The Archimage’s Fourth Daughter – Chapter 1

The Magic Portal

“If I don’t do something soon, my life is as good as over,” Briana thought. She was a sylph of a girl; barely twenty, slender as a reed, and with long flaming red hair like her mother. Pale skin; large, deep green eyes. In the fashion of all proper young ladies, she wore brown leggings, tunic, and cloak.

Briana shook her head. How could she have been so stupid? So stupid as to sign a contract for marriage after only a single day of attention, some smooth, flattering words, and three glasses of wine. And betrothed to Slammert of all people. The worst possible choice — so disgusting, so coarse.

Everyone could talk about nothing else when it was finally disclosed what he had done to his first wife. At the time of her mistake, Briana had not known. At the harvest festival, sitting with his bride up on the dais in the feasting hall, Slammert had ripped her bodice away and fondled her bare breasts while his minions watched and roared with laughter. The next morning, they discovered the unfortunate girl had hanged herself, one of her belts tight around her neck and her body stiff like a slaughtered lamb.

Briana grasped the chairback of the wizard seated in front of her to bring her focus to what was happening now. The massive round table in the center of the council chamber had been removed to make more room for spectators. Alodar, her father and Archimage sat in the very center of the row of chairs, leaning forward, as eager as the rest. On either side like pieces in a board game were arrayed the most senior practitioners throughout all of Murdina: thaumaturges, alchemists, magicians, sorcerers, and wizards. From Procolon, the Southern Kingdoms, and even Arcadia across the Great Ocean. Everyone seated wore their robes of office: scarlet red for the archimage, brown, white, deepest blue, gray, and black for the others. At the far left, she even recognized one of her childhood tutors: Fordine, the Master Thaumaturge.

The finery denoted in which of the distinct crafts each master was proficient, but even without them, one could tell. The eyes of the sorcerers were deep and piercing, able to enchant others with their charms and see far in space and time. Haughty and unyielding as steel, the faces of the wizards seemed almost to dare demons from another realm to challenge them for dominance.

Although they wore pristine and unblemished garb reserved for ceremony, the alchemists’ hands were soiled and blotched with stains from the exotic substances they manipulated to produce sweetbalms and potions of love. The magicians had a faraway look, always contemplating the rituals from which came the swords, mirrors, and rings of true magic.

The lowly thaumaturges were the friendly ones, eager artisans hoping for a few coins in exchange for raising heavy beams to the top of a new tower or causing trees to drop their fruit all on the same day. Only Fordine was different. He had been brilliant with counterspells in his youth, but practiced no more — instead was quite wealthy running an academy to train apprentices and journeymen for others.

Five distinct skills, each with its own disciplines. Only one, her father, had mastered them all.

The chamber was as somber as a tomb. Wall frescos had long since faded centuries ago. Heavy curtains blocked any incoming daylight. On the other side of the room, tall sconces with multiple arms upraised with flickering candles illuminated a small, hastily constructed platform.

No one spoke.

Standing at the chairback on Briana’s left was a young lordling still in his teens. He flexed his grip and looked nervously about. Obviously, this was his first time.

“It will be all right,” she whispered to him and smiled. “We are only here to emphasize the importance of the masters. All we have to do is stand erect and look serious, no matter what is said.”

She returned her attention to her own thoughts. It was because she was so sheltered, she concluded. Confined within the compound for her protection, her only experiences were simple flirtations with a few of the pages her own age. And when the baron from the far west, a man and not a boy — tall, muscular, smoldering eyes, a beguiling smile. He had said he was lonely and asked if he could dine with her. Of course, she had said yes.

Had her three elder sisters done the same? Anything to get out of the dull, polite conversations with men old enough to be a grandfather. Snap up the first one younger with a pulse. Wed him, see some of the world, have children, perhaps even adventure a bit on their own.

As a muffled chime from a clock in an adjacent room marked the hour, the air in front of the chairs started to shimmer, at first barely perceptible, but then with increasing violence; like smooth water encountering rapids, it distorted more and more until the blank wall behind was no longer visible.

A door took shape within the swirl, solidified, and, after a few moments more, swung open. Briana gasped, as did more than one master, even some nearing a hundred years of experience. Wrapped from head to toe as if for burial, a figure stepped forward and with effort raised one arm in a sign of greeting.

