Monday, June 27, 2011

Star Trek: Leap of Faith

This is the last of my Star Trek stories, I promise. It's a story I always thought needed to be done on Star Trek: Captain Picard and crew find actual proof that God exists. I wrote this in 1997, as an entry in the Strange New Worlds contest.

Star Trek: Leap of Faith

“The Debri,” said Jean-Luc Picard, “are the ultimate skeptics.” He let his gaze wander around the briefing room table, momentarily locking eyes with each of his officers. “Throughout their recorded history they have rejected any idea or belief which has not had a basis in solid, tangible fact.”
“Indeed,” Data said, “since they are so unwilling to accept anything without a great deal of physical evidence, it took them a relatively long time to reach their present level of technology.”
Picard nodded. “The Debri's notorious skepticism smothers imagination and intuition, which are often a key ingredient for the advancement of science.”
“They used to tell a joke about them back in the Academy,” Geordi said, smiling at the memory. “About how God shows up one day on Debri, and they ask him for his credentials. They--”
The intercom interrupted Geordi. “Bridge to Captain Picard.”
“Picard here.”
“Sir, you wanted to be informed when the runabout had docked.”
“Thank you, lieutenant. Please have the passengers escorted to the briefing room.”
“They're already enroute, sir.”
 “Very good. Picard out.” The Captain looked at Geordi. “You know, it's funny that you should mention God, because...” he paused to look around at the faces of his officers. “...The Debri have shrugged off their atheism and are suddenly very interested in Him.”
He paused again to let the import of that sink in. The Debri wouldn't be interested in any sort of god without good reason. They made the cold and analytical Vulcans seem like religious fanatics.
The door chime cut into the silence. “Ah, our guests,” Picard said. He rose and motioned for the others to do the same.
The doors swished open and a security guard entered the room, followed by a tall man with greying hair, dressed in a white robe with a large crucifix around his neck. Behind him came another man, shorter, wearing a gray business suit with a computer terminal wrapped around his wrist.
Picard nodded at the guard, who turned and left. Then, to his crew: “May I present His Eminence, Pope John Paul XIII. Welcome aboard, sir.” Picard stepped forward and shook the man's hand.
The Pope indicated the man behind him. “My secretary, Mr. Dengus.”
The Pope and his secretary seated themselves, introductions were made and pleasantries exchanged. Then Picard said, “As we were the nearest ship to the Bible Belt, we've been ordered to ferry His Holiness to Debri. They wish to learn all about Earth religions. Starfleet sees this as an excellent opportunity to reopen negotiations to get them into the Federation.”
“They would be a great boon to the Federation,” Worf said. “They are strategically important, and it is rumored they have technology hundreds of years ahead of ours. If they choose to join, we would have access to it.”
The Pope sighed heavily. He looked from Worf to Picard. “I hope that's not all you hope to gain from the Debri.” He leaned forward, looked intently at each officer. “Don't you see? They've found proof of the existence of God! Everything pales beside that, and nothing, nothing! else matters.”

Worf stood in the corridor outside the briefing room, watching as Picard led the Pope and his aide away to the guest quarters. “A remarkable man,” Worf said to Geordi.
Geordi grunted noncommittally. “Certainly an interesting bit of history.”
“You do not believe in the god of your people?”
Geordi shrugged. “Not many people do, Worf. There's not much need or room for God today.”
They began walking toward a nearby turbolift.
Geordi looked sidelong at Worf. “Do you believe in God, Worf?”
“My parents were very religious, and several missionaries visited when I was a child. While I do not believe in the human God, I greatly admire the strength and courage of your religious leaders. They are great warriors.”
Geordi laughed. “Warriors?!”
“Yes. Using no weapons, armed with nothing more than the strength of their beliefs, for over two thousand years they have subjugated countless billions into their religion. Very impressive.”
They arrived at the turbolift. The doors swished open and they stepped inside. “Well, their power is fading rapidly,” Geordi said. “Christianity's breathing its last breath.”
“Then the Debri find, if it proves to be legitimate, is very fortunate indeed. Deck One.”

