Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Revenant - Part 4

We hunger.  We die.  No food.  A presence, getting closer.  We watch.  Food!  We hide.  We draw close.  It does not know.  We attack!  It fights.  We win.  We feed now.

* * *

"Ensign Chang, this is the Prospect.  Captain Garrick speaking."

Chang cleared her throat, annoyed that it sounded more like a squeak.  "Prospect, Chang.  How can I serve you, Captain?"

"Is Commander Wagoner near you?"

"No, sir.  He asked me to scan the corpses in the street while he investigated a nearby building.  Why do you ask?"

"Go in after him, now.  Draw your weapon."  The tone of his voice sent a chill through Chang.

"Captain, Commander Wagoner was the armed member of our scouting pair."

"And he left you alone?  Stay right there.  Captain to away team, all personnel disengage from your current activity.  Get to Ensign Chang on the double.  When you get there, have her direct you to Commander Wagoner ASAP."

The voices of the away team echoed through the bridge, acknowledging the order.

Garrick stared at the monitor displaying Wagoner's vital signs.  They were virtually non-existent.  Wagoner hadn't responded to the ship's hails, which was out of character for him.  Garrick hoped his best friend was simply incapacitated, or his suit damaged, but he feared much worse had happened.

"Comms, show me the footage from Commander Wagoner's suit just prior to it going offline."

"Aye sir," he said, "displaying now."

They watched as Wagoner's hands held a document up for the suit's camera to photograph, than another.  Suddenly the camera's view jerked up wildly and fell to the floor face down. Garrick heard something, but couldn't make it out.  The suit's camera must be too far from the source.

"Roll back a few seconds.  Enhance the audio, amplify, and play back."

The computer rapidly processed the captain's request and began playing the sound.  There was a loud crunching noise, followed by what sounded like slurping or spitting.  It couldn't be.  Could it?

"Computer, best pattern match on that audio.  What is it?"

The computer ran through the audio sample, comparing it to known sounds recorded over the years by the Alliance and its member worlds, looking for matches.  "The earliest sound is most likely the hood of the hazard suit being removed from Commander Wagoner's head from behind.  The next significant sound appears to be a short struggle between humanoids.  The final sounds most closely resemble the breaking of thin bones and chewing of a gelatinous substance."

Garrick scanned the faces of the bridge team.  "Anyone got any thoughts?"

They shook their heads, except for Lieutenant Drake.

"What is it, Drake?"

"Sir, I know this is going to sound crazy, but I'm fan of the old zombie movies from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  It kinda sounds like a zombie biting through someone's head and taking a bite of brains.  I know how weird I sound right now, but that's what it sounds like to me."

Garrick shook his head.  "Zombies, Drake?  Great.  Thanks.  Anyone have something that's not based on old Hollywood sound effects?"

Again, they shook their heads.

"Sir, this is Lieutenant Chang.  The away team's all here now.  What are your orders?"

Garrick turned his attention to the monitors showing the away team POV cameras.  "Armed away team members in front and back of the group.  Proceed into the building carefully.  We think Commander Wagoner was attacked, but we can't be certain.  Find Wagoner.  If he needs medical attention, abandon the mission and get him back to the Prospect immediately."

"As you order, sir," Chang said.

They watched as the POV camera displays showed the group heading into the building.  A glance at the vital sign indicators showed elevated heart rates, pulse rates, and breathing.  Although there wasn't a monitor on the bridge crew, it would have showed the same thing.  Everyone watched in silence as the away team entered the building.  Those who carried portable lighting activated it.

If this had been an Earth building, it would have looked like any typical government office.  The floors were made of stone, and there was plenty of wood and decorative work all around.  The furniture, desks, tables, and chairs, was very utilitarian and spartan.  It was as though they spent all their money making a nice building and bought the cheapest furniture they could find.

"Ensign Harris here, sir.  I found the Commander."

Garrick quickly scanned the displays to locate the monitor for Harris.  As Harris knelt down to examine Wagoner, Garrick could see a chunk of Wagoner's scalp missing and his brain exposed.

"Away team, this is the captain.  Get Mr. Wagoner to the shuttle and get him back here at once!  Wagoner out."

Wagoner tapped a comm button on the display built into his chair.  "Medbay, I need an emergency team at the shuttle bay when the shuttle's back from the planet.  Commander Wagoner has been attacked by something.  It looks like part of his skull is missing."

