Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Shame of the Military, Power of the Press

       I'm not an activist.  The only social commentary I've ever posted here was the piece on gun control.  But a series of articles in Colorado Springs' newspaper, The Gazette, is compelling me to make an exception.  I think every person in the United States (and anyone in the whole world who might be interested) should read these articles.  Here is the link:

"A Gazette investigation shows an increasing number of soldiers, including wounded combat veterans, are being kicked out of the service for misconduct, often with no benefits, as the Army downsizes after a decade of war."

       We hear so much about our moral obligations to take care of our returning soldiers and pay honor to them, and we do a pretty good job when there is nothing wrong with them or when they have injuries below the neck.  But in this day of PTSD and TBI, the worst side of our so-called "human" nature can emerge.  War dehumanizes its participants, and apparently this happens even to those who don't fight and have the responsibility of caring for the soldiers who did. 
       Soldiers often return less than perfect -- they are no longer "normal," and humanity does have a loathing and a fear of the "abnormal."  We used to stick "crazy" people away in institutions, chained to walls.  You know what?  We still do that, only today it's isolation cells where they can be ignored, or we send them out on the street without medication or health insurance, chained to the wall of their trauma. 
       And we make them jump through hoops of red tape -- it can take months to get a medical discharge from the Army and in the meantime the unit can't replace its ineffective member.    Most of the soldiers in question have committed some kind of prosecutable infraction like an instance of drug use, or repeatedly being late to duty, or theft, or DUI, or more seriously beating their wife.  Their behavior is not attributed properly since TBI is hard to diagnose, and the determination is often left to immediate superiors who aren't qualified to make such judgments and treat the subjects with callous scorn, like they were garbage.  Often they end up in the county jail, suffering seizures without medication.
       So there's something called a Chapter 10 discharge, and exhausted TBI survivors are sometimes coerced into accepting this.  Chapter 10 is a less-than-honorable discharge that's effective almost immediately, but it requires the soldier to resign in lieu of prosecution and lose all his benefits.  So now we have a soldier who is dangerously traumatized, without money, without medical benefits, without support, often on the street.  But the military is rid of him and of their responsibility for him, and it can go out and recruit new wide-eyed patriotic youngsters, and proceed to traumatize them in turn.
       Of course there will always be people who fake PTSD and try to work the system, but wouldn't it be more worthy of our humanity -- of the qualities of compassion and empathy that are supposed to distinguish us from our animal brothers -- if we erred on the side of compassion and gave everybody the benefit of the doubt?  Rehabilitation should be  motto -- of the military as well as of humanity in general -- punition or vengeance or indifference have no place in the treatment of those who have suffered in the service of our world, or for any reason.
       Wouldn't it be wonderful if all the human beings on the Earth suddenly laid down their weapons and refused to fight? Maybe we could get rid of war.  But, unfortunately, Earthers are a contentious lot, and even in my vision of the future, where real wars don't exist, Earth still needs a Security Force to insure peace.
       What will happen to people like the soldier in the Gazette's final article, who has stated that he wants to take his thick case file to Washingon, dump it on the steps of the Capitol, and then set himself on fire?  Will it take something like that to get attention?
       Please do go the link above and read these articles.  They are long, but they are worth it.  At least read one of them.  And I hope the Gazette wins awards for investigative reporting for this series.  The newspaper certainly deserves it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Jewish Parable, and a Cover Drawing

Click for larger view
Click for larger view


[I've removed the first version, left the second, and added a third version (on right).  I've changed the title to simply Fathers and Demons and used a fancier font.  I've also made the demon more sinister-looking.  The purpose of the stars is to show this is a space demon/god and, by using six-pointed stars, to suggest the Jewish G-d may be out there, too.  Furthermore, the book is a preamble to humanity's first interstellar voyage. ]

“Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened people. When Parable found her she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in story, warmed her and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again at the villagers’ doors and was readily welcomed into people’s houses. They invited her to eat at their table and warm herself by their fire.”  -- Jewish Parable
Quotes for PublicSpeakers, No.82
The question is, What is Truth?
The Mythmakers say (Precept No.  10)
The Right Way is universal; the Truth is parochial and divisive.
As the Parable says, we can only explore these questions through story:
What is the difference between gods and demons?
Is God a father or a demon?
Are fathers demons or gods, or something better than either?
Are both gods and demons products of the human mind?
The story I'm preparing for publication is called Of Fathers and Demons
and it explores some of these questions.
Above is my conception of the cover art (still tentative, and very symbolic)
Please give FEEDBACK!  What do you think of this cover?
I hope you think it's weird, because it's meant to be.
At this point I will not explain the symbolism.
 (And no, that is neither a termite nor a kitten!)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch. 10

Here is yet another installment of my unfinished novel, The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, a fictionalized biography of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin, the starship Captain who made the first contact with extraterrestrials in the 28th century (some 2.5 centuries before the time of The Termite Queen).

