David M. Kelly
Copyright © 2016 by David M. Kelly
Mary gasped as her legs were ripped from under her and she slammed face down into the ground. Several tendril-like vines wrapped around her arms and legs and she instinctively pulled against them. Thorn-like bristles clawed at her burnished skin as the vines coiled tighter around her, despite her struggles.
She rotated her head one hundred and eighty degrees and simultaneously reversed the movement restrictions on her joints. She was now effectively lying on her back, which she hoped would give her a better idea of what was happening.
She was only forty-three minutes into her ground survey of ST2398-5 and had seen nothing unexpected—just the ever-present vegetation they’d detected from orbit. Plant life wasn’t unusual on planets inside a star’s habitable zone and was typically a minor threat to her armored body. Toxicity might be a cause of concern for humans, but not Mary.
She flexed her limbs, but the leathery tendrils tightened further. Her enhanced strength meant she should have been able to break free easily, but the net of vines resisted like titanium ropes. An oily liquid dripped from the barbs onto her skin, its alloy surface hissing as it turned to powder, allowing the claws to dig deeper. Mary cursed at the damage signals she registered as pain. If she didn’t free herself, she realized, it was possible the animated vegetation might actually damage her, despite how absurd that should have been.
“Ben. I’m in trouble.”
Even over the SLink, there were a few seconds before he responded and Mary fought to keep the tendrils from immobilizing her further. It was impossible though. The plants swarmed around her forming a vermilion carpet and more thick vines wrapped around her chest and midsection, the acid secretions burning their way towards her vital areas.
Her skin sensors incongruously popped up a diagnostic of the liquid eating away at it. A mixture of hydrofluoric and nitric acids along with several other compounds that were logged, but would need further analysis.
“On my way.” Ben sounded calm. The way he used to before they’d joined the CySap program and become an explorer team. Since then he was given to emotional outbursts on occasion, something she’d never had to deal with when they were simply an ordinary married couple.
Mary electrified her skin hoping the charge might deter the vines and it did momentarily, but after a few seconds the plants gripped her even tighter. It was enough so that she could raise herself to one knee, but couldn’t lift any further, and the tendrils threatened to pull her flat again in a few seconds.
She scanned the sky looking for Ben and relaxed a little when she spotted the fast moving point in the sky. As he approached, his hull caught the feeble sun and his engines provided a dramatic halo of flickering light. He’d always been an impressive sight, she thought, even when human. It was one of the things that originally attracted her to him and right now it was especially welcome.
Mary froze the image so she could share it with him later, her confidence returning with his arrival. It will be okay now Ben’s here, she thought.
“Head down, Munchkin. Step One. Save the lady.”
His words were accompanied by a sliding whistle and Mary smiled. She stopped fighting the vines and curled into a tight ball, closing her optical feeds and sealing her external ports.
Ben swooped low. Flame units fanning in a wide arc that seared a broad section of the vegetation, leaving Mary in a clear charred area thirty meters across.
“And Step Two. The perfect pickup line.”
Ben wolf whistled and Mary glanced around. He’d banked and turned hard, rocketing back in her direction as soon as he lined up. The plants weren’t about to give in so easily though and as Ben closed they slithered across the blackened earth towards her once more. She knew there was no way he’d be able to land, pick her up, and still get away. They’d both end up trapped.
Ben throttled back until it looked like he was almost floating, like a Magellan Kestrel catching an up-draft before stooping to attack. Mary saw a bright flash from his underside. Something coiled around her mid-section and, as the first of the wave of plants reached her again, she was tugged into the air by the magnetic line Ben had shot down.
“Would you care to climb aboard, Madam? You look kind of silly dangling with your ass in the air.”
“At least I still have an ass.”
“True. Though my aft storage is my ‘ass’ and much more practi-” Ben let out a low whistle. “What the hell is that?”
Mary looked back to where she’d been trapped. The plants were now climbing on top of each other, forming an inverted cone shape that writhed and pulsed rhythmically as it weaved further into the air, stretching towards them.
