Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Outward Bound; Snippet

After reviewing Mutiny in Space, I picked up the Heinlein bug myself. I banged out these two chapters in few hours. So this stuff is in the rough draft stage of it's life.

I'm trying to decide if I want to pursue this one. Drop a line in the comments and tell me what you think.


“Piper, you’ve been playing flash games again!”  Steve Grimshaw accused his wife. “You promised.”

“I have not been doing that!”  Came a somewhat guilty and unconvincing reply from the craft room.

“Really?”  Steve’s face was bathed in the soft cold blue glow of a Windows crash screen.   He had just installed a new if cheap one terabyte hard drive on a repurposed desktop.  It was supposed to be their new media computer. And according to the crash screen the hard drive was now completely full.

Honestly, she had an addiction, Steve thought to himself.  If somebody is giving you all sorts of good and free happy shit on the internet.  The odds of some plague ridden virus being glued to it was about one to one.  

Except in Piper’s world where you could trust everyone on the internet.

Steve knew there would tradeoffs when he married a girl who had just turned twenty.  He wasn’t a fool  and honestly neither was she.  She was a pretty solid kid.  He wasn’t stupid enough to have married her otherwise.    

“So why is the hard drive full?” Steve asked tiredly .

“Hackers?” Piper replied hopefully. She peered around the corner with a nervous half smile.  Her long red hair tied into sporty looking pigtails.  Her tall slender frame not quite as slender as it had been a couple of months ago.  Her hands rested suggestively over a now distinct bulge. Her brown eyes couldn’t help but twinkle.

It worked.  Steve smiled warmly at his wife.

“Besides, honey you can fix anything,” she returned his grin.

Steve was the friend that everyone called whenever they had computer problems.  He didn’t mind.  It was a nice break from his real job of petro-chemical engineering. It got him out of the house and got him IOUs from guys who knew how to put a roof on a sixty year old starter home.  

Piper’s opinion of him was however, a little out of the box.  He could do anything the TechRite Superstore NerdHerd could do.  Which mostly involved running free anti-viral/anti-spyware apps and googling error messages on his Galaxy Note.  

Steve sighed as he pulled out his phone.  These problems were always self inflicted.

But not this time.

What. The. Fuck?

There was nothing else on his Google newsfeed.  Nobody knew what it was but it already had a name.  The Strata Dump.  Every hard drive on earth with a one terabytes to spare had received a copy of it at 8:26 am Greenwich Mean Time.
It was a gigantic data dump of apparent gibberish.  It was all bits.  Just ones and zeroes.  Although there was ///TERMHERE/// at the start that indicated the mess was a gigantic cypher.  Most people were deleting the thing, scrubbing their hard drives and swearing about hackers

Hackers on the other hand were pretty intrigued.  Whatever the hell had caused this had left some very interesting electronic fingerprints behind. What it had done was pretty close to impossible. This thing left Stuxnet sitting in the dust.

Steve was interested enough himself that he had to start prying.    After a few minutes he decided it was time to call his father-in-law.

“There is no chance of classifying this then?”  The President of Russian Federation said with a resigned sigh.  He wasn’t even asking a rhetorical question.  Just being wistful.  The world had changed so much since he was a young idealistic KGB officer.

A squat young doctor with thick glasses and hair that wasn’t meant to be shiny named Malashevsky opened his mouth.  His lips forming a natural sneer.

Instinctively sensing trouble General Lysenko, his own full head of grey  hair, very neat indeed, sank his fingers into the young doctor's shoulder and clawed their way  in.

There was a whiny, “ow,”  from Malashevsky that General Lysenko was already talking loudly over. “At least we are all in the same boat, your excellency.”  He really didn’t need the little twerp getting shot.  Not that that was terribly likely.  The FSB was certainly no NKVD and the current President was no Stallin, no matter what he liked to think. On the other hand it didn’t pay to piss him off either. “If containment is impossible for us, it’s impossible for anyone else too.  

“Hmm,” The President grumbled.  Then lifted his thin eyebrows and waved a hand dismissively.  “Very well.”   What couldn’t be helped, couldn’t be helped.  “The Strata dump is a disaster for Lukoil, Gazprom...all the oil industries.”

“Oh far from it surely your excellency,” Malashevsky had wiggled free from Lysenko’s grip.  “People need petroleum for more then just fuel. Plastics, chemicals, synthetics all the rest.  It may even help our marketshare.”

The President lifted an interested eyelid.  “Explain.”

Lysenko shrugged in despair.  Hopefully the young ingenious imbecile wouldn’t talk himself into a trip to siberia.  

“Our very fine crude is by in large, light-sweet crude.  Very cheap to pump.  Very easy to refine.  The Americans are the ones that are going to be really hurt by this.  When oil prices went and remained above forty dollars a gallon it became economically feasible to refine what we had always viewed as junk petroleum. Shale, tar sands, heavy-sour crude and the like.   The Shipstone will make it economically  impossible to maintain their production.

“Shipstone?” Lysenko asked.  He knew the answer but he was certain that the President didn’t.

The young jerk sneered a little.  “It’s from Robert Heinlein.  He was an American science fiction author. The MIT team that built the first one called it that. ‘The Shipstone is as an improved storage battery in the same way that an Atom bomb is an improved firecracker.’”

“So it does work then,” the President’s voice was funereal.  

“It would appear so,” said Lysenko, his tone just as somber.