He was shaped like a human in every respect: head, neck, torso, arms and legs, hands and feet, but the coverings hid every feature. Not thin sheets of linen, but bulky strips from what looked like brilliant white woolen blankets swirled around the entire body. No eyes or mouth could be seen. In their place were opaque goggles and below them a circle of thin parchment where there would have been a mouth. Bulky gloves covered his hands. So, this was the purpose of the formal council meeting — a parlay with the one who had brought the tome.

“You may call me Randor, Randor of the Faithful.” A tinny voice in a strange accent vibrated from the paper beneath the glasses. “Do you understand everything in the volume left for you? Are you confident you can work the controls?”

“Yes, the high council has studied the contents,” Alodar answered. “And if your doorway had not appeared so suddenly and unannounced a year ago, they would have no credibility.”

Briana watched the visitor intently as did everyone else. The being must be of such grossness that he dared not appear in his natural form, she thought. In the writings that had been left, there were illustrations of what looked like men — beings that could easily pass without notice here on Murdina. But there were no pictures of any other type of creature, no hint of what unwinding the swathing would reveal.

She should not even have been allowed to see the book after it was deposited in the great library for study by the masters, but the page had told her how to bypass the safeguards for a single kiss. She had spent many late evenings reading and rereading what the tome contained.

“I have asked you a direct question,” the visitor said. “I expect a direct answer.”

“We have questions as well.” Alodar’s tone hardened. “Why did you leave this book with us that speaks of another world in the cosmos? Is that where you are from?”

Two questions rather than a single answer,” Randor said. “Your race is an impertinent one.” One of the enveloped hands waved the concern away. “But no matter. It is one of the reasons why you were chosen.

“Our entire race is not exiled on the orb of which I speak. We, the Faithful, remain pure. Only the vanquished of my kind, the ones who call themselves the Heretics Who Proclaim the Truth, have been imprisoned on the hellish world described in the text. The descriptions in the tome concern only the primitive natives, not ourselves. We judged that such information would make your own journeys more efficient. You would not have to spend time relearning what we had gleaned from so many trips ourselves.”

“Heretics?” Alodar asked. “Our own journeys?”

“The heretical crimes committed by those now banished is a matter of no concern to you. And yes, we, the Faithful, have made the journey many times, once every hundred or so of your years for some ten times or more. Now, we grow, let us say … less able to guard against the possibility of the return of contamination.”

“Over a millennium!” the magicians with the neatly trimmed goatee exclaimed. “You live that long?”

“No, as individuals, we normally do not. Only the exiles wear rings of eternal youth — and only if they so elect.”

“A ring of eternal youth!” The magician grabbed at his beard. “Then the suspicion in our guilds is correct. One can be made! Your magicians have done so. What is the ritual? How is it performed?”

“Some say we should have killed them.” Randor ignored the outburst. “But that would be only a passing satisfaction. Instead, as of our last visit, the Heretics remain imprisoned as we planned. Originally eleven hundred were entombed; now only some seven hundred are still alive.

“Death is swift and is but a shadow of the agony of an eternity of captivity. Death is too gentle a fate for what they continue to experience. The only way they could escape from their confinement is by the use of one of the crafts. And for that, our sorcerers enchanted them all, forced them to forget everything they knew about any of the arts when they were defeated. By now, the despair of their situation should have caused them to end their existences by their own hands. It is exquisite for us to contemplate. Ones so proud reduced to ending defiance by the exercise of their own crumbling will.”

The strange one adjusted his swathing for a moment. “Some have already done so, but not yet all. Some still remain.”

“If they have remained in captivity for so long, then why not accept the situation for what it is?” asked the wizard seated in front of Briana. “Not bother to check on how they fare anymore?”

Randor hesitated a second time. “Because,” he said at last. “Because there is a possibility, however slight, that the sorcery might wear off. The skill in the arts by the Heretics might eventually return. Return gradually, and then, using magic, they might escape.

“The natives of the orb are quite backward,” he continued. “As far as we have detected, they employ none of the arts at all. So, evidence of a large enough use of the crafts by the Heretics before they had regained their full power would be a trigger — a trigger to take more drastic action against them. The chances are small, but all of us that remain are too… too engrossed with other things to continue with the task.