“Weird, but they don’t have a hope of reaching us,” she said.
“That storm does.”
As Ben spoke an intense electric flash ripped through the skies around them, black clouds forming almost in an instant. Wind and rain buffeted Mary and she almost slipped from the line. Coiling it around her hand, she started hauling herself up towards the hatch, fighting to see clearly through the barrage of water lashing at her.
“Just a few more seconds, Ben.”
“Don’t stop to see the sights, there’s-”
Ben screamed as a double bolt of lightning struck him. One bolt hit on the starboard side of his streamlined fuselage, the second stabbing one of his sub-c engines.
Mary held on tight as she was whipped through the air by Ben swerving violently. The lightning must have hurt him badly to cause such wild maneuvers, she realized. The flight stabilized and she clawed frantically at the rope, knowing that he had to keep his speed down until she was safely inside.
Another bolt struck Ben and he grunted, but held his course. Mary grabbed the edge of the hatch and heaved, throwing herself bodily through the opening and thumping the button to close the hatch.
“Punch it, I’m in,” she yelled and the airlock wall slammed into her back as Ben triggered maximum thrust.
For thirty agonizing seconds the decontamination sequence locked the inner door. As soon as it opened Mary sprinted through the tight corridor into the main control room. She threw herself into the acceleration chair that dominated the area, banks of glowing systems monitors forming a wall in front of it.
“What’s happening?” Mary quickly glanced at a number of sensor displays, but in her panic everything seemed a jumbled blur.
“Accelerating. Altitude 11,000 and climbing. The storm is following us.”
“Following? How long till we’re safe?”
“Exosphere boundary in just over two minutes. We should be clear of any atmospheric phenomenon there.”
Booms of thunder shook Ben’s superstructure and Mary jumped in her seat. She pulled the straps tight across her body, something she rarely needed to do.
“You sure know how to impress a girl,” she said.
“Twenty seconds… fifteen… ten… five…”
Mary wasn’t sure later if Ben announced “zero” or not. An intense burst of light flooded the cabin and she instinctively covered her eyes. The room filled with a high-pitched sizzle that overloaded her audio and made her head ring. Ben lurched violently, then recovered. Seconds later the light and noise faded and Mary saw the comforting darkness of space engulf the external display screens.
“You okay?” Mary unlocked the harness and slipped out of the seat. She checked herself and fingered some of the welts burned through the titanium ceramic layers. This is going to be expensive, she thought.
“Ben?” He hadn’t answered her and several minutes had passed, an eternity for SLink communication.
“Mary… I’m hurt…”
Ben sounded almost like a child when he finally spoke and Mary wanted to wrap him in her arms and hold him until it went away, but that was impossible. Ben was the whole ship.
“Don’t worry. Whatever it is, we’ll fix it.” A moment of fear hit her, and she struggled to keep her SLink neutral. “Can we get back to Haven?”
Again the response was slow. “I think so. I lost a sub-c engine. Some of my control circuits are damaged. There’s damage to the hull, but the FTL drive is okay from what I can tell. Mary… some of my Cynetics aren’t working properly.”
Mary revised her estimates. This was going to be very expensive. The Cynetics interfaced between the human brain and the hardware they controlled. Without them a CySap literally couldn’t function—especially Total Conversions like Ben and her.
“It’s okay. We’ll take care of that too.”
Buy now on Amazon.
Today, I’d like to reveal the cover and description for my forthcoming short-story Three Lives Of Mary. Click the image to see a bigger view.
While investigating the surface of a rare, potentially habitable planet, Mary encounters a strange plant-animal hybrid that threatens to destroy her despite her near invulnerable Cynetic body. Ben rescues her, but the lifeforms create a violent lightning storm and almost blast him out of the skies, severely damaging his systems—including his highly expensive Dataract.
After limping back to the nearest repair base, Mary confronts the ruthless station manager, Tartoa, looking for help. But Tartoa isn’t known for his generosity. And a combination of Ben’s penchant for lavish hardware upgrades, and bad investments in colonies that haven’t reached maturity yet, means their funds are almost depleted.
