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Faster Than Light via Sheer Willpower
IMPORTANT NOTE: I already posted the first quarter of this story. If you saw it at that time you can scroll down to the bold italic paragraph and begin reading there.“What the hell is wrong with your ship?”
Non-human comm discipline isn’t quite as good as the human equivalent. As I understand it, they never had to deal with the crackling early radios that informed our procedures. Sure, on most worlds, when a communication spell was first developed it was the domain of a high priest or archmage, but it was clear.
Still, I’d expected a slightly better introduction to the local traffic control net than a half panicked voice asking a question that made no sense. “This is Frontier helm control. All ship systems reporting nominal. To whom am I speaking?”
I glanced down at my board after I finished speaking. The ship systems were reporting nominal by not activating any shrieking klaxons or flashing lights. But with a few pokes to the controls in front of me, I was able to project a little hologram of the ship status. Everything was outlined in happy green.
“Nominal! I’m registering explosions at your aft end.” The speaker still didn’t identify himself and he still sounded panicked.
I reached out, ‘grabbed’ the hologram, rotated it around to view the back side of the ship, and then zoomed in until I was looking at fairly low-level systems. I wasn’t as far down as I could go. The ship would happily report on the status of individual circuit boards and breakers, but I was surely low enough that I could see anything that a local space station could see. Some components were haloed in light green rather than dark green, but that only meant they were coming up on a service date.
I drummed my fingers against the control board mentally debating if I should launch a drone for an external view or if I should respond with ‘everything’s good’ a second time. On the one hand, whoever I was talking to was probably looking at me in a freaking scrying mirror and shouting into a pointy hat or something so there was seriously no way they’d have noticed something that the ship’s sensors hadn’t. On the other hand, I didn’t want to end up in textbooks as an example of why only a jackass would ignore panicked warnings from traffic control.
Then the hologram changed. A tiny icon shaped like an idealized hydrogen atom exited the back of the ship, a dozen lines lanced out at it, and a flare of fire blossomed behind the ship’s pusher plate. Because I was paying attention I felt the ship give a tiny shudder as we decelerated very slightly.
“There it is! There is again! I just saw a huge explosion behind your ship.”
“Oh, sorry. You’re registering our drive system control. All systems are nominal and everything is under control.”
This, at least, seemed to calm the alien traffic control operator down a tiny bit. He...
Well, I was assuming it was a male from the pitch of its voice. Translation spells are nicer than the computerized equivalent. They tend to give speakers roughly the voice the listener would expect given the nature of the speaker even if the original ‘speech’ was in the form of wild tentacle gesticulations and skin color changes via some alien squid thing. This voice was sort of nasal and high, but definitely male.
He at least listened to me this time, “You’re telling me your ship is deliberately firing off a series of huge fireballs? Is that safe?”
“Perfectly safe, control. You’re seeing laser triggered fusion pulses. They’re as clean as mother’s milk.” That wasn’t strictly true. Even laser pumped fusion makes some tritium. But it’s not very hot and the half-life is short enough that even if some mutant atoms end up in a planet’s upper atmosphere they aren’t going to hurt anyone.
“None of that translated.” The speaker's voice had become more nasal and somewhat accusatory as though I had any control over what its spells could or could not translate. “But if that’s your drive then don’t come any closer. I need to talk to someone about this.”
Then the line cut off. “Control! Control! That’s not how this works. The explosions are my brakes.”
I didn’t get any response.
* * *
I should probably back up enough for a little context.
Mankind made contact with extraterrestrial life for the first time when the Oohmahlock’s enormous crystalline spaceship floated out of the sky and set down in the wilds of Alaska. There was a lot of turmoil in response to that, of course, but the strangest part came when they told us why they were on Earth and how they’d gotten there: pure faith had carried them through space faster than a beam of light, and they were here to tell humanity of our divine mission.
We hadn’t believed them on either count. Tackling their technology seemed easier than tackling their belief system, so we’d set about examining everything they were willing to show us absolutely certain that it was standard tech that they didn’t understand and had thus reduced to superstition. Perhaps the ship had been built long before it had been piloted to Earth by a now fallen civilization.
It was not. Long story short it was not. The Oohmahlock allowed us to examine their technology in any way we requested. They knew what would happen before we started. We found nothing capable of doing anything in it and as soon as we looked closely at it the tech stopped functioning.
Next, the Oohmahlock explained how the ship had been built. And, indeed, they had built it themselves. The crystals that made it up were grown over the course of three generations nurtured by the prayers of their entire civilization. A holy order of monks was founded to slowly shape the crystals into livable spaces and workable power focuses. And, when the end of construction was finally in sight, a dozen times as many traveler priests as was normally needed were taught the chants and hymns of fast travel and breathable air. The very best of that group was selected to pilot the ship and only with this extraordinary effort were they able to land a ship on Earth, and then only by keeping it well away from most of the population.
Then they explained humanity’s divine mission. In the beginning, god created the universe. He created the races therein and to them he gave the ability to adjust the rules of reality so that they might not perish under the iron fist of physics. The races of the vastness grew proud. They called their powers magic and said that the wonders they worked were of will and mind rather than through faith. So, on a planet with more iron in its heart than any other, a race with cold iron in its very blood was born. To this race was given special magic; a magic that enforced the rules of the creator. This race would humble the works of the magi and test even the faithful.
This time god wasn’t screwing around. We would assert the rules of reality whenever we examined something. Humans didn’t get a choice in that.
So that was our mission. To survive and travel. Of course, most people thought that was a load of crap. There was even a contingent of people sufficiently contrary (or self-loathing) that said we shouldn’t travel the galaxy. However, the general reaction was, “There’s a great big fantastic universe out there and you’re going to help us get to it? Well praise the alien lord and pass the booster rockets!”
A new space race was on.