“And so, here is our proposition. Moving among the natives will be no problem for your kind. That is one reason why you have been selected. All we ask you to do is to check periodically for evidence of any incantations, charms, or other spells, and then do what is necessary to snuff out the practices.

“Catch the banished as they emerge. It will be easy enough using the mature proficiency of your own crafts. In exchange, this magic portal is for yours to use according to your own desires. In an instant, you will be able to travel across your great ocean for a meeting such as this. Send crops or even men-at-arms to wherever they are needed with but a few steps anywhere within our entire realm.”

“But the writings say only a single person can use the portal at one time,” Briana burst out. “To transport an army would take days.”

All the masters in the room turned to stare at Briana, now very well aware of her presence. “Oops! Sorry, Dad!” She blushed.

Alodar frowned, but chose for the moment to ignore the interruption. He returned his gaze to the bundled visitor.

“If what you say is true, this portal has great power,” he said. “Great disruptive power for any society using it —  perhaps a curse rather than a boon.” He looked at the masters seated around him. “Is this truly what we want? Is it any better than a bargain with demonkind?”

“It is most ingenious magic,” Randor said. “The door at one end of the portal is in our realm  — our own universe — yours and mine . Although the traveler is unaware of it, the central portion of the device travels through the realm of demons while preventing any contact with the vile beings who dwell there. There is no bargaining with them involved at all.”

“The path then loops back to a destination of one’s choosing — possibly even one that we could reach by other means,” Randor continued. “By placing the two entrances properly in our realm, we can connect them to what seems like mere paces apart, a shortcut regardless of how long the journey might otherwise be.

The two doors do not even need to be situated on the same orb within our realm,” Randor plowed on. “I come from my home to your earth here. We desire you to travel from here to yet a third orb in the sky.”

“Yes, I understand it now,” an alchemist said. “The opportunity to explore. A chance to visit other worlds, exchange formulas and harvest exotic ingredients that here are rare.”

“Trade and exchange,” a thaumaturge chimed in. “Murdina could become the commercial center for our entire universe. We all would prosper. This Randor says that their internal politics are no concern of ours. I agree. The chance for great benefit is too great.”

“Progress cannot be stopped, Archimage Alodar,” Fordine said. “One way or another, each step forward has to be addressed, and undesirable consequences dealt with when they occur. As you and this high council have done many times before.”

Alodar was silent for a long while. He lowered his chin onto his chest to think.

What decisions her father had to make all the time, Briana thought. No wonder he has become so tired and overworked — so irrational in some of his decisions. He needed help. Why couldn’t he see she was the one who should be his aide?

“It is decided,” the Archimage said finally, raising his head. “We accept the offer.”

The masters around Alodar began burbling like brooks breaking the surface for the very first time. No voice raised in objection.

Briana’s thoughts raced. A possible way out of her predicament! This was an easy task. She remembered the instructions about controlling the portal. They were quite simple. Snoop around a few places to see if there was any craft being performed and report. A two or three-day job at the most. Perhaps this could be the task opening her father’s eyes to how useful she could be. Enough of a reason for him to declare her marriage contract void.

“When will you make the first journey?” the visitor asked.

“The traveler has not yet been chosen,” Alodar said, a hint of irritation entering his voice. “But he will be soon enough to satisfy your desire.”

“Then I return now to my peers. Their purity will refresh. The parchments given to you contain the coordinates of the world that imprisons the exiles.”

Without anything further, Randor returned the portal and shut the door. It shimmered again for a moment and then was still.

Alodar stood and faced the masters. “We will meet again in seven days. Bring with you candidates for who is to be the journey-taker. We will discuss and then decide.”

A page entered the chamber and gave a note to the Archimage. He read it and scowled.

He looked in the direction of the wizard on the far right. “All are dismissed — all except one, that is. Briana, please remain. Your fiancé is here on an unannounced visit.

Paying the card game Hearts – a cautionary tale

I am mildly protan colorblind. I have trouble distinguishing some reds from greens. I cannot successfully pick out all of the numbers hidden in those funny figures with the many little dots. Here is an example of one of them from the EnChroma Color Blindness Test.

