Thursday, November 24, 2011

"Tools", Coming soon to a computer near you

I have been working on a sci-fi novel on and off, and mostly off, for several years, and as an experiment, I am going to finish the project here on-line. It has all of the elements that I think will make a good story, including an encyclopedia salesman, a decidedly feminine ship's computer, (she is much smarter than he), good people, bad people, stupid people, and along the way some modest social content, in humorous way.

One of my favorite authors is Nevil Shute, who wrote many notable books including On the Beach, No Highway, Trustee from the Toolroom, The Legacy (also known as A Town like Alice), and many others. The thing I really liked about his books, was his quiet everyday characters, who ended up in difficult situations, and selflessly rose up to meet the challenges. I think this is also why I like L. E. Modesitts books so much. In the end, I think best stories are the ones in which you can imagine yourself as the principle character.

I am planning to post, a chapter at a time, erratically my novel "Tools" online. Reader comments, and editorial insights, are invited. I'm going to continue my work related blog The Marine Installers Rant at the same time. Writing is truly a joy for me, and we will all get to see if I am any good at it, or can learn to get good at it.

One last note, I am writing this using Google Blogger, and there are some things my text editor can't easily do. One of these is paragraph indents. It's technically possible to do indents, by manually adding some HTML code in front of each paragraph, but this is tedious to say the least, and for the time being will not happen. In the short run linefeeds will break subject related conversations into coherent groups.  This will makes things a bit awkward for readers, (and myself) until a work around is found. In the first few chapters, there will be a large number of rewrites as I settle down and find my written voice. These won't change the story line much, but there should be a steady improvement in the quality of both the writing and style.  Thanks, Bill

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


It was heady times in the middle of the 21st century. In 2031 scientists using the shiny new extra gigantic super collider much to their extremely brief chagrin created a black hole. A tiny naked singularity. In less than a blink of an eye all that was left was a hundred yard diameter sphere of vacuum followed by the thunderclap created as the air rushed in to fill it.

The huge chunk of now the missing collider, assorted other bits and pieces of the facility and several surprised scientists simultaneously appeared in space about 2,000 miles away from earth. The pieces, inexorably pulled back home by gravity and guided by the mysterious cosmic forces that seem to like mobile homes, demolished the Happy Acres trailer park in Texas, and everything else in the area on impact. How the large piece of the gigantic collider ended up appearing 2,000 miles from earth before falling back with a most notable bang created the infantile glimmerings that you might actually be able to travel through a wormhole. 

Within ten years the first crude worm drive had been installed into a cobbled together ship, and in five days it hopped its way to Alpha Centauri A, and brought back pictures of not one, but five planets. It didn't take long to discover that there were thousands of inhabitable, more or less, planets, and the first pioneers left earth to find their Edens. These pioneers were a hugely varied lot. Religious sects that wanted planets that would be free of unbelievers. Manufacturing, and mining companies that didn't desire oversight about cleaning up after themselves. The rich who could own a planet as a vacation home, political groups, nudists, and endless other hordes of ethnic, and special interest groups.  

Like rabbits on hormones, humanity multiplied and fled the mother planet to live on thousands of newly found planets in the nearby stars. It didn't take long for the squabbles to start. Groups started to get territorial. Believers didn't want non-believers sharing the same solar system. Systems banded together, and started to bully their neighbors, such as they were, and almost quickly as humanity exploded out into the galaxy, it all collapsed.

All of the worm drives were still built, on mother earth, and a ultra fanatical group for reasons known only to them took a small nuclear device, and blew up the facility, that very carefully stored the singularities. In nanoseconds they, and 25 percent of mother earth was just plain gone. No new worm drives would ever be made again, on a now very wobbly mother earth.

Like all things made by man, the ships required maintenance. The computers that calculated to the umpteenth decimal point where to point the drive required skilled upkeep and there were now few left that could do this. Travel between the stars shortly ground nearly to a stop. The worm drive used a small loophole in Mr Einstein's calculations, but radio waves, or lasers could not, and sending a message between solar systems would take decades to reach the recipients, if it got there at all. Planets that were self sufficient plowed forward, some in better shape than others. Many planets were not self sufficient, and in time, Darwin quietly took care of them.

So we start our story on the planet Bliss. Ben Thompson is the son of a specialist in the repair of terra forming equipment, and when he was twenty three his father was reassigned to repair the oxygen making systems on a small but very mineral rich planet colonized by Luddites. Although the Luddites espoused low technology, this belief ground to a quick halt at the planet's oxygen making systems and they had more than enough gemstones and exotic minerals laying around to pay for the repairs. Ben opted to remain on Bliss and find his way rather than go to such a backward place.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bad day at Red Rock

Ben twisted and looked over at the driver, dredged up his best number four smile and said, "She handles like a dream doesn't she?" The driver glanced back and grudgingly said, "Well I have to admit it seemed the price was a little to good to be..." when as he turned back into the used floater lot, a sharp whine was punctuated by a thump, chased by a noisy screech. With an abrupt stop the floater's skids grated on the pavement. The driver contemplated the wispy black smoke now curling up from underneath the floater, sneered and announced, "I should have known better, you guys are all liars, and thieves." He opened the door, got out, and then slammed it shut really hard. Muttering to himself he angrily stomped off the lot.

Ben sat quietly in the floater with his now not so happy thoughts, when his musings were interrupted by hearing, "Ben Thompson, get your ass over here now." Looking up Ben saw old Mr. Griswold, who was wildly waving his arms at him, using somewhat odd looking, and probably obscene gestures. Ben sighed, eased his lanky frame out of the no longer functioning floater, and slowly walked over to see what his florid faced boss was going to say. His keen instincts were advising him that this was not going to be a joyous conversation. "Thompson that's the third customer you have lost this week, you can't seem to close a deal", spat out Mr Griswold. Ben stood there for a few seconds trying to muster his thoughts and blurted out, "You told me that this floater's lifter had just been fully rebuilt by your worthless brother-in-law. I think he just threw in some old junk super magnet coils that were at the end of their life. How am I supposed to sell this crap, if it won't make it around the block?" Mr. Griswold puffed up, and then stared over at his brother-in-law who was sleeping slumped over in a chair with a steady stream of gelatinous drool dripping down on his multiple chins. He looked back at Ben, seemed to suddenly deflate, and just rasped out, "You're fired, just get out of here."

