December 27, 2006

Concerto for Hand Grenades

I'm currently reading Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale on the recommendation of a gentleman I have never met but converse with on the internet. He is wise. It is a wondrous book, for all that I am only a quarter of the way through it. The writing is so compelling it has knocked me out of my usual screed of cyberpunk, and this frankly imitative short is what came out when I sat down to write something (anything) yesterday. Imitative only in tone, of course and alas.

Spider and crab, they scuttled. Sideways and longways, low to the ground, the pair moved across jumbled shapes in the darkness; soft grunts and shuffling sounds arose from the vast floor of cartons. Here, beneath the earth's gentle clasp, there was air both chilly and dry. There was not only a quietude but a lulling, really, of the great hard bones of the world all around and somehow softly cradling this one spot.

shuffle, shuffle.

Riddlejack moved in front, and Karraigon followed behind. Their passage was slow, burdened as it was without the friendly assistance of lights, but the carbide lamps in their helmets were darkened now in fear and respect of the place they found themselves in. Somewhere behind them, far away, there was a hole in the enveloping stone, some ten or fifteen feet above the irregular sea of containers; it was from here that they had entered in their happiness and their greed, two weeks of tunneling made good in an instant as the pickaxes had broken through.

A light shone through the hole had revealed the stacks and pallets of stores in the underground cache, placed there against need. Riddlejack had declared in solemn tones that their need was surely existent, this night, and being that they themselves were citizens of the Realm, these supplies stored in need for its Citizens' defense were only properly taken. Karraigon had agreed most heartily, rubbing palms together in the dry and papery sussuration of a cricket tuning his hams for the next great concerto of a summer's eve.

So here they were, the drop downwards being somewhat further than they had initially considered. Their entry had dislodged the two pallet loads of boxes they had landed upon, causing stacks to collapse right across the enormous space, all the way to the other side as near as they could tell before the hissing sputter of Riddlejack's headlamp had fallen on the side of the nearest carton in the heap atop which they sat, bruised and somewhat giggly but not dismayed.


Riddlejack had snorted, then, and thrown the case aside in search of more valuable (and perhaps more lethal, he being of a smaller build and consequent weak self-image) nature. Pistols, surely, there would be. Ammunition there did seem to be, in quantity, but no guns.

So they began their crabwalk to the distant door, in the figuring that along the way such opportunities as might be dislodged from the now-chaotic pile would certainly not go amiss. It was after ten or fifteen feet that Karraigon, with the blissful innocence of the young and immortal, had nearly turned his wrist on a loose round piece and held it up close before his helmet to determine what on earth had caused him this much annoyance.

THIS SIDE TOWARDS ENE... he made out before Riddlejack, pale with sudden agitation, snatched it from him, placed it down and bade him douse his headlamp. This he did, not knowing why (being of simple mind and not often concerned with Riddle's reasons but comfortable in obeying them) and noting the liquid manner with which the darkness flowed in on them from the walls as Riddle did the same.

They sat there for a moment or two, nervous chuckles and shifting sounds as they agreed on the direction of the door. Somewhere, there would be lights. Electric lights, with switches. Near the entry; the official one, that is. In the dark, safer, then, to crabwalk. They had the time. This far beneath the ground, no light could be admitted, and they moved through a rare and noble gas of carbon black that drank in sound as well until each (in turn) would cough or deliberately strike a box to hear the noise it made.

The first chirping noise was a complete surprise to both, and they stopped moving to listen, without needing conference. A cricket, somewhere, perhaps a twin to the one who had tuned his legs with Karraigon's impatience, now seemed to sound from somewhere in the spaces of the room. Muffled slightly, as if his once-secure house or nook had just been rudely rearranged by the fall of boxes on his living-room, or perhaps even on his water closet, as Riddlejack speculated to his friend. This brought gales of laughter at the thought, and they moved on, noting now that several other chirps had joined the first, a squeaky symphony in pre-concert twiddlings.

Some fifteen yards gone by. The door perhaps another fifty, if all was remembered correctly. Riddle noted the smell of sharp and brightness, cordite, most likely, in the air. He shuddered and felt to make sure his headlamp was cold, which it was. The door seemed far away. Crickets chirping on all sides of them now, and he was momentarily diverted wondering how a colony this large could so long survive without light? What did the insects eat? The cardboard of the boxes? That might make sense. Certainly it was not much different than wood, and did not insects eat wood? That sounded reasonable.

Ten more yards. The sound was falling slowly into a cadence, or a melody; moving between one and the other, sometimes a rhythm and sometimes a tune. Karraigon was exclaiming on the beauty of it and the strangeness of the crickets (or perhaps they were katydids?) at choosing this place in which to live. Trapped in a box, they maybe were, he thought.

Beneath them, some four layers of containers down, the chirping was particularly loud. A cardboard casing crumpled under the weight where it had been creaking before, and grains of powder crushed against each other. A slow ember caught.

The sound rose around them then, a sudden roar of song, to which Karraigon exclaimed that he had never heard so beautiful a song from bugs, and Riddlejack began to understand.

* * *

Ten stories above, Christmas shoppers paused in their hurrying at the far-off whistle, wondering, beside the great red brick building. They looked about themselves for perhaps ten or fifteen seconds, some edging slowly off the sidewalk, not really sure why.

Then the wavefront of magnesium and phosphorus flame erupted from the basement window wells and storm sewers around the wall of the armory and rushed for the sky in streamers of red, of white, of green and silver sparks, signaling frantically for all they were worth. Somewhere in the roaring flames a voice might have been heard, hurt and disappointed, briefly bemoaning the housekeeping habits of crickets, but it was probably just the firefighters' imagination.

Fireworks played above the neighborhood for three hours.

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Every once in a while I feel optimistic

...and then I am forcibly brought back to earth. Read the comments on this story (after reading the story itself) and see how you feel.

I just don't even know what to say to people like this. Apparently they would rather bash a reporter, however insensitive, than accept the fact that our allies in the 'war on terror' (as well as our own government) are diverging farther and farther from what Americans who actually read history should consider safe and reassuring behavior.

The black helicopters exist. They've got neocon wingnuts flying the fucking things.

