Friday, May 24, 2013

Guest Post: The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

I'm delighted to have Luke Bellmason back, this time with his science fiction short story, "The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales":

WHEN that Aprilis, with his showers swoot, 
The drought of March hath pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such licour, 
Of which virtue engender'd is the flower;
And smalle fowles make melody,
That sleepen all the night with open eye,
So pricketh them nature in their corages;
Then longe folk to go on pilgrimages,
And specially, from every shire's end of Engleland,
to Canterbury they wend.
-Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, Late 14th Century, Earth
Many are the suns of the nine galaxies and greater still the number of worlds which circle them; so that a being may live a thousand years, travel every day of her life and yet touch naught but a small fraction of this great domain. And yet, there is one solar-system among this multitude which can claim its greater share of visitors, for it lies like the centre of a great wheel, with all others spinning round it.
In one constant steady stream do these travellers come, spacer-pilots all; be they helmsman of the smallest tug or commander of the mightiest starcruiser. Each decade at a time all must take the same Pilgrimage. On liners such as this one do they meet and journey to the system called Vale. Where the all pervading laws of the Federal Galactic Spaceflight Licensing Authority decree each pilot's licence must be issued, then at ten-year intervals be checked, updated and, if found to be in order, renewed. For, to ignore the authority of the FGSLA is to go the way of the pirate and the fugitive and to spend ones life always one parsec ahead of the lawman, or lawwoman, or lawbeing.
And so it was that I found myself aboard such a vessel, the passenger ship 'Canterbury', among a small band of such travellers; talking their strange language of approach vectors, mass distribution charts and power output characteristics. All were as different as could be; of age, of race, of bone and skin and of status, yet all in common they were, for none of the other passengers would wish to listen to them, nor could they have understood their strange speak had they tried. None, but me. For my eye and ear being that of a story-teller, and a story-collector, was a role for which one must be proficient in many tongues and many disciplines.
To find such gatherings as this was the meat to my bread. For all the years have I crossed the great star empires and no play of actors, no trillion-budget Sim-O-Rama, no holo-mersive virtuality, could match the simple tales of spacer folk. And in my time have I listened and recorded such tales and stored them in my trusted MultiSens, later to transcribe into the oldest and simplest of recording forms; these written words which I put before you now.
As our voyage began, seven such travellers there were upon the Canterbury, though as nearer to Vale we ventured, certain I was that others would join. For four days and three nights would we fly; suspended in limbo, between reality and whatever realm for which one might wish to invent a name. For the 'hyspace' into which starships jumped in order to expedite their journey from star to star was no place at all; rather, it was something other than space. Some other plane which could not be travelled to, only travelled in.
And while all manner of sports, mental diversions and the studying of exam books would fill our days, by way of the restrictive licensing laws of the Interspacial Travel Commission, our precious evening hours would be spent in the lounge-bar between the hours of nineteen-hundred and twenty-three thirty shipboard time. For it was a fact widely accepted by spacers that only the pleasures of a well stocked bar could truly guard against that feeling of unpleasant monotony, of being nowhen at all, of the mind-warping possibilities of the perfect infinity of hyspace. So it was that evening, in the lounge after dinner, our group of travellers assembled. These seven characters were as new each to the other just exactly as they are to you now, and so before I make further progress, I think it reasonable to give you the same advantage as afforded them by sight and proximity and describe to you the qualities, appearance and bearing of each, as it seemed to me;
At first, to my right there sat The Smuggler. A Human he was, dressed in the clean white robes of one recently discharged from hospital. He appeared aged and showed the weariness of a life spent too long among the stars. While his body manifested a certain lack of vitality, it was behind his eyes where the true madness of the man was displayed. That look I had seen so many times in the eyes of men who had stared too long into void. This fellow had surely been tinged by this spacer's madness. But also there was another particular sickness about him which was not so obvious; on occasion he would wrap his hands and arms tightly at his body as though pushing against some great force. His face would contort and he would be lost to us for a moment until some pill or a swig or more of brandy would return him.
