Saturday, August 31, 2019

By Moonlight

The county road was a nightmare of potholes and large cracks making me think my car was going to break apart from the impacts. “Kevin,” I said after having to swerve around a section of washed out road, “how long before we merge with the interstate?”

Kevin didn't answer, I glanced over to see him playing on his smartphone. He was scrolling through pictures of sorority women at our school and grinning like a small boy who had just seen his first pair of exposed breasts. I shouldn't have expected anything else, the guy was an obnoxious jerk on his best days. For a second I wondered why I let him in my car much less gave him a ride back to Fort Worth while I drove home down to Galveston for Thanksgiving. That's when I remembered the five one-hundred dollar bills he paid me for the chance to get home. Kevin's family was close to rich while mine wasn't and that money would more than pay for my trip home and back to school.

“Dammit Kevin,” I said louder, “how much longer till we get to the interstate?”

That jarred Kevin away from his college fantasies and back to his one task as navigator. “Yeah, sorry Roger,” he said going through the motions of exiting out the hookup app and bringing up the road map. Seconds ticked by with me looking all round the sides of the road for any sign of civilization.

We were somewhere around the Arizona and New Mexico border but even with a full moon above us it was easier to say our actual location was the middle of nowhere. I took a small comfort in the idea that this was what the country must have looked like a couple of centuries ago. While gas wasn't an issue, if we broke down getting a tow truck and my car repaired would certainly swallow that five-hundred bucks and much more. I had visions of having to drop out of school and getting a crappy job back home like the one my dad still worked.

“Roger Tanner old buddy,” Kevin said in a far too casual manner, “the signal on my phone just dropped out. I can't bring up the road map, we're flying blind.”

I wanted to slap the bastard, and then ask how long it had been since he looked at the map. But that wouldn't have served any useful purpose. Plus, I was the one that told him earlier to look up an alternate route since Interstate-10 had been closed due to a massive multi-vehicle pileup involving several semis, with a couple of them hauling gas. We had heard about the accident over the car's radio and were at least ten miles from the scene when one of the semis hauling gas exploded. The fireball looking uncomfortably like a mushroom cloud.

“It can't be much farther,” Roger said with the confidence of someone use to getting nearly everything handed to him on a silver platter.

That's when one of the tires blew.

It was a small stroke of good luck that I was able to pull off to a wide and level section of ground that would make changing the tire relatively easy. Throw in the light from the moon, I wouldn't have to depend on the easily distracted Kevin to hold the flashlight properly. Another minor blessing was that I had a real spare tire that was in more than decent shape. With a little luck and no surprises, we could back on the road in less than thirty minutes.

Kevin was decent enough to help pull the bags out of the trunk making sure to put them on top of the car's roof instead of the ground where an adventurous rattlesnake might stowaway. After that he reverted to his usual self-absorbed behavior.

“Holy shit, Roger come look at this.” He said right as I was setting the jack underneath the car to change the flat, left rear tire.

'Not now Kevin, I want to get this tire changed,” I responded.

“But Roger, it's a fucking ghost town.” He said with increased excitement.

I stood up to look and sure enough, there were a bunch of buildings silhouetted against the moonlight about a quarter mile off the road. After my eyes adjusted a little more, I could see several turn-offs behind us that lead into the town. It was easy to tell this wasn't some Old West town of saloons, blacksmiths, horses, and gunfighters. It looked way too modern like that, I even spotted the dark outline of an old style gas station complete with abandoned pumps standing a lonely guard against the night.

“I'm going to check it out,” Kevin said before I even had a chance to respond.

I didn't say anything as Kevin ran off into the town. If the idiot disturbed any protective coyotes, irate snakes, or scared illegal immigrants whatever happened was on him. Going back to changing the tire, I fully expected to hear him scream out in surprise or, more than likely, pain. But that's where things got really weird, after the sound of Kevin's footsteps faded away the night went totally quiet.

“Kevin!” I screamed out minutes later after getting the spare tire installed. I stood by the car hoping to see some sign of the jerk but the abandoned town was eerily silent. All I heard was the nighttime breeze, the rustle of desert vegetation, and a few million local insects making noises in an attempt to get laid. By all rights, Kevin should have been making some sort of sound as he rummaged through the modern ruins. We weren't friends by any means but I knew Kevin enough to know it was impossible for him not to make noise. His main purpose in life was to draw attention to himself.

After calling out several more times and and blowing the car horn, I realize something had really gone sideways. After checking my own cell phone and seeing the no signal message, that meant me walking into the town and finding the bastard.

Luckily, I had a decent flashlight with new batteries so I wouldn't be walking into town struggling through the darkness. Throw in the baseball bat that I had left in the trunk after the last pickup game back on campus, and I felt reasonably secure I could handle most situations.

I yelled out for Kevin while walking into town hoping his stupid ass would pop up allowing us to get back on the road. But as I reached the first of the buildings, it was clear he was not going to appear. One street over from the edge of town, I hit its main business area. Both the moonlight from above and the beam from my flashlight illuminated numerous faded signs hanging from storefronts. It ran the gambit from what was a mom and pop grocery, a dry cleaning establishment, hardware store, to a pharmacy and all the others businesses you could expect in a small town.

From the old types of soda and gas stations signs still readable, it was evident to me the town had died around the fifties to early sixties. Most of the glass windows had of course long since shattered littering the cracked and overgrown sidewalk with shards. But weirdly, from what I could tell from the beam of my flashlight probing the dark stores, it looked as if everyone just suddenly up and left. The insides of were a mess but it looked like they were still stocked with whatever they were selling back then. This suggested to me that when everyone abandoned the town, they did suddenly and completely. No stragglers stayed behind to loot the fully stocked stores. What worried me even more was that over the years, absolutely no one had come back for any reason.