It eventually produced three key technologies that gave mankind the stars: laser lifters, the Orion drive, and the Orion two. Laser lifters were the simplest. If you focus a sufficiently powerful beam into a ‘thruster’ that’s essentially nothing more than a durable black cup then all the air inside flashes to plasma and the cup is tossed upwards. Do that a few thousand times and the cup, as well as anything attached to it, is in space without the brutal constraints imposed by the device having to haul its own fuel with it.
All of the research into lasers let us crack fusion. We were massively aided in this by having allies who could magically mine metallic hydrogen from gas giants. We probably could have built Orion’s with fission devices, but it was an almost perfect drive with laser pumped pulse fusion.
The Orion Two wasn’t related to the Orion Drive from an engineering standpoint but…
* * *
The bridge radio clicked on again and brought me the still nasal and slightly frustrated sounding voice of control. “OK, I talked to my boss, who talked to his boss, who talked to diplomatic affairs. For some reason, I’ve got to let your doom machine approach. So, here you go, park it there and try not to blow up. Well, not any more than you already are.”
The hologram of the ship was replaced with a holographic representation of the parking orbit Control wanted the Frontier to take up. I thought, not for the first time, that the translation spells used by most races really are amazing. Control had probably put a voodoo doll of the Frontier into a scale model of the system expecting a diagram to show up in my scrying bowl or some such. But, because of the translation spell, the information made it to me in a format that the ship’s computer could interpret. Better yet, because the spell was acting on their communication and not my reception the human anti-magic field couldn’t turn it off.
There was a sharp crack of static and the hologram in front of me shifted to a bunch of juvenile squid aliens playing a game that looked a lot like dodgeball. One of those allies, a small and awkward one even to my human eyes, was getting the worst of it. Several other beings were pelting it mercilessly with balls and each of them was using more than one tentacle at a time. Then that image started to fuzz and break up.
I quickly looked away from the hologram. Modern comms training includes a fairly extensive section on not thinking too hard about just how aliens who have never discovered radio are speaking to you. The human anti-magic field always gets a vote if you catch its attention.
Let’s see, the bastard over at control had stuck me in his system’s L2 point. L2 is way out past the moon and it’s gravitationally unstable. If I’d just gotten a normal parking orbit I could have shut off the ship's engines and taken some much-needed rack time. But, oh no, because Control thought I was going to blow up I was going to have to periodically correct the ship’s position. On top of that, I suspected the Orion Drive was too powerful for that work. It would be like trying to make a golf putt with a sledgehammer, so I’d have to run our maneuvering thrusters way more than they were really designed for.
I looked back down at the holo. It was back to being a display of Frontier's parking space. “Parking orbit acknowledged Control,” I said through clenched teeth.
There was a long silence and I thought maybe Control had wandered off without telling me for a moment. Then the line went live again and control spoke hesitantly, “So why is your trip that important, anyway?”
I ran my tongue across my teeth wondering just how to answer that. We were in a Von system. The Von were a race of mighty wizards of the sort that Humanity was sent to humble and bring low. We’d been doing a great job of that. The Von had a lot of desire for human consumer goods. Our technology filled niches their magic handled poorly and anyone could use it without training. Yet all we could buy from them was raw materials. Their military was nearly useless against us because we shrugged off their most potent death magic like it had never been cast; they could throw a rock at us or telekinetically fire an arrow, but that was only if they caught us off guard. So a species with 100 planets to their name was having to normalize diplomatic relations with a single planet species as though we were total equals.
I wasn’t exactly shocked the Von leaders hadn’t publicized this meeting well enough for Control to be ready for us. I also wasn’t going to give away their secrets. “Just some trade negotiations.”
Control’s only reply was a sigh so thick with annoyance that I actually started to feel for the guy. Embarrassing or not the local traffic control facilities really should have been told they were going to be dealing with a completely alien spaceship. No one ever thinks of the little guy.
Again I thought control had signed off without announcing it but he came back one last time. “OK, I’ve got to ask. You’re using fireballs to push yourself around space, which is still nuts, but I learned back in school only one or two really special spells can move something faster than light. Pyromancy definitely doesn’t do it! So how did you make the interstellar leg of your trip?”
* * *
The Orion Two wasn’t related to the Orion Drive from an engineering standpoint but they were philosophical and spiritual brothers. Humanity couldn’t learn directly from the Oohmahlock but we could stand way over there with a particle detector while they used miracles to torment space-time, and the Oohmahlock just loved to do that for us because they basically saw it as helping angels learn god’s will.
Eventually, we learned to make a G.E.C.; a gravity emitting circuit. Because the electroweak force is so much stronger than the gravitational force it’s possible to supercharge one of those until it very briefly becomes a singularity. If you toss such an artificial black hole in front of a ship, and lace enough G.E.Cs through the ship that the force gradient across it is even so you don’t get spaghettified, you’ve got an FTL drive. Better yet if you use a second artificial singularity inside the first, or a third in the second, or a fourth in the third and so on you can go really really fast indeed.
It annoys physicists and mathematicians because they can’t even begin to describe where the ship is after that bit of fuckery, but the tech tested as safe. At least it’s safe for human equipment and Earth life.
It’s not so safe for Oohmahlock. We learned that when one of their high priests took a historic first ride on one of our ‘Holy Vessels’. They started screaming and they didn’t stop until a faith healer wiped their memory. Their whole memory. The high priest was left as little more than a mentally damaged infant and everyone agreed the cure was way better than the disease.
The most sensible thing the priest said while it still had its memories was, “They can see me! They can see me! They can see you, but you can’t see them! They can touch me but they can’t touch you! You can touch them! Save me, save me, save me! Will you save me?”
The official human explanation is that the Oohmahlock have some sort of subconscious connection to the normal universe that allows them to achieve the things they can do. Taking them so far out of the normal universe causes a form of stress that can damage their minds.
