THE IMPROBABLE ADVENTURES OF DYLAN DARBY
EPISODE 2: WAKING THE ROCK
by: Thomas Allen Mays
The young man sat precariously atop the highest spar of The Light of the Lion‘s dorsal mainmast and split his attention between two impossible things, trying to decide which one perplexed him most. First, obviously, there was the sky.
Instead of the usual black vastness and unremitting vacuum of space, an ever-shifting expanse of pale blues, coral pinks, and gold-tinged, pearlescent whites glowed out to infinity. Planets, moons, and stars rolled through these bright heavens without pause, held to their eternal tracks by unknown physical laws that defied his every experience. This was aetheric space, only the first of many oddities Dylan Darby faced as a new arrival in a changed universe.
Then, of course, there was the girl.
The lovely Lady Alexandria Tchechky had been – only a few hours before – a middle-aged Ukranian man, a very adept poker player, and Dylan’s only friend aboard the star-liner Leoluce. But that was a universe away from the skyship upon which they currently traveled. Now, she was youthful, exuberant, and emphatically female – his lips still tingled at the confirmation of that.
That she was still his friend, he had no doubt. What else she might be, and how he felt about that, he had no idea. He watched her contentedly stroll the open deck below, unable to take his eyes and his mind off of her, just as he was unable to disregard the mystery of the infinite sky.
“Master Darby!” A voice called up from the deck. “If you would be so kind as to remove yourself from my rigging, perhaps we could make orbit today!” Captain Loughton’s stern tone was a sham and Dylan knew it. Dylan had saved the ship and everyone aboard her, and he was the only one aware of what it had cost. As far as Loughton was concerned, the strange young man was a saint.
A need for a little reflective privacy had driven Dylan to climb up the ship’s mainmast, where the gravity was dramatically weaker and the aetheric breeze was stronger, subtle hints of the strangeness behind his new realm’s laws. There was no solace to be found in solitude, though.
Dylan was an orphan, and it was his own fault. His untrained, fumbling manipulation of the probability streams had allowed them to jump over vast light years to the relative safety of this system, but it had also irrevocably altered the basic structure of the universe. He was the lone survivor of a reality that no longer existed, a reality that had been banished by his own actions. As he dwelt upon that, his confusion was joined by the first pangs of depression.
Thus, Dylan felt grateful for the interruption and moved quickly to do as the captain asked. He jumped down, catching the ratlines without looking and scrambling along their length faster than an amateur had any right to, more of a controlled fall rather than a deliberate descent.
Loughton shook his head once Dylan reached the main deck. “You’re lucky you didn’t break your foolish neck, my boy. At least let me get the hero of the hour to the Empress hale and whole. If she doesn’t have a chance to thank you for saving the ship, I should think I’d never be welcome above Morgan’s Rock again.”
Dylan gestured to the cloud-shrouded planet that hung in the distant aether off the bow, the planet that had been known as Morgana in his reality. “Don’t worry, Captain. I’m sure you’ll get me there in one piece. Besides, I’m learning that luck and chance are just about my only stock in trade.”
Captain Loughton nodded and turned to his boatswains, sailors, and engineers, who scurried about to stand by lines, winches, and power cables, prepared to bend the flowing aether to their will. The very thought of sailing a ship into orbit around a planet boggled Dylan’s mind. How was it even possible to sail in the traditional sense without the necessary interplay of forces between wind and sea? Yet, what was unfathomable to him was commonplace for them, and the crew all proceeded sharply about their duties.
Calls went up around the ship as the crew began warping lines and filling the iridescent sails with the stuff of space. The Light of the Lion was a tetrahedral gaff topsail schooner, a handsome, proud vessel of dark wood beams and riveted iron, adorned with polished copper, silver, and brass. Only a few pieces of technology stood out as obvious anachronisms to the sea going vessel she might have emulated. Her complex rigging supported a dorsal foremast and mainmast, with a pair of ventral bilge keelmasts pointed down at an angle, one to starboard and one to port. Fore and aft sails billowed from each raked mast in the shifting wind until they were set, firming up and driving the ship rapidly toward the planet, with the square foremast topsail almost perpendicular to centerline.
