Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Fields without Fences, Part Fifteen

Credit: Lynette Cook


           At the fourteenth convening of Titan University’s biennial Human Progress Conference, an esteemed technologist and winner of the Kyang Prize delivered a keynote lecture titled “Expanding Horizons, Diminishing Returns: Technological Iteration and its Role in Economic Ecology.”  Her thesis: under most conditions and taking the perspective of overall human welfare, technological advancement did not lead to meaningfully better outcomes.  Crudely put, the much-ballyhooed Age of Technology had been a disappointment.

            Doctor Hilde Genz cast her central observation as a paradox.  Expansion and growth improved the human race, as a larger population necessarily expanded its skills and capabilities.  That larger race grew so advanced—both proficient and efficient at the capitalistic process of extraction, manufacture and profit—that production capacity inevitably outgrew the work force required to maintain it.  What’s more, she continued, the relationship appeared to be geometric as time went on.  A culture supported by capitalism was, politically speaking, unlikely to support a benefit regime they perceived as rewarding the undeserving.  Hence the underclass expanding to troubling levels over the course of several hundred years and the rising instability their discontent brought.  The Colonization Initiatives had ostensibly been about spreading the human race throughout the galaxy, but—Doctor Genz argued—their greatest windfall had come by means of simple employment.

            The Feds had been wise to leave expensive terraforming projects to private firms, but wiser still to attach to those development leases extensive provisions on human employment.  For each hectare of economically valuable landmass, the ‘forming companies had to employ no fewer than four living souls.  What those people did was not of tremendous concern; Zachariah Obo’s work holding a pressurized nutrient hose on Kantor VI could easily have been done by a robot two centuries prior for a fraction of the cost.  It was only important they be employed at basic subsistence levels.  The corporations complained mightily about how these onerous restrictions would render their operations nonviable, but their plucky and resourceful management somehow found ways to make do with less.  As Irene argued that day, after several consecutive centuries of healthy corporate profits despite near-permanent labor recession a re-alignment had perhaps been due.

Technology improved the race’s prospects but just as surely left behind a swelling horde of dispossessed subject to violence and other depredations.  In that sense it was always bound to disappoint; this was the part of the lecture that made headlines.  There was a great deal more, which interested few people outside the narrow field of economic ecology and which Irene struggled not to illuminate at nice parties.  Winning the Kyang Prize had somehow won her invitations to a great number of embarrassingly nice parties in functional perpetuity.

          For years Karl was excluded from these functions.  He was a young child, after all, babysat on those evenings by one of his parents’ graduate students looking to make some cash on the side.  Later, when his mother’s hair was cut short and she freely allowed the grey to show, Karl begged to go along and she finally conceded he was old enough.  He was so excited.  He wanted to dress up vornehm, insisted on wearing his overlong suit jacket and undershort tie though she explained this wasn’t a very formal party.  He told his schoolmates and was frustrated to learn they didn’t care about the party or even know who Dieter Halin was.  He’s in the Federal Congress!  He chairs the Science Committee!  Nothing.  So he built the event up in his mind and was practically exploding that Friday evening as the car took them from their residence in Heidelberg’s suburban University District to Halin’s well-appointed townhouse on the Neckar’s south bank.

            Karl’s first impression once inside: it’s awfully dark in here.  LEDs set into baroque fixtures replicated candlelight immediately devoured by the wine-dark wainscoting.  At least a hundred guests filled the empty spaces in small soft-talking clusters.  Karl saw no other children and noted his own overdressed state in a sea of earth-tone sweaters and knee-length skirts; both observations made him happy, but the initial excitement soon faded.

            Obliged to hover about Jeorg and Hilde’s waists, he found himself appalled by the conversations they had.  His parents were scholars doing vitally important research, he knew, and having attended the Science Committee Chairman’s party he assumed the evening would be a dazzling festival of intellectual exchange.  This was the sort of thing that interested young Karl, in addition to the hors d’oeuvres.  Instead they discussed football, which might have interested him if the team in question hadn’t been some trash recently relegated to EuroLeague B.  Who cared if the man in the black and yellow jacket owned the team?  After he moved off for another round of drinks, the Genzes took up another Gespräch about the unusually warm autumn.  Karl took this opportunity to interject for the first time, describing for everyone the historical path of Earth’s climate in the industrialized era.  His parents cut him off before the denouement: that ultimately fluctuations in local climate were inevitable and carbon buildup had been functionally contained.  Jeorg was mortified at his didactic offspring, his wife more amused.

