Monthly Archives: August 2017

404. Various Anniversaries

I was really busy two years ago, and forty-two years ago.

On September 2, 1975 – the day after Labor Day that year – I sat down to see if I could write a novel. By Christmas, the first iteration of Spirit Deer was a reality, and I had become a writer.

Two years ago, six months after learning that Cyan had been accepted for publication, after several months of learning about blogging, after learning how to use Word Press, after pre-writing a few dozen posts — on August 29, 2015 I posted the first introduction to A Writing Life and Serial.

I seems like yesterday, and also like a lifetime ago.

Blondel 12

Blondel looked up at Grat, quietly pleading for understanding. “I had to do it, he said. “We will need a fast horse, and soon.”

Sylvia rode, and Grat strode along beside her, smiling at her jokes as she chattered away the morning. From time to time she reached out to touch Grat’s hair or beard, but she never offered to let Blondel ride. He trudged wearily along behind them, still holding the spell of illusion. Grat had asked last night if he could hold it at a distance, and he had replied, “Not far. Not far at all.”

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Between the Andis and the Raipiar rivers, above their confluence, there was a meadow spotted with trees. Now it had been converted into a tent town with twice a thousand inhabitants. There were wares and entertainments of every description in a moving mosaic of colors and flesh, with rushing children and dogs, and pigs roaming the littered streets, occasionally toppling a tent as they rooted out its pegs in search of garbage.

Blondel took his leave and his horse at the edge of the crowd. “I‘ve some friends to meet, and some business to attend to,” he told Grat, “but if you find yourself in need, come to Chiana‘s tent.”

Grat took his leave hurriedly. By her carriage, Sylvia was making it clear that she was through with Blondel and that if Grat wanted her favors he had better be quick. Blondel watched the crowd swallow them up, following Grat’s unkempt head as it sailed unworried above the mass of smaller men. Then, smiling with world weary understanding, he let go of illusion.

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Something less than three hours later, Grat staggered through the back flap of Chiana’s tent looking as if the hounds of Hell itself were at his heels. The shallow parallel scratches that decorated his cheek were Sylvia‘s brand, and he stood panting like a stag at bay. Blondel came quickly up from the narrow patch of shade where he had been dozing and offered Grat the dregs of his winehorn. Grat emptied it at a draught and hurled it to the ground, shouting, “I am undone!” final post on Monday

Blondel 11

They reached the road as the sun was rising. There had been no pursuit, and Grat asked, “Do you think they found the brooch you left?”

“I have no doubt of it.”

Grat looked uneasily over his shoulder, for the road was no haven of safety and they would be two days afoot before they reached the Faire. “How long before they find out what you have done?”

“I will keep the illusion up as long as I am able,” Blondel said, but he looked uneasy.

They made good time despite Sylvia. She walked at Grat’s side, leaning on him perhaps a bit more than was strictly necessary, and Blondel plodded wearily along behind. At first Grat wondered at his loss of vigor; then he decided that Blondel was still trying to hold the spell of illusion. He tried clumsily to express his gratitude, but Blondel only shrugged it off.

Grat left Sylvia to walk with Blondel for awhile. She did not drop back to join them, but continued doggedly ahead, looking back from time to time toward Grat. He seemed oblivious to the invitation, but Blondel was not so sure.

Throughout the afternoon they talked, and Blondel found Grat a boon companion, and a strange one. His years as a guard had not made him cynical and his rough demeanor had sloughed off now that he considered Blondel a friend.

Grat had been on his own since he was very young and even now his stature was belied by the youth in his eyes and the wonder in his speech. He was the stuff knights should be made of, but rarely were, and Blondel stopped regretting the efforts he had made. Grat, at least, was worth rescuing.

Blondel tried to warn him of what lay ahead, saying, “Not all things are as they seem.”

Grat mistook the meaning of his words and replied, “I know that Sylvia has been harsh, but she is alone and frightened.” When Blondel would have spoken more plainly, Sylvia dropped back to lead Grat’s thoughts astray with gay chatter and a hidden, cutting glance for Blondel.

Blondel fell back again, chewing on the future, for Grat’s open friendliness had touched him deeply.

