Graceland is a collection of short stories, one inspired by each of the songs on the Graceland album by Paul Simon. Science Fiction stories, to explain the cover image.
We all have that one album (or two or three or more), discovered in our teenage years that seems to stay with us for life. Graceland is one of a tiny handful for me, a single (“Call Me Al”) heard on the radio leading to an album purchase leading to music that I can still pop in and listen to the whole album 30+ years later.
I’m a Science Fiction (and Fantasy) writer, so when one day, listening to the album, I had an idea for a story that pulled a few phrases from “The Boy in the Bubble”, I scribbled the notes and started drafting. Not the first time I’d been inspired to write by listening to music. But then it happened again six months later with “Graceland” and near the end of the same year with “I Know What I Know”. At that point, I figured I had a trend, and over the next year found something I could call Science Fiction in the basic substance of every song.
The idea of putting them together into a collection came later, but not too much later.
But the cover, beautiful, no?
And yet, no Elvis, no guitar, no picture of the gates of Graceland. Believe me, I thought about all of these things. While Elvis makes a sort-of-appearance in one story (and he’s guitar-less), and music figures prominently more than once, the collection isn’t about Elvis or Graceland any more than the original album was. It’s a collection of SF stories inspired by the music, so the cover image, courtesy of Stefan Keller on Pixabay serves to underscore the Science Fiction nature of the collection, at least in my mind.
Scheduled publication date is currently 12 June 2019 and is the last of the planned spring e-books I’m going to launch.
Stay tuned for the summer list.
Be well, everyone.by
Quick post to remind everyone that I’m pushing ahead on the indie publishing thing.
Skip to My Luu, my first independently published novel, is now:
- Available as an ebook on various Amazons including com and ca,
- Getting processed to be a trade paperback (which I’ll link as soon as I see the notification that it’s done),
- Starts serializing on Wattpad tomorrow if you want a taste (although I think I set a decent free preview percentage on Amazon).
The cheesy “cover” copy: “Just finishing their final year at Tranquility University a group of friends decides they’d rather pool their resources and talents to go asteroid prospecting instead of looking for normal, boring jobs. Even once they manage to secure financing, the challenges only build, and their journey will to take them a lot farther than the Belt. Individually and together, they’ll find pursuing a dream is a lot harder than having one.”
And the beautiful cover.by
Or, in the original German, Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion.
Usually abbreviated as Space Patrol Orion or Raumpatrouille Orion.
A classic 1960s science fiction television show, a cult classic, in fact.
What’s that, you’ve never heard of it?
Well, that’s probably because (as you’ve likely guessed) it’s 1960s German science fiction television, filmed in black and white, never dubbed, and, possibly only recently becoming available with subtitles. The only place I’ve found so far is on YouTube, at least in a way that I can enjoy it.
How did I even find out about it, you ask? Well, on Facebook (yes I still have Facebook) a friend of mine posted a small clip from it that he gotten from some group or website or shared to him by some else with a couple of odd dancing scenes. Filmed in 1960s, in black and white, the caption was something like, “this was how people in 1960s thought we would dance in the future.” It was weird, stylized, formalized, and very structured. It was also very 1960s. So I decided I wanted to figure out the show it came from, to see if that was just as 1960s. In this day of everything interlinked everything else, it actually didn’t take an awful lot of Google to track down in German and only a few seconds longer to locate a version with subtitles.
And I quite enjoyed the first episode.
Special effects aside, and those were probably pretty impressive in the 1960s, especially the robots, the show is clearly a product 1960s. It’s hard not to set it beside the giants of the science-fiction TV genre from the same time and see it compare favourably, most specifically with Star Trek. There are certain similarities in outlook and ideas, but it’s also very, very different. A similar level of specialized technology and technobabble, some keen fashion sense on the uniforms. Sometimes, the pacing is what we might consider slow when put next to modern TV, but it works. Still comparing to Star Trek, in some ways the writing is less mature, and in some ways more complex. There is an overall story arc to the seven episode series (yes, only seven episodes, unfortunately) which, in North American TV was unheard of in time. Two episodes with the same story linking together were difficult in those days. But not, apparently, in Germany.
And there was a lot more attention to background. Less use of background painting, and more physical sets, and in social places there were plenty of extras actually being social. See the aforementioned dancing, which never seems to be a real focus, but whenever characters are gathered in the bar on the base, which happens regularly during off duty time, there is futuristic music playing, and futuristic dancing going on.
There’s an attempt to give the show international flavor, although not quite as international Star Trek, and mostly through the use of names. It is 1960s Germany, after all, and their choices of actors were fairly limited in that regard, so you get a German actor as an Italian character, a Swedish character, a Russian character, and so on. Not so different, really, but with fewer ethnic backgrounds available.
It’s actually pretty cool to watch, and it’s sent me on the beginning of a search for other classic, non-English, 1960s, 70s, and 80s science-fiction to watch. I can pick up a word or two here and there of a number of languages, especially numbers, but don’t speak anything competently other than English, so I’m glad for subtitles (and actually prefer them to dubbing as that usually disrupts the tone of the speech for me). But there’s a lot more out there than North American entertainment. It’s a big world. As I get older, I want to explore more of it.
The link to the first episode (subtitled) of Orion on YouTube is at the end of this post. If I come across anything else really cool in my search, I’ll probably pass that along, too.
Orion, a serendipitous find through an unlikely moment, has made me wonder what else I’m missing, and it’s made me wish I had a lot more disposable income so I could go to some different science-fiction conventions around the world, and see what things are like beyond my own borders.
Be well, everyone.by
I don’t know that I’ve really spelled it out, but you may have noticed over the last few months that most of what I’m posting is book reviews and the occasional writing report. I’m trying to broaden things out again, but I thought I might explain something behind the book reviews, at least.