“Yes of course,” Malashevsky chirped happily.  “There is naturally the matter of duration but if that holds up as well, a Shipstone should be able to power a car for about one hundred thousand miles before it would needs to be changed out.  The battery itself is only the size of shoe box.”  The young scientist nodded spastically.   “Crude oil prices should drop to about ten dollars a barrel US,”  the brilliant idiot was still smiling, “and stay there.”

The President got up and poured himself a very big vodka. “My friends will not be pleased,” he said.

“Well they can hardly blame you for that your excellency,” Malashevsky said with wide eyed wonder.

“You would be surprised what they can blame me for,” the President replied.  

“But they will still be making money and they won’t have to compete with the Americans anymore because they will be out of business!”

“Cold comfort Ilya,” General Lysenko growled at his pet fool, “to important men who were used to be driven around in Rolls Phantoms and will now be downgrading to Audi A4s.”

Malashevsky was clearly about to open his mouth in favor of the A4.  Which would really bother the President, so Lysenko interrupted him to put to him the question he was brought here to answer in the first damn place.  “Ilya what about the other parts of the Strata Dump?  Does the A-Grav work as well as the Shipstone?”

Ilya shrugged in irritation, as he was about to admit to ignorance.  “We don’t know yet.  Everybody who can, is building monkey-see monkey-do copies from the Dump.  I mean everybody.  Tupolev, Boeing, Airbus.  We’ll know in a few days if it works or not.”

“How does it work?” Lysenko asked.

“No idea, if it can work.  Let alone how.  Although it’s not strictly Anti-Gravity more of gravity warper.” Malashevsky  finally showed a little sense and distanced himself from bad news.  “According to the Strata Dump.”

“How much will it cost per unit?” The President asked.

“Pulling a figure out the air... A-Grav will run about a million US per unit,” Malashevsky guessed.

The President threw back a big gulp of the Vodka and grimaced as it burnt its way down.  The economic ramifications  from the Shipstone were bad enough. The New York market would open soon and he had already placed a massive sell off order of his own assets, in addition he was selling and buying Call and Put options plus short selling. He had made certain that his friends had known to do likewise. Not that it was going to do a lot of good.  Everyone was going to be taking a hell of a bath over this one.  Chase was going to need a gigantic bailout when every loan they made in the energy market went bad. And Chase wasn’t the only one. Barkley’s might go under completely. This was going to be way worse then 2008.  

He took another drink.  On top of that if this bloody A-Grav does work, every piece of heavy military equipment on Earth is going to be obsolete overnight.

We’ll all be starting from scratch, he thought.  This will hurt the Americans harder then anyone else.  The President gave himself cold comfort.  

Not that that was going to matter in the least.  Not if the other two parts of the Dump were accurate as well.

Not in the long run.

Bob Meijer was sitting on the couch next to his son in law watching Fox News as the live feed showed the successful landing of the Grissom. The white truncated cone of the Dragon X capsule, floated down with smooth balletic grace upon the Mojave sands.  There was not even a ripple of air to disturb the sands as she came to rest.

The reporter on the scene repeatedly reminded everyone that the  Grissom had just completed the first manned orbit of the moon since the 1960s.  The reporter was clearly out of her depth as she kept babbling anything that would fill air time.  “The A-Grav is now a proven technology, that is going to change every aspect of lives,” she said in a reporter's sing-song cadence. “Who knows what the future now holds for us?”

“So how does it work?” Steve asked his father-in-law.  Steve knew that Bob was genuinely fascinated by the...well their was no other word for it as this point.  Alien technology.   He was interested himself but not rabidly fascinated.  His field hadn’t just had half of its basic assumptions redefined.  His field was mostly on the unemployment line.  Chevron and  Exxon had merged. Valero wasn’t looking all that solid either.   If he didn’t get a job soon he was going back to the military.

He looked over at his beautiful wife with a now rounder belly and felt shame ooze it’s way into him again like cold wet slime.   This was not what she’d signed up for.  He had had a good job with a solid future when she said, “I do.”  Steve felt the scrabbling clawing feel of desperation.  They were going to lose their home at this rate and he could bring nothing to the party but impotent uselessness.

Piper was making a brave show of it but he had more then once found her red faced and red eyed.  She would, blame it all on either allergies or the pregnancy.   Steve felt like shit every time.

Worse still his father-in-law had made him an open ended offer to move them back in if it came down to that.  Going back into the Navy felt like running away under those circumstances but it at least it was an acceptable excuse for his failure has husband and provider.

He could hear Piper and her three younger sisters chatting the kitchen, while they worked on Thanksgiving desserts.  Living in a house full of teenage girls was the dream of every stupid man.

“Nobody knows, at least the Shipstone was understandable.   An agitated molecular battery we can grasp but this thing is giving everyone in the department a headache,” Bob said.

Then Bob added, “although we are learning a few things from the Grissom.  This A-Grav only works at it’s peak deep inside a gravity well.  The further down the gravity well you get the better it operates.”

Steve already knew that but he also knew how his father-in-law’s mental process worked.  He had to go over old ground first in order to progress to the new stuff.

“I’m pretty sure they kept it under wraps but I think the Grissom was in some serious trouble towards the middle of it’s flight.”  Bob said speculatively while tapping his chin in a very professorial manner.

“What do you mean?” Steve asked.

“The Astrophysics department was tracking it,” Bob smiled.  “They were getting paid to by Musk.”  The Grissom had been a quickly slapped together project.  It was all off the shelf stuff except for the A-Grav unit.  A number of technology billionaires had suddenly vaulted out of the starting gate as soon as Lockheed had proven the A-Grav worked as (not exactly) advertised.