EnChroma Color Blindness Tests © 2015

You can take the test yourself at http://enchroma.com/test/instructions/

I have known about this for years, and it does not bother me very much. I can tell a red light from a green one on the street, and my driver license tests are no problem. But in the past, I did encounter one situation…

###

Many years ago, when I was working at the aerospace company, TRW, various games would become lunchtime fads for a while. I am not talking about serious ones like bridge or chess, games that require heavy mental lifting, but simplier ones like hearts or kriegspiel. Enough of a challenge to play well, but not brain exhausting. There was enough of that in the rest of the day.

As most of you probably know, hearts is a trick taking game for which the object is not to take points. Each heart counted one point against you and the queen of spades thirteen. During the course of play, for every hand, usually everyone was pegged with a few hearts. But the card certainly to avoid was the evil queen.

I remember one lunch hour in particular in which I was really getting hammered. I ate the queen many more times than was my share. I could not understand what was happening. Was I having an extremely bad day for luck, had my game suddenly gone to pot, or what?

After the game concluded – I reached a score of over 100 and end of game – in rapid fashion, the other players explained what was going on.

As is the custom with many card games, two decks are used. While the cards were being dealt out from one for a new hand, the other one is being shuffled. No time is wasted at the end of the hand. The next could start immediately.

The two decks we were playing with both had the same abstract design on the back. The only difference between them was that one back was green and the other one brown. There is a lot of red in brown. I could not tell the difference.

Before we began for the day, my erstwhile friends merely swapped the queen of spades between the two decks. Then everyone could see where the queen of spades was at all times in either deck. Everyone could except for one person—me.

This turned out to be a tremendous advantage. Talk about ‘marked’ cards. This was ridiculous! If I held the queen, it would be ‘smoked out’ of me. Low spades were led until I was forced to play it, winning the trick, and eating the big points. If someone else held the queen, then his buddies held off, not leading spades at all.

So the moral of the story is to take the color blindness test. And if you have a deficiency, stay away from cards games with two decks being used – two decks that you cannot tell apart.

Happyness as a card game

Three middle managers are instructed to take a special test. The first arrives at the testing room and sees that it is empty except for a wastebasket in the middle of the floor.

“Your task, the proctor says, “is to sail playing cards into the basket. Your score is the number of times you succeed.”

The first manager squints at the basket. “You got to be kidding. That thing is way out there.”

“Nevertheless, that is the task.”

The manager grumbles, grabs the deck of cards handed to him, and, with a scowl, flips them one after another towards the center of the room. The cards flitter every which way, but three end up in the basket.

“So, my score is 3 out of 52, right?” the manager asks.

“Yes, that is correct,” the proctor answers as he adds the score to a tally sheet on a clipboard.

“Stupid game,” the manager mutters as he leaves. He is an unhappy man.

###

The second manager arrives and listens to the same instructions. Then with a sly grin, he asks the proctor, “You did not tell me where I have to stand, did you?”

“No, your are right. Where to stand is not in the instructions.”

“OK, then,” the manager says as he grabs the deck of cards from the proctor’s hand. “How about this?”

He strides purposefully in the room until he is hovering directly over the basket. Raising his hand high in the air, he hurls the deck forcefully downward. It hits the bottom of the basket with a crash.

“Put me down for 52,” he says as he brushes off one palm against the other.

“Yes, your score is 52,” the proctor says.

“Stupid game,” the manager mutters as he leaves. He is an unhappy man.

###

The third man arrives and listens to the same instructions. Without saying a word, he walks into the room about half the distance from the door to the basket.

Carefully holding a card as horizontal as he can, he flicks it towards the target. The card flutters around a bit but lands nowhere near the goal.

Undaunted, the manager walks a dozen steps closer and tries again. This time, the card goes in with a satisfying ping as it ricochets off of one of the basket’s walls. He tries another card, and it too scores! Then ping, ping, ping! Five cards are successes.

But now, the manager backs up two steps before his next attempt. This time he misses, and then he misses again. Still undaunted, he moves a step closer and tries again. Moving back and forth to make adjustments, he finally finds a range from which he can get most of the cards into the basket — but not all.

He walks out of the room, whistling.

###

A somewhat sappy story to be sure, but the moral is clear.

Happiness is striving for a goal that you have a good chance of achieving but that is not absolutely certain. You have to pay attention and do your best, each step along the way.