All the activity on deck pushed the rest of the passengers into the casino down below, but Dylan could not imagine any place he would rather be. At least, until he saw Alexandria Tchechky step gracefully around the foremast headed aft, a raven-haired vision in an emerald gown, petticoats, and a well-fitted bodice. His mouth went dry upon seeing her smile toward him, and he started forward, not really watching his surroundings.
A crack of thunder like a cannon-shot boomed out as one of the tensioned lines suddenly parted, passing straight through the spot he had just been standing in. The synthetic rope struck the mainmast and whipped around, its bitter end breaking the sound barrier with a second crack. The line lashed out until it found a destination, impacting a young sailor who had been checking another line nearby Dylan. His chest caved in and he was tossed from the ship without even a cry of alarm.
Dylan found himself face down on the deck, not quite sure how he had gotten there. He scrambled to his feet and rushed to the port gunwale, where everyone had dropped what they were doing and could only watch helplessly as the boy’s body flew out of the ship’s gravity well and tumbled in the free aether.
Cries of, “Man overboard!” sounded across the deck and people rushed to launch the ship’s skiff. Their efforts were abandoned before they even really began, though, when Loughton’s voice rose up, higher than the confusing din that had consumed the deck. “Belay that launch! The boy is dead! Check your stations. We’re veering to port, directly into the Rock’s wake!”
Alexandria caught up to Dylan. He was relieved to see her, even though her worries were not his top concern. “My lord, Dylan, are you alright? That boy was standing right next to you! You have no idea how fortunate you just were,” she said, her dark eyes huge and fearful.
Dylan grinned without any humor. “You’d be surprised. Strange fortunes seem to be developing into more or less of a theme for me.” He waved a hand to indicate the new, frantic work taking place on deck. “What’s going on? What’s the problem?”
Confusion battled with fear in Alexandria’s eyes. “Well, it’s the wake, Dylan, the turbulent aetheric wake caused by the passage of the planet through the free aether.” She led Dylan across deck and pointed down to the loose keel sail flapping from the starboard ventral keelmast – the source of the murderous parted line – and then recrossed the deck to look down at the full, taut sail on the portside keelmast.
Dylan understood then. The unbalanced forces on the opposing sails were dragging the ship off to the left, directly behind the mass of the planet as it revolved about the system’s sun. He could not see anything particularly deadly about the situation, but it was clear enough to the sailors on deck that he could see the concern and worry on their faces.
A gang of men, with Captain Loughton driving them personally, fought against the sheet-line holding the port keelsail taut, but the winch was stuck and the coils of line wrapped around the winch’s drum were tangled in a Gordian knot. The sail remained full and they continued to pick up speed off toward the left of their intended course.
A hatch on deck burst open and a huge man with rippling arms and hands like cinder blocks emerged from the steamy confines below decks. Reece, the ship’s Chief Engineer, dragged out a long-handled axe and bulled his way through the crowd of rough-looking line handlers without any real effort. Reece placed one hand on the captain’s chest and pushed him aside gently. With the other hand, he raised the axe high over head.
The axe-head swung down and parted the port sheet. The line snapped cleanly out from the keelmast, away from the hull, and the port keel sail went loose, flapping in the breeze and no longer pushing them toward the invisible “wake”.
Loughton clasped Reece on the shoulder and then walked back amidships, barking orders. “Luff your dorsals and reverse the charge on the jibs! Balance all remaining sails and put us back on course.” He turned and stalked to the plotting table mounted just behind the ship’s control console on the quarterdeck. As he passed Dylan, he muttered, “Damn it all, this voyage is cursed. No one can have this much bad luck.” There was more, but it was lost in the noise and commotion on deck.
Dylan, with Alexandria in tow, followed the captain and stood by as he consulted an odd looking display. The colorful, phosphorescent screen did not have the resolution of the displays in Dylan’s former reality, but it made up for it in the striking depth of field it showed. On the screen, the ship floated in a relatively calm pocket of white, but violent spikes of unpredictable force approached directly in front of them, curls and spirals of lurid false color.
Captain Loughton jabbed a finger on the central icon of the display and cursed in frustration. “Blast it! The keelsail was up too long. We’re too far in and there’s not enough working sail left. Reece!”
The huge engineer appeared at Loughton’s side, moving quite fast for a man of his size. “Yes, Captain?”
