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."

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Captain Anslo Garrick - Gamma Hydra Mission Scene

The following is a first-draft sketch written to help me get into the head and life of the Captain Anslo Paul Garrick character.  Bear in mind as you read this that you're looking at a rough draft with no revision.  It's also not a complete story, just a snippet of the Captain's life prior to the start of a novel I'm planning to write about him.  I share it to give you some idea what the ASL universe will look like when it's realized.

Gamma Hydra V

"Computer, begin recording.  Captain Garrick's journal, day twelve of command.  I've been given my first assignment.  The admiral tells me it's gonna be a cake walk.  We go to Gamma Hydra V, send down an away team, gather some rock, soil, water, and air samples, and come back up.  The Prospect isn't the first ship to visit the place, and the others found nothing to account for the death of the planet's population.  Judging from the artifacts and records that remain, the experts say it looks like there was an invasion.  No idea who or what invaded, but they seem to have killed or captured the entire population of the planet within a few hours.  We've never seen anything like it.  The Alliance wants the samples to make sure that it really was an invasion and not some kind of plague.  They found a lot of interesting tech down there that they want to salvage, and they want to make sure it's a safe place for civilians.  Never mind that four previous missions came and went without a problem."

The Prospect's comm system beeped to get his attention.  "Incoming message from the bridge."

Garrick turned to face the comm panel.  "Accept message.  Garrick here."

"Captain, this is Commander Morris."

Garrick smiled.  "After twenty years, you've earned the right to call me Paul."

Morris relaxed a bit.  "We're in orbit over the planet.  I'll need your away team selections."

"Sending now."  Garrick press the send button on his computer panel.

Morris smiled like a cat who'd caught a big, juicy canary.  "You're serious about this?"

"Damned right.  You're my best friend.  If I can't trust you to go down there and supervise some rock collecting, you don't deserve to be my second-in-command."  Garrick smiled.

If the smile on Morris' face could have been any wider, it might have formed a circle around his head.  "Yes, sir."

"I know your previous commander liked to get his hands dirty, and he liked having someone he could trust back here running things while he was away.  I'm not him."

"No, Paul, you sure aren't.  Three and a half years on this ship and I've left it exactly three times.  And two of those were on Earth."

"Have fun down there, Carl.  Just be careful.  Good first officers are hard to find."

Garrick checked to make sure his uniform was clean, and made his way to the bridge.  The communications officer saluted as he entered.

"Landing party status, Lieutenant?"  

The comms officer nodded slightly.  "The party is in a shuttle and making its way down to the surface.  They report minimal winds and cloud cover.  They should touch down in about 90 seconds."

"Good.  Tell them to break out the hazard suits and rebreathers.  Let's not take unnecessary risks."

The comms officer delivered the message.  The tab in Paul's hand vibrated.  A text message from Morris:  "Are you serious?  You know the atmosphere's breathable, right?"

He sent a message back:  "If something happened to you before the wedding, Rachel would kill me."

"That's six months away."

"I don't care.  Follow the orders, Commander."

"Aye, sir."

Garrick imagined Carl cursing him under his breath.  It was his first real mission off the ship and he'd be spending it in a hazardous environment suit... on a world where no Alliance citizen had ever been injured or died. "Yeah, he probably hates me," Garrick thought to himself.

After the shuttle landed on the planet, the viewscreen showed four point-of-view displays from the landing party's head-mounted cameras.  This video was overlayed with sensor readings from the environmental suit headgear and their handheld devices.  The sensor data showed nothing out of the ordinary.  No radiation, no airborne toxins, and minimal bacteria.

Commander Morris's voice came through the comm system.  "Captain Garrick, Morris here.  Are you sure we need these hazard suits?  They're slowing us down and the sensors aren't picking up anything harmful."

Garrick sighed.  "Rick, humor me here. Stay in suits a while longer.  I'll let you out if the sensors keep showing nothing."

"Aye sir," Morris said.  "Everyone fan out and grab some soil samples.  Get one from the city over there, another from the forest to the east, one from here, and I'll grab one from the lake over to the west."

The others acknowledged the order and the landing party spread out.  Garrick watched their progress, occasionally asking questions about things he saw.  Several minutes later, Morris reached the shore of the lake and took out his sample kit.

"Pretty place," Garrick told Morris.

"Yeah," Morris said.  "I could imagine taking a little boat out there and going fishing."

Garrick looked at the sensor data. "You might even catch something.  I see life signs in the water."

"It's mostly small stuff.  Although I am picking up something a little larger just off the shore."  Morris stepped forward toward the water.  Suddenly, the camera angle jerked upward and the screen filled with the image of murky water."

"Garrick to landing party, converge on Commander Morris' position on the double!  Paul, are you OK?"

Paul didn't respond.  Garrick's heart raced as he watched the landing party views making their way toward his friend.  He could see Paul on his back in the hazard suit.  He didn't appear to be moving.  It seemed like an eternity before the others reached Paul.  Paul's display still showed the murky water but also his declining life signs.

