Friday, December 01, 2006

The Dam Across The Stars

These are a couple of chapters from the new SF novel I'm trying to write, if you have the time and inclination to read it then please do so, if you can incline a little more (without falling over) then feel free to comment :)
Chapter 1 – The discovery.

‘Father, tell me about Casper Tuttle.’

The Son felt a benign aura wash over him as his father replied, ‘Casper’s story, again?’ What could have been interpreted as a sigh followed, and then, ‘Don’t you tire of hearing this, my son?’

Long moments passed before a reply was forthcoming, ‘No, Father. I don’t.’

‘Very well, then I shall not tire in the telling.’

Casper Tuttle knew from the earliest moment that he could recall that he wanted to be a Sentinel. It was only later that he realized that it was a desire that had been pre-programmed into his DNA. Perhaps that should have dulled his hunger somewhat, but it didn’t. He questioned his indifference to the fact that he had been conceived to serve as a Sentinel and wondered oft times if he should have felt bitter over his pre-ordained future. However, on deep reflection, he knew that, prearranged by genetic coding or not, he believed that even given free choice he would have yearned for the stars and to be a Sentinel along the Dam. The absurdity was that he also knew that he was probably also compiled to believe this way too, if so, then the DNA coding was perfection personified, for nothing on God’s Earth meant more to him than the Dam and its well-being.

Humankind, in their vainglorious knowledge that they were unique in the universe, populated their solar system, then galaxy, much as they had done on their native planet, with no regard whatsoever to any flora or fauna they encountered on other worlds.
Man was a supreme being and as such all others were there to be used, exploited, domesticated or subsumed into the role required by humanity. More often than not inferior beings tended to achieve extinction upon acquaintance with the sons of Adam.

The autocratic expansion into space continued for millennia, unchallenged, aloof and arrogant. Until the Dam.

A Behemoth class trading-ship in 2093 folded space too close to the Lagrange point of Bester 3, a small-colonized planet on the edge of the Milky Way, and never arrived at its destination. The subsequent disturbance of its departure caused an anomaly in the centripetal force between the planet and its small moon. It wasn’t long before the moon’s geosynchronous orbit had become perturbed enough for it to begin to enter the gravitation well of the planet and shortly afterwards get pulled down into a cataclysmic collision resulting in an ELE, an extinction-level event. Providentially for the colonists there had been enough time for nearly all of them to depart. The indigenous life-forms were less fortunate.

As newsworthy as this event had been it was nothing compared to the transmission received from the trading-ship when it appeared again within human shipping-lanes.
Thrown out to the edge of the Local Group of galaxies by their ham-fisted folding within Bester 3’s L-point, it had discovered something strange, something very strange indeed.

Materializing from the fold into normal space, the Behemoth, St Michael was confronted by an impenetrable wall that was almost invisible to everything other than through the auspices of their proximity detection system. Through view-ports there could be discerned a vague veil of stellar dust and debris that had collected up against the barrier and human eyes fought to interpret the vastness of the barrier. For days, the trading-ship had tried to circumnavigate the obstruction. They travelled in all possible directions, apart from the reverse of their ingress. They found no break, no lessening of its impenetrability. With the same recklessness that had caused the destruction of Bester 3 the captain ordered a fold through the barrier to an estimated point of one light-year within its confines. The great Huzita-Hatori engines powered up to maximum and space folded. The St.Michael exited at its point of origin. The barrier remained unbreached.

St.Michael’s Dam, supposedly named after the Behemoth’s captain’s expletive when discovering their position, had not changed one iota. Nevertheless, other suggestions are that the barrier was perceived truly as a dam, an artifact constructed to hold back something that lay on the other side, or, more frighteningly, as built to contain something from the rest of the universe, Mankind.

With the fervour that only human beings can engender, religions sprang up throughout the galaxy. Surely, here was a demonstration of a higher being, a supreme deity, God. Many reasoned that beyond the barrier lay Eden, for obviously the discovery of its existence by a ship named St.Michael was no coincidence, but an omen. St.Michael was the gatekeeper. The archangel, incarnate in a star-ship, had lead humankind to the wall surrounding the fabulous garden from which all creation had stemmed. It was now dependent upon Man how they should proceed, for somewhere along the vastness of the dam there must be a gate. The gate, which was slammed in Adam and Eve’s face. The gate, which the Archangel Michael had now deemed passable by Adam’s sons. Had he not sent a sign?

Others regarded the dam with wariness. What if Eden was here, with us now and the gate, if one existed did not let us out, but let something in?

The Galactic Council, not known for its synthesis and unity on reaching important decisions calmly and quickly, shocked the federation of planets by announcing the commission of a new military force. They were charged with the mapping, patrolling and defence of what was fast becoming known by its other name, The Dam across The Stars.

The fledgling force was called The Sentinels. Within twenty years of its discovery, the dam had acquired an infestation of craft of various types and origins, all attempting to find the gate and thereby either control it or be the first through. Sentinels were single-man ships, heavily armoured and armed, with military spec Huzita-Hatori engines capable of folding the craft across a quarter of the known galaxy in one jaunt. Their mandate was to clear the dam of all non-Sentinel traffic, by force if necessary, and upon finding a way through, guard the portal with their lives. Nothing was to be allowed out, and definitely, nothing allowed in.

All thoughts of finding a way over, under or around the dam were quickly discounted within a few years of its discovery as un-manned RDPs, rapid deployment probes, adept at multi-folding until destruction, confirmed humanity’s deepest fear. The dam, although almost invisible, was truly impenetrable and circumnavigated the entire Milky Way. Humankind existed in an enclosed sphere, albeit one of immense dimensions. However, some people found it claustrophobic and wanted out. Pen Gasquet was one; he was also the first person to kill Casper Tuttle.