The doors slid shut behind Captain Picard. Georges Popolos, aka Pope John Paul XIII, surveyed his quarters. Very luxurious. He went to the bathroom sink and ran his hands under the water, splashed some on his face. He hadn't had time to shave this morning, he'd been so busy preparing for this trip.
This godsend of a trip.
He went to the window and looked out at the stars. His quarters faced the rear of the ship. Receding in the distance was a small yellow star that grew smaller with each second. Somewhere at its waist, invisible from this far out, orbited three small planets. The system was known as the Bible Belt. It had been the home of Georges Popolos for the past three decades.
The last stand of Christianity. Over the centuries, believers had gravitated to this place, driven out of all the other systems by a lack of interest and, in many cases, outright ridicule. The millions of faithful followers had come to the Bible Belt to be among those who shared their beliefs. And they'd pretty much turned their backs on the rest of the Federation.
But that was about to change. At its sunset, Christianity had been granted a reprieve. A revival was coming, a revival that would sweep the known Galaxy.
He watched the star until it had grown to a point indistinguishable among the vast ocean of stars. He then turned to the communications panel.
“Computer,” he said. “Open a secured channel. Scramble the message and transmit to Listening Post 53.”
After he'd recorded the message, it went out to the Listening Post along the Neutral Zone, where it was relayed to a waiting ship.

Picard sat in his quarters, scanning the latest news on his PADD. One story in particular caught his eye:
(FPN) Although it's been five weeks, Federation Standard, since the Debri revelation of “definitive proof of the existence of a Supreme Being,” little or no solid information has been offered. The “proof” is in the form of second-hand reports of people who have actually been to Debri and examined the artifacts for themselves. These visitors have come from all across the Federation and the non-aligned worlds: Klingons, Vulcans, Ferengi, Bajorans--even a few Gorn. Since all attempts to photograph or remove the artifacts have been unsuccessful, we must rely on the word of those leaving the small moonlet where the ancient cavern was discovered. And the word is always the same, summed up here by a Vulcan: “Go and witness it for yourself. I will not describe any of it for you. Once you see, you will know why. Spread the word: God exists.” And the word is spreading, like wildfire. The obvious question is, has this reporter seen the artifacts? Can you describe them? And the answer is: I have indeed been to Debri, and the artifacts are....well, go see for yourself. The Debri are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Pope (leader of Earth's Catholic church) whom they have invited to Debri in the hopes of gaining insight from the foremost expert on God. He has come out of his self-imposed exile and is enroute...
Picard turned off the PADD and rubbed his eyes. He went to the window and stared out at the onrushing, warp-smeared stars.

Mr. Dengus stopped outside the Pope's room. The door opened after three rings, and the Pope emerged carrying his briefcase.
“Good morning, sir,” Mr. Dengus said.
“Ah, good morning, old friend. Come to give me a proper send off, eh?”
Mr. Dengus was taken aback by the Pope's good cheer. Such a solemn day shouldn't be taken lightly. But he suspected it was just for show. He knew Georges Popolos too well. “We're almost to Debri, sir. Your runabout is waiting.”
They walked in silence to the shuttle bay. As the runabout door swung open, the Pope turned to his secretary. He reached out and placed a hand on Mr. Dengus shoulder. “Phineas, I....”
Mr. Dengus shifted uncomfortably. “Georges, there has to be another way.”
The Pope shook his head. “We've been over this, and we've been over it. This has to be done.”
Mr. Dengus sighed, then nodded.
The Pope sat down his briefcase and removed the crucifix from around his neck. He held it out to Mr. Dengus. “Thanks for everything, old friend.”
Mr. Dengus hesitated a moment, then took the crucifix, placed it around his own neck.
The Pope smiled and picked up his briefcase. “Goodbye, Phineas.” He turned and entered the runabout. “Have faith,” he called over his shoulder.
The runabout door shut with a hiss.
“Godspeed, sir,” said Mr. Dengus.

