The Long Road

The Long Road

“The Long Road”

Morning on Mars.

A shrunken sun rose to cast feeble light across the dust of a billion years. Cold darkness became shadow. Shadow evaporated as quickly as the night’s tenuous frost. A thin, cold wind grew from the south, ghostly herald of spring storms rising up from the distant ice cap. Chill and bitter, the wind clutched and tossed the ancient sands. Talcum-fine grit ascended, gathered momentum, and flew onward to channel dunes, erode rock, and bite at the metal flanks of the ship from Earth.

Sitting in the lander’s snug cockpit, Brendan Eriksson heard the steady hiss of sand against the thick oval of the pilot’s port. Storm coming. Big one. The churning atmosphere was already making radio communication with the orbiting Athena difficult. Not that the good ship’s crew could help Brendan with his current problem. What he needed right now was an experienced search party, not a band of eager mars-nauts.

Brendan peered out at a landscape grown misty with blowing dust. Somewhere amid those jealous sands was a lone man. Brendan pressed the call switch on his mike and demanded, “Carter, where the hell are you?” Static and the occasional charged pop were all that answered him. Angrily, he tossed the headset into a corner and headed for the airlock.

Carter never checks the weather updates, Brendan thought as he clambered down the access tunnel to the lander’s workbay. He probably went off in a huff. Out collecting specimens or poking around any of a dozen sites. A good stretch he calls it. Stupidity I’d call it…going off alone. He knows it’s a violation of Mars Program protocols!

Brendan slipped on the last rung of the ladder. His shin banged the hard plastic and his curse filled the little workbay. His outrage soon faded as he focused on preparations needed for egress. Yet even while donning his cumbersome mars-suit Brendan found himself recalling the events of last night.

The message had come in around 1800 hours. The two occupants of Mars Site One were settling down for dinner. It had been a productive day, possibly their best after a week on the surface. The sample cases in the cargo hold were full. Their bodies ached from the day’s exertion. Still, they were smiling as they opened foil packages and gulped bulbs of juice. Carter had even toasted the day’s success.

Then the message bell chimed. The words from Earth were short and to the point. Funding for future Mars missions had been cut. They were to return to Earth immediately.

“This can’t be!” Carter exclaimed. “We’ve spent years getting this project off the ground. And it’s canceled at the height of our success? Impossible!”

Carter recorded a message and sent it up to Athena for immediate relay back to Earth. Forty-five interminable minutes passed while Brendan changed ‘cycler filters and Carter fumed over a quiet comm board. In the end, Earth’s only response was to acknowledge receipt. No further comment. Transmission ended.

Weary after the long day and the sudden blow, Brendan patted the old scientist on the shoulder and turned in. Carter barely responded. Instead he stared forlornly through the pilot port. Outside, Mars was deep shadow and sand-glitter as Phobos walked its hurried path across the night sky.

Suited up, Brendan ducked through a thick hatchway and prepped the airlock. The conical lander was divided into two sections: the cockpit-hab was on top while the workbay and airlock were down near the landing skirt. All else was dedicated to life support and the various organs of the lander’s ascent stage. The ascent stage consisted of their cockpit and the bell-shaped engine core with its associated propellant tanks. For their return to Athena most of the vehicle’s mass would be abandoned. Safe within the stripped down ascent stage the two marswalkers and their precious specimens would ride comfortably back to the waiting spaceship.

Despite their best housekeeping efforts ocher dust dirtied the airlock’s polymesh floor and bulkheads. Brendan opened a smudged closet door and removed a surface pack. The units were always kept fully charged. Brendan deftly shrugged a pack over the mars-suit’s thick shoulders. Serpentine tubes from the pack were quickly attached to nozzles on his suit. Straps then secured the pack to his back. Step by step, just as protocol demanded.

After the hatch was sealed the airlock was depressurized to Martian ambient. Through the deck Brendan felt a pump chug as air was compressed and then siphoned into a reserve tank. Through the airlock’s tiny porthole the ruddy mars-scape tugged at his heart.

Mars! It sang in his heart like a song. He had spent years helping put this expedition together. Five years of design and training and toil. And then came the real work: the long and dangerous nine months aboard Athena in order to actually get here, the orbital survey to find the best landing site, and then the wild ride down to the surface in the lander. Yet it had all been worth it! In the last week Brendan had trod more Martian soil than he had ever imagined in his wildest dreams.

Minutes later he was down the ladder and beyond the lee of a mylar equipment tent. Mars was gusty wind and cloying sands. Brendan tuned his secondary channel to the location chimer in Carter’s suit. Instead of a comforting ping he heard only the same static that existed on the comm frequency.

“Carter!” Brendan called once more. Then, angrily: “Carter this is one helluva time to take a walk! You’re the one constantly badgering me about protocol. Big storm coming, any fool can see…”

Nearby, something caught Brendan’s eye. One leg of a scanner tripod had collapsed and dropped its delicate hardware into an orange drift. Almost on compulsion he walked several paces to inspect it. Only a day before he had anchored the tripod into the ground. He knew it should be stable even in these strong winds. Had it been purposely knocked over? The only culprit could be Carter.

Brendan felt heat sweep his brow and he cursed. Even if Carter was angry the man had no reason to beat up on the equipment.

Brendan examined the scanner. One of its interchangeable control modules lay in the dust. The unit’s slim anemometer was also missing.

Brendan was scanning the ground for any other errant components when he noticed something odd at the base of an adjacent dune. Amid the swirling dust a gem twinkled. Could that be another scanner? He knew Carter had a temperamental side but this was ridiculous! Brendan sighed and moved toward the glittering jewel.

He reached the mound of dislodged dust and his gloved hand wiped away the grit that covered the tiny green eye. He lifted the object that the emerald LED was attached to and his heart went cold. In gravity roughly a third of Earth’s the Mark VI life pack was not very heavy. Indeed, even fully charged the thing weighed only a few kilos. Yet it slipped from Brendan’s hands as if it weighed as much as the pitted boulders that surrounded their lonely landing site. Brendan swallowed and tasted sourness. Without his pack the air reserve in Carter’s suit was good for only fifteen minutes.

Brendan rose up on shaky knees, imagining the unimaginable. There was no reason for Carter to abandon his pack! It violated every protocol! Was the old scientist intent on throwing everything away? No. There had to be a better explanation. Dr. Carter Jackson was made of tougher stuff than all of them put together. He was the main reason they had made it to Mars!

Yet last night, after the news of the Mars Program’s cancellation…

You can’t work a lifetime and then see it taken away overnight, Brendan thought. Even a stubborn old bastard like Carter can only take so much.

“Carter!” Brendan called into the static that filled his comm set.

Through the convex bubble of his helmet Brendan’s eyes stared up the slope of the dune. A series of oval depressions, swept by the gale and eroding even as he watched, climbed the sandy hummock. The boot prints were unmistakable. Brendan followed them.

Trudging over the rise the man from Earth stared into the darkness of a Martian world-storm. A wall of dust and cloud reared across the southern horizon, relentlessly enveloping the rolling tablelands that stood before the Tharsis range. Movement caught his eye and Brendan gasped. A kilometer away, a tall figure in a bulky mars-suit stood on a high hill, transfixed by the approaching storm.

“Carter!” Brendan called.

In the low gee Brendan loped forward, praying that the old scientist would stay still long enough for him to catch up. Crossing hummocks and staggering down dunes, stray thoughts licked across Brendan’s mind. What if Carter had abandoned the pack more than fifteen minutes ago? Mission protocol only allowed fifteen minutes once that pack was off. It might already be too late…

And then, instead of being a distant figure, Carter stood above him on the tumbled and dust-blown knoll. Halfway up the rise Brendan heard the other man’s voice in his earphones: “…visionless cowards…if they could only see this…the breath of a world.”

“Carter?” Brendan stepped within a few meters of his companion.

The old man turned to regard Brendan. Behind his visor Carter’s face was pale and tears filled his eyes. When those eyes saw Brendan they closed slightly and Carter shook his head sadly. “It was a good run, eh, kid?”

“Carter, you need to put your pack on. Protocol…”

Carter laughed bitterly. Below them the rolling highlands descended toward a wide valley. Carter’s black glove swept over the ruddy land. “You and I almost conquered Mars, Brendan,” the old scientist said.

“We can buddy breathe,” Brendan persisted. “Protocol allows that. Long walk back to the lander but…”

“Lowell started the conquest, you know? Burroughs and Bradbury breathed dreams into this dust. The team that landed the first probes here were a bold bunch. Bolder than any of the bomb-builders they had to compete against, that’s for sure.”

