Queen Madala

A little communication breakdown goes a long way.

"That was him?" Said Alexander, staring good and hard at the telltale signature on his instruments. "He can make a vortice!"

Alexander’s surprise took him to his feet. Nothing in his experience, in a career at the very centre of the superlight industry, even hinted that such a thing was possible. But then he had never studied Andalans, wittingly at least; as the red flash through the cockpit then reminded him.

"Apparently so," said Katerina, now behind Alexander, "it’s news to me, too. No one has before."
“Or this brute power, I presume?” He said, waving at the dying nebula all around them. “We were very nearly torn quite akimbo, you know.”

Alexander turned to her, and saw Jocaster’s men loitering in the room behind.

"They need a lift. So we’re taking them home." She shrugged.
“You bet we are. Last thing we need is more boarders on this ship.” Said Alexander, ending with a wince. “Excepting Carl, of course.”

Carl could see better than Alexander how dazed she was. He offered her a hug.

"I’m so glad you’re safe!"
“Me too.” She told him, rubbing the spot between his eyes.
“So I imagine he finished off the lot of them?” Said Alexander, as his wife cuddled his nephew, who almost purred with delight. “All those jinn fellows?”
“I think so.” She said. “It’s hard to tell for all the residual energy. See anything on the computer?”
“Not that I can tell. Neither man nor machine.” Alexander studied the hazy projections. “About time we scarper then?”
“Yes!” She smiled. “Let’s get out of here.”

Carl held her, quite adamant, around her waist. She slid her fingers between his arms, to break away. And as he moved, she felt that most earnest expression of his admiration for her press against her thigh.

"Sit down." She whispered to him, grinning, as he looked at her in fright.
“Sorry!” He said, almost without breathing.

"To Andala, post haste." Declared Alexander as he pressed the risen button. And they slipped through lightspeed.
“If he left faster than light, we don’t know where he’s going.” Said Christopher, correctly.
“True. But the entry trail lines up.” Said Alexander. “Besides, where else would he go?”

Katerina’s silence on this point caught all their ears.

"The old boy wants to be king." Alexander continued. "That’s where he goes to get it. Right?"
“Yes. He must be there.” She said, in a haze, looking out along the line they were flying. “It’s only minutes away.”

Once again, they did not rush their journey. Katerina seemed anything but certain she even wanted to go there. And Alexander did not press the point. They weren’t here to demonstrate their speed. Indeed, they weren’t here through their own choice at all.

"You guys saved us?" Said Carl to the two men sprawled across a sofa in the lounge. Both lifted their heads to look at him, bemused.
“Madala says you saved her brother.” Atarchus smiled. “I must ask Jocaster about this sometime!” He then said something to Samean, who duly burst out laughing.
“Brah! Voh!” Said Samean, triumphant, grabbing Carl and shaking him by the hand.
“You are laiyeen now, too.” Atarchus told Carl. “You are honoured.”

Carl wasn’t quite sure how to take this. He looked aside, rather desperately, to Christopher.

"Was Jocaster always this powerful?" Asked the young prince, still in his battle costume.
“No.” Said Atarchus.
“So Andalans can change their power over time?”
“Yes.” Said Atarchus, with a grin, as he could see where Christopher was going.
“Could you ever do what he did out there?”
“No.”
“Could Samean?” Christopher pronounced the Katani’s name slightly wrong, which made his brows twitch.
“No. He is young, so he can try. But Jocaster is far ahead.”
“Could I?”

Carl looked at Christopher with horror. How could he ask such a thing?

"Hard to tell." Said Atarchus. "You have no experience. You must work harder than most Ana in a lifetime." Then he grinned. "But I think you could."

Christopher flinched. Atarchus had no reason to lie to him. And the old warrior seemed to know his stuff. He was covered in bruises, and his skin shone with the same brutal mess Christopher had washed from his hands once he returned to the ship. It wouldn’t easily come off. And now, here he was, commending Christopher’s ability.

