Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Poem for Today

Bowery Blues

by Jack Kerouac

The story of man
Makes me sick
Inside, outside,
I don't know why
Something so conditional
And all talk
Should hurt me so.

I am hurt
I am scared
I want to live
I want to die
I don't know
Where to turn
In the Void
And when
To cut

For no Church told me
No Guru holds me
No advice
Just stone
Of New York
And on the cafeteria
We hear
The saxophone
O dead Ruby
Died of Shot
In Thirty Two,
Sounding like old times
And de bombed
Empty decapitated
Murder by the clock.

And I see Shadows
Dancing into Doom
In love, holding
Tight the lovely asses
Of the little girls
In love with sex
Showing themselves
In white undergarments
At elevated windows
Hoping for the Worst.

I can't take it
If I can't hold
My little behind
To me in my room

Then it's goodbye
For me
Girls aren't as good
As they look
And Samadhi
Is better
Than you think
When it starts in
Hitting your head
In with Buzz
Of glittergold
Heaven's Angels


We've been waiting for you
Since Morning, Jack
Why were you so long
Dallying in the sooty room?
This transcendental Brilliance
Is the better part
(of Nothingness
I sing)


Monday, October 19, 2009

Regarding "Ark Ship"

I'm rewriting it from scratch (both because it needs it and because doing so will be good prep for Nano). Going back through it, it's pretty clear that much of the story suffers from a dry narrative structure and lack of descriptive language. Still, I think the concept of the story is solid, and I want to try to make it into something good. I wrote 6 pages of the rewrite this weekend, and I'm pretty happy with the end result. That said, I'm not posting the rewrite here until I'm absolutely satisfied with it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Nondescript Man - Part 1 of 2

This is a little something I wrote a few months ago. And yes, I know, I reuse character names, especially the name Mike. I have no idea why.

The Nondescript Man


Mike Harris was sitting in the coffee shop with an imposing stack of textbooks next to him. He had to study for his final exams in geophysics and astronomy, and he only had three hours before the first one began.

Julie Smith did not have any exams to study for. She was at the coffee shop reading a newspaper and enjoying a lovely cup of tea. She made a point of going to coffee shops and ordering tea. It was her own private little joke.

Eric Vaughn was wearing a dark suit and carrying a laptop bag. He ordered a double espresso and sat down, placing the laptop bag on the table. Out of it he took out a very expensive looking and very sleek laptop, opened it, and began to type. His novel was due at the publisher's in two weeks, and he had a few big threads he still needed to tie up.

Julie was the first of the three to leave, and she closed her newspaper with a flourish, drained the last of her tea, and heaved herself to her feet. At that moment she noticed Eric and recognized him as one of her favorite sci fi authors. She just loved his series of novels about the great Flabian space empire. She debated whether to go over and introduce herself, but she saw that he was typing intently on his laptop and decided not to disturb him. On her way out, she tried to get a glimpse of what he was typing, but she realized she wouldn't really be able to see anything without making it really obvious that she was reading over his shoulder. A car accident several years earlier had left her with a slight limp, but she carried herself proudly despite it.

Mike had been studying for more than two and a half hours, when he stopped, looked up, blinked, and looked at his watch. Realizing the time, he leapt to his feet, struggled to get all of his books back into his backpack, hefted the now incredibly heavy backpack onto his back, and stumbled quickly out the door.

Eric, engrossed in his writing, was oblivious to the comings and goings of the other patrons. He was on a roll. His central character was about to encounter the thing that would explain the tightly woven and intricate plot that Eric had spent months putting together. It was a critical moment for the novel, and he had to get it just right.

Unfortunately, Eric had also failed to notice that his laptop was about to lose battery power. He had meant to get the battery replaced months ago, of course, for a battery that would allow him to go out into the woods, away from every day annoyances and distractions, and sit under a tree and write for hours. Now he noticed the little battery icon on his system tray, saw that it had a little exclamation mark next to it, and he clicked his tongue in frustration. He saved his document, closed the laptop, put it back in its bag, and left the coffee shop.

A fourth character, who had gone unnoticed by any of the others, and indeed had gone unnoticed by the staff of the coffee shop, stood up from the table in the corner where he had been sitting quietly, peering at the other patrons, and scribbling with a black pen on a yellow legal pad. He was a thin man, forty-ish, bald, wearing a nondescript blue shirt, khaki pants, and black sneakers.

The barista looked to be slightly surprised to see the man as he left. Her gaze slid off of him almost immediately, and she had forgotten about him entirely within a few minutes.


Eric was on the phone with his agent, assuring her that his novel would, in fact, be ready by the deadline, and that no, she didn't have to rent a hotel room and lock him into it until he finished. He hung up the phone, sighed, and padded into his kitchen to look for a snack.

His foot hit something lying on the floor. He looked down, and was astonished to find a red toy firetruck. He picked it up and examined it closely. His eyes widened as his mind went back to his childhood, and he quickly turned the firetruck over to look at the bottom. There, crudely scratched into the plastic bottom of the toy, were the initials “E. V.” But what was it doing in his kitchen, today, now, when he hadn't seen it in twenty years?


Mike was just leaving the student union and looking at a stack of mail in his hand. He was a little worried about his astronomy final, but he was pretty sure he had aced the geophysics exam.

As he walked across campus to his dorm, he noticed that one of the envelopes in his hand was bulky and had an odd weight to it. He wondered what it might be as he tore it open. Inside was a small brass harmonica and two blue marbles. Surprised, he looked at the envelope again, but there was no return address, and no note inside to explain the items.


Julie was taking a long, hot bubble bath. She found that the slight pain she continued to feel from her accident was eased by a nice bath. Her bathroom was small but cozy and functional, and she had arranged several candles around the room to make the bath just that much more pleasant. She had placed a small radio on top of her toilet tank, and the radio station she enjoyed was currently playing some very nice bossa nova music.

As the last chords of “The Girl from Ipanema” ended, the disc jockey broke in and announced that because of a special request, the station would now play a rather obscure piece by an artist that, until now, Julie had thought almost nobody else had heard of. In fact, it was her favorite song, and she hadn't heard it in ten years, though she had searched far and wide for the CD. Delighted and amazed, Julie sat back and hummed along.

Somewhere nearby, a nondescript man walked through a park, stopped in the middle, and seemed to disappear.


Nobody could quite explain what had happened. The news stations trained their cameras on the scene, and the polished reporters blabbered on about how nobody could quite explain what had happened. Witnesses described how a large, cylindrically shaped section of grass in the park had seemed to spontaneously ignite. Now, what looked like a tiny crop circle was burnt into the middle of the park.

Eric, who had taken a break from writing and was going to meet a friend for a beer, stopped to see what all of the commotion was about. Julie was already there and peering intently at the burned patch on the ground. She saw Eric and decided that this time she would introduce herself.

“Hi, I'm a big fan of your novels,” she began, offering her hand. Eric, who was a bit distracted, gave her a cursory “Thank you,” shook her hand, and went back to looking at the scene. Julie decided to try again.

“So what do you think happened here? I bet it was the Flabians,” she joked, hoping that referencing his novels might draw Eric into conversation.

Eric laughed. “No, I doubt it. Remember, the Flabians use a propulsion system that doesn't create heat.”