The U.S. Government was not pleased but it was powerless to stop it.  Thanks largely to a Democrat president who was not only actively hostile to  space exploration, (that money needs to be spent to help people right here on Earth). But who also was on friendly (or at least massively large donation) terms with the same billionaires who were suddenly stampeding into orbit.

“The Grissom,” Bob continued, ” slowed down towards of the middle of it’s flight.  Way down.  Enough so that they had to fire it’s rockets.  That wasn’t supposed to be part of the test.”  Bob stopped doing his professor pose and looked him in the eye.  “That part doesn't leave this room.”

“Okay,” Steve granted.  Bob Meijer was both very old and very new fashioned. Steve had nearly waived off when Piper had brought him around without prior warning to meet her family.  Three dates were going to be it without her Dad’s approval.  

Piper had also made it clear that he wasn’t going to get anywhere with her until she had a ring on finger.  Although as it turned out an engagement ring had been good enough. Bob didn’t need to know that.   Regardless it was long after Bob had given permission to his daughter to date Steve.  

How the hell a man like Bob was surviving in a modern university environment was beyond Steve.  Of course Bob was in the (very) hard sciences.

Steve supposed that a military career spent at NASA and then the Naval observatory had taught him a thing or two about politics as well.  Besides he was minor celebrity.  Not every professor had Astronaut wings.

“The engines were only there as an emergency back up,” Bob said. “Combined with the A-Grav it gave them a hell of a fast ride.  In fact the crew of the Grissom are now easily the fastest men who’ve ever lived,” Bob said with just a ghost of envy in his voice.  “Once they were in Lunar orbit they were able to slingshot a good chunk of the way back by doing a close fly-by.  But since the A-Grav is for all intents and purposes reactionless they had to fire the rockets again on the way back home.”

Bob Meijer gave a wary chuckle.  “The Grissom barely limped home with bone dry tanks.”

“I didn’t hear about that,” Steve remarked.

“Private venture,” Bob shrugged in envy.  Dealing with the PR had been his least favorite thing about being an Astronaut.

The talking head on TV was being stupid again, she was interviewing the head of the Grissom project.  “This new technology.  This gift from another world.  Will take pretty much all of the environmental damage out of space exploration won’t it?”

A little surprised by the idiocy of the question, the man rallied and replied, “oh absolutely.”

Like any of that was going to matter.  Hadn’t they looked at all at the rest of the Dump.  Didn’t anyone understand what was coming? Steve wondered.

The real game changer of the A-Grav drive was in the economics of space flight.  It couldn’t really get you anywhere but orbit.  However, once you are in orbit you are halfway to anywhere. Getting out of Earth’s gravity well had always been the real problem with space travel.  ///Expand on boring economics of space flight.

As many back breaking, heart crushing financial troubles as Steve now had he couldn’t help but shrug them all in wonder for a moment or two.  “And the FTL?”

Bob looked around and then actually pulled out his cell phone and turned it off.  He then tapped on the table indicating he wanted Steve to do likewise.

Steve did so slightly disconcerted, while Bob yelled, “We’re gonna check on the turkey.”  

He heard Bob’s wife giving a non-committal, what are you telling me for, “okay.”  While they headed out of the sliding glass door.

Bob lowered his voice.  “We think so, yes”

Steve gave a low whistle.  Then asked, “are they sure?”

Bob said, “the Grissom had a jump point locator aboard it went active at the right spot.  If the Grissom had had a working Strata-Drive they might have suddenly found themselves staring at Mars.

Steve mind whirled in astonishment at that. Faster Than Light travel looked to be real. He asked almost in a daze, “Why not Venus?”

“No jump-point.” Bob clarified, “at the moment it’s too far away.  In about six months that should doable.” Bob added, “although Mars would be out of range by then.”

Steve’s own voice dropped, “and beyond that?”

“Now that is the big question, isn’t it son?”

Steve thought for a moment and then replied, “Not really Bob.  The big question is in the last part of the Dump?”  

“Cosmic String.  No one had heard before the Stata Dump, yet everyone today is talking about it,” Lane said to the camera wearing her best serious face.  

Well, I’d heard of it, Jackson Clay PHd, glanced quickly down at his brown hands, clenched them briefly to ward off the irritation and then he looked back up.  His camera wasn’t lit yet, not that his professional TV smile had ever left his face.

“In addition to our regulars,” Lane rattled off the names of the other women at the table.  Zoe a middle aged black comedian, Veronica a middle aged  jewish comedian, Gina a middle aged militant lesbian comedian and Angela the new token conservative who was not middle aged nor a comedian but did look better then the other three women at the table which Clay supposed was something.  “And our special guest today, Doctor Jackson Clay, director of the Lowell Planetarium in Las Vegas.”

“Pleasure to be here again Lane,” he said with a warm timbre in a voice that was deep, rich and oozed male confidence.  He smiled around the table and was smiled at in turn.  A couple of those smiles were quite warm.

Although not from the cute, blonde conservative.  Figures.  Racist, he thought himself reflexively.  

Anyway that wasn’t why he was here.  He was here because he had a new book coming out and they were supposed to plug it.  Which Lane had forgotten to do already, damn it.  

“Jackson...well first of all I have to say,” Veronica the New Yorker began and promptly interrupted herself, “I absolutely love your work.”  She gushed at him.

