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(OMED: Many early pieces in Oregon Magazine were written in a version of Netscape Composer that in modern browsers produces black diamonds with reversed question marks inside them.  These are almost always quotation marks, apostrophes or dashes.  When you see text that contains those black diamonds, it means I haven't gotten around to repairing the problem, yet.)


 
  Featured Story:

 

Jock Jarvis and the Pillars of M16
by Larry Leonard

Jock picked up the cat from a spacer’s pet shop on Gryblkn, a planet with a good ship repair dock complex across the Milky Way from Earth.  Besides having his Sheckley FTL drive serviced, he got an upgrade to his ship’s computer and a few other items that would be necessary ingredients in an enterprise he had in mind.  The cat was named Brngllth, which like all Welsh names is unpronounceable.  He named it Sam. 

   Cats do well in space because they have a perfect internal orientation mechanism.  Growing up on Earth, Jock had seen cats right themselves in freefall many times, and once, on television, had seen a cat jump from a barn roof, sixty feet down into the arms of a farmer.  Jock had long thought that just as birds had evolved from dinosaurs, cats must have evolved from birds.  Or, perhaps, they were simply stupid.  In any event, heights didn’t seem to bother them very much, and they were not herd animals.  Neither was Jock.  Unlike most men, he was fond of independent species.

   Sam, he thought, would be good company on the long reaches.  He had a modified larynx and a memory chip implant which raised his intelligence to eight IQ points above that of the average attorney, according to the shop owner.  Jock was drunk at the time, and figured that if he ever settled down, he would finance the cat in a run for office and get all the political cover he ever needed. Unfortunately, Sam only spoke Welsh.  Jock was six hundred lightyears beyond Gryblkn’s sun when he discovered that.  Many people are unaware that all drunks naturally speak that language, but cannot recall a word of it when they become sober.

   “How’s it going,” Jock said to Sam when he woke up that fateful morning. 
   “Brrn Myrr Vassarsmq borrghm,” said the cat.
   “I know the feeling” Jock said, sympathetically.  Some hangovers were Hell.
   On the third day, when the cat still sounded like that, Jock fed Sam’s voice through the critter function of the upgraded ship’s computer, which promptly replied, “That cat is speaking Welsh.  It cannot be translated into any known language.”
   “You’ve translated everything from sulfur-breathing caterpillars  to symphony language sung by a living planet,” complained Jock.
   “This is Welsh,” said the computer.  “Nobody speaks Welsh.”
   “The Welsh must,” yelled Jock.
   “No they don’t,” said the computer.  “That is, they speak it but they don’t know what it means, either.”

   “Then how do they communicate with each other?” asked Jock.
   “Nobody knows, and nobody has the guts to ask,” replied the computer.  “You don’t ask the Welsh anything if you’re smart.  Even if they answer you, it will be in Welsh, and you won’t learn anything.  Nobody speaks Welsh.”
   “Aha!” cried Jock.  “The Prince of Wales!  I bet he speaks Welsh.”
   With a satisfied tone, the computer replied, “Have you ever understood anything the British royal family has said?”
   The computer had him.  “So, all along I thought I couldn’t understand them because  they spoke upper class English but –“
    “Right,” said the computer.  “Welsh.”
    “I’ll be damned,” said Jock.
    “With your lifestyle, quite likely,” said the computer.

   But the cat played chess like an attorney – that is enthusiastically but without logic.  Jock beat him every game.  And Sam purred at classical music and Charlie Chaplin movies.  They had a fine time all the way out to the Pillars of M16, where in the midst of all that gas from an exploded supernova, Jock thought he might find the motherlode in the form of a lump of gold created and spat out by the explosion.  According to his calculations, it would take a sphere of gold about the size of Mt. McKinley to rent a space navy big enough to do the job he had in mind.  This involved bringing to heel the military arm of the IRS which was looking to nail his hide to a barn door.  It was an old disagreement which Jock now planned to end in his favor.

