Saturday, January 30, 2016

Stars of Heaven: Chapter 11

Chapter 11; The Blinking LED

“I suppose you have looked at the numbers I sent you,” the Governor said from behind his desk.  It was a red stone desk, carved from the stuff of Mars itself.
“Yes I have,” Wang Wei replied. “People are leaving your cold little planet it would seem.”
The Governor screwed his lips at that little remark but did not say what he was thinking.  He had not risen from his origins as the son of mine workers to rise to the bait of a pampered off-worlder so easily.
“Yes, they are leaving,”  he answered again in a deceptively mild tone.  “While there is a little noise in the data because of the usual flux of comings and goings, the trend it steadily downward.  The entire tent city occupied by migrants from the Belt is virtually empty.  It is mostly just very old people who are left.  Within the city itself, the religious of the city are gone.  First the Catholics begin to trickle out, but then the protestants, the Mormons, the muslims.  Each with very slow rates, so slow as to not cause any official notice until the quarterly reports came out.”
The Governor was disgusted with himself.  At one time, he had known the streets of Mars City like the back of his hand, but his administrative duties had kept him behind his polished stone desk.  After he read the report, he walked the city and what the numbers told him was readily apparent to his eyes: People had left. Ethnic restaurants were closed. Churches were empty except for the clergy serving the homeless.   
The rate of the change was the amazing thing.  If it had happened any more quickly, it would have set off an alarm; if it had happened any more slowly, there would have been quite a few more people from these groups left.  It was if someone new the monitoring mechanisms inside and out and had been controlling the flow to get as many of the Belters off Mars as possible in the shortest time possible and still avoid notice.
Having figured out that much, the Governor had investigated why there should be such an exodus of those from the Belt and those who dealt with them.  He knew that, regardless of how well a secret was kept from the authorities, there were always those who knew.  In spite of his having been a prisoner in his office for untold years, he still had connections to those who knew.  
“So,” Wang Wei asked, “Why are they leaving?”
“They are leaving because they’ve been told that if they stay here it is very likely they will die,” the Governor replied. “Some sort of unspecified terrorist act is given as the reason, and--this is the reason I invited you here today--it is said this has been brought on by your, shall we say, overly zealous, collection of taxes from the Belt.”
“Overly zealous?” Wang Wei replied.  “You would call simply enforcing the law to be ‘overly zealous’?”
“Wei,” the Governor let a little edge come into his voice, “Your little roaches rip people to pieces.”
“All fabricated lies,” Wang Wei responded.  “I am surprised you were taken in by those obviously edited videos.  And in any case, the funding stream that has been initiated from the Belt has been most welcome at the highest echelon of the Allied Federation.”
The Governor was now beyond his limits.
“I can’t stand the sight of you,” he said.
“It won’t be long before you won’t have to look at me,” Wang Wei said.  “I have received hints through back channels that I will be promoted and transferred back to Earth from whence I will administer the Outer Holdings through a designee.”
“Well,” the Governor, “that is good news.  Some other news.  You will be waiting for the official notice in jail.  I am putting you under arrest for acts contributing to unrest on Mars.”
The Governor pressed a buzzer on his desk and waited for his police to arrive.  They should have been there in half a minute at most, but no one arrived.  A look of concern was beginning to cross his face and then he saw a smile passing across Wang Wei’s.
“Your police are not coming,” Wang Wei said. “That is because they are now my police.  Nothing you have told me today has been a surprise.  There is nothing you know that I did not know first.  I have reported in back to the Allied Federation and they have put me in charge of Mars and have declared martial law.”
Wang Wei then pulled out his com and pressed the screen.  In just a few heartbeats, the police at last came through the door and took the Governor into custody.
When the room was empty except for Wang Wei he survey the contents.  Seeing the red stone desk, he decided he liked it. He pressed another button on his com.
“Come to the Governor’s office, get his desk, and have it boxed up for shipment to Earth,” he said.  
It would make an excellent souvenir of this forsaken place.

Padre Gustavo examined his cell once again. It didn’t take long. There was a toilet; it was a quite prominent feature of the cell.  Then there was a cot; it also was prominent.  The cell itself was so small, he noted, that he couldn’t see both the cot and the toilet at the same time.  At least he wouldn’t have far to go during the night, the thought.  There is mercy in that.  Then he smiled.
“You smile; good,” came the pleasant, Russian accented voice from the next cell. “We must keep  sense of humor.”   It was Dima, of course. He was smiling himself.
“Well,” Padre Gustavo said, “I am glad you have your humor as well.  What do you think will happen to us?”
Having asked the question, though, he noted that Dima wasn’t looking at him.  He was looking at the security camera that was focused on his cell.  It was a standard camera that had an red LED on the side.  The light was steady; then it blinked three times; it was steady again for a few seconds; then it blinked once more.
“Okay,” Dima said. “We have a few minutes.  Keep your eyes on the camera and when it blinks again stop talking even if it is in the middle of a sentence.”
After Padre Gustavo nodded understanding, Dima continued.
“What happens to us will depend upon where the asteroids hit,” Dima said.  “These cells are not deep enough to save us against a direct hit.”
“So it is asteroids?” Padre Gustavo asked. “They are coming?”
“Yes,” Dima answered. “That is what my source said.”
“And you believe him?”
“He has not given me false information yet.  He is the one who told me that Wang Wei would have us arrested and he was right.  Before that, he was the one who told us that any attempt to warn the population would cause martial law to be declared and to shut down traffic to and from Mars.  He’s never been wrong.”
“Do you know him well?”  Padre Gustavo asked.
“I know him as well as you know him,” Dima said.
Padre Gustavo was confused and was about to ask more, but then he saw the LED blink three times and he stopped talking.
Dima began talking about movies he had seen.  He liked the Sergei Bondarchuk version of War and Peace, but it was not as good as the book, of course.  And he continued from there, talking quite learnedly with regard to the literary devices used.  
Then the LED blinked again, and without missing a beat he switched gears.
“I tried to send Tasha and Kostya away, but she refused to leave,” Dima said.  “She did send Kostya away.  I thought she would disappear in tears before she was done.  She gave Kostya to our bodyguard, who also left.  I ordered him to meet with Jethro and this he will do.  What about Adriano?  Did he go?”
“Yes,” Padre Gustavo said.  “Even though he is a bishop now, he will follow my orders.  He knows his mission.  It is to his people and so he understands it even better than I do.”
“And he will meet with Jetho as well?”
“Yes,” Gustavo answered, “just as the source directed us to.  Which returns us to the question, who is the source?”
As those words came out of his mouth, the LED blinked again and Dima resumed talking about movies. He talked about the old science fiction movies which ranged, in his opinion, from being ridiculously bad to remarkably prescient.  He classified ET as being the former because it was so sentimental, but he still loved it for the same reason.  He thought 2001: A Space Odyssey was good although pretentious.  It was saved, however, by HAL.
The LED blinked again.
This time Padre Gustavo began speaking before Dima had a chance to.
“Dima,” he said.  “Quit playing games with me.  Who is the source?”
The LED blinked again, and Dima again resumed his discussion of science fiction.  Surprising to Gustavo, his knowledge of this area was encyclopedic.  He spoke of an old American TV series Knight Rider about a computerized car and an old movie series Iron Man with a computer named Jarvis.
“These were remarkably prescient in their view of  artificial intelligence.”
The LED blinked again.
“Answer my question,”  Gustavo demand.
The LED blinked again.
This time Dima didn’t began to talk about movies.  He just said one sentence.
“I already have.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Stars of Heaven: Chapter 10

Chapter 10: Thy Will Be Done

Jethro had never seen Dima so serious before.  He was never what you would call bubbly. He alway had a businesslike air about him, but he was never dour...until now.
Jethro’s family were at Dima’s hab.  It had become an after church ritual on Sunday. The adults enjoyed each other’s company and the children had a larger space to run around in.  Jethro’s parents were living with Dima anyway because they really couldn’t afford to be seen on Mars, so it all made sense for them to get together.
Today after the noon meal, however, Dima had called Jethro away from Mary Kate and Tasha and the kids and his parents, over the what Jethro thought of as the business nook.  Dima was very serious and when he spoke we was quiet yet clear.
“Jethro,” he began very softly. “I will tell you to do some things now and you must just trust me. If you ask me questions,  I will not answer.  You understand?”
Jethro was quiet and still for a long moment and then he nodded his head yes.  He had learned Dima’s way: Don’t write anything you can say; don’t say anything that can be whisper; don’t whisper anything that can be conveyed with a look.
“Good,” Dima said.  “You and your family must leave Mars as soon as you can. When Mary Kate asks you why, do not say it was because I said; in fact wait until Tuesday to tell her. Tell her you heard something on the news and you need to protect your hab from the roaches. Send me word when you leave, and I will take care of having your parents meet you. But you must go.”
“I understand,” Jethro said.  He was concerned.  He was confused.  He took the drink of vodka that Dima offered and drank it in one gulp like a pro.
“Good,” said Dima.  “Now we do the hard thing. We go back to family and pretend nothing has been said.”
Padre Gustavo was having lunch with Adriano da Silva.  Adriano had come to Mars a few years previously from his home in the Belt to study for the priesthood.  Padre Gustavo could see that he had a good heart and would be a good pastor for some parish.  He was good in dealing with people in the pain that is so much a part of this life.  He was smart, but not so bookish that he would ever be drawn away into scholarly pursuits.  While he didn’t necessarily have any managerial skills, he had more than any of the other of the religious on Mars.
Adriano was due to be ordained as a priest in about four months anyway.  What Dima had shared with Padre Gustavo, however, meant that Adriano’s career would have to be sped up considerably.
Padre Gustavo took a sip of wine to clear his throat.  Then he spoke.
“Adriano,” he said.  He then waited until Adriano finished the bite he was chewing and looked him in the face.
“Yes, Padre,” Adriano said.
“There is much you should know that I cannot tell you now and that you will only learn in time,” Padre Gustavo said.  “Knowledge is often a tool, but there are times when it is a burden and at those times obedience is necessary. Do you understand that?”
Gustavo looked into the twenty year old boy’s eyes and knew that of course he didn’t really understand, but as he was twenty he would think he did.  When he was fifty, he would finally know.
“Yes, Padre,” Adriano answered. “I understand.”
“Good,” Padre Gustavo said.  “Then understand this.  I am going to ordain you as a deacon tomorrow, a priest on Tuesday, and a Bishop on Wednesday.  On Thursday you will leave Mars and you will not look back.  Ask me nothing because I can tell you nothing.  If anyone asks you anything, do not tell them even this much.  Do you understand?”
“Uh,” Adriano stammered. “Yes, Padre.”
Of course you don’t, Padre Gustavo thought, but if you live to be fifty you will.
The lunch finished in silence as Adriano’s thoughts drifted off to the events of the coming week, and Padre Gustavo’s thoughts drifted off to his conversation with Dima.  Gustavo had Dima’s trust, but with that trust had come a horrible responsibility.  Things had to be handled delicately.  While part of him said the government should be informed, a larger part of him said that it would be the worst thing to do.  But the lives of everyone on the planet were in jeopardy. He wanted to save the lives of as many as he could, but saving them too quickly would mean that few would be saved.
One person would have to make the plan, implement the plan, and carry out the plan.  In this case, that meant that the one person would probably have to die in the end.
That’s what we all do, anyway, thought Gustavo.  
“Thy will be done,” he muttered out loud.
“Padre,” Adriano asked. “Did you say something?”
“Nothing that you need worry about,” Gustavo said.
If anyone had shown up looking for Klaus Johansson’s hab in the place where it had always been, they would have been surprised.  It was gone and so were the rocks that had been floating out to the side.  
The roaches had indeed come by.  He had been prepared to wait for years for them to come, but as luck would have it, they had found him quickly.  Actually, it probably had more to do with the proximity of his hab to that of Wild Bill’s than anything else.  In any case, the roaches came, he paid, and they left.  As soon as they were out of sight, he went to the rocks that were floating near his hab and began fitting them with engines.  Once this was done, he began to send them off from their current almost circular orbits into much more eccentric orbits. Orbits that would intersect those of Mars, Earth, and even Venus.
Once all these rocks were set loose, he set his hab on a course for other parts.  In particular, he headed beyond the Belt, out into the uninhabited Trojan asteroids.  

It had only just begun.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Stars of Heaven: Chapter 9

Chapter 9: It begins

Wang Wei looked at the video at William McClain’s habitat.  It would incite emotion.  Of that Wang Wei was sure.  He was now afraid though it would be too much and of the wrong kind.  He now wanted to make sure it wasn’t in the wrong place.
“You are sure the filters are in place?” he asked.  “This will not get back to earth?”
“I am sure,” the middle manager said.  “The people on earth will only see what we want them to see.”
“What about the leadership?” he asked.  He tried to keep the nervousness he felt out of his voice.
“They will only see what is taken back physically,” the middle manager said.  “That will take months.”
Months, Wang Wei thought.  Months to plan for the backlash.
Involuntarily the video began to reply in his mind.  It had all begun according to script.  The swarm of roaches had come to William McClain’s hab and issued the warning.  McClain had replied with an expletive.  He clearly viewed the warning with contempt as he couldn’t even read the swarm of roaches on his radar.
The swarm had then, again according to script, begun to confiscate--that is consume and convert--his corn-growing habitat.  It was immediately after this that the plan had gone awry.  McClain had put on his suit and gone over to the corn-hab with his shotgun.  This had not been foreseen by the technicians that had programmed the roaches.  Once he was in the hab with them the roaches--so the technicians had later surmised--had interpreted him as a water source.
These roaches had been designed to replicate themselves in normal space in addition to that around a hab and so a high value had been placed in their programming on the acquisition of water.  The roach swarm turned on McClain with a vengeance and soon had consumed him in his entirety.
It was what happened thereafter the technicians had more difficulty explaining.  Having consumed McClain without leaving so much as a drop of blood, they then left the corn-hab and proceeded to the family-hab. They breached the hull and the atmosphere vented immediately into space.  This was considered a mercy as those inside were rendered unconscious within minutes, and were therefore--for the most part--spared the sensation of being eaten alive by robotic roaches.  
Wang Wei was less certain that they felt nothing, but with the atmosphere gone, at least the sound of the screams was not picked up by the audio track on the video.  The technician had told Wei that perhaps the heuristic learning algorithms of the roaches having found a richer source of water had expanded its search farther to find similar sources.  Wei, oddly enough, had a certain appreciation that matters of programming could become complicated in unexpected ways.  What he was not able to either understand or forgive was what had happened later.
After the McClain compound had been completely devoured and converted into new roaches.  The entire video of what had happened to the McClain family had been immediately uploaded without editing to the part of the Net that was available to the Belt.  No video ever had received so wide a distribution so quickly. There was no getting it back now.
“Retrieve the roaches and reprogram them,” Wei ordered the middle manager.
“We cannot,” the middle manager said.  “It was not foreseen that such would be needed.”
“Not foreseen?” Wei was incredulous to the point where he let a note of near hysteria in his voice. “Things always go wrong.  I thought engineers were one’s who formulated Murphy’s Law.”
“Yes, this is true,” the middle manager responded as calmly as he could.  “But the best engineers do not come to the Outer least not to be in government service.  I think that has been amply demonstrated by this, uh, incident.”
Wang Wei gathered himself, breathed, and slowly formulated a question.
“As best as these technicians can say, what will happen?”
“They say that the programming will continue,” the middle manager replied. “The swarm will divide into standard sized subswarms--two or three, it is difficult to estimate.  They will then seek out other habs that are listed as delinquent on the tax rolls and repeat the scenario.  Now with the, uh,  feature of considering humans as a high value water source.”
“This will proceed geometrically then?” Wei asked.
“Is there anything that can stop it?”
“Only if the settlers choose to pay their taxes.”
Wei did not believe in God, but even he uttered a prayer.

To an outside observer, Johansson's Co-Op would’ve looked like a bunch of rocks floating together in space with a largish hab to the side.  An outsider with a keener sense of observation would have noticed that one of the rocks was mostly made of ice.  To someone from the Belt, they would’ve recognized a veritable gold-mine.   All of those resources in such close proximity to each other.  You could let your herd of crabs graze there and double its size in just a few hours time.
It was the brainchild of Klaus Johansson who was known in various places as store-keeper, organizer, and druglord. He was also a stone killer, but that was less well-known.  Those who had the best knowledge of it simply weren’t around to pass the information on.  He was, on most occasions, a very pleasant man.  He would remember your wife’s birthday; he would remember the names of your children; he would remember every single time you tried to cheat him.  But he would also remember every single good thing you had done for him.  
Wild Bill McClain had been his friend.
Wild Bill had helped him to get staked when he first came to the Belt as a simple grower of the coca plant.  He’d helped Klaus along and shown him the ropes.  He’d “loaned” him a crab in the manner of the Belt-folk.  He’d been a second father--no--a real father to Klaus.
Now Klaus had seen Wild Bill, with his wife, his children, and some of his grandchildren, ripped into nothingness.
Payment for this would be taken.
Klaus had gathered fifty leaders, men and women like himself, who he had grown to respect over the years.  Twenty of them had made it in person; thirty were on their way but were involved in the meeting over secure line-of-sight connections transmitted through laserbeams.  
The meeting had been started and Klaus had reshown the video even though everyone there had seen it a dozen time.  When it ended, a voice came from one of those present.
“What the hell are they?  What are them things that are eating them?”
Klaus turned to the man and talked to the group at the same time.
“We think they are like crabs, just smaller,” he said.  “They self-replicate.  There have been two other attacks.  Each coming from sides opposite of Wild Bill’s.  From the time passed, we figure that the first ‘swarm,’ for lack of a better word, split and went in opposite directions. In the first attack, they paid and nothing happened.  The swarm did take water for fuel we figure, but the water was paid for with some of the money transferred back. In the second attack, the people ran.  They escaped but the swarm devoured their whole holding. It was small, but still big enough for the swarm to double.”  
Another voice came from the group.
“Is there any way to kill ‘em?  Could you blast into them with a shotgun enough times?”
Klaus waited a couple of heartbeats for someone else to speak and perhaps answer, but that didn’t come.
“Well some of us had thought of that, but the problem is it would be hard to get them all.  If even one escaped, he could hide out in your hab and chew quietly away until things were too far gone.  It would be like termites back on earth if any of you can remember.  Termites could eat on your house unnoticed until the damage was done.”  
Someone else spoke.
“To me it looks like they got us by the short and curlies, then.  We either pay or they take everything we have and double in strength when they do it.”  
That was what Klaus had been waiting for someone else to say.
“That appears to be the truth of it,” he said.  “If the swarm comes here.  I am going to pay. I’ll pay regardless of what the rat-bastards did to Wild Bill, regardless of the fact they have no right to one red cent of what we make here by fighting blackness and death.  But after we pay, they will pay all the more.  They will pay back for what they did to Wild Bill and his family a hundred-fold.  They will rue the day they started this.”  

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Stars of Heaven: Chapter 8

Chapter 8: Wild Bill

It was so small.  It fit easily in the palm of Wang Wei’s hand.  It would have fit easily within a child’s hand.
“So,” he asked after looking at it a few moments, “how does it work?”
He didn’t even know the name of the technician in front of him.  He was Korean, of that he was sure.  But he had better things to do than remember the names of these technicians he hired.  They liked solving puzzles and he gave them puzzles.  He didn’t even have to pay them much because they had toys they played with.  He wondered if they knew the contempt in which he held them.
“They are Von Neumann machines,” the technician said.  “That means they are self-replicating.  They are like the crabs that the farmers in the Belt use for their mining.  They cost us nothing after the initial development costs... “
Wei waved off the technician’s explanation and turned instead to the middle manager.  Wei didn’t know his name either, but he was Indian and he wasn’t as tedious as the Korean.
“The basic plan is this,” the middle manager said. “We send a swarm of these out to a hab which has been informed, according to the letter of the law, than its inhabitants owe taxes to the Allied Federation.  They will be told that if they transfer the appropriate amounts to our account, then there will be no trouble.  However, if they refuse, the swarm attacks the hab....”  
“And actually, it doesn’t have to be a swarm,” the technician interrupted. “It could be just one roach--we call them roaches because of their size.  Soon it will become a swarm as the numbers will increase exponentially.”  
“The more resistance we meet; the better the example,” the middle manager said.  
“And they will be impossible to stop,” the technician said.  “They are small and they are fast. They are little spaceships for heaven’s sake.”
Wang Wei was pleased, but his features didn’t show it. His underlings worked hard to get his approval so he dealt it out in thin slices.
“So they will attack the habitats?” Wei asked. “What of the people in them?”
“The programming is for them to attack farm habs and to leave the person habs alone,” the technician said.  “They will be get the metal from the hab itself and the fissionable material from the warming reactor, and of course, there will be plenty of water to take for propellant.”
“They will, of course, be recording everything they do,” the middle manage said.  “It will be put on the Net and broadcast for all to see.”
“Not everyone to see,” Wei said. “Make sure there is a filter in place so that this does not get back to Earth.  The farmers in the Belt can do nothing to me, but the politicians on Earth can be very inconvenient.  They want money, but they want plausible deniability as to how it is made.  For my part, I want fear.  Fear is the only way we will get money out of these..these...rough hewn peasants and thieves.”