“Well thank you,”  he smiled at her professionally while thinking.  Yeah, no way. Not you.

“I was wondering if you could give us your opinion on the Strata Dump itself before we move on to the Cosmic String thing,” she said.  The women surrounding him at the table all smiled in a way that was supposed to be encouraging but left every man who was ever at that table feeling constricted and uncomfortable.

“Big subject,” he laughed encouragingly.  They continued smiling at him like the daytime Village of the Damned so he expanded a little.

“What specific part of it did you want me to talk about?”

The New Yorker gave him her lost smile, while the conservative threw him a line, “Doctor Clay.  Where do you think the Strata Dump came from?”

He nodded his head gratefully while summoning up his thoughtful and intelligent face. “Now that is a very good question Angela .”  He gave her one last slightly warmer then was strictly appropriate smile.  Which turned her smile down a notch.  Still a racist.

“Well there are basically three major theories on where it came from and several sub-variations on them but the big three are, Alien Race, Time Travel and Unknown Human Genius.

He scowled professorially.  “Normally when faced with this kind of conundrum we apply Occam's Razor. Which is a fancy way of saying, the simplest explanation is usually the right one.”

There were a few obseques titters from audience and from the table.   He went on lecturing his 101 class.  “Now each of these theories has their strengths and weaknesses.  Time Travel is the weakest due the inherent paradoxes involved.  It’s a logic puzzle when you look at it,” he said thoughtfully.  “You can’t warn your ancestors about the approaching end of the world without changing the world so much that you will eliminate yourself as their descendant.”

“What if it came from alternate universe?”  The token conservative continued to annoy him.

“What like Evil Spock?” he said while stroking his own goatee and lifting his left eyebrow in an appropriately sinister manner.  Everyone chuckled but Angela who was clearly the only one in the entire studio who actually got the reference.  He made a mental note to stick with Star Wars jokes.

Time for a different track, “My mentor Carl Sagan and I used to discuss this interpretation of quantum physics.  The so called Many Worlds Theory,”  he said in a superior tone that implied both intimate knowledge of the subject matter, in addition to looking down on anyone who brought it up.  “Back when we discussed it.  Doctor Sagan didn’t seem to think much of the idea and I have to say I agree with him.”  Not that Clay had ever really discussed much with Carl Sagan.  They had only met at a couple of conferences when he was rather young.

“Basically Angela , we know that this universe exists.  We have pretty much zero proof about any others. Occam’s Razor comes down against this one I’m afraid.  He said rather condescendingly.  The Audience and her cohosts approved, they all liked it when Angela was proven wrong. Or at least appeared to be proven wrong. The truth was Angela wasn’t working out.  She was a little too bright for their liking. A little too young and little too good looking.

Angela rallied, “but the Decoherence Interpretation of Quantum Theory indicates that...”

“Angela  I’m sorry,” Lane interrupted potentially snatching victory from the the jaws of defeat.  “But we don't have time for Doctor Clay to do a physics lecture for you.”

More laughter.  Clay himself was relieved.  His doctorate was in astrophysics not that theoretical crap.

“Moving on to the more likely theories,” he said quickly.  “We have to consider that it did indeed come from another planet.”  He pitched his normally deep voice to a singsong high, “another race. An alien intellect.”

The table and the audience nodded their heads approvingly.  This was more like it.  Benevolent aliens they could understand.  It was the most popular theory for the origin of the Strata Dump.

Clay prepared to rain on their parade.  “The problem is that it is almost as unlikely an origin for the Dump as the Time Travel Theory.  

Consider, if you will.  The Strata Dump was made via electronic communication and that means electrons were involved,” Clay smiled at his own joke which nobody else got.  So he moved right along.  “Electronic transmission by its very nature is limited to the speed of light.  If the Strata Dump had arrived from the the stars twenty years ago there would only have been a very small number of the servers that could have handled that amount of data.  Thirty years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible for anyone to have jotted down that message.

The SETI project has been looking very hard for any sign of Extraterrestrial Life since the late seventies.  Close to forty years now.  And like Doctor Sagan,” again he invoked the name reverently, “I do believe the odds that there is intelligent life other then our own is exceptionally high.  However, we are now quite certain that there is no intelligent life within forty light years of Earth.

Realistically, we couldn’t have made any real use of the strata dump until about, oh call it ten years ago at the outside.  Because the means to record it weren’t widely available until then.

Therefore an Extraterrestrial origin for the Strata Dump falls on the negative side of Occam’s Razor.” Clay held up his hands and gave a rueful, ‘don’t blame me, it’s not my fault,’ smile.

Angela was frowning.  Clearly there was some wishful thinking going on here but she wasn’t quite certain where.  She scanned the rest of table and gave up.  They were all beaming at him like he was sexy Spock-Jesus.  Resisting would only get her into trouble with Lane.  This wasn’t that bad of a gig, she’d prefer to hang on to it.

“Which leaves us by default with the most likely explanation,” Clay said brightly.  “According to Occam’s Razor, the Strata Dump had to have had a terrestrial origin.”

Okay that was a little too much of a big of an assertion for Angela to hork down in one bite.  She earned a few scowls by questioning Clay, “So assuming an unknown genius.  Easily the greatest in the entire history of the human race.  How would he know about a Cosmic String fragment that was going to collide with the sun in one hundred years or so.”

Clay laughed richly, “I believe that according to the Dump it’s one hundred twenty eight years,” he smiled with smug superiority.  The audience and table joined in.  They liked laughing at Angela .  It made them feel intelligent and important.  

