Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The Odin Chronicles • Episode 24: “The Ocean of Story” • by Paul Celmer


A young man rushed into the bar, jolting Ingrid from a daydream. He had a wild explosion of wiry black hair, with eyes like inkwells set between jagged cheekbones. Ingrid saw that his hands shook.

“Mikhail?” She wiped the counter in front of him. “You look like you’re running from a ghost.” She had seen the young monk come in a couple of times over the last few weeks.

“He’s coming for me.”

“You can at least have a drink first.” Ingrid laughed. “Horilka?” Most of the new immigrants to Galactic’s far-flung mining settlement looked dazed to be so many light years from any other inhabited world. But this guy looked worse. Spooked.

“Thanks for remembering. The national drink of my grandfather’s homeland, Ukraine.” Mikhail took a swig and calmed down a notch.

“Sure.” Ingrid wiped sweat from her brow.

“It’s freezing outside. Not much better in here. You okay?” Mikhail pulled his jacket tighter.

“Easy for you to say.” Ingrid smiled. She didn’t need to get into the damnable surprises of menopause with a 20-year-old kid.

“What’s going on with you? Trouble in paradise?” Ingrid flashed her trademark smile.

“I want to stay on Odin III. There’s nothing for me where I’m from. Charon-12. A radioactive wasteland.”

“I’ve met a few refugees from there over the years. Even more light years away than Earth. So who’s after you?” Ingrid tried to be serious. But bars attracted plenty of paranoiacs. Usually drugs. Mine mushrooms. Occasionally just lost souls.

“There’s this monk. Said to be a rogue scholar. From the brotherhood of St. Rico. Gives me the serious creeps.”

“The monastery in the south? Their beer is crap.”

“He’s going to try to get me sent back, I just know it.”

“You sure? Seems like a lot of trouble over one little guy like you. What brought you Odin?”

“I’m a Postulate.”

“What’s that?”

“A step before entering the Mertonite monastery. Takes six months. They wanted me to help build a library. In the mines. They still use mostly paper and they think it’ll be safer down there. Mikhail cut his eyes toward the window carved through a meter of solid rock.

“Makes sense they give you some time to think things through.” Ingrid tried to hide her yawn.

“But then I went all the way down to Mine 17.”

“I heard they closed that one.” Ingrid was starting to lose interest. So many stories to keep track of.

“Did you hear why?”

“Just rumors. Was there a cave in?” Just as Ingrid was about to wipe down the bar again, the kid pulled a fist-sized rock out of his bag dropped it on the bar with a deep thud.

“You took a rock from the mine?” Ingrid said.

“It’s pure sylicenium.”

“Look, I got to check the level of a keg ….”

“No wait. “Touch it. It sings into you.”

Ingrid had been on her feet for ten hours. They hurt. Listening to ramblings drained her. She craved dialogue. A back and forth between equals. Partners. There was Grekov. But he got buried in a cave-in. Six years ago.

“Looks like just a rock to me.”

“It holds souls of Rock People. I shouldn’t have stolen it.”

“Souls? Sounds like the legends of the Huldufolk of Iceland, old Earth. My dad used to read the stories to me. I’m afraid you’ve fallen for the local myths about Rock People.”

“Not myth. Real. Sylicenium is a metal crystal. Somehow the structure can be re-arranged. Anyway, allows more data storage density than anything humans can make.” Mikhail’s face lit up.

“Sorry, I’m not a scientist.”

“When Rock People get close to death, they perform a weird dance, a ceremony I think it is, in what they call a memory garden. Mine 17.” He pointed to the lump of rock. “Somehow the soul is infused into the crystal. The rogue scholar is a fanatic, thinks the idea of storing souls should be repressed, as it contradicts Church teaching.”

“No one’s ever seen any Rock People. Ever. There’s no—”

Mikhail interrupted again, “I have no idea how it works. All I know is when I touched this I saw things, felt things. And the longer I held it the more stories flooded into my head.”

“Like what?” Ingrid was beginning to get curious. The kid had passion even if his ramblings were fantasy, like all the myths of the misguided fringe who insisted the Rock People existed.

“Stories from what must be thousands of lifetimes. An entire culture. The visions kinda get tangled in my head, but they are born in pools of magma, protected by what I think is a magnetic cocoon. They live a very long time, and seem to spend most of it in contemplation. Their mathematics alone blow the mind. As far as I can tell its based on the interactions among seismic waves. I think their stalagmite art can take centuries to create. I think they can even see magnetic fields as color….”

“Sounds kinda trippy. You on the mushrooms?”

“You have no idea. There’re hints they have a whole city at the core of Odin III. Must be shielded in some way that makes it totally inaccessible to us. They helped me see God in a completely new way.”

Mikhail held out the rock.

“Touch it.”

“Hmm.” Ingrid darted a skeptical look at the dirty clump.

“It’ll enlarge your mind. Free you from the demons that block your vision of the cosmos. You will sail an ocean of story.”

“Look, I got plenty of my own stories right here. My customers. Like see that woman there?” Ingrid pointed to the back corner. “Her name’s Mazaa. A pilot. An atheist. She was in a crash with my friend Francis, a priest. The crash is another story. Anyway, she’s still an atheist. Kinda. But now comes in here every Sunday to argue religion. Usually the book of Job, especially the scene where God and The Devil make some kind of bet.”

Ingrid pointed to the other corner. “Those two smiling and whispering. That’s Aisling and Finn. She’s a therapist, claims she untangles people’s timelines. Those two have had the longest, most intense courtship I’ve ever seen. They just keep circling each other like two night razors who want to devour the same fresh kill. But each holds back for some reason. It’s super weird. And beautiful.”

Ingrid raised her voice. “These are all my people. My stories. I don’t need gasbag abstractions. And I like my demons. Mainly because they’re mine. They keep me company. Thanks anyway.”

“You could leave this place.” Mikhail was talking wildly now. “See worlds. Then come back and store your soul for eternity. You’re still a young woman.”

Ingrid’s eyes flashed. “You’re the second person this week who hit me with that particular back-handed compliment.”

Ingrid recalled the first. A hydrologist. Doing a survey for the new outpost to the North. It was closing time and he waited until all the young people had left before making a pass at her. Another not-subtle hint she was deep into middle age. She never thought much of those hints until the hot flashes hit every single day. As a bartender she reveled in the alcohol-fueled life of the night. Now she wondered what her life was going to be like without youth’s dance of desire, to slowly become invisible to the revelers. She knew that people coming to bars didn’t want to see reminders of mortality, the gray hairs and wrinkling skin. They come to forget. Maybe it was time she did something different with her life.

“Math. Art. Mysticism.” Such big ideas. But so many big things maybe make you lose sight of the small.” Ingrid stared at Mikhail. Was she arguing with him or with herself?

In the distance a deep siren blasted across the barren valley.

“That’s from the port, isn’t it?” Mikhail’s face went blank.

“Local transport from the southern colony.” Ingrid followed his gaze out the window.

“He’s here already. I got to go. Just take it.” Mikhail slid the rock across to Ingrid. The sound was like nails on a chalkboard. “If he finds me, he won’t get this at least.”

Mikhail dashed out.

Ingrid stared at the rock. A minute at least. Vast knowledge? Eternal youth?

With a grace born from thousands of repetitions, she swept the rock into the trash, careful to use the bar rag to protect her hand from touching it.


When not traveling to parallel universes, Paul Celmer is a technical writer in Durham, North Carolina. His recently published flash science fiction includes “Spooky Action At a Distance” in Daily Science Fiction and “The Last Rosy-Fingered Dawn” in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.