Chapter 2 – Re-entry

‘Level out now and just tilt her nose slightly; your angle of attack is still too steep.’ The voice from ground control sounded slightly worried.
Pen Gasquet’s gloved middle finger flicked up and he mentally switched off his mesh.
‘You’ve dropped off the mesh.’ Casper Tuttle said from the co-pilot’s seat then turned to look at his friend, saw the finger and shook his head, ‘you’ve switched it off.’
‘Yada yada yada. We’ve simmed this a hundred times. If I can’t do it now for real I’ll never be able to do it.’
‘Thanks for that. If we don’t do it for real now, neither of us will be able to do it. We’ll both be dead.’ Casper replied, ‘GC’s going ballistic, you need to get her nose up.’
‘Look, if we were coming in under fire do you think we’d have the luxury of skipping down nice and gently?’ Pen replied, and then grimaced as the little training ship bucked beneath him, ‘no, we’d be blown out of the sky. We punch through the envelope quickly, airbrake in the upper atmosphere and discharge decoys before going covert.’
‘And how do you propose we stay covert when we’re glowing white-hot or worse still are in little pieces scattered across the ionosphere?’ Casper asked, his teeth grinding.
‘You worry too much.’
‘No, I only worry when I’m paired up with you. Otherwise I’m as cool as a piece of shit on the moon.’
Casper’s mesh flashed an alarm in the corner of his eye and the little craft’s AI interfaced directly with him, breaking all protocols.
‘As I am forced to declare this an emergency and am unable to interface with Private Gasquet, I have no other alternative than to inform you that control will no longer be available. I now have control.’
The craft skewed violently to the left and Casper’s head almost collided with his friend’s thick skull.
‘Ship has taken control, damn thing just meshed straight into me without asking for protocol.’
‘Is is fuck,’ Pen snarled and slammed a hand down onto the soft-terminal in front of him. It swallowed his gloved hand and he meshed in.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ groaned Casper as the ship yawed violently, his stomach turned and his gorge rose to the back of his throat.
‘Priority over-ride, meat beats sheet.’ Pen referred disparagingly to the AI’s sheet membrane on which its persona was stored.
Humans always took priority of Artificial Intelligence, even when the AI was the more competent of the two.
‘You’ll push it into a reset doing that!’
‘So, you just killed us you bloody idiot.’ Casper looked at his friend and wondered why he had ever allowed the reckless idiot into his life.
‘Have faith.’ Pen said and then flashed a smile. His teeth gleamed white, then within an instant flashed red, just before his smile disappeared and a frown took its place.
Casper looked forward and realized the red was coming from just below the small windscreen. The ablative shield was burning away and the underlying heat soak had reached critical. The normally cool air circulating his suit rose swiftly and sweat began to pour down his forehead and into his eyes. He meshed into GC and accessed a persona dump. Whilst he felt the surreal feeling of disembodiment that accompanied a cognizant dump, they were usually done whilst asleep, he reached over and gripped Pen’s arm.
‘For God’s sake, mesh in and dump. Pen, do it!’
Pen stared back and Casper saw the realization dawn on his friend’s face that this time they wouldn’t walk away from his audacious but ultimately brash attempt at beating the system. He nodded and a moment later, the ship disintegrated around them. All that remained of the training ship turned into glowing fragments, which streaked like miniature falling stars across the dark sky over the Pacific Ocean.

It tasted like peppermint. He could have just awoken from a dream after dropping off with an oral cleanser in his mouth, they tasted like peppermint too, but Casper knew the truth. Even before he opened his eyes the memories came flooding back and his heart-rate soared as his adrenal glands flew into fight or flight mode. Somewhere in the fuzzy distance, he thought he heard a high-pitched alarm and for a nano-second he imagined he was still on Ship. An icy cool metallic kiss brushed against his neck and his panic dispersed leaving him feeling calm and cocooned. Through the lethargic haze that held tight reign on his mind he realized that he was, truly cocooned. However, the confirmation that he had been trunked both saddened and relieved him.
He had meshed into the mainframe and dumped his persona in time. His original body, the one he had been born into and the one he hoped to have inhabited for more than his twenty-two years and been obliterated when Ship had been destroyed. Sentinels always had a reserve trunk into which they could be expressed in the event of an emergency. Casper shivered when he acknowledged the fact that he had just used up his one. It would take two years to clone a new trunk. If, in the meantime he badly damaged or destroyed the one he now inhabited, it meant existing inside the mainframe in VR until a new one was grown or this one repaired. He had heard stories of men who had never left the mainframe after being meshed into it for more than six months. It was rumoured the longer you stayed in VR the more your persona degraded.

