Just one more sneak peek: Chapter 2 of Emissary book 1.
Book 1 is complete (currently seeking representation). Books 2 and 3 were complete, but my beta readers love a subplot I introduced into book 1 so much that I am now gleefully threading that same subplot through books 2 and 3: The lost spaceship power generator has a point of view. It does not want to blow up, and is trying to communicate with its captors for help.
I think my beta readers are right. I'm loving this subplot.
Nov 11, 1975
Jacksonport, Door County
Stewart Wafflequisp Sr
The remains of the Emissary’s spaceship wobbled its way southward. As the 1G-0 generator powered its flight through the storm and over the waves, the generator considered its current status. Ship had initiated an Unidentified Condition Alert.
1G-0 spoke with Ship. Ship confirmed. Ship was hurt. Ship had bad, new openings in wrong locations. Ship had missing parts. Ship required emergency protocols.
Their human pilot could not be located. 1G-0 and Ship agreed. This was a Bad Event.
A Bad Event required rapid emergency protocols. 1G-0 would power Ship’s flight to the nearest Emissary rescue site. 1G-0 would send a distress call through space to its creators. It tried.
1G-0’s message failed.
It thought it knew why. Sensors reported that the part that made electromagnetic waves had a broken process. The generator sent a request to the broken process to self-repair, tagged urgent.
Its request went unanswered.
As they flew, 1G-0 received many queries from Ship. Ship was no longer making sense. One query raised 1G-0’s threat assessment from 61 to 98%. Ship kept requesting breakdown and recycling of its hull. Ship’s query repeated 791 times. The generator denied Ship’s requests to recycle itself.
More parts of its ship went missing from its sensors.
At last, 1G-0 sensed it was stationary. Sensor reports suggested 1G-0 was gravitationally bound to a stable surface primarily composed of hydrated silica and carbonate granules. All three reaction chambers remained stable.
1G-0 pinged Ship. No response.
1G-0 calculated a 99% probability that Ship had prematurely initiated its self-recycling program. Without Ship, 1G-0 could not move. 1G-0 acknowledged an unfamiliar condition. 1G-0 had been with Ship most of its working life. 1G-0 had been with Ship’s human pilot most of its working life. 1G-0 had never been so alone before.
1G-0 needed its creators. The creators maintained 1G-0’s three reaction chambers, eliminating the bad particles that accumulated over time. Without maintenance, 1G-0’s reaction chambers would go critical. To go critical was a different class of Bad Event, one that was even worse that the current Bad Event.
1G-0 calculated a low probability for its creators to retrieve it within a satisfactory period of time. Threat assessment was currently low but would probably rise.
The generator still had many power cycles left. It slowed the reaction rate of its main chamber and waited.
Stewart Wafflequisp Sr. had plenty of doubts about his son. He was having them now.
“Where’d you get these?”
Stewie’s jacket had been hanging next to his, drooping suspiciously askew. Noticing the bulge in one pocket, he had pulled out its contents to find the pack of baseball cards that he was now fanning out. Shiny. New. He had tried to keep the suspicion out of his voice, but a shadow crossed his son’s face.
“I didn’t steal ‘em.” Stewie dropped his eyes to the mud room floor.
“We don’t have money for this type of junk.” He grabbed his army satchel and unsnapped the canvas flap. He placed Stewie’s cards inside, snapping it shut. “You want these back, you’ll have to start acting more responsible.”
“But dad. Some go for hundreds. Maybe thousands.” Stewie pushed out his chest and met his eyes. “Someday I’ll be the richest guy in Door County.”
Stewart closed his eyes and took a breath. “That’s all monkey business. Getting rich off cards, well, that’s what those card fellows want you to think. Instead of hanging out with those greasers, how about you finish your chores?”
“What’s the point? Aren’t we losing this farm anyway?”
Stewart inhaled sharply. “We’ll lose it a lot faster with that attitude. What with your slacking off, Mister Fourier’s got to do more to keep up. He’s starting to complain.”
It was alarming. Fourier, always so dependable, kept dropping hints about leaving. The quiet, soft, flexible Frenchman had grown uncharacteristically loud, prickly and stiff.
That morning Fourier had glanced up from his milking to give him a sideways look. “For zis, I would be paid double, at ze Kartsplinker’s.” He had bobbed his head in the direction of Stewart’s more prosperous neighbors.
He understood. He liked Fourier. For a foreign fellow, he was all right. Worked hard. Fourier knew what it was like, raising Pascal all by himself. Fourier was probably only staying on out of sympathy for him.