“Carter,” Brendan whispered. Tears stung the young engineer’s eyes. He had never seen his friend like this. So upset.

“They conquered Mars, all of them. But when you stop asking questions or feeling wonder or looking outward, then Mars laughs in our face. Mars always laughs in the face of cowards. This place knows when it’s won.”

“Let’s go back to the lander, Carter.”

Carter sighed. A long and tired sigh. He suddenly seemed as old as the dust curling around his boots. “When we got that message last night I decided that Mars had finally won.”

“Carter.” Still a meter away, Brendan reached toward his friend.

Before the baleful glare of the Martian hurricane Dr. Carter Jackson reached up and unlocked the seal of his helmet collar.

“No!” Brendan yelled. He scrambled for the top of the knoll. Carter pulled his bubble helmet up over his head and hurled it down the slope. Before Brendan could reach Carter the scientist’s legs folded and the old man crumpled to the ground.

“Carter!” Brendan dropped to his knees next to his friend. Muffled voices shouted and yelled in the back of the engineer’s head. “Carter!”

Brendan’s gloved hands shook the scientist’s shoulders. Carter’s eyes were wide and they stared at the cloud-choked horizon. The scientist’s head rocked and then turned toward Brendan. Remarkably, Carter’s mouth stretched into a smile and he mouthed something. Brendan leaned back and tried to comprehend what was happening. Then, before Brendan could react, Carter’s gloved hand snatched at Brendan’s collar and un-dogged the double seal. Air hissed hideously in Brendan’s ears. Carter began to laugh. For a moment, his laughter seemed to fill the vast Martian wastes.

“Dammit, Carter! You’re nuts!” The words were out before Brendan could stop them.

In response, Carter patted the engineer’s shoulder. He gasped, “Perhaps I am. But knowing when to quit is the first sign of returning sanity.” Through Brendan’s depressurized helmet the words sounded joyous.

From behind them they heard footfalls crunch through the dust. The pair turned to see a Martian Natural Territories Ranger approaching. The ranger’s uniform was a blue-green tiger-striped parka that made the wearer seem much taller than her lithe, two-meter Martian frame. The ID patch over her left breast bore a name: Fitzhu, Dali. That was a perennial Martian favorite when it came to naming children. After all, Salvador Dali could have created some of the landscapes that had been carved during the long centuries of planet-wide terraforming.

A puff of air gusted from the woman’s lips and she waved a datalogger at the two Earthmen. “I’m sorry, gentlemen,” the Ranger said in her curiously clipped Martian accent. “But I’ll have to log that helmet removal as a violation of Mars Program protocols.”

Carter began to laugh again. Next to him Brendan protested, “But it’s the first time in nearly a year that we’ve tasted unbottled air! We haven’t violated anything!”

The MNT Ranger frowned. She hated tourist duty. Earthfolk were a strange breed and she had seen none stranger than this pair of astro-archaeologists…archeo-astrologers…or whatever the hell it was they called themselves. First they lay down all these tedious rules for their little experiment and then they howl when she calls them on a flagrant violation. Yes, indeed, she was going to be much happier when Tharsis Park HQ returned her to back country support. That’s where a gal belonged!

Dali Fitz said, “Believe me, I’m sympathetic. But the entire purpose of this Mars Program of yours was to copy historical artifacts from the 21st century and then use that so-called space technology to re-enact the first Mars landing. Removal of a suit helmet on the Mars of 2040 AD would have been deadly. I must log this as a protocol violation.”

Brendan was about to continue the argument when Carter stopped him. “It’s okay, Ranger,” the elderly scientist said. “No harm done. I think we’ve learned a great deal already. Thank you.”

The Ranger gave him a curious look and then smiled. As the two men rose to their feet she tapped her datalogger and then tucked it into a pocket of her parka.

Courteously, she asked, “Will you be removing any more specimens from the archeological sectors today? Some of the researchers from Barsoom University complained that the sight of you two in your mars-suits has been causing problems.”

“Really?” Carter said, his eyebrows raised. “How so?”

The Ranger sighed. “Wherever you go in those suits a flock of tourists seems to follow. Apparently the sight of you two has also been distracting Academician Kovik’s grad students. No work has been getting done.”

Carter snorted into the cold air. “No, we won’t be going back to the dig sectors. We’ve collected enough specimens to last us a while. My compliments to Academician Kovik.”

The ranger glanced toward the roiling clouds over the southern horizon. Lightning flared violet-white. She said, “Big blow in the outlands. Weather Control is keeping it over the Tharsis Reservoir. City planners in Bradbury want to erode away some of the Outer Dunes. They need a recreational harbor.”

“Why stop with a harbor?” Brendan grumbled. “Why not put in a few canals?”

The Ranger chose to ignore the comment. “If you should need anything today, gentlemen, I’ll be in the observer’s shack.”

“Thank you, Ranger,” Carter replied. “I think we’ll be wrapping things up in the next few days. We’ve gotten most of what we came for.”

The Ranger nodded curtly and walked back to the main trail. As she approached the path they heard a tourist with a real-cam complain: “I thought they weren’t supposed to take any of that gear off! What’s the matter with them? It spoiled my shot!” The Ranger said something placating and returned to the elevated observation platform.

“Martians,” grumbled Brendan. “Mustn’t upset the bloody tourists. Or those pumped up academics from Barsoom U.”

“Now, now,” Carter cautioned. “Those bloody tourists pay the taxes that keep this place open. I wish we had a few more tourists on our side. Maybe we wouldn’t have lost our funding.”

Sadness crossed Brendan’s face. “Without that funding we won’t even be able to fly Athena back home. The return flight would have proven conclusively that early 21st century explorers could safely journey to Mars and then return to Earth.”

“I know,” the senior archeologist shook his head. “I can’t believe it’ll take us a mere six hours to get home. I wonder what the first mars-walkers would have thought?”

“But, Carter, your dream…”

“Oh, don’t worry about me, lad,” Carter practically scolded. “Even without the return trip our contribution has gone far beyond anything that anyone in the field has ever attempted. There’s one hell of a design thesis in this for you. Who knows, maybe we’ll even see ourselves on the cover of Planetary Geographic.”

“But what about the Athena?” Brendan had grown to love the tough little ship, so carefully crafted, virtually hand made.

“I’m sure the park authorities will find a good home for the lander and the Athena. A historical display, perhaps? Athena is as good a reproduction of the First Expedition’s ship as is technically possible. And our journey here was epic. Heyerdahl would have approved.”

“Who?” Brendan asked.

Carter sighed. “An explorer from a chronicle I once read. The Heyerdahl Scroll actually pre-dates the Great Chronicle of the First Mars Expedition. If you believe the arguments.”

Brendan scowled. “I doubt if this Heyerdahl’s funding was ever cut. People back then, when they started something, they worked until it was done. The Mars of today would not exist if they hadn’t been so daring.”

Below the two men the morning sun glinted off scattered vehicles in the parking lot of the First Expedition Memorial Center. A road turned and twisted into a distant valley. Further away the golden spires of Bradbury City met the first rays of the new morning, defiantly shining in the face of the great storm.

“Fifteen hundred years since the First Expedition,” Brendan said. “I wonder if they knew what lay at the end of the long road.”

A thread of silver fire flashed through the dusty sky as a meteor announced its momentary passing. Below, in the ruddy light of dawn, the new world stirred itself from sleep.

“I suspect they did,” Carter whispered into the fresh Martian air.

*fin*

 

Originally published at scifidimensions webzine in December, 2000

Illustration found in National Geographic’s “Man’s Conquest of Space,” 1968, artist unknown although I believe it may have been an illustration from a NASA contracted TRW study from 1962

Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017)

Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017)

Sir Roger Moore passed away today at the age of 89. Born on October 14th 1927, he was one of that generation of actors who seemed to have come to the profession from humble origins. Often, they had prior careers before going onstage. They also worked hard and took on many, many roles. Moore spent most of his working career as an actor, but also served in the Royal Army Service Corps, having been conscripted shortly after the end of World War 2. In later life he worked as a voice actor, UNICEF ambassador and an animal rights activist. Of course, like so many others, when I heard the news of his death I immediately thought of James Bond and Moore’s portrayal in many of the films.