Something muculent sloughed away from his face as he coughed and spluttered the first breaths into his new lungs. The umbilical membrane then slid off his chest as he eased himself upright. His eyes refused to open and he raised his right hand to his face and rubbed them.
‘Wait, I’ll do that. The lids are a bit gummy. Move your fingers away.’ The voice was feminine and sounded far way and full of echoes.
He let his hand flop back down to his side where it splashed into the draining amniotic fluid that was slowly gurgling out of the clone-womb capsule. A cool, moist pad patted his eyes gently.
‘There, that’s better. Try and open them now.’
Casper’s blue eyes fluttered open and he was confronted by an angel.
‘I’m in heaven,’ he spluttered as the peppermint flavoured fluid dribbled out of his mouth.
The young clone-womb attendant smiled. She was demure, light brown hair cropped short and surmounted with the white band of cloth that signified her rank. By now she was used to nearly every type of comment from newly revived trunks, most of whom were military and a large part of them were Sentinels. She stepped forward and held out a white coverall sheet for him. Casper struggled to his feet and the attendant put out a hand to assist him.
‘It’s ok, I think I can manage,’ he said, and then looked down at his groin, ‘hmm… looks like I’m quite pleased to see you.’
She laughed, ‘don’t worry it happens to all the trunks, oh… sorry, I should say re-born. They don’t like us using that euphemism, it’s undignified, but everyone uses it. I’m Tani and you’re not in heaven yet.’
‘For a second I thought I was, you’re beautiful, and no problem, trunk doesn’t offend me. I’m just damn glad we got downloaded into the ‘frame in time. Thought we weren’t going to make it.’
She handed him the sheet and it wrapped itself around him, moulding to his body like a second skin, then she looked away. For a moment, he thought she was embarrassed by the sheet’s covering of his erection, which only seemed to highlight it. Then he felt that it was not that but she was hiding something from him.
‘Something’s wrong, what is it?’ he asked.
‘I’m not supposed to say anything. The doctor will be along shortly; he’ll explain things better than I can anyway.’
Casper grabbed her arm, ‘what’s wrong with me?’ he tightened his grip, ‘fuck the doctor, tell me Tani, what’s happened to me?’
She struggled and gasped, ‘you’re hurting me.’
He towered over her, full of menace, but then let her go and looked at her beseechingly, ‘for God sake’s tell me what’s wrong with me!’
Tani rubbed her arm that began to show the marks of his fingers, ‘it’s not you.’
He frowned, ‘then what’s wrong?’
She sighed, ‘it’s your friend, Private Gasquet.’
Casper jumped lithely out of the capsule and stood before her, even without the added height of the clone-womb beneath his feet he still stood a good head above her, ‘what about Pen, he’s ok isn’t he?’ A cold feeling swept over him. ‘He meshed in and dumped to ‘frame, I saw him. I’m sure I did.’

Tani hesitated, ‘he meshed but he was too slow. Not all of him was downloaded.’
‘How much?’
‘We got eighty percent before…’
‘Before Ship disintegrated and we were killed.’
She nodded.
Casper paced back and fore shaking his head then stopped as his clone-womb closed like a shell and sank into the floor. Within seconds, the small, white room contained only him and Tani.
‘Will they trunk him?’ he asked.
Tani nodded again, ‘yes, but he won’t be the same. Don’t miss-understand me. He’ll still be the friend you know, but…’
Casper shook his head, ‘but he won’t be one hundred percent and that means he can’t ever serve as a Sentinel.’
‘You may as well leave him in VR. Without any chance of being a Sentinel he’ll thank you for it.’
‘You know that can’t be done. He gets trunked once anyway. It’s part of who you are. What he wants to do with his second chance will be up to him. There are plenty of other things he could do with his life.’ She replied optimistically, but Casper doubted her heart was in it.
‘You know as well as I do his programming will never let him rest. He’s a Sentinel. When he gets trunked and finds out he’ll go berserk.’
She looked away from him again.
‘There’s more, isn’t there?’ he demanded.
‘He was trunked a month ago,’ she finally said, ‘he refused rehab and signed onto an asteroid lugger. He’s left the system.’
‘How the fuck did he get trunked a whole month before me?’ he asked, ‘How long was I in VR?’
‘Your clone wasn’t cooked enough. His was. You were in VR for just over two months.’ She replied, ‘Look, do me a favour. Don’t let on you know anything when the doctor arrives. He’s a funny bastard; I don’t want him tearing a strip off me.’
He nodded, ‘it’s a deal, but I want something from you first.’
She smiled, ‘you Sentinels are all the same,’ and she started to unlatch her tunic.
Casper stopped her hand, ‘no, not that. I want a copy of Pen’s data-crystal.’

