The waitress drifted lazily across the café, shoving the filter coffee onto the tabletop with an indelicate grace. Coffee swilled over, running down the side of the mug. She grunted an apology then moved away to take an order from another table.
Lewis Thacker, the New York science fiction writer, pulled the mug towards him, leaving a tide of brown staining the white Formica surface. Grabbing a serviette he quickly staunched the flow, in case it spread into the tatty notebook. He was busy writing, sat as usual in his favourite corner: the perfect viewpoint for people-watching.
He’d become accustomed to the rather brusque nature of the staff. Not that he minded the waitress Carol much. With her blonde hair and tight figure, she could barely do anything wrong. The way she dragged the male customer’s eyes across the room fascinated him. She alone had been the source of countless minor arguments among the couples who came here.
The door opened and closed, and for a moment, the street noise outside past filled the place. He sipped the coffee and turned to his script, trying to decipher the last thing he’d written. The words coursed around his brain before somehow becoming some coherent whole and he began to jot in the book with a fountain pen. He used fragments of the conversation he heard on the neighbouring table.
Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by a commotion outside. He looked up from his scrawl to see a man outside the café, standing in the middle of the road and waving his arms around. At first it seemed he was attempting to direct the traffic, but as he approached it became apparent he was directing his attention to the Metropole itself. A yellow cab passed by, its horn shrieking at the gesticulating figure.
The man continued to shout and scream. Most of the customers had now turned to see what all the commotion was about. Thacker noticed the waitress was also watching, her face suddenly pale and drawn, a shimmer of recognition in her expression. He continued to watch, placing his pen down on the table. After a few moments, some of the customers just shrugged and turned back to their papers: another New York crazy, who really cares?
As if responding to this indifference, the man pulled out a gun. The room went silent for a second, conversations trailing away. In shock, the waitress let a tray fall from her hands. As it hit the floor, the crockery splintering into fractions, the place went crazy with noise. People leapt up from their tables and began to run. Others hit the floor, hands thrown protectively over their heads. The waitress remained still, as a statue. The man aimed the gun at her. There was a bang and then time seemed to stand still.
The muse drive punctured hyperspace and extended feelers into reality. When it was satisfied, it stabilized the rent and pushed through, dragging the military fast keel Lobster Quadrille behind it. Only when it had emerged did the Lobster Quadrille awaken. As the muse drive snuck back into a recess in the craft’s belly, it extended an array of sensors, like a courting peacock. The Lobster Quadrille, however, was not here to attract a mate. It had arrived in the Sol system with another purpose: to retrieve a weapon, the Vorpal Blade.
Spater and Laren, two of the shapeshifting race known as the Jarthiala, were in the viewing gallery. Through the diamond composite layer, they had a view of the planet and its moon, both of which were engulfed by a murky brown layer. The diamond also caught a dim reflection of their default bipedal forms. Spater ran a hand through her long dark hair, as if getting used to the experience; it was still wet from a recent shower.
‘As expected. The same phenomenon,’ she said.
‘So we can’t locate the Alice,’ Laren replied, turning to look at Spater’s face, which he noticed was slightly bloated with the recent effects of stasis.
‘Not by the usual means,’ smiled Spater.
Laren was distracted in thought for a moment, preening his short beard. ‘The AI isn’t affected? It worked?’
‘The Muses are in contact, so we have a rough idea where it is,’ she replied, referring to the sub-Turing level systems which ran the ships. ‘The upgrade worked, it seems. Mind you, the communication is slow. We’re talking human slow.’
‘Ironic,’ muttered Laren, looking once more at the planet his kind had, until recently, been monitoring.
They turned round, leaving the viewing gallery behind and headed for the shuttle bay. Within one of the adjacent airlocks was a collection of space suits of unfamiliar design. However, they were similar to the one they’d found on a planet called Moriator, although with the addition of Jarthialan tech, had been rendered sleeker. As they climbed into them, technicians tinkered with the settings on the suit display.
