ECHELON’S END: BOOK 1 LAST GENERATION
SYSTEM STAR CYCLE: 6752.0719 A.T.
PLANETARY DATE: 171/195
LAUNCH TIME: TEE-MINUS 02:32:30
A tranquil sphere hung in Space under a white cloud.
From a vantage point some four hundred kiloretems above, Medical Commander Dara Lidasiress was watching it beyond the thick syntheglass of an observation viewport; the sight was dizzying, fascinating. The cloud‑shrouded planet Aidennia. It seemed to lie almost in the trajectory of the Orbiter 1: Aidennia Station. The light of a strong, middle‑aged sun cataloged as Pintarus 19 fell on the cloud.
Every so often, its rays illuminated attractive patches of blue and green on the surface of the planet concealed beneath its halcyon mass, giving hints to the planet’s life abundant waterways and of its dense forests giving way to grasslands. Over millions of cycles, the continents of the planet Aidennia had drifted apart, jostled together, and regrouped to form new landmasses. It now was a world of two broad regions. In the west, a single landmass, to the east several continental plates fused but still separated from the western continent by the small and shallow inland Eocene Sea. Island subcontinents to the north and south with coral reefs bordered by the mighty Tethys Ocean.
It was a lush green world covered in a tropical and sub-tropical paradise whose continents lined by mangrove swamps behind which were dense deciduous rainforests, where each landmass had developed distinctive endemic animals and plants, natural selection had favored the most adaptable. Water levels and global temperatures were high – the spread of flowering plants filled the forests with fruits and scents and in the dense, heavy, and mobile waters, marine fauna and flora thrived. Life was sweet in the forests and waters that clothed the planet. Life grew healthy on diets of leaves, vines, roots, and fruit. In the forests was a menagerie of large vertebrates such as winged aviators, hoofed plant-eaters, and clawed carnivores. The warm planetary climate meant that the complex coral reef ecosystems flourished, as did the diverse off shore aquatic mammals, fish, and rich plankton and krill that roamed the globe.
Sprinkled here and there amongst the green and the blue of Aidennia resembling sparkling stylish jewelry was urban development, incandescent and translucent yellow, hallucinatory bright and sleek. Magnificent parishes populated by great engineers and architects, building magnificently towering structural constructs in cities with hot and cold fountains, statuary, communal dining halls and stone walls plated with precious metals, harbors and docks, spaceports, meditation temples, arboreal parks, athletic and cultural centers.
The very heart of The System hummed and grew, governing and guiding hundreds of solar groups and their populous worlds down there, on the lush, verdant world; a wealth of Aidennian culture thrived. The people of this world possessed great wealth thanks to the natural resources found throughout their planet, living simple, virtuous lives. Here was a planetary society interacting with many different interglobal cultures. Aidennia was thought more as a world rather than nations. Freedom of religion and cultural practice a guarantee. No one culture or group was able to dominate the rest.
Within that framework of diversity, all individuals on Aidennia and beyond had certain inalienable rights, including the material basics of existence, health care, education, and legal equality. The land, air, and water of Aidennia were in the common stewardship of the terran family, and not owned by any individual or group. The fruits of an individual’s labor belonged to the individual, and not appropriated by another individual or group. At the same time, terran labor on Aidennia – and throughout The System – was part of a communal enterprise, given to the common good. Aidennia, as all Systemite economic systems, reflected both these facts, balancing self-interest with the interests of society.
The goal of planetary as well as Systemite economics was not ‘sustainable development’ but a sustainable prosperity for each planet’s biosphere. Therefore, each planet’s landscape itself had certain ‘rights of place’ that were honored. The goals of environmental alterations were minimalist and ecopoetic, reflecting the values of universal harmony. Only a portion of each System planet lower than the five-kiloretem contour made terran-viable. Higher elevations, constituting some thirty percent of a planet, remained in something resembling their primeval conditions, existing as natural wilderness.
Decided eons ago during the early unification of The System’s first planets and subsequent habitation of other worlds that it was a historical process, as the colonization of new worlds was the first inhabitation of another planet by terrankind. As such, the perception in those formative times that colonization should be undertaken in a spirit of reverence for the planet and for the scarcity of life in the Universe. Those first settlements set precedents for further terran habitation of solar groups, and suggested models for the terran relationship to those planets’ environment as well. Thus The System’s first worlds, or Core Worlds, occupied a special place in history, and were remembered when the necessary decisions concerning life anywhere were made.