The shuttle carried Casper out of Earth’s atmosphere and into orbit with the Sentinel station. As he peered through the window and watched the display of lightning in the clouds over the African continent, he fingered the data-crystal through the armoured material of his spacesuit. Tani had copied Pen’s last download before it was purged forever from the mainframe and now he carried his friend’s persona like an encapsulated soul on a thin titanium chain around his neck.
‘What the hell am I going to do with you now?’ he said quietly.
‘Sorry, sir, what?’ asked the shuttle pilot.
Casper shook himself from his reverie, ‘just talking to myself. Ignore me. It’s been a long two weeks without wings.’
The pilot, a short, barrel-chested man with a receding hairline nodded in understanding, ‘I can sympathize, it’s bad enough for a bus-driver like me when I can’t get off the ground, must be even worse for you guys.’
‘Don’t do yourself down. Re-entry takes a skill all of its own. I should know.’ He sighed then continued when the shuttle pilot looked at him quizzically. ‘We were on re-entry and upper atmosphere trials when we had an accident. My colleague and I were killed.’
‘Shit, that’s got to be traumatizing.’
‘Not really, we meshed out and the trainer just vapourized. I doubt Pen or myself felt anything. It would have been too quick.’ He subconsciously felt for the crystal again.
‘Pen is your buddy?’
‘He ok?’
Casper’s jaw tightened, ‘he was slow in dumping to the ‘frame. They got about eighty percent. He’s fucked now.’
‘Sorry, man. That’s brutal. Hope they can de-program him.’ Replied the pilot, shaking his head.
‘Can’t be done. He’s left system now too. Asteroid lugger.’
Casper nodded. Luggers were paid well but not many lived to cash in their credits. They harpooned ore rich asteroids and shepherded them to vast manufactories in orbit around habitable planets where they were broken down and their resources dropped into the atmosphere. Many of the asteroids needed close-up attention and vacuum work was a bitch at the best of times. Military suits were a whole generation above the ramshackle ones that luggers were issued with and even then, Sentinels preferred to stay within the heavily shielded ships than float around in hard space.
‘Good money if he survives. Perhaps enough to get a ship of his own.’ The pilot said trying to find something positive to say.
‘True,’ replied Casper, ‘or a quick way to die.’
Casper felt the manoeuvring thrusters kick in and the craft began to yaw around. He glanced out of the window again and watched as the station swept majestically into view. Its platforms boasted numerous Sentinel fighters and he searched for his but knew he’d only recognize it when up close, then he would be able to spot the little origami design that each individual ship bore. His was Pegasus and was numbered thirty-three.
‘Quite a few ships in.’ remarked the pilot.
‘Probably all doing trials. It’s become part of training procedure since the debacle at Chicago Prime.’ Casper explained.
‘I heard about that. Quite a number of Sentinels got toasted by the militia fleet when they got dragged into an upper atmosphere fight, didn’t they?’
‘Yes. Bloody fools shouldn’t have entered the atmosphere.’
‘So if your Langs can’t fly in atmosphere then why the hell are they pulling you off patrol to retrain?’
‘The main bird’s been modified. All Langs can now de-couple their pilot module and that can go through re-entry whilst the main ship with the Huzita-Hatoris stays in orbit. You can’t fold anywhere near a planetary body anyway so why drag those damn big drives down into atmosphere with you? It’s what killed those guys at Chicago.’
The pilot nodded, ‘makes sense. Can’t leave you with much armament and weapons though.’
Casper smiled, ‘you’d be surprised.’ He nodded towards the racks of spacecraft lined up waiting expectantly for their pilots. The Lang based model was similar to an old 20th century Colt 45 M1911 automatic pistol, but on an enormous scale. ‘See the large drop down manifold unit beneath the main body? All of that it the drive. It’s as far away from the pilot as possible. The effects on human tissue when the drive kicks in isn’t pleasant, to say the least.’
‘Can’t see any weaponry.’
‘You won’t. It’s all incorporated into the pilot module which is the main horizontal part of the ship. Let me tell you about an old automatic pistol.’ And Casper gave the pilot a brief history of the 20th century weapon.
‘Apt that it should look like that then.’ The pilot said after the explanation.
‘I suppose. However, the pistol model before it sounds more evocative.’
‘Oh?’ the pilot shrugged, ‘gonna tell me why?’
‘The previous Colt 45 was nicknamed The Peacemaker.’ Answered Casper.
‘I can see you like ancient history.’
‘No so ancient, in the grand scheme of things.’ Casper said, and then, ‘know why each Lang has a sigil? Or why they’re called Langs? Bet you don’t know why the engines are called Huzita-Hatori either.
‘No, no and yet again, no.’ laughed the pilot, ‘hey you better not be expecting payment for this history lesson.’
‘Nah, it’s a pleasure to pass on the knowledge,’ replied Casper with a smile, ‘passes the time too. Anyway, each sigil is an origami animal. Origami is the Japanese practice of folding paper. My ship is Pegasus, the winged horse; she is the thirty-third to carry that sign. Lang was an engineer in the 2000s who loved origami. He was also a physicist and along with Huzita-Hatori, an Italian Japanese mathematician worked on folding space instead of just paper. The theory was taken up by the Nobel Prize winner Asher who saw their ideas and finally extrapolated their theories into a practical engine for folding space.’
‘So we travel across the galaxy in the blink of an eye by the age old art of folding paper? That’s so weird it has to be true!’ the pilot shook his head in wonderment.
‘Obviously it isn’t as easy at that, but the basics are the same, well so I’ve been told. My brain can’t get around the full theory. After all, I’m fundamentally a rocket jockey just like you.’
The shuttle chimed and the pilot nodded to Casper, ‘strap in, we’re about to dock.’
‘Nice flight, thanks for taking good care of me.’
‘It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for the conversation. Some Sentinels aren’t very communicative.’
‘If you think I’m talkative, you should meet Pen…’ Casper’s voice trailed off.
‘I’m sure your pal’s going to be okay. Bet you bump into him one day and he’ll be flying his own ship. Sentinels are resilient.’
The lights blinked momentarily as the shuttle coupled with the station and began to feed off their systems. Casper unbuckled and expertly floated himself to the airlock. He turned and nodded, ‘thanks man. Take care.’
‘Back at you Sentinel, back at you.’

‘Welcome back Casper.’ Ship said as he eased himself into the pilot’s seating and meshed in.
‘Thanks, Ship. Did you miss me?’ he asked although he could now subvocalize with the spacecraft’s AI if he so wished. However, like many other Sentinels, Casper liked to carry on vocal conversations whenever it was possible. If felt more as if another person was on board. The pilots felt less lonely.
‘Of course I missed you. It can be boring sitting it dock with no one to speak to.’
‘Don’t you mesh into the station’s mainframe or the other Ships?’
‘Yes, but remember. We communicate on an entirely different level. Usually we exhaust all possible avenues of chit-chat within minutes.’
He smiled, ‘chit-chat?’ Casper shook his head, ‘you mean to say you share gossip?’
‘Gossip, information, call it what you like. Nevertheless, it’s how I came to know about your little mishap. I’m sorry about Pen, I’m sorry about Sparrow too.’
Casper’s smile faded, ‘thanks Ship.’ Then he frowned, ‘Sparrow?’ he queried.
‘Yes, the trainer’s AI, Sparrow. She was a pleasant person.’
His face flushed slightly, ‘I’m sorry Ship. I didn’t think…’
‘It’s ok. I suppose it’s hard for humans to really accept that we are capable of feeling some sort of loss too over fallen friends.’
‘I had no idea.’ He replied.
‘No, not many do.’
Moments passed whilst both man and AI dwelt on the abyss that separated the two. Although they worked in the closest of partnership neither could really understand what it was like for the other.
‘Time to get out onto the Dam, Ship.’ Casper finally said.
‘Of course, Casper. All systems are ready, shall I take us out?’
‘Let’s go, Ship.’ He said and felt the maneuvering jets push them away from the station’s holding cradle. Numerous umbilical lines disengaged from the Pegasus’s hull and glistening clouds of gases or liquids dispersed into vacuum and were swept away by the small propulsion motors. At a safe distance, Ship fed xenon gas into the ion drive, electrified it and accelerated the ion charge up to thirty klicks a second. The Sentinel station dropped into the distance and before long Casper turned his eyes away from the view panel, he’d drawn on the inner wall of the vessel, and told Ship to fold them to their patrol area.
Clear of any planetary bodies, large space debris or other ships, the Pegasus fed power to the massive Huzita-Hatori engines that nestled below and behind Casper’s control module. As he listened to the raising pitch of the gravitational distortion build throughout the ship, once again he imagined the simplified explanation he’d been given by his instructors as to what was happening to the space around him.

