Monday, April 30, 2012

Tales of the U'tanse: Genesis - Part 1 of 3

© 2010 by Henry Melton

"Honey, I'm home."
Abe Whiting, AKA, Aie, the U'tanse, closed the airtight door behind him and slipped through the first of the low-ceiling bubble-like chambers, making sure the lock was secure and the air was set to remove the poisonous nitrates from the air. When the dots on the wall changed color, he removed his leather breathing mask.
There was noise of movement deeper in the warren of chambers that the extinct Delense would have called palatial.  There were times when he really wished he were telepathic like his wife.  He was sure it was her, but sometimes she got a little...strange when they were apart too long.
But her outside suit, a head to toe leather outfit they both used when outside in the normal air, was hanging in the closet, so the noise was probably her.  He began peeling off his outer wear.  The less exposure they had to the toxins native to this planet, the less work she had to do to keep them both healthy.  Three or four days unprotected exposure without her psychically enhanced healing, and no Earth-born life could survive.
Unfortunately, other than a few rags they'd salvaged from the trucks raided by the Cerik when they were planning to invade Earth, there were no other clothes.  Their masters were hunters only.  No manufacturing, no cloth making, no sewing.  Even the leather suits were Sharon's handiwork.
He showered, his invention, and turned on the lights in the darkened living chamber.
"Aieeee!"  She pounced on him, snarling, showing her teeth.  Her fingernails, deliberately grown thick and sharp, scraped at his skin.  He hit his head hard on the floor.
"Sharon.  Honey.  I love you."  He kept his voice low and gentle.  He made no move to fight back.
She blinked.  Her hissing stopped.  She shook her head, as if fighting off a bad dream.  "Abe.  Sorry."  She began to get up, but he held her down.
"Hey, I like it like this."
"Your head hurts.  I'll fix it."
"Later.  It's been two days.  I like cuddling on the floor with my wife."
Slowly, she relaxed, and settled into his arms.  "It's the Cerik thoughts.  They're too much."
He kissed her.  "I know.  I'll make Tenthonad understand.  We have to stay together, always."  She needed human contact, and human thoughts, as long as she was to remain human.
She smiled, a little sadly.  "How did your work go?"
He knew she could read it all out of his mind, but it was nice when she just let him talk.  
"I brought two more Delense factories back on line.  As usual, there was no real damage.  They just had to be tuned a little.  One of them had its main control center smashed to bits when the Cerik who owned it just got angry that the machine wouldn't make his processed animal feed and tried to claw it into submission.  Luckily there was a standby system I could make work."
She sighed.  "Do the Cerik really understand what they've done to themselves by killing off their Builders?"
"You're the telepath.  I'd say no.  They didn't really appreciate what their slaves did for them."
"I hope they appreciate you."
"Tenthonad does.  His clan is gaining ground like mad.  He's charging square miles of land for every factory I bring back."
"He's not so happy with me."
Abe stroked her head.  Her long white hair was growing back, now that she spent most of her time in Earth-friendly air.  He understood why she was reluctant to have children, in this hostile environment, to be raised as slaves if they even survived the onslaught of predator thoughts growing up.
She was reading him.  Reading his idle thoughts and his deep desires.  Abe wanted children, badly.  If there were just a way it to make it happen.  Until then, she would have to be vigilant.  She shifted her legs around his and moved her hips.  Abe's eyes closed as he breathed in her essence.
Asca, the Telepath approached Egh, the Scientist, rattling his claws to be acknowledged.
"Yes, what is it?"
"They are mating again."
"Again?  It seems like they do that every day.  Is there any sign that she is bearing cubs?"
"No.  And I don't think she will, until she decides to."
He knew roughly what she was doing, killing off her mate's seed with her mind even as she requested more from him.  It made no sense, but he wished he had her skill.  Think of the power a warrior would have, if he could repair injuries in his body!  But he knew of no Cerik with that skill.  
"We need to make her breed!  Without more U'tanse, Tenthonad's position in the Faces is in the wind."  And theirs as well, but he didn't need to say that.  When they arrived at Home World, without a treasure world claim, and with their ship damaged so badly that the navigation log showing the position of the U'tanse planet was corrupted past recovery, he'd barely survived the challenge of their own clan.
But the male, Aie, had proved the value of the U'tanse by quickly restoring the ability of the clan to feed captive Runners.  Every Large Moon, it seemed he found new ways to restore Delense machines that had been thought lost forever.  Other clans were trading lands and runners for the services of the little alien.  
Asca suspected the Rakla-del of a female telepath had been responsible for the loss of the path back to her world, but he couldn't prove it, and he dared not suggest it, for that would be to proclaim that he was too weak a telepath to tell whether she was lying or not.  Admitting weakness was unthinkable.
Egh's Second waited patiently, just outside the chamber, listening to the two.  He had long practiced the habit of listening without thinking.  Asca might be a weak name, with no Second of his own, but he was still a telepath, and one should be trained in the ineda to deal with his kind.  He would think later, when the telepath was busy with other concerns.
The Home Planet rumbled, but then, it always did.  Its moon, nearly as large as Luna, was in a much more elliptical orbit, reaching close enough to trigger landquakes and volcano eruptions on almost every pass.  Within the history of the Cerik, islands had sunk beneath the waves and new mountain ranges had risen.  Within the oral history of the Cerik--because they had no written history.  Reading was elusive--one of those skills some of the slave races used.  Part of the genius of the Delense, the extinct Builders, had been the ability to craft machines that could be run with the slash of a talon, and instruments that showed their results in cartoon-like images--all so that their masters could run some of the machines themselves.
Abe loved his robe.  Sharon had made it from a box of red automotive utility rags that they'd scavenged from the wreck of a truck that had crossed the star lanes with them.  She'd made herself a housedress out of rolls of cheese cloth that she'd likewise salvaged from the grocery store supplies.  He was so lucky to have married a woman who never worried about how much skin was showing.
He sat at a desk that was totally Delense in construction.  It was good enough for him--flat and hard like a desk ought to be.  The giant beaver-like creatures had been engineers after all.  With a stool the right height, he had a workspace that felt right at home.  He picked up the stack of school notebooks that had never made it to the school supply shelves and clicked a ball point pen.  If he never made it back to Earth, and if they started a branch of the human race here on this planet, his children would need a history.  Until he ran out of paper, he'd write down everything he knew, everything he remembered, everything about Earth, the human race, and where they came from.
A tiny scrap of loose paper fell out where he'd left off.  In Sharon's crisp lettering, was a list of other slave species scavenged from planets nearly destroyed by the supernova. Abe knew some of the information already, but they never discussed their plans to escape. Not verbally. Not in a manner a passing telepath could discover. Anything that hinted at less than total loyalty to Tenthonad and his clan had to be passed in this fashion, and kept loosely in the mind. It was a difficult, long range plan, but being unarmed slaves on a planet with a poisonous atmosphere limited their options. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Prologue to Tales of the U'tanse