Unable to afford the life-saving repairs that Ben needs, Mary must risk everything to save her partnership with Ben and make decisions that will change both their lives irrevocably.
The cover is the result of my on-going open-source challenge and is the first one I’ve done completely using open-source tools. I’m very pleased with the result and will definitely be following this path going forwards.
Mary will be available on Amazon from September 14th, but if you sign up for my newsletter, you just might get a special treat in your inbox before then!
Recently I’ve been researching and world building for an upcoming novel and came up against an interesting problem. If you’re writing science fiction that’s set in a galaxy “far, far away” then you can just make up any setup you want, but my novels are intended to be more realistic than that and so I need to reference real star data.
If it was just a case of setting the story on another planet around another star, this also wouldn’t be too much of an issue. There are numerous very good star charts and references available online or for download, and if you want something less outwardly shiny, there are also plenty star catalogs with all the astronomical information you could ever need.
The problem with these systems is that they don’t let you see very easily how things connect. Although they are in 3D they often limit the manipulation of the star fields. They also don’t allow you to add in your own information, such as the Stryxx homeworld actually orbits 20 Leonis Minoris or that Bob is exploring Gliese 414 nearly 15 light years away in that direction. Or maybe I want to plot trade routes or document an expanding Terran empire.
In these cases more traditional astronomy software doesn’t help. Up to now I’ve managed to avoid this necessity, but this latest story is taking me right into the mire of needing realistic, flexible mapping and positioning of stars as well as the ability to plan out star systems, worlds etc. In other words I need a realistic science fiction world building tool.
After much frustration and searching I finally found NBOS’s AstroSynthesis 3.0 software. This appears to have been originally designed for those in the role-playing game community, but it works well for scifi writers too.
The software provides a 3D viewing space similar to that seen on many movies and games and allows you to select the stars in the view to examine details about them. If that were all it did though it would have little over the more usual star catalog software. Where AstroSynthesis stands out is that it not only allows you to add your own notes to star systems, but you can mark them for such things as political groupings, population, check travel distances and lengths, and even generate entire star systems complete with realistic planet formations. What’s more you can customize these by adding ships, space stations, fleets, and many more items that will help you track what is happening in your universe.
As for the star systems and their positions, you can generate them using built-in random routines. Or there are several downloads available from the site that make use of real-world astronomical data and include information such as a star’s mass, size, spectral type and much more.
With that in mind I downloaded one of the star data packs and started customizing it for my story world. The process is somewhat involved, but easy enough once you get to grips with the software’s idiosyncrasies. Overall the software does pretty much what it claims, but I found it a little unstable and would recommend saving your file frequently. The view navigation is a little limited too and it would be nice to have a mouse controlled “slide” feature. This would make it easier to see the area around your star(s) of interest (there is a “slide” feature, but it doesn’t do that).
One area the software falls down on is being able to easily filter the views. For instance it would be extremely useful to have a configurable distance filter (again to help with clarity), but this isn’t available and the somewhat fixed view center (as mentioned in the slide comment above) is also troublesome.
A useful feature that helps overcome some of these limits is that AstroSynthesis contains a built-in scripting language, so you can program your own additional functions and filters. This is based on VBScript so should be accessible for anyone with a little development experience. Unfortunately this is also one of its weak points, as the documentation on the scripting is poor and lacks information, though so far I’ve been able to puzzle out everything I needed.
Support also seems weak. There is a customer forum, but it seems to get little response from the developer and its basic functionality seems troublesome (even after registering I couldn’t manage to even post a question for example).
One unusual feature is the ability to program animations traveling through the 3D starmap and rendering them out as video files. I’ve not really got a use for this at the moment, but it’s certainly an interesting “extra.”
Given these short-comings I can’t recommend AstroSynthesis without reservation. If you can live with it’s limits and have some development knowledge, you’ll probably be fine. If you haven’t, then I’d suggest doing a thorough evaluation to ensure it will meet your needs.
