ORIGINAL FICTION: "Draconian Sunset" (Part 1)

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Jean Paul Weeks woke up with two girls and eight breasts, duplicates being the fashion of the day. He got up, put in his beard extensions, put on a conservative pair of crotchless leather pants, kissed his wives goodby, and headed off to work. It was a morning like any other.

Despite the Plus One Hundred foundation hyping it up for nearly a year, he had somehow missed the fact that it was a century ago this very day when the first starship had returned to earth from its maiden voyage. He surfed the nex aimlessly as the monorail took him into town. Nothing interesting, just news programs running endless loops of that “General Gene” guy in New York in blotchy old-fashioned two-dee pictures. “Take me to your leader,” he said. Jean Paul aimlessly drifted from stream to stream, feeling the full-body sensory simulations washing over him, looking for something interesting, but there was nothing to be found.

His job was stupid, and he hated it. There was no reason it had to be done by a live person, and certainly no reason it had to be done from an office, rather than telecommuting. The current administration was dedicated to the concept of one-hundred percent employment. This had necessitated a lot of make-work projects, which had in turn necessitated the revival of a lot of more-or-less extinct job, and the commensurate increase in both prices and taxes. It was not anticipated that the current administration would win re-election.

He was in the insurance industry, which had been almost entirely automated for at least four generations, and really should still have been. He all day taking messages from people who couldn’t understand why they were talking to him rather than a machine, and clearly didn’t like the experience.

He entered the office and grimaced at the music, a thumping remixed version of the general saying “Take me to your leader” over and over again. He threaded his way across the empty dance floor, into the nearly-empty bar, ordered a Screaming Viking with Coffee, then went to his desk and sat down. Attempting to make insurance offices into exciting and sexy places could only go so far, even in the twenty-second century.

He unplugged his modem from the socket in the side of his skull, stuck in a two-input adaptor, and then plugged his modem back in, as well as the official office Nex connection. For a couple seconds he was offline, and he sneezed involuntarily. Like most people, he was somewhat addicted to informational inputs, and doing without them was mildly unpleasant, like stepping out of a hot shower into cold air. An annoyance, but one that could grate on a person over time.

As usual, nothing much happened, so he surfed the Nex out of boredom. Like most people in his world, he liked nature, and settled on watching a discussion about Thylacines. Thanks to cloning, the extinct species had made a very strong comeback, but there were those who strongly argued their existence distracted from the horror of extinction and tended to make people think their impact on nature was less destructive than it actually was. One of the people on the panel argued that such blasphemies against nature should be rounded up and killed. Another one had argued that since humans had rendered the creatures extinct in the first place, science was really just cleaning up the mess.

The Nex made him feel like he was in the studio watching the panel. He looked around for the ID stamp. It was coming live from Athabaska Station, one of those huge space habitats in the moon’s LaGrange points. Well, that explains it, he thought, space people are always in favor of scientific meddling. He flipped to a different feed, which immersed him in a completely immersive panoramic illusion. He felt weightless, and he could see as far as he wanted in any direction. Aside from the fact that he wasn’t wearing a space suit, it was exactly like he was there. Around him were hundreds and hundreds of habitats in dozens of sizes and designs. Some of them were huge. There were hundreds of millions of people living in orbit these days. His brother and he had gone to one of them as kids, a family trip. It had been a lot of fun, though his brother had spent the whole week spinsick and puking his guts out. It had been a huge surprise years later when his brother had emigrated to the habitats. He claimed that after the first year he’d fully adjusted to the place, and no longer puked.

He’d invited Jean Paul up to the habitats repeatedly, and Jean Paul wouldn’t have minded going, but one of his wives couldn’t look at the night sky without getting furious about all those lights up there that weren’t stars. She felt - as many people did - that living in space was some kind of violation of the basic rules of life. One can have as many superfluous breasts as one wants, and live jacked in to a data feed twenty-four/seven, that was fine, but living in space? That was right out. She felt that it distracted people from their true relationship with nature, or perhaps it was that humans were like a plague that shouldn’t be released on the universe to screw up other things. Or perhaps it was because it diverted resources from where they could be better utilized on earth.

In truth, Jean Paul couldn’t keep it straight, and didn’t care much. For most people, the human presence in space was regarded much like abortion had been regarded in the twentieth century: an unpleasant fact of life that, unfortunately, wasn’t going to go away. Best not to dwell on it.

Just as he was shifting feeds from the space view back to the Thylacine program he thought he saw a flash of light. He jumped back to look again, but it was gone, so he figured it was an unprocessed data spike, or a lens flare, or maybe he just imagined it. The moderator was holding forth about how the African Bloc had killed off all the cloned elephants a few years back, and hence the species was once again extinct. Well, on earth anyway. There might be some in off world zoos. Suddenly he was awash in a sea of three-dimensional static.

