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I found an old notebook on the shelf.

It’s not dated, but judging from the handwriting and some of the things that are referenced, I’d say it starts around sixth form (that’s age 17) and goes up to some time after I went to university.

It’s a fun read – it begins with what I think was my first real attempt at properly planning a story – character maps and notes on the world government and all.  There are even some notes on architecture and little drawings – to scale – of some of the physics involved.

The story plan concerns the (highly probable) situation in which the moon’s orbit has started to decay.  Scientists managed to find a way to prop it up on giant struts, but clearly in the process some damage was done to the Earth’s atmosphere.  Now, everyone has to live in the shadow of the moon, otherwise they die of radiation poisoning.

Shadowland plot

The radiation has caused strange mutations in the twilight lands, where people get a reduced dose of the sun’s rays.  They don’t die outright, but they have mutations in the genes which cause features such as white fur to reflect the rays, dampeners in their eyes to reduce glare, etc.  These twilight people feel bitter because they are thought of as freaks, when in fact they are better suited to life now.  They grow crops which have also mutated, and try to sell them to the shadowlanders.

My main character was called Tim, and he was an “ordinary person” in his late teens/early twenties, who was claustrophobic – a problem since the moon hangs so low in the sky and everyone lives in a tightly packed space with lots of tunnels.  Apparently his parents were accountants!

For entertainment’s sake, I thought it would be interesting to take some of what I wrote then and compare it with what I would do now.  I reproduce it complete with spelling errors, amendments and so on.

Then:

Tim stepped out into the clear night air.  A slight breeze stirred his short brown hair.  Involuntarily, he glanced upwards, and shuddered.  His sad blue eyes closed, and he swallowed.  He could see the moon’s craters with his naked eyes.  It was too close, too close.

He looked out across the city, taking in the skyscrapers which rose tall as far as he could see.  Some of them were so tall you could almost reach out and touch the moon from the top of them.

Walking briskly down through the concrete jungle, Tim wrinkled his nose at the all-pervading stench of moon dust.

I bet they first men on the moon didn’t realise how bad it smells when the first put man on the moon, 2 centuaries ago, he thought bitterly.

And now:

Tim stepped out of the airlock and listened to the door swish closed behind him.  Within moments he was covered in a fine layer of moon-dust.  He cast a glance over his shoulder to check that the green ‘ready’ light had come on, confirming that he could re-enter the complex whenever he wanted.  It shone brightly, cutting through the gloom like a beacon welcoming him home.  With a slight pang he thought of his sister, left behind for now.  I will come back for her, he vowed, once I’ve found them.  We will be together again.

He settled his dust-mask more firmly on his face and squinted at the world.  Around him, towers rose high into the sky, packed tightly together.  Windows were few and far between, especially at ground level.  There was nothing to look at, after all, apart from dust and more towers.  He deliberately didn’t look up.  Tim had heard that from the highest towers you could see amazing views, even as far as the edge of the Shadow.  He’d heard that from the very tallest towers you could reach out and touch the moon.  He’d never been that high, of course.  Only the richest citizens were able to afford to live above the dust.

The gully he was in now was one of several that ran throughout the complex.  They were designed to give access to the outside of the massive building, for the maintenance crews.  In reality they were hardly used.  The complex was given the minimum maintenance possible to keep it standing.  There was no money for anything else, and no spare materials to do it with.  All of the dwindling resources of the planet were focused on one thing: the Struts.

He moved forward to the first cross-gully and looked to the left.  In the distance he could just make out Strut Three.  There were eight Struts in all, spaced evenly around the edge of the complex.  Each one was a couple of miles wide at the base, able to support massive weights on its own.  It still took eight of them to hold up the moon.  He shuddered as he considered what would happen if (when!) the Struts failed.  With the ozone layer and most of the upper atmosphere stripped away when the moon descended, the entire human race was packed tightly in the shadow lands.  If even one Strut gave way they would all be destroyed.

Tim smiled grimly.  Not all, not if the stories were true.  He hoped, needed the stories to be true.

Making sure his rucksack was firmly settled on his back, he set out towards the distant structure.  Soon he was breathing heavily.  Each breath in caused more dust to settle on his mask, clogging the filter.  Every time he breathed out he tried to dislodge some of it, only to have it settle again moments later.  He forced himself to carry on.  There would be less dust further out.  Everyone said so.  He tried not to think about how “everyone” knew such a fact when “no-one” went outside.