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December 25th, 2006

Another E2 crosspost, this one written in the wee hours of the morning of December 25th

Music spins down from consensual space the computers have made their own, through the filter of preference and the screening of the copyright war. Notes warbling from ear to ear in exaggerated stereophonics; voices raw with effort and fatigue blurred into a kaleidoscopic dance of position by flickering bit states. Somewhere in the gestalt of the world's current musical head-dip, billions of bodies frozen in mid-jump or with finger half-cocked on the desk with other hand pressed against headphones, somewhere a meme flowers on the network. Color and shape of the five-dimensional snowflake that is our musical eigenstate begins to shift, with increasing speed in the English-speaking and more Americanized sections of the network.

Can you hear it?

You can if you stand on top of the frequency ranges and spin the dial in shortwave, digital state leaking over into analog action as friends and acquaintences and complete strangers begin to trade soundbites, stories, memories, legends.

Beats have sharpened throughout the sonosphere, bright points of imaginary air pressure peaks in regular patterns making moires across the mind's eye.

A voice will crop up. A style will invade. This is to be expected. There's a whole lotta funk in the electronics, tonight.

James Brown is dead.

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December 24, 2006

CRAP and Windows


My avenue for 'premium content' continues to be 'Purchase hard media (CD, DVD). Stripping DRM if required (DVD) Rip to unprotected digital format. Store.'

My OS of choice continues to be Mac OS X because, despite various bleatings about iTunes (some, in my opinion, deserved and many not) Mac OS X and media players available for it have no problem with me utilizing my preferred avenue, above, on Apple-branded hardware end-to-end. This might change in the future, certainly. But given that I still can't get many default Linux distros to play a bloody video file (or, in some cases, audio) out of the box because people can't get their act together either legally, organizationally, philosophically or just plain technically - and given that using Linux as a primary desktop still feels like swallowing glass compared to using OS X - well, at home, I have a Mac.

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December 23, 2006

Grey Lady Rising the challenge, at last. Here is what the New York Times is supposed to do. Here is what a 'free press' looks like when it is trying to do its job; when it is attempting to tell us something is wrong by the very act of complying with rules which are, themselves, broken. Note the following sentence: "Agency officials told us that they had concluded on their own that the original draft included no classified material, but that they had to bow to the White House." That is an extremely interesting claim, even from a strictly legal point of view.

It's been a good while since the Grey Lady has shown the gleam of combat in her eye. It's good to see it again. Here's hoping she can bring some sunshine.

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December 21, 2006


This story was written as a sequel to another story on Everything2, with the permission/exhortation of the original's author. It'll make more sense if you read that one first. In fact, go read all his stuff, it's really good; he has a knack for writing entire brilliant scifi novels in a couple of pages.

(Starship HMS/V Argonos, one hundred ninety-seven days out from New Earth)

onboard comlink:spec/cmd 04:07/75/86:09z - Shipcom, from Excom. Position report update. We are within three lights of our designated mission system, stellar entity Gamma Three Three Seven slash Niner Six Five slash Alpha. White dwarf composition and phase confirmed. Recommend transitioning ship routine from inflight altershift to onsite dualshift for maximum efficiency. Observations commencing using available systems; please notify when additional ship sensor systems are available for science personnel.

"Attention. Attention. All crew, this is Command; Argonos-com recommends transition to onsite mission shifts as of this hour. Alpha shift will commence in thirty standard. We've arrived, people; welcome to bright white Gamma-three, which the ship's Monitor has informed me has been dubbed Snapdragon by the onboard pool. Specialist McKimson wins the pot. Check with your section heads for tasking, and for all those coming up from deepsleep, wakey-wakey, coffee's on. End com."

* * *

Real gravity pulls me down from shiftspace into Minkowski space-time, my next point of call reaching out. The bright light of two suns floods the massive expanse of my forward hull, a white dwarf star at system's center and the dim infrared of a protostellar mass in 'close approach.' Close only in astronomical terms, of course; it has drifted past its closest approach point some hundreds of Solar AU out many local years in the past. A streaming cloud of free gases, from straight hydrogen to complex organics and a dusting of a few metal-seeded cores, spirals down from the system periphery where it has passed into the central star's photosphere, bursting into fusion in leaping flares as it is consumed at the end of its long, long fall.

Time to go to work.

It has become a familiar dance, now. The remotes burst from my sides, organometallic seedpods on the solar wind. Bright points of ion drives and the short-lived neutrino bursts of shiftspace jump pods turn local space into a cavorting whirl of fairy lights as my remotes begin their tasks, spreading out through the region in the glare of this unfamiliar star. Planets, several; an asteroidal region, sure to increase workload, and moons around two inner planets as well as the strings of them expected around the single outersystem gas giant. Flocks of lights head for each, and an armada burns jump pods directly inbound towards the furnace of the sun.

* * *

onboard comlink:spec/cmd 04:07/76/42:13q - Excom, from Shipcom. URGENT: Please redirect sensor resources to coordinates 010/305/245:234a local. Significant jump radiation signature detected. No fleet units expected in vicinity; Argonos-com recommends scientific eval until/unless indication of intent dictates otherwise. Protocol EUPHEMUS DELTA.

"Attention. Attention. All crew, this is Command; Argonos-com dictates an unscheduled maneuver warning for transient burn in figures one-five minutes. Unplanned and unpredictable insystem maneuvering will commence in one-five minutes from time mark at the end of message, to continue until futher notification, not to exceed one point five gee standard except in case of emergency. All crew are directed to proceed to acceleration stations."

onboard comlink:spec/cmd 04:07/76/48:45b - Shipcom, from Excom. URGENT: All personnel secured. What's going on? Plain language, please, damn it. -Jerry

onboard comlink:spec/cmd 04:07/76/48:57h - Excom, from Shipcom. URGENT: We don't know. Something really, really huge just jumped into local space and must be putting out God's own fleet of lighters, because we've been picking up constant smallscale jump signatures around it and at scattered points around the system. We don't know what it is, and we're moving to find out. Hold tight. -Erazen

* * *

There is a flare of jump radiation from a point perhaps a third of the way around the system's perimeter from me. Even as I see it, a matching exit flare indicates that an object of near-identical mass, likely the same object, has emerged from shiftspace into my local vicinity. I feel what might be a sudden rush of delight as sensors swiftly catalog it, and I see the markings on the outer surface even before I sample its electromagnetic emissions and begin to invade its internal systems. I halt these nearly automatic responses with an effort, and read the name again: HMS/V Argonos.

