Saturday, October 4, 2014

Revised first chapter of Cynthia

I've been participating under an assumed name in Amazon's write on. It's a neat, nice and extremely supportive author's online community. Based on some exceedingly helpful advice I've changed the start of the first chapter.

The book is a science-fiction romance where the heroine finds herself stuck in Regency England. While she thinks this is going to be a breeze, since her favorite computer games are ones like "Jane Austen World", fate (and her ship's matchmaking, hopelessly romantic computer) has a surprise for her.

 


Take off.


Cynthia's stay on the small spaceport on New Eden in the disputed border-space between Terran, Cataxi and Xylub domains mixed in uneasy peace came to an end. New Eden was a cynically mis-named barren rock at the outside of the gamma-lyria solar system where the rule of law was, at best, tenuous. More often it was non-extant. The lawless environment suited Cynthia perfectly. She'd spent some credits on food and fuel for her single person scoutship, and rather more credits on entertainment at the local pub. The relative expense reflected the price of Wodka this far from the main reaches of the Terran domain, rather than the quality of the entertainment. Humans tended to be scarce out here. Somehow liaisons with aliens, even the ones that vaguely looked human, left her uninterested.
Bored with this interstellar backwater, she filed for permission to take off at the port office. Then she walked to her ship, and told Chris, her computer companion and friend, to take off when the clearance came through. In the meantime she poured herself a martini and settled back as he reviewed safety procedures with her for the ten-thousandth time.
Clearance finally came. Chris warned her with a conventional short count-down, “Miss Cynthia, We'll take off with on a count of ten, nine, what the hades, zero!”
The unexpected and extraordinarily rapid takeoff kicked Cynthia back into her seat so hard that she blacked out. When she recovered from the shock she shouted at her ship's computer, “Chris! What the hell1 was that about?” Under normal circumstances Chris would take the machine up smoothly. There would be little more than a flutter in the bottom of her stomach, and maybe a small ripple in her martini. Indeed, it was the height of bad manners to accelerate off planet too rapidly and disturb the stratosphere. This time her martini was dripping off the wall behind her while fragments of the glass littered the floor.
“Sorry Ma'am. It was an emergency.”
“An emergency?” Chris had led her through the normal pre-takeoff drill. Fasten seatbelts, what to pull if there was an emergency, where the oxygen mask would drop from and, finally, how to use the seat cushion as a flotation device in the unlikely event that you were still in one piece after crashing into the ocean. He was known for his sense of humor. That was part of why he had been voted the most personable control program of 2342. Cynthia considered the credits she spent upgrading to him well spent.
“Ma'am. If you feel up to it, would you look in the screens?” She didn't need to. The shock wave from the exploding planet behind them rocked the craft. “What happened?”
“The Cataxi.”
“They found me? What the fuck. How the hell did they do that?”
“I wouldn't know, Ma'am.”
“Did they just destroy an entire planet to try to take me out?”
“Apparently.”
“Damn. It's not as if I stole that many credits from them. It was just a pretty necklace.” She fingered the deep red stone that hung between her breasts.
“The Cataxi do not put a high value on Terran life. I did try to warn you, Ma'am. In their eyes you are barely worth a tenth credit.”
“Still Chris, it must be more than that. I expected that assassin in the bar. It's part of the normal give and take of interstellar commerce, but it's bad form to take out a planet. Do it too often and you can start a war.”
“Ma'am if you would, I am preparing for the jump.”
To say this was unusual was an understatement. Ships would cruise, sub-light, through the system. It gave the occupant’s time to say extended goodbyes and deal with any last minute formalities. Besides social reasons, performing a jump too close to a solar mass could distort the results and send the ship into uncharted space. Fortunately, most of space was empty, so as an emergency maneuver jumping blind was more or less safe. Safe, that is, if you emerged into normal space somewhere you could recognize.
“On the count of five, five, four, three, two, damn.”