‘You’d think we weren’t even ready,’ muttered Spater.
‘They feel just like a normal suit,’ commented Laren. ‘Suit-ably uncomfortable!’
Spater ignored Laren, listening to the technician as he ran through the suit’s specifics.
‘I hope these work,’ Laren said, interrupting her concentration.
‘Of course they’ll work. These versions are far superior to the one we found. Their reliability and dura…’
‘Yawn. Spare me the details,’ interrupted Laren, winking at the young technician. Minutes later, Spater and Laren, together with a suited android were aboard the viper keel shuttle and heading for the planet. As they approached the brown murky sphere, Spater engaged the Cloak, a derivative of the device they’d found in the suit. For a brief moment, nothing seemed to happen, then a shimmering light spread over the shuttle’s length. They continued forward into the flux, unhindered.
In recent months, a number of planets on the outer limits of Sassrit space had experienced similar phenomena. The flux would appear and engulf ships, slowing all time within its nebulous hold. The Sassrit were suffering through the loss of their craft, which were much needed for skirmishes on the very edge of their realm, notably by a grade 3 anomaly called the Guillerapt. Working hand in hand with the Sassrit, the Jarthiala had dispatched two of their agents, Spater and Laren, to discover the perpetrator behind these attacks.
And now it had happened again in a place called the Sol system: whilst under a covert mission examining the life status of a planet called Earth, the Alice had become trapped along with its cargo, the newly forged Vorpal Blade. Laren thought the names were odd, that they didn’t trip easily off the Jarthialan tongue. Spater had explained to her junior officer that Jarthialan ship names, and in this case a new weapon, tended to refer to art works from their subject civilization - in this case a work of fiction from planet Earth was referenced.
As they climbed out of the shuttle, into an alleyway filled with refuse sacks, Laren was struck by the silence of the place. For a moment he thought it was the effect of the suit, but Spater corrected him. The only noise they could hear was each other, when the fields surrounding their suits were linked, as well as the padding of their feet on the pavement. The light also seemed strange too, as if everything was a sepia print, colours slightly dissociated from reality.
People had halted in the street halfway through their stride; some had been running when time flicked off and now mysteriously hovered above the sidewalk. The yellow cabs were as ever, motionless in traffic. A few birds hung in the air, suspended by nothing. They walked through this dreamscape, past people captured in unflattering poses, as if captured unawares by a camera. One man had released a gob of spittle which strung from his lips like a silver snaked tongue; an old lady was in the process of falling over.
They walked down West 23rd Street and across to 24th, the android following along behind like a faithful dog. There the traffic was backed up and something seemed to be happening in the street. A man stood pointing an automatic at a coffee shop window. Three bullets were beaded together in the air, the first puncturing the window pane, glass fracturing to either side. Spater and Laren both traced the course of the bullets, their target a blonde waitress, who stood, her face pale, broken crockery around her ankles. Without a second thought Laren pulled out the insulator from his backpack.
Spater turned to look at him. ‘Laren, just think what your doing. You know the law. We aren’t meant to interfere with worlds when they’re in stasis,’ she cautioned.
‘And what we’re about to do isn’t at all messing with their world?’ retorted Laren, sliding the insulator back into place.
‘What we are about to do is to maintain the status quo. Your interference has nothing to do with our mission. It is merely an affectation,’ Spater replied coldly.
‘But look – at this very moment she is still alive.’
‘She is milliseconds from death,’ Spater replied coldly.
‘Exactly. She is beautiful! And that’s all to be taken away for what? Some madman who wants to kill her?’
Spater shook her head, her visored face through the suit devoid of a single iota of emotion. ‘You know the law Laren,’ she repeated, heading down the street. The suited android followed her, the awkward artificiality of its gait more pronounced by the load it was carrying. She didn’t look back.