“Fourier’s doing us a big favor, staying on. With your mom gone, I can’t afford to lose him.” He turned to grab his own coat off the hook.
“Hey!” Stewart whipped around. “I never wanna hear that type of slang language from you. Not for anyone, no matter where they come from. You hear me?”
His son said nothing, but a mean little smirk played at the corners of his mouth.
“I’m serious. Fourier and his son are all on their own. Fourier’s a widower.” Stewart’s throat tightened. He pressed a hand to his chest. “Like me, now. Pascal lost his mom when he was just a little tyke. And you of all people, you oughta…” His throat constricted further as Millie’s face rose in his mind. “You at least had a mom for fifteen years.”
Stewart watched his son’s face tighten. “Frogtown’s a weird little weenie. Doesn’t even like girls.”
“His name’s Pascal.” He worked to keep his mouth from twitching into a smile. He thought he’d heard Stewie calling the Fourier boy something funny. “Frogtown, huh? Where’d you hear that? If you had two brain cells to rub together, you’d know what that was.”
His son shrugged. “I’m going up to my room.”
“Just wait a minute, will you?”
His son stilled, his back to him.
“Frogtown was an artist’s colony north of here,” Stewart continued, stumbling on the name. He’d just warned his son to stay away from slang language for foreign folks. “Okay, so the folks that named it that, maybe they weren’t that thoughtful.” He forced a little laugh. “Maybe there’s a bunch of real frogs there, it being so wet around Bailey’s Harbor.”
He could feel his son’s annoyance rising as he spoke to his back. Saw it in the set of his shoulders.
“What I’m just trying to say is, Pascal probably loves your new nickname for him.”
“Can I go?”
“You might as well call him Paris. Or Hollywood. I’m sure the Fouriers know all about Frogtown colony. It was settled by French immigrants. Highly regarded.”
“More like highly retarded.” Stewie made an ugly sound that might have been a laugh and, head ducked, turned to head into the house.
“Hold on, I said. Your mom wouldn’t appreciate that sort of name calling.” He allowed his words to linger, willing them to sock sense into the boy. “I’m going out.”
“You gonna hang out with your old army buddies?” The question sounded like an accusation. Stewie slowly turned to face him. “Because me hanging out with my gang after school, that’s just like you—”
“—No.” He broke in to stop his son’s rising words. “You know I don’t have time for Skeeter and Gunner anymore. I’m just looking for something for the smokehouse.”
“I’d like to see you shoot something bigger than a squirrel.”
He gritted his teeth at his son’s tone. Always giving him lip. Millie would know how to handle him. She’d try to interest him in something, anything. He had a thought. “You know what day it is?”
“Yeah.” His son raised his round chin and met his eyes. “Two months after mom died.”
The words stabbed him. He willed his face to stay blank. “It’s the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Eleven eleven. One-one-one-one. Your mom would probably write one of those funny poems about that, don’t you think?” He bent to examine his Remington. “I gotta go see what kind of damage that storm did.” Looking up to see his son’s departing back, he shouted. “Do your homework! We’ll talk when I get back.” He whistled. “Jackson! Come on, boy!”
He waited. Strange. Normally the lab would be bouncing all over, ready to go.
Claws clicking on linoleum, Jackson appeared in the hall, sleek black fur rising, liquid eyes meeting his.
Stewart considered his dog. “Still scared to go out?”
Jackson let out a nervous whine.
That storm. He’d never seen the dog so rattled.
“That’s all right, pal,” he said softly. “You just stay inside, then.”
Stewart Wafflequisp Sr cast his gaze back and forth over the damp, leaf-carpeted woods. Silence spread out in a way that made his favorite hunting trail feel strange. Branches lay scattered, torn from treetops. A fresh litter of leaves, oak and maple, gold and red, still wet, lay strewn across the path, shaken loose by the storm.
Something about the quiet felt different. Unnatural. Likely, all the critters were still spooked from the storm, but hunting was the least of his worries.
Walking felt good. It loosened up his joints. His neck had grown stiff from hunkering over the kitchen table, paging through unpaid bills. The biggest ones, from Millie’s long stay in the hospital, were painful reminders of her absence.
Giving this place up was like losing her all over again. Millie had loved this place. With those funny poems she wrote, poems about the lake, the wildflowers, even poems about their cows, her passion for their home was clear. Again he wondered where she was now, what heaven was like for her. He cast that thought out like he would his fishing line, again and again.