© 2011 by Henry Melton

At the end of the novel, Star Time, there are attached two short stories which serve as bridges to more adventures.  We have already seen "Hodge's Heart" which leads to the novel Kingdom of the Hill Country.  However, Abe and Sharon, the main characters of Star Time, head off to a very different future.  Below is the prologue for a collection of short fiction to be collected as Tales of the U'tanse.  Other than the initial tale which appeared after the novel and will come next, these stories will appear here on this site first, before becoming a published anthology.

Before The Arrival
After thousands of years being nothing more than the ‘arm-pit’ of the constellation Orion in the sky of the Human Home World, Betelgeuse had the last say.  It was getting old, as stars go.  For all of human history and more, it had been a red giant, bloated up and just hanging on.
Then the time came.  The star collapsed and exploded into a supernova.  Not a tidy one.  There were lobes and flares in this gigantic eruption.  One of those flares just happened to be aimed at a much smaller star, Sol, the parent star of the planet called Earth.  
The human technology, based on tiny structures called semiconductors, collapsed under the onslaught of powerful electromagnetic pulses.  And then high velocity particles blasted that atmosphere, bathing the planet in sickening radiation.  Many died, but as the Star faded, people had learned to stay out of the star light and were posed for survival and recovery.
It could have been much worse.  The Cerik are predators and it was as natural as breathing to wait in hiding until prey were weakened and distressed.  If it had not been for our ancestors, the first of the U’tanse.  All of the Earth and all of the humans would have been prey for the chase.
Abe and Sharon fought the Cerik for all of human kind, and they won, at the cost of their own freedom.
That is the great secret we share, behind our telepathic blocks and our acts of servitude to our Cerik masters.  Two U’tanse defeated a Cerik clan, and we have inherited all of their power.  Someday, when the time is right, the U’tanse will move, and reclaim our freedom.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Hodge's Heart - Part 2 of 2