As soon as Spater had disappeared round the next corner, Laren again pulled out the insulator from his backpack. Carefully, he flicked it open and using its claw, gently twisted the suspended bullets on their axis, to face the gun-toting man. There were three bullets in all. Two he aimed at the head, one at the chest. He stood behind each one, ensuring they were lined up correctly, folding the insulator back into his pack when he was satisfied. He turned to look again at the waitress, standing amongst a tray of smashed crockery, and then ran around the corner to catch up his senior officer.
They walked out onto the roof of the skyscraper and over an expanse of concrete to a small shed. Spater pushed open the door and darted in. Sinred, an ex-Jarthialan commander was sat inside, crouching over a metallic box, littered with dials and small display units: the flux-generator.
‘Sinred!’ exclaimed Laren.
‘I wasn’t expecting to find you here,’ said Spater.
Sinred jumped, turning round to look at the trio. ‘Spater! I might have known I’d see your face again. You brought some friends to join in the party,’ he muttered, waving at Laren and the android. There was a sudden silence. ‘Pridolean unit?’ he asked, nodding at the android. ‘So, how did you people find me then? I suppose I deserve an explanation,’ he continued.
‘Your suit gave us a clue last time. Its signature can be detected through the time-slip, or flux, whatever you want to call it,’ replied Spater.
‘Not only that, you left one of the suits behind on Moriator. Which gave us clues for the technology needed for our present attire,’ Laren continued, gesturing at the suit.
Sinred shrugged. ‘Well, there is little you can do now. Even if you to manage to reverse the time-slip, the Guillerapt will still be here in time to capture your ship, the Alice. And their fire power will match any Sassrit craft, as they have recently learned to their cost.’
‘Traitor,’ spat out Spater. ‘It isn’t quite that simple though. You see, we have the co-ordinates of your Guillerapt conspirators. As does our Muse drive. And it has managed to communicate with the Alice’s cargo.’
‘Which is what, exactly?’ inquired Sinred, beginning to lose his cool.
‘The Vorpal Blade, the first Muse driven weapon. And that AI is mighty pissed off. It has already primed its weapon, centred on the two Guillerapt vessels. As soon as we reverse the slip, your Guillerapt friends will cease to exist. And even if you do by some miracle manage to capture her, the Muse will self detonate the blade. Lots of antimatter, big bang, that kind of thing…,’ Spater replied.
Sinred paled, his face suddenly shiny with a thin patina of sweat. ‘So it’s true. It was made.’
‘Yes. And we aren’t prepared to lose it. Especially to your Guillerapt friends,’ said Laren.
‘All that remains, Sinred, is the matter of your punishment,’ Spater added.
The android pulled off its suit and dropped it to the floor. It kicked it away, freezing as the suit’s field ceased to cover its metallic carapace. Spater and Laren moved toward Sinred. He tried to move, but Laren and Spater had adjusted the relative time of their suits and were too quick. They stripped Sinred and threw him into the android’s suit, slipping the android into Sinred’s discarded attire. The machine wobbled at the shock, but then stood up straight again.
‘What exactly is this all about?’ asked Sinred gesturing at the new suit. ‘Can’t you just take me back? A court martial will be enough disgrace don’t you think?’ he said, panic edging into his voice.
Spater ignored him. ‘You see, your suit works by deflecting the effects of the flux. Which was helpful when designing these newer units. However, our versions leave the flux alone, and alter time. In a similar way to that machine there,’ she said, pointing at the flux generator.
‘And our android friend there isn’t one of the Pridolean androids. It’s actually a large explosive device, set to go off in about an hour. But you can turn it off, if you touch this button here,’ he continued, pointing at a panel on the machine’s chest. ‘But right now, we are going to slow you down,’ Spater said reaching forward and turning a dial on Sinred’s suit. Sinred froze. She nodded to Laren, who turned to the flux generator and reduced the field diameter, freeing up the Alice.
Spater turned back to Sinred, who seemed to have moved an almost imperceptible amount. ‘He will be just millimetres away from the off switch when it goes up.’
‘But what about the relative time adjustment?’ asked Laren.
‘What do you mean?’
‘What will he experience? How long will it be for him?’
