Bad Engineering – What happens when the world receives a blunt message from an approaching alien armada? The Stranger’s Revolution. What future lies in store for the colonists that are sent out on arkships to preserve humanity and the purity of the new Revolutionary ethos? Bad Engineering. What dark secrets does a certain scarred pilot on Arkship 9 harbor, and how will they affect the life of the boy only he knows to be his son?
The story is also available as a PDF here.
He watched the azure horizon, a halo of the planet below. Blue oceans and red patches of land showed through great churning swirls of cloud as the planet rolled slowly by. The colors were right. They spoke of oceans and potential farmland, of oxygen-rich air and a future for Colony Nine. They spoke of home. Yet they were not quite home, and in that subtle alien difference, the New Speaker could feel every cell of his body screaming for Earth and her rolling green hills.
“Beautiful, isn’t she? A gift for the Revolution.”
The young voice behind him sent a shock surging through the New Speaker’s veins. He fought the urge to crouch and turn. Tall and dignified, staring out the windows, he used his neural virus to scan the luxuriously appointed star-chamber out the corners of his eyes. It reported the images to his visual cortex via a tiny insert screen in his field of view.
A youth of about seventeen was standing by a row of couches near the far end of the star chamber. Fervent blue eyes were glued to the tall windows, flooded with the planet’s cloudy light.
One of the Arkship generation, he thought, relaxing. Unarmed.
He felt the residual pounding of adrenaline through his veins, tempered by a cool wash of relief, knowing he would not have to use the energy for what xeno-biologists liked to call “fight or flight”. He liked that euphemism. A civilized way of describing a savage reality. The youth took his silence as an invitation to continue.
“Another Earth, New Speaker. Another chance. A planet that humanity will not mangle and ruin and overpopulate. A place where the Colony can take root and preserve the Revolution from the coming of the Stranger-”
He was gaining momentum as he spoke, the beginnings of a smile lifting the corners of his mouth and lighting his eyes as he turned them from the planet to the New Speaker’s face. His voice trailed off.
“What are you doing here? What Hab do you belong to? What is your name?”
The youth swallowed, then squared his shoulders and snapped to attention.
“Steven Planner, Colonist one zero six eight nine, Hab nine four two, New Speaker, sir. I have special dispensation from Arkship Nine Academy to use the Captain’s facilities. For special honors, sir. It includes access to the star chambers. I came to see our new home.”
The New Speaker’s expression softened, and he turned back to the tall windows, breathing deeply and clasping his hands over his substantial belly.
“You honors students are the hope of Colony Nine’s future. You are welcome to share this view with me.”
They watched the planet for a time, each with their own thoughts, at opposite ends of the star chamber.
“Sir? What do you think happened to the other Arkships?”
“It’s no use wondering about that, son. Or about what might happen when the Stranger arrives at Sol, to forestall your next question. We shall never in our lifetimes know the answer to these questions. Best to concentrate on the here and now.”
“Yes sir. Of course, sir.”
“You will graduate the Academy soon, and there will be many tasks to complete now that we are near planet-fall. Arkship Nine must be made into a city on the surface…”
He lost himself a moment in the view, as immense cloud systems parted to reveal aqua coastlines and a red-hued mainland that gave way to a broad, black desert of volcanic ash, framed by snow-capped craters. Then the clouds regrouped and a little bit of light left the New Speaker’s eyes.
“A city in a place that will be alien to you, who have never stood on the surface of a gravity well. There, the horizon curves down, as if you were on the outside of one of the Hab wheels, only vastly larger. And the wide open spaces! Not endless cold like the night of space, but framed and enclosed by a shell of atmosphere and an eternal blue sky. It feels different in the bones than our centrifugal weight, too. All these years since the Revival, I have longed for it. I have fought to preserve our purity for it. So that we may be a colony worthy of this planet. Worthy of the Revolution.”
He turned to the boy again.
“What do you think we should name it, young Planner?”
Steven blinked, then frowned. In that instant, the blue sun crested the orbital horizon, flashing a light so brilliant it was the only thing they could see while the windows polarized, overcompensating to shield fragile human eyes from the star’s wrath. A moment later, the view normalized, and a strange Earth spread out below them, bathed in the light of an alien sun.
“Sir? I think we should call it New Horizon.”
The New Speaker smiled.
* * *
Baelon Engineer knew something most of his peers aboard Arkship Nine did not. He knew who his father was. He knew this because his father was a pilot on the Captain’s Council with access to the supposedly inviolate gestation inventories. Unlike the others on the Council, however, the old man had never believed in the Stranger’s Revolution. Thought it was an abomination, in fact.
