Thursday, November 1, 2007

1. The Great Big Galaxy and the Little Boy

It is universally acknowledged that all the best stories begin with “Once upon a time…”

Well, almost universally. The Crestellian Monks, in their orbiting abbey, have long advocated that all worthwhile stories begin with “As it was written, so it shall be.” Everyone else generally thinks that the Crestellian Monks are full of themselves, and everyone else is generally right about this.

The Synaethesaeists of Wendell V, in turn, prefer to start their stories with a lovely, vivid shade of the color green. (This has proved something of an obstacle to the popularity of their literature, even though they do write some lovely detective novels.) And Hiram Jones, of Pextwell City, Andigon, for reasons known only to himself and his many, many doctors, insists on starting any and all stories with the name “Shirley.”

This story might begin with “Once upon a time…” But it doesn’t. This story begins with a great big galaxy and a little boy.

The name of the galaxy is hardly worth mentioning by now. Astute readers will find it prominently marked on any standard universal map — sometimes blinking or glowing, depending on the sophistication of the map and the general tastelessness of its designers. Its distinctive spiral pattern emblazons countless hologlobes, collectible plates, and entirely regrettable tourist T-shirts in uncountable systems, and understandably so.

If our story focused solely and entirely on this galaxy as a whole, it would undoubtedly grow very boring, very quickly. (Assuming the reader is not overly fond of gentle rotation, subtle gravitational forces, and occasional glimmering.) Let us zip toward this galaxy, then, taking caution not to get any comets stuck in our hair, and focus on a particular system right smack in the middle of it.

To get there, start at the asteroid field, head down to the stellar nursery — pausing for a moment, if you must, to ooh and aah through the window at all the adorable little starlets — then hang a left for several thousand light years, past the rocky outer planets, and the vast, gaseous middle planets, to the big blue jewel of a world carefully positioned just the proper distance from the system’s sun. You can’t miss it — it’s the one that’s all ocean. And if that’s not sufficiently distinctive, its ring of highly sophisticated laser death satellites should be a dead giveaway.

This is Imperia, the not-terrifically-imaginatively-named home of the Grand Galactic Imperium. And it would be a beautiful place indeed, if you were allowed to see it. But you’re not. The laser death satellites should make that abundantly clear.

Imperia is a custom job, specially crafted a millennia back by the esteemed firm of Harderoy and Harderoy Planetary Construction to the exact specifications of Primus the Free-Spending, the very first ruler of the Grand Galactic Imperium. Not a single speck of land mars the blue whole of its surface, and the oceans run unfathomably deep. The planet spins in its lazy way from day to night and back again, and by its rotation, an entire galaxy sets its watch. (Or doesn’t, sometimes, and therefore is late for the bus.)

The seas of Imperia teem with uncountable numbers of fascinating species, most of which primarily spend their days eating one another, being eaten, and doing their best to reproduce at some point inbetween. They also double as a marvelously convenient, if hugely inefficient, source of fuel.

The Imperial Palace that strides the seas of Imperia on eight spindly legs is a monument to completely superfluous beauty, grown by dedicated artisans from the stuff of seashsells into a mass of whorls and curves and iridescent spirals. The legs are just for show, or would be, if anyone were allowed to see them. The palace, five miles in diameter, is actually held aloft by a bog-standard antigravity unit the size of a reasonably large dog. But anyone could have such technology, really; hence, the legs.

They are not solely decorative, however. Each leg contains a sophisticated system of pneumatic tubes, and with each point of impact with Imperia’s seas, they greedily slurp up any unfortunate marine life in their wake. The fish, the dolphins, the bivalves, and the occasional deeply confused shark are hurtled up, up, up a mile of tubing in mere instants, and almost before they can notice that things are getting curiously warm, they have been spat out into the palace’s vast boilers, and burned for fuel.

This is of course staggeringly wasteful and completely unnecessary, which is entirely the point.