He wished he could have made this part of the journey inside.  The complex was interconnected all the way to the twilight lands, and even the broken-down air conditioning units and recycled oxygen would be better than this.  Ever since the corn riots last year the towers had been segregated, though, and coming up with good enough reasons to cross further and further from his home would be difficult.  He did not want to get arrested for travelling without permits or whatever made-up crime the government had come up with this month.

He plodded on, trying not to think.  After what seemed like hours he was jolted out of his half-doze by a sudden increase in the light.  He flinched, cowering towards the walls.  How had they found him so quickly?  He thought he had hidden his departure well enough that nobody would even be looking yet.

When nothing happened he looked around and laughed.  Along the walls of the gully lights were flickering on, illuminating everything.  It was night, and the lights were on a timer.  Almost every other bulb had blown, but the light was still brighter than the dust-filtered sunlight available during the day.  Why the outside lights were on when nobody worked out here he didn’t know.

Now that he had stopped he realised how tired he was.  Sinking down against the side wall he leant his arms on his knees and rested his head on them.  The movement knocked his dust mask sideways, and he breathed in a face full of moon-dust.

So there we go!  Leaving aside the totally plausible science behind the situation, I think my writing has improved. What do you think?

I was a little (all right, a lot) worried before I went to see this film.  I had been looking forward to it for a long time, and had hyped it up so much in my mind that I was afraid that it would be a massive disappointment.

I’m happy to report that I was wrong.

From almost the very first moments I was on the metaphorical edge of my seat.

Kal-El

We open on the birth of Kal-El.  The room is clearly alien – the floating machines and the clothes give that away.  After the birth, Jor-El holds his new son in his hands – and we cut to one of those scenes which, once you’ve seen it you can’t un-see it.  An impressive alien vista is shown, with a large beast in the foreground.  It raises its head and bellows towards the sky.

You’re more likely to understand what I’m saying if you have children, or were a child yourself around 1994.  If you need a hint, click here.

I really love what they’ve done with Krypton’s architecture.  Not for them the overly traditional ice palace motif.  Instead we have a truly advanced race, with flying cities and technology that can change shape at need.  The development of their tech followed logical lines, too – their designers had clearly been influenced by the natural world that was around them, four-winged creatures and all.

Once he’s been sent off into the void (and the story of how that happened was very exciting, with its high-speed chases, theft, treason, and attempted coups) we cut to 30-year-old Clark living on Earth.

His youth is told through flashbacks, but it doesn’t feel forced or out of place.  What I loved about his childhood was that he struggled.  He didn’t fit in, and he knew it.  From the terrified “what’s wrong with me?” to the plaintive “can’t I just keep pretending I’m your son?”, this was a child who was desperately afraid of being different.  He couldn’t fight back when he was bullied, not because he was afraid of being hurt, but because he was afraid that everyone would find out that he couldn’t get hurt.

When he learns how to fly you can see the pure joy on his face.  Here at last is something that makes it all worth it.

Lois Lane

Finally, a Lois Lane who is not the most unobservant reporter ever.  Bravo!

 am not an expert at drawing on the computer.

A normal Lois response to situations.

Dru-Zod & Friends

General Zod was very much a victim of his upbringing, and I liked that he wasn’t just evil without reason.  The one problem with his reasoning that I had was not at all the fault of the film.  It was this line:

“Everything I have done, I did for the Greater Good of my people.”

Which is fine unless, on the way to the cinema, you have had a conversation about Hot Fuzz.  If you’ve seen it, you will see what I mean.  If you haven’t, I pity you.  Go see it.  And then try to listen to that line with a straight face.

This is not a picture of General Zod.

Zod’s friends, however, had some interesting ideas about how nature works.  Evolution always wins, does it?  Hmmm, and all of those extinct species which evolved and then died out?  Still, one dud line in a film of that length is a pretty good ratio.

What next?

There were no major loose ends that screamed “insert sequel here”, but there were a number of avenues that could be explored in future films.

The first is, of course, Lex Luthor.  He wasn’t mentioned at all in the film, but there were several occasions where buildings and vehicles with “LexCorp” splashed all over them were seen (and often destroyed by the fighting).  Whether this was a taste of things to come or simply good background remains to be seen.  I for one wouldn’t say no to a film in which Lex was irritated at all the property damage.