The ship spun out of control as colors flashed through Cynthia's mind. She passed out again from the disorientation. Finally, the ship emerged into a small solar system.
Cynthia recovered consciousness. “Chris, where the hell are we now?”
Chris, for once, was silent. “Come on, computer, damn you. Where the fuck are we?”
“Ma'am. I'm checking. It may be a question of when we are as well as where we are.”
“When??”
“I'm sorry but that Cataxi shot hit us just as we were jumping. That can do unusual things to jumps, as I'm sure you're aware. I'll have a damage report shortly.”
“Good.”
“You will have to wait while I recalibrate. I will be offline a short time while I reboot. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
Cynthia had a few anxious minutes. If Chris did not reboot, she would be adrift, somewhere in the universe, in a dead ship. His blue screen of death would spell hers as well. Unless she was extraordinarily lucky, she'd be dead in a few days without her computer. If she were lucky the Cataxi might find her before she died. They'd make sure her death was quick. Not necessarily painless, but definitely quick.
Her anxiety was misplaced. Reliable as ever, Chris returned to life. “Ma'am, are you sitting down?”
“I'm not going to faint. What the hell is it?”
“We're home2, Sol, Earth.”
“Fuck. Earth? Why are the guidance screens empty? There are no beacons. Where the hell are the customs ships, the border guard?”
“I don't know. Sorry Ma'am. But that's where we are. A few days trip in normal space and then we can orbit the planet.”
“I suppose we could pay home a visit. I wonder if the warrants for my arrest in New York and London have expired by now.”
“Not to mention the ones from Perth, Tokyo, Beijing and Berlin. Unfortunately, we don't have a choice, Ma'am. The Cataxi shot took out the jump unit. Wherever we are, we're stuck. There are supplies and air for a few months, but that's all.”
“Damn. I suppose prison is better than starving to death. Let me know when you pick up the guidance beam. I'll be in the AR3 suite. I want to see if I can finally seduce Mr. Darcy. Take him away from that dreadful Elizabeth Bennett.”
“That Jane Austen game, again? Why don't you play something wholesome, like Battle for Mars or Kabul Shootout?”
“I like regency games. They're so relaxing.”
“If you say so. You know, you'd have better luck with Darcy if you played Elizabeth rather than one of the Bingley sisters.”
“What's the fun of that? They are supposed to get together. I much prefer a challenge.”
“Yes, I know Ma'am. Could I make a suggestion?”
“What, Chris?”
“Could we please have an uneventful trip for a change? Maybe something less exciting than fleeing from the police halfway around the galaxy. You have more than enough credits to pay for repairing me at the spaceport.”
“I suppose so. Anyway wake me up if anything interesting happens.”
Nothing interesting happened, only if you count the lack of signals, indeed the lack of artificial radio emissions of any kind as uninteresting. Cynthia's game was interrupted a week later.
“Damn it Chris, I finally had my hands on his trouser buttons. What now?”
“I am truly sorry to disturb you Ma'am, but there are some facts which I must, however hesitantly, bring to your notice.”
“What is it?”
“I've identified the year. It's 1810. We are currently parked on the reverse side of the moon, as the natives possess telescopes that could see us in orbit. I presume you don't want them drawing untoward conclusions.”
“1810. Fucking A. No one down there could even begin to repair you, could they?”
“I have prepared a list of supplies that would enable my automatics to fix me.” Chris flashed them through Cynthia's AR unit where they hovered in front of her instead of Darcy's face.
“I can almost certainly find the iron and copper. Might have to be a little light fingered for that much gold, but have they even discovered selenium and titanium yet?”
Chris continued, “That is a problem, Ma'am. I suppose you could refine the ores.”
“Maybe. What were you thinking of?”
“Ma'am, since you are enamored of regency games, it seemed to me that. No I can't suggest this.”
“You'd like to deposit me in England while you fly off and refit somewhere?”