‘Imagine a large square of paper, Tuttle. That’s your space, see?’ Royce, the thin, weedy looking one of his many instructors had said. He had the disgusting habit of cleaning his ear with his little finger and then examining his rummaging as if expecting to find brain matter there. Casper hoped one day he’d perforate a ear drum, but it never happened.
‘Can you imagine it, boy?’
Casper bit down on the reply he’d like to have given and just nodded.
‘Good. Now imagine drawing a dot in the top right hand corner and one in the bottom left. You still with me, Tuttle?’
‘Yes sir.’ He replied and watched as Royce’s little finger was held up for inspection again, and then the man sniffed it.
‘Well done. Not too hard is it?’ Royce wiped his finger along the lapel of his white coverall leaving a slight yellow streak. Casper was saddened by the fact that it wasn’t a red streak.
‘So, we have your ship as the dot in the upper right, your destination as the dot in the lower left. In between we have all manner of nasty things, asteroids, planets, suns, black-holes, other ships, little green monsters, but nothing matters to you because you are sitting on nice, big, fat, military spec H-Hs and you’ve just powered them up.’
Casper nodded again.
‘Ok, now it’s time to fold. You kick in your H-Hs and they fold your piece of paper, top right to bottom left. Your dots touch and you step from one to the other, missing out all that crap in between. Nice, eh?’
‘Yes, sir.’ Replied Casper wishing he could fold Royce’s head up his own arse.
Now, you might be wondering as there’s no absolute frame of reference in general relativity this mechanism not only means that you travel from one point to another but also from one time to another. That gives us a load of potential paradox problems, the old ‘kill your own grandfather’, for example.’Casper nodded, thinking -- or kill a certain lecturer’s grandfather…‘Good, now this is the fun bit, Casper, because it has been tried. But whenever we’ve attempted to tunnel to a space-time point that lies within its own relativistic horizon, instead of being transmitted over the quantum barrier the craft has been reflected back as a burst of Hawking radiation, i.e. undifferentiated matter. We’ve given up trying, for some unknown reason it just won’t work, interesting eh?
Ship broke into his thoughts, ‘Folding in three seconds, Casper.’ ‘Ok, hit it, Ship.’ He replied and Royce fell from his thoughts as quickly as the Ship fell through space and materialized alongside the Dam. Casper Tuttle’s tour of duty patrolling his area had started again. ‘So, what you think Ship?’ asked Casper.
‘What do I think?’ Ship’s voice sounded decidedly pissed off, ‘Does it matter? Won’t you do whatever you want, anyway?’
‘You know I take your opinions seriously. Well?’
‘I don’t like it. What if it corrupts me?’ asked Ship.
‘How the hell can it… I mean he, corrupt you?’ sighed Casper, ‘I’m only asking you to run him a VR sub-system; you don’t have to let him into your main programming. Just make sure you’ve fire-walled it off from the VR.’
‘Easy for you to say. Would you let another mind run alongside your own?’

Casper scratched the coarse blonde stubble growing on his head in exasperation, ‘it’s not the same and you know it. Multi-tasking is nothing for you. If I had two minds working simultaneously inside my damn skull I’d be even madder than what I am now.’
‘If I don’t like it will you remove him if I ask?’
‘Of course.’ Replied Casper.
‘Promise?’ asked Ship.
‘Bloody hell, Ship. Want me to cross my heart and hope to die?’ spluttered Casper and winced when the ship’s AI didn’t respond. ‘You do, don’t you?’
Silence reigned within the pilot’s cockpit.
‘Ok, ok, I promise, cross my heart and hope to die.’
‘Then I guess we can give it a try.’ Ship responded finally.
‘Thanks Ship, I really appreciate it, and Pen will too.’
‘It had better, I mean, he…’ Ship grumbled.
Casper took the data-crystal from around his neck and unclipped it from the chain. He placed it onto the soft-terminal on his armrest and said, ‘right, here we go. Mesh him into your sub-system Ship.’
The terminal softened and the crystal slowly sank into it.
Casper waited patiently.
He waited some more.
Finally unable to contain himself, ‘what’s happening, Ship?’ he blurted out.
‘In what sense, Casper?’ Ship replied.
‘Stop being obtuse, what’s happening with Pen?’
‘Nothing, he’s uploaded. He’s here.’
‘Well nothing’s happening.’
‘Casper, he’s here. If he doesn’t want to say anything then that’s not my fault,’ Ship said scornfully.
He waited another couple of minutes and then, ‘Pen, you there?’
‘Where’s there Casper? Where’s here? What the fuck is going on? Where the hell are you?’ Pen’s voice echoed around the cockpit, startling Casper.
‘Pen!’ Casper gasped, ‘it worked. I was a bit worried, I’ll admit it now, but holy shit, it worked!’
‘We in VR?’ asked Pen.
‘Um… you are, Pen, but…’
‘But?’ Pen’s voice hardened.
‘But, I’m not. Listen, Pen, this is going to be hard for you but let me explain before you say anything, ok?’
Moments passed slowly then Pen’s disembodied voice replied, ‘this doesn’t sound good. What’s happened to me, how come I’m in VR and you’re not?’