I don’t remember ever seeing a Bond film on the big screen that didn’t feature Roger Moore. In the 1970s the Bond films did not have as much access to television as they do today. If you wanted to see one you checked the newspaper listings for show-times and went to a theater. I’m sure (as sure as I can be without data, at least) that somewhere today a Bond film is occupying a given 2 ½ hour slot on one of ten thousand cable channels. If not, then within the next 24 to 48 hours that will likely happen. I first saw the report that Sir Roger Moore passed away today on the BBC web page. I did a double-take. He was as much a touchstone of my 70s childhood as Star Trek re-runs, high polyester disco collars from Sears, and the Chevy Vega.

I enjoyed his suave portrayal of Ian Fleming’s most famous creation. The movies were fun and like previous features in the series set the tone and pace for what is fairly common in cinema today. It was a controlled spectacle, of course, especially by today’s standards. Even when Moore was outrageously romancing a femme fatale or desperately fighting the baddies to save the world you might squirm but you were still safe within the darkness of the theater. And the one liners were durable yet potently silly.

Moore was the Bond of the 70s. The guy who was your Dad’s age. Somewhere beyond the safety of your home or school he was holding back the darkness. Yet there was something metacultural going on in the Moore films. It was as if Sir Roger, in his own modest and wry way, was out there helping civilization sort through the jumbled attic boxes of the late Cold War and Vietnam. The backgrounds of these movies, even places as exotic as far-off Asia, suggested a creeping globalization and trend toward universal marketing. Bond could hop a plane and effect change pretty much anywhere. The people in these far-off societies were always relatable: a mix of old friends or new rivals. Moore, with an almost trademark élan, could handle them all.

The locales were always a big draw for me. The places were new yet somehow familiar. And if Roger Moore as Bond could do it you knew that sometime in the near future you could hop that plane and go to those places as well, even if your adventure was as mundane as seeking work or merely sight-seeing. I would argue that anyone growing up in the 70s put together their “future travel list” based on his films.

The first Bond film I saw was The Man with the Golden Gun. My cousins in Boston took me and the sheer overwhelming spectacle of this over-the-top feature felt like a Paragon Park roller coaster ride. The film had everything, including a cool villain named Scaramanga. Say it again: Scaramanga. Anyone with a name like that was trouble. I knew it, and Roger Moore agreed with me. We were in this together.

During that first outing I was 12 and had not really seen spy fiction beyond television’s The Avengers or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. At the time I had trouble following those plots. I had recently read a few Flandry novels, by a guy named Poul Anderson. And as dashing and brooding as Flandry was, he seemed a mere fop compared to the daring insanity that was Laumer’s Jaime Retief. Seeing The Man with the Golden Gun, I couldn’t help compare it to Laumer’s and Anderson’s novels. Indeed, sitting in the theater I became certain that Moore must have been a big fan of those writers.

I realize that the inevitable comparisons will be made to Sean Connery’s Bond. I’ve made those myself. Love Connery. Love his Bond. But I often feel that when those comparisons are made they are very unfair. They have little to do with the actors but more so to do with the times when the productions were made. We’re talking two distinct eras here. Connery’s films were made during an era of certainty. Certainty of path, certainty of role and gender, certainty, even, of moral justification in protesting those assumptions and then digging deeper to declare that it was all bad. In the Connery films this can be seen in the tone, production quality, and yes, even the certitude of Bond’s approach to the world.

Moore’s Bond is of a very different world than the Bond of Sean Connery. The 70s I grew up in seemed downright exhausted. Yet it was also a society that was choosing to honestly examine itself while trying to cling to a comforting insularity. The smoke of the 60s had become a ground fog. As it lifted the landscape was quite literally altered. It was also the time of disco, big glasses, Watergate, emerging access to the shining promise of very personal technologies, Three Mile Island, crazy hair, and silly trends like trolls and pet rocks. The economy was troubled and the world was pushing back on the West. The assumption of absolute certitude was questioned daily.

This tone surfaces amid the exotic locales and hectic pace of the Moore films. Certitude is on the decline. We see this immediately in Moore’s interactions with Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny. They tease one another, but there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind that the relationship is friendly yet platonic. Moneypenny is the boss’s assistant, not a plaything. Her job in the network of spies is perhaps just as important as Bond’s. Connery might have gotten a date with her, but Moore would need to find love elsewhere. Then in The Spy Who Loved Me the West needs help from the Soviets to stop a madman named Stromberg who wants to build an underwater empire. It’s a sign of the times when the emerging notion of détente enters a Bond film.

The last Bond film of the 70s is Moonraker. Hugo Drax, as if unwilling to be outdone by prior villain Stromberg, wants to create a perfect society of perfect people that he has hand-picked to live aboard a space station before re-populating the world. It will be a new world of like-minded demigods. Not the first utopian vision, surely. But there are echoes here of the baby boomers versus their parents. Indeed, the movie asks what is the formula for the perfect society? As was so often seen during the 1970s perhaps there isn’t one.

Moonraker’s final battle sequence is very similar to that in The Spy Who Loved Me and other Bond films. Yet the good-guys who assault Drax’s space station are US Marines. Enlisted men. Dogfaces. Unlike prior films these are not elite agents or ninjas. Watching it you get the impression they are a hodgepodge mix of working joes, doing a day’s job, albeit in Earth orbit. What I like about this is you get several platoons of everyday guys bringing down the perfect humans. It seems a very democratic end to the certainty of the 60’s superman.

The series features mis-steps of course. It may have been very lucky for Connery’s career that he didn’t star in Live and Let Die. That is as near to a blaxploitation film as I ever want to see. Of course, if Moore had Live and Let Die then Connery had Zardoz. Also, there’s a few occasions where the one-liners are a bit over-used and extremely groan-worthy. Yet to Moore’s credit he seems to realize this and in his later outings as Bond he went for a tone of self-parody before that was a thing. He was not the first actor to suffer through bad writing, I am sure.

And so the decade came and went and Roger Moore was very much a part of that. Sir Roger Moore’s Bond was a product of the 1970s. Moore carried the mantle of 007 through a decade that was a long and at times confusing metamorphosis.

And just like the song said, nobody did it better.

 

 

 

 

Cosmic Conundrums: Making a List and Checking it Twice, Thrice …

Cosmic Conundrums: Making a List and Checking it Twice, Thrice …

In the fall I was asked by my friend Aaron, the editor of Cosmic Conundrums Magazine, to put together a list of twelve SF/F movies or books that are uplifting in a traditional holiday sort of way. This was late August and I usually don’t start planning for Christmas until around December 21st.Yes, true confessions, I am a last minute gift buyer, with predictable and hilarious results over the years…but that is another essay.

So, I probably spent too much time thinking about this and almost missed the deadline. There are reasons for my hesitation. First, I hate these sorts of lists and wonder about those who compile them. Are they really subject matter experts? Second, my judgment and tastes may not appeal to everyone and I am no expert on movies. I just know what I enjoy. And third, as Conundrums is new in print they would expend precious paper and ink rather than bytes and hypertext in issuing a missal with my name on it. So I wanted it to be good. I thought about emailing in September and declining the assignment. Surely someone could do better? But this crisis of confidence passed. Especially when bearing in mind that there was a paycheck at the end of this (which made me wonder less about those who compile these lists).

I somehow muddled through.

Yet it was more challenging than I expected. When I think of the holidays I don’t just think of Christmas. The entire season is a festival of lights and hope and this, to me, includes Hanukkah and Solstice, and Kwanzaa. I have friends who celebrate those as well.

So, I kept it to things that uplift all of humanity. And in the end I found I could not leave out mention of works which might not be strictly science fiction or fantasy. It’s a little heavy on the movie side, but that is okay as these are all more or less accessible via Netflix or Amazon. Some of the written works may require an interested reader to do a little digging. Keeping it to twelve was also a struggle.

Yet in the end I think all of these have a fairly positive message and could be watched or read by family members of all ages and persuasions. I’ve added a few “traditional” movies that I’ve always enjoyed. These pieces stand on the bridge between “mainstream” and SF/F as they deliver a great holiday message but if you dig a little deeper could actually be considered part of the genre.

