Novel Concepts #10: Space Whales

I’ve always loved the idea of space whales.

It’s something of a trope if you sink into enough sci-fi.  I’ve never done a survey, but I imagine this concept, or something like it, has been done and done well in some place that I have yet to encounter.  If anyone knows of a better version than what I describe hear, please let me know.  Much like Clarke’s “Wall of Darkness” or “The Lion of Commare” this is likely just an idea that I’m having long after someone else.  Nevertheless, I submit it here for your approval.


Act I: The Intrepid

2183: UNSS Intrepid is surveying a newly discovered system of planets on a long-term reconnaissance mission.  Upon entering the system, they discover strange readings emanating from a “warm-Jupiter” class planet.

Far-ranging sensors detect an anomaly on a sub-orbital trajectory.  The Intrepid moves in to investigate.  They discover that the anomaly is actually a biologic.  A large, aerodynamic beast, the size of a football stadium which had exited the atmosphere in a leaping motion (think dolphins out of the water).

The Intrepid is now obliged to make a survey, it’s mission requiring reporting on any alien biospheres.

Lt. Hayes is one of the Intrepid’s starfighter pilots.  She and her wingman are dispatched to fly into the atmosphere and make observations.  They discover that the whales communicate with light patterns.  The patterns are highly complex and take place in many wavelengths and frequencies.  The pilots are able to respond with their fighters’ signal lights, but the communication is rudimentary and limited.

On the fourth recon flight into the atmosphere, Hayes discovers “sharks” – toothy predators from the lower atmosphere that hunt the whales for food.

The whales have migrated to the upper atmosphere and have attempted suborbital leaps as a means to avoid the sharks.  As an adaptation, the whales are beginning to get nourishment from sunlight through a method similar to photosynthesis.  Much of their digestive systems are expected to be vestigial.

Act II: The Goodall

UNSS Goodall is sent to investigate further and analyze the planet’s biosphere.  The Goodall is a science vessel, specially equipped for biological research and data gathering.

Lt. Hayes and a few other pilots from the Intrepid’s fighter wing stay behind to protect the Goodall and provide their observations for the Goodall’s scientists.

An atmospheric flight is sent to “land” on the back of one of the whales and take samples.  The first landing goes well and a few samples are taken.  A second flight is planned which will survey the area around the leading edge of the wings and the upper part of the head.

After Lt. Hayes is lowered onto the back of the whale, she makes her way forward towards the head.  While she is trying to obtain samples from a wing, the whale flips underneath her, tossing her into the open air.  The beast then swallows her whole in it’s massive, four-story mouth.

Inside the whale, Lt. Hayes is not digested, but is cut off from rescue.  She begins to explore the interior of the whale.  After walking through the bowels of the beast, she finds what appears to be a “womb” and feels a telepathic reaction.  The whale’s internal structure begins to ensnare Hayes’s body, encasing her legs and torso in a structure of cartilage.

A communications interface begins between the human and the whale.

Hayes learns that the whales are as curious about humans as the humans are about the whales.  This capture of Hayes is the whales’ attempt to gather a “sample” of the new intelligent creatures that the whales have encountered.

The whales wish to use humans and their spaceflight technology to escape the sharks permanently.  They wish to see the stars.

To the whales, their understanding of the universe is that down is inherently bad.  That way lay death and the sharks.  They wish to ascend as high as possible to the stars and to the peace of life without predators.

Hayes, now one with this whale, is able to communicate these concepts to the Goodall and its scientific crew.  Engineers aboard the Goodall begin working on maneuvering sleds to help the whales achieve orbit.  Biologists aboard begin looking for ways to improve their propulsive systems.

Act III: The Zander

StarRail Corporation gets word of these developments and dispatches SRCS Zander to take advantage of the situation.  The Zander is sent to seize any “open-space” assets and conscript them into corporate service.

The whales, not understanding economics, see this as an opportunity to escape.  The Goodall’s crew try to explain the concepts of slavery, profit, and exploitation to creatures who have no sense of them.

The whales do not fear the Zander or its mission and one is taken and converted to haul cargo.

One of the Intrepid’s pilots resolves to shoot down the Zander and her crew, rather than let the whales be exploited for corporate profit.

