Monday, September 16, 2013

Learning Curve: 1 of 12

Dear blog readers: starting today, and continuing for two weeks and two days, I shall blog “Learning Curve”, a science-fictional space opera by myself and Leslie Fish.


Learning Curve
A Space Opera


Nathaniel Hellerstein
Leslie Fish

© 2011

Learning Curve
A Space Opera
By Nathaniel Hellerstein and Leslie Fish
                               This book is dedicated to the memory of Wile E. Coyote.

1. Undertaker Resurrected                                           1
2. Space Hero                                                           11
3. Dear Diary                                                            28
4. Sacred Hatred                                                       38
5. Response Time                                                     44
6. His Little List                                                         60
7. The Wizards Bastard                                            71
8. Undertaker Overtaken                                           80
9. Close Encounters                                                  89
10. Looting                                                                101
11. Broke Down Palace                                             113
12. The Last Man                                                      130

               Song Credits:    The Wheel, Freedom Road, Space Hero, © Leslie Fish:
                                    Joe Hill, © Alfred Hayes

        1. Undertaker Resurrected

            “Calling Starbase Ayn, calling Starbase Ayn, come in please.”
            He stopped and listened to the radio. Nothing but static.
            “Calling Starbase Ayn, calling Starbase Ayn, come in please.”
            He listened again, as he had been doing, off and on, for the past twelve kiloseconds.
            Then from out the crackle of radio static; “This is Starbase Ayn, please identify.”
            He yelled, “Starbase Ayn! Is that you?”
            “This is Starbase Ayn, please identify.”
            “It’s been so long, it’s been so long, since I’ve heard a voice, even a robot voice…”
            “This is Starbase Ayn, please identify.”  
            “This is, this is, this is Redshirt! I mean, Ishmael Redshirt! I mean, Lieutenant Ishmael Redshirt! Flying Scout 23! Off the Starship Undertaker!”
            Starbase Ayn’s robot voice droned, “Engaging voiceprint scan… voiceprint confirmed.” The signal was already louder and clearer than a few moments ago.
            “How long will I stay in radio range?”
            “Your present trajectory will take you out of radio range in… one point three kiloseconds. Do you have any requests to make during that time?”
            “Yes! Activate the main replicator!”
            “One moment please…”
            Lt. Ishmael Redshirt looked around him. Scout 23’s control panel blinked red, blue and green. Out the window the star field circled. Overhead was the cord leading up to the bolo counterweight. Circling almost dead ahead was the disk of planetoid Ayn. It was already visibly swelling; soon it would pass aside and dwindle.
            Starbase Ayn droned, “Main replicator activated and on standby. Are you requisitioning replacement parts?”
            “Uh, yes.”
            “Are you requisitioning replacement parts for Starship Undertaker?”
            “Are the damaged parts reparable?”
            “… no…”
            “Were the parts damaged by normal wear and tear?”
            “What items on board Starship Undertaker were damaged beyond repair?”
            Lt. Redshirt heaved a sigh, then said, “Starship Undertaker.”
            Starbase Ayn droned, “Starship Undertaker is not an item on board Starship Undertaker. What items on board Starship Undertaker were damaged beyond repair?”
            Every item! All of them! Everything! The whole ship! I saw it! I SAW IT!”
            “Are you requesting whole-ship replication?”
            “Whole-ship replication requires command-level authorization. Do you have clearance from Captain John Claudius Kinndur?”
            Lt. Redshirt gulped, then said, “Captain Kinndur is… damaged beyond repair.”
            “Do you have clearance from First Mate Horatio Algernon Drudge?”
            “He too is… damaged beyond repair.”
            “Do you have authorization from three members of the crew?”
            “There’s nobody left but me.”
            “Are you requesting crew replication?”
            “For everybody but me.”
            “Ship-and-crew replication without command-staff or triplicate crew authorization is against regulations. Any attempt to access replication facilities without proper authorization will result in an immediate reprimand.”
            “But, but, you have to!”
            “Any unauthorized replication request will result in an immediate reprimand.”
            “All right then! I request replication!”
            “What is your authorization?”
            “None! Zero! Zip! This request is unauthorized!”
            “You will be reprimanded.”
            “Fine! But tell me this: who are you going to report this reprimand to?
            “To your commanding officer: Captain John Claudius Kinndur.”
            “But he’s vaporized! Along with the ship and the crew! He doesn’t exist!
            Radio silence…
            “So you have to replicate him! So you can report me to him -- about my unauthorized request to replicate him!”
            Radio silence…
            A faint crackle of static…
            Starbase Ayn droned, “Unauthorized replication authorized. Reprimand filed. Stand by.”
            Then from the radio Redshirt heard this noise:
            The sound of materialization.
            Then, on the radio, he heard a chorus of voices.
            Captain John Claudius Kinndur roared, “Dammit!
            First Mate Horatio Algernon Drudge cried, “Uh-oh!”
            Ensign Irving Nimrod Poindexter wailed, “MOMMEEE!”
            Lt. Redshirt closed his eyes, thinking:Those are their replication cries, all right, same as ever. He had often heard them before, one at a time, though never all at once like this. He wondered what his own replication cry would be, and then figured that he didn’t need to know.
            Starbase Ayn’s robot voice droned, “Welcome to Starbase Ayn. Your replication was unauthorized. Lieutenant Ishamel Redshirt is responsible for this infraction. Please take appropriate disciplinary action.”
            Redshirt pressed the transmit button. “Lt. Redshirt here. I took the initiative, sir.”
            “In my… absence?” said Captain Kinndur.
            “In my… unavoidable absence?”
            “Yessir, yessir.”
            “Well done, Lieutenant. Quick work!”
            First Mate Drudge’s voice sounded. “He wasn’t that quick, sir. Look here.”
            A short silence. Lt. Redshirt looked at his own chronometer.
            Kinndur said, “One hundred and thirty-seven Rosie days?
            Redshirt said, “Yessir.”
            “We’ve been dead that long?”
            “Yessir. It took me awhile to get here.”
            Drudge said, “The last I remember, sir, we were about to engage with Malvolio’s forces in orbit around planet Murphy. You said that nothing could possibly go wrong.”
            Kinndur said, “Yes, Number One, I remember. I also remember that right after I said that, you ordered the Ensign to scan the ship.”
            “It was a reflex, sir. It seemed prudent.”
            “And right you were, Number One. So what happened then?”
            Redshirt said, “I saw it.”
            Radio silence.
            Drudge said, “Then report, Lieutenant!”
            Lt. Redshirt howled, “I saw it, sir. I saw it, I saw it. I - ”
            Drudge barked, “Lieutenant!
            Kinndur said, “Mr. Redshirt… are you all right?”
            “No I’m not, sir, I am not all right, partly because it’s been a long flight with no fuel on an orbit that’ll fling me into deep space and out past Blackegg, sir, but mostly I’m not all right because I saw it, sir, I saw it!
            “And… what did you see?”
            “I saw death, sir, and glory and horror. I saw duty, and honor, and bloody futility. Sir.”
            Drudge said, “Lieutenant...”
            Kinndur said, “No, no, let him go on.”
            Redshirt said, “The Overlord’s fleet filled the sky. So did ours. Mighty engines of war swarmed like fireflies in the inky black of space. They flew like falcons, we hurtled like hawks. Jets flared – craft accelerated – we closed – we engaged – and then – “
            “Two point six seconds into the battle, half my squadron was vaporized by gigawatt laser. I know it was two point six seconds because I’ve reviewed the files afterwards. Many times.
            “At two point seven seconds, the rest of my squadron got flashed. I somehow twisted out of both beams’ paths, by luck I guess.  I never saw the beams.
            “That’s the funny thing, Captain, you don’t see the beams. Not from the side, not in vacuum -- and if it hits you dead on, then you’re dead too. They never mentioned that in the recruiting videos.  Those videos were always so beautiful, sir. I don’t know if the explosions were that pretty in reality. I was too busy to notice.
            “The explosions, Captain. They don’t go boom. No sound at all. They go silent. Snuffed out. One moment on the radio you can hear the crew – yelling, screaming, cursing – you can hear sirens, roars, crashes – real loud – and then –
            “ – well, it’s like the audio cuts off. Silent. Dead. Empty. Like space. They’re gone.
            “So many explosions – and ships diced by lasers – and collisions with debris – ours – theirs –  the ships thinned out pretty fast –   In the end, you and Starship Overlord got each other. You sprayed antimatter pellets and they launched a heatseeker. They blew up first, you attempted evasion. You failed. I saw it.”
            “I saw it, Captain, I saw it, I can still see it, every time I close my eyes, and I’m sorry that I’m ranting like this, I had to tell someone, and thank you, thank you, thank you for listening to me rave, because I had to tell someone, I had to tell you.”
            “I feel much better now.”
            Radio silence…
            “My report: all ships and crews on both sides destroyed. I alone am escaped to tell you. Total elapsed time of battle: one hundred and thirty-seven seconds.”
            Long silence...
            Eventually Drudge said, “Mutual assured destruction.”
            Kinndur said, “A draw, Number One. As you predicted.”
            Drudge said, “That’s the trouble with space battles, sir. They’re no-win.
            Kinndur said, “Yes, yes, Number One, the whole idea is flawed. As you pointed out.”
            Redshirt said, “The explosions blew me off course and damaged my craft. By the time I regained control and made repairs, the only Starbase I could reach was this one.”
            Kinndur said,  “Starbase Ayn. From Murphy to the planetoid belt, halfway across the Elvis system.  With no fuel?”
            “None left over after the burn, sir.”
            “But surely you’ve been harvesting dark matter.”
            “Yessir.  I ran the neutralino antenna alongside the bolo cable.”
            “Oh, you’re in bolo mode?  …Of course, you need the gravity.”
            “It’s been one hundred and thirty-seven days, sir.  I’ve been exercising.”
            Good, Lieutenant! Keep in shape! ...So you can harvest enough dark matter to run your ship. Is your replicator working?”
            “Yessir, I can replicate air, water, food, equipment and fuel.”
            Drudge said, “We’re tracking his trajectory… he’ll be out of radio range soon. Shall we attempt pursuit, sir?”
            Kinndur said, “Negative, the delta-vee’s too high. Ensign, he can make fuel; what orbit can you plot for him?”
            Ensign Poindexter droned, in his nasal voice, “He’s going pretty fast… I’ve computed a multiple slingshot that sort of works…”
            Drudge said, “That sort of works, what, Ensign?”
            “That sort of works, sir!
            Kinndur said, “Let me see that… yes, it does sort of work… good job, Ensign. Lieutenant?”
            “We have computed a rescue trajectory for you. Transmitting.”
            Redshirt looked at his display. “Transmission received.”
            Kinndur said, “This will require only two…”
            “ - three, sir - “ said Drudge.
            “Only three hi-gee burns, maybe a correction burn or two, and it will take you home.”
            Redshirt said, “To Rosie?”
            “Yes, planet Roseanne. Report to Starbase Prime at Kitchener Space Port.”
            Redshirt said, “You said, multiple slingshots?”
            Kinndur said, “You will slingshot past… let’s see now… first around Crowley, then a pass by Marilyn, a sizzling swing around Elvis, whip around Multivac, fling past Capone, a big burn at Murphy, back past Multivac, by Crowley again, fly by Liberty and then run home to Rosie.”
            “That’s a long strange trip, Captain.”
            Kinndur said, “Lieutenant, you are going on a Grand Tour of the Elvis system! And you can thank the Ensign for it, too!”
            “I will remember.”
            Kinndur said, “You will keep radio silence; you will reconnoiter on each flyby; you will scan for enemy activity; and you will laser your reports to Starbase Gandalf on moon Gollum.”
            “A scouting mission?”
            “Lieutenant, this may be your most enterprising undertaking yet!”
            “No doubt it will, sir.”
            “Then be it so. Kinndur out.”
            There was a long moment of silence as Redshirt looked at his screen, then looked at the now silent speaker.  Finally he punched the course into the navigation computer and set the autopilot.  It occurred to him that the captain might – just might – have transmitted a rescue message to one of the bases, stations or repeaters ahead.  Somebody might receive the message and send for a rescue mission.  The rescue ship might pinpoint his location, find him, take him in tow and haul him to safety sometime sooner than his long course would bring him back to Roseanne. 
            With a sigh, Redshirt opened the data storage cabinet and pulled out the last unread disk within.  It was a basic history primer, guaranteed dead boring, but he'd read/watched/listened to every other disk in the scoutship, right down to the repair and maintenance manuals.  By the time he finished this, those manuals might look fresh and exciting by comparison.
            He shoved the disk into the slot, poked the 'display' button, and began to read.

                                                            #          #          #

            Our ancestors came here from another star system, from its third planet outward from the star called Sun: a rock world called Earth.  The reasons why the Methuselah fled from Earth are lost in the mists of time and legend;  planetary war, planetary disaster, even alien invasion are some of the current theories.  The Ellisonian Theory, that our ancestors were exiles or fugitives from the law, is unworthy of consideration.
            It must be emphasized that “Silent Sol” and “Lost Earth” have a known position in the sky, but are called Silent and Lost because of centuries of radio and laser silence. This silence was unexplained. Recently Sol system has been radiating signals, but these remain indecipherable despite all efforts to decode.
            All we can say with certainty is that in all the centuries since then we have learned nothing from 'Lost' Earth, and our ancestors were sadly reticent about the cause of their flight.
            They did, however, bring with them their rich heritage of mythology from which we have drawn these names of the various celestial bodies in our solar system:

Elvis. Our Sunlike star. Named after the orphic savior Luv God.
Marilyn, a Hot Jupiter. Named after the goddess of sex.
Roseanne, Earthlike. Orbits in the middle of the habitable zone. Named after the goddess of motherhood.  Its moons are DanBecky and Darleen.
Liberty, 10-Earth-mass rock. Named after the goddess of freedom. Orbits near outer edge of habitable zone. Its Mars-sized moon is Columbia, which in turn has a dwarf moon Sam.
            Crowley, a Neptune-sized gas giant. Named after the god of sorcery. It bears a ring, shepherded by the moons Dobby and Gollum.
A planetoid belt. Three minor worlds: Superman, Batman, Pikachu. Also in the belt: Rocky, Ali, Tonto and its moon Ranger, twin asteroids Starsky and Hutch, Che, Lennon, Ayn, and many others. No planetoids are themselves inhabited; long-term microgee is unhealthy; instead colonists live in spinning habitats orbiting the planetoids.
Multivac, a 7-jupiter-mass gas giant. Named after the god of wisdom. Its Earth-sized moons are Hal, Arthur, Isaac, Robert and Larry. Its earth-sized Trojan companions are Wells and Verne. It has several dozen smaller moons, including the ice dwarf Harlan (source of half of all space-habitat water) and a thin ring (source of the most of the rest of habitat water).
Capone, a Mars-sized ice giant. Named after the underworld god. Its moon is Hoover.
Murphy, a Pluto-sized ice dwarf. Named after the trickster god. Hazardous to ice-mine.
The entire Elvis system is in orbit around a much more massive star:
Blackegg, a 13-sol-mass black hole. Named after the thief god. It is 1.3 light-days out; about 230 Rosie orbital radii away. The Elvis system orbits Blackegg once every thousand Rosie years.  Its satellites are Loser and Terminus; both small rocks, formerly gas giants.

Redshirt looked at the forward viewscreen, noted his ship’s position, and sighed.        

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