The other idea I’d like explored is the question of Clark’s children.  For reasons which I won’t go into for fear of spoiling things, this would be very interesting.  And with his clear interest in Lois already demonstrated, we just need to discover whether Humans and Kryptonians are compatible in order for it to be a perfectly valid plot.

Conclusion

Five Stars.  If you haven’t already seen it, go as soon as you can.

On Silver Wings is a fairly traditional space adventure story.  There are colonists on a far flung world, alien invaders, and a rescue attempt from Earth’s space fleet.

The problem, of course, is the aliens have some pretty impressive technology.  Impressive enough that they manage to destroy all but one of the special operations unit sent in to assess the situation before they reach the ground, despite being heavily stealthed.

Enter Sergeant Sorilla Aida, sole survivor, well equipped, well trained and willing to stop at almost nothing to protect the remaining colonists and chase the aliens off the planet.  She’s got battle armour and military rifles, she’s got local help to show her around, she’s even got some AI-augmented battle robots courtesy of the Solari Fleet Task Force.

What she doesn’t have is any aliens to fight.

Since the day the colony was all but obliterated and the colonists sent running to the jungle to hide, there have been no sightings of the aliens.  How do you fight an enemy you can’t find?

I enjoyed this book immensely.  Evan Currie started life as a (very very prolific) fanfiction author, and when he made the transition to original works I immediately added his work to my to read list.  I wasn’t disappointed.

The action is fast paced, the balance between the action on the ground and the maneuvers of the space fleet was well maintained.  The science was believable (though physics is not my strong suit, so I have no idea whether it was right or not).  The only thing that bothered me was that I didn’t really care about whether the military spacecraft lived or died, except in a roundabout way because of their impact on Sorilla and her band of plucky colonists.  I cared about them quite a lot.

All in all, a good read for those who enjoy adventure stories, space stories, or both.

The threads of five seemingly unrelated lives are woven together to create a story which hangs together in the end. I found my enjoyment increased once I reached the point where I could start to see some of the connections between the different people.

A university professor, making ends meet by singing backing music for resonance advertising and the occassional high-class soiree; an honest senator trying to get re-elected and run his district well; the crooked head of a multinational family-run corporation; a police detective investigating a series of suicides (or are they murders?); and a researcher working for a news corporation looking for the next big story.

Each of the characters percieves beauty in a different way, from the traditional music/art to the beauty inherent in politics, police work, and data analysis.  That explains the “beauty” in the title, although I had to look up “archform” to find out what it meant.  This is what Wikipedia says:

In music, arch form is a sectional structure for a piece of music based on repetition, in reverse order, of all or most musical sections such that the overall form is symmetric, most often around a central movement. The sections need not be repeated verbatim but must at least share thematic material.

This does describe the book quite well, in fact.  One theme in several sections, all revolving around a central mystery.

At various points in the book it is pointed out that what is technically beautiful might not appeal to everyone – and this is the case here.  The book was quite slow to get started. I found the constant jumping from one character to the next to be irritating, as it took much longer to find out anything about the characters. However, overall it was a good read.

Tzk’l scratched at his ar’dh with one forelimb.  He glanced at his podmates to see how they were reacting to what they had discovered.  Mrrk’l was frowning pensively, while Pyk’l was clearly upset, his ppdorth drooping in a most unattractive way.

“Why?  Why would anyone do that?”  Pyk’l moaned.  The damage to the first two experiments wasn’t too bad.  A trace of foreign contaminant, some lingering pressure holes.  The third experiment was ruined, the tkali structures set back decades in growth.  There was traces of fire damage, something which should have been impossible on the planet in question.  Four, five and six were fine, apart from traces of the same contaminant that tainted the first two, although the logs from the gravity generators on Five showed some unexpected readings.  It had taken many drrr to clean the contaminant from the atmospheres of the planets, and the podmates were frustrated.

The three podmates were approaching the seventh experimental planet, intent on discovering if there was any damage to this one.  They hoped not – Seven was the most promising of the experiments and it would be a shame if it were ruined.  It would decrease the un’k of their pod and require them to send one podmate to the home world for retraining.  However, given that the damage extended to all of the other planets in the system it was very likely that this one had also been ruined.

