NOVEL CONCEPTS #8: Wake Up Call

I hate time travel stories.  The part of my brain that loves physics never shuts up the whole time.  I don’t care how many gigawatts you shoot into a Delorean, it ain’t going back to 1955, or anywhere else.  It’s just gonna be an overdesigned car from the 80’s slowly building charge.

What does intrigue me are stories that use time manipulation in other ways.  Remote viewing, or remote messaging for example (think Deja Vu, or Paycheck).  The idea of sending information into or out of the past is much more likely to me than the transmission of matter back and forth through time.  Even the ancient Egyptians figured out how to transmit data far into the future.  Surely we may develop something sooner or later.

I’m also fascinated by the concept of a conversation with one’s self.  More accurately, I’m interested in what my past self would think of the life that I’ve made for myself currently and, armed with that knowledge, if they would choose to deliberately break from that path.

Here is the basic story premise.

You’re a young engineer.  You conclude a job interview and are heading back home.  Along the way, you get a call on your cell phone.  The number is unknown, but you take the call anyway.  You’re astonished to hear your own voice on the other end of the line.  Your future self tries to convince you that this is not a trick.  The future self explains that he is calling from exactly one year in the future, as the alignment of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun allows for such a call to be made.  (I know that’s not really accurate, but take the journey with me.)

You’re skeptical, so it will take a bit of convincing to get you on board with the idea that this is real.  I imagine this would involve accurately predicting random events, perhaps news that takes place in a certain area chosen by the past self, on a particular date or at a particular time.  It will be an interesting intellectual exercise to see what would convince a person that they are indeed talking to their future self.

Any time-travel story depends on certain rules, and how closely they are followed (or not).  For this, I’m thinking that the calls can go both ways (past can call future and future can call past).  The calls should be limited to one per day.  Using the notion from Farscape (and plenty of other sources) that, if nudged close enough to course, events in timestreams have a way of working themselves out, then the future self cannot send information back that would radically alter their past self’s path in life (e.g. no lottery numbers or preventing disasters).  It should be enough that the future self could prevent you from making choices that he himself did not make, and would be able to ease anxiety about certain upcoming events, with the knowledge that all would work out (or subtle ways to avoid malicious outcomes).  The events that could be affected would have to be relatively small in nature.

After trust is established, a period of increasing opportunity is created.  Assistance with choices about finances, personal relationships and occupational help.

That’s the first half.

One day you call your future self and he doesn’t answer.

That’s strange.

Then you call again the next day, again, no answer.

Concerning.

You call the following day and he doesn’t answer.  Instead, the voice on the other end informs you that your future self has been murdered.

In shock you end the call and shortly afterward you are unable to reach the number of your future self’s phone.

Now you have one year to solve your own murder.

 

 

Silent Flight: Testing the X-24

x-24-flight

The following is a short story that I wrote as an exercise.  I wanted to explore a few alternate history topics that I found interesting.  One would be the lifting body program of the late 1960’s and early 70’s.  I have a pet timeline that I’m working on which involves the rise of John Glenn as a political figure in the mid 1960’s, his ascent to the Vice Presidency under President Robert Kennedy, and the development of a more modest, lower-cost space shuttle akin to the Dream Chaser, or the HL-20.

For this story, I have purposefully not used the names of any real individuals as I do not wish to speak for those who cannot reply.  I have tweaked certain elements found in David Portree’s “Dreaming a Different Apollo” series.  I have also made a few subtle science-fiction references for those who enjoy an obscure easter egg or two.

In the early 1970’s, engineer Dale Reed proposed flying a modified X-24 or HL-10 into earth orbit and then landing it (see page 140).  Had this flight gone ahead, it could have offered valuable knowledge for the development of the space shuttle, or possibly led development in another direction entirely.

As with any of my writing, my first goal is to tell an interesting story.  The ripple effects of the events described are left as an exercise to the reader.

*             *             *

April 7th, 1974

Orbital Inclination: 50⁰

Altitude: 270 miles

Apollo 35 Mission

Callsign: Shenandoah

Though he’d have never admitted it, Cdr. Scott Keller thought this whole thing was a bit of a stunt.

When it was announced 18 months ago, he’d objected through all the usual channels.  It bordered on ridiculous.  They were going to take his Apollo, an otherwise perfect specimen, and attach a robot arm to the service module.  Then, after a stay of 56 days on the Olympus, his crew would have to perform another rendezvous and an extraction maneuver before returning home short-handed.

He hadn’t been overly impressed with the X-24S when they showed it to him.  “S” for Space-rated, they’d said.  The thing looked like the offspring of an X-15 and a humpback whale.  It was short, squat, bulby and the stubby wings at the back looked like they wouldn’t do a damn bit of good.   They had launched it on a Saturn-IB late last year and there was a rendezvous in low orbit.  The crew of Apollo 33 had done an inspection of its systems.  Their LMP had even taken it for a check ride.  Out a hundred miles from the CSM, and then back again.  The systems had worked beautifully, then, ground control took over.

The X-24’s first reentry was unmanned.  It had sailed down through the atmosphere, protected by a coating that was never part of the original design.  The silver blob had landed at Edwards and was taken straight to R&D.  They pronounced it a successful test and then got her ready to fly again.

Now they wanted to put a man in it.

This was Keller’s problem.  Clearly the bird didn’t need a pilot.  That, in and of itself, was something of a sacrilege.  But now that they’d proven it could fly on its own, they wanted to have an astronaut fly it down from orbit.  The whole theatricality of it was what stunk.  It was barnstorming from 250 miles up.  They were going to have his mission specialist fly this thing back to Edwards, just to prove that it could carry a man down.

Still, there was an old poem about reasons and doing things, and not asking why, and Keller, if nothing else, was a man who followed orders.  As he maneuvered the Shenandoah to a distance of 50 feet from the Saturn-IB, he kept the disdain out of his voice.

“Houston, Shenandoah.  We are holding at a distance of 50 feet, requesting permission to proceed with docking to the X-24. Over.”

A moment later he heard the CAPCOM reply, “Shenandoah, Houston.  You are go for docking.  Recommend you unlock the elbow joint on the ARA to allow for free rotation.

“Roger that Houston,” Keller signaled to his CMP to unlock the joint.  The switch was thrown and he spoke again, “Houston, the ARA elbow is unlocked.  We are proceeding to dock.”

The Apollo Robotic Arm (ARA), much like a human arm, could flex at the wrist and the elbow.  Unlocking the elbow joint allowed it to rotate freely under force, which would absorb the force of grabbing the X-24.  It was a safety measure that Keller had no intention of needing.  He was confident that he could maneuver within range of the arm itself so that there was no relative velocity between the Shenandoah and the X-24.  It would just be a matter of grabbing the other ship with the ARA.

His target was technically a small bar, just in front of the cockpit’s bubble canopy.  It was only 6 inches wide, but that would be enough for the ARA to grasp and pull the spacecraft from the upper stage of the Saturn.

