Issue XX -- Alternate Histories

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  Issue XX Contents

Infamy - Edward Morris

Eppur si Muove - Cherith Baldry

War in Heaven - John Alfred Taylor

Moonlight Serenade - Bruce Golden

Night of Sevens - Paul Marlowe

Back from the Freezer? - Gregory Benford

The Stranger at Gunnison's Camp - Ken Rand

Moon Flu - Vaughan Stanger

 

Eppur si Muove ©2006 - Cherith Baldry

Anthony Malvern stepped out of the chapel of Cardinal College, pulling his scholar’s gown around him against the damp wind. The faint smell of incense still clung to its folds. Westward, above the college gatehouse the last of the daylight streaked the sky, as St Henry’s Day drew to a close. The gatehouse bell began to toll, one stroke for each of the scholars, calling them home.

He swung round at a touch on his shoulder to see the college chaplain, Father Paul.

“A word with you, Master Malvern.” He was an elderly man, his face pale and papery. Thin, age-spotted hands played with his pectoral cross.

“Of course, Father.”

The chaplain shifted his feet, beginning to look embarrassed. “Your servant Damian Arden ...”

“He’s not my servant.”

Father Paul’s hands twitched impatiently. “Servant, poor scholar … whatever you like to call him. You take responsibility for him, do you not?”

Anthony shook his head, suppressing a smile. “No one takes responsibility for Damian.”

“Then it’s time someone did. I don’t see him in chapel as often as I should like.”

Anthony felt the first stirrings of anger. A thin summer rain had begun to fall, and he had better things to do than stand here getting wet and listening to the chaplain’s vaporing. “Is that what this is all about?” he demanded. “Because if it is …”

Father Paul silenced him with a raised hand. “That is a part, but not the whole. Have you heard the latest news from London?”

“No. What news?”

“The office of Grand Inquisitor has been filled.”

Anthony frowned. He still couldn’t see what the old priest was driving at. As the son of a country gentleman, or as an Oxford scholar, he had little interest in what went on in London.

“If that’s all …”

“No doubt thanks to the influence of the Queen,” Father Paul went on, not giving Anthony the chance to protest, “the man appointed to the office is a Spanish priest. Father Alfonso de Tarazona. A man of great … zeal, so they say. And he is coming to Oxford. He will stay here in Cardinal.”

“Here?” Anthony was genuinely startled. “Why?”

Father Paul gave a thin, humourless smile. “The dust has scarcely settled from the trial of Master Galilei in Rome. Father Alfonso seems to hold the view that the Universities are hotbeds of heresy, and a scholar’s gown is no blacker than his heart. I’d advise Damian Arden to show his face in chapel, if I were you.”

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War In Heaven ©2006 John Alfred Taylor

When von Richthofen’s red triplane came apart in a tattered blossom of canvas and steel tubing, engine and propeller still rotating in the midst before it dropped, Georges Guynemer knew he was next. He turned away in the tightest possible circle, but saw what he feared and expected when he looked back over his shoulder.

The archangel was almost upon him, only a few plane lengths behind, its huge face blank and perfect. Best to die fighting, Guynemer decided – by now that had become a habit.

A tight loop, and for a second he was behind the legs under the shining robe. His cockpit filled with fumes from the breech of the 37mm cannon firing through his propeller hub, and he saw the shell shred a thigh. Then Michael turned, and Guynemer was blasting his face point-blank with his synchronized Vickers gun, cratering the chryselephantine visage. One pure blue eye went, the other glowered in righteous anger. In a moment the propeller might do worse damage, except the archangel was swinging his flaming sword …

 

“And how are we both?” asked Doctor Asmodeus. “Completely healed of course.” Guynemer grinned up at the demon in the white coat, who laughed back, both knowing the hospital illusion was unnecessary after so many times, but as Asmodeus kept insisting, it buffered the shock of instant resurrection.

Nurse Ashtoreth was just behind, smiling alternately at von Richthofen and Guynemer, one second dressed as a French nurse, a German nursing sister the next.

“We’ll leave you alone to get back into uniform,” the Doctor said. “Wouldn’t want to shock a lady.”

All grinned at the impossibility of shocking Ashtoreth, who leered back at them as she left, her uniform continuing to flicker between nationalities when her bare skin wasn’t showing through.

“One good thing about being dead and alive again,” Manfred muttered as he buttoned his tunic. “No more headaches.”

“The wound troubled you to the end?”

“To the last.” The Rittmeister touched his finger to the place where the pit in his forehead had been. “They were still extracting bits of bone.”