They spent the night at an inn. The innkeeper’s wife took pity on Sylvia‘s condition, helped her to bathe and provided her with simple but untattered clothing. Grat dozed in the corner, giving his wounds a rest, and Blondel played bones with the innkeeper and hostler. When they left the following morning, Grat found that Blondel had won a small purse and a saddled horse.

“Blondel,” Grat said, “you are shot through with luck.“

Blondel scowled. “I augmented my luck last night.”

Grat was shocked. “You spelled the bones! After the innkeeper took us in from pity!” more tomorrow

Blondel 10

“They say it is magical,” Sylvia added.

“They lie.”

Blondel handed the piece to Grat, who turned it in his big hands, not really knowing what to make of it. “The centerpiece is sapphire,” Blondel said, “but of very inferior quality. The surrounding gems are emeralds of some value, though small. It would bring perhaps a hundred crowns on the black market; maybe thrice that if one could establish unencumbered ownership.”

Grat weighed the piece in his hand. “A hundred crowns? I doubt if I’ve made that in the last ten years. “

Blondel reached out for the brooch and Grat hesitated before returning it. Sylvia was beginning to look worried. “Aye,” Blondel said, “those outlaws would chase us to Hell for it.”

He continued to stare at the brooch, and Sylvia reached out saying, “Give it back.”

He shook his head and said, “Bide a moment. I have an idea. If this were left on the trail for the outlaws to find, all pursuit would cease.”

“Now just a minute!” Sylvia said, reaching for the brooch again. Blondel drew it back and Grat moved menacingly toward him.

Stop!

Sylvia froze, looking foolish, and Grat eased back on his haunches again. When Blondel chose to stop playing and project his will, his voice became a weapon of no small value. Even the crickets in the grass beyond the fire had fallen silent.

“It would not be necessary to leave the brooch, of course,” Blondel continued. “Only to make them think that we had.”

“How?“

“By creating a doppelganger of it.”

“You can‘t do that,” Sylvia snapped.

“No? I can‘t talk to foxes either, can I?”

She subsided. Blondel closed his hands about the brooch, bent forward and began to croon in a language strange to his companions. Grat felt the hairs on his neck begin to rise and reached for Sylvia‘s hand. She let him take it.

Ten minutes later, Blondel’s voice died away and he raised his head, stretched the muscles of his neck and opened his hands. Two identical brooches lay there. He handed one back to Sylvia and placed the other prominently near the fire. She turned the brooch in her fingers, examining it minutely. Blondel only smiled and said, “Let‘s go.” more tomorrow

403. Steampunk Dirigibles

Warning: this post gets nerdy.

If it has dirigibles, it’s steampunk. No, that doesn’t quite work.

If it doesn’t have dirigibles, it isn’t steampunk. No, that doesn’t work, either.

If it is steampunk, then chances are, there’s a dirigible in it somewhere. OK, now there’s a pronouncement I feel comfortable with. Even Brisco County, Jr. had a dirigible eventually.

The variety of airships (a more generic term) in steampunk is huge, especially if you look at the vast number of illustrations on line. The Aurora in Oppel’s Airborn is entirely realistic. The Predator in Butcher’s Aeronaut’s Windlass if essentially an air-floating wooden sailing ship. Some are essentially floating cities. Some run on diesels. Some run on magic, or crystal power.

Back here on Earth, everybody knows at least one dirigible, the Hindenburg, just like everybody knows at least one steam ship, the Titanic, and for essentially the same reasons. Beyond that, real knowledge of actual airships is spotty.

It might be helpful, before embracing the infinite variety of steampunk airships, to have a go at definitions for those which actually existed.

First up, why dirigible instead of Zeppelin? Answer: for the same reason that we use the word automobile instead of calling all automobiles, Fords. Ferdinand von Zeppelin meant more to the development of dirigibles than Henry Ford did to the development of autos, so if you want to say Zeppelin instead of dirigible, I won’t argue with you. After all, I used to say, “Gimme a Coke,” when I really wanted a Pepsi.

However, in the world of my upcoming steampunk novel, you wouldn’t dare say Zeppelin. It would be unpatriotic. A Brit with more ambition than morals stole Zeppelin’s plans, sabotaged his work, and built a British fleet of airships before the German war, while Zeppelin’s war efforts came to nothing. The result was a sweeping British victory, an overwhelmingly powerful Britain, and a very interesting world to write about. But no one calls dirigibles Zeppelins.

