Month: November 2014

Murphy’s Traverse

“Murphy, wake up.” The soft female voice seemed distant.




“Murphy …”

He tried to roll and found himself restrained.

“Let us disconnect those,” she said.

He cracked an eyelid. The gray, curved interior of his hibernation chamber crowded him.

Awareness returned.

“What?” he croaked.

“There is a problem,” responded the voice. It represented the collective colony-ship Caretaker Programs.

“Why did I take this job?” he muttered.

“You are the Chief Mechanic,” she said.

He groaned. That wasn’t it. He’d wanted to prove himself. But to whom? His idiot engineer stepfather? His snooty, middle-management-drone ex? “It’s a long-term commitment,” they’d both warned with identical mock concern. As if he couldn’t think for himself. As if this was just another big mistake. Well to hell with them and everyone else that made it possible to feel lonely in the midst of twenty-billion people. He didn’t need them.

Here, he had purpose. He was Chief Mechanic. On Aberdeen Ceti Four he would be needed. He could start over without the muddle of uncertainties. He knew his job. No more mistakes. No more regrets.

Murphy flexed and released his muscles. They ached, but otherwise responded well. “How long did I sleep this time?”

“19 years.”

“Seriously?” The mission was only 126 years old!

He cursed the company and its corner-cutting bean counters. Cheap bastards.

Soft pads released tender tissue and retreated into protective compartments. He punched the yellow easy-release panel. His tube hissed open.

“I envy you,” he said, stretching against post-suspension fatigue.

“Please explain.”

“You don’t tire.”

“All systems suffer entropy.”

“But you don’t feel it.”

No response.


“What broke this time?”

“Primary thruster one’s containment field is failing.”

Murphy shuffled to a console. The thruster reading was 42%.


He refreshed.

No change.

Murphy toggled to the containment readings—15%. The ship trailed a wide path of radiation.


“What caused this?”

“The south receptor failed to operate to specifications. The field collapsed.”

“So switch to backup.”

“The present unit is the backup.”

“They both failed? Show the analysis.”

The numbers suggested a materials failure—a problem that could not be repaired en route. Murphy returned to the emission display. A huge radiation cone fanned from the thruster.

“Can we increase the others to compensate?”

New calculations appeared. “Not for the entire flight,” she said.

He studied the figures. They could handle the extra load for about 240 years. “Show dispersal if thruster one operated at 100% without containment.”

The cone brightened, but the acceleration kept the ship safely ahead of it.

“That looks okay,” he said.

“It is prohibited to use a containment-free thruster at that power level.”

Murphy rolled his eyes. “Containment regulations are for in-system flight … to protect nearby populations and intersecting ship routes.” You moron.

He examined the hypothetical thruster wear. Removing containment actually increased its longevity. Not that it was enough. At mid-journey the ship would pivot to decelerate, placing the entire payload—cargo, passengers and crew—smack in the middle of that lethal cone. He couldn’t use thruster one for deceleration, but the remaining thrusters alone would wear out before the end.

He considered waking the flight engineer. But an idea struck. “What can we get from thruster one if it only has to last another 360 years?”

The screen displayed an output range with corresponding probabilities of catastrophic failure at year 360—half way. Until then thruster one could operate at 160%.

“If we choose 160% for 360 years, and the remaining thrusters are conserved proportionately to maintain standard acceleration, what is the probability the surviving thrusters could handle deceleration to target, considering the reduced wear?”

The screen changed again. He smiled.

“Perfect,” he said. “Here’s the new plan: remove one’s containment entirely, take it up to 160%, and—”

Three quick tones sequenced the standard “error” signal. “Without containment, thruster one cannot exceed 30% of its standard operating output.”

“Sure it can. The radiation spreads away from the ship.”

“Those performance specifications cannot be attained. They are outside operational parameters.”

“No, they’re not. You’re enforcing a stupid safety rule. It’s got no application here. We’re deep in untraveled interstellar space. It doesn’t matter how much crap we leave in our wake.”

“We cannot exceed established parameters.”


“Safety override requires approval of a majority of administrators.”


