Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Blue Sky Metal Dreams


The day started like any other, cold shower, soggy toast, luke warm coffee, and all the things that reminded me of why I did what I did.
As I punched up through the stratosphere, heading for the LEO way station known as “Brizillianwax” because of its shiny bald backside that always pointed at the Sun, I wondered for the hundredth time how to break the cycle – work, little pay, Life, too many expenses!
I had enough fuel for one and a half trips, and then that was it – have to sell the rig for what ever I could get, and slink off into the sunset like so many before me.
The commercial Space market had offered so much promise at the start, big NASA contracts, satellite launches worth millions, in-orbit repair and maintenance, the outer worlds were our oyster!
Then some twelve year old had invented the Space elevator, and suddenly getting stuff up and down cost less than a $1 a kilo, and all us “early adopters” who had mortgaged ourselves to the hilt buying reusable rockets and space vehicles were faced with a continual discount race just to stay alive.
This trip was a classic example – SMS in the middle of the night, open contract, 5 minutes to bid, lowest bid wins, no guarantee of anything other than a full load back down and payment on survival.
As the rocket motors cut off, and weightlessness settled into the cramped cockpit like a foggy blanket, I searched the near sky for anything radiating in any bandwidth.
One of the joys of Low Earth Orbit flying was the sheer volume of detritus zooming around with gay abandon in eccentric orbits, just lying in wait for an unsuspecting victim to smash into an make their day.  NASA claimed to track all of them, but everyone knew that anything smaller than a half-centimeter fragment didn’t show up on the scans, and since the last disaster that had taken out the Russian Space Station when an out-of-control automated supply vessel had rammed it at seventeen thousand miles an hour, there were now another few zillion pieces of space junk out for revenge.
As we arced over into our initial orbit path, I called the station, just to see if they were awake.
“Bravo-one-niner, shuttle papa-victor-ten-ten in the grove, request attachment.”  Up here, static was a thing of the past, what with digital everything controlling everything and everybody, twenty-four-seven, fifty-two.  The silence was absolute, as most of the communication these days was computer to computer.  Human beings very much played a supporting role to the machines, because the sheer economics of commercialized Space dictated the lowest cost option wherever possible.  The only reason slugs like me and a very few others had a gig at all is that the automatics couldn’t launch on demand yet, because the requirement didn’t pay enough!
Even my docking would be automated, with me sitting in the seat like so much baggage, because if the truth be known, very few people at the top trusted human beings to do more than take out the garbage, which is what my trip was all about.  Radioactive waste back to an earth station for reprocessing, something the big boys didn’t want anywhere near their precious automated space planes and shuttles.
Which defied logic, if you think about it, if you don’t trust someone why give them the worst possible cargo to do with what they liked?
I could sell it to terrorists, make a bomb with it, drop it on a few million heads as I streamed in to land, the possibilities were endless, my imagination ran riot for a few seconds, until a dull mechanical voice cut into my musings.
“Shuttle papa-victor-ten-ten you are locked on, docking time zero-niner-four-five, track Blue-seven, confirm dead hands?”
“Papa-victor-ten-ten affirmative,” I replied, holding my gloved hands up to the constant scanner every ship had as a matter of course.  In this game you were on camera one hundred percent of the time, no exceptions, because in Space you were as trusted only as far as they could see you!
In the distance, the silver blob that was “Brizillianwax” flared into view as the Sun pushed up over the Earth’s horizon.  On my heads-up display a long blue line showed my path to the landing bay, so all I had to do now was sit back and relax, and pretend to enjoy the scenery.
I started to think about how to change the pattern that was inexorably swallowing my options as each minute ticked down.  I had applied for a thousand jobs, all through the highly computerized systems that now controlled everyone’s future, but had only had the one reply.
And a very short one at that.  Face to face via a secure video link tomorrow morning at ten hundred hours, my side to be from a physical location that I could only reach by surface airtrain with a lot of effort.  This in itself suggested a perchance for security, and an almost complete lack of understanding about surface conditions on the Earth at the moment, because since the North Koreans had gone ballistic, literally, over one third of the world was uninhabitable, for around the next twenty five thousand years, or so we were told.
The comms booth was in the middle of Australia, which was fortunate, because my destination with my highly radioactive and publicity-shy load was the Gibber Desert, where a massive decontamination and storage facility had been built, to deal with cargos exactly like mine.