Clay then threw her bone, “And you have asked the right question Angela .  How indeed?”

It was time for him to do the lecture he’d been brought in do to in the first place. “Cosmic String is strictly hypothetical.  You could barely even call it a theory.  No one has ever found one.  The hypothesis is that they are not so much a string as they are one dimensional fault lines left over from the Big Bang. Cracks in the universe or so they called.   They are supposedly dense.  Incredibly so.”

“So like a Black Hole,” Gina said smiling coyly.  The militant lesbian was clearly going to make remarks about Black Holes, so Lane stepped in.

“No, not really.  Not from what I read,” Lane said quickly and then glanced at Clay imploringly.

He caught the ball.  “Black holes are down right pedestrian and practical compared to Cosmic String.

You see the problem with Cosmic String in the first place is that it simply does not exist.”    Clay had written papers on the subject that proved the matter conclusively so far as he was concerned.  

He was certainly not going to destroy his academic reputation by refuting his own papers on daytime TV.  Not on the basis of what was, so far as he was concerned, ultimately just an engineering paper of unknown origin.  The Strata Dump was a brilliant engineering paper but it certainly wasn’t astrophysics. The location of this Cosmic String wasn’t mentioned at all.

“We have found zero evidence of their existence,” Clay wasn’t exactly lying.  There were phenomena around quasars that could be interpreted as trace evidence.  But they could be interpreted as a lot of other things as well, that didn’t threaten his career.

“Let alone any evidence of one within one twenty eight light years of Earth.”  He chuckled “believe me everyone started looking the moment we figured out what the last part of the Strata Dump said.”

“So why wouldn’t aliens tell us where the Cosmic String thing was?”  Zoe’s raspy voice accused rather then asked Angela .

“How would I know, Zoe?”  Angela replied defensively.  “I mean the dump had everything else right.  Why wouldn’t we take a warning, (if could be called a warning) seriously.  From what I understand it was just a statement.  A sort of mathematically made statement that was tacked on to the end of the dump.”  Angela elaborated, “there was no real attempt at communication at all.  It was just blueprints for a working super battery, an A-Grav and a faster then light drive.  Plus a little codicil at the end saying the Earth gets’ blasted in one hundred twenty eight solar rotations.  It didn’t even hint that still being here would be a bad idea.”

“Quite true Angela ,” Clay nodded.  “The Strata Dump gave us the means to leave the planet and the motive to do so.  But it did not give us the location of the Cosmic String. Which is what I think is rather badly needed proof. If we are all suddenly going to up stakes and leave the planet,” he laughed.

“So why do that?” Angela asked, genuinely curious as to his opinion.

He stroked his beard using his best thoughtful look before replying.  “It seems to me that the author dump was most likely an ingenious militant environmentalist.  It fits everything.  Someone who knows what Global Warming means for the Earth and has worked out a way to save the planet.”  He raised his voice and adopted his baptist preacher father’s cadence.  “The Shipstone, the A-Grav and the FTL.  Now he supplies the motivation.  Now the billions of people who are killing the Earth will up stakes and leave before they can finish off their mother.  Leaving Geia to heal herself without us.  Everything else has worked, so you will just need to take his word for the Cosmic String.”  His voice became strident in his peroration, “even though you have no other proof other then his assertion .”

The audience broke out in wild applause.  It was a good performance. And it was all they really asked for from this show.


Michael Grimshaw was sound asleep. Very small light red curls framing his face.  He was scowling like a grumpy little Winston Churchill. He had a lot to be annoyed about.  It was very hard to get to sleep when you have three teenage aunts who keep trying to get you giggle for their own damn amusement.

Right now it was Grandpa’s turn to hold him.  That was both slightly better and slightly worse in it’s own way because Grandpa Bob clearly wasn’t too confident about holding him.  Which is quite worrying indeed when you are Michael’s size.  But at least Grandpa didn’t insist that Michael amuse him.  It gave Michael a chance to get some much needed sleep.  It had been a good two and a half hours since had had any decent quality down time.

Bob smiled at his grandson.  This was what a man at his stage of life was supposed to have, if he had done it right.  His house was big, if not a mansion.  A formidable but not overwhelming backyard with some fairly expensive landscaping. Three cars, one of them too small and too fast for a man his age but what do you want from an old ass Naval Aviator.  A first grandchild on his lap and a fireplace with real wood fire in it. All by the age of...well...still technically middle aged.  

Bob Meijer had been by no means a child of privilege or at least he hadn’t been back when that word had had a sane definition. But he had started out alright. He would own up to that at least.  The sole inheritor of middle class nest egg.  Thanks to his Mom and his church background he hadn’t squandered that leg up in life on stupid blingy kid shit. The Naval Academy had helped to form his mildly abstentious character.  As well as give him a top twenty college education without paying through the nose for it. It also gave him some friends that were the children of important people.  That happens with a free government supplied education.

Bob felt soft lips lightly brush up against his cheek.  He looked up and smiled warmly at his sweaty oldest daughter as well.  He made a gesture offering to hand over her son.  Piper waved him down as she sat on the couch that was facing his big comfy recliner.  She wiped at her brow with a small towel and took a big swig of water from a bottle and gasped quietly, “how’s he doing?”

“Asleep,”  Bob Meijer said a little helplessly.  

Piper grinned impishly at that.  She had a real talent for impish.  