A list of the previous posts, with links:
Chapter 1 The Captain Eats Crow
Chapter 2 How Robbin Nikalishin Got His Name
Chapter 3 The Captain Receives an Unexpected Assignment
Chapter 4 School Days at Epping Academy
Chapter 5 The Captain Takes Command of the Red Planet
Chapter 6 Crises and Decisions
Chapter 7 An Old Love and Another Assignment
Chapter 8 (Pt.1) Robbin Nikalishin and Sharlina Graves [pt.1]
Chapter 8 (Pt.2) Robbin Nikalishin and Sharlina Graves [pt.2]
Chapter 9 Aboard the Ore Freighter Hell's Gate
       Still employing the usual flash-back/flash-forward format, Chapter 10 follows Chapter 8.  This is one of the most important chapters in the book, describing an incident that was a painful turning point in Robbie's life, affecting his entire future. As I read it over, I'm not sure it's well enough written considering the impact it was to have.  I'm not sure I prepared the way sufficiently for this to have the impact that I want it to have.

January, 2646
The year following the incident with Sharlina passed peaceably enough in the life of Robbie Nikalishin.  His first sexual encounter was not his last during his Epping years, but he had learned the importance of caution and there were no more disasters.
Kolm was almost as astute in math and physics as Robbie was.  By the time the two of them were Second Formers, they were both studying advanced classical quantum mechanics and 11-dimensional string theory with Prf. Quinston.  The lessons were on a tutorial basis, because no other students had reached that level.  Around the school, Kolm and Robbie had become known as the Physics Twins, even though anatomically they could not have been more different; Robbie possessed the swarthy skin and black hair and eyes of his Spainish heritage, while Kolm had blue eyes and a fair complexion, with red, cow-licked hair that always stuck out in a dozen directions no matter how short he cut it.  His build was slender and wiry and he was a good 5 centimeters shorter than his friend.  His shortness had worried Robbie; the minimum height for Flight Academy Cadets was 173 centimeters and for a while it looked as if Kolm wouldn’t make it.
Early in 2646, Prf. Quinston called the pair into his office and handed each of them an info key.  “Here are some application forms to fill out,” he said.  “I’d appreciate your getting them back to me as quickly as possible.”
They looked at the unmarked keys and Robbie said, “Applications for what, sir?”
The Professor grinned broadly.  “Do you want to spend your First Year as an Oxkam Adjunct or not?”
Robbie sucked a breath and Kolm’s eyes bugged as he exclaimed, “Aliluya!  It came through!”
“You really got it?” said Robbie.  “The Permission to Apply?  We’re actually going?”
“Well, you’ve been given Permission to Apply, just as you said.  But I don’t think there’ll be any problem with the admission, for either one of you.”
“Oh, god almighty, that’s wonderful!” said Robbie.  “Thank you, sir!  I’ll be in your debt for the rest of my life!”
“You did the work – all I did was steer you along.  But nevertheless I take a great deal of satisfaction out of this.  I’m an Oxkam Old Boy myself, you know, and I take a lot of pleasure in delivering my best students to my old department.  You understand what this means, don’t you?  Next year you’ll be actually living in one of the Adjunct Houses on the campus, just a hop and bobble up the rail from here.  Then you’ll come back down to Epping in the spring to join the rest of your class for your Closing Ceremony.  You’ll be associating with some of the brightest young people in Britan – in the world, really, because students from all over the Earth apply for this program.  They won’t all be working in your area of interest – likely hardly any other Adjuncts will be studying Temporal Quantum Applications and Alternate Dimensional Temporal Analysis – but they will all be the elite of their own fields … ”
“Going to be pretty nice hobnobbing with the elite, what, Goody?” said Robbie, with a king-sized grin.
“It’s gonna be scary, is what!” said Kolm.
“It makes sense for you to go this route,” said Prf. Quinston.  “I’ve taught you about all I can; I couldn’t begin to indoctrinate you adequately in anything more arcane than 11-D strings.  And if you should choose to apply for regular admission to Oxkam’s pregrad program after next year, a successful completion of the Adjunct Program will guarantee your entry and probably a scholarship.”
“No, it’s going to be the Old Heathero Flight Academy for me,” said Robbie.  “Kolm, too.”
“Maybe,” said Kolm.  “Robbie, it might just be that I’ll decide to become a mechanical engineer and stay here on Earth and build the ships and the engines, instead of goin’ off to fly ’em.”
“Tell him that’s a lot of nonsense, Prf. Quinston,” said Robbie.  “Tell him what he said is a stodgy dodge.  There’s no thrill in building starships – the awesome thing is the flying of them.”
