Friday, January 4, 2013

Science Fiction Story: Mothership

I made a mistake with this short story: Profile Lake and Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire's White Mountains don't quite come together the way I described them. But the story's sold now, so it's too late to change it. I hope I've learned my lesson now: check your work before you submit it.

“Laine” was the first thing Moira MacLagan said when she woke up. She mumbled it into her sleeve the first time, before her eyes were even open, then opened them and said it louder. “Laine? Honey, where are you? I need to know if you’re okay. Are you hurt?” She sat up and looked around.

She was in a very small and dimly-lit room that seemed, from what she could tell, to be made entirely of dark-grey metal. The floor, the walls, the two doors that stood opposite each other and took up almost the entire width of their walls, even the grating on the single light, high in a side wall, were the same gun-metal color.

Two Imperial Forwards stood over her, their four hard black boots nearly treading on her in the confines of the room—or the hallway or the cell or whatever it was—and making clanging sounds against the metal plating with every movement. But Laine was not there. Moira sat up, causing her own ringing and thumping and clanging sounds. The Forwards seemed to be watching her, but didn’t make any motion to stop her. “Is it okay if I stand up?” she asked, pointing toward the ceiling.

In response, they both moved as though to make room for her, but their movements were really little more than gestures in that small space. She stood between them.

“Do you speak English?” she asked, looking at each one in turn. They were both taller than she, and she found herself looking up at their helmets. But for all she could see through them, she wondered why she didn’t stare at their arms instead. It would have been just has helpful.

“Yes,” answered the one on her left.

“My daughter,” she said, trying to guess where his eyes might be and doing her best to look straight at them, “a ten-year-old girl. She was with me on the mountain when I was shot. Please, can you tell me where she is?”

He shook his faceless helmet. “We were told to expect one human.”

“Can you call the Forwards on the mountain, then? Ask them what happened after I was shot? Maybe they know where she is. Maybe they have her. Or at least they can tell us where they saw her last.”

“No.” the Forward answered quietly.

“No?” said Moira. “Just no? Why not?”

The Forward took a half-step toward her, shoving her backward until her head hit the plating behind her, and growled, “It is not your place to question me.”

An unfamiliar sense of rage filled Moira and nearly overwhelmed her. For an instant, as soon as the Forward had stepped back and released her, she actually considered leaping at his neck—or at least the place where his neck appeared to be—and trying to strangle him. She clasped her hands together to keep them still, and concentrated on calming her breathing. Laine needed her to stay alive.

But this wasn’t supposed to be happening. The Imperial Forwards shouldn’t have even been in New Hampshire. They had no reason to be.

Moira had thought, when she’d been laid off from her engineering job, that at least she’d finally get a chance to spend some time with Laine. But as it turned out, she’d been working just as many hours, getting just as exhausted, becoming just as short-tempered with the poor girl, now that she was looking for a job. So she’d taken an entire three days off, packed two backpacks with rope and ration-packs and bug spray and sunscreen and all the rest of it, and headed for the White Mountains.

But this morning they hadn’t eaten from the ration-packs. This morning their stomachs were full of oatmeal—good, cinnamony oatmeal with the milk and raisins cooked in—and sausage and eggs and applesauce, made the old-fashioned way over a campfire. At the moment they were traipsing through a forest of mostly beeches, oaks and maples, going roughly eastward and using the sun for a guide.

“Mom, are we going in circles?” Laine asked after a long stretch of silence—if cracking twigs and rustling leaves and birdsong and squirrel-chatter and insect noise could be called silence.

“I don’t believe so, Honey. Why do you ask?”

“Because, weren’t we supposed to get to Frankfurt Notch before lunch?”

“Franconia Notch. Yeah, it looks like we’ll get there way before lunch.”

“Um, Mom, the sun just went down.”

“Oh, it’s just behind Mount Lafayette I guess. It means we’re getting lower. We just got in Lafayette’s shadow, I suspect.”

“Are you sure we’re going the right way?”

“Pretty sure. We’ll get out the compass if we have to.”

“Maybe we can use the shadows.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look behind you. Higher up, back there, the sun isn’t down.”

“The sun was down when we were up there, though. It’s like it’s following us.”

“The sun is following us?”

“Maybe just the—“

“Mom, look at this! I think it’s road tar!”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. They paved the trails.”

“Can we take it?”

“The trail? Yeah, it should come out at the south end of Profile Lake.”