            That’s a bright little man! one of the guests proclaimed with an indulgent grin.

            He is awfully precocious, Hilde conceded.  Always fighting to be a grown-up.

            The next Doctor Genz, I think.

            His mother gave a tinkling laugh, almost a giggle.  Whatever he does will be special.  

*          *          *          

When Karl Genz thought about it, there was nothing quite so indelibly human as managing disappointment.  He had not done anything “special” with his life, certainly not by his mother’s estimation.  If humanity was disappointed in their own progress and the Genzes were disappointed in their own son, Karl’s own choices hadn’t been quite what he hoped.  Space called not only to his mind but to his soul, offering the wide open emptiness he most preferred.  Had there existed some way for Karl to travel the galaxy alone, in a sensor-studded nutshell of his own design, he’d have dropped everything in his life and never returned to the Core again.  The Explorer Corps offered much of what he wanted and little of what he didn’t, but he’d been put off by the intimacy of daily shipboard life.  His colleagues treated him well enough, but the prospect of so many more months amongst them gnawed at his nerves.  So he did his best not to think about it, to compartmentalize the way his therapists had taught him.  Be where you are, with whom you are.  Let events exist on their own terms.  Like the awful monsters from his favorite childhood stories, seeing human relationships in their entirety drove one to madness.

“What’s your gambit tonight?” asked Vivek Mohinder, his voice ringing off the gym’s sweat-dewed walls.  The feeble ventilation system could clear the small room of one man’s humidity, but Vivek and Karl overwhelmed it together.  A sour odor hung in the air.

Genz raised his arms, still gripping the bar, sliding it back to the overhead resting position.  Iron plates clanked inside the apparatus; for cheap efficient workouts, one couldn’t beat the time-tested technique of “lifting heavy things.”  Karl had six pulls left to go, didn’t want a conversation now but nonetheless turned to face his X.O.  “When you say ‘gambit,’ you’re talking about plans?  Entertainment?”

“Right.  It’s Friday, after all!  Gotta get down on Friday,” he tittered at his own joke.  As if Friday could be special on a deep-space clipper.

Karl grew more irritated and reminded himself not to show it.  He is trying to be friendly.  It doesn’t matter if you want a conversation; it’s already happening.  Be where you are, with whom you are.  “I’m reading at this moment a survey of Europan marine predators.”

“Aren’t they extinct?  It was the mining ops, yeah?  Toxins or something.”

“Mining, yes, but many factors from the mining,” Genz felt his excitement build, his hands twitch at the possibility of diagramming the many causes of extension.  He reminded himself Vivek likely didn’t care about this.  Focus on a memorable point and finish strong.  “With so many disruptions, they died out in forty years.  But they lived so deep we didn’t know about them for thirty.  Most of the science is fossils and speculation.”

            “Wow.  That’s terrible.”

            “Terraforming destroys entire ecologies,” Karl shrugged.  “We deploy oxygenating microbes, their oxygen changes the entire surface.  Single-celled organisms don’t affect our emotions the same way.”  He used the pronoun our generously.  Karl didn’t feel much for either.

            Vivek took this in, nodded soberly as Karl grabbed the overhead bar and pumped out his last six pulls—adding two extras as penance for having stopped earlier.  Lactic acid’s hot coals glowed in his shoulders and back.  He stood up from the blue sweat-absorbent bench to stretch. 

            “That’s some heavy reading for a weekend,” Vivek noted, still reclined half fetal on the leg press with his feet up on the plate.

            Karl shrugged.  “I suppose.  That was my plan.  In truth I’m more likely to read a chapter and play games through the evening.”

            Vivek snickered.  “Hah, that’s great!  Were you setting that up for the last two minutes?  Even if you weren’t I heartily approve.”  Karl smiled to cover his confusion.  “What kind of games?”

            “For the most part, piloting simulators.  I prefer the combat titles, the Hellion franchise in particular, though there are many good dive simulators too.  I particularly enjoyed Odyssar.  But I am a completionist.”

            For a long three seconds Vivek stared at him quizzically, at the end of which time he burst into barking laughter.  “Piloting.  Naturally.”  Dismounting from the leg press, he snatched up his towel and squeeze bottle.  “I was wrong about you, Genz.  Shouldn’t have judged a book by its cover.  Have a great workout; I’ll see you,” he shook his head bemusedly and left the gym.