“Precisely Ma'am. I thought that Iceland would be a good location. It's isolated. Few people live there and it has intense volcanic activity. Most of the materials I need should be available locally. I could use a thermocouple for power and the heat would disguise me. It should only take a few weeks to finish with a partial refit. It would make me spaceworthy for an intrasystem flight. We can still use the com-link so you won't be alone.”
“I doubt even the Cataxi can trace me here.”
“Still, it is better to be prepared, Ma'am.”
Cynthia thought for a few minutes, then said, “All right, Chris. I'll do it. The only alternative I can think of is setting up a farm on Mars and that would be supremely boring.”
“Very good ma'am. I'll switch the AR to conditioning mode so that your English and manners are correct for the period. It will take about two weeks. In the meantime, I'll work up the vaccines you'll need.”
“Can you let me finish with Mr. Darcy first?”
“Sorry Ma'am, no. It might take you a month to tire of him. I neglected to tell you that the damage reports were incomplete. We don't have that much time to spare.”
“We're fucked, aren't we?”
“Precisely Ma'am.”
“Get the hell on with it then.”
It took all of two weeks, but Chris finally woke Cynthia from the AR. She started to say, “What the fucking hell took you so long?”, but her conditioning cut in and she said, “What took so long?”
“I'm sorry Ma'am, but you exhibited severe resistance to the training.”
“F-, Indeed. What is going on?”
“Ladies of quality did not swear in the 19th century.”
“Oh, dear, that's cut my vocabulary in half.”
“I must say, Ma'am, it is an improvement.”
Cynthia was speechless, not thoughtless, but speechless. Eventually she found words she could use. “Chris, that isn't meant to be funny. Where do you think I should be dropped?”
“I checked the archives and then did a quick matter scan over southern England. There is a famous meteorite, 'Lord Wroxham's Stone'. High purity iron-iridium alloy. Just what I need. There is also a small Tahitian idol that is made of Black stone in his collection. Titanium ore. If you can lift a few guinea coins that will cover the gold.”
“I see, anything worthwhile for me?”
“There is a mention of family jewels. A tiara or necklace possibly both. Probably they have some value on the resale market.”
“In other words, a crib well worth cracking.” Cynthia paused, “Chris am I always going to use this darn slang?”
“I'll remove the conditioning once we're aloft again. Though I must add, Ma'am, that it is a marked improvement in both your diction and language.”
Cynthia ground her teeth. Chris merrily chirped along, “I've been having the most enjoyable time building your wardrobe.”
“Wardrobe?” While solo pilots could wear anything they wanted, or indeed nothing at all, Cynthia, like the majority, favored a light recyclable coverall. It kept the ship cleaner.
“You can't wear that. Not on this mission.”
“I thought, for just a quick snatch and grab.”
“It might take me several months to refit, and I don't trust my structural integrity. Can you fly?”
“I'm a dashed good pilot.”
“I mean with your arms.”
“I could wear a parachute.”
“There's no one who would fish you out of the ocean.”
“Oh. I see what you mean.”
“This also means that you're going to have to stop the anti-age hormones.”
“What?”
“It's actually a good thing for you to go dry for a year or so. At 60 going on 16, you still can. Take a year off, enjoy human biology for a bit. Maybe fall in love, have some fun.”
“I suppose you're right. I don't want to have the sudden collapse that happened to Captain Black Jack Daniels. Remember, we found him drifting in his ship, barely able to move, and solely because he missed a shot. But I'm not sure about that falling in love thing.”
“I do feel I have to warn you that it will start your biological clock ticking again.”
“Oh cripes, Not that.”
“On the other hand Ma'am, maybe you will meet someone you like above half.”
“Chris, I know you're a romantic, but I've told you before. Humans are hard to find out on the frontiers of the empire. The closest looking aliens, the Gotha, aren't equipped either emotionally or physically for amatory activity with us, and you can't trust a Xylub in front of your eyes, let along behind your back. As for the Cataxi, let's just say Old One-eye Jones was a better alternative.”
“I suppose you're right.”