You see, I’m trying to read, or at least attempt to read, every novel-length winner of the major speculative fiction awards. Well, the Science Fiction and Fantasy ones, anyway.
Why, you may ask, and it’s a good question. Sometimes, with how tough a slog some of the books have been, and the DNF books involved, I wonder the same thing.
I suppose, fundamentally, I’m just trying to broaden my horizons. We all get into reading ruts now and then, consuming the same handful of authors and just doing re-reads of things we already like. As I get older (in my late 40s now), I’m less inclined to do re-reads, and some (many) of my favourite authors have left us so that I’ve had fewer opportunities for new works by that group.
That means I have to find new favourites. I thought that the award winners might be an interesting place to start. Many of the names you find in those lists have long careers and lots of work available. Plus, it will expose me to things I never would have thought of trying on my own.
Sure, I can randomly pick things to read that I think look interesting (and I still do a lot of that, with a decent success rate), but it’s not enough. It will never be enough. To borrow a quote from Lemony Snicket that I borrow too often, “It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read.” That pile needs to be bigger, although hopefully having it fall on me won’t be the cause of not finishing it.
But yes, the results are mixed.
The Hugos were first awarded in 1953, the Nebulas in 1966, the World Fantasy Awards in 1975, and the Auroras (Canadian Speculative Fiction awards) in 1985. I’m working my way forward from the first Hugo and I’m currently in 1983 (which means I haven’t read the first Aurora yet).
After 29 Hugo winners (including a tie one year), my average rating there is 3.21 on the Goodreads scale (which I like, but maybe needs a separate post). Seventeen Nebula winners in, we’re at 3.26, a slightly better proposition. At eight WFA winners, it’s 1.75, with exactly one book getting more than a 2.
At the same time, when I started this quest, I elected to attempt the previous year’s winners in each (the 2015 winners in 2016 for example). Those results have been a bit mixed, too.
But I’ve also found six authors whose works I have not sufficiently explored, and I expect to find more. (Alfred Bester, Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Le Guin, Elizabeth Lynn, Vonda McIntyre, and David Mitchell, in case you’re wondering.)
When I catch up in another 4 or 5 years, I’m considering branching out the quest to cover all of the major English-language awards globally, which would take me to the BSFA (British), Aurealis (Australian), Sir Julius Vogel (New Zealand), and perhaps the Locus Awards (although there’s a lot of crossover with the other NA majors there). The first two of those have books on the list that I’ve previously loved.
I’m also giving serious consideration to voting rights for the Hugos next year so that I get easy access to all of the nominees.
If you want to see what I’m reading right now, click on over to my Currently Reading shelf on Goodreads. It’s likely to be eclectic and have half a dozen books on it.
Happy reading, and be well, everyone.by
by Okay, so I haven’t posted much in the last few weeks (or at all in the past 4), but maybe I’m prepping a bunch of content. In the meantime, here’s the latest review from my 2015 Reading Journey. I actually finished The Departure in early April, but just got to editing the review. At least one more review is going to follow shortly.
Subgenre: Space Opera (sort of).
The Departure begins set on a dystopian future Earth. This would normally turn me off—I’m not much into dystopic visions as I think they’re extremely unlikely, not to mention generally depressing—as would the general slow pace and piles of description. There’s too much internal dialogue and societal exposition for me to want to follow things, but it’s the character concept that pulls me in, at least for a while.
Alan Saul woke up in a box bound for an incinerator with a direct connection to what may be the only true AI in the world, ridiculous hand to hand combat skills, very little in the way of memory and a reckless disregard for human life, probably including his own. We pick up the story sometime after he’s vowed revenge on the dystopian police state that Earth has become, not because it’s become a dystopian police state, but because it had the gall to throw him away, even though he has no idea who he was. We learn quickly that pretty much nothing will stand in his way. So, an amnesiac cyborg ninja out to pull down a corrupt and brutal regime. What’s not to love in the concept? Plus, the book is action-packed and the pace rarely slows for more than a moment or two, carrying you along with it.
And yet, it’s almost the B story that pulls me in more. The first scene in every other chapter takes place on Mars, where a mini-revolution is progressing to match the macro one back on Earth. And it has Saul’s sister at its head. The Martian colony is victim of corruption spiraling out of control and has been abandoned. If they can just get rid of the political officer and his cronies, the scientists and engineers might have a chance to survive more than six months.
The story has a lot of potential at the conceptual level, but there are a handful of things that consistently push me out of the story, too.
Every chapter opens with a big chunk of societal explanation. Probably half of the world-building is spoon fed to us this way. Far too much exposition, and sometimes that comes into the dialogue as well, characters telling each other what they already know in too much detail so that the reader can know it, too.
The violence level is excessive for my taste, far beyond what I’m interested in reading. The word ‘splatter’ comes to mind, actually. Saul would have a hard time caring less for humanity in general, and individuals specifically. It seems like hardly a page goes by without him ending someone’s life in a messy way, with limbs flying, blood spraying, organs visible when you’d rather they weren’t, or some combination. Lucky victims asphyxiate, are blown up, or vaporized by the occasional giant laser. Even when Saul’s lover from his previous life starts to become his conscience, it doesn’t really slow him down that much. He still doesn’t care about the lives he’s destroying, only that she understands why it’s necessary. It’s a sign of him caring about something beyond revenge, I suppose, but it’s not enough.
The author has sprinkled painful similes through the book. “Steaming like raw meat dropped onto a hot stove.” This is the one everyone seems to quote, but:
- “…its twin smelting plants like glowing eyes…”
- “…the hull of the station, which extended into the distance like a massive highway…”
- “…an agribot like an iron centipede…”
- “…hovering above them like steel vultures…”
- “…bounds across the corridor like some huge somnolent flea.”