            Karl watched him go, listened to the door’s stout click and felt the flood of relief heralding solitude.  Already the air seemed less humid, though the door’s brief opening accounted for it.  He crossed the gym—three strides of his long limbs—to set his boat-like shoes in the Repulsor Treadmill’s open sleds.  He lifted the grips from their slots.  Though his favorite workout machine by far, it remained unusable in the presence of others.  For all his life others had found his running gait so strange, so visually jarring they felt compelled to comment.  Karl despised those comments so much he’d denied his crewmates even the first sight of him running.  Only when alone would he entertain the idea.

            Two grips and two sleds affixed to his extremities, Karl stood inside a rectangular frame of metal.  With a voice command he activated the treadmill, heard it hum in response.  Green lights flashed on the sleds and grips; Karl moved his limbs and felt resistance as though he grappled with a ghost.  He took a step, then another, then began a bounding stride to drive himself through the repulsors’ force.  His heart hammered at his chest and within a minute his lungs blazed.  Throwing himself against the machine like a hurricane wind, legs kicked up so far behind they nearly struck his rear.  His hands appeared to be swimming.  Karl was a vortex of limbs, bony joints and pale hairy skin agleam with sweat.  It was, objectively speaking, not a pleasant sight.  Every component of his body howled and yet it felt for all the world like flying.

*          *          *          

            Ashley emerged from her four-hour dive on schedule and without incident, much to Lorena’s relief—and Obo’s as well, since he no longer had to interrupt his work cycles to stand by the proverbial plug.

            “It felt the same at the end,” Ashley testified, sweat beaded across her freckled hair line.

            Lorena arched her brow.  “Like you were suffocating.” 

            “Right.  I expected it, which made things easier.”

            “That’s excellent.  And it was only at the end?”

            “Only at the end.  Can’t say when exactly it started.”

            “Okay,” Lorena swept her eyes over the post-sedative vitals, saw nothing of consequence.  “Think you can do five hours the next time?”

            “Yeah.  Yes.”  Ashley hadn’t thought the first answer sufficiently confident.

            In hours Konoko dived again, Vivek Mohinder at the helm.  He took a hard coreward turn as prescribed, having finally cleared the Draconis Reach and the hive of recently colonized worlds ensconced therein.  The Open Territory was shaped like some aggressively metastasizing tumor, all nodules and fingers wrapped about valuable or habitable systems carved from it by ex post facto Federal decree.  The authorities notified their Ouro counterparts of these many revisions, as stipulated by treaty, and found themselves confused as to why the aliens made so few.  In the end they attributed it to pickiness: waterborne creatures had their own needs, after all, and it certainly seemed they preferred their vast orbital installations to the messy business of terraforming.  Most media outlets presented this speculation as settled scientific fact, interpreting it further to mean the boneless “squid” lacked the metaphorical spines for hard work.  That assertion in turned fueled a thirty percent increase in new terraforming lease applications over the next two years.  The O.T. kept warping and shrinking.

            But now it was all Vivek could see.  Ahead for thousands of light years lay space unclaimed and largely uncharted, mapped only by distant telescopes.  Konoko roared past the frontier and deep into wilderness.  He took an inefficient route: skirting the star systems entirely, sticking to the barren stretches of open space between them yawning impossibly wide.  Only on these high-safety dives could one truly appreciate the galaxy’s scale.  Slicing between stellar bodies and orbital paths at Chen-Hau speeds kept Pilots busy and projected the illusion of clutter.  In truth there was so much space between stars that whole star systems shrank to insignificant specks.  It didn’t matter where you stood between two solar candles—in Newtonian terms both were infinitely distant.  Yet through a flouting of physical law so egregious it might as well have been magic, Vivek Mohinder crossed those spaces.  For eight full hours he flew, emerging at last with a bursting bladder to Lorena’s warm smile.  She didn’t ask why he immediately bolted the Nav Suite.