“Never met anyone who could stir a flutter in my maiden breast. I hope, Chris, you can remove this insipid slang. It is already driving me up the wall.”
“Yes, Ma'am, when the mission is over.”
“Good. Compared with their AR versions, all the real males I've met seem awfully flat.”
“There are many male humans on Earth. Some of them have to be acceptable. This Lord Wroxham is supposed to be a handsome fellow. There's no record of his marrying anyone.”
“He probably likes other men.”
“Maybe, but then maybe he never met the right woman.”
“Chris, stop the matchmaking. I'm not in the market to be leg-shackled. A man, any man would cramp my style.”
“I'm just warning you that the hormones inhibit your emotions, and you could be in for a shock when they wear off. You will feel more emotional than you are currently used to.”
“I understand that. Do you think I'm ignorant?”
“Just forgetful, Ma'am.”
Cynthia paused, digesting the alternatives in her thought. Finally, she said, “I suppose needs must. What have you put together for me?”
“First, give me your arm.” Cynthia put her arm into the medical unit and flinched as a whopping dose of serum was injected. “D-, F-, What the H-. I say, Chris. That stung. What all did you inject?”
“Vaccines for smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, TB, chicken pox, typhoid, yellow fever, staph, strep, influenza, polio and the red gum. Among others.”
“The red gum?”
“Help you to keep your teeth.”
“I hesitate to ask, but what else do you need me to do?”
“Your head please.”
She placed her head in to its holder in the medical unit and felt a small amount of panic as the machine, unusually, clamped it in place. Then she shouted when the unit pierced her earlobes. “Chris! I hate pierced ears. Last time I had them, it took a whole year for my lobes to heal after the earrings were ripped out in a bar fight.”
“Yes, I remember. You will just have to stay out of bar fights on this trip.”
“Chris, why?”
“Your earrings are the best place to conceal the main communications link. I knew if I asked you about it, you would say no.”
“Can't I just use a normal link?”
“I'll give you one of those too, but you'll probably lose it. Like last trip.”
“I didn't lose it. That d-. That assassin stole it. I blasted him and it into tiny little pieces. It left a beautiful red haze in the room, and improved its color scheme no end.”
“If you say so.”
“Why haven't you released me?”
“Follicular stimulation. Most women had very long hair. I'm afraid yours would look too much like a man's.”
“At least I can cut that off.”
“Please wait until you return.”
“Yes, I know.”
When the machine eventually released her, Cynthia put her hands to her ears. “Chris these earrings feel heavy, awkward. They bounce around when I move, and they hurt.”
He brought up a mirror for her, and said, “Take a look. I think you'll agree they are most becoming.”
She looked and then smiled at herself, “You're right, but this hair, what a bl- a mess.”
“Let me show you how to arrange it.” Instructions came up on the mirror and by following them with her hands, Cynthia reduced her mane to a manageable and fashionable arrangement. “I suppose they had lice and fleas.”
“Yes. You'll need to brush it carefully every day. Twice if you can.”
Cynthia took one last look at herself. With her hair arranged she didn't look half bad. “I suppose I'd best try on my gowns.”
“You'll have to take that coverall off. Ma'am.”
Cynthia felt surprisingly bashful. While Chris was conventionally a 'he', he was just a computer program and had seen it all before. They'd cruised the galaxy together for thirty years, causing mayhem while spreading the Terran sphere of influence and enriching themselves in the process. There wasn't much of her that he hadn't treated for some ailment or another. Even with real males at the academy, she'd never had a trouble during showers. Well, at least after they'd started on the anti-aging drug regime with its tendency to damp emotions. Still, she hesitated and said, “Is this the conditioning?”
“I think so. If you'd like I'll disable my visual.”
“No.” She took a deep breath, then she grabbed the suit at her neck and ripped. It came off cleanly, and she stuffed the remains into the recycling unit.
“All right. Show me how I dress.”
