Impact by the Numbers

Given the fact we are born on such a ball, we’re rather used to the idea of planets being solid, nigh eternal things. The truth is they are not. Nothing cuts you down to size like astronomy. We who can go to the Moon if we like, live by nature’s whim. One fell swoop and our whole world is done.

All of it. Us, life, and even the hint that any such thing ever came to be. Impact makes quite the eon.

I’m at that point in the story now where all-too-powerful Jocaster’s threat turns all-too-very real. So I paused to read up on the ancient earth turning impact that we presume made the Moon. Science is not quite certain of it yet, but the giant impact hypothesis is certainly the front runner for explaining our odd couple of a big moon and little planet. So much so that the smart money seems to be on finding the right ingredients for our simulations instead of seeking the answer somewhere else.

The idea was that Theia — another early planet, about the size of Mars and named for the mother of the Moon – slammed into our world early in its history. An unbalanced collision like that doesn’t answer some of the problems in the measured facts however, as Earth and Moon are too similar in substance while Theia should have left a trace. So recently the idea of a much more even strike has come to the fore. The kind of impact to completely destroy both worlds.

Take a look at the picture. The collision it shows is not so much catastrophic, as a true cataclysm. It’s hard to even imagine such a thing, so much energy and so great a transformation: the melting and the merger of two entire worlds. Needless to say, even with my fondness for fluid dynamics as a metaphor for magic, I am daunted at the notion of describing it!

Or even just the imminence of its risk.

The cosmic zoo doesn’t disappoint us. Collisions on this scale are common out there around other stars. Early worlds in young planetary systems are in fact a hellish place to be. It’s there in the name, no less! Indeed, not only worlds but stars themselves collide quite often in the cosmos. Our universe, so still upon the vault of our night sky, isn’t anything like as heavenly or as calm as it looks. We live in the turmoil of an inexplicable creation, an infinity of unanswered questions preceding us and our happenstance jewel of a world. Its contemplation is just one of our longest lived hobbies! And the setting for my book.

In any case, my draft was well and truly paused as I went down that rabbit hole. You shouldn’t be the least surprised I even wondered if I could make my own such simulation. I’ve already explored another such project on the side. But my history of completing those is no better than my main work on the book, so I’ll try not to dwell on it. I’m far from the first to like to think things through in figures when I write a story, or the most competent frankly either. It’s really not my strong point. Just enough to settle curiosity ought to do.

Speaking of which: the Pleiades are indeed on the other side of Earth from India this moment in the story. Phew! Good guess.

Meeting in the Aisle

Chapter five continues into the jinn nebula. A misty scene I have described before, with its soundtrack.

As they flew to their appointed fate, Christopher sat on the edge of the living room couch, staring into his hands.

"Could always be worse." Said Carl, sitting down next to him. "You could just be a helpless human."
“I feel like one.” Said Christopher, without looking up.
“But you’re not. You’re one of them.” Carl pointed to Atarchus and Samean, who were talking quietly at the back of the room.
“I am not!” Christopher said while glancing his cousin in the eye.
“Oh, but of course. You’re right. You’re not like them at all.” Carl grinned. “You’re a prince!”
“Ugh!” Christopher threw his head in his hands. “I don’t need your sympathy, but just give me a break!”
“Fine, sire.” Carl laughed. “I shall leave his highness to his stinking self.”

Carl sought his amusement with the other Andalans, instead.

"So, you speak English, right?" He asked Atarchus, who did. But the man twice his size didn’t care to speak to him.
“I heard you earlier.” Carl smiled. “I’ll get my royal friend here to command you to coöperate instead, huh?”

Samean grinned. Cocky kid, he said to Atarchus. He’ll get himself hurt someday with that attitude. Atarchus gave Carl a good cold glare.

"Where we going to?" Carl insisted. "No one’s told us!"
“To Kanan.” Said Atarchus. “To kill the rebel.”
“Kill?” Carl spotted the blades that Atarchus and Samean both had hanging from their belts. They looked so sharp you could lose a finger just picking one up.
“Jocaster will cut the jinn.” Atarchus said, pointing to the middle of his eyes. “From here.” Then to his crotch. “To here.”
“Oh, right.” Carl winced. “Then why are we going?”
“It is a vital ceremony. We are his witness.” Atarchus grabbed Samean by the shoulder. “And if there is trouble, we are his laiyeen.”
“Okay.” Said Carl, assuming he knew what that meant. “But then why am I going?”
“We need your ship.”