“Well, ye forget they haven’t even been invented yet,” said Kolm.  “Prf. Quinston, this one has ever had his head stuck off in a black hole somewhere.”
Quinston was chuckling, but he said, “Actually, Earth Gov has some rather hush-hush programs in the pipeline – something called the SkyPiercer Project.”
“I’ve read a bit about that,” said Robbie.  “They’re trying to make an engine that can go faster than light.  See, that’s what I want you to learn about, Kolm.”
“Well, then, ye should just work on it, too, maybe!  Ye’ve got the same knowledge as I have – maybe better!  Ye could be just as good an engineer as me.”
“Oh, sure, Goody, all thumbs the way I am?  Remember when I tried to fix my mother’s water pipe?”
Kolm hooted and said to Prf. Quinston, “This pipe started leakin’, see, on an Off-Day when Robbie was to home, and by the time he was done, he had rusty water shootin’ at the ceilin’!  Ye can still see the stain, even with new paint.”
“Imagine me trying to repair an engine, Kolm,” said Robbie.  “I’d cut off somebody’s finger with a laser drill!  Humanity will be a lot safer if I stick to flying ships instead of maintaining them!”
The three of them laughed together … scholarly comrades, ready to engage the triumphant future that appeared tantalizingly close.
*          *          *
Before he left Prf. Quinston’s office, Robbie said, “I’d love to go down to the Village and give my Mum the news about this Oxkam deal.  I know it’s the middle of the week, but do you suppose you could get me permission to spend the night with her, Professor?”
“I think it can be arranged,” Quinston said.  “Check the posting link in your room in a couple of hours.”
The permission came through, and after dinner Robbie headed out to visit his mother.  It was winter and pitch dark at 2000h, with a temperature of about 7 degrees and fog hanging in the dimly lit concourse of Scholastic Village.  He wore a heavy jacket but had forgotten his gloves, so he hastened along with his hands thrust into his armpits for warmth.
Then he stopped suddenly in the darkness between lampposts.  Someone was coming toward him from the direction of the rail terminal.  There was nothing unusual about that; a number of people were walking in the street.  But this was a couple – a man dressed in a fine overcoat, with one of the flattish hats that were fashionable at that time, and a woman who was tall and slender, wearing a white surrofur tunic-coat and some pale headgear that wrapped her neck and chin.  She glimmered in the darkness, like silver …
Robbie knew it was his mother – his mother and … who?  A man.  A man was walking late in the evening with his mother, with his arm around her waist and his head bent to murmur to her.  He heard her soft voice reply, and her soft, whispery laugh.
He stood frozen by something more than the chill air around him.
The couple had reached the place opposite the door of Sterling’s building.  They ran up the steps, did something with a key card, and vanished within.
Robbie stood and stared at the vacant space of the doorframe, as if so looking could roll back what had just happened.  His mother, late in the evening, had just allowed a man to go up with her to the flat.
Then, with a sense of relief so profound that it was like a pain jabbing his vitals, he thought, It must be one of the men she works with.  She said she brings work home.  They’re probably going to work on some of her records together …
But in the next moment he knew that was not true.  Nobody who meant to work on official records at home would be snuggling together like that, or wearing that sort of clothes ...  Those were the kinds of clothes that one wore to a theater, or to a nice dining establishment …
He hadn’t even known his mother owned clothes like that …
It was one of the men she worked with, all right.  She was certainly bringing work home.  But it wasn’t official records they were working on … it was …
Robbie stumbled into the bushes near the door and lost the dinner he had just consumed.  For a minute he stood panting, scrubbing his hand across his mouth.  Then he started toward the steps.  He would go up there – go up there and confront them …
Then he stopped.  I’ll kill him if I go up there, he thought.  Maybe I’ll kill her.  A cold wind, colder than the swirling fog, cut through him.  He turned and half ran back down the street, toward the campus.  But then he turned yet again.  I can’t go back to school.  Everybody will ask me why I came back.  Kolm … Kolm will get it out of me … He didn’t want Kolm to know – to know his mother was a …
He could see that the lights had gone on in Sterling’s flat and he retched again.  Then he crawled behind the bushes and hunkered down against the wall, wrapping his arms around his chest, his hands thrust in his pockets.  He would wait and see what happened – see if the man left.  If he left in just a minute or two, it would be all right.  His mother had the right to date somebody, didn’t she?  Even if she didn’t tell him?  He didn’t tell her everything he did.  Maybe they were just having coffee, or some wine.  Then the man would leave, and Robbie would go up and ask his mother about the intentions of this man who was spending time with her …