Hide and Seek, 21st Century Style

We all know how the Internet and advances in computer technology has changed all of our lives – even children’s. The impact for youngsters go beyond just the availability of games like Minecraft. New avenues for creativity have come about as well. An example:

On a visit to see my grandchildren living on the West Coast, I saw the two of them seated in front of an iPad and talking to my other two grandchildren who live in the East.

How nice, I thought. The four cousins all get together physically only briefly during the winter holidays. Facetime gives them the opportunity to stay connected during the year.

But as I watched, I saw that they were not just bringing each other up to speed on the latest news. They were playing ‘Transcontinental Hide and Seek’, a game they had invented themselves with no parent involvement at all.

One person from, say, the East goes and hides somewhere in their house. The one who is the finder lives in the West. The remaining grandchild in the East, the holder’, turns the iPad facing away from him or her and aimed into the interior of the house.

After the hider has hid and is ready, the finder directs the holder where to walk and where to point the iPad’s camera. For example, “Go into the dining room. Look under the big table.” These instructions continue until the hider is found. Then the roles are reversed. Someone from the West hides, and his sibling follows the instructions of the finder in the East.

Amazing! Thousands of miles apart and playing Hide and Seek!

Not all of them work as planned

Successful pranks are heard about. Unsuccessful ones are buried in the sands of time. Here is one from more than a half-century ago.

 ###

I entered Dave and Larry’s dorm room and saw Dave was alone, reading from a book of plays into a tape recorder. (Remember, I said over fifty years ago). He and Larry were both trying out for the annual school play and were recording their voices so that they could tune up their auditions.
 
I asked Dave if he knew a mutual acquaintance’s phone number. He stopped the recorder.
 
“No, I don’t, but Larry might,” Dave said. He started thumbing through Larry’s little black book.
 
“Hey, here is an interesting entry, ‘Diane – met on the bus from Bakersfield’. Hmmm. I don’t remember Larry every mentioning anyone named Diane.”
 
“Me neither,” I said.
 
And so, the germ of the prank was planted.

###

Dave was in his dorm room alone and reading from a book of plays into a tape recorder. The phone rang. Without turning off the recorder, Dave answered.
 
“Hello. No Larry is not here right now. Can I take a message?”
 
A moment of silence, then . . .
 
“Tell him that Diane, the girl he met on the bus from Bakersfield called and that it is urgent that he call back as soon as he can. Right, got it.”
 
Another pause.
 
“You sound upset. What’s the matter?”
 
A longer moment of silence.
 
“Oh, my gosh! That’s horrible. You need help right away. No, I don’t know when Larry will be back. But, I can help. Tell me where you are, and I will get there as soon as I can.”
 
After a few more moments, Dave hangs up the phone, and dashes out of the room, still leaving the recorder running.
 
Then another friend and I walk by the open doorway.
 
“I never saw Dave move so fast,” I said. “And look, he even left the recorder on. I enter the room, rewind the tape, and turn the recorder off.

###

Several hours later, Larry returns and turns in for the night. At around 3 AM, Dave, reeking of liquor, slams open the door, turns on the light, mumbles something incoherent, staggers across the room and falls into Larry’s bed on top of him.
 
“Dave, what are you doing?” Larry exclaims. “Turn off the light and get in your own bed!”
 
Dave stands, mumbled something more, clomps over to his own bed, falls into it, and apparently passes out.
 
Larry calls out for Dave to turn off the light, but gets no answer. Grumbling, the roommate turns it off himself and gets back to sleep.

###

So now, the bait has been set.
 
In the morning, Larry will confront Dave about what happened to him the previous night. He was such a mild manner guy, after all. The behavior was totally out of character.
 
Dave would deny everything.
 
Then some time later, when Larry was doing his play practice, he would turn on the recorder and hear about the phone call.
 
He would confront Dave a second time, but Dave would stick to his story. He had never stayed up pass midnight, and that was only when he was cramming for an exam the next morning.
 
Larry would then call Diane, but of course, she would deny everything as well. She never placed a call at all.
 
And then . . .
 
Well, that was enough preparation. What happened next would just naturally evolve from Larry’s reactions.

###

So, the next morning, Larry went off to breakfast while Dave apparently was sleeping in. Dave waited in the room for Larry’s return so that things could get rolling.
 
But Larry did not return. Evidently, after breakfast he went directly to his next class.
 