They slipped into orbit around the planet and within seconds a picture was building up of the surface.  Mrrk’l hissed, his ar’dh twitching uncontrollably.

“The experiment shows the same contaminant.  No damage detected yet, but analysis shows that if the contaminant remains for longer than one drrr there will be irredeemable changes to the biosphere.

“Begin the cleaning process,” instructed Pyk’l.

Tzk’l instructed the computer, and soon three rescue pods were racing towards the atmosphere.  When they touched the outer edge they slowed and began scrubbing the air to remove the contaminant, a polycarbon string molecule with nano-fibre attachments.

Tzk’l was watching the readouts closely, and he began to notice something odd.  The contaminant levels were not dropping as fast as they should be.  He released another rescue pod.  Perhaps one of the pods was not working as efficiently as it should.  The rate of cleansing increased, but it was still not as fast as it should be.  He frowned.

“Mrrk’l, what is the status of the surface scan?”

“It finished 2 ikkitz ago, why?”

“Is there a foreign body present?”

“You think the source of the contaminant is still present?” asked Pyk’l.

“The cleansing is not proceeding as fast as expected.  If more contaminant was being released it would explain it.”

“Hum.  You are correct.  The scan shows a foreign body present on the northern continent.  It is large – a spaceship, perhaps.  A smaller body is present also, emitting lower amounts of contaminant.”  Mrrk’l’s ar’dh was twitching at a ferocious rate.

“Can both be removed from orbit?”

“The smaller, perhaps, but the larger is too heavy for our tractors.  The smaller appears to be a life form, I’m not sure how it would react to being removed.”

“A spaceship and a life form?  Mrrk’l, are you sure?”  Pyk’l’s ppdorth stood tall, and his eyes were bright with excitement.  Mrrk’l was oblivious to the rising mood in the lab, however.  His voice still reflected anger.

“Yes, the scans are definitive.”

Tzk’l had caught on to what Pyk’l was implying.  “If we discovered alien life – just think how high our un’k would rise!  The ruination of this experiment would be forgotten.  We must go down there.”

Quickly, the shiplab was instructed to land next to the foreign contaminant.  The three podmates emerged with no regards for safety protocols or experimental contamination.  If they could not remove the alien life form the experiment was ruined anyway, and if they succeeded in removing it they could fix the experiment later.

The alien spaceship was sleek and shiny.  It was roughly half the size of the podmate shiplab.  There appeared to be no sign of dzuuzi engines, which led Tzk’l to believe that it was powered with some primitive burning compound.  How this race ever managed to get into space was a puzzle best left for another time.  He waved around his ar’dh and pointed towards a wooded area.

“The trail of contaminants leads in that direction.”

The three set off to hunt down the alien life form inhabiting their experiment.  Very quickly they were under the trees, dappled sunlight making ever-changing patterns on the leaf-covered ground.  The trail of contaminants led in a wide arc through the woods, and the three followed it for perhaps half a klkkk until they came to a clearing where the sunshine fell unhindered from above.  At the edge, leaning against a tree, was the life form.

It was bright white.  It seemed to consist of a long thin trunk with two high branches and two low branches.  The lower branches were horizontal, bent out to the side.  The trunk and upper branches were almost vertical, leaning against the tree.  There was a soft rasping sound coming from the figure, and Tzk’l wondered whether it was an attempt at communication.  The noise didn’t change when the podmates approached, through, so perhaps it was a natural sound emitted by the creature?

Mrrk’l hesitantly reached out and touched the top of the being.

“Hard, feels like synthetics.  Perhaps this is an outer shell?  Something protective like those who engage in dangerous experiments wear?”

“There is nothing dangerous here,” scoffed Pyk’l.

“There is nothing dangerous to us.  This creature may be different.”

“True.”

Pyk’l poked the lower branches of the creature.  “It is softer down here.”  The creature twitched slightly when touched, and began to squirm.  Suddenly it let out a loud scream, almost too high pitched for the podmates to feel.  It unfolded at a remarkable rate, becoming entirely vertical and causing the three podmates to leap backwards.  The lower branches were revealed to be a very effective locomotion system, and the podmates watched in astonishment as the figure disappeared into the distance at high speed.

A metal replica of the creature, until now unnoticed in the shade of the trees, whirred into motion and followed the creature at a slower pace.  The podmates followed it curiously, attempting to talk to it but getting no response.  It led them directly back to the alien spaceship, where it disappeared into a hatch.  The spaceship immediately started to emit huge quantities of the contaminant, and slowly began to rise into the air.  It gained speed quickly, emitting a horrible whine.  The podmates ran back to their shiplab and entered the control room.

Tzk’l commanded the rescue pods to continue their cleansing work while Mrrk’l set the shiplab to follow the alien.  They had left orbit and were well on the way to leaving the system when the alien ship suddenly shivered and then disappeared.  One moment it was there, and the next it was simply gone.

“Where did it go?”  Tzk’l asked.  The others shook their heads in shared bewilderment.

“That did not look like dzuuzi engine output.  The alien race must have found some other way to travel long distances.  We must examine the data before we can learn to track the spaceship.”

“It will be an interesting challenge.”

 

Goldie fired up the engines.  The gravity waves coming from the previous planet were still going strong, but they were pushing her away from the next planet in the system.  She began to cut across the gravity fields and eventually dropped into orbit around the planet.  Some preliminary surface scans showed a vast ocean, with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of small islands.  Some of them were only centimetres across.  She brought up a more in-depth scan and studied the results.

The largest island was 45 metres wide, 60 metres long, and surrounded by waters deeper than they had any right to be.  Goldie couldn’t imagine the type of geological processes which caused that to happen.  Perhaps it had something to do with the gravity waves coming off the larger planet next door?

Whatever the reason, the fact remained that none of the islands were large enough for her to land the ship on, and the water was too deep to risk landing partially on an island.  She would have to skip this planet and move on to the seventh, and final planet in the system.

“Ah well,” she thought philosophically, “at least it gives me more time to work on my NaNoWriMo entry.”

 

Just kidding.

Here’s the real story:

 

Goldie fired up the engines.  The gravity waves coming from the previous planet were still going strong, but they were pushing her away from the next planet in the system.  She began to cut across the gravity fields and eventually dropped into orbit around the planet.  Some preliminary surface scans showed one massive super-continent covering most of the planet, and a vast array of different species of plant life.  The most exciting thing was a collection of buildings near the equator.  They seemed to be made of complex materials, mostly metal alloys.  Definitely constructed by intelligent hands!

This was the first true proof of alien life that Goldie had come across.  There were rumours of other explorers, other employees of the Company, who had encountered aliens.  Some claimed that if you met aliens the Company would take you away and question you, and you might never see daylight again.  Others claimed that finding aliens got you a huge reward, so large that you retired to live out your life in luxury.  Nobody really knew.  Goldie suspected that nobody had ever actually met aliens before.  Surely they wouldn’t be able to hide it?  Wouldn’t everyone know?

But here was proof of alien intelligence.

These buildings, on a planet which no human had ever set foot on, meant that the human race was no longer alone in the universe.  Provided, of course, that they were inhabited.  Suddenly anxious, Goldie re-examined the scan.  The buildings didn’t show any life signs, but they were, as far as she could tell, complete.  No crumbling edges or caved-in roofs, and the vegetation around them was well-controlled.  Perhaps they were still inhabited.

If that was the case, what should she do?  What if the aliens were primitives and thought she was a devil coming from the sky?  Or what if they were unfriendly?  She wasn’t trained in first contact – but then who was?  Humans had been out in the universe for hundreds of years now, and not encountered any other life forms, how could anyone be an expert in meeting aliens?

The chances were they wouldn’t even recognise her as a life-form.  Her sensors weren’t picking up life-signs from the planet, after all.  If they were that different their sensors probably wouldn’t pick her up either.

Maybe.

Enough dithering.  Her job was to explore the planets that she found, just a quick preliminary survey, and send the data back to the Company.  She couldn’t do it from up here.  Quickly, before she lost her nerve, she punched in a course for the computer to land the craft near the buildings.  While she was waiting she packaged up the data she had gathered so far and sent it off.  The Company didn’t like incomplete data sets like that, normally they insisted on a full system review before any reporting, but if there were aliens, and they were unfriendly, she wanted people to know about it.

The spaceship gently touched down a few hundred metres from the buildings.  Goldie pulled herself into her spacesuit and loaded the bot up with supplies.  Before she stepped out of the airlock she carefully checked the outside conditions.  Reasonable temperature, a nice, non-toxic atmosphere, and gravity well within the expected norms for this planet size.

“Looks like the aliens are all I need to worry about on this planet,” she said to the bot.  It looked at her, but didn’t say anything.  Once more she wished for a decent conversation-bot.  It would make the loneliness much easier to bear.

The airlock finished cycling, and she stepped out onto the planet.  Almost immediately the suit’s external microphone relayed a loud buzzing noise.  It sounded like… crickets?  Or maybe mosquitoes.  She always got those two muddled up in her classes at school.  It’s not like she encountered either of them very often out here.  The source of the buzzing seemed to be the buildings.  Maybe it was the sound of the alien language?  That could make communicating hard.  She set off to walk the short distance to the structures.

As she approached she examined them closely.  They were relatively small, obviously designed for individuals or small groups, rather than huge numbers of people.  The structure seemed to be mostly metal, with small amounts of some other substance mixed in.  She would have to look closely at it when she got there to find out what it was.  She drew closer, and more details began to emerge.  There was no sign of a door on this side of any of the structures, but there were small holes at various heights with a hazy field around them.

She arrived at the nearest structure moments later, and began to circle it slowly.  No matter which side she looked at, there was no sign of a door, or entrance of any sort.  There were only the small holes.  She looked closer at the hazy field and noticed that it was made up of millions of tiny particles, all moving around.  As she watched, she became convinced that there was some sort of purpose to the movement.  Some of the particles were going into the holes, and some emerging.  Every so often a group would go off around the building.  She followed one group and watched as they passed into another opening further around.

It was when a large group of the particles floated past with a small branch held in the midst of the group that she realised what she was seeing.  The particles were alive.  They were working together, somehow transporting things and, presumably, building these structures.  Amazing.

Amazing, yes, but there was no way she was able to do more than observe here.  There was no first contact to be had when she could barely see the creatures.  She couldn’t even say for certain if they were intelligent or not, although the presence of buildings seemed to indicate the possibility.  She took a cursory wander around the rest of the structures, finding them all the same, and then knelt to take some samples of the earth.  With luck there would be some dead creatures in the samples.  That would make the boys in the labs happy.

Disappointed, but slightly relieved that the burden of first contact wouldn’t be falling on her today, Goldie made her way back to the spaceship and left the planet.

 

Not yet, but the time is coming, apparently.

Philip Parker, a professor at Insead business school, has over 100,000 titles listed on Amazon, all non-fiction on a huge array of subjects.  Each one supposedly took less than an hour to write, because most of the work was done by a computer.  There’s nothing new there, it’s all existing information, just compiled into one place.*

But it’s not just non-fiction that has to worry about competition from computers.  Poetry written by machines already exists, and in some cases is hard to tell from the work of humans.

Is it possible for a computer to write a novel?

There are any number of “easy methods” to write a novel out there, but can they be written into a computer program?  For some genres, I can see it working.  The easy-reading type of books that people read just to relax – they don’t want complex or surprising storylines or new styles of writing.  They just want to sit down and allow the cares of the world to fall away.

But for some genres, especially those where innovation is key, I can’t see it happening.  Can you imagine a science fiction novel, dealing with a completely new concept, being written by a computer?  Or an emotion-driven, heart-wrenching tragedy which brings tears to your eyes and an ache to your heart?  I can’t.

Some day, perhaps, when we have true AI, but not yet, and not for a long while.

It’s a good job really, or there might be a revolt among authors!

 

 

* On a side note, I went to look, and “Philip M Parker” does have a rather large number of titles available.  They range from Webster’s Faroese – English Thesaurus Dictionary to Ankylosing Spondylitis – A Bibliography and Dictionary for Physicians, Patients, and The 2007 Import and Export Market for Toilet or Facial Tissue Paper Stock and Towel or Napkin Stock in Finland.  A riveting read, I’m sure.

Each one sells for at least $20, so even if he’s only making 20% on each sale, and selling one copy of each book every two years, he would be making $200,000, or around £125,000 per year.  Not a bad payoff for a computer program, although one has to wonder what the point of some of the titles is.

