Friday, May 15, 2009

Common Words #4: "Tranquil Fragments"

renamed from "Creative Chunks" because honestly, I don't like that name as much now as I did when I came up with it

The idea behind National Novel Writing Month is simple; write a 50,000-word novel between November 1 and November 30. It doesn't have to be good, only done. The entire point is to discard one's internal critic and just produce at a breakneck pace. There's no question that this method produces a hell of a lot of chaff, but that doesn't mean there's no wheat in it either.

I tried my hand at NaNo in 2006 with an effort I called Tranquility, set on Luna and Earth in the late 21st century in the wake of a mystical apocalypse - I was on a significant technomagic kick at the time. Whatever my inclinations, I managed to win through, with a final word count in the neighborhood of 50,100 as December waited on the doorstep. That was the first and, so far, only time I've participated in NaNo - I only got as far as I did then because I was unemployed at the time.

Nevertheless, there are parts of it that stand well enough on their own, scenes that can also work more-or-less independently. This one, in the greater story, was the introduction for one of the two protagonists. It's one of the better things I came up with during the month, I think.

"Tranquil Fragments"
by Andrew Barton, 2006

Zelazny Hakaraia couldn't suppress his glee at the way the cards had fallen. The fact that they were weakly magnetic and thus among the handful of things that weren't falling in the zero-gravity bucket that was the salvage ship Tanstaafl hardly entered into his consideration. He was more concerned with the pile of lucre that he'd managed to carefully guide away from the assistant navigator's oppressive rule.

"You never treat your coins right, Hauser," Zelazny said as he sifted through the pile, dropping particularly shiny or otherwise eye-catching coins into the sack secured to his belt. The others he'd save for a renewed wager and renewed victory. "I told you to listen to me, but you didn't, and look at 'em all keep runnin'. This keeps up, well, I don't even want to imagine what you'll have to do to get fresh ladies between your sheets."

"God dammit, Zed," Hauser said, scowling. Zelazny considered the man an "associate" at best, meaning that he didn't have much compunction against jerking him around when the situation called for it. "This goddamn game's for chumps, anyway."

The assistant navigator chomped on the end of a plastic straw, casting eyes around the rec room. It was fairly empty, being just after third watch, and by all rights Zelazny should have been in his bunk. He'd just come off a fifteen-hour watch, though, thanks to the idiot operations officer forgetting to check for tears in his vaccsuit, and he could never sleep after putting that much work in at once.

"Now you know why I play it with you so much," Zelazny said, grinning an exaggerated grin. "Isn't easy to find another chump this far from home."

It didn't take Zelazny long to finish sorting through his winnings, and by the time he'd finished a little more than half met his approval. The rest he pushed to the center of the table, knowing that it would take the money-hungry vultures about twenty-three seconds to make it disappear. Salvage roughnecks weren't exactly known for their subtlety, either.

"Fine, come on, lay 'em down," Hauser said, with what looked like supreme mental effort. If the navigator had been using his muscles with that much strength, he'd probably have been able to lift the Tanstaafl. "I told you I wasn't going to sign on for another tour without seein' you lose at least once."

"In that case, my friend," Zelazny said, "I hope you enjoyed your time in the salvage business, and I wish you luck in your future endeavours."

He was about to deal another hand when the alert klaxon ripped through the quiet, red warning lights bathing it in a soft but bloody glow. The captain's voice was piped in after that, firm and without a trace of emotion. Zelazny sometimes wondered if the woman could get excited about anything.

"All crew, rouse to action stations," the captain said in raw New Luna City twang. "Mr. Hakaraia, report to the bridge immediately. All crew, rouse to action stations."

"So sorry about this," Zelazny said with a smirk. "I wouldn't hold onto those remob forms if I was you."

The alert continued to sound as Zelazny sailed out of the rec room and down the corridors, throwing himself from handgrip to handgrip like a gorilla in some legendary jungle. Men and women were emerging from corridors, some with eyes blurred by sleep but most already snapped to attention. Alert klaxons were only lit up in situations that tended to get the adrenaline rushing.

Man, all those guys who predicted what things'd be like now were way, way off, Zelazny thought as he hurled himself down a corridor. What kind of wordsmith'd think that we'd have real magic to play with but no artificial gravity?