A giant oceanic storm lay framed before Dara’s eyes, capturing the image of a hurricane coiled to strike the Western Continent’s gulf coast of Cheves Province. High clouds, borne on a hundred-kiloretem-a-node jet stream, sphinctered together as they coursed diagonally across the observation viewpane before her. The crescent edge of the world studded with stars as the celestial bodies far beyond her home planet glimmered through the white vapor. Elsewhere in the endless vista of Space, a multitude of naked stars were burning in all their glory.
Dara’s attention refocused as her peripheral view caught a glimpse of her reflection coming off the window. A tall, powerful slender, fine-boned figure, with high cheekbones and penetrating chocolate eyes that gave a look of great delicacy founded in extraordinary resiliency framed by a neatly cropped mane told that she was no shallow youth, but a fully mature adult.
Her figure was snug inside a flight hibernation oversuit, firm and svelte. Her angular features were still unlined for all of her seventy-plus cycles; seventy had become the new fifty. An athletic siress of three, she well carried the biological rewards bestowed upon a terran female who had lived the majority of her life in a germ-free environment. A simple gene-booster treatment could have erased the silver salting of her pepper hued hair, but she elected to keep her hair natural. It served to remind those younger around her that she was of the generation that still valued the aging processes. Her image superimposed queerly over the world below like some omniscient goddess scrutinizing her patron planet for judgment or reward, although it was she who felt like the subject awaiting sentence.
A skilled practitioner of Space medicine, she had taken up a position here on Orbiter 1 after promotions within the ranks of the Aidennian-System Spacecorps. She had three children to her credit with her spouse, all of who had achieved success and recognition in their own chosen fields. A warm feeling pervaded her being as Dara thought of her clan, all together, all successful, and all about to embark on an adventure where survival would be a game with the life forces of the Unknown.
She and her clan, along with several other families, composed of scientists and terra‑forming specialists, were the leading figures in the Mira Probe Mission. The colonizing team was to conduct a manned landing on a new planet discovered by deep thrust telescopic probes. A distant star beyond the known limits of The System, scientists called Mira.
Pride should have been the only emotion she felt as she and the others awaited clearance to board the probeship AST Saarien docked to the Orbiter 1, yet the simple uncertainty of what lay ahead caused the feeling of fear to creep its destructive talons into her consciousness. Mira was a star light‑cycles from Aidennia and the colonized allies of The System. It was a remote and uncharted celestial object serving as a primary solar body to Mira‑IV, a planet‑sized satellite. Yet it had shown favorable evidence of supporting System life and ultimately, it might solve the current population explosion that was ringing throughout known Space.
Aidennia selected by The Echelon from the myriad of inhabited worlds to be the first planet to colonize the Unknown. Since Aidennia was the hub of The System’s peaceful administration, and the most technologically and spiritually advanced, the choice was obvious: Aidennia was to play the role of trailblazer.
Out of thousands of candidates, Dara Lidasiress and the other crewmembers selected and trained. Time seemed to have passed too quickly. She could not believe that the event was only moments away. Within heartbeats, she and those she had grown to know, love, and respect would be ushered off into deep Space. Spending the next three and a half months held in a state of suspended animation. Re‑awakening automatically as the Saarien entered Mira’s solar group.
Beyond the vapor of the Aidennia’s atmosphere, hung two attending satellites, each of their mass approximately one eightieth that of Aidennia. The two airless orbs housed mining teams, scientific communities, security bases, and industrial plants. Revolving around them were Orbiter stations staffed with medical and administrative personnel. Together, the Orbiters and the moon colonies formed an entire planetary support system and provided much of the research for the Mira Probe Mission. Dara grinned with some happiness knowing she and the others were doing a service for their race and its allies. Yet the sadness in departure remained. She drank in the sight of her siressworld one more time. She burned every cloud and land formation into her memory and made sure she would never forget the colors and the beauty of Aidennia.