Christopher watched his ersatz big brother talking to these guys, and could scarcely believe that he had more in common with the Andalan men than Carl. Neither of them looked the least bit worried about where they were heading to. Neither of them could have passed as human for a moment, anywhere on Earth. And both of them looked like they could swat Carl out of existence in an instant if they felt like it. None of these was true for Christopher. And he could not see how they could ever be.

The flight did not take long. Towards the end, Jocaster emerged from his meditative silence to see the view from the cockpit. Out there, in Merope’s dazzling blue sun, the nebula’s ghostly wisps looked positively spectral.

"Fair pretty, for a cloud of dust." Said Alexander, always with his qualifiers. "Everything points to Merope, doesn’t it?"
“Radiation pressure.” Said Katerina. “The whole thing is being devoured by the star’s bright light. We just see what remains.”

Jocaster lingered in the passage behind them. He surveyed the cloud before the ship, stretching right across the sky now, they were so close. But he felt nothing.

"Where is he?"
“Uh!” Alexander jumped in fright at his voice. “What are we looking for? Just a transponder?”

Jocaster said nothing, as he focussed on the complex haze. He didn’t know.

"Let’s run a scan for disturbance." Katerina said. "Perhaps there’s a," she sighed, "a wake."
“That’ll take a while. We haven’t a baseline to kick off against.” Alexander complained, but got it started.

Like everything in space, the nebula was vast and could hide a ship as easily as a bottle in the ocean. Jocaster was on his own. And so they waited.

"There." He said, slowly raising his hand into the murk. "Madala?"
“Mmm.” She said. “There’s something. I don’t know what, but it’s out there. Take us in, Alex.”
“Into a dust cloud? Based on what, a hunch?”
“Something like that. Do it though.”
“All right. Slow.”

They went beneath the cloud’s otherworldly surface and all that Alexander could see was glowing haze. He didn’t like it one bit, and told them so. Katerina suggested that he shut up.

"Here. You stay here." Said Jocaster, as they found a place where, instead of blue, the haze glowed orange like the Andalan sun.
“Okay. Stopping now.” Alexander pulled them to a halt. “Care to tell me what you two are seeing exactly?”
“I don’t know.” Katerina said as she watched her brother head round back to get his men. “But it’s definitely something.”
“Consider me concerned,” said Alexander, “and frankly unimpressed.”
“Why? You think I have a radar dish inside my head!”
“You don’t?” He smiled. “Oh, well, I’m even more unimpressed now. We must be buggered!”

Atarchus, Samean and Jocaster readied themselves for whatever was out there in the stellar mist. The boys watched them. One part involved Jocaster touching each of the two on the cheek and muttering some sort of incantation. They then laughed and hugged him.

"And these guys are warriors?" Said Carl. "The rebel better not be serious. We could be in deep shit!"
“We are already.” Said Christopher.

Katerina approached her brother and said something very earnest in Anatara. She hugged him too, but without a hint of laughter. He said something back, and then in a ferocious white flash of incendiary light he was gone.

"Argh!" Yelled Carl. Atarchus and Samean both looked at him, shrugged and did the same. He did not shout the second time.

Katerina sat down by her son and put an arm around him. She spoke quietly, but loud enough for Carl to hear.

"Someday I’ll set all this straight, Christopher. But today I must be out there."

Christopher looked into her blue eyes, his own full of worry and unasked questions. She smiled at him, trying her best to fake the confidence she knew he needed most.

"I’ll be fine. You look out for Carl." She turned to him. "And you look out for Christopher. It’s going to get strange before it gets better."

Carl decided to give her a hug, and all three wound up in it. No one wanted to laugh, but to cry.

"Okay, I’ve got to be out there." She told them. "Close your eyes. Both of you."

Katerina gave them an extra squeeze, then, in a scarlet blaze, was gone. Christopher and Carl fell together right off the couch.

I fear that I’m overdoing it with Carl. His invention is still fairly new to me, and every writer has their doubts when in first draft above all else. I’ll punt this off to the vital editing pass once I’ve finished the whole book in first draft form, because, so far, I’ve found this “just getting on with it” approach to be as effective as it is novel.

Another point I’ll tend to then is the whole double disclosure thing of Katerina’s secret, true identity. She is Andalan, and she is Princess Madala. Her son, then, is Andalan, and Prince Christopher. I don’t think I made a big enough deal about he and his family’s reaction to that second reveal back when I recently wrote it. But then again there is such a thing as too much. Ah, writing. Let’s just not over think it.

