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.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Mimas Object - Part 3

Julia was dreaming that she was walking through a field of flowers when the beep from the timer woke her up.  It was time to reconnect the antenna and talk to Mission Control.  She connected the cables, made sure they were snug, and keyed the transmitter.

"Mission Control, this is Mars One, do you copy?"

"Mars One, this is Mission Control.  Please stand by for the Director."  She recognized the voice as Charlie Ranker, a veteran on the late-night shift.  They'd talked many times when she manned the ISS seven years ago.

"Mars One, Chalmers here.  How are you doing up there?"

Julia cleared her throat and took a deep breath.  "I'm fine.  All systems behaving normally."

"I've gotten some help from the NSA.  We're going to send you some new firmware over the data link.  We found some anomalies in what you're running now.  It's probably nothing, but--"

"Better safe than sorry," Julia nodded, "I know."

"Just to be safe, I need you to take out that envelope I handed you before you left.  Open it.  Read the first set of instructions and follow them.  I'll be waiting."  The comm display went dead.

She unzipped her coverall and pulled out the envelope.  Carefully ripping it open to avoid loose paper floating around the cockpit, she slid the letter out and unfolded it.  It contained instructions for changing the encryption code on the voice and data communication system.  Chalmers said they'd do it again when she reached Mimas, and again on the approach to Earth.  She changed the codes, folded the letter, and slipped it back into the envelope.

She keyed the transmitter again.  The comm display lit up with Chalmers' face.  

"Good, the code we're using now is known only to me and the tech I trusted to create it.  It's unlikely the Russians, Chinese, or anyone else can hear us now.  I'm transmitting you a hash code for the firmware we're sending up.  If the hash code on the firmware you get doesn't match this code exactly, you pull the data antenna cable, change to the next code, and call me back.  Got it?"

"Yes, sir.  I see the computer pulling in the file now.  How long is this going to take?"

"The engineers tell me it'll be about two hours before the file makes it up there.  It's a complete rewrite of the firmware for the thrust system.  The NSA found back doors in it that look like a variation of some Chinese code they've seen before.  The new stuff is clean."

Julia shivered.  Her paranoid fantasy of another country hijacking the command module and crashing it inside their borders might not have been so far off the mark.  If the Chinese managed to get something into one of the most sensitive control systems in Mars One, who knew what else they might have managed?  And what about the Russians?  Or anyone else for that matter, like some extremist religious group?  She'd flown many missions for NASA, and occasionally had a bout of nerves when something didn't go quite right, but this was all out fear.

"Julia?  Did you get that?"

She shook her head and looked at the screen.  "No, sorry.  Just feeling sorry for myself."

"Understandable.  I'm sorry, too.  The FBI and NSA are all over the facility, trying to figure out how that code got in the system.  We're hoping we can find out who did it, so we can learn more."

"You mean, like what else they might have sabotaged?"

He nodded, and frowned.  "Exactly.  We'll get the bastard.  You're the best we've got, Commander.  NASA can't afford to lose you.  We can't lose the command module, either.  It'd set the Mars project back about a year."

"Haven't we already set it back?"

"Yes, but not as much as you'd think.  If we can get you both back safely to the platform, we can refit the module in a couple of months and certify you to get right back on board... tested module, tested pilot.  Best chance of mission success."

She hadn't dared dream that Chalmers would still let her do the Mars mission after sending her on this one.  The smile couldn't be suppressed.

"I knew you'd be happy to hear that, Commander.  I didn't send you on this trip as a punishment.  I sent you because we were up against a wall and I needed the best pilot I've got.  That's you."

"Thanks.  Now, can you tell me some more about this mission?"

"Let me sit down."  The camera moved a bit as Chalmers found his way to a chair and readjusted it.

"We don't know a lot.  We know this thing, whatever it is, is metallic.  The signals we got from the probe we crashed near it tell us that much.  They also tell us its dimensions are too perfect for it not to have been machined somewhere.  Whether that's here on Earth, and we're sending you on a wild goose chase, or somewhere else, we just don't know.  There was a very short pulse of radio energy picked up on the radiation sensors, but it was faint and fast.  It barely registered. This means it's probably got some kind of technology in it.  No idea what.  Hell, the damned thing might even be some kind of bomb or torpedo.  Look at it."  The screen flashed the image of the object again.

Julia studied it carefully.  The image was fuzzy, which was no surprise given that it was taken by a camera on a space probe being crashed into the surface of Mimas.  The object was rounded at the top, roughly cylindrical in shape, fatter in the middle, narrower at the bottom.  The bottom looked to be perfectly flat.  There appeared to be four rings carved into it just below the domed top - or maybe they were some kind of decoration.  It was hard to tell.  Julia couldn't help but think the thing looked something like a high-tech bullet or torpedo.  This did nothing to calm her thoughts.

"So, what if this thing actually isa bomb or torpedo of some kind.  Do you really want me hacking it out of the ice, hauling it onto the ship, and dragging it back home.  What if it's some kind of alien nuke, and wipes out half the eastern seaboard?  Or worse?"