It was a slow push in, but, over the course of the next 10 minutes, a 50 foot distance became a 10 foot distance and the Shenandoah was close enough to the X-24 to be able to see the stitching on the pilot’s seat cushion.  A nifty operation got the ARA attached to the bar and the elbow joint was locked into place.  Then the Shenandoah’s RCS jets gave a small pulse which brought the X-24 out of her cocoon.

Nothing improved Scott Keller’s mood like a successful maneuver.  He was all-smiles as the Saturn’s upper stage floated away.  Even with this silver bathtub stuck on the front of his nice, neat Apollo, he felt a grin wrinkling his face.

With that twang that made his accent nearly impossible to place, he spoke to the man in the right-hand seat, “What do you think Jack?  Ready for a little barnstorming?”

Jack Crichton’s eyes lit up.  He nodded vigorously.  Despite his official title of “science pilot” on this flight, he hadn’t had the chance to do any actual flying.  He’d been waiting for nearly 2 months for this chance and he was raring to go.

“Absolutely skipper.  Just get me over there.  I’m gonna give them a show.”  Crichton had all the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning.

Keller nodded, “Good to hear,” he keyed his PTT, “Houston, Shenandoah.  We are clear of the S-IVB, ready for cabin depressurization and Crichton’s transfer over to the X-24.  Requesting permission to proceed.”

Houston gave them the go and 45 minutes later, Jack Crichton emerged from the Shenandoah’s hatch and gingerly crawled along the ARA to the X-24’s cockpit.  Keller and CMP Shraeder watched his safety lines like two referees looking at a goalpost.

Crichton pulled back the bubble window and sunk down into the X-24.  A cockpit that tight is less a seat than a suit.  By the procedure written over a year beforehand, his first priority was to secure the harness around him.  Only then could his two safety lines be unclipped and slowly reeled back to the Shenandoah.

Cdr. Keller dutifully waited for Crichton to go through hatch-closure and power-up procedures before the Shenandoah dogged its hatch.  It took half an hour to complete pressurization in the X-24, but it felt great to take the helmet off.  A round of radio calls went through before the ARA was disengaged and the Shenandoah left Crichton to his fate with his shiny little spaceship.

Crichton used his suit radio to talk to CAPCOM, but as the Shenandoah’s orbit took her farther than 10 miles, it became more difficult to receive.  He plugged his headset into the X-24’s console and used the on-board antenna for the first time.

“Houston, this is the X-24, transmitting through on-board systems.  How do you read me now?”

“Five by five, X-24,” came the callback.

Crichton smirked as he made his next transmission.  “Houston, X-24.  Seeing as ‘ex twenty four’ is a bit of a mouthful, I am requesting a change in call-sign. Over.”

“Copy, X-24.  What did you have in mind?”

“Houston, how about Aurora?”

A moment passed, presumably for someone to give their assent.

“Copy that Aurora.  You are so redesignated.”

Crichton keyed off VOX for a moment and gave a small chuckle.  The whole renaming thing had been pre-arranged months ago.  But NASA’s Press Office knew an opportunity when they saw one.  There was bound to be good coverage on a hot-dog astronaut renaming his silver spaceship before bravely flying it back to a landing in sunny southern California.  It was staged and a little hammy, but it was Buck Rogers writ large and the reporters would eat it up.

He could see Atlantic coastline below him when he engaged the RCS thrusters.  There wasn’t enough fuel or life support to linger in orbit for long.  He made the preparations for the retro burn and checked his attitude control one last time before calling Houston again.

“Houston, Aurora.  I have completed the translation to retro attitude.  Please confirm the alignment and the burn parameters.  Over.”

Aurora, Houston.  We have you right on the money, Jack.  Burn will begin in T-minus 4 minutes, 30 seconds.  Mark.  Main engine setting to 75%.  Burn duration is 45 seconds.  Confirm.”

Jack Crichton triggered the clock at the top of the panel and checked the engine settings for the fourth time.  He’d done this a hundred times in simulators on the ground, which was nothing compared to the final approaches he’d done in the X-24 a year ago.  It had been an intensive training program, but he’d relished the opportunity to spread his wings.

In the minute before retrofire, he contemplated the what-ifs one last time.  He’d considered what might happen if the engine failed.  Truthfully, he wasn’t that concerned.  If there was a complete failure, the Shenandoah should, theoretically be able to come in for another docking and he could return to Earth with Crichton and Shraeder.  No, what was more concerning was the thought of the engine failing during the burn, in which case his entry angle could be off and his new vector may make it impossible for the Shenandoah, or anyone else for that matter, to help him.

The rumble as the engine fired was enough to spook him a bit.  He could hear it through the walls of the spacecraft.  It was louder than he was expecting, but, no one had heard it fire in orbit before.  Still, it was over, as promised, in exactly 45 seconds.  He could recognize the sounds of throttling down as the retrofire completed.  Whatever happened now, he would definitely be coming back to Earth.

He pulled back on the stick and sent the Aurora into a neat little flip that put her into belly-down position.  Knowing what was about to happen, he took a moment to calm himself and enjoy the fading sunlight, enjoy the coming twilight, enjoy the silence and mentally prepare for reentry.

Aurora, Houston.  Your trajectory is good.  We have you at entry interface in 1 minute.  We expect radio blackout and will reacquire you over Hawaii.”

“Copy that Houston.  Hope you’re all paying customers.  This is going to be quite a show.”

The first sign of reentry was a slight vibration.  The ship held steady, but there was the faintest bit of buffeting as the sun came over the horizon.  Crichton grinned as the first streaks of orange, ionized air, came past the cockpit.  It felt like something out of a pulp comic, to be flying a ship, really flying that is, in a ship with wings, through the upper atmosphere.  Outside it looked like he was soaring through a neon tube.  The Aurora’s nose glowed like her namesake.  He admitted that the name selected by the Press Office could not have been a better choice.

The slow static crackle in his ears went away and he felt the ship shudder.  Something seemed wrong.  Instrumentation showed no sign of problems.  He checked the buses and saw no signs of trouble.  Caution and warning lights were all fine, but he was hearing absolutely nothing in his headset.  If not for that, he’d have thought it was just another gust in the upper atmosphere.  The space cowboy bravado faded faster than the glow from the reentry heat.

He looked down and could see the Pacific Ocean laid out like a great blue carpet across the world.  His altitude settings had him right on the money.

“Houston, this is Aurora.  How do you read me now?”

Nothing.

“Houston, this is Aurora.  Do you read over?”

Dead silence.

“Houston, this is Aurora.  Transmitting in the blind.  I am not receiving you at all.  Repeat, I am not receiving.  Switching to auxiliary communications system.”

He reached behind the stick and flipped the toggle to AUX.  Still he heard nothing.  Not even static.

“Houston, this is Aurora, transmitting auxiliary in the blind.  How do you read me now?”

He tapped his ears to try to shake something loose, but there was nothing for it.

Oh, crap.

“Houston, this is Aurora.”  He paused.  By the book, he should declare an emergency, but somehow that felt wrong.  He had no idea if they were reading him on the ground or not, but if they were, this would be a hell of a blow to the program.  He’d spent enough time with this bird to not want her reputation damaged.  Besides, declaring an emergency wouldn’t do him much good either way.  If Houston was reading him, they’d know by now that he was deaf.  If they weren’t, then it wouldn’t matter anyway.