“Right, I remember that now.” Julie grinned. “I'm Julie. It's a real pleasure to meet you, Mr. Vaughn.”

“I'm always pleased to meet a fan.” Eric started walking to try to get a better view of the scene. This was weird stuff. Julie followed a respectful distance behind.

Suddenly, one of the news reporters noticed Eric, and motioned for the camera to follow her. She shoved her microphone in Eric's face. “Well, folks, this is a treat. I have with me Mr. Eric Vaughn, noted author of the Flabian Continuum series of science fiction novels. Mr. Vaughn, this seems like your area. What do you think?”

Eric blinked, startled and somewhat annoyed at the ambush. “Um, well, I'm not sure what this is,” he began, “but I don't think we should jump to any conclusions before the proper authorities have had their chance to investigate.”

The reporter was persistent. “But really, a cylindrical patch of grass just spontaneously combusts? Sounds like something out of one of your novels, like an invisible spaceship taking off or something, doesn't it?” The reporter was grinning. She was desperate for something concrete to report on about this situation, but since nobody had any information, she had been forced to just kind of make it up as she went along. Now, she thought, she had an exclusive scoop that could keep this story interesting, just as long as she could keep Eric from escaping.

“Look, you have to remember that my novels are fict-” Eric began, but was cut off mid-sentence by a low rumbling sound that seemed to emanate from the ground below his feet. The crowd of onlookers and reporters started murmuring, and the cameras swung wildly, trying to find the source of the phenomenon.

A nondescript man materialized in the middle of the patch of burned grass. He walked past the reporters and the crowd of onlookers and off into the night. Nobody paid attention to him. The rumbling stopped.


The intercom buzzed. “Yes, captain?”

“What's the status of our man downstairs?”

“Well, captain, the items are in place and the ball is rolling.”

“You know that this whole scheme sounds like a bad science fiction movie, don't you?”

“Yes, captain, but we have our orders.”

“I know. I just really don't get why we have to go to all this trouble.”

“Now, captain, you know better than to ask those kinds of questions.”

“I know, I know. Ok, what's next?”


Mike had forgotten about the mysterious harmonica and marbles he had received a few days before. He had tossed them into the general pile of stuff that he kept piled on the desk in his dorm room. Sure, he had wondered who would send him such an odd assortment of items. After all, he had once attempted to play the harmonica, but like most people, had given up after making some really horrid noises with it. And he had never been any good at marbles, though he had had a childhood friend who had tried to teach him how to play.

Right now, he was busy packing to go home for winter break. He shoved all of his dirty laundry into a giant mesh sack, put his mp3 player, a book, and his toothbrush into a messenger bag, and checked to make sure he had his bus ticket. At first, he couldn't find his ticket, and in a panic, he started rifling through the pile on his desk. He came upon the harmonica and the marbles, but he tossed them aside in his frantic search for the bus ticket.

Finally, he found the ticket and put it into his messenger bag.

Suddenly, he started feeling woozy. He stumbled, fell onto the floor, and passed out.


The news reporters had moved on to other matters, because nobody had any answers to what had happened in the park. At first, Eric had found himself bombarded with requests for interviews, because after that one reporter had gone off on her bizarre tangent about invisible spaceships, every other news agency had trained their attention directly on him. He didn't really understand why; after all, in his stories, the aliens traveled by supercooled fusion warp, which didn't generate any heat, and none of the spaceships had a cloaking device. He wasn't about to steal that idea from Roddenberry. In fact, he remembered a scene from Star Trek IV in which the crew had landed a cloaked Klingon vessel in a park, and it had generated a large commotion when it had taken off. Maybe the news reporters were confusing his novels with Trek. It wouldn't be the first time that had happened. But beyond all of that, his novels were fiction, for crying out loud. He wasn't quite ready to believe that aliens had landed and were setting parks on fire.

But then there was the matter of this firetruck. Eric was one of those people whose mind connected things together that shouldn't necessarily be connected. He loved conspiracy theories, and had a whole notebook full of ideas about the Kennedy assassination. He had read and seen the Da Vinci Code more than a few times, and had even done some research on his own to see how much if any of it was true. So what was this firetruck doing in his apartment? This firetruck that he hadn't seen since he was a small child? He picked it up again and stared at it, hoping that it would explain itself.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Show, don't tell

Show, don't tell, is one of the cardinal rules of good writing. I've known that for years, kind of in the back of my mind, but somehow I'd kind of forgotten what it meant until I was reminded of it by a friend at a writing group last week. Instead of, for example, saying, "He walked into the room and sat down," it's better to describe the guy and the room using as many descriptive words as possible. This rule will help me immensely when I'm doing Nano, which is all about writing as many words as possible as quickly as possible.

Here's what I'd like to know. I've just finished posting Ark Ship here. Clearly it's not a finished product; it needs work, hell it needs a new title, but what I'm afraid of is that for a majority of the story, I "told." I'm considering doing a total rewrite, because I think the concept of the story is sound, but the execution may be weak.

If you've read Ark Ship, please tell me if you think I'm "showing" or "telling" you the story, because clearly that's an area where I need improvement.

Or, if you think Ark Ship is a work of staggering genius as it is, then hey, I'd like to hear that as well.


Ark Ship - Part 6 (The End)

A financial crisis at home had exacerbated the problem with the Russians. A major celebrity had been found in a compromising situation with a politician. Those two stories, along with a myriad of juicy gossip and chatter, were dominating the news.

Sutton was exhausted. His team had been working diligently to try to get the tachyon communication system up and running, and they had just made a major breakthrough. A grainy picture of Susan Macintosh appeared on the screen in front of them. The audio was distorted, but audible. She said, “Hello, Earth. If you can hear this, and see me, then we've done it.”

Sutton and his team cheered. With any luck, Susan would be getting a video message from them within a couple of days. Sutton instructed his press assistant to contact the news outlets. Sutton himself, after punching out a quick quantum message of congratulations to Susan, called Markey at the White House. He and Markey discussed the breakthrough excitedly and they were both awed by the potential to reinvigorate the space program. Markey said that he'd get the news to the President immediately, but of course, with everything else that was going on, Markey couldn't guarantee any kind of Presidential response or action. Sutton disconnected the call. His press assistant came over to him.

“Sir, I'm sorry, but none of the major news outlets will touch the story. They've all told me that there's too much happening on this planet to worry about stuff happening on other planets.”

“Dammit. I was afraid of that.” Sutton shook his head in frustration.

“I do have a reporter from Scientific American coming over to do a piece.”

“Well, at least that's something.”

Susan stared at the clumsy video rig she and her team had constructed. With any luck, the message from Sutton's team would be coming through any minute. Susan was desperate that this would work, because Woods and his anti-Earth supporters had come to dominate the colony. She hoped that seeing a video link to their home planet would help change some minds.

The video screen flashed a couple of times, and then slowly, a grainy picture came up. It showed a small room filled with computer equipment. A man in the middle of the screen started speaking, the audio distorted but audible. “Hello, Susan. I'm George Sutton. If you see me, then we've done it.”

Susan smiled and tapped a quantum message back to Sutton – they now knew that two way video communication was possible. It was an incredible breakthrough.

Something was nagging at her, though. Somehow, she had expected – she didn't know – something more official looking? The room in the video didn't look like the old newsreel footage she'd seen of NASA Mission Control. It looked like a small office building. And nobody was wearing a uniform. She decided it was probably nothing, and decided to call a colony meeting to discuss the breakthrough and watch the video message.