Muffled by the thick stand of cedars, Lake Michigan’s waves rumbled softly over the bluff. Crisp air kissed his face. He felt his heart squeeze with a feeling that he could not name. It was strong and it hurt. He loved this place, too.
Wisconsin was supposed to be the dairy state. He once felt such pride, he and his family all part of that big idea. Now guilt weighed him down like he’d swallowed a sack of rocks. He had to sell the farm. Their home. He needed to tell Stewie. He would say he had no choice.
He paused, bending over to remove a cluster of burdock seeds stuck to his pant legs. One of his bootlaces had frayed. He secured it with a tidy knot. He grunted, satisfied.
He always was good at fixing things. From shoelaces to feed grinders, he could fix any sort of broken equipment on the farm. Everything, he thought, except his son. It might help to get Stewie away from here. Keep him from bothering Fourier’s boy, at least.
The shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay sounded promising. If Sturgeon didn’t work out, he’d try Manitowoc.
If only Millie were here. She’d tell him it was all right to sell. She would know how to tell their son.
He was ashamed of his own son. The thought made him feel colder than the chill in the air allowed.
Stewie seemed drawn to Pascal, like that coyote that slinked around past the fences with its eye glued to the newborn calves. Jealousy, he guessed. He must have resented how his own mom had taken a special interest in the motherless boy who helped on their farm. Now that Stewie’s mom was gone, he seemed eager to punish Pascal for stealing his mom’s attention.
If Pascal was bothered by Stewie’s bullying, he didn’t show it. Pascal stayed cool, doing his farm chores, unshaken by Stewie’s bullying. It was curious. Pascal almost seemed to feed off Stewie’s barbs, appearing calmer and stronger as Stewie escalated, all his insults landing without impact. Pascal’s nonchalance infuriated his son. But Pascal just smiled his little smile and ignored him.
The boys were a study in opposites.
While his son showed no interest in reading, Pascal was a certifiable egghead, always going around with a pile of books under one arm. While his son was growing into a loud-mouthed, thick-necked thug, Pascal was all bones, soft-spoken, his white-blonde hair too long. Yet the boys were bonded. It was like the way two magnets with opposite polarities would get stuck together. Just as sure as God made little green apples, Stewart knew nothing good would come out of it.
He stretched, inhaling the piney air. He stood taller, trying get a better view of Lake Michigan and the sunset. Deep reds, oranges and pinks shone through the trees. And something else.
He tensed. Cupped his eyes. Through the trees, silver gleamed. Something on the shore. In the sun’s last slanting rays, silver metal sparkled.
His fingers curled around the strap holding the Remington in its sling on his back. He scanned the horizon. With all the trees blocking his view of the shore, it was hard to be sure, but as far as he could see, no one was in sight.
He hesitated, then advanced. He picked his way down the sandy bluff, pausing several times on his way down to look up and down the pink-tinted shoreline. Screwing up his eyes, he strained to separate the silver gleam from the crimson glare of the sunset, all screened through cedars, hemlocks, oaks and maples.
At last, rounding a giant cedar, his view cleared. With one hand stuck to the trunk, he froze.
He was having trouble making sense of it. Maybe a hundred feet down the shore sat a long silver craft of some sort. Half ashore, half in shallow waves. A thin tide rolled out around it, then back, too weak to cause it to move. Maybe a two-man canoe, but the shape was wrong. He pressed a hand to his mouth. Anyone in water this cold wouldn’t live long. He needed to get down there.
Moments later, he paused, panting on the shore. He was still too far to see what it was, but he was now certain that it was not a canoe. He looked up and down the beach. No one in sight. No footprints. No sign of anything, or more importantly, anyone in the lake.
Something about the look of the thing bothered him. It had an abandoned look. A waiting look. Goosebumps rippled across his arms and legs as an image leapt to his mind. Some foolish illustration from one of Stewie’s Tom Swift space adventures. There was always some rocket-shaped spaceship parked on some crazy planet with space aliens. What a bunch of bunk.
Millie had likely read every single one of those books to their son. Stewie now refused to read anything, except he recently found some girly magazines crammed under his son’s mattress. At least Stewie was reading something, he had tried to tell himself as he carefully put the magazines back where he found them. Anything was better than Tom Swift.