Georges always found the journey from the hospital to the squadron mess unsettling – the duckboard walkway was fine, but on either side the shifting surface of Limbo stretched away and even worse, showed through the gaps between the planks. Though why complain – the stinking mud of the trenches could have been oozing between and around the boards. And the grass of the airfield beyond was green and flourishing, shining even more marvelously amid the roiling grayness.

Leutnant Hermes Trismegestis sprang to his feet as they entered. “Another defeat?”

Manfred nodded glumly, and the recording officer went over to the blackboard and made another chalk mark. “Seventeen so far. I’ll write it up later.”

“Not worth the trouble,” Guynemar said.

“Always worth it,” chirped Trismegestis. “Reading them over might help us win.”

Guynemer laughed and shook his head. “I know you invented writing, Tris. But you mustn’t assume it will be useful in all situations. “

“Can’t do any harm,” said Albert Ball. The British ace was seated at the mess table, nursing a pint of bitter. “Seventeen failures in a row means we could do with a bit of rethinking.”

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Moonlight Serenade ©2006 Bruce Golden

January 30, 1946 - Allied Headquarters, Paris, France

 

“What is it, Captain, I’m very busy.”

“Sorry to disturb you, Colonel, but you said you wanted a report as soon as I completed my investigation.”

Colonel Washburn searched his desk muttering, “Yes, yes. I’ll read your report as soon as you’ve filed it.”

Captain Mercer didn’t move. He was hesitant to annoy his superior officer when the man was so obviously distracted by other concerns, but he was convinced it was necessary.

“Pardon me, sir, but I know the directive for this investigation came from the top, and I believe you should hear my findings before any official documents are filed.”

The colonel looked up at his subordinate for the first time. “What do you mean? What did your investigation reveal?”

“Well, sir ...” Captain Mercer hesitated. He’d rehearsed this, but now wasn’t certain where to begin.

“Come on, son, I don’t have all day. Major Miller’s plane went down somewhere over the channel – correct?”

“Well yes ... and no.” Mercer cringed at how it sounded.

“What do you mean yes and no? It can’t be both, Captain. What exactly did your investigation conclude?”

“My investigation reached no single definitive conclusion, sir.”

Colonel Washburn sat back in his chair as if making himself comfortable. “You’d better explain yourself, Captain.”

Mercer took a breath. “Colonel, I was unable to conclude, with any certainty, what happened to Major Anton Glenn Miller, because of a number of conflicting reports.”

Colonel Washburn just stared, waiting for him to go on.

“It’s been assumed Major Miller took off from Twinwood Airfield on December 15th. However, no flight plan was ever filed, and there is no written record of any such departure.

“Disregarding that for the moment, the most disturbing report I’ve come across originates from an RAF navigator who says, while returning from a mission, his bomber jettisoned its unused bombs over the channel, and that he saw one of the bombs hit a small plane. He’s certain the plane was a single engine Norseman, the same kind of plane Major Miller was supposedly aboard. The navigator insists the date was December 15th, however the only official document I can find states that a Norseman was lost to a bomb drop on the 16th.

“It could have been entirely different aircraft, or there could be a mistake concerning the dates.”

Colonel Washburn stood and looked through the window behind his desk. “Troubling news, Captain. If we have to report that America’s most beloved bandleader was killed by our allies …” The colonel turned back to Mercer. “You said there were conflicting reports.”

“Yes, sir. There are several. Despite the fact there is no record of a Norseman landing in Paris on December 15th, there are eyewitness reports that Major Miller was seen at a party thrown by General Eisenhower at the Palace of Versailles on December 16th.”

Colonel Washburn said nothing, but seemed to contemplate this as he fiddled with a pencil.

“I’ve also learned that the officer who authorized Miller’s flight, and was reportedly aboard the plane, was a Lieutenant Colonel Norman Baessell, a rather shady character with a reputation for black market dealings. He was known as a reckless operator who ordered his pilots to fly in bad conditions.” Mercer cleared his throat. “There are other accounts. One states Miller was accidently shot by a U.S. Army M.P. in a Paris brothel. Another says he was shot by a Frenchman, who, after being freed from a German prison camp, came home to find Miller in bed with his wife. Still another account – a rumor really – suggest he was a Nazi spy who met in secret with Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler.”

“Is that it, Captain? Don’t you have any positive scenarios?”

“There is one more, sir, but it’s just hearsay. An infantry officer told his men he found Miller’s body outside of Bastogne after the Battle of the Bulge. However, the officer was killed soon after, and no such body was ever identified.”

“No tag was recovered?”

“Apparently Major Miller suffered from a skin condition that prevented him from wearing dog tags.”

Washburn grumbled something Mercer couldn’t make out, then turned to stare at him. “That’s it? That’s the sum of your findings, Captain?”

