Unfinished Stories (1980s)

by Roderick T. Long

The Station
One and One

The Station

[I can’t recall where this was supposed to be heading. Actually, I’m not even sure it’s unfinished.]

The station where Tom was sent to wait had a wooden board roof which rattled and shook as the rain fell on it, and Tom thought it was just like being in the rain anyway, you didn’t get as wet but you felt wet. He held his suitcase against him as if it would blow away. The glistening-wet tracks stretched away from the station and then seemed to stop somewhere in the cloud of water. Weeds by the track bent down under the fury of the storm. Tom could not make the eventual coming of the train real to him; the horrible wet endlessness of the rain seemed permanent, and he thought he would stand there forever. The coming of the train would mean the end of the rain for Tom, the end of long hours of weakening wet. But there was nowhere for the train to come from; all around was rain, it could only come from the rain, and how could the driness come from the rain, where there was only rain?


[This looks as though it was intended to be simultaneously a Randian-style parody of a certain type of secondhander and a post-Randian parody of a certain type of Randian.]

Istvan Krael stopped dyeing his hair grey when he realised it was no longer necessary. He had originally started the practice in response to a charge that his hair was really grey (it wasn’t) but that he dyed it russet brown (he didn’t). It was a passion with Krael never to allow his integrity to appear less than it was. Now, twenty years later, he washed out the last specks of dye and saw that age had greyed his hair permanently. Standing before the mirror, he did not allow himself to regret the twenty years of crushed vanity; necessity had required harder things of him than this. He had made it his life’s principle never to withhold even the most precious sacrifice from the exacting standards of his integrity.

Most people, hearing his name for the first time, had idly wondered what his real name was; for in Hollywood, names are as often concealed as flesh is revealed – and generally with the same prudery. But once they saw him, they saw, with the same precise clarity they used in grasping a geometrical theorem, that his name could not be other than Istvan Krael, that no other name had ever been attached to him. Onscreen or off, the image Krael presented was the same: a face hewn as if from granite, a figure as unyielding as an iron bar, eyes as cold and clear as a mountain stream. His name had actually been Stephen Carroll, but he had rejected it in favour of one which more accurately epitomized the individuality of character he represented.

One and One

[I first had the idea for this story around 1980 (thus age 16), and started it several times, but never finished. I believe this is the longest and latest of the various versions; it dates from some time in the 80s (when in the 80s I don’t remember, but the style feels late 80s rather than early 80s to me – so Ithaca rather than Cambridge). I’ll post the earlier versions, and the notes for continuation, if I find them.]

“We are the six most respected people in the galaxy, chosen in a general democratic referendum by the citizens of the Confederation. To us has therefore fallen the greatest responsibility.”

General Gerhard paused, sternly surveying the circle of faces I had long seen but only briefly met. The faces were solemn; but save, perhaps, mine, confident.

“It is not a light choice that confronts us here today,” Gerhard continued, tapping the table with her pen to emphasise her words. “Let me remind you of the consequences of the choice of our predecessor.” At the centre of the table, a trivid sparked to life with the fierce, mustachioed face of Russell Shaw, and we heard once more the summary of the millennium-old events which for the last several years had been uppermost in the minds of so many.

A thousand years ago, Russell Shaw had been the greatest of the grand old entrepreneurs of the Expansion. Chugging starward with painful slowness in search of mineable asteroid fields and energy-rich gas giants, Shaw’s primitive sublight freighter had made the discovery which would transform the destiny of the species and the galaxy. Awakened from hibernation by the ship’s Anomaly Detection System, men and women who expected to see the satellites of Vega instead gazed out upon a broad plane of sparkling white set like a jewel against the empty black, beneath the pale fire of an unknown sun.

The Artifact. A mile-wide lattice of organic crystal, slashed across with elongated, ethereal hieroglyphs. Origin, age, purpose – unknown. Even before examination, one fact was clear: the thing was not of human origin. Someone else was out there; or had been.

All efforts to transport the immense structure failed; though of negligible mass by the testimony of Shaw’s instruments, the Artifact placidly resisted the moonblasting force of his vessel’s positron engines, remaining so fixed in place that it seemed almost as if Shaw had set his will against a local property of space rather than a physical object.