Jethro and Mary Kate had come to Mars for religious reasons--marriage and baptism.  The reality of space travel was that it took time, so they couldn’t afford to simply be travelers.  Jethro and Mary Kate had gotten jobs. Jethro had gotten work programming and Mary Kate had been working in the farms. They earned money to defray expenses and they killed the time while the orbits came into alignment again.
Two years had passed since Jethro had spoken to Dima the Russian, and he still didn’t know Dima’s last name.  This in spite of the fact that he and Mary Kate and the family had actually socialized with Dima and Tasha on a couple of occasions.  Tasha loved playing with the children and she and Mary Kate got along very well.  Jethro had noted that Tasha did not wear her slinky, translucent outfits when Mary Kate brought the children along.
On this night they had been invited to Dima’s place and had been told to be sure the bring the children along.
“Tasha wants to see them,” Dima had said.
So they gathered the children together and took them out to Dima’s place.  They had rented an airtight cart to drive them out so they wouldn’t have to put the little one’s in suits.  When they got there, Vadim, who was Dima’s bodyguard, hooked the cart to the airlock, and when they had all safely entered Dima’s hab, he parked it for them.
When the elevator door opened, Dima and Tasha were there to greet them.  This time the only thing that Tasha’s dress revealed was a baby-bump.
“Tasha! Dima!” Mary Kate said. “You didn’t have to come up to see us.”
It was Tasha who spoke.
“With us there is a sorprize for you,’’ she said smiling.
With that, everyone squeezed into the elevator--Mary Kate with a baby in her arms and Tasha with one in her belly--and the elevator went down.
When the doors open, on the other side in their stocking feet, Mary Kate saw a couple in their fifties.  They were both smiling and there were tears in the woman’s eyes as she saw the baby in Mary Kate’s arms.  It only took a brief instant for Mary Kate to see aspects of Jethro in each of their faces.  Then she heard her husband’s voice beside her:
“Mom, Dad.”
Then the world became a storm of hugs, kisses, and tears.
Even Dima was crying.

Wild Bill was annoyed. That is the way polite people would have put it, not that he was polite.
William “Wild Bill” McClain was eighty-five years old and had lived in the Belt for all but fifteen of those years. He has been born in the mountains of Kentucky and his family had taken their leave when the Appalachians became too tame.  In the beginning, his family had grown marijuana and sugar cane and corn for whiskey, but through seventy years in space he’d been in space, he’d done a little bit of everything and he had met a lot of people.  It was a general rule that if you didn’t know Wild Bill, you knew someone who not only knew him, but had a story about him.
In his later years, he and his wife Sally had settled down a bit and were growing potatoes to sell and to make a little vodka from. It was a quiet life.  He drank a little whiskey, played a little Texas Holdem over the Net.  He figured he might have as many as ten years left if he took care of himself.
But today he was spending part of his life annoyed because of a message he’d received from the Allied Federation:
“By the power delegated to the Department of the Revenue by AFHB1789, you are hereby informed that you have been assessed taxes for imputed income in the amount described below.  You have 90 days in which to transfer the assessed amount to the Department of Revenue or property of an equal or greater value will be confiscated.  Signed Wang Wei, Director, Department of Revenue, Outer Holdings.”
The amount, which was both ridiculously high and yet still well within Wild Bill’s means, was listed below along with directions for making the transferal.
“To hell with them,” he said.  He repeated it and punctuated it with some rather salty language for which his wife, a strict Baptist, scolded him.

He printed the message out just so he could rip it up, griped to a lot of his old friends, who had gotten similar messages, and then he threw it away.