A day passed, and then another.
 
Finally, Dave (and I) could stand it no longer.
 
“Say, Larry,” Dave said. “Are you still using the recorder in preparation for the auditions?”
 
“Yes, I am,” Larry said. “And oh, about that. When I turned it on. I heard some of yours but rather than moving down the tape, I just started recording over it. Sorry.”
 
And that was the end of that.
 
Well, even so, an evening of prank planning was still better than doing homework.

Punctuation puzzles

A relatively obscure puzzle category is that of punctuation puzzles. An example is to add capitalization and punctuation to the following list of words to make them grammatically correct – and explain what the result means.

time flies you can’t they move to fast.

The answer is:

“Time flies!”

“You can’t. They move too fast.”

Someone asked a friend to time how fast houseflies move. The friend replied that they darted about too quickly for him to do so.

Corny? Sure. But here’s one that is a little more challenging.

becky while tom had had had had had had had had had had had the teachers approval

I will share the solution in my next post.

© 2016 Lyndon Hardy

An untold tale about Richard Fyneman

When I was at Caltech, Richard Fyneman, the renowned physicist, gave a one-hour seminar each week entitled Physics X. It was not in the catalogue. There was no college credit. You just showed up in the lecture hall and Fyneman would ask, “OK, what shall we discuss today?”

He was a great lecturer. With no preparation ahead of time, he would explain some hard to understand aspect of physics that was wonderfully clear. You took notes furiously, because a half-hour or so after leaving the hall, the brilliant insight that you thought you now grasped would begin to fade.

I remember to this day that one time on of us sitting in the audience said something like the following:

“Professor Fyneman, suppose you are in a spaceship going very nearly the speed of light. You are flying parallel to a long mirror extending far into space alongside you. You look out and see your reflection in the mirror.

“Now it take some time, not much, but some time for the light from your spaceship to travel to the mirror and then bounce back to you. This means that the reflection will not be exactly aligned but lag behind slightly. Since you, yourself, are going so swiftly, the angle would be noticable. You would have to crane your neck to see your reflection.

“So by measuring the angle of the lag, you could then figure out how fast you are going, and that would violate Special Relativity.”

“An interesting problem,” Fyneman said and retreated to the long blackboard behind him. He drew a chalk line from left to right and turned to smile at us, “That is the mirror,” he said. Then somewhere in the middle of the board, he drew a little crude spaceship, a beam of light exiting from it and the reflection coming back.

Then he calculated for a few minutes and presented the results of his calculation, an equation for what the angle would be as a function of how fast the spaceship was moving.

“Very good, young man, you are right. You can tell how fast you are going. Special Relativity is wrong.”

There was a stunned silence. How could this possibly be? Special Relativity was a fundamental cornerstone of physics. It had been around for almost sixty years. Validated by scores if not hundreds of independent experiments by the greatest minds in the world. How could an undergrad, a freshman no less, come up with a thought experiment that crashed everything down?

For a few moments, no one dared speak. Then Fyneman cocked his head to the side and returned to the board. He corrected one of his intermediate equations, fixed up the results and turned back to address us. I made a simple error. The angle is independent of the spacecraft’s speed. Special Relativity is saved.”

Everyone laughed at what had just transpired. Of course, no freshman was going to bring all of physics crashing down. If I or anyone else in the room had come up with the formula for what the lag angle would be, we would have checked our work probably a dozen times before making any pronouncements to a room filled with other (aspiring) physicists.

On further thought, what had happened was pure Richard Fyneman. The utter unlikelihood of a freshman coming up with something that would completely upset all of physics must have never entered his mind. Instinctively, he just followed where the equations were leading him. And to me, that was an example of what it took to make true breakthroughs, to be a Nobel Prize winner – ignore the shackles that constrain our thinking onto paths that have been traveled many times before. Who knows what wondrous thoughts might then result.

© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy

Time Travel and Eclipses

Caution! Before reading further, please review the definition of ‘tongue in cheek’.

Time travel is a staple of science fiction, and with good reason. The paradoxes are delicious to contemplate.

And somewhat related, already there is quite a lot of interest building about the total eclipse of the sun that is due to be visible over a wide swath of the United States on August 21, 2017. I will be in Oregon and already have my fingers crossed that there will be no clouds.