Murphy folded his arms as the Caretaker Programs repeated the statement like a dimwitted child. He considered his options. The Caretaker Programs would follow rules unfailingly—into the heart of a supernova if that’s where it led.

“How many administrators are there?”

“There are currently 12 administrators.”

“And a majority of them would be …”


Crap. Murphy rubbed his neck. Despite a 19-year rest he felt exhausted, and the thought of waking six crewmembers to outvote a computer amplified his fatigue.

“You said currently?” he asked. “Has it changed?”

“There were four at startup.”

He strummed his fingers on the console. “Can I add or delete administrators?”



“How many can there be for a majority of one?”

“There can only be one administrator for a single administrator to be a majority of administrators.”

He tightened his jaw. I hope the Captain doesn’t review this log.

Murphy straightened. “Fine. Delete as administrators each of the following …” He touched the screen—one name at a time—except his.

“Done,” she said.

Murphy whistled softly. He was not a praying man, but he felt the urge now. If he keeled over with a stroke, the colony would be in sorry shape. What lame-brained designer thought it was okay to risk administrator abuse, but not okay to override inapplicable safety protocols? Of course, in Murphy’s experience, engineers and management shared one trait unfailingly: an appalling lack of common sense.

“If I die,” he whispered, not praying, per se, but the closest he’d come in many long years, “bring me back.” He drew a deep breath, and then raised his voice, addressing the Caretaker Programs. “Now, override safety protocol governing thruster power without a containment field.”

“Please specify limiting parameters.”


“No limiting parameters. Override every such protocol.”


“Bring thruster one to 160%; drop its containment entirely; lower thrusters two, three and four to 68%; maintain those levels until you start halfway procedures.” He cleared his throat and spoke with deliberate care. “Now listen carefully—before you turn the ship around, turn thruster one off! You got that? And shut it down permanently. It is not to be used during deceleration. Put the deceleration load entirely on thrusters two, three and four. Do you understand?”


He regretted his condescending tone. The Caretaker Programs were not idiots. They were state-of-the-art artificial intelligence. But they took things so literally.

“Now,” he said, relaxing. “Before I hibernate again, give me status of all major systems, and make me a snack.”

Most systems were well-within spec with only minor problems on the horizon. He walked the ship and visually inspected the pumps and actuators showing signs of premature fatigue. His best guess was that at least two of them would fail in the next 100 years. Everything else looked fine.

“Okay. Don’t wake me if you don’t have to. But no matter what, make sure we get there safely.”

“Please specify limiting parameters.”

He shook his head. He had already been over this. “No. You don’t understand. Are there any living things within twelve parsecs of our location?”


“—or within 12 parsecs of any point along our path?”


“Right. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Safety protocols that do not involve the safety of this ship and its crew and passengers don’t matter. They’re dangerous and unnecessary limitations. Override all of that.”

“That would include the Von Neumann subsystems.”

“That includes every system. This ship and its mission—that’s all you need to worry about. Get us there safe and sound. At all cost. Don’t cut corners. Okay?”


“Good night.”

The Mark

The well water ran brown and grimy between my fingers. My eyes traveled to the well itself in time to catch the glowing jewels studding the well’s bricks winking out in a solid wave from the bottom up. Without the jewels, bricks toppled down the shaft and splashed in the thick water while others rolled lifelessly onto the street. Soon the water source was filled to the top with red sandstone and cracked brick, lifeless amethyst and topaz glinting in the morning sun.

I stumbled backward, my hand still coated with soiled water. People–Sorcerers–gathered around at the noise. Their shouts and talk reached my ears as a confused mess, but I caught one question: “Who was the last to use it?”

I dropped the pails and yoke, and I ran.

My mind buzzed with fines I couldn’t pay or days alone in a dark room until the Sorcerers thought I wouldn’t do it again. I would get back to the Village now, wait a little, then fetch water at another well. Nobody would know. I was too old for it, but as I ran, I pulled my shawl up over my head so that it was low over my eyebrows. Then nobody would see the Mark on my forehead, the circle shot through with two overlapping crosses. It was the glyph denoting the immortality spell, the spell only Sorcerers should have. My mother put it on me, got herself executed, and made me alone.