A few minutes later, properly corseted, covered with muslin, and adorned with a green Spencer, she examined herself in the mirror. The results took her breath away.
“I say Chris, you do have taste. I didn't think I could look like this. I almost look beautiful. Pity I didn't let you gown me in the AR. I'd have been in Darcy's pants in no time.”
“There's more to life than getting into a man's pants, Ma'am.”
“There's always stealing, murder and mayhem. Just the usual Saturday night at the docks.”
Chris's silence was deafening.
“I'm sorry Chris, I didn't mean to shock you, but you know me.”
“Unfortunately, I do.”
“Speaking of pants, you forgot something. It's windy down there.”
“It's supposed to be. You'll just have to be careful.”
“I will be. Trust me. I don't want to give any of the natives a show. It was hard enough getting undressed in front of you, old friend.”
“I thought, Ma’am that you could leave the Cataxi gem here and wear this string of pearls. It goes with the earrings.”
“Why not both?”
“I'm not sure that gem is safe for you to wear all the time.”
“You scanned it, didn't you?”
“I did, and I didn't find anything. It's just that things don't add up in what I found. I'd feel better if you didn't wear it.”
“Tough. I like it.”
“As you wish, Ma'am. The rest of your kit, other than a couple of changes of gown is normal issue. A false bottom in your bag. The communicator and scanner are disguised as a diary. Open it correctly and I'll be there. I've added a discrete solar charger. It is configured to look like a ladies' fan.”
“No blaster?”
“Ma'am, I only thought you could get in trouble with it.”
Cynthia fought down the urge to scream at her ship. Finally, she said, “You know I never ever ever go planet-side without a blaster. Might as well be naked.”
“Yes Ma'am. I'll supply one. It will be suitably disguised, but it will be a small limited power one.”
“Since I think they're still using flintlocks that will be fine. What is the rest of the plan?”
“I'll insert you near where Lord Wroxham will be driving in the morning. Then you can set up something like a wrecked carriage to attract his attention. I'll give you a letter of introduction, which he'll have difficulty refusing.”
“Clever. Is there a plan B?”
“You can always present yourself at his front door.”
“That's rather lame. Let's hope the first works.”
“It will. Now you will need some sleep before I drop you.”
Early morning local time, Chris silently glided the ship to a halt above a field of corn in Wiltshire. Cynthia clambered down carrying a large traveling bag. She waved and Chris silently retreated into hiding to await events. If all went well he would leave for a refit.
Cynthia sat beside the road and waited for Lord Wroxham. By mid-morning the sun was shining and the birds were chirping while the bees buzzed in the flowering hedge on the other side or the road. She found, that unlike the AR version, regency life was on the boring side. A brief buzzing in her left earing alerted her. It was Chris, “He's coming. Time to deploy the lure.” She tossed a small pebble to the side and pressed a button on her control box. The hologram of a broken carriage appeared beside her. It looked real enough, as long as you didn't try to sit in it. Chris continued, “Remember your cover story, and a few tears wouldn't hurt.”
“I'm almost bored to tears already.”
“I mean real tears.” A kindly wasp, diverted from its return to her nest by flying into Cynthia supplied a cause for tears.
A carriage, drawn by an elegant matched set of four horses, with a ducal crest on its side appeared, passed her, then stopped. The lure worked. She quietly told Chris, “Here goes.”
1Translator's note. Most of the more colorful spacer expressions lose their meanings in translating from modern English and the various Xeno-dialects used in the original manuscript into late Middle English. I have endeavored to preserve the flavor of the language, but there really are no idiomatic late Middle English equivalents for many of the colorful alien expressions that have made their way into common usage. For example the Cataxi expression 'da'thu yrse' which translates roughly as 'may your carapace overgrow your eye slits' really has no idiomatic equivalent in human language.
2Even spacers who were born, like Cynthia, on other planets referred to Earth as home. If they could, most managed a visit home sometime in their lives. Cynthia's visit had been eventful.
3Augmented Reality