A Stroke of State

11 05 2012

Today marks five years since the first post in Orbital Shipyards, a not-insignificant anniversary! To celebrate the fifth birthday of Orbital Shipyards, presented here is a full-length short story set in the OS universe, featuring many familar characters – and some new ones as well.

As always, please feel free to share your thoughts, opinions and feelings regarding the colonisation of Fram.

 
 

A Stroke of State

An Orbital Shipyards Story

Dave Blades

Read the rest of this entry »





A, G, U and X

19 02 2012

Ngan said to Lindenmeyr: “Let me show you what we’ve learned so far.”

He moved away from the trough of methanogens and retrieved a tablet from his workbench. The tablet awoke from hibernation, and, in the reflection on Ngan’s faceplate, Lindenmeyr saw a series of brightly coloured images, rotating in imitation of three dimensions.

“If you’ll indulge me,” Ngan began, “I might ask you a question. How do you imagine alien life? How do you imagine something entirely new?”

Lindenmeyr paused for a moment.

“Is this a philosophical question?”

“Oh yes,” Ngan replied. “Imagine, if you will, a new colour. A colour no one has even seen before. Or imagine a taste you’ve never tasted. Anything you imagine in your mind is based on what you know, what you’ve experienced, what is familiar.”

“Of course.”

“We can’t possibly imagine something entirely new and different. And if we saw it, we likely wouldn’t recognise it.”

Lindenmeyr cleared her throat. “Like Stanislaw Lem.”

“Exactly.” Ngan returned to the trough of methanogens with the tablet. “The likelihood that any kind of life that evolved away from Earth would be recognisable to us, much less look like humans with pointy ears, is infinitesimal.”

“And yet we recognise these methanogens.”

“Oh yes. And here we return to that philosophical question.”

Ngan explained that the basic building blocks of life as humans had experienced it were readily and widely available in the Universe. Organic compounds such as hydrocarbons and amino acids were found in comets along with methanol, formaldehyde, ethanol and ethane, even hydrogen cyanide. The emergence of life was not some religious miracle, but rather a simple matter of chemistry – the interaction of methane, water, ammonia, hydrogen and the creation of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

Astonishingly, more complex nucleobases could also be formed on meteorites, asteroids and comets. Together with amino acids, these nucleobases could under the right conditions evolve into complex proteins, nucleotides, DNA.

Ngan showed a series of slides to Lindenmeyr who, although not an expert in organic chemistry, recognised the association of molecules of hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon and oxygen into an amino acid.

“So we took it back to the beginning,” Ngan said. “Because the end product is so different, we go back to the building blocks that the methanogens must have started with.”

“Ah. Now I see the point of your question. Here is the experience we use to recognise the alien.”

Ngan nodded.

“To continue with the ‘building blocks’ analogy, we figured that all life starts with the same materials and then goes about building different shapes, forms, assemblies.”

He flipped to another slide that showed a complex structure of tangled lines branching from a single curved strand. Where the tangles were clustered they grew away from the thicker strand, and bunched together like fruit on the limb of a tree.

“What is it?” Lindenmeyr asked.

Ngan chuckled. “Oh, this is the only macromolecule that composes the methanogens.”

Ngan continued and grew more animated as he explained. When tested, the methanogens had not demonstrated chirality because they were composed of neither proteins nor DNA. But here, rotating in false colours, was their analogy for both.

“It is somewhat similar to RNA,” Ngan said. “Essential for all life on Earth. In fact, viruses use RNA for genetic material. But it’s not RNA. We don’t know what to call it. We liken it to RNA only because we need that anchor of familiarity. It is only similar to RNA in so far as both are single-stranded molecules with shorter chains of nucleobases, that in turn produce some quite complex three-dimensional structures.”

Lindenmeyr turned from the spinning macromolecule on the tablet screen to the methanogens arrayed in a line between her and Ngan.

“Wow,” she managed.

“Oh yes,” Ngan replied. “At the moment, we’re half-jokingly calling it FNA.”

“FNA?”

Ngan grinned. “Framnucleic acid.”

And, arrayed around that single-strand backbone, were many of the building blocks seeded throughout the Universe: the primary nucleobases of adenine, guanine, the A, and G from DNA-based life, along with uracil, the U found in RNA; and the modified purine bases xanthine and hypoxanthine. Of these four nucleobases, FNA clustered into groups of two, rather than the groups of three into which DNA clustered.