The meeting was sparsely attended. Woods had told his supporters to stay in their own quarters, and many of them had. Still, Susan was convinced that she could move a few people, and maybe they would move a few more. She stood up at the lectern and pointed at the video display.

“For centuries, the only contact our little band of explorers has had with our home planet has been through quantum code. Short, typed messages, no audio, no video, no real connection. Well, today that has changed. Thanks to our good friend, George Sutton, whose ancestor Verne Poole helped lead the crew that started our journey across the stars, and thanks to my science team here, who have wrought miracles from ancient technology, we now have a new, more concrete, more direct connection to our home world.

“Tachyons – particles that travel faster than light – can carry audio and video messages. Until recently, this has only been a theoretical statement, at the edges of physics. Well, it's no longer just a theory.”

With that, Susan activated the message. The colonists watched, and Susan could tell that they were impressed. When the message was over, Susan said, “We've set it up so that we can receive a video message from Earth about once a week. We can also send Earth messages about what we're doing.”

Susan paused and looked serious for a moment. “Look, I know it's tempting to want to abandon contact with Earth and just do our own thing. I know it's sometimes difficult to feel a connection to that planet. But Earth is our home – it's our origin. It's where we come from. And that's important. I think it's very important both for us and them.

“Please, when you leave here, please talk to your friends and family. Tell them not to buy into radical isolationism. We need Earth, and they need us.”

There was a smattering of applause, and the colonists filed out. Outside the meeting hall, a small knot of protesters carried signs demanding a halt to all communications with Earth. Susan noticed to her dismay that Mike Harris seemed to be among the leaders of this protest.

George Sutton had finally managed to attract the attention of a few of the news outlets, and he had made the rounds of the chat shows to discuss the tachyon communication breakthrough. Of course, he had to argue and claw his way around the army of pundits that the news outlets put on the chat shows with him to show a “balanced” perspective, many of whom had absolutely no scientific knowledge whatsoever. George's disdain for the media grew stronger every day. His disdain for government also grew. Despite this major breakthrough, nobody in Congress wanted to even talk to him about the possibility of America starting up a new space program. And President Gibson, while he was good for an encouraging word and the occasional press statement about the importance of continued space research, certainly hadn't done much to move the ball forward. George understood that there was a financial crisis, and the situation with Russia, and blah blah blah, but there was always that crap – politics was never quiet.

A new video message was coming through from the colony. Susan's grainy face filled his video monitor. She was discussing the colony's upcoming elections, and George was alarmed to hear about Woods and his band of isolationists. Then, Susan asked the question that George had hoped he would never have to answer.

“I hate to ask this, but - I am talking to NASA, right?”

The first video message from Earth had changed the political dynamics in the colony, but not as much as Susan had hoped. Woods had lost some following, and one of the other candidates, a charismatic leader of Susan's science team who enthusiastically backed continuing communications with Earth, was picking up support. Susan continued to be dismayed by Mike's devotion to the isolationist cause, and she worried that if Mike and John Woods got two of the three administrator seats, it would mean the end of everything she'd worked for.

George's face appeared on her video monitor. Unlike the last message, he was alone, sitting behind a desk, and when he spoke, Susan's jaw dropped.

“Susan, I was hoping I wouldn't have to tell you about this, but I believe in total openness and honesty – especially now, since we've made this major breakthrough. The truth is that I don't work for NASA. In fact, NASA doesn't exist anymore. It was privatized. America doesn't have a space program anymore. You represent our last great space project.”

As George continued, and explained the whole sordid history of the last two and half centuries, Susan realized just how completely alienated her group of colonists was. Maybe the isolationists were right, she thought to herself. After all – if Earth doesn't care about us, then why should we care about Earth? But it was what George said next that really took her by surprise.

“Now that I've told you everything, I'm sure you're thinking to yourself that your isolationist comrades might be right – that if Earth doesn't care about you, then why should you care about Earth? But that's exactly the wrong attitude to take here. I've been working my tail off to get your mission the respect and admiration and honor that it deserves here. I've been in regular contact with the President, and he is very supportive of you. I've been calling Congressmen. I've been on the news, advocating for a rebirth of America's space program. Your video messages have been played all over the planet. There is movement, but it's slow. We need you - now more than ever - to show us why Earth needs to care about space.

“Obviously, it's up to you whether you share the information I've just given you with the rest of the colonists. If you do, it might embolden the isolationists. I recognize that. By telling you this, I might have completely doomed everything we've been trying to achieve. But again – I've come to believe that if we're got a chance to succeed here – to make people on Earth interested in space again, and to give your colony the respect and honor that it deserves – then we need to be totally honest with each other.

“I give you my word that the Ark Ship Project will always be devoted to you, and with any luck, we will make the rest of the world see how important you are.”

The message ended.

Susan's face on the video screen was grave, and her message was simple. “I've been instructed by the new co-administrators of the Colony to cease all communications with Earth, effective immediately.”

George shook his head slowly. His weeks of publicity, of campaigning, of meeting after meeting, of slowly turning the tide of public opinion until there was at last a beginning of something that could lead to a resurgence in space research – finished. Without the excitement caused by the video messages from the Colony, the momentum he'd built would fade and disappear. Worse than that, perhaps, was the fact the Ark Ship Project's mission was finished.

The story was leaked to the media later that day, and this time, the media ate it up. Of course they did, thought George. Anytime something failed spectacularly and embarrassed or otherwise discredited someone important – that was something the media would report on mercilessly. The Ark Ship Project was attacked first for lying to the ship's crew for two and a half centuries by not telling them about the political changes on Earth, then attacked again for telling the colonists the truth now. Funding sources dried up, the office was closed, and George and his team found themselves unemployed. George's team did receive one consolation prize. Liaison Markey had convinced President Gibson to purchase the tachyon communication system and put together a research team to study its possible uses. It wasn't NASA, but at least there was a government team working on something related to space travel again.

Life in the colony continued apace, and soon a new generation – the first ever humans born on an alien planet – began to grow up. In school, they learned that their parents had come across the stars, but they learned nothing about the planet that had launched their exodus. Instead, they were taught a new history, emphasizing the importance of self reliance and independence, and the incontrovertible fact that the planet where they were living was the only home they would ever know.

On Earth, the colony was quickly forgotten, once the next celebrity/political scandal took over the news reports. The Ark Ship Project was relegated to a footnote in the history books, and the Houston Space Center, Inc. continued as Earth's only viable space project, launching billboards continuously into low Earth orbit.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ark Ship - Part Five

For the next several weeks, the colonists busied themselves with the task of putting together a viable, comfortable community. The ark ship was fully dismantled and brought down in cargo ships, all parts of it integrated into the building of communal structures. Greenhouses were built to grow the crops that the colonists had brought with them that weren't compatible with the planet's arid soil. A farming rotation was established, with all able-bodied colonists taking a shift tending the few crops that had been implantable directly onto the planet's surface. Exploratory teams continued to map the colony's borders and venture beyond them. There had been a few accidents, injuries, and mishaps, but, all things considered, Susan was pleased with the colony's progress.

