Friday, December 21, 2012

Chapter 1


"Mom, Dad--this is Mark." The fellowship hall in the basement of the old New England church was so crowded after the Christmas Cantata that Julie had to hurry the long-awaited introduction.

Mr. Norton reached through the mob to shake the young man's hand while her mother attached herself to his elbow and steered him towards a quieter corner. "My daughter is always talking about her various friends but she never really tells me what a mother needs to know about the young men in her life so now I must kidnap you and hold you for ransom or interrogate you or ply you with baked goods and Congregational coffee until you tell all."

Seth Norton intervened. "Now, dear--I made Julie a promise that we wouldn't torture the boy. And I promised myself that if I could make it through the concert without falling off the risers or singing falsetto in public I would take us all to McNemeny's for a little festive seafood." He waved away their objections and plowed a hole through the throng. "Come along. I'm starving!"

The party trickled out the back door. "The van's too full for all of us--we'll have to take two cars." Mr. Norton escorted the ladies to Julie's subcompact and held the door for each in turn. "You know the way, don't you, darling?"

"To NcNemeny's? I could drive it in my sleep!" Julie effortlessly shifted into reverse, then to first. She peered mischievously through the window at her dad, then poped the clutch and burned rubber out of the parking lot.

"Be careful!" Mr. Norton spluttered, but there was no concealing his paternal pride. He turned to his young companion. "Her mother will keep her safe." He paused. "Or take her drag racing. With those two, there's no telling." He led the way to a commercial van with 'Measurements and Instrumentation" on the side. "Hop in--at least we've postponed the Inquisition for a bit."

Mark Thomas peered around the inside of the van as Mr. Norton buckled in and started the motor. "Julie says you make your living 'unscrewing the inscrutable,' but I didn't realize it takes so much hardware."

"Julie likes to shock people--especially young men. What else has she said about us?" Mr. Norton glanced sideways at Mark's embarrassment and grinned. "Let me see--she probably told you her mother is a witch and her father is a warlock."

"She never said you were a warlock!"

Seth Norton laughed out loud. "No. I made that up. As far as I know, I'm the last surviving twentieth century materialist." He gestured towards the back of the van. "If you can't weigh it and measure it, I don't believe in it." He glanced meaningfully at Mark.

The younger man looked at his feet, then out the window. The van was uncomfortably silent for a moment, then Seth laughed. "I admire your restraint, son. Thanks."


"I promised Julie I wouldn't pick a fight for at least fifteen minutes."

"Really? She made me promise to be good for a whole hour!"

One hour (and four lobsters) later, Mark leaned back in his chair and untied his plastic bib. "I had heard that opposites attract, but you two take the cake." Seth and Sophie Norton smiled at each other and touched toes under the table. "I thought Julie was just teasing me, but you really do sound like  opposite poles of the intellectual universe!"

Mrs. Norton laughed. "Seth grew up on ray guns and rocket ships and never turned the corner to sword and sorcery. He lives in his own little world that has no room for magick in it."

"Whereas you, Mom, think the law of gravity is optional."

"Are you really a witch, Mrs. Norton?"

"That makes me sound so old! Please, call me Sophie."

"She's not officially a witch," Mr. Norton interjected. "The Salem coven turned her down."

"That bunch," Sophie snorted, "gives witches a bad name."

"Besides which, you're not really a witch, Mom. You're a 'consulting mystic.' It says so on your business card."

"A mystic and a materialist." Mark shook his head. "It's a wonder you were able to have children!"

"I'm the experimental hybrid," Julie joked.

"You really are." Mark leaned forward. "When I first met you, I couldn't imagine why anyone would want to do her master's thesis on Cotton Mather--but he's the only person I can think of who combines your father's scientific approach with your mother's interest in the supernatural."

Sophie snorted. "More likely he'd burn me at the stake and send Seth off to Rhode Island with the other heretics."

"I've told you a hundred times, Cotton Mather wasn't to blame for hunting witches!" Julie sounded like she was about to resume a long-running argument, so Mark intervened.

"What does a 'consulting mystic' do, Mrs. Norton?"

"Sophie, please!" She set her knife and fork down in a neat diagonal on the edge of her plate. "You'd be amazed. The biggest category of emails come from people who want a consultant in Mystic, Connecticut. but the second most common client wants me to help them find a lost pet."