 

The planet loomed large in Goldie’s viewscreen.  She zoomed out a little and sat back to study the latest adventure opportunity.  The planet was pretty big, especially compared to the other planets in the system.  She was puzzled – why were the orbits of the others not affected more by this planet?  How did they all manage to survive in the same orbit anyway?  Everything she had ever learnt about astrophysics told her this should not be possible.

Shrugging off the mystery for now, she brought up the sensor analysis of the planet.  The atmosphere was good, mostly oxygen and nitrogen.  A little thicker than she would expect, but nothing too unusual.  There was a smattering of plant matter, mostly small things, but the sensors couldn’t see any animal life.  Half the time the sensors couldn’t pick up animal life when she was over inhabited worlds, though, so that didn’t mean anything.

Idly she wondered when they were going to invent better sensors.  With all the advances they were making in other fields of science she couldn’t understand why sensor technology was so bad.

Well, she wasn’t going to find out anything more about the planet from up here.  She slid along the console to the flight controls and tapped in some commands.  The ship began to descend towards the planet.

When she was still a couple of miles off the surface, Goldie became aware of a strained whine coming from the speakers.  She glanced at the engine logs and noticed that they were straining slightly.  Ever since the 21st century and the advent of the electric car, people had known that engine noise was important.  Originally, it had been so that people noticed the near-silent vehicles, but pretty soon people had realised that the driver got a lot out of it too.  These days, engines made “noise” inside the control room of spaceships to give pilots another way of monitoring what was going on.  Goldie couldn’t remember how many times engine noise had caused her to find a problem that she wouldn’t otherwise have noticed.

The straining wasn’t too bad, though she would have to have a look at the engines before she tried to take off again.  It was probably just one of the drive pods drifting out of alignment again.

Soon she was setting down on the planet.  There hadn’t been any particular features to aim for on this one, so she was in the midst of a large open savannah.  She would take some samples and have a quick look around.  If none of the plants turned out to be toxic this might make a good planet for a colony.

Pulling on her spacesuit, Goldie checked that the bot was fully loaded with supplies.  Gesturing it to follow her, she stepped into the airlock and touched the controls.  Air began hissing out around her, and she stood briefly in a vacuum before the planet’s air began to fill the chamber.  When the cycle was complete she opened the outer door and stepped through.

As soon as she left the spaceship the artificial gravity fell away and she felt a crushing weight pushing down on her.  She staggered and her vision went a little grey around the edges.  The bot, less at the mercy of whimsical human biological responses, merely shifted its weight to compensate for the new circumstances.  After a moment she was able to stand up straight, but she could tell that she would be tiring quickly and the continued greying of her vision was a problem.

The high gravity worried her.  None of her scans had implied that there would be anything like this level of force at surface level.  The size of the planet meant it should be higher than Earth Standard, yes, but not this high.  She took some readings on her data slate.  4.6 times ES!  No wonder she was having trouble standing up.  She couldn’t stay here very long.  She was already going to have a whopping headache from this.  Considering her options, she gratefully decided to go back inside straight away.  She could send the bot out to get the samples.

Head spinning, she stepped back into the airlock and felt the blood rush back to her head.  Instructing the bot to leave most of its supplies in the airlock, she gave it the sampling kit and sent it with the instructions to walk a hundred metres before taking a sample of the earth and the vegetation.  As soon as it stepped outside of the airlock she started the cycle and was soon making her way back into the comfort of the main cabin.

After she stripped off her spacesuit, she focussed the viewscreen on the bot.  It was making slow but steady progress towards its target, so she decided to spend the time checking over the engines.  She headed out of the main cabin and into the bowels of the ship.  The engine room was right at the back, well away from the main cabin.  The door swished open as she approached and she surveyed the room.  Nothing appeared to be out of place, but the sounds she had heard on the descent were more consistent with small mis-alignments than large problems.  She was going to have to check each component individually.

Sighing, Goldie reached for the toolbox that was strapped to the wall by the door and set to work.

—-

Goldie sat back on her heels with a groan, rubbing the small of her back with one hand.  She had found and corrected two minor problems with the engines, but neither of them were large enough to have caused the pained whining from earlier.  She frowned thoughtfully while she put the tools away.

Back in the main cabin, the bot was standing by the airlock, having stopped there after it returned.  It was still holding the samples it had collected, and Goldie examined them carefully before storing them in the lab for later analysis.  For once, it seemed, the bot had done its task well.