Saying good‑bye had not been easy, especially to her elder sibling, Aspera. A native Aidennian, Dara was born the second daughter of Wilhelm Berlsire and Lida Maesiress. Dara’s siress was a brilliant neurologist while her sire was the founder and owner of Aero-Space Engineering Corporation, a large firm famous for its air-spacecraft navigation systems designs; she inherited the brilliance of her sire, and her capacity to heal from her siress. Her parents enrolled her in a private academy catering to the needs of gifted children. Dara had a normal childhood despite her obvious intelligence, good looks, and clan affluence.
That all changed shortly after her elder sister Aspera had graduated from an engineering lyceum in Bensalem Province, her parents were killed on re-entry from a moonbase business/pleasure trip when the shuttle they were on broke up due to faulty wiring and crashed. Aspera took over running Aero-Space Engineering Corporation and had become Dara’s only legal guardian; together they occupied the clan domicile on Aidennia. Dara continued with her education under the loving and watchful eye of her elder sister all the way through her acceptance, graduation, and subsequent enlistment in Spacecorps Medical.
Aspera Lidasiress, along with friends and business associates, were all supportive of the Mira Mission venture; yet there had been tears and sorrow at the departure. A sadness that had kept a small place in her heart now pulsed as Dara viewed Aidennia below.
As Orbiter 1 spun, its arc brought it directly over the planet’s Western Continent. Aidennia’s landmasses inhabited districts divided into territories governed as administrative population units. Seen from orbit, cities resembled toy villages in paperweights. Many of them had smaller domes all around their districts that had merged to become a kind of greater cityplex, covering almost one hundred and eighty degrees of a territory, with pistes interconnecting each vaulty bubble.
One cluster of development caught the physician’s eye. It was cosmopolis built entirely within a caldera, occupying the ground floor. A collection of forested parks, penthouse skyscrapers with arcuate balconies, glass elevators to rooftops with heliports, pistes, flying freeways …the entire crater covered in a city.
Dara could not help but to take one more look at her natal soil, Ashtangi Province. Stepping over to the observation window’s control panel, she tabbed in a few key commands.
Quickly a holographic-overlay eclipsed itself across the vast, blue, and shining, spinning globe of Aidennia. In the center of the picture, tucked between two gentle folds in a caldera landscape, were three massive domes covering a breathtaking panorama of city buildings; all the metropolises on Aidennia were domed, because at twenty-seven kilometers high the air was a tenth as thick (thirty or forty millibars) as it was at the datum – or sea level. The metropolis was vast, attested to by the data scrolling in columns alongside the main image. It sat just inside an outer ring of water, spread across an oblong plain covering a circle 43 mets by 18 mets (70 kr by 30 kr).
This was a densely populated area where the majority of the metroplexes population lived. Massed glass towers rose, some 102 floors high, almost to the transparent dome roofs, where landing pads for helicopters and aircars were located, giving residents a variety of alternative travel options.
Busy thoroughfares connected the towers. Small craft jetted about in the air. Boasting no crime, no pollution, and no over-crowding, Ashtangi Province was a veritable utopia, able to accommodate up to 3,332,000 people. It was a typical Aidennian metropolis. It provided residential apartments, guest accommodations, commercial offices, retail businesses, recreation and cultural areas, large cafeterias. It followed the planetary urban philosophy that represented and commemorated the victory of progress over stagnation, science over superstition, prosperity over depression, conservation over wastefulness, beauty over ugliness, serenity over tensions, enchantment over drabness, wealth over squalor, cleanliness over dirtiness, efficiency over inefficiency, success over failure, convenience over inconvenience, comfort over discomfort, security over insecurity, and happiness over unhappiness.
A network of monorails connected Ashtangi Province across the countryside. Beyond the city lay a fertile plain 330 mets (530 kr) long and 110 mets (190 kr) wide surrounded by another canal used to collect water from the rivers and streams of the mountains which soared to the skies and surrounded the plain to the north. An abundance of wild animals roamed the oblong plain famous for its various geysers, hot springs, and other geothermal features.
