Issue XVII -- Mysteries

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Read about some of the contributors to issue seventeen and see excerpts from each article or story.  

Issue XVII Contents   

OM+ -- Catherine Shaffer and Jim C. Hines

The Diamond Star -- Cherith Baldry

Mall Warriors -- Ryck Neube

Stopover -- Philip J. Lees

Jigsaw -- Doug Smith

 

OM+ © 2005 Catherine Shaffer and Jim C. Hines

Kaitlyn rapped the Plexiglas window. “I need to talk to someone in regulation and oversight.”

The woman behind the barrier glanced up in annoyance. Kaitlyn suspected the woman had been in the middle of a personal chat session. “Your name?” she asked.

“Kaitlyn Chadwick.”

“And your business?”

“I want to appeal my deactivation as a Trueheart athlete.”

“Please be seated.”

Kaitlyn returned to her seat. The Trueheart offices were on the rim of the station’s central wheel. The gravity was near earth normal and the furnishings were extravagantly expensive. A deep pile beige carpet cushioned her steps and she sank into a deliciously overstuffed faux leather sofa. A polished mirror decorated one wall, and lush green plants basked under fiberoptic lighting, piped in through the hull just a few meters beneath her feet.

She gnawed a fingernail while she waited. Time passed slowly, and no one called for her. Finally, Kaitlyn went back to the window and tapped again. “I’m going to be late for my sister’s race.”

“You’ll be helped as soon as an associate is free.”

“I just want to file some paperwork. What’s the holdup?” Kaitlyn demanded.

The woman looked away and pressed a button on her console. “Are you ready for Miss Chadwick?” she said. She put her finger to the earbud delicately nestled in her left ear. “I see. I’ll inform her.” The clerk looked back up at Kaitlyn and said, “You’re no longer eligible for appeal. The last decision was final.”

“No!” Kaitlyn shouted. “I had thirty days to file a new appeal.” There had been a clause in small print at the bottom of her last rejection offering another appeal. As long as the appeal process continued, hope survived.

The clerk frowned at her monitor. “Yes. Unfortunately, the window for appeals expired one year from the date of the original decision. You’ve appealed three times, and each time the deactivation was affirmed. Trueheart won’t risk you in the water again.”

It was a year wasted. A year waiting for medical tests and chasing affidavits from doctors.

Tears stung Kaitlyn’s eyes. She refused to let them fall. “You can’t deactivate me,” she said. “I don’t have anything else. I was made to be in the water. I’ll die out here.”

“I’m sorry,” the woman said flatly, without any visible sympathy. “Your insurance policy has been totaled out. Even if you were completely healthy, you’re uninsurable.”

“I only had one seizure,” said Kaitlyn, changing tactics. She pulled out her palm computer. “I’ve got an affidavit saying I’ll accept all responsibility. I’ll swim at my own risk.”

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” said the woman. She didn’t look at the computer Kaitlyn had pressed against the window. “Don’t force me to summon security.”

A wave of cold calm washed over Kaitlyn. She wanted to scream and pound the window, but that would only get her fined and possibly arrested. “I understand,” she said. As she turned to walk out, she said under her breath, “But I’m not giving up.”

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The Diamond Star © 2005 Cherith Baldry

“A million euros.” Charlie Braddock slapped his expansive white shirt front. “A million euros that necklace cost me. My Nancy has to have the best.”

“Fascinating,” murmured Lord Wystan Rievaulx.

 

Colonel Hugo Crichton could not help thinking that the industrialist’s wife would have looked more comfortable in tweeds and a twinset than her electric blue silk and glittering collar with its diamond sunburst. Her hostess, the cool and correct Lady Laura Esmond, wore nothing more ostentatious than a single string of matched pearls.

 

“Aye, I’m not short of a bit o’ brass,” Braddock concluded complacently.

 

“Well, I hope you have a strongbox at the bank to keep the necklace in,” Hugo could not help pointing out.

