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More of “Breaking The Wheel”

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on May 31, 2003

Following directly on from the last section I posted…

“Your quarters, gentlemen. Please refresh yourselves, as you will be required at a briefing in two hours time. Good day.” A snap of his heels, and he left, the door swinging shut behind him.

It wasn’t difficult to recognise the Staatfuhr as he rose to address the room. Three years of seeing him on the television, hearing him on the radio, made him seem as familiar as family. He smiled calmly in the face of overwhelming adversity, an expression only possible to those trained by spin-doctors and political consultants, “Good morning. Welcome to this meeting of the Neuheim Defence Council.”
He paused, “You may see some new faces here today. They are the Molecular Studies group from the Halsbruck Advanced Technology Institute, and are probably the only people on Neuheim able to analyse and combat our enemy’s weapons.” Another pause, whilst a thin man in a bedraggled suit joined him on the podium. “I’ll now hand you over to Questor Bessal, who’ll be giving a background briefing to our new arrivals.”
Bessal’s story changed everything. Because Bessal knew who the invaders were, and why they were here. And he also knew who we were and where we were from.
The Caliphate was a star-travelling human civilisation with one aim: the suppression of advanced technologies. Their endless jihad was the result of the destruction of humanity’s homeworld, the mysterious Earth of the Caliphate’s propaganda, when intelligent molecular machines rebelled and ate the planet. Neuheim was a world settled by refugees from this disaster, who managed to escape the destruction frozen in cryogenic slowships that took thousands of years to crawl from the home system to the stars. Neuheim had been one of the last worlds colonised, almost a hundred thousand years after the death of Earth. By the time Neuheim had built a technological civilisation it had been rediscovered by the Caliphate: a confederation of much older colonies, with a nearly as fast as light space travelling technology, and a fanatical urge to preserve the human race.
This was their fourth visit, and their fourth cleansing. Anecdotal evidence, along with strange papers found in ancient monasteries, had pointed to a cycle of civilisations, but only recently had hard evidence of outside interventions been discovered. In the light of this new knowledge religious texts had been retranslated, and the Caliphate uncovered. The wheel of fire that the Presters preached was the cyclical rise and destruction of our ancestors’ civilisations. The Staat suppressed the information, and the Advanced Studies Institute was founded as a development centre for Neuheim’s defences. Unfortunately it was all too late. Only fifteen years after the Institute had begun its work, the Caliphate had returned.
“The Caliphate’s technological lead over us makes our situation seem hopeless.” He paused, “But recent developments have possibly given us a chance to survive this cleansing. We have now discovered that the Caliphate aren’t the only star travelling civilisation.”
I leant forward, recognising Bessal’s expression: that of a man who was about to knock down an elaborate house of cards.
“Six months before the Caliphate attack, Neuheim had a visitor.” He paused for breath. “A visitor. From Earth…”
He told us what the silver ships had been, about the strange vessel they’d escorted that landed in the Staatfuhr’s garden, a metal tear drop that melted away like summer snow, to reveal the tall pale figure of a man. The albino giant called himself Jason, and had calmly announced that he was here to save us from the whirlwind.
The chamber erupted, emotions boiling over and breaking down under the strain of the last few days. People started shouting, arguing, anything to escape the collapse of a whole way of life and belief.
The Staatfuhr climbed to his feet. “Shut up!”
A guard at the back of the room raised a pistol, and, at a nod from the Staatfuhr, fired into the ceiling.
Silence. A stunned audience sank into its chairs.
The Staatfuhr looked across the room. “I understand how you feel. But Jason means one thing: a chance to live. He’s the wild card, the chance our ancestors never had…”

The days that followed were a bustle of work, as the diamonds carried on falling all across Neuheim. Deep drifts of them built up against buildings, blocking roads all over the city. The bunkers were full of equipment taken from the universities, and as the Caliphate’s deadline came closer and closer, we turned the Staatfuhr’s bolthole into a functioning research centre.
The clocks glowing digits rolled on down to zero hour. All around the room TV screens flickered into life, each monitor connected to the micro-cameras we’d seeded across Kohlwahr. In the vaults our captive diamonds were bathed in a sea of radiations: x-rays, neutrinos, gamma rays, electron beams – even good old visible light. Arrays of sensors were ready: we wanted to see exactly what Stage Two cleansing meant, and we were going to use every eye that science could give us.
Zero hour. Above our heads, in the empty city, the diamond drifts began to melt. The sensors in the vaults watched the devices dissolve, forming a glistening sheen on the sample trays. As the liquid began to eat into the metal trays, there was a flash of light as the security systems went into action. A huge bank of capacitors discharged, firing an immense pulse of energy into the chambers, killing the Caliphate’s devices. As a finale, lead shields moved away, and a desktop beat-wave particle accelerator flooded the test chambers with a lethal mix of hard gamma rays and positrons.
On the surface the diamond blobs began to move, splitting into glistening droplets that crawled across the ground, and disappeared into buildings. It was an old science fiction movie scene: the implacable alien monsters attacking a defenceless city. I watched as a droplet swarm reached an abandoned truck, watched as the droplets crawled up its wheels, on to its roof. There they sat, slowly growing, bacteria on a Petri dish.
I heard a whispered ‘Oh shit’ as a hole appeared in the truck’s roof. Somewhere behind me a medic was passing tranquillisers around. A door slammed, someone trying to escape the electronic witnesses and the death of Neuheim.
“Amris…” I started, fascination broken by a voice and a hand on my shoulder, “Amris…” It was one of the analytical chemists, “We’ve got some results from the secure chamber.”
“Grey goo? Or directed disassembly?” I asked. Back in the early days of nanotechnology research, one of the biggest fears had been the so-called grey goo; out of control self-replicating machines that could consume a world. If the Caliphate was using grey goo as a weapon, then there was no hope for Neuheim.
“It looks directed, but we can’t be sure.” The chemist presented a sheaf of printout into my hand, “Take a look at these.” Half a hundred sheets of close typed numbers and graphs. The lab’s machines had been busy. On the monitor the truck was slowly dissolving into a pile of hematite and diamonds. Dissasemblers at work, converting the truck back into raw materials. A trickle of oil ran down the road.
“Is this what it was like on Earth at the end?” The chemist was staring at the screen, his face white with fear, “Is this what our ancestors were escaping?”
I tried to be reassuring, “I don’t think so. I can’t see the Caliphate recreating the death of a world, especially when their whole philosophy appears to be summed up in three words: No More Earths.” I looked at the papers again, “I think I’d better see what our captives were up to.”
Photomicrographs showed the alien nanomachines. A strange mix of stiff carbon rods and complex polymers, they were obviously powerful tools. In amongst the wreckage of the lab sample I could see structures I’d only dreamt of before today: complex rod logic engines that were probably more powerful than any computer on Neuheim, and at least three or four manipulators. One of the machines looked as though it could function as an atomic level sorter, another was possibly some form of replicator. I could only come to one conclusion, that this was an almost intelligent nanotechnological weapons system, designed to detect and destroy artefacts. A weapon system that could breed and grow on its targets.
“I need to see the Questor Bessal,” I told one of the chemists. “This isn’t good news…”
Without taking his eyes off the screens he waved an arm in the direction of the door, “Out there somewhere.”
I found Questor Bessal in his office, hiding behind piles of paper and computer equipment. He scrawled something on his datapad, and looked up, “Well?”
“I’ve got some preliminary results on the Caliphate attack systems.” I paused a second, “It’s definitely a nanotech weapon, designed to remove infrastructure.”
“Hmm. No attacks on people then.” He frowned, “Is that good or bad?”
“Very bad,” I answered. “At the rate that the attack system is devouring machinery we’ll be seeing a preliminary population dieback in a few weeks.”
Bessal picked a scrap of paper, and nervously crumpled it into a ball. “What percentage?”
“I’m not sure. What does past evidence indicate?”
He tapped on a keyboard, calling up databases and hypermedia documents. “Archaeological data indicates a population crash of at least 75 to 80 percent during the last two cleansings.” He stopped, thinking hard, “About what we’d expect if we removed all the technological base overnight…”
“Something well within the reach of these little bastards.” I looked at the papers again. “So, does this match with anything our visitor has said?”
“Yes.” Bessal was fidgeting with the ball. “Look…” He paused, as if embarrassed by what he was trying to say, “There’s a lot we haven’t told you.”
“So, you’d better start telling me.”
Bessal rummaged in his desk, and passed me a datacard. “I’m going to give you this. It’s a single shot autodelete card, containing all you need to know. After you’ve read it we’ll be transferring you to a safe place.”
I took the card, and slipped it into a pocket. “Why now?”
He smiled sadly, “It’s not your questions. It’s the politicians’ orders. They’ve decided you’re more useful elsewhere. The rest of us…”
Bessal took a deep breath, and gave me a hopeless look, “The rest of us, we’re expendable. We’re part of the three quarters who’re going to die.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon hiding in my room, hiding from reality in a warm cocoon of numbers, reading and re-reading the documents Bessal had given me. That night the soldiers came, and took me to a waiting yacht. I never saw Bessal or any of the others again. As we left the harbour the white ships came back, and the ruins of city filled with flames.

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Labelled with meme…

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on May 31, 2003
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Ring Of Fire

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on May 31, 2003

The BBC is collating pictures of this morning’s annular eclipse.

Some nice images, but perhaps none as nice as yesterday’s APOD.

Aaaah…

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on May 31, 2003

…my “Chat Et Fille” T-shirt has arrived…

Mmm. Po-mo clothing goodness.

A Saturday Morning “Hot In The City” Review: Dragon And Thief

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on May 31, 2003

Timothy Zahn’s been writing workman-like hard SF for many years now. Despite sidetracking into Star Wars tie-in fiction for while, he’s now back out in the mainstream of SF, with a mixed batch of novels. Dragon And Thief is the first part of a new series, “The Dragonback Adventures”. Featuring an implausible lead character, and a Heinleinian capable-kid, this is clearly not intended to be an adult novel – despite being marketed as such.

Draycos is a K’da, a symbiotic warrior poet whose partner has been killed in a sneak attack on their refugee starship. Only able to survive for 6 hours or so without a host, he attaches himself to a fugitive teenager, Jack. Luckily for Draycos, Jack has a starship, but he’s struggling to deal with his uncle’s legacy of crime, and a false charge of theft hanging over his own head. Draycos is going to have to help out Jack if he’s to stand any chance of saving the rest of the refugee fleet. It’s a journey that mixes corporate politics and treachery, and hangs a distant threat over the civilisation of the Orion Arm.

Now there’s hope here for a reasonable little juvenile adventure. Unfortunately, Zahn ruins it by creating in Draycos a character that just doesn’t make sense. For one thing, he can transform from a 2D tattoo to a 3D warrior dragon in a few seconds (and no one wonders why a teenage kid has such a spectacular piece of artwork on his skin), and for another, the sudden death of his partner of many years appears to have had no emotional effect whatsoever. Draycos’ sole purpose in the story seems to be to turn the otherwise ineffectual Jack into a pocket superman. After a while it’s just to difficult to suspend disbelief, and when the novel switches from chase thriller to heist caper, it’s clear that Zahn wants to squeeze in as many movie tropes as possible.

What might have been a candidate for the now defunct Jupiter line of Heinlein-style juveniles, Dragon and Thief is unfortunately likely to disappoint many of its readers. Zahn isn’t writing at his best (this is no match for his more complex works like Angelmass). If you’re after modern juveniles you’re probably better off with David Gerrold’s recent trilogy…

Meme attack

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on May 30, 2003

Attack of the Daves

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on May 30, 2003

The builders are called Dave (both of them). The electrician, while not being called Dave, answers to Dave. The plasterer (who arrived this morning) is called Dave.

It’s a conspiracy, I tell you.

Luckily the plumber is not called Dave.

A good morning GIP.

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on May 30, 2003

I have edited up a new version of the Evil Cat Eyes icon.

Let me present: Evil Kitty Eyes!

(Now to do some PC surgery)

[Update: Surgery completed. PC now has an extra fan, and spiffy yellow round disc cables. Hopefully this will keep it cooler inside… Have a dreadful feeling I am turning into an overclocker, as I spent some time looking at sleek aluminium and acrylic cases while buying the cables and fan.]

Hah! Another Starbucks Barista corrupted…

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on May 29, 2003

…into making the unadvertised, but available, iced chai tea latte.

Mmmmm.

A Thursday Morning “It’s Been A While” Review: “When The Devil Dances”

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on May 29, 2003

John Ringo‘s When The Devil Dances is the third part of a four book military SF series.

Some time in the early years of the 21st century the Earth was contacted by a coalition of alien races. The Posleen, an implacable race of nomadic creatures, is invading the local area of space. Not only are the Posleen violent and rapacious, it also turns out that our new allies are pacifists and need help from the most violent species they can find: humanity. Oh, and Earth is pretty much next in line for invasion.

Three books on and there’s not much left of the human race. The Posleen invasion happened on shedule, and resistence rapidly crumbled. An accident of geography means that most of the survivors are in mountain valleys or on the high central plains of the USA, buried in underground redoubt cities. A guerilla war, supported by artillery, against the Posleen has kept them pinned in the costal plains. But one Posleen is smarter than the rest, and has a plan for how to bring down the walls around the survivors.

Ringo’s multi-threaded novel follows several related plot strands: a group of women in one of the refugee shelters (one of whom is a rebuilt character from the first novel), a group of soldiers investigating the latest Posleen incursion, the crew of a 7000 ton “tank” (called Bun-Bun, by its Sluggy Freelance-loving crew), and Major Michael O’Neal – main character in the previosu two works in this series, an expert in armoured suit tactics, and victor in many battles against the enemy – as he prepares for what may be the decisive battle in the war. It’s a story that ends in a cliff hanger, leading us into the next book in the series…

When The Devil Dances is a sprawling novel, that goes well beyond the simplistic hack and slash of the generic military SF novel. Ringo’s characters are faced with agonising moral choices, and have to deal with issues of life and death, and the calculus of risk and reward. This is not a pleasant novel,where human victory is ensured. The Posleen are a voracious enemy, swarming across the landscape, and humanities allies may not be the friends we’d like them to be…

An interesting piece of military SF. Worth looking out for if you enjoy the genre, and are looking for something a little more challenging than David Drake. Just remember, there’s at least one more book to go!

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