Lakes, rivers, and meadows dotted the mountains. Food supply for the province came from farms in the surrounding countryside just beyond the metroplexes circular highway, as well as greenhouses, fish tanks, and a meat-cloning center next to agrostations. Agrostations provided all kinds of herbs, fruits, and nuts. Every rotate, fresh produce, fish, and cloned meats where brought to the city kitchens from the greenhouses, fish farm, and cloning center. All food was cooked and eaten the same rotate it was brought in, this eliminated the need for canning, freezing, preservatives. It was a well-balanced, ecological synergism between land and urbanization.
It would be quite some time before Dara Lidasiress’ gentle eyes would see this sight again. She turned away, not wishing to view more she discontinued the 3-D close-up veil. As the observatory port cleared, she sat in a nearby sofa and rested her head meditatively in her hands.
ECHELON’S END BOOK 2: MAROONED
Dawn came to the crash site.
The pale primary sun burned away the morning chill and the clinging damp mist, revealing a gigantic silent world. The gunmetal sheen of sunrise bathed the craggy terrain where ancient waterways once cut their tortuous paths. Enormous outcrops of rock with bases forty retems in diameter rose two hundred retems overhead.
Curtains of gray moss-like vegetation hung down in a tangle from the upthrusted rocks; parasitic flowers sprouted from all along the stony trunks. At ground level, huge cacti, gleaming with moisture, grew higher than a male’s chest, and held the low ground fog. Here and there was a spot of color: red blossoms of deadly poison that only opened in the early morning sprouted forth from blue vines.
The Pioneer Pod 4 had careened onto a supercontinent that centered itself on the alien planet’s equator. It consisted of a million and a half square mets of silent, mysterious desert. This primeval area stood unchanged and unchallenged. The expanse of the dead zone remained inviolate with thousands of square mets.
The continentscape all over was a blighted land. Bits of it were dullish gray, bits of it dullish brown, the rest of it rather less interesting to look at. It was like a dried-out marsh, now barren of all sizeable vegetation and covered with a layer of dust and dark under the heavy weight of cloud.
Pioneer 4’s crash trajectory had brought the podship in from the western horizon, up from the planet’s southern pole through the supercontinent’s gulf. The providence in the angle of the podship’s northeastern descent in relation to the caldera’s meteor crater’s weathered western wall couldn’t have been a better land feature than if the whole depression had been built with a runway. The crash site’s caldera crater’s basin floor had been desiccated by an original meteor impact and subsequent volcanic eruptions, and now it consisted of about a kiloretem’s depth of lahar eolian sediment, underlain by a hard cake of brecciated rock, formed during the brief but stupendous pressures of the volcanic eruption that had blasted away the magma cone and left in its place a hollowed-out depression. These same pressures had also caused deep fracturing that had allowed unusually large amounts of outgassing from the interior of the planet. Volatiles from below had seeped up and cooled, and the water portion of the volatiles had pooled in liquid aquifers, and many zones of highly saturated subsoil.
Some sixteen mets southwest away laid the active volcanic mountain range the podship had just barely overflown during its crash dive. Crescent shaped, the range curved round the region in a jagged half-circle aglow with over seventeen active volcanoes; it was extremely rugged, with many of the lesser peaks steep and glaciated. The valleys were quite low, resulting in great local relief, and major passes resembling plateau country which extended north and east from the range’s terminus. Beyond the foothills was the crash site’s arid plateau that was created 16 million cycles ago as a coalescing series of layered flood basalt flows. Together, these sequences of fluid volcanic rock formed a 200,000 square mets (520,000 kr²) region out eastward. A major break in the landscape was in the form a gorge that exposed uplifted and warped layers of basalt from the plateau.
The air was clear and warm, almost sweltering within the caldera basin.
In the distance, expanding out on the caldera floor and beyond to the desertscape, gourd-like structures studded the horizontal line between land and sky. They were some fifteen stories high, standing on a matrix of root-like stilts. Their engorged trunks were filled with a spongy, water absorbing material. Overall the basic impression of the environs encompassing the crash site was of a vast, oversized, gray-yellow world — an alien, inhospitable place.
Hard at work repairing the ship, the crew of the Pioneer 4 was forced to take off their uniforms. They longed for the air‑controlled comforts that were temporarily inoperative onboard the saucer. That made prioritizing the repair list relatively easy.
Major Nicraan Matasire took the common corridor that led to the aft section and Engineering. His footfalls echoed suddenly as he entered the spacious compartment of the podship’s engine room. He slowed as he reached the shielded hyperplasmic core. Its two bulbs of cleersteel that were joined by a narrow passage, through which a quantity of plasma and anti-matter usually ran, were now dormant; dual ionized tornadoes trapped in bottles now resembled simple rain clouds. The ever-present hrump of the hyperplasmic process was missing, leaving a vacuum in the anticipated sound envelope. This day, the bulbs merely glistened with potential energy like glitter waiting a kinetic stirring.
For the flight engineer, it was better than the alternative. At least there was enough power to keep the podship’s essential services running. But, even he knew there was a shortfall as they were fueled by the solar batteries. Each crewmember knew the star-powered cells couldn’t wholly keep the electrics operational for much longer —
The core’s catalytic cylinder lay exposed; its register was flashing Three-Quarter Power at its indicator marker. Commander Capel Perezsire stood staring at the displays. He knew the sight must be putting all the same thoughts into Matasire’s head that already filled his own; none of them optimistic.
“No good stories this rotate,” Capel said finally. Turning, he drifted on across the room, examining the internal systems indicator displays. “Artificial atmospheric controls are marginal,” he pointed to the appropriate report on the Computer Management control board. “It’s going to be hot in here this day.” He shifted position again, gesturing, “Thanks to Moela, the secondary and emergency systems are intact and functional. Gives us something to work with.” He shrugged, not making eye contact as he started back toward the core’s auxiliary control board. It was incorporated into the concentric railing corralling the hourglass reactor assembly.
Nicraan stepped over to the hyperplasmic core’s remote operations station and activated its command keys. At his request, the core’s status report manifested. A smile chiseled itself across his rugged countenance. The catalytic cylinder rotated back into its housing and the station’s reporting indicators went from red to green.
“I’ve got something good to tell,” Matasire said as he looked up from the instruments still grinning. “Looks like the ReGen programs were able to repair a microfracture in the core. I can initialize the station-keeping’s start up sequence.”
Matasire took no time in activating the necessary sequences to begin the plasma/anti-matter intermixing with a great crack of thunderous light. Ozone seemed to blossom like fire in the air throughout the engine room. The atomic flare’s field initial discharge settled into a deep, steady glow. “We have minimal power for essential and auxiliary services,” he reported, still smiling. “We can take the secondary and emergency controls off-line and begin living off the main power systems.”
Activating the Administrative Tools instrumentation on the panel, the commander gained entry to the System Tools command protocols. It only took a few precise touches before the Event Viewer holographics came online. Standing at the console, Capel smiled in satisfaction as the Performance Logs And Alerts access holograms materialized in the air.
“The ReGen programs have repaired the preliminary access systems,” he smiled as the necessary holographic materialized in the air. “Let’s see if I can at least get the climate controls back to a more acceptable level.”
Matasire flanked the commander at the work-station just as the male gently guided the spinning Counter Logs And Trace Logs images onto the main monitor, where they were assimilated into the main engineering’s computer. He glanced at the functional percentile task bar, illuminated on the Device Manager screen, and saw its percentage increase again fractionally toward his goal of 50 percent.
Nicraan nodded at the data on the display, wondering if their luck had been just phenomenally good, or just on a specific timeline. “The programs were able to recover five hundred rads of radioactivity within the irradiated starter material,” he said, with actual enthusiasm in his voice. The grin that had started to form on his handsome face quickly faded as he added, “However, there is still a glitch in the firewall safeties in the electronic cross-bridges between the back-up systems and the main power relays. Looks like an external control issue.”
“Scavenger hunts were never my favorite game as a child,” Perezsire sighed, pushing off the remote console and walking away, starting back toward the main hatch again. “Let’s try main computer control … the defragmenter program should be finished by now.”
Matasire’s brisk footsteps closed with his as both males exited the Engineering compartment and took the corridor around its bend into the utility deck’s main area. Here were mounds of unfinished projects just waiting for completion.
The glide tube’s lift decelerated as it lowered, its containment bar slid open. Moela Darasiress stepped out onto the lower deck, her entry unnoticed. Ozone seemed to have blossomed like fire in the air throughout the utility deck. Disarray was everywhere around the deck-center autonomous regeneration dais; test equipment underfoot, service access panels open, viewing holoscreens disconnected, relays and servos whining, and an overload signal protesting with its nerve-jangling warning squealed. It was coming from the forward auxiliary control cabin where Commander Capel stood sweat-soaked in duty fatigues at a secondary command console alongside an assisting Nicraan Matasire.
“Come on,” said Perezsire, cutting the alert. He was talking to an open computer panel in the auxiliary operations cabin for Pioneer 4, trying to coax the systems it controlled into working. “You can do it. I know you can.”
While the commander negotiated, Nicraan scanned the readout on the diagnostic device he’d taken out of an equipment case. Aiming it at the primary computer data core that now occupied the center floor like a scaffold island from where it had risen from its subdeck holding assembly, it was illuminated with blinks and flashes in response to Capel Perezsire’s machinations.
Getting the main computer systems back online would greatly increase their chances of survival. An instrument display on the exposed hard drive assembly flashed for an instant then returned to gray blankness.
“Don’t give me a hard time, now,” the commander scolded as he tinkered. Nicraan kept judiciously out of the way as Perezsire activated the core instrumentation once again. In seeming response to his request, the computer panel responded. The data core followed in suit only heartbeats later. “There you go!” He turned to his colleague. “The primary computer database is on-line now. Give it a scan, Major.”
The data core framework’s innards settled into a steady glow; a weird, thrumming hum filled the once-silent air. Whatever sense of artificial intelligence coursed through the neuronics of the living ship swelled into life again. The crew’s lives and deaths, all wrapped up in one bioneurochemical package. Perezsire clenched one fist behind his back, a commander’s prayer. “What readings are you getting?”
Matasire made some adjustments to the device he held and took another look at its readout as it trilled. A couple of indicators flashed on the face of the instrument in the palm of his hand. “I’m registering thirty access lines to the central core now,” he said, then frowned, “but still no data.”
Perezsire cursed under his breath before thinking a moment and then reapplied himself to the open panel again. “Here, maybe this’ll do it.” After another moment of re-manipulating the fluidic circuitry, he turned back saying, “Scan it again.”
With a lopsided grin, the major did as he was instructed. A flat tone retorted that there was no improvement.
“Nothing?” asked the commander.
“Nothing yet,” Matasire correct.
To deck-left Moela saw Dara dressed in a damp tank top and tailored cargo pants in the podship’s Infirmary amidst a flurry of medical equipment checks. She had opened a maintenance access panel and was scanning the inner workings. The physician was barely paying attention to the goings-on around her; she was too wrapped up in her own thoughts.
Moela moved on.
Deck 2 was designed as a full service utility level. It contained all propulsion machinery, direct access to the EmDrive, hyperatomic supralight and hyperdrive systems, and all podship electronic controls in an engineering bay directly behind the retaining wall that the lift and rung ladder were fastened too. A fully equipped galley for food storage and preparation curved away on the deck’s starboard hull followed by the crew’s gymnasium that sided a series of storage lockers and rooms – one of which was the aero-hydroponics cabin. A three-point airlock system for the podship’s landing struts dotted the deck: two were fore on either side of the auxiliary control, one aft between Retho’s and Moela’s living units. Curving along the aft hull’s dormitory corridor was the accommodations section where the four functionally ergonomic staterooms were located. Pioneer 4’s complete service maintenance bay filled the lower deck’s port hull; here the podship’s all-terrain amphibious vehicle was garaged. Similar to the shuttle stowed in the upper deck’s portside hangar, the Landrover was intended to provide the Aidennians with mobility to explore for mapping topography, geology, soil, and water conditions prevailing for Pioneer 4’s colonization mission.
Located on the lower level between the auxiliary control center and the galley was a scientific experimentation and research workshop area. In its center adjoining the fore wall was a laboratory with built-in sink and waste disposal facilities. Seated amongst voltmeters, ammeters, resistance/capacitance substitution boxes, holo-microscopes, calipers, weight scales, other mechanical inspection instruments and chemicals for biological and chemical analysis, Retho and Lunon Capelsire slid time by on stocking feet. They were talking about their two favorite subjects: engineering and biology. For Lunon it was computers and for Retho it was bacteriorhodopsin. Even for Retho, computer-talk was relatively simple; but, for Lunon, the understanding of the nature of bacteriorhodopsin needed a little explaining.