*          *          *          

            Days to come saw Konoko progress through unfamiliar territory at a decent clip, considering Ashley’s limited schedule and Lorena’s general admonition for safety.  There’ll be plenty of time later for rushing and panicking! she cheerily reminded her Pilots.  So their circuitous path took them gradually closer to the first series of Contact-specified emergence points.  They avoided a trinary system boasting no fewer than forty planets from blasted Mercurian rocks to super-Jovian spheres of swirling gas, whirling about their three poles in chronically unstable orbits, passed about freely like juggled balls.  The burning triplets jostled constantly with one another as gravity dictated they must, all larger than grand old Sol but none so massive he could win the contest.  The Family Circus, as the system was called, was a classic problem in physics courses—its web of relationships so dense and inscrutable they’d nearly cost Vivek his Gravity Systems final exam.  Endemic creatures populated at least six of the worlds: thumb-sized slugs, proto-arthropods and rich populations of microbes all bound to the same grim fate as their homes’ orbits decayed into one another.  Great fields of spaceborne rubble across the system testified to this inevitability, careening into atmospheres, carving bright re-entry trails to omen the coming doom.

            The little chrome horseshoe crab winged her way over dark matter structures like sprawling black cathedrals, slid down into the galactic disc on a balustrade of hot plasma, gamboled through shoals of stinging particulate that gouged pencil shavings from her ablative skin.  Seventy-two dive hours later, with Ashley finally diving six hours at a stretch, ECV Konoko emerged on the desolate outskirts of a star system without a name.  Even the Federal Star Catalogue’s alphanumeric system couldn’t possibly account for every stellar body in the galaxy.  Add the thousands of new stars cranked out daily (at such distance they wouldn’t even be known for millennia) and the task became laughable.  Instead the local star—so hotly, impetuously blue destiny demanded it die in a Verona street duel—went unnamed, allowed to simply abide in a cubic region one hundred light years on each side.  This cube’s name, a hideous assemblage of numbers following the “OT” prefix, is utterly unimportant.  It coexisted alongside millions of its fellows across the open territories and no human alive could speak with any authority about any of them.

            This place drew its importance from one trivial source: the instructions Yana St. Julien had implanted in Konoko’s computer.  The Ouro passenger craft labeled Subject 01, having vanished from Contact’s sight not far from this spot, was plotted to lie somewhere in the region.  In fact, the simulation claimed Subject 01 had almost certainly emerged in this very system at some point along its route.

            Certain is a strong word,” said Zachariah Obo once Lorena explained these things to the gathered crew.  “You got a number for that?”

“Eighty-one percent,” Karl answered.

            “Wouldn’t call that certain.”

            “Taken in perspective, given the numbers involved, it appears so.  Rarely can the plots exceed twenty percent when focused with such precision.”

            “Well,” Obo grumbled, settling back into his chair with arms crossed, “that’s a big number, then.”

            Karl wanted to retort, knew it was a poor idea and stopped himself.  He needed the man’s help, after all.

            “Our itinerary calls for a series of short dives,” Lorena continued.  “Following the course prescribed, we’ll fly slow, emerge every few Lears, give Tech Genz a look and dive again.  Pilot Mohinder will take the first shift once his rest cycle’s up.  Once he’s done, Pilot Duggins will do some short trial dives.”

            Ashley sat up straight.  “Lorena—Doctor—I’ve done plenty of dip training.  Check my Academy scores if you like.”

            “Have you done that training on the current drug regimen, Pilot?”  Lorena carefully moderated her tone, taking the barest edge off it.

            Ashley’s white cheeks pinked.  “No, ma’am,” she squirmed.

            “We’ll proceed from there,” Lorena declared to the group.  “Mohinder, you’ll be ready to dive on schedule?”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “Superb.  Karl…” she snapped her attention to the large German in his undersized galley chair.  “Get your instruments in order.  Whenever we’re sub-light, it’s your show.”

            “Yes, ma’am.  I will do my best.”

            “I know all of you will.  Let’s get to work, folks,” with a clap of her hands she meant to be inspirational but came out jarringly loud, Lorena concluded her briefing.

            “Mister Obo,” Karl called to the Systems Tech, already halfway out of his chair.  The older man gave him a look saying he’d rather not be bothered.

            Karl immediately felt unwelcome and uncomfortable, which mated into an intense pang of anxiety in his gut.  “I would like to modify the sensors—the back end, in the computer.  And…I would need your assistance.  In order to do that, effectively.  I haven’t used that interface directly, you see—“

            “Fine, fine,” Obo waved off his nervous rambling.  “I can give you a few minutes.  Meet me down there.”

            “Should I not just…follow you?”

            “To the head?  That’s where I’m going now.”