Debri swam up out of the depths of space, a bluish-white globe slightly larger than Earth. Picard watched it growing on the forward viewscreen. He noted with some chagrin the presence of three Klingon battle cruisers, two Cardassians and one Ferengi: others who were here to entice the Debri to ally themselves with their respective stellar organizations.
“Looks like we've got some competition,” said Riker.
“The Federation does have the upper hand, however,” Picard said. “The Pope was invited by the Debri. But their religious leaders,” Picard pointed at the ships on the viewscreen, “had to ask permission to come.”
“Score one for our side,” Riker looked up at Worf. “Sorry, Worf.”
Worf growled.
“Shuttle bay to bridge. Captain, the Pope's shuttle is ready to leave for the moonlet.”
Picard motioned to Data. “Clear him for launch, commander.”
Data punched a few buttons. “Shuttle cleared, and....the shuttle is away, sir.”
Picard stood. “Well, it's time I prepared for the meeting with Prime Minister Zharak.”

Down between the barren crags of the moonlet, toward a small landing field dotted with ships. In through an airlock and down a confusing maze of tunnels.
The Pope trudged purposefully through the dimly lit, roughly carved tunnel. His passage stirred up dirt, adding to the fine particles already drifting in the stale air. He fought the urge to choke every time he drew breath. He might as well not have been wearing the filter. He was acutely conscious of the miles of rock hanging over his head, threatening to come crushing in on him at any moment.
The Pope did not enjoy being underground. He never had and he never would. He didn't understand how these miners could tolerate working here day after day.
He glanced at the miner walking next to him, matching his swift pace admirably. The Pope nodded and smiled to give the impression that he'd been listening to the Mine Head's words. Which of course he hadn't. Shortly after his arrival, he'd concluded that Stulk, the Mine Head, had nothing important to say.
“Here. See? Here's a fine vein of arconite.” The MH pointed at the rocky wall. A glittering white streak cut neatly through the wall, disappearing down the tunnel ahead of them. “And up there, on the ceiling. These are the two veins we were following when we found it.”
The Pope's attention turned fully upon Stulk at the mention of it. He knew which it the man meant. It was the reason the Pope had come to this remote planetoid, descended into its bowels, fighting his claustrophobia the entire way.
“We are almost there, then?” the Pope asked anxiously.
Stulk nodded, and his expression brightened. This was the first complete sentence the Pope had uttered since they'd began their descent. “Yes. Two more bends of the tunnel and we're there.”
“Very good. Is it as incredible as I've heard?”
“Yes,” the MH said. “I believe it is, sir. In my opinion, once word of this discovery gets out, our world will never be the same.”
They continued on in silence, Stulk no longer babbling incessantly. The tunnel forked once, and they passed several miners going in the opposite direction. The miners nodded to Stulk, then nodded respectfully to the Pope before continuing on. Georges wondered if they knew who he was; they undoubtedly knew he was important, since he was being given a personal tour by the Mine Head, while the all other alien tourists and researchers had to fend for themselves.
The tunnel they were following turned once, twice, and then abruptly opened into an enormous cavern.
The lights strapped to their shoulders suddenly winked out. At the same time the computer the Pope wore on his wrist went dead.
The Pope was unable to prevent a momentary burst of panic. His heart throbbed wildly for several long seconds before he realized he wasn't immersed in darkness. This far down in the planetoid, in these recently excavated tunnels, lights had not yet been strung. Yet a wan yellow glow bathed the cavern and everything, everyone, in it. The Pope could not tell where the light came from; it seemed to diffuse from the very air itself.
The Pope looked about in amazement. He ignored the workers and tourists scattered around the cavern. Silence rang in his ears as he gaped in wonder at the objects he'd read about in the reports. Words didn't do them justice.
Words and patterns, strange pictures and flowing script, were scrawled all over the walls of the enormous cavern. Many of the writings were carved into the rock with phaser-fine smoothness. And strange statues were scattered all across the cavern, seemingly placed with great care on the level, polished floor. He recognized a few of the statues, a few of the symbols on the walls. They were images of events from the ancient, as well as the recent, histories of several worlds.
But the statue at the center of the cavern, dominating the room, towering over everything else.... the import of that statue, its meaning, could not be mistaken or denied.
The MH, apparently deciding the Pope had had enough time to bask in the wonder of the place, scurried to his side. “The writing on the base of that statue?” Stulk said, pointing. “Klingonese. Over there? Romulan.”
The Pope walked slowly around the cavern, followed closely by Stulk. The scientists who'd been studying the artifacts stood back respectfully, bowing at the Pope as he passed.
“Electrical fields don't function in here,” the MH continued. “That's why the lights and your computer went out when you entered.”
The Pope had read all this in the reports, but hearing it again, looking at these artifacts, he felt as if he were learning it for the first time.
“Computers, transporters, tricorders,” Stulk said, “none of it works in this cavern. They,” he indicated the scientists standing in the background, “can't use conventional means to study the things in here. They've had to use chemical and other obsolete methods to determine the age of things.”
The Pope ran his hands across the smooth white stone of one object. “And their age is?” he breathed heavily, tensely. He already knew, but....
“It's off the scale. Conservative tests say everything in here is 20 billion years old. At least. Probably, I'm told, this cavern and these objects were here when the universe came into being.”
The Pope shook his head. “That's not possible.”
“Of course it's not,” the MH laughed. He continued, “The rock immediately outside the cavern? The surrounding rock is only a few million years old, but the rock adjacent to the cavern is 20 billion. And it's the same rock!”
They'd come full circle now. The MH led the Pope out of the cavern. His shoulder lights and wrist computer flickered back to life. The MH pointed out a few angular markings carved into the rock near the cavern entrance. “This writing is Klingonese. And it's written in a dialect that has only been in use for three hundred or so years. We only excavated these tunnels and this cavern last month. Until then, no one, especially Klingons, had ever dug tunnels here.” He paused momentarily, then continued. “Nothing can be removed from the cavern either. They cut one of the statues loose, to try to bring it back to Debri, or at least bring it to a spot outside the cavern where the tricorders would work. But something blocked it when they tried to take it out. It's like the artifacts hit a forcefield, only nothing is there. The artifacts simply resist being taken from the cavern.”
The Pope walked back into the cavern, feeling as though he were stumbling about in a stupor.
“The light?” Stulk continued. The Pope absently wondered if the man ever shut up. We can't determine the source of the light. It's just there, part of the air, it seems.”
The Pope walked to the center of the room, staring up at the towering central statue with his hands on his hips. One of the Debri scientists finally came over and politely but insistently sent Stulk back to his duties in the upper mines.
“Sir?” the scientist asked. “Sir, there are a few things we'd like to discuss with you.” Getting no response, he repeated, “Sir?”
But the Pope could only stare thoughtfully, wonderingly, up at the artifact. Finally he sighed, “Oh, God.....”
Several hours later, he left the cavern more certain of his path than ever. He went topside and waited in his runabout as most of the ships around him lifted off. Waited until a good number of the tourists had gotten far enough away.
Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small handheld device. He depressed a button. A microburst signal leapt outward.
A ship 30 light-seconds away powered up its engines.