© 2010 by Henry Melton

Keith Franklin looked at the metal contraption, twice the size of a chest freezer, resting on the back of the wagon.
"I'm sure you're know that April never haggled over the prices?"
He nodded.  "Never budged."
Hodges opened the panel on the side, showing a screen and keyboard and various ports and slots.  "It's because the charges are built in down at the packet level.  She couldn't change them.  Now this communications center will be fully operational once you connect it to city power and run the first antenna, but each additional antenna will cover a different radio band and the more you add, the cheaper your costs will be."
Keith raised a timid hand, "Excuse me, why is that again?"
Hodges nodded, never showing exasperation. "Here is an example.  A message from Scandinavia addressed to your ID arrives on the ten-meter radio band, but suppose you only have stretched an antenna for the twenty-meter band and your radio doesn't pick it up.  If the station here at IIS headquarters picks it up, the system will know that your station isn't active on ten-meters yet so it will record the data and re-transmit it to you on twenty-meters.  Each time it has to be recorded and re-transmitted, more charges are added.  You would still get the message, but at a greater cost.  Understand?"
"Yes.  So, what does this thing cost?  I'm not rich."
"But you know the business.  That's why I'm leasing it to you rather than to a grocer or a carpenter.  You never pay me.  Your lease charges add a fraction to your message costs.  After ten years or so, they'll drop off.  In addition, as more stations are built and distributed, you'll be making re-transmit costs off of them.  Believe me, I want you to make a good living off this.  We will be competitors, but regardless of your charges for electricity, office space, and helpers, people on your side of town will likely do business with you rather than cross town to do business with me. I'll make my profit in Information Credits over the life of your equipment--a trickle that won't stop for years.  You'll make yours off every message that flows through your station.  You'll sell your Info Credits to your customers in exchange for regular cash.  Everybody wins."
Hodges showed him the way it was to be set up, with detailed printed instructions.  Keith was thinking about buildings where he could set up shop.  It was exciting, and frightening.
Suddenly, Hodges stopped in mid-sentence, frozen like a statue.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Franklin.  I'll have to finish this later.  Please come back and speak with me tomorrow, okay?"
"Is there a problem?"
"There's a personal issue, unrelated to you.  We'll still do business.  Sorry."
He flipped the cover down to protect the gear and moved quickly back into the office.
"April."  The girl looked up at his tone. "Get out the telephone and call Medical Alert.  Tell them to get to Mary Ellen's house."
"Granny? What's wrong?"  She was already at the special cabinet, pulling out the ancient piece of gear.
"Tell them it may be a heart attack or a stroke."
April's eyes were shiny, but she was all business.  There were only a few dozen active phone numbers in Austin, and the important ones were written on a sheet in front of her.  She made the call and got the doctors on the way.  Hodges had already left. She was left alone in the office. She shouldn't leave.  But it's Granny!  Hodges was never wrong about things like this.  She suspected he was psychic, like the guy that worked for the Mayor.
She locked the doors.
"Miss Jensen!"  Keith pulled around with his bicycle.
"I've got to go.  My Granny is sick."
He nodded.  "Then get on.  I'll take you."  The bicycle had a carrying cage on the back.  It was uncomfortable, but she made it work.  They passed Hodges on the way, his long cloak flapping around him as he made a steady but slow run.  Hodges waved them on.
April was there to lead the Medics in.  They didn't smile as they worked.
The hospital room was small but private.  The Jensen family and Hodges waited in shifts.  Scott Jensen looked a lot older than his age, and his wife Denise was worried about him as well.  Denise and April went in to wait with Mary Ellen Victor, April's godmother.  She had no relatives left, but since the Star, they had been family.
Scott pulled out a large bottle of clear liquid and when no one was looking, handed it to Hodges.
"Thank you."  He placed it in a pocket of his coat.  "I haven't had time to refuel."
"It's 190 proof.  I haven't been able to get the last of the moisture out."
"It will do."
They sat in silence.  Nearly everything they'd had to talk about over the years had already been said.
Almost everything.
"Scott.  You have seen the terms of Mary Ellen's Will?"
He nodded.  "You get the company.  We get the house and lands."
Hodges nodded.  "I am also aware of your medical condition.  Denise and April will not want for funds. Nor your grandchildren, when they come."
"Stupid T."
The thyroid cancer caused by the fallout in the bad years had become so common it had its own nickname.  Everyone knew someone who had it.  Medical care had not recovered enough in the eight years since the collapse to treat anyone.