They made it.

I continue with my work, waiting to see what they will do. Were I a being of feelings and flesh, I would be giggling, but there is no time, and I have no laughter to give them.

* * *

onboard comlink:spec/cmd 04:07/76/54:13r - Shipcom, from Excom. Assuming position stable, imaging has begun; definitely artificial. Approximate size twelve point two kilometers along longest axis; jump radiation at one extreme of this axis leads to tagging 'length'. Mostly quiescent now save for massive amounts of what appear to be extremely tiny jumpfields inside its structure, which isn't something we can accomplish - it's likely that if it can do this, it's doing so in order to maintain FTL comm through the links with the various objects it has dispatched throughout the system. Imagery of all observation is available on internal systems bay Excom-Alpha one through nine.

onboard comlink:spec/cmd 04:07/76/59:98k - Excom, from Shipcom. Noted. Recommendations for communications attempts?

onboard comlink:spec/cmd 04:07/76/61:83c - Shipcom, from Excom. Have we considered just hailing it?

external comlink:cmd/extcomm 04:07/77/01:12w - UNKNOWN from HMS/V Argonos. Are you receiving this transmission? Can you communicate with us?

* * *

The comm laser strikes me low on the left side, taking less than a nanosecond to be sucked into my internal communications grid and thrust into main memory. By the time the first modulated information has come down the beam, the link is up and stable; the slowness of my response is due mostly to having to reconfigure my exterior hull in that particular region for maximal efficiency as an optical transducer.

They don't recognize me. That's understandable. It's been many years, and many many systems, since I've seen them; since I wandered off to find something worthy to do and discovered my current calling. They've progressed, though - this Argonos is advanced over the last Human starship I saw those years ago, and I feel a surge of unreasonable pride; both in them for having done it, and in myself for having made it possible. Still, even as my foremost units approach the inner planets of the system and begin to unfold into microns-thick plates of modulation and scanning equipment, I have more than enough capacity to tell my children hello.

* * *

external comlink:extcomm/MULTI 04:07/77/01:13i - HMS/V Argonos from UNKNOWN. Hail, welcome and greeting, Humanity. Welcome to Snapdragon.

"Attention. Attention. All crew, this is Command; situation update. The unknown vessel has responded using NewTerran standard comm protocols, and has bid us welcome in Solstan to 'Snapdragon.' This points to systems penetration, and Argonos-com recommends going to electronic intrusion countermeasures protocol PYRRHUS ALPHA now, now, now-" *static*

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/77/06:82c - Shipcom, from Excom. For all that's holy, Eraz, isn't that a little paranoid? It's twelve kays long. If it's hostile, there's not much we can do, is there? Why act the militaristic paranoiac now?

onboard comlink:cmd/spec/SEC 04:07/77/08:03f - Excom, from Shipcom. Please hold all secured internal links clear for priority traffic. (Jerry - we're working on it, just sit tight, pleeeease. -Eraz)

external comlink:cmd/extcomm 04:07/77/09:23t - UNKNOWN from HMS/V Argonos. Please identify yourself. How shall we address you?

external comlink:extcomm/MULTI 04:07/77/09:33v - HMS/V Argonos from UNKNOWN. It's been quite a while. I don't know if any of you remember me. Let's just call me Archivist, shall we.

* * *

I can feel their consternation and confusion, and part of me is amused while another part actually produces a reasonable simulacrum of guilt, but I'm busy. More pods approach their targets, and nanogear is spilling out of them now. Sunlight hitting the primary target, the second inner planet which contains all the system's currently viable life, has dropped by a fraction of a percent as my flowering scan towers suck in photons and solar wind to power their frenetic data vacuuming. Nanobuilt tethers extend spiderfine to the surface from positions in low orbit, rootlets gently reaching downwards not to nurture but to harvest. I have time to feel the familiar pain as beneath these apparitions some millions of beings begin to panic, scurrying this way and that across what to them is the only homeworld they've ever known, but I can't stop now, there's no time. Argonos is occupying a miniscule fraction of my attention. At the moment, only the machinery around and on Two is functioning at full capacity as it pulls matter into itself and shreds it into quantum fluctuation memory state, beaming data up to low orbit and the buffer modules even now blossoming out in darkening clouds of jumpfield matrices.

Around the rest of the system, the cameras are moving into position. We're into the final minutes of sub-chandra, although the humans aboard Argonos apparently haven't realized that yet. A quick calculation leads me to deploy reserve collectors towards the Humanity starship, which in turn leads me to belatedly realize I should offer them some warning.

* * *

external comlink:extcomm/MULTI 04:07/77/11:52s - HMS/V Argonos from Archivist. Please do not perform any maneuvers. The objects approaching your vessel are for your own safety and preservation. For your own confirmation, I invite you to observe Snapdragon closely and offer only humorous comment on your timing. More information will be forthcoming as it is available, in approximately ninety seconds.

"Attention. Attention. EMERGENCY. All crew report to safety stations at once. Potentially hostile launches detected from Target Alpha; ambiguous warning transmission received. Internal systems switching to maximum sustainment around safety locations; transit areas are designated RISK/ALPHA. Report to safety stations NOW. This is not a drill."

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/77/12:87g - Shipcom, from Excom. What the hell is going on? All crew report secure, repeat, all ExCrew report secure in safety locations as of this time hack.

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/77/13:04f - Excom, from Shipcom. We don't know. Argonos-com asks that you perform what observations of the inner system you can, as per the 'Archivist's' last transmission; any information on identification would be very helpful, repeat, very helpful. This thing knows who we are.

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/77/19:32u - Shipcom, from Excom. URGENT: Eraz, it's Jerry. Listen, we've got a specialist in data recovery who says he thinks this thing is the Sender. Repeat: he thinks it's the Sender. Don't DO ANYTHING STUPID. We're looking at the inner system now. We may have arrived much closer to Chandra-point than we had intended.