From the landing and decontamination area the video booth was only a three-hour ride, and luckily I could take an “on-demand” airtrain and get there before the appointed time providing everything in the next four hours went to plan.
On my HUD the space station loomed like a big bright ball of fire, and around it I could see a frenzy of activity as Russian, Chinese, French, Iranian, USA and Indian pods, rockets, and space planes docked and undocked, in an orchestrated electronic ballet beyond any human ability to control.  The tolerances were just too tight, again driven by pure economics, because now more than ever before, the more you could do in the least amount of time, while minimizing your energy spend, the more dollars fell straight to the bottom line.
If you were at the right place on Earth, you could see a continuous line of flaming space craft entering the atmosphere a few minutes apart, splitting off at the last moment to their ultimate destinations like a fiery line of invaders, leaving their twin sonic booms far behind as they carelessly burnt up the sky.
The problem the Earth faced was too many people, even though over three billion had died during the “Peninsular War”, as it was euphemistically called, compared to the volume of arable land used to produce food that had been irrevocably lost.
Since the oceans had caught up with our stupidity in mismanaging climate change, nearly half of the worlds food basket was now under water, creating an economic and social pressure on the rest of the world like never before.  20 sq. meters of dry land sold for over a million new dollars, turning the majority of the world into squatters, tenants and wage-slaves.
Which was why Space had become so important so quickly, because it had been discovered back in the twenties that seed crops in hydroponic systems under zero gee or micro gravity as it was called, could produce sixteen times their yield by volume in one tenth of the time that they could manage on Earth. So a whole new economy based on getting up to and back from massive food-producing space stations had evolved in less than thirty years, to the point where what little land was left down on Earth either had reclamation infrastructure, space infrastructure, or was radioactive and uninhabitable.
In front of me, a giant arm suddenly reached out, and in-between puffs from my nose thrusters, locked onto my docking ring.  In less than a minute we were attached, and three minutes after that, I felt the thud and jar of the pressure equalization process, and my instruments told me that ten tons of wasted radioactive material was being stacked in my cargo space.  Then just as suddenly, the arm extended and pushed me down and out into the departing stream of vessels, letting me free-fall into a deorbit path.
The beauty of Space in many ways was the fact that any residual momentum you picked up tended to stay with you, so crazy as it might sound, when the arm threw me away from the station, the energy it imparted actually gave me both directional and attitudinal thrust, so all I had to do to get into the slot was burn my thrusters to roll over, then spin into a bottom down attitude, presenting my heat shield to the atmosphere still a hundred miles below.
We had made great strides in energy management in the last twenty odd years, so when I started to burn up entering the denser atmosphere, the heat would produce a quantum of energy that would be stored in my engine loops, to be used on the next flight.  This technique didn’t give me back 100%, the Laws of Thermodynamics saw to that, but it did cut my costs down, and if I balanced it out just right, and maintained the highest possible trajectory inbound, I could actually maximize what energy I collected, and more than one pilot had skipped off the atmosphere and back out into space trying to do just that!
I managed to fly a fairly decent profile, and as I swung over the Great Bight into the landing pattern I saw that I had recovered around forty three percent of my loop, so now I had enough fuel for just over two more trips before I headed off to the knackers yard.  Of course, the ablative shield would not last that long, that was the price you paid for being clever.
Always a balancing act between what was really possible verses my day dreams!
I followed a very large military vessel down that was still throwing off bits of burning heat shield like so many firecrackers, landed parallel to it on the massive desert floor, powered down, and then waited for the tug to collect me.  Did I mention the only reason I was on board was to act as the safety backup?  So little to do, and all that skill I had accumulated over the years, what a waste.  But this was Life, as we knew it in the mid twenty first century, so I looked forward to my impending train trip, and video call.  Maybe they would relieve my boredom to some degree.
Who knows?  Might be something interesting, might keep me out of the knackers yard, or it might just waste a day of my Life.
As the tug pulled me across the desert floor, I felt sad for myself and the rest of the human race, because we really had put ourselves into a seriously negative position, will all our technology and robots.  We had willingly given our power away to a few swampy politicians, and not paid attention to the fine print.  And now we were all but bit players in our own imagined stories.