"Dr. Wilkins here, sir.  I'll personally lead the emergency med team.  We'll be ready in time."

"Thanks, Doc.  I don't have to tell you I'm in trouble if you can't save him, right?  He's got a wedding to go to in a few weeks."

"Understood, sir.  We'll do all we can.  Wilkins out."

* * *

This new host, much better.  More intelligent.  We learn.  We grow stronger.

* * *

Wilkins pulled a sheet over Commander Wagoner's head.  "Wilkins to the Captain."

"Garrick.  How's Kyle?"

"Sir," Wilkins said, letting out a breath, "I regret to inform you that Commander Wagoner is dead.  I've tried everything I can.  I think he must have been too far gone when the crew got him back here."

"Didn't they use the emergency freezer cell in the shuttle?"

"They did.  Until I complete an autopsy, we won't know what killed him or exactly when he died."

Garrick's voice cracked a bit, and fell to just above a whisper.  "Understood.  Proceed at once.  I'm on my way down."

Garrick stood, holding on to the arm of the chair.  He couldn't believe Kyle Wagoner was dead.  He'd lost his best friend and his second in command at the same time.  Garrick scanned the bridge and found the most senior officer on deck.  "Carlton, you have the bridge."

Carlton saluted and moved to Garrick's seat.  Garrick was in the lift and on his way to Medbay by the time Carlton sat down.

* * *

Dr. Wilkins examined the hole in Wagoner's head.  The micro-scanner said the hole was consistent with a humanoid bite pattern.  The exposed brain tissue seemed to contain some kind of microorganism and a an unfamiliar neurotoxin.  The EEG seemed to pick up random, low-power noise.  There was no discernible pattern to it.  Wilkins attributed it to a fault in the scanner.

Having completed his autopsy, Wilkins gathered the samples of neurotoxin, brain tissue, and microorganisms into a sample case.  He snapped the case shut, and ran down the hallway to the Biology lab to have the samples analyzed.  The damage to Wagoner's brain wasn't extensive enough to cause death, so the key to what killed him must be in the samples.

* * *

It is time.  Our host shows us many more are here.  We will take them.  We will grow.

Wagoner, or rather what was left of Wagoner, sat up on the autopsy table.  Weakly at first, he slipped off the table and stood up.  There was a uniform in a closet.  Wagoner put it on.  It would draw too much attention to walk around without a uniform.

* * *

Wilkins returned to the lab to place Wagoner's body in the freeze chamber for its return to Earth.  The cloth that had been covering Wagoner's corpse was lying on the floor in a pile.  The closet where Wilkins kept a spare uniform, just in case an autopsy got a bit messy, was open and empty.

"Wilkins to Medbay staff.  Has anyone been in the autopsy lab?"

One by one, his team replied that they had not.

"Wilkins to Captain Garrick."

The door opened.  "Behind you, Doc. What's wrong?"

"I don't know.  Either someone on my staff is playing a little joke on me, or Commander Wagoner's body got up off the examination table, put on my spare uniform, and walked out of here."

"Garrick to Security.  Send a search detail to Medbay at once.  Begin a ship-wide search for Commander Wagoner."

"But sir, we received word that the Commander was dead."

"So did I," Garrick told her.  "but it appears that the reports of the Commander's passing were a bit premature.  He may be sick.  He may be delusional, drugged, or something else.  Or he may just be scared and confused.  Approach him carefully, and assume he's harmless unless his behavior dictates otherwise.  Are we clear?"

"Yes, sir.  Detail on the way to you, searches to begin ASAP."

"Garrick out."

Wilkins had been conducting his own search of Medbay while Garrick talked with Security.  He could find no trace of Commander Wagoner's body.

* * *

The host mind says they will look for us.  They must not find us, not yet.  We will find them when we are ready.  The host says to go to the Environment Processing room.  Few will be there at this hour.

* * *

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Revenant - Part 3

Wagoner approached the away team, trying to project the image of a confident, poised leader, which was hard to do in the bulky hazard suit he was wearing.

“You’ve all seen the mission briefing?”