“Without going into more detail – yes, sir. To be honest, Colonel, I doubt we’ll ever know exactly what happened to Major Miller.”

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Night of Sevens ©2006 Paul Marlowe

Two young Chinese women sporting twin red-silk cocktail dresses smiled robotically at Captain McHaffey as he stepped into the glass and gold lobby of the Goddess of the Sea beach resort. A lounge tune from the last century greeted him too, from the band that was blocking a panoramic window on the opposite wall, allowing only a glimpse of faint moonlight playing over Wangan Island, and across the distant South China Sea. McHaffey slid a quick, appreciative eye over the pair of hostesses in red, but they were now trying to hide their giggling faces. He assumed it was the first time they’d seen a man so dashingly attired, in a blue-green kilt with a basket-hilt broadsword. While their fascinated stares explored his barbarous novelties, he searched the pockets of his archer-green doublet before finding an invitation amongst the odds and ends inside his sporran. The women bowed in recognition, offering him a welcome-scroll and an artificial Tianren Daisy with delicate two-handed gestures before they beckoned him inside to join the throng.

They were a mixed lot of civilians, local, and foreign military, with a veritable orchard of golden plum-blossoms decorating the shoulders of the many Taiwanese officers present. McHaffey whisked off his Glengarry cap as another girl in red passed, loaded with a consignment of wine flutes, and he lightened her load by one. He hated white wine, but he hated formal soirées even more. If only King’s Regulations forbade him from attending these things. He’d have to put the question to Trooper Downs later, damn him. And damn his photographic memory for King’s Regs. McHaffey had once quoted regulations to his driver, Keegan Downs, and the annoying git had been throwing moldy old rules back at him ever since.

A Taiwanese lieutenant-colonel across a buffet table seemed to be scanning McHaffey up and down, growing more incredulous with each pass. Ignoring the discourteous attention, McHaffey sipped his foul wine and bent to examine an exquisitely carved melon that was sculpted into two little figures joined by a flock of tiny birds. A ring of speared meat lumps surrounded the tableau, so he took one and chewed on it, nodding to the colonel and scowling at the rubbery, fishy morsel he was now obligated to swallow.

“Is it going to be ventriloquism?” the colonel asked.

McHaffey nearly choked. “Sir?”

The colonel leant farther across the table to peer gravely at McHaffey’s crotch. “Does it speak?”

McHaffey dropped his toothpick and looked desperately around for help. At a loss, he nervously counted the stamens on the colonel’s epaulets, hoping a waiter, or an air raid, might create a distraction. Then he followed the colonel’s line of sight to the two beady orange eyes on his badger-head sporran. Luckily, before the awkward moment dragged on too long, a familiar voice sounded behind McHaffey.

“Why, it’s the belle of the ball!”

Half relieved and still half mortified, he and his badger turned to Captain Sierra Kiefer of US Pacific Army Intelligence. She was poised with a wooden case under one arm and a fist on her hip, surveying his outfit from collar piping to spats, lingering over the sporran.

“Lord, Ben, but you Canucks sure go in for fancy gear. You know, drab old service dress would have been fine.

“I still get first waltz, don’t I?”

“All right, but I’m wearing the pants, so I lead.”

“Someone,” McHaffey said stiffly, “advised ceremonial dress.” He throttled his sword hilt and thought of Trooper Downs.

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Back from the Freezer? ©2006 Gregory Benford

For many, the most startling news the summer of 2002 was that the American baseball legend, Ted Williams, had been frozen. A close relative turned Williams’ body over to a firm that suspends its ‘patients’ in liquid nitrogen. A firestorm of media attention followed.

The USA is the only nation with a thriving industry in cryonics. The underlying hope, that properly freezing people immediately after they have crossed the threshold we call ‘death’ may allow them to be later reanimated, is a bold assertion about the future.

This goal is not scientific, in the sense that the results cannot be checked right now. This is not the same as unscientific statements – those which have been tested and have failed.

Rather, ideas of the future are nonscientific. However systematically arrived at, they cannot be tested today.

Cryonics opens a window into the American mind. It is utopian and pragmatic, since the essential argument is to freeze people with carefully tailored cryoprotectants distributed through the bloodstream into their cells. The first concrete idea about saving the dead appears in a letter by Ben Franklin in 1771: “… for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country!”

Even now, the technology to ‘resurrect’ by warming the body and curing their disease must lie in the far future, perhaps a century away. This demands optimism few can muster, a faith that the future will both care and be able to achieve medical miracles.

