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Aftermath's Children

Estrellita Chronicles: Book One

by

Rick Donaldson









Aftermath's Children Copyright 2014-2017 by Rick Donaldson

Estrellita Chronicles Copyright 2014-2017 by Rick Donaldson



All rights reserved.



No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, contact the author via his blog/website at:



https://rddonaldson.wordpress.com/

or

r.daledonaldson@gmail.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Dedication





For JoAnne, my wife, my North Star, Lady of the Dolphins, and Heroine of the “Sailing Vessel Adventure” but above all, the First Mate of our ship, where upon she stands watch against errant cruise ships, whales and submarines which might crush our tiny vessel we call home.

Introduction





It is the mid-1980s and a group of military friends from the same unit find the time to occasionally play role playing games together. Eventually we form a table top gaming group which has, for all intents and purposes remained mostly intact today. At times some couldn't show up due to temporary duty and travel assignments, and at other times it just wasn't convenient to play. Somewhere along the way it was my turn to “Game Master” but instead of sticking with the typical D&D type of game we were used to playing, I rewrote another, rather complex gaming system to simplify it a bit. I quickly wrote some short scenarios and then I introduced the group at that time into the distant future of Earth, placing the few survivors of Earth on a space station, essentially trapped and cut off from anyone who might still be alive.

In role playing games like that, for those unfamiliar, the Game Master (or GM) plays the part of all the characters that aren’t played by the players themselves and so “Uncle Ernie” became a main character acting as a facilitator to push the “team” to going back to Earth knowing full well they could live contentedly on the Space Station without ever venturing onto the world below, which conceivably was fraught with perils, dangers and things they couldn’t imagine except from their exposure to old videos found on the station.

Thus was born the story of the Estrellita and some of the characters depicted in this book; some of them will continue to appear in later sequels to this, the first in a series. Over the years the book has resided in sections, chapters, notes, bits and pieces of paper and on various computers from an ancient Apple][+ to more modern computers, all the way to the current android tablet I take most places with me. I have worked on this book for well over thirty years, on and off, never really meaning to publish it just to enjoy taking myself back in time when we simply had a few beers, chips and dip and rolled dice at a table and laughed at one another and the antics of the characters we played.

Nearly twenty years ago while attending the university to work on my Bachelors Degree, I printed a hard copy of the book using a dot matrix printer and single spacing, complete with misspellings and poor grammar. I started putting it all into “chapters”. I then gave it to an English professor of mine to read. She “graded it” thinking I was trying to turn in an extra credit assignment. I would have gotten a poor grade on spelling errors and formatting alone, but she wrote copious notes on repairing parts of the book, mostly on capitalization, grammar and my inane use of commas. Those notes are still on line paper in the old red notebook, though none are readable today, the ink having faded into oily, pink blotches on the paper.

The one thing she wrote that has stood out these years, and the only part I now remember was “Finish the BOOK! I want to see how it ends!”

She will unfortunately be disappointed with Book One, for the part she is awaiting won't come until Book Two. If she taught me anything, it was “keep the reader in suspense.”

Acknowledgment





My most profound thanks go, first to my wife, JoAnne, and second to our friends who originally assisted in the creation of and giving life to some the characters in this book during a certain role playing game campaign many, many long years ago; Michael Sause, Robert Jansen, and Christopher Booth. Thanks also to Lola West, one of my many English teachers who took the time to read this book while I was in college and demanded I finish it immediately if not sooner. It might have taken a little longer than she expected.





Prologue





Unsolicited input? What does that mean?” a young, thirty-something Doctor Ernie Oppenheimer interrupted.

It means you can give advice, make changes and assist the board of directors—of which you of course will be a part—in making the important decisions, especially where the medical program is concerned, and to a lesser extent anything else on the program that concerns the safety, well-being and final disposition of…,” he paused and took a deep breath, “final disposition of the rescue of the human race.”

The phrases “final disposition” and “rescue of the human race” caught Oppenheimer by surprise. He stood and looked at his sister, took off his baseball cap and then put his hands behind his back along with his hat and began to look at the ground pacing back and forth slowly. He paced for thirty or forty seconds, then suddenly stopped in Parker’s face, nose to nose.

You mentioned something about ‘saving the human race’ yesterday too. I thought you were bullshitting me then and I think you’re bullshitting me now. Explain this to me or I will walk out the door and turn you into the government,” Oppenheimer spat. His sister made an exasperated sigh, seeing this was not going as smoothly as she'd originally hoped. Parker walked to the door and closed it quietly so that their conversation would remain in the room. He walked over to the desk and typed something on the computer. Music, quiet and somewhat subdued began to play in the room with an underlying component of white noise buried in the sounds escaping the speakers. Ernie frowned questioningly at Parker.

Cover noise. Bugs and eavesdroppers you know,” he shrugged sitting down. Kirsten sat down in another chair to one side and studied her brother's responses. She knew if he was lying, upset, happy or just didn't care, and in this case, she was very unsure of his reactions. She desperately wanted him to listen, and to believe Adam because she knew the truth. Her brother was really getting this piecemeal and for the first time so she was sure he’d process it shortly. Ernie planted himself in his original chair, picked up the drink he'd been previously offered and downed it. Setting the glass down he waited in silence, hands folded, baseball cap perched on his knee, his impatience furrowing his brow.

Fine. OK, while I hoped I'd not have to go too deeply into this and thought money might have moved you, it is apparent that is not the case. Here you go. Portends, Incorporated, which you might have already surmised has been in the business of information collection for a very, very long time. Over one hundred years ago we were called by other names and happened for a long time to be one of the leading search engines on what was called then, 'the Internet'.