The boilers occupy the very belly of the perpetually moving palace; above them are the transport hangars, and the servant’s quarters, then the vast acres of bureaucracy that more or less keep the Empire tolerably functioning — entire generations of accountants are born, live, breed, and die here, leading to notable evolutionary adaptations involving finger dexterity, calculating ability, and a neck circumference precisely matched to the Imperial-standard bureaucratic cravat — and finally, in the very highest tiers, the private chambers of the Imperial Family itself.

And on the particular evening on which this story begins, at the very top of the very highest spire, in a little-used watch chamber overlooking the endless dusk-lit oceans, sat a dark-haired, grey-eyed boy of ten years, talking to a ventilation duct.

He was neither a particularly happy boy, though he had many reasons to be so. Nor was he particularly sad, though he had abundant reasons for that, too. If anything, he was a very quiet, very thoughtful boy. He had learned to be so, if only because it helped him stay alive.

His name was Accident — Dent for short. As names go, it was perhaps unkind, but entirely accurate. And although all of the great and glittering galaxy that rotated around him was his, at least technically speaking, he had only two true friends in the entire world. One of them was widely considered imaginary, and the other would be trying to kill him until shortly before supper.

Dent had arranged the day’s treasures in a row on the cool metal deck, in sight of the black face of the duct and its beautifully patterned grate. Air sucked thoughtfully into the darkness, to whirl away somewhere down deep within the palace.

“I like this one,” Dent said, holding up a small crystal vial of pinkish liquid. “It smells nice. But I don’t know what it’s for.”

Chimes rang, vibrating all through the chitinous shell of the palace itself. Dent counted them silently and carefully. Six bells.

“I have to go soon,” he said to the ventilation duct He began to collect his treasures again, securing them carefully, one by one, in a small pouch on his belt.

Something inside the vent rattled. A stone, perhaps, or an errant seashell.

“I didn’t forget,” Dent nodded, though he nearly had. Casting a quick glance backward at the hatch in the floor through which he’d entered — ensuring that the sturdy steel bar remained fastened tight across it — he fished in another pouch on the opposite side of his belt.

He drew forth a small square item wrapped in shiny waxed paper. A sandwich. “It’s your favorite,” Dent said to the ventilation duct. “Sunfish and chives. Cook said to say hello. I don’t think she believes in you.”

He held the sandwich up to the vent. Again, a rattling filtered up from inside the duct.

“I know, I asked her! She said she was busy,” Dent sighed. More rattling. “Don’t get upset. I’ll do it for you.”

Dent unfastened a small oblong tube from his belt, and thumbed the switch, igniting a small shimmering blade of pure sound a few inches from its tip. It was a sonic knife, the very dangerous kind that young boys are most emphatically not supposed to have, in part because such things are simply far too awesome, and in part because of the risk of bloody self-mutilation. Dent had, to say the least, permissive parents, parents who were entirely OK with the notion that their child might, say, accidentally lose a finger or five. Sometimes this had its benefits.

Neatly, carefully, he sliced away the crusts of the sandwich. The knife hummed cheerily, caring not whether it was cleaving bread and fish or, say, tender young fingers. When he had finished, the newly crustless edges of the sandwich lightly toasted and curling with smoke, he sliced the sandwich in halves again, diagonally.

Dent shut off the knife and slipped the sandwich, one half at a time, through the grating. They vanished quickly into the gloom, as if pulled through by some motive force — but it might merely have been the suction of the air.

“Lucky,” he said to the grate. “I wish we could have sandwiches for supper. Don’t be late tonight, OK? Remember, it’s part five of The Caravan’s Escape.”

The tower trembled, as if something down in the depths of it had just barged its way inside. Dent felt his insides quiver with fear — although, all things considering, not nearly as much fear as he might have been expected to feel.

“Pebble?” he said to the grate. But there was no sound, no answer, but the darkness and the soft passage of air.

The tower shook again, this time in rhythm. Not thumps, not footfalls, exactly. The steady tread of something large and round rolling upward, up the ninety-seven spiraling steps that led to the tippy-top of the tower, where Dent now listened intently with his ear pressed to the metal of the floor, as if his life depended on it. Because it did.