"Get the Commander back to the shuttle and aboard the Prospect as fast as you can.  Garrick to MedBay, Commander Morris has been injured on the planet's surface.  It looks like he took a bite to the leg from some kind of alien creature.  His life signs are dropping fast."

Dr. Porter acknowledged the message and took a team to the shuttle bay.  Garrick went also.

Morris looked pale and slightly blue when the medical team pulled him from the shuttle and rushed him toward MedBay.  Garrick followed behind, giving the doctors room to do what had to be done while staying as close to his friend as he could.

"How is he, Doc?"  

"I'm not gonna lie, Captain.  It doesn't look good.  There's some kind of toxin running through his system.  I haven't seen anything like it.  We'll see if we can run his blood through a purifier and try to get the toxin out of him."

"Do whatever you can."

"I will," Porter said, and returned to his patient.

Garrick knew there was nothing more for him to do here, so he returned to the bridge and ordered the landing party back to the planet's surface to complete the mission.  He watched the viewscreen but couldn't focus on the activity.

The comm system chimed. "Captain Garrick, Dr. Porter here."

"How's Commander Morris."

"I'm sorry, Captain.  We couldn't save him."

"Understood, Garrick out.  Lieutenant Hernandez, you have the bridge.  I'll be in my quarters."

Garrick tried to keep a blank expression on his face as he made his way to his quarters.  Thoughts of Paul flooded his mind as he passed through the corridors.  He saw the day they met in grade school, the time he pushed Paul to ask Rachel to dance in middle school, and dozens of other little memories from the past forty years.  When the door to his quarters slid shut behind him, the tears came.  They were a trickle at first, and then a flood.

* * *

Garrick opened the comm channel to Martha, Rick's mother and only surviving relative.  Martha's face filled the screen, and she smiled.

"Paul, it's so good to see you!  How are--"

Paul saw her face as she registered the expression on his.  Her smile vanished.  Her brow knitted together and her lower lip protruded slightly.

"Martha, it's Rick.  He's gone.  I'm so sorry.  I--" The tears came again before he could finish the sentence.  He wanted to tell her that he felt responsible, that he was trying to do Rick a little favor before his tour of duty ended, but it had all gone wrong without warning.  He let the tears flow for a few seconds, then took a deep breath and calmed himself as best he could.

"How did it happen?"

"He'd been telling me he wanted to get off the ship.  They gave us a mission that was supposed to be a cake walk.  He just had to go down to a planet, grab soil, air, and water samples, and come back. It's a planet the Alliance has visited a half-dozen times without incident.  I even made him wear a hazard suit, which he was mad at me for.  I thought it couldn't be any safer.  He was scanning some kind of underwater creature when it bit him and poisoned him.  The entire medical team worked on him, and did all they could, but we lost him.  They say the poison in that creature mixed with some kind of bacteria in the water and made things worse."

Martha wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand.  "That's it, then.  The end."

"Yeah, that's what happened."

"No," Martha said, the tears flowing again.  "I mean it's the end of the Morris family line.  Rick was supposed to carry it on.  He and Rachel were planning to have children as soon as possible after the wedding.  I was really looking forward to grandchildren."

"I know, and I'm so sorry.  If I had it to do over again..."  He hung his head.

"It's OK, Paul.  I know you did your best for Rick.  He'd been telling me for months how much he hated serving under Captain Martin.  Martin never let him off the ship, he said. You gave him that chance."

"I did, but I feel terrible about it."

"Don't.  You didn't kill him, Paul.  Remember that.  I need to go.  I've got to tell Rachel."

"OK.  Please tell her I'm so sorry.  If I'd thought there was any chance he'd have been injured down there, I'd never have sent him."

"I know, Paul. I know.  Goodbye."  The comm connection closed, and the display went back to showing a dashboard display of the ship's status.

Paul took out a washcloth and dampened it in the sink.  He cleaned his face, checking the mirror to make sure he'd gotten everything.  He didn't think the crew should see him cry.

"You really screwed up, Paul," he said to the image in the mirror.  "First mission, and you kill your best friend... and ended his family line.  Some friend you are.  Some captain...  What the hell was Admiral Boxleitner thinking when she put us in charge of the Prospect?"

He took a deep breath, put down the washcloth, and stepped out into the corridor.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Captain Garrick - Character Sketch

The first character I've begun fleshing out in the Alliance universe is Captain Anslo Paul Garrick, who commands the starship Prospect.  This is the flagship of the Alliance Space Fleet (ASF) and is the oldest of its five ships.  Here's what I know about him...

Garrick was born on Earth, in the United States, in Central Ohio.  He has a brother named Matthew, but no other siblings. He attended Catholic schools, appreciating the education but not the religion.  He views religion as an archaic way to get people to behave the way they should naturally.  While he embodies much of what churches teach, this is because he believes it’s the right way to act.

After high school, Garrick joined the Alliance Academy in Florida.  It’s located on the site of the old Cape Canaveral NASA facility.  NASA was absorbed into the Alliance Space Fleet once the Alliance came into existence.  In the Academy, Garrick became a skilled pilot and leader.