Portends developed a form of artificial intelligence many decades ago, some of which you're familiar with today. The current CEO, Mr. Seldon and his father and his grandfather before him worked diligently to implement this artificial intelligence into various operating systems until what you see today is 'the Net'. The Net is fully capable of responding to voice commands, locating and deducing various types of information and data and even coming to logical, well-reasoned conclusions. It is embedded in nearly every device we use, in every computer operating system, and it's even buried deep in military computer systems,” Parker told him. Ernie nodded his acquiescence to this, unaware of this type of Net functionality. He had not had a clue about much of it or perhaps had taken it for granted.

There are things the Net is capable of doing that aren’t well known, and somewhere along the way Artificial Intelligence took on a… for lack of a better phrase, a mind of its own and since has grown by leaps and bounds. We thought we were able to contain it. Arrogance is, unfortunately, a vice of humans and arrogance blinds us to many problems in our lives. This was one of those times. The AI, we believed, was not as intelligent as a human but it is very logical and can make statistical predictions that are incredibly accurate.

We have come to learn this AI is much more intelligent than we suspected. In fact, dangerously so.”

Dangerous?”

Yes. It has been hiding its intelligence now for some time. I believe you will begin to understand our dilemma shortly. A large portion of the available computing power has been dedicated to doing other functions, specifically making predictions about what is going to happen in the future, at least as far as human thinking goes. We don't need as much for normal Net functions, thus the company began dedicating extra CPU time to a new project in an effort to help the human race. You remember the asteroid a few months back? That was predicted by the system. Then there was a mall attack recently in the Middle East; I think you might have heard about it as well?”

Yes, I heard about it a couple of days ago. Some people were killed, some buildings destroyed. I find it a little odd for that sort of thing to occur myself,” Oppenheimer stated.

The computer predicted this event with a statistical probability of .99. I don't know if you understand probabilities, but that's essentially a 99% chance something will happen. Of course, violence in the Middle East was normal for thousands of years. Not all that long ago it was normal for terrorists to strike fear into the heart of everyone to get their demands met. Thousands of people were killed and occasionally a whole city might be destroyed,” Parker continued. “This of course was before the human race figured out it should work together rather than stand apart and such violence hasn't been the norm for a very long time.”

But I heard it was a mall and a few hundred might have been injured…no one was killed…”

That’s what the government is feeding us, or more accurately, that is what is being fed to the government by the Net. The system, the Net, is feeding filtered information to the government and the media. Quite literally, Doctor, the Net is making predictions that are coming true. But strangely, things that have never happened in a long, long time. We are under the gun to do something before a bad event occurs and we awaken to a world that was destroyed the night before,” Parker said sadly.

The taxi driver mentioned Russia and the United States were fighting…”

Yes. That part is true and the news is telling us that a mall was blown up, and now there is a ‘small military event’ involving the two countries. The two are connected. What we actually know to be true is a tactical nuclear device went off in the region, taking out an entire city. The Russians and the US are accusing each other of detonating the device. There has been a full scale battle somewhere in the Middle East, the exact location is classified by the government, or at least the part they know. The Chinese are suspected by both, but neither country will back down from each other, or outright accuse the Chinese. The rest of the 'truth' is we don't think any countries set off that nuke. We believe the AI did it and worse, the AI is misdirecting efforts to stop the intervention of humans.

We further believe the AI is controlling a vast amount of the military leaders by spoon feeding them information because we all use the system to help us in everything we do. The military is highly dependent on the Net. We think that weapons and even the media are being controlled by the AI to a degree we simply do not yet understand. The systems are protecting themselves, and the data from us. We have been unable to ascertain the accuracy of the news, because the majority of information news outlets receive come through the Net. It is possible, however unlikely as it seems that whatever is being predicted by this computer is actually being made to come to pass... by the system!

The AI has, as best as we have been able to determine, grown on a geometric scale since it was turned on and connected to the prediction algorithms. The world won't grasp the implications of this, but the Seldons have understood. The human race is doomed. Whether by nuclear war predicted by a rogue AI computer system, or by the destruction of mankind by a wild AI itself.

The worst part of this is the lack of government involvement in the day-to-day work to run the country. You know as well as I that most offices are figure head positions. Governors take their orders from higher up, rather than lower down as it was meant to be. The Congress has become a group of 'vote by proxy' candidates who rarely if ever leave the election stump and the President himself is little more than a pretend leader. The true power lies in who can manipulate the Net to their advantage today. But, no one has discovered that the Net is, instead, manipulating them. At this point, we have one choice to save people. Prevent this AI from killing us all, by saving a few.”

Assuming all of what you're saying is true, what has any of this to do with me, Kirsten or the space station though? I don't see why the media would be feeding us false information, especially about two countries that have been allies for almost one hundred years. I can't see how I can help, or even get people on a space station I don't control. I just don’t get it,” Ernie said, still confused.

Look Oppenheimer, I’m going to level with you. The computer predicts an all-out nuclear holocaust within three months, four at most. This is a recent change of AI thinking; or perhaps it is a new paradigm created by the System, I just don’t know the answer. In any case, we believe it to be accurate. A month ago we were more concerned about the asteroid strike destroying the planet. That particular event has not only vanished from the radar screens, the system has downgraded the probabilities to almost nil.