The tug jerked to a stop, and a long stained yellow walkway concertinaed out to the side of my plane, the invitation clear.
Time to go.


The airtrain trundled across the desert floor on a cushion of electromagnetic energy, dampened inside the cabin, thankfully, so my insides didn’t want to continually meet with my outsides.  Two other passengers enjoyed the blurred view, neither of them talkative, for which I was eternally thankful.  As a space pilot, I only had to communicate with the robots, and then only to get permission to takeoff or arrive somewhere.  Social chitchat was definitely not my strong point.
I opened my lappad, looking for news about the trash hauling business, hoping against hope that a contract would turn up big enough to keep me out of the knackers yard.  Nothing new.  I looked for news about space piloting in general, nothing but a bunch of blogs bemoaning the demise of human participation, much in favor of the automation and robotic trend that was now nearly one hundred years long.
I swiped to the general news section, got really involved in an argument between Brazil and the US, over who had the best technology for Space elevators, given that the original 12 year old inventor was a Brazilian, the first five elevators had been built in Brazil, and Brazil had exported the other four elevators that were erected in other countries.  Against all that, the US had a great spin machine!  Kind of made the argument redundant, just like Space pilots!
I swiped up the ad I had responded to, and tried to divine why they needed so much security for the interview.  After all, most communication between people these days was from pad to pad, and as secure as technology could make it given about six billion people were all using the same link at the same time.  Security remained firmly inside your own head, an illusion you generated and held onto for dear Life so you could navigate through the technological mess we now called our world.  But it was well known that several very large corporates - VLC’s for short, they ran the Earth and near Planets now - maintained at great expense private call booths around the world for really secure communications between their very senior executives, given that information or data was still the gold currency and just about anyone could hack anything these days, or could find someone who could for a well cooked genuinel steak and a song.
The airtrain arrived with a jerk, reminding us that anything mechanical still had a mind of its own, so I waited until the other passengers moved out the door, then followed.  The terminal was all stained glass and nusteel, giving the impression of a laboratory mixed with a pizza parlor, and as I moved onto the moving walkway, I noticed how few people there were, given that this was supposedly the most populated location for a thousand kilometers in any direction.  Robots and machines were everywhere, trucking cargo, cleaning the walls, and just being obsequious.
The comms booth reared up at the end of the walkway, resplendent in a 3D flashing logo, announcing the superiority of “Genesis Transportation”, the “Future of Mankind in Space”.  Nothing like a little modesty to start your day.
I pushed my ID through the scanner, put my right eye to another scanner, then my left hand on a third scanner, then stood still, as a booth-style full body scanner passed up and down me, rotating ever so slowly, with just a hint of menace.  Amazing how threatening a passive robot could be just by looking at you with little flashing LED’s.
A door hissed open, and behind me a very solid looking wall rose up out of the floor, and as I approached the screen wall, the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck started to tingle, feeling the effects of the sonic radiation from the EMP field.
I sat down.
The screen flashed up the “Genesis Transportation” logo.
Then a grey-hair swam into focus, dressed in a military uniform of some description, high collar hiding a floppy neckline.
“Regina Polanski.”
“Yes, sir.”  Couldn’t help myself, nice wasn’t my strong suite, any more than good manners were, but the animal in me deep down recognized the military posture and tone of voice, and responded almost automatically.  Pavlovian training will do that to you.
“Currently between contracts, vessel owned by Cirrus Corp, sufficient fuel for two trips, ablative heat shield for one.”
This time my forebrain took control, and I just stared at the image, with what I hoped was casual distain, but on the other side probably looked like a chastised puppy dog.  They had the dope, to the second, which meant they had an eye or two on me, and usually that meant you were either slated for a messy unsolved death, or an equally messy job, and then an unsolved death!
“We have a proposition for you.  We want you to take a cargo out to the Lagrange-four point between Earth and Mars, transfer it to a second vessel, and then return to Earth.  Your ship is being upgraded and repaired as we speak, new heat shield, some navigation mods, engine upgrade, and the cargo will be loaded and sealed before you leave here, and we will pay you one thousand new dollars a day, point to point, including today.  You may have a small cargo to bring back; you will be informed of that at the transfer point.  If you do have cargo, we will require you to land it at a nominated destination that we will give you enroute.”