After two weeks of tugging at the unbudging Artifact, searching for a marketable energy source within it, and attempting to decipher the hieroglyphs – all such endeavours proving fruitless – Shaw and his crew experienced one of the fortuitous coincidences which mar the simplicity of historical determinism. A cluster of crystals crowning the Artifact’s central cavity split open without preamble, and a telepathic message was communicated to the men nearest the crevice: I am the S’oht-j Oracle, repository of all knowledge and truth. One question is answered each thousand years. In this hour the cycle has waxed to completeness once more. State your question.

Russell Shaw, with a practicality I admired but could not emulate, had replied unhesitatingly, “Tell me how to travel faster than light.” Instantly a steady stream of mental instructions began to issue from the S’oht-j Oracle; Shaw hastily repeated the revelations into a mnemopad. After forty-five minutes, the Oracle’s mental voice fell silent, and the parted crystals snapped shut.

The S’oht-j transcript was not a theoretical exposition, but a list of directions which would baffle generations of physicists to come. The principle behind the seemingly aimless sequence of constructive activity enjoined by the Oracle was never comprehended; the prescribed aggregate of equipment and energy should properly do nothing at all when fused together. But after the introduction of the Shaw stardrive, uncomprehending mankind was shuttled from solar system to solar system within days.

The Shaw stardrive accelerated the Expansion into the Explosion. The human race spread across the galaxy at a geometric rate, until at last its waves rushed against the galaxy’s outer shores and were turned back; the intergalactic void was too vast an expanse for even the swiftest Shaw clipper to bridge. The outward thrust receded, followed by an age of consolidation and further intragalactic exploration, colonisation, development. The youthful exuberance of the Expansion and the Explosion gave way to the malaise, pessimism, and uneasiness of the Galactic Confederation: malaise, because man’s sense of self-worth could not withstand the nagging, shaming knowledge that his greatest achievement was the incomprehensible product of an alien culture; pessimism, because even armed with that unearned gift, man was barred from the galaxies; and uneasiness, because the unpleasant realisation was dawning that man had not been the only beneficiary of the Shaw stardrive.

The trivid flickered and went dark. The latest thousand-year cycle was nearing its end; and now, in this age of great accomplishment, great danger, and great self-doubt, it was time to ask the Oracle another question.

“Before we begin our deliberations,” General Gerhard was saying, “consider the effects of your choice on the future of your species. If any one among you feels inadequate to the burden of this task, let that one abdicate now.”

This was a mere formality, like the injunction given to juries by acting prætors. Nevertheless, the eyes of the others politely avoided mine. They were scholars and leader; I was an actress. It was only by presumption – mine, or my public’s – that I sat at this conference table twenty kilometres beneath the desolate surface of the fortress world of Avreelar. I was not equal to such a choice as this; and that knowledge weighed down upon me like the tons of barren rock above our heads.

What had been in the thoughts of a voting populace which picked five of the most incisive minds in the galaxy – and then threw me in? In God’s name, what criteria had they been using? I looked around at the luminaries with whom, on equal terms, I was expected to decide, perhaps, the fate of the galaxy. I catalogued their essential characteristics in my mind, as I did when reviewing the dramatis personæ of a play.

General Albraida Gerhard. A sharp woman of edges and angles, graying hair cropped short with martial severity. In the present Military Emergency, she had won loyalty and respect for a steady stream of decisive of flamboyant victories – both against enemy forces, and against the often wavering determination of the Confederation’s own political administration.

Dr. Manuel. If he had ever had a first name, nobody knew it. The archæologist looked like the rough-hewn artifacts he studied: massive, sun-browned, with tough skin, craggy features, and very blue eyes. A soft-spoken giant, beloved of children, he spent an inherited fortune poring through the junkyards of the galaxy, rekindling the frozen passions of history from a handful of metal scraps and twisted plastic.

Siva Ar Ek. “Birdlike” was the adjective which invariably attached itself to the physicist who had mapped the shifting currents and intricate paths of energy within the nucleus of the dineutrino. She had bright, hard eyes, a small face, tightly-coiled jet-black hair, and an impatient contempt for all aspects of experience which could not be expressed in field equations. She had, to my knowledge, no social life, no artistic preferences, and no emotions save an impersonal glee at the conformity of prediction and measurement.

Reverend Inaï Subiro. A short, gentle man, devout but not ascetic, with loosely-combed reddish hair and a quiet bravery which carried him onto battlefields. He was “in the Confederation but not of it”; his placid demeanour covered a stubborn, unflagging hostility toward the modern world. His opponents in debate dreaded the dry, flat voice, calm with reason but tinged with malice, that dissected arguments like a scalpel. Subiro’s life of simplicity was ordered toward the redeeming fire to come; he bored half his trivid congregation and pricked the conscience of the rest.

