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.

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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.”





Exile

15 06 2010

Cane

We detected the beacon in the last hour of the dust storm. Mierhof thought that the beacon might be one of the many transponders scattered about the crater in which the Colonies were situated. But I knew that our crawler had ventured farther than that ring of transponders before the storm had hit.

I’d parked the crawler facing into the storm, which presented a smaller profile to the wind and the regolith it whipped so furiously. When the sky lightened, Mierhof checked the plastic sheets attached to the chassis behind the eight, all-terrain wheels – these sheets were a field modification, meant to keep the regolith from the axles and brake pads.

The eastern horizon was a wall of mahogany brown. The high pressure front was moving away to the east, leaving behind a featureless plain of soft, stirring dust. Above us, the sky was a faded grey-brown, and the ring barely discernable through this haze. The finest regolith was now suspended in Fram’s thick atmosphere.

Mierhof’s e-suit was layered with regolith when he squeezed through the airlock. “Right, let’s see what this thing is.”

He began geo-caching, feeding the beacon telemetry into the GPS.

We headed north-north-west for ten kilometres. Here we found a sharp-edged crater, its walls steep and inaccessible. I circled the crawler around the circumference of the crater. On the western side, the dust storm had deposited a bank of regolith which had lessened the outer incline. I worked the crawler laterally across this regolith ramp, angling toward the rim.

Beneath the crest we disembarked and continued on foot. We hiked upwards through a series of switchbacks. From the crater rim, I watched the dust storm receding to the east. Mierhof oriented himself toward the north, and looked from the GPS readout on his handheld to the horizon and back again.

“There,” he said, and pointed toward a knot of darker regolith about fifty meters below us and away to the north.

I thought that what he had pointed to was a bolide, perhaps of basalt but more likely a nondescript silicate, ejected from any number of impacts that scarred Fram’s surface. But as we drew closer, we saw the glint of sunlight on metal, and made out the shape of a Sprat.

The Sprat was leaning at an angle, and drifts of regolith had built up by its western side. I saw that the dust storm had begun to weather the paint from the edges of the frame. The buggy had been here for some time; even on its leeward side, the regolith had built up past the hubcaps.

Mierhof walked around the far side of the Sprat. He pointed at the ground but made no noise over our intercom. Where he pointed I saw a dark purple shape: a torso, the back of a head, and an arm, dusted by rust-red particles. The rest of his body was buried.

“Huh,” Mierhof said. “This must be that guy who killed that woman.”

“Cane.”

Mierhof pulled at the body’s right arm. On the inside of his arm was his wristpad. He brushed a gloved finger across the screen, and woke it from hibernation.

Mierhof read aloud from the screen:

“My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou has drive me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face I shall be hid; I shall be a fugitive and vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.”

I was instantly reminded of something I had read once, long ago: that when community was synonymous with survival, exile was an especially lethal threat. How more true could that be, than here on Fram? I suddenly felt very far from home.

Mierhof unceremoniously dropped the man’s arm.

“I will not miss him.” He spoke with venom. “Let’s see if we can get this Sprat working. Head back to the crawler and get some digging equipment, will you?”





Cello Sonata No. 1, in E Minor

7 06 2010

And then, one day, I simply…gave up.

I couldn’t tell you why. I couldn’t even leave a note. But I could no longer bring myself to imagine her; nor her cello, nor her smile, nor eyelashes, nor skin. I could no longer look at our photograph. The memories of her, always painful, became somehow asinine, forgettable – and for the first time I wanted to push all of it away.

It wasn’t resignation or surrender so much as a renunciation, and it seemed an alien thing, after so long. What had the last six years been but a single, brave face? There had been a certain triumph in solitude. As though I’d kept the brave face only for her, my arresting, distant lover. But that triumph was now gone, and the cold comfort gone with it. Even the first sip of hot soya, the last of my pleasures, felt utterly empty.