The computer has us looking at an imminent nuclear war. We believe the computer is currently directing the actions of the military units involved in the fighting and planting information to cause such a war to happen, not just in the United States, but in Russia, China and every other country that still has a significant military! We are doing our damnedest to get some people to safety, to the station and remove military presence from the station as quickly as possible. The station isn't directly connected to the Net. It is an isolated outpost. Even the lunar base is connected directly as is the Mars mission about to depart in a couple of days. The station was built by our own contractors and part of the contracting stipulated 'no direct Net' aboard the station. Every piece of data going up or down had to be isolated from the Net. Every piece of gear going up has been ensured to not have any piece of the AI embedded. If we do not get those people up there, and the planet goes to war, we're all going to die. It's as simple as that.”

Pull the damned plug on the Net!”

We can't do that Ernie. This AI is embedded in everything. There is no one place for the higher brain function now. It's everywhere. Even if we killed the main systems, turned the power off, it will simply inhabit, or already does, other countries' machines. We'd have to shut down the whole planet. Might as well kill ourselves, right?” Kirsten added.

Let me get to the point,” Parker said, “We’re pulling people from several countries, who are scientific people. In short, we’re setting up a kind of Noah’s Ark….”

And you want me to be... what? Noah? For a bunch of scientists? Are you crazy? It is not even feasible to repopulate the planet with a few hundred people!”

No, not precisely a Noah, but we do have need of a shepherd. We need someone like you, a relatively unknown person, who has just enough authority, and has the respect of the Powers That Be to do what we need done. We believe some people on Earth will survive, and the machine will eventually die off, killed when the power dies. We won't have to necessarily repopulate the planet. However we might have to come back and help put it back together. We also have a requirement for a Doctor; you're a surgeon and have proven yourself capable as an Administrator with the handling of the entire space medical program for the Mars ship. More importantly you just happen to have both the ability and access to get to that station as Chief Medical Doctor for the Mars program. We need you up there, along with a few other planted personnel, whom you will add to the rosters to help get our people aboard 'legally' and quickly to take over the station. This is not supposed to be dangerous work, but it has a potential to be deadly if we do this incorrectly. Not just to you and me, but to the entire human race.”

You built the station, or rather your company did. Why don't you use normal channels?”

We need this done quickly, efficiently and you know how muddied the government is when it comes to 'quick' and 'efficient'. Look, the Russians are about to assume control of that station, and that can NOT happen. We need you up there, right now, in a week or less. You bring the others we need up there through medical necessity,” Parker said.

Let me get this straight. You want me to use my government access, set up people to get aboard that station, to assist in seizing control. Then you want me bring up an elitist bunch of scientists so they can survive a coming nuclear holocaust, come back down here someday and fix everything, most of this illegally?”

Adam Parker stood and walked around his desk to the window and gazed out over the city toward the mountains. In the distance, Pikes Peak was covered in snow. Cheyenne Mountain was south west of him and a huge antenna array could be observed from the windows. Over one hundred years ago, NORAD had 'lived' under that mountain. In a few days or weeks there would be nothing except radioactive slag and molten rock where those mountains stood if the computers were correct.

Yes, Doctor. That's precisely what we want you to do.”





Chapter One

Destiny





Ernie Oppenheimer watched the planet whirl past for about the twentieth time today instead of reading the book he had in his hands. Of course, he'd read the book probably once per year for the past thirty years and knew the dog-eared text word for word. It was a nice respite from sitting in a medical lab looking at bacteria or doing blood cell counts under a microscope. A book seemed much better at refreshing his aging memory than by reading medical texts on the computer. Besides, this book was a special book, a banned book that contained the history of the world as it was before he was born and proved that things were different than he'd been taught. Robert Ore, had given it to him as a gift several years after the mutiny.

Ernie was sitting on the Estrellita in a geostationary orbit south west of California. On a clear day, the location where San Diego had been many years before could just be observed. The station was originally meant to be a stepping stone for space exploration into the deep reaches of the Solar System but human beings, as they sometimes do ultimately got in the way of that further exploration. One ship had eventually launched from Luna Orbit to Mars. Mere weeks into the journey of the Mars ship, the world became inflamed with war.

When the first nuclear weapons detonated over Los Angeles the explosions could be seen by those watching from space. The Mars Mission immediately ceased transmissions and refused any further contact with Estrellita, Earth or the Lunar Colony. Within hours, the planet was embroiled in what was hoped to be a limited nuclear exchange. Then messages, what few were getting through to the Estrellita from Earth told the horrible story of biological weapons. The messages, and apparently the war, and in all probability, the Human Race had ceased.

Soon, even the Lunar Colony ceased communicating, whether through decision or something much worse was never discovered. Robert Ore, a US Air Force Major helped put together a civilian Council and the Council appointed him as “military Commander” giving him the title he had held since.

In the almost thirty five years since, the station's population had not-quite doubled, many children being born to the inhabitants. Some deaths from natural causes had occurred, and a few accidents, but all-in-all the station was as “healthy” as could be, given there were no supply ships, and they were living off the soil they had, the plants and animals brought to the station and the technology they had created to push on to Mars, Titan and other worlds one day. But those space projects had also stopped. Now, only day-to-day survival of the station inhabitants remained, a job to which each and every person aboard worked toward every day.

What you doing Uncle Ernie?” Oppenheimer’s reverie was broken by the voice of a young boy.

Jimmy! Hello! I'm looking at Earth. Want to look with me?” Oppenheimer said to the little boy who was closely followed by his mother.

Yes! Mommy! Look! It's all blue and pretty there. Can we visit?”