Bob was rather impressed with his secret favorite.  She was doing a fairly good job of being a single mother while her husband was deployed.  Bob and his wife had repeatedly offered to take her and Michael back in. They had been a Navy family, they understood how these things worked.   It wouldn’t have been and ideal situation, not with all three of her younger sisters still living in the house.  But at the moment no one had an ideal situation.  The economy was getting much worse.  Deflation was setting in big time.  Thank god the house was paid for.

Piper was nothing if not stubborn.  Wonder where she got that from? Bob asked himself in no serious way.  She was determinedly hanging on to her own little house.  The town they lived in was all right, Bob knew.  But most of it’s income was tourism related.  That money was going to dry up fast.  A lot of the little shops in it’s downtown area were closed already.  

Piper’s part time job as a woman’s fitness coach was starting to bring in less and less money, he knew.  Not that that mattered over much.  Steve was doing well enough as a Lieutenant (JG) to keep the lights on.   Prior enlisted automatically got a paybump, on top of the that was Sea-Pay, Imminent Danger Pay, BAQ pay, etcetera.  

Hopefully he could also swing a book deal provided the Navy didn’t put a gag order on the crew of the USS Nebraska.

“I saw that Big Red was past the Venusian orbit belt.”

Piper really beamed at that.  “Twentyseven days and a wake up!”  She chirped.

Bob was a little wistfully chagrined about that.  Steve had been an atom jack on Boomers when he had been an enlisted man.  The rapidly converted USS Nebraska was one of four ships in America’s starfleet.  Steve had already had most of the right resume.  His father-in-law’s connections didn’t exactly put him over the top with the selection board but it did put his package at the top of the in-basket.  Every little bit helps.

They didn’t seem to have much need for Naval Aviators.  Which he found annoying but not half as annoying as the Air Force did.   Their own starship project had turned into a cost overrun disaster.  They just didn’t have an institutional aptitude for that kind of a command structure.  Air Force missions were conducted in hours not months.

The Marines were doing their best get in on the Navy’s action as well.  But for the moment they weren’t needed.  The Navy could handle it’s own shipboard security.  However there was going to be a need for real on the ground exploration soon.  The Jarheads would get their chance sooner then anyone thought.  They were finding way more habitable planets then they should have.  The Strata Drive was not working as advertised.

“Dad,”  Piper said in tone of voice that told Bob something was up.

“Yes, Pipps?”  Bob asked rather then answered.

“I was wondering if your very, very generous offer is still open?”  She looked down when she asked.  Clearly a little ashamed to be asking at all.

“Absolutely baby,” Bob said a little wide eyed.  “What uh...”

“Changed my mind?”

“I was going to say happened?”

Piper smiled ruefully, “Nothing bad Dad.  Base housing in Norfolk is opening up in a about three months.  The problem is I have an out of the blue offer on our house now.”

Bob got it.  “While Steve is on shore leave you can get things packed up and into ///CURRENT ACRONYM FOR PERSONAL MILITARY STORAGE///.

“It seemed like a good idea,”  Piper was clearly just a bit wistful.  Her starter house had been her little nest.  She had her first baby there.  These things mattered to a lot to women, Bob knew.  Still it was proving to be a lonely house for his little girl as well.  

“Besides Dad,”  Bob noticed that Piper was using her very serious voice on him.  “Long term it’s not a good idea to get weighed down by land.”  Piper paused for dramatic effect. “Not anymore”

Bob nodded, his own voice lowering to a more conspiratorial level.  “Yeah, the whole, ‘they ain’t making it anymore,’ thing doesn’t exactly apply these days.”

“Its not just that Dad,” Piper all but whispered.  “I think that the String is real.”

Bob snorted.  Not  because he thought Piper was wrong (she wasn’t) but that she felt the need to mention it sotto voco.

Disbelief in The String had become part of the Social Justice Narrative.  Challenging Jackson Clay on anything regarding his scientific pronouncements from the summit of his Daytime Sinai, was now clearly racist.  Since Clay had immediately played the race card the moment he was challenged on any point of his pronouncements.  The nonexistence of the String was now (in the best traditions of Lysenkoism) a proven public fact.  One that could not be challenged without being hauled before the Social Justice Central Committee for show trial and then public ruin.

“I strongly suspect you are right,”  Bob said.

It was the first time he had said it out loud.  

He was under the strong impression that the world would end in one hundred twenty eight...No...one hundred twenty six years now.  Cosmic string striking the sun might not be enough to send it nova.  Unless it could. Who knew for certain?  One thing was for sure the Sun was unlikely to enjoy it.  The best case scenario was that severe solar flares would leave the Earth uninhabitable to anything but chemosynthetic microbes in the deepest ocean trenches.  Maybe if you dug down deep enough you could survive it.  Although life as a Moorlock held limited appeal to him.

Clay’s version of Occam’s Razor was at best flawed.  He had come up with a version of reality that he and lot of other likeminded people found comforting. They wouldn’t have to do anything.  

Also, as they were eager to point out to anyone who listened, that the Strata Drive is unreliable.  It’s not sending the ships where they are supposed to be going.

That wasn’t entirely true.  The Strata Drive worked just fine inside a star system’s gravity well.  Once you got far enough down the gravity well to reach the gate-point that got you out of the Solar system.  