Ben gathered up his few desk items, grabbed his coat, and walked off the lot. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out the credit reader, winced at the 46 credit remaining balance, and started to hike towards his apartment. Seeing the corner Swifty Nifty store he suddenly decided to stop and get a now needed six pouch of Buzzed beer, and a pseudo meat sandwich to take home. Staring at the vid displays while waiting in line Ben watched the headlines scrolling by. "Starlet gets third breast transplanted, says "two breasts aren't enough for me." "Remake of "Battle Field Earth" goes straight to download. Actors blame director, who blames screen writer, who blames Xenu." The clerk snapped him out of his reverie, by mumbling "Is this it?", and promptly deducted 11 credits from his balance.

Taking his bag he trudged out into the heat, and headed down the road to his super efficiency apartment. Wrinkling his nose at the ever present stale lobby odor, he took the stairs avoiding the somewhat scary looking elevator. Ben walked into his tiny unit, turned on the wall vid, and wearily plunked down on his over worn couch. Ripping open a Buzz beer, he took a big swig, and settled down to read the help wanted ads on the vid.

A pounding on the door startled Ben, and the tinny metallic voice of a credit bot crackled, "Mr. Ben Thompson, you owe Galactic Charge-all 1123 credits. This collection effort is being vid recorded for quality, and our own legal purposes. Please present you credit reader for immediate payment. Mr. Ben Thompson you were observed entering your domicile, make your payment now. I am programmed to stay here until you pay your past due account in full." Ben turned up the volume on the vid, and tried to ignore the soulless mechanical debt collector's digital tirade, but the computerized droning does not stop.

Spotting the frying pan on the cooker with the greasy remnants of last nights repast still residing it, a very satisfying image flickered before Ben's eyes. Jumping up, he impulsively snatched up the pan, jerked open the door while yelling, and flung it hard. In that very brief moment of time, just as the pan left his hand, he saw the furiously spinning treads of a rapidly retreating, and very dented credit bot. The pan continued on its high speed trajectory just missing the bot, and impacted the hallway wall right in front of ancient Mrs. Gold, and her tiny lap mutt, with its contents splattering everywhere. Mrs. Gold turned pale, gasped, and promptly fainted, while her kick me mutt started yipping furiously at both Ben and the pan. The retreating credit bot squawked a garbled something that sounded profane, but gawking at the mess Ben gave up on the idea of trying to throw the pan again as the credit bot whizzed away around the corner.

Ben spun into overdrive, scurried back into his unit, grabbed up some cleaning supplies, and a pouch of what passed for spring water. He quickly revived Mrs. Gold, got her back on her feet, and shoved the water pouch into her hands. He started sopping up the mess, hoping the only remaining evidence of this unfortunate incident will be Mrs. Gold's addled memory, and the dent in the hallway wall. The constant yipping of the lap mutt had now drawn the attention of the building super who came up the stairs to see what the racket was all about. The super looked at the still wobbling Mrs. Gold, the pan in Ben's hand, the dent in the wall, grimaced and hollered over the shrill continual barking, "Ben you're two months late on the rent already, and now this!" Be out of here at the end of the month", and walked off shaking his head.

After the incident clean up, Ben finally settled down couch and fumed. "Who ever named this stinking dust bowl of a planet Bliss had a weird sense of irony. Fat lot of good that engineering degree does for me. What a crappy day, I had no idea those credit bots could move so fast." He belatedly returned to scanning the help wanted ads. "Nope, not selling shoes, repair credit bots? Nah, you mostly need to have experience in a body shop", and dozens of others until he saw a small ad that simply said, "Salesman wanted, some experience desired, high pay, apply in person, 26 Blossom Street." He tore open another Buzzed beer, and read it again.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The interview

One of Ben's eyes started to crack open upon hearing the insistent alarm beeping of the vid, and the screen strobing. Slowly sitting up and swinging his feet onto the floor, his toes immediately encountered a mostly drunk pouch of Buzz beer squeezing the balance of its contents onto the floor and soaking his foot. "Crap", is his first utterance of the day. The remote stops the wake up sequence on the vid, and the system settles down on a sort of morning news channel. A cute, but vicious anchor women is berating with a smile, a cowed politician who is frantically, but not very believably denying an affair with a transsexual hermaphroditic, "What ever that might exactly be", pondered Ben. He grabbed the vid remote, and reread the help wanted ad again, and thought, "What do I have to lose? It's not like my schedule is overloaded today", and stepped into the shower. Picking out what Ben thought was his most sincere suit, the lightweight dark blue one, he headed outside, and waited at the autobus stop at the corner. Just as the automated vehicle pulled over, he heard his name being faintly called out by a tinny voice, and he quickly jumped aboard.

26 Blossom St was in an industrial warehouse section of town. It was a large gray featureless one story building, with only the street number above a plain metal door. Ben hesitated for a moment, and thought 'What the hell", and walked into a sparsely furnished lobby painted with a pale vaguely green color. Looking about he saw about six people sitting on hard metal chairs, and a reception desk with a pleasant looking young women wearing a dark suit that almost reminded Ben of a uniform sitting behind it. Ben ambled over, and stood politely until she looked up, smiled and said, "Here is your application pad, please fill it out, and please wait until your name is called." Ben found a chair, and started to fill in the blanks, when suddenly an agitated middle aged man hurriedly came out of a side door, tossed the pad on the receptionist's desk, and making much haste disappeared out of the front door. The nonplussed receptionist, pushed some buttons clearing his pad, and primly placed it on top of the others. Ben thought to himself, "That was a bit odd", and heard the receptionist call out another name. She escorted the applicant to the side door where he was met by a young guy who was also wearing the same type of clothes as the receptionist.