Denise came out after a few minutes.  "She's awake.  She wants to talk to Hodges."
He rose and went to the room.  April was in the bed beside her Granny, holding on tight.
"Mary Ellen."
She looked at him.  "Still dressed like the Shadow, I see."
"It serves its purpose."
She looked down at the girl cuddling in her arms.  She couldn't bring herself to send the little one away.
"What can you tell me?"  she asked.  She was struggling with the words.  Her heart was damaged beyond recovery.
Hodges nodded.  They had gotten used to talking in code when they had to talk in the presence of people who did not know what he was.
"There is no sign of Abe yet.  No part of his craft beyond the tail section we found last year has been detected.  And yes, I still believe he lives.  But the chances are that he was taken away."
Mary Ellen closed her eyes, nodding.  Over the years, she'd been infected by the irrational hope that her adopted son had survived that impossible battle eight years earlier.  Certainly his enemies had never appeared either.  Perhaps, somewhere out in the stars, he still lived.
"And your plans?"  She coughed lightly, and cleared her throat.
"Wait and prepare."
Mary Ellen stroked April's hair.  "Honey, could you go tell the nurse to bring me something to clear my throat please."
She nodded and climbed down and left the room.
"So, Hodgepodge, are you still planning to take over the world?"
He had no expression.  "I plan to place myself at the center of the recovery.  To be ready to serve Abe when he returns, I must have a technological civilization to maintain myself.  To that end, I am restarting a new worldwide network, as you know."
"An Internet you control."
She nodded.  "So this is the last chance I have to stop you."
"Correct.  You and Abe can change my programming.  No one else."
There was a moment of labored breathing.  "You will always work for Abe's approval."
He didn't even reply.  That was an axiom.
She nodded.  "I hope my Creator judges me as faithful as you have been to yours.  Could you call the Jensen's in now?"
He nodded and left.  He sent her family in and found a restroom where he could pour the alcohol fuel into his internal fuel-cell's tank before leaving.  There was still much to be done.
Keith fumbled the entry form, struggling under the eyes of the customer.
"The little girl would have already finished that."
"Yes, but just be glad we're open today.  They're all at the funeral."
"Oh yeah, I heard about that.  Victor was a feisty old lady, right to the end.  I remember her fighting the City Council over the moonlight towers.  She lost, but it was a good fight.  We needed people like her."
Keith calculated the charges and keyed the query into the system.  "Check back in a couple of days.  We should know by then if someone is going to bid on it.
"By the way, what part of town are you from?"
"Downtown, off Congress Avenue."
"Well, you might be interested in the fact that I'll be starting up a branch office just on the other side of the bridge in a few weeks."
"Really?  That's interesting.  I assume little April will train you how to do it?"
He nodded, a sad grin on his face.  "I hope."
Hodges stood in the back as a dozen people spoke about their memories of Mary Ellen Victor and her husband Frank.  He had declined the opportunity to add to the eulogy.  It would not be in character.  The gravesite ceremony was well attended and he waited patiently, shaking hands and giving appropriate responses to all of the people who knew that he had worked with her.
Denise Jensen came by.  "Are you okay?"
He nodded.  "Yes."  She looked into his eyes, and then with a little jerk, she smiled.  "You know, I had forgotten.  It's been a while.  You look real."
"I always appreciate your honesty, Mrs. Jensen.  I always hope to be real enough for you and yours."
He smiled.  Soon enough, she would be the last human to know his secret.  Although she had never been part the technology that her failing husband Scott maintained, she'd been there when the first of his humanoid bodies had been tested, and her critiques had contributed to what had been done right, and what he kept hidden under his coat and hat.
It was important that she trust him all the rest of her life.  
Eventually, he was the last one there.  Light was fading.  He moved closer so the video recording he was making got a good view of her grave.  He made some minor touchup, smoothing the grass patches and arranging the flowers more symmetrically.  Mary Ellen had never made any requests about her burial, other than it be in the grave beside her husband.  She never seemed to think in terms of her death.
Still, he was working to remake the world in the absence of Abe's explicit commands.  It was no stretch to make allowances for what Mary Ellen would have wanted, if she were still here.
A car pulled up near the gravesite.  It was his.  Another branch of his consciousness had driven one of the disguised, remote-control vehicles out here to pick him up.  In the dark, it was safe enough.  He turned off the recorder, and waited a moment.  Should he make human mannerisms here, where there was no one to see?
After some thought.  He nodded to the grave, and then left.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Hodge's Heart - Part 1 of 2