So without any further ado here are my top twelve movies & books as presented in Conundrums. These are uplifting but not strictly “cheesy” or merely “feel-good.” Some are presentable almost anytime, if not just the holidays. Books or short stories are in bold and films are in italics:

  1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843) ~Pardon me for placing this at the top but, really, it’s a no brainer. It is a fantasy with ghosts, time travel and alternative worlds based on Scrooge’s personal choices. How much more SF/F does anyone need?
  1. Scrooge (1951) ~If you prefer A Christmas Carol in movie form then the 1951 version with Alastair Sim is the truest film adaptation of the book. Note it may not be for little ones as there are some chills…we’re talking ghosts and the death of Tiny Tim here. If you want the pre-school set to watch, then the Muppet version from 1992 may be your best choice. That version is as light as helium yet sticks to the story and has several wonderful messages.
  1. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) ~In this classic angels and alternative universes plague George Bailey of Bedford Falls, NY. I’ve sometimes wondered given the noir look of the calamitous Potterville if the film was not an inspiration for the future Twilight Zone? Speaking of which…
  2. Twilight Zone Episodes: Night of the Meek (1960) and The Changing of the Guard (1962) ~This is a cheat but as the combined running time on these two marvelous stories is less than an hour I’m going to squeeze them in.The Changing of the Guard  is one of many Twilight Zone episodes written by the multi-talented and incomparable Rod Serling. In this story a professor facing forced retirement learns through example that he should never underestimate the impact one has on others. This is true in many professions and Serling offers a poignant tale that is very uplifting and may even make us think about our own influences on other lives.Switching back to a story written exclusively as a holiday episode, Night of the Meek features Art Carney as a down on his luck Santa. A tightly written teleplay and great performance by Carney keeps the story from falling into awful televised sentimentality. This was unusual for that time (or any time, really) in television history. A 1960 production that featured an alcoholic Santa took some courage on the part of cast and crew. Like most of the series the script was penned by Rod Serling who incidentally was born on Christmas Day, 1924.
  1. Hogfather by Terry Pratchett (1996) ~A rollicking entry in Pratchett’s Discworld universe and just in time for the holidays! In this novel Death, who looks remarkably like the cinematic version of the Ghost of Christmas Future, has to step in when the Discworld’s version of Santa Claus goes missing. Lots of fun ensues. A scene involving The Little Matchstick Girl is a treasure.
  1. Wolf Christmas by Daniel Pinkwater (2010) A pack of wolves gather on Christmas Eve. Good things follow as only Daniel Pinkwater can imagine.
  1. Santa Claus vs. S.P.I.D.E.R. by Harlan Ellison (1968) ~I can’t apply any more superlatives to Ellison’s career than those that have been stated by better writers and reviewers. All I can say is that you’ve got to love the guy in all his irascible glory. In this story Ellison’s Santa is a product of the psychedelic Sixties and James Bond films. Operating from his secret Arctic base this story features a gadget laden Santa saving the world from an alien invasion. Good, wacky fun.
  1. The Star by Arthur C. Clarke (1955) A Jesuit priest journeys into the cosmos to find the Christmas star and gets more than he bargained for. Clarke may have been an originator of what is now called flash fiction. Many of his short vignettes have images or endings that really stick with you. The same can be said for this tale.
  1. The Season of Forgiveness by Poul Anderson(1973) ~ Anderson was one of those writers back in the day who managed to support a family and modest lifestyle with his craft. Thus he turned up in a variety of markets. Published in the very mainstream Boy’s Life Magazine the story is true to the genre in that it is a classic Anderson tale with a mix of good characterization, hard science and philosophy. The interaction of faiths represented by the trader team reminds us that many celebrate the season in a variety of ways. The ending avoids being preachy while delivering a message that mercy and understanding of other cultures, no matter how alien, are the pathways to a better world.
  1. The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892) ~Given how much today’s Steampunk community has embraced all things Victorian I’m including this on the list. Sir Arthur and his contemporaries Verne and Wells are the undeniable touchstone for the current wealth of Steampunk literature and culture. Carbuncle is a well-paced mystery short that features the Christmas Eve theft of a diamond with a cursed background. Conan Doyle hits all the seasonal tropes while moving the story along crisply.  The 1983 Granada Television adaptation with the brightly intense and marvelously quirky Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes is also quite watchable and very true to the original story.
  1. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) ~Certainly an allegory of the Christ story, this relatively short movie directed by Robert Wise is not strictly speaking a holiday film. However, Wise does a great job bringing out a subtle humanity in Michael Rennie’s Klaatu. The emphasis on choices and how we react as a society to something new or unknown is a continuous thread throughout the film. Wise’s message, like Klaatu’s, is that we should never allow fear to replace reason. The film ends on a note of hope and the promise of a better future.
  1. 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) ~Not a holiday tale but this adaptation of a novel (or novelization…you decide) by Sir Arthur C. Clarke is very much a delivery of the seasonal message embraced in the Gospel of Luke (2:14): “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will to men.” The fact that the story takes place near Jupiter and the intelligence behind the famous Monolith delivers the message of peace is of no consequence. It’s a darned good conclusion to the saga that began with 2001 A Space Odyssey. The message that our shared human future can be one of peace and progress is very uplifting. As a child of the erstwhile Apollo Moon Project days this is my personal feel-good movie.

Note that there are far more SF/F holiday tales than the ones listed here. There is also an increasing body of SF/F holiday anthology series. I think Connie Willis may be one of the most prolific of authors in terms of producing quality tales that keep me turning the pages. She has also written numerous holiday themed SF/F. Some of these short stories can be found in Miracle and Other Christmas Stories (1999). These feature a dozen or so yarns that are amusing, uplifting, and would form a perfect list all on their own.

Now it is time for you, dear reader, to come up with your own list of fun things to read or watch during the holiday. Any genre applies.

When it comes to finding that special thing which delivers hope and love in this season…as with so many things…it’s alright to apply what might best be described as the Gaiman Principle. The inherent joys of this season…like Santa Claus and all creatures of myth…rely on the general level of overall energy that human beings apply to the very existence and maintenance of such legends. Thus Santa is as real as we make him. And so it is with whatever light we choose to bring to this season.

Any scientist can tell you that you’ll never discover a molecule in the earth or a star in the sky called peace or love or good will. Yet those fragile gifts are as real as matter or gravity or light despite the fact that there is no instrument available to weigh or measure such human concepts. And so it is when it comes to Santa, or candles that remain lit through the darkest of nights, or the joy of the season.

Happy Holidays to All!

(note: the artwork featured is from the Jan 1956 Galaxy Magazine. Art by Ed Emshwiller)

Bob, The Annihilator (Part 2)

Bob, The Annihilator (Part 2)

And just to wrap up what was started a couple of days ago. We now conclude the story of “Bob, The Annihilator.” It’s a fantasy story, but not dark or dystopian (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Bob, The Annihilator

(Part Two)

We heard laughter coming from behind the wall, somewhere beyond our cabbages. Willie found a rock at the garden’s edge and hefted it. It seemed big enough to crush even an oversized chipmunk’s skull. I had little doubt Willie would not hesitate to do so. I exuded what might best be called Stamina and Willie bolted for the cabin. We made it through the door in record time.

Of course the phone wasn’t working. Bob must have taken out the relays prior to making his appearance. Willie stood with the ansible receiver to her ear and strained to hear a dial tone somewhere in the maddening silence. Suddenly Bob appeared in the open window. His fluffy tail jerked eagerly. Willie threw the rock but Bob had vanished again.

Our nearest neighbors were ten miles away. We needed help. Willie stepped toward the door and then suddenly stopped. Her fists clenched and I could feel the anger surge. There was no way she was going to flee our homestead!

“Bob the Traitor,” she hissed. It was a summons.

Bob appeared from behind the sofa. He stood clutching his little leather pouch, his uncannily blue eyes gauging us. Nothing was said for over a minute. Then Willie asked: “Why aren’t you dead?”

Bob spread his tiny arms and said. “I managed to survive, sergeant. During the Battle of Fanglore I passed through our lines and made it to enemy headquarters…your enemy that is. The Keeper’s Cleft was hit hard just an hour after I arrived. Something our side had developed called Benevolent Change.”

 “We were told it killed everything inside that haunted chasm,” Willie remembered.

Bob the Annihilator shook his furry head. “Not exactly. The good guys tried to deploy good spells. That’s what Benevolent Change supposedly was. Turned anybody who went over to Faerie into harmless rodents. Then the 8th Were-Cats suddenly appeared. They hadn’t heard about good spells nor had HQ been apprised of the 8th’s commando raid. I managed to escape. Apparently were-cats don’t view chipmunks as good eating.”

“A pity I don’t keep cats,” Willie said. Every muscle was taut. She was ready to pounce.

Disarmingly, Bob laughed. “I appreciate your sense of humor, sergeant, truly. And I’m happy to see you alive.”

Willie’s big foot slapped the ground but the chipmunk had dodged it. “I’m the last thing you’ll see alive.”

“Now, now,” Bob the Annihilator said from under our end table. “I understand your emotions, but any attempt to attack me just causes me to flash away. That’s one of the better side effects of Benevolent Change, sergeant.”