Miserable, he rocked back and forth.  The man didn’t leave.  He waited and he waited, until his feet and fingers were numb, but the man didn’t leave. 
The core of his soul was icier than the extremities of his body.
At some point he fell into a doze and dreamed about the baby, only this time when he took it in his hands, it instantly turned into a block of ice.  Jerking awake, he stared around in a fright, caught his wits together, and looked up at the door …
… just in time to see it open and the man come out.  Robbie drew a harsh breath, but the man didn’t hear it.  He hastened down the steps and vanished into the fog, heading for the rail terminal.
 Robbie could see the position of the blurred moon in the sky, and he knew it was after midnight.  With a whimper, he mounted the steps and let himself in with his own key card.  The warmth inside stuck into him like a knife.  He took the lift to the third floor, got out, and stumbled toward the door of the flat.  By this time, he was beside himself.
He unlocked the door and flung it open with a bang, then crashed it closed behind him.  From the bedroom, his mother let out a shriek of alarm at the noise.  He staggered a short way into the room.  “Mum!  Come out here!  Come out here!”
She appeared in the doorway of the bedroom, clutching a pale gray negligee to her chest.  Under it she was wearing a nightgown – a lavender nightgown with some glittering lace on it.  Her hair flowed over her shoulders and her arms were bare.  She almost always wore long sleeves, but now her long, white, slender arms were bare, glimmering in the light.
“Robbie!” she said.  “You scared the wits out of me!  Whatever are you doing here in the middle of the night?  Is something wrong?”
He was starting to shake from the effect of the cold, and he gestured flutteringly at her with both hands.  “Mum, who was that man?  What was he doing here?”
She just looked at him, her lips parted, her eyes wide like a frightened hare’s.
“I saw you come in with him … I waited … I saw him leave …  What were you doing up here with him?”
“You’re not my watchdog, Robbie!  What were you doing here spying on me?”
“I came to tell you … something … ”  In his stress, he couldn’t remember what it was.  “ … but I saw that … man ….  Is this the work you bring home in the evening?  Is that where the money comes from?”
“Robbie, calm down and let me talk to you … ”
But he was past talking.  “It is, isn’t it?  You’ve … sold yourself … You’re a … whore … a whore … My mother … is … a whore … ”  The word came out over and over, like a groan.
The confrontation had drawn them nearer to each other, and now something seemed to snap in Sterling.  She sprang forward and slapped her son backwards and forward across the face – she who had never laid a hand to him.  He reeled back, going as white as she was.
“You’re right, I’m your mother,” she said through clenched teeth, her cut-steel eyes blazing, “and I won’t tolerate you talking to me like that!  It may be true, what you called me, but if it is, I did it for you, you ungrateful little bigoted whelp!”
Her ferocity cowed and appalled him.  In complete shock, he waved his arms wildly.  “I’ll go away!  I swear, I’ll never come back here again!”
“The little man makes a threat!” she snarled.  “And you expect that to make me get down on my knees and beg you to forgive me for what you see as iniquity?  Where do you get off being so self-righteous?  I did it for you, so you could get your damned education … fly your planes … reach your goddam stars.  Every credit I’ve earned above our daily needs has gone into a trust for your future schooling.  I’ve got nothing for myself out of this humiliation – all I’ll have when I’m old is my Gov pension.  I’ve done it all for you and now that you’ve found out, all I get is arrogance and insults.  Somebody needs to teach you humility!  You’re taller than I am now – what’s next?  Are you going to beat me into submission, Roberto Vargas?”
Robbie crumbled then, bending over, his hands imploring.  “No, Mum ... don’t  … don’t call me that …  You took that name away from me – you gave me your own … don’t, Mum, I’m sorry … I’m sorry I called you what I did … don’t change me again … ”  He was doing something he had not done since before they had fled into the darkness that night when he was eight:  He was crying.  He sank down on a hassock and held his head in his hands and sobbed.  His heart was broken; his silver mother had become forever tarnished in his eyes.
And no matter what evil words had been spoken, his tears could only soften her mother’s heart.  She sat down on the lounge across from him and reached out a tentative hand, but he shuddered away from her.  “Oh, Robbie, I realize …  I can understand … how this must have been a shock to you.  I should have told you, son, but how can a mother tell her child that she’s prostituted herself for his sake?  I just couldn’t tell you, Robbie.”