A strong hand grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop. My breath turned solid in my throat. It was a royal soldier, clad in a rich violet robe sewn heavy with turquoise and tiger’s eye. The cloak shimmered with unnatural light from each precious stone carved with protection and strength spells. I blinked hard. The cloak was unsettling.

“I don’t think we need any other evidence regarding who is responsible?” he said. “You were running away so fast.”

I shook my head, but I’ve never had the talent to lie. The panic rose, turned my face hot, and the words fell out. “My foster mother sent me to get water–that’s all I was doing, I swear, sir. I pulled out the pail and the water was bad and then it all fell down–”

“Why don’t you come with me? Chief Fullak has been wanting to discuss your talents.”

“Talents? But I didn’t–”

Something white and big as a horse swooped down from a nearby rooftop and knocked both of us off our feet.

Lights swam in my vision–I landed hard on my side–and silence engulfed the little square where we stood. As I blinked my streaming eyes, the Sorcerer servants who had been chatting nearby shook their heads and left. The few other Villagers, identifiable by their plain woven shawls and robes like mine, cleared out a little more anxiously.

I was alone in the square with a furious plum-faced soldier and one white, rose-eyed Embrizid.

“You’re getting too big for that, Tulkot,” I muttered to the creature as I clutched my side and lurched myself into a sitting position. “You’re no hatchling.”

The soldier struggled to his feet. His black hair escaped from the braids crowning his head, and the jeweled cloak slipped off one brown shoulder. He stuttered angrily, shooting looks alternately at Tulkot and me, as if deciding where to direct his rage.

Tulkot snarled at him. It wasn’t terribly intimidating coming from a half-grown Embrizid, but the soldier flinched anyway.

“You–you’re not supposed to associate with Embrizid. If that’s how you collapsed the well, then–”

“I didn’t!”

“Keep yourself under control,” the soldier said with a shaking voice as he backed away. “If you fiddle with another spell, there’ll be punishment for you. You’ll have a long sit in a cold room.”

He gave a curt nod, turned on his heel, and left.

“There,” said Tulkot. “With me here, they’ll fear you and your talents.”

I snorted. “It’s just awful luck, nothing more. You didn’t help.”

I brushed off my knees and started back toward the Village. Tulkot pranced beside me, chattering about Sorcerer gossip in his gravelly Embrizid voice. His white coloring was rare and handsome, and he would be grand when he grew out of his gawkiness. Like all Embrizid, he was a four-legged, winged creature, coated thick with feathers. His face was elongated and framed with a fanned, grandiose mane. Large erect ears poked from his crown of feathers, and a long tail trailed behind him. His five-fingered feet were reminiscent of human hands, save for the long, sharp claws extending from each digit.

“–hunters killing us off in the desert–”

I frowned. “Wait–what did you say?”

Tulkot shook his mane in irritation. “Sar said hunters are killing some of the Embrizid. That’s why things collapse. The spells break. A couple other bits of wall and statues came down a week ago.”

Sar was king of the Embrizid. He consulted with our own Chief Fullak and organized the Embrizid’s work with human Sorcerers in the Upper district. Embrizid provided the Sorcerers with the magic to perform spells.

“What hunters?” I asked. “Only Gearda can survive in the desert, and that’s with the heaps of spells over Minunaga to keep the desert out.”

“No one’s seen them, but Embrizid go out to hunt, and they don’t come back. Embrizid don’t die all too often, so we notice. And anyways, people are smart… maybe some from the west brought enough water and food. They could live in the desert.”

“Sure,” I said.

“I think Sar’s right.”

“Then why doesn’t anyone tell Fullak? Fullak would know what to do about hunters. I don’t want to keep getting blamed.”

“He doesn’t believe Sar,” said Tulkot, and he tossed his head.

He looked to the sun which was high over the horizon by now.

“I have to go–I have to study with the Sorcerer students today.”