- “…along the wall like steel and plastic herons…”
- “Shambling like a reanimated corpse…”
- “…windows glinting like slabs of mica in the stonework.”
- “…he toppled like a falling tree…”
- “…like black eyeballs impaled on narrow posts.”
- “…a sound impacted like that of an avalanche in a scrapyard.”
I could find more, but I’d rather not. I feel like I’ve gone too far as it is.
Saul, as the book’s hero, is so clearly superman compared to the rest of the human race, even his ultimate nemesis, that even when he’s captured and being tortured, there’s no doubt in either his mind or the reader’s that he’s going to rip the universe a new one, one corpse at a time.
And the ending is not as satisfying as I’d like it to be. Yes, it’s the first book of a trilogy, and yes, I suppose I should expect a first book to end on a cliff hanger, but this feels more like 500 pages of setup than a story that’s complete by itself.
That’s probably enough criticism, no?
There are some big things mixed together here. A slow slide into a brutal totalitarian regime, well accomplished by the time the story starts, but now starting to fracture and consume itself. An even slower colonization of Mars, now on hold as the government tries to gather all remaining resources while the “zero asset” portion of the population starves back to manageable levels, and is perhaps even helped along by some large scale purgers. The cusp of one version of post-humanity—computer implants that not only let you interface directly, but expand your mind into local and connected systems. (Spoiler: we only actually get three examples of this and only one survives the book.)
And yet I have to set my overall rating at only 2 stars, leaning towards 1.5. It was an okay read with some neat concepts, but the turn offs outweighed the good stuff for me. I’m not saying I won’t give another one of Mr. Asher’s books a try at some point, but it won’t be the next one in this series.
Actually, I kind of wish I’d read a few reviews deeper in the chain before I picked this one as an entry point into his work. I might have picked a different story.
by Frankenstein is a tale we’re all familiar with. We’ve seen all of the movies and laughed at all of the stereotypes and tropes. Mad scientist creates evil monster that accidentally gets loose and causes havoc until a mob armed with torches and pitchforks whips itself into a frenzy and takes care of them both. A sad, horrible tale.
Except that’s not at all how it goes, is it?
The story opens with four letters from a brother to his sister, dated for various months and days with the last two digits of the year left blank each time, so we only know it’s sometime in the 1700s. I assume in the late 1700s as the book was published in the early 1800s. These seem to serve only the introduction of Victor Frankenstein, with a brief sighting of the “monster” from a long distance off. Actually, the first three are to introduce us to the character who will introduce us to Frankenstein in the fourth (and longest) letter. From my perspective, these are pages that would never have made it into the final story. You can skip them with no impact to the story itself, but they serve as an introduction to Ms. Shelley’s style and her perception of the world she lived in. They’re interesting background, but no more than what is now an old trope, and may have been even then: the story within a story to introduce the reader to the world.
And then we have 3 chapters of childhood, background, and growing up before we begin to get to the actual story. By my count, the book is nearly a fifth complete, and it’s only at the very end of Chapter 3 that we even begin to get the idea that the man who will become Dr. Frankenstein has a love of science that outstrips everything else. The narrator foreshadows directly, but given what little has gone so far, he could easily be any first year student considering a dream of greatness in his chosen field.
If I sound a little harsh so far, that’s not my intent. It’s difficult to look at any book (or any other art form) through a lens other than the one you’re living in. I’m a fan of Kurt Vonnegut’s basic points of creative writing, particularly the fifth: Start as close to the end as possible. Still, he published these in 1999, so the expectation might have been a little different in the early 1800s.
But by this point in Frankenstein, I really want things to start happening. We’ve spent a lot of time on how normal, if somewhat privileged, Victor’s life was before he left for school, and even after he got to school. Where’s the descent into madness and the desire to reshape the rules of life into his own perceptions? Where’s the path that led him there?
Where’s the monster?
But then, practically out of the blue, as Frankenstein is such an incredible student, such an incredible scientist, studying the mechanisms of death and decomposition (not as big a leap from his chosen field of chemistry as you might think), he discovers the cause and generation of life so that he’s suddenly “capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter”.
No descent, no madness, no path of destruction. By painstaking and time consuming study of everything he can get his hands on, by reading and learning and experimenting, Frankenstein learns the secret of life. He’s not a mad scientist. He’s merely a scientist, though there really isn’t a “merely”. His methods might be a bit disturbing to human nature, but a noble goal can help you overlook that, can’t it? Well, it helped Frankenstein.
This is where I discovered that, contrary to every Frankenstein movie ever made, it’s not a horror story. It’s a science fiction story. Okay, so I more or less knew that already, even if I wasn’t really familiar with the story beyond cinematic renditions. If I didn’t know that, I wouldn’t be reading it. You don’t see Dracula on the list, do you?
But if Frankenstein isn’t a mad scientist, he’s certainly an arrogant one. It’s all about me. The glory I’ll receive, the awesome gratitude from the new species I create. The praise I’ll be due, unlocking the secrets of life and death. Me, me, me. If not madness, then obsession, and certainly stress. Maybe a wee bit of mental breakdown.
The creation of the monster is barely remarked on as Victor flees his apartments. Since it’s not there when he returns after meeting his friend, who subsequently nurses him through a long illness, we get to almost forget the creature for a while.
For a while.
Because it does come back and then we do get to see Frankenstein’s descent into madness, a slow, sure, slope.
And here is where things start to take a different shape for me. Victor didn’t create the monster because he was crazy. He went crazy, at least for a while, because of the actions of his creation. He wasn’t a mad scientist, but a driven one. He didn’t start crazy, but it was his own fault he got there.
I’m not going to go through a whole detailed plot synopsis here. There are plenty of those on the internet that I deliberately ignored before starting on this reading journey. I am going to say that, even though I knew this wasn’t a horror book going into it, the actual story completely defied my classic horror movie expectations, subconscious as they might have been.
