Sunday, December 23, 2012

Excerpt From Nakba

The following in an excerpt from my complete but unreleased novel Nakba. Occurring about midway through the book, it is presented for your enjoyment by the Raconteur. 

Mitchell Green: Mars, Arabia Terra

Big. It was big.

The sea of red spread out infinity in all directions, blurring the distinctions between land and sky. It made Mitchell feel incredibly small. In fact, the landscape of Arabia Terra – that vast, cratered plane of iron-colored soil and winding canyons in the north of Mars - was so immense that it dwarfed even the mighty hull of the Andrew Levitz, still steaming and glowing behind him from its violent entry into Mar’s atmosphere. Not for the first time he felt intimidated by this huge, open place. By the tall, russet-colored grasses that brushed gently against the outside of his safety garb. By the vast intimidating ceiling of firmament that pressed down upon him from every angle. By the ocean of genetically modified plant life that spread out before him in all directions, its monotony only broken by the distant black dots of massive Martian buffalo grazing in their thousands. It made Mitchell feel dizzy and sick just to look at it.

Mars was all so terribly large when compared to his normal world of cramped corridors, artificial light, and recorded bird songs. So… real. Yet Mitchell knew that much of the world he gazed upon had been created by the hands of men, just as his own had been. But it was also different. The Martians had used highly modified nanotechnology – a science his own people shied away from – to craft their home, whereas his people had relied extensively on Antigravity to create theirs; a science the Martians seemed to have lost. It had taken centuries of patient, never ceasing toil to turn some of the landscapes of the Red Planet into environments that could support a limited number of extremely modified species. Yet in many ways it remained as inhospitable to men as the hard vacuum of space, its promise of a new Eden seemingly eternally, tantalizingly out of reach.

A figure detached itself from the countless black dots in the distance and headed toward him with long, confidant strides. Mitchell knew that would be his Maasai contact. He hoped it would be his friend Sironka. They had worked together on previous trade missions, and Mitchell enjoyed his company. But there no guarantees: Martian-Maasai society worked in ways unfathomable to Mitchell Green, though he had done his best to study and understand it. He knew that they were nomadic, wandering across the northern latitudes of Mars much as they had Tanzania and Kenya on old Earth. He knew that they worshiped a god called Engai, believed that having a lot of cattle made you rich, and that most of their food came from those cattle. He knew that their society was grouped into “age sets” of people who grew up around the same time, that they were divided into twelve tribes, and that they were very tall and very tough. He also knew they were masters of genetic modification: the art of changing living things so that they were different.

But these were mostly just words on a screen to him. He liked the Maasai. They were cool and alien; though Mitchell suspected that his own kind were as alien to the Maasai as they were to his. It was difficult to say. The skinny Martians were so easygoing and confidant that it was very difficult to say what they did and didn't find strange. Really, he would probably never know. The two groups of human beings had become very other – and possibly they were that way before either had ever left Earth. But such things were never spoken of. There were only three rules universally held by all of the scattered and diverse children of Earth, those Interesting People who in desperation had fled its safe, comforting biosphere for the unforgiving wildernesses of the void. The children of the Nakba: the Disaster. One, they didn't make war upon one another. Two, they didn't interfere with one other’s internal affairs; though, really, they didn't have to. The solar system was so unthinkably large that avoidance, rather than conflict, was the social norm. Trade, rather than conquest, its standard for interaction.

Three, they didn't talk to the Earth. Ever.

Before very long the figure began waving. Mitchell waved back. He could make out its characteristic red robe slung over a skintight, reddish-brown environment suit. The Special and the Maasai were such a study in contrasts that they could have made an excellent comedy team, he reflected to himself with a quiet smile. (He liked comedy teams.) Mitchell was dressed in a bright yellow, inflatable outfit festooned with pulsing lights and topped with a spherical dome for his head. He was short, pale, clumsy, and as generally incongruous with his surroundings as a parrot on the bottom of an ocean.