The Revival had unnerved the old man. After nearly five thousand years in stasis, his thawed body felt strange and awkward. His reflexes were dulled, his hair grew in curious places, and his skin sagged obscenely. He suspected it had to do with the gene therapy he had undergone at the end of a different life, but nobody knew about that, and he dared not mention it.
The med techs just scratched their balding pates and muttered about viruses. He understood there was nothing he could do but ride it out, but he didn’t know how much time he had left. The idea of meeting the boy came to him first as a passing whim; a way to see what he himself might have looked like as a child. But he found a picture on the Arknet, and then other interests arose. He started to remember things that had been done to him when he looked like that. He started to wonder what it would be like to act these memories out.
So he sought out his son, sweeping into the boy’s young life and revealing the Truth: the hypocrisy of the system, the lies that preserved the order on the Arkship. Lies perpetrated against history by the Revolution. Together, he and the boy watched cynically as Baelon’s generation, the Arkship generation, grew from children into youths reared under the Council’s indoctrination system, taught the Council’s Revolutionary propaganda. Taught to sacrifice all for the good of the colony, even if it meant your soul.
The old man drew some curious satisfaction from being referred to by the archaic honorific “Colonel”. At first this meant nothing to Baelon; just a pair of syllables, and he acceded to using them because he wanted to please the old man. At night, the Colonel would come to the boy’s Hab with Captain’s Council access and take Baelon to empty engine bays where he would teach him Truths. Those Truths began with ancient literature and history, from Aristotle and Alexander to the Bush dynasty of the 20th and 21st centuries. Tales of free politics and the forging of a United American Continent.
As the boy grew older, the lessons and games grew darker. He learned to hold people down by being held down. He learned to break arms and beat somebody into submission the same way. He always told the nurses he had been caught up in the engines during training, and that did happen often enough that he was believed. He learned what penetration meant, and what the Colonel liked him to do with his mouth. The Colonel told him often how good he was at that.
He knew he was being exploited. He didn’t care. It made him feel special, even though it sometimes hurt. The Colonel was mysterious and his tales outlandish. He often had extra rations and other treats. Most important of all, he offered a glimmer of something different from the mind numbing normality of Arkship life.
All those years they watched and waited together, the boy learning and striving to become a man, and the Colonel using him, sometimes brutally, sometimes tenderly, always a sad groping for the possibilities of a lost past. Pawing obscenely at a boy that was a younger version of a face the Colonel no longer had. A youth that understood what the others did not. The Colonel knew what he was doing, understood full well the devastation he was inflicting on this young psyche.
Your own son, you piece of shit, he would think, pounding a fist into his thigh, clenching his teeth. Yet he could not stop himself. Like a thirsty man with a bucket of poisoned water, he kept drinking.
The Colonel made the boy and then the youth swear not to reveal the Truths until they had made planet-fall, because an Arkship traveling alone through the vast emptiness of interstellar space was not a good place to be declared a counterrevolutionary, or a pervert. Not when the fate of free humanity depended on you.
“It wasn’t the cleanest or the nicest place,” the Colonel would say of Earth, “there were Spics and Niggers all over the place, the fucking A-rabs were always rattling at the gates, but by God, boy, it was free. Free under wide blue American skies. You could insult the President of the UCA, call her a whore right to her face, and they wouldn’t harm a hair on your head. They should, mind you, beat you bloody for a filthy thing like that, but they wouldn’t. It was a free country, boy. You’ll never know what that means. Not if the Council has its Godless way.”
Apparently, the bizarre title “Colonel” was a high rank in the United American Continent’s Space Forces at the time of the Sighting. The old man was in command of an orbital battle station when the social upheavals associated with the Sighting started. Masses of terrified people bashed aside the futile plastic shields and stun bolts of the world’s riot police like some great surging human beast, toppling dozens of governments in a matter of days. And that was just the beginning.
The Colonel reported watching his neural feed with numb horror, along with billions of others throughout the UAC, the day Aleden Momedan, the Supreme Leader of the Pan-Muslim Alliance, issued a Fatwa proclaiming the Stranger to be a harbinger for the End of Days, and declaring open the last global Jihad, the last world war, that would end with the Revolution. The UAC had survived the Sighting by gassing and starving out its rioters. The Pan-Muslim Alliance now meant to survive by ending the world before the Stranger could.
The first missiles flew on the morning of 2092, after morning prayers. They were answered in kind by the UAC and her subsidiary Mediterranean factions, launching their retaliatory strikes from recoded cyborg whales carrying massive nuclear payloads. Everything on the planet that wasn’t shielded within a city’s ion field was quickly reduced to a radioactive wasteland.
The Colonel watched the collapse of his civilization and contributed what he could to the madness, taking out PMA satellites in his orbital path and wreaking nuclear havoc on the lands below, to no avail. Like so many in those dark days, he tasted terror and despair.
Then the Stranger’s Revolution was born in the great ion shielded cities of North America, and spread throughout the UAC until the country was no more. The federal government fell to the Revolution like a sand castle yielding to the ocean. Young Revolutionaries using contraband web access in the Pan-Muslim Alliance took the movement and made it their own on the streets of Mecca, Teheran and Baghdad, killing Supreme leader Momedan and dragging his rotting corpse through the streets of the holy cities. The Chinese youth were not far behind, setting fire to the government quarters in Seoul, Shanghai, Saigon and Beijing in a web of coordinated strikes, using antimatter grenades to pulverize the steel and stone buildings.
The Stranger’s Revolution bound so many to its cause with one universal, indisputable imperative: The human race must survive. The Stranger was coming, and its intentions were clear.
We come to conquer.
Four words repeated in an endless sequence, in a dozen ancient languages, in a signal that must have originated thousands of years before. Four words that rocked the foundations of the world system. The governments and polities of the world became hopelessly obsolete. Mad from their orgy of oppression and exploitation of the common folk, they were bent on continuing to squander precious time and resources on a senseless war. These were resources that humanity could no longer afford to squander.
We come to conquer.
The polities of Earth would be destroyed one way or the other, so, the Revolutionary Speakers argued, it was best they be destroyed now, and something new created in their wake. Something that might stand up to the Stranger. A controlled destruction, and there could be, at long last in humanity’s sad, sordid history, an end to war. At least, until war was joined against the Stranger.
The UAC Space Forces turned against themselves, but it was a short battle. The Revolution had many converts by then. The cease of nuclear hostilities took place after the New York-Teheran-Beijing combined Exchange had rung its closing bell. By midnight, Islamist, East Asian and American cohorts of the Revolution had drafted and signed the New Accord to hold the first global constitutional convention. The politicians and the mullahs had had their day. The day of the Stranger had come.
Knowing he was about to be captured by a Revolutionary frigate bearing down on his station, the Colonel ordered his space marines to fight to the death, then managed to slip away under covering fire in a personal escape capsule that dropped him to a UAC military outpost on the planet below. Commandeering a shielded range vehicle, he made his way from the radioactive tundras to the mad, anarchic cities, still in the heady throws of Revolution behind their ion shrouds.
The Revolution’s New Speakers patrolled the fire-lit streets in flowing black robes, summarily executing arsonists, rapists, murderers, and counterrevolutionaries, which included anyone that remotely challenged them. Beyond that, they let the party ride, and the cities burned to the sounds of neo-hop and Reggae-phrase music, the burning of redweed and the stutters of machine guns.
The Colonel found a black market gene splicer who shrugged vaguely about the whole savage business and gave him a new face in exchange for hours of humiliating sexual favors. Currency was useless, the Colonel had realized, but the body was always left to sell. A means to an end. Any soldier would have understood.
A year later, when the great purges started, and all the politicians, millionaires, prominent academics and military men were rounded up and shot by the new World Government, the Colonel applied for a job with the Colonization Project. They were looking for skilled pilots and engineers, untainted by the old order. By that point, such men and women were hard to come by.
That was the story. That was why Baelon Engineer looked nothing like his father. The Colonel had often told him he was the spitting image of how he had used to look, before the genetic alteration. It sort of didn’t make sense when he thought about it, now that he was older, but he wanted to believe it more than he wanted to believe what the Council that ruled Arkship Nine was telling him. So he believed, and watched with the Colonel and waited, and played the games, and learned the harshest lessons of Truth.
Then the old man died, and everything changed again. A massive coronary, while on a routine mission to repair one of the Hab wheel’s spokes. The med techs spread the story of how the pod stank of excrement when they got in there to help him. His bowels must have let loose in that final instant, adding one final humiliation to his tortured life. His pod tore through the magnetic fuel shaft near the rim while he shat himself, leaking precious Helium 3 into space and leading to months of power outages and oxygen rationing that left everyone exhausted.
Though some mourned the death of the sour old pilot, and many more grumbled about what his failing heart had cost them, or giggled about his foul end, no-one could understand why young Baelon Engineer of Hab 942 took it so hard. He sulked for a week before lashing out in rage, beating a fellow Hab-mate with his engine coupler. Days later, after he emerged from his isolation chamber, the Academy administrators were forced to send him straight back when he cursed the dead pilot and the Captain’s Council during the Colonel’s funeral services at the Black Airlock. The New Speaker had been present, so the next day Baelon was taken from the Academy chambers to the rehabilitation wheel for what the psychologists called “Revolutionary Re-coding.”