With all of the colony's activities, sometimes Susan forgot to check in with Communicator Sutton, even though he sent her a status request message every morning. After a time, George began to become concerned, because there seemed to be an increasing interval between messages, and he would often not hear from Susan for several days. The line connecting them seemed to be fraying.

Also fraying was George's patience with the media. He had tried to get someone, anyone, to provide continuous coverage of the colonists' progress. So far, only one major news outlet had done an extended piece about the project, and that had been weeks ago, and had focused more on the history of the project and the public backlash that had essentially destroyed the American space program after the launch of the ark ship.

George had always felt personally insulted when he'd read the historical accounts of that period. One of his ancestors had been aboard that ship, and George valued that connection. It was why he'd taken the job at the Ark Ship Project, and had wrangled his way to a position as Communicator, so that he'd be the one to make contact when the ship landed. And he had, and it had been an amazing moment for him. But it was also strangely unsatisfying. The world continued on its way, only a few people taking note of what he had heard the President call “an Apollo moment.” Sure, George had spoken to the President, but still. More needed to be done here. An appropriate global recognition of the momentousness of the event just hadn't happened, and to George, that was a grave injustice.

He grabbed an info pad and pulled up some of the news footage from after the launch, when the public backlash had begun in earnest. Senator Vince Hockley of Oklahoma, a radical anti-spending crusader, was debating NASA Administrator Jan Mahoney, on a cable news talk show.

Hockley said, “Look, you folks at NASA just blew about a trillion dollars shooting something into space that we'll never see again. Meanwhile, the deficit -”

Mahoney interrupted, “The ark ship project was deficit neutral, Senator. You know that. I know that. The American people know that. It was paid for by repealing tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans, and by -”

“Yeah, you liberals raised taxes! You raised taxes to shoot a thing into space that'll take, what is it, 250 years to get to where it's going? Now how is that something I should pay for, when I'll be long dead -”

“If you'll recall, Senator, when the project was passed by Congress and signed by President Blancheford, there was overwhelming public support for it.”

“But the American people were never told the real cost of the project -”

“Look, Senator. I don't recall you being this upset when former President Stockard blew trillions of dollars on an intractable war with Venezuela – a war, I might add, that we're still paying for.”

“We went to war with Venezuela to protect freedom and democracy down there. Those pinkos were about to spread their socialist garbage all over South America. That was something we couldn't risk.”

George knew the rest. Hockley, who had always been a crusader against what he perceived as “government waste,” had gone on to lead a vicious smear campaign against President Blancheford and her party in Congress, and had used the massive cost of the ark ship project as a rallying cry that cost Blancheford her reelection chances and shifted the balance of power in Congress. Eight years later, Hockley had been elected President himself, and had privatized every bit of the government he could get his hands on. The resulting economic chaos had almost bankrupted the country, with ripples felt around the world, and Hockley had been driven out of office in shame. Unfortunately, the damage had been done, and America's space program lay in ruins, broken up, split, and privatized into a dozen different and competing pieces. America retreated into itself, and much of the world, watching the drama unfold, followed America's lead. The space elevator was dismantled and sold for scrap, the International Space Station project was abandoned, and the station itself, along with the orbital construction dock, eventually decayed its orbit and burned up in the atmosphere.

Of course, thought George, the colonists weren't aware of any of that, and that fact gave him hope. If he could convince the world to care about the colonists, then maybe he could get the world to care about space again.

He decided he needed to talk to the President.

Mike and Susan were having dinner in the colony's newly constructed communal dining room. In preparing for her role as Coordinator, Susan had done a lot of reading about the various ways humans had organized themselves in communities throughout history. She had a particular affinity for the Kibbutz movement of twentieth century Israel, especially since at least one of her ancestors who was part of the launch crew had been Jewish. Kibbutzim had been developed to foster a sense of communal responsibility and the sharing of limited resources in a difficult an untamed environment. Susan felt that such a philosophy would serve the colony well, and so she had guided the construction of the colony so that it roughly resembled a Kibbutz. Colonists had their own sleeping quarters, but they dined communally, shared work duties, and shared resources equally among them. So far, it was working well, but she knew that the colony's natural growth pattern would necessarily create challenges to this model.

“Any word from Earth?” Mike asked.

Susan looked up from her food, startled and confused a bit by the question. “Oh shoot – I keep forgetting to contact them. I hope they don't think something horrible has happened.”

“If you'd like, I can help you with the messages.”

“Thanks, Mike, maybe I'll take you up on that one of these days.”

“I know we've all been pretty busy, but hey, we've got a pretty good colony taking shape here.”

Susan nodded. “Yep. I'm pretty proud of it. Pretty soon I'm going to look into the feasibility of creating a democratic governance structure. I'm not comfortable being a dictator.”

Mike was surprised by Susan's admission. He hadn't thought of her as being a dictator, because the technical nature of the task before them necessitated that certain people take on certain roles, and Susan had long been designated as Coordinator. It was just what had been decided. Still, as he thought about it, he realized that she was right. After a certain point, there would be no continuing pressing need for her to remain as Coordinator, and any colonist should have the democratic right to lead. Hell, Mike thought to himself that he might want to run for some colony office. He was getting a little bit weary of tending the greenhouses.

The Russia situation was simmering at a slow boil, and so President Gibson felt for the first time in weeks that he could relax. He was growing tired of fighting the same battles with the same people, knowing that these battles had been being fought for centuries before he was born and would continue to be fought centuries after he died. Most of it, he knew, was for show. For votes. Nationalistic military posturing always played well to a certain portion of the populace. It had worked well throughout history, and the United States certainly had its own examples of such nonsense. Give the people something to fear, and then tell them you can solve it, and you'll get their vote every time. Gibson himself had used that tactic in his own campaign.

Liaison Markey had been bugging him for a meeting, and today, Gibson felt that talking to Markey would be the best thing to take his mind off of things for a while. The presidential secretary showed Markey into the Oval Office.

“Mr. President, thanks for seeing me.”

“No problem, Henry. I'm always happy to hear about the exploits of our intrepid space team.”

“Well, I've been contacted by Communicator Sutton, who has an interesting point to make.” Markey hesitated. “He said you and he talked, and you referred to this as an 'Apollo moment.'”

The President nodded. “Yes, I did.”

“Well, sir, if it is an Apollo moment, then why doesn't it feel like one? Why isn't the world tuning in?”

“I don't know – it's been two and a half centuries since that ship took off. And we really haven't had a space program since then. People have taken it off their radar. They're busy living their lives, going to work, trying to pay the bills.”

“Yes, I know that, Mr. President, but -”

“But what? It's not newsworthy anymore. Joe Schmo out there learned from his history teacher that the whole project was a waste of taxpayer money. That's how the official history goes. The official line is that the project nearly bankrupted the country, and that we're still paying for it today. And it's been two and a half centuries. And I can't risk my own political neck to tell Joe Schmo that his history book is wrong.”

“But his history book is wrong, Mr. President. There are now hundreds of human beings living about a hundred and fifty light years away, establishing the first human foothold on an extrasolar planet. I don't call that a waste. I call that an amazing feat of human ingenuity.”

“I know that. So what does Mr. Sutton want me to do, exactly?”

“We want to figure out a way to set up a video link between Earth and the colonists.”

“But that's impossible. The only way we can communicate with them is through quantum code. Everybody knows that.”