   He knew of a navy that was available, too.  A nasty planet called Grot circled close in to a red dwarf in a triple system known as Wolf359.  Remnants of the old Earth Nazis had taken ship from Venezuela in the early 21st Century after the invention of the Sheckley drive and using slave labor had turned Grot into a fascist paradise any liberal would love. Only the army and the police had guns.  Religion was outlawed.   Redistribution of wealth that would make the IRS blush, with all the redistribution going to the leaders.  But military dictatorships are notorious for going broke, and Grot had ended up with a fleet of war cruisers and no fuel to lift them. None of their neighbors would sell them sufficient quantities, for very good reasons, and without enough to energize a fleet, the Grotians couldn’t simply take what they wanted.

   IRS rebels were slowly gaining power in that sector, winning system after system by the pure terror of their remnant fleet of battle wagons.  Bethe blasters blazing, they had a nascent empire, now, and were on their way toward Grot with hungry eyes.  The day was approaching when Grot’s fleet would be destroyed on the ground, or there would be some kind of feudal merger between the lords of Grot and the lords of the IRS. 
   Historically speaking, feudal alliances rarely lasted for long in the absence of an outside mutual enemy.  Caesar had created such alliances during his campaigns in Gaul.  Unfortunately for Jock, this potential merger of the interstellar Nervii and Belgae didn’t need something like that.  What they needed was what each other had.  Who was in charge could be worked out later.

   Jock figured that with enough money there was a narrow window of time he could use to bring in a load of fuel ships from afar, and make a deal.  Grot would take on the outlaw IRS group, they would reduce each other to broken ruins and Jock would get his job back with the Interstellar Mining Corporation and go on a nice binge with Sam. 
   All he needed to pull of this coup was sixty trillion bucks, which was why he made the jump to M16 after getting Sam and three extra Sheckley drivers, which he had stored in the hold.  Most heavy metal was made in supernovae.  M16 was the remnant of a supernovae. 

   He dropped into normal space a thousand lights out, broke out a bottle of scotch, poured himself a stiff one and just sat their staring at the sight.  It was a spectacle that called for Gustav Mahler in his prime. Marching off into the gulfs of space were a series of purple, blue and red gas columns, each of which were so large that they could swallow a million Jupiters without a belch.  Even for an old spacer like Jock, the scale was just too large to comprehend.  They looked like African anthill columns to him, though he knew they were so tall that a ray of light that took nine minutes to reach the Earth from Sol would travel for the time it took Man to go from stone spearheads to steam engines and still not reach the other end.
   “Thar’s gold in them thar anthills,” he told Sam.

   “Yrrmgh,” said Sam.
   “Damn straight,” Jock replied.
   “A ship of fools,” volunteered the computer.

   The pillars are a star nursery.  During his approach, one was “born. ”  He kept dropping back into normal space to look things over on the way in.  This resulted in a series of recordings similar to a time exposure movie.  Each “stop” gave him another stage forward in the series of events. 
   His instruments recorded, for the first time in human history, the lighting of a sun.  The video and instrument readings weren’t worth much in terms of Jock’s usual payscale, but would be fascinating to many a future scientist because it settled an ancient question about how planetary systems are formed.  Just before it turned on, the star’s reducing volume generated increased angular momentum until it spun off great globs of gas and matter, some of which had only enough velocity to reach orbit, and so did not simply disappear into space. 

   The more mass the material had, the closer the orbit to the sun.  Thus did Jock see with his own eyes the creation of a standard planetary system with terrestrials, rocky spheres, in close and lumpy gas rings destined to become giant planets farther out. 
   When the sun turned on, the radiation shock wave fried the three closest orbiting globs and shoved the fourth small one into an orbital ellipse of great eccentricity.  Jock expected that this glob would one day be captured by a lump of classical mass and become a moon.  It would make tides in future oceans and inspire poets who would say that it was nothing but a circumambulating aphrodisiac divinely subsidized to provoke the world into a rising birth rate.
   There would be oceans on some of those globs.  The heat from the initial shock wave turned them into Swedish saunas, except that the steam wasn’t from water poured on the hot rocks, but rather from water being boiled out of them.