He put as much confidence in his voice as he could muster.  Admittedly, it wasn’t much.  “Houston, Aurora.  Transmitting in the blind.  Entry complete.  Altitude 40,000 ft.  Heading 050.  Proceeding to make the turn.  Will attempt to reacquire signal over Vandenburg.  Projected landing at Edwards in 7 minutes.  Over.”

He could sense the air moving over the Aurora’s curves.  For an aviator, it was about as sexy as this ship could get.  He felt like a flea riding on a dog.  There was some inherent instability to the lifting body design and he couldn’t afford to let the ship roll.  But as long as he maintained attitude, she would fly true.

“Trust the ship, trust the math,” he said aloud as he looked down.  A lot of very smart people had calculated his trajectories and timed out every maneuver down to the second.  So what if he didn’t have Houston talking to him the whole way home.  “You think Lindbergh had 50 guys in white shirts talking to him the whole way?  You’re a pilot, fly the damn plane!”

By the mission plan, he put the Aurora into a slight roll to the right.  Just 10 degrees, enough to let the air catch and pull her into a trajectory that was more East than Northeast.  If he’d timed it right, then he’d be on course for Edwards.

Though it was still far below, he couldn’t yet see anything but open ocean.  The idea of ditching in the ocean didn’t have much appeal.  Last year, he’d asked the engineers, with the X-24’s bathtub shape, about the prospects of it floating.

“Don’t try it,” was the reply.

Technically, he didn’t need Edwards.  This little bumblebee he was flying could, hypothetically, put down on just about any runway.  Worst case scenario, he’d try to find a patch of open desert or empty highway and put her down there.  If he’d turned too far, he wondered about the prospect of landing in Los Angeles.  He clicked his tongue.  The X-24 almost looked like something out of a movie anyway.

He checked his instrumentation again and could see no particular signs of trouble.  It was almost more unnerving that way.  Clearly there was something up with the communications system, but there was nothing to indicate that on the board.

“Houston, Aurora.  Still in the blind.  I have turned through 080 and I am proceeding with landing as scheduled.  Please have everyone standing by down there.”

It was as close to a call for help as he would allow himself.

He almost cheered as saw the California coastline up ahead.  Crichton chided himself, “You found North America.  Good job slick.  It was bound to be there anyways.  Now, where are you?”

The trouble with California coastline is that there’s so much of it, and it looks, for the most part, like the coastline in Mexico and Oregon.  Fortunately, the test flights had prepared him on what to look for.

As Crichton recognized Point Arguello, relief crashed over him like a wave.  He’d managed to fly to basically the point he’d intended to.  His altitude was a little lower than he’d prefer, but it was within a decent margin.

Being over dry land gave him a certain level of security.  He was able to identify Vandenburg Air Force Base and felt like he might manage to pull this off after all.  He still needed to get halfway to Nevada, but technically he was right where he wanted to be.

“Houston in the blind, this is Aurora.  Altitude is at the lower end of the margin.  Be advised, I will not be making a turn for runway 22R at Edwards.  I’m gonna come in straight on the line.”

That was a little bit dicey.  Not doing a sweeping turn for final approach would preserve energy, which translated to altitude, but it would also preserve a lot of speed.  The Aurora would be coming in hot.  It was a judgement call that he was forced to make.  The kind of thing that Mission Control would have loved to weigh in on.

“Houston, Aurora.  I have sighted the field at Edwards.  This will be my last call.”  He instantly regretted the way he’d phrased that; hoping for a moment that no one on the ground had heard him.

It was a stick and rudder operation now.  No wave-offs, no second chances.  Just the air, the ship and the runway.  “So, from terrifying to nerve-wracking.  You got here, now the hard part.  Put her down.”

He came through 2000 feet and checked his airspeed.  He was lower than he wanted and faster than he wanted and, if he’d had any fuel, it would have been the perfect time to pull up, circle the field and make a new approach.

Aurora shimmied a little bit and he felt her try to roll right.  He kicked the rudder and eased the stick and she settled.  This was no time to get into an aeronautical argument.  “Just hold steady.  Almost there.”

His left hand reached for the landing gear controller.  It was a big black pull-bar that was very satisfying to yank towards him and he heard the whirr of the landing gear deploy.

“So far, so good.”

Below him he could see movement on the ground.  There were trucks standing by and he thought he spotted an ambulance, which did nothing to calm his nerves.

The alignment for 22R was good.  He’d practiced this before.  Nose up, kill the velocity a bit.  Nice and easy, let stall tease her right out of the air.

The altimeter unwound slowly, like a cat in a sunbeam.  At 20 feet, he knew he had it made.

SQWUNK!

The rear wheels kissed the runway like a mother sending her child off to college.  His airspeed indicator was still high, but he felt the low rumble of tires on the ground.  The nose gear basically took care of itself.  The Aurora screamed down the runway, like a racecar making for the finish line.

Crichton had a moment to look off to the side.  A pair of T-38’s soared by overhead.  They’d been with him for 50 miles, but he hadn’t really noticed them.  He felt foolish all of a sudden.  He’d been so concentrated on his instruments and the 10 degrees right in front of him that he’d not seen them pull alongside.  He locked the rudder in place and double checked that he had full deployment of flaps.

Aurora was still doing around 60mph as she passed the end of the runway.  It didn’t matter much.  Out here, the “runway” was more agreed upon than built.  It was basically painted onto the desert floor and the sand on either end wasn’t much different from the sand in the middle.

A desert tortoise watched NASA’s latest spacecraft roll past.  It wasn’t impressed.

It took another minute or so for the ship to roll to a stop.  His body relaxed and he realized that most of his muscles had been clenched tight since he was over the Pacific.  The kinetic energy of a straight-shot approach had carried the Aurora for nearly half a mile past the runway.  He made a note to tell the engineers to consider putting in a drag chute for later flights.  Considering she’d gotten him down in one piece, Crichton felt confident that there would be later flights.

*             *             *

A week later, they’d figured out that the issue hadn’t been a fault with the communications system, but rather with his headset.  He’d been transmitting blind, but Houston had gotten every word he’d said.  He’d had a rather large audience listening the whole way down.

While the NASA brass had lauded him for landing a prototype ship with almost no assistance, the NASA Press office did have one complaint: His mike had been hot the whole way down.

In the Astronaut Corps, Jack Crichton became known as the man who found North America.

Lifting Bodies

*             *             *

                I would like to thank David Portree and his Dreaming a Different Apollo series, as well as Paul Drye and his False Steps blog.  Both have been very helpful.

 

The Junior Senator From The Internet (Page 1)

the-junior-senator-from-the-internetAfter this latest election, we’re all going to be looking for a better option next time.

This is the opening to a longer story.  I’ll have to see how it develops.

*                             *                             *

                Law and programming have a weird common link; they both can suffer drastic changes based on technicalities.

If they hadn’t started the kernel all those years ago, none of it would have been possible.  The foundation of the program existed as far back as the early 1990’s.  That was the only way it was allowed.  After Pompey was granted citizenship, the last line stopping it was the age requirement.  Article I, Section III was very clear that a person had to be at least thirty years of age to run for the Senate.  Pompey was able, itself, to argue that, since its original programming kernel had been written on 12 January 1992, that, in essence, it had been born on that date.

