Phot credit: NASA

We’re going to hit. We’re aiming to hit, we’re going to let the lesser monster devour us before the greater one devours it in turn. We’ll lower Eriophora by her own bootstraps, sink through roiling bands of hydrogen and helium and a thousand exotic hydrocarbons, down to whatever residual deep-space chill Thule’s been hoarding since — who knows? Maybe almost as long as we’ve been in flight.

It won’t last, of course. Thule’s been warming ever since it started its long fall from the long dark. Its bones will survive passage through the stellar envelope easily enough but it’s going to be a hell of a long weekend. Most of the ice giant’s atmosphere will be gone by the end of it, boiled away in layers. It’ll be tricky, balancing in that ever-shrinking sweet spot between a scorching sky and the pressure cooker at Thule’s core.

The numbers say it should work.

Hakim should know this already. He would have awakened knowing, if not for that idiotic rebellion of theirs. But they chose to blind themselves instead, burn out their links, cut themselves off from the very heart of the mission. So now I have to explain things. I have to show things. All that instantaneous insight we once shared, gone: one ancient fit of pique and I have to use words, scribble out diagrams, etch out painstaking codes and tokens while the clock runs down. I’d hoped that maybe, after all these red-shifted millennia, they might have reconsidered; but the look in Hakim’s eyes leaves no doubt. As far as he’s concerned it all happened yesterday.

Artwork: Dan Ghiordanescu

I do my best. I keep the conversation strictly professional, focus on the story so far: a build, aborted. Chaos and inertia, imminent annihilation, the insane counterintuitive necessity of passing through a star instead of going around it. “What are we doing here?” Hakim asks once I’ve finished.

“It looked like a perfect spot.” I gesture at the tank. “From a distance, anyway. Chimp even sent out the recon vons, but—” I shrug. “The closer we got, the worse it turned out to be.”

He stares at me, so I add context: “Far as we can tell something big came through a few hundred thousand years back, knocked everything haywire. Over a dozen planetary masses and not one of them’s even on the ecliptic any more. Plus there’s a shitload of rogues zipping around in the halo— but by the time those numbers came back, we were already committed. So now we just buckle down through the heavy traffic, steal a gravity-assist, get back on the road.”

He shakes his head. “What are we doing here?”

Oh, that’s what he means. I tap an innerface, timelapse the red giant. It jerks in the tank like a fibrillating heart. “Turns out it’s an irregular variable. One complication too many, right?” Not that we’ll be able to thread the needle any better than the Chimp can (although of course Hakim’s going to try, in these few hours left to him). But the mission has parameters. The chimp has his algorithms. Too many unexpected variables and he wakes up the meat. That’s what we’re here for, after all.

That’s all we’re here for.

One more time, Hakim asks: “What are we doing here?”


“You’re the numbers guy,” I say after a moment. “One of ’em, anyway.” Out of how many thousand, stored down in the crypt?

Doesn’t matter. They probably all know about me by now.

“Guess it was just your rotation,” I add.

He nods. “And you? You a numbers guy too, now?”

“We come back in pairs,” I say softly. “You know that.”

“So it just happened to be your rotation as well.”


“Nothing at all to do with your Chimp wanting its own personal hand-puppet keeping an eye on things.”

“Fuck, Hakim, what do you want me to say?” I spread my hands. “That he might want someone on deck who won’t try to pull the plug the first chance they get? You think that’s unreasonable, given what happened?” But he doesn’t even know what happened, not first-hand. Hakim wasn’t up when it all went down; someone obviously told him, down through the epochs. Christ knows how much of what he heard is truth, lies, legend.

A few million years go by and suddenly I’m the bogeyman.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday December 31 2012at 01:12 pm , filed under fiblet . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

27 Responses to “Turducken”

  1. Not just a few lonely souls on a starship, but thousands. With their own legends, mythology, feuds. I can’t wait for the book. (Please tell me there’s going to be a book)

  2. Fascinating read.

    > Not that we’ll be able thread the needle

    A particle missing here.

  3. Happy New Year!

  4. Ok. On behalf of everyone who read that piece. We want the book, and we want it now. Or else the slime mold gets it.

    A great read – captures your attention immediately and starts throwing you into a believable, dark, yet awesome world. A good way to start 2k13.
    Happy new arbitrary starting point of a pseudo-stable orbital cycle.
    (Year sounded too snappy)

  5. Even apart from being hints of larger works to look forward to, I love fiblets as stand-alone pieces of concentrated fictional goodness.

    Like the illustration too, but am I the only one who at first glance thought “that’s Moonbase Alpha”?

  6. Just because I don’t think I’ve done it before (my New Year’s resolution is “try new things”) I could pick a nit.

    The thing is, I can’t pick it with the literary art but if I pick it with the science considerations behind the literary art, the literary art might need a slight rephrase.

    Peter Watts writes, in-part It’ll be tricky, balancing in that ever-shrinking sweet spot between a scorching sky and the pressure cooker at Thule’s core.