 

“Bank! I reckon nowt to banks.” Braddock was scornful. “My safe’s good enough for me.”

 

Hugo winced. Braddock’s flaunting of his wealth would have been unwise at any time, and all the more so now, when Lancaster and the countryside around was plagued by the crimes of the thief that Roger Esmond, the Lord Lieutenant himself, had named White Rose. Especially when Hugo was almost certain that White Rose himself was standing there, wearing impeccable evening dress and a look of absorbed interest in every word the industrialist let fall.

 

“My dear Hugo.” Lord Wystan spoke as if he could read his mind. “Mr Braddock has not been here for very long. Perhaps he hasn’t heard about your … little problem?”

 

“Little problem!” Hugo set his teeth, forcing back the familiar fury that always assailed him in Lord Wystan’s presence. “Mr Braddock, you know we’ve had a spate of thefts round here in the last few months?”

 

“Aye, Esmond told me.” Braddock took a gulp of his champagne. “White Rose, or some such nonsense. And you’re the chap they sent from London to catch him.”

 

“That’s right.”

 

“Not had much luck so far, have you?” Braddock chuckled. “I wish he’d come knocking at my door. I’d show him a thing or two.”

Lord Wystan looked up at him, violet-blue eyes wide with admiration. “I’m sure you have excellent security.”

 

“Aye, I have an’ all. Yon local chap – Marriott – set it up for me. There’s – ”

 

“Mr Braddock,” Hugo interrupted. “Best not talk about these things. You never know who might be listening.”

Braddock stared around at the guests in the castle’s Shire Hall. Its cool grey space was seldom as crowded as this, Hugo reflected; in these austere days there were few excuses to dress up and celebrate. This reception was hosted by Roger Esmond and Lady Laura for Braddock himself, to inaugurate his scheme of reopening the artificial silk works to the north of the city. It should bring new prosperity to the area, and Hugo only wished that he could like Braddock better, or rid himself of the suspicion that most of the profit would go into the industrialist’s own pocket.

 

Braddock’s braying laugh cut across the murmur of conversation and clink of glasses. “Here? White Rose here? You’re joking, Colonel – but happen you’re right at that. I’ll keep my mouth shut.”

 

“I hope you won’t have any trouble,” Hugo said, not entirely truthfully. “Just to be on the safe side, I’ll come round in the morning and check your systems.”

 

Braddock gave him a hard stare, on the verge of being offended. “That won’t be necessary.”

 

“Hugo is so frightfully efficient,” Lord Wystan murmured. He laid a hand on Hugo’s sleeve – a feather-light touch. “And now excuse me, my dear Hugo. I must go and pay my respects to our hostess. Mr Braddock.”

 

He drifted away. Hugo watched him join Lady Laura and Mrs Braddock, and wondered how long it would be before he managed to turn the conversation to the excellence of Braddock’s safe and his security arrangements. There wasn’t much that Hugo could do about it, short of breathing down Lord Wystan’s neck for the entire evening: the very thought made him shudder. Besides, he could not stifle a sneaking longing that White Rose would relieve Braddock of his wife’s jewels, and puncture the man’s intolerable self-assurance.

Hugo escaped from Braddock by leaving him with Major Marriott, head of the local Criminal Division. As the man responsible for Braddock’s security system, perhaps he could convince the industrialist to take the threat from White Rose more seriously.

Wondering how soon he could decently leave, Hugo manoeuvred his way to the edge of the crowd. He was depositing his wine glass on one of the white-draped tables when a voice spoke behind him.

 

“You don’t look impressed.”

 

Hugo turned to see Jane Taverner. Her long black dress reminded him of the cassock she wore to go about her business as Vicar of Lancaster, sombre against the shields which hung on the wall behind her: the bright blazons of kings and lord lieutenants and constables of the castle, stretching back for hundreds of years.