And inside the story of Victor Frankenstein, introduced by the story of R. Walton Saville finding Victor Frankenstein, we receive the story of Victor’s creation, the nameless monster. We spend five chapters there, learning of its adventures and tribulations and miseries. The creature is articulate and well spoken, but bitter beyond reason, or so it seems. This part of the narrative is a voyage of discovery and brilliance and occasionally horror, and an ever-increasing anguish over how much it sucks to be forced to live on the fringes of society with no other options.
And that anguish comes back to Frankenstein, now agreeing to create a female companion for his monster, as much to assuage his own guilt as to spare his friends and family the same fate as his youngest brother, death at the hands of his creation.
Except he can’t for fear of putting the entire human race at risk, because what if the monsters can breed? That decision costs him his best friend, his new bride, his father, and ultimately his life, both figuratively and literally. While he blames himself for the monster’s creation and seems to hold himself responsible for its actions throughout the book, Victor does allow that his creation had freedom of thought and action. And that makes this a tale both of revenge and of cleaning up your own mess. Having given what he perceives to be the full story to the magistrate in charge of finding his beloved’s murderer, Frankenstein leaves to accomplish both tasks, chasing his creation into the frozen north.
Once Frankenstein finishes his tale, we return for a few pages to Saville for Victor to breathe his last, to meet the monster and finish his tale from an external point of view, and to close off the outermost of the stories with the beginning of his voyage home to England.
Frankenstein is definitely Science Fiction and not Horror, but it’s soft Science Fiction. This isn’t a bad thing, just a note of subgenre, a blurring of lines. The science is key to the story—without it, there is no story—but we get no real view of what the actual science involved is. It’s background, a device to move the story without actually interfering in it. There is science and process and a tremendous amount of research and labour involved, but it’s not important for us to know what any of it might be.
And there is some social commentary buried in the book, easy to miss while engrossed in three levels of story. In the aftermath of Justine’s trial, I get the impression that the author isn’t into capital punishment. At various points, Ms. Shelly seems to introduce to the ideas that poverty is a bad thing, and maybe shouldn’t be part of the human condition, that maybe Colonialism didn’t work out so well for the cultures it impacted, and that perhaps we shouldn’t discriminate against people for religious or cultural reasons, though certain religions and views tend to oppress those who don’t agree with them. I feel like these would all have been extremely progressive, and likely rare viewpoints at the time.
But the thing that jumped out most for me We also get the note that a “woman of Christian Arab birth”, practicing Christianity in secret while being raised in the household of a merchant in Constantinople, aspired “to higher powers of intellect and an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Muhammad”. Very interesting, considering the relative lack of independence British women would have enjoyed when Frankenstein was written.
And the nameless monster. While we’re clearly supposed to sympathize with the monster, I don’t find him a very sympathetic character. He’s bright, strong, fast, and supposedly superior to the standard humanity in every way, except for being hideously ugly. Because of that, from a few bad reactions, he goes over the edge and kills, frames someone else for the murder, kills again, and stalks his creator across all of Europe to torment him. Does it matter that he recants and regrets at the end, and hates himself? Nope, sorry. Not getting any sympathy from me.
Note the subtitle: Or the Modern Prometheus. Prometheus stole fire back from the gods (after a petulant Zeus took it away from humanity) and in return was chained to a rock to have his (magically regenerating liver) eaten daily by an eagle. Has Frankenstein done something similar with the secret of life? I think we’re meant to have that impression. But this isn’t an anti-science story. It’s more an object lesson that applies across all of human experience. Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
Overall rating: 3.5 Stars. There’s a lot to mentally chew on here, but the pace of the book is fairly slow most of the time and the nested stories structure doesn’t really work for me. Written almost two hundred years ago, it’s a great early stopping point for some historical perspective on the genre, and I can see how it inspired imitations, knock offs, adaptations, and re-imaginings. I’d really like to see a modern cinematic look at the original story as science fiction rather than a creature feature.by
by I’ve enjoyed a lot of Andre Norton’s stories during my lifetime. I wish this were one of them.
This is an omnibus edition of Star Guard and Star Rangers, two novels set in the same universe but with several thousand years separating them. At this moment, I’m nearing the end of Star Guard.
It’s theoretically Military SF, with humans only allowed in space as mercenaries to keep us locked off from the galaxy at large and from becoming a threat to galactic culture.
Along with a reminder of her lifelong theme of tolerance and acceptance which runs through her work, the writing is solid and the universe well realized but both books in this omnibus were published in the early 50s, it shows. Not just in its presented technology, but in the forgettable nature of Star Guards. It’s a bland and boring story, which saddens me to say about anyone’s work. Star Guard is a book I keep waiting for an ending in, partly because it tries to be too many things. It’s Military Action Adventure SF, first on a primitive world, then in space, then on Earth, with situations and species introduced and gone too quickly. Too much happening, and too much of it easily resolved without much character development. But my real issue is that the POV seems to just be along for the ride while stuff happens to and around him, and more competent people take care of whatever comes up. He only makes a couple of small contributions to the events going on.
I’m going to power through to the end, but this book doesn’t rate very high for me so far. Hoping for a better second act with Star Rangers.
A lot of Ms. Norton’s YA work stands up really well, but I’m going to throw my recommendation behind Breed to Come as one of the best entry points to her work. Post-apocalyptic in a way, but with a long term positive outlook and some cool takes on future evolution in our absence. Or Crossroads of Time, an early exploration of alternate worlds and history.