Well that was when things got ‘interesting’.  ’Interesting,’ as in the Chinese version of the word. The drive was taking the ships, not where they supposed to go but instead where they needed to be.  All five of the star systems the Navy had surveyed thus far, had planets with liquid water and nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere in about the right mix. The reason they had the right atmosphere was quite a bit of greenery on the ground. Close surveillance wasn't possible, the Nebraska hadn't been equipped for it. However there was no longer the slightest bit of doubt that life outside the Solar System existed.

The problem was, that none of those stars had been anywhere near where the Nebraska had thought it would be going.

The Social Justice Narrative was that the Strata Drive was clearly unreliable and should be mothballed completely until it was better understood. The fact that no one really understood any of the physics behind it and therefore had no place to start research didn't matter. The Narrative had spoken.  

There were many other voices that disagreed.  Bob’s own among them.  For the moment they were being listened to.  If nothing else it was a distraction from the disaster that was the world economy.

“Dad?”  He could tell she was getting ready to ask a big question.  

“Yes, Sweetie?”  Bob asked with no small amount of trepidation.

“Have you thought about...Leaving?”

Bob Meijer sighed out a long slow, chest deflating whistle.  Michael grumped a little in his arms, then snuggled back down into his noisy Grandpa’s arms.

Leaving had become the talk of the conservative boards.  The Far right.  The Alternative right.  And the outright, white supremacists, were all talking about it.  But so too were those that were closer to the middle of the political road.  Some of the more extreme flavors of leftism were getting caught up in the romance of it as well.  

It was a hard question to face. Bob’s own father had come home from Vietnam in a box.  Neither, Bob nor his brothers had any clear memories of the man.   When you sacrifice years of your life and members of your family....  

When you get weepy at movies when America wins the day (old movies to be sure)....  

When you feel heart cold solemnity when visiting the Tomb at Arlington...

When you argued yourself blue in the face back at college that the United States constitution was the greatest contract humanity had made with itself in all of its history...

What do you do when you realize that you are just trying to keep a dead dream alive?

It was one of the most painful questions Bob Meijer had ever asked himself.  And there was little doubt in his mind that the America his family had loved deeply and fought for ferociously and at great cost...was gone.  

The Constitution was now little more then a dead letter.  The Supreme Court could amend it at will to say whatever they wanted it to say.  There was no mention in the constitution of a woman's’ right to have an abortion.  Even it’s backers had said Justice Blackmum’s ruling was poorly reasoned.  But poorly reasoned or not, the Roe non-amendment was an irrepealable law that could not be altered or even challenged in the courts at this point.  No where did the constitution guarantee the right of homosexuals redefine the sixty thousand year old institution of marriage.  Yet there it was now, as immune to the will of the people as the tides and wind.  The amendment that granted the Supreme Court that power to do all of this...didn’t exist either.  The ability of the Supreme Court to write constitutional law from the bench with a five to four majority was entirely self awarded. And there was at this point no way to challenge it.

Because the politicians that were supposed to represent people like Bob and his family were members of as blatantly and completely a scabrous old Washington whore of a party as could be remembered in the all of human politics.  Republicans actually had actually had the nerve to be surprised when they got voted out of office.

What few rights people like the Meijers still had were being peeled away in strips.  The only thing the GOP was good for was demanding more donations, so they could explain at length why nothing could be done.

Bob Meijer’s entire way of life was under siege by a relentless hivemind.  One, that on top of being an unending source of vanilla totalitarianism, was intolerably smug into the bargain.

Leaving...had a certain appeal.

Quit it all.  Tell Atlas it was time to shrug and just go.  Up until now it was pointless because really where was there for an American to go?  There was no other country that wasn’t already much worse then what Americans were putting up with already.  

But the Strata Drive had opened up entire worlds.  Most were a three month trip one way.  And so far there was no way to communicate faster then a courier ship.  They didn’t even have those yet.  It had made for a very tense five months for Piper, not knowing how the Nebraska had fared.

Regardless the ability of a centralized authority to control it’s people was very dependant on timely communications.  No communications would mean, no real control.

The Democrat President and the Republican Congress come to that were both dead against colonization efforts. The President because she didn’t like humanity and didn’t want her race contaminating the entire universe.  And, Congress because the half of their friends that lived on Manhattan were against it and the other half that lived on K Street couldn’t figure out how to make a dishonest buck off of it.

But (and this was a huge but) The A-Grav and the Shipstone had changed things.  You didn’t need a multi-billion dollar, (good for one trip only) rocket.  Not anymore.

No one had done it yet but everyone knew it could be done.  The Strata Drive itself didn’t require more anymore power then a low end PC.  Getting to orbit was almost as easy.

A private starship would cost no more then...well that part was questionable.  No one had ever actually built one  but the best guess estimate was that a colony ship was not going to cost much more then a modern high capacity cruise ship.  It all looked pretty doable.

“I’m not that young, Cupcake,”  Bob said in resignation.

There were plenty of other excuses. Pretty good ones really.  

Neither he nor Joan were getting any younger.  A frontier planet, (Good lord, Bob thought, I just used the words, “frontier planet” in a completely serious and unironic context), would make for a much shorter life.  There wasn’t going to much in the way of geriatric medicine because the kids who would be dropping everything to try their luck in the outlands were indeed going to be kids.  The doctors they would mostly need would be OBs, not prostate specialists.

Piper raised an eyebrow. “You don't’ have one foot in the grave either.  Dad think about it,” Piper half pleaded.  “Once people like Steve and I are gone what happens to the people we leave behind. The other side is going to be in an absolute, permanent majority. Forget about the courts. They are going to have enough votes to rewrite the constitution any way they like. And you know what they would like."