The only way the Loonies had to generate gravity was the old-fashioned way, through plain old centrifugal force. The Tanstaafl had a small rotating section that was given over to what Captain Desjardins called "improvement facilities." It was a spinning gym, more or less, but meant that once back in Luna he wouldn't have to spend a week learning how to walk again.

When he swung himself into the bridge, a slight sheen of sweat on his forehead, the navigator was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Captain Desjardins had taken the main flight console herself, her eyes and hands moving so fast that Zelazny could believe that the concept of information overload didn't apply to her.

"We've got a situation here, Mr. Hakaraia," Desjardins said before he could announce his presence. After two years on the Tanstaafl, Zelazny had gotten used to some of the captain's more esoteric talents. Sometimes he wondered if she was a mage. "Two ksats came up on the detectors two minutes ago, angling in this general direction. No indications that they've seen us yet, but they're sure to soon enough."

Zelazny was a veteran of the salvage runs, but the captain's dispassionate assessment made him feel chills all over. The killer satellites were a plague on Luna's small spacefleet, and whenever a ship disappeared it was assumed to be the victim of such war relics. Originally confined to Earth orbit, in Zelazny's time they had become bolder, ranging ever further in search of enemies.

"I'll see to getting the work parties reeled in, Captain," Zelazny said, sliding into the thankfully comfortable chair that was his station. Being first mate gave him enough responsibility to drown in, but it also rated a nice chair for him to park himself while gasping for air. The close-in detector screen registered only a handful of friendlies, and none of them had ventured too far from the barn.

Still, L5 was a hairy place, swarming wth debris a century old and more. Things that found their way there tended to stay there, thanks to the laws of gravity. As one of the two really stable Lagrangian points in the Earth-Moon system, it had been the largest center of space construction outside of Earth orbit itself. When the War erupted eighty years back it'd been thick with space stations, from the ten-kilometer cylinder of High Britannia to vacuum-sealed bungalows.

The nukes and bomb-pumped lasers and kinetic killers had shattered them all, and it still wasn't uncommon for salvage teams to run across vacuum-burned corpses, their faces frozen in twisted, terrifying grimaces. From the savage legacy he'd seen sifting through L5, a silent graveyard of ice and metal, he was surprised that Luna had managed to survive at all. Survive it had, though, and now the brave men and women of Luna returned to L5 and other spatial Sargassos, fueling their progress with the wreckage of the past.

"Tanstaafl to all work crews, two ksats on the scope, inbound and weapons hot," Zelazny said. The last wasn't an assumption. Ksats were much like sharks, in that they never stopped moving and were never unready to kill. "All work crews, get back to the barn double-quick."

The dots on his detector screen, each of them representing the workshuttles picking through the field, wheeled about and came streaming for the center. There weren't any rookies on them, not after a tour that had been going for seven months now, but even if there had been the spectre of the ksats wasn't something to be idly dismissed.

All but one, that is. Zelazny frowned at the display and the blip marked "WS-47-CG," Bart al-Jasim's shuttle. The man was a daredevil, and considering his occupation he should have drank vacuum ten times over by now. Somehow he'd survived, but at the clip his shuttle was making, Zelazny couldn't help but wonder how much longer that would be the case.

"WS-47-CG, Tanstaafl," Zelazny barked into the microphone. Those distant blips representing the two ksats were getting ever closer, and every moment he expected the board to light up with a swarm of those damn hunter missiles. "You're lookin' to be a little sluggish out there, Bart. Probably best to get things wrapped up on the way back. You make a juicy target out there."

"Tanstaafl, WS-47-CG, get off my case," al-Jasim's voice crackled through the speaker. "The number-three engine's giving us trouble again. We're making three-quarters acceleration and that better be good enough. That lattice we found out there's been lonely for too long."

"Save it for the hangar deck, Bart," Zelazny said, though he couldn't honestly say that the prospect of an intact lattice didn't fire his excitement. They were still mostly beyond Luna's capacity to reproduce, taking a craftsman and team of apprentices years to make a single one. Still, they were completely worthless if the ship salvaging them got torn apart by ksats before it could unload.