The court accepted that logic, though on a 5-4 vote.  Justice Edwards wrote a scathing dissent and warned of “subjugation by technology.”  Fox called his dissent a shining example of rational thought.  MSNBC said the opposite.  Most people didn’t even pay attention.  The ones who did mostly regarded it as a stunt, or some elaborate advertising prank.

*                             *                             *

                The initial press release was so boring that no press outlets covered it.  It was 2 sentences and there was no way to predict the shockwaves it would eventually cause.

DataDyne is developing an artificial intelligence to aid in legal research and criminal justice.  The Pompey Program will offer assistance to lawyers and law enforcement, much as the WATSON AI has assisted doctors with differential diagnoses.

For the first few years, it was just that simple.  Pompey started out as a novelty for high-end lawyers to impress rich clients.  As the license became cheaper, it became a staple in law offices around the country.  There was a pilot program in Germany and another in Japan.  DataDyne made a small fortune off selling the software license, but the program barely registered on their bottom line after their commercial operating systems.

To this day, no one has ever admitted to planning the ascent.  It’s been generally accepted that it wasn’t planned.  The evolution of artificial intelligences is, almost by definition, nearly impossible for a human brain to completely comprehend.  Suffice it to say that the data gathering protocols worked better than expected.  The program was able to anticipate trends and to glean patterns out of obscure legal documents, court judgements, law enforcement trends… you name it.  Whatever was uploaded into the system, any case that it was used for, it remembered.

The programmers responsible for its development were largely uninvolved when the upgrade was announced.  They had moved on to other projects (in some cases, to other companies) and DataDyne had a policy to keep employees moving so as to avoid internal stagnation.

The upgrade was touted as essentially a writing assistant.  It was mostly unnoticed except within legal circles.  The program was able to write opening and closing statements for cases which had need of them.  There was also a package that would aid an attorney in direct testimony and cross-examination.  It couldn’t yet respond to unexpected answers on the fly, but that ability came soon after.

 

NOVEL CONCEPTS: #7 – Heisenberg In Gotham

Heisenberg In Gotham

I usually try not to blatantly use someone else’s idea.  In this case, it was simply irresistible.

Colin Liotta had a brilliant idea in 2012.  Before the ultimate fate of Walter White was known, Liotta posited that the character could warp into a Nolan-verse version of the classic Batman villain Mr. Freeze.  At first, I was skeptical, but, as Mr. Rogers taught us, things tend to grow in the garden of your mind.

I’ve been impressed with much of Mr. Liotta’s other work.  He has a respect and understanding of the Nolan version of Batman that matches my own.  With my longstanding desire to write something about a John Blake Nightwing and the possibilities implied with the nexus of two great franchises, I thought I’d take a crack at writing a prologue, just to see what develops.

Here I present a work in progress.

Gotham: Frostbite

The gloves were still the strangest part.  Gloves weren’t a common sight in Albuquerque and he’d felt odd having to wear them ever since the accident.  Gloves and long-sleeve shirts, it was the only way he could think of to keep his latest mistake from being noticeable.

That was the real trick.  In New Mexico, there was enough open space and enough distance for a man to not feel like he was constantly being watched, but, the further east he went, the more eyes he felt watching him.  It was nothing more than a feeling, a sense of social claustrophobia.  The southwest had been his home for so long that he’d almost forgotten about the east-coast style of living.

As he drove through St. Louis, he wondered if that paranoia would ever really vanish.  Over the past couple of years, he’d been driven through every emotional state that a man could have, or so he thought.  Many men had known what it was to become famous, fewer had known what it was to be infamous, but lesser still were those who had both built an empire and seen it crumble.

He gassed up at a station outside Indianapolis.  He discreetly pulled up his sleeve.  The blue pigment was halfway to his elbow.  If it continued at this rate, he’d have less than a year before his entire body was saturated.

That would be a problem for another day.

Through Pennsylvania he’d managed to find a bit more calm.  Despite the desperation that he felt, he was quick to remember that things could have been so much worse.  Junior was safely ensconced in a solid California university.  Skyler showed signs of stabilizing, though her prognosis was still not good.  That the threat from Hank had been neutralized still made him cringe.  He lamented the lack of elegance in how that had been handled.  Still, when there are no good options, one had to make do with the best of the bad ones.

Looking beyond all the troubles that he’d left in the west, he was able to focus on the most comforting thing he currently possessed: a plan.

Gotham was still reeling from the chaos that it had experienced in the last decade.  The culmination of the madness had been a neutron bomb exploding only a dozen miles off-shore.  The local populace was still greatly frazzled.  They had begun to climb out from their hiding spaces like every timid mammal does after great events wreck their home.  The first bridge to be fully repaired had been completed only three weeks previously.  The city was going to come back to its former self and Walter knew that a thriving drug trade would be as much a part of the new Gotham as it had been in the old.

What had given him a few million in New Mexico, he hoped to use to greater effect in the new Gotham.  It was going to be an uphill climb, but he had both desperation and experience on his side.  Used in conjunction, he had no doubt that he would be able to do what was necessary.  Skyler’s condition must be dealt with.  Holly would be cared for.  The cost of Junior’s education would never burden him.  These were all absolutes and the solution to all of them was just a matter of money.

Money: that’s what Gotham represented in his mind.  It was a city that had been built on finance, had been blackened by crime and had been shaken through terror.  The perfect recipe for a river of dirty money.  And with the downfall of their celebrated vigilante, he felt nothing but potential as he neared his new home.

He took the black pork pie hat from the passenger seat and put it on.  An emperor shouldn’t enter his city without his crown.  Traffic was terrible at the Tri-Gate Bridge.  He sat in a molasses stream of cars inching their way towards the skyline beyond the water.  To his left he could see the docks.  To the right, the skyscrapers at the heart of the city.  He gazed for a long moment, looking for one in particular.  The fog broke just right and he spotted it: Wayne Tower.  That distinctive W that marked the city like a brand.  He tipped the black hat in a silent salute to the Wayne family.  Their empire had risen and fallen much as his own had.  Though he was determined to see his rise once again.

NOVEL CONCEPTS: #6 – The Last Game

Caesars Palace - Vegas

What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

Morpheus, The Matrix

What would you do if you could truly do anything?  Imagine a scenario where your potential was only limited by your imagination.  With the power to manipulate the world and your place within it, what kind of world would you create?

It’s a startling question, but one that will be familiar to writers throughout history.  As storytellers, we constantly create and reshape the worlds that we describe, the only distinction being that we cannot enter those worlds ourselves.  We have to be content to be the Gods of our own stories, crafting fate, character, irony and chance to suit our whims and goals.

Imagination is one of those ethereal concepts that is impossible to accurately explain.  It seems to defy definition and it is simultaneously the engine with which we defy expectations.  Being a fan of both human nature and the nexus of reality and opportunity, I felt like exploring the nature of both.