The thing that was bothering me the most was that I didn't see any sign of animal life in the town. Yes, the town had been abandoned for decades but I didn't see any evidence of stray dogs or cats. There wasn't even evidence of coyotes or rats, animals that would have normally taken full advantage of all the stuff humans leave behind. .

I'm not sure how long I strolled the deserted streets calling out for Kevin. Eventually I drifted into a residential area of modest homes all from the same era as the main street. A few had collapsed over the decades but many still stood in surprisingly good condition. The glass windows were shattered, roofs slowly sinking in on themselves, and doors hanging loose on frames but I had seen worse being renovated and sold for a bundle.

Kevin's excursion into the town had at first just irritated me. Having to leave the car to find his ass had officially pissed me off. Now with no sign of him anywhere, my worry was quickly escalating to cold fear. That was especially the case as I approached the opposite end of town looking at what appeared to be an industrial park. In the moonlight, I saw huge structures in the distance that looked similar to a cement factory back home. Along with that were a multitude of towering mounds beyond the equipment, all of equal height and lined up evenly.

With Kevin having dropped off the face of the earth, I began wondering what my next course of action should be. That's when I heard what I thought was a person shouting back towards the main street. I took off running to the sound not just in hopes of finding Kevin okay, but out of anger since I now figured he had been hiding the entire time and watching me aimlessly wander around.

As I neared whatever was making the screams their intensity increased. They still didn't sound exactly human but at the time I was assuming it was Kevin and that he had stumbled into some real horrendous shit. I don't know how long it took me to find the source of the screams, but I eventually rounded the corner of some building and saw Kevin staggering down the street with things attached to his body.

“Kevin, what the fuck are you doing!” I yelled figuring he was pulling some sort of stunt. A second or two later he fell to the ground allowing me to aim my flashlight at him and get a good look. He was covered in blood and had several spiky looking things attached to his body. My first thought as I approached Kevin was that they looked like some weird form of sea urchins. They were pulsating and expanding like balloons while sinking more of their spikes into his body.

Don't ask me to explain it, but those things were just wrong. Every instinct told me to turn and run, it took a conscious effort to move closer to Kevin. As I moved closer with the beam of my flashlight fixed on Kevin, the things started smoking and emitting a high pitched sound that could have only come from feeling pain. All but one of them dislodged from Kevin's still body, spouted spider-like legs and disappeared into the night. The one that remained, the largest, waited until I was almost within an arms length of Kevin when it popped loose, sprouted legs and charged me.

It must have been dumb luck or that instinctive revulsion I was feeling but I caught it with the bat. I smacked the thing several times busting it like a swollen tick. Red blood and gray goo sprayed out on the ground and in the air with some hitting my face. I could feel the stuff burning my skin but there wasn't time for me to clean up. Kevin started groaning and moving his arms and legs trying get up, and with a lot of lifting from on my part I got the idiot on his feet.

We moved out of the town as fast as possible with me literally feeling the creatures hiding in every dark corner of the deserted town. I honestly believe the moonlight helped keep them at bay allowing Kevin and myself to make it back to the car alive. I looked back once after somehow getting Kevin in the passenger seat and that was when I felt another presence in the darkness. It wasn't the spiky urchin, spider-things, whatever it was was bigger, meaner, and something so wrong on a physical level I could feel it in my soul. The thought that crossed my terrified mind was that if I did somehow catch a glimpse of the thing I would go insane.

Needless to say, I floored the accelerator after getting the car cranked up. I pegged out the speedometer and didn't think about slowing down until I saw the lights of a motel/restaurant/gas station complex sitting right next the interstate.

I slammed on the brakes next the entrance to the gas station after seeing a New Mexico Highway Patrol car parked at a gas pump. The trooper almost pulled his gun on me after I jumped out babbling like a madman. He eventually saw Kevin in the car and sort of understood that he had been attacked and that it was his own blood covering his clothes and body.

Ambulances were called and Kevin and I were rushed to a nearby hospital. Kevin regain consciousness in the emergency room and told about how he was lurking around the deserted town when the creatures crawled out of the darkness and attacked him. I was in another exam room being cleaned up and treated for what the nurses were calling minor chemical burns on my face, arms, and hands.

Kevin was coherent for close to an hour with the cops naturally not believing what either of us were saying. That's when the first blood tests started coming back with the doctor in charge of the emergency room screaming about contamination and lockdown procedures. Shit really got weird when the exam rooms Kevin and I were sealed off with a huge plastic sheets. Next to arrive hours later were guys in hazmat suits, who didn't say one word to me but took dozens of blood, skin, and urine samples.

At some point I heard Kevin begin to scream, far worse than back in the ghost town with the creatures attached to his body. The plastic sheets enclosing my exam room were opaque, so I couldn't really see the commotion outside but it was clearly panic. Kevin's screams were getting worse but there were others outside yelling as well, their words unintelligible. It all ended with the sound of something being sprayed in Kevin's room. I have no idea what was but it dropped the temperature all through the emergency department.

At the same time, a nurse wearing a hazmat suit came into my room with extra blankets and dozens of pills and liquids for me to drink. She didn't answer any of my questions but I had the eerie feeling my own life was in question. Figuring only time would decide my fate, I quieted down and began a long wait.

Guessing here, but from the clock on the wall in my room most activity died down early the next morning. I could still see figures moving around on the other side of the plastic covering the entrance, but I had no idea what they were doing. The clock said it was noontime when three hazmat-wearing individuals started talking in front of what had become my medical jail cell. The one that finally came in was my nurse, wearing a smile and carrying a huge hypodermic.

“We're going on a little trip and this will help you relax,” she said before jamming it in my arm pushing the plunger down. Just seconds later everything black with me wondering if I would ever wake up.