"We're burning the engines hot as they'll go, no question about that," al-Jasim said. "Keep the place warm for us when we get in. 47-CG out."

The transmission clicked off, but the workshuttle weighed as heavily on Zelazny's mind as if he'd been taking a nap on the wrong landing pad. Digging into his pockets he produced a dataslate and a slide rule, and he was quick to start manipulating the latter in a manner that had been mistaken for a magical ritual a few times before. What he was doing was pure mathematics, unencumbered by circuits to tell him what was what.

He ran the numbers twice, and didn't like what he found. If they were accurate, and they usually were, the ksats would have had sufficient opportunity to empty their missile launchers before al-Jasim's workshuttle was onboard. The Tanstaafl was equipped with a full suite of electronic countermeasures - Zelazny knew as well as anyone that to leave Luna's defensive envelope without that sort of protection was tantamount to suicide - but he wasn't prepared to trust his life to them alone.

"Captain, we've got problems," Zelazny said, twisting to face Desjardins. The navigator-on-duty, Emirjon Lezhë, had replaced the captain at the pilot's station, with hints of grease on his uniform suggesting that he'd been busy in the engine room. "Bart's shuttle's got an engine on the fritz, it's lost a good chunk of its acceleration. I've run the numbers and it doesn't look good."

"They never do, not in times like this," Desjardins said. She was peering at the main plotter board on the bridge's starboard bulkhead, the one that made Zelazny's look like a child's toy. "You agree with what I've found. The shuttle will not reach us in enough time to enable a free escape, therefore, our choice is obvious. We must go to the shuttle, rather than have it come to us."

"Captain, take Tanstaafl into that debris field?" Zelazny said, his eyes going wide. They were salvaging the wreckage of what had been an Indonesian industrial station, a huge spinning torus that had left a lot of shards behind. Many of them were big enough to knock a flight pod clean off. "We'd be lucky not to have something ram through the navshields and open us to vacuum. Not to mention that we'd have to find our way out again before those damn sharks light us up."

"Perhaps, but this is the only opportunity we have, unless you'd rather leave Mr. al-Jasim and his workcrew behind for the ksats," Desjardins said. The way she spoke made Zelazny question whether artificial intelligence was really nothing more than a pipe dream. She was certainly calm enough to pass for a robot. "I'll not be leaving any people behind today, Mr. Hakaraia."

Zelazny couldn't deny the captain's sentiment, no matter what he thought of Tanstaafl's chances in that debris field. Desjardins might be as cold and emotionless as a robot, but when it came to leaving men behind she was as human as anyone in the Space Force. She just didn't do it.

"Captain, everyone's back aboard except Bart and his gang," Zelazny said after a tense moment watching the screen, his eyes leaping between the blips representing the last workshuttle and the two ksats. All of them were creeping ever closer, but two would mean death if they were allowed to close much more.

"Very well," Desjardins said, turning to the navigator. "Mr. Lezhë, make your course to rendezvous with workshuttle 47-CG, smartly."

The navigator acknowledged, his fingers played over the console, and Zelazny could feel the deep, rumbling thrum of the engines as they spun up to speed. Lezhë would find a safe route for Tanstaafl through the debris if anyone could, but he still half-expected death to come for him with a scream of metal against metal.

Zelazny was thankful that there were no windows. The bridge was buried deep within Tanstaafl's hull, the better to insulate it from the threat of hull breaches and explosive decompression. He'd read some of the old Earthbound speculative works that talked about spaceships, and he had trouble believing how many of them only had a row of windows separating the captain's chair from the vacuum.

Wonder how much those wordsmiths would've liked sucking vacuum, Zelazny thought. I like being in the middle of it all. Not least because of all the bulkheads I got around me.

He felt the shift in the engines as Tanstaafl edged into the debris field, and within a few moments the sheen of sweat was so thick on Lezhë's forehead that Zelazny could have used it to shave by. Sure, the field was theoretically nothing but broken, twisted metal, but the Indonesians hadn't exactly advertised the whole extent of their space program before the war. Luna's records were patchy besides. There could be anything lurking in there, waiting to gut his ship like a trout.