“Go on,” I said. “I’ll find you later.”

Tulkot displayed his sharp teeth in a silent Embrizid laugh. “I always find you first.”

He pranced off in the opposite direction and took to the sky. As I watched, I felt a pang of jealousy for the student who got to work with him.

Villagers had to be careful about being seen with an Embrizid too much. If an Embrizid wanted to talk to you, that was fine, but Villagers never sought them out on their own, at least not in the open.

The Knack Bomb

When the bomb hit, I was almost inside the ladies’ clothing store where I work. If I hadn’t paused to check out a cute bicycle courier I would have been safe. The bomb detonated silently, coating the street with a brief yellow burst like the mother of all paintball hits. As far as I could see, everything and everybody bloomed yellow, the cars, the houses, the early shoppers. In the next eye blink, the yellow became patchy, and the passers-by, still frozen from shock, wore it like partially melted slickers. The last of the yellow goo evaporated and I was left standing in the doorway with the strangest tingling in my right hand, from the elbow down. The only sound was the scooter accelerating in the direction of the Rijksmuseum. The messenger’s helmet was as yellow as the goo had been.

A knack bomb hit. I’d never been this close before. I’d been two blocks over from the balloon lady who made a mess of last King’s day, filling the whole of Dam Square with orange balloons in the shape of the king’s head and apparently scaring people a lot. It might seem like a fun knack to have, but she had ended up in Detox Camp. What would I get?

It looked normal. My hand. But what I knew about other knack bombs warned me that anything might happen. I closed the door with my left hand, holding the tainted one aloft like it had touched something nasty. I shouldered through to the bathroom, rinsing the evil hand twice and rubbing it dry until it turned red. One eye on the clock – only 10 minutes until the arrival of the Alpha Bitch.

Alpha Bitch, Angelique Roussignon, was the owner of the shop. She loved dressing me in purple satin party dresses to entice the customers. She says. She knows I like minimalist styles and plain dark colors, and I say she just likes torturing me. I don’t call slapping sequins, tassels, lace and embroidery on synthetic taffeta designing, but knowing better won’t pay my bills, so I eat crow and do her bidding.
The shop door ding-donged. Angelique. She wore canary yellow fake Chanel. She sailed through to the back with a garment bag over her arm.

“Look Inge, darling, especially for you, from my Christmas line.” She whipped out something red and sparkly and boned; with white fake fur trim everywhere trim was remotely possible.

I forced down the bad hand, which I was still holding up as if it was contaminated. I kept sneaking peeks at it, but it looked normal. Maybe the knack bomb had been a hallucination. Nothing might have happened, except too much to drink last night and one too many stiff espressos on the way here. Could be.

I didn’t know how to check if I actually had a strange new knack. I wanted time for myself so I could experiment and freak out in peace. I could have slipped off to the bathroom again, but knack couldn’t be washed off anyway. The only thing I could do now was put the freaking-out off until six o’clock.

Angelique tapped her shoe, her red lacquered claws carefully held away from the satin fabric. She never snagged it, I have to say. I didn’t like being touched by her slippery, over-moisturized hands, but I sighed and slipped out of my black sheath, into the red monstrosity. Angelique zipped me up, one hand on my shoulder.

The fabric seemed to tighten around me. I gasped for breath. Black dots danced before my eyes, like when you’ve stood up too fast.

Angelique looked at me oddly.

“What?” I said.

She gestured along my body. “I think this is my best work to date,” she said, awe in her voice. “Incredible. You look – fabulous. Here.” She stepped aside to let me look at myself in the mirrored shop wall.

Wow. I did look fabulous. I looked down at the dress. Still synthetic satin, still overdesigned and overdecorated. But my mirror image showed someone utterly magic and fabulous, like one of these pre-war actresses seen through Vaselined lenses. A glow hung around me and my suddenly hourglass shaped figure. A magic dress.

A knack dress! My eyes flicked to mirror Angelique, staring rapt at her own creation. She didn’t look that different, except maybe a little fuzzy around the edges. She gave me a blood red lipstick to match the dress.