“Actually,” Ngan said, “the simplicity of FNA is more akin to very, very early precursors to DNA than RNA as we know it. Say, four billion years ago. The precursor used only two nucleobases and a handful of amino acids, and worked well long before life evolved the triplet code it uses now. These doublets seem to work well for such a simple lifeform.”

Conspicuously absent from the image of the FNA macromolecule were thymine and cytosine, two of the nucleobases of DNA. Lindenmeyr asked Ngan why C and T were missing from FNA.

“We have a theory about that,” he explained. “Thymine and cytosine bonds are most susceptible to damage from ultraviolet light; in fact, most skin cancers from exposure to ultraviolet are a result of a thymine dimer, where ultraviolet photons damage the bonds between nucleobases and distort the macromolecule. Because of the direct exposure to ultraviolet light, we think the methanogens have evolved without thymine and cytosine.”

“A clever adaptation to the environment,” Lindenmeyr ventured, “but it cripples their genetic complexity.”

“Oh yes. Unfortunately, the methanogens won’t teach us a new way to deal with ultraviolet light; they’ve simply evolved away that part of them damaged by UV.”

Ngan brushed through the next slides. The absence of proteins dramatically simplified the process of replication, he explained. The FNA in the methanogens did not appear to articulate with a Fram version of ribosomes, and so did not communicate instructions to assemble amino acids into proteins through protein biosynthesis.

But it was so much easier to describe what life on Fram didn’t do, rather than what it did do. This difficulty was related, Ngan said, to his earlier comments about conceptualising ideas through the familiar.

Nonetheless, early work suggested that the FNA contained some amount of genetic information, but rather than communicating that information to assemble cells, the FNA duplicated itself in a manner similar to a virus; it did so, however, without a host cell. This duplication was in part related to the complex structures that the single-strand backbone of FNA allowed. The form of that structure was repeated in each duplication – limiting the opportunity to evolve, but allowing for very durable structures once natural selection identified a viable arrangement of nucleobases.

“These methanogens don’t so much ‘grow’ as they ‘self-copy,’” Ngan concluded. “We still don’t know how FNA forms these fronds, in the absence of both proteins and cells.”

Lindenmeyr turned over the fronds in her hands.

“Is it life?”

Ngan paused. “Yes and no. They are subject to natural selection, as evidenced by the absence of thymine. They possess analogues of genes. But they grow through self-assembly, rather than cell division.”

“Life,” Lindenmeyr said again. “Wow, I don’t even know how to communicate what I’m trying to say. I mean, we’re life, you and I, and we evolved from amino acids and nucleobases, and we go out into the Universe and we find these methanogens, and we stand here in this room and…and life asks if life is life.”

Ngan chuckled.

“Oh yes. I think of it like this: spread around the Universe are kits containing all the parts to make something. But there are no sets of instructions, no recipes, in these kits; not even someone or something to assemble the parts.”

Lindenmeyr nodded. “That’s the magic, I think. As best they can…the kits assemble themselves.”

Ngan spread his hands.

“And here we are.”





Empire of the Setting Suns

8 02 2012

Like spray whipped from a wave, grains of regolith blew from the crest of the dune that stretched away to either side of Sze Leng and Ruslan. These shifting, shimmering sheets of dust were held aloft by the thick atmosphere and carried away by the wind, a force patiently shaping and rearranging the surface of Fram.

They sat in the lee of the dune, slightly beneath the crest. Sze Leng sat in front of Ruslan and her slender body was huddled up against him. Stretching away before them was a rippled surface, a sea of regolith wrinkled into dunes and gathered in parallel curves by katabatic winds. This was Fram’s softer landscape: kilometres of deep regolith uninterrupted by outcroppings of fractured bedrock or by the spalling of craters, although both underlay this basin, Ruslan knew, tens of meters below the surface.

Ruslan adjusted his faceplate by rubbing his chin against the top of Sze Leng’s head.

“Well worth the hike,” Sze Leng said.

Her voice was quiet, and Ruslan tapped the volume on his mike.

“We first noticed it in an areomagnetic survey,” Ruslan explained. “You can’t tell from the regolith, but this entire basin is pockmarked with craters that show up on the magnetometer. We think they’re quite ancient, based on the layering of regolith. The deeper layers have lithified into eolianite .”

“Oh.”