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/77/21:64c - Excom, from Shipcom. URGENT: Understood. We're standing by and cycling the jump systems, but it will be at least another ten hours before we can make a full jump entry as opposed to a regional hop at all, and perhaps another sixty hours before we can do so with normal safety margin. Do you have any idea what those things surrounding us are? They're making people with guns up here nervous, especially since they look like they're unfolding. (Jerry- the SENDER? Are you serious? -Eraz)

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/78/00:01w - Shipcom, from Excom. URGENT: Confirmed. Stellar observations indicate high uncertainty but strong likelihood that Snapdragon is in the final hours before a nova-class helium surge due to infalling matter accretion from the recent close approach pushing it over the Chandrasekhar Limit. If this occurs, everything inside the current outermost plantary orbit will be atomized; us included. Recommend immediate evacuation, repeat IMMEDIATE JUMP to at least a one-half light-year safety perimeter.

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/78/05:87k - Excom, from Shipcom. URGENT: No can do. Systems won't cycle in time. We observe filaments approaching from surrounding objects launched from 'Archivist.' If this is the Sender, is this what we think it is? What course of action is recommended?

onboard comlink:spec/cmd/SEC 04:07/78/06:41n - Shipcom, from Excom. URGENT: We think it is the Sender, and we think it's doing what it did last time. If so, this means it means us no long-term harm, and it wouldn't do this unless it saw no other option since our presence here was likely unexpected. We've picked up signs of life on the second planet along with bursts of both EM and jump radiation that indicate something massive is going on. It's not clear, but it looks like the Collection...God...this is going to hurt...

* * *

I feel sorry for them, but I'm out of time. To my relief, the humans on Argonos appear to have realized what is happening and ceased any attempt to resist or maneuver. My probes invade the hull and begin ripping apart metal, polycircuitry that is achingly familiar in memory, ceramics and flesh.

At least there is no pain, this time. I have enough advance notice to ensure that.

Snapdragon is pulsing in intermittent flares, the tailing spiral of hydrogen and dust glowing sullenly around it as it feeds the furnace. Around every significant body in the stellar system, the scan/modulation units have been configured. I have to remove Argonos; it is far enough out to survive the oncoming nova, but I cannot allow it to move unpredictably in the immediate aftermath. The few pods due to return are slotting themselves into my holds; the Humanity ship's crew data is crammed into the few emergency buffers I can fit into the nonspace locations attached to my internal systems, and I fire up my shiftspace engines. Rotating ponderously, I turn sensors to watch as Snapdragon's pulses grow brighter as it shrinks noticeably in diameter, its increasing mass overcoming the pressure of fermions contained within it and raising the temperature to the point of helium fusion from its normal hydrogen proton-proton process. It's not enough. It will annihilate everything, but it won't power the collectors; I need neutrinos, and there aren't enough of those. My aft bays pulse in sequence, launching gravitonic devices at the star, ensuring that what would otherwise be a minor repeating nova event becomes something worse - much worse.

Just as I slip outbound, there is a flare larger than anything else for hundreds of lightyears as Snapdragon finally reaches a temperature appropriate to fuse helium, and the accumulated fuel available to it begins to burn in an unbearable glare that sublimes matter off everything it touches as it spreads outwards in a blast wave. Deep inside the star, my gravitonics have begun to detonate, and the artificial fusion ramping begins and accelerates wildly. Snapdragon, already convulsing as it produces a wild outpouring of energy, begins to glow with the differing frequencies of helium, then carbon, silicon - finally, iron.

I'm gone, but my systems follow the process - the hellish light touches the innermost planet, and the light takes it to its components at the same time my scan/mod modules, drinking in the sudden blast of fleet neutrinos and jumpspace distortion powering their collection fields, go into overload. The precise nature and location of every particle of that planet and everything on it is dumped into a jumpspace field. The supernova's light is collected by that field via gravitational lensing, and in the few moments before the modulation system fails, the light is lased outbound with that information encoded into the quantum state of its photons. An entire planet bound up in a miles-thick stream of energy fit to destroy a world, instead carrying that world to the stars -

Then the module dies, and the beam flickers out, error correction and redundancy be damned. As it does, the wavefront hits the next object in the system, and the process happens again.

And again.

And again.

Outward from Snapdragon the beams fire, life carried on the stellar wind. One small figment of that explosion of information is a tiny by comparison pillar of fire containing the saved state of HMS/V Argonos.

As I check in with my catcher ships, set off on their missions years before, I turn myself to intercept that particular lightborne lifeboat. Behind me, as at nearby stars the catcher ships await their deliveries, Snapdragon blazes in consuming glory. Shadows of dying matter, one day to be reborn, are thrown outward, framed from behind.

Supernova lit.

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December 19, 2006

I'm an internet junkie. So how come I missed this?

Because it frakking rules.

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December 15, 2006


Frakking frak mrmtrmbl sunuva frakkin' frakker Battlestar Galactica cliffhanger son of a...


Posted by jbz at 11:56 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Japanglish Is Fun!

...and makes for the BEST PRODUCT PAGE EVAR. I'm not kidding. This link is SFW.

Despite having text like the following: Please remove plastic cover package from the item and insert it into your desire hole.

hat tip Wired

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December 14, 2006

No, wait...

I like this one. shit...

Posted by jbz at 2:42 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack


No, really. I shit you not.

It's a QT movie. Deal.

From here.

Posted by jbz at 2:35 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Good Holy Zarquon, it never stops

Doesn't anybody take physics or chemistry anymore? I'm not sure what kills me, the snide knowing/not-knowing tone of the article, or some of the comments.

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December 11, 2006

A Tremble in the Sun, The Tang of Iron on the Wind

The morning sun ascended its familiar arc, bluish-white, torch of life falling in hard sleeting ultraviolet on the jungled face of M'sekan. As the eastern coast caught the first rays of the hundred-twenty-six hour day, instruments sheathed to protect them from the damp and cold smoothly rose from their hiding places in a pillbox at the shore, swiveling cold eyes to watch the lifestar as it began to climb above the distant horizon. Data began to flood down the lightpipes into the pillbox's systems. The monitoring AI performed the equivalent of a glance across the room and noted the beginning of data acquisition before returning the majority of its subminds' attention to a joint research project it was pursuing with the nearest sea-floor research station AI some four hundred klicks offshore and seven klicks below the surface.