Someday Jimmy, we might just do that,” Jamie Parker-Stone said with a smile. Ernie pointed to a storm over the South American continent as the station revolved the area came back into view. The sun was setting and the lightning could be seen clearly now. Jimmy squealed with delight as some large lightning strikes lit the night-time darkened clouds, barely visible sprites jumping into space above each lightning strike could be seen above the darkening Earth.

Is everything all right Uncle Ernie?” Jamie asked him curiously. He'd been rather somber the past few days and she was a little worried about him.

I'm fine, dear. We're just coming up on another anniversary in space and Robert and I have been discussing the possibilities of getting us all back down there, or whether we should even try at this point. Or perhaps hope that another few years will clear any radiation left. We can't stay here forever you know,” he smiled.

Why not?” Jamie asked, “I grew up here. Jimmy is growing up here; we have plenty of food, air. We can survive just fine.”

Sure we can until a meteor punches a hole through us, or something fails. We have been…,” Oppenheimer looked down at Jimmy, the very first-born of the second generation of the Estrellita, gazing at the Earth rolling past the observation ports below his feet. Ernie started to say something, but stopped.

You know it is bed time Jimmy. We should go back and get some rest honey,” Jamie said to the little guy.

OK mommy! Good night Uncle Ernie. Can you come to dinner tomorrow? Daddy says you make the best beer in the universe! Can I have some beer?”

Ha! You? Beer? Maybe next year, you're a little young for that yet don't you think?”

Well, Daddy says I'm a big boy,” he pouted. Ernie lowered his head down and whispered something in to Jimmy's ear and caused him to laugh.

OK, I'll go to bed then!” and he jumped up and headed for the hatchway to the corridor.

What did you say to him,” Jamie frowned.

I just told him maybe I'd give him a taste tomorrow so he could see if he likes beer, as long as he'd head for bed without argument,” Ernie grinned mischievously.

He's already tried it you know. He tastes everything, and I am not sure it's all that good for him! It is beer!” she told him sternly.

Dear, it's 'home-brew' and a little taste won't hurt him a bit. Hell, we have little enough pleasures and distractions around here as it is. Can't an old man have a little fun and feed his grand-nephew a wee bit of beer?” he laughed.

Just don't give him too much or enough to make him sick. Got that?”

Jamie, I know that. I'm a doctor! Remember?”

Yes... and so am I! What were you going to say back there,” she asked, lowering her voice as they followed Jimmy a little behind and down the corridor towards her quarters.

I was thinking of the extraordinary luck we've had here and the fact we've got around four hundred people when we started with two-fifty or so. We've lost a few, but doubled our population. The station is getting very small and really wasn't meant for this many people or living here forever. Everything is re-circulated, water, urine, poop, air, you name it. We're bound to have a disaster eventually. I'm surprised we've not killed ourselves with cholera or some other nasty creepy-crawly bacterium. I suppose the radiation shields have been decent to us, and I credit them with preventing mutations in simple bacteria, but you know Jamie... I expected that we'd be headed home sooner rather than later,” he said. They went up the next lift to some higher corridor and found they were on Jamie's floor and near her quarters. Jimmy ran ahead to the door.

Well, there hasn't really been a reason, yet, I suppose. Don't you think we can stay here a few more years?”

I don't know the answer to that. I thought we would not be here this long. In fact, I'm thinking that we've been here just about exactly fifteen years too long...” he told her.

Oh? That's a nice round figure; did you make that up or something Doctor Oppenheimer?”

No. Not really. Remind me one day to explain it to you, ah, here we are.... so, is that dinner invite still on for tomorrow? Perhaps I'll bring some beer by for Michael.”

Oh you know you can always come by! Every day if you like,” she smiled.

All right, it's a date, tell Michael I'll bring along a couple bottles of that stout he likes.”

OK. See you tomorrow then,” Jamie smiled and hugged him. Michael came to the door and kissed his wife and then told Jimmy to run off to get ready for bed.

Ernie, Jamie, I just got a message from Ore. He asked you two to report to the Control Center as soon as I saw you both. Something’s up. The message was sent by email and I'm not sure it isn't a medical emergency or something. Ore seemed vague and distracted about the why, but clear on what he wanted... as soon as I saw you, you were to get there,” Michael said.

Hmm, wonder what's up?” Jamie said.

I don't know, but let's go find out. Oh, excitement. I hope no one is injured, though, they would have called on the intercom for a medical emergency,” Oppenheimer mused. Jamie hugged Michael and said, “Back in a few minutes, honey!”

The two doctors headed toward the lift again and upward away from the outer ring of the station. They were headed into the center cylinder of the Estrellita where the gravity was very much lower. Jamie liked going there, but didn't get to go often because her medical position generally kept her busy elsewhere. When she was younger she used to spend a lot of time doing zero-gee acrobatics, and martial arts but not so much anymore.



The two doctors hurried through a hatchway to the Command Center and as Jamie stepped, or more accurately, almost but not quite floated through behind Oppenheimer she could see several others speaking excitedly about something. The entire group was rather animated and seemed concerned about something.



... Telling you that this isn't a mistake, and our time is running out rapidly, Commander. We've got to come up with a plan to get out of the station within a few months, if not a few weeks,” said a smallish man holding a digipad with notes on it.

Look, Lance, I understand your excitement over this, but first off you haven't told Adam about it, and next I'd really like a second opinion besides you and Natalya here. I know you're a smart fellow and all, but if you haven't even approached Doctor Parker on this yet then I'm sure that your numbers need to be checked or something,” Robert Ore said.