    Ah, since I seem to have forgotten everything in the fluid dynamics course I never took back in the college I didn’t attend, I can’t trot out the fascinating equations that might force us to ask the question about at what point does Thule’s core become less than fully a pressure cooker and more of a volume of fluid that behaves more in the realm of standard pressures-and-temperatures rather than something with a core of metallic hydrogen and hyper-pressure haloalkanes in diamondoid pseudo-bonds and the like, all being recompressed behind the shock wavefront of a very highspeed collision with exceptionally hot if also extremely tenuous photosphere plasma?

    Not trying to predict too much of any future story line, but as regards “if the numbers work out right” there’s a lot of room to play with what emerges from the photosphere on the other side.

    Furthermore there’s plenty of room for some ass-kicking description about ablative re-entry when the ablation is the atmosphere. Clearly this was excellent foreshadowing. We can reasonably expect the peak of said ablation to be the appropriate point for all hell to be at the peak of breaking loose aboard ship. 😉

    Seriously, great stuff. Awaiting more.

  7. Actually, I’m going to have to throw most of that stuff out anyway; turns out the freeware gravity simulator I was basing some of the physics on has got a bug. I’ve got until Sunday to retool the story.

    Probably won’t be a red giant after all. More likely a red dwarf.

  8. >freeware gravity simulator
    Name names? Got a good one?

  9. I finally paid for a copy of Universe Sandbox, and have been playing with it the past couple of days. It’s pretty good when it isn’t crashing.

  10. Hank Roberts,

    maybe you could start looking in the list of scipy related information for astronomy


  11. Paul Kinsky: (Please tell me there’s going to be a book)

    That’s the plan. In my dream world there would also be a video game, and the two would come bundled and complement each other. But that’s in my dream world.

    ejp: Like the illustration too, but am I the only one who at first glance thought “that’s Moonbase Alpha”?

    You know, now that you mention it the basic premise of this whole story cycle is embarrassingly similar to Space: 1999…

  12. Peter Watts,

    If you use any python stuff let me know so I can squee. or tcl.

    speaking of which, Carl and I got to hang out in an observatory and one of the domes started up so we went to hang out in the office with the computers and got to see whoever it was vnc-ing in to play with the control software taking images to help calibrate until night time showed up. The gui may have been tk but I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised.

    There was a watchdog button in case someone falls asleep while working so that the telescope doesn’t get rained on if no one is paying attention. if you don’t click the button the window closes.

  13. I only now had a chance to look at the image.
    It reminds me more of Halley’s comet in Heart of the Comet by David Brin.

    Peter Watts,

  14. @Peter Watts: A red dwarf would be better for a gravity assist (sling or braking, for that matter) but for an aerobraking maneuver that’s not insanely destructive (even in this present context) a red giant would be far better. A far bigger zone of relatively tenuous gases. Depending on how large is Thule (brown dwarf? a bit bigger or a bit smaller? mere gas giant but not quite brown dwarf?) you might wind up with an interaction a lot nearer to an elastic collision than to a pass-through aerobraking or even a photopause bounce (see also “skip bombers” for history context), the smaller the star is. Adding in the variable-star element is even more gravy for the plot, but I seem to recall that if you want to continue to use that, you’d have to stick more to a smaller star rather than the larger one. A red giant is about as varied as it will get, IIRC stars on that sequence spend much more time as a sedate red giant than they do as variable red or yellow compact stars. (Ready to stand corrected here, of course.)

    See also Wikipedia on Red Giant. I do stand corrected about the idea of a photopause bounce, so if you want to do that, a pre-expansion Red Dwarf just might have to do:

    The stellar limb of a red giant is not sharply-defined,
    as depicted in many illustrations. Instead, due to
    the very low mass density of the envelope, such stars
    lack a well-defined photosphere. The body
    of the star gradually transitions into a ‘corona’
    with increasing radii. [italics mine]

    Thus, no photopause bounce, unless maybe there’s a well-defined tropopause-like boundary between the corona and the core.

  15. The problem with a red giant is, you loop around one of those things at standard Newtonian speeds and you’re in the envelope for a couple hundred days even moving at a few hundred kps. This story needs our guys to be in and out in hours.

  16. @Peter Watts: Point taken. Okay, if you’re going with a red dwarf, comparatively thin photosphere, your aim is going to have to be a lot more accurate.

    Or, although they’re probably too rare to allow ready suspension of disbelief that your ship just happens to enccounter one, how about what’s left after a fairly low-yield nova event? Not the big supernova event where everything gets blown off except for a degenerate-matter core, more of the sort of thing that leaves a pretty small but very dense dwarf-sized star surrounded by a fairly large and rapidly expanding gas envelope. (Of course after a few hundred thousand years that expansion might no longer be so rapid… and this can explain the orbital disorder in the system if you want or need to keep that.) The extremely tenuous outer regions are barely less of a vacuum than the interstellar medium, and any significantly dense gases are going to be pretty close in… but you probably don’t have much of a well-defined photopause and it might be the case that right until you get down close to the core, it’s a fairly linear or low-order-curve gradient of density increase. Best of both worlds, so to speak, no photopause bounce but small enough for quick transit, where you can probably pretty predictably aim for and hit the layer of the density that you need for your course changes.

    And added bonus, who can predict when such a star might have a hiccup or two.

  17. Надо же, рассказец “Остров”, разрастается в целый роман. Хмм, не сказал бы, что это лучшее ваше произведение.
    Кстати, Питер, а как вам недавно вышедший фильм “Prometheus”? Он не в вашем духе?

    И – с Новым Годом, конечно!

  18. @Docbrain,

    Прометей действительно немного не в его духе: https://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=3211

    “Но, пожалуй, главным достижением фильма является то, что его недостатки слишком обширны и многочисленны, чтобы поместиться в рамки одного обзора.”

    Sorry for writing in secret code language, everyone. Docbrain’s question was whether Prometheus was to Peter’s taste.

  19. Alexey: Sorry for writing in secret code language, everyone. Docbrain’s question was whether Prometheus was to Peter’s taste.

    Addressed at length here.

    Short answer, No.

  20. You know, Peter, all of your objections are perfectly good… except… wasn’t the guy who does all of the ridiculously stupid stuff (takes off helmet, tastes alien sample) an android and thus someone who shouldn’t worry about it too much? -other than maybe should be worried about carrying it back aboard to infect the non-android explorers.

    It seems to me that you might have a bit of a taste for the absurd and/or parody, in which case you may want to netflix Iron Sky and consider whether it deserves the 2012 Hugo nomination for Best Film more than does Prometheus.

    To be fair to both, I rather liked Prometheus, but given the choice of walking out of a theater muttering “not too terribly bad if you don’t mind a bit of rather more than half-pretentious”, or crawling out of a theater gasping for breath between howls of laughter, I’ll take running down the street gibbering “it’s so incredibly fucking bad it’s far beyond excellent”. Sarah Palin is a US President seeking re-election and sends a team to the moon as a publicity stunt, but they discover a secret Nazi colony living on the far side of the moon, who decide that now that they are exposed, it’s time to invade Earth with their Aryan flying saucer fleet and their iPad-powered Death Star, the “Götterdämmerung”. It only gets more ridiculous from there.

    As SF, it’s somewhere between “Star Wars” and “Dr Strangelove”. Yet things which were far more silly have won the awards — I don’t think I need to remind anyone of the contraceptive scene in “Riders of the Purple Wage” — and this is at least as antidepressant as the new Glutamate receptor drugs. Besides, the special-effects are pretty good, causing me to wonder what have those folks been doing since the Battlestar Galactica series concluded.

    Humbly submitted for your approval… from the Twilight Zone.

    We await your critique. 😉

  21. Huh. Eriophora. An orb-weaving spider. Greek roots, wool-carrier.

    I’m interested to see how that will name will play out in this story. 🙂

  22. utterly tangential, boggled over this:

  23. @Hank Roberts: Wow, that is pretty much pick of the litter. 😉 Never know what you might find if you google for “reptoid”, eh?

    Meanwhile, back on the “weird but true astronomy” front, here’s some k3w1 n3w5 from NASA regarding discovery of a disk around Fomalhaut and a planet which they classify as having a “rogue type orbit”.

    Astronomers are surprised to find the debris belt is wider than
    previously known, spanning a section of space from 14 to nearly
    20 billion miles from the star. Even more surprisingly, the latest
    Hubble images have allowed a team of astronomers to calculate
    the planet follows an unusual elliptical orbit that carries it on
    a potentially destructive path through the vast dust ring.

    Maybe our Gracious Host is tuned into the Hubble feed via means as yet to be determined, buggy freeware orbit calculator notwithstanding?

  24. Mr Non-Entity: …you may want to netflix Iron Sky and consider whether it deserves the 2012 Hugo nomination for Best Film more than does Prometheus.

    Also a bit of cult classic Attack of the Killer Tomatoes but with a budget.

  25. @Whoever: Heh. That and a bit more of Killer Klowns From Outer Space as well.

    Actually, I quite enjoyed the space battle scenes.

    For what it’s worth, on the overnight we have the Apophis asteroid fly-by.

    I expect a whole lot of ‘scopes will be locked on to that, and we should get some interesting and useful numbers within the week… provided they’re not using buggy freeware orbit calculator w4r3z. 😉

    See also NEODYS near-earth object dynamic site (2), one of my favorite links from Earth Operations Central back when it was up-to-the-minute. Been a long time, but NEODYS keeps moving but it’s still there. Sort of like Apophis.

    Guess I better go outside and pray for the reptoids to honor their asteroid deflection contract… 8-D

  26. Hm. Last we saw of it, Eriophora was moving at a significant chunk of lightspeed and could never slow down. How on earth is it going to manage to stay inside an ice giant, then? (And why on earth does it need any kind of gravity assist?)

    This is clearly late in the mission, so maybe they shed speed somehow and are trying to {shed more|speed up again}.

  27. Actually, this is millions of years earlier in the mission than “The Island”. And even then, it could slow down — it’s just that it would get fried by the radiation of a booting gate if it did that. Velocity changes are pretty straightforward when you can displace the center of your own mass. They just, well, take a while to effect.