“What about all the other rodents?” Willie flung the end table aside and one of our expensive lamps smashed on the floor. I tsked-tsked in her ear.

“Most were transformed into guinea pigs,” Bob’s disembodied voice replied. “Different side effects and no match for any were-cat.”

Willie shrieked her frustration. “What the hell are you doing here, Bob?”

Bob peeked out from behind the sofa. “I have a proposition for you, trooper. One that you and your little friend may be interested in.”

“He’s my medic, Bob. And unlike you he did his duty at Fanglore,” Willie said. Had flames been available these would have shot from her eyes.

“I see,” Bob said in a very heard-it-all-before sort of voice. “Then perhaps you can both help.”

“How ‘bout we help you back to Hell?” Willie took a step forward. I could tell she was prepared to throttle the chipmunk. I wasn’t sure whether to hide my eyes or help.

Bob pulled something from his leather bag. It glowed with the same blue intensity as his eyes. The gem was eight-sided and looked like a chunk of blue sky. Strange crackles of energy formed lines of twisting discharge around its edges. He raised it in our direction.

“Please,” he begged. “I need you to help me. I need to get back to my human form.”

“Don’t we all,” I said.

As if really noticing me for the first time Bob squinted his azure eyes and tilted his head in my direction. “What did he say?”

“Sit down,” Willie replied. Bob hopped up onto the sofa and rested the gem in the cup of both paws. His chipmunk face looked quite earnest. Willie settled in the easy chair opposite him, but she was anything but easy. Her fists stood like dark knots on her knees.

“Why me?” Willie demanded.

“You’re one of my old cadre, sarge!” Bob said brightly.

Willie folded her arms. “You betrayed that cadre long before we reached the shores of the Outcast Sea. And when we hit the beach they knew right where to take us. But you were immune thanks to that traitor’s talisman you hold. And you left us for dead when you went over to the Keeper.”

Bob sighed, his heavy chipmunk cheeks puffing out. “Guilty, guilty, guilty. But guilty only in the past. Those of us who secretly worked with the Crucible thought we were bettering the world. Saving humanity by tempering the Keeper’s plans.”

“Fools,” Willie spat the word. “You killed thousands.”

“And you killed more.” Bob the Annihilator looked down at his paws and then back up. Were there tears in his eyes? “I can’t make anything better in my past, Willie. Can you? Can anybody? The War is over, the amnesties were given, and now we live in the shadow of what was.”

Willie motioned with a wickedly curved thumb. “The door is over there. Just be glad I don’t keep hounds.”

Bob lowered his eyes and made a placating gesture with his forepaw. “No, please. Hear me out.”

“I have no reason to…”

Bob pressed on: “Willie, old comrade, what if I told you I can return us all to our original forms.

I fluttered my wings at that. Bob’s actions had killed so many on our side. It seemed strange he would want to do something good. Or was this penance? We all found our penance, in one way or another. The gem in his hand fluttered with light and potentiality.

“What…do you mean?” Willie said between clenched teeth.

Bob raised the gem in his hand. “This traitor’s talisman serves many purposes. But I’ve found, through long and hard trials, a means by which it can de-morph any bearer. It’s an old magic, based on the link between crystal, metal, and extheric energies. By elevating its inherent quintessence…”

“I don’t need a university lecture, lieutenant. Who did you kill to get this information?” Willie said bluntly.

Bob said, “No one, I assure you. But those who went over to the Keeper learned things. And not all were killed, let alone morphed. Some remain human! I found one such worthy living down and out in the ruins of Crypticopolis. I heard rumors and was able to seek him out. He seemed eager to help me.”

Willie frowned and I flicked my forked tongue down at Bob. “So you found some junky in the streets of the Alabaster City and got him the fix he needed,” Willie surmised.

Nonplussed, Bob the Annihilator stated simply: “We had a mutual exchange, sergeant.”

“I’m sure. And what did this junky do in the war?”

“An officer of the Craft. Section Double-Q.”

I whistled, sharp and shrill. The stuff that came out of S2Q had won the war for us. Those kids were geniuses. But I did have to wonder if all the alums of that unit had wound up as junkies. You heard stories about what they had put themselves through. Thaumaturgic programming and demon hopping were said to be far worse than anything we had seen at Fanglore. Or so they claimed. I hoped a few had found peace.

“Who?” Willie demanded.

“Dalton. Did you know him?”

“I knew of him,” Willie said. She had briefly worked for S2Q but then refused further service, and joined the FOEmen instead. “Did something with spirit-animals, yes?”

Bob’s whiskers quivered. “He trans-morphed wolves, bears, rats, and eagles into warplings.”

Willie’s goblin eyebrows shot up. “The warpling program was a disaster.”

“Why?” I asked.

Willie said: “Because the warplings became crazed. They kept eating their handlers, among other things. And…”

“And?”

“We were doing things to those poor beasts that were on a par with the Crucible Keeper. I’d have none of it.”

Bob the Annihilator hopped up on his hind legs and bounced slightly on the cushions. He was excited. “Dalton felt very bad about it, too. He broke off from the main S2Q group and worked inside the Complex, but in relative isolation. Whoever was supervising him in the command structure allowed this and supported his work.”

“What work was that? Why would they allow Dalton to work alone?” Willie demanded.

Bob’s eyes glowed enthusiastically. “Dalton came up with a way of reversing the warpling effect. He could turn the subjects back to their original forms. I saw this myself. He still had a collection of morphed rats. He turned one back into a mundane normal rat before my very eyes.”

“This was all secret, I suppose? Until you tracked him down? Why?” Willie was on the edge of her seat.

Bob said: “This was important to Command. They had an inkling, even back then, of what we might face in Fanglore. The trans-morphing auras that hit units like ours are almost identical to warping spells. Command wanted some way to reverse that. Dalton figured this out.”

My wings flapped angrily. Willie frowned. “Then if what you say is true…why didn’t they apply the technique to all morphed veterans? Why didn’t they…”

Willie paused as Bob plumped back down on the couch. In a very human gesture he sat with elbow on knee. His chipmunk face had a look of contempt. “Who would they have guard the Fairy Haunted Lands, if not for morphed vets? Where else do we belong?”

Willie leaned back in her chair. I felt the rough hide-back cushion rubbing into her pebbled goblin skin. Around us our snug cabin and all that we held dear glowed softly. We were just one little outpost among many, many. Those who had been morphed in Fanglore were outcasts from the Mundane World, surely. But even homesteading was a way to continue to serve. We did so proudly. Yet if this were true and we all had some type of choice…

The hard silence of bitter memory stretched through the cabin. When Willie finally spoke it was with all the weight of a broken promise: “Bastard.”

Bob looked at us carefully. “Sure. Call me what you will. I went over to the other side. But what is Command doing to its own people?”

“Shut up!” Willie snarled. “Why should I believe any of this?”

“Because you know it’s true. And because it’s a way out. Back to our old, true, human forms.”

Willie bared her sharp goblin teeth. “Why risk it? Dalton worked with lab rats! By the Old God’s sake! Do I look like a lab rat, Bob?”

In an almost wheedling voice, the Annihilator said, “You were beautiful, if I recall, Willie. Don’t you want to be beautiful again?”

Willie thrust a sharp, curved thumb at her chest. “I am still beautiful, lieutenant. And whether morphed or human, you are still nothing but a nasty little rodent.”

The chipmunk shook its head. “If reversal was offered, even from one such as me, you wouldn’t accept?” Bob seemed truly dismayed.

Willie folded her arms. “No.”

“But you don’t speak for anyone else, Willie! Shouldn’t they have their own say?”

“Of course, but…”

“No, no! No corollaries, please,” Bob raised one sharp little chipmunk digit. “If I can prove to you that Dalton’s technique works, then I will make it available to others. I would even make it available to you and your medic should you change your minds.”

“Why me?”

Bob tucked the glowing gem back in its pouch and said, “You were an expert in thaumaturgic metallurgy. I can’t use the gem without a focusing cradle. I need you to make me one.”

“Where’s Dalton’s?” Willie asked. “I mean, I assume he needed one to make this reversal technique work?”

Bob sighed. True regret passed before his eyes. “On our last night of work I was to use the technique on myself. I hurried to his flat and found that he had dropped some crazy stuff. I waited for the trip to pass but when he came down he was misery personified. He demanded more money and I was running out of cash and patience. We fought. The cradle was quite fragile and it shattered. In a fury Dalton released the clutch of transformed rats that he kept. They attacked me. I was able to get away with only the gem.”