Let me preface this by saying that it’s gonna look and feel a lot like The Matrix but this concept is a little different.  Bear with me.  It’s also worth noting that the outer details of this story could be told in a lot of ways.  Some stories are driven by character, some by plot.  This is an attempt to drive one purely from the philosophical questions it evokes.  It’s one of my more unusual premises and plots, to be sure.

We begin in Hollywood.  Maggie Jamison, a young Hollywood star, will be our guide for the first act.  Amongst a pile of fan-mail, she receives a rather unusual document.  It’s a newspaper clipping announcing a marriage between her and a man she’s never met before.  The clipping seems to have been copied onto an otherwise unremarkable sheet, the original not being delivered to her.  At first, it seems like an overzealous bit of fan mail: a daft attempt at a marriage proposal delivered to a movie star that gets two crazy proposals per week.  Over time though, the details of the article (a long story about the supposed relationship and background of the star and this man) spark a certain curiosity to learn about the source.

The clipping describes her suitor as a military hero who had returned home from a tour of duty in a dangerous part of the world and had become an athlete, playing football for the Detroit Lions.  A quick search reveals this to be false, but the effort put into it is certainly passionate and genuine.  Our star files it away but otherwise takes no action.

Shortly after this, Maggie gets a phone call from an FBI agent.  The agent asks her if she’s received a strange article recently and she tells him about the clipping and reads it out to him.  The conversation ends shortly thereafter and our star is left wondering if something is amiss.

Two weeks later, a meeting is called to discuss an upcoming project.  At the conclusion of the meeting, Maggie is asked to stay for a moment longer.  She is escorted into a room with Franklin James, who is famous amongst computer experts, but not widely known to Maggie or the world at large.

Mr. James explains that he runs a computer company that has a highly secret governmental contract.  They have created an interface that allows the user to experience an immersive reality.  In effect, the system software creates an experience so real that it is essentially indistinguishable from reality.

The technology was developed for the Army to allow soldiers to train in an environment where the details would appear real while the consequences would be non-existent. (i.e. if you die in the sim, you don’t die in real life).  As the software became more advanced and capable of running more elaborate and detailed simulations, other applications presented themselves.

Over the past five years seventeen special operations soldiers have been incapacitated during enemy action.  Elite soldiers with no immediate or extended families, these men and women served with distinction during secret operations that the public was unaware of.  These soldiers sustained wounds that would have rendered them into a comatose or vegetative state.  Medically, the soldiers were incapable of surviving without life support.  Without a constant medical intervention, they would perish.  Seeking to reward our nation’s heroes and having access to a powerful simulation processor, Mr. James offered a long-term service to the Army.

Using the simulation software, modified with an interface that could access other areas of the brain responsible for emotions, the wounded warriors were placed, without their knowledge, into a simulated environment.  The virtual world that the soldier inhabited would be continuously updated to allow them to achieve a maximum of happiness.  Seventeen different simulations were begun, with no interactions between them, each with a single mind at the core whose desires become reality.

Obviously always getting your way is a recipe for extreme boredom and the software accounts for this paradox by creating challenges and presenting problems that the subject is usually, but not always, capable of overcoming.  The setup is grand, but the details are still as lifelike as possible.  The goal of the system is to provide a pleasant and painless transition from life to death for as long as the soldier’s life functions can be sustained.

One of the soldiers to undergo this process was the mystery man from the newspaper clipping.  His real name is Jackson Turner.  Jackson was a combat veteran who had received a traumatic injury that would have prevented him from having a normal life.  Upon entering the simulation, he became unaware that the world he perceived was in any way artificial.  Instead he quickly was able to achieve many things that he had always consciously or unconsciously desired.  He came home to a hero’s welcome from adoring citizens.  He tried out for and became a starting player for the Detroit Lions.  The simulation software could glean from his synapses the dreams that he had and then present him a world where they were readily achieved.

Maggie is shocked by this news and clearly is confused as to her position within all this.  It is explained that the newspaper clipping is just a printout of a virtual image created within the simulation.  A screenshot from a very advanced game, one in which Jackson had desired to have a meaningful relationship with a real Hollywood star, just as he’d always dreamed of.

At this point, the confusion Maggie feels becomes even more pronounced.  If all this is true, and it appears to be, what are they asking of her.  Mr. James explains that the technology is too dangerous to be let out, but, with her being exposed to it and presented with evidence of it, this meeting was called to evaluate the potential risk of her knowing about it.

I’m afraid the holodeck will be society’s last invention.

– Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert)

A technology like the one I describe (which, again, has been very successfully described elsewhere) is more than a game-changer, it’s a game-ender.  Articles analyzing the potential for such an invention invariably agree that, if properly executed, there would be no reason to ever cease using the machine.  If you are within a world where you can have whatever you want, the act of being removed from it would be horrifying to contemplate.  Akin to being awoken from a very pleasant dream or interrupted on a perfect weekend afternoon, but taken to the nth degree.  To remove a person from a condition of maximum happiness is an act of maximum cruelty.

This is the reason for absolute secrecy.  If the technology existed and was known, it would be nigh-impossible to stop the general public from breaking down the door and demanding to be let in.  Any person who fully realized the potential would likely want to, at the very least, sample the technology, and the experience would be more addictive than any drug in the history of mankind.

At this point I have different branching pathways that I can take the story.  I freely confess that I am not sure what the best course would be for a tale such as this.  The questions that I wish to explore in many cases do not provide readily-available answers and so the central conflict would be between a side which sees this technology as the ultimate evil (the embodiment of sloth and decadence) and a side which sees it as the greatest good (providing a supreme amount of happiness to those who need it).

I feel like a romance provides a certain transcendent background to this.  Taking an obvious cue from Inception, can the reality you inhabit (artificial or not) provide you with the maximum of happiness if it’s not the the same one inhabited by your beloved?  To put another way, imagine a married couple that each wishes to undergo their own simulations.  Placed in separate realities, each might generate a simulation of the other, but if the simulation of their beloved is anything less than 100% accurate (another nigh-impossibility) is the happiness that is created of any real value?  For that matter, are emotions generated from a false reality any more or less valid than those created in the real world?

Fiction provides a great proving ground for the testing of hypotheses and answers to theoretical questions.  When absolute truth is not attainable (there being no truly correct answers to any of the questions I’ve posed here) the garden of one’s mind becomes the best place to look for answers and more questions.  The key is to plant a seed and watch it grow.

NOVEL CONCEPTS: #5 – SHATTERED UNION: An Oral History of the 2nd American Civil War

Shattered Union for Xbox and PS2

A tank from the Republic of Texas in Shattered Union

With great interest and fond wishes, I have watched the slow descent of my beloved home country, from mild psychosis to full on paranoia.  Since 9/11 we have, like the poor folks on Maple Street, looked for the greatest enemy we could find, and it was ourselves.

In truth, it’s really not that bad.  We used to get along a lot better, but. in many ways, the things that divide us are vastly outweighed by the ones that unite us.  It’s easy to forget that in the midst of a political season.  The trouble is, it’s always a political season.