Time Travel

Is such a thing possible? The answer depends on which way you are going—forward or back.

If you go forward, yes, time travel is possible. According to special relativity, we observe the clocks of someone moving relative to us as running more slowly. This fact leads to what is called the twin paradox. One brother blasts off into space while the other remains behind. Each sees the clock of the other running slower. After, say, may years, the spacefarer returns to visit his earth-borne sibling. So, which is now the younger?

It is the traveler who is younger. Among other places, the reason is explained here. In the reference, the stay-at-home twin ages twenty years while the traveler ages sixteen. Effectively the traveler has traveled four years into the future.

Going backwards presents paradoxes too. The classic is to figure out what happens when someone goes back in time and kills his own father before he is born. Physicists say that backwards time travel clearly is impossible. It allows things like the death of a father to happen before they can be caused—by among other things the birth of the murderer. A more folksy argument is ‘If backward time travel is possible, then how come we don’t meet any of the travelers?’

Well, think about it for a moment. Maybe, just maybe, an effect does not always have a cause occurring first and we just have not figured this out yet. And backwards time travelers certainly would be briefed not to do anything stupid. If they were really careful, everything would be OK.

But being careful can be a hard thing to do. Consider fashion, for example. It is changing all the time. Even with the internet, keeping track of the coming and going of fads is not easy. And maybe the time travel machines are not very precise. One might want to visit the sixties but arrive in the twenties instead. As soon as the traveler stepped outside of his machine, he would be immediately spotted as being very much out of place.

For women time travels this is indeed a problem, but for men there is a work around—tuxedos. Yes, men’s fashion does change too, but much more slowly than it does for women. A tux from the twenties might well pass in the sixties with little or no comment.

This means that if you indeed are looking for evidence of time travelers, going to the opera or Nobel Prize ceremonies would be a good thing to do.

Eclipses

There can be other visitors among us as well. Consider the phenomenon of a solar eclipse.

First of all, for such a tiny planet as our Earth, our moon is relatively enormous. From anywhere on the surface, it is one of the two biggest sights in the solar system. That alone is worth the visit of alien tourists.

But the fanstasic thing is that, in addition, the moon is precisely the right distance away from the sun so that a total eclipse can occur. No mere transit across the blazing solar disk, no overlap that is wasted. The moon is blocks out all of the sunlight except for a tiny ring around the edge.

This has got to be an astronomical rarity. What are the odds of such a thing happening? There very well may be no other instance in our entire galaxy. Visiting the Earth during a solar eclipse has got to be on the alien top ten list of things to do.

So, If you have a change to be in the path of totally, please follow up on it. You might see the best of all. There right before your eyes, dressed in a tuxedo, a time traveling alien.

© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy

Skylark Three

What? You say. You’re not going to devote any attention to an out-of-date, poorly written, politically incorrect novel, are you? The protagonist even commits genocide!

Well, yes I am – with a focus on what it has meant to me rather than its flaws. You can find out what others think of the book by looking at the reviews in Goodreads.

First, some background on the story. What you will read here is not even slightly accurate, even more over the top than the original, but it is the way that I choose to remember things.

Skylark Three is the second volume in the Skylark trilogy by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, first published in 1930. It features as the hero, Richard Seaton, earth’s most intelligent man — and fastest draw. The villlian of the series, Blackie Duquesne, is as fast as Seaton with his right, but a shade slower with his left, and that made all the difference.

Seaton, being earth’s most intelligent man, uses 1920’s technology to build the Skylark, a spaceship in which he zooms all about the galaxy. In Skylark Three, he discovers the bad news. The Fenachrone are coming! These guys are so evil they even blow up entire planets just for target practice.

Being earth’s most intelligent man, Seaton realizes that our technology infrastructure of the 1920’s is not sophisticated enough to produce a weapon to stop the Fenachrone. So, for roughly the first two-thirds of the novel, as I hazily recall, he visits planet after planet, searching for the advanced technology base that he needs.

Finally, he arrives at what looks like a promising one. The inhabitants are ecstatic. Richard Seaton has come to save them! They give him a lab to work in. Early in the morning of the first day everyone watches on TV Seaton enter the lab to start.