“And Dalton?” Willie asked.

“To hell with Dalton!” Anger burst like extheric thunder. “Will you help me or not?”

It was dark outside. A breeze blew. High above I saw the first purple flash as weird energies gathered. A moth fluttered plaintively along the edge of the screen door. A thousand voices seemed to call from the gloaming beyond the edge of the porch. I thought of the morphed and dying at Fanglore. My skin dimpled and I shivered. Willie stood up like a rising storm and walked toward her workshop. Meekly, Bob followed.

Willie had to duck as we entered the workshop. Bob had no such problem, but given the dimness and shadow he edged carefully up against the wall, his bushy tail quivering. His whiskers shivered as he drank in the smells of oil, steel, ozone, and smoke.

At the center of the shop a forge glowed, its coals standing hot like a bed of incandescent emeralds. Willie threw on her leather apron and pumped the bellows. The forge sprang up and a heated, green glow filled the room. On the shop’s oaken beams carved figures seemed to come to life, dancing and writhing upon the thick wood. Willie glanced at our guest and her eyes glowed like hot embers.

“Let’s make this quick, traitor,” she growled.

To his credit Bob was a very well prepared guy. He pulled the gemstone and a scrap of parchment from his pouch and handed it up to Willie. The diagram showed an elaborate cradle wherein would rest the gemstone. It looked like a spider web woven by a geometrist. I licked my chops at the sight. Willie was an excellent metal-worker, but this was quite different than the tourist fancies or bedsteads we typically produced.

Without a word she got to work. Bob the Annihilator hopped up on a wooden bench and watched eagerly. Willie pulled some flickering adamantine stock from under the nearest bench as well as several nodules of meteoritic iron. The forge flared and she began laying out the general shape. Outside, the exthermic storm let out a roar. Lightning flickered in the throat of the chimney above our forge.

Hours passed, but in the end Willie completed the cradle. The storm outside was really raging and the blue jewel surged and pulsed with each howl of the wind, every flicker of lightning. Carefully she handed the elaborately worked piece to Bob. He took it gingerly in his tiny paws.

“Amazing!” he breathed. “Truly amazing!”

“Thanks…I guess,” Willie replied with a twisted smile. The work had absorbed her. But now that she had to face Bob the Annihilator and his odd story she was beginning to get edgy again. Who could blame her?

“Please, the parchment!” Bob asked. Willie picked the slightly burned parchment off the edge of the workbench and passed it to him. He turned it over. On the side opposite the cradle diagram were a series of runic words. Bob whispered the words and his eyes glowed with triumph.

Before we could say another word Bob ran out of the workshop. Willie and I had barely cleared the workshop when we heard the porch door slap shut. Tiny feet scurried across the porch and vanished into the night.

“Bob!” Willie cried from the screen door. Extheric lightening flared above and the pine trees groaned at their very roots. The triquetra that Jack had cut glowed at the perimeter of our cabin and cast a dull orange light in counterpoint to the raging storm. Through darkness and flickering energies I saw a shadowy woodland form scurrying for the border.

“Bob!” Willie called. “You promised that that would be used by anyone who needed it!”

“Certainly,” Bob the Annihilator called from the outer edge of the triquetra. There was a harsh sneer to his voice. “And any may have it…for a price! Would you like the cure now, Willie? Is it worth your land, or labor, or body?”

We hurried across the lawn. Bob’s tiny chipmunk arms raised the blue gem in its adamantine cradle up toward the growling storm. The stone flared brilliant blue and cast azure shadows across trees and lawn and Bob’s snarling face. A bolt of vermillion shot down out of the sky and struck the gemstone. In a flash Bob began to writhe and grow and morph.

Willie staggered to a halt just within the triquetra. Bob loomed above us. He was human again, but his muscular frame stood at least nine feet tall. He barked a laugh and glared down at us. The gemstone pulsed and sizzled in its cradle. Weird shadows shifted across his face.

“I’m me again!” Bob cried. Tears coursed down his face.

“Bob, you never looked anything like that,” Willie scoffed.

“No matter! With this gemstone we can improve our lot! Make each of us better than we were! Come on Willie, join me!”

Bob the Annihilator held out the stone. Several heartbeats passed.

Willie tilted her head. “Not for me,” I heard her whisper. “But there are so many others.” She reached for the silvery cradle but Bob snatched it away and laughed. He raised it up into the air, a good twelve feet off the ground.

“Never!” he yelled. And in that instant the gemstone flared like a rising, blue sun. Willie and I were knocked to the ground. Discharged energies and sinuous flux-lines crackled all around us. These soon faded and night returned to our well-kept lawn.

Dazed, we struggled to our feet and looked around. Fighting off the storm, the strained triquetra offered a ruddy sodium-light sort of illumination. A small crater smoked where Bob had once stood. At its center sat the gemstone. Its cradle was twisted and melted. Next to the wreckage sat an innocent-looking chipmunk. It squeaked plaintively as we approached.

“Bob?” Willie said.

The chipmunk was a tiny, normal sized chipmunk: not Annihilator scale. It blinked obsidian eyes and chattered something. Willie crouched down and stared. The rodent darted here and there.

“So much for the cure,” I said. “I guess the gemstone doesn’t work.”

“Oh, it worked,” Willie said. “Just as Bob thought it would. But it could only return its bearer to some original form…as encountered by the gemstone. That’s why Dalton’s warped rats went back to being just plain old rats.”

I nodded. “And why a giant chipmunk went back to being just a normal sized chipmunk.”

“Including scale and instinct, I bet it’s gone back to being just a plain old chipmunk in terms of intelligence.”

I shook my head. “Bob got a lot more than he bargained for,” I said.

It started to rain. The chipmunk, having enough of our conversation, disappeared noisily into the underbrush. Using sharpened thumb and index finger Willie picked up the remains of the cradle. It still channeled whatever extheric energy remained in the air. At its broken center the gemstone crackled and sparked against the raindrops.

“What to do with this?” my friend clucked. “Should we get it to the authorities?”

“Willie,” I said. “I was thinking of a better use. Maybe it would make a good bug zapper?”

Willie laughed. The rain fell and my wings formed an umbrella over our heads. Contentedly, we walked back to our cabin. Above us, the storm raged, but it would be over soon. Tomorrow, we’d fix that lawnmower.

Bob, The Annihilator (Part 1)

Bob, The Annihilator (Part 1)

May 15th. I don’t write too much fantasy but I have dabbled. Here is Part 1 of an effort I am putting together called “Bob, The Annihilator.” I like fantasy to be fun. Not too dark or dystopian. I get enough of that sort of fantasy in the newspapers.

“Bob, the Annihilator”

Part One:

 Willie’s lawnmower jolted as if wrenched by some fallen angel. An instant later there was a nerve-grabbing, capital-letter BANG. Even a vet like Willie started and flinched at the noise. She pulled the mower back and dug the claws of her feet into the grass. Angrily, she whispered something in a tongue not known to men. Her tail whipped behind her legs and thrashed at the solid earth.

I sighed. We seemed to repeat this every time we mowed. We’d talked about hiring a kid to come cut the lawn for us. But we could never find one that wasn’t afraid of being eaten alive by his prospective employers.

“Rocks, rocks, rocks,” Willie shook her head.

The soil here on the Tug Hill was a gravelly mix with plenty of large, hidden stone. The Mundane Timeline indicated that a prehistoric Ice Age had once pushed glaciers through this region. The ancient ice had carved beautiful lakes and vales but had scattered megatons of stony residue. The so-called topsoil was in reality a bane to generations of farmers.

Lawnmowers didn’t fare very well either. And it wasn’t always the stray rocks. You can’t mow your lawn in the Haunted Lands without coming across some remnant of the War, after all.

It’s a hazard, I suppose, of the veteran resettlement programs. Now, given the resource depletion caused by so many Scoured Realms, the dedicated bureaucrats who run the world see that we, as a people, have little choice but to settle such places. Thus we homesteaded what we were offered. Quietly, despite all that had happened to us, we built cabins, planted gardens, and mowed lawns in places only recently wrested from elves and fairies and other keepers of the Old Dark.

In a sense, we were following the last orders of our weird enlistment. We only guessed at the truth much, much later.

Willie stepped back and wiped her brow. The afternoon was late but the day remained hot. Willie regarded the quiet mower. Deer flies and scourge bugs ringed her sharp-featured goblin’s head. Biting, biting, but only the most determined cut through her tough hide. Nearby, our bug zapper droned away but neither light nor noise ever drew the pests away from us. We had talked about getting a better zapper…maybe next time we could afford a better one.