The Maasai, on the other hand, was fantastically tall and angular, looking as though he had been hand crafted from the rocks, grass, and soil that lay around him: all reds and browns and rags and dust. His face was covered with antique looking goggles and a breathing apparatus that wouldn't have been out of place in the trenches of one of the Earth’s world wars. He carried a long spear-staff with the air of a man who knew how to use it. His billowing dark red shuka contrasted against the brown and black skintight wrappings below it, giving him what Mitchell thought was a fierce, exotic look.

The lanky figure stopped a meter from Mitchell. It cocked its head and peered down regarding him with what the much smaller man guessed was curiosity or puzzlement.

Perhaps it was having trouble figuring out whether I am me or not, he reflected with slight amusement.

Then it reached down, clasping his forearm in greeting while simultaneously pressing its breathing apparatus into the flexible dome of his helmet. “Habari za safari?” boomed a deep voice through the plastic. How was your journey?

“Nzuri, asante.” Mitchell responded with a grin. Fine, thank you. It was his friend after all. He grasped Sironka’s arm in response, his smaller hand making it about half way to his elbow.

“Habari yako?” Sironka continued, still gripping his arm. How are you?

Niko salama.” Very well, thank you. Swahili speakers typically enjoyed greetings, and could go on this way for a while until all possible formal and informal greetings were used up. This suited Mitchell fine. He liked greetings too, and they were pretty much all the Swahili words he knew in any case.

“What have you brought us this trip?” Sironka asked, releasing his arm and gesturing back toward the Andrew Levitz. Sentience was translating now, sending completed words into his mind through his earbud. Mitchell frowned slightly. Sironka was, by Maasai standards, being slightly rude. Normally they would have exchanged at least another two sets of greetings. Then he shrugged. Perhaps, uncharacteristically, his friend was in a hurry. At least by his own kind’s standards.

Mitchell pointed back at his ship using his right index finger. On cue – and a bit dramatically, he thought again with a smile – the bottom two thirds of the craft began to disassemble itself; rectangular sections detaching and slowly drifting to the ground to hover obediently behind him. It was as if he owned his own herd of giant mechanical cattle. Which was rather the point.

“AntiG tech,” he began, counting theatrically on his fingers, “suitable for attaching to lifting platforms. Ceramic insulation to help harden your AIs, and near-sentience level semiconductor wafers to improve them. Blocks of pure aluminum, titanium, and surgical grade steel…”

Sironka nodded, looking impressed.

“…and that kind of stuff,” he concluded a bit lamely. Drama really wasn't his strong point. But the Maasai bowed sagaciously, as if he had made some excellent point.

“For you little ones we have next generation non-self-replicating nanoviruses capable of repairing cell structures after radiation exposure, “ Sironka responded grandly with a sweeping gesture outward toward his unseen home, “new extra-cellular matrix cultures for regrowing organs. Something new to prevent early onset Alzheimer’s that doesn't have the side effects of our old tech. And, of course, as much beef, grain, and frozen water as you can pack into your containers.”

Mitchell nodded thoughtfully. Those were good things. Alzheimer’s was the great curse of Specials, and even some Standards. You simply couldn't have enough treatments for it. The other two medical things sounded good too: great tech to have when you lived out in the vacuum. And it went so without saying that biomass and water were such prized commodities on a space habitat that he didn't even think about their value.

“Haya.” Okay. Mitchell knew that one without the help of his Sentience. Sironka nodded gravely, and then placed his index fingers on his chin, bringing them out and up slowly in Sign for smile. The smaller man beamed back appreciatively. Like every other kind of human in the solar system he knew a bit of Sign, and it was polite of his friend to pantomime his facial expressions. Otherwise it was like talking to a mask.
Sironka pointed out into the distance with his spear-staff, in a direction that the tiny AI inside of Mitchell’s safety suit informed him was southwest.

“Let us now go to the Manyatta,” he said. “It is not such a long walk. And you should stretch your legs after such a long journey.”

“Yes,” Mitchell responded simply, and the two of them strode out into the vast, russet emptiness, shipping containers following along behind them like a pack of huge mechanical dogs.