There, after a brief fit of exceptional anger worked out against soft walls, he retreated into himself and thereafter sat with a vacant look on his face. The technicians used drugs and subliminal stimuli. They tried beatings and torture, but found such crude tactics had little effect on the boy’s warped psyche. They went back to more experimental drugs. When they got him to start eating on his own again they considered it a success and set about getting him back to school. Then they left him alone. He graduated six months later and got a job in the Engine bays, as he had been slated to do from birth.
Settling into the life of a single young male on the Arkship as their destination’s azure sun grew on their telescopes, he met a girl. At first she seemed interested in him, and he quickly fell in love. Her name was Adeth. Her hair was brown and fizzy. Her eyes were green. Then she lost interest and ended up rejecting him harshly in front of his Hab-mates. A week later she was fucking one of his neighbors. He had to listen to them in the module next to him every night. It sounded like she cried out particularly loud for his benefit. He took it in stride, put on a good face, kept going to work, but that was when the episodes started happening.
He would just black out, wake up hours later in a different part of the Arkship, sometimes with blood on his hands and other places. Sometimes it was his own blood. Meanwhile, the Council was baffled by a string of brutal attacks and rapes. They set to work, trying to find something to tangible to link them, but the Arkship was big, holding over thirty thousand colonists, and Baelon Engineer was a drop in the human ocean that was the Colony. He was able to hide his dark secret for a long time, just as he had learned to hide all the rest. He waited and watched, and promised a dead Colonel he would have his blue sky American revenge.
Whatever that meant.
One day the New Speaker’s men knocked down his module door and hauled him away again. They beat him senseless, and tossed him naked out the Black Airlock, to face the harsh judgment of the vacuum. That was the day Arkship Nine officially started preparations for planet-fall.
* * *
“It was the landers. Something in the launch recycler mechanism. It didn’t happen right away, but now-”
The First Engineer was cut off as the deck beneath their feet swung like it was attached to some colossal pendulum. Metal tore hub-wards with a bestial scream. Everyone grabbed on to something. People cursed and wailed in despair.
The New Speaker could see the problem clearly on the screens. The recycler was supposed to catch unloaded cargo landers returning from the planet and use their momentum to sling out fully loaded colony transports. It was designed like a giant revolving door with magnetic fields to catch, harness, and release kinetic energy in controlled bursts. It depended on the timing of the incoming landers and complicated engineering, but it saved a lot of fuel, and fuel was a critical factor at this juncture for the colony.
Something had gone wrong with the timing.
The New Speaker fought through a wall of numb despair as he watched yet another empty lander come smashing into the recycler and knock the entire structure further off its moorings. It was pressing against the hub, pushing the Arkship, spinning now on a decaying orbit. Heat was starting to build up outside from re-entry, a dull blue-orange halo rippling over the huge ship. Nearly every light he could see on the bridge was blinking amber warnings. Another lander smacked into the wobbling launcher. A full transport suddenly hurled out at a bizarre angle and shredded its way across the Arkship’s underbelly to detonate against one of the far engine bays.
“Can’t we stop them?”
“The incoming ships are empty, piloted by weak-AIs running on planet-fall protocols. They operate independent of central command once they clear the launchers so that no human error or counterrevolutionary treachery can interfere with the timing…and we have several landers full of colonists waiting in the pipeline to be ejected.”
“There’s no way to abort?”
“It would require a full system reboot, New Speaker. Knock everything out for at least fifteen minutes while the AIs come back. We can’t afford that. We need the engines to keep from burning up.”
Another transport hurled from the recycler launch bay, this time off into space on a wild trajectory. It collided with an incoming lander, and blossomed light.
“There should have been pilots on those damn things!”
“The Council didn’t want to train enough pilots. Don’t you remember?”
“I remember. The question was always posed in terms of human error. I never thought… how could there not be a failsafe?”
Even as he spoke the question, the New Speaker knew the answer. The system was built so no human error or treachery could damage it. But the engineering itself was flawed. Some small malfunction, and now…
He watched with gathering dread as another incoming lander shredded through the debris of the last collision and hit the recycler bay, tearing a great explosion along one of the maglev generators. The bay began to wobble more erratically, and the New Speaker had an instant to realize the recycler design was basic to all twenty-nine Arkships. If this had happened here, it could just as easily happen every time a colony made planet-fall.
Then the entire recycler launch bay tore off from the ship and went spinning like some colossal power-saw, snapping the Arkship’s kilometer-long hub like a piece of kindling. The launch bay slammed into one of the Hab wheels, knocking the rest of them loose from their moorings. The screens cut out a moment before everything went dark. The spinning took over, growing until there was nothing but gathering weight and oppressive dark. There came a final, wailing, mournful tear of metal from hub-wards, and something let go. The Arkship’s momentum tore her apart like a technological necklace, cut by fate.
Like the golden future of human kind, the New Speaker thought before blacking out.
Sliced apart by chance, and bad engineering.