Despite the insects…both Mundane and Faerie…our 100 acres _was_ lovely. The grass stretched to the edge of pines and bordered gardens fat with alyssum and coreopsis. Soothsayer beetles darted skittishly across the woodpile. Birds sang in the trees that surrounded our homestead. Cicadas buzzed insistently. I sucked in the idyllic moment until Willie suddenly swore an oath with her Great Voice.

Such a curse!

It was one that neither of us had used since we both slogged through the surf and darkling sands of the First Beachhead. That was in Fanglore, where so many thousands of our comrades had died…or worse. We had been with the First Occult Expeditionary. FOEmen one and all! Tierney’s Two-Fisted Talismans. Why we’d rather fight than…no matter…we were younger then.

And perhaps a little more foolish.

“Maybe time for a break?” I asked. My voice was a whisper in her ear and did little to break the silence of the surrounding forest. I also exuded a touch of Calm into her bloodstream. Just to soothe her. She hadn’t slept much last night…bad dreams, she told me. She had had plenty of those in the years since we had been invalided out of Wellness Castle.

“Mmmm,” Willie growled. “Maybe so…I’m thinking that iced tea I made this morning might be good and cold. Feel like a porch sit?”

“Sure, the sun is starting to burn my back,” I said.

“Really?” She sounded very surprised. “I thought only the vanes of your wings could burn.”

“I dunno…I just feel hot, is all.” I thought how good it was that she listened to my tiny voice. How easily we conversed. There were horror stories about other vets in our situation. When I asked her about that she had only said, in her gruff way: Well, you lost your life to save me, after all. Listening is the least I can do.

 She was kind beneath that hard exterior.

Willie gripped the mower’s handles and gave it a nudge over whatever had impeded its progress. Something beneath the mower’s wide circular base grated. She lifted the mower and shoved it aside. A wide ring of dark grass cuttings had fallen down from the mower’s housing. Near the center was a dark stone with a clean white scrape on it.

Willie picked it up. The stone fit in the palm of her hand but was quite heavy. She examined it briefly. It was not like the gray stones that lurked just below the soil. It was dark and oblong. Its inky surface seemed to absorb light. Despite curiosity I could still sense her anger over the broken mower. She dropped the stone back onto the ground. It landed within the ring of grass clippings.

We would have left it there except that it hit the ground with a solid thud that shook the very earth itself. The pines quivered and the windows in our nearby cabin rattled. It was a strange effect and certainly not normal. Willie halted mid-step and peered at the ground. A puzzled expression crossed her face.

“What’s that all about?” she asked.

Willie stooped down and pushed the black stone aside. Pinching and teasing the grass aside she worked her way down from green blades to whitish shoots. The pebbly-brown earth was soon revealed…and something within it. Long curved shapes shined under the sunlight. A tiny, oblong skull came within view. The skeleton attached to it could fit easily into a child’s hand…if there were any children who might dare touch the damned thing.

“A fairy,” Willie hissed. She wiped her hand on her blue jeans. She pointed. “And look, there are more.”

Truly, the area within the broken ring of grass clippings held a good half-dozen skeletons. After catching her breath Willie smoothed out the grass here and there to get a better look at the little cohort. Sparkles showed where the tiny warriors’s jewel encrusted helms and swords had fallen.

Where Willie had dropped the dark stone it seemed to exude shadows. Digging about, Willie’s thick fingers soon found similar rocks. They formed a rough chevron behind which the fairies had fallen. The shape stirred an old memory within me.

“This was a defensive outpost,” Willie surmised. “Probably with a direct relay back to the Lore Mound.”

She picked up the black stone that had damaged the lawnmower. “This was probably a calling-ansible,” she surmised. “Burned out, obviously.”

With a grunt she threw the rock toward the tree-line. It vanished behind the pines, a dark form amid shadows. Twigs and brush offered a brief cacophony to mark its landing.

“How do you think they died?” I asked.

The thickset shoulder that formed part of my perch rose and fell nonchalantly. A sigh. And then: “Fighting got pretty heavy through the Tug Hill. Likely a capon-mounted dragoon unit came through here. Maybe someone dropped a querning grenade on them.”

“Rough way to go, querning,” I said. “Your weapons animate and hack you to death.”

Willie scratched her head. “Been here two years now and none of my crops have had any QG poisoning. Not like Sergeant Sark down in Thunderkettle. Nope, probably just stomped on by the dragoons’ capons. Nasty birds.”

“Well, we’ve mowed over them a dozen times, at least,” I said conversationally.

Willie looked about. “I wonder if there’s more? Fetch a pretty penny. Sark’s wife will pay a pretty penny for these.”

“Miranda Sark, yes?”

Willie barked a big laugh. “Shoooot! Her name’s not Miranda!”

“No?”

“No, every bride that the government pays to marry a vet and come to the Fairy Haunted Lands calls herself Miranda. They think it makes them fey. And when my old drinking pal Gertie Gladwell married that boy volunteer from outside Ottawa he changed his handle to Prospero, of all the silliness!”

“Then Miranda is not Miranda?”

“Nope, try Amber.”

“Amber is a pretty name.”

“Sounds like resin to me.”

“What does Mrs. Sark do with fairy bones?” I asked. The hazy sun was really starting to burn.

“Turns them into wind-chimes and sells them to the tourists.”

I felt queasy. “oh,” I managed to say in my tiny gargoyle voice.

Willie pushed the mower over to the shed and we headed for the porch of our cabin. She paused as we walked up the flagstones past the flowerbeds. She pointed to several holes that had appeared in the soft black earth between zinnias and nasturtiums. “Squirrels have been diggin’ again.”

Our pause so near the tree-line led to more bugs assaulting us. I flapped my wings and snapped at a passing deer-fly. If not for the fact that everything from the waist down was melded into Willie’s shoulder I might fly about and give those insects what for. I sighed. We really needed to purchase a better bug-zapper.

The iced tea was cold. A large one for her and a tiny one for me. We settled onto the cushions of the big comfortable chair that Willie had carved. The battle-scarred oak had fallen in whatever fight had happened on our hundred acres. Our drinks were cool and we enjoyed a comfortable silence. A woodchuck slunk along the tree line, nibbling, looking up, nibbling, looking up. Furtively, a satan darted across our driveway to hide in the shrubs beyond, mindlessly whittering to itself. Overhead a red-tailed hawk wheeled in the hazy sky, uninterested in a meal but enjoying the sheer pleasure of flying.

A rattling sounded on the distant roadway. We were a good half-mile off the main drag but the distinctive clatter was readily discerned. I lowered my cold mug and squinted northward. “That time already?” I asked.

Willie looked at the extheric timekeeper that glowed on the rough wall of the cabin. “Seems early,” she said.

The rattling grew louder and there was a groan as if the Earth’s axes were being braked by some mad operator. Next to the screened porch door the timekeeper flared. Tiny sparks of probability drifted downward to pop and sizzle on the deck. A few embers fell into the garden. Something cheeped indignantly. A lithe quadruped leapt from the clutch of nasturtiums and onto the porch railing. A chipmunk the size of a house cat crouched shivering on the rough hewn rail. I flapped my bony wings in surprise. Willie returned the ‘munk’s bright blue gaze and clucked her astonishment. An instant later the big rodent was on the ground and running along the grass at the very edge of the cabin.

We had no time to comment on this as the plowboat was now grinding its way down our driveway. An iron plow that was as ornately carved as it was sharply pointed churned through the gravel of the drive like the prow of a ship. Great spiked wheels ambled along despite being partially submerged below the surface of the driveway. These rotated like waterwheels and sent a cascade of grit up into the air. The grit fell onto the sifters that hunkered amid the boilers and flywheels atop the plowboat’s main deck. What wasn’t collected was sent over the back in an immense cascade of stone and dust. This cataract split along either side of a plow that was identical to the one in front. This device glowed faintly and sealed rather than seamed the driveway.

The entire affair ground to a halt in front of our porch. Within a settling cloud of summer dust the vehicle gurgled to a rather plaintive and inefficient idle. A hatch clanged open in the side of the plowboat and a giant figure in a greasy jumpsuit and leather apron clambered out into the sunshine.

“Hello Jack. Hello Backjack” Willie greeted.

The green glass in his thick goggles captured multiple reflections of the surroundings. Willie and I stood waiting on the lawn next to the steaming, ticking machine. The giant, like his machine, seemed all out of proportion. Four arms sprouted from the wide shoulders that sat atop his barrel torso. When he turned around we saw another face and jaw attached to the back of the head. Another set of goggles peered down at us. These were raised to reveal a friendly face under fiery red hair. A toothy grin spread across the wide mouth.