I looked at the image, checked the facial features for any signs of deception, but to be truthful, his face was so wrinkled and scarred he could be telling me anything and I wouldn’t have a clue if it were true or otherwise.  What I had going for me was the trouble they had taken to hold this conversation in the first place, and the fact that it was me, a complete nobody, they were having it with.  Meant only one of two things.  Totally illegal death-by-association cargo, or top-secret military activity outside the normal government and corporate channels, an d death-by-association.
Either way, my survival chances had plummeted to below zero, not the least problem being I was trapped inside a technology coffin with no way out if that was what they decided.  My defeatist thinking must have leaked through my face, because suddenly the figure on the other end of the call leaned slightly forward, creating the impression he was falling out of the screen.
“You personally security is guaranteed, we have posted a million dollar bond with the Council, and a full transcript of this transaction will be held in camera for your use should you ever need it.  We want you to come back, and we need you to be willing to repeat the job if we need it.”  The hairs on the back of my neck were now standing so straight it was like I had a fur collar running across my shoulders, because as I have mentioned previously, the only reason a human was employed for anything to do with Space was as a backup to the automatic systems, to ensure a valuable cargo got to where it was supposed to go.  Humans being the least costly alternative, of course.
“Thank you.” I rose to leave, but the top of the metallic screen support opened up, blocking my exit.
“You need to take this with you.”  A blue bag about the size of half a body rose up out of the floor, accompanied by a shiny new uniform wrapped in plastic.  The “Genesis Transportation” logo was hard to miss, as was the beam weapon sitting on top of the bag.  I looked back up at the image, forming a question, but before I could ask, the husky voice jumped all over my confusion.
“Temporary duty as a GT Captain, when you get back you will have the choice of signing on full time, or going back to adhoc cargo hauling.  We have fitted your shuttle with some communications equipment that requires a GT ID, so we will be in communication with you out and back.  Any questions?”  Only a million, I though to myself, marveling that such a one-sided conversation could change my Life so thoroughly, and so fast.
“Charts, route planning, timing?” I croaked, finally getting my dry mouth to function.
“In your shuttle, call me when you get the navigation package.”  The image dissolved back into the three dimensional logo of Genesis, the screen support folded back on itself, so I stripped my coveralls off, and put on the cleanest and neatest set of clothing I had seen in ten years.  Pushed the gun into its holster, and slung the blue bag across one shoulder.
In for a penny, in for a pound, as the saying goes, and with no regrets but a ton of unanswered questions fighting for time in my slightly befuddled Mind, I walked back to the airtrain terminus, to find one waiting for me, completely empty, and started the lonely journey back to my shuttle.


Standing on the ground in my second-hand hazmat suit, looking up at my shuttle in the work bay, I was had pressed to identify any single part of it as something I could remember.  The Genesis guy has said they were making a few modifications, and adding a new heat shield, but from where I stood in the raw glare from the arc lamps, it looked as if they had fitted a new shield in the cradle, then added a whole new ship to it.  As the robots and waldos buzzed and flitted around, some connected to long concertinaing arms and tubes, it occurred to me not for the first time that this cargo of mine was worth a whole lot to someone, because they sure were spending big to get it to where they wanted it to be.
From past experience, cargos tended to come in three general categories – food and water, probably eighty percent of everything lifted up to orbit from the Earth these days; military and industrial equipment, designed to take or maintain control and power; and people.
Genesis was a very, very big corporation, with a massive fleet of its own ships, both short and long range, capable of carrying literally anything or anyone anywhere in the known systems.  Why did they need me?  Only one answer I could be sure of, and to a certain extent all the work getting done in double-quick time proved my hypothesis.
They wanted secrecy, deniability, and a disposable solution to what ever their problem might be.  And that conclusion confused me more than a little, because inside my stained and dubious hazmat suit I was wearing the Captains uniform I had been given back at the booth, clearly identifying me as Genesis Space crew.  And particular senior at that!
Would they simply disappear me on delivery?  What made me and or my almost flight-limited ship so valuable to one of the largest interstellar originations around?  I thought about this a lot as I walked over to the ground maglev vehicle that would take me to my temporary quarters.  It seemed that Genesis had organized me a squat while they rebuilt my ship, something I wasn’t going to complain about given the exorbitant cost for a bed at the Spaceport.  I wasn’t disappointed, the HiHelloYourWelcome (or H2YW for short) vertical hotel built on top of the roof of a fast food processing outlet, was at least three stars, if you squinted through your radiation glasses hard enough.