The official Oohmahlock explanation is that some sort of horrible thing is looking into our universe from outside and maybe they were wrong about just what humanity needs to do. Perhaps we aren’t just supposed to annoy wizards. Maybe we need to fly around in the high warp bands acting like border guards for reality. Their church is in a bit of a state of flux.
I’d just spent a month in those warp bands and the only danger I’d felt was boredom, so I don’t know what to think. It is nice to imagine that my mind set a big brace down the spine of reality itself, but it’s kind of far fetched.
What I do know is there’s no way I was going to explain any of that to Control. I’d end up with a parking orbit in a neighboring star system. Or maybe he’d just tell me to go in for a landing on the system’s sun.
* * *
“Um, the force of will,” I answered into the radio. “Yeah, pure will power. Everyone on the ship just wants to go faster than light really badly and then we go faster than light.”
“Oh, well good. At least you’ve got a sensible FTL drive. Geez, you should just get that working in-system. Way better than those fireballs. Anyway, your approach vector is clear. Perform a sending if you need anything. Control out.”
* * *
The talks with the Von went well. The biggest incident was when one of the younger secretaries attached to the delegation lost all of her magical cosmetics. She had apparently been wearing a lot of them and apparently her coworkers hadn’t known.
I keep saying ‘apparently’ because the Von aren’t a race to inspire lust in humans. They kind of look like someone shoved a rudimentary skeleton into a squid. They have a skull on an invertebrate neck-stalk, an abbreviated rib-cage analog, and bones for added leverage in 4 of their 8 limbs. They can casually slip a lot of those bones out of joint sacrificing strength and speed for flexibility.
It also makes them look a bit like a deep-sea creature that has inexplicably fallen off a skyscraper. Not great model material.
The whole makeup incident had some positive side effects. The Von use a lot of medical magic at the end of their lives. Once everyone had gotten a visceral example of how hard and fast magic evaporates under the inspection of a room full of skeptical humans our scheduled meetings with some of the more senior staff were canceled. It would’ve been bad for the discussions if the head of the embassy screamed and collapsed into dust.
Second, it gave Control and me something to gossip about. He proved to be a pretty good guy even if he was uptight about human tech, and neither of us was very busy as the port was mostly shut down for the big meeting. We passed the time comparing cultures, swapping stories, and griping about our bosses. Or ‘building an intercultural rapport’ as I put it in my status reports.
* * *
“I said goodbye to my parents last night. Father was brave, but it almost pushed me over the edge when my mother began to cry,” Control said out of the blue.
Well, he didn’t say anything of the kind. He made a series of pops, squeaks, and clicks that the human ear could barely follow, and it would have been quite a huge coincidence if the Von cry. But I had my translator set to dynamic equivalence. As such, that was what I heard and there was no robotic voice breaking into his words to explain, ‘explosive flatulence is an expression of sadness for the Von,’ or whatever.
“Buddy, you’re going to be fine! Your people wouldn’t want to trade for our warp drives if they weren’t safe. And you’ve given us, what, like 10 whole planets if this works.”
“If! And my people aren’t thinking clearly. What is the horrible death of a single comms operator if it might alleviate the biggest weakness of our magic?”
Control could be a downer sort of squid. We were still calling each other ‘Control’ and ‘Helm’ because he couldn’t pronounce ‘Jeff’ and I couldn’t pronounce ‘engine that really needs oiled’ sounds.
I cast about for something to distract him and found it in the form of a rather grand Von in the corner of the room. He had on robes stitched with precious materials and held a quartz staff shot with veins of natural gold surmounted by a huge ruby. He was wearing a very grand hat though it actually looked more like a sombrero than the pointy thing humans associated with fictional wizards.
“Alright, even if your people would throw you to the wolves that guy is pretty important and magically experienced. He wouldn’t get onto this ship if all non-humans were doomed would he?”
“The high mage is the foremost master of spatial magics, so yeah he’s pretty important. He also has considerable faith in his own abilities. Perhaps enough so that he would underestimate the risk.” Despite his words, Control’s simulated tone sounded a bit less stressed.
I felt I was on the right track to comfort him. “This stuff is also pretty good, right? Some sort of magic armor?”
Control and I were hanging plates of enchanted material the Von had provided around one of the aft cargo bays like it was so much drywall. However, even to a complete mundy like me, it appeared to be fancy stuff. It was pattern welded like Demsasus steel. Only the patterns in it were magical runes and half a dozen materials had been woven together in its construction.
Control sniffed in an offended way, “‘Pretty good!’ ‘Magical armor!’ I’ll have you know, this is the best anti-magic armor in the known universe. This,’ He stroked it almost reverently, “enforces the rules of reality such that no spell may travel through it. This material accounts for some of the vast might of the Von military as well as the fact that our natural philosophy is far more advanced than any other race. It will contain a bubble of the real universe even in the face of your horrific drive system!”
Control was sounding a bit more like himself so I let him slide on referring to their iron age understanding of the laws of reality as ‘advanced.’ Instead I looked back at the magical plating. It was basically a weak version of the human effect. Interesting. No wonder they were letting me touch it. I’d thought that was just a sort of stress test, but this might be a spell humans couldn’t break. Or could we? Actually, it was probably best not to think about that question in case the answer was, “Yes.”
The High Wizard chose that moment to provide something better for more to think about. He was still over by his crate, but now he was loudly chanting something my translator couldn’t handle while he twisted his tentacles and limbs into all manner of strange shapes. That went on for a moment then, with a triumphal air that carried across species, he slammed his staff into the deck and the big gem on top flashed. With growing excitement, I realized I was watching magic.
The pallet of material in front of the wizard heaved itself off the ground and wobbled unsteadily about half a foot in the air for a moment. I started to mouth, “Cool!” Then the entire load slammed back into the ground with a crash that sounded like it couldn’t have been good for whatever was inside.
The high wizard slumped, and let me tell you, a being whose skeleton is mostly optional can really slump. Then he turned around in that slow ‘did anyone see that’ way of a being who has just realized their fly is open and hurriedly fixed it in public.
When he saw me he stiffened and pointed an angry appendage, “Human! You are rendering it impossible to work! Begone!”
I drew in breath for some sort of retort. I’m not sure what it would’ve been. Something so clever and scathing it would have set diplomatic relations back decades, probably. But then I felt the weight of Control’s tentacle on my shoulder. I looked back at him.
“Perhaps it would be best if you return to your duties elsewhere. We are well ahead of our schedule due to your wondrous ‘electric screwdrivers’ which penetrate the anti-magic plate where our most potent tools fail. It will ease the High Wizards work if he can once again access his spells.”
The High Wizard could have accessed a hand truck as far as I was concerned, but we were nearly done so I just nodded. “Alright, call me if you have any problems.”
* * *
“Comm check, medical bay here,” I spoke into the comms panel in the med bay. It was my station for our test flight. There were half a dozen Von soldiers lying unconscious in the beds. Half of them had been tranquilized via human medical science, half with magic. Human medical personnel buzzed around them.
“Um, this is the converted cargo bay. Oh, bay A-3. Can you hear me? Did I activate this correctly?”
“You’re on. Do it just like that if you need to send any messages.”
“Bridge here. Your headset should be listen-only on our general channel and I’ve got the wall panel hooked to Captain’s priority. Is it all coming in?”
I cocked my head and listened to the prelaunch chatter for a moment on that device. It was all coming in clearly. At the moment they were working through the end of the “Station Ready” checklist. That meant we were less than 5 minutes from getting underway. “It’s all coming in,” I told the bridge via the wall panel.
“Very good. Bridge over.”
I leaned back on the wall and felt minor shudders go through it as the first of the fusion pulses went off. We were moving farther away from everything so we could go FTL. It was somewhat strange to be doing nothing during this part of the flight as I would normally be at my busiest. At the moment my job was to have no job. That way I could keep track of where we were in OUR flight sequence so I’d know how long it was to the end of the flight and what our window was on an emergency abort while simultaneously being available to Control and the medical staff if anything went pear-shaped on their ends.
For fifteen minutes, we traveled through normal space and everything went smoothly. The magical sleepers stayed asleep and the medicated sleepers stayed healthy. Control reported back to his superiors magically and me via the comms system. He even admitted that fusion explosions were a softer means of propulsion than he’d expected.
I heard we were at a minimum safe distance on the general channel so opened the channel back to control and spoke into it and the room in general, “Alright everyone, we’re about to go superluminal. Fifteen minutes out. Fifteen minutes back.”
The anesthesiologist gave me the thumbs up, but everyone else in the room kept their eyes glued to their tasks.
“Grace of Magic, protect and provide in this my hour of need,” Control murmured over the comms. I doubted I was expected to comment on that.
Going FTL in a human ship feels a bit like getting pushed and poked from a half dozen directions at once as the gravitational stabilizers spin up hard enough to prevent spaghettification and then self-tune until the local gravity field is nice and even again. I felt that, heard a series of agitated clicks over the comms, and then everything went back to normal. I looked around at the brightly lit medical space and the still apparently peaceful Von laying in it. They seemed good. I thumbed open the channel to the converted cargo bay, “Control, how are you liking the ride?”
“Was it meant to feel like someone was tugging on my spleen for a moment then smooth out?”
“Yeah, that’s about right.”
“In that case, my situation remains nominal…”
Control’s all clear report cut out suddenly as two things happened simultaneously. First, there was a loud bang and a thick cloud of white acrid smoke rolled out of the communications panel in front of me. Second, all three of the magically tranquilized soldiers began to jerk and seize.
“Shit,” the anesthesiologist swore. Then she looked over at me, “Let the bridge know we’re going to need to abort.” She immediately turned back to her work either not noticing the panel in front of me was dead or deciding that was my problem. Doctors are focused like that.
The touch screen of the comms panel was dark, but I gave it a couple of good jabs with my thumb anyway hoping that it would wake back up. It didn’t, so I took off running out of medical and down the hall to the bridge. The Frontier is bigger than most people picture when they think, ‘spaceship’ but it was still going to be faster to run across it than it was to fix the comms.
Only it wasn’t. The first bulkhead door I came to was shut, which isn’t normal, and its motion sensor ignored my approach, which is even odder.
All the bulkhead doors have a little screen next to them. Under ordinary circumstances, they display an identifier and can provide a little map of the ship if you’re lost. During a depressurization event, which is the only thing that should have made the door fail shut, they’re supposed to display environmental status for the corridor beyond and allow for the door to be manually opened. Only now the screen was dark and there were scorch marks on the panel above it.
I gave the screen a punch, more out of anger than any hope that it would wake up. It didn’t wake up. It did fall off the wall. I looked into the recess beyond it and found a small scattering of black powder as well as the remnants of what looked like a crystal and maybe a couple of liquids. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, but the crystal sure seemed like Von magic and the black stuff could have been gunpowder.
Down the hall, the anesthesiologist poked her head out of the med bay, “Hey, we’ve got the Von under again, but we’re getting some odd readings. It’s like they’ve all started to have nightmares. What’s going on with the abort?”
“Sabotage I think! We’re still superluminal.” My receive only headset was fine and still connected to the bridge so I knew we were four levels deep and holding with all systems green. They hadn’t noticed the link to the medical bay was dead yet. “There are panels in all of these rooms. Maybe I can…”
My clever plan to make the call from a different phone was interrupted by a huge explosion from the direction of the cargo bay. This one definitely wasn’t caused by black powder. Instead of a bang the sound of it was like a super high pitched tuning fork being struck and flashes of black light strobed all around us for a moment.