Beside him sat what one might call his opposite, for they were both in the business of trading goods, but the Merchant had remained true to the laws and regulations which I earlier spoke of. His appearance, in contrast to his neighbour, bore out the greater wisdom of abiding by these laws. For though he was almost as old as the Smuggler, his lifestyle demonstrated that there was more profit to be made in a long life of honest work than a short life of misdeed. The Merchant's suit was plain, pale yellow and of the highest quality. He was a man of wealth, it was clear, but also of good taste, which made one wonder if the two might be skills harmonious to good business.
And at the Merchant's side there sat a young woman; slim, athletic, quiet and calm. Her serenity appeared to come from a lack of something that the others possessed. A missing nervousness perhaps, arising from one who felt capable in any situation and who feared nothing. She had presented herself to us as the Assassin and had added little more, only to give us assurance that none of us need fear her, for none among us were on her list.
Then next in sequence came the Knight; a feline creature of the worlds where sentient life had descended from the felis catus family. He explained at length the nature of his Order, the details of which I will dutifully withhold from you so as to avoid cracking any eggs which may remain unhatched.
Then proceeding in the other direction from my left, sat the Miner. A quiet and thoughtful kind, with thick silver hair and a coat of plated metal. Of the group, he was the most jovial, quick to share a joke and seeming to quite enjoy being in company at last. He would hang on every word the others spoke, I noted, and would listen intently, as though trained as myself in the arts of transcription and reportage.
To the Miner's left side was an avian of some two metres in height, covered in shimmering brown feathers and towering above us all. Every word she uttered came delayed through the soulless interpretations of a translator box hung about her neck. Seldom did she speak, but the box continually chirped our words back to her through a headpiece. She sat perched on the edge of her seat with her talons gripping the hard metal frame of the bench. her eyes darted between us, and the quick jerky movements of her head made it hard to tell quite in which direction she was looking. When I had enquired at first as to her profession so that I may make record of it, she chirped a long burst of indecipherable twittering, which the interpreter box hesitantly broadcast as 'Slaver'. Perplexed as we were by this title, the avian declined any further questions.
Finally, at the very end was seated the Scout. She wore the gold uniform and insignia of the Galactic Astrogation Squadron. I was somewhat puzzled by her presence among this group as it was not usual to find military or federal personnel travelling on a civilian vessel, when a naval ship would have been available to her at no cost. Yet, her boots and her clothes were quite worn and not to the high standard one would expect for one of her profession.
And so, having thoroughly been appraised of all in our company, at hardly past the stroke of eight by the ship's clock, I came upon the reason by which I had attended to this party.
"For these three nights to pass more merrily," stated I, "and for the entertainment of all yet at a cost of nothing, save for the consumption of a few bottles, I propose that each of you tell your tale. For each mortal to be born and each to die must have one story to tell, and not less than one. And tell them shall you each in turn, and by your nature will each labour to outdo your fellows."
There was much chatter, but all appeared agreeable and if any found the suggestion objectionable, none made it known. And yet each in turn bore such modesty of their own humble story, sure that any account of their lives would be no great tale to be told. To this remarked I, "take my assurance, as one who has collected tales and scribed them for the pleasure of others, that it is equally as impossible for each of you to see the mystery which abounds in your own experience as it would be to know even the merest details of a complete stranger. And it is such mystery as is required to fill our long nights."
So this was our resolve, but quickly did arise the matter of where to start. To whom would fall the honour and the burden of beginning? At once, I withdrew a coin from my pocket; a relic of a long distant world it was, as was I. Upon one side was forged a star and on its reverse a queen.
"We will start at either my left hand or my right," said I. "For the Miner shall call it." All were again agreed and with great anticipation I tossed the coin toward the ceiling and the Miner did call, "stars!".
Upward the coin span and tumbled above my head, passing by planets and nebula in an eye's blink as the Canterbury hastened on though the upper dimensions of hyspace. And as the coin was once more gripped by gravity I reached out and snatched it tightly. At last I looked to my right, at the contorted and pained countenance of the Smuggler, revealing as I did so the upward face of the queen. And so began the first of the tales; the Smuggler's Tale, and what need of more words?
The Canterbury Tales Volume 1 by Luke Bellmason will be released on Amazon in June 2013, with a special edition hardcopy coming to Blurb soon after. It will feature three short stories, The Smuggler's Tale, The Merchant's Tale and the Assassin's Tale plus a special two-part story The Knight's Tale.

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