But Laine probably didn’t hear even half of that. As soon as Moira had said ‘Yeah’ she was off like a racehorse at the starting gate.

“I think it’s this way,” Moira called.

The girl turned around and in a few minutes they had their packs off and were sitting on a rock, facing the stony beach.

Like most New Hampshire lakes, Profile was much longer than it was wide. The two hikers sat at its southern tip, and from there it stretched northward and disappeared around a bend. To their left across the water, Cannon Cliff seemed to tower over them, and on the right, beyond the narrow two-lane Interstate, Mount Lafayette rose steeply. What in other places was called a gap, a col or a pass, in New Hampshire was known as a notch, and this notch—this breathtaking tract of green pines and jutting granite, of grass and pebbles and placid water under a near-cobalt sky--was Franconia Notch.

Moira got out cookies and raisins and cheese, and they nibbled and drank from their canteens and stared at the reflection of the cliff in the water. After a few minutes Moira pointed northwards, along the lake to a spot beyond it on the east, high up in the peaks of Mount Lafayette. “See that place where the rock sticks out, and it’s a funny shape?”

“Oh, where it’s all pointy?”

“Where it’s all pointy, yeah. That’s called Eagle Crag. It’s a shoulder of Mount Lafayette. And do you see where it…I don’t know how to describe it…it’s almost like there’s a chunk taken out of the mountain? There’s the pointy part, and then there’s nothing, and then there’s rock again.”

“It’s not nothing, Mom,” Laine corrected her, ”it’s air.”

“Okay, you got me,” Moira conceded. “But do you see where I’m talking about?”

“Uh-huh,” answered Laine, as though it was obvious.

The Watcher. Photo:
Moira handed her the brass spyglass her grandmother had given her when Laine was born, so they could go exploring together when she was old enough. “There’s an old lady up there,” she told her. “See if you can find her.”

Laine frowned in concentration for several seconds, finding her place with the spyglass, focusing it, then suddenly she gasped and smiled. After a minute she gave the spyglass back.

“That was amazing!” she said. “Did somebody carve that? Like Mount Rushmore and the presidents?”

“Nope.” Moira was quiet for a moment, adjusting to the new scale of vision, moving the glass slightly until it pointed to the right spot.

The right spot was a granite cliff, like Cannon Cliff but smaller, like thousands of places in New England where the bedrock was exposed and ended in a vertical drop. But in some of those places, part of the granite jutted out further than the rock face below it, creating unique shapes, and that’s what had happened here. From where Moira sat with Laine, there seemed to be a face protruding from the cliff--a knowing face, constantly watching.

“It’s a natural formation,” she told Laine, “caused by erosion. It’s called The Watcher.” She handed back the spyglass.

“I can see why,” the girl responded, sounding like an adult. She raised the glass to her left eye and squinted.

The Old Man of the Mountain. Photo:
“On the other side of the notch, right up there…” Moira gestured toward Cannon Cliff. “…there used to be another stone face.”

“Oh!” Laine was so enthused she jumped to her feet. ”I think I learned about that in school. The Old Man of the Mountain, right?”

“Yes, exactly.”

“But he fell down,” said Laine, sitting again.

Moira nodded. “The same forces that put him there, took him down.”


“Yup. They even used metal rods and bolts to try to keep him up there. I guess it worked for a while. Then one day, he just fell off anyway.”

“Is that why there’s all that rubbish there?” Laine asked, looking at the great slope at the base of the cliff, apparently taller than the cliff itself.

“Rubbish?” Moira repeated.

“Well, stuff, whatever.”

Cannon Cliff. Photo:
Moira smiled. “That’s called a talus slope. The Old Man is part of it, now. But what happened to him has been happening to the cliff face for thousands of years, and, yes, all the rock that falls off the cliff is what makes up the talus slope.”

“I bet she misses him.”

“Who misses whom?”

“Whom? Mom, nobody says ‘whom’ anymore. You sound like you’re an old lady.”

Moira smiled. “Yes, and I’m in the notch, watching. Who misses whom?”

Laine rolled her eyes. “The old lady. I bet she misses the Old Man.”

“I guess there’s kind of a legend about that, that the Watcher and the Old Man were friends, and the eagles used to carry messages back and forth between them.”

“Can we go swimming?”

“Sure, I guess we could go swimming. There’s a place, I forget what it’s called, but it’s up past Twin Mountain, Crawford Notch direction. We can—“

“No, I mean now. Can we go swimming now?” Laine’s big brown eyes looked hungrily at the lake.