“Misfortune is our mistress, my friend. I shouldn’t have been sailing that close to the envelope, but I never imagined we’d have another disaster so soon. Fire up the torch. Jetting our way back to safety is the only way we’re going to avoid being chewed up and spit out by the planetary wake.”
The engineer looked as if he was going to be sick. “That’s what I was coming to tell you when the line snapped. The torch is down. I don’t know why, but none of the reactor power is reaching it. We’re working to fix it, but it’s going to take time.”
All the color drained from Loughton’s face. “We don’t have time.” He looked toward the bow, causing Dylan to turn as well, watching for some sort of indication that the aether before them was any different, any more deadly, than the charming, impossible vapors they had been cruising through all day. Loughton may have been able to discern something, but Dylan could not.
Both men turned back to the plotting table, and Loughton shook his head in dismay. “This isn’t misfortune – it’s sabotage. These sorts of things never happen, and never, ever all at once. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the gods themselves were conspired against us. Now we’re too late to even get lifeboats off.”
Dylan stepped up to the table, making himself the captain’s and the engineer’s virtual equal. “You’ll have to forgive me, Captain, but I honestly don’t know what any of this means. Is there no way we can survive passing through Morgan’s Rock’s wake?”
The older man shook his head gravely. “Aether sometimes seems like it has a mind of its own, but it follows the laws just as air, water, and stone do. You push a boat through the water, you get strong eddies in its wake, eddies that can keep a man’s body churning through the screws for days. Push a planet through the infinite abyss, and you get planet-sized turbulence – unpredictable, violent eddies that can smash our little ship without even noticing it.”
Dylan turned and pointed toward the planet. “But there are ships orbiting all around Morgan’s Rock, even through the regions in front of and behind the planet’s orbital path. How are they avoiding the wake?”
Reece, Loughton, and Alexandria all looked at him as if he was insane. Reece spoke up first, “Are you feeling well, Master Darby? Surely you know your laws?”
Dylan just shrugged, so Reece continued slowly, as if to a child, “There’s the free aether, infinite and never-ending, which we control with our sails via charge, angle, and area. Then there’s the bowshock and the wake, which everything moving through the aether has, including ourselves. And inside those are the shoals, where gravitational and aetheric forces cancel each other out. It’s why the sun’s not blowing us off the bloody deck right now, and it’s why those ships are orbiting the planet without any problems. We were trying to make orbit by passing into the shoals between the Rock’s bowshock and wake, but the casualties wrecked our approach. Don’t you remember any of this from school?”
Dylan smiled, embarrassed. How could he tell them that only yesterday he had just been a student on a free vacation trip, and none of the laws they took for granted even existed? How could he tell them the answers they were looking for when his memories and experiences were all from another universe entirely?
He took a deep breath and proceeded carefully. “I may not be as familiar as you all are with the ‘laws’, but I think I know what’s happening to us. I think someone or something is manipulating probability, causing all these random, improbable accidents to happen at once.”
Loughton’s eyes narrowed. “Manipulating probability allows the guides to take us through a jump point, as you did before. But we’re not on a jump point. Whoever you think is doing this to us shouldn’t be able to affect us right now, much less plan out our murders.”
Dylan shook his head. “Probability can be manipulated whether you’re on a jump point or not – you just can’t do the same things. Believe me, someone is messing with probability, trying to kill us with the planet’s wake, to make it look like some tragic accident. I only just found out I’m a probability shifter, but I’m certain about this. It’s almost like hearing something at the edge of what’s audible, or seeing into the ultraviolet, but I can almost feel the way the probability streams are being pulled and stretched.”
Reece smiled, hope alighting in his eyes. “If you have control of your abilities right now, could you guide the jump engines again? Could you jump us into the shoals?”
The thought of ever touching a jump engine or a transit linkage again panicked Dylan worse than the thought of being crushed in the approaching wake. His one previous attempt had caused him to structurally alter the make-up and history of the universe. There was no way he was going to try for strike two, not when it might result in the complete un-making of reality. “I’m sorry. Trust me when I say that I can’t do it . . . but there may be something else I can do.”
“What?” Reece and Loughton said together.
“Probability has to be conserved. If someone is manipulating it to give us these bad luck accidents, then that unbalances things toward the negative side. That means it should be relatively easy for me to manipulate it further, but for our benefit this time, to give us some good luck along our path. I’ll just be restoring the balance.”