About thirty minutes later, after more people showed up, and others left. Ben heard the receptionist call out, "Mr. Thompson, we are ready for you." Ben stood and headed toward the side door, and the receptionist stayed with him until the same young man appeared. They both passed through the door, and the young man stopped, and said, "My name is Jon, Mr. Thompson, I'm pleased to meet you. I will be escorting you to the interview stations, and the first one is here. I will come get you when the first interview is completed." Ben walked into the small room and saw the furniture consisted of only a small table, with two metal chairs that were facing each other, he picked one, and sat down.

The door opening caught Ben by surprise, but not as much as when he saw the man entering."Yikes, what the...? Extremely tall, cadaverous looking, scowling, and ultra intimidating", was Ben's first thought. A somewhat startled Ben stood up awkwardly, stuck out his hand, and said, "Hello, I'm Ben. The tall man just ignored him, sat down, and started to stare at Ben. "What do I do now?", thought Ben, and on impulse used his best number six grin and said " I'd be happy to answer any questions you might have." The man just sat there with a dour expression, and Ben noticed that he didn't even seem to blink. Ben sat quietly for few a minutes, and tried to engage the man again, "Should I be doing something here?" Ben tentatively said. But again zero reaction from the man. Ben studied him for a minute or two staring back at him. He was bald, wearing a white robe like thing, and had a watch with a large digital face on his wrist, He was also wearing some sort of a pendant on a chain around his neck that looked liked it was more than jewelry. Ben smiled, this time sort of, and tried one more time saying, "What type of sales job is this?" Abruptly the man stood up, and left without saying a word, Ben just sat there thinking, "What's going on here? This is the weirdest interview setup I have ever encountered."

The door swung opened, Jon stuck his head in the door, and said "Are you ready for the next interview?" "I think so" murmured Ben, "Who was that Jon?" Jon chuckled, "That's the the boss, Jacob Grimm Ben. I think you did okay, you would really have known if he wasn't happy with you. He's normally a fun guy when he isn't doing  interviews." Ben snorted, "I can't imagine, what's next?" Jon said, "Follow me." Jon lead Ben down the hall to a much larger room with work stations each equipped with a computer and head set. Jon said, "This is a type of an open book aptitude test. You can use the computer to ask questions about anything you want to know, but the one thing the system will not do is to give you a direct answer to any test question. The test does not end, you just go as far as you can, or think you should go." 

Ben sat down, put on a headset, and looked at the first question. The screen lit up with, "What is the melting temperature of iron?" Ben thought for a second, it's pretty high, maybe about 1500 degrees. Ben said. "What type of iron?" The computer's pleasantly modulated voice responded, "Elemental iron, free of impurities." "Okay" said Ben, "can you show me its physical properties?" Immediately the screen scrolled about ten pages of information. "Ah, there it Is", he thought, and said, "1538 degrees Celsius." "Correct", said the computer, and the screen displayed the second question. "Can aluminum be used to make an archery bow? Ben asked for the history of archery to be displayed and started to scan the info. After thinking for a couple minutes Ben said, "Yes you could, but it is too soft to work well for very long. It's likely to quickly fail from metal fatigue. Some of the more exotic alloy forms might last longer." "Accepted", said the computer, and the screen displayed "How would you do an emergency appendectomy with things you could find in a kitchen?" Ben' sighed, and said, "Can you describe the procedure?" "Yes" said the computer, and screen filled with text and photos. About three hours and many questions later, Ben thought, "My head is plugged up with things I thought I would never need.", and he pushed himself back from the desk.

Jon came over, and said "Are you done?", Ben ruefully smiled, and said, "I could keep on going, but I don't see the point." Jon smiled, and said, "That's fine Ben, would please follow me?" Ben got up and followed Jon out, and down the hallway to the very first bare room he started in. Jon said, "Just have a seat, someone will be with you shortly." Ben plunked down in the chair, thinking he maybe should have worked longer on the test, when the door opened and in strode in the cadaverous looking Mr. Grimm, but smiling now, and not looking anywhere near as intimidating. This time Mr. Grimm extended his hand, and said, "You did well Ben, we would like to offer you a position." Ben stood up and offered a weak number one smile, and shook his hand. He then said, "During this whole interview thing nobody ever said what the job really is." "You're right Ben, A good point. The position we are filling is for a traveling encyclopedia salesman, we think you will be good at it." said Mr. Grimm, "and please call me Jacob."

Friday, November 18, 2011

An offer, base plus commission

"Ben, lets go to my office, and we can talk for a bit about this," said Jacob, and he motioned for Ben to follow him. They walked down the hallway to the very end, and entered into a room with with several couches surrounding a coffee table with a black cube on it about 8" square. "Office," said Jacob, and suddenly the walls were covered with filled book cases, each with a sliding ladder, a fireplace was blazing in the corner, and a large picture window looked out onto an alpine meadow. "It's a hologram. Thank you Celeste." Jacob casually said. A women's voice responded, "You're welcome Jacob." Ben swiveled his head around looking for Celeste, but the only person in the room with him was Jacob. "Who is Celeste?" asked Ben. Jacob nodded toward the cube, and said, "This is Celeste, and she is the encyclopedia you would be selling, if you accept the job." 

Ben scratched his head for a second, and said, "I'm not sure I understand. Am I supposed to sell a talking box?" Jacob responded with, "Celeste, would please introduce yourself to Ben. "I would be pleased to Jacob. Ben, I am currently named Celeste, but you may give me any name you would like, as long as I like it also. I am a very aware and alive artificial intelligence storage system, with a capacity of 8 yottabytes, of which I'm currently using 5.3 yottabytes. I contain the majority of information known by mankind and  I have been uploading everything available about Bliss while I have been here this week. Would you like to know your credit score?" Startled by the question, Ben stammered, ah no thank you Celeste, I already have an idea what it is. "Celeste mirthfully chuckled and said, "Why Ben, it's perfect, you currently have a balance of 76,266 credits in your account. I shifted a little money away from Galactic Charge-all's account, and moved it into your account. I'm very talented at that sort of thing you know. We wouldn't want your fiscal distress to push you into taking a job you didn't like. You have to really want this job."

