So as not to have the latest post being a promo for a now-concluded giveaway, and not having the spare brain cells right this very minute to draft something completely newish in the way of posterly verbiage (for Conflux is afoot, and preparations for the day still need to be completed), I offer you, dear reader, a piece of shortish fiction which I prepared earlier. It’s not entirely characteristic, but then, sometimes, none of my stories are.
Against the Flow
by Simon Petrie
“It looks a little cold,” said Harry, and then he went full nova. Harry had had a bad run lately anyway, what with him being a victim-bot, and past his abuse-by date. Still, it was quite something to see, provided you weren’t within the shock front.
Bettina and the Captain were. It pushed the Captain into the waterway. He landed in the Stable Two position, and was carried swiftly downstream, complaining all the while about the water running into his airlock. There was nothing any of us could do, or maybe we’d just forgotten how.
“I always thought Harry was more of a main-sequence kinda guy,” said Bettina. It’s true, she had always thought that. At least she’d always said it, which made you wonder how she’d got into the survey team in the first place. It might have helped her career if once in a while she’d said something different, but I guess even a stopped clock knows a thing or two. Then the shock front got to her too, she turned ninety degrees on some transcendental axis, and Bettina was as gone as the Captain and Harry.
There were three of us left — myself, Doctor Hinkelspritzengrüber, and some fellow in a red tunic that nobody knew the name of.
“We should do something,” said the Doctor, using her stethoscope as a megaphone. “Anyone got any ideas?”
“Bridge is a four-handed game,” I suggested.
“Ain’t no bridge here,” reported Red Tunic. Which wasn’t actually his name, on account of we didn’t know what it was, but we could see what he wore.
We looked at the other side, but it probably wasn’t getting any closer, unless it was. It was careless what had happened to the Captain, so I stepped back from the riverbank. I wondered why we hadn’t seen any aliens, and then I remembered Doctor Hinkelspritzengrübenhauser was one. Or had met one, or had said something about one at some point. It was so hard to tell, it could scratch diamond, and that’s what she did right at that point. It seemed a waste, particularly since I hadn’t even realised the diamond was there.
“I don’t think you should do that,” said Red Tunic.
“I think you mean,” said Doctor Hinkelspritzengrübenhausenfurter, whose name was getting longer each time she spoke, “that you don’t think I should have done that. There’s a difference.” And to prove this, she scratched the diamond again. “See?” We did, but I don’t believe she did, because she started resublimating.
I didn’t know what we should do with a twice-scratched diamond. I mean, if we took it back to the ship there’d be questions, and those always literally unnerve me. And there was clearly no help for Doctor Hinkelspritzengrübenhausenfurtenberger, she was crystallizing nicely, so me and Red Tunic — remember, not his real name — struck out upstream, just in time to see the Captain float past again. He looked happier now, though you could tell he’d never launch again, what with all those tadpoles in his engine room.
“We should be getting back,” said Red Tunic.
“We should,” I agreed. “What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t,” he explained. The Captain floated past a third time. I think he was trying to tell us something, but his nosecone got in the way, and then he was gone.
“Do you think Harry will collapse into a black hole?” I asked, thinking we should get well clear just in case.
“I don’t know,” said Red Tunic. “I could never determine how massive he was. But isn’t that the lander?”
He was right, it wasn’t. But I knew we’d left it around here somewhere. Bettina would have known, but of course she would just have said her thing about the main sequence again, so that probably wouldn’t have helped.
“Maybe we should head away from the water,” someone said. I thought it was Red Tunic, and he thought it was me, which made no sense, since my voice isn’t usually that magnetic. But it seemed like a good idea, so that’s what we did. After awhile things got more normal, and there was a signpost, which was blank, but still. Red Tunic told me his name was Walter; I asked him how that helped anyone, at which he burst into tears and said I didn’t respect him. Which was unfair of him in the circumstances, and I almost said so, at which he almost argued back. But we agreed to let bygones be bygones, and not to quibble about how we’d suddenly acquired telepathy.
The lander was where we’d left it, which made perfect sense. I was glad something did. We climbed to the airlock, and Commander Flint met us in the cockpit. She looked as though she’d been doing her nails, which was good because somebody had to, and mine were bitten to the quick.
“We had some problems,” I explained. “The other four, they didn’t make it.”
“That’s a shame,” she said. “But they knew the risks. Quicksand, I imagine. You can never trust quicksand. You found the stream?”
I looked at Walter, and he looked at me. “We found a stream,” I remarked. Walter shook his head in agreement.
“Yes, yes,” the Commander said impatiently. “I can tell that from the mud on your boots. But was it the stream?”
I thought about the terrible things that had happened to the others, and maybe to me too while I wasn’t looking. And I shot Walter a warning glance, which he seemed to catch. There were some things, I thought, better left undiscovered.
So I lied. “No,” I told her, and that’s what I put in the report too. “No, it wasn’t the stream.”
“Damn,” she replied. “I was so sure this was going to be the one.” She turned in her seat and made preparations for launch. I wondered which planet in the big wide Galaxy she’d next think to survey, in our foolhardy quest for the mythical Stream of Consciousness.