He sighed.  "We've been debating that with the Oval Office since we told them we found it.  The President isn't too keen to have his administration known as the one that brought alien destruction to Earth.  To be honest, we haven't figured out what's going to happen once you get it back to the orbital platform.  It might have to stay there until we know what it is and what to do with it."

"And me?  Do I have to babysit it?"

"Not exactly, but if the thing is some kind of radioactive or biological weapon, we can't let you come back down to Earth.  We'll need to send up some scientists and doctors to check you, and the object, out when you arrive.  If you get the all-clear, you come home immediately."

"Great..."  She began to see visions of months in space, dying of some alien radiation sickness or plague.

"It's probably not a bomb, you know."

She thought some more, looked at the screen, and nodded.  "Yeah, 'cause it doesn't look like one."

They discussed the approach, landing, and retrieval of the object.  They walked through how she would extract it from the ice, get it aboard the craft, lift off, and return home.  

Julia also told Chalmers all of her ideas on just how the Chinese or Russians might try to sabotage the mission.  Chalmers said his people had considered all of those, and were making contingency plans around them.  They also had a few more she hadn't thought of, and were deciding what could be done about those, too.  Julia wanted to ask him what they'd come up with, but realized that she was scared enough as it was.  Better to imagine them as far-off remote possibilities than to know the truth, especially if it was something like them poisoning her air or water supply.  Oh God, I hadn't thought of that...

"Looks like the firmware's been transmitted.  Please check the hash code against what I sent you earlier, and then read it back to me.  Let's make damned sure the file is intact, Commander."

Julia verified the letters and numbers of the hash code, and they seemed to match.  She checked them a second time before reading the codes from the file aloud to Chalmers.

"Yeah, that's what we sent you.  Here's how to apply it."  They walked through the checklist for applying the firmware update, with Julia echoing back each step before doing it, and repeating it again after it was finished.  

"I'm going now.  The engineers are going to reboot the main computer.  You'll lose communication and some other functions for a few minutes while the computer runs a POST and boots up.  Charlie will go through the diagnostics with you when it's up.  We'll talk again when you're near Mimas, on the next encryption codes."

"Understood, Director.  Thanks for everything."

"You're welcome, Julia.  Talk to you tomorrow."

"Commander, it's Charlie.  We're ready to reboot your computers.  You OK with that?"

"Not really, Charlie.  But the sooner we get the Chinese code out of them the happier I'll be."

"Us, too."

Julia watched as the comm display went black, along with almost all the other lights and displays in the cockpit.  The whole thing seemed to take an incredibly long time.  Shouldn't something be flickering or beeping... or something by now?  It wasn't.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Mimas Object - Part 2

"Do you think they'll make a move for the object?"  Julia felt a chill pass through her.

Chalmers nodded.  "It wouldn't surprise me if every nation on Earth did.  We made a deal with the ESA and the Canadians to give them access to it.  President Rose doesn't trust the Russians or Chinese after that incident with the computers on the B-2.  There's no way he'll share it with them.  You need to be ready for anything."

"What aren't you telling me?"

"You know as well as I do that the Chinese have some expert hackers.  So do the Russians.  And the Israelis.  Thanks to the last couple of administrations, we had to outsource most of the components in that craft.  What are the odds the Russians didn't slip some kind of backdoor malware in the computers, or that the Chinese didn't steal our encryption codes when they busted Canaveral last month?"

"Tell me you've changed the codes, or I'm turning this thing around."

He sighed. "It's not as easy as that, Commander.  Some of those keys are in firmware.  We can't change them.  We changed what we could, tuned your radios to different bands, and added some electronic countermeasures.  Your systems are as secure as we could get them before you launched."

Julia shook her head.  "What you're saying is that if they really want to stop this mission, I probably can't prevent it."

"Yeah.  That's about the size of it."

"Great.  Just great."

"The engineers had a recommendation.  When we're done here, open panel A3-02.  Pull the red wire out of the socket it's in.  That will cut the data communication.  If they can't send data your way, they can't hack your systems or get anything out of them.  Then again, neither can we.  In about six hours, we'll need you to plug it in again for a while so we can feed some new navigation instructions to the computers. I'll signal you in audio when we're ready."

"Fine.  Tell those engineers I want them to think like hackers and killers.  If they had access to our systems and wanted to kill me, crash Mars One, or vent my fuel, could they do it?  If they can, what can I do to stop them, or catch them trying?"

"Will do, Commander.  Mission Control, out."

"Mars One, out."  The screen went black.

Julia didn't wait for the egg-heads back home.  She pulled up the schematics and started looking at them like an attacker.  Which systems had the most firmware?  Which ones hadn't been modified recently and might have back doors in them?  What would be the best way to get the object, and keep the pilot from getting it back to NASA?"

She found the answers to her questions more depressing than she expected them to be.  There were at least a dozen ways she could sabotage Mars One from the ground.  Vent the fuel.  Vent the oxygen.  Disable the flight controls.  Cut the power to the cockpit.  The only thing that didn't depress her was the realization that even if hackers were in the system, they probably wanted the Mimas Object.  That meant they'd leave her alone until she had it, and brought it back home.  That's when they'd make their move.

