I love cliffhangers. You know… those stories that end with chapters where the hero and heroine are up to their necks in danger. When I was little, one of my relatives let me listen to some tapes of old radio shows that used to use this format. They would end with “Will our hero escape the clutches of the villain? Stay tuned for the next episode of…” and I can imagine lots of young fans back in the ’40s and ’50s shaking their heads and wanting to know: what comes next?
We don’t experience this type of serial storytelling much these days. Sure, movies may end with a teaser for the next movie, and many authors of novels pick their endings to build tension for the next novel. But it’s rare to find a book where each chapter leaves you wondering… what comes next?
My good friend and fellow GeekDad writer Erik Wecks and I have been discussing this idea for some time now. Erik has created a universe he calls Pax Imperium, and inside it are a number of short stories and novels that he’s written over the years. They’re excellent, and I’m not just saying that because he’s a friend. His latest, The Far Banks of the Rubicon, had me smiling for weeks after I finished it. Erik’s a great storyteller. So when I challenged him to create a Pax Imperium story in the format of the old serial stories, complete with cliffhanger endings, he took up that challenge and has delivered the first of ten episodes that when put together will become a new novella titled Gravlander. What is Gravlander? I have no idea. I’m in the dark on this new story as much as you are. It’s kinda fun, isn’t it, not knowing what’s ahead?
One other fun little bit about this project is that you’re really reading Erik’s “beta” story. Why not a polished final story? Well, Erik will be writing this as we go, and he’ll be looking for some feedback from readers like you. Erik’s got thick skin, so tell him what you like… and what you don’t like. Offer some suggestions if you like. While Erik knows where the story starts and ends, we will all be getting a glimpse into how a story develops, chapter by chapter (or in this case, episode by episode). When it’s done, Erik intends to self-publish the final story as a novella, and all edits and revisions will be in there — based on feedback and Erik’s decisions as the author, what we read over the next few months will most likely NOT resemble the final story.
Each week, I’ll introduce the new episode and include the story. But I’ll also be putting in some other stuff… an interview here and there with Erik, and maybe some short discussions of his other stories. There will also be a contest or two, and even a small Kickstarter for a cover. It’s going to be fun.
One last item before moving into Episode 1 — Erik is offering up a free e-book to anyone who visits his website and signs up for his newsletter. Those who sign up during the ten weeks of the serial will also be eligible for a random drawing to win one of fifteen Audible copies of The Far Banks of the Rubicon. If you’re interested, point a web browser at www.erikwecks.com to sign up. Look for the link that says “Get a Free Story.” But that can really wait… because here’s your first installment of Gravlander, titled “The Crucible.” Enjoy.
Episode 1: The Crucible
Jo Lutnear stared out at the vastness of the starlit void. Six years. We’ve been here, on the run, for six years.
There was a depth to the void in the Crucible, a depth not found in the deep dark of elsewhere. In the Crucible, stars lay so close together that the apparent distances between them became almost conceivable. At their current position near the center of the cluster, eight hundred and sixty-seven stars lay within a parsec of the fleet. There were just over forty-five thousand stars in total in the whole of the cluster.
However, such proximity came at a price. It created a kind of stellar insanity, a continuous dance of hot plasma and radiation. One discontented star could erupt and send shivers through the whole.
Here in the light and fury, life had no chance to develop on its own. Planets lasted at best a mere few million years. Life in the Crucible was an alien import, ephemeral and tenuous.
The danger of such lingering weighed heavy on Jo’s mind. Six years ago, the House of Athena and its allies lost a war. Six years ago, the Ghost Fleet went on the run, hiding in the godforsaken corners of the empire, outmaneuvering the Unity fleets sent to stop it. One point two million people fleeing across space. One point two million people packed too close together on warships that seemed to get progressively smaller with each passing day.
One wrong move, one ill-chosen word and all of this will end, either from outside or in. Jo thought the violent heart of a star cluster to be an apt hideout for the vulnerable fleet.