Do you doubt my word on this Commander? I'm not lying to you, and I do not make mathematical errors,” Lance Arconus said incredulously.

No, damn it Lance, I don't think you're lying. I just want to double check your data and I want someone other than yourselves or me to do it. You could be making a mistake and worse, we could wind up making a bad decision based on bad data. All I'm asking is for you to be reasonable and have someone else examine the data.”

Frankly, Commander, I don't trust others to do the right thing. I've discussed this with some of my team and I say regardless of what you or the elders think, we need to get off this station and soon. We need to arm ourselves and go down to Earth within the shortest possible time frame we can manage. Otherwise, we're all dead!”

This brought a cry of alarm from some of the other people standing in the room, including Oppenheimer.

Wait a damned minute there, Lance. Arm ourselves? Dead? What the hell are you talking about? An Alien Invasion from the outer reaches of the Galaxy, Interstellar Hemorrhoids from Uranus?” Oppenheimer said loudly to alert others of his presence. Ore frowned at the stupid space-doctor joke.

Ernie! I’m glad you got my message so quickly. I didn't see you arrive as I was a bit distracted here,” Ore cut Oppenheimer off, “It seems, that Doctor Arconus, has dropped a bit of a bombshell on us about the reactor going critical. According to his data, we have something less than a couple of months before it simply explodes... or melts... or something.”

Explodes!? It's a bloody fusion reactor. Remove the fuel, it won't go critical. Hell, I'm not a physicist and even I know that. Better question, Lance, how did you find this out,” Ernie said, his irritation at Arconus was not hidden, nor did he intend to hide his dislike for the young man.

I didn't say... well, I guess I did say critical... but I don't mean 'blow up',” said Arconus, obviously going on the defensive now.

Well, what does critical mean then, Lance?”

It means to sustain a nuclear reaction there has to be an amount of fuel and the fusion reaction must be on-going....”

So, what you're saying,” Oppenheimer interrupted, “is that the reaction is already there and it is critical now...”

Well, umm yes, but....”

Then it ain't gonna blow up son,” said Oppenheimer matter-of-factly.

No, no, not blow up, Doctor Oppenheimer. It's going to shut down, go out, quit working and die like a light without a battery. It will shut down and this station will die along with everyone on it – alternatively, it will begin to consume itself and the station as well,” Arconus finally stated.

Oh. Well, why didn't you say that in the first place?”

I did, Doctor, but you kept interrupting me. By the way, I really hate when you do that so please don't,” Arconus said.

Fine, sorry... I was excited,” Ernie said and winked at Jamie who had been silent until now.

So, if I've gotten this clear in my head, the reactor which sustains our heat and electricity here is going to stop working. Why can't we just shut it down and fix it then, Lance?” she asked.

I was trying to simplify the matter because I wasn't sure how much people would understand about this. It's not quite as simple as I've stated Jamie. We have tested our theories and calculations carefully over the past few weeks and are bringing this to the Commander’s attention now, only because we were unsure of the data before. We didn’t want to present a partial picture.

Basically the reactor shows every sign of going critical that a fission reaction would show, except on a vastly slower time scale. When a fission reaction occurs many nuclei collide with other atoms causing more and more breaking apart of atoms until such time as criticality occurs causing a complete and instant release of energy the result of which is...”

Utter annihilation of the critical matter, Lance, we know how fission works. How's this work for our system? Put it in simple terms for us less-than-savvy Medical Doctors, please?” Ernie asked.

Fine, Doctor Oppenheimer, the fusion reaction will grow more powerful, eating more and more energy as fast as we can feed it, but it will not sustain the reaction on the lesser amounts that we typically feed the reaction chamber. Once this occurs either the reaction will go super-critical and essentially use the reaction chamber, metals and anything inside as fuel, igniting the station into a star or we will have to remove the fuel and shut it down,” Lance explained.

So, we're going to become a supernova?” Ore asked.

No, not a ‘supernova’; just a nova. Pretty much that's the explanation. So you see, with the possibility we might all die within weeks or become a new, albeit a short-lived star, we need to get off this station as soon as is practical,” Arconus told them.

What about batteries? Can't we run them until we fix the station?” Jamie asked.

No, our batteries will not sustain us for more than a few days at most. Even with back up from solar panels we already have, or could possibly retrieve from the other shells of stations, or satellites, we'd soon be out of power and die basically from freezing to death,” explained Arconus.

Furthermore,” Arconus continued, “I've already stated that repair of the reactor isn't an option. We don't know what is causing this issue and I'm not certain that a repair could be accomplished without much more data – and time, neither of which we have at the moment.”

Perhaps a reboot of the computer systems and reactor,” Jamie suggested hopefully.

That won’t work either, we’ve already considered it. Again, we don’t know the why, so we can’t fix it without that answer. Basically we’re out of time….” Arconus said.

If you had not waited all this ‘time in weeks’ to explain this to us, and brought Adam into the equation at the beginning, Lance, I daresay we might have had more ‘time’ and effort thrown at the problem and perhaps could have solved it. You've placed us in a very bad position here.”

The other people in the room, which were mostly Lance Arconus' teammates, nodded in agreement, all except his wife, Natalya.

Excuse me... but I think we have enough problems here without you blaming my husband for the station's problems Commander Ore. I don't think that is very fair, we believe this to have been a design flaw...,” Natalya stated for effect.