"If it was me," she said to her reflection in the black computer screen, "I'd wait until we were on approach to dock with the orbital platform.  I'd cut the oxygen to the cockpit and suffocate the pilot.  Then I'd land the command module somewhere nearby and take the object from it.  There'd be no point in killing me before that, because they'd have to mount their own expedition to get the thing.  Better to wait until I got it home, then pounce."

She debated sharing this with Chalmers, but as crafty a politician as that guy was, he'd have already thought of it and had the engineers hard at work to prevent it.

There was nothing to do now but wait for the call from Mission Control.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Mimas Object - Part 1

The following is a "discovery draft" of a story about The Mimas Object.  I can't tell you what that object is yet, but its discovery kick-starts the Alliance for Sentient Lifeforms universe.  Since this is a discovery draft, a kind of "first draft to help find the real story," please read it with that thought it mind.  I hope it doesn't meander or get too dull, but it may require some serious rewriting before it's finished.  I thought it might be interesting to share a "story in progress" in this universe.

Commander Julia Winters put on her flight suit and got into the transport.  She sat there in silence as the vehicle carried her to the launch platform.  This was a historic mission, just not the one she'd been planning and dreaming.  Instead of being the first human to set foot on Mars, she was about to become the first human to set foot on some moon no one had ever heard of.  The director promised her this would be a bigger mission than she could imagine, but Julia couldn't see how.  What made it even more infuriating to her was that they'd chosen Carl Douglas to replace her, of all people.

The tower called for pre-launch checks, and Julia went through the checklist almost robotically.  It was a short trip up to the orbital launch platform, and she'd made it several times before.  The countdown completed.  She heard the rumble of the rockets and felt herself being pushed into the chair.  A short time later, she was weightless.

The module docked with the platform and the airlock was opened from inside.  An engineer she barely remembered, his name started with a J, smiled at her.

"Miss Winters, happy to have you aboard.  I'm a big fan."

"Thanks.  Any idea what this mission's about?  They wouldn't tell me."  She unstrapped from her seat and floated through the airlock.

"No, ma'am.  All I know is that they had us strip that vehicle down to the bare minimum weight and equipment.  They also had us put in some special heating and digging equipment, and a lead-lined box.  Wouldn't tell us what any of it was for."

"Stripped down?  What did you strip down?"

His eyebrows popped.  "You don't know?"


"The Mars vehicle.  They had us strip it down and refit it.  It was the only close to launch-ready."

This sent a chill down Julia's spine.  They'd been trumpeting the Mars mission in the media for months now.  Julia had visited dozens of schools, state fairs, local television and radio stations, and had a million photos snapped of her.  People were already calling her "The First Woman on Mars" even though she hadn't left yet.  What would make them gut their pride and joy in such a hurry?  She couldn't imagine.

"Can you tell me anything else, uh..J-"

"Steven Jerrold, ma'am.  No, that's all I know.  They told us what to strip out, what to put in, and set us a ton of fuel.  If I had to guess, wherever you're going's a lot farther out than Mars."

"OK, thanks.  Lead the way."

Jerrold let her through the maze of pods and modules that made up the orbital launch platform.  She'd ferried a number of these up herself on previous missions, but hadn't been inside them before now.  It felt somewhat haphazrd, but still somehow planned.

"I'm supposed to signal them when you're sealed inside."

Julia climbed into the module and sealed the hatch behind her, giving Jerrold a thumbs up when she was strapped into her chair.  She looked around the module.  Jerrold wasn't kidding.  At least two-thirds of the equipment they'd installed in it for the Mars mission was gone.  It reminded her of the time someone stole her car and left it across town.  When she went to look at it, the thieves had nearly completely stripped it.

"Commander Winters, this is Mission Control.  Do you copy?"

"Mission Control, Winters here.  What the hell's going on?"

"Please switch to channel 5."

Channel 5 was reserved for encrypted communications.  They'd given her a code to use before she left Earth.  She switched the transceiver to the channel and punched in the encryption code.

"Are you receiving, Winters?"

"Director Chalmers, is that you?"

"One and the same.  Are you alone now?"

"Yes.  Mind telling me what the hell's going on?  What's going on?  First you tell me I'm off the Mars mission, now I find out you've gutted the ship and filled it with rocket fuel."

"If you'll cast off from the station, I'll explain."

Julia signaled to Jerrold that she was ready to depart.  He got on his radio, probably confirming with Mission Control.  She heard a buzz and click.  The vehicle drifted away from the platform.

"Commander, Mission Control is going to get you on your way.  Please sit back and relax a moment, then I'll answer all your questions."

The module lurched forward as the main thrusters fired.  She watched as the launch platform disappeared in the distance.

"Now can you tell me what I'm doing out here?  I'm supposed to be the First Woman on Mars, not the first woman to -- whatever it is you're sending me to."