Response to the very idea of cryonics is quite emotional, especially among both scientists and the religious – a fervently felt resistance suggesting a deep underlying uneasiness about death in modern society. Imagine a scientist today being rejected from a scientific society because he wants to present research relevant to long-term preservation of whole organisms, not necessarily humans. Yet this continues, as well as widespread views that cryonics is inherently wrong, greedy, or else the work of con men. (This last assumption seems universal among physicians). Critics usually fail to note that the procedure, which costs around $60,000 for a head-only suspension, is paid by the ‘patients.’

Of course, cryonics is a huge gamble, and may be best viewed that way. Skeptic’s recent piece by Kevin Miller (Vol 11, #1) follows common practice: interview a cryobiologist, who then cites a transhumanist (a techno-advocate, but not a cryonicist) about techno-optimism. Miller’s scientist, Kenneth Storey, cites extreme standards (cells must cool “at least 1,000 degrees a minute”) without backup argument, says “it will never work for organs,” and “they claim they will overturn the laws of physics, chemistry and molecular science” – using the principle of authority without argument.

This does not pass an elementary scientific sniff test. In any case, lack of imagination is not an argument.

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The Stranger at Gunnison's Camp ©2006 Ken Rand

Mike hesitated, ready to toss another rock into the Sevier River, shimmering silvery in the moonlight, but spooked now as he heard the dry crackle of rushes to the west.

“Mr. Custer? Is that you?”

The sound stopped.

Another damn cow? He’d seen many cows near the road when he’d arrived at the site – the farming town of Hinckley was seven miles northeast. He’d nearly hit one on the road. Still, the noise startled him, so abrupt in the desert quiet, and his heart rose into his throat. He couldn’t see what – or who – made the sound in the featureless dark that rose from the riverbank to the jagged line of the House Range thirty miles west. Above the mountains, the band of the Milky Way glittered, a starry necklace across the sky. A crescent moon hung above the southeastern horizon.

“Mr. Custer?”

Silence.

Still clutching the rock, Mike wiped sweat from his brow. He checked his watch. It was just after ten o’clock. He’d been here, waiting, for almost an hour.

He’d had no trouble finding the place. The Gunnison Massacre site was about three hours southwest of Salt Lake City. It sat just off U.S. 50, five miles down a gravel road. The site was a wide spot at the end of the gravel road, which terminated abruptly against a bend in the Sevier. On the riverbank stood a six-foot high stone monument, like an old chimney, a marker erected by local history buffs. A ragged, round scar on the monument had stood out in the setting sun. Mike guessed a commemorative plaque had once been cemented there. Vandals no doubt stole it, he’d thought, eyeing with distaste the broken bottles, shotgun shells and other trash discarded by people whose visits to the remote site had nothing to do with history.

Mike had never been to Utah’s West Desert before, although he’d heard enough about it from reporters at the Salt Lake Tribune in his first six weeks on the job. He’d landed the job right out of Ohio State. Go see the stars you can’t see from the city, they told him. Go alone and commune with nature, they said. And watch out for snakes, they added, laughing at his reaction.

Mike kicked at a dirt-encrusted object. A condom.

The rushes rattled again.

“Ouch,” a male voice muttered in the gloom. “Shit.”

“Mister Custer?” Mike called out.

“Uh, yeah,” the voice confessed. A dark shape ambled forward, resolving into a short, thin man.

Mike tossed the rock aside and stepped forward, swallowing apprehension. He extended a hand toward his contact, whose name, according to his editor, was George Custer. An Indian.

“I’m Mike Potter.” They shook hands. The Indian’s small hand felt delicate. He smelled of sweat and wood smoke.

“Sorry I scared you,” Custer said, voice airy, high-pitched, “but I’ve been poking around, making sure you came alone. Like we agreed.”

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Moon Flu ©2006 Vaughan Stanger

A screech from the long-suffering door hinges alerted me to the arrival of customers, an unwelcome distraction for a drowsy Cape afternoon. I placed my newspaper on the counter and glanced at the skinny, sharp-featured blonde and her dark-haired, athletic-looking partner. These tanned twenty-somethings gave off a faintly careworn air, as if they were taking a vacation but not enjoying it over-much.

In truth, quite a few years had passed since there was a whole lot to do around here. Once in a while a visitor might get to watch one of those new Deltas launch a satellite into low earth orbit. As for me, hearing that thunder rumbling up the coastline served as a bittersweet reminder of what might have been.