They stay glued to their sets the entire day, seeing the exterior of the lab and nothing on the inside. Finally, around 5PM, Seaton emerges. The entire planet goes wild in celebration. They knew that Seaton was good, but to build the weapon to defeat the Fenacrone in only a single day — unbelievable!

The reporters swam him. “What is the weapon?” they ask? “A brain liquefier?” “A transmorgrifier?” “An incredible shrinking ray?”

“It has only been one day,” Seaton says. “I don’t have the answer yet.”

“What, are you crazy?” “What are you doing out here?” “The Fenachrone are coming! The Fenachrone are coming! They blow up entire planets for target practice!” “You should be back in the lab working harder. What are you doing out here?”

“Well, first of all I am going to relax with a few cocktails while my wife serenades me with a violin concerto or two. She is quite accomplished, you know. Then, a quiet dinner with her, and after that, off to bed for a good night’s sleep. I will be back in the lab the first thing tomorrow morning.”

“But the Fenacrone are coming!”

Seaton paused for a second.  “You just have to pace yourself,” he said.

[Spoiler alert] Surprisingly (?) Seaton does come up with a weapon and almost single-handedly blasts into atoms every last Fenacrone, man, woman, and child.

Anyway, that is how I choose to remember the book. I don’t dare reread it because I know I will be disappointed.

###

So what does this book mean to me personally? Well, for thirty years I worked at an aerospace company, helping to build data processing software for some of our national assets. These systems were one-of-a-kind, doing things that had never been done before. As such, there seldom were models to copy. Everything was new from the ground up.

The process started with a Request for Proposal (RFQ) sent out by the government to companies that seemed to be qualified to build a brain liquefier or transmorgrifier, or whatever.

To respond, each competitor assembled a team of engineers whose specialties covered one of the technologies possibly needed for a solution. Nobody had a Richard Seaton on their staff.

Each of the engineers wrote a first draft of what he thought would contribute to a final solution. Everyone’s writings were posted on the wall for everyone else to read. (This was decades ago. Personal computers and networks had not been invented yet).

Then, armed with the knowledge of what others were doing, each engineer wrote a second draft that attempted to make the whole proposal more coherent.

“Oh, I see you are using two-step logon verification in your section on the operating system. I will mention that in my write up of the Operational Concept.”

This process was iterated, gradually improving the proposal document towards the goal of being understandable and making sense. The writing staff shrunk with each cycle; fewer and fewer engineers took over what they now understood from less able ones who had good ideas but could not convey them clearly.

Eventually, the time was up. The proposal had to be in the government’s hands by a deadline or the contractor could be disqualified from even being evaluated at all.

Most of the time, more or less, this process worked. The final submittal was good enough that the contractor, at the least, would not be embarrassed by what he was handing in. And who knew? What was submitted just might be good enough to win. After all, all of the competitors had the same challenge.

On a few occasions, however, the iterations did not work. There were many cycles, of course, but as the deadline approached, somehow, the words became no better integrated than they had been at the start.

On a few (thankfully) such occasions, with only, say, seventy-two, hours left, I had been the last engineer remaining, and the proposal was a complete mess. It would be an embarrassment to submit. And not handing one in at all was not an option. Both of these choices ran the risk of being dropped from the bidder’s list for the next RFP.

Then, with fewer chances to bid, work would eventually dry up. The more qualified engineers would leave for other companies. The less talented ones that remained would be even less able to respond adequately to whatever RFPs did come in.

In my over-active imagination, over a span of a few years a death spiral resulting in complete collapse of the company was a distinct possibility. The weight of the world was on my shoulders. The needle on my stress meter pinned itself on the right, deep into the red.

And in those situations, I recalled Skylark Three.

What I had to do was a mere pimple on the face of the adversity that was handled by Richard Seaton, I realized. He stopped the Fenachrone, for crying out loud. They were the ones that blew up entire planets for target practice!

And how did he do it? Put in an honest full day’s work, have a calming dinner, a good night’s sleep, and start again fresh the next day. If he could save the entire galaxy from the Fenachrone, the guys who blew up entire planets for target practice, then certainly I should be able to handle my petty problem as well.

I did knock off at 5 PM even though there was only three days left, got my sleep and continued to work through what had to be done the next day.

Self-delusion? Sure it was? But remembering about Skylark Three was what got my stress meter back into the green.

© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy