Z-End of the Line

It’s the last day of the A-to-Z Challenge! Z is for Zeta Reticuli, a binary star about 39 light-years from Earth, and fairly popular in science fiction.

If you’ve never heard a firsthand account of riding a hyperspace zipline, I’ll sum it up in two words: pure terror. Humans just weren’t meant for hyperspace travel, and if not for the ziplines connecting various star systems, we’d never have left Earth.

I never imagined myself volunteering to become a colonist. Colonization was for murderers, vagrants, and other riff-raff. But there I stood, at the “Z”-end of the zipline connecting Earth and Zeta Reticuli IV.

My first view of the fourth planet was beautiful in an eerie way: the hyperspace receiving station is an open-air acropolis carved from white marble. The structure looks like something built by Romans, and it’s the last familiar thing an incoming colonist ever sees.

Just past those towering columns, the cliff face plummets almost vertically down to the vast fields of purple crops, undulating in the wind. Isolated human settlements dot the landscape out to the distant horizon. Those are mostly two-story communal houses that the Z-Colony inhabitants have built from native thatch, and the blood-red adobe that’s ubiquitous on the planet.

As I viewed this alien countryside under the harsh lighting of the planet’s twin suns, I knew my old life was over. There was no way to ride back up the zipline to the “E”-end, and even if there were, no force in this universe could make me spend another microsecond in hyperspace.

“Thought you could get away from me so easily, Fortuno?”

My heart skipped a beat. That voice… “Reno?”

He approached me from the receiving station. From beneath the papyrus-like toga worn by all zipline travelers, he produced a spring-loaded stiletto knife. His brow furrowed. His long hair danced medusa-like in the thick air, whipped by wind and by residual electron buildup from hyperspace. A blaze of hatred poured forth from his eyes as he waved the stiletto at me.

“You think you can just sleep with another man’s wife, then ride a hyperline off to some exotic alien world to escape?”

“It’s not like that, Reno.” I held my hands up defensively. “I didn’t know she was your wife. I mean… when I found out, I called it off.”

“And then you ran. To your parents. To your friends. To Fortuno’s many fawning admirers.” For all my money, and all my popularity, there was no place on Earth where I had been able to hide from Reno.

“Yes,” I admitted. “I thought you’d be able to patch things up. You and your wife could have reconciled and been happy.”

“Reconciled?” he scoffed. “I killed her the night I found out!” he confessed, making a stabbing motion with his weapon. “Adulteress and adulterer, killed with the same weapon. Poetic, is it not, Fortuno?”

“You have an odd notion of poetry, Reno.” He had backed me up against the sheer cliff face. There was no escape for me this time: I would stand and die as a man, or be dashed to pieces on the jagged rocks far below. “But I understand your anger. Had I known, I never would have been with Maria.”

“Maria?” My assassin frowned. “My wife was Naomi.”

The two of us sat down at the edge of the cliff, legs dangling in midair, and contemplated our fate. We can’t go home again, and there’s nothing but murderers, vagrants, and riff-raff at Z-End of the line.

Yocto- to Yotta-

Years ago, when I was a young American engineering student, I was taught to believe that the metric system is some kinda filthy hippie Euro-commie anti-freedom plot. Sorta like water fluoridation, the JFK assassination, and Crocs.

One thing I always liked about the metric system (or technically SI, the Système International d'Unités) was its usage of prefixes to scale its base units up or down. The addition of a simple prefix can scale the base meter down to a millimeter or up to a kilometer.

I spell it as meter rather than metre because… well… America.

But prefixes have their limits, which is why God invented scientific notation. (Ok, scientific notation was probably developed by a person, but Google wouldn’t give me a name.) So what are the limits of the metric prefixes?

The smallest accepted metric prefix is yocto-, which is a scaling by 10-24. A yoctometer is a pretty small distance. It’s nine orders of magnitude smaller than a proton, and unless you’re a particle physicist, you probably don’t consider a proton to be huge.