“In the wild, bacteriorhodopsin is found spanning the membrane of a tiny, rod-shaped, flagellum-wielding bacterium called Halo bacterium. Halo bacterium and its family have survived for billions of cycles, in no small measure because of this strange protein in its cellular “skin”,” Retho instructed his younger sibling, motioning to the three-dimensional slide of purplish smudge before them both on the lower utility deck’s lab’s desk’s holo-top. The terminal provided the access they needed into the ship’s computers for data entry and analysis.
Within one of three biological incubation units located on the counter opposite the service corridor, Halo bacterium grew by the billions, living, and reproducing. Within twelve Petri dishes the cultures flourished, partly because of a pressure valve at the base of each incubation unit that permitted any gas or atmosphere to be introduced. Retho was simulating some of the harshest conditions their tiny lives could handle. The ‘daytime’ temperatures soared, the ‘nights’ were cold, and the water was ten times saltier than any seawater — enough to pickle most creatures.
Lunon grinned wryly. “My simple mind is boggled,” he said. “Please elucidate. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little slow on this stuff.” As Lunon apologized, his youthful face flushed with embarrassment.
“That’s fine, Lunon,” Retho laughed in good-humor, he touched a hand against the side of the lab’s computer terminal. “I operate a computer and don’t understand how it works.”
“Then we are even,” Lunon grinned, laughing outright. “I know the elementary stuff. I know that engineers in The System had been growing the supertolerant microbe in bulk, knowing it is a willing ally for enzyme and bioplastics manufacture, desalination, enhanced pollution recovery, and even disease-drug screening. Besides being tough to kill — even at one hundred noches H — it’s also full of strange engineering firsts, a brilliance born of adversity.”
“For one thing,” Moela’s voice filled the lab with its charming pitch and caused the two to look away from the purple glow before them and over a respective shoulder. She was attractively attired in a revealing halter-style regulation top; she obviously had been listening from outside the back of the lab’s syntheglass-encased bulkhead. “Halo bacterium can toggle from being a food consumer to being a food producer. When conditions are good it gathers food that other creatures produce, and metabolizes it, just as we do.”
“How?” Lunon inquired.
“Sometimes,” Retho interjected, “when oxygen levels in their shallow sea home dip and there is no way to oxidize, or burn up, food, Halo bacterium goes to Plan B. It assembles in its membrane a protein called bacteriorhodopsin that allows it to harness sunlight to make its own sugars.”
“This is great,” Lunon looked doubly puzzled, “but how does this help us?”
“Well,” Moela replied, moving fully into the lab and going to position herself against the lab’s workbench. As she leaned against its edge, she pointed to the 3-D computer-generated image of bacteriorhodopsin. “These seven helical columns that look like synthetic protein substrate curls stand in a ring around a light sensitive pigment called retinaldehyde, or retinal A.”
“Retinal A is a close relative of the compound in our eye that helps us to see in dim light. Nature is fond of reusing her winning designs in new ways,” Retho said. “In bacteriorhodopsin, Nature uses an eye pigment to pull down sunlight.”
“So you see,” Moela grinned with admiration lighting her face, “bacteriorhodopsin is both a photon harvester and a proton pump. It is also a smart material — whereas most pumps would slow down due to the “back-pressure” of protons on the outside of the membrane, it adjusts to keep pumping protons. We admirers of this intelligent molecule are like corporate spies trying to reverse-engineer a machine that is only fifty angstroms by fifty angstroms, or one five millionth of a nanoretems long.”
“Another of bacteriorhodopsin’s talents is its knee-jerk reaction to certain frequencies of light — this means you can use one color of light to kink it — recording one — and another color of light to unkink it — recording zero,” Retho touched the side of the computer terminal once again.
“Computer operations!” the young engineer almost fell off the lab stool he occupied beside Retho’s with realization. “You can use it for computer applications!”
Both older siblings cheered in unison, “Exactly!”