Alpha Centauri B was almost below the horizon. Its orange-yellow light illuminated the sky above its disc in a stunning stratum of incandescent orange through a fiery spectrum to vermillion. The ocean of dunes stretched off to the horizon. The setting suns lit the crests as darkness gathered in the troughs between dunes, creating alternating bands of gold and deep purple. Fram’s ring bisected the sunset, and cast an almost translucent shadow across the sky and landscape – offset from Alpha B by Fram’s marginal axial tilt.

Separated from Alpha B by an apparent distance of perhaps half the diameter of its disc was Alpha Centauri A, an intensely bright point a thousand times brighter than the full moon from Earth, but which could be entirely blocked out by a thumb held outstretched. Although higher in the sky than Alpha B, Alpha A was following B below the horizon.

“Tell me there’s nothing to mine out here,” Sze Leng said. “It would be such a shame.”

She turned her head over her right shoulder to face him and Ruslan sensed that she was grinning, but the gesture was lost in the glaring reflection of the sunsets in her faceplate.

“The underlying bedrock showed concentrations of magnetite and iron oxide. That’s how we detected the craters. But they’re not rich concentrations.”

Sze Leng’s head rolled lazily back into that comfortable space where Ruslan’s neck met his shoulder at the collarbone, and she stared upwards. The stars had begun to populate the darkening sky with glimmers of white, red and blue, flickering in the shifting atmosphere. Her eyes immediately sought familiarity: the trinity of stars that composed Orion’s Belt, and the brightening sparks of Rigel and Betelgeuse, a formation of lights unchanged by the distance from Home.

“Sometimes, when I’m out surveying,” Ruslan whispered, “I try to think of what will be here in a hundred, five hundred, a thousand years. We’re just starting out. Imagine a city that stretches from the Colonies out here to the Periphery, a great city, like those we left behind on Earth. Maybe someone will live here, eat here, sleep here, right where we are sitting, and will watch the suns set like us.”

Sze Leng smiled.

“Maybe.” she replied, dreamily. “Maybe, when we’ve warmed Fram and thinned the atmosphere, this plain will be a forest, filled with tall, spindly trees, creating soil and turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. And lovers will walk through the gardens, maybe even without suits, dreaming of some place called Earth.”

Sze Leng turned around so that she was facing Ruslan, and, without the tall reflection of the sunsets in her faceplate, Ruslan could see the look of wonder on her face.

Alpha B slipped beneath the dusty horizon, and the twilight deepened. Ruslan imagined Fram spinning, and the terminator line between light and dark crawling over its face. The sky above him grew blue-black, chasing the plum, vermillion and deep red toward the horizon. Amundsen was behind them, close to setting in the east; lit by both stars, it glowed brighter as the day dwindled away, turning the blackness around it into the colour of faded rubber.

The intoxicating majesty of the sunsets diminished, and Ruslan’s thoughts became darker.

“Maybe nations will rise and fall and fight over these dusty plains.”

Caught between day and night, framed by the light of both moon and star, Sze Leng stirred and asked,

“Should we head back?”





G, C, A and T

4 08 2011

“I really had no idea,” Lindenmeyr said. “It’s so…alien.”

The breather unit strapped across her mouth and nose muffled her voice. She stood across from the leading molecular biologist of the colonies. They were standing in a geodesic greenhouse, an igloo of polymers and plastics, connected to Alpha-2’s hydroponics shed by a tented walkway. Regolith had built up on the windward side of the igloo.

The molecular biologist was also head of hydroponics for Alpha-2, Lindenmeyr’s counterpart, and he was an ebullient man in his fifties named Ngan. He ran his hand over a frond of the methanogen. The alien plants were lined in a nutrient trough not unlike the lettuce and soy that Lindenmeyr so delicately tended each day; these plants were, however, immersed in a solution of hydrates, and existed in an atmosphere of carbon dioxide and methane.

“Oh yes,” Ngan spoke eagerly. He chuckled. “Very alien. You don’t know the half of it.”

“Even the name,” Lindemmeyr ventured, “is anthropomorphic.”

“Oh yes.”

Buried deep within Earth’s mantle, microbial communities existed that were almost entirely isolated from the rest of the planet’s biosphere. Within those depths, hydrogen was dissociated from water by heat and pressure and radioactivity, and this hydrogen combined with dissolved carbon dioxide and powered the microbial biomass, which metabolically produced methane. These were the methanogens after which we had, somewhat unimaginatively, named the biomass of Fram.