"I could do that?" He stammered.
“Yes.” Said Atarchus. “If you want it.”
“Hey buddy,” said Carl, “we’re people, from Earth! This vicious Andalan stuff is fine for you guys. But why would we want a piece of that?”
“Why would you?” Said Katerina, standing in the doorway.

Carl smiled at her. He didn’t know what it was, but he could hardly keep his senses together around her today.

"Because I am like them." Said Christopher, holding Atarchus by the arm. His biceps were too large for Christopher’s hand to fit half way around.
“Perhaps.” Said his mother, her lips tight and a tear forcing its way to her eye. “It’s up to you.”

As they neared Aira and its little Andala, Alexander brought them down from lightspeed for a gentle approach. The world shone as a blue jewel, so unlike the murky hours they’d spent in Kanan before. Kai, Andala’s mother planet, was as serene as always. Alexander watched them, easily amused, as he waited for the com link.

"Haven’t they heard of bloody space traffic control out here?"
“What’s up?” Said Katerina, looking over him and his console.
“Is there really no protocol for new arrivals?”
“Why would there be?” She shrugged. “Visitors are fairly rare.”
“So we just radio, then?”
“Right. Let me do it.”

Down on Andala, in the house of Ayana, in the middle of her city, an alarm bleeped. One of the laiyeen, an Ana man by the name of Naisan, wandered into the room to check the sound, as it was fairly rare. A little console, with words written out in English, blinked and shone as the alarm chimed again. He bopped a few buttons until it quietened. Then came a woman’s voice.

"Hello? Anyone listening?"
“Hello! Andala speaking.” Said Naisan. “What do you want?”
“Requesting permission to visit.” Said Katerina.
“Oh? You do not already have permission? You know that you need this.”
“Yes, I do. We are returning the knights Atarchus and Samean.”
“What!” Naisan leapt in surprise.
“And I need to come down with them.”
“But who are you? How do you have kasteer Atarchus? And kasteer Samean?”

Katerina sighed. Alexander found this exchange quite amusing.

"You don’t recognise my voice?"
“Perhaps they need video.” Said Alexander, toggling the controls.
“Ah!” Said an astonished Andalan fellow at the sight on his screen. Alexander grinned as he saw him back.
“It’s me.” Said Katerina, with a well practiced droll look on her face.
“Madala kalikaleh!” Chanted the man on the screen. “Kai Madala kalikaleh!”
“Kai?” She said. “No, no. I am not Kai.” She turned and muttered to Alexander. “And I have no intention to be.”
“Kai Madala!” Cried the man on the screen. “Kai Madala kalikaleh!” And he ran off, shouting along the way.

Alexander really had to laugh.

"Fairly rare indeed!"
“I am not their fucking queen!” Katerina decreed. “What’s gotten into him?”
“The old boy’s not shown up, methinks, majesty.” Said Alexander, grinning from ear to ear.
“He really hasn’t, has he?” She said. “But how long could he take?”
“Depends, I guess.” Said Alexander, poking at numbers. “If he wanted to be oldschool, then Proteus would have taken a couple of days to do that little charabang, for instance.”
“He saw us go quicker than that. He has the wherewithal to go much faster.”
“You’d think, eh.” Said Alexander, swiping around the console, distracted. “Huh.”
“Huh?”
“So far no good on the interstellar network.” Said Alexander. “We’ve missed a dozen packets now.”
“You’re trying to call home?”
“Well, I’d like to see what we’ve missed. Out here at the furthest reaches of civilisation’s tentative web. But the trouble is on their end.”

Katerina looked at the same network chart that caught Alexander. The closer it got to Earth, the deader things went.

"Oh god, you think?" She gasped.
“Pretty quick, isn’t he?” He sighed. “Something’s really given them the shits. Reckon we should hurry on over?”