"You're going further out into the solar system than any human's ever gone.  We're sending you to Saturn's moon, Mimas."

"Why?  From what I understand, that thing's kind of big ball of ice.  What would make it more important than Mars?"

"Watch your display, Commander.  I'm sending you an image."

Julia watched as the screen began filling in an image of a high-detail radar scan, presumably from the space probe that passed Mimas a couple of months ago.  In the middle of the scan was a metallic object.

"So there's an asteroid embedded in the surface, so what?"

"Watch this," Chalmers told her.  The image on the screen enlarged in size, centering on the object.  As it did, she shuddered.  The dimensions and shape of the thing were too perfect, too precise.  It couldn't be naturally occurring.  It had to be man-made... or "something" made.

"Oh my God," Julia said, putting a hand over her mouth.

"Quite right, Commander.  We told the public that we lost control of the probe, but in reality we sent it there to crash on the surface, scanning all the way down.  Before it smashed itself to bits, we got this image from the high-res cameras."  The display gradually revealed a detailed photo of the object, with unusual writing on the surface.  "You know what this means?"

"We're not alone."

"Indeed.  You wanted to know what could be more important than Mars?  You're looking at it.  We think this is either an incredible hoax to keep us from going to Mars, or possibly the first evidence of an extraterrestrial intelligence.  We won't know until you get there and bring it back to us."

Julia sat there in silence, staring at the image on the screen.



"Are you OK?"

"Yeah.  I was just wondering, what is that thing?  Who put it there?"

"We have no idea.  Exciting, eh?"

"Terrifying.  Is that why you made me cast off before telling me?"

"No.  That was about security.  We're worried that the Russians and Chinese might have picked up some of the probe's transmissions, since the encryption was pretty weak to preserve computing power.  We don't want them to know we're going after it."

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Melkons

Writer Timothy Zahn often speaks about fiction writing at conventions.  He's talked about how writers should think through new technologies and magic spells.  Zahn says it's important to consider PERSIA when you are brainstorming your story world.  PERSIA is an acronym for:

  • Politics
  • Economics
  • Religion
  • Society
  • Intellectual
  • Art
When you invent a new technology, you'll want to consider the impact it has on those areas of a society.  In this case, I'm using the acronym to help me think about an alien race that will appear in an ASL story.  They're known as the Melkons.  Here's what I already know about them:
  • They are reptilian, approximately the same height as humans.  Their build is more stocky.  They are both stronger and faster than we are, on average.
  • The Melkons' scaled skin is a form of natural armor.  You'd need a very sharp object or a lot of force to get through the skin.
  • The Melkons view other species as potential slaves or potential food.  If they can't eat you or subjugate your kind, they'll annihilate you.
  • They originated in another galaxy.  Their empire in that galaxy grew to cover most of it, until they crossed swords with the wrong species.  That species nearly wiped the Melkons out.  A handful of ships were created and shot out of the galaxy in an effort to save the species from extinction.
  • In a fight, they are incredibly brutal.  They won't think twice about ripping off one of your limbs or using excessive force to take you down.
  • Despite their physical brutality, they are at least as intelligent as humans.
  • They build weaponry that is far more powerful than the Alliance has at the time the Melkons are discovered.
  • Their ships are covered with an organic material that absorbs some kinds of energies fired at them, charges with solar energy, re-grows to cover damaged areas, provides oxygen to the crew, and provides electrical power for the ship's operations.  This plant-based material gives their ships a greenish color.  The longer a ship's away from solar radiation, the less green and more yellow or brown it will turn.
  • The Melkons wear only the most basic clothing, which is intended to convey rank or status, not to cover anything they might consider embarrassing.
  • They came to our galaxy in order to re-establish their society and empire here.  They'll then go back and re-take their home galaxy.  The ship bringing them to our galaxy is piloted by an artificial intelligence programmed to wake up the hibernating Melkons if needed.
Going through the PERSIA acronym, I came up with some additional information about the Melkons:
  • Politics:
    • They don't have civilians, military, police, and politicians like we do.  They see their community as a single entity and have a rank within it.  Members can challenge one another to have their rank increased, in "to the death" combats.  That means the folks at the top of the society are also the most combat seasoned.
    • They don't have a concept or prisoners in combat.  You're either a casualty, a slave, or food as far as they're concerned.
  • Economics:
    • There is an economy among the Melkons.  It's community and rank driven.  Each Melkon has and accepts some role in society (except for moving up as described earlier).  Those who create things like food and weapons accept that these are community property and make them available to those who need them.  In cases of dispute, the higher ranking Melkon gets the item.  If they're of the same approximate rank, disposition is resolved by discussion or battle -not necessarily to the death but certainly to the point of injury.
    • Higher ranking Melkons don't necessarily have "more" or "larger" or "better" things than the Melkons at the bottom of the society.  Rank is more about your ability to command others and reallocate community resources than about accumulating anything for yourself.  A higher ranking Melkon might have a larger residence or office, but this is not a status symbol so much as a practical requirement to gather more lower-ranking individuals together and direct their actions.
  • Religion:
    • They do not have a religion, and would not understand anyone else's.
  • Society:
    • Although Melkon individuals do have male and female genders, there is no distinction or discrimination in their society on that basic.  If a female can best a male at something, then she outranks him.
    • Melkons don't experience love, hate, fear, happiness, etc.  They tend to be very rational and logical, but they do undergo a kind of "bloodlust" in battle.
    • The Melkons are very community oriented.  One Melkon might do battle with another to increase his or her status, but those two Melkons will instantly drop their differences and fight together to protect the community if it's under attack.  When the threat has passed, they'll resume the battle.
  • Intellectual:
    • Melkons see the world very basically.  You are Melkon, or you are a slave, a food source, or someone to be eliminated as a threat.
    • Melkons are very practical creatures.  
  • Art:
    • Melkons don't really have art or music.  There may be a few Melkons who create something like that, but these are anomalies.  If it's not useful in battle, managing slaves, or increasing food yields, they're not interested.
The Melkons figure prominently in an ASL story I'm currently plotting, with the working title "The Ark"...