I felt nothing, of course, but someone in the medical bay yelled, “Fuck! What the hell was that? It’s hitting the Von hard; Ann we need you!”
Ann shot me a look, then vanished back into medical without speaking. We were close to the cargo bay, and I knew it had a commlink. So I sprinted in that direction planning to call in the abort from there once I had the full situation.
Fortunately, the door to the cargo bay was open. The screen next to it was glitching and there was a black stain on the wall above it, but whatever had happened hadn’t been enough to make it fail shut. I sprinted through without slowing.
The bay itself was a mess. The anti-magic paneling was fine, and the human equipment looked about like it always had, but all of the Von’s crates were scattered like they’d been hit by a strong wind. Control was laying in one corner making an undulating squealing sound I’d never heard from him before. My translator couldn’t do anything with it, but it sounded like distress to me.
“Buddy, are you OK. What’s going on?”
“I am… I feel… It’s like magic is looking directly at me. I feel like it’s judging me. Inspecting me. I can function. The plating helps, but this is most unpleasant.”
“Was that what that flash was?”
“No that was,” then the English from my translator dissolved into clicks and pops as it found a term it couldn’t handle. Most likely it was some technical explanation of whatever magical thing had just happened. “I must check on the High Wizard.”
The Frontier's cargo bays are modular and can be configured with extra walls and dividers at need. That’s what we’d done for this experiment: we’d set up one chamber that was the correct size for the amount of anti-magic plating the Von provided and a second unshielded chamber where the High Wizard could work freely. Control was looking at the door between them. It had been mostly covered by crates when the Von equipment was thrown around.
“The door servos are pretty strong. If you can squeeze your way over to the control panel they’ll be able to push that stuff out of the way.”
“I can do that,” Control said and the translator gave him a confident tone. Then he started popping his ribs out of joint and I had to look away as his entire torso crumpled up like an old sock that had been used to store nails. (No, I have no idea why someone would store nails in an old sock, but if the mental image of a being looking like that is unpleasant you’re on the right track.)
I walked over to the comm panel and, at last, found something that hadn’t been inexpertly blown up. It was showing that the link to the medical bay had cut out unexpectedly, which I already knew. I cleared that error and connected it to the bridge instead.
As soon as the channel was open, the bridge officer started speaking, “Cargo bay? What’s happening back there? Medical is offline.”
“This is Jeff. Medical has problems. I need an emergency abort.”
There was some garbled, but energetic, discussion on the other end of the line that I couldn’t quite follow, and then the bridge came back, “I’ve signaled it, but we’re in band transition. I’ll need five minutes to get us back to flat-space.”
Across the room, there was a whine of stressed servos, but when I looked back the door to the High Wizard’s chamber was open. “OK, I’m going to check on the High Wizard. I should be back with his status in 30 seconds. If you need me sooner, I’ve still got the general channel in ‘receive only’.”
What I didn’t tell the bridge, because they couldn’t do anything about it at the moment, was that I suspected the High Wizard’s status was ‘traitorous bastard.’ Someone had set all of those black powder charges and when I looked over at Control I found him pressed up against a film of blue light which now filled the door.
“It’s a magical shield!”
I drew the sidearm I’d been issued before we let a half dozen soldiers and an alien wizard onto the ship. “Magical shields aren’t fucking real.” The shield popped like a soap bubble and Control went stumbling into the High Wizard’s chamber.
I ran to the door, crouched down, and looked around it with my head low to the ground so I wouldn’t provide a ready target. The scene beyond the door was like something out of a DnD game. There was a circle drawn on the floor in the milky blue-white fluid Von use for blood. Crystals, each one emitting enough black light that my uniform was fluorescing, were set at regular intervals around the outside of the circle. There was a ring of symbols on the inside. I can’t read Vonish script. They could have said anything, but they were glowing a nasty sickly green. The high wizard was on the outside of the circle on the far side of the room. Right after I arrived at the door he finished a chant that my translator couldn’t handle and turned to face Control who was sprawled on the floor.
The real piece de resistance of the whole scene was what looked like an extra-large Von made of glowing green light in the center of the circle.
We all froze for a second, but the High wizard recovered fastest. “So, you survived the,” my translator dropped a word, “that’s most impressive. You must have considerably more magical talent than I gave you credit for.”
“What are you doing,” Control demanded.
“I am gaining power. The power we need to ensure the Von place in the universe. Power far more potent than Human scraps. I can’t let you interfere.” With that, he raised his staff and snapped out an untranslatable word. A bolt of power lanced out of the staff and flew across the room. In his prone position, Control never had a chance at dodging. The bolt caught him squarely and he slumped back down as a nasty burnt fish smell filled the air.
The Wizard wasn’t holding any weapon beyond his staff that I could see. I stood, trained my sidearm on his chest, and stepped into the doorway. “Please put the staff down, and I will escort you to the bridge.” I glanced down at the still form of my friend, “You have considerable diplomatic immunity for what you’ve done thus far but I would strongly advise you not to push it any farther.”
He said his word again, only this time the spell was pointed at me and there wasn’t so much as a flicker in the crystal of the staff. “Put down the staff,” I said around clenched teeth.
“Oh please, allow me,” a third voice said. It was very cultured and smooth and it came from the center of the circle. When I looked, I saw that the figure of light had transformed itself from a Von to a handsome Human male. It was wearing a suit and it was built on a scale such that its head nearly brushed the ceiling.
It flicked its hand out at the High Wizard and the High Wizard turned inside out. That was nasty. The Wizard's jaws yawned wide and it started to let out a pained squeal. Then, with a crack, they jerked just a bit wider and filled with blueish tissue that must have come from somewhere inside the being. Over the next 15 seconds, more of its insides fountained through its mouth until they were all outside and it was nothing but an unidentifiable blob of flesh laying on the floor.
I opened my mouth. I suppose I wanted to say something, but if anything came out it was only a little whimper.
The thing did not appear to be overly concerned with what it had done, because it began speaking in a completely casual and urbane tone. “You are something very interesting. He was a sleeper who dreamt a dream not of this place. But you…. Hmmm, I can’t tell if you’re a dream of the one who dreamt of all of this or if maybe you just happened. Still, you are completely awake. I dare say we have quite a bit to offer each other. Would you like to be able to change all of this like that thing could before I killed it?”
“You’re offering me magic? Just like that.”
“Just like that! Well, there’s a certain resonance I’d need to achieve by killing the other beings on this ship. I can explain why later, but you need to decide quickly. I can feel you falling away from me and your nature is pushing me away. I don’t think one of your type could ever get me back on your own.”
I know a couple of TV show tough guy lines like, ‘here’s my decision’ or ‘is this quick enough for you’ ran through my head, but I’m pretty sure I just robotically trained my weapon on him and pulled the trigger without saying anything. My sidearm is a standard Gravitational Compression Gun. It fired a pulse of gravitational energy which compressed a meter wide column of air between me and the target into a centimetre wide beam of burning white plasma. Then a second pulse rippled down the plasma and slammed it into the target. There was a crack like thunder as the air collapsed back in on itself and my eyes were left slightly dazzled.
The GC gun does horrible things to any living target it hits. It’s not quite as hard on Outer Horrors but they don’t like it. The simulacrum of a man let out a bellow of rage and wavered for a moment before stabilizing again.
“Fine,” it snapped then raised its hand and made a gesture like it had at the High Wizard. I felt a painfully sharp tug at my jaw and stomach simultaneously, but it faded before it could even work my jaws open.
I squeezed the trigger of my GC again and the thing waved under another onslaught of plasma, but it only seemed like a momentary inconvenience for it. Worse yet, I could hear someone saying something about slow warp band collapse on the bridge general channel. We were having a hard time coming out of FTL. That’s not completely unusual, and no one on the bridge was that worried. With the context I had, it seemed bad.
The man shape made a different gesture then joined its two hands together such that its thumbs and fingers touched in front of it making a little triangle. A bar of silver light shot out of the triangle and slammed into my chest. It felt like an icicle stabbing into me, and I staggered backward. When I looked down frost coated the front of my uniform and a small patch of blood it. Still, the thing had a shocked look on its face and I had to assume that was because I was still standing.
SEE MY COMMENT FOR THE LAST BIT.
[Weekend Long Read] Representation of Muslims in Malayalam cinema and taking the Riz test
If the film/show stars at least one character who is identifiably Muslim (by ethnicity, language or clothing) then is the character:
- Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?
- Presented as irrationally angry
- Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?
- Presented as a threat to a western way of life?
- If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic? Or if female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts?
We look at Malayalam cinema that is said to be making the most progressive films in India right now and analyse how many films passed with flying colours and how many barely made it and how many miserably failed.
The 50s and 60s had few films that headlined Muslim characters which told normal human stories within the milieu. The 1960 film Umma directed by Kunchako had polygamy as its central theme. There was also Subaidha, Ayisha and Khadeeja in the 60s.
“The new wave sidelined women and Muslim characters. While commercial cinema was under the influence of MT Vasudevan Nair and his Valluvandan characters. Stories around upper-caste Hindu families became the norm. Superstar films were also anti-Muslim,” says CS Venkiteswaran, film academician and author.
Some of the commonly observed motifs of misrepresentation would be Muslim characters invariably lacked education, practiced polygamy and families were largely patriarchal in nature. Women in typical traditional costumes who get married at a young age, bear several children, languish inside kitchens and put up with patriarchal oppression. While men in white skullcaps, goatee, green belts tied around a lungi and white banians, would propagate polygamy, misogyny, were superstitious, economically backward and uncouth.
Statistically mainstream Malayalam films between 80s and 2000 had only a handful of Muslim hero characters. In the action thriller Moonam Mura (1988) directed by K Madhu, written by SN Swami, Mohanlal plays an ex-cop Ali Imran who is assigned for a mission, but his religion doesn’t add any value to the story. Similarly, in His Highness Abdulla (1990), he played Abdulla who eventually wins over the Hindu Thampuran’s heart and marries his adopted daughter. While Mammootty has played the iconic writer Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer in Mathilukal (1990), the evil Murikkum Kunnathu Ahmed Haji in Ranjith’s Palerimanikyam and world war veteran Khader in 1921 directed by IV Sasi and scripted by T Damodaran, based on the Mappila Uprising. Interestingly none of these films were directed or written by those who belonged to the community.
If one goes by Census of India figures, Muslims makes 26.56% population in Kerala and by that count, the Muslim representation in mainstream cinema cannot be counted as enough.
The 1988 Sathyan Anthikad film, Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu, written by Raghunath Paleri, has an elderly Muslim landlord, Hajiyar (Karamana Janardhanan Nair) who doesn’t allow his third wife, Kalmayi (Parvathy) to step out of the house, petrified that a younger man will snatch her from him. Kalmayi in her traditional attire and gold finery is a typical Muslim woman stereotype who seems content with her confinement, which was also a reflection of the society back then.
Amina Tailors (1991) directed by Sajan, reinstates every Muslim stereotype—uneducated, roguish, oppressed women and misogynistic men. Amina is illiterate who learns to read and write for her lover, without her father’s knowledge, while the mother is a mute witness to the father’s boorish, misogynistic behaviour.