“Oh, here? No, we can’t swim here. Sorry, Honey, but Profile Lake is just not a safe place to swim.”

“Too deep?”

“Probably,” Moira answered. “Actually, I’m not sure. It could be too deep, or it could be there are rocks in it, where you could hit your head, or…maybe there’s another reason.”


“Nope, it’s not alligators. They can’t survive in this climate. It’s too cold for them.”

“Then can we go back up the trail then, if we can’t swim? It’s getting hot here.” The sun had risen above the mountains again.

“Yeah, okay, for a little ways anyway. It’ll be cooler under the trees.”

“Laura said goodbye yesterday,” Laine stated soberly when they’d been following the trail for about five minutes.


“No, I mean, she said goodbye. In case we’re not going to see each other.”

“Why would—is she moving?”

“No. She said we might not come back.” Laine stopped walking, looked her mother in the eyes and asked, “Are we going to stay here?”

“What do you mean?” Moira asked. “We’re just up here for three days, and then we have to go home again. I have a job interview, remember?”

“Laura said we might not be going back.”

“Why would she say that?”

“She said things like that happen when there’s wars. Parents take their kids to the country to live, because the cities aren’t safe. And Marcus said the war isn’t going very well, and Washington might fall, and then the Forwards would most likely focus on New York next, and—“

Moira put her hands on Laine’s shoulders. “Okay, okay, enough. First of all, I did not bring you here because Springfield isn’t safe. I brought you here because my dad used to bring me here, and I haven’t been spending enough time with you lately. Secondly, there’s no reason to think Washington is going to fall, so you can stop worrying. And thirdly, even if it did, that doesn’t put Springfield in any danger. The Forwards just aren’t interested in Springfield.” Moira set off up the trail again, walking slowly and letting her right hand remain affectionately on Laine’s shoulder.

“That’s what Sarah said. Springfield has no strategic importance.”

“Sarah’s right. They’re not going to waste their time on it.”

“What about this place?”

“Yeah, beautiful, isn’t it?”

“No, does it have strategic importance?”

“Oh! No. None whatsoever.”

Laine spotted an unusually large, old white birch about ten feet from the trail and dashed off to investigate. “Why are they called the Forwards?”

“Not sure. I suppose they’re the forward guard, as opposed to the rear guard, the soldiers who go in front and start the invasion.”

“So there might be more, the Imperial Middles, maybe, coming after them?” She was on the trail again.

“Bureaucrats, I’d bet.”


“I bet they call all their military ‘Forwards’.”

“Oh, I get it. The ‘middles’ aren’t military. They’re just office workers.”

“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know.”

“I want to go all the way to the top. Does this trail go to the top?”

“I don’t remember, but we can check the map. We had planned on—“

The trail had taken a sharp bend around a boulder—a glacial erratic—that was twice as tall as Moira and roughly the shape of a ranch-style house. She cut off her sentence the instant she got to the corner because standing about twenty feet beyond the rock were two figures dressed in the striking black-and-purple uniforms of the Imperial Forwards.

Almost by reflex, she shrank back around the corner, put her finger to her lips and looked back at Laine. And that’s when she noticed two more Forwards behind Laine, their black helmets concealing their faces and their black and purple flexible armor covering every inch of their bodies. Moira stood up straight again, her back to the boulder, her eyes on Laine.

The first two Forwards had stepped toward them and now stood beside Moira. The other two remained behind Laine.

“Why you are here?” one of the first ones demanded.

Moira stepped forward, slowly, keeping her hands visible, her movements obvious, reaching toward Laine to demonstrate her intention to stand with her. “It’s a mini-vacation,” she explained. “We’re just doing a little hiking.”

The Forwards all turned their heads, as though they were exchanging glances, even though it was impossible to see through their helmets. “Explain,” ordered the one who had spoken before. “What is ‘cation’? What is ‘hiking’?”

Moira and Laine had closed the distance between them now, were standing side by side, each with one arm around the other, and holding hands. “Pleasure,” Moira explained. “We are here for pleasure.”

“You lie,” said the Forward, raised her weapon until it was nearly touching Moira’s shirt, and pulled the trigger.

Note: I answered a call from to write just the first chapters for several novels, and Mothership is one of them. If you'd like to contribute a chapter to Mothership, or check out the other novels-in-progress at Chainbooks, click here.

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