This was a fun one. Madala’s reaction to her regal elevation and Carl’s salute are a couple of tricks I’ve had lined up for some time. In fact, put like that, perhaps I should rearrange them?

Communication is a tricky matter out in space. I’m playing by the rules I laid out whereby superlight is an exclusive for ships and other matter. To carry a signal faster than slowpoke light, you have to put it aboard a physical carrier. Interstellar sneakernet is all they’ve got.

This has obvious limitations. You can’t just communicate arbitrarily, between random points in space. The network Alexander’s connecting to has fixed nodes at Andala and Earth, among other places. This is the problem he’s seeing: around Earth, it’s all locked up. There’s only so much bandwidth the superlight carrier pigeons can take.


Born on a Ball

There’s something most particular about this time of year. Long shadows at noon, sunset before you’d believe, and the depth of darkest night. Winter is a sombre reality dressed as metaphor. No surprise our ancestors made a party of it. Even more than sweet Beltane, they had the need to gather. To share a common fire against the chill was a matter of survival. The cold out there would kill you. And the stars, those stars, that frost filled sea.

I am of course quite the fan of Roderick on the Line. Messrs. Mann and Roderick are quite the pair of philosophers as often as not. This midwinter’s episode is especially thought provoking as it was triggered by Roderick’s infant daughter asking him, as he shone light upon a globe to explain the night and day, “Why are we born on a ball?”

Good question.

Where they go after that is on a journey through the darkest night, in search of a little something we’ve all long wrapped ourselves up cosy to forget. There is an element to the shrunken days of winter so profoundly psychological, so other worldly, truly numinous in fact, that some of my own best remembered moments in time are when I’ve stared into those unforgiving stars to wonder much the same. Getting to grips with just how small we are, and remote from every other world in the inconceivable universe, is one of life’s all too easily forgotten experiences. We do so well to keep ourselves busy down here. But the same will not be true once we are on our way out there, into that beyond. Alone with ourselves.

I may sound bleak, but I honestly enjoy this stuff! The northern winter is pain, but it really is a giant window on the cosmos if you choose to look. He who writes his stories out among the stars rather had better get to grips with the question they pose. What is man? Why are we here? And what are we doing about it?

Hopefully my book will explore this just as artfully as my favourite philosophers. Some of my characters are certainly minded that way, while others just as not. You need someone to ask, and someone to not be afraid by knowledge that the simple things are the hardest questions. While you too look into the dark this solstice, if you dare.


Proteus Part LXII

Marie reports back to her captain, from the heart of Zuba.

"Well Kingston, I’ve got to tell you," I grinned into my screen on Bee, "you’ve really missed out."
“That so?” His little image asked me, alone in the dark.
“For sure. This place, goodness, we really must get you down to Zuba.”
“What they had you doing there anyways, Chen? Seeing as I can’t seem to find your report.”
“This is my report! Come on, Mina and I have been rushed right off our feet all day long.”
“And Tani?”
“She was the one doing it.”
“Makes sense.” He smiled. “Your tag says you covered, what, a dozen klicks every which direction.”
“You know how it is. But all worth it, captain. We’ve found the mother lode here in Zuba.”
“Akanai’s been telling me about that.”
“Oh?”
“Yeah, he’s fairly talkative without Tani around.”
“Right. About the Azu?”
“Well, really about Megan.”
“Maigan.”
“Uh, yeah.” He laughed. “I oughta know by now.”
“She’s been with us all day, in fact.”
“What do you make of her?”
“Well, everyone knows who she is. I mean she has the key to the city, it feels like. And she’s damn smart, too. So quick. She’s picking up English already, would you believe.”
“I would. Akanai’s pretty sold on her. Says she taught him everything he knows.”
“Like a mother?”
“She kinda was. He lost his the day he was born.”
“Wow.” I stopped in my tracks at the thought. “Tani never knew hers either.”
“Is Mina there?” His eyes twitched side to side, as if my screen would show him anything in the evening dim.
“Oh no, they’re still together. It’s just you and I.”
“How’s she taking it?”
“Mina’s acting a little funny, I’ve got to say.”
“Is she alright?”
“She is now. Initially, she just seemed quite overwhelmed when we arrived here. But over the hours, she’s really gotten close to Maigan. It’s like the two of them are…”
“Are?”
“Well, I don’t know what. They’re just finishing each others thoughts, almost.”
“Interesting.” Pondered Kingston, as he looked away from his screen. “You think that maybe…”
“What?”
“Like how you and Tani are pretty tight. Is it like that?”
“Sure, I guess. Yes!”
“She’s met her first Andalan friend, then. Good for her.”
“I’ll say, Kingston. Maigan’s determined to share her knowledge with us. And, well, Mina…”
“Has changed her tune at last? Let me guess.”
“Perhaps. She’s much more comfortable speaking with Maigan than she is anyone else. If anyone can handle it, I suppose it’s her.”
“Which one are you talking about?”
“Both!”

The orange sun still shone, if only just, back up in Ayanakert. Its shadows reached ever longer across the wall behind the captain, one I recognised from the palace. We talked for quite a while about what we had seen. I told him my impressions of the great Azu city of Zuba in the detail he preferred. Lastly, twilight fell on him as well, as both Andala’s capitals joined in night.

"How long should we stay here, Kingston?"
“Till Proteus can spirit us away back home.”
“No! I mean down here with Maigan.”
“Oh, right.” He smiled. “Been a long day all round, Chen.”
“They always are on Andala.”
“Right enough, I could use a break from this place.”
“We could pick you up and bring you down to Zuba.”
“No, Marie, a break. Like, uh, I don’t know. Just thinking.”

Something about the way he said that reminded me of what had been, until only weeks ago, our mission. We came out to the Pleiades to explore. This we were surely doing, but in a very different way. Our training and our equipment was all for barren worlds, far apart, even in as busy a stellar neighbourhood as this. Proteus was to take us to dozens of stars, the seven sisters themselves included, and yet here we were all tangled up in just one Earth-sized moon. All the worse for Kingston, as he didn’t even have our shuttle nearby to leave Ayanakert. The dark little cabin I sat inside was our only vehicle in the world. Bee couldn’t reach lightspeed, but it could take us to the other planets around Andala’s star if we wanted.

"Yeah, I could see doing that." He agreed. "Could really use the space. But you know the problem."
“You wouldn’t need Proteus just for sublight around the system.”
“Maybe not. But think about the comm. Sublight applies there too.”
“You’d be a few lighthours away.”
“Which means real hours. Without a way to respond if and when you need me. No, I’d better stay in touch. Besides, getting Proteus back online is our real priority.”
“I suppose. How’s Robin getting along?”
“Now there’s a question. We’re still limited by secondary radiation aboard Proteus, so we can’t really get to grips with the problem; yet. Let me tell you, I for one will be glad when we can get started. Because, ah, you know how it is.”
“How he is!” I laughed. “What’s he been up to while we’ve been away?”

The captain stared into space, his mouth a little open and sliding to the side. This was not going to be good.

"It’s been a whole I-Year ain’t it?"
"Aieer."
“A whole goddamn day! He must have given me the slip when we met up with Akanai this morning.”
“His tag says…” I pulled up a map of his whereabouts, using Mina’s medical credentials. “Well, he didn’t leave town at least.”
“Where’s he been?”
“He wandered a fair bit, but has been in the one place for a good few hours now.”
“Copy me his fix. I got a little something in mind for him.”
“Captain, you’d better hold on. The place he’s in…”
“Coordinates!”
“Is the temple.”
“Temple?”
“He’s the first of us to gain entrance. I did ask Tani about it the day we landed, but she couldn’t get permission.”
“What exactly do we know about the joint?”
“Next to nothing. I’ve never been in one anywhere on Andala.”
“Fantastic. And now Robin’s giving his thanks to…” Kingston paused. “What do they call the big man around here?”


Don’t Panic

Another for the annals of futurism.

Jason Snell wrote a rather nice piece about time-travel induced anachronism; and remembered to include Marty McFly’s astonishing Walkman. John Roderick was on a similar quest to prepare himself for a trip back in time to the 1940s last week. Something about the passing of years puts people in the mood, apparently.

But here’s my favourite, as linked by Snell. Now that we have it, what are we actually doing with our technology?

I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man.
I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.

—nuseramed

The dream doesn’t match our reality. The promise of a portable oracle of boundless wisdom was best addressed by that canny bugger Douglas Adams. Information is power. Democratised power like this must surely change our lives. Well, it did, just not quite as expected. We pick our momentary intrigues, be they anonymous and bloodless fights or cat clips, and leave the countless epics just as dry and dusty as they were before. Our universal book is an infinite jest.

I’ve wondered myself about the future of tablets and whether there will be such a separate thing as cameras in the long run. One bias I’ve been making is right there in my choice of setting: centuries out in time and stars away in space. No matter how up to date your computer is at Aria or Andala, you’re still lightyears from the internet.

But in the broader sense of what we’ll use our tech for: there’s surely truth to the apparent, pessimistic view. We aren’t all computing formulae with our computers anymore and we aren’t all scholars on the internet. We’re people, now, too. Our faults and tastes and idle fancies are all included.

So if you’re ever wondering what the people of the future will be up to with their magic, let’s just take a guess. Because if they are anything like us: the answer is entertainment.


Com Lag

Relativity runs against our human intuition. That’s what comes from being raised in a decidedly sub-lightspeed environment. To us, time is a perfect ticking clock that can be heard across the universe. If only it weren’t a fiction. Writing the stuff would be easier for the prickly like of me!

In truth, there is no such thing as universal time (in spite of what we like to call GMT these days), and, all the more bizarre to our senses, there is no such thing as being still either. Everything in time and space is relative, hence the name relativity. “No reference frame is preferred over another”, if I remember my physics right. Einstein worked it out from the speed of light alone.

So, if physics is to be obeyed, interstellar transit and communication go all pear-shaped. It’s superlight or superhuman lengths of time, I’m afraid. A choice between breaking spacetime or making androids of ourselves for epic journeys torn from history at both ends? Yikes. The latter can wait another creation.

Where it does meet with my book, though, is in the sublight era, when Aria is first established. I’ve set that up to be a passing phase, with G-Ship runs to only the closest stars, or for all we know. The fact that time dilation slows down the experience of high sublight speed travellers as it does, makes them into time travellers from our perspective. Indeed that was the basis of a little something called The Planet of the Apes, though why they were confused at where, not when, they were remains a mystery to me until I read the original. Let’s just say I’m not ruling out undiscovered or, rather, “uncontacted” relics from that age in Alpha’s time. But I digress.

The real point is that communication is not instant anywhere beyond a trivial distance in space. Before the superlight breakthrough it really was a matter of four years and four months to be heard on Aria. Double for the return. And even after, there is no such thing as the realtime simultaneity we assume in the Internet as well as between ourselves in words. Every place is its own time. You can cheat a bit by sending physical packets along the network, a sneakernet contraption we see in action in Alpha’s day, but it’s never as fast as people want. After all, wherever would we be if we were sated?

Aria has enough time in the early slowpoke age to have plenty of space to develop its own culture and personality. Like the Atlantic crossings of old, which were slow and difficult enough to ensure an imperfect imprint of Europe on the Americas. I’ve quite a bit in mind for Aria and the rôle it might play, so this is an important note. Here’s a hint: imagine a single city of a billion souls.

The story Alpha is about, meanwhile, is that other clashing of distant worlds: mankind and Andala. The fact we’re ever closer, ever faster, is not lost there.