Bob knew that was perfectly true too. He worked at a university, he saw the endumbening everyday. They wanted America to be like Venesula or Cuba. Those illiterate morons honestly thought that that would a be a good thing. They were little short of functionally insane and yet the mainstream Left bowed down to them constantly. What would America be like if there was nothing to stop them?

“Your mother would never go for it,” he stated with resigned finality to Piper

Which was quite true enough.  Half the reason he had taken  the posting at USNO was that Joan could finally have a stable life.  She was a trouper but she couldn’t really roll with the punches.  She would be planning a dinner party for Saturday, then one phone call and twelve hours later, her husband would be on the other side of the planet and she would be crying in the kitchen. It always shattered her.  She just couldn’t handle sudden change.  It just wasn’t in Joan.

Piper said nothing for bit.  Her breathing was slowing now.  She wasn’t sweating as much.  Her workout recovery was pretty much  complete.  She was clearly trying to think of anything that would overcome that all powerful veto of her Mom’s.

Michael would have preferred to have had more down time but his diaper had gone from warm to cold.  He didn’t much care for that.  And the Mom person who provided dairy was here now.  Time to make my presence felt, he decided although not in so many words.

 Bob stood in his driveway waving to Piper as the white VW GTI pulled out his driveway. He kept the smile on his face but had to turn away.  His eyes felt full.  His girls had never seen him cry.  Joan had once and she had made it clear that she never expected to see that again in her life.

He was going to lose his little girl again.  

For keeps this time.   An expensive ticket and a six month round trip would see to that.  There was no way she could come visit him once she was there.  Wherever the hell there turned out to be for Piper.  Maybe he could manage to one or two trips out himself in his remaining life but probably no more then that.  Piper and his grandson were going to go into permanent exile with his total heartbroken blessing.  

He decided not to go back inside but instead Bob made his way around the outside of the house.  He could get the hedge trimmer and screw around with the shrubbery for a little bit, while he got it out of his system.  He could blame his non-existent allergies for the red eyes when he came back inside.

He hadn’t quite reached the garden shed when he heard a very familiar voice weeping in the gazebo.  Bob stood still for a moment.  Joan liked to be seen crying about as much as she liked seeing Bob do it.  It was a real intrusion for her and always had been. Over the course of their lives together Bob and Joan had worked out an informal system.  He knew when she was likely to need to cry over something.   He would then leave her to do that while he made chocolate ice cream for her using his grandfather’s crank powered bucket.  The physical labor needed keep the antique churn going helped him deal with the frustration he felt for not being able to comfort her.  The crank action was loud and stiff and slow.  He really had to work up a hard sweat as the ice cream began to thicken.  It got his mind off the fact that there was nothing his wife would let him do for her on these occasions.

It had been how Joan was raised.  She was the most selfless person that Bob had ever known in his life. In exchange for that, when she need to be alone, she needed to alone.  

Also being Belgian he was more then a little proud of his way around chocolate.  Joan claimed it was the only reason she had married him.

Problem.  Grandpa’s ice cream churn was in the shed behind the gazebo.  Joan was firmly seated between himself and his only known means of comforting her.

Now what?

He was considering sneaking around her while her back was turned when he heard her say with a rough voice, “Bob we...we need to talk.”

This had never happened before.  He walked up to her.  Paused awkwardly in front of her and made a furtive start at offering her a comforting hug.

Joan scowled at that slightly and pulled back.  Not quite sure what had gotten into him trying to hug her at a time like this.  She patted the bench next to her.

Bob sat down and waited largely at a loss of what to do and hoping he wouldn’t be in trouble for that.

“Bob,”  Joan swallowed hard and took a couple of deep breaths.  

Okay, this is really important Bob thought to himself.

“We have to Leave,”  She choked out the last word and burst into tears again and this time she actually reached for Bob.

Bob wrapped his arms tightly around her and just kept his mouth shut.  Joan was a solid kid too.



Hugh McKay said...

yes, you should persue this. though the plot is a bit close to Kratman's stuff in places. The mystery hook at the beginning is good. When are you going to release the 'Dark Winter' book?

Ron said...

I like the focus on how new technology would change the political balance and undercurrent mindset.

However, I think you gave the drive way too much power. If you can move heavy objects into high orbit for now more than the cost of electricity required to keep a PC running for a week, then you have the ability to move a bus into high orbit and then drop it on the city for about 20$. That's just an example of why that would be an unbalanced system.

Now you could certainly write a book about such a world, but then the focus would be very different. Why bother using coal or oil, when you can leverage the kinetic energy released from an object being dropped from a great height? How would this for example affect agriculture, which already is in a mess because it's cheaper in short term economics to rely on petroleum based energy assistance rather than solar energy based systems? (grass)

Suggestion: The main intention of the drive is to be make it economical to get someone from one solar body to another extremely quickly in terms of man hours, resource consumption and industrial work to build such a ship. I say scale it down so that it would still require at least a major corporation to do so effectively. You could also put an additional constraint requiring the drive to only work when sufficiently far away from a major grav well, this allows for extra interplanetary voyages based on conventional engines.

Bibliotheca Servare said...

It'll be a refreshing change of pace if the young wife turns out to be a true, virtuous woman of God, rather than an "empowered" "independent" doxy. Aside from that (almost certainly baseless) concern, this was fan-bloody-tastic! Loved the parody/realistic portrayal of Neil Degrass Tyson, heh. Will you be writing more of this? If so, count me in! :-)