The twenty-year-old turned away from the window. It was time. She wrapped a towel around her now naked body and stepped through the door at the far end of her compartment into one of the women’s lavatories and showers on the hospital ship Gallant.
“Well, look who’s here! If it isn’t Prissy.”
“Hey, Prissy, did you leave your breasts in your bunk?”
Jo’s heart rate increased. She tried to stay calm, to look calm, but the pace of her walk involuntarily increased. She thought there was an empty shower a little down on the right. She ignored the taunts of her shipmates. Why do they bother me? What did I do wrong? I never did anything to them. By the time she got to the empty shower stall, she was already shaking. Hanging her towel over the hook nearby, she stepped in.
Jo pushed the button on the shower, releasing exactly thirty seconds of precious hot water. She expertly contorted her body, teasing the pitiful stream of tiny droplets into a thin coating of moisture. The exhilarating dampness stopped with a loud thunk as the wetting part of her shower found its inglorious end.
She had just bent over to lather up her legs before beginning her rinse when the shower curtain violently left its hooks and wrapped itself around her. She tried to fight back, but by the time she realized what was happening, it was already too late. Someone much larger and stronger held her from behind.
Jo thrashed, trying to escape. She tried to scream, but as soon as she did a hand was clamped over her mouth. The more she struggled, the tighter the grip around her ribs became. Soon she feared they might pop. When she couldn’t breath any longer, she quit struggling.
“Guess what we got ourselves here, ladies. It’s a pig in a blanket.”
Hoots of laughter followed this pronouncement.
Someone grabbed Jo’s feet, hauling her into the air. The arms around her chest and mouth clamped down again.
Tears flowed, silently carrying the screams to which she could not give voice.
Her tormentors laid her down on the ground. It was then that she heard the bonding gun. Over and over she was rolled across the central floor of the women’s lav, while bonding tape was wound round her, placing her in a virtual cocoon. During the whole thing, she cried like a baby, while those she couldn’t see giggled in delight.
When all was said and done, Jo was dumped naked, encased in tape, in a janitor’s closet.
Amanda let her bare toes play in the black soil of the grow room. Josephine stood beside her, unwilling to take off her boots. She couldn’t imagine what it had cost Amanda to get them a pass into the brightly lit space where they now stood. After six years, a certain kind of real estate market had developed on the fleet. In the cramped spaces of the Athenian warships, downtime passes into quiet spaces came at a high price. Then there was the shuttle ride itself. Jo didn’t want to think about all that this little trip had cost her best and only true friend. She and Amanda mingled with thirty or so other members of the Ghost Fleet, all of whom had spent considerable resources to gather in the oxygenated air and mechanical sunshine of one of the fleet’s grow rooms. Jo would have loved to put her feet in the dirt like her friend but she already felt too vulnerable and the idea of taking off her boots made her nervous. Besides, she said to herself, some of the maintenance in here looks really bad. The last thing I need is to get hurt right now and end up in a hospital bed on my own ship.
“Jo, you show them up.”
Jo crossed her arms. “That’s not fair, Amanda! I’m just doing my job.”
“It may not be fair, Jo, but it’s the truth. Here you are, a twenty-year-old upstart, who’s only been nursing for two years, and you keep showing up those who’ve been doing it since before the war began.”
“That’s not my fault. What am I supposed to do? Quit doing my best?”
Amanda sat on the grate, leaning back on her elbows, while her feet played in the dirt in front of her. Amanda shrugged. “I guess that would be one solution. The other is to just understand the tension you bring to the team. It’s not your fault, but you’re upsetting the apple cart, and the apple cart doesn’t want to be upset.”