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Brainstorming an ASL Story: "The Ark" - Part 2

To further help me brainstorm "The Ark," I began building a list of all the expectations I thought a reader of the story might have.  I tried to think about the basic story concept and imagine what it might have been like if this were an episode of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, or any number of other science fiction universes.  Every expectation or assumption I could image appears on the list below:

  • Garrick wants to be captain and gets off on it to a degree like Kirk did.
  • Alliance crew to just step up anytime the captain asks and lay down their lives for the Alliance.
  • The Alliance will win in the end.
  • The Prospect will survive.
  • Captain Garrick will live.
  • The officers in the boarding party will survive, but the red shirts will die.
  • The Melkons will have a tragic flaw.
  • The Melkons aren't invincible.
  • The captain will do the right thing, the ethical thing.
  • The Alliance crew wouldn't loot the Melkon weapons and tech.
  • The Alliance tech is better than the Melkon tech.
  • If the Melkon tech is better, the Alliance folks are smarter or faster.
  • The Alliance crew are the good guys.
  • The Melkons are inherently bad.
  • There will be a happy ending.
  • There will be a win win solution found.
  • Captain Garrick won't commit genocide and kill all the Melkons.
  • The crew will learn to take risks.
  • The captain will decide not to resign.
  • It's not a Kobayashi Maru test.
  • It's not virtual reality.
  • It's not a reality show.
  • The Prospect crew and tech always work perfectly.
  • The Prospect won't be severely damaged our crippled.
  • The Prospect has all the supplies and repair parts it needs.
  • The crew will figure out the Melkon language and devices.
  • The Melkons will mostly stay in hibernation.
  • If taken down, Slave won't reboot or recover.
  • The Melkons will just accept their situation when they lose.
  • The Melkons are trustworthy and will honor their word.
  • The Alliance is honorable and will honor its word.
  • Aliens in general treat the Alliance with respect and trust like the Federation in Star Trek.
  • Humans will bicker, back stab, and undermine each other.
  • The humans will have the moral high ground here.
  • The Melkons won't slaughter the Prospect's crew.
  • The humans and Melkons will be able to communicate and negotiate.
  • At some point the fighting will stop.
  • The ships won't crumble, develop failures, etc.
  • The Alliance ship is faster and better than the Melkons Ark.
  • The name Melkon is enough like Archon that we'll see a parallel to the Star Trek story of that name.
  • The captain will be the one with the final solution that saves the day.
  • Slave's attack on the Prospect computers won't succeed or if it does the Alliance will be able to recover from it.
  • The main characters won't be seriously injured, especially those closer to the captain.
  • The Alliance universe won't be changed by the event, this will all be episodic.
  • The Alliance has unlimited ammo, medicine, food, and energy.
  • The Melkons will run out of resources, before we do.
  • There won't be any human traitors.
  • Given the parallels to the Khan story they may expect Garrick to maroon the Melkons on some planet.
  • There won't be any mystical or spiritual elements to the universe.
  • Nothing supernatural takes place unless it's explained by science.
  • Because they are reptilian, the Melkons will behave like reptiles and have qualities of earth reptiles.
  • Melkons behave essentially like humans, have a human like society, care about their children, fall in love, etc.
  • Humans in this universe act like we do.  They have emotions, loves, hates, fears, etc.
  • The human good guys will win.
  • Technologies that look like sci-fi tech we've seen before will behave and be used the same way.
  • Humans would not employ underhanded tactics against the aliens.
  • The crew will follow the captain's orders.
  • The Melkons follow their leaders' orders and respect their decisions, behaving like a human society.

As the author of the story, it's my job to decide which of these expectations and assumptions will be true in the Alliance universe, and which will not.  You'll have to wait for The Ark to find out.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Brainstorming an ASL Story: "The Ark" - Part 1

The story I'm currently writing for the ASL Series is about risk-taking, and how organizations can become so risk-averse that it destroys them.

