A Riddle in Three Parts

5/5 (3)

‘A riddle, then: Name an invisible thing that everybody can see.’

Three crew sit in the command module of the freighter Wings of Deliverance. The ship putters across the icy gulf of space, a tiny blip of light amid the void. 

The new guy, Nicolai, should be in bed. They rotate sleep shifts, but he padded into the compartment and neither Kerjo nor Honoria feel like telling him to go back. They are glad to have someone else to talk to.

Kerjo slouches in his seat, his workstation a battlefield between battalions of half-empty cups and a swarm of discarded wrappers. Honoria watches the starfield ahead. Her arms are heavy with charms and bracelets, her neck laden with lockets and talismans. Nicolai perches on the edge of his seat, slightly hunched as though to make himself small. He fidgets, one knee bouncing up and down, hands always moving.

It is a long run and a routine one, hauling ore from the system’s asteroid field to the main colony, and there is little for the crew to do but gaze at the stars and play games. 

‘No?’ asks Kerjo, slouching still further, until his head is almost level with the console. The riddle was his idea. ‘Give up?’

‘Faith,’ says Honoria.

‘How’s that?’

‘Its power is all around us, so clear even the blind can see.’

‘Well, guess I need my eyes checked. Can you give me a f’rinstance?’

‘I come from a mining hive. Heavy metals: polonium, uranium, radium. Lucky if you lived to 50. A Preacher came among us, a healer he said, promising to cure the sick and diseased, for a price. We all went to see him, packed into the church, this shining figure up there on the dais. Kneel, he says, and we kneel. Pray, he says, and we pray.

Then one man stands up. Hooded, in black. He says, ‘You’re no Preacher. Heretic!’ And he pushes back his hood and we all see he’s got a double eagle tattooed between his eyes. He raises his hand. There’s a blast of light, so bright it blinds. When we can see again, the Preacher, the Heretic, he’s gone! Just a soot mark on the floor. The Inquisitor saved us, through the power of Faith!’

Kerjo starts laughing, laughing so hard he slips further and nearly falls of his chair, knocks cups and wrappers tumbling chaotically, catching himself against the console with one hand.

‘It was a con,’ snorts Kerjo. ‘Classic con. Bright lights and flash powder. One plays the heel, his partner swoops in to save the day, collects a nice big fat reward, then they’re pulling the same stunt a week later the next level down the hive.’

Honoria clamps her mouth shut and rubs a talisman with her thumb, silently fuming. ‘Wasn’t,’ she says sullenly.

‘Sure, sure.’

They are silent for a long time. The proximity alert blinks once, Honoria taps it, the light goes off and stays off. ‘Huh, sensor ghost,’ she mutters. Outside, the deep waits, patient and eternal. 

Nicolai fidgets in his seat. 

Finally, Honoria sighs and says, ‘Fine then, heathen. What’s you answer?’

‘Dreams, my friends,’ Kerjo says triumphantly, ‘Dreams.’ 

Honoria snorts, Nicolai blinks in confusion.

‘Aw, c’mon guys it’s a great answer.’ Kerjo looks irritated not to get more of a reaction. ‘Everybody has dreams, but you can’t see anybody else’s. Right? Right, Nic?’

‘I suppose.’

‘You suppose? Gah. Okay, try this. On my home planet, Reviver, there’s this weed, see, endemic, and it’s got this pollen that’s both soporific and hallucinogenic. Wild, lucid dreams, guys.’

‘The orks tried to invade once. Only, biosecurity protocols aren’t really their forte, you know? They come pouring out of their dropships, this great, slavering, howling green wave, and they charge the Imperial guards. Don’t stop and think and wonder why the guards are all in head-to-foot hazmat suits. Charge falters. Lots of yawning, some lying down. Snoring. Their Warboss goin’ crazy, trying kick them awake. Unlucky for him, it works. Some wake up. Immediately lose it. Their Dreadnought tried to shoot down the moon. Rest are hacking each other apart or stabbing themselves to stop invisible snakes crawling under their skins. Warboss himself pulls his own head right off his shoulders. Pop! We sure saw their dreams come true. Haw!’

As Kerjo’s laughter peters out, there is a murmur in the engines, a slight cough. The drives stutter, then steady, return to their usual hum.

Honoria whispers confidentially to Nicolai, ‘Don’t believe a word of it.’

‘Aw, you believe me, don’cha Nic?’

Nicolai jerks back, looking uncertainly between the two. They think he might cry. 

‘Easy there, Nicolai,’ Honoria reassures him. ‘Come on, how about you. Got an answer?’

‘No. I mean. Well. Maybe.’ His hands are doing figure-eights about one another.

‘Let’s hear it,’ Kerjo urges. ‘We’ll be gentle, I promise.’

‘Well. Okay. But. How about. Order and Chaos?’

Honoria and Kerjo look at one another. Kerjo reluctantly nods. 

‘A great answer, Nicolai,’ soothes Honoria. ‘Order and chaos are revealed in the patterns they make.’

‘Like, uh, randomness and entropy yeah?’ Kerjo waves his hands, randomly. ‘Fluid dynamics and whatnot?’

Nicolai smiles for the first time, tentatively, shyly. ‘No.’

Kerjo’s hands stop. ‘No?’

‘No,’ Nicolai repeats, voice louder now, sibilant. He uncoils from his seat, growing taller, impossibly tall. His eyes turn black and his shadow fills the room. ‘Your stories are illusions, fantasies. I mean something real. I mean the thin veil of orderly universe that lies over the primeval, protean maelstrom of chaos, and the gods who dwell within.’

‘Nicolai, what’s happening?’ Honoria gets out of her chair, backing away. Nobody notices the engines are dead, nor the proximity alert now wailing on the console. ‘Nicolai, stop it. I’m scared.’

‘Chaos is invisible, yes, but everybody can see it. I’ll make sure. I’ll show it to you.’ He points.

Kerjo looks out the viewscreen and screams.

About the Author

Giles was born in England, grew up in Canada, lives in Japan and has no idea how to answer the question ‘Where are you from?’ He writes professionally about the car industry, and extremely unprofessionally about science fiction, fantasy and 80s tabletop wargames. His passions include Tolkien, Monty Python, Iain Banks books of all flavors of M-ness, A.A. Gill articles, late 90s William Gibson and talking rubbish about 80s tabletop wargames.