[Updated October 1, 2014]
Here is a preview of the first two chapters of my upcoming science fiction novel, Dying to Live Forever, which should be available for sale via several popular eBook publishers in October, 2014. I hope you enjoy it.
“Three. Hundred. Fucking. Years!” Rik van der Gelder shouted at the wall, hurling a piece of cheese after his words. He launched the knife at the cleaning and repair bot that scurried toward the resulting mess, but the damned thing dodged just in time. This senseless game had been going on for several hours.
Rik was bored. Like a tooth, it ached in him — a constant struggle to fill his hours with unobtainable novelty or purpose. It didn’t help at all that his condition arose from a surfeit of living filled with achievement and success.
The walls, for their part, took no notice of his spoiled child antics, continuing to display breathtaking images of some of his favorite visual arts masterpieces of the last three millennia. Nor did his ship, Scarlett O’Hara, make any response. Over the decades of their time together, she had learned it was best to note but otherwise ignore Rik’s occasional outbursts.
Rik’s physical condition was that of a trim and healthy fifty five year old human male. His mental condition, or more precisely his emotional condition, was another matter entirely. He slowly shook his head in a gesture of utter exhaustion. He felt incredibly — unbearably — old and burned out.
He cradled the diamond-glass snifter in the warmth of his hand, slowly swirling it out of habit, but doing so violently enough that he was in danger of spilling most of it. With an abrupt toss he gulped most of seventy year old elixir, deriving no pleasure at all from its perfect melange. To him, at this moment, the expensive Armagnac was just another way to wallow in despondency swaddled in the irritating sameness of ubiquitous creature comfort.
Rik only vaguely recalled the meeting more than two hundred years earlier with the group of scientists who had perfected a human life extension treatment. With Rik’s help, this technology was given into the care of a non-political organization known as UNCAT. This had seemed like such a great idea at the time.
The day before Rik’s departure on his current “holiday,” UNCAT had notified him that he had been officially selected to receive an unprecedented third anti-aging rejuvenation treatment.
Living another century or more sounded to Rik like the purest form of extended torture.
He had already decided not to accept.
Rik Can Still Be Surprised
Snapping back to reality and squirming a bit in his seat at his dining table aboard Scarlett, Rik shoved his woolgathering to the back of his mind. “I’m acting like a little kid who complains of boredom on a rainy Saturday,” he grumbled.
It helped a bit to see his mental state in perspective. He remembered what his English nanny, Annabelle, had always done to lift him out of such a state when he had lived with Opa in Maastricht. But where could he find glue, construction paper, crayons, and scissors on this ship? He grinned, self deprecatingly.
It was time for some real music instead of the soothing sugary crap he had been listening to lately. “Scarlett, gimme Shreier’s Mozart Requiem, loud enough that I can think.”
He preferred his music quite loud when he needed to concentrate on a difficult problem. The brooding opening cellos and plaintive horns and clarinets of W. A. Mozart’s Introitus sobbed their way into the room, banishing the aftertaste of the saccharine violins that had held sway previously.
He gulped the last of the rare Armagnac and slammed the unbreakable snifter down onto the table. The liquor burned its way down his throat, up through his sinuses, and into his brain, warming and clearing a path along the way. He shoved his chair back from the table and stood, not yet knowing what he was about to do, but good and damned ready to do it.
He was halfway down the corridor to the bridge when Scarlett, using her crisp, scientific mode of speaking, announced, “Rik, I scan a metallic, artificial body that has just moved from behind Alnitak anti-sunward 1.3 A.U.” Rik froze in mid-stride when he heard this, then reversed his path back to the “dining room” which was comfortable and well equipped for dealing with a data-intensive situation.
According to his standing orders, Scarlett routinely scanned nearby space for anything unusual. Since their first day together, when Rik had explained, in rough terms, the personality he wanted her to emulate, he had tried to instill in her an ability to discern the ordinary from the extraordinary. As she had gradually learned to be like the original Scarlett O’Hara when it was appropriate and to not be when he needed her to be computer-like and precise, he had taught her to distinguish between interesting discoveries and those not worth bothering him for. She learned quickly and hadn’t presented him with anything boring in years. Therefore, she very likely had found something actually of interest.
Now this was more like it! Rik took a deep breath. It was amazing how something truly new and unknown could revive his dormant zest in an instant.
“Okay, Liefje, show me what you’ve found,” he said, overly excited by this new distraction from his troubles. Despite his knowledge that she was “only” a machine, he’d grown fond of her. Their relationship was close, with the familiarity that comes from half a century of daily interaction. In a way, they were like husband and wife or lifelong best friends, rubbing smooth all the rough points of their personalities’ contact until they knew each other better than anyone. Between the two of them, Scarlett was the stable and mature one, despite Rik’s advanced age.
Of course, she was a machine. But that wasn’t all of it. Scarlett’s self-confidence and clarity of internal vision seemed to derive from the scrappier bits of the original Scarlett O’Hara, for whom he had named her. Or so Rik had imagined many times as he argued with himself about the wisdom of building a ship with an AI whose personality was modeled after that of a fictional Southern Belle who was well known for her flightiness. One thing was for sure: despite her shortcomings, the original Scarlett had it where it counted.
The three dimensional wallscreen view zoomed away from its view of the planetary sunrise, leaping toward what was, at first, a small point of flickering light just beside the glare of Alnitak. The dim point resolved as the view grew to exclude Alnitak. The object could now be seen to be a slowly spinning tin can — or so it appeared to Rik, arousing his curiosity even more. “Let’s go see this up close, my dear.”
Scarlett announced, “Rendezvous in about seven minutes.”
Rik marveled at her ability to adapt to his casual, human way of thinking, even to the point of being imprecise to match his own style. A faint humming began and increased in pitch as her reaction drive accelerated them toward the object. While Rik felt no sense of motion or G-forces, he knew that Scarlett was accelerating at normal max of twenty five gravities; she understood how impatient he was when his curiosity was involved.
During the approach, Rik half listened to the interplay between the sweet trombone and the flamboyant baritone in the Tuba Mirum while he studied the tumbling object, trying to guess its origin and purpose. It was a pitted and scored — a metallic cylinder with only a pair of small bulges at each end to distinguish it from a smooth tin can. In places, where the scoring was deepest, the inner material was revealed — shiny black and glassy. The protrusions appeared to be machinery or instrumentation packages with heat sink fins on the outer surfaces, marked like the rest of the cylinder with what looked like damage from dust and small meteorite impacts. It was probably even older than he was. “Age and composition?”
“The object’s density suggests that it is hollow or filled with a low-density substance, if the thickness and density of its outer skin match my estimates. The skin is quite close to obsolete titanium ship’s hull alloy. The inner, darker substance appears to be a translucent epoxy compound with several internal layers of embedded copper mesh. Below that I cannot scan with precision due to the shielding Faraday cage effect of the mesh.”
“It looks like somebody doesn’t want us scanning the interior or breaking into the cylinder without setting off an alarm,” said Rik.
“That is consistent with known usage of such epoxy and mesh materials,” Scarlett affirmed. “Rendezvous in 30 seconds.”
Rik went to the yacht’s starboard secondary airlock accompanied by the resolute initial bars of Mozart’s Rex Tremendae. “Convert to vacsuit mode and illuminate the outside of the object for close inspection,” he said. His favored mode of comfortable dress, a dinner jacket and slacks, extruded a transparent covering for his face, which absorbed his exhaled air, providing an atmosphere for his nose and mouth. He could talk, hear, and see normally. The nanomaterial of the suit had an almost limitless ability to stretch.
His suit was made of smart matter, or smatter, which had been conceived around the start of the 21st century under the original name “wellstone.” Unfortunately, wellstone had not been manufacturable using the technology of the time. Smatter had only become something that could be made in the real world because of Rik’s breakthrough Quantum Forceps over two hundred and fifty years ago.
The smatter “fabric” was a three-dimensional mesh of single-atom silicon crystal nano-filaments, with each intersection acting as a quantum dot. The number of electrons trapped in each dot was controllable by electromagnetic fields that permeated the material. The dots could become “artificial atoms” of any conceivable electromagnetic, physical, and chemical property — simply by pumping electrons into or out of each.
In any given microsecond, any point on Rik’s suit could be perfectly transparent or reflective, light absorbing or light emitting. Collections of the quantum dots could be aggregated together to form any required size of computing matrix to process and store enormous amounts of data. The dots could be configured as ultracapacitors to store electrical energy, to be distributed via superconducting ballistic electron flow throughout the fabric.
Because of the programmable transparency and flexibility of the suit’s material, it was almost impossible for Rik to sense the suit’s presence except for a slight pressure on his face and, of course, the fact that he could still breathe as he pushed through the cross-hatched crimson membrane of the airlock into the hard vacuum and near absolute zero temperature beyond.
He paused outside, floating in the blackness, to allow his equilibrium to adjust to the absence of artificial gravity. His momentum left him moving slowly “upward,” away from the ship. His suit had automatically compensated for the imbalance of his initial push, which would otherwise have left him spinning heels over head.
Scarlett was rotating, keeping her starboard side toward the object and actively matching the object’s tumbling so that the ship and Rik and the object appeared stationary with respect to each other. The result was that the stars, the now-distant planet, and its sun cartwheeled crazily around him. He decided that focusing on ship and object was best for his sense of equilibrium.
“Any sign of an ingress portal or markings to identify the object’s purpose?” He struggled with the conflict between caution and curiosity.
“None. I detect a somewhat higher temperature than solar heating can account for in an area on the upper cap of the cylinder.” A large blinking yellow arrow appeared in Rik’s field of vision, pointing to the cylinder’s “lid”, where Scarlett showed him the temperature gradient as a translucent color overlay. A boxy feature on the surface of the object was radiating the heat. Rik had guessed from its shape and general placement that this feature might be a generator or transformer.
He pointed toward the end of the cylinder where the temperature gradient was and flipped his thumb and other fingers in the standard gesture used by spacers everywhere to tell their suits where they wanted to go and was smoothly moved in that direction. Nearing the object, he made a fist and was brought to a gentle stop. A flat palmed downward motion propelled him closer, face to face with the cylinder’s top, with his head near the finned projection that was radiating heat.
Rik didn’t recognize the device or its associated metallic plumbing, which connected the device’s outer edges with the cylinder. He did notice that the area marked by scrapes and pits on the cylinder stopped just short of the device — as if it were somehow protected from the battering the other areas of the object had received.
It was a flat, metallic-looking rectangular box with heat sink fins spaced evenly on its outside faces. Scarlett’s temperature overlay showed high enough resolution for him to see that the warmest part of the box was a single heat source near its center, radiating outward through the fins. “How much energy is coming from this box and from the rest of the cylinder?” Rik asked.
“Based on assumptions of the material’s radiant efficiency, it’s radiating approximately 900 kilowatts. The remainder of the cylinder is radiating only a total of about three hundred watts.”
Hmmm. Something inside was using a megawatt of energy. This thing must be ancient, but it was hard to imagine how or why that much energy could be generated and consumed for millennia. “Age estimate?”
“Assuming the object’s orbit has remained as it is now and using measurements and estimates of the density of dust grains in this system, the marks on the cylinder are consistent with a weathering duration of about one hundred eleven thousand standard years. But I cannot explain the width and depth of some of the marks — they are too deep and wide and shaped wrong for any type of particle impacts predicted by my model.
“Rik, the cylinder’s external temperature is increasing sharply.”
This sudden change made Rik nervous; he started to listen to the instincts that centuries of living had given him and decided to return to the safety of his ship to do a more thorough investigation. He could do it better remotely using Scarlett’s instruments anyway. He hand-gestured for a return to the airlock and was whisked back aboard Scarlett.
Back in the “dining room,” he asked Scarlett to enable a mode usually used for asteroid mining or for performing near-object surveys, as he was now doing. A high resolution view of the object in several spectra appeared on the wall, along with its vital parameters and observed conditions. The cylinder’s temperature was indeed rising, especially at the finned rectangular box on the top end. “Deploy five sensorpaks, one on each end, and the others spaced around the girth. Display.”
Five tiny hisses issued from somewhere below Rik’s feet. Within seconds new data showed on each chart. A window opened showing Fourier analysis of seismic and acoustic data from the probes.
“Route surface acoustics to cabin audio,” Rik ordered. He heard a dull thrumming sound, intermingled with a few pops and pings. Rik guessed these latter sounds came from the expansion of the thing’s structure as it heated up. The thrumming could be anything mechanical or electrical.
“Extrapolate trends in the thrumming sound’s pitch and amplitude over time.” A window appeared, showing the exponential curve of both quantities. Not only was it increasing in pitch, it was getting louder, following roughly the same curve. In less than 90 seconds, Rik could see that the sound would be ear splitting and near ultrasonic. He didn’t like the looks of this at all.
“Discontinue audio feed. Move one kilometer sunward, away from the object.” Before he could blink, the object shrank on the screen. “Magnify visuals to previous view.”
Rik perceived the next few dozen milliseconds as a jumbled blur of nearly simultaneous events. The view of the object again receded to an almost invisible dot. He had barely perceived this change before the dot expanded into a white-hot burst, as if it had been replaced by a white dwarf star. Rik felt his suit harden, compressing his body all around. He felt the familiar tingling sensation on his face that came with vacsuit mode.
A huge force slammed into the ship and kicked Rik, now transformed by his suit into a frozen statue, into the port side wall, bringing a stabbing pain to his left shoulder. As he lost consciousness, the lights blinked out, to be replaced by the soft red glow of the ship’s last-gasp decentralized backup lighting. There was a gigantic explosion followed by the loud roar of atmosphere escaping through a large hull breach.
He was tossed around in the compartment like a doll as he caromed off the walls and ceiling and deck. Fortunately for him, his rock-like rigidity protected his head and neck from the impacts, preventing a skull fracture or worse. When the force of the blast had passed, the suit’s reaction drive quickly damped his crazy bouncing, leaving him drifting unconscious and weightless in the middle of the shattered room.