My feet crunched through the duricrust, with a sound like stepping in soft snow. I thought of that French psychologist. I looked back over my shoulder – my footprints trailed away and below me, into the crater basin; and, diminished to the size of my clenched fist by the distance, the abandoned skeleton of Alpha-2. I could see the flash of magnesium-white welders across the surface of the colony pod, and, occasionally, a cascade of sparks. The pod was still being dismembered, picked clean, all its most useful parts stripped from it and carried away. The pod would one day soon be alone and forgotten, and then it would understand the tyranny of distance as I did.

These thoughts saddened me not at all.

Here, beneath the lip of the crater, the ridge flattened into a bench. I knelt down, dug my hand into the regolith, cracked a delicate sheet of frozen methane which began to sublime once exposed to the dense atmosphere. These vespers were remarkably beautiful. I thought of the history of those atoms, stretching over billions of years, from a protoplanetary nebula to meet my gloved hands at this moment. I desperately wanted to touch the world that had taken me from my Home; I pulled away my glove and slipped my fingers into the cold regolith.

I reached up to the clips around my mask. I paused a moment, looked at my wristpad, thought to write a note or leave a hint but realised anything I communicated would now be meaningless; I then realised that there was nothing left to do.

I flicked the clips, ignored the warnings of the computer, pulled free the straps and peeled my face mask away.

The pressure was strange and uncomfortable. I felt like I was drowning, so thick was the air. There was a feeling like weightlessness, a dislocation I couldn’t identify until I realised just how much carbon dioxide I was breathing. And then a rapid wave of dizziness, and I fell sideways.

I lay on my back and looked up into the sky.  I saw a thin, wispy cloud stretched apart by the winds. The cloud caught the light of one of the stars and was lit yellow and orange in a sky the colour of port. But then it was no longer a cloud, it was the outline of Amundsen, lost in the daylight glare. I looked closer, and Amundsen became Earth’s Moon, and I could see the lights of all the colonies, and my lover lying at the basin of Mare Crisium looking toward Alpha Centauri.

I imagined the sound of pianos, sweeping movements of music: grand, orgiastic, Wagnerian. Then the baroque sound of a cello and keyboard, mournfully working through Brahms’ sonata.

No belongings, no friends, no love, no memories. Everything seemed so simple and so exquisite. I was a child of the Universe, free from all that had prevented me from existing among the other protons and neutrons and electrons.

For the first time since I had met her, my cellist, I’d felt a beautiful moment without her.

Tears now spilled from my eyes: nucleons surrounded by electron shells, and formed into hydrogen, oxygen, sodium. I felt like falling.

I smiled, briefly, before –

 





41, 627, 214, 079, 352 Kilometers

5 03 2010

Two weeks after Cane murdered Gingrich and disappeared into the northern wilderness, a psychologist came to my quarters. He was very friendly but clearly tired. He introduced himself as Jacques.

“Some people I speak to think that we have failed,” Jacques explained, speaking on behalf of the many mental health specialists among the Colonists. “Perhaps we did. But psychology has received more emphasis of late.”

I nodded.

“And if everyone is like me, then you can’t help that people don’t seek out your services.” I gave Jacques a cup of soya. “I guess that’s why you’re here.”

Jacques sipped his drink but didn’t answer. Since the murder, the role of the psychologists had been re-evaluated, and in many cases their services became mandatory. They couldn’t see everyone, of course; instead they focussed on people who had displayed symptoms of poor mental health in their work or social lives.

“Some of your colleagues are concerned,” Jacques stated flatly.

Denunciations. But not made without basis.

“Undoubtedly,” I replied, “but I’m not going to beat someone to death with a wrench.”

Jacques smiled. “That’s not why I’m here. That’s not why we – ” again the royal ‘we’, in reference to the psychologists, as though they were separate from the mentally unhealthy “ – are doing this.”

“This?”

“Coming to people, talking to them.”

“Interviewing them?”

“If you like.” Jacques sipped his soya again, and a look of satisfied, energised relief washed over his face. “On the Quoqasi, we had to worry about cabin fever. Four thousand people cooped up in a starship for five years. But the reality was less of a concern than we had anticipated.”

“Because we all passed the psyche eval.”

