Strange Fellows (short story collection)
A Matter of Life and Death (short story collection)
NEW! A preview of the short story “Out of Time”!
The moment had come. Phrepth tugged absentmindedly at the yellow lapels, drew breath, and spoke.
The ensign’s appendages moved swiftly over the control panel. Coordinates were set; vital systems triple-checked.
At the viewscreen, the orbital station disappeared abruptly along with the hangar, the massed troops, the crowd of spectators, dignitaries and serflings. In the background where the home planet had loomed, sparkling with seas and cities, there remained only emptiness. The sun was gone. The Nach was elsewhere; it was nowhere, and somewhere. Two light-months from the station, the Nach appeared in an otherwise empty expanse of space- but not quite empty. A gigantic field of asteroids gleamed faintly all around the ship, and alarm klaxons were sounding.
“Battle stations!” Yellow-uniformed crew sprang into action as Phrepth shrilled the order. “Magnetic deflectors full power! Status report! Vent main reactor,” began the captain frantically, then remembering the technological prowess of the Nach‘s artificial intelligence, squeaked “Emergency Protocol!” and collapsed into its padded chair with a rasping sigh of relief as the computer took over.
At Phrepth’s command, a tonic beverage emerged from a conveniently placed aperture in the command chair. After two nervous sips, Phrepth ordered a printed report; flicking an appendage, it snatched the plastic film from the printer and began to read, muttering to itself: “Distress broadcast detected; coordinates altered. Protocol 8397263-R. Object encountered; evasive maneuver impossible; impact registered. Alarm activated. Hull intact; life support systems functional. Thank Destiny. Communications systems functional. Gravity drive functional. Gnizzht be praised. Warp drive disabled. Curses. Deprecations and curses. And maledictions.
“Warp drive disabled. Distress beacon functional; ready for deployment at captain’s order.”
The ensign approached Phrepth’s chair and snapped a brave salute, antennae twitching. “This one informs the captain that the distress beacon is functional and ready to activate upon your command!” Phrepth waved at it impatiently. “Do not activate the distress beacon. Your captain must consider our situation before taking action.
“Consult the timekeeping device!” The ensign performed the required task and relayed the exact time to its commander, who listened without expression or movement. Getting no response, it attempted to assess the mental state of Captain Phrepth. The Captain sat in silent introspection. After a few moments, the ensign spoke. “Captain…”
Phrepth whistled, an outburst of sarcastic frustration. “Do you not see?”
The ensign did not.
“That time is three minutes before the departure of the Nach.”
“But Captain -”
“It is incontrovertible. I have here the transcribed record of the launching ceremony. Verify the time, if you wish.”
“But Captain -”
“It is as this one feared. One may not contradict the Honored Fleet Commander; would that it had been permissible! This one was not chosen as Captain of the Nach for no good reason!” Phrepth, agitated, thrashed its whiskers furiously. “This one was top of its class in Knimphic physics! As velocity approaches the speed of light, time is slowed within the specific frame of reference. It may be surmised that, as velocity surpasses lightspeed, relative time will stop and, with increasing speed, even reverse.
“This paradox is distasteful to the academics. Unfortunately, it has now been proved to be possible; moreover, true. We are about to send the distress signal that brought us here.”
The ensign struggled to understand. “Does the captain suggest that the Nach followed its own signal? But how -”
“The Nach departed at a velocity greater than lightspeed. It crashed into a small asteroid – before it had yet left the spaceport! Time for the Nach was reversed while its velocity remained superluminal. Upon impact, the distress beacon was activated; all this, mind you, before the Nach had yet left the spaceport. When the Nach left the spaceport, then, its path through spacetime intersected that of the distress signal! Examine the broadcast coding; it is identical to that of the Nach!”
The ensign slumped to the deck, overcome by the mental exertion of Knimphic physics. It had graduated near the bottom of its class.