 

“With Braddock?” he said. “No, I’m not. Yet I’ve nothing against the man,” he added conscientiously. “The area needs more jobs, and his new scheme should provide them.”

 

Jane’s eyes narrowed slightly. “You haven’t invested with him, have you?”

 

The sharp tone made Hugo uneasy. He shook his head. “No. Why? There’s nothing wrong with his scheme, is there?”

 

Jane paused, unselfconsciously thrusting a hand through her springy black curls. “Not that I know of, but … Well, he appears here, buys that rambling old house, prepares to invest time and money in the old silk works … and whoever heard of him before this? Why should he come to Lancaster ?”

 

Hugo shrugged. He had never asked himself those questions before.

 

“And why the old silk works?” Jane went on. “It’s a massive project. What is he going to do for power, to start with? He’ll need to build generators. And the machinery must need repair; who’s going to do that? I’m not happy about it at all.”

 

“You haven’t invested, surely?”

 

Jane grinned. “Nothing to invest. But a good half of my congregation have put money into his scheme – money they couldn’t afford, in a lot of cases. If it fails …” She let her voice trail off, her mouth twisting.

 

Hugo scanned the crowd and spotted Braddock again, talking to Roger Esmond, prodding him in the chest with one sausage-like finger. Roger Esmond looked less than enchanted with his guest.

 

“Now there’s a man who has invested,” Hugo said. “Esmond. Quite a good sum, from what I hear.”

 

“He can afford it.” Jane’s tone was cynical. “If the worst comes to the worst, he can always slap on another tax. Whoever goes short, it won’t be Roger Esmond.”

 

“There’s an uncharitable thought from a woman of God,” Hugo remarked with a faint smile.

 

"I'll confess it." Her eyes grew shadowed as she went on, "And I'll pray about this scheme of Braddock's. If it fails, there'll be a lot of hardship this winter."

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Mall Warriors © 2005 Ryck Neube

Haf Nelson paced the width of the mall director’s office. Fear knotted his stomach as he wondered why he had been summoned. What was his crime? he wondered. No, more accurately, which of his sins had been witnessed?

“Why did we have to stop at a BEF mall?” he muttered. “Nobody else cares.”

Pausing at the window-wall, he stared. A hundred meters below, the prow of the mall snailed across The Blight. Three times larger than the freighter that fetched him a hundred light-years to the hell of Medevev II, a mall’s size never ceased to astonish Haf. Nor did the churning grey vista of The Blight ever fail to depress him.

He could feel the planet’s hatred of humanity, of all life.

A hovercraft dashed across the plain in front of the mall. It was a Mark XXVI, fresh from the GM factory orbiting the planet. The acid rains had yet to dull the turtle’s shiny shell. As a prospector, Haf could not help but wonder if its occupants would make a rich strike.

“You folks must already be rich to afford a Mark XXVI.”

He sighed. No matter how he tried to deny the situation, the office reminded him of his impending doom. A knot in his throat strangled him.

“The malls don’t care what we do, as long as we bring our artifacts back to sell to them,” he said to his reflection.

The secretary who ushered Haf to the director’s inner sanctum appeared. “I am sorry, but there’s a conflict in Director Kollek’s schedule. Would it be possible for you to return in six hours?”

Haf headed for the door. “Impossible, unless I am under arrest.”

Waist-length brown hair swished as the secretary dropped to his knees. “Please, the director will hold me responsible.  Please.”

A glance at his pocketwatch gave him time to feel sorry for the flunkie. A peon’s life was difficult enough without Haf taking out his anger on the poor guy.

“Tell your boss I will return in six hours as a personal fav to you. And I will wait precisely one minute for her majesty.”

 

Haf strolled into the fourth bar. Instinct more than eyes scanned the gathering. The only prospector to be seen was Jefe Aurelios. Not surprising, he thought, since the gossip mill found Jefe guilty of murdering the crew of the last turtle he worked on.