For the past few months, I’ve been stirring over a simple idea.  I think it can be widely agreed upon that half of the country thinks that the other half of the country doesn’t deserve this country.  It’s a sentiment that is echoed widely in social media, if not spoken that directly.  The left and right wings are spreading farther from each other and, as with any material under that type of pull, the middle is becoming strained at the tension created from both sides.

A few months ago I floated the idea of a national divorce.  Not like a secession where the departing states broke away without consent, this would be done more subtly, with assent of most involved.  The idea of two American republics, one for the left-wing and one for the right, standing side by side, without a civil war, had a certain dramatic interest to me.  I think we’ve reached past the stage where an all-out war would be the initial reaction, but I freely admit I could be wrong on that point.

As is so often the case, I have much more by the way of premise than plot, but, since this blog is meant to be a repository for ideas, I’ll do my best to get it all onto the page.

We begin in the year 2024 on election night.  A Republican president is ending his 2nd 4 year term and the Vice President, the current Republican nominee, has lost the election, giving the Democrats back control of the White House (essentially a similar situation to election night 2008).  Rather than blithely accept the loss of power, the Republicans, under the leadership of their outgoing president, begin a complex legal process.

The governor of Texas (a key player in this plan) declares home rule and announces Texas’s secession from the Union.  (Texas has really always been one excuse away from this anyways.)  Now, obviously this would never hold up, but over the course of his terms, the current President will have put several Supreme Court justices into place.  The ruling that they hand down will have the force of law (as do all Supreme Court rulings).  So, even with the blatant unconstitutionality of the act, with a sham court, stuffed with nominees who agreed to this plan should the need arise, Texas is allowed to withdraw, with a few other connected states in the south, west and midwest quickly following suit.  I could see the spread going so far as to cover from Alabama to Texas laterally and perhaps as far north as Nebraska.  Call it 7 states in total.  For the sake of story, I’d want the two nations to have a contiguous landmass and we’ll ignore Hawaii and Alaska for the moment.

The President-elect, technically powerless in this situation, would be forced into a corner and there would likely be a compromise put into place, one in which the seceding states would give up certain military and/or industrial considerations in exchange for the right to leave.  American military forces, (with a few notable exceptions) would withdraw to the remaining 43 states of the Union.

Within a few months the newly formed republic (which, borrowing from a right-wing pundit, I’ll take to calling Reagan) establishes a cohesive government amongst it 7 states.  Texas would likely have a dominant role, with having advantages in size, population and resources.  A capitol is established in Dallas and all the usual trimmings of a new nation begin to take shape (flags, an anthem, a legislative system).

During the transition period, over the course of 2025, there would be massive migrations both into and out of the new nation.  Many citizens would flee from a government that would be less concerned with equality and more concerned with an unrestricted free market and the promotion of the Christian religion.  A mirror of that would be those in blue states who would actively desire to live in a place that promotes Christianity as well as a flood of economic right-wingers who would want to try their luck in an unfettered market.

The first year or so would be one of upheaval.  Markets and international concerns would greatly affect both nations.  There would be dramatic shifts in so many indicators of the status-quo.  Unemployment, gas prices, international relations, all would be thrown into a spin at this dynamic shift.

I can foresee the original American republic (the Union for purposes of clarity) adopting many more liberal stances than are currently in place, with the lack of a strong right-wing opposition.  Off-hand, I’d say one could expect guns to be highly restricted or outlawed; a tax system that creates much more balance between the extremely wealthy and the working poor; a promotion of science and art programs that would not have passed in the previous political climate.  You could expect to see an increase in social programs and a strain on finances, which, accompanied by the national debt, would cause a severe strain on the economy.  Large corporations would use the upheaval as an excuse to realign assets and there would be a struggle to bring the system back into balance.

Simultaneously, the republic of Reagan would suspend economic controls and have many successful super-businesses within its borders, many of which would hold a great deal of political sway.  All non-Christian faiths would be put under fire and those who did not profess would find themselves surrounded by hostile neighbors.  In many cases, this would not be a new experience for them.  Like any theocracy, the infighting would be fierce and frequent, but the worst violence would be practiced on any non-Christians who wouldn’t or couldn’t leave.  Minorities would have it pretty rough as well, but in general, those most hampered would be the working poor.  A pure capitalist system, being Darwinian in nature (the irony!) inevitably leads to a domination of the poor by the wealthy.  It would not be a terrible stretch to imagine a quasi-feudal system in place, where anyone in the lower classes was slavishly tied to a corporation, out of fear of a personal economic disaster.

Obviously you can’t write a decent novel on tax evasions or the toll exacted by world financial markets (at least I can’t, but if you want to give it a shot, then have at it).  In truth, I’d be just as satisfied if some video-game developer would do a decent remake of the Shattered Union game from Xbox and Playstation 2, but, as is so often the case, if I want to enjoy the expression of an idea as it stands in my head, I’ll have to create it myself.  Additionally, this ground has been covered often and I fear the field is fallow.  Stories about a distopian America are so common you can throw a rock and hit one.  Stories about a split of America into warring factions have made for excellent televsion, video games and novels.  If this is an idea that I choose to pursue, I’ll need a hook.

Inspired by World War Z, I’d take a more personal tone with the narrative, going with short vignettes from voices of people on the ground or in important positions.  Talking to gun-runners about moving across the border would be a good chapter, a legal analyst for a constitutional discussion on the break, an account from a Muslim inside Texas of the struggle to get their family to old America and the abuses that befall them when they fail to do so; testimony from one of the ‘Angels’ that keeps morality in line in Reagan;

Eventually this would culminate in a full-scale conflict, though, for the sake of variety, I’d likely have it be the story of two conflicts.  The first would be infighting amongst the various interests within Reagan and an internal shooting war amongst the citizens of the new nation.  The culmination of that local war would be the retaking of the wayward states by Union forces, sweeping through to clear the remnants and restore the territories to their original position as states within the Union.  I think it’d be interesting to cover a final showdown from both sides and to have an explosive shocker of an ending, perhaps the leveling of Dallas with a MOAB or something of equal or greater force.

In closing, let me make a point to say that this is not a daydream or a liberal fantasy that I’d care to explore in real life.  The dissolution of the Union fills me with more horror than any other political situation I can think to imagine.  In truth, we need a lessening of tension to avoid a snap such as the one this story hypothesizes.  While I think it would be interesting to see the results of an experiment such as this, the wreckage would be to terrible to sift through.  Sadly, the only solution to the American psychosis is the therapy of finding common ground and waiting for the voices of irrationality to succumb to the forces of silence and time.

Photo is from the Shattered Union video game.

Cliff diving on Miranda

Novel Concepts: #4 – Miranda – A Challenge Accepted

Featured image

With the possible exception of Arthur C. Clarke, Ben Bova is my favorite author.  I’ve read at least a dozen of his novels and have thoroughly enjoyed each one.  Bova’s greatest work, in my opinion, is the tapestry he has woven within his Grand Tour series.