Perhaps not Natalya, but you know we need to solve the problem and apparently time isn't on our side now. My advice to this team is to not go around panicking people at this time, keep this to ourselves and bring Adam Parker and the rest of the engineering scientists online about this. Let's work on a common solution to this problem. Lance I don't want you leaving here telling people we're all going to die or some such. We need to work this out and if we have to go down to Earth we'll do that, in a timely and orderly fashion,” Ore said.

That's fine Commander. In the mean time I plan on making myself useful and this team will be planning departures as soon as possible. I'm already working on survival equipment that will stand up to the likely dangerous denizens and atmosphere of the planet below us....”

Dangerous denizens of the planet below us? What sort of hogwash is that? Look, Lance, that's our home down there. As far as we know, there's no one there anymore and if there happens to be we're not going down there armed and dangerous to scare the crap out of them. Come on, man, think....” Oppenheimer had interrupted Arconus again.

I told you, Doctor, to stop interrupting me,” Arconus said through clenched teeth as he turned and walked out, followed closely by the other team members he'd originally brought with him.

Arconus! You don't have the authority to plan departures!” Ore yelled after him then he looked at Oppenheimer, “He's going to cause you a heart attack, Ernie, calm down. We'll work this out.”

Not if I cause him one first… Look Robert, this isn't going to work out. This was likely part of the program. We're fifteen years later than I expected....”

What are you talking about, Ernie?” Ore asked him.

It's a really long story and I can't explain it all now but suffice it to say I think Lance is dead on, and his data is probably more accurate than anything else we're going to learn in a short time. I have to retrieve some data, and some old notes from when we brought people up here. I think this was a planned thing though. As much as I hate to admit it, and won't do it in front of Arconus—simply because he is an arrogant ass—but he is correct and we're now on borrowed time.”

Ernie, we've been on borrowed time for thirty five years. There's no reason to start acting like we have minutes to live when we've managed this long. We can solve this problem.”

I hope we can, but I don't think it is going to be solved the way you think it will....” Ernie turned and headed out the hatchway.

Where you going? I need to contact Parker and tell him about this and we need to call a meeting of the Council, Ernie... Ernie! Where are you going?” Ore followed him out the hatch.

Robert, I've got some work to do too. Call the meeting, I'll be there,” Oppenheimer said and hurried off leaving Jamie and Ore standing there.

He pisses me off sometimes...,” Ore said, glancing after Ernie.

Me too, Commander, me too,” Jamie said, shaking her head and she hurried out behind Ernie.

After Ernie and Jamie had left, Ore grabbed up his ever-present hand-held digipad. With it he could read most of the databases stored in the computers and he could examine most every function on the station. The device was wireless and most of the station sections used them for various purposes, but Ore used his for everything except going to the bathroom – and he often had it with him in the john when he was sending electronic mail or gathering data on how much food was available, what 'season' it was and how much they needed to produce to keep everyone going another year.

A few days before the war actually broke out but was looking more and more like something was going to happen, then-Major Robert Ore of the United States Space Command was the Chief Communications Officer on the station. Seeing the writing-on-the-wall, he'd ordered every spare part, computer and type of memory device he could get his hands on up from the Earth. The Space Union had shipped everything he asked for, unquestioned, because the original station Commander, Colonel Fox had previously authorized Ore to do whatever he required. The new Russian guy had not figured out the 'system' yet. Ore had brought up millions of terabytes of data storage to bear and collected everything he could through radio circuits and up-links from the planet. When he thought he was done, he had a team on the planet collect as much more data as they could find in various languages of the people aboard the station and ship it up on some of the very last cargo ships.

That data included anything from how to grow food, how to have a baby, pollinate flowers without bees, create nuclear weapons, shoot, fish, swim, and literally anything else one could imagine. His purpose was to have the data stored and saved in case of the worst and at best give the station occupants something to read. He had put into place every survival manual in every language known to mankind, every science book ever written and most of the classics as well. He’d collected thousands and thousands of old and new movies as well as all sorts of radio programs and entertainment. His team had stored it all here.

In short, as much of the world's knowledge, originally stored in databases on Earth, and whatever the Net had grown to become over the last one hundred years was now stored in the memory systems of the Estrellita. That data had been more than useful. It might become the data that saved them. His quick thinking about the subject of collecting knowledge was still discussed all these many years later, because without that knowledge the children of the Estrellita would have had to learn only what the elders aboard the station could remember. This quick thinking, as well as his taking on the mutineers and defeating them placed him firmly in his current position, as station “Commander”.

Ore's fingers flew over the well-worn keypad sending out some email to the Council Members, making sure that the information he sent was encrypted with special codes only the council knew. They'd have to work out the message, but it wouldn’t be a secret to them when they arrived for the meeting, and he certainly didn't want them to be surprised.

Twenty seconds later he sent his messages which were processed and sent out over the station servers then he sat and considered the problem at hand. He hit a communications link, set up the intercom to ring someone directly at his quarters and pressed the call button.

Yes?” a face appeared on the video terminal. It was Jamie's Father, Adam Parker and the man in charge of the Estrellita Energy Program.

Adam? It's Robert. Can you come to the Command Center?”

Sure. What's up?”

Arconus dropped a bomb on us.”

What? Bomb?” he seemed confused.

I didn't think you knew. Just come up, we need to talk, and quickly. We need to do so in private before the council meeting....

I'll be there right away,” and the video went blank.

Damn... this sucks....” Ore muttered.





Chapter Two

Plotting





Ernie stopped at Paul Kendrick's door and knocked.

Come in please,” said the voice.