   Jock found his mountain of gold about a quarter of the way up the second column.  When that amount of mass was transferred into momentum by the three Sheckley drivers he had in the hold, it would skip across the Milky Way like a flat rock across a pond.  There was a chance it wouldn’t slam into anything on the way.  That kind of mass wasn’t controllable.  But, it could be aimed at a hole at the far end.  Say, something about a hundred lights in diameter.  It would stop somewhere inside that circle.
   The only flaw in his plan was that somebody else was already mining it.

   “You’ve had three days,” he said to the computer.  “Who are they?”
   “You mean, ‘What are they?’ don’t you?” said the computer.
   “They’re not human?”
   “Most intelligent species aren’t,” said the computer.
   “That hurts,” complained Jock.  “That really hurts.”
   “Are you suggesting that you have feelings?” asked the computer.
   “No,” said Jock.  “You probably wouldn’t buy that.  But why won’t you tell me what they are?”
   “I don’t have enough data, yet,” said the computer.  “But one thing I can tell you.  Their language is similar to Welsh.”
   “Ye Gods!” exclaimed Jock.  “Am I ever gonna get a break?”
   “You can be such a weenie at times,” said the computer.
   Jock’s usual luck held.  When he finally did make contact with the species, the only one on his ship who could talk to them was the cat.
 

   They were air-breathing cephalopods with internal skeletons and a hide from a rhinoceros.  Eight arm/legs, each terminating in a finger, big flat eyes, extremely good brains.
   “What are they saying to each other?” Jock asked the computer.
   “Damned if I know,” it replied.
   “No clue at all?”
   “Well, to be truthful, I’m beginning to pick up a word here and there.  They and the cat have a common love, which is eating fish.”
    A few days later, things began to roll.
    “So, is Welsh a language, after all?” asked Jock.
   “No,” replied the computer.  “But the tonal qualities are similar to those of the Cephalopod tongue, and the cat is a quick study for an attorney.”
   “Is there a deal in there somewhere?”
   “Not yet.”

     “They do what with the gold?” exclaimed Jock.
     “As I said, they eat it.”
     Visions of Cephalopod supermarkets danced in Jock’s head. Canned gold, frozen gold TVdinners, boxes of flaked cereal gold with illustrations of Cephalopod sports heroes..
     “The cosmos is a very strange place,” he said reflectively.
     “You should be right at home in it, then,” said the computer.
     “Why do they eat it?” 
     “They have overpopulated their home planet, putting a stress on food production.  Their biology, like yours, requires a small percentage input of certain heavy metals.  Their seas, once containing gold just like the oceans of Earth, have been artificially stripped of the substance so they must now compensate with what I suppose you would call additives.  Gold is a sort of vitamin supplement they need.”

   Corynx was the leader of the Cephalopods.  He was a mine foreman, not a military sort.  They didn’t even understand the concept of war, never having had any competition at home, and never before having run across another intelligent species, let alone a hostile one.
   “I still do not understand this idea of war,” said Corynx.
   “You are familiar with trade?” suggested Jock, through the cat,  then through the computer.
   “Of course.  Our southern oceans have great supply of jorn, a kind of what you call a bivalve, while our northern seas are inhabited by the branx, which is similar to your Earth’s herring if we understand your descriptions.  We trade them.”
   “Well,” said Jock “Imagine that instead of trading, one of your population groups  decided to just take what they wanted?”
   “Why would we take from ourselves?”

   It was a geographic problem.  Creatures which evolved in the sea, or returned to it as whales had on Earth, simply did not have the problem of mountain ranges, rivers or continental separations.  They could swim right over them.  Territoriality, while it existed in certain mild forms related to reproductive terrain (which was easily eliminated with the advent of intelligence), just couldn’t rear its ugly head among the long distance gypsies of the sea.  The continuity of oceans forbade nationhood.  The Cephalopods had never engaged in war.
   It was also a personal problem.  Jock could use the meager weapons aboard his exploratory ship and just take what he wanted, but could not bring himself to do it.  He was a prospector, not a thief.  Not that he ever missed a chance to take advantage of anybody when it came to business.  That was different. 
   No, it had to be some kind of deal, or he would just head off and try to find another mountain of gold for himself.  Considering the timing of the elements in this scheme, it probably ordained failure, but that was the way he was made. 