A lump formed in Jo’s throat. Upsetting the apple cart seems to be the metaphor for my life, she thought. When she was four, she had been forced to flee her homeland after her parents were murdered by the man who now ruled the whole Pax Imperium. When she was six, the same man had tried to murder her surrogate parents for having the audacity to escape with her. Then six years ago, she had fled again as the Unity war machine had overrun a galaxy unprepared for its zealotry. From the age of fourteen to eighteen, she and her surrogate parents had lived under the protection of Prince Jonas Athena. For four years, she had been at the heart of power, privy to discussions and secret plans as the Ghost Fleet fled across the galaxy. Life among the elite had been beautiful, but it hadn’t been her own, and eventually Jo had decided she needed to stand on her own two feet. She had enlisted as a nursing tech at the age of eighteen. Now at twenty, she was about to become one of six candidates for medical school. Jo suspected it was this honor, won at the expense of more senior nurses, that was the real source of her problem.
Amanda looked sideways at her sullen friend. “You could work on not letting it bother you so much.”
That hurt. Jo didn’t turn. She couldn’t speak. Her vision clouded as tears flooded her eyes. I was the victim here. They left me in a closet. That’s not my fault, and I can’t just make it better. No one, not even her only friend, seemed to understand. Without a word, Jo just walked away to the other side of the huge grow room, seeking someplace where she could shed private tears.
Amanda just shook her head. “Aw, Jo. Come back! Don’t go.”
Jo just kept walking. She wasn’t sure how long her mind swam in its private sea of pain, perhaps twenty or thirty minutes. Even in this quiet space, she couldn’t be truly alone. As she cried, people passed by. A couple of them stared, but no one bothered to stop. After a time, Jo finally reasserted control over her emotions.
She had just turned to head back to reconcile with Amanda when she heard a momentary squeal from one of the huge atmospheric processing machines at the end of the room. Seconds later, a surprisingly quiet “whoomp” announced that the compartment’s plentiful layer of methane near the ceiling had ignited, creating a wall of blue above her head. Jo turned to run but something told her that she wouldn’t make it to the door, which was more than fifty meters away. Instinctively she dropped down a stairwell into the hydroponic section that ran under the grating upon which she had walked. Down on this level reprocessed waste ran in a liquid slurry, used to fertilize the roots of the plants growing above. The slurry had to be the source of the methane on the ceiling. It was supposed to be a closed system, but somewhere there had been a leak. When combined with the extra oxygen given off by the engineered organisms, the fire above her consumed with dispassionate fury and rage.
Only a second after Jo had ducked down the stairs to the lower level of the compartment a massive flashover above her raced from one end of the compartment to the other, outpacing everyone in its path.
The dying were screaming now.
Unable to hear or think any more, Josephine ran through the shimmering heat. She reached the door to the compartment a few seconds later. Already smoke and fire curled around the top of the compartment door frame. For a brief moment she stood there hunched over her knees, coughing and sucking in the cool air in the corridor. Then she looked sideways and saw the fire suppression lever. She stared at it, and then turning back and feeling the heat of the raging inferno, she did what she knew she must to save the ship. Breaking the case that covered the lever, she pulled it down and then twisted it. The giant bulkhead door slammed down with a devastating boom, forever sealing the fate of those still in the compartment. The noise startled Josephine. She jumped a little and then realized the finality of what she had done. Almost as if she had touched a live current, a devastating wave of fear and regret shocked her body. Thinking of poor Amanda, she screamed, pounding on the now closed door as a the yellow light overhead began to flash and a hissing sound announced the compartment had started venting its life-giving oxygen. As the hiss became a roar, Josephine Lutnear slid down the door onto the floor, heart shattered.
Staring at the sterile floors of the white hospital ship, Josephine pinched her lips together before speaking. “I’m still not sure I can go on with it.”
Twenty-five-year-old Princess Sophia Athena reached out a hand and put it on Josephine’s arm. With the other, she cradled her infant daughter against her chest. “Well, just think about it. It’s not like you have to decide right now. It’s a big deal to get a medical school ticket. It’s not an opportunity to be wasted. Believe me, you want something to do on this fleet.”