Be well, everyone.by
Babysitting the Taran-Saurus
A Vyrian Incursion Story
by Lance Schonberg
I laughed hard enough that Taran stirred against my back and I reached up with my right hand to stroke his hair a few times. He settled immediately. My eyes flicked around the subway car, looking for a way out, but the only thing I came up with was a bluff, so I cranked up the bravado, smiled, and leaned forward. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’ve got no chance of taking him now. You guys might be more advanced than humans, but coming into the bookstore to warn me was a mistake and coming onto the subway was stupid. Now I have witnesses. Lots of them.”
He looked around as if he’d only just realized that everyone else in the car was staring at us. When he looked back at me, his eyes narrowed and I could see the muscles in his jaw working.
Nodding, I leaned back just far enough to straighten my back without unbalancing my passenger. “At this point, all I have to do is ride to the end of the line with the driver, give appropriate contact information to his dispatcher, and wait for pickup. People have seen you here, seen the rest of your extraction team running through the streets. Oh, this is a big story, even in the middle of the night, so I’ll have to deal with media crews, and that’s less than desirable for the people I work for, but it’s an excellent alternative to losing Taran, I think.”
His whole body clenched and I considered what scenarios might be playing out in his head. He didn’t let me consider for long. “I could take the child and disappear into the night before your media can arrive, before the train even stops again. It is unlikely you could stop me, hobbled as you are by his presence and your solitude.”
He was right. It had been a hard run already. Not enough sleep and too much physical effort. My control was slipping. The smile on my face felt like it belonged in a bad action movie. “You’re probably right, but there’s still the problem of witnesses. What will it do to the Vyrian public image to have one of you seen taking a child from a human man on the subway? How will that play? Think about the video footage being captured right now, and I don’t just mean by the transit authority. Look around.”
My peripheral vision picked out two phones and a tablet flimsy. If I could spare the attention to really look, I’d probably find several more. This was not a private conversation, no matter what he’d thought when he first boarded the train. It might even be streaming, depending on network penetration depth in the tunnel. “You should have stuck to chasing me away from safe houses, kept me isolated. Pushing me into the streets, coming to me where other people could see—” I shook my head. “That was the real mistake.”
“We had thought to show you respect.”
Respect. At the bookstore, I’d been called an unexpected opponent, and it had been meant as a compliment. I didn’t know enough about Vyrian culture to put the sentiment in the right context, then or now, just a few news reports and half-digested documentaries. I had only my experience being human and playing in the shadows. “As an individual, I appreciate that. But this one emotional act, sending agents out of the enclave to kidnap a child, could go a long way to dismantling the image you’ve built for yourselves as rational, civilized beings.” I would have been willing to bet that just knowing they had agents who could take on that mission would change the whole tone of future negotiations.
Gloved hands clenched into fists, and for a moment I thought he might swing at something. Taran’s presence on my back would probably prevent it from being me. “The child is Vyrian!” Eyes widened, nostrils flared, and the skin of his face darkened. Replace the blue with something in a human skin tone, and you’d never guess his ancestors crawled out of a different ocean than ours.
“Is he? I might grant genetically, if you can show me the proof, but he’s been raised human so far, and he’s three. He won’t know the difference if you ask him.” A deep breath and a firm tone were all I had left to work with. “But I’ll make it really, really simple for you. You’re not getting him from me. If you have a problem with his existence, or how he’s being brought up, you’re free to go through the proper channels with the authorities. Go public with it, if you like, and I’m sure that will thrill everyone, but I’ll bet you don’t get very far with a happy, healthy kid. We don’t consider children to be property.”
His whole body tightened and I thought I might have gone too far, but the train started to slow again and he pulled the temper back under control. “That was tried first. Do you think we would start with an abduction attempt? Beyond vague hints, your government officials refused to even acknowledge the child’s existence. What recourse did we have?”
“The child has a name. And you could have kept talking. Why do you suppose we hid Taran from you?” Something that I hadn’t really thought about, but now the answer seemed too obvious. Maybe Vyrian thought processes were different. “Because we knew, sooner or later, you’d try to take him.” Jaw grinding, he kept silent, and I wished I could tell if he were digesting the words or trying to work out some internal conflict. Two bits of data clicked together in my head and I found one more card to play, one more button to push. “Have you collected any human DNA samples?”
Lips pressed together, his scowl deepened. “I am not in a position to know that.”
I laughed just enough to disturb Taran into trying to turn over in his sleep. “You’ve collected DNA samples from multiple individuals of every other animal you’ve gotten near, and made a big production of it for the media sometimes. Knowledge and preservation are your catch words.” I snorted. “Why should humans be an exception? What do you do with those samples?”
The doors slid open and shut again before he answered. No one got off and only one person boarded the car, oblivious to the proceedings until it was too late. “I am not a scientist, but I would suggest we study them. We collect samples to further our knowledge as a species and sometimes to assist in the preservation of endangered life forms.”
“Do you ever recreate them? Clone them?” The train started moving and he stayed quiet for so long my smile came back. “That would be a yes. So, you’ve cloned creatures alien to you, probably raised and sheltered them because you’d never create something just to destroy it, and kept it either in a lab or some simulation of a natural environment aboard your giant space ships.”
His skin flushed even darker blue and I suddenly wondered what that told me about the colour of Vyrian blood. “But we have never cloned another sentient being!”
Shrugging, I risked a glance at the glowing subway map above him, counting four more stops to the next main line transfer and something around a dozen after that to the end of the line. Half an hour at least, but since the only thing I had left to play was time, I just stared at my new friend.
Eventually, his shoulders slumped and the colour in his face dropped back to what I thought might be normal. The posture only lasted for a moment before he straightened his back. “I take your points.” As the train began to slow again, he stood. “The media attention would not be beneficial to relations between our two peoples should I choose force the issue. And the child, Taran, is a sentient being in his own right. Young yet, but with many rights under your laws or ours. I will accept this, though it is contrary to my orders and will make certain individuals unhappy in the hierarchy. Blind obedience is not in my nature. It is said to be a poor trait in a soldier.”