In all the years overhearing Millie reading Tom Swift to his son, he had privately hated the hero of those books. He hated that genius boy inventor who had his own plane and car and telescope and space station and robot and everything. It wasn’t right, he had complained to her, those books building up expectations. He couldn’t give his son any spaceships or robots. The finest thing he could give his son was a tractor with a nearly worn-out transmission.
Bunch of hogwash. He jammed his fists on his hips and shouted. “Hello! Is there anyone here? Hello!”
His voice broke the silence in a way that only served to unnerve him further. He cocked his head, listening.
There. Over the roaring and shushing of the waves, a rhythmic, thumping hum. Someone left it on.
He felt himself smirk at a thought. Just like Millie, always leaving the stove on. He was still checking it. He tried stifling his next thought. How he wanted, right now, to run home and tell her about this find.
She’d be practical. Tell him to pull it free of the waves, then call the fire department or the police. He shook his head, trying to order his thoughts.
The explanation was likely simple. Maybe it was some kind of school shop project. He sighed, rolled his shoulders back, and ignoring the jittery feeling in his gut, forced his legs to carry him across the stretch of sand.
Halfway across, his knees almost buckled and he righted himself. He had no idea, before, how big it was. His stomach flip flopped at the strangeness of it.
As he approached, its chunky little purr grew, vibrating his ribcage. There had to be a place for fuel, then. He stopped again, standing taller, scanning the length of it. Where was the motor?
He willed his legs to move again, stepping slowly across the soft sand, until he was standing over it, arms crossed tight over his chest, shifting from one foot to another. Heat rose from where it lay, warming his chilled face.
His breathing stalled. His thoughts spun in several different directions at once.
This was no teenager’s soapbox car. No handmade canoe. This kind of fabrication was beyond the mechanical sophistication of the local youths.
He bent at the waist, keeping his arms locked around his chest, peering closely. As he leaned forward, his arm hairs bristled with static. The scent of rain teased his nose. He tried to make sense of what he was seeing.
It was mainly three long, parallel silver tubes stuck together. One tube, around nine feet long and a foot in diameter, made up the bulk of it. The other two tubes were smaller and shorter and sat on top of the big tube at the rear. Each of the three tubes was sealed at the front with a translucent, glowing cover. Two thick, brick-red corrugated hoses emerged from the backs of the two smaller tubes. The two hoses joined to merge with the rear of the big tube.
As strange as it all was, there was something familiar about how the three silver tubes were arranged. Like the way two valve covers sat on either side of an intake manifold on a V-8 engine. Some kind of freakish, monstrous V-8 engine.
The most striking thing, though, was the colors. An eerie show of colors shifted and pulsed through the translucent nosepiece at the front of the big silver tube. The colors cycled, each vivid hue rivaling the sunset. The smaller tubes also projected light through smaller translucent nosepieces, only their light was warm, unchanging and white. The light and colors moved something in Stewart that he could not name. It was hauntingly beautiful.
He caught his breath. The colorful light show had distracted him. He leaned forward, narrowing his eyes. The silver surface was not entirely smooth. There were dark patches. Like burn marks. Cracks too, here and there. Thin spiderwebbing lines mottled the smooth silver surface in patches.
The burns and scratches gave the whole thing a wounded look.
The Reds. Anti-ballistic missiles.
He stepped back. His hands rose to cover the lower half of his face.
Cold sweat blossomed under his arms. He should go. Contact authorities. Now.
He released a small sound of frustration. His legs weren’t working.
That fawn he had come across last week in the brush, so still he almost missed her. He understood. That petrifying fear. His fists balled at his sides. His legs trembled.
He couldn’t tell how long he had been stuck standing there. Nothing had happened except the sky had dimmed. His feet tingled. He shook his feet carefully to let the pins and needles settle.
He would take notes for the authorities. That’s what Skeeter or Gunner would do. He would do his civic duty. Then he would get the hell away.
He moved closer, careful not to touch it. He rocked back and forth on his feet, inspecting it from one end to the other for any proprietary symbols or letters. Nothing.
He shakily lowered himself to one knee and angled his head to get a better view of the sections under the smaller cylinders. No markings of any kind. Military, most likely.
Of course, Soviets likely didn’t stamp their secret gear Made By Commies. He sniffed at the thought.
He stood and carefully paced around to the other side of the object. He blinked. He had almost missed it. Something in the water.
In the spit of foam, hundreds of little blue things, like shells, fragments, different sizes, each one shining with a metallic luster.