Long before our story starts, the main character test piloted experimental spacecraft.  He's used to taking risks, but he's also used to being the only person at risk for the risks he takes.  If he flies a dangerous spacecraft and crashes it, it's rare anyone else would get hurt.  So he's not used to ordering people into risky situations or to dealing with the aftermath when the risky situation kills the person you ordered into it.  On one level, the story's about him learning to accept that his role as captain of an exploration ship includes (to his dismay) sometimes ordering people to their deaths.

Another piece of the story is that he realizes, based on some traditions starting to take root within the space fleet he's part of, that the fleet is becoming risk-averse.  If it it continues down this path, he can see where it will end up... and it's not a good place.  He knows risk is important, and not always pleasant, but as long as it's managed and used appropriately, it's valuable.

The story focuses on Captain Paul Garrick of the Alliance starship Prospect.  Garrick had captaincy somewhat forced on him. His ship encounters an alien spacecraft of a type never seen.  Alliance directives require Garrick to attempt to make first contact.  They also require him to give aid if the crew seems to be injured, ill, or in need of assistance.  There is a lesser-known directive that requires him to acquire any potentially useful alien technology he encounters.  The alien ship has very faint life signs all over, with a slightly stronger (but still weak) cluster in one area.  They could be dead.  They could be injured.  They may just not register on the scanners due to unusual biology.  There's no way to know, as the ship isn't answering their hails.  Garrick must approach this ship to render aid, salvage anything useful, and/or make contact with the occupants.

In the list below, "Slave" is the name of the artificial intelligence which controls the alien ship, which is referred to as "The Ark" (this tells you something about how the Melkons view the AI).  "Melkons" are the aliens who created the Ark.  The Melkons on the ship are fugitives from another galaxy where their once-vast empire was (probably) destroyed.  They came here to establish a new empire from which they can someday reclaim their home.

To build this list, I tried to turn off as many of my mental filters and censors as possible.  I wanted a huge list of possibilities I might be able to use in my story.  I intentionally allowed silly and story-ending ideas onto the list.  I thought those of you who wonder where writers get their ideas might find this interesting.  Below is every idea I could come up with, from the totally nuts (the Melkons destroy the ship as soon as it's in range and Garrick dies with his crew), to the very silly (it's all a reality show), to the possibly useful.
  • The Prospect is destroyed instantly.
  • Slave lures them in by being friendly then blasts them.
  • Slave hacks their computers.
  • All the Melkons are defrosted and there is a huge fight.
  • The entire boarding party is killed.
  • Garrick has to go along because no one will volunteer among the crew.
  • Melkons get aboard the Prospect.
  • Melkons capture the Prospect.
  • Humans carry a disease that kills the Melkons.
  • Garrick gets marooned on the Ark.
  • Slave joins Garrick in his efforts.
  • Garrick chickens out and goes back to the Prospect.
  • The Melkons conquer the Alliance.
  • Garrick sends the Ark back home.
  • The Prospect destroys the Ark.
  • The Ark is marooned on a remote uninhabited planet.
  • Melkons carry a disease that kills humans.
  • Slave self destructs the Prospect.
  • Garrick uses the Ark weaponry to take control of the Alliance.
  • The Ark starts attacking another Alliance ship.
  • Garrick and crew kill all the Melkons and take the Ark as a prize.
  • As Garrick takes the Ark, Slave starts self destruct.
  • Garrick falls in love with a Melkon.
  • The Melkons surrender to Garrick.
  • The Melkons recognize Garrick as a famous historical figure in their universe.
  • Another alien race comes along to claim the Ark.
  • The Ark begins landing on an inhabited world.
  • Garrick calls in help from the fleet.
  • The Ark calls for help from the other Arks.
  • The air on the Ark is unbreathable.
  • Automated defenses on the Ark prove too much for the crew.
  • The first boarding party is killed and no one will join the second.
  • The Admiral let's Garrick resign but he rejoins when things go bad for the crew.
  • The Melkons turn out not to be so violent and only came here to dance.
  • The Alliance orders Garrick to destroy the Ark.
  • Garrick brings the Ark to Earth and the Melkons escape and take over.
  • The Melkons have a power that lets them brainwash humans.
  • Melkons turn out to be afraid of mice and Garrick uses this to advantage.
  • Garrick's pet iguana is sick and the disease is lethal to Melkons.
  • The Melkon chambers are defective and most of the crew can't be revived.
  • Turns out this was all a test on Garrick by the admiral.
  • After having into the computers on the Prospect, Slave joins the Alliance.
  • Melkons find humans sexually arousing.
  • Human weapons can't hurt Melkons.
  • Humans can't use Melkon weapons.
  • Slave is senile after too many years in deep space alone.
  • The Ark is surrounded by several cloaked fighters.
  • This is the second trip of the Ark. Melkons are already here.
  • The aliens who conquered the Melkons show up and demand the Ark.
  • Turns out all the time in suspended animation has wiped the Melkon brains.
  • Melkons see humans as food.
  • Melkons see humans as potential slaves.
  • Boarding party is captured and tortured for secrets to the Prospect.
  • Slave cuts off communication between boarding party and Ark.
  • Prospect crew thinks boarding party is dead and leaves them.
  • When Garrick defeats the Melkons they make him their leader.
  • It's all a reality show and not a real alien Ark.
  • An Alliance ship from the future arrives and wipes out the Melkons.
  • Other Melkon ships show up from a nearby colony.
  • The Ark flies into the sun to avoid capture.
  • Garrick convinces Slave to take the Ark back home.
  • The Melkons decide to join the Alliance.
  • The Melkons become Garrick's personal slaves when he beats them.
  • One of the boarding party sides with the Melkons and leads them back to Prospect.
Will any of this make it into the finished story?  I have no idea.

The next step is to sift through this list to find the ideas that I think might have merit in the story I'm trying to tell.  Then I'll do a similar exercise with these.  I'll ask myself questions like "OK, if this happens, what else might happen as a result?" and "Would it be better if, instead of this thing, something very similar (or very different) happened?"  

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Captain Anslo Garrick - The Debriefing Scene

The following is a fictional scene set in the Alliance universe featuring Captain Anslo Paul Garrick, whom we've discussed previously.  This rough first-draft scene was written to help me get into the character's head and life a little bit. This scene is a debriefing Garrick was ordered to after returning from a spaceship test-piloting mission.  That mission didn't go well, but Garrick was able to jerry-rig the ship to get it home, which impressed his commanding officer Admiral Laura Boxleitner. Bear in mind as you read this that it's only a first-draft document, written for my own use, and was never intended to be published or to form a complete story.

The Debriefing

Something felt different about this debriefing.  Paul had crashed test craft before, and he'd been through a debrief for all of them.  Usually, a handful of engineers and officers sat behind a table and asked the standard litany of questions.  How had the craft performed?  Were there indications of a problem before it crashed?  How could he have prevented the crash?  What changes in the craft might have prevented the problem or made it easier to touch down safely?  That sort of thing.  The gist of it was that they wanted so know what went wrong, when, and what could be done about it in the future.  They were pretty informal, and had a cooperative air about them.

Not this time.  They told Paul to put on his dress uniform, and review his flight recorder data.  That was new.  He felt more like he was headed to a court martial than a debriefing.  Like he was about to see his career go belly up.  He swallowed the lump in his throat.

A woman in a form-fitting blue business suit opened the door.

"They're ready for you now, Commander Garrick."

Paul took a deep breath and sighed, quickly checking his uniform for stray dirt or hair, and stepped into the room.

Admiral Boxleitner pointed at the chair in front of the assembled group.  "Have a seat, Commander."

Paul nodded, his shoes making a clop clop noise on the hard stone floor that echoed through the room.  He scanned the faces behind the table.  He recognized a few of them as engineers on the project.  The others looked familiar, but he couldn't place them.

"Recorder," Admiral Boxleitner said, brushing the hair away from her forehead, "This debriefing has begun.  Admiral Laura Boxleitner facilitating.  Computer, take attendance."

The computer voice noted the name and title of all those present in the room. When the computer got to the people he thought looked familiar, he felt a slight chill.  They were all members of the Earth Government Council.  They looked familiar because he'd seen them in news reports.  What the hell were they doing here at a test flight crash debriefing?

"Paul, I can see by the look on your face that we're making you a little nervous.  Let me put you at ease.  You're not on trial here, and no one is accusing you of doing anything wrong," Boxleitner said.

"Thank you, Admiral.  I take it there's no firing squad waiting outside, then?"

"No," she laughed.  "Please tell us about the test flight you just returned from.  Computer, append all non-classified records of the test flight to the meeting minutes."

"Yes, Admiral," Paul said, and began telling the story.

He'd been assigned to take a small four-man scout ship out alone.  There were concerns about the control system, and some worries that recent changes to the low-speed propulsion system might make the craft unstable in an atmosphere.  He'd lauched it into FTL mode when suddenly a shower of sparks came from the control panel.  The ship jerked out of FTL and threw him to the bulkhead, knocking him unconscious.  When he came to, the air was burning hot.  He staggered to the instrument panel and saw that the craft was falling into the atmosphere of a planet.  The controls were mostly unresponsive, but he did the best he could to set it own softly on the planet's surface.  Softly, in this case, meant that the ship took only minimal damage.

Fortunately, the planet he'd crashed on had a breathable atmosphere.  When the hull had cooled down enough that he could touch it, he opened the airlock and stepped outside to survey the damage.  The hull seemed intact and the engines looked none the worse for wear.  It might even be flown again.  He went back inside and tried to activate the communication system, then the distress beacon.  Nothing seemed to be working.  Was it the malfunction in space?  The heat of entry into the planet's atmosphere?  The impact of the landing?  A combination of all that?  He didn't know.

"Excuse me, Commander.  A question for the engineering team.  Do we know what happened to the controls on the Scouter?"

The young engineer cleared his throat.  "Yes, Senator Chalmers.  One of the power conduits wasn't built to spec.  It overloaded under the drain of FTL travel and caused a short-circuit, burning out the entire control surface."

"Then, there's no way this crash was Commander Garrick's fault?"

"None, sir.  It's amazing he's not still stranded there, sir."

"Why is that?"

"Well, I helped design that control system and I don't know if I could have flown the craft the way he did."

Chalmers turned from the engineer to Garrick.  "Commander, how DID you get the craft back?"

"Well, sir, I know that any aircraft or spacecraft control system is about electrical or optical signals coming from the cockpit controls out to the sensors, control surfaces, and so forth.  The computer survived the crash.  I used the schematics to get some idea of what wires and fiber-optic lines reached out to what controls.  Then I started looking for other controls that sent the same kind of signals."

The senator raised an eyebrow.  "I don't understand."

"Think of it like this.  Imagine you're in your kitchen at home and you go to flip on the lights.  The switch breaks off into your hand.  You want the lights on, and your miles from an electrician.  All that switch really does is connect two wires together.  You could put on some rubber gloves, tie those wires together, and the lights would come on."

"But you can't fly a spaceship by tying wires together, Commander."

"Exactly.  But when I looked around the cockpit, I found other controls that would work.  Kind of like swapping out that broken kitchen light switch for the one that turns on the garbage disposal.  Same switch, works the same way.  All I had to do was wire similar controls to the things I needed in order to fly the ship.  I wired the heating controls to the throttle lines, the steering lines to light dimmers, that kind of thing.  Eventually, I had enough of the controls working that I could lift off.  Once I was in space, I had the computer set a course back for Earth.  Then I actually did tie a couple of wires together.  A cargo ship spotted me, and the fleet sent a rescue ship."

The senator's mouth hung open, his face blank.  "No further questions."

The admiral smiled, "Now you see why we need this guy out there, Ben.  He's fearless, ingenious, resourceful."

Chalmers composed himself, and cleared his throat.  "Yes, yes."

"Pardon me, admiral," Paul said, swallowing.

She turned to face him.  "Yes, Commander?"

"What did you mean when you said you need me 'out there'?  Out where?"  His forehead wrinkled, and he shifted a bit in the uncomfortable chair.

She smiled.  "I'm glad you asked.  The reason Senator Chalmers and the others are here is to assess your fitness for command of the Alliance Starship Prospect.  I think you've convinced them that you're the man for the job.  We need commanders who can think on their feet, who don't crack under pressure, and do what it takes to survive."

The Senator and his aides nodded. "I've seen enough, Laura.  You're right.  I've gotta get back to DC for a meeting int the morning."

He stood, and his aides did too. He shook the Admiral's hand, then walked around the table and over to Garrick's chair.  "Hell of a story, Garrick."

He shook Paul's hand and left the room, aides following close behind.  The admiral turned to the engineers and nodded.  One of them opened his mouth, as though he intended to ask a question.  The admiral shook her head.  He bowed his head slightly, picked up his tab and walked out.  Garrick and the admiral were alone.  When the door clicked shut, she spoke.

"You look confused, Paul."  She smiled at him, as if to say it wasn't such a big deal.

"Frankly, admiral--"

"Laura, while we're alone."

"Laura, what just happened?  I thought I was about to be court-martialed for messing up the controls on that ship."

She laughed, then her face flushed.  "I'm sorry, Paul.  I asked you to put on the dress grays because I wanted to be sure you made a good impression on Senator Chalmers.  I need his approval to get you the promotion, and to put you in the captain's chair on the Prospect."

"I was planning to retire in a few months.  I've tempted fate too many times."

The smile vanished.  "Retire?  No.  I've called in too many favors to get you promoted to Captain, and--"


"Yes.  By the regs, I can't put you in charge of the Prospect unless you hold the rank of Captain.  As of right now, you do."  He sat motionless as she walked around the table, took out a silver collar signifying Garrick's new rank of Captain, and replaced his Commander collar.

"I don't know what to say, Laura.  Thank you?"

She smiled.  "Close.  Say yes.  Tell me you'll do it."

Her eyes locked onto his and wouldn't let go.


"No, not 'but'.  Tell me yes.  Look, Paul, I need you to do this.  Whether the rest of the joint chiefs know it, they need you to do it, too.  I'll make you a deal.  Give me four years on the Prospect.  After that, you want out of the fleet, you're out.  Hell, I'll throw you a retirement party they'll talk about twenty years from now.  I'll even pull strings to get your rank bumped up for the pension."

Paul's mind began to evaluate the options. If he retired in a few months like he'd planned, he'd probably lose the promotion.  He'd also tick off the admiral, so he'd probably spend those months scrubbing latrines with a toothbrush.  If he took the promotion and the job, he'd have to postpone his retirement a few years.  On the other hand, retiring a couple of ranks higher would put his retirement pension close to his salary now.  How bad could it be out there, compared with flying experimental ships that shorted out and crash landed?

"Alright, Laura.  Four years.  Don't ask for a fifth.  And you'd better make good on that pension."

She held out her hand.  "I will.  Congratulations, Captain Garrick.  The Prospect is yours.  Don't scratch the paint."