Not according to some generals I’d heard speak in the past, but I appreciated the sentiment, and looked for some way to respond as the train came to a stop. He wrapped a hand around the nearest bar and stood. “It is also said, that something done once can be repeated.” He ducked through the door but turned to face me again before it closed. “For myself, I would encourage openness on the subject of Taran’s existence from your authorities. It may be that our peoples can talk and learn from him. And each other.” He stared at me as the doors closed and the train started moving again. I didn’t see him turn away before he passed out of sight.
Questions from the other passengers started before our car reached the tunnel and I held up a hand. “He’s sleeping, and he’s gone through far too much in the last couple of days to be happy about waking up on the subway. Three year-olds need a lot of sleep, whatever their species.”
It worked on about half of them, but the others crowded around me, demanding I tell them the entire story, professing a right to know. The last few decades had spoiled us, the ever- increasing freedom of information leading us down the path that we had the right to know everything. Sometimes, there had to be a right to keep secrets, too.
“The only rights I’m concerned with are his.” I cocked my head to indicate Taran, still sleeping, wonder of wonders. “And if I’ve kept those secure from agents sent by the Vyrian Council, you shouldn’t doubt I’ll keep them secure from you, too. Back off and leave us alone.”
And they did. One or two inhaled to protest, but never got the words out. Having watched me talk a Vyrian commando, and one who out-massed me by at least fifty kilos, out of abducting a child, everyone listened. They exchanged looks and whispers and some of them undoubtedly took more pictures and video, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was that they left me alone to think and Taran to sleep.
I got off the train three stops later, and didn’t care that three of them followed me as I walked to the last, lonely little payphone in the station, third in a line of three that might once have been twenty, and punched in far too many digits to call anywhere in the city. Two in the morning, but someone answered on the second ring.
“Thank you for calling Thompkins Sec-“
“Skip the cover spiel. It’s me. Pursuit has backed off. I still have the package.” I made all the appropriate noises to respond to concerns. Yes, I could be at the southwest entrance to the station at street level in twenty minutes. Yes, I understood they’d keep me waiting while agents checked things out and established a perimeter. Yes, I understood that I was breaking procedure and protocol in a ridiculous number of ways. Yes, I understood all of the media risks and there were already reports on the net.
But a moment came when I’d had enough. “Twenty minutes. The clock’s running.” I hung up the phone with the man on the other end in mid-splutter and started a slow walk to the escalator.
A small hand scrunched the shoulder of my jacket and another grabbed my neck from the other side. Taran mumbled into my collar and then lifted his head just long enough for three words to make it past his lips. “Go home now?”
I reached up with my right hand and squeezed one of his, wondering what had finally pushed him close enough to awake that he could speak. “Yeah, buddy. Go home now. Sleep in your own bed tonight.” I hoped.
He squeezed back a little. “Good. Mph.” His forehead bounced against my neck and a faint snore reached my ears. I had to smile, but it faded as I walked, not caring if I still had followers. More pieces fell together in my mind, things I hadn’t thought of before and I wished I still had the same innocence to fall back on.
Something done once can be repeated. The Vyrian had meant, I thought, that if he took Taran, even in the face of all the bad publicity, we would just duplicate the experiment, try again to figure out whatever it was we wanted to know. It probably hadn’t occurred to the Vyrians yet to wonder if we’d only made one of Taran in the first place.
Babysitting the Taran-Saurus
A Vyrian Incursion Story
by Lance Schonberg
All around me, being careful to never look directly at us, the other subway passengers watched from the corners of their eyes. I found it hard to blame them. An out of breath man with a child on his back runs into the station long past midnight and just in time to catch the train. Not exactly normal even for the late night crowd. People thought questions and accusations so hard they didn’t have speak, but I had a hard time caring. I’d gained a few moments of rest for myself and freedom for Taran, and that was all that really mattered.
And I’d been lucky. I never said no to luck, but would have been a lot happier to be called in from the museum. We’d be sitting in some quiet, guarded location, even a safe house, with backup and high end security systems and all the cartoons Taran could stand. Instead, I was alone, on foot on a subway with an unknown number of Vyrians after me.
No, they weren’t after me. I was just the keeper. They wanted Taran.
Subway logic told me I had two minutes between stops, on average. Every two minutes, I’d come to a decision point. My last safe house wasn’t as close to a subway line as the one we’d left. I’d have to take a cab or walk and neither option filled me with confidence. A better decision might be to stay on the train and head downtown for an expensive hotel room. I’d have to stay up all night, but it wouldn’t be the first time an assignment made that decision for me.
The train finally began to slow and I kept my focus on the doors while making sure my eyes stayed somewhere else. They opened just as the train stopped to let on a short, skinny kid with spiky hair and a neon blue leather jacket. Definitely not Vyrian. The triple tone came again, barely ending before the doors slid shut. In a moment, the train began to move and I let go of the breath I’d been holding. Two more minutes of peace. Two more minutes to think. Two more minutes to worry.
At least, that’s what I thought. Two minutes, on average, but the next stop must have been a little farther, far enough that I had time to start wondering when we’d slow down before I saw him in the next car.
Not the same one who’d come to me in the bookstore, although to my human eyes they looked enough alike to be brothers. He must have gotten on at the last stop and moved car to car. I clenched my jaw and put one hand on the pocket bulge of my stunner. Too well orchestrated. Too well organized. The Vyrians had too many resources available, and I had nothing beyond what I’d stuffed my pockets with.
His eyes found me long before he reached the door to my car, probably long before I’d even noticed him. A steady gaze, and I wanted to read determination and certainty in his expression, but my short experience told me I wouldn’t want to play poker with a group of Vyrians, at least not with my own money.