All he needed was a couple of prospectors willing to pay to accompany them on the next mission. Then he could buy the supplies they needed, and their hovercraft Findrinny could leave the mall, getting back to the business of finding Te’na artifacts.

He stopped at the Cummins Bistro, having glimpsed a familiar face. Amy Forcelli owned her own turtle until coming home once too often with an empty hold. Still, she had a decade of prospecting behind her; she had forgotten more than Haf ever knew about The Blight.

Sitting opposite her, he mimed for coffee from an approaching waiter.

“How have you been doing, Amy?”

“I’m not interested shipping out on the Findrinny.”

“C’mon, you won’t find a more affordable share to buy on the entire mall.”

“I’m not interested.  Your turtle came home empty twice already this year.  I can’t afford your bad luck.”

“Luck is a crock.  And dry runs are a fact of the prospecting life.”  He bit his tongue recalling her history.

“Twice turns to three more times than not.”

“With your savvy, we can--”

“I don’t feel like being social, Nelson. Go away.

He stood as the waiter arrived with his coffee. Dropping a twenty dollar coin on the table, he said, Here, the java is on me.”

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Stopover © 2005 Philip J. Lees

“My name eez Raoul. Can I buy you a drink?”

No, really. That’s just how he said it. Like a guy from some bad old vid. I looked him up and down. Mostly down. His head came just about up to my shoulders, which meant that my main assets were right on a level with his eyeballs. That seemed to suit him fine. I pulled my shoulders back, took a breath and treated him to a swivel on the barstool so he could take in the view. Man! that felt good.

“Sure,” I said.

“Splendid, splendid. What eez your pleasure?”

After Stygis 12 any male would be an improvement; even that twisted runt behind the bar would have done if nothing better came along. Raoul was short, balding and had one of those thin moustaches that look as if they’re painted on, but he was definitely male. I smiled.

“I’ll have another beer,” I said.

“A beautiful lady like you should be drinking champagne.” He probably thought he was managing a seductive smile but he was wrong. It was a leer. I know a leer when I see one. Anyway, he didn’t insist. He climbed onto the stool next to me as the barman twisted the caps off and poured.

“Salud!” He clinked his glass against mine. “What’s your name, beautiful lady?” He was trying to look me in the face but his eyes kept straying to my neckline. I couldn’t blame him. I’m no Cleopatra, though one of the girls on Stygis told me my features have a ‘primitive grandeur’, whatever the hell that means.

“Lesley. Call me Les.” Thank you, Ma! Imagine how that went down on Stygis. Four years in an all-female rehab center with a name like Les. I hadn’t stood a chance. Oh well, it wasn’t so bad after I got used to it. At least I’m big enough to take care of myself most times. Strong enough to draw a line when I absolutely had to.

“A beautiful name for a beautiful woman. Splendid.” His insincerity was touching, and so was he. I took his hand off my knee.

“Naughty Raoul!” I gave him the smile and the sideways look and he shifted on the stool.

Raoul’s attempts at conversation were so painful to witness that I only made him buy me two drinks before I took him back to my cabin. He drooled a bit over my splendids and after that it was all over very quickly. Never mind. At least he was a male.

When Raoul left, taking with him the odor of garlic and cheap cologne, I still couldn’t sleep, so I dressed again, went back to the bar and got chatting with the guy behind it. Despite his weird appearance and the fact that he talked like a bullfrog with laryngitis he was likeable in his own way and I started to relax for the first time since I got to the Suzy Q.

“Been here long, Freddie?” I asked him at one point.

“Coupla years. Long enough.” He’d started to clear up, but not in a way that said he wanted me to leave. “How about you. How long were you up for?”

“Twenty-five five. How did you know?”

He shrugged lopsided shoulders. “Sometimes I can sense these things.”