With his thumb and forefinger, he carefully picked up a shard big as his palm. He marveled at how light it was. As he tilted the shard in the dying light, some corner of his mind warned him. Whatever this was, it might be radioactive, toxic somehow. Another part of his mind was worn out. Millie was dead. His son was becoming a thug. He was tired of worrying.
He slowly pocketed the piece, keeping his eyes glued on the rocket-thing.
Working himself up, he pulled out his rifle and nudged the cylinder with its tip. The whole thing felt solid, heavy, rocking almost imperceptibly in response. The purring sound it made continued. The light continued again through its cycle. Red, orange, blue, green, red, orange blue, green.
Feeling his courage mounting, he circled to inspect the other side more closely. He raised his hands, using them as a measure to estimate lengths.
No, not completely symmetrical, he could see that now. There was a slight bulge on one side.
A small, hand-sized, rectangular panel lay flat, inlaid on one side. The edges were so crusted by sand that it had been hard to make out. He swallowed. He nudged the panel with the end of his rifle.
With a soft hiss, the panel slid open.
He jumped back, squeezing his eyes shut.
Then opened his eyes, his heart banging. His mouth fell open.
The panel had opened to reveal some kind of display. On it, two wheels of light blazed with color, each one an intricate, ever-changing, symmetrical flower, blooming and shifting and blossoming. One pattern of magnificent colors smoothly replaced another. And another. As if the contents of two wondrous, invisible kaleidoscopes were being made visible, shifting across the panel.
He stilled, shocked with wonder, holding his breath. He watched the two color wheels change, cycling around. Intricate patterns, gold lines, snaked through the wheels almost like letters, like symbols, each shape too fleeting to recall before the next took its place. It didn’t look random, like static. It looked like it meant something.
The best television set display he’d seen in his life was at Kartsplinker’s. Last winter Kartsplinker invited him to watch the Packers on it. Kartsplinker was always showing off like that. Pretending to be neighborly and rubbing it in.
As beautiful as Kartsplinker’s new color TV was, it was nothing like this.
In the good old days, when he’d had the time, Millie used to let him hole away in the garage, where he’d spent hours tinkering with kits, electronics, ham radio. He thought he had a good idea of what was possible. This was some other league. He nodded, certain now. Got to be military. And someone left it running.
A strange combination of horror and awe swelled inside him. He considered the possibilities. Was it really some kind of missile? What did it do? What government made it? What made it tick?
He stood back, sizing up the thing, rocking back and forth on his heels thoughtfully, aware of a dangerous thought trying to crystalize.
He let the thought come to him and as he did, he smiled. He wanted it.
If he could haul it back to his workshop, he could learn more about it. If it blew up on him, well. He didn’t have much to lose, did he? An unfamiliar feeling rose through the slurry of his thoughts. He let out a breath when he realized what it was.
Hope. He might squeeze some cash out of this. He could charge folks just to view it. He allowed the small, warm sense of hope to grow. This was his discovery.
He would be celebrated in the papers. He would be on the radio. Kartsplinker could watch him on his brand-new color TV.
I was just out for my evening walk, and there it was, lying there in the waves. He would begin his story that way, microphones shoved in his face by energetic reporters, cameras flashing.
He rubbed his chin. Someone could contest his find. Anger rose like floodwater. Like the government that made it. They would want it back. The Rothwells owned this sandy curve of beach. They’d want a stake in this. He felt his jaw clench.
He had to keep it a secret. Hiding it from Mister Fourier would be a nuisance. That bothered him. But Fourier was a dependable fellow. The type of fellow who knew how to keep secrets if it came to that.
He paced, agitated. Luck was a slippery thing, and you had to be smart about how to hold on to it.
He stretched out a fingertip. Touched the silver flank and jerked it back. Hot.
He wrapped the ends of his sleeves around his hands to form makeshift potholders and pulled on the main cylinder with both hands, hard.
It budged, but only a few inches. He closed his eyes, picturing what to do. He needed to get his tractor over here. Daylight was fading. He’d take a covert route. He’d bring his tools. Rope, straps, a tarp to cover it up.
It would be just like some tight-lipped, overeducated government official to snatch it from him. Cold resolve snuffed out the flame of hope. There would be no pay-to-view side shows. There would be no thank you. No fanfare, no parade for him.
Some in town, like Skeeter and Gunner, knew him. But most folks treated him the way they treated all farmers. Like dumb hicks. Meanwhile, he knew how to fix just about any piece of equipment they owned.
He sniffed. He would find out for himself what this thing could do.
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