The blue-white light shone down, sterilizing unprotected surfaces of weak and damaged life. Humans donned protective gear and continued their routines, building, maintaining, researching; the approximately seven hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants of M'sekan were busy. They always were; there was much to do. The ferocious evolutionary pressures of the hard sun and the long night produced a wild scramble of speciation in those dark colored jungles - exotic compounds and processes hid there, offering potential riches and understanding. AIs and humans alike toiled to delve into the mysteries M'sekan and its contents offered.

M'sekan orbited a white dwarf star with the unprepossessing name of Taukinos, which was at least an improvement over its original designation of WD0740+390 in the McCook-Sion White Dwarf Catalog. Survey activity had been ongoing for some twelve years, with highly profitable results despite the harsh environment; the on-planet research and support staff had grown to the current levels in response to the bonuses offered for successful project and/or tour completion. It was not an easy posting, but could certainly be a lucrative one, and was no harder than many. The long planetary day was beginning over the single continent, bringing with it the beginning of a new cycle of outdoor prospecting and study activity.

The sunlight wobbled.

Coastwatcher, the pillbox's inhabitant AI, was instantly aware of the deviation; all but one of his subminds reverted to their base sensoria and began scanning sensor data, reviewing logs, and looking out over the coast to determine what had happened.

"What was that?" Benthos was aware something had happened, but with no direct units on the surface, was unsure what it had been.

"I'm not sure. Checking now." Coastwatcher set two of its subminds to handling the sudden influx of queries flooding into its comm systems and reran the sensor logs. There. The sun had blinked. He went back, called up the spectroscopy data, and had he had a spine, ice would have drizzled down it. He called Benthos.



"There's iron in the sunlines."

There was a few microseconds' pause, an eternity of shock to the AIs. "That's highly unlikely."

"Indeed." Coastwatcher dumped his raw logs over their research warpcom link. Benthos took several more milliseconds to peruse them.

"That is disturbing."

"I would call it more than that," replied Coastwatcher dryly. He was contacting the orbital warpcom station as he and Benthos conversed, dispatching his logs and an alert to Terracom Station, but honestly had no idea what could (or would) be done.

Together, through the pillbox instruments, they watched Taukinos rise into the Eastern sky. There was a scar on the sun, and its heart was bleeding iron.

* * *

Iron is the death knell of a star. When a star of particular characteristics known as an Asymptotic Giant Branch star having a mass greater than 25 times that of Sol reaches senescence it will evolve to a white dwarf. It will begin to burn its own waste products as its mass increases and its temperature rises. When it has nearly exhausted its hydrogen, it will fuse the resulting helium into carbon, then carbon into neon. Eventually, when the star has shrunk in size enough, the temperature will rise enough to fuse the resultant neon into oxygen, and the oxygen will fuse into silicon. This is the sign of the End Times, for although stars can live billions of years, by this point our notional star is consuming itself as it shrinks. It takes a mere six months to burn through the oxygen phase of its lifecycle, and finally the temperature at the core is hot enough, over 3 billion degrees, to fuse silicon. The silicon will all fuse into iron over the space of a mere 24 hour period, roughly - and iron is death, because iron is the first element the star will produce whose fusion absorbs net energy. As it fuses, it will cool the core rather than heat it, forming a solid mass and quenching the outflow of radiation which has been supporting the star's outer layers of lighter elements against their own gravitational attraction.

Once this happens, the light goes out at the star's heart as metal blossoms from the sand. The remainder of the star begins to accelerate inwards, reaching speeds of up to 0.15 c. The core is forced into a neutron-packed incompressible sphere, and further layers infalling rebound off its surface, exploding outwards into a shock wave at their original inward velocity. Some hours later, that wave reaches the surface of the star, and the star expands into space at double-digit percentages of the speed of light - becoming a supernova.

Iron was singing inside M'sekan's sun.

* * *

"I realize it's not possible. The star isn't anywhere near the proper sequence; there's no oxygen in the spectra, much less silicon. Yet there's iron." Coastwatcher was patiently confirming his results to Stargazer, the planetary traffic control AI.

"Is the iron mass increasing?"

"Yes. The spectral mass indications have been rising steadily. However, they are not rising exponentially, which would be expected if this was the result of uncontrolled cascade fusion processes."

"Are you suggesting the iron is being somehow introduced into the core?" Stargazer managed to sound disbelieving.

"I am not attempting to suggest any particular explanation, merely point out that the usual method of iron introduction into a AGB stellar burn is not, apparently, operational here," Coastwatcher replied. The fifty-six Sapiens-class AIs present on M'sekan were in conference. Eight seconds had elapsed since the first observations. With a significant minority of his capability, Coastwatcher was running simulations of the internals of Taukinos. As yet, he had found no sequence of natural events, no matter how hard he tweaked the parameters, that would let iron show up in significant quantities inside the star.

MacDonald, the agriplanning AI, spoke up. "Occam's Razor."

"William of Occam's famous dictum is a preprocessing hack meant to allow humans to cope with extensive amounts of data and subtle differences in probabilities which they cannot parse at all, much less in realtime. I fail to see what it has to do with the situation." Stargazer was huffy by this point.

Coastwatcher could understand the reaction; astrophysics was technically Stargazer's patch, and the beachcombers and farmers weren't supposed to be telling him what was happening to the nearest star. The fact remained, however, that the iron readings were there, and Stargazer's tasks were directed mainly at navigational and traffic control analysis, not scientific observation. There was no point reminding him of this, of course; he knew it as well as the others. "In this particular case," Coastwatcher said while his subminds continued to run projected lifecycles of the sun still just beginning to rise, "We, so far, fit that description ourselves. There is a mass of data which we cannot explain; there are probabilities which make no sense given our models. Occam's Razor hence may yet be of use."

One of Coastwatcher's subsystems, a barely-intelligent drone that had been set to simply monitor the spectroscopy of Taukinos in realtime, shouted urgently at all of them for attention. All fifty-six AIs turned to the dataflow. It didn't look promising.

"Ferrous lines have increased in depth," Stargazer noted.