They nodded.  He was sure a couple of them hadn’t, so he’d reiterate the important parts.  “Our job is to go down to the planet’s surface, collect air, water, soil, and surface samples.  We’re to take 3D images, sensor readings, and anything else we can do without physically contacting the planet.  We don’t know if what killed the civilization here is still around or not.  If it is, we don’t want to make contact with it.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m getting married in three weeks and my fiancĂ©e expects me to be on time and intact.”

They smiled and chuckled.  Wagoner continued.

“While we don’t think anyone survived this… catastrophe… we can’t be sure.  There could be survivors holed up underground or in shielded areas of the buildings.  If they see or hear us moving around, they might mistake us for invaders or some other kind of threat.  That’s why I selected most of you.  You’ve had at least basic combat training and know how to use a sidearm.  I hope that training turns out to be unnecessary, but be alert.  If you think you see or hear something, draw your weapon.  Fire it only if you think your life is in danger, but shoot to kill if you do.  Understood?”

Some of the eyes staring at him opened a bit wider.  They nodded.

“Check your weapons, make sure your suits are intact and secure, and I’ll see you in the shuttle.”  Wagoner checked his own weapon and suit, then climbed into the shuttle.

Moments later, the away team joined him.  The last one in closed the door and locked it.

Wagoner powered up the shuttle and signaled the bridge to open the shuttle bay doors.  Seconds later, the doors began slowly sliding open.  The shuttle lifted a short distance off the floor and began slowly drifting toward the opening doors.  By the time it reached the doors, they were open.  The shuttle passed through and into the vacuum of space.

Wagoner’s piloting skills made the trip to the surface a little rough.  He’d flown and landed a shuttle many times in simulations, and a few times back on Earth, but it wasn’t a simple process.  The shuttle shook a bit as it passed through pockets of turbulence in the atmosphere and countered changes in wind speed and direction.  The away team breathed a collective sigh of relief when the shuttle touched down on the planet.

“Sensor readings first,” Wagoner told them.  The crew walked to their consoles and began capturing sensor readings which were immediately transmitted to the Prospect’s computers.  “How does it look out there?”

Harris from Biology spoke first.  “The atmosphere is nearly identical to our own.  It’s a touch lighter in Nitrogen and a bit heavier in oxygen and CO2, but very breathable.  There’s no indication of a biological contagion in the air, but the scanners only see what they're built to see.  It might be something we've never encountered.  I don't get any poisons or radiation.  It's probably safe to breathe, but I wouldn't recommend it except in an emergency - under the circumstances."

"Alright, fan out in pairs.  One armed partner in each pair.  Get me all the samples you can.  I'm going to take Ensign Yu with me into the city to see if we can find any records of what happened.  Ready, Yu?"

She nodded.  They began the walk into the city.  It looked more like an artist's concept than a city.  The buildings had very modern designs that looked like they'd have been at home on Earth.  Here and there, ground cars - just as stylish as the buildings - were crashed into things, parked strangely, or left in the middle of the street.  Whatever killed the population of this planet seemed to have taken them relatively quickly.  In some of the cars, they found alien remains.

"Scan these bodies for me, Ensign.  I want to have a look inside that building across the street.  It's bigger and more imposing than the rest.  I'm guessing it might City Hall or something like that.  There might be records inside of what happened."  Yu nodded and began scanning the vehicles.

Wagoner walked up the ramp to the doors of the building and pulled.  They weren't locked in any way, and opened easily.  He stepped through them into the building, which was somewhat dimly lit because the sun was behind it now.  

"Wagoner to Prospect," Kyle said, tapping his communicator button.

"Prospect here, Commander.  What can we do for you?"

"I'm going to transmit some images of documents.  I've got no idea what they say, but I want Linguistics working on them immediately.  There are stacks of them here and there, more than I can carry back to the ship.  If some of them tell what happened here, I can bring those."

"Understood, Commander.  Anything else?"

"No, Wagoner out."  

He pulled out his tab and began snapping photos of the many documents piled on desks around the room.  As he did so, he couldn't shake the feeling he was being watched.  He looked around, but couldn't see anything.

"Hello?  Yu?  Anyone here?"

Silence met his words.  He went back to photography.

Without warning, he felt his hazard suit helmet being ripped from his head.  Something bit his head, hard.  The pain washed away his consciousness.  The last thing he saw looked like a rotting carcass of one of the inhabitants of the planet.  His last thought was of his fiancee back home.