            “Oh.  Yes.  I mean no, not to the head.  I will see you there.”  Karl planted himself in his seat, looking at the ground, thumbs grinding against his index fingers, unwilling to meet Obo’s gaze until he’d left the room.

*          *          *         

            When Karl opened the door marked COMPUTER SUITE, Obo was already there.  He sat in one of two chairs on opposite sides of the cramped room so little-used it still smelled like dry dock cleaning chemicals.

            “Where the hell’d you get to?” Zachariah asked impatiently.

            “I apologize, Mister Obo.  I got lost.”

            Obo laughed so suddenly mucus caught in his throat and he fell to coughing.  “On a ship this small.  You shut yourself in a closet?”

            Karl’s Teutonic skin quickly turned crimson.  He wanted to pounce back but hadn’t a leg to stand on.  “I was merely mistaken as to which deck it lay on, having never been in this room since orientation.”  It was true.  Obo had only set foot in it once since they launched, Konoko’s computer being generally well-behaved for an A.I. at its age and price point.  From the bridge Karl could manipulate the sensors’ output however he liked; the input parameters he could only change from here.

“Take that seat,” Obo pointed, as Karl took it and fired up the console before him.  “So, since you’re sure the Ouro—Subject One, I suppose—came through here, what’re we looking at?  You want to see emissions?  Gravity lensing?”

Karl pursed his lips, pondering, struggling to make sense of the densely populated menu onscreen before him.  “Emissions are where I would start.  How do I do this?”

“First menu is Data Management.  From there the path is—“

“Settings?”

“No,” Obo snapped.  “Don’t interrupt.  Go through Statistics, to External, to Inputs, to Settings.  I know it’s stupid.”

Karl did as instructed.  “Excellent design.  Hmm.  I see a Radiation sub-menu and an Elemental Spectrometer sub-menu.  What if I want to combine the parameters?”

“Use the Overlay menu.  Custom Overlay, Create New.  Puts all of them on the same page.  Just remember it’s all one instruction set, so no matter how many options you check you’re still really looking for just one thing.  Per overlay, that is.”

“That is awkward,” Karl muttered.  “I ask because I expect the best marker to be Phosphorus Thirty-Three.  If they made serial dives, their engines would run hot and start dumping phosphorus.”

“What’s the half-life?”

“Twenty-five days.”

Obo winced.  “That’s not long.  These records are months old.”

“There may remain enough to spot.  Any would be a good sign.  Nothing else would leave it out here.”

“Fair enough.”

Karl manipulated his console, entered a set of commands and stared at them a long minute before nodding.  Schön.  I see the luminosity filter, we’ll need that with the local star.  And how do I revert to the default settings?  I would prefer to work from a baseline and set specifics for each emergence.”

“That’s what I’ve been doing over here.  Saving everything as a stored preset in case you fucked it up.”

Karl whirled in his chair, feeling the outrage swell in his chest only to be corked by confusion.  Having said such a hurtful thing, how could Obo laugh?  He realized several seconds later than he ought that the older man had meant it as some sort of bizarre joke.  Doing his best to chuckle gamely, Karl felt a weariness overtake him.  He badly wanted this conversation to be finished.  “I think I know what I need to.  You’re busy, I know.  If I have more questions, there is a tutorial.”

“Yeah, it’s not so bad.  Just got some oddities is all,” Obo grunted getting to his feet.  “Hope you find what you need.  For all our sakes.”

He left.  Karl entered his settings, checked them twice and clucked his tongue with satisfaction.  Backing out of the interface, he examined the higher menus and discovered this console had all the functionality of his bridge terminal—less the big screen, of course, which aided some analyses.  But the Computer Suite offered its own unique advantage: solitude.  On a ship so small, any room that could remain untouched for weeks on end was a precious commodity.  So from Konoko’s bowels he threw open her eyes, casting her vision over this desolate, neglected system.  Karl leaned back, breathed deep and let the tide of information wash over him.  He imagined himself as thoroughly immersed as the Pilots in their pods: at home in alien circumstances by dint of long training and mental discipline.  He sat alone in the Computer Suite, alone with his work and his mind, and Karl Genz felt truly happy.

NEXT TUESDAY: ANOTHER SELDOM-ILLUMINATED CREWMEMBER GETS HIS TURN IN THE SPOTLIGHT! VIVEK WRESTLES WITH A NEW ASSIGNMENT, AND BEATRICE MAKES A NEW ACQUAINTANCE. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!

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