Bed and chair, toilet, and holoscreen, with a choice of every movie ever made, or unlimited exposure to a virtual reality headset, where you could, literally, write your own story.
And drugs.
All synthetic of course, and all tragically legal, which quite took the fun out of it all.
But you could smoke, sniff, gargle, snort, suck or just pop the drug of your choice, all color coded for length of bliss-out, and away you went.  I looked at the dispenser to see if I could access it, and not surprisingly, it was locked with a biometric code device, a clear message to me from my new bosses – look but don’t indulge!
I slipped on the virtual headset, lay back on the bed, and set my alarm for ten hours.
“Did you bring your togs?”
“Neither did I.”
Through the mist rising off the turquoise ocean, I could see it was early in the morning, somewhere in the Mediterranean latitudes, nice feel of the Sun on my back, slight breeze, all in all a great dream, because in my animal brain I just knew that I could never pull a woman as beautiful as this in the real world.  She was simply spectacular, all curves and long flowing blond hair, coy smile, and lips to die for.  And as she floated along the path towards the sand, I could have jumped into them in a heart beat and stayed there for the rest of my life.
And then even that slim hope faded with a jolt, as the face from the video link popped itself right in front of my face, reducing my dream to a nightmare.
“Captain, nice of you to visit us.  Can we talk?” the high collar wrapped around his throat like a boa constrictor bobbled as he spoke, suggesting some kind of goiter problem.
“Yes, Sir, of course.”  There goes that autonomic response thing again; perhaps I should have been a beagle or a cocker spaniel.
“Captain, no doubt you are wondering why we picked you and your ship, given the current condition of you both?” his gravelly voice was not unattractive, and I could imagine my fantasy woman going for something like this.
“No doubt”, I replied, happy to be able to actually participate in the conversation.
“Simple, really, comes down to two factors.”  I waited him out, happy to let him fill the silence.
“Your history and track record, and the nature of the cargo.”
“Too valuable, or too hot to trust to a robot?” I asked, just the slightest hint of a sneer in my voice.  I really did not like the way automation was taking over the human world.  His stare tried to cut through my insolence, but on this subject I was as determined as a machine, the irony not lost on me.  He smiled a little smile, his shoulders loosing some of their rigidity.
“Well, I suppose I can’t blame you after what you have gone through.”  East to say it you said it fast, but the simple fact was that if you visited the Crash Comics to see who had killed themselves in recent times, the common factor on the Voice Recorders was someone in the crew screaming, “what the fuck is it doing now?” just before the fatal impact.  My argument was simple, and based on long experience.  Automation had advanced so far that the technicians had removed the ability of any human to remain in the information loop for all intentional purposes, leaving some poor bastard to play catch-up after a machine had either failed or done something incredibly stupid.
It had happened to my crew, and me, which is why I now flew solo.  Didn’t want to have the deaths of anymore machine victims on my conscience.
“However, Captain, it is just that experience that makes you attractive to us.”
“It’s all about the cargo, then,” I said, trying to feel like I was worth something.
“Yes.  It will be plasma-welded into your cargo bay as a single unit, we have designed the bay to detach on arrival, and it will not release if you do not enter the correct biometric codes.  You are, in a sense, our failsafe in this situation.  If something happens, you are to save the ship and yourself, and we will find you. Whatever it takes to get that cargo into position.”
“What will I find at the L4 point?” I asked, thinking about a cargo that was so important that one of the biggest enterprises in the known Universe were hiring me to deliver it.  He tried to stare right through me again, but I was long impervious to a VR image getting the better of me, so I started right back.
He blinked first, one small victory for me!
“You will be met by a Cruiser, they will identify themselves to you via a process we have copied into your onboard AI, and then there will be a set of written instructions delivered to you just before track time.  The physical instructions supersede any AI, or for that matter, any other person’s input or determination.  You, and you alone, can release the cargo, or not, if circumstances dictate.”