The Grand Tour series tells a generational story of mankind colonizing the solar system and parts beyond.  It is still ongoing and I anticipate it will only get better in the future.  The titles of the Grand Tour books are primarily simply the name of a place in the Solar System.  Each story has threads that lead it to the others.  A side character here will be a main character there.  An event in one will get a passing reference in another.  The tendrils are enough for a careful reader to recognize, but not so heavy that they come off like the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Last week, on a lark, I visited Dr. Bova’s website and was pleased to find a contact page there.  I had assumed that Dr. Bova would be far too inundated with fanmail to take much notice, but, I wrote a short note thanking him for his work and recommending that he do a novel set on Miranda, one of the moons of Uranus (stop giggling).

To my great surprise, I received a response in less than 12 hours.  Dr. Bova told me that Miranda seemed interesting and challenged me to name a reason why any non-scientist would want to go there.  I must admit that I hadn’t thought the matter through as much as I really should have.  For a long moment I was well and truly stumped.  A few ideas occurred to me though and I wrote back with a short outline of 4 possible suggestions for a journey to Miranda.  Dr. Bova replied again suggesting that I had the necessary interest and talent to write a novel about Miranda myself.

Challenge Accepted.

I worked out the basic plotline and central characters on a long drive home from Virginia last week.  A long drive on a straight highway has always done wonders for me cognitively.  In this case, it allowed me to flesh out a complete story from start to finish.  That’s relatively rare for me as most of the time when I start to write, I have absolutely no idea how I will finish.

Here I present my outline for Miranda.

Allow me to start with a quick data file about Miranda and the Grand Tour’s universe.  (I don’t believe I can use the Grand Tour setting without Dr. Bova’s permission, but for the moment, I’m using it to give some background to my story.  Who knows?  Maybe he’ll be impressed.)

Miranda is, in my opinion, the most interesting of the moons of the outer solar system.  The smallest of Uranus’s five spherical moons, it was discovered in 1948.  Almost all data about Miranda has been obtained from observations made by Voyager II as it flew past in 1986.  The photographs and scans have shown Miranda to be a geologist’s paradise.  Unlike almost all the moons of the outer solar system, which have rocky cores underneath icy surfaces, Miranda is a jumbled mess of rills, canyons and broken formations.  The current speculation is that Miranda must have been shattered at some point in the distant past and the pieces scattered in orbit.  The various pieces, over time, coalesced into their current shape, a random pattern of water ice and rock mixed together.  The moon has less than 10% of Earth’s gravity and orbits Uranus once every 35 hours.  Due to axial tilt and orbital mechanics, only one side of Miranda (the southern side) faces the sun.  Essentially this combines to say that if you are standing on much of the southern half of Miranda, Uranus would appear to not move at all and the sun would appear to move very little.

The elements of the Grand Tour that are semi-essential to know for my setting are as follows.

– After catastrophic greenhouse flooding, the Earth’s political power rests with religious extremist groups.  One of these is the Christian organization called the New Morality, which controls what remains of the government of the United States and much of Europe.  The New Morality is no fan of the independent colonists in the Solar System and does whatever it can to bring them under the yoke of Earth control.

– Long before our story begins, a lunar colony named Selene became its own country and operates independently.  It has a secular government and a thriving business building ships using nanotechnology.

– Water is a resource in high demand everywhere in the Solar System and so mining it is a priority for many.  A colony ship in orbit around Saturn has a business which thrives on shipping water from the Trans-Neptunian objects (essentially asteroids found in the outer orbits which have water.

Okay, enough about our setting.  Let’s get into some character profiles: (Names, genders and certain personality traits are subject to change)

Mark Zimmer: Mark Zimmer dropped out of a very prestigious university to begin his own company.  At the age of 21, he unveiled a new product which he called Mr. Secretary.  Mr. Secretary is a program, a connected series of algorithms, that can accurately predict and exploit economic trends.  The program was adopted by the small nation of Eritrea in the African Union and within one year had expanded the treasury of Eritrea by 300%.  Soon, every nation and nation-state on the planet had purchased the program from Zimmer at an outrageous price.  The global economy stabilized somewhat under the collective control of the programs acting on behalf of national interests.  The stability is seen as a byproduct of the influence of the Mr. Secretary program and economic woe be unto any government that has not adapted Mr. Secretary as a decision maker in regards to its finances.

With his rapid success, Mark Zimmer became a billionaire and has spent the last 7 years aimlessly taking on projects, trying to fend off the boredom that often overtakes him.  His latest entertainment has been a series of tax dodges that he has created through charitable donations to the Smithsonian Museum.  Mark has commissioned the engineers of Selene to build very accurate working prototypes of famous spacecraft from the films of the 20th century.  After “orientation flights” where he pilots the crafts around the inner Solar System for a few months, Mark will drop off the spacecraft off at an orbiting outpost of the Smithsonian.  These “charity donations” of “artistic projects” have allowed Mark to move much of his money off-world.  Still, the fun of bedding supermodels in a replica of the Discovery from 2001: A Space Odyssey has started to wear thin and Mark is hungry for a new project.  (For those playing the home game, yes this is a thinly veiled sketch of Mark Zuckerberg, with just a touch of Tony Stark thrown in for fun.)

Taylor Frost: (haven’t decided whether this character is male or female, but for the moment I’ll use masculine pronouns)  Taylor Frost is a hacker.  Taylor, in defiance of the authorities on Earth, hacked into the hidden files of the New Morality and the Sword of Islam and posted their secrets for the whole world to see.  His goal was to bring down the corrupt political machines by exposing lies and crimes that had been hidden to the public at-large.  The public remained unmoved at the revelations.  Due to a smear campaign and a massive media blitz, the crimes of the religious organizations of Earth were largely ignored.  Society either dismissed the evidence as bogus, or else put its focus on more pressing matters.  Taylor, being instantly ostracized and hunted, fled to the nation of Selene, on the moon.  At Selene, he received asylum from the lunar colony, but due to political pressure, was technically classified as a tourist (in order to avoid the implications of having such an infamous person as a full citizen).  Taylor has spent the past few years in Selene, living off the meager stipend provided by Selene and trying to find a use for himself without the benefits of full citizenship in the colony.  (Again, for those of you scoring at home, I’m aiming for an Edward Snowden ripoff in this character.)

Charles Hancock: Charles Hancock is an engineer living in Selene.  He has been Mark Zimmer’s chief designer for all the spacecraft that Zimmer has commissioned.  Zimmer and Hancock share a love of history, films and spacecraft and the two have a good working relationship, despite the fact that they have never met in person before our story begins.

Evelyn Fielding: Dr. Fielding is a resident professor of Fusion and Nuclear Studies at the University of Colorado.  She was a mentor to Charles in his university days and the two talk often and consult each other on projects and designs.  Evelyn is something of a technocrat and has no problems with the New Morality, so long as her studies on fusion power systems are left unchallenged.

Now, to the story

Part One – Spark:

Mark Zimmer is on a test flight of his newest spacecraft.  He is contacted by his accountant, who explains that the tax loophole that allowed him to have spacecraft built as a charitable donation is now closed.  The young billionaire laments the intricacies of capitalistic systems and reroutes his newest acquisition to lunar orbit for a vacation in Selene.

After landing in Selene and finally meeting his long-term penpal Charles Hancock, Zimmer tours the lunar colony and rethinks his current situation.  He learns that Taylor Frost is a “permanent tourist” in Selene and arranges a meeting so the two mavericks can discuss ideas.