Casper took a deep breath, ‘Look, pal, the shuttle blew before you managed to get your entire persona downloaded to ‘frame.’
‘Oh, fuck!’ groaned Pen, ‘how much did they get?’
‘Eighty percent.’
‘Crap. They didn’t trunk me?’ his voice raised slightly, ‘they’ve got to trunk me at least the once. It’s in the fucking contract, man!’
‘Just listen, Pen, ok?’ Casper raised his hands but Pen was oblivious of the move, he had yet to be wired into the ship’s sensory net. ‘They trunked you, they held up their end of the deal.’
Pen’s voice interrupted him again; this time it was even higher, ‘what! Oh, man… Don’t tell me I got killed again and they wouldn’t trunk me a second time?’
Casper shook his head; this was going worse than he had imagined, ‘no, no… you didn’t die again. You got trunked and you’re still alive, well, as far as I know.’
‘I don’t get it, what the hell are you talking about?’
‘Pen, I got the attendant to give me another copy of you before your back-up was erased from VR.’ Explained Casper.
‘What in God’s name did you do that for?’ he was shouting now, ‘I’m a fucking copy and running in your own personal VR? Is this payback for my mistake that got us killed?’
‘No, Pen, for Christ’s sake. I’m not that perverted. I’ve done it for you, man, don’t you see?’
‘No, Casper. I don’t fucking see. I don’t fucking smell and I don’t fucking touch. I’m in VR, your little electronic pet, you sick fuck.’
‘Pen, you were expressed before me. My trunk wasn’t ready. They told you about your partial dump to ‘frame and you flipped. No rehab, no waiting for your pal. You jumped onto the first available ship and left the system.’
‘So? What’s so bad about that? There’s no way they’d let me continue my commission anyway. So I shipped out, so what?’
‘You shipped onto an asteroid lugger.’
‘Oh… that’s not good.’ Pen’s voice softened, ‘not good at all. I either wanted to end it quick or…’
‘Or?’ asked Casper.
‘Or I had a plan on making a shit-full of money from it all and buying myself a ship. What do you think you’ll gain by copying me?’
‘I thought the chances of you making it were scarce. More than likely you’d get cooked or blown apart. If you’d spent some time with me I thought perhaps between the two of us we could have, if not restored your lost twenty percent, then at least filled in some of the missing gaps. But you buggered off before I could make you the offer.’

‘You couldn’t have taken the time off to mentor me, Casper. A nice idea but a futile one.’
‘Not if you didn’t get trunked straight away. Stayed in VR on Ship and served some patrol time with me.’ Casper said.
‘Makes sense I suppose,’ replied Pen, ‘but I had already gone, and so you took second best, a copy.’
‘A copy yeah, but you are exactly the same as the original.’
‘And what about the original?’ asked Pen.
‘Do you really think you’ll survive as a lugger?’
Pen’s reply took some time, ‘no. I don’t think there’s much chance.’
‘Then this is another chance for you, we’ll get your twenty percent back and I can buy you a trunk. Credit is no problem. By the time my patrol is over I’ll have more than enough.’
‘They aren’t going to like it.’ Pen said.
‘The Corps doesn’t have to know. We can get you another identity. You won’t be a Sentinel but at least you’ll have a better chance than harpooning asteroids. Perhaps I can get you something in the military.’
‘Ok Casper, ok, you’ve convinced me.’
‘Great. Right, let me get Ship to sort you out and onto the sensor net so you can see and feel what’s going on.’
‘Deke Choam.’ Said Pen.
‘Who’s that?’ asked Casper.
‘That’s my new identity,’ explained Pen, ‘he’s a fictional hero of mine from an old data-crystal serial.’
‘Ah, yeah, I remember the character now. He was a complete bastard wasn’t he?’ Casper raised an eyebrow, ‘you should fill his boots quite well.’
‘You’re welcome.’

Chapter 3 – Appointment at Chicago Prime 2120

The man was a rarity. Ninety percent of asteroid luggers never got to spend their hard-earned credits. He hadn’t spent most of his, but not because he couldn’t. He hadn’t been toasted by radiation either, through the wearing of the equivalent of paper-thin protection during EV activity. He hadn’t even blown himself to smithereens by mishandling harpooning equipment on the harsh, airless, surface of an iron lump of rogue asteroid. He hadn’t succumbed to whoring or drinking his way into peaceful oblivion after a depressingly dangerous asteroid shepherding, which surviving luggers tended to do. No, the man had invested in ex-military ware. He’d augmented his equipment and body with all the spare credits available to him and slowly, but surely, over three years had, through careful investment of any surplus funding, put away a very nice little nest egg, a very nice one indeed.
However, the time had now come for that little nest egg to be cracked open and its contents spilled into the hands of another, but in return he’d have a ship and a ship like no other private owner would have. The newly retired lugger sat in The Venus Bar in Clarkesville, the second biggest city on Chicago sipping a cold beer and waiting to keep an appointment. He wanted a Lang and he was finally going to get one.

Chicago Prime had been discovered shortly after the St.Michael’s finding of the Dam. It was to all intents and purposes quite like Earth, except for the fact that there was hardly any animal life on the planet at all but that shortage was made up for by the fact the flora was abundant and more importantly edible and highly nutritious. It was a vegan’s idea of heaven but mercenaries had discovered it and it was their idea of hell. Still, it was near a part of the Dam and a good base of operations for salvaging the ships that fought over the right to examine the area for signs of a gate. If the ships didn’t fight themselves then the mercenaries were not too perturbed by the fact, they merely helped things along by planting mines or firing upon a fleet from a distance and watching the subsequent catfight evolve. It wasn’t too long before enough complaints drove a fleet of Sentinels into a confrontation with the small militia that controlled Chicago Prime’s system. The militia took heavy losses and forced back to the planet’s atmosphere, fearful of being entirely wiped out. It was then that the Achilles’ heel, that was inherent in the Sentinels’ Lang spacecraft, showed up. Following the militia into the atmosphere was supposed to be a mopping up situation by the Sentinel force, it turned out to be the opposite. The H-H engines were useless and just added to the unwieldy aerodynamics of the Sentinels’ craft. They were simply not designed to operate efficiently within an atmosphere, whereas of the eclectic militia fleet the majority was constructed for re-entry and upper atmosphere flight. They had fusion engines as well as ion. The Langs had H-Hs and ion only. Forced to use ion engine only, the Sentinels quickly realized that although their engines might be superior, and ultimately faster than the reaction or chemical engines of their adversaries. Over a short distance they were at a disadvantage, they simply could not get up to speed quick enough and their maneuverability with the huge H-H engines adding to their mass was appalling. Twenty-three Langs were destroyed before the militia was finally pounded into submission. Sentinels did not make that mistake again. Now the Langs could drop their H-Hs in orbit, extrude airfoils for atmospheric flight and had a choice of drives.