Lindenmeyr ran her bare fingers through the fronds. The texture of the plant was more like soft rubber, or maybe putty; it offered an unnerving resistance to her touch. On closer inspection, she could see that these fronds were in fact wide, tube-like structures, fatter at their base but which inevitably narrowed into a mouth at the tip.

“The methanogens on Earth,” she said, “they’re microbes. They could be studied only through a microscope. This I can touch, feel, plant.”

“Microbial methanogens,” Ngan said, referring to the Terran variety, “are thermophiles. They thrive on heat. By comparison, these methanogens are psychrophiles. That they live through Fram’s winters speaks to their extreme tolerance of cold.”

“Should we even be calling them ‘methanogens’?”

“I don’t see why not. They produce methane from carbon dioxide and hydrogen, just as their microbial counterparts do. And both are extremophiles.”

“But comparisons end there,” Lindenmeyr prompted.

On Earth, all life emerged from the same soup of primordial microbes, three or four billion years ago. This emergence was the spark of life, a miracle, a random assembly of strings of amino acids into coherent structures that spawned nucleotides, proteins and enzymes – a moment of such unimaginable unlikeliness that humans would later deify it and call it Genesis. From that point, life blossomed and developed and was subjected to the pressures of evolution, and diversified into the branches of the tree of life.

We know that all life came from the same point of origin because all the life on Earth – humans, bacteria, tomatoes, pigeons, everything – shared the same structure and were organised by the same system. DNA and RNA stored information; proteins and enzymes composed structures; adenosine triphosphate (ATP) released energy. Identical genes were found in vastly divergent species – although organised in different structures, humans shared 63 percent of their genetic material with mice and 38 percent with yeast.

From the data stored in DNA, genetic code translated instructions for ribosomes to make proteins by stringing together amino acids in a determined order. The information was stored as molecular units named nucleotides; there were four different nucleotides that were labelled G, C, A and T based on the nucleobases guanine, cytosine, adenine and thymine. What distinguished Lindenmeyr and Ngan from their childhood pets or from the soya they drank that morning were the sequence of those letters. DNA grouped these nucleotides into clusters of three: there were sixty-four different possible triplet combinations that together specified twenty-one different types of amino acids. There was a huge range of possible permutations of nucleotides and amino acids, and it was this range that generated the enormous, diverse, elegant abundance of life on Earth.

All life on Earth used these structures to exist.

“Before we even got to a genetic profile, we knew something was different,” Ngan said. “You know that microbial methanogens use chemiosmosis to generate ATP, where hydrogen is the reducing agent and carbon dioxide is the substitute electron acceptor in the absence of oh-two.”

“Anaerobic respiration, yes.”

“Well, the methanogens on Fram don’t produce ATP through chemiosmosis. At first we thought that they produced ATP through oxidation of carbohydrates, with an endogenous electron acceptor, maybe sulphate…”

“Wait,” Lindenmeyr said. “Fermentation?”

“Oh yes, that’s what we thought. Based on these tube-like fronds and these plants’ preference for carbon dioxide and hydrogen. But it seems that these methanogens, well, they don’t produce ATP.”

“Umm.”

Botanists had subjected the Fram methanogens to the Levin test, a labelled release of two liquids, one of sugars and the other of amino acids. The test was to determine chirality, the preference of genetic material for right-handed sugars or left-handed amino acids. The tests reacted equally to both mixtures, suggesting a chemical rather than biological reaction.

“My god,” Lindenmeyr whispered. “There’s no chirality. No right-handed DNA spiral.”

“No,” Ngan replied. “Because there’s no DNA. No ATP. No nucleotides. This is alien life, Vetsera.”

Lindenmeyr took a moment.

“Even so, it’s pretty god damned alien.”

“Oh yes,” Ngan chuckled. “Let me show you what we’ve learned so far…”





Biochemistry

27 07 2011

Biochemisty

“…At the basic level, it is pure biology.  At the most pessimistic, it lowers productivity.  At the most positive, it salves the psychological hardships of our project.  But most importantly, at the sociological level, it is the very key to our future and one would be a fool and a tyrant not to let love bloom.”

Lindenmeyr came up behind Stohlberg. She reached for his shoulder and leaned on him. Their footsteps trailed away down the incline, crisp in the duricrust.

“Look at that,” he said, gesturing with that shoulder toward the landscape he was gazing upon. “That’s what I wanted to show you.”