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A preview of the short story “A Good Friday: From the Diary of Pontius Pilate”:
…Sooner than I expected, there was commotion from the corridor. The centurion, trotting to stay ahead of Caiaphas, appeared flustered; the high priest must have grown impatient and entered without waiting for my invitation. He came through the doorway with barely decorous hesitation; half the Sanhedrin was with him, all babbling at once, as well as a platoon of my legionaries escorting a prisoner. I lost the expression I had been composing. This was most unexpected. Caiaphas turned half around and silenced his colleagues with a glare; they stood bunched together puffing and staring, self-righteous outrage displayed on every face as if they were actors in a Greek comedy. My soldiers stood to attention. The man they had with them looked common enough, a Hebrew in a worn robe and tunic, long hair and full beard like they all wear it. Quite ordinary; but as I looked at his face I saw that he was staring straight at me. Not like a zealot, defiantly, nor stupid like a drunkard or rabid as a madman. He was a plebeian Hebrew, sunburned and weathered, a hard-handed working man…but his gaze was calm and penetrating. It reminded me of someone, I did not recall whom.
Caiaphas coughed politely. I ceased my inspection of the prisoner and turned to the high priest.
“Welcome, my friend,” I said, without rising from my couch. From the look of things, I knew by now he would not be joining me for the morning meal; yet leverage is leverage. “Come, make yourself comfortable,” I said to him. “Will you break your fast with me?” I ate a piece of dried fruit then, a tiny insolence he would not fail to notice but which less than balanced his intrusion.
“Ave,” he said in Latin – drily? Caiaphas’ exact mood was hard to judge. He was either enraged, or exultant, or both. I had never seen him in such a state. His composure was thin as a single layer of varnish, likely to crack and fall away at any moment. He continued in Latin – the formality may have been to help him maintain his emotional control, or to display superiority towards his colleagues (most of whom were fluent enough in Greek but not in Latin), or to intimidate the prisoner, or to put me off guard. My Greek is excellent, and I am also fluent in Aramaic, as he knows well. “The subjects of Rome demand Roman justice. This man is a dangerous criminal, a rebel, an enemy of Rome and a friend of zealots. He must be executed at once!”
I did not speak, but looked again at the man my soldiers held. He was still looking straight at me, as if he had not shifted his eyes the entire time. Most criminals they bring me will not look up at all, but stand with heads hung low, staring at their feet; some fall to the ground in terror, or to their knees in supplication. All have seen Roman justice carried out, and the only ones who look me in the face are those maddened by wine or religion, or ridden by cacodemons. This man was not like any of them. The feeling that I had seen that look before would not leave me.
At that moment my wife Claudia came in. She did not acknowledge Caiaphas at all, but walked directly to the couch where I lay, knelt at my side, and whispered in my ear.
“Pontius, my darling,” she said, “send him away.”
I started to tell her this was no time for dalliance, but then I realized by the strange, urgent tone of her voice that she did not mean Caiaphas. Again my eyes were drawn to the prisoner. He looked at me as calmly as ever.
Claudia’s voice came again in a whisper; there was fear in it. “Have nothing to do with this man,” she said. “Send him away. I dreamed of him last night, and of you – he frightens me. I fear for you, Pontius!”
I wanted her to tell me more, but she rose quickly and walked away. I glanced at Caiaphas – he was about to lose his temper. How many criminals have I sentenced at Caiaphas’ behest? To the galleys, to the whipping-post, to the circus, to the cross. Hundreds. Rarely do I question their guilt. Accused men are always guilty, if not of that crime for which they are accused, then for some other. It is needful that the law should hold terror for the public. To make an example, often, of some criminal (whether directly responsible for the offense or not matters little) is…expedient. If Caiaphas wants this man, why should I not deliver Roman justice?
Yet Claudia’s words – more, the fear in her voice – had set a doubt within me. My Claudia is gifted with second sight: I have learned in the years of our marriage to ignore her dreams at my own peril. She has been the best of wives, neither dull-witted nor overly fanciful, but dutiful and sober as a Roman woman should be, and wise in counsel moreover. What did she fear in this man? He did not seem violent.
“You there,” I said to the prisoner in Aramaic. “What is your name?”
He did not answer. Where had I seen that look?
“Will you not speak? Do you not know that I am the only one who can pass judgment upon you, whether merciful or severe? Have you no fear of Roman law?” Deliberately, I allowed a mocking tone to color my voice. “Are your wits addled? Perhaps you are stricken by fear of the cross?”
I looked into his eyes to detect the fear I hoped to place there. Instead I saw sorrow…pity. That frightened me…
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