* * *

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Revenant - Part 2

Kyle Wagoner sat at his station on the bridge of the Prospect, reviewing the mission briefing and available data on Beta Cygni VII.  The fact that an entire planetary population could fall within a few short years sent a shiver through him.  Whatever did this, it was very effective.  The problem was that no one knew quite what "it" was.  That would be the Prospect's job to find out.

Kyle considered all the ways a species might die out quickly.

Disease could do that, but usually there is some percentage of the population that has or develops an immunity.  Scans of Beta Cygni VII showed no detectable life.  They could be underground in shielded shelters.  This was something to consider.

A war might have done it.  In that case, he'd expect to detect radiation, damaged buildings, explosion craters, or other signs of a widespread struggle.  The few high-resolution photos brought back by the first-contact team showed cities that seemed perfectly intact.  There were land vehicles out of place here and there, and what appeared to be the occasional crashed aircraft or ship, but not enough to indicate that a battle had taken place.  If anything, what he saw supported the disease theory.

An evacuation was another possibility.  Maybe when people started dying, others had a way off the planet.  That would explain a lack of survivors.  But if the Alliance analysts were right, and they usually were, this planet didn't have the technology to mount an evacuation like that.  Even if they did, where did they go?  Why didn't they come back?  It was still a possibility, but an unlikely one.  Even with help from a spacefaring organization like the Alliance, it was unlikely that there wouldn't be some evidence of an evacuation or a warning not to land on the planet's surface.

No, the more Kyle looked at the data, the more he was convinced that this civilization died out by itself.  Maybe it   was a failed bio-engineering experiment, a plague of some kind, or a natural catastrophe.  He wouldn't be able to figure it out from here.  They were going to have to land on the planet.

Checking the crew roster, Kyle selected an away team that included specialists from the medical, chemical, military, and engineering departments - along with a small security detail.  If there were survivors in shielded bunkers, they might decide to pop out of hiding.  If so, they might see the away team as a threat.  He checked to make sure they had enough hazardous environment suits to accommodate the party.  They didn't, so he decided to risk leaving the security detail behind and instead arm the members of the away team.  A couple of his choices weren't cleared for weapons use, so he selected others who were.

As if he'd planned it this way, the Prospect assumed standard orbit around the planet as he finalized his selection and sent it to the captain.

"Commander Wagoner, Dr. Chang, please join me in the conference room," Garrick said, standing up from his chair and walking to the door in the back of the bridge.  The other officers followed him inside.

The conference room was large enough to hold the ship's senior officers, seated around a shiny table made from bamboo processed to resemble hardwood.  Displays were built into the seating positions, and a 3D projector was mounted into the center of the table.

"Computer, close conference room door," Garrick said, taking his place in the high-backed chair at the end of the table.  Wagoner and Chang sat in the seats closest to him.  Garrick tapped the screen in front of him.  A three dimensional image of Beta Cygni VII hovered and revolved over the center of the table.  A few more taps, and the away team selection appeared.

"Mr. Wagoner, Ms. Chang, we've got a mystery on our hands.  I don't mind reading a mystery story, but I don't want to be a part of one.  There's no reason to believe that whatever killed the people on this planet is still there, but there's no reason to believe it's not.  Mr. Wagoner's recommending hazard suits and quarantine procedures.  I agree.  If something deadly's down there, I don't want it on my ship.  Agreed?"

Chang and Wagoner nodded.

"What are your theories at this point?  Biological, chemical, radiation?"

Wagoner turned to Chang, "You first, Mei Li."

"It is not radiation.  There is no evidence of that.  It is not a war, because there are no obvious signs of damage to the structures.  It was fast-acting.  We see evidence of this in the crashed ground cars and aerial vehicles.  That leaves something chemical or biological."  She waved her hand in the air to alter the 3D display of the planet and zoom in on some of the cities.  "Whatever happened seemed to create some degree of chaos in the cities."

Garrick turned to Wagoner.  "Commander Wagoner?"

"I agree.  We won't know for sure until we go down there.  If it's chemical, we might find traces in the air or residue on surfaces.  We need to test for that.  If it's biological, we may find traces in the air, water supply, or food.  It might show in the soil, too."

"You both agree that we need to go down there."

They nodded in unison and spoke, "Yes."

Garrick tapped at the screen, the 3D image shifted.  "Here's the Commander's proposed away team.  Are you OK with remaining aboard, Ms. Chang?"

Chang looked over the list floating in the air.  "Yes.  Lieutenant Harris is an expert in biology and biochemistry.  He will perform his tasks well.  He is also trained in the use of hand weapons, which the Commander seems to find important."

Wagoner nodded. "If there's anyone still alive down there, they're probably holed up in underground shelters.  They might see our presence as a threat, or even an invasion.  If they decide to come after us, I don't want our people surprised and overwhelmed."

Garrick nodded.  "I agree.  Let's play this one really cagey until we know what we're dealing with.  Alright, Commander.  The away team is yours.  Bring them all back to me alive."

"Aye, sir."

The three of them returned to the bridge.  Wagoner issued electronic orders to his away team members to meet him at the shuttle bay.  He saluted the captain, flashing him a quick smile of thanks, and went to the shuttle bay himself.

* * *

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Revenant - Part 1

Captain Garrick watched as his first officer stared into the bowl of chicken soup sitting in front of him.  Garrick had known Kyle since their days in the Air Force Academy, but it was obvious that Kyle was a million light-years away.  Garrick cleared his throat.

"Commander Wagoner, come in please.  This is Captain Garrick."

Kyle looked up at Garrick.  "I'm sorry, Captain.  I was just thinking."

Garrick smiled.  "I know what you're thinking about.  You're wondering what Rachel's doing back on Earth.  You're wondering if I'll get you back there in time for the wedding."

Kyle nodded.  He lifted a spoonful of soup and blew on it before putting it in his mouth.

"You can stop that worrying right now.  Rachel, my mom, and your mom would all kill me if I make you even an hour late.  I'll fly this ship to pieces to get you back there in time.  I promise."  He locked his eyes onto Kyle's for the last part.

"I know you will, Paul.  But it's not just about being late."

Paul raised an eyebrow.  "No?  What's on your mind?  I can't have my first officer distracted."

"Well," Kyle started, then stared back at his soup.  "It's just that I've been aboard the Prospect since she launched."

Paul could see the struggle going on behind Kyle's eyes.  "I know.  I was glad you stayed on to show me the ropes when I took over.  I don't know if I'd have made it through that month without you."

"Thanks. I'm not looking for praise, Paul.  With the end of my tour coming up when we get back to Earth, there's something I've always wanted to do.  It's never been possible before."  His eyes went back to the bowl.

"If you're about to declare your undying love for me--"

"Dammit, Paul," Kyle said, "it's hard enough to talk about this without you poking fun at me.  You know how that pisses me off."

Paul faced his palms toward Kyle.  "I'm sorry.  Please, just ask me whatever it is.  We've known each other for twenty years.  If you can't ask me as captain, ask me as your friend Paul.  If you can't ask either one of us, just pretend I'm not here and you're asking the soup.  You're giving it more eye contact than me, anyway."

"Captain Vail ran the Prospect differently than you do.  He went on each away mission personally, along with the high-ranking officers in other departments of the crew."

"You've told me that before, I don't--"

"Let me finish.  Because he always went, and took so many officers with him, he always ordered me to stay behind.  'Don't worry, Wagoner,' he'd say, 'When I retire you'll be the one going.  Don't scratch the ship while I'm gone.'  In five years, I never left the ship except to visit Earth or the base on Mars."

"He never sent you down to any of the planets you visited?"

Kyle shook his head, and took another bite of soup.

"Our first mission's not going to be very exciting.  Have you read the briefing yet?"

"No.  You haven't cleared the lock on it."

"Oops.  Let me give you the rundown.  About ten years ago, the Alliance sent a scout ship to Gamma Cygni VII to check it out.  Long range probes said it had very Earth-like conditions and might make a good colony planet for the Alliance.   When the probe got close enough, it found a thriving humanoid civilization there that was just beginning to venture into space.  They pulled the probe back and decided to send human visitors in a few years.  When the first-contact ship arrived, the sensors indicated no animal life on the planet.  Something destroyed the civilization.  We've been ordered there to gather detailed sensor scans,photographs, and 3D imagery.  If it looks safe enough, we're to go down in hazard suits and take air, water, soil, and plant samples.  The Alliance wants to know what killed those people, and whether it's still a threat.  If not, they're going to send scientists and scholars to have a look."

"Who are you taking down with you?"

Garrick smiled.  "You always were subtle, Kyle.  I'm not taking anyone.  If you want to lead the away team, the job's yours."

Kyle hooted.  "Hell, yeah!" He cleared his throat and composed himself.  "I mean.. I'll take it, Captain."

"Did Vail ever take anyone but his officers down to the planet?"

"Rarely.  If someone had an absolutely essential skill, he took them.  Otherwise, it was kind of an old boys' network."

"That stops on my watch.  It's a captain's duty to grow the skills and experience of the entire crew, not just the ones at the top of the ladder.  If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go have a chat with the duty officer.  You've got a lunch to finish.  When you pick your away team, come see me."

Kyle couldn't contain the smile as he watched his friend leave the mess hall.  He was finally going to set foot on an alien world.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Mimas Object - Part 6

I'm putting The Mimas Object story on hold for now, pending a major plot revision.  Below is my attempt to explain what I think went wrong and how I'm going to fix it in the rewrite.

When I reached Part 6 of The Mimas Object, I realized that several things were wrong.  Conflict existed to a degree, but nothing seemed to change as a result of it.  Julia was faced with a problem, found a solution, and moved on.  Or, a problem happened outside her control, had some effect on her out in space, and she dealt with it.  Boring!

To my dismay, this is a recurring problem with my writing.  I have never quite understood what was wrong.  I began listening to the audiobook version of Robert McKee's book Story.  It's meant for screenwriters, but is useful for short story writers and novelists as well.  McKee tells us that a Story is broken into 3 or more Acts.  Each Act is in turn broken into one or more Sequences.  Each Sequence consists of one or more Scenes.  Each Scene consists of one or more Beats.  Beats are small actions, even mini-conflicts, that move a Scene forward.  A Scene, McKee says, must feature a conflict that causes a change in a "charged value" for the main character.

For example, consider the scene I've already written in this story where Julia learns that Russian hackers have taken control of Mars Two's computers.  They demand access to The Mimas Object in exchange for not wiping her systems and essentially leaving Julia in space to die.  The politicians back on Earth believe that The Mimas Object may be alien in nature and contain technologies that would advance US interests significantly.  They refuse.  The Russians shut down and wipe Julia's computers on Mars Two.  She figures out a way to restore them from a backup on the tablet on the spacecraft and is immediately back on track to Mimas.

In McKee's terms, I've failed.  Julia's situation at the end of this scene is identical to that at the start.  In fact, if anything, it's better.  Her computers are clean of Russian influence now.  This is the wrong direction for an early conflict in the story.

Taking McKee's advice, I consider that Julia should see some "charged" (i.e., important to her) value change in the scene.  So the rewrite I'm considering is this...

Julia is on-time and on-course for Mimas.  Mars Two is behaving fine, until suddenly it comes to a halt and a message is displayed, telling Julia that the Russians have seized control of her spacecraft until such time as the American government agrees to give them access to the object she is bringing back from Mimas.  They refuse to communicate with her.  The American government refuses to share the object.  The Russians tell Julia what's happened and apologize for what they're about to do.  They trigger a shutdown and erasure of the Mars Two computer system.  During the erasure, the main and some of the maneuvering thrusters fire randomly.  Mars Two is now flying off course.  Without computer control, Julia will not be able to get it back on course to Mimas - or even return it to Earth.  She struggles to find a solution and remembers there is a backup on the tablet.  She restores the computers and brings them online, only to learn something terrible.  It took so long to recover the computer and regain control that she is now very far off course.  The computer estimates that she no longer has the fuel to get to Mimas safely, or the fuel to return to the orbital platform she launched from.  In a word, she's going to die unless she can figure something out.  

In this revised scene, we have conflict - the Russian takeover of the spacecraft and her fight to restore the systems to running order.  Her situation goes from the "charged values" of being safe, able to complete her mission, and able to return home, to being in grave danger, being unable to complete the mission, and unable to return home. 

In a nutshell, this is what I need to do in this story.  I have to decide where my climax is going to be in the story, and what happens in that Scene.  From there, I have to work back to the inciting incident that starts Julia on the path to the climax.  Then, I'll have a story worth writing.  (Hopefully.)

I'll be working on this "proper" plot for the next few days.  This post and the others in the series will remain up for the time being. When I'm ready to start the rewrite, I'll probably take them down and start with the new version of the story.

Wish me luck, and thanks for listening.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Mimas Object - Part 5

Julia had little faith in Washington after they had grounded the Shuttle Orbiter program without a replacement.  This left the astronauts to hitchhike on the spacecraft of other nations, including the one that seemed determined to prevent her from reaching Mimas.

Perhaps she could get the Russians talking again.  Maybe she could negotiate something with them.

She wanted a backup plan in place before she talked to them.  She knew they had access to the video chat camera above the display, and could see much of what we going on in the cockpit.  If she moved quickly enough, she could block the camera.  By the time the Russians could send her a message to unblock it, she could switch navigation over to manual.  She was already in the EVA suit, and needed only to put the helmet on in order to ensure she had air to breathe.  The only thing she had to worry about was the self-destruct sequence they claimed to have.

How would that work?  The only thing on the craft that could explode would be the fuel.  They might jettison that and ignite the engines, hoping to trigger an explosion.  But that would require access to the thrusters, which she was going to deny them by switching off computer-assisted navigation.  Maybe it was just a bluff.  She'd risk it.

She bent down to the food compartment under the comm display and pretended to accidentally cover up the camera with the tablet computer.  Then, she quickly switched to manual navigation, put the helmet in her lap, and ripped open the food packet.  As she expected, the comm system began a half-beeping, half-buzzing sound like a cheap alarm clock.  She picked up the tablet and looked at the screen.

"What are you doing, Commander?" The display asked.

"I was grabbing something to eat.  Hope you don't mind.  Hey, could we talk for a minute?  I have a feeling Washington won't cut a deal with you.  If they don't, give me a chance before you do that self-destruct thing, OK?"

"You are correct. Negotiation is not going well for you."

She took a bite of food from the packet and nodded.  "It's that whole 'we will not negotiate with terrorists' thing.  Since 9/11, politicians are real sticklers about that.  But here's the thing, Whatever this is, it's ours.  It's not yours.  It doesn't belong to the Chinese, the English, the French, the Israelis, or anyone else.  If this thing is what they think it is, it's too much for any one nation to handle."


"The plan is for me to bring this thing back to the orbital launch platform and wait there.  This module's designed to enter Earth's atmosphere, even though it's meant for Mars.  It was cheaper to build it that way, and it would allow us to land it back on Earth if something happened to the platform."

"What are you suggesting?"

"I'm suggesting that maybe I could bring the module, and this object, down in the water near Europe instead of Florida.  You'd have another opportunity to negotiate for access.  If you got the news media interested ahead of time, you might get public opinion on your side."

"Land the module in Russian waters."

"It's not that I don't trust you guys, but I can't do that.  If my people think I'm a traitor who's sold them out to the Russians, I'll never be able go home.  I want to go home.  I want to fly this thing to Mars.  Do you understand?"

"Land the module in Russian waters."

"I told you.  I can't do that."

"This discussion is over.  Unfortunately for you, the discussion with Washington is over as well.  We are now activating the self-destruct.  Goodbye, Commander."

As before, the cockpit became dark and silent.  She would put on her helmet when the air became too thin or too cold.  She tried to revive the computer, but it didn't work.  Their self-destruct mechanism must have wiped it clean.  She looked at the tablet, which was still working.  There was still hope.

According to the manuals she'd read, there was a system recovery image on the table that could restore the main computer in an emergency.  The Russians claimed to have infected it, and they probably had. If she restored the computer, she would just be handing control of Mars One back to them.  She had no intention of doing that.  She needed a way to restore communication with Mission Control, to get the engineers offering other options.  But how?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Mimas Object - Part 4

The cockpit remained deathly silent and almost pitch black.  While Julia wasn't one of those kids who hid under the covers when it got dark, this darkness scared her.  It meant that the computer was still offline.  The computer wasn't monitoring her course and speed, wasn't maintaining the heat and oxygen levels, or sending telemetry back to Mission Control.  Worse, since the communications system was encrypted, shouldn't couldn't even call NASA for help.

First things first.  It's going to get uncomfortable in here very quickly.  I'll put on my spacesuit to keep comfortable and make sure I have enough oxygen.  Then I have to think.

Julia wrestled the EVA suit out of its cabinet and put it on.  There was a battery pack under one of the panels that powered the computer.  Maybe if she disconnected and reconnected it, the system might come back from the dead.  The EVA gloves made the job difficult, but she managed.  She reached in and disconnected the negative battery terminal.  Julia counted off thirty seconds to herself before reconnecting the terminal, then closed the panel and looked at the display.  It blinked to life.  Soon she watched as the system diagnostic began, then the module's operating system came to life.  The comm display turned black and displayed a series of red letters.

"This computer is under control of the Russian government.  You will remain on course and alive as long as your government continues to work with us.  You will now be given 30 seconds to discuss this situation with your Mission Control, at which time all communications from this vehicle will be terminated."

The message remained on-screen for a few seconds before switching to a comm display with Mission Control.  Charlie's face filled the screen, his eyes looking like someone had a gun to his back.

"Commander, are you OK?"

"Yeah, Charlie.  I'm fine.  A little computer trouble, it looks like."

"Yeah.  Chalmers is on his way in.  I thought you were dead.  We didn't get anything out of the module until just a moment ago, when it started transmitting crazy messages about the Russians being in control of the craft."

Julia shrugged.  "From what I can see, it's true. They tell me everything stays working until our governments work things out.  The minute that falls through, they shut me down."

"We won't let--"

The display went black, and the red text came on again.

"We regret this situation.  Your government did not choose to disclose its discovery with us.  We cannot allow you to have this object to yourselves, even if this means killing you."

Julia sighed.  "I regret this situation, too.  It's not like it was my choice who gets to see this thing and who doesn't."

The display scrolled.  "We know.  We have monitored your communications."

"You mean you've been listening since I launched?"

"Yes.  We have seen the pictures.  You will not hear from us again for some time."

The display went black.  I have to be quiet.  They've proven that they can listen in to anything I say, even here in the cockpit.  The politicians in DC will never negotiate with the Russians.  I'm as good as dead.  I need to think about what else I can do here.  How can I gain control of the computer?

Julia considered the situation, sitting there quietly, trying to look as scared as she was, in case the Russians were watching.  The computer controlled most aspects of the command module.  She could disengage it from thrust control.  That was handled through physical switches that the Russians couldn't turn back on.  If she kept the EVA suit on, it wouldn't matter if they turned off the heat and oxygen - at least as long as the suit had power and oxygen left.  That left only communications.  That was all digital, all computer controlled and encrypted.  The Russians had her there, unless she could think of something - or the gang back at NASA did.

She pulled the computer tablet out of the cabinet.  It contained all of the schematics, manuals, and other documentation for the command module.  Maybe she could find a solution in here.

The comm display lit up.

"What are doing, Commander?"

She flashed it what she hoped was a bored look.  "You've left me with no communications and no access to the computer.  I thought I'd pass the time by reading a book on this tablet."


The display went black again.

She began scanning the computer section of the documentation, carefully, slowly.  She wanted them to think she was reading a mystery novel or a romance, not the technical data about Mars One.  She skimmed the sections on rebooting, running diagnostics, emergency power-off... If she got desperate, that might help.  It might at least keep the Russians from crashing her into an asteroid or something.

The stuff in the books was dry, but concise and to the point.  It was meant to give an astronaut critical information in an emergency.  You'd never find this on the bestseller list, but right now this book was more interesting to Julia than the last 50 bestsellers combined.  It might just save her life.

The Emergency Recovery section looked the most promising.  It talked about how she could bring the computer up in a self-repair mode, using a system image stored on the tablet.  Perhaps she could use this.  A plan began to form in her head.  Switch to manual navigation, pop on the EVA helmet and gloves, hook up the tablet, and start the recovery process.  Maybe it would wipe the Russians right out of the system!

The display lit up again.

"Enjoying your technical manuals, Commander?"

"Immensely," she said.  She felt as though she'd been punched in the stomach.

"We enjoyed them as well.  That recovery image contains a self-destruct sequence."

"I see."  A tear rolled down her cheek.

She could regain control of the module and maintain life support for a short while, but not long enough to complete the mission.  Not even long enough to return to Earth.  No, her fate was in the hands of a bunch of Washington bureaucrats.  Suddenly, the cockpit seemed ten degrees colder.