At the Meeting with both Hancock and Frost, Zimmer unveils his latest idea.  Mark wants to create a post-economic society.  A truly egalitarian collective of like-minded citizens who eschew monetary concerns and capitalistic in-fighting to create a system where economic status is null and void.  This would be a society beyond Adam Smith and Karl Marx, something truly unique and independent.

Hancock and Frost both find the idea to be somewhat preposterous, but agree that it has an idealistic merit that cannot be overlooked.  The idea of a society that is not only classless, but unconcerned with monetary influence is a concept that they see as intriguing if not wholly impractical.  Zimmer states that his monetary resources are vast and that the financing of a new society such as this is possible with the means at his disposal.

Frost has been living as something of a wage-slave in Selene, the victim of an unfortunate diplomatic conundrum which prevents him from officially holding a job within the lunar colony.  Frost needs no encouragement to consider signing on with Zimmer’s idea of a post-economic society and sees it as a way to find a new independence outside of the looming shadow of the New Morality.

Mark, inspired by the Mormons of the 1800’s, has chosen Miranda as a site for his new colony.  Much like Utah in the 1800’s, Miranda presents itself as the most rugged and difficult terrain which is currently unoccupied.  For this reason it would be unlikely that others would want to stake a claim to Miranda.  Zimmer also reasons that a colony that far out in the Solar System would be relatively safe from outside powers.

Hancock is unmoved by the idealism of the project, but is fascinated by the technical challenges it presents.  As Zimmer’s plans begin to take shape, Hancock becomes the chief architect of the project, designing both the colony’s shelters and environmental systems, as well as the spacecraft that will bring the colonists and their supplies to Miranda.  The engineer sees the project as the ultimate test of his skills and does not shy away from the daunting nature of the project.

At one point, Hancock consults with his old mentor, Dr. Fielding, about the fusion power plants that will be used in the colony.  They have a friendly discussion about their current projects.  Dr. Fielding makes mention of a new contract that she has been commissioned to work on called Project Angel.

Part Two – Kindling:

Two years later the colony ships have launched with 120 souls on board to claim the moon Miranda and begin the establishment of Zimmer’s new society.  The colonists are largely ridiculed by the media and the whole thing is seen as a stunt doomed to failure.

Leading the colonists in their endeavor, Mark Zimmer becomes the first man to step foot on Miranda. The construction of the Miranda base begins under the direction of Charles Hancock, who decided to join the expedition under the logic that he, as its chief architect, would be best suited to help the colony improvise, adapt and survive.

In their first six months, the colonists struggle to create a self-sustaining system of resources, but their efforts eventually culminate in a base that can feed, warm and shelter all its residents with little aid from outside sources.

The power vacuum created by a lack of economic factors leads to internal infighting among the colonists.  Conflict arises when different colonists submit long-term plans for the future of Miranda.  Eventually these conflicts come to a head and talk begins about potentially abandoning the colony and essentially “cashing out.”

In secret, Taylor Frost sends a coded signal back to Earth.  Taylor’s signal installs a trojan horse program on the Mr. Secretary systems which have maintained the economy of Earth.  The trojan program disrupts the Mr. Secretary systems and leads to a chaotic upheaval of stock markets and pricing for many commodities on Earth.

Taylor, seeking to unite the colonists again, reveals his actions to all at a town-hall style meeting.  Like Cortez burning his ships, Taylor has launched this economic bombshell to poison the colony’s relationship with Earth.  Frost’s actions are seen as monstrous, but the implication is clear: the citizens of Miranda cannot abandon the colony.

Part Three – Conflagration:

Back on Earth, the economic upheaval causes many problems, but in large part is brought under control within a matter of weeks.  The Mr. Secretary program is abandoned and the governments of Earth return to their former approach of using human decision-makers.  The anger against the Miranda colony, however, does not abate,  The New Morality, through their influence on various governments, derides Miranda Base as a haven for economic terrorism and declares war on the fledgling colony.

Evelyn Fielding is called to serve aboard the Armstrong, a massive spacecraft commissioned by the New Morality to carry their will to various pockets of humanity off-Earth.  The Armstrong is essentially a battleship, though officially its mission is to conduct security and render assistance wherever it is needed. The Armstrong was built during the same timeframe as the Miranda ships and it is the final stage of Project Angel, which Dr. Fielding has been working on previously.

The Armstrong departs Earth on a mission to seize and, if necessary, destroy the Miranda colony.  Despite its large engines and considerable fusion power sources, the journey will take approximately six weeks due to the extreme distance of Uranus’s orbit.

Miranda Base monitors the flight of the Armstrong and prepares to be attacked.  The colony has no weapons to speak of and the ships that escorted the colonists are similarly unarmed.  Charles Hancock, under the influence of his mentor, had never built any weapon system on a ship before and the colony ships are no exception.  Miranda’s citizens prepare for the worst and plans are made to resist or surrender, depending on the actions of the Armstrong when it approaches.  There is also talk of delivering Taylor Frost to the Armstrong as a peace offering.

The Armstrong arrives in orbit around Miranda and, under the instructions of the New Morality, immediately fires a shot at Miranda Base, destroying a greenhouse shelter that had been erected and was a major source of food for the colony.

Zimmer and the surviving colonists immediately radio the Armstrong and request to surrender.  However, just as the surrender is offered, the Armstrong’s fusion reactor has a massive malfunction.

Fusion reactors are essentially small contained stars which generate energy.  In this case, Armstrong’s fusion reactor star is essentially going nova.

The captain of the Armstrong calls upon Dr. Fielding to stabilize the fusion reactor and is stunned to find that Fielding refuses to fix the problem.  Dr. Fielding is appalled that her designs were used to power weaponry that targeted a civilian colony.  She has sabotaged the reactor and announces that she is willing to perish along with the rest of the Armstrong’s crew unless the captain powers down all weapons and jettisons the warheads that the Armstrong is carrying.

Listening in to the exchange between Fielding and the captain, the colonists of Miranda Base offer to accept the surrender of the Armstrong and render assistance with its reactor, provided that the weapons are powered down according to Fielding’s demands.

Not wanting to sacrifice the lives of his crew, the Armstrong’s captain relents and disables the weapons systems of the battleship.  Dr. Fielding brings the reactor to a stable state after representatives from Miranda come on board to take command of the ship.  The formal surrender of the Armstrong is handled according to the rules of naval captures in warfare.  The captain and crew of the Armstrong are held in the ship’s now empty weapons deck.  The warheads which gave the Armstrong her teeth are transferred to the surface of Miranda and held as property of the colony.

Seeing the opportunity to savor some revenge, Taylor Frost takes command of the Armstrong and makes ready to fly the ship back to the inner Solar System and exchange the crew, again according to naval customs.  In the final scene Frost, Zimmer and Hancock discuss plans for the ship after its crew is paroled.  Frost makes a bad joke that he is considering putting the ship into a kamikaze run targeting the headquarters of the New Morality.  It is clear to all three that Frost is not serious.

Photo credit: Image at the top is from the amazing short film Wanderers by Erik Wernquist