   “Listen,” he tried again.  “Even if you can’t comprehend the idea, you can understand the concept of mass death, can you not?”
   “From climate, yes,” said Corynx.  “Before we farmed the seas, there were periods of starvation.  Terrible times.”
   “Good.  Well not good, but good.that you understand.  War is like that, except that other living things intentionally cause it.”
   “Why in the world would they do that?”
   “Greed.  Desire for power.  Revenge.  Anything that makes a play by Shakespeare rock,” replied Jock.
   “Shakespeare,” said Corynx.
   “You’d love him,” Jock rushed on.  “The thing is, to keep this from happening to you, I need your gold.  All of it.  Can you find more?”

   “Not easily,” said Corynx.  “Our ships do not speed across distances like yours.”
    Bingo! thought Jock.  Out loud: “We use an engine based on the Sheckley principle, which was discovered in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A. on the 24th of October, 2001 by a science fiction author who at the time was eating a confection known as a chocolate éclair.”
   “This is very interesting, Jock,” said Corynx.  “What is the principle involved?”
   “If you bite down on some things, other things will squeeze out,” said Jock.  “In its simplest form, the Sheckley drive is a bar of anti-magnetism, and reacts to the general electromagnetic field of the cosmos based on its alignment in a local frame of reference.  Its field strength is strong enough to move great weights, like all magnets, and the field itself has properties which redefine space-time within a limited volume.”

   “Our scientists will have a wonderful time with this one,” said Corynx.
   “So did ours,” agreed Jock.  “Anyway, applying field current around a Sheckley bar turns the contents of that sphere into what I call a soap bubble with an impermeable surface.  The universe steps on it and it slips off in the direction of lowest pressure.  Infinite acceleration results, and because the field is not part of the normal space-time continuum, time-dilation is not a factor.  Nothing related to what we call relativity is a factor, including the lightspeed barrier.”
   “You can travel faster than light?” asked Corynx.
   “Exactly,” said Jock.  “And, that’s the point.  Sheckley drive phase transference is like electron orbital shifts. Velocity changes are instantaneous. You go directly from  sublight to supralight velocity without ever going at the speed of light.  That, it turned out, was the only speed restriction in the cosmos.  Travelling at the speed of light.  Matter can’t do it. Going faster, once you know how to do it, is no problem, at all.”

   “The cat is pooped,” said the computer.  “Attorneys were not meant for discussions of relativity.  They get irritable discussing peace.  And, until you’ve tried to say space time continuum in Cephalapodian, you don’t know the meaning of pain.”
   “It sounded like he was struggling there a couple of times,” said Jock.
   “Damn near blew his ICU,” said the computer.
   Jock flipped a switch and one of his three Sheckley drives drifted away from the ship.  A Cephalapodian gig, attitude jets squirting steam, drifted over and inhaled it into its hold.
   In the lights of the alien cabin, Corynx waved a few tentacles before the gig scooted off.
  “You’re going to transport that mountain of gold with two Sheckley units?” said the computer.  “Which galaxy do you think it will land in?”
   “Oh ye of little faith,” chided Jock.

   In the end, Jock was right, but only barely.  The mountain of gold grazed the atmosphere of a Catholic planet in the Draco sector during evening vespers and the warm gold rain that resulted accidentally fulfilled an ancient prophecy to the day and hour.  This caused an obscure brotherhood associated with the prediction to come to power, and their disciplines to be required.
   One of these was a dance which involved standing on one foot with one’s fingers in one’s ears and one’s eyes crossed while whistling through a large, hollow plant seed distantly related to the coconut of Earth and which had been duct-taped to the head of the celebrant. 
   Religion on that planet declined, after that.

(to be continued)

(C) 2003 Larry Leonard