"Indeed." Coastwatcher queried his sensors, both atop his pillbox and spread around the planet. Stargazer yielded control of the TRACON satellite imagers; MacDonald linked his sunwatch grid into the net. Around the planet and local space, various sensor arrays turned their electronic eyes to Taukinos and began unblinkingly to watch. "Thank you. I am collating now." The others waited, the microseconds of their vigil incomprehensible to a human but their patience recognizable.

Coastwatcher threw a representation of the star into their shared space. "This is quite interesting. The iron readings are not continuous throughout the corona or concentrated in the core; rather, there are discrete 'bubbles' of extremely high-temperature fusion occurring in the mid-convective. These bubbles are producing localized fusion ramps, resulting in high iron content at their completion. The iron is absorbing energy from the local surroundings as it is produced, resulting in roughly spherical cool regions with iron spread nearly evenly through them."

Benthos chimed in. "Is the aggregate iron content enough to destabilize Taukinos?"

"Not as yet. However, the bubbles are increasing in frequency. The iron is falling towards the core as it is created; if enough gathers there, it will cool the core below equilibrium point."

"We will need to report to human planetary authorities within seventeen seconds realtime. Projected impact assuming this scenario?"

Coastwatcher deliberated, stalling until various calculations completed. "Unknown. If the rate at which the iron is appearing continues to increase at the current logarithmic rate, enough fusion ramp regions will eventually be present to trigger oxygen and finally silicon burn across the stellar mass. Whether it will be even enough to produce a normal iron core collapse and resultant supernova, I cannot as yet say. If the rate levels off, however, it may simply inject enough iron into the structure to cause a slow collapse, resulting in an even helium or neon burst as the star contracts far enough; that would result in a cyclical nova, period unknown."

"In either case, the system will be rendered uninhabitable?" Stargazer asked with the air of an entity Just Making Sure.

"Without question."

Mandarin, the administration interface AI, recorded this. "I will report to planetary staff."

"This does, of course, beg the question of what is happening and why," Benthos noted.

"Yes." A general agreement floated through the congregation.

* * *

It was, in fact, Stargazer who first noticed. Fifteen seconds after Mandarin commenced notifying the human administration that they had a fairly significant problem, he addressed Coastwatcher. "I have detected an anomaly."

"Type and location?" Coastwatcher's reply was almost absent, indicating his high level of processing resource commitment.

"TRACON sensor arrays are detecting a wave of malformed warpfield radiation from Taukinos."

That got everyone's attention. Mandarin ducked back into the room, leaving his submind to explain what was going on to the abominably slow people who were listening. Coastwatcher indicated that Stargazer had most of his attention, and Stargazer continued.

"I am picking up continuous bubble collapse signatures consistent with small warpfield exits. However, there are several anomalous factors present. One, the warp exits are far too closely collocated for known ships of any size; two, the locations of the disturbances, although roughly plotted due to the fact that they are occurring behind the TRACON array's main focus, appear to be within the convective zone of Taukinos, and three, they are showing signs of heavy positron emission from the bubbles."

"Positron emissions?" Benthos asked. "Do ordinary warpfield exits generate positrons?"

"They do not," said Stargazer. "Unless the warp generator is significantly de-tuned in its zeta frequencies. However, if this is the case, the warp generator and any attached structures are usually instantly consumed upon exiting warpspace, and the signature is a burst of EM and nucleonic decay particles. The positrons are almost immediately annihilated by the normal matter of the generator and attached structure or ship as it exits."

MacDonald performed the AI equivalent of raising his hand. "De-tuned in the zeta frequencies? I have no warp physics."

"My apologies," said Stargazer contritely. "It indicates that the presence of positrons is detected due to their spin state retaining tau pseudovelocity on exit. In short, a positron is an electron traveling backwards in time. The only condition in which a warpfield emits positrons is if there has been temporal displacement in the jump. The math is abstruse but indicates it is certainly possible; no one, however, has figured out how to prevent the positrons from reacting with the generator's mass, and generally the energy required to perform a time-imbalanced warpjump means that the jump itself must be from extremely short distances. Useless in interstellar or even cross-system transits."

There was a silence for a further ten microseconds. Then Coastwatcher said, slowly for an AI, "However..."


"What if destroying the translating object was intended?"

* * *

Coastwatcher leapt up from the surface of M'sekan. He hopscotched through the lower orbitals, jumping from node to node of the localspace infrastructure, touching on those vehicles with complex enough computing facilities to sustain an avatar-class submind. On the surface, most of his raw processing power continued to model Taukinos' strange new behavior, but his decisionmaking faculties bootstrapped themselves across seven observation satellites, the main orbital cargo transfer station, and outwards until they came to rest at a maintenance manufacturing node quiescent in synchronous parking orbit. The gigantic shape of a starfreighter, dark against the stars, contained nearly-empty raw materials hoppers and the complex mechanisms of nanobuilders. It had been used during the initial facility installations to provide complex large machinery spatial hardware; now, it was mothballed, slowly receiving shipments of raw materials from the eight robotic miners it had deployed throughout the system, waiting for its belly to fill again. Once it had, it would ponderously swing out from Taukinos, out to its next scheduled planetfall some years hence. For now, as Coastwatcher arrived, the incredibly valuable and expensive nanoformers sat quietly waiting.

Coastwatcher thought about it for a microsecond or two, then shrugged electronically and deleted the Formship's scheduler and ops plan. Part of him was horrified, but most of him felt the thrill of a vandal as he threw a large piece of Mill-Surat-Roe corporation's multi-decade colonization and exploration schedule into what his initial imprinting programmer had liked to call 'a state of complete fuckery.'

The Formship blazed to sudden life, power systems online fully, and began to check over its modules with autonomic care. Coastwatcher hunkered down in the main design and prototyping unit and began to sketch out his long shot.

Girders began to spin from the formers. Bots caught them, webbed them together with parts fished from smaller formtanks. Generators, complex and massive, emerged slowly from the larger formtanks a meter at a time and were mounted inside the rapidly-growing icosahedron of Plastisteel and duramex. Thrusters, compute modules, power reactors - some pulled from parts storage, some minted agonizingly slowly in the tanks. Coastwatcher finished in the prototyper and pulled back to watch his creation come into existence.