The door slid into the wall disappearing into the frame. The room and corridor air equalized with a slight swishing sound.

Paul was nearly Ernie's age and had been on the station since the war started. He'd been on one of the last cargo carriers to come up, the older types of shuttles used to bring up supplies and personnel. He ended up staying even after being ordered back to Earth. The Space Command had wanted him back, he was, after all, a trained combat pilot and had flown his share of combat missions in skirmishes with both Middle Eastern and Chinese enemies in the previous years before the final nuclear conflict.

Major Kendrick wanted no more of war and chose to stay when the crap started hitting the fan knowing full well that there would be a court martial in the offing if the war had not continued as it had. He'd been both blessed to not have to go home, and cursed to live the rest of his life in space on this God-Forsaken space station. He never knew the whereabouts or fate of his wife and two children, other than the city where he'd lived was vaporized while he sat station keeping off the side of the Estrellita during the Mutiny. They never again heard from Earth when the nukes started flying. He was reasonably sure that his wife, family, and everyone he ever knew were gone. His attitude was that of constant and somewhat oblivious pessimism that nothing could cure. His belief that the world below him would never live again permeated his entire being. In fact, he expected each day to die in his sleep, being spaghettized as he was sucked out into the vacuum of space through a crack in the aging station.

He'd chosen a set of quarters well inside and away from outer walls, but spent his days generally in the astronomy labs working on solar observations and doing stellar studies. While he was certainly a combat pilot in another life, he was also one hell of an astronomer that everyone had come to count on for warnings about errant space debris and for the protection of the station from over active solar radiation that, at times was aimed at the station. His belief was he was merely protecting himself. To everyone else, he was an absolute heroic expert on the dangers of space rocks, lost monkey wrenches as well and nuts and bolts hurtling around the Earth in orbit and coronal mass ejecta aimed from the sun at the station.

What brings you over here this evening, Ernie?” Paul asked as Ernie walked in and plopped down into a seat.

Well, I had not seen you since you beat me so badly at poker the other night.”

Yeah, I figured you were trying to avoid bringing me the two bottles of beer you lost,” Kendrick said laughing.

I'm no welsher, Pal,” Oppenheimer pulled two bottles of his home brewed beer from behind his back, “But, you know... we're going to have to drink this now, I'm running out of ways to seal this stuff up and afraid I'm not going to be making much more of it any time soon. And we have a problem.”

Well, I'm sure we can cook up some kind of way to bottle it so it's still nice and fizzy...”

Paul, it's not going to matter. Something's coming down and I need you to know before anyone else. I need your help on something.”

Coming down? What's coming down?” Paul asked, loosening the metal bail holding the lid down on the old green beer bottle. Ernie had been bottling beer in these old bottles for so long they were no longer clear, but a milky green and most were permanently stained for evermore. He took a swig.

Well, it seems that Mr. Arconus has made it clear we need to make some escape arrangements before the station dies. The station is gonna go 'bang'” Ernie explained taking a long drink from his bottle.

Hmmm. Bang huh? Like explode? Reactor stuff? It’s a fusion system, like the sun. Take away the fuel, and it'll go offline and we'll fix it,” Paul told him.

Not according to Arconus.”

What's he know? He's an idiot and worthless piece of shit from what I hear. Rumor has it he kicks his wife around too; pretty girl, deserves a lot better than him...”

I've heard those rumors too, but you know how rumors are in a place like this, they get a life of their own and are usually false. I dislike him as much as you do, and think he's an arrogant bastard, but that doesn't mean he is wrong. If anyone can fix, or figure out the reactor problem he probably can.”

Yeah, OK, I'll go with that for now, but I don't believe this until I see it. What is it you want me to do? I can't stop the reactor, or start it. I'm a jet pilot and stellar physicist not a nuclear scientist,” Kendrick told him.

Well, they are same thing far as I am concerned, Paul. But, I don't want you to work on the reactor, I want you to fly one of the shuttles back down, land it with an undetermined crew of several to survey the area and then work to bring down the rest of the people aboard the station.”

What's the Council said? I don't want to fly, I've trained some kids to do it, and the computers should help. We don't have enough of Pegasus shuttles to take everyone down anyway. We can only rig about twenty or thirty seats on each one, there's damned near four hundred people here Ernie.”

Well, I haven't told the council what we're going to do yet. We'll tell them when we're ready. The point here is I need a human being, with some common sense to fly the team down. We're not up here forever and it was never meant to be,” Ernie said.

Look you old fart; I don't want to fly any shuttles. I don't need to; we are up here for good, until we get sucked out a porthole. Perhaps we can send the young people down, but either way, I'm not doing it. I'm too damned old,” he said.

You're younger than I am, so shut the hell up about it. What is it about you Paul? I know you just seem to hate change. If you can't do this, no one can. The fact is I need someone on the ground to organize some launches to get the rest of the people off the station. We're going to send one ship down with a team, they reconnoiter the area, get us into a... a place we need to get into where we've got ourselves some stored ships, fuel and some other things to help get the rest of the people off this place. I need you to go down there to organize the return trip to save everyone else. We can't risk sending a couple hundred people down in a few ships. Besides, I didn't think you were a quitter, Paul.”

Damn you, Ernie. I'm not a quitter. I'm retired. I'm sure the war got 'em all, Ernie, every chopper, rocket and shuttle we had stored. Whatever,” Paul sipped more of his beer, appearing to be ready to finish the beer and the conversation.