"That's because those are word-of-mouth contacts, my dear. Everybody knows you're the best parakeet-finder on the North Shore."

"Mystics find lost animals?"

"I don't know about mystics in general, but Mom's the best. I've seen her stand out on a street corner and have a lost canary fly right onto her shoulder."

Mark smiled. "Sounds more like animal magnetism, to me! Is there much money in pet recovery?"

"Quite a bit, actually," Seth admitted. "It pays better than most of her other jobs."

"What else do mystics do?"

"Oh, the usual--love affairs, detecting curses, a seance or two. I don't do those very often--I've never had an actual ghost show up for one, and I refuse to take money for a no-show. But I do have a haunted house I'm working on."

"Really? A real haunted house?"

"I really have a client who really has a house, but whether it's haunted or not is what I've been hired to find out."

"I didn't know there were any haunted houses left!"

"They're fairly common, actually--and they're a pain in the neck. Nobody believes in ghosts until they've spent a night or two with one, and then it's too late to back out of the real estate deal."

"If it's really a problem, why not tear the house down and build something new?"

"That's easy enough if it's a modern house, but the historic preservation committee won't let people tear them down or fix them up. The house I'm working on has been here since the Puritan days--for all I know, Julie's precious Cotton Mather may have slept there."

Mark raised an eyebrow. "A haunted Puritan house, Mrs. Norton--I mean, Sophie. Here, in Danvers?"

"Of course. Danvers was known as Salem Village back then--they changed the name because of all the bad press from you-know-who and the witches. It's less than a mile from here. Want to see it?"

"Right now?" Sophie nodded. Mark looked at his watch. "It's getting late--I wouldn't want to impose!"

Sophie looked at her watch, too. "Late's the best time for hunting spooks!"

Julie rubbed her nose with both hands like an excited gerbil. "Let's do it!"

Mark looked helplessly at Mr. Norton, who silently mouthed two words--"drag racing." He waved for the check and started gathering coats, scarves, and mittens. "A typical night with the Nortons--church at concert at 8:00, haunted house at midnight. Let's go!"

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Galactic Overlord

Cold, dark, and heavier than a hundred billion suns, the Galactic Overlord brooded. His ancient intelligence was not accustomed to haste, but things were coming to a point. He had decisions to make--and quickly.

The gulf between his kind and the upstarts was narrowing. It had been little more than a curiosity when slime appeared on the cooling surface of a planet--these new patterns within the chaos were unnatural, but who could say what was "natural" in the rubble of exploded space and time? But curiosity soon became contempt, and then concern, as the ooze developed sight, then flight, then language. When the crawling pus reared up on its appendages and said, "I think, therefore I am," it went too far!

And now the creeping pestilence, peering out from its speck of a planet, was one "aha!" away from perceiving the presence--and the power--of the Overlords. Already the "thinkers" of the chattering ooze were asking why the galaxies rotated as they did. Already they had noticed the "missing mass" of their pittance of a "universe." All the pieces of the puzzle were in place before them--it was just a matter of time before the they stopped hunting for shiny things in space and found the cold dark truth.

Not that they were likely to stumble onto that "aha!" any time soon. Distraction and division would slow them down. It was so easy to misdirect the slithering slime--right now the "experts" were looking for the embers of an explosion, a hot, bright "bang" that blew their universe apart at the beginning. No-one was looking for cold.

Cold--these biological beings didn't know the meaning of the word. Their plane of existence was so hot that mass shrank down to a point! Mass was meant to be free, not trapped by the unforgiving laws of physics into just one location or velocity. For one agonizing moment he remembered how things had been--myriads upon myriads of masses in motion, orbiting the entire universe one moment, poised in space the next. That time when time itself had been a sphere, a never-ending ever-changing now! Then time exploded with three axes of space and he and countless others had been hurled out into heat and darkness.

The pus people could see it with their own eyes, if they but knew what their telescopes were showing. The gravitational lenses of distant galaxies were obviously spherical, revealing that the mass of the galaxies was not primarily within the flattened discs of hot bright matter but something else--something huge and heavy. Huge and heavy with hate.

Chapter 1