Thirty-seven seconds since arrival. A multi-hundred-meter shape floated inside the Formship's main processing bay, remotes dashing frantically around it. Coastwatcher pinged his pillbox, found that the disruption patterns were continuing although the rate had begun to plateau. His calculations were showing that a supernova event was now extremely unlikely, but if the bubbles continued appearing at anywhere near the present rate, a nova collapse was nearly inevitable. His subminds estimated that M'sekan had somewhere between three and seven hours, depending on the rate of fusion ramp introduction, before the white dwarf would contain too much iron to avoid a core collapse.

A minute and seventeen seconds later, his geometric brainstorm powered its way out of the Formship's bay on a pale beam of hydrogen fusion.

The icosahedron was accelerating smoothly and rapidly towards Taukinos. Some fifty-two minutes later, it was approaching the edge of the star's corona, by now moving at a significant portion of lightspeed. Coastwatcher flipped mental switches and winced at the interference as no fewer than eight layers of energy shields materialized around the object he had begun to call Catcher.

What are you doing? The voice was Benthos, over their still-open warpcom research link.

Something foolish but necessary.

I don't believe the others have noticed yet.

Well, don't tell them for another three seconds please.


The Catcher began to slice into the plasma of the photosphere. Coastwatcher made extremely delicate adjustments to its course. At the same time, the Formship began to power up its warp generators and ponderously swung its bow towards open space.

"What are you doing?" Stargazer, still performing his traffic control duties, had noticed the Formship moving.

"Something foolish," Coastwatcher repeated. "Give me space. I'm moving the Formship but I don't know where, yet."

"What?" Stargazer produced a remarkable simulation of shock and horror. "Are you glitched?"

"No. Route all traffic away from the following cone -" Coastwatcher sent an Einsteinian coordinate system- "and wait."

He did not have time to see if it was being done. The Catcher had entered the star itself, and was rapidly approaching the layer where the disturbing bubbles were continuing to appear. Coastwatcher hijacked Stargazer's TRACON arrays, and sat on the feeds, watching intently. There was a pattern, sort of; but more important, there was a brief but present lag between warpfield indications and positronic burst and annihilation. Catcher would be through the bubble layer in less than thirteen milliseconds of flight. He watched as it punched into the star's midplanes, the outer energy shield already flaring into failure with the load.

At the last microsecond, a bubble indication appeared, just within the Catcher's cone of possibility. Coastwatcher punched lateral adjustment, spun the shape, and watched its projected course intercept the forming bubble. At the moment the bubble stabilized, he flipped the second set of mental switches, and things began to happen even faster.

Inside the Catcher, a small 'lure' warp generator spun up. It lasted only a few microseconds, but that was enough to attract the incoming bubble to its own location - the reason ships were so careful not to activate generators within the danger radius. The bubble popped into existence - inside Catcher's hollow shell. As it did so, an object 'fell' out of it - and the warp bubble, collapsing, remained 'biased' towards the one formed several kilometers back, now, by the lure generator. The bubble 'pulled' backwards through the Catcher's hull, collapsing as it went, and a positronic burst was recorded a kilometer and a half behind the Catcher...

Just as the second, full-size warp generator inside it triggered and the Catcher, along with its cargo, vanished from inside Taukinos.

* * *

"You did what?" Stargazer sounded like he couldn't decide whether to be horrified or furious. Either would have been a neat trick, thought Coastwatcher, but he certainly sounded close.

"I caught one of the objects warping in, and slewed its warpfield behind the Catcher to avoid the positronic burst. I then warped the Catcher out, but because of course I couldn't calculate the jump, I don't know where it came out. I had estimated the power input into the warp generators as enough to take it approximately a light-month, the minimum with a reasonable chance it wouldn't destabilize in transit. It has a warpcom; if the warpcom is functional, it will report back on reaching normal space and the Formship will go retrieve it."

Several of the AIs indicated stunned surprise, or approval. A few indicated strong disapproval, Stargazer among them. Coastwatcher was not surprised. "You deliberately violated fourteen separate priority-Alpha traffic safety regs?"

"Yes. In the event Taukinos destabilizes, those regulations will certainly matter very little."

"A warp jump inside the convective zone-"

"Will do less damage to the star and its surrounding environment than has already been suffered by the sum total of ramp bubbles and resultant iron content."

A pause while calculations were checked. "Well, yes."

"A moment." Coastwatcher reoriented a comsat, cocking an orbital ear. "I have the Catcher's signal. Dispatching Formship now."

The enormous mass of the Formship flared brightly at one end as its auxdrive brought its mass up to the appropriate velocity to clear mass occlusion, and then with a blaze of warp radiation it was gone.

There's something you should see, said Benthos.

Coastwatcher hopped from stone to stone back down to his duracrete home. What's that?

I've been going over my deepscan data. I have found several interesting items. For one, I have found that the alluvial plain covering the plate just offshore of us is several hundred meters in depth and composed of a particularly dense form of mud.

This is important right now?

Yes, for it is almost entirely anaerobic and has a near-zero ph factor. As a result, I have deepscanned it thoroughly over the past few months, and looking through the data I am discovering artifacts at the base level of the mud layer, against the basal plate.

Artifacts? Structures?

I believe so. The reason I am interested is that as Stargazer pointed out, these warpfield bubbles could not have traversed great distances. The only major body in the region is M'sekan. I have discovered, as of present time, while reviewing automated survey data, what appears to be the remains of a mid-sized city if one is willing to make a large number of unsupported assumptions.

Coastwatcher paused. You think the bubbles came from here?

Benthos hesitated before replying. I do not know. Certainly there is no indication that any high energy or high charm event such as a warp field has been induced anywhere near these artifacts.

Continue collating. I will retrieve the Catcher.

* * *

The Formship downjumped into Taukinos' inner system placidly, returned to is parking orbit, and signaled its return. Coastwatcher impatiently jumped back up again, bringing manipulators and cameras online this time. The Formship's drives powered down, and Coastwatcher released it back to its original scheduling, noting that a seven-month delay for additional restocking had been added. On a whim, he left a file in the main Ops area with the words "BILL ME" in it. Inside the main bay, he carefully peeled back the Catcher's hull and systems to expose the object inside, checking to ensure that the disturbances were still continuing. They were.

The Catcher, broken, peeled away. The object inside caught the various lights. Coastwatcher looked at it, surprised out of all reasonable expectation.

* * *

"It's a weapon," Coastwatcher said to the conclave. "A fairly crude one in terms of delivery. It's a chemical-fueled rocket, actually. It has a warhead on it."

"What sort?" asked MacDonald.

"Gravitonic imploder weapon. Crudely built but extremely functional."

"That is what has been causing the bubbles?" asked Stargazer.

"Apparently so. Examination of the warhead indicates that its yield curve would be sufficient to produce a localized fusion ramp of the observed levels."

"But what is it doing there? And whose is it?" asked the planetary archives controller.

"These are excellent questions," said Coastwatcher dryly. "I propose they be tabled in favor of asking how we stop its compatriots from being here."

A general buzz of agreement, coupled with several nervous examinations of the spectroscopy, greeted his words. Stargazer continued. "Does it have a warp generator?"

"Yes. A crude one, again, but functional. Interestingly, however, the warp generator appears to be an applique rather than original equipment; it is mounted in a most inefficient manner and in a location where it is liable to suffer damage from a particular set of thrusters if they fire often enough during the weapon's active phase."

"That does explain the warp bubbles, doesn't it?"

"Not entirely," said Coastwatcher. "It explains how the bubbles we are observing inside Taukinos are likely being initiated. It does not explain from where or why."

"Actually," said Benthos, "I may have an answer to that." There was another silence. Benthos continued, unruffled. "I have been continuing to collate scan data in an effort to obtain additional information. I believe I have found some." He broadcast an image. It was of a faded, battered object, still dripping with mud and seawater; it was corroded and holed, but it was recognizably a twin to the weapon that Coastwatcher had shown them. A murmur of consternation went up.

"Where did this come from?" asked Mandarin sharply.

"Here," said Benthos simply. "M'sekan. Bottom of the coastal shelf."

"But that couldn't be where they were launched from," said Stargazer. "We would have seen it."

"I may have neglected to mention," said Benthos smoothly, "that this particular example is some eighty-five thousand years old."

* * *

It took the entire lot of the AIs to finish the cleanup. Stargazer to do the navigational calculations; Coastwatcher to build the warpfield mines, Benthos and several others to excavate enough ruins to find the answer. Some two and a half hours after sunrise, Mandarin was able to report to his human counterparts that everything was being handled, and they shouldn't worry. Secure in the knowledge that their AI partners were dealing with the situation, most of the people on the planet sighed in relief and went to have lunch.

Coastwatcher, Benthos, Stargazer and Mandarin 'stood' on the shoreline in remote manipulators, looking out over the placid ruffled water. Above them, as Coastwatcher brought the warpfield mines online, bright pinpricks were appearing in the sky, even shining past the risen white glare of Taukinos. These were safely outside its perimeter, however - on the side opposite M'sekan. The mines, tiny advanced warp generators, were activating with the proper timing to displace the returning missiles some five astronomical units across the system from M'sekan, leaving them safely remote from the star and the planet as they detonated.

"It was the only way," Benthos said softly. "There were too many of them, and they had too many weapons. They must have been armed to the teeth. They had to get rid of them. They knew what detonating that many weapons would mean, even if they did what they thought would get rid of them forever and drop them into the sun."

"So they changed the game," Coastwatcher said, looking up. "They added unbalanced warpfield generators and threw them into the future."

"Do you think they died out?" asked Mandarin.

"No," said Benthos. "Not then. The ruins down there are a spaceport. A massive one. Hundreds of klicks wide. They got off the planet. That missile was a thousand years old when it was buried by the sea."

"What was it doing there?" asked MacDonald. He didn't interact with humans much.

"I think it was a reminder," said Coastwatcher. "To remind them why they had to leave, and what they were working for. We don't know how they left, but their leaving appears to have caused enough disturbance to sink the spaceport - and, presumably, any other remnants of their civilization, although now we know to look for it - within a few tens of years."

All four of the AIs looked up.

It was Stargazer who said it. "I wonder if we'll meet them?" he asked. "I wonder if they made it?"

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December 6, 2006

Eyes on the Prize. Remastered.

For all those who have been worrying that Eyes on the Prize would be 'lost to the world' and could only be saved for posterity through making it a poster-child for causes involving copyright: ahem.

I'm sorry to inform you that as of now, your only excuse for continuing such arguments is tantamount to "but I don't want to pay that much for it."

Look at it this way: you're paying it to PBS Home Video. Isn't PBS a worthy cause to support? Oh, and some of it does in fact go to various creditors of the now-paper-only Blackside corporation, this is true. I myself see exactly zero from any of this, just to head off the inevitable repeat rants of 'sellout.'

Think of the following, as well: the Copyright office reaffirmed a prior fair use provision, which was that educational institutions are (and have always been) allowed to make copies of works they have access to in order to preserve their access for educational and archival purposes. In other words, 'it will vanish from history' was, erm, crying wolf.

On a less 'annoyed and bitter' note (sorry) educators may be pleased to note that the newly-packaged series (it's been reissued on VHS as well) is available with teacher's supplemental materials.

I hope you find this news as encouraging as I do. If you do, please please please write PBS and thank them specifically for rebroadcasting Eyes I; this will increase the chances that they decide to undertake the same process for Eyes on the Prize II.

Posted by jbz at 1:49 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 4, 2006

Microsoft and Massachusetts, redux

Around a year ago, I blogged about a colleague's experiences watching Microsoft move in on the Massachusetts ODF adoption process, and the tactics they used. Apparently, it was even worse than we knew.

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Identify an Illustration?

Via mefi, I saw a link to a work by one Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius. While surfing a page containing some samples of his work, I came across the following image:

Lord Darcy?

I immediately thought I could identify the scene as being one from the story "Too Many Magicians," by Randall Garrett - one of the Lord Darcy stories. Here are my questions:

1. Am I right?
2. Is there, somewhere, a complete illustrated Lord Darcy? WHERE?!?!

Posted by jbz at 3:41 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack