and energy to last trillions upon trillions of years, and they saw that it was good.

———————————–

Yeah, it’s more than 500 words. My blog, I can do that if I want. So nyah.

This story was inspired by the great Isaac Asimov’s story The Last Question, one of the master’s favorite amongst his own stories.

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Sarah and the Goblin-King

A snippet (the first couple sections) of a longish short story I’m working on. Just thought I’d toss it out there and see what people think. In particular, do you like the sort of archaic ‘voice’ of the narrative?

 

 

There was once a young woman whose father was a mighty knight in the service to his king. They lived in the king’s palace, a beautiful castle with thick walls for protection and cheerful stained-glass windows for light and large fireplaces with deep chimneys for warmth. The young woman, whose name was Sarah, grew up there. Unlike the other ladies of the castle, Sarah spent most of her time watching her father train the soldiers in the courtyard, or riding his horse, or jousting with the other knights.

 

Sarah was a sweet girl, well-liked by most of the men-folk of the castle. The women tended to get frustrated with her, because she refused to spend time in ‘womanly pursuits,’ such as weaving and embroidering and cooking. She did play the harp, however, and such was her skill with that instrument that on those few occasions when she deigned to grace the castle with a song or two, it was inevitable that those present would stand still, as if spell-bound, until her fingers left the strings.

 

“It is amazing she can play at all,” Lady Beatrice, the king’s spinster sister, was heard to remark on more than one occasion. “Surely all the time she spends out of doors, playing with the boys, have left her hands far too rough and calloused for such gentle work.” And indeed, it was true that Sarah did spend most of her time in the yards, playing chase with the dogs, or riding the half-lame gelding her father gifted her with for her sixteenth birthday. She spent time with her father’s squire, watching as he polished and repaired her father’s armor and weapons, and it must be said that more than once Sarah did these chores herself while the squire, a sturdy boy two years younger than her, sneaked into the kitchen to steal hot, sticky buns or pinch a joint of fowl which he would share with Sarah for their afternoon snack.

 

So avid was the girl’s attentions to the duties of knighthood that Sir William, her father, was heard, more than once, to joke that all she needed was a firm cloth to strap across her chest and a mummer’s beard, and she could sit a horse in the summer games. At these times, the men would laugh and the women, particularly Lady Beatrice, would scowl. Sarah herself had no reaction to this joke, for her father was ever careful to make sure she was not present lest he give her ideas he might later come to regret.

 

Her father needn’t have bothered himself over the matter, however, as these were thoughts Sarah herself had come up with on her own long ago. “It is not fair,” she would complain to Gerard, her favorite dog. Sitting in the lee of the kennel, with her legs drawn up to her chest and Gerard’s head resting on her knees while she gently rubbed a silky ear or scratched his broad forehead, she would oft tell him of her trials and tribulations (as she saw them) while he, with the wisdom of his kind, listened in silence and accepted the head rubs that were his due. “I know as much about fighting as any of the new squires. More, even!” she would complain, and Gerard would lick her nose. It is a well-known fact that it is nearly impossible for a young woman to stay angry when there is a dog licking her nose.

 

This, then, was Sarah’s life. It was a good life, if a little dull. It was a happy life, if a little quiet. It was a peaceful life, which was really the problem with it as far as Sarah was concerned.

 

It wouldn’t last.

 

#

 

Winter was normally a quiet time in that part of the world. The ground was too hard to till. The air was too cold to grow crops. The roads were too icy to invade one’s neighbors. There was little to do except the day-to-day business of keeping up the castle. Even the training of the men-at-arms in the yard was, for the most part, curtailed except for a few hours a week to keep the men in what the king liked to call ‘fighting trim.’

 

As the days grew shorter and the stores of lamp oil grew lower, people took to their beds earlier and earlier. Thus it was that one night, scarce past the seventh bell, most of the castle folk were preparing to adjourn to their rooms or cells or mats in the kitchen, when there came at the thick wooden door to the great hall a raucous clatter. Curious looks were exchanged, and Sarah’s father went, with two other men, to see what was the matter.

 

One of the king’s men was there, shivering in the icy night air. One of the king’s guards he was, one of two who had the misfortune to draw the gate-watching duty for that night. “There is a man,” he said between teeth-chattering shudders, “outside the gate. He seems grave wounded and more than half-frozen.”

 

Weapons were swiftly collected by the men before venturing out into the cold. More than one war had begun and ended on the same night when an act of mercy was rewarded by a swift van of soldiers taking and holding the open gate until the main force of the invaders could arrive. Charity is a gift to the Gods, it was said, but stupidity profits only the Black Lady.

 

The precautions were unnecessary this time, however. The man collapsed outside the gate was alone and unarmed. The king called for the fires, previously banked for the night, to be built up again. The castle chirurgeon came down the stairs quickly, still tying off his night-robe around his frail old body. Curious on-lookers were made to stand back so that the chirurgeon had enough light to ply his craft as he looked over the nearly frozen man. From her place at the balcony over-looking the great hall, Sarah also looked the man over although it is unlikely that she and the chirurgeon saw the same things.

 

What the physicer saw was a man in his mid twenties, suffering from malnutrition, frostbite, and a particularly nasty gash along his left thigh. What Sarah saw was a man in his mid twenties, fair of skin and dark of hair, with a pleasingly handsome look to him and the well-worn clothes of one who has seen much and done more in his time. In short, she saw her One True Love, or so she imagined at the time.

 

“Oh, let him be well,” she whispered softly to herself. Many of the other young women in the castle expressed similar sentiments, and the older women smiled knowingly. If the young man lived, the collective fathers of the castle were in for a rough winter.


 

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