‘Who knows. Maybe it’ll seem like years.’
‘A fitting end,’ replied Laren, as they headed back to the shuttle. On the way back, they passed the Café – Spater stopped to look at the scene, turned to Laren and nodded. Then they continued on their way.
When it happened, they were in high atmosphere, the craft glowing as it broke through into space. As the blade fired, a beam of light shot out of the Alice, scored through the ionosphere and into space, its tip flashing red before it flicked off. It spat out again, catching the other craft, leaving a faint glowing red against the background of stars. Nothing beside remained.
Moments later, the Lobster Quadrille and the Alice danced into hyperspace together, like lovers holding hands. On Earth, agonising seconds were still passing for Sinred. He stretched and with all his might tried to move forward. Every moment, little by little it seemed as if he was getting closer. Seconds later, in real-time, a small explosion rocked the foundations of a New York tower block. And from space, the opaque bubble surrounding the planet vanished instantly.
The man’s head exploded in a shower of red, blood also welling up from a chest wound. At the same time, the window shattered, spilling into the café and onto the outside pavement. The headless body tottered backwards and then to one side, its legs crumpling uselessly beneath. Thacker turned to the waitress, who had collapsed onto the floor, amidst the broken crockery. As he stood up to rush over to her, a deafening roar shook the place, shaking the tables and clattering the remaining intact cups in their saucers.
He crawled on his hands and knees over to the waitress, trying to avoid the shards of glass. She moaned, before opening her eyes, shards of sparkling emerald green. Her eyes were glazed – she seemed to be almost looking through him.
‘Are you OK?’ asked Thacker, checking for bullet wounds. The girl was now heaving with sobs, but managed a nod.
‘What happened?’ she asked, finally. In the distance, sirens began to wail, piercing the background of city noise.
‘I think the gun back-fired and then… I don’t know. Sounded like some kind of bomb.’ ‘Who was he?’ asked Thacker.
‘He used to come in quite a lot. Sat there in the corner, where you normally sit actually.’
‘So what happened?’ he replied, gently.
‘He started… You know…,’ she almost halted, but then shook her head and continued. ‘Well he went kind of crazy. About me! The manager banned him from the place, and that’s all I heard about it. Until now.’ She brushed a wayward strand of hair behind her ear and smiled tearfully at Thacker.
After the weekend, Thacker returned to Café Metropole. The glass frontispiece had been repaired, the splinters cleared up; even the pavement outside had been hosed down. It was as if nothing had happened. He sat in his usual spot and Carol took his order; she didn’t mention what happened the previous week, but there seemed to be an unspoken agreement between them.
‘Are you…,’ he started. She nodded and smiled. The coffee arrived and tasted the same. For a moment, he began to doubt whether it actually happened, whether perhaps it had all been a dream.
Slowly ideas began to bud in his mind. He sipped the coffee again, almost urgently, before beginning to transcribe his scrawl hurriedly into the laptop. An hour later he tapped the last word and as if brandishing his Waterman, stabbed the last sentence shut. With a woosh the story disappeared from his desktop, to start its journey through the various inboxes of publishers and editors. He waved at Carol, ordered another coffee and turned to the tatty paperback he’d brought with him. He flicked to a favourite page and began to read.
‘One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.’
Note: stanzas from ‘Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There’ by Lewis Carroll reproduced in accordance with current copyright laws.
Author's note: This was my first story for Perihelion SF, published in November 2014. It marked the start of a long friendship with this magazine, and their book reviewer. At the time of writing I hadn’t visited New York, so finding a spot for the café was all done via google maps searches, and then corroborated with a friend who was living there at the time (thanks to VZ).
The Jarthiala, a shape-shifting race that feature in my novel The Scion, also appear in this story; in the novel they are the good guys, but here you see a darker side to them. The Alice In Wonderland references are pretty self-explanatory, the name of the protagonist the same as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s pseudonym.
You can find more about my writing by clicking here: www.guytmartland.co.uk