I did wake up, in my own bed in my parents' house in Galveston, Texas. Feeling extremely groggy and weak, I slowly stand up and notice someone had taken my hospital gown and dressed me in jeans and t-shirt. Somehow I stumbled downstairs to the living room and find a strange man sitting calmly in my dad's chair next the fireplace.

“Hello Mr. Tanner,” he said, “I'm glad you you're awake because we need to talk.” The stranger was a rail thin, balding man wearing a suit that looked twenty or more years out of date. The best description of the guy was that he looked like a substitute math teacher I once had in high school. A humble guy who did his best not to be overwhelmed by a class of rednecks and jocks whose math needs would never go much beyond counting on their fingers and toes. The individual sitting in my dad's chair was nothing like that, he exuded an unspoken authority like it was his birthright.

“Where's my mom and dad?” I ask worried the man had done something to them. It didn't take a conspiracy nut to realize Kevin and I had stumbled into some extremely weird shit that might effect them.

“They're fine, in fact we've already talked and they have graciously left the house for awhile so we can come to an understanding. I'm about to make you an offer that will be extremely beneficial to the both of us.” The guy said smiling in a way that wasn't threatening, but did have undertones suggesting he wouldn't stand for anything less than full agreement.

“What is your offer?” I asked trying to hide my fear.

“My organization,” he began, “will pay for your entire college education, payoff your parents' mortgage, and make arrangements allowing your father to retire early if you agree to never speak of what happened in the desert.”


That was thirty years ago and I kept the agreement. I was told never to speak of the incident to anyone at all until the day I died. That I would be monitored and would be “disappeared” if I broke the arrangement. That individual did keep his word about paying for my college, my parents' mortgage, my dad's retirement and health insurance until the day he died. My silence bought the elimination of all financial worries allowing my parents years of happiness. At the end of our talk, I was allowed to ask about Kevin and what his family had been told.

The stranger said Kevin's parents were told that we had strayed onto a badly marked military road and gotten into an accident. That the details would have to remain classified but that Kevin had foolishly wandered away from the car and into an area with decades-old underground chemical weapon bunkers. That some of the containers had decayed and began leaking, contaminating the surrounding desert. The man unconvincingly said Kevin's family were given his cremated remains but I have my doubts.

My life after the incident could have been considered successful, if not happy. I finished college, got a great job and married a beautiful woman. But deep down it all felt wrong, that I was playing a scripted part, not a genuine life. Maybe I have survivor's guilt, or that I'm hung up and never having my questions about the events in the abandoned town and in the hospital answered.

Whatever the case, after my daughter died of cancer last year, my sham of a life fell utterly apart. First to go was my wife, she ran off with another guy but not before telling me she never felt I was truly present, that I always seemed distant. Next was my job, After climbing the corporate ladder for years, a changing business model saw my job evaporated like mist in a breeze.

That's when the dreams began, of me walking the streets of that abandoned town back before whatever cataclysm descended. Back when it was filled with people going about their happy lives. So I'm leaving everything behind and heading west to find it again. What's really funny, my last dream was about that dark specter I felt after forcing Kevin into the car. I know what it is now, somehow it was me.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Greenland Delusion

The idea that our reality is nothing but an elaborate computer simulation is something I have mentioned many times over the years. In fact I will freely admit that I have probably overused the notion in my political commentary. But events and circumstances have gotten increasingly surreal since November 2016, to the point I find myself leaning on the concept as an explanation as to why the country is going to the authoritarian crapper.

Yes, societies, empires, and nations do unravel and fall apart, hopefully without some master programmer playing with the source code of the universe. But this time far too many people and situations appear to have boarded the crazy train to Bonkersville.

I fully expected the Orange Bastard's (I'll just write “OB” from now on.) occupation of the Oval Office to be a nightmare roller coaster ride. The Pussy Grabber-in-Chief never left any doubts about what he would do if he got into office. Which is the main reason I still despise anyone who voted third-party or just stayed home on election day because they didn't like Hillary. When one of two choices openly tells everyone it is a ravenous monster, common sense and self-preservation should make you vote for the other person, even if she isn't bright and shiny enough for your tastes. But as they say, all that is water under a corrupt bridge since we are inching ever closer to the 2020 election cycle.

Unbelievably, things found a way to become even more surreal last week with the news that the OB was seriously considering the idea of buying the island of Greenland from Denmark. My first surprise in all this was that OB even knew of the island's existence. Despite claims to being a “Stable Genius” the individual in question clearly doesn't have any intellectual curiosity beyond porking his favorite daughter and playing silly sidekick to every sleazy, murderous dictator that will stand next him. For someone who stated he believes windmills cause cancer, I just don't see OB being big in world geography.

Another thought that occurred has to do with Greenland's population. We know of OB's disdain for Puerto Rico and its people, so I would bet money that he believes Greenland is a vast bastion of Northern European white folks. It wouldn't surprise me that he has seen a few episodes of the History Channel's drama about Vikings and that bringing them into the United States would dilute the growing number of people with a darker shade of skin tone. Remember, OB openly stated once that more people emigrating from Norway would be a good thing for the United States.

Yes, I honestly believe OB is that stupid and racist.

Alas, this fault in right-wing logic is commonplace. Somehow right-wingers did not have any idea that Western European countries are what they would consider “socialist.” Right-wingers will bitch and moan about increased premiums and decreased benefits from their employer provided health insurance, but go into a rabid panic at the barest mention of the United States implementing anything similar. The same holds true for them whining about no vacation time when employees are often forced to use it for sick days for themselves and family members.

In fact right-wingers absolutely love to point out the flaws and failures of socialism, such as the disaster that is Venezuela. But they curiously overlook the fact that some of the happiest, most prosperous, and well educated countries are the social democracies of Western Europe like Norway, Sweden, and Denmark which Greenland belongs. No, they're not utopias, but you would be a fool not realize how much better off living in those countries would mean for the average American. But we're talking about people who love their guns and being pissed on by corporations and other rich elites.