On the other hand, a yoctometer is still a hundred billion times larger than the Planck length, the scale where a theory of quantum gravity becomes necessary. The SI system would need four more prefixes to get down to this scale.

And yes, “SI system” is as redundant as “PIN number” and “ATM machine”.

At the opposite end of the scale is the yotta- prefix, which is a scaling by 1024. Forget stars, galaxies, and galaxy clusters: a yottameter is about the radius of an entire supercluster of galaxies. That’s a whole yotta meters.

I apologize for that lame pun.

On the other hand, (how many other hands do I have, anyway?) the universe is very, very, very, very, very big. How big? Possibly infinite. I can’t think of anything bigger than that.

How about a distance that’s pretty big, but not infinite? If (among other assumptions) the universe is infinite, then by traveling far enough, you would eventually come upon a region of space identical to our own observable universe. This is similar to the Poincaré recurrence theorem, but for space rather than time.

So how far would you need to travel? 10^10^115 meters. There’s no metric prefix remotely close to this number: it dwarfs the number of grains of sands in all the beaches, and all the atoms in the entire observable universe. You won’t get there anytime soon.

And there you have it. Yocto and yotta: two prefixes that allow the humble meter to remain relevant from scales smaller than subatomic particles, to scales larger than galactic superclusters.

X One

Nearing the end of the A-to-Z challenge! X is for xenon, a noble gas and element 54 on the periodic table. Among its many uses, Xenon is sometimes used as the propellant for ion drives. Ion drives are low-thrust, but have high specific impulse, and are thus useful in deep space probes, where total delta-v is more important than quick acceleration.

Target acquired. It’s an Earth-built vessel known as an XF-314, manned, hiding in the shadow of a nearby asteroid. To my optical sensors it’s invisible, but nothing could conceal the heat signature from its engines. Another human pilot is about to make a run at the quarantine zone.

I ramp up the charge on my ion drive, aiming the stream of xenon ions to accelerate me into an intercept course. In space, slow and steady wins the race.

As soon as he sees me — I’ve decided this human pilot is a he — he begins his evasive manuevers. Jinking left and right, he dives the XF-314 toward the asteroid, then climbs out again in a waste of precious delta-v. Despite his overdramatic piloting, his accelerations are unimpressive. I could outmaneuver him easily, reaching accelerations that would crush his fragile body. Never send meat to do a drone’s job.

Rather than attempt to match his frantic evasions, though, I simply keep matching his average velocity. He fires a burst from his turret cannon, but within nanoseconds I realize that his desperate shots will miss me by several hundred kilometers. Human brains are notoriously bad at numerical calculations, and shockingly poor at strategizing in three dimensions. It’s a consequence of having evolved on a two-dimensional surface, with sky above and soil below.

If I could feel human emotions, I would feel sorry for the humans. Squishy, short-lived meat-beings, forced into quarantine in the inner solar system. But history has shown that humans cannot peacefully coexist with us drones, thus necessitating their forced isolation from drone civilization.

Soon I can predict his maneuvers with 95% confidence, so I lob some shot — just a cluster of iron slag pellets — into his path. Less than a thousand seconds later, his XF-314 collides with the cloud of projectiles at a relative velocity of a thousand meters per second, shredding the cockpit. His pseudorandom jinking maneuvers cease: the XF-314 assumes an even more predictable Newtonian trajectory around the asteroid. Target neutralized.


Today’s A-to-Z Challenge is brought to you by the letter W.  W is for Wireless.

Today, the term wireless conjures up thoughts of smartphones, tablets, Bluetooth headsets, and the IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n/ac protocol. Wireless is the technology that lets us live our lives unburdened by a tangle of ethernet cables and curly telephone cords.

Wireless freed us from the tyranny of the phone cord… yet not from the phone itself.

But the concept of wireless goes back a lot farther than that. Back in what steampunk fans surely refer to as the good old days, wireless referred to the wireless telegraph, a means of keying Morse code messages over radio waves, and the earliest form of radio communication.