“Everybody knew that until just recently, sir. We've discovered that a team in France is working on tachyon communication.”

“Tachyons. Particles that move faster than light speed, right?”

“Yes, sir. The French team believes that they can instruct the colonists to modify their existing equipment to allow for the transmission of tachyon particles between Earth and the colony. That would definitely allow for audio communication, but it might also allow for video. It all depends on the quality of the colonists' video equipment and whether it can be modified to accept the tachyon particles.”

“Would that allow for instantaneous communication?”

“No, there would still be a delay. The French team estimates it'd be a week or so between messages. But still, if we can get a video message to the colony, and get a video message back, now that would be something the news media wouldn't be able to ignore.”

“Alright, tell Sutton he has my backing to look into this. But let's keep a lid on it for now. Cat, bag, and all that.”

“Understood, sir.”

The colony was preparing for its first democratic elections. Susan had convened a meeting of all of the colonists to hammer out what kind of governance structure they wanted, and the colonists had voted to establish a council of three co-administrators. Seven colonists had stepped forward to declare candidacy for one of the three spots, including Mike Harris.

Among the other candidates was a charismatic leader named John Woods, who had become the de facto leader of the “anti-Earth” faction of the colonists. Essentially, he argued, the colony had no connection to Earth, really, because of the time and distance separating them. Therefore, the colony should cut off all communication with Earth and establish its own identity and culture. He had a growing number of supporters, and Susan worried about the effect that this isolationist group might have on colony morale.

Susan herself had decided not to be a candidate for one of the three administrator positions, because she felt very strongly that other colonists should be given the chance to lead. She had been busy communicating with Earth and trying to figure out this new tachyon communication system they wanted to try. She had a team of scientific experts working on modifying their existing equipment to accept the tachyons and translate them into audio and video. It had been a daunting task, and Susan wasn't at all sure it would work. Their efforts thus far hadn't been promising, and Susan feared that if Woods became one of the colony's administrators and managed to pass through his mandate to cease communication, all of this work would be for nothing. Susan was convinced, however, that if audio and video communication with Earth became possible, the dynamics on the colony would shift against Woods and his isolationist comrades. Since elections were to be held a little over a month, the situation was becoming more urgent by the day.

She heard a noise outside, and peered out the window of her office. She was surprised to see a small knot of people, including Woods, holding a protest against her. They held signs demanding she stop work on the tachyon project, and chanted anti-Earth slogans. This was the first protest she'd ever actually seen, and she wasn't exactly sure how to respond.

Susan walked outside to talk to Woods and see if she could appease the protesters. She raised her voice to be heard above the cacophonous chanting.

“Now look here, everyone – let's talk about this. Hey -” The group simply tried to drown her out. She continued trying to communicate with them, but it was clear that the group's interest lay in disruption rather than dialogue.

Mike wasn't as convinced as Susan of the importance of maintaining communication with Earth. He had attended several of the meetings led by Woods, and he liked the idea of the colony creating its own identity. He was, however, wary of the charisma that Woods exuded, of the fierce loyalty his followers had for him. Mike had read plenty of history books that detailed the kinds of major problems such a cult of personality could engender.

John Woods had noticed Mike at his meetings, which wasn't difficult, as Mike was certainly the youngest colonist to have taken an interest in local politics. John knew that Mike was running for an administrator position, and he hoped to sway Mike to his way of thinking and campaign together as a kind of coalition ticket. Heck, if John could sway one more of the candidates to his side, he'd have a powerful case to make to the colonists to vote for a unified anti-Earth ticket.

Susan had seen Mike attending John Woods' meetings, and she was worried that his association with Woods would fray their longstanding friendship. During one of their regular meals together, she broached the subject.

“Mike, I'm a little concerned about your association with John Woods.”

Mike looked at her, surprised, and said, “Why?”

“Well, it's just, I'm worried that if he gets his way, we'll lose a vital link to our history. I mean, I know we've been separated from Earth for two and a half centuries – but that planet is where we come from, and we should honor that. They spent trillions of dollars to send us out here – we can't just abandon them.”

Mike thought for a second. “I see your point, but I also see Woods' point. If we tether ourselves to the Earth, a planet that none of us has ever seen, then we'll never be able to establish our own identity as a people.”

“I don't agree with that. I think we've already established our own identity as a people, and we've done so not despite our continued link with Earth, but because of it.”

“Look, Susan, why do you feel so threatened by Woods? You're the one who wanted democracy here – and this is what democracy looks like.”

“I know that.” Susan sighed. “It's just – I'm working on a big project right now to establish a video link with Earth. It would be a huge breakthrough in tachyon communications and a major boost to America's space program.”

Mike snapped back, “Who cares about America's space program? They shot us out here into the middle of cosmic nowhere without any idea of whether we'd make it. They doomed thousands of people to live out their lives on a spaceship and have no choice in the matter. And those are the people we want to help? I'm sorry, but I just don't think so.”

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ark Ship - Part Four

President Gibson sat by the fireplace in the residence wing of the White House sipping a scotch on the rocks. When Liaison Markey had delivered the news of the ark ship's arrival, Gibson hadn't immediately understood what Markey was talking about. It took a few minutes for Markey to jog his memory of the ark ship mission, and only then did Gibson really understand the importance of what Markey was telling him. Even Secretary Thacker was suitably impressed, had finally stopped reciting statistics about Russian military maneuvers, and began asking questions about the ark ship mission. The President had summoned his press secretary, and they'd hammered out a quick statement to be distributed to the news media. It carried the appropriate tone to convey the gravity of the moment, but Gibson knew the media wouldn't spend too much time on it.

Markey had mentioned that he had gotten the news from the Ark Ship Project, and mentioned a Communicator named Sutton. Gibson decided that he wanted to speak to Sutton. He checked the time. 21:00 hours, which meant in Houston it would be 20:00 hours. Not too late to call.

The Ark Ship Project office was abuzz with activity. Communicator Sutton and his team were still analyzing the colony ship's data and helping the colonists plan next steps. Sutton's phone rang. “Please hold for the President.” A second later, a familiar voice was on the other end of the line.

“Communicator Sutton. This is President Gibson.”

“Mr. President. It's an honor, sir.”

“I heard the good news about the ark ship.”

“Yes, sir. All appears to be going well. We're analyzing the data that the colonists are sending back, and we're pretty confident that they're going to make it.”

“Excellent news.” The President paused, and a slightly awkward silence developed.

“Mr. President?” George was afraid he'd been cut off.

“I was just thinking, Sutton. This is an Apollo moment. The whole planet should be tuned in.”

“I know, sir.”

Another pause.

“Well, keep up the good work. America salutes its heroes.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The line was disconnected.

The colonists gathered the next morning for their first dawn. It was a slow sunrise, with waves of brilliant color radiating outward from a point on the horizon that got subtly brighter until the red fireball of the sun pierced the horizon and began to draw sharp lines of light and shadow on the distant mountains and the landing site.

Mike and Susan had breakfast together, as they often did on the ship. Mike pointed at the distant mountains.

“I'd like to try climbing those someday. Looks like a pretty incredible view from the top.”

Susan grinned. “Once we get everything settled here, you're welcome to.”

“Any word from Earth?”

“Nothing since last night. I sent a message yesterday detailing the sort of “time zone” differential here, so I don't expect them to try to contact us until a little bit later this morning.”