But the most likely reason OB became interested in Greenland is that he wants a grand gesture to mark his occupation of the White House. He recently gave NASA marching orders to return humans to the surface of the moon by 2024. A cool goal worthy of a real president but the time frame is next to impossible. Mainly because NASA's new super rocket hasn't even begun unmanned test flights. It's currently billions over budget with its first flight several years overdue.

Throw in the “minor” (that's sarcasm) problem that the only lunar landers we currently possess exist only as pretty artistic concepts. Could there be a crash program to get humans back to the moon by the 2024 deadline? Yeah sure, but NASA's budget would have to be raised to astronomical levels, but OB has actually cut the space agency's budget since he came into office. For the sake of brevity, I'll ignore the fact that if OB forced NASA to slap together its super rocket along with an untested lunar lander that the most likely result would be dead astronauts stuck on the moon or forever flying through space.

I believe someone has told OB his 2024 moon landing just ain't going to happen, so he went shopping for another grand gesture with Greenland looking like low-hanging fruit. What would really be cool, and sure to piss on OB's image of himself would be to have the Greenlanders vote on joining the United States. I would bet money I do not have that after Greenlanders overwhelmingly voted to stay with Denmark and keep their awesome social safety net they would then go to the nearest bar and have a huge belly laugh at the expense of OB and his delusions.

For those reasons I'd almost like to think the real issue with our reality is some bored master programmer having some sick fun on his version of a Playstation or Xbox. But realistically the problems with our reality lay in the fact that humans are just plain stupid and too lazy to prevent the wrong people from gaining power.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

For the Sake of the Living

(Author's note: This is a sequel to "The Bigger Picture" and reading it first will make this one more understandable.)

The war never became an unifying factor for the vast majority of humanity. The twenty-five hundred worlds of humanity were content to form regional alliances with a few of the stronger planetary-states willing to fight the enemy alone. Only the governments of Earth, Mars, and Titan could be heard over the usual egotistical posturing of the regional alliances and single-planet powers calling for a greater human alliance. Their respective fleets worked the hardest to protect weaker colony worlds and in many ways, this commitment to these small, far-flung settlements brought about the fall of the Sol System.

For eighty-five standard years the three fleets of the Sol system worked to both push the Wisps out of human space, and to locate the main part of their civilization. The Wisps were seemingly rocked dozens of times with massive defeats leaving their warships nothing but shattered wreckage. But the Wisps always regrouped and came back gnawing away at the commercial and passenger starships that tied human civilization together.

The beginning of the end came with the attack on the Alpha Centauri systems. Two full Wisps fleets, heavy with battleships suddenly dropped out of hyperspace on the edge of the Alpha Centauri B system of planets. The Centauri, an arrogant branch of humanity, looked at the arrival of the enemy on their territory as a chance to show off their navy's combat abilities to the Sol system powers. The Wisps first moved on New Canaan, the colony world orbiting Alpha Centauri B. With a population of only thirty-million, its defenses could not hope the withstand the size of the Wisp onslaught.

The Centauri Federal Navy quickly mobilized, moving the mass of their fleet from the Alpha Centauri A system to the space near New Canaan in hopes of engaging the Wisps in a divisive battle. Just as the Centauri Second and Third fleets jumped the short distance to New Canaan, word was received that the Wolf 359 system had been invaded. The Centauri controlled the Wolf 359 and its vast, resource rich asteroid belt.

The Centauri Federal Republic was forced to split its fleet to meet both the attack on New Canaan and defend its interests at Wolf 359, namely the dozens of asteroid colonies containing millions of residents. The Battle of New Canaan lasted four standard days and while a win for the Centauri Navy, it came at the cost of most of the Second Fleet. The Third Fleet, redirected to Wolf 359 was utterly annihilated as was the shipyards and asteroid colonies they were sent to defend.

The Centauri immediately feared the Wisp forces would now move towards Alpha Centauri A to attack the planet Centaurus Prime and its six-billion inhabitants. In a move that showed their desperation, the Centauri called on the Sol System powers to come to their aid. Earth, Mars, and Titan immediately dispatched their local fleets to Alpha Centauri while ordering other forces farther away to return as quickly as possible.

The Battle of Alpha Centauri A was immense, it tied up all available human ships for ten lightyears. Wisp warships punched so deep into the system they came into range of the orbiting planetary defense stations of Centaurus Prime. Despite the size of the enemy forces committed to the battle, it was just a feint for the true target, Earth.

Excerpt from Admiral Jason Hogan's memoirs
Written May 20, 67 AS (after siege)
Luna Archives, Aldrin City

While the flight from Mars to Earth was routine, it nonetheless was a sobering trip for the people aboard the shuttle now entering the homeworld's atmosphere. There was no joy in coming to see the birthplace of humanity and all terrestrial life which had been seeded to many thousand worlds across the galaxy. It wasn't that the planet still bore the scars of countless centuries of abuse and negligent by its sentient children. Earth had returned to a near pristine condition with its human now devoted to it preservation and protection. For humans, trips to Earth now were more to pay respects to those that died during the Siege than to celebrate their birthplace.

The passengers on the shuttle were official emissaries to an interstellar conference being held on Mars, now the true center of human civilization. Some came from colony worlds on the far end of known space and were reestablishing contact with the rest of humanity for the first time in over a thousand years. The leading human worlds, namely Mars and Titan, were trying to combat the always contentious and fractured nature of human politics. The ultimate goal to form a lasting alliance to stand against the one other intelligent species humans had ever encountered, the mysterious creatures known as the Wisps.

For the pilot of the shuttle, Midshipman Michel Cor, the trip to Earth held a particular kind of excitement he tried hard to conceal. One of the shuttle passengers was the daughter of the Castean ambassador, a young woman he had meet at several formal functions thrown by the Martian government.