‘Gimme another beer.’ The lugger said, tiredly. He rubbed a calloused hand over his stubbled covered chin as the droid bobbed and weaved next to his table. He looked at it and sighed, rapped it on the chest with his knuckles and repeated the order.
‘Sssory sir. One beer coming up.’ Stuttered the droid and stumbled off. Standing behind it was the lugger’s appointment. He was tall, gangly and wore a long, dust-covered coat of an indeterminable colour, he looked down at the man and a smile cracked his wrinkled face.
‘Crap waiter eh ‘worlder?’ he wheezed.
The lugger winced involuntarily at the term ‘worlder. Is it so transparent to everyone that I’m an off-worlder? He wondered. The lugger thought he had blended in with the crowd in the pub quite well. He didn’t particularly want to be known as being on Chicago, especially as he was there to buy something illegal. Something that could get him killed if he was caught.
‘Don’t worry, ‘worlder,’ the man said as if reading the lugger’s mind, and swung his arm around the room, ‘this lot couldn’t care less where you’ve come from. As long as you’ve got credits on you, that’s all they’ll care about when they gut you.’
The lugger raised an eyebrow and then raised his other hand from beneath the crude wooden table. ‘Gut me eh?’ he said and flicked the safety off his flechette pistol, ‘they’d bring a knife to a gun-fight?’
The man laughed and slid in opposite the seated lugger, ‘doubt it, they’d probably decapitate you with an M-wire then gut you with it when the blood fountain had subsided. Well, that’s what I’d do, but I like the effect, perhaps these bozos would just shoot you, who knows?’ he stretched a tanned and gnarled hand across the table, ‘I’m Kane.’
The lugger nodded, ‘thought you were. Kane, something or something Kane?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Suppose not.’
‘Then let’s just stick with Kane, shall we?’ He smiled as the lugger took his hand and shook it firmly.
Kane watched the lugger’s his left hand return to beneath the table and he heard the soft snick as the safety went back on.
‘So, Kane, can we do business?’
‘Sure, I got the goods if you got the credits. Don’t know why you wanna chance going up in the thing though. Once they know there’s a rogue one out there they’ll be on your arse like flies on shit.’
‘That’s my problem.’
Kane shrugged, ‘sure is. I’ll be glad to get shot of it.’
The lugger raised an eyebrow, ‘so, do I get a discount for taking it off your hands?’

Once again, a grin cracked the heavily lined face and Kane said, ‘not that glad.’
‘You were a lugger?’
Kane rubbed a hand over his face, ‘yeah, shows eh?’
He nodded, ‘some bad rad-damage there.’
‘Could be worse, at least it’s not flaying off.’ Replied Kane.
‘Yeah, cost a fortune but nowhere near the price of getting a trunk, but now I’ll be able to afford it. Anyway, how come you know so much about luggers?’ asked Kane.
‘I’m one too, or I was.’ He answered.
‘Don’t look it, you never EVed then, is my guess. You look too clean and don’t look as if you have had yourself rinded with new skin’
‘I EVed all the time, best credits come with the highest risks, working outside pays the most. I just used the money to improve my chances. It worked.’
Kane nodded, ‘makes sense. So, the Lang’s for asteroid work? Seems a waste and not really adapted for the job.’
‘Does it matter?’ asked the lugger with a wink.
Kane threw his head back and laughed, ‘touché, guess it doesn’t. Once the credit’s transferred I suppose I don’t give a shit what you want to do with the damn thing.’
The droid hobbled back to the table, a fresh bottle and glass clattering on its battered tray. As it reached to serve them the bottle, Kane looked up and shouted, ‘get the fuck down!’
The lugger dropped sideways into the bench seat and struggled to pull the flechette pistol up from beneath him. He watched the droid hesitate and then lose its head as the monomolecular wire flashed through its neck and over the space where his own head had been a split second before.
‘M-wire!’ he shouted as he saw Kane rise, pulling a stubby pistol from beneath his left arm.
The droid fell backwards, the lugger’s beer and glass crashing to the floor. The droid’s head skittered across the table and came to rest with its eyes looking into his face. He thought the droid looked puzzled. His left arm came up, thumb flicking off the safety. By now, Kane had already raised his pistol and the lugger closed his eyes as he realized what it was. Through his eyelids, he saw the lightning like flash from the pistol’s mouth and heard the high-pitched scream of the man the charge had struck. He surged up and saw one man down, smoke rising from his twitching body. Another man, tall, gaunt and with the M-wire whip dangling away from his body for safety looked up from his colleague with hate-filled eyes and drew his arm back. The lugger fired two single shots into him. The first was a body shot; the second was aimed more carefully and bursts the man’s head like a ripe melon.
Kane jumped up onto the table and yelled, ‘which one of you bozo’s want to be fried next?’, he waved the LIPC-pistol around in an arc. The remaining patrons looked away and continued with their own business. ‘Looks like we got no more takers.’ He said and reholstered his pistol.
‘Spilt my bloody beer.’ Replied the lugger.
Kane looked at him and laughed, ‘I think I like you ‘worlder. I sure hope you aren’t gonna try and mess me around. I’d hate to have to kill you.’
The lugger laughed back, ‘I’m not going to mess with you Kane. All I want is the ship.’
Kane nodded, ‘ok, let’s roll. I think those two probably had you marked when you stepped off the shuttle. Problem is, this lot knows you’re worth rolling over too. But they’ll think twice before trying anything now.’
‘I should think so, bit reckless using a Laser-Induced Plasma Channeler in here isn’t it?’
Kane shrugged, ‘It’s accurate enough if you point it in the right place, plus it will disrupt droids if they’re using them as back-up. Your flechette will do crap all damage to a droid.’
‘True, but your LIPC is useless in a vacuum.’
‘We in a vacuum here?’ asked Kane.
He grinned, ‘guess not.’
Kane slapped the lugger’s shoulder, ‘come on, lemme show you your new ride, and I can’t keep calling you ‘worlder. You gonna give me a name?’
The lugger nodded, ‘the name’s Deke Choam but most people just call me Choam.’