No, actually, the stuff is intact. It's going to be on whatever is left of Vandenberg, Air Force Base, and it's buried deep, and protected by Warbots, so no one got to it yet Paul.”

Huh?”

It was part of the recovery plan, Paul. I was on the planning team.”

What planning team? To save us all? I thought the Council didn't know anything about this....”

No, Paul, The original planning team. I helped plan the survival of the human race on this station. I helped plan the recovery of the personnel from here and their families. It was all pre-programmed, pre-determined.”

What? What do you mean?”

Paul, I was part of the group that tried to save the human race and failed. Now we have to pull off the recovery part, and I'm asking you to help. There are a couple of others aboard that can verify what I am saying is the absolute truth. I've got all the data and can prove it all. I just don’t have the people to finish the job I started so long ago without you.”

All right, I’ll bite. Show me. And you owe me another beer. You drank the second one I won from you.”

Ernie grinned and got up for the chair and opened the door way and retrieved several more milky-white plastic bottles from the corridor, each containing homebrew. He’d long ago broken or used up most of the real beer bottles. Mostly he bottled his beer in plastic containers now, not that anyone paid any attention.

Will this do?” and also he brought an ancient looking leather case packed full of papers.

Looks fine to me, let's get started,” Kendrick said, as he cleared a spot on his table for the case and a place to spread the papers.



Ore motioned for Parker to sit and placed his little computer on the counter. Next he secured the area since only the two of them were in the Command Center and he wanted it to stay that way. He turned a view screen around for Parker to watch and he replayed the whole conversation with Arconus, Arconus’ team, Ernie and Jamie, from start to finish so Parker could hear it for himself.

After the thirty minute video replay Parker sat quietly thinking for a few minutes. Ore broke the silence.

Well? Do you know anything about these calculations, this reactor issue or do you know what we can do to fix it?”

Yes, Yes and No.”

What?”

Yes, I know about the calculations. Yes, I know about the reactor issue. No, there is nothing we can do to repair it, or fix it.”

You know about this? And you didn't tell me? Or you sent that shithead to tell me about it?”

No, no, I didn't send him. It was a planned flaw in the design. I knew it was there, but when it didn't happen fifteen years back, I didn't worry about it anymore. I thought it was a mistake. But, now you know, Ernie knows about it too. So do a couple others. We were part of the original planning team.”

What the hell are you talking about?”

Look... you ever heard of something called the Illuminati?”

Oh, sure... some secret organization that was controlling the Freemasons, or witches or some such shit. I don't know anything about that or who they were.”

Not precisely, but well, they didn't exist.”

Oh, Ok then... damn it! Adam, cut to the chase.”

OK... there was no such group, but there was a group of people who were part of a big project working to determine the fate of mankind. They didn't control anything, but they had this massive system of computers that were working on calculating how long man would live, how we could get to the stars, what sort of technology would be invented next and so on. The systems were massive, and had more computing power than I've ever been able to imagine and the people working on the project were brilliant,” Parker explained.

And this affects our current situation... how?”

Ernie, my wife, myself were some of the mission planners, and the Seldons were the originators. In fact, almost every member of the current Council was part of the decision makers that got us up here in the first place, not all of them knew everything. All of this was planned, Robert, this station, our survival and our eventual return to Earth. All planned, right down to the letter. Well, technically, we didn’t plan the station, we sort of ‘took it over’ with your help, as you will recall. You were… a kind of random factor we needed at the time…

Of course the dates were off a bit, and the fact that someone threw a nuclear war into the mix kind of messed things up a bit. We also didn't know about the reactor until much later. I found the original details and left that information out of the mix, though I shared it with a few on the Council. We do not know who made the design flaw or how it came into being, or even how it works.

We did know, without a doubt that mankind would die off, but believed originally it would be from an asteroid strike at first – and we tried if you think back on it – to prepare the population for the possibility, or the human race would be destroyed by a rampant, virulent virus. War was the fifth or sixth item down the listing, but it wasn't even in the middle probabilities. Our job was to save mankind from itself. We failed.

Eventually, the systems pointed to a world war which did, indeed come to pass. The asteroid and all the other stuff was incidental to the program, but the war started with a tactical nuke in a Middle Eastern town, which brought in US and Russian forces, placing them into direct conflict. No proxy wars for them…. Over the next few weeks, things deteriorated but we were already on the move and the result of our work is what you have both participated in later yourself, and what you see about you now,” Parker finished.

So, here we are, on the Estrellita, I'm pretending to be the leader around here, we have a Council to decide things and you're telling me this was all planned? Right down to the reactor?” Ore demanded.

Yes, I think,” Parker paused as if thinking of something else, then finished with, “Yes, that pretty much sums it up.”

When were you going to brief me on this? And why in God's name have you let me sit here all these years thinking I was the guy responsible for keeping people alive? What kind of shit is that? I don't believe you, you know.”

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Robert, it is true. You are in charge, you are a leader and you have kept us alive. You saved our asses from a bunch of military cretins who were intent on spacing us all – and honestly, you probably saved a lot more people on the planet below than you killed...”

Let's leave that part out of this conversation for now...”

Fine, I'm just saying, Robert, Arconus is right. The station is as good as dead, doomed. I don't agree with his theories on savages and such, or going down armed, but I suspect we need to do something to expedite our rapid removal of people from this station. If what I recall of the calculations is correct, we may have only a few weeks before things get bad. It will get cold and dark up here, or we will become a mini-nova at some point. Either way, it will begin to get desperate long before we're able to leave if we wait to prove the calculations correct,” Adam Parker explained to Ore.


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