Not that the demise of manned spaceflight was uppermost in the thoughts of this couple, or so I reckoned. The man was studying the chalkboard menu with an intensity bordering on the feverish, while his partner was holding the door ajar, as if readying herself for a quick getaway. Her expression suggested she didn’t fancy what was on offer. Doubtless the flyspecked windows and greasy tabletops weren’t helping. But the man looked like he needed a square meal and couldn’t care less where he ate it. Feeling unwell might have been a factor too, judging by his sore-looking nostrils and the puffy skin around his eyes. My guess was confirmed by a succession of sniffles, each louder and more liquid than its predecessor.

“Jim, darling! Would you please stop doing that?”

I hadn’t expected her posh English accent, though it did fit well with the look of disdain.

“Jeez, Phyllis, gimme a break! I’ve been driving for six hours despite feeling like I’m gonna die. Six fucking hours!” He held a tissue to his nose and blew loudly, which only made things worse, because a moment later his head tilted back and …

“Atishoo!”

“Bless you,” said Phyllis.

“Moon flu!” I added.

The woman stared at me, her neatly plucked eyebrows beetling. Then she shook her head, presumably convinced that she had misheard. Jim looked too exhausted to care.

“Best find him some aspirin,” I said.

The woman scowled at me. “Have you got any?” Her tone stung like acid. Jim, I reckoned, might not be overburdened with sympathy.

I gestured towards the door, waggling my thumb to the right. “The nearest mall is three blocks that-a-way. You’ll find a drugstore there.”

She gave me a withering look, which I met with a shrug. A glance at her designer jeans made me think that the local boutiques would not detain her long, but it was worth a shot for Jim’s sake.

“Look, while you’re gone, why don’t I rustle up a double cheeseburger-and-fries for Jim here?”

Phyllis turned to him. “Will you be okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

“Right, I’m off then ...”

The screech from the door hinges was followed seconds later by the screech of tyre-rubber on tarmac.

Jim sighed relief.

I smiled at him. “She’ll have flashed her platinum in more exclusive stores, but it might just buy you some peace and quiet.”

Jim grinned back at me. “Time enough to eat that cheeseburger you mentioned, anyhow.”

“Coming right up.” I scribbled his order on my pad, tore off the sheet and passed it through the hatch to Jerome. “Coffee?”

“Yeah, that’d be good.”

I poured him a mug-full. “So, how long have you been suffering with this bug?”

“Oh, several days now.” He sipped at his coffee before continuing. “Must have picked up the little fucker in New York. Sure wish I’d left it there!”

We both laughed: Jim at his own joke, me because I couldn’t have cued up my favourite story any better if I’d tried. I leaned across the counter and waved him closer.

“That’s nothing,” I told him. “I once sent a bug on a much longer journey than that.”

The way Jim shrugged as he took another sip suggested he was more interested in drinking his coffee than hearing my tale. But the steam must have tickled his nose, because his head tilted backwards again.

“Atishoo!”

“Moon flu!”

That was Al, my only other customer and a bit of a folk hero round these parts. Bald as a coot and freckled like a man who’d seen the sun close up and personal, he wore his seventy-plus years lightly. He winked at me and resumed eating his fried chicken.

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Infamy ©2006 Edward Morris

We sat together at morning’s end, my earnest young new friend and I, and talked of science fiction while we barred the door and waited for the bombs to start falling. Outside the suite, chaos reigned supreme throughout the sordid rooms of the Chelsea Hotel.

The boy came by at eight. I’d been up all night trying to write. My amanuensis had gone out for nepenthe ahead of the morning’s bringdown an hour before he knocked, all out of breath and clutching a book for me to sign.

 An hour later, two whistling booms silenced the naked city. Dust and ash began drifting on the wind like poisoned snow. Sirens howled from Battery Park to Bellevue and back again. The ship was sinking, and it was an incredible time of chacun pour soi, every crumb for himself.

We put the news on early, and were told of scenes such as we never believed outside the covers of the pulp magazines. The boy wept softly at first, and chain-smoked. I raged and threw things. He didn’t seem surprised.

One instant, my dears, accentuated the brutality at home and abroad forever, stole the ground from unborn feet forever and made widows and widowers. Forever. The whole thing could have been avoided. But now there was no telling whose axe would end bloodiest.

New York held the colorless no-smell of death, sucking us all down in a black funnel toward an unknown lurking fear a thousand times more vivid than the kind young Lovecraft writes of so well in Astounding! The boy was over it by now. I wasn’t.

I thought we left all this in Berlin. But now Berlin had come to us. Somewhere there was a time, somewhere a place, where we could stop holding our breath and be free. I hoped I would arrive soon.

Phil poured himself a fresh knock of Ilse’s vodka into a cracked water glass on the coffee table, hunting around for his little bottle of Coca-Cola. It was on the floor by his foot. After a moment, he saw it and smiled his odd, impish smile.

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