It was loud, frightening, assaulting his senses with shocking impulses, temperatures, smells. On reflex, he yanked the modem jacks out of his headsocket. He’d never seen static before. He’d heard of it, but as far as he know a live Nex feed hadn’t gone to snow in his lifetime. Presently, tentatively, he plugged back in, and went to the same address. It was just an empty black void as far as the eye could see in any direction, no color, no temperature, no smell, nothing, just dead space. This was dangerous. A complete dearth of inputs affected people much like an old fashioned sensory deprivation tank. Jean Paul’s mind slipped into an alpha state of somnolence. Presently a “Please Stand By” logo appeared, accompanied by the reassuring sent of fresh brownies and a pleasant woman’s voice saying “Ell-Four Nexcasting is experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by.”

He switched over to “The Wonderful World of Orgies“ on one of the sports feeds, and looked at the office clock. Cripes! I was zoned out for nearly ten minutes! he thought. Wondering what happened to that one signal quickly gave way to bordom and daydreams, and he spent about five minutes staring at his groin, wondering if perhaps he should do something about the makeup he was wearing down there these days. It felt so last month.

Suddenly, Lynn the bartender came tearing over, a strange look on her face: “I just heard that one of those big space stations exploded, and while the news crews were setting up to film it, another one blew up!”

He hopped back on the Nex, going straight to the BBC stream. They were showing a bright flash, very far away, as though shot through a telescope, then another flash in the remote distance. .

“This just in,” the news anchor said, “We’ve received this video from the BBCL4 office…”

He was in a simulation of space again, the news anchor standing off to one side, calm, composed, with meticulous diction, like Rod Serling in crotchless pants. Behind him were two cylinders, side by side, with huge angled mirrors reflecting sunlight into equally huge mirrors. The cylinders were rotating in opposite directions, close enough that the mirrors seemingly intermeshed like gears. He recognized it as an “O’Neill Sunflower” design, the largest class of habitat currently in use. Each one of those cylinders was actually a tube twenty miles long and four miles in diameter. They rotated to simulate gravity, and could comfortably hold vast numbers of people.

There was a bright flash, and then most of it was gone, except for the crumbling half-eggshell of one of the endcaps, and a rapidly-melting mirror flying off into the distance.

“This was taken from the ore carrier Sasquatch, as it was en rout to the main Ell-Four construction zone. We’re hoping to have better footage soon.”

Serling looked disconcertingly away from Jean Paul, at some invisible stagehand, and said “Can we get this in slow motion, please?”

Suddenly the station was back again. The bright flash came at one end of one cylinder, and spread agonizingly out. The massive miles-long windows burst outward and shattered like a wave running along their length. Then the structure buckled, and the three huge mirrors ripped free. The entire station lurched and the second cylinder was thrust off its axis, so that it collided with the still-expanding fireball. Its superstructure instantly started to evaporate like ice on a sidewalk on an unexpectedly hot day.

“This is Athabaska Station. The images you are now seeing,” the news anchor said, “Took place in less than a second. There are no casualty figures as yet, but the most recent census figures for Athabaska place the population at abo--”

The announcer broke off, and placed his hand to his ear like he was listening to something. Several unreadable expressions crossed his face in short order. In a quiet voice he spoke again:

“We are now receiving reports that Caspian Station has also been the result of some kind of explosion, just moments ago. This is the third reported explosion. Caspian Station has been destroyed.”

***

They closed the office, and spent the rest of the day surfing the news services on the Nex. CNN, INN-Sol, the BBC, Itar-Tass, Panarabia, Xinhua, Venus Today, all of them showing endless slow motion loops of the destruction: The great wheel of Caspian bursting outward as its hub exploded, the massive sphere that was Victoria bursting like a watermelon hit with a rifle bullet. Later that day, another explosion had gone off near another O’Neil sunflower, destroying one of the huge mirrors, but doing no real critical damage. That station’s rotation had been shut down pending repairs, people were being evacuated, but more as a precaution than anything else.

It was the biggest story since the initial space war a century before. It seemed everyone in the world was watching it develop. There was so much traffic that the Nex itself began running slow, for the first time in anyone‘s memory. Less than an hour after the bombs started going off, all Nex feeds from both L4 and L5 abruptly disappeared. Not even a “Please Stand By” notice, just black voids. Jean Paul wondered how many scores of millions of people around the world were staring blankly into it in an alpha state, more or less insensate until someone came by to snap them out of it.

Earth First was the quickest terrorist organization to take credit for it. Several others stepped forward after that, squabbling with each other. It wasn’t until a full day later that the Sons of Gaia actually gave details of how they’d pulled it off: They’d smuggled large nuclear weapons aboard passenger ferries. They’d been rigged to go off simultaneously, but evidently one of the ferries had been delayed for traffic reasons, and that batch of terrorists had apparently circumvented the timer, setting it off by hand once they’d gotten close enough to do some damage.