Captain Loughton looked dubious, but he nodded slightly anyway. “And how, exactly, are you planning to employ this rampant good luck you believe we have at our disposal?”
Dylan smiled mischievously. “I don’t suppose anyone can teach me how to drive this contraption, can they?”
* * *
After only a few minutes, they all realized that his knowledge of the laws of aether and sail was so lacking that a crash course in ship-handling would be too aptly named. A compromise was reached, however, just before the first massive eddy in the planetary wake reached them.
Dylan and the captain were both strapped to the ship’s control console, with only a few boatswains and senior sailors left on deck, similarly strapped down. Reece and Alexandria were standing next to a near hatch. Loughton turned to the burly engineer. “Mr. Reece, we’re probably going to want the torch back online and soon. Should the ship survive our passage through the wake, I have little doubt that the rigging won’t. We may well be in need of a little of your vulgar rocketry.”
“Aye aye, Captain.” Reece gave a slow, solemn salute.
If the rigging did not survive, what little hope did the men lashed to it have? Dylan swallowed and then called out to Reece as he began to climb down his ladder. “Reece, you might want to start with the most improbable problem first. What’s the last thing your people would normally check if the engines weren’t working? The way things are going, that might be the most likely thing broken.”
Reece nodded, smiled, and then disappeared down below. Loughton busied himself with his console, while Dylan and Alexandria looked at each other, fear and regret in both their eyes. Dylan had no idea what to say.
Eventually, she spoke, her Slavic accent softened by the timidity of her voice. “Why is this happening, Dylan? Who’s doing this to us?”
He shook his head. He was the only probability shifter left alive aboard. So, whoever was manipulating things was either doing it over all the far reaches of aetheric space, or – with his heart pounding in his chest – it was Dylan himself who was responsible. Could his own subconscious be doing this, his untrained abilities run amok? That was a possibility he did not want to even to think about, much less express. “I don’t know, but we’re going to get through this. I’ll get us to Morgan’s Rock safely. I promise you. And when we get there, we can work out who’s responsible while we’re on a nice, safe planet.”
He grinned, and she gave a shy smile in return. Then she stepped forward and became remarkably less shy and reserved. Her kiss had him swooning, equal to, if not surpassing the one she had given him before. As their lips broke contact reluctantly, he wondered what the next kiss would be like.
Her smile now appeared lazy and superior, with a smoldering glow in her eyes. “Perhaps another when we reach the Rock. It will give you something to look forward to.”
Complex thoughts were having a difficult time forming in his head, but Dylan managed to nod. “You read my mind.”
She turned around and fled below decks as fast as her petticoats would allow her. The hatch was shut and battened down with a depressing note of finality. Dylan felt colder immediately, though the temperature had not changed. He turned back to the console and watched along with Loughton as the invisible eddies began to merge with the ship’s icon upon the screen.
The sails had been retracted for the most part, leaving only the storm rig evident, small sails which would attempt to control The Light of the Lion in the tempest to come. The first indication they had arrived was subtle, almost gentle. The storm sails fluttered and then snapped taut, their lines and the spars holding them creaking slightly. Then the metal stays supporting the masts began to glow a pale blue, static building up from the tortured aether they were about to enter.
Dylan narrowed his eyes and tried to see something unseen, to hear something that made no sound, probability and possibility itself. He concentrated on his newfound ability, trying to luck upon the safest course, or, failing that, to make their course lucky enough to be the safe one. It had been so much easier in the linkage tank, the amorphous quantum computer back in his reality, where he could see all the myriad branching streams of chance and opportunity. Here, where he needed that skill most, he was relegated to instinct alone. Dylan gambled with their lives against a new universe, hoping he could bluff his way through the impossible odds.
The wake struck.
Dylan and Loughton crashed together, crumpled against the console, as the ship was pummeled and tossed through the sky. A keening whistle rose up, the aether rushing through all the lines and stays. Sails strained against their bonds, and lines strained against their anchors. The masts popped loudly as timber and metal fought off the chaos caused by the passage of the planet through space.
Lines snapped and sails ripped free under the onslaught. Two sailors were tossed from the deck as the ship bucked, rolled, and spun, their safety lines parting as they were given up to hell. Dylan saw it and cried out, even as he prayed that he could avoid a similar fate.