“Yes. But also because we had something ahead of us: Planetfall. And this great endeavour of colonising another star system. Something to look forward to.”

I sipped my own soya. I didn’t watch Jacques as he talked, but instead stared absently at the floor. Surely he would jot that down in his mental notepad, maybe underline the comment or star the margin. I felt as though I were in a public bath, for the first time, when my heart skipped a beat as I first appeared naked before everyone.

Jacques continued talking, although I found it difficult to concentrate on what he was saying. Something about the Bottleneck, suggesting that the murder should have happened when we were overworked and fatigued and on rations.

“But we buried ourselves in our work, and looked forward to the Mayflower.”

Mayflower. How long had it been since the arrival of Mayflower? I couldn’t remember. I had trouble conceiving the passage of time. Every soya tasted the same, every shift involved the same tasks, each face stayed the same. When I thought back on the voyage in Quoqasi, sometimes it had felt like decades of my life had passed. But then I had problems remembering much of the trip, and with a spin of somatic dizziness, suddenly the voyage seemed like weeks in my memory.

I shook my head, and asked, “And now?”

Jacques explained that in the absence of something to look forward to, the early fears of psychological trauma were revisited. The murder only evidenced the thesis.

“And that’s what happened to that mechanic, Cane?”

Jacques was sipping his drink as his shook his head. He cleared his throat. “No. No, he and his partner had incompatible personalities, and had been in conflict for a long time. Each had made requests to be reassigned.”

I nodded, still staring at the floor. “They obviously weren’t.”

“I’m not here to talk about him. I’m here to talk about you. Let’s start by talking about her.”

I didn’t need to look up from my space to know what Jacques was talking about. I turned straight to the picture I had on my small desk; the only decoration in my quarters. If my eyes could fade an image like the light of a star, then the picture would have long ago been washed of colour and detail, left only to exist in my faulted memory.

We were both wearing white shirts. She was sitting in front of me and leaning back into my chest, and the top button of my collar was open. She was smiling that resplendent, wide smile of hers; but her eyes were closed, her black lashes pointed downward. Her hair was swept across her forehead. I could almost smell her hair now.

“Her name is Ali.”

“She was a musician?”

I looked back at the picture. The neck of her cello could be seen in the foreground.

“The best.”

“Was she a candidate for the Project?”

“Mmm.”

Where had the years gone? I looked at myself in the picture, then down at my reflection in the syrupy, black surface of the soya. Grey had spread from my temples like solar wind across the magnetosphere; deep lines were carved around my eyes. But there was nothing to show for these years. The feel of her soft, white skin under my fingers; the tensing of her muscles when she came; the lazy stretch of her arm across my chest as she slept; the political arguments; the way her big, blue eyes lit up when she learned something new; the tattered, hardcopy books held so tenderly in her hands. What had I done in those years without these things?

These memories felt so new, so fresh, so important; but really they were old and constantly revisited. What other memories had I lost, to preserve these with such strength?

Jacques was looking at me with a strange expression. I realised that he was waiting for an answer to a question I’d never heard. His soya was empty. Perhaps he had asked the question some time ago.

“I never thought it would be so hard,” I confessed. I saw the tears in my peripheral vision, rather than felt them fill my eyes. “Even when there were five AUs between us, a letter from her was never more than forty minutes away. Now, even if she could write to me, it would take four years to reach me. Four years!”

“You’re homesick,” Jacques said.

“I’m lovesick.”

“No. Lovesickness involves periods of mania, interspersed with depression and obsessive-compulsiveness. You’ve exhibited only depression, almost exclusively, since we left.”

“I’ve never been the most labile of persons,” I replied.

Jacques pressed on. “I also checked the maintenance logs. You’ve never checked out an e-suit, never qualified on a Sprat. You’ve only left this Colony once, for the conference in Alpha-1, and only then because you presumably had to.”

“Fram holds no meaning to me. No significance.”

“I thought not. A symptom. Ali is a proxy for your homesickness.”

I thought of Earth, and the inner system: teeming, crowded, overpopulated, noisy. How could she live there? I’d often asked her that. Government housing, population control, pollution, crime, political unrest; how could Ali possibly represent all of that, in my mind? And how could I miss that?

“No. I miss her. Not Sol. Your set of symptoms can’t be perfect. Or maybe this is just how lovesickness plays out, over light years.”

Jacques appeared shocked, briefly, as though he’d not considered the imposition of distance upon mental illnesses which involved separation. But he recovered quickly.

“Teleology. It doesn’t matter what the mind is acting upon, the effect remains the same.”

I looked down at the floor again.

Jacques said, “And you can’t go home again.”





To Its Limits

5 03 2010

“…Pushing the AMUF to its limits, the Karst-manufactured MREM-C (Multi-Role Earth Mover Component) module was one of the most useful machine upgrades in the colonial motorpool.  Instrumental in carving channels for the intercolonial light-rail system, the MREM featured a robust chassis that offered remarkable durability in the toughest of conditions.  Working in tandem with M10-10 catepillar rigs, the MREM teams were an undeniable asset in infrastructure projects.”

There was the AYLI before us, perhaps fifty meters away, its legs dusted brown with regolith. It was trapped in a pass probably too narrow for the skill of the driver. There were two figures standing at the feet of the walker; their e-suits were dark and clean compared to the legs of the AYLI.

“It’s not an AYLI,” Gingrich said condescendingly.  “An MREM.”

She pronounced it ‘em-rem’. I didn’t much care what random string of letters the super-corporates back in Sol had given the thing.

“Irrespective, these framming Twos shouldn’t have brought the thing so far from the Colonies.”

A quick glance at the GPS showed that we were three kilometres north-west of what amounted to Alpha-2, in the foothills of Henderson Ridge. The ridge had formed from the ejecta spewed out in the impact which created the crater in which our four Colonies were sited. It was relatively rough terrain, as far as Fram went: there were many large bolides scattered about, yet to be worn down by the winds and regolith, and benches of bedrock punched upwards by the force of the impact to the south-east.

The MREM had broken down in the shaded lee of a wadi, where several boulders formed a rough wall of chocolate-brown rock. The suspension on our Sprat worked overtime as we crossed the broken terrain.

Gingrinch was speaking to the two e-suited figures, although I wasn’t on that frequency and couldn’t hear their conversation. I angrily engaged the footbrake and began to circle the walker on foot. What point was there talking to them? The problem was obvious – not that the teeth of the lead road wheel in the left leg track assembly had been worn smooth, popping out the track sprockets; but that morons from Alpha-2 were given any equipment from the May, when they clearly had not the faintest idea how to use it.

I grabbed some equipment and spares from the stowage bins on the flanks of the Sprat, and went to work levering the remaining track from the guide wheels.

Gingrich eventually walked over, watched me work. She didn’t contribute. Of course. She came onto my freq and explained that the pair driving the MREM had come up into Henderson Ridge to site a good location for a weather station above De Lacaille Chasm.

“What a pair of clowns,” I said, although I looked from the corner of my eye to make sure they weren’t on our freq. “AYLIs, MREMs, whatever, they’re meant for hard-surface duty. In the Colonies. On the highways. What framming idiot takes them out here, into the countryside?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course, but Gingrich answered. She stood there, watching me work, hands on her hips, and actually argued their logic to me. A wretch. God, I was so sick of her.

She was engaging at length about the purpose of humanity to spread life throughout the Universe. Surely there were better places in that Universe for walkers to break down.

“Humanity?” I asked. “Nothing more than a few layers of translucent membrane stretched across a scaffolding of calcium, with some watery, soft tissue sandwiched between. No purpose there at all.”

She tried to rebut.

“And why the fram,” I continued, cutting Gingrich off, “did we even bother bringing KOVTARs? What was the point? If every monkey is going to run about in these fancy new toys, break down somewhere they shouldn’t be, and wait for us to come help them?”

Finally – with a suddenness that made me grunt with overexertion – the track links came off, and tumbled to the ground. I leaned over to pull the tracks out in a straight line. I would have to remove the worn road wheel, clean out the regolith, install a new road wheel with fresh teeth, and then run the tracks back through the idlers.