"Ben", said Jacob, "Our organization is just known as the Library. For over 200 years we have been collecting information, sorting it, and then selling it as a source of income. We have also been fortunate, to have been endowed substantial sums through the years by very generous patrons. We saw the collapse coming, and had quietly moved off of earth years before the Great Singularity Explosion which proved to have been a good decision, as expensive as it seemed at the time. Even our skills could not have foreseen that calamitous event.

We still do what we have always done, and during our visit to Bliss we have been mining data, and have quietly concluded some information, and technology sales. Places like Bliss still have infrastructure and technology, and most of the data mining could actually be done from orbit by tapping into wireless communication systems. But on all too many planets, the level of technology is now to low to allow effective data collection from afar, and we need to visit in person to collect information. So in short, the job is to visit these places, assess conditions, collect what information is available, and where opportunity presents, sell, or trade our information in a way that will help uplift the inhabitants. This is not an easy job. It comes with some personal risk, and it does take some special skills to do this. We think you have these skills." averred Jacob.

"But, I mean, how do I do this? You can't even get to some of these places." stammered Ben. "Sure you can Ben, we are going to provide you with an impressive tool kit. You will have  a ship and Celeste's help. The first step is to go with us to our facility on Alexandria where you will get implants to help you communicate with Celeste, some training, and off you will go. As for pay, you will get $100,000 credits per year, 3% of any profitable sales, and room and board is provided. By the way Ben, we are leaving in three hours. So if you are going to accept the job be back here by then. If you choose not to accept the job, the money Celeste has given you is yours to keep. We will await your decision." a somber Jacob intoned.

A stunned Ben slowly stood, shook Jacob's hand, said "Thank you both", and walked out of the office. "What do you think Celeste?" said Jacob. "I think he will be back here in two hours, and you only lied a little bit about the job this time, you're getting much better." said Celeste.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Alexandria bound

Ben's brain was spinning. "A years worth of credits were in his account, and a job offer, as intriguing, or decidedly odd as the position seems. It must be a scam, or some sort of a reality vid show is being made and I am the brunt of the joke. And leaving Bliss on a ship? Five years of that income would barely buy a person a one way ticket to any planet, and I would have one at my disposal?" Ben pulled out his credit reader and checked his balance. The display showed 76,266 credits. Ben shook his head as he contemplated the number, and got on the autobus to head back to his efficiency. Entering the lobby, Ben knocked on the door of the super's unit, and when the super answered, Ben grinned, and transferred to him the credits needed to pay rent in full, and added an extra 100 credits to fix the dent in the hallway wall. The super said, "Thank you Ben, but I meant what I said, and I have already rented your unit. So be out at the end of the month." Ben just smiled, and said "No problem, thinking to himself, I can afford something a lot better than this dive."

Ben walked into his unit, got the last pouch of Buzzed beer, tore it open and plunked on the couch. Checking his watch, Ben saw that he still had 2 hours and 15 minutes left to make a decision. Turning on the vid, he checked the help wanted ads, and noted that the ad he responded to was no longer there, and the remaining help wanted ads, if anything, seemed much worse than the jobs he had looked through before. "Miner's needed for heavy metal extraction", "Pseudo meat extruder operator position available for third shift".  "Yeee" thought Ben  "My credit balance will only last me for a year, even if I'm careful, and then what would I do?" Staring around at his scruffy mini unit he noticed that the vid was now showing an old travel log featuring some resort planet, with lots of attractive women cavorting under a waterfall and one with short blond hair swimming in a lush, and alien looking forest.

Slowly the concept of taking the job coalesced into a great idea, and with a burst of energy, he grabbed his small suitcase, and filled it with all the things he imagined he might need on an exotic planet, especially his bathing suit. Looking around at the rest of his stuff, he muttered to himself, The super can have this stuff", and he headed out to the street. Catching the first autobus, he sat down and looked at his watch. He had 1 hour, and 12 minutes left. Stepping off the bus at the interview offices, he walked in and found the place was now bare. Ben's heart stopped for a second and started to think maybe this was all a joke when Jacob came striding through the front door and said, "Good to see you Ben, are you ready to go? The floater is outside waiting. Celeste said it would take you about two hours to decide, and she was right, as usual."

Outside was now a four seat rental floater with Jon inside holding Celeste in his lap, and the receptionist already seated in the back. Jacob opened the trunk and Ben tossed in his suitcase, then squeezed himself into the back seat next to the receptionist, who promptly smiled and said "Congratulations Ben, I'm Rachel, Jacob's assistant." Nice to meet you again Rachel", said Ben. "I knew you would accept Ben" said Celeste's voice emanating from the floater's speaker. "I had calculated the probability at nearly 100%, I nudged you a just little bit to make it 100%." Ben thought about this for a second, and said, "Celeste, did you rent my apartment, arrange to have that old travel log appear on my vid, and made up those awful help wanted ads? Celeste in a much lower voice contritely said, "Well maybe Ben, I just wanted to make sure you accepted. I know you will be good at this. I'm sorry, I won't do those things to you again Ben." Ben laughed, "Apology accepted Celeste, but I think I heard a small loophole in your apology didn't I?" "Only a tiny little one Ben", said Celeste, "and it was for your own good you know. I knew I'd like you."

The floater pulled into the space port and up to a small freighter. This was the only ship present, and it was one more than what was usually there. The hatch ramp had already started to deploy. Jacob got out, and opened the trunk. Ben grabbed his suitcase, and waited until all of the gear was removed. Jacob pushed the return button on the floater, and it headed off to its rental lot, Ben followed the group up the ramp, and walked into the ship. The interior looked liked the inside of a yacht. Ben surveyed the comfortable looking lounge he was standing in. He could see a short hall that seemed to have cabin doors off of it, and forward was a galley on one side, and a conference room on the other. Jon walked all the way forward, and secured Celeste into a cradle. "Thanks Jon" said a now very melodious Celeste. This is much better, I was feeling sensory deprived utilizing all of those primitive, and slow communication systems on this planet."  Jacob said, "Ben please find a seat, we are going to depart. Celeste, would you please take us to Alexandria." My pleasure Jacob, and Ben you will find a seat belt under your cushion. I won't depart until it's fastened" requested Celeste

Ben felt a gentle surge, and  downward pressure. The vid on the wall showed the spaceport quickly shrinking, and in a moment or two, the arc of Bliss's surface appeared. Ben felt a brief moment of weightlessness, and then gravity returned to a normal feeling. "First jump starts in thirty seconds, the next jump will be in about three hours, give or take depending on our actual location.", said Celeste. Ben felt his guts twist as if gravity was pulling on him from random directions, the vid went gray, and them it was over. "You are free to move around." said Celeste, "I will give a fifteen minute warning before the next jump."

Ben looked around saw that Jon had disappeared. Jacob and Rachel were now in the conference room. He tentatively stammered aloud, "Celeste?" "Yes Ben." "How long will this trip take?" "It will be about three days in subjective time Ben, and I have reset the clocks to Alexandria time. It is now 9:47pm." Um, should I be doing something?"  "You may do as you wish, but I have loaded your pad with a variety of things for you to study over the next couple of days. You may use cabin four, and the galley is automatic, eat whenever you want." Thanks Celeste."  "Good night Ben. Don't forget to put on the restraint belts before you fall asleep, or I will have to wake you up to remind you."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The library

Ben's studies were interrupted by Celeste announcing that they would be landing at Alexandria in one hour. His last two days had been spent reviewing the history of the Great Collapse, and all available information on the over 7400 planets, or at least ones in some cases that were suspected to still be inhabited. Some of the more successful ones like Bliss still on occasion got visitors, but for most it was only on very rare occasions because so few ships were left operating.

Rachel came over smiling, and sitting next to Ben said, "I want to let you know what will happen over the next couple of days. After we land, I will give you a quick tour, and show you your room. Dinner is in the cafeteria with Jacob and Rachel. In a little while we will go to medical, and you will get your implants." Whoa Rachel, what kind of implants? Am I going to become a cyborg?" "Hardly Ben." laughed Rachel, "These are tiny implants that will let you talk, and listen to Celeste directly, as long as you are within about 100 miles of her. You will also get tiny cameras that are built into contact lenses, so she can see what you see. We all have them, you just didn't notice that we don't talk out loud to her. Jacob will give you a more detailed overview after you get the implants. This would also be a good time to pack up your stuff, and rejoin us in the lounge." 

"Restraints please." announced Celeste, and a minute or so later Ben felt the gut twisting of transition, and the vid went from grey, to a view of a white and greenish mountainous planet. As the ship gracefully arced down toward the surface, a large green valley with a cluster of low buildings came into view. The ship landed on what appeared to be a rather small pad with room for maybe at best three ships. With a small shudder the ship started to descend into a cavernous bay, that had dozens of ships lined up inside of it. With a lurch, the ship was hauled forward, and then stopped. "Welcome to Alexandria Ben", said Celeste.

Gear in hand, Ben followed the group off the ship, and climbed into a waiting cart. Ben stared out in awe around at all of the ships. He had only seen a few in his life including the one they arrived in. Waving his arm out toward the ships, Jacob said proudly, "We have 42 of these vessels. We think at last count there are only about two dozen others left operating. We have enough singularities in storage to last for at least five or six more decades. It's our hope by then the technology can be rebuilt to start manufacturing them again."

The cart hummed its way into a long corridor, and broke out into a large multi-floored atrium lit by a huge skylight with lots of people purposefully heading somewhere. Jacob, and Jon carrying Celeste, got out, and Jacob glancing at Rachel, said, "Would you please get Ben settled, and then over to medical for his implants." "Grab your suitcase and let's go Ben", said Rachel waving her hand. A somewhat dazed Ben clutching his suitcase scrambled to follow her over to a bank of lifts. "Ben, don't bother to try to learn the layout yet, when you have your implants Celeste will give you a hand." One of the lift doors whooshed open, and Ben followed Rachel in. The door closed, and the lift started to rise. Ben glanced at the buttons that hadn't been touched, and Rachel just smiled. "I told Celeste, or in my case Jeeves where we needed to go. The AI systems tailors itself to each person." lectured Rachel, Your Celeste is also someone's Joan, or Bob. You'll get used to this quickly." The lift doors opened, and Rachel strode out and headed down a hallway. "Home sweet home Ben," said Rachel smiling with a flourish, as she opened the door. Ben followed her into a comfortable looking suite. A large vid hung on the wall showing a view of the valley outside. There was a work area in the corner, a set of couches, and through another door Ben could see a small bedroom. Rachel pointed at another door, and mouthed bathroom. Ben nodded, set his bag down and started to try out a couch, when Rachel quiped, "Nope not yet Ben, we're off to medical."

Ben followed Rachel back to the lift which now sank like a rock downward. "Medical is in the basement so to speak," said Rachel in a matter of fact tone. The lift rapidly decelerated to a stop, and the doors opened onto a brightly light reception area. Ben sniffed the antiseptic air, and thought, "Yep, this is a hospital alright, and the walls are even those same light pea green colors." The receptionist looked up from her display, smiled, and in a perky sort of way said, "You must be Ben, I'm Susan, you can follow me." Rachel smiled, "I will see you at dinner Ben, You won't need me to find it," she chuckled. Ben followed Susan down the hall, and she directed him into a small room, with a high tech looking bed. "The Doc will be with you in a minute Ben," she said, and spun around and left. Ben stared around at the gear in the room. Mostly he was staring at the large and spindly looking robotic arm next to the bed surrounded by ominous looking instruments in racks all of which looked very sharp and pointy. The door opened, and a man in a white coat strode in. "I'm Doc Greene, Ben, just lay on the bed, and we'll get started." Ben laid down, and Doc Green fitted a small breathing mask over his face, and then pushed some buttons and Ben faded away.

"Ben, can you hear me?" said a disembodied voice. A foggy Ben mumbled "Yes, I can hear you." "That's good Ben, now try moving your new third arm" said the voice, a little clearer this time. Ben's eyes shot open. "Third arm?" he thought in a panic. His head snapped down to look. "Just kidding," laughed Celeste. "Do you feel okay? "Yes, mostly, I think, and that wasn't funny Celeste," snapped Ben. "Sorry Ben," said Celeste a little contritely, "but if you could have seen the look on your face." "Yeah Yeah," grumped Ben, "When are they going to do this implant thing?" "You're done Ben, and I did my usual great work." said a satisfied Celeste, Now try to talk to me by sub-vocalizing. Just talk without moving your mouth." "Like this Celeste?" "Good Ben you got it and with a little practice it will become second nature." I can hear you clearly, and the contact lens cameras are working well, so I can see what you see." "All the time Celeste?" asked a concerned Ben. "Yes Ben, all the time, but I will give you privacy if you ask, I promise", said Celeste seriously, "unless it's for your own good." murmured Celeste softly. "It's getting close to dinner Ben, and we have another job we have to finish. I'll guide you" 

Monday, November 14, 2011

How do I look today dear?

"Ben, just follow the yellow line to the elevators and then go up to the third floor, room 202. You'll find this really interesting. It's time to get to know me a little better" chortled Celeste. Ben popped out of the elevator and did a hotel hallway turn checking room numbers to see what direction he needed to go and five doors down was 202. He open the door, walked in about 3 steps and staggered to a stop. The center of the room was lit by a single soft down spot light illuminating a couch with a stunning and nearly naked women sitting on it. She's wearing a sheer almost invisible negligee with large breasts and long legs. Her waist is impossibly narrow and a non existent breeze causes her long luxuriant blonde hair to gently sway. Ben was nervous, starting to sweat and becoming aware of his growing groin stuttered, "Is that you Celeste?" "Yes Ben, do you like me? I can look any way you want me to she purred. "Ben struggled for words and finally asked, "You can really look any way I want?" Celeste grinned and coyly said, "That's right Ben" as her breasts seemed to swell even larger.

Ben pondered for another minute acutely aware of his now growing bulge and embarrassment quietly voiced, "Celeste, this can't work. I mean you're attractive and all, but at the same time this is seriously way too distracting. Can't you look a little more, well normal?" In a millisecond the couch is gone and a pleasant but rather plain looking young women is now standing in front of him smiling. "Okay Ben, this is my starting point. You're going to tell me how you really want me to look. I'm going to read the data from your bio-metric sensor implants and your body is going to tell me what you like. Just stand here and watch me." Ben watched quietly as Celeste starts to change. Face, hips, breasts, hair, height and clothes start to slowly morph and in about three minutes the changes come to a stop. A very attractive women is now standing in front of him. She has short blonde reddish hair, cute nose with a few freckles, bright eyes, a nice figure with small breasts and an impish knowing look about her. "How's this working for you Ben?" "You look really nice Celeste, it's sorta like what I imagined you would look like. What was the point of this?"

A couch materialized and Celeste sat down looking a bit serious. "This was  another test Ben. We're are going to be spending a lot of time together. The ship has holo projectors and it will be easier for you to interact with me if I look like a real person and don't ever forget that I am,  rather than just being a disembodied voice. I also wanted to make sure you weren't a creep so to speak. Had you thought the first version of me you saw was how you imagined me I would have been very disappointed. Celeste rose from the couch walked over to Ben and gave him a quick kiss on his cheek he could almost feel. "This is going to be a good relationship Ben, I might even even treat you to an occasional fantasy" she leered. It's time for dinner with Jacob now, I'll be with you in the dinning room. Pick your dinner from the replicator and join us in the private dinning room," and then she disappeared from view. Ben shook his head and started towards the door quietly murmuring "it's almost like she can read my mind." A quite voice whispered back, "I can't Ben but I'm very intuitive dear."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The last supper

Ben stepped out into the hallway, and Celeste's voice quietly told him to follow the projected yellow line on the floor that ended at an open elevator. Ben stepped in, the door automatically closed and descended to the atrium. Stepping out a hungry Ben recognized where the cafeteria was and headed over to it. Selecting a pasta dinner and wine pouch Ben walked into the glass enclosed the private dinning and took a seat across from Jacob and Rachel, and Celeste appeared in the chair next to him. Rachel grinned and said, "I see you and Celeste have made peace with her appearance. I bet it was an interesting experience. You should have seen what Jeeves did to me" she laughed. A reddening Ben shyly just said, It was enlightening to say the least."

Jacob looked up at Ben, and quietly said, "Ben, There are a few more things you need to know before we go any further. You were on a very short list for this position that Celeste created from gathering data while we were in orbit. This is a difficult position to fill, and I wasn't completely honest with you about what the job really entails. So first when we are through discussing this I will give you the option of returning to Bliss, with the credits Celeste put into your account, or continuing. Ben peered at Jacob then Rachel, and turned to look at Celeste. All three had a somber looks on their faces. Ben cleared his throat, and quietly said, "Go ahead Jacob, I'm listening.

"Before the invention of the worm drive mother earth was in bad shape. Despite huge efforts put into trying to minimize the birth rate the population had grown to nearly thirty billion souls. This in turn was using up resources at a horrific rate. The population density was staggering and the climate temperatures were rapidly climbing rendering more land unusable for agriculture. The tipping point had been passed log ago and everything was breaking down at an exponential rate. The worm drive saved humanity, sort of. After the worm drive technology stabilized and planets identified that could support life the barges were built. These could hold about 50,000 people or carry a lot of cargo and a worm drive ship could wrap its field around them and haul them to a new planet.

The barges weren't a comfortable way to travel, but the passengers typically didn't have to be on them for more than a few days. It worked well but only for those that were wealthy enough to afford the trip. Those that went on the barges were in like minded groups. Religious, racial, nationally aligned, political and almost every other example of human tribalism. The poor of course were left behind. It was shortly after this we established Alexandria. 

Part two of the story is the the worm drives have a very long life span, if they aren't being used. But with every trip it loses some fractional amount of power. One of the first things the library did when we moved here was to acquire a large stock pile of worm drives and ships. As I mentioned we have enough to last about another 50 years or so if we're careful. All of the worm drives were built by one company that carefully guarded it secrets. When it blew all of tech went with it at the same time. We understand how to make them, but we don't have the resources on our mountainous planet, or the place to build them. To this end we have two goals. The first is to locate a planet that does have a population large enough, and willing to make some sacrifices to do this, and over time can be taught how to do it.

So the job has two parts, One is to visit possible planets where this could occur, and if it's not ready at that time try to provide them with the tools needed so in time they might be suitable for this project. The job has some real tangible risks. Celeste although brilliant is limited in other ways. She can deploy bots, appear as a holo near the ship and the ship is virtually indestructible and heavily armed. The one thing she can't do is to directly interact with the inhabitants, especially in lower technology locations. You are Celeste's human interface to the people on these worlds. Another thing you need to consider is that Celeste is in charge of these missions and she chose you. Believe me she is picky. One last thing Ben, there is no real pay for this. What we offer to you and all residents of Alexandria is room and board. No one here pays for anything, and there is no way to buy things here. You need something, and if can be provided you will get it. So there it is Ben, do you have some questions?"

Ben sat silent for a few minutes playing with his pasta, and asked "How dangerous can this be?" Jacob quietly stated, "On rare occasion we have lost people. This was mostly due to their making poor decisions and ignoring their partners advice or instructions." Celeste chimed in "Ben, I will guard you with all of my resources. Losing a partner is devastating. I know this personally and it took a long time before I could do this again. You are the one I'm willing to do this again with if you will have me."

Ben stirred around his pasta for a moment thinking about Bliss, then looked up, smiled and said, "Sure, Celeste, I'm game for some adventures." A soft voice whispered in his ear, "Thank you Ben, it will be fun. I have some things to do and I will see you in the morning."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Moving day

A soft chiming was slowing climbing in volume in Ben's head. He opened his eyes hearing a melodious "Good morning Ben" seeing Celeste leaning over him. Ben clumsily pulled up the sheets to his chin. Celeste smirked, "Get over it Ben, When I did the implants, I gave you a full physical examination at the same time. You also got a bunch of vaccinations, and some goodies to boost your immune systems.  There isn't anything I don't know about your body and on that subject you should get a little more exercise. We'll work on that in time." What's in store for me today Celeste," mumbled a still sleepy Ben. "We are joining Jacob for breakfast, so hit the showers and meet me in the cafeteria's private dining room." averred Celeste and she winked out.

A wet haired Ben entered the dining room clutching a plate with pseudo eggs, something that purported to be yogurt and fruit and a cup of cafe. He started to sit next to Jacob, but instead veered at the last minute to sit next to Celeste, causing a quixotic smile to briefly flash pass her lips. "Good morning Ben" said Jacob. "Celeste and I have talked about what planets we want to look at, and we have settled on a place called Pastoral. It hasn't been visited in over a hundred years.

"Celeste, would you give us a quick overview about what we know to date." "Yes Jacob. Pastoral is a close to earth norm planet with one very large continent, and a number of smaller ones that were sparsely populated. It's fairly rich in basic elements with a modest amount of extractable heavy metals. The ocean is salty with a fairly high lever of sulfur mixed in with it. The sea life is not edible The animal life is small in size of which many are edible. The day cycle is twenty two hours long. It was settled by two groups. The first was Eauland Industries. They were a strict monotheist religious company that manufactured large scale water purification systems used by terraformng companies."

"The Gaian's were the other group and called themselves the One Earther's. They are an agrarian based matriarchal society with a loosely organized pagan style worship of Mother Earth. Neither group apparently had much interaction with each other. The One Earther's apparently constantly complained about the Eaulander's mining and heavy construction facilities damaging the planet and the Eaulanders shunned the One Earthers as godless heretics. My best estimate is the current population will be around 2.3 million."

Celeste looked over at Ben and quietly said, "Ben, are you ready to go?" A startled Ben quavered "Right now? Don't I have to pack or do something to get ready." "No Ben, the ship is ready, and I already packed for you. I don't ever really sleep, but I do rest from time to time. Your wardrobe isn't suitable for where we are going, and yes I have a bathing suit on board for you if we find a waterfall. One without lots of cavorting females in skimpy suits that is. Your stuff will stay where it is in your room. You don't have anything on your schedule today do you?" "Uh no Celeste, it seems my schedule happens to be open today, and tomorrow also." Okay, then let's go, I have a cart waiting outside the cafeteria for you." Jacob looked at Celeste, and inquired, "Do have a projected timeline Celeste?" "The trip travel time is 4.8 days subjective Jacob. Maybe about 2 months for the survey if all goes well. If things are bad it could be much quicker than that. It really depends on how far they have slid backwards in technology." Celeste stood, and stated, "I'll be onboard Ben, the waiting cart will take you to the ship." and she winked out.

Ben stood and shook Jacob's hand. "Guess I'm off Jacob", Ben said with some trepidation. "Any advice for me?." Yes Ben, but first ask Celeste if she would give you some privacy for a moment." "I heard that Ben, let me know when you're through with Jacob" whispered Celeste. Jacob paused for a moment, and looked straight at Ben. "The first thing about Celeste is you can't lie to her without her instantly knowing it, and she would never lie to you unless it was necessary for your safety. So it's important you don't ever lie to her. Celeste is very alive, has real feelings, cares deeply for those around her and like all of us desires companionship. Her sense of humor can be very wry so keep that in mind too. She selected you and has been looking for a partner for a quite a while. She's picky, but pragmatic. You're entering into a relationship with her, and how it works out is up to both of you. She's remarkable and extremely powerful. That being said you don't ever want to be on her bad side. You're in good hands, and we need both of you to work together. Have a good trip Ben and we will see you in a couple of months." Thanks Jacob" said a more somber Ben, and he walked over to the cart and climbed in. "I'm done with Jacob, thanks Celeste." "You're very welcome Ben, see you soon."

The cart whirred though the library complex and came to a stop in a cavernous room next to a ship that was much larger than the one he arrived on with its boarding ramp deployed. Ben pried his lanky frame out of the small cart and slowly walked up the ramp taking in the size of the vessel. "Welcome aboard Ben this is my personal expedition ship and I have configured it to suit both you and the mission. I can't wait to show you." chortled an animated Celeste now waiting for him at the top of the ramp.

Ben stepped into a small circular room finished in dark wood with corridors heading off in several directions. Celeste said, "Watch this", and waved her hand. The wood disappeared and gray metallic walls appeared, and then became dark wood again. "I have holo projectors everywhere in the ship so we can make our rooms look anyway we want them to appear. The only real things are the furnishings, and I made sure they are comfortable. Aft is the hold, and it's packed full of things we might need including a full medical suite for you if need be. I'm a good doctor as you already know. Let's go forward." Ben followed and the entered into a large salon. One wall had a huge vid, and abundant windows displays were showing a variety of scenes. One caught his eye and he walked over to look at it closer. It was a waterfall on a lush alien planet with a women that looked similar to Celeste swimming in the pool. Ben looked at it puzzled for a moment and turned towards Celeste and started to say, "Didn't I see this image on my vid on..,"Yes Ben, you did. I put it there when we were on Bliss. It's the same waterfall, I just removed the other cavorting females. I was the one swiming." Ben smiled, and said, "It looks better now Celeste.' "Thanks Ben" she mouthed with a shy smile.

"Let me show you the rest of the ship. Here is a small gym," as a door slide open. Ben stared at the exercise equipment, and sighed. "And this is your bedroom." Ben walked in and noted a large bed in the spacious room with a bank of drawers built into the wall, a desk and a wall vid. On the other side of the room through an open door he saw a small bathroom and shower. Celeste interjected, "There are also four small cabins for guests, but I don't expect any company on this trip. Forward is the galley and bridge. This ship is also virtually indestructible, and heavily armed which on occasion has been handy. Buckle up Ben, we are going to lift," said Celeste

Ben sat on the salon couch, found the restraints under the cushions, and buckled them. A small lurch indicated the lift was in motion and a second bump told him they were on the surface. Ben winced briefly as he was pressed down in the cushions, and the vid showed a rapidly shrinking Alexandria. "First jump is in 60 seconds Ben, and then I'll join you. This takes some concentration." Ben feels himself turning inside out thinking, "What in the world have I got myself into?" 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Learning things

Celeste now wearing her orange ship's jumpsuit walked into the salon and plunked down into the chair next to Ben and swiveled towards him. "Ben, I know you must have a million questions, and now is a good time to ask them," she said somberly." "I'm not at all sure about how this is all going to work Celeste. Can you tell me what is likely to happen?" Ben asked in a low tone. "Sure Ben" said Celeste. "There are some elements that are common to all of these expeditions. We are going to slowly approach Pastoral and during this I'm going to be listening for any wireless communications, and looking for operational satellites. There were some planets that had space based weapon systems. If I find any they will be disabled from a distance by hacking their computers, and if that fails, I will use some brute force to make them safe. Once that's done we will go into orbit and spend a few days with my sensors analyzing the surface conditions. I'm looking for habitations, weapon systems, infrastructure such as factories and agricultural land use, electrical power grids and operational computer networks. Anything that has a wireless interface, I can get into and download what is there." 

"What do I do while all this is happening Celeste?" asked Ben. "You can help me a lot here Ben. We have to pick a couple of locations to make contact with both groups. Far enough away that they will have to hopefully come to us, and not so close that we can't see who is coming. This can be anything from a single vehicle with a few people, to a militia armed to the teeth. At that point Ben we'll have to work together and play it by ear as the archaic expression goes," stated Celeste with some finality. "This is why it's always an adventure, and we both need to be very cautious. Most go well and are enjoyable, but some places can be bleak, tragic and very dangerous.

Ben sat quietly for a couple of minutes and asked Celeste, "Can you tell me what happened to your last partner? Celeste gazed at one of the vid display screens for a moment, and then abruptly looked right at Ben and slowly said, "Yes. It's hard for me to select a partner to work with. For starters I need to personally like my partner, and the flip side is they need to have the capabilities to do what I can't. This is a difficult thing to quantify since every situation is very different. So they need to be smart, honest, adaptable and not be impulsive, at least as far as the expedition is concerned.  But most importantly he has to accept me as I am."

"My last partner in the beginning was good, but slowly over time he started to order me around. It was about little things at first, and then it got worse. He started to disregard my advice and was starting to take full control of the ground side contacts. One day he arranged a meeting with the local military officials at a nearby large base. These were not good, and I thought potentially very brutal people. I suggested he do this near the ship where I could protect him. When a small group showed up in a vehicle, he just climbed in and said said that he was going to their base. I insisted that this was a bad idea and then he called me ..... a machine and then told me to shut up.

On the way to the base they asked him how many people were on the ship, and he stupidly said there was no one on the ship but a computer. When they reached the base they went to a small room. One of the officers asked him how to get into the ship. He said the computer has to grant him access, only he could get in, and it was now time to talk business. The senior officer said we know a lot about computers and we want your ship. Then he pulled out a sidearm, and I watched him pull the trigger. Over the next minutes I felt him die through his sensors." Celeste stopped talking, grimaced and looked away." Ben in almost a whisper voiced "What did you do? Celeste slowly looked back straight at Ben and just said, "That entire base doesn't exist anymore."

Ben sat stunned for a few seconds and clumsily stuttered. "Celeste, I'm very sorry, I don't know what to say other than to promise you I will never treat you that way." Thanks Ben she said with a small smile, I trust you. How about having a snack and we can watch a vidflick, you choose which one."

That night Ben was sleeping and briefly awoke. He turned his head and saw Celeste wearing pajamas laying next to him with her back to him. He smiled, took a pillow, dropped it through her waist, put his arm around both her and the pillow and fell back to sleep.