He and the captain struggled to their feet, gripping tightly to the console, fighting to regain their stances in spite of the aether pushing them down, the ship tossing them about, and the safety lines jerking them almost in two. Dylan saw the captain point to the display and yell something that was lost in the aether’s wail.
Dylan looked at the screen’s false colors and his will crumpled. They were still in the green, the second weakest relative portion of the unpredictable eddy they were in. The forces tearing them apart were nothing compared to what awaited them, only a minor breeze ejected from the maelstrom ahead.
Loughton pointed on the display to a white curl of space nearby, a calm in the eddy. He began to flip switches to haul in lines and adjust charge, to alter course toward the oasis and the salvation it represented. Any respite was welcome, and they had only just begun fighting the wake.
Dylan put a hand over the captain’s and shook his head. He pointed back to the screen, indicating a purple vortex of rage, a mass of turbulent aether orders of magnitude stronger, and so much wider than the green swell they were in now. Loughton shook his head and jabbed at the white, so close, which only made Dylan jab harder at the edge of the purple mass.
Their discussion was rendered moot in the next moment when a snapping line passed immediately in front of them, only inches from their hands, and knocked the display off the console, casting it out to infinity. Loughton yanked his hand back, fearfully counting his fingers to ensure they were all still there. Dylan turned and grabbed the older man’s head, putting his mouth close to the captain’s ear.
Darby screamed, “Do it! Now!”
Loughton wrenched his head from Dylan’s grip and leaned over the console, resetting his switches and putting in Dylan’s course. The ship began to turn, upwards and to port, ponderously, shuddering the entire way.
Dylan knew the instant they entered the purple mass, because it was the last thing he remembered. A hammer of force smashed into the hull and he saw the deck fly up to meet his face. As he lapsed into unconsciousness, he could hear the rending of the masts from the ship . . . .
* * *
“Well, you did your best, son. You gave us what you could, so it’s not your fault it didn’t work out.”
Loughton sat next to Dylan, who was lying on his back, pulled to an odd position by the safety line still strapped to him. The captain was looking into his eyes, just as they were coming back into focus.
Dylan sat up, gingerly touching his nose and forehead and immediately thinking better of it as his fingers came back bloody. He rose to a pained crouch and looked about the deck.
All was calm, but the deck was in complete disarray. Lines and cables were strewn everywhere, along with ripped tatters of iridescent sailcloth. The foremast had snapped in half, and the yards had been torn from every spar on the mainmast. He could not see the port or starboard keelmasts, but he guessed that they had suffered similar fates.
He stood and counted bodies. Another sailor had gone missing, lost to the wake. Yet off the starboard beam, Morgan’s Rock loomed, bright, blue, and inviting. The planet filled the near sky, with ships in different orbits streaking by above and below. Dylan turned quizzically to the captain. “Isn’t that the planet? Aren’t we in the shoals?”
“Aye, it is and we are, but there’s so much more to making a stable orbit than that. You did what you could, and it was amazing! I thought you were going to kill us for sure, but we stuck in that vortex like a raisin in clotted cream. It carried us all the way around and through the wake, then spit us out the other side, right into the shoals.”
Dylan laughed. “Well, isn’t that a good thing? Wasn’t that what you wanted to happen?”
“It is indeed, but any luck we might have had at our disposal has been expended. We’re in the shoals, but we’re not in orbit. We’ve got too much speed, on the wrong vector, and no way to change it.” The captain gestured to the other aetherships around them. “They’ll never reach us in time and even if we still had the lifeboats, they could never stabilize their own orbits before we hit the atmosphere.”
“Wait, aren’t we in the atmosphere?”
Loughton shook his head, chuckling. “You’ve been daft ever since you guided the jump, boy. No, we’re not in atmosphere! We’re in the damned shoals! Aether and gravity are neutral here, but when we hit the outer reaches of the planet’s atmosphere, gravity and air hold sway. It’ll be like hitting a brick wall at this velocity! We’ll either burn up on the way down to the surface, or we’ll bounce off and fly right back out of the shoals and into the planet’s bowshock. It was a mighty fine attempt, but all we’ve done is delayed the inevitable.”