© 2010 by Henry Melton

An odd-ball feature of the book Star Time was a pair of short stories after the events of the main novel were finished.  The one that follows is a bridge between the events of Star Time and the characters and events that are chronicled in Kingdom of the Hill Country.  It takes place eight years after the Star.

Hodge’s Heart
"But why do you accept burned-out computers in payment?"
April shrugged. "I dunno. Hodges sets the rules." For an eight year old, she ran the office well. 
Keith Franklin was old enough to have grown up with web browsers and search engines. Although he was grateful for the International Information Service, since it was much better than nothing, it was frustrating to have to walk to the office and fill out his request on a piece of paper and then wait for days before he received an answer. 
"He builds things, back at the company," she offered.  "Radios and stuff."
He smiled.  "I guess that make sense.  So you've been allowed in the Whiting building?"
She raised her nose, "I was born there...almost.  When the Star happened, we moved there.  Daddy made things and Mom helped out with the garden and stuff."
"You were lucky then.  I was twenty then, and I had to live in a school building for two years, with like a hundred other people.  It was dirty and smelly when we couldn't go outside because of the Star, and then when the City of Austin couldn't feed us anymore, it just turned us loose to find something on our own."
She nodded, it was a story she'd heard many times before.  "My Granny set up the IIS.  She owns it.  Hodges makes it run, and I mind the store."  She spread her skirt like a princess and sat back down on her stool behind the bench.
Almost on cue, the door opened and a heavyset man wrapped in a long coat and a broad-rimmed hat entered from the rear door.
"Hodgie!" April smiled.
Keith nodded, "Mr. Hodges."
Rumor had it that the man was ultra sensitive to the sunlight, or that he was scarred from the city-wide fires that had occurred when the Star had flared up and destroyed the Techno civilization.  In any case, he was reclusive.
"Mr. Franklin.  I'm glad to see you.  Would you care to come to my office?"
April and Keith exchanged looks.  She shrugged.
"Certainly."  He followed the man into a large pre-Star decorated office with a small desk, but with file cabinets lining the walls and free-standing in a second row as well.
Hodges went to one of the file cabinets.  "Have a seat," he said.
Keith sat in the lone visitor's chair.  Hodges spread a small stack of papers on the desk.
"It has come to my attention that you are providing a courier service, acting as an agent for twenty-three other companies and individuals?"
He nodded.  "Well, yes.  Twenty-eight, actually, but a couple of them have never requested anything from the IIS.  I also carry messages between companies, as well as small packages.  Anything I can carry on my bicycle."
Hodges showed no expression, from what Keith could see of his face.  The man always wore the floppy hat even indoors. He hoped he wasn't violating any IIS rules by what he was doing.  It was a big part of his income.
"You understand that the IIS is nothing like the old Internet?"
"Right.  It's all wireless, I understand."
"Yes.  Since all the long distance cables and microwave links and satellites are all long gone, the only way to maintain long distance communication is short wave radio.  The IIS has evolved from the packet radio system that existed before the Star. It's not TCP/IP.  It's not the web.  And particularly, it's not free."
"I know, sir."
Hodges nodded.  "It is a common misconception among the older users that the IIS is simply charging to use the old free system simply because we have the only computers.  Charging high because we have a monopoly. I need you to understand how it really works, because I wish to make you a business proposition."
Cujo heard the footsteps echoing down the hall. He picked up the pistol he kept in his desk, more out of habit than out of fear.  It had been years since thieves had climbed the mountain up to the observatory.  But being the last astronomer in the place--maybe the last astronomer in Australia, kept him on his toes.  People from the town of Coonabarabran down below usually called on the ancient hand-cranked phone before they made the climb up to visit the last remaining Techno wizard.
He saw Larry Kelly walking the halls like he owned them, which in some part, he did, Cujo hurriedly hid the gun to avoid having to explain it.
"Hey!  Larry, what are you up to today?"
A big smile broke over the weather lined face, making the farmer look more like the astronomer he used to be.
"Hi.  I had a horrible urge to come up here and see if you'd cracked any of the mirrors."
The big, long-haired astronomer visibly shuddered.  "Don't say things like that!  But you'd have to remove the covers to check.  Just about everything is mothballed.  At least as well as I can.  It was like the end of the world when we used the last of the film.  I can still look through the eye-piece and sketch the Betelgeuse nebulae.  I do, sometimes."
They pulled up chairs.  "So, no luck on getting a sponsorship?"
Cujo looked over at the radio room.  "No, and I'm thinking I'll be spending the rest of my life in there, passing messages and answering questions."
"So you're the search engine for the world now?"
He laughed, "Hardly that.  IIS is pretty well organized.  But a lot of the queries come up for auction and it's an easy way to make Information Credits."
"Can you spend those?"
"Larry, you'd be surprised.  The Sydney station has a thriving exchange rate between dollars and ICs.  And they're the only real international money right now.  If I wanted to buy something from the US, I'd exchange east coast Aussie dollars for ICs, make the arrangements over the IIS net and the other side would convert Info Credits to their local currency."
"And then wait for a clipper ship to deliver it?"
Cujo nodded, sadly.  "We used to think we were isolated from North America and Europe before.  There are ships--I've seen the arrival manifests.  But it's back to the transportation days, or worse.  The best sailing ships still in play used to be recreation for the wealthy.  They're not designed for shipping.  No cargo space."
Larry smiled, "But you can still buy information."
Cujo saw the smile.  "Okay, you've just been playing me.  I've got your latest journals.  Which brings up another question.  Can Coona scare me up another printer?  Cathy's home grown toner works, but the drum is getting a little scarred from using it.  I could do with a fried laser printer of the same model, as long as the drum is still intact."
"I'll pass the word.  The last rail shipment through in the Spring brought us more paper, but it would be a shame if we had to go back to the days when we hired a typist."
The big man got up and returned from the radio room with a thin stack of pages.  "What is this stuff?"
He handed it to his friend.
Larry glanced through the printed sheets with a frown on his face.  "Growing crops and raising kids is a full time job, but I have my hobbies."  His frown turned dark on the last sheet.
"The price is going up."
"What is it?"
"Genetic engineering stuff.  You lose a crop to wheat wilt and you start thinking what you could so with a little better strain, one a little more disease resistant."
"That's your new hobby?"
Larry smiled sheepishly.  "Yeah.  It costs the world to get semiconductors, but anybody can blow some glassware.  The world was on the cusp of a real genetic breakthrough when the supernova happened.  We already had cloning and the procedures had simplified to the point where small labs could produce real innovations."  He gestured with the papers.  "That's what I'm reading up on.  The genetic revolution is still going on.  And these people are really making headway."
"Hence the price increase."
"Right.  The old academic in me is appalled at the idea that every scientific paper has a price tag attached, but I'd rather have the progress than let it die from lack of funds."
"You out of ICs?"
"Pretty close, and I'm not begging.  I'll write up something interesting and informative about East Australia or something."
"Don't get too wordy.  These old fingers are getting sore with all the typing I'm having to do."
"Hire someone.  I'll put out the word around town.  I bet everyone over sixteen knows how to type, or used to."
"Get someone pretty."
They laughed.  
Cujo put out his hand.  "Seriously, Larry.  Let me buy your journals.  I'd rather you discover something fabulously valuable with your test tubes than read yet another history of a struggling town.  They're a glut on the market.  Cut me in on a little share and call it even."
They shook.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Prologue to Kingdom of the Hill Country

© 2011 by Henry Melton

Kingdom of the Hill Country, coming out in just days, is the second book of the Project Saga, and takes place some eleven years after the events in Star Time.  I certainly recommend that you read that novel first, but for those who don't, I'm including this short prologue to get people up to speed.  I thought I'd share it here as well.

After Star Time
After thousands of years being nothing more than the ‘arm-pit’ of the constellation Orion, Betelgeuse had the last say.  It was getting old, as stars go.  For all of human history and more, it had been a red giant, bloated up and puffing off gas clouds, just hanging on.
It was those clouds that made the difference.  The star collapsed and exploded into a supernova.  Not a tidy one.  There were lobes and flares in this gigantic eruption.  One of those flares just happened to be aimed at a much smaller star, Sol, and it’s little collection of planets.
Normally, at that distance the brightness in the sky would have been spectacular, worthy of parties and short-lived end of the world panics.  There would have been some gamma radiation, but most of it would have never made it through the atmosphere.  Scientist would have have become media stars of the moment and then the world would have gone back to normal as the star faded.
But there were those gas clouds.  When the explosion ripped atoms and the star itself apart, first in line to get the untamed brunt of the blast were the bands of gas, smashed to plasma.  What continued on towards Earth was more than just pretty lights and gamma radiation.  The tortured remnants of the gas clouds had spawned electromagnetic pulses with power beyond anything created by puny hydrogen bombs.  Spread out over long enough time to bathe the entire rotating planet with EMP spikes, the star fried everything made out of semiconductors.
Surely, some rural villages might not have noticed the sudden failure of all radio, all Internet, all computerized engine controllers -- basically all the infrastructure of the Techno civilization.  Unfortunately, even those villagers couldn’t escape what came next.
Astronomers had taken pictures of many supernova remnants.  With their spectroscopes and historical records, they had a very good idea of just how fast the expanding envelope of a ruptured star could travel.  There was certainly no worry that anything from Betelgeuse could arrive at Earth for a long, long time.  That confidence, unfortunately, was based only on what their telescopes could see.  They couldn’t see those EMP spikes, and they couldn’t see the shock wave of ruptured atoms speeding away from the main envelope at nearly the speed of light.
Like ions from a particle accelerator, those came a bit later than the EMP and smashed into the upper reaches of the atmosphere like cosmic rays and bathed the planet in high energy fragments.  Even the isolated villagers couldn’t ignore livestock collapsing, at least those exposed to the evil looking light in the sky.
By the time the Star began to fade, it had made an indelible impression on the surviving human race.  With no long distance transportation nor communication, nations fragmented into small, isolated communities.  The global Techno civilization was gone.  It wasn’t about to reboot.  It would have to be rebuilt, piece by painful piece.
Eleven years later, a turning point was reached...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sword in the Dirt - Part 2 of 2