They were standing on the northern lip of the vast crater in which the colonies sat. Below and to their left, maybe a kilometre and a half away, was the looming bulk of Alpha-4. There was the immense slab of the colony pod stretching its length away from them, dusted with regolith from a recent dust storm. The pod loomed over the small buildings that had sprouted at its base. Clutches of modules were stacked atop its dorsal surface. The light rail channel cut across the concave bowl of the crater away toward Charlotte Station.

Lindenmeyr pointed excitedly. “Hey, look, there’s Alpha-3!”

Stohlberg looked past and to the right of the elevator ribbon and saw, across the breadth of the crater and diminished by the distance, the vertical columns of lights of Alpha-3’s skyline. The far crater lip was seven or eight kilometres distant, and a bruised brown-purple colour. Alpha Centauri B had set, and the jagged shadow of Henderson Ridge was cast across the western hemisphere of the crater.

“The crater in which the colonies sit is what we call a simple crater,” Stohlberg explained. He held his hand out flat in front of him, palm toward the ground, and made a sweeping motion that mimicked the curvature of the crater floor. “There is a layer of shattered rock under the floor of the crater, brecciated rocks, along with glassy spatters of melted regolith, shocked quartz, spherulites, tektites. We also find fracture patterns in the underlying bedrock.”

“And the ridges?”

Stohlberg pointed at the ridges that parenthetically enclosed the crater. Along forty-five degrees of the northwestern lip, and one hundred and sixty degrees of the southeastern lip, the crater wall rose up into a series of elevated, serrated outcroppings. These were the Henderson and Innes Ridges.

“Mostly impact ejecta.”

Stohlberg explained that the impactor likely hit Fram’s surface at an angle – he made a cutting motion with his hand – and that the impact directed most of the ejecta to the southeast. Spalled bolides of basalt and impact melt formed opposing ridgelines that were weathered over millions of years by prevailing anabatic winds. More resistant resistant materials remained while the softer regolith was eroded away, leaving those irregular ridges.

Lindenmeyr pointed toward the Henderson Ridge off to their right. Nestled in the lee of the ridge and at the mouth of De Lacaille Canyon was Alpha-2 – a collection of mismatched modules connected by pressurised tunnels, bundled around the light rail terminus.

“The botanists of Alpha-2 have found that the methanogens live well in the complex terrain of the ridges. Plenty of places for volatiles to pool.”

“I guess they, those plants, have become more interesting since the fossils were found up on Amundsen.”

Lindenmeyr gave Stohlberg a playful, backhanded slap across his arm. “Lee! They were plenty interesting before then! I mean, my God: the first multicellular life to be found beyond our homeworld! That we should find something like that on the first world we settle has enormous implications for the likelihood and the frequency and the range of life in our galaxy.”

“Not to mention the possibility that these methanogens might not have evolved on Fram.”

“An anecdotal possibility, yes,” Lindenmeyr replied cautiously. “Once the tarmac and launch system are complete at Wisting Base, we hope to compare samples of the fossils they’ve discovered with the methanogens here. With a DNA analysis we might prove their relation, even identify a point of departure.”

Stohlberg was intoxicated by her enthusiasm.

Lindenmeyr explained that the botanists in Alpha-2 had begun to cultivate the methanogens, even to farm them in their own way. Using hydrogen as a reducing agent, these methanogens produced methane as a metabolic byproduct of carbon dioxide. This methane was captured and condensed into compressed natural gas, an important fuel source that supplemented the troubled colony’s energy requirements. Moreover, methane was crucial for the production of methanol, acetylene, ascetic acid and ascetic anhydride – industrial chemicals that would be of use to the colonies.

“Methane is also a potent greenhouse gas,” Stohlberg noted. “Much more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat. We might put that to use in warming Fram.”

“There has been talk about that,” Lindenmeyr responded. She leaned into Stohlberg, conspiratorially. “The Presidium asked for a report on just that topic for the Third Congress. Did you know that, over a century, methane is twenty-five times more effective than a similar-mass emission of carbon dioxide?”

“I didn’t,” he replied, and looked down into Lindenmeyr’s excited eyes.

Stohlberg felt the urge to kiss her on the cheek, quickly, as was his habit; instead, he ran his fingers, hurting from the cold wind in fingerless gloves, through her short hair. Consciously or unconsciously, she nuzzled her head into his hand.

“I love your enthusiasm for your work,” he said. “I could listen to you all day.”

She giggled, a sound poorly translated through the mike.

“Me too.”