Activity on his detector board snapped him to alertness, and for a painful instant it felt like someone had dropped ice cubes in his veins. The two ksats had changed their course, switching from a lazy, swinging route that would have skirted the main bulk of the debris field. It was obvious enough from the numbers that their engines were burning hot, giving them all the acceleration they could manage.

"Captain!" His voice was urgent enough that it cut above everything else in the bridge. "The ksats've cottoned on to us, they're vectoring toward us. No missile launches yet, but we'll be within their effective range in a few minutes."

They can manage a lot more than we can, that's for certain, Zelazny thought, returning his eyes to the detector screen. With none of those magic-like inertial nullification technologies that had promised to allow ships to turn on dimes and accelerate to bonecrushing speeds without reducing the crew into chunky salsa, Tanstaafl was limited to acceleration barely above one gravity. That in itself would have killed most Loonies, but roughnecks were trained to be a tougher breed.

The ksats didn't have to worry about biological components to crush. They burned through space with the unchained glee of unrepentant killers, and soon enough they would loose their deadly payloads and try to smash Tanstaafl into flinders.

I'm not about to spend the rest of my life as part of this debris, no sir, Zelazny thought, frowning. The detector registered a section of former hull the size of Zhi Plaza as he did so, uncomfortably close to Tanstaafl. Lezhë avoided it with all the skill that was due his position, but things were still too crowded for Zelazny's tastes.

"WS-47-CG, Tanstaafl," Zelazny said, leaning into the microphone. "We're almost at your position, Bart. I read one more minute here. You ready to get pulled aboard?"

"Just give me the word," al-Jasim answered. "I've got a finger on the button. These engines need a bit of time to cool down, after all the work they've been putting in."

"Good, good," Zelazny said. "Keep your present course, we can't afford jinking through this debris to chase--"

The words fell out of Zelazny's throat as the new blips lit up on the detector screen. Eight of them, four from each ksat, and they flew like unleashed wild dogs, driven half-mad by the scent of prey and thirsty for blood. They were on an arrow-straight course that would tear Tanstaafl apart.

"Missiles, missiles, missiles inbound!" Zelazny called, almost as if he was a human klaxon himself. The original alert warning was still droning in the background, but he'd been able to push it below his attention. Now it took on an even greater sense of urgency. "Detector reads eight missiles inbound, probable intercept in two minutes. I'm spinning up the spoofers and point defense."

The Tanstaafl wasn't entirely unarmed, though sometimes it seemed to be when compared to a ksat. Beyond its range of electronic warfare systems, meant to confuse and scramble the missiles' computer brains, there were a few railgun emplacements in strategic locations around the hull. They were the last line of defense, and would throw out walls of slugs at several times the speed of sound, but Zelazny didn't have much faith in them. Fast-moving shrapnel from a destroyed missile would gut Tanstaafl even more efficiently than a whole one.

It was like trying to dance in a minefield. Even if there weren't any hitches in retreiving Bart's shuttle, Tanstaafl still had to make it out of the debris field before it could swing into full acceleration. The best Zelazny could hope for was that a few of the missiles would be typically overzealous machines and take a straight-line course that happened to intersect big enough chunks of former space station hull.

"Keep her steady, Mr. Lezhë," Desjardins said, and Zelazny could have sworn that she was smiling. He was thankful he had examples of womanhood beyond Desjardins to go on, since he knew he'd never be able to understand that half of the species if she was his only model. It was as if the captain had faced death so many times that it had lost its edge. He didn't have trouble imagining Desjardins in a fistfight with the Reaper.

The only question's whether or not she would win, he mused.

Zelazny stayed on the radio, doing whatever he could to help guide the shuttle back into the bay. He knew that the deck crew was already down there, suited up and waiting with the doors open and the bay itself depressurized. They'd be shutting it as they went, he knew, since Tanstaafl would be turning tail for home the instant the maglocks were positive.

There was a whine and a crash from the other end of the speaker, muffled but no less threatening because of it. There wasn't any response for a few long, precious seconds, and Zelazny was relieved when a harsh-sounding Bart al-Jasim answered him.

"A damn capacitor overloaded and blew," al-Jasim said. "We're still good for as long as we need to be, but I tell you, the second we set down I'm stripping this bastard of a shuttle to its bones."