Barnard’s Littlest Nebula

Maintaining the pattern of even and odd numbered chapters so far this act, it’s back to the Dragonfly with Chapter 5.

Of all the shrouded Pleiades, the deepest cloud lies near Merope. The nebula within the nebula. The knot of haze a million Earths long. Near enough Andala they have a name for it. But far enough that it takes a ship to fly.

"The jinn seized him in Kanan.” Said Jocaster, in English so the foreigners could hear.
“The gin?” Said Alexander.
“The one who,” Katerina paused and sniffed, “the man who likely killed our father.”

Alexander chose not to make his joke about the drink.

"My ata and I will go there, to seek justice. And you, Madala.”
Katerina closed her eyes and gave a nod. Alexander noticed the tightness of her lips. She looked quite ferocious.
“Where’s this Canaan place, then?”
Katerina led Alexander into the cockpit, pointed off to the distance and told him. “There. We’re going to Barnard’s Merope Nebula. Punch it in.”
“A nebula, eh?” Alexander said as he did what she asked. “How did he get out there?”
“He has a ship.” Said Katerina. “The only one on Andala. Quite what led him into a trap like this I don’t know.”
“Jakanesar did not tell me.” Said Jocaster, unexpected, right behind Alexander in the cosy cockpit.
“You never did get any closer, did you?” Katerina fixed an eye on him. Her brother shot back the coldest glare.
“Okay, any preferred spot, exactly? The thing is bloody huge.”
“Wherever we find his ship.” She said, still locked in silent battle with the prince.
“Where does the distress signal say?”
“There is no such thing.” Jocaster said, finally breaking his gaze. “Only jinn.”
“Um.” Alexander turned to them. “I could use a coördinate.”
“Stop us on the closest edge.” Said Katerina. “We’ll lead from there.”
“Fine.” He said, grabbing the stick. “Everybody ready?”

Everyone was inside, at least. So Alexander figured as much.

"Better take it slow." Katerina said as he reached for the throttle.
“Not all this again! It’s only a couple of lightyears, what’s it matter?”
“I don’t want to.” She whispered in his ear. “I don’t want him to see how fast we can go.” This was not entirely true. She didn’t want him to see how.

Jocaster stood at the back of the cockpit, arms crossed, as Alexander pulled them away from Kai and into superlight. Something seemed to be on his mind, as he barely even breathed, let alone said a word.

"En route, ETA twenty minutes." Said Alexander as he settled them at a tenth of the speed they used to get here. "Not bad, eh?"

Jocaster didn’t answer. Nor Katerina, who stared just as severe out at the great nebula ahead. It was easily visible from all of Andala, a glowing river flowing through the sky. Even Earth could see it with the right telescope, as its human discoverer did four centuries ago.

"Barnard’s littlest nebula." Alexander tried again to break the silence. "Whatever would he have made of it from here!"
“You will fight alone, Jocaster.” Spoke Katerina.
“I will witness this but no more.”
“As you must.”
“And my son shall have absolutely nothing to do with it, you understand?”

Jocaster grinned. He understood.

"My entire life was preparation for this day." Said Jocaster. "You do what you must. As will I."

He turned and left the cockpit without as much as touching a single surface in its cramped cabin. Alexander didn’t even notice. But Katerina had to keep an eye on him in every moment. She knew what a risk it was to bring her family anywhere near her brother and Andala. But she couldn’t even begin to guess what danger lay in keeping them away on a day like this. Better the devil you know.

This is a little interstice between Andala and the scene of the battle to come, a real life nebula in the Pleaides I’m calling Kanan in Anatara. It will be quite apparent in their sky, hundreds of times closer than we are to quite a jewel. Yet still beyond reach of an Andalan without a space ship. A fact whose need to point out in the narrative is telling, for matters later.

I prefer dialogue to description. If I can have characters talk about events while in their midst, I will because I think it works a lot better and I prefer writing it too. This is a case where the talk doesn’t quite tell us everything about what’s going on, however. In fact, I seem to like writing those as scenes so often turn out that way, planned or otherwise. So what’s the deal this time?

I’ve decided, apparently, to obscure quite how Jocaster or anyone else knows that Jakanesar is a gonner. He left in his private ship, and has not returned. But who’s to say there were jinn at all? But the jinn himself. I’m playing within my own communication rules: no instantaneous transmissions without superlight sneakernet. You don’t just know what’s happening beyond light’s reach. You must be kept in the know. Jakanesar didn’t send a distress signal back to Andala. But someone did. The contents of which can be progressively revealed, instead of played up front at the start.