Michel's group of senior cadets had been drafted to be escorts for any single person part of the diplomatic entourages. For Michel, the unwanted duty prevented him from keeping a close watch on the group of first year cadets he had been assigned. If any of the newbies violated regulations or failed in their studies, it would reflect badly on him before his career even began. So it was with considerable trepidation that Michel waited with the other cadets to meet the visitors who they all had been ordered to impress.

The grand ballroom in the Martian Capitol building was decked out in decorations celebrating the new Renaissance. Hundreds of flags hung from the curved walls of the room representing the participating human worlds. Dozens of holograms of great historical figures floated in the air demonstrating that courageous and determined people can change the course of history. More importantly, for Michel, the tables in the cavernous room overflowed with food from all known human colony worlds. Having spent the last several days prepping for exams meant little time for meals, Michel eyed all the food ravenously.

Michel slipped away from the other senior cadets and walked over to the table containing food from his birth world of Sonora. He immediately tore into the plate of crispy Gawker bird paying no attention to time nor his surroundings. When someone finally spoken to him several minutes later, he almost choked from surprise.

“Hello cadet,” the young brown-haired woman close to his own age said. She was wearing a formal gown whose design looked like something the elite women of his home wore. “My father told me to mingle with the others in my group but I have always felt uncomfortable in these situations.” The young woman said further, clearly nervous about how Michel would react.

Michel recovered his wits quickly enough to look around and realize all the other cadets had already paired off with the other unaccompanied visitors. The best he could do at first was just smile as he tried to swallow his food and brush crumbs off his dress uniform.

“I know the feeling,” he finally responded. “The circumstances on my planet never prepared me for anything like this, frankly I'll be happy if I just don't make an ass of myself.”

For reasons he didn't understand, the young woman began laughing at his words. “I would have figured diplomatic small talk was a required course at the great Martian Fleet Academy.”

“It is,” Michel confessed, “one that I had to take three times before barely passing. Even then I believe my instructor just wanted to free herself from my bumbling.”

That made the attractive young lady laugh even more. “Well, we'll just have to mumble through together. Hi, my name is Aliane Jadin, my father is the lead ambassador from Castea.”

“I'm Senior Cadet Michel Cor from Sonora.” He responded shaking her hand in the diplomatically accepted manner while accessing the neural interface in his brain to get basic information on the planet Castea.

The trip to Earth would finally allow Michel some privacy with the beautiful young Aliane, something that was impossible on Mars. Being a midshipman in his final year at the Fleet Academy meant he had appreciable leeway in how he spent is time and with whom.

As instructed, he landed the shuttle at a Fleet base in a section of Western Europe once called Brittany. Base personnel quickly emerged from a nearby building and hustled the dignitaries off the shuttle and into ground cars for a tour of the region. Aliane Jadin, was the last off the shuttle and waited beside Michel as the procession of vehicles drove off.

Base personnel, emerging from a nearby building, ignored the young couple as they began servicing the shuttle for its eventual flight back to Mars. Michel stepped over and spoke to the young ensign in charge of the ground crew, who pulled out a small communicator and began issuing orders to some unknown person or AI on the other end.

It was early spring in the northern hemisphere and Aliane was wearing a colorful but simple tunic and skirt that unbeknownst to either had a strong resemblance to what peasant girls wore in that region for hundreds of years back in ancient times. Michel of course was wearing his Fleet midshipman's uniform which was a one piece, utilitarian suit designed for functionality and nothing else. It was often joked on the other more cultured human worlds that the one certainty in the universe was that Martians had nether style nor any idea about fashion.

“Where are we going, Michel? My father will be worried if he receives word that I did not attend the tour.” Aliane said to the midshipman.

“There is a beautiful meadow just outside the base perimeter where couples and groups like to picnic. Since this is our first chance to be truly alone, I thought it would be a good idea for us to spend some time there.” Michel said grabbing the woman's hand.

“Picnic?” Aliane nervously repeated, uncertain of its meaning. .

“Ah yes,” Michel grinned while feeling a little embarrassed. Almost three thousand Earth years separated Castean speech with the common tongue used by those serving in the Martian Fleet. “The word comes from an ancient Earth language called English or Anglo. It means an outing or occasion that involves a packed meal eaten outdoors.” Michel quickly explained not wanting to offend the young woman.

While the universal translators both Aliane and Michel had embedded in their neural interfaces were highly effective, it couldn't catch everything. Michel couldn't even begin to guess what might be going through Aliane's mind. He didn't know what would be worse, ruining his chances with Aliane or causing a diplomatic incident endangering the fragile Human alliance just now taking shape. Michel had read the file on Castea, while it was an advanced and sophisticated world recognizing universal human rights, their moral standards involving unmarried relations were quite primitive.

Aliane chuckled after he explained the meaning. “Oh, you mean a social,” she said. “I would really enjoy such an activity with you Michel.” Aliane was around twenty earth years old although on her own planet with its longer orbit she was still considered a minor in some regards.

“When our transportation and food arrives,” Michel said, “we'll head over to that meadow. The tour group won't be back until nightfall and we'll be waiting on the shuttle for them.”

“Excellent,” Aliane exclaimed while grabbing his hands with hers, “I'm not sure what you've heard about Castea but many my age group are determined to shake off our stifling rules.”

Their transportation turned out to be a sky cycle. A two-person craft that used anti-gravity repulsors for lift and motion. A container mounted on the rear held an assortment of food and supplies for the excursion. Michel and Aliane took to the air right after the ground crew explained the workings and felt comfortable that the two wouldn't immediately kill themselves after taking off. Cruising five hundred meters above the ground, the young couple had a spectacular view of the countryside. Rivers, forests, and meadows seemed to go on forever, but the one missing item was evidence of an active civilization.