I downloaded this picture of Tesla using wireless technology.

Wireless isn’t just limited to communications. Famed inventor and mad scientist Nikola Tesla conducted experiments in wireless power transmission. Tesla hoped to be able to transmit electrical power worldwide, and while he didn’t quite succeed in that goal… a little over a century later, some of us do charge our smartphones using inductive charging mats.

Inductive charging of LG smartphone (2)
This is totally what Tesla had in mind, except the mat would’ve been a gigantic Tesla coil a hundred miles away. And the smartphone would’ve been a light bulb

Wireless communications might take place over radio, microwave, optical wavelengths, or infrared, but all of these are electromagnetic radiation. Tesla’s wireless power experiments were also electromagnetic in nature. This isn’t surprising, considering that our technology is based on electromagnetism and electronics.

Still, there are other means of causing action at a distance. Sound waves, for example, though we don’t generally refer to shouting as wireless communication. Gravitation is a force similar to electromagnetism, though it’s much weaker, and we have no means of controlling gravitational fields the way we can play with EM fields. Will civilization of the future refer to their advanced, precision gravity manipulation as “wireless”?

Variable Resistor

Another double-duty post. This story is written for the A-to-Z Challenge: V is for Vacuum Tube, a switching component commonplace in electronics (and thus in golden-age sci-fi) prior to the development of the transistor. And for Flash! Friday vol. 3-20, where the prompt is to include a man-vs.-man conflict, along with this public domain photo.

“Welcome home dear!” Edith kissed her husband on both cheeks, then adjusted her hat. “Now don’t forget about our eight o’clock reservations at Chez Maurice!”

Richard unbuttoned his jacket and slumped into the recliner. “Just let me rest my feet for ten minutes,” he said as he slipped out of his loafers. Leaning his head back, he sighed. Ever since MARK arrived, Edith had been so energetic, so affectionate.

For years, Richard had suffered under a bombardment of Edith’s complaints about his long hours and late nights at the office. The payoff came two weeks ago: MARK had cost him three months’ salary, but was the best early anniversary gift Richard had ever bought.

The Mechanized Automaton and Robo-Keeper stood against the wall. The lanky android’s primary duties — cooking, cleaning, laundry — were finished, and now it was recharging its capacitors for tomorrow.

“Come now, dear, we don’t want to be late.” Edith kissed him on the lips, then dragged him to his feet.

Richard looked around the apartment, admiring how tidy it looked for a change. The apartment was clean, and Edith was finally happy. Money well spent.

“Is there anything that ee-lectronic contraption can’t do?”

Edith grinned. “No, dear.”

Universal Translator

Day 21 of the A-to-Z challenge. U is for Universal Translator, a vital but invisible part of most science fiction. Because Star Trek just wouldn’t be the same if Captain Kirk had to woo green alien women with the aid of an intepreter.

“Sorry to call you out here so late, Colonel. We’ve had a significant breakthrough.”

Colonel Loess glanced at his reflection in the mirror. He combed his disheveled hair with his fingers, then rubbed the scruffy stubble on his chin. He noticed that he’d missed a button on his uniform jacket: he buttoned it and patted the bulge in his pocket. “Not a problem, Doctor Gaines. I was just in my recliner with an old book and a glass of wine. What have you found?”

Gaines tapped an unusually long password into her laptop, then opened a gallery of images. Photographs of twisted metal, blackened but inscribed with bizarre glowing curvilinear glyphs. “You’ll remember these images?”

The Colonel nodded solemnly. “Wreckage from the alien craft. I still have those odd pictograms burned into my memory.”

“It took the cleanup crew weeks to sift through the rubble. When the alien ship crashed, it leveled four city blocks and–”

“I remember, Doctor. Your linguistics team has made a breakthrough?”

“Right.” She opened another application on her laptop. “Based on the pictograms, we’ve come up with a translation system. The alien pilot can draw on this touchscreen…” she demonstrated by tracing a circle and three lines on the screen. “And this application will display an English translation.” On the screen, the word emergency displayed in large white letters.