Whatever it is, it seems Katerina has seen it. Or what else set her off back at the start?

The Stars of Our Sisters

Following on from where we left them, here’s the start of chapter three. Where the Kinnerins reach Andala.

True enough, the journey to Andala took a mere few hours. Alexander and Katerina spoke together the entire way. They might have lived together all these years, but there was now so much to catch up on. More, in fact, than she cared to mention.

"They really are quite glorious, don’t you think?" Said Alexander of the cobalt stars around them. "Whatever was it like to grow up in the Pleiades?"

She watched them. Electra, right in name, like lightning. Maia, the mother wrapped in cloud, surrounded by her daughters. And Alcyone, the mightiest sister of them all. Then sweet Merope, whose nebula was Andala’s shroud. It had been half a lifetime since they were last this close.

"Blue." She shrugged.
“Right. When did you get so into astronomy, I wonder?”
“Well,” she smiled, “I’ve always been. Merope here,” she pointed, “is the brightest star in Andala’s sky.” It was now quite dazzling.
“What do you call it?”
“Astana.” She said, as automatic as any stargazer would be when asked a name they knew. “They call it Astana.”
“What are the others?”
“Talan,” she pointed to Electra, then straight to “Atinai,” Caleano, “Inara,” Taygeta, “Essin,” Sterope, and “Senasair,” Alcyone. “You’ll like this one. Maia is Mai.”
“There’s a nice coincidence.”
“But can you see Aira?”
“That’s Andala’s own star?”

Alexander looked around, as unlike the greater Pleaides, little Aira wasn’t obvious. He looked through the ship’s navigation sight, but Dragonfly wasn’t pointed to any star in particular.

“No, we’re on this route on purpose.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re inside the nebula now.” She said. “It’s not just empty medium.”
“Oh, of course. If we punch straight through we might…”
“We might as well avoid the worst of it. The map’s quite accurate about the density.”
“Ah, what a load of archaic nonsense!” Said Alexander. “Look at our gamma. Not a decimal out of place. It’s perfect!” He held her by the arm. “We’re transparent!”
“I’d rather not try our luck. At this speed we’re talking about an extra minute at most.”
“Fine. Fly the old shipping lane like we’re a 22nd century bloody hoopty!”
“I will!” She said. “And our star?”

Out in the dense veil of Astana’s protective haze, he could just about make it out. A single little reddish sun, not so far from the thickest lick of the nebula.

"There she is."
“Well spotted!”
“Goodness, how small it looks amongst these big blues. Precious little Aira.”
“None of the rest has life, let alone as advanced as Andala. To think there’s an entire world, a second Earth, spinning around that almost invisible sun. We never would have guessed.”
“Of course…” She trailed off, her thought hanging in space.
“What did you think I meant?”

Now that Aira was in sight, their journey had but a few minutes to go. They closed in ten times faster than anyone had ever done before. What had taken the first human ship a week was barely sixty seconds now.

"This is where things get tough." Said Katerina, turning pale.
“Do you need any help?” Alexander asked, shrugging at the controls.
“Punch stop when I say so.” She said, to make him feel better, as it was quite unnecessary.

As Aira turned the brightest of the Pleaides, and Andala’s master planet, Kai, shone as a separate fleeting star, Katerina cleared her thoughts.

"Okay, we’re coming down good and proper now." Said Alexander, watching their speed and trajectory. "You’ve got a fair handle on this."

She didn’t answer. The tricky part was the moment they would leave superlight. She won their speed by interfering with the drive’s principal force field, directly. The middle of the flight was easy in comparison. But now, at the crucial moment she had to let it go again, just right. The tolerance was tight.

"Here we go." Said Alexander as Kai loomed as the giant world it truly was. "Now?"
She hummed.
“Are you sure?”
She hummed again. And closed her eyes as she had just one chance to get it right.
“We’re leaving this bloody close!”

The vortice parted from Dragonfly’s pocket of space and time just as neatly as it had arrived, all the way back above the Earth. Katerina sniffed loudly as she succeeded. Not bad for her first attempt at that speed. She heaved a breath of air and almost relaxed.

"Now!" She said.

Alexander slammed the button he’d been waiting for. Their home and ship careened to an artless halt, down into its orbit of great Kai. The whole house shuddered with an interplanetary tremor. Everything loose, and this being their home almost everything was, slid and shook and crashed about. The boys yelled angrily they were fine from the back.

"Whoops. Sorry about that."

Katerina sighed a deep breath. A great weight was off her chest. But not the greatest one. The day was only getting started.

"I need to smarten up before we head down there," she told him, still in her dirty clothes and under messy hair, "we’ll stay in orbit this side of Kai until I’m done, okay?"
“Of course, Katty.” He grinned, relieved to see her apparent resolve again, amongst these unfamiliar stars.

Hiding at the Kai-Andala L3, how sneaky. They can’t see Andala, and Andala can’t see them. In theory, at least.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Searing through space at an epic pace. Alpha, Chapter one, part four.

He was quite right. Speed was the family business, after all. Alexander and Katerina’s life’s work was right there in their company’s motto.

"Four minutes to Aria. Twenty five to Vega. Aldebaran in an hour. Bellatrix in four." He cherry picked from the distance table on the console. "This is revolutionary! We really are making space a smaller place, right here!"
“Look further.” Christopher said. “What about Andromeda?”
“Oh wow, that’s a hell of an idea.” Alexander pushed through the numbers. “Look at that! Five years.”
“Five years!” Cried Carl. “What are you, nuts?”
“Well, we’re not going there today.” Said Alexander, with a big proud smile. “But for the first time, man will be able to travel to another galaxy. You understand how big that is.”
“Some crazy man who wants stuck out in space ten years.”
“That’s how they used to do it. I mean even Andala was a secret for a decade.”

The Pleiades shone dead centre in the ship’s navigation sight. Christopher could see fine well where they were headed.

"We’re going there, aren’t we?"
“Ah, yes, we are indeed.” Said Alexander, struck with a hint of nerves. “A few, ah. Six, just six hours.” He steadied. “Once it took six years!”
“To Andala?” Said Carl. “For real?”
“Why exactly?” Christopher looked at his mother, who hadn’t said a word. She didn’t even look at him. But he saw her makeup stains.
“Andala! Forget it. That’s mental!” Carl pounced on Christopher, grabbing his shoulders. “You know what the people there can do, right? They’re, oh god, a world of nutjobs!”
“How would you know?” Said Katerina, in a painful voice.
“Everyone knows! What on earth’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t know.” Christopher said. “It could be interesting.”
“We are gonna get killed!” Carl yelled. “Are you out of your gourd?”
“Some brave dwarf you are.”
“Everyone on that whole planet is a, oh a…”
“A what?” Katerina glared at him. The pattern of her dried tears now painted as a battle mask.
“A bampot. A headcase. A wizard. A fucking nuke wizard!”

Only then did Carl turn past Christopher’s head to see her. And shrank.

"Look Carl, I suppose we could nip back and drop you off." Alexander said. "But we are going there in any case."
“Where would he go?” Said Katerina. “He’s not supposed to be here.”
“Ah, yes, right.” Alexander said in a ponder. “You want to go home to your parents?”

Carl was quiet. He pursed his lips and stared out into the infinite stars. A breathless moment lingered, the suddenness of the depth’s eternal silence.

"I can see them move."
“Goodness, you’re right!” Alexander looked out sidewards from their path, where the heavenly crawl was clearest. “We’re going that fast, Carl, it’s a transformation of the whole experience of space flight!”
“You could go see Lise,” said Christopher, “get back to the storm.”
“What about you?”
“Uh.” Christopher grinned. “I really want to see Andala.”
“Ugh!” Carl let him go. “How long is this going to take?”
“We have some business there to look into.” Said Alexander. “What, maybe a few days?”
“Days, huh?”
“I doubt we’ll be back before the Meiers try to kick you out! Even at this speed.”
“Shitty Option A versus shitty Option B.”
“You’re welcome to stay here with us, Carl. Just try not to cause any trouble.”
“How can I even try to do that?” He paced back and forth. “I’m a prisoner!”
“That’s one way of looking at free food and board at your beneficent idiot relatives expense. Anyway, we could fit in a stop at Aria on the way back.”
“You have my attention, good sir!” Carl perked up at the thought. “Of course, I’m all out of funds, so…”
“Of course you are, Carl, you’re twelve.”

Originally, I looked for somewhere closer for Andala. But the Pleiades were compelling, and ultimately I couldn’t overlook them. This leaves me with opening a new era in deep space flight, though, whether I like it or not. As half a million lightspeed does indeed open up the door to missions beyond just the stars, but into other galaxies.

Still, I did ask for it with that motto!