Dent rose and checked the windows, though he already knew this room — indeed, the entire extent of the imperial chambers, and beyond — as well as the lines on his own palm. The windows were high and inviting and full of sunset, but they were, alas, sealed tighter than a tomb.

The steady tread from below grew louder, interrupted by a series of garbled, inhuman shrieks.

Dent looked to the grate, and readied his knife to slice away the screws that held it, and shimmy inside. He had studied the maps of the ductwork on countless bored, rainy afternoons in the hushed and dusty shadows of the Imperial Library, and he knew where everything led. But alas, he also knew, in the way a child begins to realize that wishful thinking has its limits, that the grate was insufficiently Dent-sized to allow him through.

The sounds from below grew ever louder, each thud now resonating solidly through the floor beneath Dent’s feet. The screeching remained unintelligible, but there was no mistaking its vehemence.

Dent briefly took a writing-pad from the pouch at his belt, and in careful, labored cursive, made a note to himself that he should never again choose the tower as a hiding place, even at the very end of the day. Then he began to climb. The roof of the lower was laced with graceful arch supports, which Dent could just about jump to if he balanced himself on one of the windowsills. From there, tiny legs flailing, his big, heavy, hand-me-down boots weighing at his ankles, he began to haul himself up.

The very solid steel hatch with the very solid steel bar in the floor of the chamber thrummed with a sudden, deafening blow from the opposite side. It began to pucker upward.

Dent managed to haul himself up to the support, and carefully crawled as high as he could, to the very apex of the ceiling. He clung to the reassuringly thick column where all the supports grew together, and closed his eyes, and recited his invisibility chant to himself. Dent had read it in one of the many books from the Imperial Library that he hadn’t actually been supposed to read, and while it had never actually worked, Dent never stopped hoping that maybe this time it would.

More blows battered the hatch, and now the screeches from below were joined by the shriek of rending mental. Then a single dot on the floor around the hatch began to glow, first orange, then red, then blue, then white. The metal began to hiss and bubble. The dot moved, cutting a circle neatly around the hatch.

Six bells seven, Dent thought, and tried to count back in his head to when he’d heard the chimes.

The hatch dropped away in a hiss of steam, the edges of the deck around it glowing hot. Dent heard it fall and hit the stairs and clang its way all the down the spiral to the very base of the tower, and then clatter around a bit.

“Death!” came the high, mad robot voice from below. Dent’s other best friend had found him at last.

Four spindly mechanical arms thrust upward through the hole in the deck, and a sleek, oblong silver head, two round eyes in its front glowing an angry red, appeared from below. The machine hauled itself up, revealing a slender but sturdy torso long ago painted in what once had been bright and cheery colors, now gone somewhat shabby. Instead of legs and feet, it had a metal sphere on which its upper half balanced. And while that sphere had collapsed itself tightly to fit through the whole, it now expanded, pufferfish-like, to its full corpulent dimensions.

Dent, in the supports high above, held his breath.

The robot rolled and clacked to one side of the room, and then another. It lowered itself to peer into the vent, tilting its head slightly to one side, as if listening.

“Death!” it screeched again, albeit with a note of dramatic effect.

The razor-sharp pincers that served as one of its hands snipped and snapped anxiously; the laser emitter forming another pulsed softly, ready to fire. With its remaining two arms, each ending in slender human-modeled silver hands powerful enough to snap full-grown human bone like kindling, the robot drummed out some private staccato tune on the walls of the tower.

Even with his eyes shut, Dent heard the robot’s head snap upward, felt the air displace as its arms whistled up to grab him. He kicked and flailed and clung to the column, but cold steel fingers closed around his ankle and yanked him away.

The laser glowed, and the pincers snapped, and Dent saw himself dangling upside-down in the robot’s impassive steel face. “Death!” Dent’s best friend howled, in the tortured tones of a synthesizer box driven far past its proper parameters. “Truculent, savory death!”

1 comment:

TRoyal said...

Ha! Awesome. Damn Douglas Adams, for influencing yet another generation with his style which suits the writing of scifi funny.