And, suddenly, Stohlberg remembered something he had read, long ago: that love was above all else the overwhelming urge to share thoughts. Here were a botanist and a geologist, exchanging their thoughts, discussing the great project of which they were a part, involving one another in their lives. Two humans, yes, standing on an alien world, at the edge of an impact crater millions of years old, gazing with pride and fascination upon their work.

And slowly, irrevocably – like the lithification of strata into eolianite, or the chemiosmosis of hydrogen in an anoxic environment – falling in love.

The Universe given mind and purpose.

Reflected in the faceplate of Lindenmeyr’s suit, Stohlberg could see the rotating silhouette of the bucket wheel excavator, illuminated by the crimson and purple dusk falling below the horizon. The machine was working along the open pit mine far away behind him and to the north, and was distorted by the curvature of her faceplate.

“Are you up for a hike? There’s something else I want to show you.”

Arm in arm, they started off north.





Closed Session

30 05 2011

ClosedSession

Lit by the white light of the projector, the faces of the Presidium remained blank. Faraday, sitting next to Stepan, crossed his arms.

“Okay,” Stepan managed awkwardly, and brought up the next slide. “From the top. This is the data that the GBM squeezed from the burst we detected three weeks ago. As you can see, it’s a short-duration spike that tails away quickly. The spike peaked at precisely 17.59 mega-electron volts. We turned the satellite on the source after the burst was detected, but were unable to detect an afterglow.”

Gina Divero, representing Alpha-2, spoke up. “And that’s unusual?”

“Oh yes. The energies involved in the events which generate gamma ray bursts are…well, almost beyond description. So powerful that we’ve detected the afterglow of GRBs across thirteen billion light years.” Stepan skipped ahead a few slides to a series of pixelated images of orange and red spheres. “We’ve never detected one in the Milky Way because, not only are they exceedingly rare, but a GRB in the Milky Way would be nothing short of an extinction event.”

“But its says here,” Charles Clarendon, representing Alpha-3, read from his tablet, “that you established the point of origin?”

“We think so.” Stepan fumbled with the slides. “Without an afterglow, we could not measure the redshift of the light, and so could only determine a direction – not a distance. But along that path we quickly find – ”

A touch of Stepan’s fingertips to the tablet, and an animation was projected onto the wall that showed Alpha A and B orbiting their mutual barycentre. There was Fram, just for a moment, a delicate bead suspended on a line tracing its orbit; but then the image quickly panned out, and a line travelled away from the twin stars, passed Sol, bounced from a red marble labelled Lalande 21185, and intersected with another binary system far to its left. The image zoomed in on a small, red dwarf and its even dimmer companion.

“FL Virginis.” Stepan froze the image on the mysterious binary. “Or Wolf 424, if you prefer. A binary system of an M5-class red dwarf and an unknown companion, probably a high-mass brown dwarf. An utterly unremarkable system, cold and dim, deficient in metals and with little hydrogen. Barely more than a dozen light years away, so the source was clearly not a gamma-ray burst.”

Figures suspended on the lines between stars suggested that Lalande 21185 was equidistant from both Alpha Centauri and FL Virginis – 8.2 light years in each direction.

“But the source, this star, is a flare star, I read from your report,” Clarendon inquired.

“Yes.”

“Yes,” Clarendon repeated, but in an expectant tone.

Gina asked, “Could this be the cause of the spike you detected?”

“That’s what I thought, at first,” Stepan responded, “but my colleague Elzette Skovgaard has spent much time refuting the theory. Flare stars unpredictably and dramatically increase in brightness along visual spectra. They’re usually red dwarfs, like FL Virginis A – ”

“And Proxima, yes?”

“ – and like Proxima. And they’re usually binary or trinary systems, where another member of the system might induce contortions in the star’s magnetic field. Like a solar flare. Using Proxima for data, she’s shown that flare stars can radiate in the visual spectrum, X rays and radio waves – but don’t tend to flare gamma rays. But I don’t want to step on Konrad’s toes here.”

Stepan slid his tablet to Faraday, who cleared his throat.

“Yes. And of note here is the precise energy detected by the satellite.” Faraday changed slides, and the figure 17.59 MeV appeared on the wall. “This is the precise amount of energy – the precise amount – shared by the high-energy neutron and an alpha particle formed in a thermonuclear reaction between a tritium and deuterium nucleus.”

“Tritium,” Clarendon repeated. “Deuterium.”

“Indeed,” Faraday continued, “and tritium occurs irregularly in nature. Occasionally in atmospheres containing hydrogen and nitrogen that interact with cosmic rays.”