That said, all in all it’s looking very useful–certainly the closest I’ve found to a good science fiction world builder and worth the money — 3.5 stars
A little while ago I set myself the challenge to only use open-source tools for all my graphics work. The reasons for this were varied. Some tools that I’ve used in the past such as 3DS Max are simply way beyond my reach, while some others (Adobe’s Creative Cloud)–while not completely unaffordable– are still expensive and have numerous usability issues (over-riding Windows settings for someone with visual impairments being the most insulting). Plus I don’t like the endless Pay-To-Play syndrome where you’re treated as nothing but a cash-cow to be regularly “milked”.
The replacements I chose were Gimp for image processing and Blender for 3D Modelling/Rendering. I’ve been working on them over the last few weeks to try out their features, stability and overall functionality.
The best proof of any software is in the results you can achieve Continue reading
In recent months we’ve seen the historic flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons probe, a remarkable achievement in space exploration that has produced some amazing imagery and scientific information. A little known fact: the probe carried with it a small portion of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who first discovered the planet (Okay… dwarf planet–happy?)
Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930 while Continue reading
The New Age of Medicine (continued from part 1)
When Constantinople (Istanbul) fell to the invading Ottoman army in 1453 many scholars and physicians fled to Europe, carrying with them scientific medical knowledge that had been “lost.” This led to a European resurgence in medical developments.
The 18th and 19th centuries showed steady progress in medical knowledge leading to the establishment in England of the Continue reading
The recent news that Kepler K2-72 may be home to two earth-sized planets in the star’s habitable zone make it an exciting time for astronomers and fans of exo-planets. Whenever I see these stories I always wonder what the star systems might look like if we could travel there.
With that in mind I decided to have a go at something I’ve had in mind for a while–simulating a star-system!
I made use of publicly available data regarding the star itself and newly discovered planets. The data we have is a little sketchy, but enough to get a reasonable approximation. Throw in a little computer simulation wizardry and we have:
As part of my open-source challenge I made use of Blender to do the video editing, with a little help in the titles department from Gimp. The music is a royalty free piece I found on Incompetech. This was assembled (roughly!) in the Blender video editor and I’m pretty pleased with the results.
I’m not sure if this is 100% accurate, but I think it’s reasonably close given the software and data limitations I worked with. It makes me tingle thinking that this is an actual idea of what the real system might look like!
Last week I had further foot surgery and am currently laid up, with limited mobility. This got me thinking about the history of surgery, and reminded me of a joke I read in one of Isaac Asimov’s books:
The Oldest Profession
A doctor, an engineer, and a lawyer were in their favorite watering-hole discussing who among them had the oldest profession.
The doctor said, “According to the bible, on the sixth day God took a rib from Adam and used it to create Eve making him the first surgeon. Therefore, medicine is the oldest profession.”
The engineer replied, “Yes, but before that, God created the heavens and earth out of Chaos, surely a feat of engineering. So, mine is the oldest profession.”
The lawyer smiled, then spoke up. “True. But who do you think created the chaos?”
That always made me laugh (and it’s a perfect excuse to have a cheap dig at lawyers!)–but what about the real history of surgery?
We tend to think of surgery as a relatively modern invention, Continue reading
Today I’m sharing a post from Dianne Lynn Gardner, the multi-talented author of The Ian’s Realm Saga on the intricate and spell-binding topic of fantasy map-making. High fantasy can be confusing. It’s little wonder that readers find the inclusion of a map a welcome relief. I know as a writer, it definitely makes it easier to keep track of my characters and which way they are headed.
But map making has also become a beautiful addition to fantasy literature. Not only does it help the readers understand where a story’s characters are traveling, what sort of dangers lie ahead, and illustrate Continue reading
Your typical summer reading list is chock full of the heaving chests and gun blazing action that you find in romance and thrillers. Now, I don’t have anything against those, but what about the poor deprived science fiction fan? Don’t we get to read on the beach too? So, especially for you (well okay, and for me too…) I’ve scoured the web in search of your essential SF summer reads. Continue reading