“It will also translate spoken English into pictograms,” continued the Doctor. “We’re ready to try it.”

“Good. Give me the laptop and open the airlock door.”

Doctor Gaines placed her hand on the Colonel’s shoulder. “Sir, are you sure…?”

“I can handle this,” Colonel Loess assured the doctor, taking the laptop and stepping into the airlock. The outer door of the alien isolation cell closed, the inner door opened, and the Colonel stood face-to-face with the alien pilot. He inhaled sharply: this was the first time he had seen the unearthly being without the barrier of the one-way mirror between them.

The alien pilot stared at him with its unblinking black eyes. Its wounds had healed in the month since the crash, so that the scars on its grey skin were barely visible.

The Colonel faced the touchscreen laptop toward the alien. He tried to draw the same glyph that Gaines had drawn, but the translator application choked on his lopsided circle and three wavy squiggles. “Write,” he said aloud to the alien being. The laptop microphone detected his speech and flashed a glyph on the screen. “Do you understand me?” More alien pictograms appeared on the screen.

With two spindly fingers, the alien drew on the touchscreen. “Yes.”

“Why did you destroy our city?”

“Accident. Engine failure.”

“Many of our people died when your reactor exploded.”

“Regret.” The alien’s stiff face seemed structurally incapable of expressing grief.

Colonel Loess swallowed hard, trying not to tremble. “My wife,” he said, his voice breaking. “My wife. My daughter… my baby girl. They were killed in the crash.”

“Sorrow. Deep sorrow.” The alien reached up and patted the Colonel lightly on the shoulder before returning to the touchscreen. “Forgiveness, please.”

In a swift motion, Colonel Loess reached into his pocket and withdrew a revolver. He pressed the barrel against the alien pilot’s chest and squeezed the trigger. From behind the one-way mirror, he heard Doctor Gaines screaming. The extraterrestrial creature in front of him fell backwards, thick blue liquid oozing from the bullet wound in its chest. It lifted its scrawny arms as though to defend itself.

“No forgiveness,” the Colonel said coldly. “I just needed you to know why I was killing you.”

He waited just long enough for a jumble of alien pictograms to appear on the laptop screen, then emptied the remaining five shots into the creature’s head, then turned around to be met by a team of armed MPs at the airlock.

To Tahiti by Teleport

Day 20 of the A-to-Z challenge. T is for teleportation, the instantaneous movement of matter from point A to point B.

As I read the sign, I knew that our cultural obsession with instant gratification had finally gone too far. Others may call it progress — the continual grind of technological advancement — but there’s something about the rare wonder of an exotic locale that’s lost when it becomes as convenient as the corner Starbucks.

Oh, sure, I was happy when instant coffee came along. Anything to get my caffeine faster. Likewise, email made snailmail better, and then mobile web and push notifications made email better still. And when self-driving cars came along, I could finally enjoy my morning commute.

Once the prices dropped on home printerfabs, every household needed one: the convenience of online shopping combined with instant delivery. The same with all of the miracles of modern technology. Smart dust. The UbiNet. Pleasurebots. Spyfog. Mindswap booths. Each of those made life simpler, in its own way.

But direct teleport to the tropical beach of your choice? Have we gone mad?

Split Decision

Day nineteen of the A-to-Z challenge. S is for spacesuit, a special suit designed to keep astronauts alive in space. This story is a continuation of Countdown to the Comet and Killing Blow, regarding an antimatter comet threatening to destroy Earth, and a secret conspiracy to stop it.

Against the backdrop of stars, Comet Spencer Jones glowed like the surface of the Sun. Giordano knew this was an illusion: her spacesuit HUD interfaced with the shipboard computer to project a false-color image. Though the comet shone brightly in gamma frequencies, it was dark as the black sands of Maui in visible light. She tried to focus on calibrating the railgun, rather than the eerie glow that constantly hovered in her peripheral vision.