The train’s rattle got louder for a moment when he yanked the door open. I wondered if any kind of indicator light would show up on the driver’s console and what he’d do about it if it did. Any action he might take from four cars away wouldn’t come soon enough to do me any good.
I put a hand up to stroke Taran’s curls, lightly so he wouldn’t stir. “Sorry buddy. I’m still working on this but it doesn’t look good.” The hiss-thunk of the door seal swallowed the quiet words to everyone but me, I hoped, and I kept my eyes locked on the Vyrian as he approached, listening for another intruder from the other side. Running wouldn’t help me on a moving train, even if he’d actually come alone, which I didn’t believe for a second.
He sat down in the seat opposite me, almost taking up two of them, just as the train began to slow. Apparently, the Vyrians were still in the mood to talk. What would the second offer be? I didn’t see how they could improve on the first from their perspective and I didn’t see them finding something acceptable from mine. The train pulled into the next station and sighed to a halt before he said anything.
“The child is Vyrian, in spite of his skin tone.”
“I don’t care.”
His eyebrows jumped up, a remarkably human expression for me to dwell on at the wrong moment. How much did our two species have in common? “I don’t understand. The child has obviously been cloned from stolen DNA and in secret. Why else would a guard have been set over him? He is Vyrian and should be raised with his people.”
“You’re right, you don’t understand.” I shook my head. One of Taran’s hands flopped onto my neck and I felt his fingers scrunch up and then relax. “I don’t care if Taran is human, Vyrian, Martian, or a giant dust bunny in disguise. This is long past being my assigned protection duty, and I’m not going to take any racist bullshit, or comment on the arrogant Vyrian superiority that’s already starting to piss me off, which is pretty quick considering I just met one of you for the first time yesterday.” I shook me head twice. “I’m not Taran’s father or brother or anything else. Sometimes I get to play the fun uncle, if you have an equivalent, and a lot of the time I’m just around, part of his scenery. If you’re anything like us, the DNA used to clone him was probably left lying around after his progenitor walked through a room. Is he a secret? He was obviously supposed to be. Is he a breach of some agreement? Probably, but that decision was made so far above me that I’ll never know how it came about and it really doesn’t matter anyway. Genetically, he may be Vyrian, but I’ll say it again: I don’t care.”
It’s not often I get to rant. It’s not often I allow myself. Any kind of outward emotional reaction is usually considered bad form in my line of work, at least on duty. There have been exceptions, and I’d made a lot of them with Taran. More in the last thirty or so hours than ever before, now that I thought about it. That should have bothered me. I should have been thinking about how to take down or evade the opponent across the aisle and whoever he’d brought with him. Instead, I was angry, for so many reasons that I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around, and enough that I’d let myself go in a public place, in front of witnesses, to verbally slap an alien commando.
Being angry out loud probably wouldn’t help my situation, but maybe it would keep the smug, ‘we’ve won’ look from this particular Vyrian’s face. “And I’ll even tell you why I don’t care: because I like Taran.”
He opened and closed his mouth several times, then took a deep breath. I heard the chimes again and the door closed. I didn’t remember them opening, or even the train stopping, but no one got onto our car before they slid shut. No one already on it had moved to get off, either. How could they? A real alien, not on TV but on a late night subway and being faced down by a man with a small child on his back. Even I would stop to watch. Taran rolled to one side, the shifting weight making me glad I was sitting down. Maybe not so small.
“This is strange and difficult.”
“Not my problem. I don’t care what agreement he breaks. You’re the ones breaking it right now. You’re the ones making my job a lot harder than it needs to be, so why should I care if it’s difficult for you?” I felt my jaw clenching and relaxed it.
“That is not what I meant. Such agreements are dealt with by someone with more authority than I will ever possess. I am speaking of… biology.” Pale blond eyebrows pressed together. “Have you noticed that being in the child’s proximity engenders feelings of affection and protectiveness?”
I nodded. Two deep breaths brought my temper down a little. I felt stupid enough and didn’t need to display my stress level any more than I already had. What I did need was to drag my mind back on task and consider the question. And it was an odd question, but why shouldn’t I like Taran? He was a good-natured, fun kid. The entire detail liked him, not just his caregivers.
“I am not familiar with human biology, but such a reaction is consistent with Vyrian. Beyond a blood bond, it is engendered by pheromones secreted into the surrounding air, a somewhat inconsistent survival mechanism common to the young but lost before the onset of adolescence. The pheromones are well known to work on other Vyrian life forms. Certain pets traditionally bred to provide security to family units in more primitive times are particularly susceptible to it, but we share a common biological history with those. I am surprised that it translates to humans. Very unexpected.”
Pheromones. He wanted me to believe liking Taran above and beyond my job was nothing more than a biochemical trick, and I found it hard to swallow. Alien chemicals messing with my brain didn’t make sense. Our DNA wasn’t similar enough to share a cold, so I didn’t see how Vyrian pheromones could have any effect on a human, let alone the same effect it might have on a Vyrian. I’d grant not knowing much about human biology, but even if what he’d said was true, it didn’t matter. I liked Taran to begin with and knowing about some little wrinkle of Vyrian biology or chemistry made no difference at all. I didn’t buy it. Couldn’t. More importantly, I didn’t have to.
“I still don’t care. And you should go back to the enclave before this gets messy.”
He Vyrian sighed and shook his head. “Not without the child.”
A Vyrian Incursion Story
by Lance Schonberg
Two escalators took me to the third floor and two turns along the hardwood path between the carpets brought me to the back of the store, as far from the front doors as I could get without going into staff areas I couldn’t see. Not worth the effort. I’m sure the Vyrians had all possible covered.
At the end of the aisle, a set of windows stretched floor to ceiling along forty feet of wall, and let me look out over the roof of the movie theatre next door. Two stories high, and flat except for some ventilation units, no one crouched there waiting. I looked down into the partly lit area between the two, expecting to see someone looking back, but no one stood in the light, and the darkness and shadows hid anyone who might not want to be seen.