“More bad luck, I guess.”
Dylan sat again, looking at the planet sweeping along the hull as The Light of the Lion spun lazily about, calmly speeding to her death. “The torch?”
Loughton shook his head. “Reece and the engineers fared just as badly as we. They had to start all over again with their efforts. He hasn’t even identified the problem, much less repaired it.”
Dylan nodded and looked at the hatch leading down below. “How long?”
The captain squinted at the looming planet and shrugged. “A few minutes, I suppose. Not more than ten, though.”
Dylan rose to his feet and reached out to undog the hatch. “I think there’s someplace I’d rather be. If you’ll excuse me, Captain?”
“Certainly. In fact, we’d probably all best get below. I don’t relish burning up alone.”
Dylan, Loughton, and the remaining boatswains and sailors all made their way below decks, sealing the hatches behind them in a futile effort to keep fate outside. Loughton went to check on Reece and Dylan went to the only person he knew in this whole universe, even though he did not really know her either.
Alexandria saw him and immediately stood, rising from the first aid she had been giving to the other passengers. Her hair was in disarray, a large bruise had formed on her forehead, and her bottom lip was split open, but she was still the most beautiful thing Dylan had ever seen. There was hope in her eyes, but after seeing his expression, it faded. She gave him a melancholy smile and they came together, each clinging to the warmth of the other.
The transition to atmosphere began more gently than the brick wall the captain had described. It started as a vibration through the soles of his feet, soon joined by another wail, deeper in pitch than that of the aetheric wake. The vibration grew stronger and stronger, soon shaking the ship so much it was difficult to remain standing. Frightened passengers cried out, but Dylan and Alexandria remained quiet, eyes closed, each praying.
Dylan wondered if the aetherverse even had a god.
He could not see, but he well imagined what the ship must look like now. A fiery, burning star, she plunged through the upper reaches of the Rock’s skies, leaving behind a trail of woodsmoke, burning metal, and debris. The interior began to grow warmer. A crash sounded as one of the masts was ripped free, and then another. It would not be long now. The flames of re-entry would breach the hull and immolate them all. Dylan squeezed his old/new friend tighter.
Then a new roar sounded, a warbling crackle distinct from the tearing wail of the ship’s passage through air. Dylan’s eyes opened, looking through the hazy, smoky air at the bulkhead. It was still intact. The hull creaked and Dylan felt himself being pushed down and back. A smile rose on his lips and he started laughing, startling the terrified passengers around him, Alexandria included.
The temperature cooled noticeably and the shaking and vibrations smoothed out. Dylan gave Alexandria a quick kiss and stood up, making his way aft and down toward engineering.
He met Reece halfway there, the engineer strolling leisurely up the stairs, wiping his hands on a dirty rag and smiling a bit smugly. Dylan rushed to him and took the man’s enormous, grimy hands, shaking them excitedly. “The torch is up?”
“Of course, Master Darby! You and the captain keep twittering on about luck and fortune, when all you need is a little desperation and a hammer.”
“Aye. It never would have occurred to me to check, but you said look at something unlikely, and that was it. The clocks were out of sync between the reactor controls and the torch controls, so the safeties wouldn’t let them fire up. Smash the clocks and they’ll show the same time, sure enough.”
Dylan could not stop grinning, so he patted Reece on the arm and proceeded back up the stairs. Less than an hour later, all the passengers were up on the ruined deck, looking at what was left of the elegant ship. She was blackened and battered, her masts, sails, and rigging stripped away, but Loughton was proclaiming loudly to all aboard that she would sail the aether again some day. Dylan and Alexandria stood together on deck, fingers intertwined, and looked out at the serene clouds and oceans of Morgan’s Rock as they orbited miles overhead, safe in the shoals.
She leaned back against him and said, “What is to happen now? Your original destination was Palace Gate, but now you say you’ll stay here, in Morgan’s Rock’s system. What will you do?”
Dylan shrugged, not wanting to break the moment with anything serious, like contemplating the future, or being separated from her as she moved on to their original destination, or what it meant that he was stranded in a changed universe with unknown forces possibly arrayed against him. For now, he just wanted to be a native of this realm, with the aetheric wind in his hair, a planet below, and a girl by his side.
He smiled. “I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll luck my way into something.”