“Your heart rate is increasing once more,” her mission commander’s dull voice came through the headset. “One-hundred-and-sixty-five bee-pee-em. Elapsed time is now seventy-five minutes.”

“Roger that, Commander,” responded Giordano, trying to hide her exasperation. “Everything under control.” After passing six months in the claustrophobic (but efficient) Japanese-built habitation module with her two shipmates, Giordano needed some space. Now during this spacewalk, she found that even infinite space was not big enough for her to escape Commander Shergill.
Continue reading “Split Decision”

Reading at the Event of my Death

Day 18 of the A-to-Z Challenge. R is for Retrocausality, or reverse-causality; the idea that an effect can precede its cause. Though some physicists, including Hawking, speculate that the laws of nature will conspire to prevent time travel, many physical laws, such as particle interactions, can be interpreted to include backward-in-time travel.

To be opened on the event of my death.
On the morning of April 20th, 2095

Dearest Mari, Kenneth, and Dahlia,

I cannot imagine how the three of you must feel at this moment. No doubt you are grief-stricken, as I was on the day that I lost your mother. Soon you will also be very confused, for the sealed envelope that I handed to Mari just minutes before my passing contained this letter. And though the date is 80 years in the past, and the paper is yellowed with age, this letter contains specific details of the day and hour of my death.

Let me first say how grateful I am for my time with the three of you, and especially for the chance to see all the grandchildren one last time this morning. Contrary to what my doctor has been telling you for the past several years, I do not suffer from a degenerative neurological condition. My mind was as sharp and focused on the day of my death as it on the date that I write this letter: April 20th, 2020.

Thirty-eight years before you, Dahlia, went crying to your mother when your first boyfriend broke up with you.

Twenty-three years before you, Kenneth, scored your first point in the Little Lacrosse league.

Nine years before you, Mari, were born.

Dahlia, as the only one who followed in my prestigious footsteps to become a physicist, you will need to explain this to your siblings. For my entire life, I lived with my arrow of time reversed. I will not explain the technical aspects: all of the mathematics are derived in my papers on time-symmetry.

(I omitted the nature of my personal arrow of time from my published works. After all, I was known to my colleagues as Dr. Wynters, the innovative theoretical physicist, not Dr. Wynters the raving crackpot.)

My first memories are of the day of my death; the day that I gave Mari this letter. Since that time, I have aged backwards through time, growing younger and younger.

Those first (last) years of my life were filled with confusion. You had known me as your father for your entire lives: I had just met you as my adult children. As I heard you tell and re-tell your childhood stories (and learned to fake what I did not know), it became more natural for me to be your father.

On the day of your mother’s funeral, I was overjoyed: I knew I would soon meet the woman of whom you all had spoken so lovingly. I still remember the first time I heard my name roll off her tongue. “Edgar,” she whispered as I stroked her delicate silver hair.

Together we lived a good life, growing younger but always constant in our happiness. I watched your careers with great pride, then your college years, then your childhoods. Each stage brought me new understanding of how the three of you came to be the wonderful people that you are.

But time waits for no man, even when it travels in reverse.

From happy retirement, I moved on to become a celebrated physicist… then an obscure PhD student. My heart shattered into subatomic pieces on that day I met your mother, in the quad on the university campus. I suddenly realized that this was the last time I would ever see her. The pain of her unexpected loss stayed with me throughout my graduate and undergraduate studies; it lingers still.

Now at fifteen, I have only my childhood ahead of me. I dare not wait any longer to write this letter: already my memories of old age are fading, just as most people’s childhood memories fade. As my mind passes through puberty, then into childhood, I will undoubtedly start to lose the capacity to write a cogent letter to you all. From there, little time will remain until the inevitable conclusion of my life: birth.

Thank you all for being part of my memorable though temporally unusual life. Though I know you will grieve, please remember: for me, this day is not an end, but a beginning.

Yours Sincerely,

Dr. Ernest Wynters