Chewing my lower lip, I mentally measured the gap between the two buildings as somewhere between twenty and twenty-five metres. Employee parking with more than enough space left over for delivery trucks to get through, maybe even a little two-way traffic flow for commuters looking to save a fraction of a second on the way home if they knew the space was there. “I think I must be crazy.”
A throat cleared behind me and it was all I could do not to draw my stunner as I spun around, but the dark blue polo shirt and name tag marked the wide-eyed woman as a member of the bookstore’s staff. She leaned back a bit at my sudden motion and swallowed twice while considering what to say. Taran, still asleep on my back, hesitated mid-snore for a moment, but resumed without stirring. “Um, the store closes in about ten minutes, sir. Is there anything I can help you find?” Her voice didn’t tremble through what was probably a well-used sentence, but in her place, I’d be wishing I’d forgotten it was my job to get people out of the store for closing.
I had to wonder what she saw in my face, but tried to turn whatever it was into a smile. “No, thank you. I’m just up here to get away from the crowd on the first level while I avoid the Vyrian extraction team outside.”
“Um, right.” She backed away a couple of steps before turning to walk briskly between two rows of shelves, probably headed for the nearest phone to call her manager about the mentally unbalanced person with a toddler on his back.
Actually, since I’m sure someone would have called them from the cash area, that manager would probably already be on their way, likely with whatever passed for store security in tow, but I had no intention of waiting around. Delaying wouldn’t help me anymore.
I dug in my pocket for the vibra-tool. As long as the bank of windows in front of me wasn’t made of bullet-resistant glass, and the building seemed too old for that to be likely, I’d have a new exit in about thirty seconds. I tapped the power switch and thumbed the dial up to maximum before sticking it to the middle of the window. Something else for someone to clean up, and I almost felt guilty about it.
Backing up a dozen steps, I waited for the fractured result. It took a little longer than I hoped, long enough to start hearing voices on the escalator, but in a few seconds the vibration in the window built to an audible level, a deep hum but with a quickly rising pitch. Starting at Do, I think it got to about Fa before the window shattered, and not just the pane I’d put the vibra-tool on, either, but the ones to either side of it, too. Satisfying.
Sometimes, I loved the sound of breaking glass.
Tiny shards of transparent material rained down, most of them bouncing into open space to cascade through the night, catching stray photons along the way and redirecting them someplace new. Sadly, the vibra-tool followed those tiny jewels to the cement three floors below and I hoped I wouldn’t need it again.
I did need the gravchute, which had more than enough charge left for what I intended. Actually, if it worked, I’d only use a fraction of the remaining power, so that would be one toy I’d still have in reserve. For what, I didn’t know.
Footsteps pounded down the hardwood aisle behind me as I started running. The thought spilled through my head again that I must be crazy. It didn’t stop me from jumping, and it may have even helped me to time activating the chute, engaging just as my right foot pushed off the edge I’d made. Too bad I hadn’t thought of the maneuver sooner. Weeks or months sooner would have been nice, but at least far enough in advance to have practiced once or twice would have made me happy right then.
In that moment after I ran out into the air, I had the same feeling as jumping out of an airplane for the first time: committed, but not a hundred percent sure of what was coming next, but the chute did what it was supposed to.
The gravchute was a wonderful thing, but falling very slowly is an odd sensation until you get used to it. Falling very slowly while you’ve got some significant forward momentum just feels wrong until some tiny little perspective shift convinces you that you’re flying. That came half way across the open stretch, just before the electric crackle of the stunner hit me in the chest to prove anti-stun mesh was also a wonderful thing.
Someone shouted, probably in Vyrian but I didn’t catch anything that sounded like words, and I had just enough time to think about all the things I’d like to do to the idiot who shot me before my feet hit the roof and I started running again. Without the mesh, my forward momentum would have kept me moving to hit the roof in a small pile. At best, Taran would have been startled from a sudden sleep to some scrapes and bruises and a guardian who couldn’t answer his cries. I tried not to think about the worst, but hoped whoever might be in charge down below would at least smack the shooter in back of the head.
Feet firmly on the roof, I turned the chute off again and tried to check the charge as I ran. Through the brief bouncing glimpses at my belt, it still looked like more than enough.
Something hard bounced off the back of my head and the breath from a light snore tickled my ear. I couldn’t believe Taran had stayed asleep through shattering glass, flying across the gap between buildings, a stunner impact, and now running across the movie theatre roof. Wondering if I’d slept so well as a child, I didn’t turn down the luck. It was a lot easier to run with twenty kilos of dead weight on your back than it would be with twenty kilos of kid trying to look in every direction at once. Still, I’d been wearing him for a long time now on only a couple of hours’ sleep, and he was starting to get heavy.
I dropped down from the roof to a green light at the crosswalk and a clear path to the subway entrance. Over my heavy footsteps down the stairs, the hollow roar of an incoming train made me move a little quicker and the turnstile didn’t stop me from joining the sparse crowd just as the doors slid open. So many book store customers leaving all at once seemed unlikely, especially considering the show in the magazine section, but maybe a movie had let out in the last few minutes. Not being in a position to complain, I’d take whatever witnesses I could get.
Four other people got onto the same car, joining the seven already there to make an even dozen of us, plus Taran; really not a bad crowd for one-thirty in the morning even if I would have preferred rush hour at the moment. Three descending tones gave us all a short warning before the doors began to slide closed and I enjoyed the little hiss-pop as the rubber merged with the car’s frame. With the train in motion, I perched on the edge of the seat and let myself relax just a little and tried to get my breathing under control, letting the muscles in my back sag and rolling my head from side to side a few times.