Twenty-five five. That’s five years for me and twenty-five back on earth. Relativistic time is a wonderful thing. I hadn’t realized until they handed me one out that a life sentence isn’t for the criminal, it’s for the victim and the victim’s family. Thanks to Einstein the courts can now dispense compassion and retribution at the same time.

Anyway, with good behavior I was out on parole in less than four. Still twenty-five back home, though. They planned my return trip that way. No cheating on the retribution. Of course, in my case it made no sense because the victim’s family was just me.

At least Freddie hadn’t asked me what I was in for. I appreciated the tact, but I liked him, so I told him anyway.

He shook his head. “That’s bad,” he said. Not being judgmental, just stating a fact.

“I know,” I sighed. “It was a crazy time, Freddie. My man had walked out, the rent was due and she just wouldn’t stop squalling, no matter what I did. I just lost it there for a minute.” For a second I had a flashback to that moment of awful silence: an instant of relief, and then the terror that rolled up from my feet until I shook with the power of it. “I took her to the hospital,” I said, “but it was too late.” Why was I telling him all this? It must have been the drink making me maudlin and now some dust had got into my eyes. I wiped them with a tissue.

“So where are you headed?”

“Don’t know yet. You probably know how it is. They shipped me here, gave me an open ticket. I can be back on Earth in six months if I want to.”

“And do you?”

“Freddie, I just don’t know. Anybody I knew back then will have forgotten all about me. Anyone who hasn’t won’t want to know me, anyway. What’s there for me? Just the bad memories.”

He must have thought that the bottom of my empty glass wasn’t interesting enough for me to be staring into it like that, so he filled it again. I thanked him. It looked as if it was going to be a long night.

Out here there are too many stars. So many, they fill the sky. Not like home, where you can play ‘join the dots’ and try to make out the constellations. (Hell, that never looked like a scorpion to me, anyway!) But here the sky’s full of them, like a mist. You can imagine any picture you want. There’s nothing to get hold of. Sometimes they feel so close it’s like I’m drowning in the light. Other times they’re all so far away the loneliness is unbearable. So many stars, so many choices.

I left Freddie’s quarters in the early ‘morning’, station time. He was kind, tender, considerate and, all in all, someone I absolutely didn’t mind waking up beside. The only reason I left when I did was because I felt like some privacy for a while. There was almost none of that where I had spent the last few years and it was something I was learning to enjoy all over again.

Anyway, I was feeling much better than I had the night before. Better about myself; better about my future. I napped for an hour, having nothing else to do, and then went in search of breakfast.

As soon as I left my cabin it was obvious that something was going on. Station people were moving purposefully from place to place with worried expressions on their faces, trying not to show they were in a hurry. I couldn’t remember when I’d last seen someone in a hurry. Certainly not on Stygis, where you tried to drag everything out for as long as possible, just to use up the time. So I speeded up myself, thinking that the gossip was sure to have reached Fast Freddie’s Bar and Grill before I got there.

I wasn’t wrong. Freddie wasn’t there himself, but there was a young girl behind the bar, blonde hair, skin as pale as mine was dark, flipping eggs on a skillet while fielding questions from the small crowd that had assembled.

“They say there’s an unscheduled ship coming up the needle.”

“Unscheduled? How can that be? There’s no such thing as an unscheduled ship.”

“That’s what I heard.”

It made no sense to me, either. I’d read a lot on Stygis, not just in the classes they made us sit through, but also for myself, since there wasn’t a whole lot else to do. Time was a plentiful commodity there, like I said, and I’d spent some of it reading up on the Suzy Q, knowing that’s where I’d be dumped when I got out. We were in orbit about a special kind of black hole that somehow connected hundreds of different points throughout the galaxy. You could send a ship down the needle and in what seemed like only a few minutes it could travel to another needle and come out in a different station, light years away. If you didn’t get lost, that is. Nobody knew what happened to the ones that got lost.