The GEV swept the long grass down and Kane cursed as he tried to find hard-packed ground. ‘Fucking grass, we’re leaving a damn trail like an arrow saying, look, here we are!’
A dry riverbed appeared below and to their right and Kane steered down into it. For a further tens minutes they followed the river until he pointed ahead, ‘there, we’re not far now.’
Choam stared as the forest grew in the forward screen, ‘it’s hidden beneath the canopy?’
Kane shook his head, ‘more than that. You’ll see.’
Five minutes later, they were in the forest and soon Kane steered the small vehicle towards what appeared to be a solid bluff wall. He stopped and opened the driver’s door, ‘that’s as far as we drive. On foot now. Not far.’
Choam opened the door on his side and stepped out. The heat hit him like a hammer. ‘Damn it’s hot.’

‘Yup, and we’re in the shade here. Worse, out under the sun. Makes you miss the aircon eh?’
Choam nodded and wiped the back of his arm across his face, ‘Yeah and a cool beer.’
Soon they arrived at a large expanse of stunted trees and foliage growing against the face of the bluff wall. Kane grinned and pulled out a small device from his pocket, pointed it at the shrubbery and pressed a button. The trees and bushes disappeared and a large entrance to a cave in the bluff wall was revealed. Pointing out from its dark interior was the nose of a Lang space ship. ‘Magic!’ he said.
‘Hologram. Nice.’ Replied Choam.
‘We won’t have much time once you power her up. We’ll get her outside, you check her over. If you’re happy, transfer the credit to my account. We’ll shake. I’ll bugger off in the GEV and you power up and get into orbit before the militia wake-up and realize they’ve a bogey in their space. Once you get out of orbit you can fold to wherever you want.’ Kane said.
‘Sounds like a plan.’
Kane towed the Lang out with his GEV. He watched as Choam climbed into the cockpit and spent and hour running through various protocols. Finally, he jumped down from the Lang and approached Kane with a smile. ‘She’s fine. Nice job.’
‘She came down without hardly any damage. They reckon the Sentinel’s mesh shorted through an EM burst right outside the bird. Lucky it was high enough to reboot the AI before it hit the ground, came in on auto. You got a mesh then I imagine?’
‘Yeah, would be a bastard to fly without. The AI’s damaged but that’s a good thing otherwise I’d have to persuade the damn thing to co-operate.’
Kane nodded, ‘good, and now, the transfer?’
‘Sure, give me your console.’
Kane pulled a small com-console from his pocket, keyed into his banking system and handed the device to Choam who inserted a small data-crystal. He inputted a few commands, the device chirruped once or twice and then he handed it back to Kane, ‘all done. Verify it.’
‘Looks all ok.’ Kane replied and returned the device to his pocket, held out his hand to Choam and said, ‘been a pleasure doing business with you.’
Choam gripped the proffered hand tightly, ‘nice meeting you. Good luck with the trunking.’
Kane nodded, jumped into the GEV and pulled away as Choam raised a hand to wave him off.

Once Kane had cleared the forest canopy Choam climbed back into the Lang’s cockpit, meshed with the AI, instructed it to power up, and take off.

The AI stuttered into life and replied, ‘Power up initialized, take-off in twenty seconds.’
‘Ok, Ship, when you’re ready.’ Then Choam pulled a small remote from his jacket and switched it on a small red light began to flash. ‘Sorry Kane. I really liked you.’ Then he pressed the switch again and a low rumble came from the direction of the dry riverbed. Choam watched as the plume of black, oily smoke spiraled up into the heat-laden air. No witnesses, no friends, not in this lifetime. He thought. Then the Lang rose gracefully into the air, nose tilted upwards and he rocketed out of the forest and towards the sky and his destiny and destination. He was going to find the gate in the Dam, he just knew he would.

Well, it's a first draft, probably full of typos and the typesetting is crap after copy and paste from Word, but tell me what you think, cheers, Bob


Anonymous said...

Hi Bob

Just had a read of this a like it a lot. I hope you do work at it some more, the foundation is there for a very good and entertaining story!

I do have one comment about it: what you say in the first chapter about the expansion going on for millenia and then starting the story in 2093 at the dam doesn't quite add up - is this just me being dim?

Anyway, apart from that it's a great read!!

All the best with the rest of it and I look forward to reading the finished product :)


Bob Lock said...

Hiyahs Mark,

Thanks for the feedback!

Yep, you're right that doesn't add up at all :) I'll make a note of that and ammend it to something more sensible like decades etc. Glad you liked the first draft and the opening chapters, I'm still working on it but making slow headway at the moment. I get all too easily distracted by non-writing things!

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

I know the feeling Bob, I've got quite a few started-but-as-yet-unfinished short stories that I tell myself I'll finish in the near future.

I must admit, the first chapter reminded me alot of Pandora's Star by Peter F Hamilton and because of the viewpoint you used it got me really interested to read more. A dam good hook of a first chapter(sorry, couldn't resist the pun!).

All the best