Stepan spoke up. “And, as I noted before, the Virginis system is deficient in hydrogen.”

“And these other possibilities you mentioned here,” Gina asked, skimming the report quickly, “you discount each?”

“I thought, maybe, that we’d detected a magnetar or a pulsar, directly behind FL Virginis, visible through gravitational lensing. But look at that spike. It’s a one-off; it hasn’t repeated in the three weeks since its first detection. For the same reason, it’s not a soft gamma repeater. We’d see oscillations related to its rotation period.  So then I thought that the red dwarf had developed an accretion disk, and that its companion was ploughing through that disk and generating pulses of gamma rays with each interaction. But we know the brown dwarf’s orbital period, just over sixteen years, and we’ve never detected a burst like this before –”

“We keep coming back to two things,” Faraday said impatiently. “First, FL Virginis is an unexceptional system. Second, the energy detected was precisely that of the fusion of deuterium and tritium.”

“And hence,” said Clarendon, in a low and foreboding voice, turning to the gathered members, “the closed session of the Presidium. You’re saying that, in a star system essentially two doors down, you’ve detected evidence of the detonation of a hydrogen bomb…”





An Arrangement of Ones and Zeroes

15 05 2011

RUSLAN: Dr Renard. Thank you.
JACQUES: Please. You may call me Jacques.
RUSLAN: Jacques. Certainly. Thank you, Jacques.
JACQUES: I haven’t done anything yet. Would you like some tea? Hydroponics have grown their first crop of chamomile.
RUSLAN: My national flower! Please. I feel a little embarrassed to be here. It’s just…well, there’s no one else I can talk to.
JACQUES: It’s good that you’ve come.
RUSLAN: I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve got friends. But they’re mostly colleagues, and I can’t talk about this with people I work with.
JACQUES: Anyone outside of work?
RUSLAN: Not in this solar system  –

Jacques paused the recording. He slid the bar on the screen of his tablet and skipped through the introductions. The recording buffered; a program that transcribed the recording into a written transcript was running in the background.

JACQUES: – should know that, while our conversations are strictly confidential, I will be reporting some parts to the oversight board.
RUSLAN: Sure.
JACQUES: If this is a problem –
RUSLAN: No, not at all. But, is this because of –

He slid his finger forward. Jacques flipped through his notes as he watched the computer populate the transcript.

RUSLAN: – I keep telling myself that I’ll get through it. I mean, I always do. It’s a passing thing, the depression.
JACQUES: But so is the happiness?
RUSLAN: Yeah. It’s up and down. Real mood swings.
JACQUES: What else do you feel?
RUSLAN: Like what?
JACQUES: Do you feel anxious?
RUSLAN: I guess. Not as much. I feel frustrated. Angry. A bit guilty. It’s very, I don’t know.
JACQUES: We tend to be distracted by the popularised notion of unrequited love as heroic and noble, as anachronistic as those notions are –

Here Jacques inserted his own notes into the margins of the transcript: “rapid mood swings.”

JACQUES: Let’s talk about your job.
RUSLAN: Let’s.
JACQUES: Your job entails a lot of work away from the Colonies?
RUSLAN: Mmm. I’m a surveyor. You know, geological features, topography, that sort of thing. I’m often away, out past the ranges.
JACQUES: Alone?
RUSLAN: Used to be. Before the May, during the Bottleneck, especially when our walkers were down for maintenance.
JACQUES: Do you like it?
RUSLAN: Surveying? It got me into the Project; it got me here.
JACQUES: I mean being alone. Out there, far from the Colonies.
RUSLAN: You know, I think I do. It’s a different world. It feels so strange coming back. It actually takes me a couple of days to readjust to the people, to the noise. But it’s really nice to be out there, seeing things no one else has ever seen. It helps me forget about her, too.

Jacques inserted “introversion” and “avoidant personality disorder” into the transcript.