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Jigsaw © 2004 Doug Smith

Still in shock, Cassie Morant slumped in the cockpit of the empty hopper, staring at the two viewplates before her.

In one, the planet Griphus, a blue, green and brown marble wrapped in belts of cloud, grew smaller. Except for the shape of its land masses, it could have been Earth.

But it wasn’t. Griphus was an alien world, light-years from Sol System.

A world where nineteen of her shipmates were going to die.

And one of them was Davey.

On the other viewplate, the segmented, tubular hull of the orbiting Earth wormship, the Johannes Kepler, grew larger. Cassie tapped a command, and the ship's vector appeared, confirming her fears.

The ship’s orbit was still decaying. She opened a comm-link.

“Hopper two to the Kepler. Requesting docking clearance,” she said.

Silence. Then a male voice crackled over the speaker, echoing cold and metallic in the empty shuttle.

“Acknowledged, Hopper two. You are clear to dock, segment beta four, port nine.”

Cassie didn’t recognize the voice, but that wasn’t surprising. The Kepler held the population of a small city, and Cassie was something of a loner. But she had no trouble identifying the gruff rumble she heard next.

“Pilot of hopper, identify yourself. This is Captain Theodor.”

Cassie took a breath. “Sir, this is Dr. Cassandra Morant, team geologist.”

Pause. “Where’s team leader Stockard?” Theodor asked.

Davey. “Sir, the rest of the surface team was captured by the indigenous tribe inhabiting the extraction site. The team is ...” Cassie stopped, her throat constricting.

“Morant?”

She swallowed. “They’re to be executed at sunrise.”

Another pause.

“Did you get the berkelium?” Theodor finally asked.

Cassie fought her anger. Theodor wasn’t being heartless. The team below was secondary to the thousands on the ship.

“Just a core sample, sir,” she said. “But it confirms that the deposit’s there.”

Theodor swore. “Dr. Morant, our orbit decays in under twenty hours. Report immediately after docking to brief the command team.” Theodor cut the link.

Cassie stared at the huge wormship, suddenly hating it, hating its strangeness. Humans would never build something like that, she thought.

Consisting of hundreds of torus rings strung along a central axis like donuts on a stick, the ship resembled a giant metallic worm. A dozen rings near the middle were slowly rotating, providing the few inhabited sections with an artificial gravity.

Thousands of us, and we barely fill a fraction of it, she thought. It wasn’t meant for us. We shouldn’t be here.

Humans had just begun to explore their solar system, when Max Bremer and his crew had found the wormships, three of them, outside the orbit of Pluto.

Abandoned? Lost? Or left to be found?

Found by the ever curious, barely-out-of-the-trees man-apes of Earth. Found with charted wormholes in Sol System. Found with still-only-partly-translated, we-think-this-button-does-this libraries and databases, and we-can’t-fix-it-so-it-better-never-break technology. Incredibly ancient yet perfectly functioning Wormer technology.

Wormers. The inevitable name given to Earth’s unknown alien benefactors.

Five years later, humanity was here, exploring the stars, riding like toddlers on the shoulders of the Wormers.

But Cassie no longer wanted to be here. She wished she was back on Earth, safely cocooned in her apartment, with Vivaldi playing, lost in one of her jigsaw puzzles.

She shifted uncomfortably in the hopper seat. Like every Wormer chair, like the ship itself, it almost fit a human. But not quite.

It’s like forcing a piece to fit in a jigsaw, she thought. It’s a cheat, and in the end, the picture is wrong. Humans shouldn’t be here. We forced ourselves into a place in the universe where we don’t fit. We cheated, and we’ve been caught. And now we’re being punished.

For they faced a puzzle that threatened the entire ship. She’d had a chance to solve it on the planet.

And she’d failed.

Cassie hugged herself, trying to think. She was good at puzzles, but this one had a piece missing. She thought back over the events since they'd arrived through the wormhole four days ago. The answer had to be there ...

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