“What's the plan for today?”

“The plan is to get all of the teams together and map out a plan to establish a crop cycle here. We also need to start constructing some more permanent facilities for storing the food and provisions that we brought down from the ship.”

“Where do you need me?”

“I've assigned you to the greenhouse construction team. We've got our first construction shuttle coming down from the ship today with building materials. A greenhouse will allow us to jump start the crop cycle using the plants and seeds we've already brought down from the ship.”

Susan heard the quantum computer beeping and went to check it. The message from Earth was simple: “Good morning! How did you sleep?”

Susan grinned and typed back, “Slept fine. Beautiful sunrise.” Susan had developed an affection for Communicator Sutton, whose reassuring messages had helped her manage the incredible stress of the task before the colonists. Despite her reservations, and the odd sense of disconnection that nagged at her, she was glad that after all of this time, Earth, and especially America, hadn't forgotten about them. It would have been a real problem for morale if they'd gotten this far only to find that something radical had changed on Earth and they were out here on their own.

“What are your plans for today?”

“Today the real work begins. The colonists who stayed on the ship are beginning work on dismantling it and bringing it down in cargo shuttles. We're scouting the area for other food sources or potential hidden dangers.”

“How are you feeling?”

Susan grinned and typed back, “Feeling good. Stress level is high, but it will be until we get established.”

“Understandable. I'm sending you our analysis of the soil and atmospheric data you sent us. Should be helpful.”


Susan thought for a second, and then typed back, “Tell me you're not the only one watching us back there.”

Sutton's reply came after a brief pause. “Assure yourself that America is proud of you, and that you're not alone.”

President Gibson was watching a recorded broadcast from the launch ceremony of the ark ship. History recorded that nearly everyone on the planet had tuned in, that it had been, as Gibson liked to say, an Apollo moment. He watched as then-President Jill Blancheford got up to make her speech.

“My fellow Americans, and those watching around the world. This is indeed an historic day. A century ago, our nation stood on the moon. It was a giant leap for humankind, and our footprint on the moon remains. Since then, we've flung probes into the farthest reaches of the galaxy, which have sent back amazing photos of what's out there, beyond the cosmic borders of our imagination. We've put rovers on Mars, on its two moons, and dropped probes into Venus. We've built an international space station with a construction dock capable of building ships in orbit, and a space elevator to shuttle supplies back and forth. We've harnessed the energy of the sun to power our planet and eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.

“And we've used our most powerful telescopes to peer into the heavens and look for other planets like ours, where there might be life, or where we might be able to make another footprint, another giant leap across the stars. We found one such planet, and we named it Amerigo, to honor the tradition of exploration and adventure that made our own nation possible.”

Gibson paused the playback. He had always wondered about that name. From his knowledge of history, Amerigo Vespucci's role in discovering America was decidedly limited, and the continent had been named after him because a cartographer had read Vespucci's name in some letters that may or may not have actually been written by Vespucci. Still, Gibson thought to himself, the writing of history is often different from the living of it.

Secretary Thacker poked his head into the Oval Office.

“Mr. President?” Thacker asked.

“Come in, Evan. I was just watching the ark ship launch ceremony.”

“I see. Well, I've got some bad news about Russia.”

Gibson sighed. Always with the Russians.

Poem for today

To You
by Walt Whitman

Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walks of
I fear these supposed realities are to melt from under your
feet and hands,
Even now your features, joys, speech, house, trade, manners,
troubles, follies, costume, crimes, dissipate away from you,
Your true soul and body appear before me,
They stand forth out of affairs, out of commerce, shops,
work, farms, clothes, the house, buying, selling, eating,
drinking, suffering, dying.

Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you
be my poem,
I whisper with my lips close to your ear,
I have loved many women and men, but I love none better
than you.

O I have been dilatory and dumb,
I should have made my way straight to you long ago,
I should have blabb'd nothing but you, I should have chanted
nothing but you.

I will leave all and come and make the hymns of you,
None has understood you, but I understand you,
None has done justice to you, you have not done justice to
None but has found you imperfect, I only find no
imperfection in you,
None but would subordinate you, I only am he who will
never consent to subordinate you,
I only am he who places over you no master, owner, better,
God, beyond what waits intrinsically in yourself.

Painters have painted their swarming groups and the centre-
figure of all,
From the head of the centre-figure spreading a nimbus of
gold-color'd light,
But I paint myriads of heads, but paint no head without its
nimbus of gold-color'd light,
From my hand from the brain of every man and woman it
streams, effulgently flowing forever.

O I could sing such grandeurs and glories about you!
You have not known what you are, you have slumber'd upon
yourself all your life,
Your eyelids have been the same as closed most of the time,
What you have done returns already in mockeries,
(Your thrift, knowledge, prayers, if they do not return in
mockeries, what is their return?)

The mockeries are not you,
Underneath them and within them I see you lurk,
I pursue you where none else has pursued you,
Silence, the desk, the flippant expression, the night, the
accustom'd routine, if these conceal you from others or
from yourself, they do not conceal you from me,
The shaved face, the unsteady eye, the impure complexion, if
these balk others they do not balk me,
The pert apparel, the deform'd attitude, drunkenness, greed,
premature death, all these I part aside.

There is no endowment in man or woman that is not tallied
in you,
There is no virtue, no beauty in man or woman, but as good
is in you,
No pluck, no endurance in others, but as good is in you,
No pleasure waiting for others, but an equal pleasure waits
for you.

As for me, I give nothing to any one except I give the like
carefully to you,
I sing the songs of the glory of none, not God, sooner than
I sing the songs of the glory of you.

Whoever you are! claim your own at an hazard!
These shows of the East and West are tame compared to you,
These immense meadows, these interminable rivers, you are
immense and interminable as they,
These furies, elements, storms, motions of Nature, throes of
apparent dissolution, you are he or she who is master or
mistress over them,
Master or mistress in your own right over Nature, elements,
pain, passion, dissolution.

The hopples fall from your ankles, you find an unfailing
Old or young, male or female, rude, low, rejected by the rest,
whatever you are promulges itself,
Through birth, life, death, burial, the means are provided,
nothing is scanted,
Through angers, losses, ambition, ignorance, ennui, what
you are picks its way.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Funny video

Since I'm not doing regular "happy Friday" videos anymore, here's this, because it's just a great song.

They Might Be Giants - Ana Ng from They Might Be Giants on Vimeo.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ark Ship - Part Three

The media carried a brief mention of the ship's arrival, along with snippets of the President's prepared statement urging the world to “mark this historic moment and consider it in context with the petty problems of international politics.”

In Houston, Communicator Sutton had been sending messages back and forth to the colony all day, and he was analyzing the data the colonists had transmitted. It looked like the primitive equipment that the space program had used to find the planet and determine that it was appropriate for colonization had gotten a few things wrong. The colonists had a challenge on their hands.

George thought back to all of those ancient science fiction books he had read as a kid, and he wished that it had been possible to invent faster than light travel, teleportation, and all of those other ideas that, he was sure, had once filled the world with hope for a fantastical future of unfettered space exploration and global peace and harmony. Unfortunately, the laws of physics and the financial and practical limitations imposed by political reality had seriously limited what the world's space programs were able to achieve in the centuries since humanity had first set foot on the moon. America had barely even managed to build the orbital dock and space elevator that had made construction of the ark ship possible, and that was only achieved because a President with an incredibly strong personality and filibuster-proof majorities in Congress had demanded it. And then she was voted out of office with the next term, as America realized the cost of the project and turned radically away from it.

The truth was, as George had long ago realized, that the future is never as incredible or different as you think it's going to be. Computers get faster, new things get invented to make life easier, fossil fuels get phased out and fusion power gets phased in, global warming takes its toll as governments fail to act, but nothing really radically changes. An interconnected world had led to a stasis in international politics, as governments became less interested in conquest and more interested in competition. Most of the world's oppressive states had finally succumbed to the pressures of the international marketplace, and nearly every country had achieved some approximation of democracy, or at least enough of the illusion of democracy, to keep the populace from revolting and keep business moving forward. Sure, capitalism's inherent tendency to “boom and bust” continued, and certain countries did stupid belligerent things that made other countries angry, but nothing had happened in more than two centuries that might even possibly lead to global warfare or even a radical realignment in the global power structure. No, George thought to himself, there would never be a United Federation of Planets, nor would there be a horrible dystopian future of robot wars and nuclear holocaust.

A new message was coming through. The quantum computer translated it.

“Scouting reports complete. Analysis suggests colony establishment will be difficult. This isn't the planet we were promised.”

The last sentence made George blink in surprise.

The colonists were bedding down for the night in their landing pods. They had all gathered to watch their first ever sunset, as the white fireball sank to the horizon, turned pink, and then dusky red, and the sky had burned away to reveal a canopy of unfamiliar stars. A large, crater-filled moon began to rise red on the horizon to the southeast, framed by the craggy mountains.

Mike had gone to visit his good friend Paul Venster, whose father had led the botanical teams in their surveys. Paul sat in an armchair in his pod, reading an info pad. Music played over the pod's sound system, and Mike recognized it as the kind of ancient Brazilian bossa nova music that Paul had fallen in love with on the ship.

“Hey Mike. What's shakin'?” Paul put down the info pad and peered at Mike, who was standing in the doorway of the pod.

“Pretty incredible sunset, eh?” Mike said as he sat across from Paul in one of the pod's two dining chairs.

“I just can't believe we're really here. I mean, this is it, man, this is what this whole thing has been all about. We're just the lucky ones who get to actually do this thing.” Paul was not known for his eloquence.

“Yeah, I know.” Mike paused, and looked thoughtful. “But, I mean, why are we here, really?”

Paul blinked. “We know why we're here.” Paul started speaking in the proud, unwavering voice of the announcers on one of those mission indoctrination videos they'd all been forced to watch repeatedly. “We're here to show that America is the greatest power on Earth, so great that we're able to establish a foothold -”

Mike cut him off. “Yeah, we've all seen the glorious inspirational mission films, man, but really, what are we doing here?”

Paul thought a minute. “What do you mean?”

Mike tried to put his thoughts into words. “What I mean is, what connection do we really have to this mythical America place that sent us here? None of us, none of our parents, and on back from there, ever set foot there, and we'll certainly never see the place.”

“Yeah, but,” Paul stopped. He wasn't sure where this conversation was going.

Susan was just sending the last bit of data from the day's explorations back to Earth. She had begun to regret the somewhat testy note she had sent earlier about the planet they were “promised.” The space program had had no way to know with absolute certainty that the colonists would have an easy time of it. Still, she wasn't happy about the task before her.

Hell, in her heart of hearts, she wasn't happy about any of this, and she suspected that not many of the colonists were really pleased to be here either. Oh sure, they had all had the freedom to choose what role they would play in building the colony, but beyond that, they were all slaves to the mission, just as their parents and grandparents had been. And while she too had been forced to sit through a dozen or more indoctrination films, she was having a hell of a time trying to figure out her purpose here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ark Ship - Part Two

The first part of the mission was to survey the landing site. The colonists fanned out across the rocky promontory and used their geological scanners to get a picture of the area. Mike Harris had been given the assignment to survey a small plateau to the southeast of the ship. His scanner's compass had found the magnetic north pole of this new planet, so he knew which direction to walk. He found that despite the low gravity, he was quickly out of breath, and as he examined his readings, he noticed that the oxygen level on this planet was somewhat lower than the oxygen on the ship, and his scanner also measured a lower air pressure than the ship's life support systems.

Mike found the plateau and used his scanner to take pictures, samples, and readings of the surface and the air. It was a fairly uninteresting piece of scenery, but to Mike, it was a breathtaking new world. The ground was a dusky red color, and the low gravity meant that with every footstep, he kicked up a fine haze of maroon dust that shimmered around him as he walked and coated his skin. He was looking for the kinds of soil nutrients that would be needed if the colonists were to be successful in creating a sustainable crop cycle on this new planet. If soil conditions made it impossible to do direct implantation of Earth crops, the colonists had brought along some chemical substitutes that might do the job. The botanical teams would be coming around later to examine the local plant life and determine what if any uses the colonists might make of it.

To Mike's eyes, it looked like implantation would be difficult, but not impossible. He had to get his report back to the Colony Coordinator immediately.

Communicator Sutton had been trying to get through to the White House to deliver the news of the ark ship's landing. The Project was supposed to have access to the President to report any developments, but it had been quite a while since they'd tried to communicate with Washington. Unfortunately, today, the White House communications staff had no idea what he was talking about.

Finally, he got through to Liaison Henry Markey, the President's advisor in charge of keeping in touch with the Project.

“Henry, good god, man, you need to brief your people about this thing. I had to wrangle my way through four levels of staff before I got to you.”

“I know, George, I know, but with the Russia situation heating up, there's just a lot going on here, and I can't be everywhere at once.”

“Well, look, please deliver this message to the President. The Amerigo has landed. Big day for America and all that.”

“Wow. That is big news. I'll get it to Gibson right away.”

Defense Secretary Evan Thacker walked in to the Oval Office. He was carrying a pad on which a large red message was flashing repeatedly.

“Sir, it's the Russians. I swear, if they keep this up -”

“What, Evan? If they keep this up, what?” President Gibson had begun to regret choosing Evan as his Defense Secretary, but it had been a grand gesture to the Party to give the job to his main rival for the primary nomination. Evan had always had a hot head, and Gibson shuddered to think what the Secretary might do if he were in charge instead of Gibson.

Evan threw down the message pad and pointed at it.

“See? This is a communique from our spy on board one of the Russian ships.”

The President looked at the pad. Evan was right – the Russians were behaving very badly. Of course, they had elections coming up, and the Communists were looking stronger than ever, so the hard line nationalist government had to scare the populace into voting for them, lest the imperialist Americans threaten their sovereignty. Gibson sighed. The more politics changed...

The President's intercom beeped and his secretary notified him that Liaison Markey wanted to see him.

“Right, tell him to wait a minute – I'm in with Thacker.”

Each of the colonists would be sleeping in their own pod, which would eventually be converted to create more permanent living quarters. The pods had been designed for this purpose, and, though cramped, were equipped with necessities such as beds, tables, chairs, and sanitary waste disposal and food and water recycling facilities. The colonists had also been able to bring a limited quantity of personal items down from the orbiting ark with which to make their landing pods more like home. The ark ship itself would eventually be disassembled in orbit and brought down piece by piece in cargo shuttles to be converted into buildings and equipment for the colony.