Jean Paul wasn’t sure how he felt. On the one hand, he was guardedly against space colonization, as most right-thinking people were, but on the other hand he’d just watched millions of people die, and that wasn’t the kind of thing one could revel in. Which wasn’t to say that one of his wives didn’t try. She was ecstatic with glee, standing on the porch with a binocular telescope trained on the very spot where one of the stations no longer was. She said a lot of vicious things. Jean Paul was surprised to find himself agreeing with a lot of them. The three of them made love that night, and it was vicious, raw, mean.

It seemed at least forty percent of the world agreed with her: There were massive demonstrations in every major city in the world. There was endless video coming out of southern California of vast throngs of people with rifles, firing them in the are in celebration, and chanting “Earth Only, Earth Only, Earth Only Forever.” The League Embassy in Hawaii had been burned to the ground. Several of the staff had attempted to find sanctuary in the United Nations Headquarters there, but they were killed when a wave of rioters stormed through. The guards didn’t appear to be even attempting to prevent it. There were lynchings all around the world, of anyone even suspected of being tied to the League or the space colonies. Spaceports were raided. Dozens of ferries blasted off, full of panicked people running for their lives, trying to get home.

Jean Paul went to work the next day amidst open revelry in the streets. There was a bonfire by the train station, gleeful men and women throwing history and science texts into the flames.

“It’s horrible, isn’t it?” Lynn the bartender said.

“I guess,” he said.

“What do you mean ‘guess?’ The estimates are like forty-six million people were killed!”

“I’m sure the numbers were inflated for shock value,” he said.

“So what if they were? We’re still talking millions of people murdered.”

“Well, it’s kind of their own fault,” he said guardedly, “The shouldn’t have been up there in the first place.”

She stormed off. He didn’t feel quite as resolved as he acted, but with people as happy about the tragedy as they were, it wasn’t wise to go against public opinion. He hoped Lynn wouldn’t be unwise enough to speak openly about her feelings. It was estimated that in addition to those who actively supported the attacks, another twenty percent were guardedly in favor of them. It was a very bad time to speak one’s mind if one’s mind differed from the mob. He went back to the Nex, and the propaganda had started. A lot of clips from movies made in the habitats themselves, featuring hideous women with only two breasts, stand up comics, documentaries about how earth had suffered in the wake of the first space war, litanies of real and imagned abuses.

All space flights had been halted. No one came to the moon or left it. Ships already en rout were allowed to approach, but had to hold station once they got there. The refugees who’d escaped from earth bade their time in orbit until they, too, could be checked for nukes.

And still no word from the LaGrange governments, just silence. For the first day the world had gazed skyward nervously, holding its breath. News shows ran documentaries from the last war, endlessly harping on the bombing of Kennedy Space Center from orbit. After that, speculation began about why exactly the space people weren’t responding violently. Caspian station had been the administrative hub of League forces in the solar system for generations. Was it possible that destroying it had effectively decapitated them? Perhaps they weren’t attacking because they lacked the hierarchy to do so? Jean Paul wondered. ON other feeds, hard right pundits were saying it was simply because they lacked the will to fight.

In China, in Australia, in South America, people and governments jockeyed for position. Though none of them had been involved in the attacks themselves, it was well known that several of them had long given aid and comfort to the Sons of Gaia, as well as other radical groups. The Secretary General gave an impassioned speech at the UN, talking about how the time to strike was now, while the enemy was weak and disorganized. He pounded his fist - with three extra fingers, which was the fashion that fall - and decried the colonists as being inhuman and inhumane. He said that this was the time to eradicate the problem once and for all.

Jean Paul wondered about his brother.

***

Four days after the terrorist bombings, Australia launched a surprisingly large arsenal of earth-to-moon rockets that had been constructed in secret. China followed suit later in the day. The European Union launched their missiles the following morning.

The rockets were huge, bulky, slow Saturn V-like things. It would take them three days to get anywhere near their targets. The LANTeRns they flew in the colonies could - and quite literally did - fly circles around them. Within a day of launch, all of them had been destroyed. The flashes were visible in the night sky. Curiously, some had blown up on a course that wouldn’t have taken them anywhere near the LaGrange points, evidently sent for another target entirely. Where?

I don’t know what they were expecting, Jean Paul thought, it’s not like the launches were secrets. They were covered all over the news, the EU president even made a huge show of pushing the master control launch button himself. He wondered if people had actually thought this would work, or if it was just a grandstanding public relations move to keep people unified. He never found out.