“Offer you an iced tea?” Willie asked.

“No, not just yet,” Jack said. “Just stopping in to see how things are going. Big extheric storm coming through near evening.”

I flinched at that. The Tug Hill could be Extheric Central thanks to the big mascon it sat above. The cabin was girded with a combined ishmael grid and faraday cage. We should survive it with only our hackles tickled. We had ridden out others, after all. Still, the focused extheric energies that had morphed Willie and I that day on the enchanted beach could do worse…far worse.

“How big?” Willie asked, tilting her scaly head.

“Around a 7 on the Ish scale,” Jack said.

Willie nodded. “That’s why the plowboat is out running.”

“Yep, I’ll cut a nice storm break around your place. Should keep the worst of it away,” Jack said. Then, being an honest tradesman he asked: “Pentagram or triquetra?”

“Triquetra, please,” Willie said. “I may look like a goblin but I’m still an Irish girl at heart.”

“How do they tell the difference?” Jack scoffed.

“You!” Willie laughed and gave the giant a push.

Jack smiled and lowered his big green goggles. He spun about and Backjack said goodbye. He patted me on the head where I perched on Willie’s shoulder. Willie frowned but allowed that. Backjack was a little simpler than Jack but much stronger. The two had been at the invasion down the coast from us that day in Fanglore by the Outcast Sea. Twin brothers in a mangonel unit. Backjack probably didn’t realize how integrated Willie and I were. A pat on the head was transmitted directly to her neck. She would have bit anyone else’s hand but the Jacks were good sorts. She smiled amiably as the giant climbed back into the machine.

Jack got to work and we stood and watched from the porch. The plowboat followed a pattern around our grounds, the big iron plow cutting and re-ordering the soil and the energy within. By the time all was done I could see a steady flickering at the edge of my vision. Jack stopped in front of the cabin and took some iced tea. Then he was off, the big plowboat steaming up the drive and beyond the pines.

The wind blew and the trees sighed. Next to us the reeds of a wind chime knocked fitfully. Leaves skittered like old parchment across the driveway. Although the air was clear the barest wisps of streamers could now be seen in the sky. Phantom lines of extheric energy were reaching outward from the coiled depths of the mascon above which our humble 100 acres sat. It would be a busy evening, I reckoned.

“This weather,” Willie groused.

“Maybe we should move to Florida,” I suggested.

She shook her head. “Too many sea myrsies.”

“But no mascons…except near Hallabassa Bay.”

“Isn’t that where their kraken problem originates?”

“Likely,” I said. I stretched my wings and flapped them in the growing breeze.

Pixies, fairies, gnomes, whimsies, sprites, leprechauns, wee-folk, or whatever you choose to call them: enchanted mites were enchanted mites. And dangerous. Nearly all outbreaks of such creatures arose not from subterranean caverns or hidden castles but from the very earth itself. We lived above such a spot. Given the right geophysical detection equipment such areas had been identified as  mascons, or mass concentrations.

Essentially mascons occurred where the concentration of material deep underground had a greater density than their surroundings. Such places had been known to display, at minimum, weird magnetic effects. Other, stronger mascons could actually tug at satellites passing high above in orbit. Before the War, geologists had been studying the phenomena. An old pre-War magazine I had once read said that planetologists had even found similar mascons on the Moon and far planets.

None of us, before the War, suspected that mascons held anything more than inert matter. But if you remember those dark days then you know how innocent we were of the World…not the mundane material world but the Fey and Magic World. Now we knew better.

We also knew that any single fairy had all the intelligence of a hummingbird. Two might constitute a robin. But three to four could have all the guile of a wolf and a half dozen were on a par with a human. Allow thousands to join…and you got something like the Crucible Keeper. And that was what all of us veterans were fighting that day in Fanglore.

History now. Like the dusty books I used to love. My history. And Willie’s. I suppose, in a sense, by living here on the Tug Hill we were still guarding the Known from the Fey. That was one use they had for all of us old FOEmen, after all.

We pushed the mower into its shed and locked it up. Then we puttered around in the garden a bit. The bugs offered us momentary torment but the breeze picked up and I guess they figured we weren’t worth a struggle. Weeding and trimming, while all the time the hidden seams of the triquetra flickered at the edge of my eyes. If I closed them, I could just make out the pattern. It was pretty and powerful. We should be safe from the storm.

I heard a skittering and looked in time to see a brown and white caramel-patterned critter leap behind the garden’s low rock wall. Willie tossed some ivy into a bucket and became quiet. After an hour bent over a vegetable bed I had to ask her the question. I hated to do so but it was my fate as well, after all.

“That storm…” I began in my pipsqueak gargoyle’s voice.

Willie paused what she was doing and drove her hand trowel into the soil. “Yes,” she said after nearly a minute.

“Should we go out in it?” the words fell like lead weights.

“Thinking on it,” she said. “You know our luck.”

“Since the battle, sure. But…” I began.

“You know, whoever got that idea out there should be returned to Fanglore.”

I shivered and she could feel my distress somewhere within her bosom. Nobody deserved a return trip to Fanglore. Well, almost nobody. The Traitors who had gone over to the Keeper in those last hours…well, they were as dead as dust. I tucked my wings in tight around my troglodytic sprout of a body. With a grunt Willie rose to her splayed feet and whipped her tail impatiently. Its tip was as sharp as the dagger sheathed on her belt.

“Harsh,” I whispered.

“Sure,” she answered. “No storm can change us back. That’s just a silly story. False hope. The charge we got hit with was designed to warp, when it didn’t kill.”

I knew that, of course. As a medic I had seen many transformed and dead on the beach that terrible day. Willie had somehow survived the weapon that hit her unit. I had just patched her up when we were struck again. I remember one long scream as the humanity was sucked from my bones, blood, and very molecules. The spell decoders later said we had been hit by a weapon called _Bleak Essence_.

Days later we awoke in a hospital room with no mirrors or polished surfaces. As if those hid the truth! The first doc we met was a shrink. He broke the news. I would be permanently attached to Willie’s shoulder. An odd, perching monstrosity upon her goblin back. Somehow, after immense personal trials, we had found compromise. And a life. Which I was now making the case to change…or perhaps end.

“There have been cases where exposure to any storm over an Ish 6 has caused the transformed to be altered. And for the better,” I insisted.

“Name one,” Willie replied.

“The Handsome Boy out in Rochester,” I recalled.

“A face like a wax figurine? You call that an improvement?” Willie shook her head. Stringy hair slapped my face.

“But he started as a grotesque,” I maintained. “No one could look at him.”

“But in that state he could talk, see, read. Now what? He mumbles behind a pleasantly smiling but immoveable face. I’d rather be a grotesque, thanks.”

I sagged. “But I just thought we might try, just try. It might allow us to separate. Wouldn’t that be worth the chance?”

I could hear Willie grinding her sharp goblin’s teeth. She turned from the garden and began walking toward the cabin. The sun was a loud orange smear behind the pines as it coursed toward the western horizon.

From behind us a pleasant baritone called: “You know, Willie, your little friend might just be right.”

Willie jerked to a halt. When she spun around she dropped into a half-crouch, blade in hand. Visitors in the Fairy Haunted Lands were fine. Unannounced visitors were another thing altogether. On the rock wall an over-sized chipmunk sat. The creature’s strange blue eyes stared at us calmly.

Willie rose slowly from her defensive crouch. Her tail whipped her legs. The dagger remained in her hand, ready to be thrown. “I know you,” she hissed.

The chipmunk tilted its head and grinned its sharp rodent grin. A tiny paw reached up to its sleek brow and offered a mock salute. I noted it wore tiny gauntlets that revealed the curved fingers and sharp claws of the forehands. A strap that held a tiny bag cut across its pale breast and brown shoulders.

“Lieutenant Robert Himpthtype reporting, sergeant,” the chipmunk said.

I gasped a tiny gasp. With a lightning quick motion Willie threw the dagger at the chipmunk. The blade’s deadly point plinked impotently off the mossy rock where the apparition had sat just a moment before.

My tiny claws patted Willie’s shoulder. Her response was admirable. Of course _that_ was no chipmunk. Willie said the accursed name before I could: “Bob the Annihilator!”

**end of Part One**

Note: The image at the top of this post is part of a 17th-C Icelandic manuscript featuring Ratatoskr from the Poetic Edda.