In a few places, the couple spotted dark, jagged structures on the surface signifying ruins dating back to the time the Wisps bombarded the planet. Centuries after the bombardment when the people of Mars and Titan restored life to the surface of Earth, all surviving remnants of civilization were treated as sacred.

Michel landed the sky cycle close to a centuries-old tree growing atop a hill next the meadow. The two pulled a blanket and food from the container on the cycle and prepared a spot that would have been recognizable to most humans all through history.

The awkwardness of youth and innocent attraction was replaced by the ritual of eating and engaging in small talk. Michel asked about Aliane's childhood and what it was like growing up on a planet that had been isolated from the rest of humanity for several millennia.

“Our isolation went beyond time and space,” Aliane said in a curious tone. “My people and I are the children of one of the thousands of seedships Earth callously dispatched out into the void before the invention of hyper-light travel.” She finished obviously harboring some sort of hurt and resentment.

To Michel the seedships were the stuff of ancient history bordering on legend and myth. The story of the seedships begin so far back in time humans had had only stepped foot on Luna for the first time just a little over two-hundred years before. By the late twenty-second century, according to the ancient Christian calendar, humans had colonized much of the Sol system. Great cities existed on Luna, Mars, and the moons of the gas giants. Hundreds of asteroids had been hollowed out, filled with soil, water, and air then spun to create gravity and now were homes for millions of people.

There were still troubles, incompetent governments, corrupt corporations, new forms of sickness that refused easy treatment, poverty, crime, and even wars among the various political entities. But the one thing that united humanity was its desire to escape the confines of the Sol system. Humans lived all the way out to the wandering and silent comets of the Kuiper Belt, but except for several manned missions to the three stars making up the Alpha Centauri system, the rest of the galaxy was simply was too distant for humans to reach.

The roadblock to the galaxy was simple engineering. Manned interstellar flight required a massive infrastructure to house, feed, and protect fragile human beings for trips that would take a century or more. Such trips would then require not only enormous amounts of fuel to accelerate the ship to a decent percentage of light speed, but to bring the vessel to a stop at its destination. None of the numbers could be made to work using the existing technology of the time.

What humans could do was send out unmanned probes, exponentially reducing the mass and fuel requirements for the trips. So, by the late 2180's the first probes left the Sol system bound for various nearby stars. While telescopic observation had long since confirmed terrestrial exoplanets were common, with some clearly harboring some form of life, the probes found nearly every star system had a world humans could live with little to no terraforming.

This drove the various political entities in the Sol system crazy. Each wanted the glory to be the first to establish another human interstellar colony other than the one living on the planet that would eventually be called Centaurus Prime.

The scientists and engineers eventually stumbled upon a concept first conceived back during the prehistory of Twentieth Century Earth. Sub-light starships would be built that contained the DNA of tens of thousands of individuals encoded into computer memory, sidestepping the need to house, feed, and protect them during the flight. Upon arrival to their destination these ships would land and through the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotic equipment prepare a site for humans to live. These computerized genomes would then be biologically recreated, grown in artificial wombs, and raised to adulthood by robot caregivers.

There was some debate on whether tossing humans into the interstellar void to be raised by robots was morally and ethically sound. But not enough to deter the first seedship leaving the Sol system in 2274. While there were tragic and horrible failures, the seedship project only picked up in pace and sophistication. By the twenty-fifth century, the target destinations for seedships had moved out beyond the two-hundred lightyear range with their speed approaching seventy-five percent of lightspeed.

Around 2690 the seedship that held the DNA of Aliane's ancestors left Sol system bound for a star system close to three-hundred lightyears away. Forty-two years into the flight of that seedship it stopped broadcasting status updates and was declared a loss by the AI system on Luna that tracked the progress of outbound vessels. During that era seedships were leaving Sol system at the rate of one or two an Earth year so its failure was well within what was thought allowable. The project continued well into the thirtieth century until the invention of a practical faster-than-light drive which made the sub-light ships obsolete.

What actually happened to the seedship carrying Aliane's ancestors though was that it had encountered a phenomenon that would later be named a spacial quantum rift and was instantly transported five-thousand lightyears off course. The AI systems onboard the vessel were smart enough to access the situation and then locate a suitable target planet in range so the mission could continue. Aliane's ancestors would go on to build their own civilization cut off from the rest of humanity and its growing interstellar radio network.

“For centuries,” Aliane said, “our separation from the rest of humanity was a cause of great pain for my people. We had no idea where we were in relation to the rest of settled human space. As the colony grew, factions arose trying to explain how we got to Castea. Some believed something had happened to Earth and the rest of the Sol system. That we were the last gasp of a species on the verge of going extinct.”

“But that couldn't explain the massive and instantaneous jump your seedship made,” Michel said. “If this was just a case of a lost seedship the onboard mission log would have shown a flight time lasting thousands of years instead of centuries.”

“True,” Aliane said, “but others came to believe aliens had taken control of the seedship, and brought it close enough to Castea for the AI's to recognize it as a near perfect copy of Earth. That before releasing the seedship they had modified the human DNA encoded into the computers as part of some type of experiment. Up until the day the starship from Tenia found us, we had no idea if we were truly human. This confusion, fear, and doubt made our society unstable. That was why we eventually reactivated the seedship's AI's and incorporated them into our government.”

Michel understood that Castea's isolation had ended less than a century ago when that exploration starship accidentally stumbled upon the system. The Tenian vessel discovered Castea had a population well over a billion people and numerous settlements on the other worlds of the system. Even now with the formation of the Human alliance about to happen, Castea was still so far beyond the normal boundaries of human space the number of ships to have visited that system was no more than a few dozen. In fact, the Castean starship now in orbit around Mars was the first time they had voyaged to any other human world.

There was a long silence as Michel and Aliane seemed to run out of words. The two found themselves moving closer to each other and holding hands. In Michel's mind he felt himself falling in love with the young woman. As Michel held Aliane in his arms, he was overwhelmed with the idea at how natural they felt together. As if they were two separate pieces made whole by being together.