The news made a big deal about how all contact with the Republic of Venus had been lost, and various leaders claimed this was because of the Australian missiles. But that’s ludicrous, Jean Paul realized, for missiles like those to have gotten that far, they would have had to have been launched four months before the terrorist attacks themselves. Then he wondered if they had been.

As he came in the house, his mom called him via Vex, appearing holographically, as though she was in the room with him. She was worried about his brother, who had told her he was going to Caspian on business shortly before this whole thing had started. He took off his beard and told her he was sure Dean was fine. Secretly he was troubled.

Like most people throughout history, Jean Paul’s politics were ill-defined. As with all people there were things he thought were wrong. Some of these really were objectively bad, others were merely a product of cultural conditioning. He’d been brought up to think that space was generally interesting but apart from being a good location to film porn, it was basically worthless and dangerous. He believed that colonization of space was a blasphemy against nature, and it pained him to have a brother who was deviant enough to go along with it. Beyond that, though, he didn’t think about it much. His thoughts on the subject were limited to “Somebody oughta’ do something,” but he never really considered what that something could be. Perhaps relocate the people from the habitats to earth and re-educate them? Or maybe force them all to leave the solar system entirely? The status quo wasn’t great politically, but killing them seemed excessive.

One of his wives was on the porch with the telescope. His other wife put his hand on her third breast and hugged him.

“The news says it’ll all be over in a couple days,” she said.

“Really? What’s changed?”

“The missiles have taken out dozens of the habitats. They’ll have to surrender soon!”

“That’s not…that doesn’t make any sense.” he said, “The missiles couldn’t have gotten anywhere near the habitats by now, it would take days.”

“Well, that’s what the news said. “

On the porch he asked his other wife for a look, and she stepped aside. She’d already adjusted the filters for glare and such, so he could see plainly in the daylight. L5 looked the same as it always did to him - the lights of hundreds of massive floating space cities, some of the larger ones almost resolvable into recognizable shaped - if there had been massive damage, he was sure he’d be able to see some sign of it, some conspicuously blank spots in that artificial constellation. But maybe not. They were a long way away - a quarter million miles - maybe too far to make out that kind of detail. He surfed around the Nex for some live images from the Orbital Visual Array, but he was greeted with a message that it was down for repairs. Lunar Outlook? Same message, but not too surprising given that it was far behind enemy lines. Kilimanjaro Observatory, the Everest Binocular Array - same message. Gran Telescopio Canaris, Keck VI, SALT, all offline for one reason or another. Curious.

The space people had been hauling their refugee ferries out of orbit using LANTeRns, dragging them back to the habitats, but apart from that they did nothing, not even the really obvious stuff like knocking out orbital power satellites or communications arrays. Politicians were pretty openly saying it was because they couldn’t do anything.

****

The next day China launched another wave of missiles. The space people picked these off while they were still in low earth orbit. Most were simply disabled, and fell back to earth, or drifted impotently around the world. One went off over Spain, however. It generated an electromagnetic pulse that fried all the electronics from Birmingham, England, all the way down to Mauritania, and from eastern Italy, past the Canary Islands, and hundreds of miles out into the Atlantic. Anyone who happened to be looking up when it went off was instantly blinded. It was a very big bomb.

The media blamed it on the space folk, and this was technically correct, but hadn’t been an attack on earth as claimed. Not that anyone in the affected areas of the EU were listening. For the first time in living memory, there were no active Nex links there. For the first time in nearly half a millennium, Europe was lit only by candles. And the fires of riots and hundreds of plane crashes.

This, of course, played entirely into the hands of such people as wanted to use the current crisis to further their political agendas. Firebrands were everywhere, whipping people up into a frenzy. There were riots and mob-violence everywhere. Colleges were burned, the big telescopes in the southwestern US were as well.

The BBC was offline permanently after that. The Nex was slow and skitchy. Sensory feeds all skewed. Sounds came out as smells, smells came out as touch. For some reason the taste feeds had gotten so munged up that the Nexcasters ultimately pulled them completely. Prior to that, Lynn the Office Bartender had been involved in a cooking show feed, and when she went to taste the dish her entire body had erupted in the pain of a million red ant bites. Some of the news services had reverted to using flat virtual presentations of video. There were lots and lots of nodes that were simply black voids.

But this was simply a momentary glitch. The Nex couldn’t crash.

To Be Continued...
Part Two is now online here: http://www.republibot.com/content/original-fiction-draconian-sunset-conc...

Copyright 2011, Republibot 3.0

PLEASE NOTE: If you've enjoyed reading this first installment of the story, you may be interested to read others by the same author. He's recently published an anthology on Amazon called "Ice Cream and Venom," which has gotten good reviews, and is available for only a dollar. Check it out!
http://www.amazon.com/Ice-Cream-Venom-ebook/dp/B004XNLU8Q/ref=sr_1_1?ie=...

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