He was snuffling, rubbing his eyes and nose on his sleeve.  “Who is he, Mum?  Who is that man?”
“A very nice man, Robbie.  I’m not any kind of streetwalker – I would never sink that low.  I like to think of myself as – an elite courtesan.  When I couldn’t see any way to get enough money to keep you in school, I went to a restaurant in Lunden that I had heard of, where upscale people go and sometimes men looking for – mistresses … men who’ll pay well for beautiful women to consort with.  I’m a beautiful woman, Robbie – you’ve probably never noticed … ”
“I’ve noticed,” he said, but she paid no heed to his words, intent on trying to make him understand.
“That was how I met both of them … ”
“Both of them!” he groaned.  “There’s more than one?”
“Yes, there are two – both are wealthy, older men who take me out for dinner and dancing and maybe to the theatre or a concert, and then we come back here and … ”
“How can the whole village not know?”
“Our present-day society is tolerant, Robbie.  People look the other way when such things happen.”
“What if one finds out about the other?”
“They each know about the other already – I’ve tried to keep everything very open ...  Don’t snort like that, boy – I just can’t tolerate contempt from you … ”
He said nothing, and in a moment Sterling continued, “So I take care of one of them on Tuesday and Wednesday and the other on Thursday and Friday.  They pay very well.  They know why I’m doing it.  They understand that I’ll never see them on weekends, because that’s when my son comes to stay with me.  They are not bad men, Robbie.  They’re considerate and generous, and they never hurt me.  I’m quite fond of both of them.”
“You like it,” he said through clenched teeth.  “You actually like what you’re doing.”
“I like the reason I’m doing it.  Or I did like it, up to now … ”
He shivered.  “If they’re such damned good studs and care so much about you, why doesn’t one of them make you his consort – make it all legal?”
“Oh, Robbie, you have a lot to learn about sexual relationships.  They can’t contract with me because they have consorts already, and there are reasons why they can’t part from them.  But they don’t find those women … very compatible … they need something different.”
Robbie hunched over convulsively, feeling like vomiting again. 
“As young as you are, son, you’re already having casual sexual relationships.  Our society doesn’t look on that as any great transgression.  You don’t think less of your partners for it, do you?  How are my actions different from theirs and yours?”
“But … ”  And this was the crux of it.  “ … but you’re my mother … ”
And she could find no answer for that, and it seemed to defeat her.  So in a moment she only said, “Why did you come down here tonight?”
Robbie struggled to remember.  “Oh … the Permission to Apply came through for Oxkam.  I … was pretty happy about it.  I thought I wanted to share it with you.  That’s all.”
“Oh, well … I’m glad about that … ”
“I guess there’ll be plenty of money for it.”
She flinched, but he had his eyes fixed on the floor and didn’t see it.  Then he said, “So … can I keep the same name … your name?”
“Oh, Robbie, I’m sorry I said that.  I’m sorry I struck you and called you those bad things.  Of course you can keep your name.  You’ll never be anybody but Robbin Haysus Nikalishin.”
He stayed the night, huddling fully dressed on the couch, because he had no other place to go, but he didn’t sleep.  And after he returned to school, he went about silent and distracted.  His grim mood puzzled Kolm, but the Eirish boy was too empathic not to understand that it was unwise to press his friend about it.
Robbie and Sterling had said things to each other that night that were going to leave scars no matter how many times they might utter the words, “I’m sorry.”  They tried to bring things back to normal – to continue as if nothing had happened – but it was as if a chasm had opened between them, and while there was still a bridge across it, it was such a fragile and shaky bridge that neither was willing to tread on it for fear it might collapse.  Sterling never seemed tall to her son again, but her mysteriousness had only intensified; whenever he looked at her, he seemed to see a bubble around her, an aura like the fog of that disastrous night that he couldn’t pierce.  Shame permeated his soul – shame for her and shame for himself.  Yet secretly he was not totally ashamed of having called his mother a whore, and that very lack of shame shamed him especially.
But most of all, he was ashamed that he himself had been responsible for what she had done.  Because, as she had said more than once, she had done it for him.
As for Sterling herself, she had discovered how even one she loved more than life itself could turn against her, and it was almost too much for her to bear.
Coming next:
Chapter 11:  The Ore Freighter Hell's Gate Returns to Earth

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Price Reduction on The Termite Queen!

Purchase at these links:
Smashwords, v.1 (for all e-formats)
Smashwords, v.2 (for all e-formats)
I'm hoping that this special price will inspire some new readers to discover The Termite Queen and will give those who have read only v.1 an opportunity to get v.2 at a discount.  Take advantage of this offer while you can, because I doubt it will come again soon! 
And you can buy both volumes at once for the incredibly low price of $1.98!  What else can you buy for $1.98 that will provide you with so many hours of stimulating reading?
Here is the description of v.2, which also covers v.1:
Volume Two
       In The Termite Queen, v.1, the death of a specimen of intelligent giant termite impels a team of scientists to mount a new expedition to the alien planet where the specimen was captured. During the voyage out, the linguistic anthropologist Kaitrin Oliva and the expedition's chief, the entomologist Griffen Gwidian, fall in love and form a union, after which Prf. Gwidian begins to exhibit some troubling changes of mood and behavior. Meanwhile, on the alien planet, civil discord is brewing among the termites; Mo'gri'ta'tu, the Queen's Chamberlain, hatches a plot to murder the Holy Seer Kwi'ga'ga'tei, a plot foiled only by the sudden reappearance of the Flying Monster.
       In Volume Two, the team arrives at the planet to a combative reception, but, aided by Kaitrin's insights into the termites' unique language, the "Star-Beings" and the Shshi are soon communicating and learning to know each other. The Shshi accept Kaitrin as a friend and even come to revere her as the Mother of her people. Meanwhile, Griffen's inexplicable insecurities escalate, while the dastardly Mo'gri'ta'tu continues to foment conspiracies. Ultimately, the two plotlines intersect in an explosive climax, after which the team must return to Earth and try to come to terms with what they have experienced.
Quotations from 5-star reviews:
v.1:  "In the Termite Queen, author Lorinda Taylor takes the reader 1000 years into the future where planet Earth is radically changed by wars, pollution, revolutions, political upheavals, dark ages, and technology. Despite all, human society remains resilent and progressive. Humans remain human, with all their foibles and insecurities, striving for knowledge and understanding, having an abiding need for love.  ...  The inquisitive mind will find this an irresistible and intoxicating tale."
v.2: "Taylor gives just enough description of this far future world, its technology and history to set the stage; then lets her characters act out the story. It really is the story of people -- humans and off-worlders alike -- engaged in the whole gamut of sophont existence. From the highs of the quest for new knowledge to the depths of jealousy and hatred of what is not understood, Taylor gives us a well and rather tightly woven web of story.  ...  Altogether, I'd say that both volumes of Termite Queen constitute a good read and I highly recommend it."