In our (real) world, airships are often divided into three classes, blimps, semi-rigids, and dirigibles. Blimps are bags of lifting gas which hold their shape entirely due to internal pressure. Pull the plug, and they collapse. Semi-rigids have a keel structure which helps to keep them from distorting due to localized weights, such as engines, but they still don’t have a solid skin. Dirigibles have a skeleton and a skin, and individual gas bags for the lifting gas. Dirigibles are sometimes called rigids; that is the most accurate term, but it is rarely used.

You will find this three part division in dozens of books on airships, and it fits pretty well. But the word dirigible was used far earlier, and at that time it meant “capable of self-movement and control”. There were dirigible torpedoes in the water, long before Zeppelin put dirigible airships into the air.

Which drags us back to another recycling of an old word — torpedo. During the American Civil War there were two types of torpedoes, stationary and spar. A stationary torpedo was a mine. When Admiral Farragut sailed into Mobile Bay, shouting, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” that would translate into modern English as, “Damn the mines, full speed ahead.” A spar torpedo, on the other hand, was an explosive device attached to a long wooden pole and rammed into an enemy ship by a steam boat, often sinking both. Neither kind of torpedo had self propulsion or self steering.

Torpedoes with that capability were initially called dirigible torpedoes. The adjective dirigible was later dropped. E. E. Smith, in Triplanetary, recycled that old term for use in galactic warfare:

In furious haste the Secret Service men had been altering the controls of the radio-dirigible torpedoes, so that they would respond to ultra-wave control; and, few in number though they were, each was highly effective.

The original hot air balloons were (and still are) unable to steer or move on their own. The quest for dirigibilty (controlled self- movement) led to blimps, semi-rigids, and “dirigibles”.

So, there is plenty of confusion even before we get to the use of airships in steampunk. Call them dirigibles, if you want. Call them Zeppelins, if you want. I don’t see how anyone has a right to complain about your choice.

Blondel 9

“I did find out that the main road passes within a half day‘s journey of here.”

“Then we can reach it before them?”

“Perhaps, if we move out now and skip sleeping.” Turning to Sylvia, Blondel asked, “Can you do that?”

“I can do any thing you can!”

“See that you do!” he snapped, and Grat bristled. Clearly, he was taking a personal interest in his charge. Well, he could have her; Blondel wished she had never crossed his path.

“What I don‘t understand,” Blondel went on, “is why they are chasing you at all.”

“I should think that‘s obvious,” Sylvia replied icily, stung again by Blondel’s disregard.

He said, “Have you taken a good look at yourself lately?”

She flushed beet red and moved her hands as if to smooth out her skirts, but they were mud clotted. Her hair had come undone and hung in a matted tangle around her ash smudged face.

Grat had been prepared to make an issue of Blondel’s cavalier attitude, but his good sense got in the way. He opened his mouth, then closed it again and scratched his head. Finally he said, “You‘re right. Why work so hard to get something they could — begging your pardon, Sylvia — buy cheaper in any, uh, tavern?”

They both turned to Sylvia and her defiance melted. “I guess it could be for the brooch,” she said in a small voice.

“What brooch?” Grat asked.

“The Tataelian Brooch, of course. It has been in our family for centuries.”

“And they think you have it? How stupid.”

“But I do have it.”

Blondel asked, “Where?” and she flushed again. “How would they know that you are carrying it?”

“They might know. Father did brag it about town that I would look lovely with it at my throat at the Faire.”

“God deliver me from mortals,” Blondel groaned. “Well, you might as well show it to us.”

“I will not. How do I know you won‘t try to steal it yourself?”

“If that were my intention,” Blondel snapped, “you would have no say in the matter. Show us.”