"Yeah, don't forget the candlelight dinner," Zelazny said. "You're looking good, very good. Hold it steady for another fifteen seconds."

If there had been any windows in the bridge, Zelazny wouldn't need his detector screen to keep track of the workshuttle anymore. The spaceframe shuddered as Lezhë jinked around, ensuring that the workshuttle had a clear route into the hangar, and for a brief parade of instants everything seemed frozen. Even the threat of the onrushing missiles fell away, and there was only the ship in the shuttle.

Then the workshuttle's blip vanished from the detector, swallowed into the mark at the center that represented Tanstaafl. A few seconds later the hangar reported positive maglock, Captain Desjardins nodded to Lezhë and the ship wheeled about, dodging around debris with all the speed it could muster.

Still not enough, Zelazny thought. The spoofers had done about as well as he'd expected, and fully half of the missiles were splitting away to hunt down electronic phantoms. The remainder were still homing in on Tanstaafl, and they were barely half a minute away from impact. Those seconds began to drag as the ship flew on, like relativity in miniature, but Tanstaafl was still lacking the velocity to outpace them.

"Thirty seconds to impact," Zelazny said, frowning at his detector screen. There was a clump of debris up ahead, probably the core of the old station, a tangled mass of wreckage composed of pieces that were often larger than Tanstaafl herself. They were essentially motionless relative to their surroundings, and that gave Zelazny the kernel of a plan. He hoped that the missiles' guidance systems would be uncomprehending enough to oblige him.

"Captain, this debris here," Zelazny said, surging out of his chair and pointing it out on the main detector board. "It looks solid enough, about the same composition as our hull. With the right kind of flying we could bait the missiles into tearing it apart instead of us."

"Yes, and tear it into chunks more manageable for salvage," Desjardins said, spending a second to consider the situation. With that sort of thinking she was a roughneck, true enough. She pointed the debris out to the navigator, who seemed to be in some kind of thoughtless, automatic trance as her piloted. "Mr. Lezhë, I fully expect you to scrape some of our paint off."

There was nothing more Zelazny could do but keep watching the detector and call out the seconds until the missiles struck. Part of him wondered if he would get to zero at all, or if Lezhë would miss some insignificant chunk of metal and reduce Tanstaafl to salvage itself. It wasn't a time for rational thought, not really. Things were moving fast enough that there was less and less time to think about what was happening. There was only time to do.

Lezhë managed to do it. Tanstaafl rocketed past the clump of debris, picking up speed all the way, and jinking behind to make sure the missiles would have to correct their course or fly right through it. With the spoofers still chattering away, the missiles' brains were confused long enough for them not to recognize the obstruction until it was too late. Proximity fuzes fired and four nuclear fireballs cast searing light throughout the debris field.

A few moments later the worst was behind them, and Lezhë poured the acceleration on. The ksats were still out there on Zelazny's screen, but Tanstaafl was too far away and too fast for them to catch before entering Luna's defensive envelope. Once they reported in, one of the Republic's precious few warships would be detailed to deal with them. L5 was far too rich a source of materials to allow the ksats to roam it.

"Good show, all of you," Desjardins said. She had the ship's phone in her hand, and her voice reverberated throughout the hull. "We've evaded the ksats and are on our way back home. Stand down from alert stations. That is all."

Zelazny tried to stand up but collapsed into a slump on the seat, as if all the energy in his legs had flowed out of him with the attack. The exhaustion of his last fifteen-hour watch fell on his shoulders like sacks of concrete, and it was all he could do to keep from collapsing on the detector screen. Facing the prospect of imminent death really took something out of a man, he'd realized.

None of that mattered for now. Luna was ahead, and Tanstaafl and her crew were going home.


I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby make it available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Commercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license. That means you are free to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit this work — and Remix — to adapt this work — under the following conditions.

Attribution. You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).

Noncommercial. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

Share Alike. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one.

* For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work.
* Any of the above conditions can be waived if you get permission from me (Andrew Barton).
* Nothing in this license impairs or restricts the author's moral rights.

Full details of this license are available at the Creative Commons website.


Previously on Common Words:

No comments:

Post a Comment