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch. 9

Here is the newest installment of my unfinished novel, The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, a fictionalized biography of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin, the starship Captain who made the first contact with extraterrestrials in the 28th century (some 2.5 centuries before the time of The Termite Queen).

A list of the previous posts, with links:
Chapter 1 The Captain Eats Crow
Chapter 2 How Robbin Nikalishin Got His Name
Chapter 3 The Captain Receives an Unexpected Assignment
Chapter 4 School Days at Epping Academy
Chapter 5 The Captain Takes Command of the Red Planet
Chapter 6 Crises and Decisions
Chapter 7 An Old Love and Another Assignment
Chapter 8 (Pt.1) Robbin Nikalishin and Sharlina Graves [pt.1]
Chapter 8 (Pt.2) Robbin Nikalishin and Sharlina Graves [pt.2]

We revert now to the usual alternating flash-forward/flash-back format.  Ch. 9 follows Ch. 7.  We see the Captain as he takes command of an antiquated ore freighter, where a different style of command is in order.  This is a quite short chapter, especially when compared with the previous one, which required dividing into two posts.  That's one of the problems I have with this book -- inconsistent chapter lengths.


November 2766-January 2767

Capt. Nikalishin had gone the specs-and-sims route again in order to acquaint himself with Asteroid Class ships, but those vessels were inherently more problematic than any of the Union Class ships.  For one thing, ore freighters didn’t always conform to specifications; most of them had more than 25 years of hard service on them and had been retrofitted so many times that they possessed a good deal of non-standard jury-rigging.  Fortunately, they usually had veteran engineering crews who had spent years coddling their ships’ idiosyncrasies.
The crewmembers of such ships were a hard-bitten lot, difficult to pry out of their established ways.  Hardly any women chose to serve aboard such dingy and labor-intensive vessels and many of the crewmembers were civilians, an independent bunch who considered most academically trained officers to be sissies.  The Captains also tended to be old hands; there were only a few command officers who were attracted to that kind of work and they usually kept their jobs.  Robbie had attended Flight Academy at the same time as the reassigned Capt. Brindisi and he was all too aware that his peer was a tough customer.  He had his work cut out for him.
So, when Robbie inspected the crew after boarding the Hell’s Gate, he scrapped his usual low-key, self-deprecating command style.  He didn’t invite them to visit him whenever they felt the urge, he didn’t request that they correct his errors, and he made no jokes.  He simply informed them in a clipped tone that he was temporarily replacing their regular Captain, that he had no intention of usurping Brindisi’s job long-term, and that he demanded nothing less than their full cooperation. 
Somebody spoke up from the middle of the assemblage.  “Where is our Captain, anyway?  Why’d they give his job to a fancy-pants bloke like you?”
And somebody else called, “I’d wager you never even set foot on an ore scuttle before – sir!”
Robbie fixed the area with a cold eye, pretending he knew who had spoken.  “Mister, I didn’t give either you or the other swab permission to speak.  Keep up that cocky attitude and you’ll be cooling your heels in the brig.  I presume this tub has a brig?  Sgt. Valleho?”
The Security Chief answered, “Yes, sir, the Hell’s Gate has a sizable brig, and Capt. Brindisi makes good use of it!”
“Just to show you I can be fair … after all, you civvie scabs probably pride yourselves on your ignorance of flight protocols … I’ll answer your questions.  Capt. Brindisi has been temporarily reassigned.  That’s as much as I know.  Contrary to what you may believe, commanding officers aren’t always told the reasons for their orders any more than you are.  The same goes for why they picked me for this ship, because I certainly didn’t ask for the job.  And you’re right – I’ve never commanded an Asteroid Class ship before, or flown on one.  But I’ve been under the impression that I was not the only one working the consoles here, and I do know a bit about space navigation.  So if you just keep doing your jobs and pay enough attention to my orders so that when I say adjust bearing 020 mark 005, we don’t end up 220 mark 050, I can’t see we’ll have any problems.  Now take your assigned stations and begin launch preparations.”
Some of the military men were grinning a little, always happy to see the civvies put in their place.  They can’t all be scoundrels, Robbie thought.  But, goddamit, this isn’t the way I like to command, and it’s going to be a very long voyage.
The only upside of the situation was that by the time the ship returned to Earth, his year of penance would be almost over.  And something was afoot, Adm. Soemady had said …
*          *          *
The Hell’s Gate was dark, dirty, and smelly.  Robbie was forced to bed down in a cabin usually reserved for mining inspectors, because the Captain’s quarters were full of Brindisi’s personal effects and Robbie didn’t want to stir up ill will by disrupting the status quo.  The clanking and creaking of the ship disturbed Robbie’s sleep and the hard bunk gave him a chronic backache.  The food was adequate but monotonous.  This was no hot-minute ship like the Red Planet.  The Captain cursed the members of the Board of Command who had felt it necessary to inflict such a test upon him.
And the freighter was permeated with ore dust, even though before the voyage it had undergone a full decontamination and was carrying nothing but provisions for the mining stations.  Plagued by a scratchy throat, Robbie ordered the engineers to run a systems check on the atmospheric scrubbers, but no malfunctions were found.
The most dicey personnel situation Robbie had to deal with during that mission involved the Second Officer.  He was a humorless, brutish man who made scant attempt to hide his conviction that, if something was amiss with Brindisi, the command should have gone to him.  Robbie never felt able to trust him, fearing he would pull some trick out of resentment, and this wore on the nerves. 
But the worst thing Robbie had to endure was the dread of a moment that he knew would inevitably come …
They were heading for the permanent mining station in the Asteroid Belt’s Sector S-260, an area of iron/nickel Class S rocks.  Laboring as a miner on one of these stations on the fringes of the inner solar system was even worse than serving on an ore-hauler.  Robotic tugs searched out asteroids of an appropriate size and composition, grappled them, and towed them to the station.  There, they were crushed up into manageable pieces, given a preliminary sort to extract the worst chondritic material, and then stored in the potbelly of the hold until a hauler arrived.  An Asteroid Class ship could haul enough high-grade iron/nickel ore to manufacture twenty kilos of rail line or twenty wind turbine towers.  Earth still had plenty of ferrous minerals remaining in its lithosphere, but every space rock that was brought back meant one less scar that had to be gouged into the planet’s hide.
Hell’s Gate reached its destination rather suddenly.  One second, the big viewing port was displaying only stars; then the next, an enormous, pockmarked potato hove into sight.  Robbie was starting to give an order to reduce speed when he saw it, and then …  
… the lights went out as a terrible concussion shocked through the ship.  He was sliding across a tilted deck, amid screams of panic, crashes of falling girders, the shriek of venting atmosphere …  And then emergency lights … flickering flames … and the sight of that great, pocked entity looming over him where the bulkhead should have been …
“Captain?  Reduce speed to what?” the Pilot was saying, frowning over his shoulder.
Robbie jumped, and the vision of the asteroid’s leering, dimpled face shrank once more into the background of his memory.  “Reduce to 20 MS, Lieutenant.  Ens. Quam, attempt to hail the station.  Cmdr. Sakata, you have the Bridge.”  And he departed, feeling his Second Officer’s coldly speculative eyes following him.
Robbie went to his cabin and dashed cold water against his face.  Bloody hell, this was just what he had feared the first glimpse of an asteroid would do to him … trigger a recurrence of the flashbacks that the passing of time had pretty much rendered a mere unpleasant memory.  God, he didn’t want to retrogress …  But his anticipatory dread had been so great that retrogression was almost inevitable … 
Without a doubt that was the reason why the Board had sent him on this mission:  to determine how he would react to fresh contact with an actual asteroid – to discover if his mind would start playing tricks on him again.  But what the hell difference did it make to whatever they had planned for him?  Surely the Board didn’t intend to assign him to a permanent command of an ore freighter … 
Robbie shuddered.  If they did have some such diabolical trick up their sleeves, it would be the last straw.  He wouldn’t be able to handle it – he would be forced to concede defeat and request a ground assignment.  And all his patient endurance over this past eight months would have been for naught.
Such a fresh attempt to defeat him sounded like something the Base Commander would cook up, but certainly not Adm. Soemady.  She had made him believe that something positive was in store for him, so maybe his apprehensiveness was all for nothing.  Maybe there was some motive behind this test that he simply couldn’t figure out …
Presently, Robbie went back to the Bridge and reassumed command, fancying that Sakata relinquished the chair with considerable reluctance.  Multiple asteroids were visible now, and one could see the mining station in the distance.  Somewhere out there – not in this sector of the Belt, but somewhere – was a big chunk of rock with the blackened shell of a ship sticking out of it, and some traces of organic molecules that had once been living human flesh …
       Robbie fixed his eyes desperately on the station and said, “Reduce velocity another 5 Millstrands, Lieutenant, and come about, 010 mark 007.  It’s time we docked this boat.”
Next installment:
Chapter 10
How the Relationship between Robbie and His Silver Mother Changed