But for for Alaine, something completely different was happening. A small part of her mind was feeling emotions quite similar to Michel's. But subconsciously other parts of her brain were calculating, planning, and making ready to satisfy the needs of the Masters. Per instructions that had laid dormant until it sensed the right time, Aliane's neural interface began preparing to bring Michel in the Fold.

Unbeknownst to Michel's conscious self, his own neural interface had sensed the change in Aliane and began mobilizing. Michel, still caught up in his nascent love of Aliane felt himself jerk away and place his right hand on the base of the woman's neck. Microseconds later several nanotubes shot out from the palm of his hand both linking up with Alaine's neural interface and injecting her body with hundreds of thousands of nanoprobes all programmed to shut down all operations in her body.

The resulting pitched battle of opposing technologies was over long before Michel or Aliane could register that it had even happened. While Aliane's body just slumped onto the covering the two had spread over the grass, Michel found himself scrambling away after his conscious mind reengaged with his body. Mere seconds later, the program that had been installed into Michel's own neural interface was fully flushed away dissolving any residual emotions he was felt towards the creature now laying on the ground. He looked at Aliane with a combination of curiosity and disgust much like a scientist might do to a new form of mold. Memories of the months of preparation and training flooded back causing him to look at Aliane as the alien being she had apparently been all along.

The triggering of the covert program running in Michel's neural interface had alerted all manner of personnel. The high pitched whine of anti-gravity replusors caused Michel to look up into the sky and see three sleek shuttles in the sky approaching his location. Within seconds after they landed, both Michel and the still prostrate Aliane were brought aboard and taken away.


Admiral Hogan stood at the window of the isolation chamber looking in at the unconscious young woman strapped down on the exam table. Upon her arrival technicians and medical robots had removed the woman's clothes and dressed her in loose fitting pajamas. At that moment doctors were supervising a surgical 'bot in the removal of the top portion of her skull. Once the skull was gently removed and placed in stasis, it became clear to everyone watching that while the young woman could act human she was nothing of the sort.

Neural Interface devices were ubiquitous tools that all humans on civilized worlds used to link into the local network grid for things like information and communication. Installed during childhood, they consisted of a web of fine optical wires that piggybacked throughout a brain. If brain surgery was ever required on a sick or injured person, standard interfaces were barely visible among normal brain tissue. What doctors and technicians would see would be pulses of light racing along almost microscopic threads.

What the technicians and Hogan saw inside Aliane's skull was a conglomeration of jagged inorganic shapes on the surface of her brain. Linking these structures together were filaments that looked organic in nature but were not based on any human technology. While Aliane looked and could act human, Hogan had no doubt that her intellect, personality, and experience were completely alien. If Aliane wasn't a Wisp, she was nothing but a tool for those mysterious creatures.

Hogan understood him calling the young woman from Castea an alien was ironic. He had lost most of his original human body during the siege of Earth over three-thousand years ago. As the centuries ticked by, it was decided by those in power that he was too valuable to lose. So his remaining organic parts were slowly replaced with cybernetic implants until he was just a brain housed in a vaguely humanoid body made of polymers and metal. Hogan couldn't even say his brain was still alive since being encased in a preserving fluid to prevent neurological decay. .

Hogan's contemplation of his own delayed mortality was interrupted when Michel Cor entered the room. The young man now wearing the uniform of the newly formed Human Federation Fleet seemed especially distant.

“Hello Ensign Cor,” Admiral Hogan said in a voice that sounded remarkably like the one his original body produced. “I trust you are recovering from the covert program ran during the operation. The artificial emotions it produces can linger in the minds to those unfamiliar with the effects.”

“I am fine, sir.” Michel said coldly while staring through the window at Aliane. “How did Fleet Intelligence come to believe the Wisps had infiltrated human societies?”

Hogan thought for several seconding weighing whether or not to tell the young man anything. But the Collective had a high regard for Michel and his future, which tipped the balance.

“The Tenians had suspicions from the moment they made first contact. Automated bio-scanners detected abnormalities in several members of the Castean delegation that visited their ship. Enough for the medical AI to trigger an alert saying it would be best if the two groups did not have direct exposure.”

“I read the reports,” Michel said. “That still doesn't explain to me how you and the rest of the Fleet Intelligence Collective knew to set this trap. Long range scans show Castea to be a normal human world with no bizarre or unusual societal traits except for the use of the seedship AI's in their government.”

“Once the Mars Intelligence Collective became aware of the Castean abnormalities several stealth probes were placed inside the star system. They have detected numerous subspace signals being directed out towards an uncharted star cluster. These signals are encoded and have Wisp characteristics.” Admiral Hogan told the newly minted ensign, deciding that a more detailed explanation was beyond the scope of his understanding.

“Then what Aliane said must be true in some sense,” Michel said more to himself than the admiral.

“What is that, Ensign?”

“Aliane told me her people understand their seedship's mysterious jump doesn't make any sense. Being thrown over five-thousand lightyears by a spacial rift only to end up in range of a very Earth-like planet defies logical thinking. She said a segment of the Castean population believes aliens are responsible and could have even modified them.”

“That's why you will be joining the crew of the starship Ranger and heading to Castea,” Hogan said. “Every member of our new Federation understands the Wisps will eventually return, and that this time they will not just sterilize one world. They will wipe humanity out all across the galaxy. As far as the Castean delegation is concerned, young Aliane died suddenly due to infection and the new Human Federation must pay its respects to the people of that world.”

“Does that mean Aliane will be terminated?” Michel said pointing at the figure on the exam table.

“No ensign, my own connection to humanity may be tenuous but I still cherish life. Even now a none sentient clone mimic of Aliane is being grown. That will be the body the Ranger returns to Castea. Thew real Aliane may spend the rest of her life here on Earth in a stupor being studied, but neither the Intelligence Collective nor I will end her life.”