As a member of the Alliance Space Fleet, Garrick became a test pilot for the earliest Alliance spacecraft.  These ships merged the existing human space flight technologies with those from other Alliance member races.  The designs didn't always work, and Garrick's life was often in danger.  On one particularly disastrous flight, the spacecraft went far off course and light years from its intended destination.  Part of the control system burnt out and he was forced to make a rough landing on an uninhabited planet.  Fortunately, Garrick was able to jerry-rig the control system and get the craft back to Earth.

Garrick was a test pilot for the Alliance for most of his career, and tested many of the designs for scout ships and research ships.  Most of his flights were solo, but a few involved a skeleton crew of as many as ten people.  Currently, he is the commanding officer of the Alliance Space Fleet's flagship, the Prospect.  There are only three other ships like it in space at the time of our story, and a fifth is in drydock being constructed.

Captain Garrick is physically fit but not muscular, and trains regularly to keep himself in shape.  He's five feet, eleven inches tall.  He has a dark complexion, black hair tinged with gray, and blue eyes.  Paul Garrick almost impeccably honest, but can and will lie if circumstances dictate.  His closest friends and family would describe him as considerate, thoughtful, generous, and empathetic.  

On his forty-fifth birthday, Garrick files forms with the ASF to be discharged.  On the same day, his brother Matthew dies in an accident at work.  Matthew was in love with a woman he was planning to marry later in the year.  Garrick was to be his best man. Matthew's death left their mother severely depressed.  Garrick took a leave of absence to care for her.  She now lives in a rest home.

Garrick enjoyed test piloting for the excitement and adventure.  Now that he's getting older he's more interested in getting married, having children, and settling down than exploring the galaxy.  Unfortunately for him, Admiral Laura Boxleitner refused his discharge request and assigned him to command the Prospect.  She promised him that she'd sign off on the discharge and a full pension if he would serve four years as captain of the Prospect.  

While on duty, he wears the Alliance uniform which is made of a gray material.  Rank and service branch are denoted by the collar, which is a mandarin style (banded) collar. As Garrick is a command officer and a captain, his collar is red with a silver band around the top.  When off duty, Garrick tends to wear button-down shirts and casual slacks.  His clothing choices are more for comfort than style, though most people who saw him would say that he is better dressed than many of his crew.

Garrick's friends call him Paul (rather than his given name of Anslo, which he actually likes but got tired of people mispronouncing).  His crew members refer to him as Captain Garrick.  Behind his back, they affectionately call him "The Old Man" because he's about ten years older than anyone else on the crew.  He is respected by his peers in the fleet for his achievements as a test pilot, but few of them know him very well personally.  Garrick makes it a point to know the names and faces of his entire crew, from the chefs in the galley to the officers on the bridge.  He greets them by name when he passes them, and has at least a basic familiarity with the record of every crew member who serves in a critical role.  At the same time, he keeps an emotional distance between himself and most of his crew.  He worries that getting too close to them will make it difficult to order them into harm's way.

The timeframe that Garrick inhabits is seeing a shift in mankind's tendencies.  Early in his childhood, it was not uncommon to hear of political scandals, greed, abuse of power, and acts of extreme dishonesty.  However, as mankind has begun moving out into space and learning just how many alien races are out there, these behaviors have shifted somewhat.  Corruption, greed, and racism are rare in Garrick's present.  There is a degree of xenophobia, but even this is receding as the Alliance grows and average citizens reap the benefits.  Garrick sees humanity as a single entity, and doesn't think of divisions within it along national boundaries, religious viewpoints, etc., but knows that not everyone shares that view.  He genuinely believes in what the Alliance stands for, and is working to make it a reality.

In Garrick's present, there is a single Earth government populated by people who are generally acting in the best interests of humankind.  The occasional "lapses" by the politicians in charge of the Alliance make Garrick a bit skeptical that he can completely trust the current Earth government.  He's a little more trusting of the Alliance Council than the Earth government, because he's seen nothing but honorable behavior from the council's membership.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Langston Hughes and I share a dream

Today, Google's "doodle" animation celebrated the birthday of African-American poet.  As I watched the animation, I realized the words I was seeing on the screen echo the thoughts in my own head that are behind the creation of this science-fiction series.  The words were from the late Mr. Hughes' poem I Dream A World which I'm reproducing below:
I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom's way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!
The story arc of the ASL universe follows along with this, although I'd never seen it before today.

In the early part of the universe arc, mankind is pretty much the way it is today.  There is racism, intolerance, prejudice, greed, deception, violence, theft, and all those conditions we're familiar with now.  As that era of the story arc continues, the people of Earth venture out into space and find out that most other civilizations they encounter have worked out these issues. By comparison, humans are squabbling little children.

In the middle part of the universe arc, we've realized that all of the human race is one entity.  It no longer makes sense to divide ourselves up.  We've got bigger issues to deal with than whether someone looks different or believes something different than we do.  By the middle of this part of the arc, racism, greed, and other loathsome behaviors are "primitive" behaviors that haven't been seen during the lifetimes of the human characters.

In that final era, we have dissolved even the lines between human and alien, having truly become one society of sentient lifeforms that works together like a gigantic family.