Blondel expected Grat to react to that, but the burly guard was silent. Clearly, he felt demeaned to discover that, rather than guarding Sylvia‘s honor, he had been risking his life for a bit of gold and stone. She turned her back and fumbled with her bodice, then handed Blondel the brooch. He held it up to the light of the fire and examined it with an occasional, “Hmm.” more tomorrow

Blondel 8

He turned back to Grat. “I am no warrior, but I do have some unusual talents. Before we go down and smite our enemies, to our own possible dismay, let me use them.” Grat agreed and the girl pointedly ignored him, so Blondel moved to the edge of the firelight and called softly. At first nothing came, then a hare hopped up shyly to investigate. He gave a sharp command and it disappeared. He did not want the aid of a fluff brain and besides a rabbit was likely to be stoned for food. Also, Blondel did not like to become too friendly with rabbits; he still had to eat them occasionally. An old bullsnake he also sent away, though it smacked its hard gums and cocked its head in readiness to serve. He needed more than stealth; he needed intelligence.

It was a fox that he chose. It is always hard to call a fox. They like to linger on the edge of things and snap up any appetizing creature that responds. This one had missed the hare Blondel had sent away, but the scent remained and it took all of Blondel‘s concentration to get his mind off dinner and onto war.

“What was that all about?” Sylvia asked when he returned.

“I sent a spy to check things out.”

“A spy?”

“A fox.”

She stared at him angrily. “Don‘t take me for a fool!”

“I wouldn‘t dare.”

“You can‘t talk to animals. No one can.”

“I can; you see, my grandmother was a fairy.”

“There are no such things.”

Blondel smiled. He had long since learned patience In dealing with rabbits, birds, humans and other less intelligent creatures. “Have it your own way. I must be a figment of your imagination.” He went out to the edge of the light again, so that the fox would not be afraid to come to him, and went to sleep.

An hour later, he came off the ground with a bound and a curse. Just like a fox to wake him by biting his earlobe! He choked back what he was thinking so as not to offend his temporary ally and leaned down, speaking strange and slow in the language of foxes. When he finally barked his thanks and looked up, Grat was looking at him with a new respect and Sylvia looked like she had just found something warm and squirmy in the toe of her boot.

“Well?” Grat wanted to know.

“I didn‘t find out much. There are nine of them now, and they have set up camp. They seem to have no intention of moving before daylight.”

“Didn‘t your friend overhear what they were saying?“

Blondel looked pained. “Foxes don‘t understand human speech. Do you have any idea how long it took me to learn foxtalk?”

“How was I to know?“ more on Monday

402. Nuclear Spacecraft

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years, and always, whether I was supposed to or not, I taught the space program.

I grew up with space travel, first in fiction, then in fact. I loved it, and the kids I taught loved it, too. How much of that rubbed off from me, I’ll never know.

By the time I started teaching, the big show was over. When Gene Cernan stepped back into his LEM in 1972, it was the high water mark of manned space exploration. It’s been downhill since.

In the classic science fiction novel I had planned to serialize, Rip Foster is heading out toward the asteroid belt on the nuclear powered spacecraft Scorpius. That’s how we all thought the future would look. That’s how the future should have looked. Chemically powered rockets are simply not sufficient for exploring the solar system.

We have have nuclear power plants for electricity, nuclear submarines, nuclear aircraft carriers, even a nuclear cargo ship. Why not nuclear spacecraft? Weight? Do you really think we couldn’t have overcome that problem? Maybe it was the danger, but . . .

Here is a quiz for you. How many nuclear submarines are lying on the bottom of the ocean, tombs for sailors and ecological time bombs for the rest of us? Two from America and six from Russia. An additional Russian nuclear sub sank twice, but was raised both times.

How many nuclear and thermonuclear bombs have gone missing? The U.S. admits to eight. How many more are hidden under the umbrella of security? Your guess is as good as mine. How many have the Soviet’s lost? You ask them, I’m keeping my head down.

Did I mention Chernobyl and Fukushima?

Let me put it another way. When the Soviets launched Sputnik and initiated the space race, then followed up with a man in orbit before we could even launch a sub-orbital flight, we did an end-around and went to the moon.

If the Soviets had launched a nuclear powered space craft, we would have launched a nuclear powered space craft. Technology would not have stopped us. Fear of radiation would not have stopped us.

That was then, this is now. The best thing for manned space exploration today – though not for American interests or world peace – would be for the Chinese to launch a nuclear powered space craft. It wouldn’t even have to be a good one. Just the threat would be enough, and in a few decades ships like the Scorpius would be filling the solar system.