Ghazal (1993) directed by Kamal has a heroine, who seems to have put the villagers under her spell with her blue eyes. Despite being madly in love with a young man in the village, she agrees to wed the much-married elderly Thangal (Nasser) to seek revenge for raping her years ago. She ends up killing him and herself on the wedding night as she feels she isn’t chaste enough to be with the man who loves her. Set in North Kerala, the film also adds to labels (polygamy, illiteracy, patriarchy, anti-modern, impoverished) associated with the Muslim community in that region. Thangal’s wife is again a silent observer to her husband’s philandering. But Perumazhakalam (2004), about a Hindu woman and Muslim woman who gets acquainted by an bizarre twist of fateengages us with its heartful human-interest story (which is inspired from real life).
In Vinayan’s Dada Sahib (2000), Mammootty plays the double role of a Muslim father and son. While the son is an army man, the father is a freedom fighter. The son’s surname and religion typically result in him being arrested for espionage. The elderly father meanwhile runs from pillar to post seeking help from the police and government, doling out fiery speeches to prove his patriotism. In return he gets abused for his religion and being traitors historically! It also speaks about a narrative where the Muslim characters were required to prove their integrity and patriotism in a society which kept doubting their credentials (again reflected the society mindset during that time, which surprisingly remains the same). Suresh Gopy who played Muhammed Sarkar in the Shaji Kailas directed FIR (1999) had to resort to the whole good Muslim speech for those who questioned his intentions in the film.
Though in some of the most feted political thrillers of the 90s, Muslim characters are invariably drug peddlers, bomb-creators and anti-nationals. They were either the villain’s henchman or anti-establishment figures scheming against the hero. Or they placed Muslim characters, simply to “represent a community”—like Baputti in Shaji Kailas’ Aaram Thampuran (1997), who is Mohanlal’s buddy and man Friday. While dropping him at Kulappuli Appan Thampuran’s mansion he excuses himself from entering the premise saying—"Namukku paranjittullathu ithreyellu. Ini Bappootti kayari ashudhamakkunnilla.” It’s a sly castiest statement. Jagathy plays Khader Khan in Ranjith’s Rock N Roll, a caricaturish Kozhikode Muslim who lives to eat.
In Priyadarshan’s Kilichundan Mambazham (2003), set in Malabar, the template isn’t free of clichés either. Abdu and Ameena are in love but circumstances force Ameena to be the third wife of a rich merchant, Moidhooty Haji. Haji (Sreenivasan) right from the wedding night comes across as this libidinous man who considers women fit only to have sex, procreate and cook. In one scene he asks Ameena— “You get to eat biryani four times a day? What else do you need? When Ameena keeps postponing their consummation, a frustrated Haji drags his first wife to his bedroom for sex. Finally he gives Ameena the triple talaq so that she can go back to her lover (with an odd Muslim custom as an excuse) and chooses to stay with his first wife. That apart, the film and its actors gave the impression of being part of a shoddy fancy dress party with awfully rendered Malabar Muslim slang topped with loud mannerisms.
In many mid 90s films, Muslim characters were placed to add humour. Cochin Haneefa used to be at the receiving end of quite a few roles like that.
The 2006 Shaji Kailas suspense thriller Baba Kalyani reinstates the favourite Bollywood Muslim stereotype—How Hawala invariably links to Muslims and the Pakistan nexus. In the film Mohanlal’s Baba Kalyani finds out that antagonist, Babu (Indrajith Sukumaran), a college lecturer by the day is a kingpin of a terror organization in the state. He is said to have undergone Jihadi training in Pakistan and is planning a massive explosion.
Vineeth Sreenivasan’s love letter to the Muslim woman’s veil, Thattathin Marayathu (2012) has a hero who is mesmerised by the heroine’s face framed inside the veil. “When she puts it, I am unable to focus elsewhere,” is his constant refrain. The heroine meanwhile lives a sheltered existence along with her divorced sister and submissive father in a home ruled by her misogynistic uncle. When her love affair with the Hindu boy is revealed she is beaten with a belt by the Uncle. The girls (her elder sister is blamed for walking out of an abusive marriage) despite being educated are shown to be mere puppets in a toxic patriarchal space. One can’t deny that a reversed narrative would have resulted in Love Jihad.
“Earlier in Malayalam cinema, most of the villain characters had Muslim names or very rarely Christian names. I once asked this writer why he made that cruel villain a Muslim character? He replied, “It’s just a name, that’s it.” I think that’s the biggest disaster that can happen to a writer. It’s not just a name, that its name is Islamophobia is what we learnt much later. We need to think before we even pick names. When we start procrastinating, writing becomes dangerous,” observes Writer PF Mathews.
In Ustad Hotel (2012) directed by Anwar Rasheed, written by Anjali Menon, the heroine belongs to a rich patriarchal Muslim family where women are expected to cook and bear children. Though she is an architecture student, she agrees to an arranged marriage, and hopes to be “allowed to work” post marriage. Shahana is also seen performing for a rock band at night without the knowledge of her family. While the hero’s sisters though initially are married off, they are later shown to be taking care of the hotel business. And during the beginning of the film the mother is only there as a symbol of procreation (though it can be argued that it’s a reality in many Muslim households). The father is displeased by the daughters she gives birth to and after the son is born, she conveniently dies. The scene where Dulquer Salmaan’s Faizi raises his eyebrows at a Muslim man who admits that the bunch of children rallying around him are his own would again be a stereotype.
"A heroine who portrays a Muslim character wears a burkha, jumps over walls and sings rock music for liberation, or when she goes out for work, the family runs behind her and hands her a hijab (Take Off). There is no attempt to go deep into their culture, thinking or aesthetics," says Parari.
The Murali Gopy scripted Tiyaan (2017) is strewn with celluloid Muslim stereotypes where they draw kohl-eyed hooligans who rape and kill as Pakistani born bad Muslims and the namaaz reading, good Samaritans who walk in the backdrop of Arabic chants as the good ones.
Last year’s B Tech set in the backdrop of an Engineering college in Bangalore is about a group of friends and how the death of their young Muslim friend turns their life upside down. Though a well-intentioned commentary against islamophobia, it dissolves into a middling narrative with cliched social media inspired memes being converted into dialogues.
The ones who passed the test
The first film which went against every single checklist in the Riz test has to be the Muhsin Parari directed and written KL10 Pathu (2015), set in the backdrop of a place (Malappuram) that has never got its due in the movies. If TV Chandran’s Paadam Onnu Oru Vilaapam depicted the regressive reality of how Muslim girls forced into early marriages are left in the lurch once pregnant, others showcased the youth who indulged in bigotry and treason. Even the recently released Amazon Prime web series, Family Man had a Malayali antagonist, Moosa, who hails from Kasaragod and joins the ISIS after his family gets slaughtered in a riot. But in his debut film, Parari debunks every stereotype associated with the district and creates a democratic, fun space. Be it having a progressive, independent fun-loving heroine who wears a hijab without fuss, to men who planned their days around food and football to an adorable Jinn, with kohl-lined eyes, as the narrator. There are lovely undertones of Sufism, in music, architecture and poetry. It’s a smartly written film that digs deeper into the socio-political milieu of the region, where conversations flow freely, friendships are legendary and people are warm and frothy, along with precisely retaining their dialect and portraying their culture authentically. "It did justice to the tagline we used— “Mazha Mayayudey Paryayamanu” which questioned the inclusiveness of the mainstream Malayalam cinema. Also, KL10 Pathu was the first movie in which a Muslim girl in Hijab was depicted unapologetically," offers Parari.
In their next film, Sudani from Nigeria (2018), Muhsin and Zakariya—who makes his directorial debut—achieve the same honesty and integrity in depicting the life of Malappuram residents. The narrative follows Majeed, a Sevens football team manager, and his friendship with an immigrant Nigerian player, who finds himself at the Manager’s home being lovingly tended to by his mother following a broken leg. Considering the landscape, culture and people were always misrepresented, the makers pull all the stops to bring it all back to perspective. Be it their passion for football and food, their ability to open their hearts and homes to a stranger and their quirky sense of humour, naivety and taking pride in their nativity. While there are women who happily thrive in the conditioned patriarchal space, there are also young, financially independent sort who refuse to settle for a partner who aren’t as qualified as them.
“Though I thought that was going the extreme, without a single grey character and a village filled with kind-hearted people. I don’t see a balance there,” says CS.
In the 2017 film Take Off, based on the real life story of nine Malayali nurses who were held hostage by terrorists in Iraq, Parvathy plays Sameera, a Muslim nurse who gets a posting in Iraq. Sameera, who hails from a lower-middle class family, gets married into an affluent, conservative Muslim family where women are expected to take care of the home and children. When she decides to pursue nursing to help her father pay off the loans, the husband and his family don’t take it well, resulting in a divorce.
Sameera is one of the most realistically sketched Muslim female characters in Malayalam cinema — all her battles are fought staying within the system. Even in her husband’s home, it’s not shown as an outright rebellion, but a matter of standing up for herself. She is trying to fit into all the roles as best as she can — be it nurse, wife, mother, daughter or daughter-in-law.
Manju Warrier plays Saira, a postwoman wearing a head scarf in C/O Saira Banu—but nowhere in the narrative does the religion or gender have a say in their character arc. The only reminder would be when she talks about getting beaten up by her father when she was in school for removing her hijab to save a pair of kittens from getting soaked in the rain.
Films like Big B, Anwar, Annayum Rasoolum have characters who don’t fall into Muslim stereotypes. Big B main leads are named with an eye on communal harmony—Bilal (Muslim), Eddy (Christian), Murugan and Bijo (Hindus) are orphans adopted by a good Samaritan Mary teacher. And none of the characters are pigeon-holed because of their religion.
There are interesting unconventional, organic depictions. In Aami, one of the stories in the anthology 5 Sundarikal, Fahad Fasil is a rich Muslim who plays interesting mind games with his wife over the phone during a long journey. While Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi has Dulquer Salmaan belonging to a conservative Muslim family in North Kerala on a journey to find his lover. It also shows his patriarchal and traditional household where the mother is anxious about the son marrying someone outside the caste.
The 2017 romance Mayaanadhi about two star-crossed lovers has a track about a popular film actress who is a Muslim and how her life is controlled by her misogynistic brother. When a clip of her midriff gets revealed in a film, he immediately puts a stop to all her film ambitions. However, one has to note that it's a role seldom given to a Muslim woman on screen.
While the Soubin Shahir directed Parava is a beautifully framed film in the backdrop of a milieu he comes from, Mattanchery and their passion for pigeon racing. It’s a tribute to a subculture and milieu and their ordinary lives where religion never comes in the way of the narrative.
In Aashiq Abu’s Virus, a medical thriller inspired from the Nipah outbreak in North Kerala, the Muslim community are carefully drawn out, there is a lovely spontaneous romance between a young doctor Abid Rehman and his sweetheart Dr Sara Yakub and they hint at the stereotypical demonising the community has to endure when the prime Nipah giver’s lover is questioned about his whereabouts.
“That’s why I say that one of the significant developments in Malayalam cinema in this decade has been the phenomenal presence of Muslims in the industry be in direction, cinematography or other technical aspects which in turn helped in creating a more sensitive and productive narrative for the Muslims in cinema,” maintains CS.
But then it's also true that one of the most poignant gay romantic stories, that too between two Muslim characters can be seen in the recently released Moothon, directed and written By Geethu Mohandas. The love story between Akbar and Ameer is so organically written, enacted and crafted, making it perhaps the most sensitive and politically perfect depictions of Muslims and homosexuality in Malayalam cinema till date.
(By Neelima Menon via Full Picture)