Colony Coordinator Susan Macintosh had set up a temporary command center outside of her landing pod. Susan had received survey reports from most of her teams, and she wasn't exactly happy about what she was seeing. The landing site's soil PH was alkaline, which limited what Earth plants would grow here, and the sunlight, though oddly bright, was almost too weak for adequate photosynthesis. However, there were signs of nitrogen and other nutrients in the dusky red soil, so there was hope. The botanical teams reported that the local flora was, while not poisonous, of a scrubby variety with little nutritive value whose primary purpose seemed to be providing the planet with its limited oxygen supply. The ship's climatologists had insisted to Susan that this was the best spot for establishing the first colony, with a weather pattern that they described as “temperate semi-arid desert,” whatever that meant. Essentially, they told her, it doesn't rain much, and local flora is thin on the ground, but the temperature range is reasonable from summer to winter. The presence of the river nearby had also been a bonus. The planet had no real oceans to speak of - much of the equatorial region was desert – but the far northern and southern latitudes each had a system of shallow rivers and lakes fed by a limited rain cycle and snow melt from the tall mountains.

With the chemicals and equipment on board the ship, she thought, the colony should be able to create a very basic crop cycle, focusing on vegetables and grains that thrive in desert and semi-arid conditions. The colony's diet would be limited, but adequate. The establishment of greenhouses to grow those plants that wouldn't be directly implantable would further augment the colony's diet.

Her quantum computer beeped – she had a message from Earth. She looked at the display terminal. America salutes its heroes, eh? She imagined that the President would probably give a big speech, that there would be parades, and all of those things she'd seen in the old newsreels.

Mike Harris arrived at her command center and presented his report. Just like the others, it indicated that taming this planet would be a challenge.

“Look at this, Mike.” She pointed to the quantum computer.

“America salutes its heroes,” Mike read. “Huh. Well, that's nice. I imagine there'll be parades and whatnot, like -”

Susan finished his thought. “- you see in those old newsreels.”

Susan had taken Mike under her wing early, because he had shown a precocious intellect and a keen interest in the mission. They had developed a kind of mother-son bond, especially after Mike's own mother had succumbed to the same kind of crushing depression that had claimed dozens of the crew over the centuries. Some people, when they realized that they were going to live their entire lives on the ark ship, and die there, without ever setting foot outside of it, couldn't cope with that knowledge, went catatonic, and eventually either took their own lives or literally starved to death, unable to find the will to eat. It had been a persistent problem, one that at times had even threatened the viability of the mission.

Susan and Mike looked at the message from the distant planet.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Poem for today

by Allen Ginsberg
The air is dark, the night is sad,
I lie sleepless and I groan.
Nobody cares when a man goes mad:
He is sorry, God is glad.
Shadow changes into bone.

Every shadow has a name;
When I think of mine I moan,
I hear rumors of such fame.
Not for pride, but only shame,
Shadow changes into bone.

When I blush I weep for joy,
And laughter drops from me like a stone:
The aging laughter of the boy
To see the ageless dead so coy.
Shadow changes into bone.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ark Ship - Part One

The landing pods were coming down from the orbiting ship. On one of the pods sat young Mike Harris, a descendant of those who had begun the journey to this new colony two hundred fifty years ago.

It hadn't been easy to grow up on an interstellar ship, never having set foot on a planet, never breathing fresh air, never seeing the sun rise over the hills as he'd heard about in the stories that had been passed down. Now, setting foot on a strange planet, feeling dirt under his feet for the first time, rather than the reassuring clang of the metal walkways, not to mention getting used to the lower gravity, was going to be a real challenge for all of them.

Mike's pod landed, and he opened the air lock, breathing real fresh air for the first time in his life. He was immediately overwhelmed by the scale of the planet. He knew this planet was slightly smaller than the Earth, but it still seemed huge to him.

In front of him, the terrain was rocky, with tall, craggy mountains stretching to sharp peaks. There was a smattering of scrubby plant life here, most of it scattered around a narrow river that the orbital survey teams had named the Mississippi, which would serve as the colony's water source. They had all been warned not to touch any of the plants until they had been analyzed to determine potential dangers or hidden poisons.

The sky was a pale blue, the sun a white fireball to the north. Mike had to squint and shield his eyes in the unaccustomed glare. Sure, he had been given training in what to expect on this planet – they all had. They had been forced to sit for hours every week under sun simulation lamps so that their eyes wouldn't atrophy in the dim light of the ark ship. They had done physical training and studied the scientific disciplines they'd need to build their colony. But after so many centuries of travel, some of the equipment hadn't worked to optimum efficiency, and so the training hadn't been as rigorous or thorough as his ancestors might have intended.

Mike was a thin, pale young man, whose age calculated in Earth years would be about twenty one. However, the strange way time passed on the ship, the lack of seasons, of a definable day or night, the irregular sleep schedule, not to mention the relativistic effects of traveling near light speed, meant that Mike wasn't sure exactly how old he was. And on this planet, whose year passed in 300 earth days, and whose day was 27 hours long, Mike couldn't begin to calculate his age. Still, he was clearly in his prime, though like all of the colonists, he was slightly malnourished from the replicated and recycled food stores on the ship. In time, he and his comrades would adjust to local conditions, and the hard work of taming this planet would make them strong and hardy.

He took a deep breath and stepped out of the airlock, and was immediately struck by how different, how odd, how utterly alien the planet felt under his feet. The gravity, slightly lower than it had been on the ship, was causing him difficulty in walking, and as he looked around, he noticed the other colonists having similar problems. It was a bit of a funny moment, and he suppressed a smile.

The Houston Space Center, Inc., where the generational ark ship had been designed and the orbital construction dock and space elevator had been built, was privatized (along with the rest of NASA, and a lot of other government agencies deemed “unnecessary taxpayer burdens”) after the launch of the ark ship. Since that time, most of its efforts had been focused on orbital advertising platforms – giant billboards hovering in low earth orbit filling the night sky with ads for toothpaste, condoms, and cigarettes.

During the privatization process, the systems used to communicate with the ship had been sold to The Ark Ship Project, a non-profit organization that had been set up to ensure that contact was maintained throughout the ark ship's centuries of travel. It had been decided not to tell the ark ship crew about the transfer, so as not to hurt morale on the ship. As far as the ship's crew knew, they were still communicating directly with NASA.

The Project kept tabs on the ship using the principle of quantum entanglement. Before the ship departed, a molecule of hydrogen on Earth had been tagged to a molecule of hydrogen on the ship, and by “jiggling” the molecule on Earth using certain patterns, thus “jiggling” the molecule on the ark ship, the Project could send messages to the ship, and vice-versa, in a kind of quantum Morse code. This method of communication had been a critical breakthrough for the space team, one that had circumvented the limitations of light speed in a practical and ingenious manner.

A new message was coming through, and the quantum computers were busy translating it. The uncertain nature of quantum mechanics made this a job requiring a massive amount of computing power, and messages had to be kept short and succinct.

Communicator George Sutton, an ancestor of whose had been among the launch crew for the mission, read the message from the display terminal.

The Eagle has landed on Amerigo. Survey teams dispatched.”

He typed back, “Congratulations. A historic day. America salutes its heroes.”