“Get some shoes, will you? I think the red sequin Jimmy Choos.”

The fuzziness of her outline sharpened a bit. Hm.

I looked back at myself. Definitely not me. Still hourglassed and fabulous, though. A slow suspicion trickled through me. Angelique had come in only minutes after me. Maybe she had been caught in the knack bomb. And her newfangled knack was glamouring her own ugly dresses into fabulous creations. When I looked at them, my critical faculties just shut up. I tried thinking about the dress with my eyes closed, and managed to muster something like, derivative. Under normal circumstances I could have written a thousand words why every fashion designer and consumer ought to hate the dress.

I tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t. The dress held my waist and ribs in their unnatural wasp shape. I felt a great desire to rinse my mouth, but the tingle of the shop bell warned me about an early customer.

I turned to walk towards her, and caught a glimpse of grace and elegance in the mirror I’d never possessed before. Sheesh. The fake satin draped like silk.. Old Hollywood meets Valentino. It would have looked right on Queen Máxima.

I waited all day for sirens and policemen in white hazmat suits to show up, but nothing happened. Had none of the good citizens reported the bomb? Maybe the Knack Bombardiers had more popular support than the papers suggested.


Mark’s next door neighbour and business partner Pat kept telling him that power flowed through his veins. He took a breath and closed his eyes, trying to will the power back out again and into the ash wand in his outstretched hand. He pointed it at Pat’s door. A narrow beam of blue light squeezed out of the end and hit the lock. Nothing happened. Sighing, he folded the wand and put it in his pocket. He took out his key and let himself into her house.

He heard her moving around in the kitchen, back from sorting out the invasion of reptilian arsonists in a garden in Llandudno the day before, while he had expelled a banshee from a pub in Macclesfield. This morning’s job was to sort out an elderly-care home with a spirit infestation. Mark opened the kitchen door.

Pat coughed, wafting her hand at a cloud of green fumes. “Damn, they’re still moving,” she said.

Mark peered through the smoke. Two dragons, one red, one green, as iridescent as hummingbirds, each about an inch long, stood in the palm of her hand hissing at each other.

“They might be tiny but they’d incinerated every plant in that,” Pat said. One dragon snorted, and shot a tiny flare the size of a match flame towards the other. “Help me separate them.” She pushed her hand towards Mark.

He picked up the green one with his forefinger and thumb. “I’ll put them in the safe.”

“No room, there’s a backlog of entities stuck in there, waiting for me to get the chance to dispose of them.”

“Get the dragons to set each other alight and burn each other up.”

“That won’t work,” she said. “An entity can’t destroy another entity. If they could we’d be out of a job. I was trying to find a way round the space problem using this new incantation I picked up online. Instead of you having to exorcise them and put them in containment, it renders them immobile and you can leave them anywhere.”

“Wouldn’t it get a little cluttered after a while?”

“No, apparently they fade away gradually over a few hours. At least, that’s what it said on the website.”

“Seems like more trouble than it’s worth.”

Pat moved her hand away as her dragon flamed at the one Mark held. She shook her head. “I think it should make things easier. Exorcising a recalcitrant entity the usual way can be exhausting. It causes something like a bad hangover, without any of the pleasure of the night before.”

“I’ve felt that. Bit like 24 hour flu?”

Pat nodded. “Consider it an occupational hazard. But this new method doesn’t seem to work, the dragons are still moving about. Good job I tested it on something small.”

Mark looked at Pat’s notebook open on the table, the dragon still held between two fingers. “You should have printed the thing out instead of copying it. This looks like an inky spider’s crawled over the page.” He held the green dragon at arm’s length and read the incantation. This time, red smoke billowed. As it cleared, he saw the red dragon motionless on Pat’s palm. She picked it up by a wing.

“I can’t read my own writing,” she said. “Well done.” She put the dragon on a shelf next to a pile of recipe books. “You stay there, Boyo. We’ve got work to do.” Mark put the green one next to it. They stood, as immobile as toys. Pat picked up her car keys. They got into the car, she slipped her stiletto heels off and they drove away.