“And since we have holographic computers onboard the Pioneer, we can use this bacteriorhodopsin!”
“Yes,” Moela grinned, touching her sibling gently on his closest shoulder. “You’re getting it.”
Lunon slouched and grinned sheepishly. “Not really.”
Retho giggled in sympathy. Taking a side-look at a bulkhead chronometer, he said as he slipped on his workboots, “That’s fine. Moela, could you explain? I have some work to do in the hydroponics garden, and BeeTee is waiting for me. I’m afraid it’ll melt if it waits any longer in that heat up there.”
“I know. I just left it after helping to assemble the water conversion unit.” Moela moved to sit on the stool Retho was occupying as the scientist made an exit from the lab and toward the stair-rungs beyond. “In the case of optical protein computing, the working surface of a computer disk would be covered with bacteriorhodopsin packed shoulder to shoulder. The read/write heads would be red and green laser beams, which, when aimed at specific “addresses” on the drive, would kink and unkink molecules, storing ones and zeros and then reading them out. An optical detector would measure whether or not light has been absorbed at each site. To keep from erasing information during the reading process, a second pulse of light would follow the red light to reset the flipped bacteriorhodopsin. It takes bacteriorhodopsin only five trillionths of a nanonode to change absorption states. Give it a nanonode, and it’ll kink and unkink two thousand times.”
Lunon nodded. “So, since most of the tripolymer coating has been stripped from our computer hardware’s optical chips, Retho and you are manufacturing new coating to bring the ship’s main systems back on-line.”
Moela ran a hand through Lunon’s damp, tousled curls as she smiled. “Yes. We can fit trillions of bacteriorhodopsin molecules on a computer chip the size of a sugar cube.”
“Well, if you’re going to need holograms to utilize these ‘sugar cubes’,” Lunon touched his sister warmly on her nearest shoulder, “we’ll be needing micro-Fourier lenses. I’d better get about re-aligning them through the ship’s computer relaying mainframe.”
“That’s why Retho brought you here in the first place. But, before you could do all of that work, he wanted you to understand the method behind the madness.”
Lunon giggled. “Madness understood, Mentor. I best be off and see if we can get the ship’s vital life support systems back up to specs.”
“Like climate control,” Moela smiled, running the back of a hand against her moist forehead.
Lunon nodded as he exhaled uncomfortably. “Especially climate control.”
The Aidennian survivors had been on the new planet for just under a month, and already they had established a small base camp. West was the only direction in which they could clearly see for any distance; to the north, south, and east, the view was blocked by towering summits ringing the crash site like the walls of a monstrous amphitheater.
The actual crash site was in a meteor crater resembling a worn-down molar on a fan-shaped lava flow depression covered in retems of sand and grit extending for more than a hundred kiloretems down the northeast flank of the eastern volcanic mountains. The meteor crater was the only real blemish in what was otherwise a flawlessly circular summit cone and caldera, and clearly it had come very late in the volcano’s history of eruptions. Standing down in the depression, one’s view of the rest of the summit was cut off – it was like being in a shallow hanging valley, with little visible in any direction, except the west – until one walked out to the drop-off at the crater rim’s edge, and saw the huge cylinder of the caldera coring the planet, and on the far flow rim were volcanoes, looking like a skyline over forty kiloretems away.
Immediately surrounding the grounded Pioneer Four were portable shelters for observation and experimentation purposes containing computer terminals that provided access to the podship’s computers for data entry and analysis, a small outdoor galley complete with conventional pots and pans used with a miniature four burner electric stove that also contained a high-intensity overhead heat lamp for additional warming; all were powered from a portable fuel cell – a portable sonic dishwasher cleaned and sanitized all utensils, a small farm including a hydroponics garden from which onboard recyclers provided replenishment of nutrient supplies, a cartable compact fully programmable clothing synthesis unit manufactured replacement uniforms while the main clothing fabricators remained offline and an electronic dry cleaning unit cleaned and folded the clothes, and a perimeter defense bunker just like the podship that was stocked with a variety of offensive and defensive weapons including a close perimeter force field – a capable system that could be controlled from the main tactical console on the flight deck and/or a more-powerful projector that could protect the campsite up to a range of one hundred retems.