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SEVENTH SEAL

by Ben Stivers and Joy Campbell

 

Nearly invisible, the flat black hull of the giant History Ship Sylph slipped through the infinite ocean of inky space in which she swam. Thousands of visual captures recorded the massive gas giants of the solar system. Two of them had detectable rings, and numerous satellites paid homage to them all, silent little rocks, dead in the night.

The largest of the gas giants, the third, could have found its way to being a brown dwarf if it had the gumption to gather a mere twenty- five times more mass than it had. It would have made the system much more interesting. Still, it was an oasis in the middle of nowhere, stuck on the outside arm of the spiral galaxy that held properties of the Blasian Star Empire.

To Emperor Vacatoar, that one minute detail meant that the solar system was important. Someday, life here would rise to the stars, given the proper direction.

The Sylph's hyperspace engines dropped the ship and crew into the sub- light world of the real, and the heavy gravity engines decelerated Sylph until she reached the red planet. As they passed the tiny spatial body, recorders monitored the planet. Although the planet offered interesting geological configurations, there was no life. That left just one more place to stop. The engines decelerated for an additional thirty units, then shut down completely. The ship's docking engines maneuvered Sylph into asynchronous orbit above the third planet.

The little blue and white sphere would have been breathtakingly beautiful if the Sylph, and the precious passengers she housed, had not seen a thousand places like it before. Still, anticipation abounded. Much had been done to prepare, but there was much more to do.

Sylph was here to seed the third planet with artifacts -- artifacts that would hint to the humanoid life forms that evolved on the surface that life was in abundance in the universe. The Empire would leave articles that would point the populace back to the stars. Assuming they were wise enough to follow the metaphor, once evolved, they would take their place among the great advanced civilizations of the Empire, and fulfill their destiny.

The Emperor had sent the History ships forth for just this purpose. It was a mission that was holy to them all when it had started centuries before. The job of the history ships was to invent history for the targeted planet. The populace must be convinced that their civilization was not an evolutionary "accident." Their curiosity would be enticed to come to the stars, or raise the level of fear so high that the planet's populace would flee from their planet in search of salvation.

It was a glorious mission. Now, however, things were going a little on the bumpy side, especially for John.

* * *

"John!" the UnderSeer of the Corporate Writing Team exclaimed. John's attention had wandered off as the UnderSeer ranted. The tone and frustration of his editor's voice recaptured him and dragged his mind kicking and screaming back into the present. "Are you paying any attention to what I'm saying?"

"Yes, UnderSeer," John replied as he tried to remember what the Chief's last sentence had been. "I'm listening to you."

"For goodness sake. Can't you see why I'm angry? Do you understand what kind of trouble we are in here?" the UnderSeer asked. His voice gained volume with each word.

John cringed inside. He knew exactly why the UnderSeer was mad and he understood the gravity of the situation. Unfortunately, he had no clue as to how he could provide a solution in time to save them from certain disaster. Still, there was no way he would admit it.

"Yes, UnderSeer. I'm letting down the team." His answer sounded lame.

The Chief's face looked as if it would explode with exasperation. His desperation was so thick in the room John could almost touch it.

"Letting them down? It's more than that! You are the leader of that team! This is your team's target planet."

"I know that."

"The fossil teams have completed all their work and everyone else has completed their work except for the Compendium. Without you, there will be no book! It is the critical Component of the entire project. Our computers have projected that it will play a bigger role on this planet than any other artifact we have planted. Unless you snap out of this, we are doomed for failure!"

John sighed. "I know UnderSeer. I know. I'm having trouble firming up the idea."

The UnderSeer gazed at John. His temper cooled slightly. "John, the team has struggled together for years. You guys have so carefully laid out the scenes, the plot, the dialogue, the themes. Now you are ready for the grand finale. All of us have worked too hard to let it fall through."

"I'll do the best I can."

"That's not good enough. You've got to snap out of this writer's block, John. If you don't come through before the deadline, the OverSeer will have our head and the Emperor will have his!"

"I know, UnderSeer."

The UnderSeer continued. "You know what a pet project this is of the Emperor's. It is why we are here. It is why we are being paid. We need that story!"

John's felt as though asteroids were whizzing in untrained orbit inside his stomach. He felt ill.

"Nothing like a little pressure to lighten up the load, UnderSeer," he grumbled. It was not the Chief's fault. He had a right to be upset. Everyone was waiting. Thanks to John, the Compendium was still incomplete, and more than their jobs were at stake.

"John, let me put it this way. If you do not finish this last chapter on time, I am going to give it to someone else."

"Don't do that," John pleaded.

"I have to. I have no other choice. I cannot risk losing the project to someone else. If I give it to another writer though, it means they will get the full bonus and the advance on the next project. It also means you will be getting off the ship to an 'Emperor-only-knows' assignment in some backwater planetary system."

Fear welled up inside John and frolicked with his nervousness. The UnderSeer was reading him the Riot Act. The bad thing was the threat of which he spoke was very real. It was no bluff.

"It's not fair! I've led this thing the entire way! Some of these people only did one story and some of them only did a few pages."

"Everyone has a job to do, John. They get paid accordingly."

John took a deep breath, then exploded in a flurry of words. "But I did the entire beginning story and came up with the idea about the kid! Not only that, I had several other minor chapters myself to do, plus I helped everyone else."

The UnderSeer's blue eyes met John's green ones, his voice level. Both of them could see the fatigue in the other.

"That's true. I admit it. But, what have you done for me lately, John?"

John stared at his long time associate in disbelief. This was what it all came down to.

"I need the damned story so we can finish the book," the UnderSeer said grimly, "and I need it yesterday."

There was no way out of it. John nodded and held up his hands. "Okay, okay, fine. I'll have something ready in draft form by tomorrow night." He stood up from the plasteel chair the UnderSeer reserved for those in trouble and picked up his notes.

"I'm counting on you, John. We all are."

John spun briskly on his heel and left the office. The doors whisked shut behind him and he stopped and leaned against the cool metal wall to catch his breath. The air of the ship's circulators smelt stale to him, as if the very air itself threatened to abandon him if he did not come through with the product by the deadline.

He had absolutely no idea how to write the story or even how it should end. He was in a serious jam and he knew it; unfortunately, so did everyone else.

* * *

An hour later, John found himself in Sylph's Writer's Lounge. Out of desperation, he hoped to discuss his problems with some of his friends. It was always against his better judgment to do that. He seldom shared a story idea with people before he had it down on paper. That was part of the thrill. Still, he needed some feedback to jar his brain and get the creative engine in gear.

The room was crowded this afternoon. The air smelled clearer here for some reason. Perhaps being around others that he felt could understand made him feel better. That feeling of closeness, however, had an extremely short shelf life.

He sat down at a small cafe style table. The waitress immediately set a steaming cup of Yorcatlian Brew in front of him. Maclead Ramon sat down across from him.

"How it going, John?" he asked.

John picked up the white cup by the handle and sipped at the Brew. It went down hot and smooth, then exploded in tingles as it hit his stomach. Every nerver fiber seemed rejuvenated at that instant.

"Not too good. I've got to have the story ready shortly and I haven't even started."

"Why not?" Maclead asked.

"I haven't figured out what to write about yet. I have some ideas though."

"Care to share?"

John allowed the first idea to pass from his mouth and bound off his friend, Maclead Ramon. Maclead was his best friend after all. Surely he would give him some encouragement.

Maclead looked at him as it he'd lost his mind. "It won't work," he said. His voice was flat and critical.

John's mouth hung slightly open. "Why?"

"Unbelievable," Maclead said, shaking his head. "The story has to be something that is slightly believable, but still quite fantastic."

The words burned, but John knew they were true. Still, he had not come up with anything.

Maclead consoled him, but did little to help him get a story started. In the end, he was one idea less on inventory and two hours less on time. It seemed hopeless.

Maclead left and wished him well.

Other writers that some called "The Twelve" caught his eye. They sat at a long table and John sat down with them, hoping one last time to get his creative juices flowing by sharing with his peers.

He tried another idea on the group. Most of people he had edited for sometime during the work on the Compendium. They were tougher on him than he ever remembered being to them. He had been tough on them as well, but they seemed to take pleasure in criticizing everything he brought to the surface as a possible storyline.

"It doesn't add anything to the overall story," they reasoned.

He could hear his own words echoing from the mouths of each of them. John shoved his chair back in disgust and prepared to leave.

"John," one of them said. "The Compendium is ready. All that we need now is the last story -- one last, amazing story to sum it all up. You can do it. Just relax and stick to the basic premise. Go back to our mission. The Compendium has to be a story that teaches the inhabitants that greater things are out here than they have ever imagined. It must teach the 'evolving' and wonder of intelligent creatures. Your chapter must teach them to reach for the heavens." The others nodded and added their agreement.

"Thanks," John replied, then wandered out of the lounge and into the body of the ship.

* * *

The entire idea for the Compendium grew out of a proposal that he had submitted to the OverSeer. The Emperor had approved the idea almost immediately. Now it was time to deliver, but the ending refused to come. Dejected, John went to his room.

When the mission had first started, John had written the first story in the collection and, as agreed by all of them in advance, it was written under a pen name. That had been the first chapter of The Compendium and it had been easy -- at least John thought so. The idea flowed through his head, down his arms and onto the paper. After that, everyone else had wrapped their stories around his framework.

"It's my framework, and I can't get a stupid story idea to hang on it."

* * *

For hours, one idea after another came, but he rejected each in turn. It had to be something in context to the rest of the book. The story had so many requirements.

The intercom chimed softly. It was the UnderSeer. John flipped the receiver switch. He knew it was a status check and a little more pressure for the cooker.

"Yes?"

"John, the story has to be done by the end of the shift, tomorrow. We have to jump out of this system in less than three days! We can't be late leaving. We have another assignment in the bag and ready if we finish this one on time."

"I know, UnderSeer, I know. I'll have it ready -- somehow."

"Do you have any of it done?" the Chief's voice said.

"No sir, not a line," John replied honestly.

The UnderSeer sighed. "John "

John interrupted him. "I'll have it. I promise. If I can just get the first couple words down, I'm sure I can finish it on time."

"It has to be really scary, John. Much scarier than the other stuff we have done. It needs to wrap everything up. It must close out all the business. It must yell, 'The End!' No sequel. They must be scared right off their planet. Tell them that The End is coming! If they don't get off planet to the stars, they'll be dead. That's what we're looking for."

The UnderSeer made it sound so easy.

"Okay, UnderSeer, okay. Honest, I'll have it ready." Somehow, his mind appended. Luckily, his voice did nothing to utter it.

"When?"

"How about the day after tomorrow? We could rush it through production and still make it on time."

"No, you have to meet the deadline. Bring me the manuscript when you get it done."

"Will do," John replied. He touched the comm shut and plopped down in his chair.

He ran his fingers through his long, black hair and closed his eyes as dismay washed over him in a wave.

He needed a story about the end of this world. It needed to be fantastic, and super scary. Yet, it needed to have a touch of believability that would scare an entire population out into space. It had to hang together with the rest of the books in The Compendium, yet tie each of them up into a nice, neat package.

He contemplated the end of the world. Where should he begin?

At that moment, Talya entered the room. She was a nice person and John liked her in a brotherly sort of way. Maybe she could help him find a start. She had been his muse before when he was working on the plot for the kid's assassination.

"Hello, John," she said, smiling.

"Hi, Talya. I am glad to see you. I'm in a real jam."

"I heard," she said, "I've come to see if I can offer you some help." She stepped to his food unit and called up two cups of Brew.

John's face lit up. He felt better already. "Great. I was thinking that I would finish the end of the world story with something really scary. You know, like a massive comet hitting the earth and killing everyone."

Talya frowned and shook her head. She picked up the two cups of Brew and sat down next to John.

"No way. We've spent too much time seeding all those bones and that was the theory we wanted them to reach about that stuff. You need something different. We can't have an asteroid dropping out of space every couple of millennia to destroy everything."

"Mmm, good point. Okay, how about the flood thing?"

Talya frowned. "Not fresh enough. That's been done before too, unless you have some new twist on the storyline that no one has ever seen before."

John admitted that no new twist was present in his head. "Well," Talya offered, "why don't you put down some stuff about advanced civilizations coming to destroy the world?"

John made a sour face without replying. He'd thought about that, but everyone knew that advanced civilizations had long ago stopped destroying worlds. It cost too much.

Talya shrugged.

"Well, why not some real hellfire and brimstone thing?" Talya asked. "Make them think that things are going to get so damned bad that if they don't do something to escape, they might get caught up in the middle of it."

John perked up. "Okay, we might be on to something here. But we need conflict." Images flashed through his head of planetary scale eruptions and volcanoes, the acrid smell of sulfur and the metallic taste of burning lava.

Talya looked down at the floor. "Okay, conflict. How about some kind of monster?"

John shook his head. "No, we don't know what they might think up during their evolution. It might be scarier than any implementation we might dream."

"Well, then pick something a little more general."

"Like?"

"Like the battle between good and evil. That's always good for a scary story. Make the two concepts immortal perhaps."

"Cool, except this time evil will win," John said. Excitement began to course through his veins.

"Not very inspiring considering the rest of The Compendium, John."

"Hmmm," he murmured, "where do I begin?"

Talya laughed. "Certainly not at the Beginning. You've got to keep it under the word count so that we can make the cost ceiling for the project, you know."

After few moments, he placed his hands on the keyboard, and prepared to type. How he could scare the living daylights out of people? What would be best?

He looked at Talya. "Something in third person?"

It was Cheryl's turn to make a sour face. "Too impersonal, but you will we need a lot of description. Draw them into the story. Tell it in first person."

John shook his head, then focused inward as the story burst through the flood gates and began to take form. His mind raced. By the time he looked up from thought, Talya had left.

* * *

John placed his hand on the keyboard and typed the first words, "The R."

At that point, John released himself to his muse. Through the night he wrote until he had written all but the last word. As he entered it into the manuscript, he realized it said it all. It said, "The End," but in a different sort of way.

Now if he could convince the UnderSeer, he would still be on top, a major project under his belt for the History Fleet.

He looked at his watch. He had written all night and partially into the next day and it felt great! It was time to get the Chief's reaction.

* * *

John walked down the hall and dropped the pages onto the Chief's desk, a smug smile on his face. He waited as the UnderSeer read the manuscript.

Every so often, the UnderSeer would murmur bits of the text.

". . . and he opened the bottomless pit . . ."

John leaned back in his chair and waited.

". . . and when He broke the seventh seal, silence covered the sky."

John fidgeted with excitement. This story was definitely his best piece of work ever. The metaphor was perfect, the descriptions just as they should be.

The UnderSeer continued through every word until he reached the end. It took him nearly an hour. He closed the book and rubbed his eyes, then his face.

"Well, John," he began, "normally, I wouldn't accept this. It's just too fantastic and ridiculous to be true. No one will be scared."

"Oh?" John's confidence was rock solid.

The UnderSeer shook his head. "It's simply not believable."

John gazed back, unshaken. He had tied the entire Compendium up into one neat package. This was the best story ever written.

"Trust me," he said, "They'll love it. They will be off-planet within three thousand years."

John slipped out of his chair and headed across the office. He knew that behind him the UnderSeer smiled.

He had done a great job, and his evaluation of the market was perfect. Whether or not the UnderSeer would ever admit it, was one thing, but The UnderSeer knew he had a gem on his hands, and so did John.

It was the Chief's job to keep the writers aboard ship in line and their best work coming. As he reached the door, John grinned as he heard the UnderSeer open the manuscript again for a second read.

He was hooked.

* * *

 

"Revelation to John (The Apocalypse)"

John whistled as he headed off to bed. Yes, that last chapter was going to scare the living daylights out of the readers. They would believe and remember it. They would stay up nights worrying about it until they left for the stars. *

 

Story copyright © 1995-1996 Ben Stivers and Joy Campbell. <krenath@pop.mont.mindspring.com>

 


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