Josephine nodded, continuing to stare at the tile floor in front of her, allowing her long blond hair to hide her face. The two women walked slowly back toward the royal shuttle. A single bodyguard accompanied them. He also served as the shuttle’s pilot.
The princess had sighed just a little too bitterly for Jo’s comfort, and Jo wondered again what it must be like to be a captive of your birth. She decided for the thousandth time that she wouldn’t have traded places with Sophie for anything, not even for her husband, the prince.
In her lucid moments, when Jo could get her eyes off her gnawing pain, she had to admit, she hadn’t done well at all in the six weeks since the fire on the Rosemerta claimed the lives of thirty-three sailors. The disaster ranked as the worst accident to strike the Ghost Fleet in the last six years. An inquest was inevitable and necessary, and Jo was supposed to testify next week. She wasn’t sure she would survive having to relive those moments in a room full of dress uniforms and serious brass.
Without Amanda around she felt vacant—empty like the void just outside the too-thin crust of metal and ceramics that surrounded her.
In the days following the disaster, she had been put on administrative leave from her position on the Gallant, which might not have been so bad if there were anything for an idle hand to do on the fleet. At first, she had traveled back to the command ship Ares and spent some time with her surrogate parents, but after two years away, Ares wasn’t really a home for her any more.
Still, it had been good to be around people she loved. Sophia had sat one afternoon to hear everything. Desperate for someone to listen, Jo had even opened up about her treatment on Gallant. Apparently, Sophia must have told Jonas about it all because the prince had asked about it later. He offered to say something to her commanding officer, but Josephine had insisted that he let her handle it on her own. She didn’t want anyone coming to her rescue. She wanted to feel strong enough, independent of authority. Reluctantly the prince had agreed. Besides, thought Jo, the incident was really only a minor one in a fleet that was finally showing the strain of years away from home without much success for their efforts. It wasn’t truly worth his time.
Her visitor today was proof that Sophia and Jonas disagreed. Jo had come to the Gallant two years prior to leave behind all of that privilege and instead stand on her own two feet, and now for the first time, the privilege had come to her. Sophia had visited without giving Jo a choice. Jo wondered if that were part of the point. Wherever they went through the halls surprised looks and stares followed. Occasionally, there was the odd salute as well. Sophia took it all in stride, but it made Josephine uncomfortable. On the other hand, she had no doubt her tormentors would find out soon enough that she was chummy with the princess, and that would likely improve her standing. To Jo it felt like a bitter surrender.
The crowds thinned as they got down toward the docks. These were rarely used parts of the ship, unless there were patients inbound. It was dark, with only spare emergency lighting.
As they turned a corner, the Marine guard stopped in his tracks. The sudden halt startled Jo. He was just reaching for his side arm when he went down with some kind of energy pulse to his chest. Jo looked up.
Over two meters in height, the deformed, gray-skinned person pointed his weapon straight at her, and for a second, Jo saw her death in his vertically-slitted yellow eyes. Then something registered and he stopped. It was hard to tell for sure with those eyes but Jo thought she saw surprise there…and fear. With his weapon still leveled, he ripped his ancient breathing mask off his face and yelled. “Skvop! Aust skorpt trigen!”
The Timcree were human, or at least they had been at one time. Genetic engineering had created some debate as to whether or not the two groups could still interbreed.
Jo and Sophie froze.
Feeling the stress in her mother, the baby woke, her cry echoing in the silent passageway.
Behind the man, three more tall, wiry persons stepped out of the airlock. Jo figured this was as close as she would ever get to a first contact situation.
Water still dripped from the ceiling where their Decon showers had just stopped their cycle. Still in his pressure suit, one of the four now stepped forward and examined them. After a second, he gestured with his hand. A series of clicks and tweets that substituted for words emanated from his suit. Without giving them another look he turned and stepped back into the brightly lit airlock.
Two of the other Timcree lowered their weapons toward the women…