RUSLAN: – she doesn’t know. I don’t have the guts.
JACQUES: That’s not uncommon. But it’s not a matter of courage, Ruslan.
RUSLAN: Well, it’s the absence of something.
JACQUES: Objects of unrequited affection are usually friends or acquaintances. Or someone regularly encountered in the workplace. Particularly in circumstances – such as yours – that involve the workplace, awkward social situations are created. It’s a relatively modern construction.
RUSLAN: Unrequited love?
JACQUES: No. The interpersonal and social relationships created in the workplace. Some fear embarrassment, or rejection –
RUSLAN: No.
JACQUES: – or that to communicate your affections would end access to the object.
RUSLAN: Mmm.
JACQUES: Mmm?
RUSLAN: It just doesn’t seem right.
JACQUES: That’s certainly another reason. That there might be an inconsistency between your current association and your desired relationship.
RUSLAN: No, it’s…I don’t know…it’s tired and it’s clichéd. But what the Fram would a woman like her want from a guy like me? I mean, chyort, she’s a –

Jacques brought up Ruslan’s file. He checked the details of Ruslan’s education and work experience. Flicking back to the transcript, he inserted from his notes “underemployed” and “hypergamy.”

JACQUES: – long have you been single?
RUSLAN: Relative or subjective?
JACQUES: Excuse me?
RUSLAN: Factoring in the time dilation of our journey from Sol?
JACQUES: How long has it been for you?
RUSLAN: Longer than the period of time in which my country was at war with Germany in the Second World War.
JACQUES: Interesting that you should think of it in those terms.
RUSLAN: Really?
JACQUES: It’s not a war, Ruslan, it’s –

Out of curiosity, Jacques quickly looked up the figure that Ruslan avoided. He was unsurprised to learn that it was nearly four years. Added the time on Quoqasi, and the sum was a significant fraction of Ruslan’s life.

RUSLAN: What is loneliness?
JACQUES: Are you lonely?
RUSLAN: Yes and no.
JACQUES: That makes sense. It’s entirely subjective. Generally, loneliness is the perceived inadequacy of social interaction.
RUSLAN: I don’t have many friends.
JACQUES: It’s not about numbers. Think of it not as being with people or being without them; think of it as the gulf, the discrepancy, between the kind of social interaction you desire and the kind you are getting. That gap – that’s loneliness.
RUSLAN: So, the gap between the relationship I want with Sze Leng and the one I have –
JACQUES: Exactly.
RUSLAN: Mmm. I’m not sure I buy the idea that everyone comes under a certain set of rules. You know, the way they tick.
JACQUES: I’m not sure “rules” is the right word. Let’s stick with “theories.” There are theories, and then there are theories. Sure, human discourse can never be accurately predicted, nor can the effect of each person’s experience within that discourse. I’m not suggesting that. But there are theories, overarching theories, which are borne out from culture to culture. Theories about the human condition.
RUSLAN: That we all must deterministically seek out our soulmates? Obey some line of coding in our heads? Our hearts? That people like me are an aberrant string of code, an error in the programming? That consigns us to this, this, this crap?
JACQUES: Not an error. More like, hmm, more like a different arrangement of ones and zeroes. Attachment theory is the modern, accepted frame for discourse relating to human relationships. Families. Good friends.
RUSLAN: Oh no. Not my mother’s breast.
JACQUES: No, no. Freud has his place. But attachment theory works as well for adult, romantic relationships as those involving children and parents. There are many styles of attachment; I think you might qualify as fearful-avoidant.
RUSLAN: Mmm?
JACQUES: Would you describe yourself as having mixed feelings about close relationships?
RUSLAN: Well, yes.
JACQUES: Do you suppress your feelings?
RUSLAN: Yes.
JACQUES: Mind you, this only applies to Sze Leng. I’m not suggesting you’re fearful-avoidant of your friends or colleagues. You can hold different styles of attachment for different relationships.
RUSLAN: But this attachment theory, it all comes down to long-term relationships with others?
JACQUES: More or less.
RUSLAN: See, this is where I take issue with your set of rules. This ridiculous notion that people measure themselves by their partner. These people who aren’t able to live with themselves, aren’t able to exist as an independent entity –

Jacques paused. He tapped his fingers on the tablet. Ruslan offered such a clear contrast to Jacques’ last patient, a man who so entirely measured himself and his existence by the woman he left behind that, when confronted with that diagnosis, he ended his own existence. The patient on whose behalf this sad malpractice case had been brought against Jacques.

RUSLAN: – we’re all independent. We’re all alone. We should all be emotionally self-sufficient, and leave it at that. Epistemic loneliness.
JACQUES: Ruslan.
RUSLAN: Mmm?
JACQUES: Wouldn’t you like a long-term relationship with Sze Leng?
RUSLAN: I…huh, wow. I’m doing it again, aren’t I?

Jacques typed “fearful-avoidant” and “attachment theory.”