“You would rather me destroy the cargo than deliver it to the wrong people?” I asked, the hollow pit where my stomach used to be filling with bile.  He nodded, the VR taking that precise moment to flick in and out of focus, creating the impression that his head was hollow, and attached to the rest of his body by a rainbow of buzzing electronic static.
“In a manner of speaking.  You can’t destroy the cargo, but you can control to whom you deliver it.  If you don’t like what you see at L4, simply reverse your course, and send us a message, and we will send someone to come and get you.”
“Eventually” I added, mindful of the fact that at the L4 point I would have to accelerate for days to get back to earth, and I didn’t have enough fuel to accomplish that with a full cargo bay.  So at best, I would build up some Delta-V, point in the right direction, and sit back and wait.  He had the good grace to smile, an expression that looked somewhat like a cockatiel eyeing off an ant for breakfast.
“We will find you, you can count on that!” he said, dissolving into pixels, allowing my imagined virtual world to return, scantily dressed babe and all, but I had lost my appetite for some reason, so I clicked out of the VR, and reflected on where I was, and what might happen next.
And then my door shook, literally, physically like an earthquake was attacking us.  The door visibly vibrated, almost so fast it blurred, then it just fell down with a whine, as if released from a terrible ordeal.  Two suited figures stood in the doorway, reflecting the low light from the hallway off their featureless heads.  One of them held a huge gray nanodisruptor, no doubt the reason for the doors’ distress.  The other held a really small hand cannon, the type of which I was all too familiar with, and it was pointed right at the middle of my face.  Before I could even open my mouth, they both suddenly started to glow, moving from a warm orange to a bright burning red in just seconds, dissolving into a puddle of nusteel that slowly started to swim towards my feet.
As the smoke and melting ions dissipated, a curvy figure in a stained red spacesuit emerged, striding through the radioactive cloud with ballsy impunity. She – or it – pulled up so close to my face I reflexively took a step backwards.  I could see the reflection of a facial recognition routine running in her-its faceplate.
“Regina Polanski.”  I nodded, my throat as dry as the Arctic desert.  “Grab your bag, suit up, and follow me.”  I turned to the wall where my suit was hanging on the fast-entry straps, fed my feet in, then pressed the little blue dot that caused the rest of my suit to shimmy up my spine like a python.  In less than 10 seconds I was airtight, sucking recycled oxygen, and looking at all the fault signals in my helmet display.
Nothing fatal, I decided, absolutely the lesser of the two evils I was faced with.  Red suit turned on she-its heel and started walking, towing me along in her-its shadow.  As we thumped through the remains of my two former guests, my dosimeter went of the scale, suggesting that if I didn’t swallow a radpill in the next few minutes, I’d be toast.  I bumbled along, hefting my bag full of as yet untried goodies, wondering just what in the hell I had got myself into.
“Incase you’re wondering what’s going on,” Red suit said, she-its voice crackling due to the disturbance in the ion field created by the explosions that had decimated first my door and then my visitors, “I’ve been sent to babysit you.”
Wonderful.  Strange mission, decidedly strange attack, and now an even stranger stranger sent to hold my hand!  I still couldn’t tell if the inside of the flaming red spacesuit was human or robotic, but with nothing to lose but the rest of my life if I stayed where I was, I followed she-its shape through the fire and destruction out into the tunnel that linked all the buildings in the complex.  Ten long strides down the walkway she-it suddenly turned, fired a maser at the wall, then disappeared through the newly flaming hole.  I followed, straight into a small ground vehicle the likes of which I had never seen before.  A bubble on a platform, static discharge firing from a ring around the base, with what looked like three big cushioned seats in a semicircle, as if the vehicle could skew off in any direction and someone would be facing the front!  And it did, throwing me back into one seat with the force of at least three-g.
The spaceport landscape flashed by in a blur, and if I had been out of control before, now I was totally unhinged and at a complete loss. I had experienced extractions from hot zones before, but I had always been in control – in so much as I usually knew who was trying to kill me, and I had a plan to get out and save myself or others by following a long practiced procedure I had learnt during the Three Wars.
“Who are you, and what was that all about back at my room?” I asked, taking the opportunity to suck down three radpills at the instruction of my suit.  According to it, I had received semi-lethal does of six different types of radiation, confirming my initial reaction that the intruders had used a nanodisruptor, a seriously bad piece of high-tech usually reserved for the security forces.

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