Well, if she couldn’t go outside, there was nothing keeping her here.  Perhaps the next planet would be more hospitable and she could have a true adventure.  Slipping into the command chair, Goldie set a course to leave the atmosphere.

The ship slowly took off – more slowly than normal, she thought, and increased the power from the engines.  That whining was back, too.  She must have missed something when she did the inspection earlier.  Well, she couldn’t fix it while in flight, so it would just have to wait.

The whine increased in volume and when she glanced at the instruments she saw that the ship had slowed down again.  They were barely a mile off the ground, when they should have been ten by now.  Even as she watched the speed dropped another notch.  She boosted the power to the engines.

Now running at full speed, the engines were definitely complaining.  What on earth was going on?  She checked the controls again.  Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a red flashing numeral, and glanced at it.  What?

The gravitational force on the ship was now 10.3 ES and climbing.  How was that possible?  She spared a moment to thank whichever deities were listening that it hadn’t been that high while she was outside, then turned her attention back to the problem at hand.

If the gravity was fluctuating, that could be causing the problems with the engines.  They weren’t built to deal with gravity that was so strong.  She glanced at the gauge.  11.8 ES.

Briefly, she considered going back to the surface and waiting until the gravity went back to normal.  But what if it continued to increase?  The ship’s artificial gravity was only built to withstand 20 ES, and if it died she would be crushed like a bug. There hadn’t been any sign of strain while she was in orbit, so hopefully when she got back there whatever effect this was would stop and she would be free.  She was just going to have to push on.

Overriding some safety alerts, she pushed the engines to 110% of their normal maximum.  When the ship started to gain some height she pushed it further.  120%.  130%.  The whining was becoming louder, and she slammed the mute button.  At this point all it was telling her was that the engines were being pushed past their limits, which she knew.

The ship was, incredibly, slowing again.  She glanced at the gravity monitor and winced.  18.9 ES.  If this didn’t let up soon she was going to have problems.  Worse ones, anyway.  She watched with a kind of sick fascination as it ticked upwards.

Just as it reached 19.7 the ship lurched so much that she felt it, and rocketed away into space.  The gravity monitor was saying zero, and the engines were quickly winding down to normal levels.

Wait.  Zero?

Even in deep space there was always something going on, some star exerting force.  Had the exertions of the planet broken her sensors?

Even as she watched, the monitor went into negative figures and the ship began moving away from the planet.  Eyes wide, Goldie stared in disbelief.

Reaching a swift decision, she cut the engines off and allowed the gravitational forces to push the ship away.  She chuckled slightly when she noticed she was being pushed towards the next planet in the system, one of only two she had yet to explore.

Eyes on the controls, alert for any changes to the gravity waves, Goldie rode the storm towards her next adventure.

 

Japanese phone users will soon have the option to have their conversations translated as they talk, using the new app from NTT Docomo, one of the country’s mobile networks.  The app provides a translation, both written and spoken, after a short pause.

They aren’t the only ones working on this, either.  France’s Alcatel-Lucent is developing a version for landlines (more tricky because of the lower sound quality), and their ultimate aim is to be able to do conference calls with many people, in many different languages, with each person hearing the conversation in their own language.  They even have a project to make a synthetic voice that sounds like your real one.

This is beginning to sound like an episode of Star Trek.  All we need now is for it to be able to analyse new languages and learn them on the fly, and we’ll be set to go!

Some people are not holding their breath, though.

“These kind of real-time technologies have been ‘two to three years away’ for the past decade,” said Benedict Evans, technology expert at Enders Analysis.

 It does bring to mind another question, though.  Language learning, so we are told, helps to stave off the effect of Alzheimer’s.  If we invent technologies which eliminate the need to learn new languages, are we contributing to the declining health of the human species?

In addition to that, there is the consideration that speaking to someone in their own language can be seen as a sign of respect.  One which would be lost if everyone had access to Universal Translators.

What do you think?  Is the ability to communicate with anyone more important than the effort involved to do so?

I haven’t managed to get this week’s installment finished yet, at least not to a state where I’m happy to share it.  Goldie will continue her adventures next week, however in the meantime, please accept this haiku in her place.  Warning: contains spoilers for next week’s episode!

One massive planet
We cannot escape the well
Too large for Goldie

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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