Blondel 7

The guard sat up warily, beginning to trust this phantom in spite of his instincts. He said, “Then it’s two to three now; more reasonable odds.”

“No. I wish it were so, but our brave lads of the forest got reinforcements about sundown. I counted six, which tallies with the footprints around the cart.”

The guard grunted. “I didn’t take time to count them when they hit.”

“The accuracy of hindsight . . . what’s your name?”

“Grat.”

“I’m Blondel.”

“MMMMFFF!” said Sylvia.

“We’d better stop fencing or we will still be trading pleasantries when those outlaws attack. Shall we sign a nonaggression pact and untie your muddy little friend?”

“Done.”

“Then you cut her free. I’m afraid to be near her when she gets loose.”

Grat crossed over and untied Sylvia. When he pulled off the gag, she spat, “You God damned pig! You ass! You . . . you peasant!”

Blondel only grinned. “Your vocabulary is seriously underdeveloped,” he said. She sputtered into silence, but the looks she hurled across the fire cut like knives.

Grat returned to sit between his charge and Blondel. “Who are you,” he asked, “and why are you here?”

“I am Blondel, as I said. I have no title save ‘of Arden‘, and that only as a token of my wanderings. I am here because I saw you three before the outlaws attacked and afterward feared for the safety of your charge.” He turned to Sylvia and asked, “And who are you?”

She twitched her clotted skirts around her and ignored the question. Grat supplied her name and persisted, “But why did you follow us? Are you a knight errant?“

Blondel almost laughed, but the seriousness in Grat’s voice held him still. The poor fellow was hungry for him to say yes. Honesty prevented that, but he kept his face neutral when he denied it. “Sorry, Grat. But don‘t you think I’m a little small to be a knight, after all?”

“No knight would act as you did!” Sylvia snapped.

Blondel fixed her with a look of disgust. He was getting heartily tired of her attitude. “No?” he said. “Well, I am here to help, when I need not be. And since you need me infinitely more than I need you, I would counsel courtesy.” more tomorrow

Blondel 6

Night had fallen and the girl, Sylvia, was fighting sleep. The guard had already succumbed to it, and she thought, no wonder. He had been without rest for better than two days now, running wounded and helping her over trails she had never been bred to take. It infuriated and humiliated her to be so — useless — but there was no help for it. At least she would not fail at standing guard.

Her task was easy enough. They were situated on a hill top in a small stand of trees that protected them from arrow flight but left a clear view all around. The moon was full, the sky clear and there was no chance of ambush.

Those were her exact thoughts when the hand clamped her mouth and a black weight pinned her struggling body to the ground.

Swiftly, mercilessly, like a calf in the slaughter pens, she was trussed and a gag stuffed into her mouth. Then the motions stopped, the unspeakable hands were removed from her body and whoever had overcome her sat quietly athwart her rump, crushing her into the mud so that she could hardly breathe. She had shivered with her sisters at the night tales of abduction; now she was shivering again, and there was no fun in it.

The weight left her backside and moved silently toward the guard. He jerked, then lay still, but she could see his open eyes in the moonlight and feel the tension in his body. The outlaw had placed the point of his sword at her guard‘s throat. It would be all over in a moment — for him, if not for her.

Then the black figure chuckled. “I don‘t expect you to believe this, but I’m friendly.” The guard said nothing, and the black figure let the moment drag on, savoring the melodrama. Then he whipped the sword away. The guard didn‘t move and the stranger nodded appreciatively, then said, “Consider what you would have done to me if I had made a more conventional entry into your lives.” His voice was sardonic in the darkness, and Sylvia said, “Mmmf.“

The guard‘s eyes flashed to her, then back to the stranger. Otherwise he did not move. He asked, “What do you want?”

“Would you believe me if I said nothing?”

“No.”

“Nothing.”

“I don‘t believe you.”

Blondel shrugged, a useless gesture in the darkness. “Have it your own way. I brought you a bow and four arrows; it‘s all I could grab when I skewered the archer back there at the edge of the moor.”

“I wondered why they stopped shooting.”

“They only had one bow.” more tomorrow