© 1984 by Henry Melton

Sweat was stinging Lord Erin's eyes. The action was hot, and it never let up. He was gaining a grudging respect for the Count's strength and stamina, if nothing else.
In his ear, there whispered: "Bend your left knee." "Aim for the chest." "Expect a low cut." "Aim for the ear." Normally, the voice in his ear was like his own thoughts, but this was becoming a very strange battle. More and more of the attacks against him were aimed at his head, and his own aim had been directed to the Count's copper-hued helmet far more often than was usual. There could be only one reason. While the silver medal had been awarded posthumously more than once this last decade, it was never because of a head wound. The helms were very strong. All that would be accomplished by a strike there would be damage to the sensors or the computer.
HELM TO SHIELD: Don't give me that noise. We need to take out the opponent's sensors before they take me out. I need support here.
SWORD TO HELM: Shield is right: the opponent is too fast. These attacks against his sensors are both futile and dangerous. They know very well what we are up to, and they can read our actions quickly enough to avoid head attacks. A head attack is very difficult. And your own data is telling us that the opponent is much better at it than we are. Your only chance is to go along with our plan.
TUNIC TO HELM: This is wrong.
SWORD TO TUNIC: I wouldn't worry. My plan works for a lower limb cut on our primary. You shouldn't even be harmed.
HELM TO SWORD: Feed me this sequence. I'd like to look at it.
Lord Erin was feeling the strain. His sword arm shook from fatigue, and his shield was slower to block after each strike. How could the big Russian keep it up? At least by now the swords no longer have a razor edge. Erin shook that thought away; it was defeatist.
"Aim for the chest." "Block high." "Try for the chest again." "Block high."
No! Lord Erin rejected the whispers. The Count was cutting low! Erin blocked low. The field rang with the sound of the deflected blow.
He backpedaled almost to the rope. There were more whispers in his ears, but he ignored them. He had expected this, and his fears had proved true. He must not listen any more.
The Count was puzzled by his retreat; there seemed no sense in it, but he advanced. In the free seconds Lord Erin gained, he fumbled with his chin strap and pulled his helm free. The crowd gave a collective gasp of puzzlement as his blond hair shook free in the sunlight. It was suicidal to be in the broadsword ring without head protection.
He dropped his shield and took the helm in the freed hand. The count was almost in striking range. Erin tossed the helm directly at the Count's face.
The gamble worked. The Count's sword struck the helm in midair. Erin marveled at the man's speed, even as he used his own sword to cut deep into his opponent's thigh.
That was the end. In short order, Lord Erin had his swordpoint at the man's chest. The Count cried yield. The King granted his life. And the crowd went wild. The Marshall summoned them from the circle, and Lord Erin stabbed his sword into the soil and stooped to help his fallen opponent.
Healers arrived on a run with medical kits. As they worked on the leg, Erin spoke to the Count, "You are very fast. I am not sure I would care to face you again."
The man's smile was pained, "But the best man won. And it is not you who is bleeding into the grass."
Lord Erin frowned and shook his head, "I am not sure of that. I will speak to my president, requesting an association ruling that forbids augmentation in our sport."
"But you were augmented. My tactical assured me of that!"
"Yes, I was," he glanced over to where the helm lay, split nearly in two by the Count's last stroke. "And I listened to their voices until they turned against me. They had no honor. Did you not see how the battle turned from being a contest between two men to a war between my tacticals and yours? I gambled that yours would attack my helm rather than me if given the chance, and it worked. Your tacticals betrayed you as surely as mine betrayed me. We must rid ourselves of them if this is to remain a field of honor."
"Can you move?" The Count nodded, and Lord Erin helped him to stand on his good leg. The crowd went wild as the two men moved, slowly, to face the King.
SWORD TO SHIELD: We won. We survived.
SWORD TO SHIELD: I wish the primary wouldn't leave me stuck in the dirt like this. I'll rust.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Sword in the Dirt - Part 1 of 2

© 1984 by Henry Melton

It was fun watching the SCA hold their battles, beating each other with sticks wrapped in duct tape.  But what if it became an Olympic sport, or something more?