Hayes plans to use the FTL sleds that the Goodall’s engineers have developed to lead a pod of whales to escape to the stars.  The Goodall will stay behind to interdict and stop the Zander from pursuing.

In a violent clash, the Zander’s weapons are brought to bear against a peaceful science vessel whose crew have resolved to defend this innocent species.  The Goodall, unable to call in further support before more damage is done, has but one offensive option against the Zander: kinetic energy.

The Goodall sends Zander to the bottom of the gas giant’s gravity well and does its best to reach orbit while watching Hayes’s pod of whales escape into light-speed.


I was inspired by the Leviathans of Farscape and I’ve always wanted to do a story about how such a species might have developed.  I’m fascinated by the idea of evolution as a plot device and I think this has potential.



Novel Concepts #9: Deathless

Inspired by the Dawn of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the concepts brought to bear in The Man From Earth, I present a prologue to a new novel concept.



To call them human would be misleading.  The twelve of them were human, in the sense that they had as much capacity for language, emotion and thought as any who would follow them, but the time for such things had not yet dawned.  From a genetic sense, there was almost nothing that separated them from the billions of human beings yet to come, but these were some of the first.

Before the change, their lives had been dangerous, difficult, and without introspection.  They were a tribe with a loose familial relationship to one another.  There was an unspoken peace, an unspoken cooperation, and an unspoken hierarchy.  In fact, with the absence of any language structure, all of their dynamics were unspoken as the words to describe their reality had not yet been developed.

None of them would ever fully understand what had caused the change.  They each had their theories.  Their guesses shifted and grew more detailed whenever the idea came up.  For some, they would never know the concepts that would be necessary to understand the truth.

Concepts such as stasis, robotics, and extraterrestrial intelligence were as incomprehensible to them as the concept of nuclear fission would be to the lions roaming the grasslands.

The source of the change came from life, but was not, itself, alive.  The beings which created the machine could not survive journeys across light-years, but their patience was nigh-infinite.  So, with great hope for the future, and a fierce desire to understand and catalog the knowledge contained within the universe, they had built machines which could journey to the stars and catalog Life, Mind, and Potential wherever they could be found in the galaxy.

As with any creation of imperfect creatures, the machine which visited Earth was flawed and had the potential for error.  With programmed interest, it scanned the deserts and forests.  It found organization amongst the ants and they were cataloged.  It peered into the ocean depths and saw a budding intelligence in the whales and dolphins.  The probe cataloged a few of the swimming beasts before returning them, confused, to the sea.  In a narrow band on the warmest continent, the probe found a relatively new species of ape, one that walked upright, unique amongst its kind.

The probe’s observations triggered many of the criteria it was programmed to seek.  It found organization, basic social structure, the ability to manipulate objects, and a brain cavity large enough for cognitive thought.  Such criteria made the probe’s next course of action obvious:  this species required cataloging.

On the rim of the territory where it found human beings, it came across a small band of them.  This group was only a dozen, with a small claimed hunting ground and nothing at all remarkable that would distinguish them from any other tribe.  This made them the perfect choice for study.

The robotic ship made its approach silently and with no fanfare.  Protocols called for it to have as little influence or impact as possible.  The process for cataloging a species took less than a day and left the subjects with no lasting ill effects.

The twelve members of the human tribe were acquired with a device which might as well be called a tractor beam.  Truthfully such a term was barely adequate to describe its inner workings, but no human tongue had a name for the technologies at work here.  The subjects were placed into a bio-stasis which ensured that the shock of the cataloging process would not kill them, nor would they suffer from any of the viruses, microbes or pathogens left behind by any previous life form which had been cataloged.

For the next 20 hours, the tribe’s members were scanned.  Their genetic material, their anatomical structure, their thought patterns (such as they were) were all entered into the probe’s database and transmitted across light-centuries of open space to the probe’s builders.  At the end of the scan, the probe, with great delicacy, replaced the bewildered humans back where they had been acquired.  Then it departed, off to study the red planet farther from the local star, where there may yet be living remnants of the life it had once teemed with.

In the records of the probe, discovered by its makers thousands of years later, after the catalogs of Earth were analyzed, an error had occurred.

The bio-stasis had never been disengaged for the human subjects.  The dozen humans who had been plucked and replaced in a quiet corner of the African continent were left with an immunity to disease and sickness… and aging.



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.


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


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?”


“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.


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.