Halsam Kodei. A thatch of white hair, like a hastily-tiled roof, topped the head of the age’s leading philosopher. Wide, surprised eyes beneath heavy white eyebrows mirrored a skeptical mouth beneath a heavy white moustache. With a thundering voice belying his frail stature, the savant frequently lectured mankind at large on it shortcomings, venturing wry comments and authoritative judgments on everything under the suns.

And finally, me. Yelena Barin.

[And that’s all she wrote. Though I remember in fairly precise detail the rest of the story, as well as the various other planned-but-unwritten Confederation stories connected with it. Maybe I’ll return to it in my retirement ....

Addendum: I found some notes for continuation:

I never finished this, but it was one of a projected series of stories set in a future where the human race was at war with insectoid order freaks called the Grlik. There’s a mysterious alien artefact called the S’oht-j Oracle that opens once every thousand years to answer one question. A thousand years ago the first human to find it asked how to achieve faster-than-light travel, and since then everyone has been zipping around the galaxy in ships of a design no one really understands. Now it’s time to decide what the new question should be, and a democratically elected panel of the galaxy’s most respected celebrities assembles to pick the question. The military hero wants to ask how to defeat the Grlik. The scientist wants some science questions answered. The televangelist wants to ask whether God exists (he’s sure the answer is yes, but he wants to convince eveyone else). And so on. The viewpoint character, Yelena Barin (a popular movie actress – this is a democratically elected group, remember) isn’t sure what to ask. But the philosopher, Halsam Kodei, convinces everyone that the question to ask is “What does 1 + 1 equal?” After all, the Oracle clearly knows vastly more than we do, and we should find out whether we’re wrong in our very most basic assumptions. Yelena is chosen to be the one to convey this question to the Oracle. Her guards have to fend off various groups that want to get in and ask a different question. And the military hero is meanwhile leading a coup in protest at their not asking how to defeat the Grlik. The military hero’s forces would succeed in stopping Yelena if they weren’t attacked in turn by the other groups. Yelena makes it to the oracle, only in order to confront a Grlik who has gotten there first. The Grlik government decided it wasn’t worth while trying to ask the Oracle anything, because the Grlik already know everything worth knowing. But this individual Grlik is a bit of a heretic and wants to ask the Oracle the meaning of life. But Yelena convinces it that she has a more important question, so it decides to defer to her. The Oracle opens. Staring into it, Yelena desperately wants to ask a question about it, but she knows it is her duty to ask the question chosen by the committee. So she asks “What does 1 + 1 equal?” The Oracle replies “2” and then closes for another thousand years. (I toyed with having Kodei be an insidious alien rather than a bad philosopher.)

Another of the many planned stories set in the Grlik universe was “Trevaj.”. Once there were these really efficent robots that were sent to hunt down criminals. Once they were programmed with a target, nothing could stop them. (“Trevaj” = “Javert” backwards.) This was a good system once, but now that humans are fighting the Grlik there’s concern that the Grlik might get hold of these robots and modify them for use against humans. So they need to recall them all. Problem is, those who are still out hunting their targets refuse to be recalled, so they need to send other Trevaj robots to hunt down the first ones.

The novel Jarael’s World, planned but never written, also took place in the Grlik universe, though it didn’t involve Grlik. It was about a world built around a black hole as an energy source. (I’d read some science article about how this could be done.) The heroine is a sort of priestess/warrior/politician whose ship gets dropped by her enemies into the black hole. But she knows she’ll survive; though only minutes are going by for her, many years are going by in regular space, and she knows she’ll get rescued long before she gets near the event horizon. Sure enough, she does get rescued, about 80 years after she fell in. So now she has to deal with the changed new world, with one of her enemies who is still alive (sustained by the power of a curse – there's both magic and science in this story – also, he’s mad at her order because his infant daughter was taken away from him without his consent to be raised as a priestess, and of course Jarael is his daughter but neither he nor she knows that), and above all with the fact that she has to deal with two offworld emissaries – one an emissary of the galactic government that wants to conscript her people to help fight off the Grlik, and the other an emissary of a libertarian outfit that will help her fend off the first group but only if she helps transform her society in libertarian ways that from her perspective would destroy her whole culture.]


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