Lord Erin James North, Earl of West Hendryn, stood at ease, balanced, with his legs at a fighting stance. He was relaxed, his mind cleared of anything more serious than the play of the gold reflection of the room lights off his armor or the balanced weight of shield and blue steel broadsword. He took a deep breath and swung his sword in a blazingly fast overhead arc.
His shield warned, "Don't overtrain. It wouldn't help anything if you had a muscle spasm right now. The fight will be in five minutes--I'll be giving you more warm-up exercises. Don't go off on your own."
Lord Erin scowled, "I moved my sword because it felt right. Don't underestimate my feeling of what is right."
The large jewel on the hilt of the sword in question pulsed blue as it added, "You have to be careful! Shield has your training schedule. If you are not going to follow our advice, you should never have made us."
"Shut up. I've got to concentrate." The Earl was irritated. Sword could choose a better time to berate him. The Russian broadsword champion would be challenging him in minutes, with only a four-point spread between them to decide who would take the gold medal and who would take the silver. Sometime after the games were over, he was going to take his sword apart and re-do its personality entirely.
The warm-up room was empty. Before a fight he preferred communion with himself and his armor and weapons to that of any human trainer. He asked his tunic, "How am I doing?"
Tunic reported his agility and metabolism quickly and with no spare words. Its personality was not nearly as extroverted as Sword. Shield announced time for a quick dozen sword-presses to prime him for the bout. Lord Erin completed the exercise just as the door opened. A page decked in a white tunic decorated in the five colored interlocking circles entered and announced the royal request for his presence.
The Earl sheathed Sword, removed Helm and tucked it under his arm. He nodded to the page and followed him out onto the bright sunny meadow.
The light breeze ruffled his blond hair with a cool breath of spring. His eyes searched the ornately carved stands where the King and his court waited. He couldn't spot the cameras this time. In the North American preliminaries, when he took Johnson, he'd spotted a lens. The president of the association had reported the lapse of protocol. Lord Erin could see everything tightening up as the final round approached. Whether it was because of the importance of the match, or just a reflection of an old European sense of fitness he appreciated the care take to insure the purity of the scene. To the eye, there was nothing in this meadow to remind him of the modern world and its modern problems.
Count Carl Shenev, Protector of the Georgian Reaches, matched his pace as they neared the royal party. Lord Erin paid him no mind as he concentrated on the elements of the presentation. There was so much to remember, and protocol forbade the wearing of a helm at this time.
SWORD TO HELM: Have you got a fix on the competition?
HELM TO SWORD: AF. We are matched. The Soviet is augmented. There is a tracer on us as well. I would guess third-generation armor--Sanford design. Our primary is due for a shock.
SWORD TO SHIELD: What are our chances?
SHIELD TO SWORD: I am working on it.
SHIELD TO HELM: I need a physiological reading on our opponent primary.
SHIELD TO TUNIC: Give me a physiological reading on our primary.
Lord Erin enjoyed the ceremony. He always did. The King took the jeweled Cross of St. Forman from its velvet case and blessed the combatants. Then they both rose from their knees. Erin turned to his party and bowed-- first to the president then to his lady. Margaret smiled confidently and blew him a kiss. A page carried her token to him, and he tucked the blue gauze into the wrist of his gauntlet.
The King's Marshall raised his hand. They saluted with their swords, then sheathed and turned to their stations. Lord Erin had placed his helm on before he had taken two steps.
The earpiece was hot from the moment he had it in place, "Trouble, the Soviet is augmented"
"Don't you want more detail?"
"No," Lord Erin shook his head. "Just give me the best advice you can. If the count is getting good advice, then it should be a fair match." He smiled. The scent of spring flowers on the warm morning wind, the caress of his lady's token on his wrist, and the weight of his armor on his shoulders made it one of life's perfect moments. He began to whistle as he approached his circle.
SWORD TO SHIELD: It is obvious from our primary's words that strategy is being left up to us this time. I can think of three offensive strategies to take.
One, we can concentrate on the primary. It will be difficult if he is indeed using the Stanford armor.
Two, we can concentrate on the secondaries. Helm should be able to give us accurate target information in order to take out the opponent's sensors. We have to expect this strategy to be directed against us. Without secondary tactical advice, the battle would revert to a classical broadsword fight--a contest of the primary's stamina, strength and instincts. We have seen what happens when one primary is augmented and the other is not. It would be worse for us if our primary was deprived of our advice. His instincts have probably atrophied. But if we could take out our opponents sensors in a first strike, then the game would be ours.
And then there is option three--
TUNIC TO SWORD: I told you before, I will not consider that. I do not approve of the discussion. It is not our job.
There were three circles, each a rod in diameter, traced in the grass with rope. The two outer circles overlapped the center one as if they were links in a chain. Battle could only be engaged in the center, and combatants could only leave at the order of the Marshall. Retreat to the end circle was permitted to replace weapons, but only for a period of one minute. Lord Erin had never made use of this option in his five years of combat and he had no intention of starting the practice.
The Marshall's voice rang out clearly, and the Earl and the Count stepped into the center circle with sword and shield held ready. The initial stroke was not long in coming. This was no fencing match. The broadsword is swung in an overhead circle, with a twist of the wrist during the last phase of the stroke to double the speed of the blade as it strikes.
These opponents were seasoned. Every stroke was hitting the shields. The clang of metal on metal rang across the scene.
In the Earl's ear, Helm spoke continuous advice as to where to place his strokes and warnings as to where the shield must be to divert the flashing metal edge that came at him every other heartbeat.
SWORD TO HELM: We must do it my way. Shield and I are the tactical brains of this outfit, and our conclusions are identical. Unless we act now, we may not survive.
SHIELD TO HELM: I agree. I have sustained more surface damage this bout than in the last three combined.
HELM TO SHIELD: Shut up and feed me the tacticals. That last one was too close to me. Where will your strategic brilliance go if my sensors are taken out?
TUNIC TO SHIELD: Helm is right. Concentrate on the fight, and do it by the book. We know you are getting hurt. That is why we must spend our total effort in winning quickly.
SWORD TO HELM: Or losing quickly.
TUNIC TO HELM: Don't listen to them. It is not our job to lose.
SHIELD TO HELM: Tunic isn't getting any damage that I can see. But I'm getting chewed up out here. Sword and I are agreed that we can choreograph a quick end to this, with minimal damage to the primary. Don't forget that you are the number one target--even more than the primary according to the attack statistics. Unless we act fast, we both might finish the day in the scrap heap, and Tunic might end up with a cold body to monitor. The greatest good for the greatest number right now is to lose, and quickly.
HELM TO SHIELD: I don't know yet. Right now I need tacticals. And give me a plan of attack against my opposite number. I want to blind that secondary!
SHIELD TO HELM: I've been working on it. Okay, transfer this.