I struggled with the weight of the track, even in the low gravity. And still Gingrich stood there, watching; still she crapped on about utterly inane stuff. I threw the track back to the ground.

I felt an anger wash over me that I couldn’t stop. “Are you going to help? I mean, at all?”

Gingrich laughed.

“You’re a halfwit,” I said, in a cruel and resigned voice.

“And you’re a framwit.”

The anger exploded behind my eyes like fireworks. My muscles felt like taught steel wires. Somehow, the wrench was back in my hand, and I spun toward her.

And that was all there was – an arm swung, a wrench bloodied, a tight spray of cavalry brown blood over the grey regolith. And I had committed the first murder in the planet’s history.

Oh, God.

The Twos, resting in the shade, suddenly jumped to their feet. I couldn’t hear what they were saying; they were on the general freq. I looked down at Gingrich, motionless, the mask of her e-suit askew and blood oozing from her temple. I felt nothing.

I changed to the general frequency, and walked toward the morons from Alpha-2, those ungrateful, lazy, bloodsucking parasites from Alpha-2. I waved the bloodied wrench. “And neither of you are worth the bullet it would take to shoot you.”

I threw the wrench away. The next thing I knew, I was on the Sprat, driving north, my body shaking uncontrollably…





Eyes and Ears

21 09 2009

Drone Prospector

“The MOPAD (Multiple Operation Personnel Aerial Drone), or ‘Moppet’, was designed initially as a geological survey unit to aid small groups of scientists and geologists in expeditions.  With a carbon frame, advanced photo-voltaic surface and a utilitarian onboard computer, the MOPAD quickly populated the fringes of the colonial outposts.  Trailing behind scientists and vehicle operators, they became the cybernetic pets of the new world.”

I watched a gust of wind come towards me over the regolith. Pulverised dust whipped from the tops of dunelets. The heat of the nearer Alpha B generated wind fronts which circled the planet; these were complicated by the lesser heat of the diminishing Alpha A.

I turned back to the Sprat. A line of footsteps were traced in the duricrust, from my vantage point back to Gingrich and the Sprat. Aside from the pattering of micrometeorites, this duricrust had not changed in billions of years.

Gingrich lifted a Moppet into the air; it drifted slowly upwards and away from her. It hovered at a point between Gingrich and myself, about three metres above the regolith. From my position, I could hear its soft engine.

“Where do you want to start?” Gingrich asked. Although she was maybe twenty meters from me, her voice was loud in my earpiece.

I looked at the panorama before me. I stood on the crest of a small elevation; before me was relatively flat, grey-brown regolith, stretched to the horizon. There were a series of hills off to my right and left, either formed over a basalt seam or the remains of the ridgeline marking a much larger crater.

“Well the benches need to be fifty meters wide.”

I looked at the GPS display on my tablet. This signal was relayed to me by the Moppet. The drone was connected to the GPS system directly through Port Mayflower, while also relaying a wireless connection with the Colonies’ computer over the southern horizon.

I pointed to the north, toward the far end of the elevation I was standing atop. “Let’s try up there. GPS says seventy five meters.”

Gingrich clambered back aboard the Sprat and kicked it over. She moved it north, to where I had pointed. This saved hauling the bulky seismic probe that distance on foot. The Moppet defaulted to hover above me while Gingrich drove the short distance.

Images from the growing satellite network deployed in orbit showed good signs of a vein of iron and nickel in this area. The seismic probe would confirm this, and if the vein were as close to the surface as satellite imagery suggested, an open-cut mine would be developed here.

In my ear, I could hear Gingrich groaning with the effort of unloading the A44 by herself. I turned around and looked back to the south, toward the Colonies. There was no glow of light on the horizon to mark their presence. Instead I watched a bead of light, a climber suspended on the elevator ribbon, moving slowly higher into the ruddy sky.

I held the view a moment too long.

“Come on,” I said to the Moppet. “Let’s get started.”