A technician arrived presenting the admiral with a data pad allowing Michel to have some time with his thoughts. While it was now a dying echo, Michel still felt the emotional connection he was developing with Aliane. It didn't feel like an aftereffect of the personality program the Intelligence Collective installed in him and the other cadets to draw out Wisp infiltrators. Michel stood at the window watching the medical 'bot connecting optical fibers to the Wisp devices embedded in Aliane's brain. It physically hurt Michel to see her unconscious body twitch each time the 'bot's probes made a successful link. From the first briefing the Intelligence Collective gave on possible infiltrators Michel felt the tang of disgust that anyone would betray their fellow humans to the murderous Wisps. Now looking at Aliane, he felt she and whomever else had been similarly modified were just as much victims as the billions murdered on Earth during the Siege.

With the admiral still engrossed with the technician, Michel silently turned and left the room. The Ranger would be leaving soon and it had a mission to perform. This mission wasn't just about humans wanting revenge for the billions killed by the Wisps, it was also for the sake of the living.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Brain Freeze Incident

Don't get me wrong, I supremely enjoyed my recent vacation down at Disney World. It had been almost five full years since the last family trip down there and the long break had fine-tuned my appreciation for Mickey, Donald, and my own personal god, Goofy. The only real problem was that the reports we had read for months about nearly overwhelming crowds sizes at the parks were turning out to be true.

Yes, to many people Disney has always seemed overcrowded, but you can chalk that up to how varying individuals have different tolerances to the pleasantly ravaging masses of humanity. All whom are desperate to get every bang for their bucks on vacations that are too short and infrequent. But it seems different now since the management gods running Walt's creations have spent years building new resort hotels without a corresponding addition to the four existing theme parks. Compounding the issue, those same management gods have expanded existing theme parks drawing in even more people straining Disney staff and facilities.

For me and my family the increased park attendance were issues we largely worked around. First, we're Disney Vacation Club members which means we just jump on a Disney-supplied bus that picks us up at our resort and drops us off at whatever theme park we want to visit. Secondly, these buses allow people to hit the parks just as soon as they open, and if you plan ahead allowing visitors to hit the popular rides first before wait times get really long. The idea being once the crowds start getting too stifling you make a retreat back to the resort pool to actually rest and relax.

That was the plan the day we were going to hit Animal Kingdom Park and finally have our turn on the two Avatar-related attractions: “Flight of Passage” and the “Na'vi River Journey.”

We hit Flight of Passage first and even with a nearly two-hour wait in the queue, I had a great time. Imagine you're walking up a mountain on an alien planet with native vegetation all around the path. With my science-oriented mind these alien fake plants were fascinating with me wondering what hypothetical evolutionary pressures could produce such lifeforms.

The ride itself was as close to virtual reality as you can get without closing the actual line. Flight of Passage starts with the person mounting something that looks akin to a frame for a motorcycle. Various panels then move to secure the rider who is staring very closely at a huge, curved screen. The scenario for the attraction has you being linked to one of several avatars on the planet Pandora who are about to ride one of the flying banshees.

Once all the storeline hocus pocus is finished, you're on a banshee which takeoffs from the side of one of Pandora's flying mountains. Scenery flashes on and off the screen, which looks fully immersive since the person is so close to the images. Of course the frame you're riding adds to the visual effects because it tilts in all directions, but never enough that a person could fall off. After the ride is finished, cast members quickly usher everyone out the opposite door so the next group can enter.

Once my wife and I stepped back out into the bright Florida sun, a reward was in order for having successfully navigated the aerial wonders of Pandora. Which turned out to be a Avatar-themed frozen drink of two different flavors. I forgot the actual flavors, but they were colored purple and green with candy pearls mixed in as well.

That day in Florida was blistering hot and with its partner, stifling humidity teaming up to make every action as difficult as possible. (Yeah, First-world problems are the worst.) Luckily, my wife and I were able to snag a table under an awning to enjoy our pricey, frozen concoctions. Just as we sat down to enjoy our drinks my wife had to run off to the restroom. Not seeing any reason to wait for her, I began slurping down on my drink to get some relief from the heat. This is when the crowd began to reassert itself.

The one thing about crowds is that conversations naturally become harder. In the past, people tended to lower their voices when a sensitive subject had to be discussed in public. Not anymore, I've come to the idea that with “reality television” as thing now certain people seem to enjoy making outlandish statements in public.

Just one table over from me a forty-something mom was in a rather heated discussion with her twenty-something daughters about their activities the night before. Yes, I was listening because of the circumstances just mentioned. Not actively listening like someone attending a reality show, but when people are separated by just a few feet and speaking louder than usual certain details will get exposed.

While the mother/daughter conversation next me was steadily becoming louder my consumption of frozen fruity drink had reached a tipping point. The result was a massive brain freeze that felt like a megaton nuclear blast going off inside my head. At the same time apparently one or both of the daughters had said something so horrendous it shocked the mother along with silencing several other nearby tables. At that moment my brain was reeling from the cold with me nearly in spasms, so I missed the actual statement.

“You seem to have forgotten, I'm your mother not your friend.” The mother said as my ears reengaged with my recovering brain. Per my usual luck, the cold-related contortions cleared in time to hear the people at yet another table apparently snickering at the mom/daughter discussion. Truthfully, these other people could have been laughing at my brain freeze but the mother/daughter trio were giving them nasty looks and not me. I played innocent and went back to slurping on my drink as the mom stalked off with the two daughters soon following behind.

My wife soon reappeared with me working hard to push the envelope on another brain freeze. When it hit, I had enough time to think of the quote that says only the mad repeat the same process over hoping for a different result. All things considered, I really wish I had heard what had upset the mom.