Picard materialized on the Enterprise and left the transporter room, headed for the bridge.
The negotiations had gone well. For the last several years, the Debri had been leaning toward an alliance with the Romulans. Though they hadn't yet, Starfleet felt it was only a matter of time. But that had changed. Picard had put forth Starfleet's offer of citizenship, and the Debri had expressed interest. It would be a great advantage to have the Debri in the Federation, but previous offers had been immediately rejected. Their about-face was amazing.
The turbolift doors opened and Picard stepped onto the bridge.
“Data, take us out to the moonlet.”
“Yes sir.”
Now, with the negotiations out of the way, Picard would finally get to see the artifacts that had sparked all the changes in the Debri. He was looking forward to it, not just as an armchair archeologist, but as a curious agnostic as well.
He felt the nearly-imperceptible forward push as the impulse engines flared to life.
“Captain,” Worf said suddenly. “Spatial disturbance, two hundred kilometers from the moonlet.”
Picard stood. “Onscreen, maximum magnification.”
The forward viewscreen wavered, and the far-off moonlet leapt into view. Numerous small ships orbited the cratered planetoid, like moths around a flame Nearby, the background stars shimmered as a distortion moved toward it.
“A ship about to decloak, sir,” Worf reported.
“Identity,” Picard asked.
But Worf's reply was unnecessary, for seconds later a Romulan warbird phased into view, swooping toward the planetoid.
“Data, get us out there, quickly!”
“Her disruptors are powered up, sir,” Worf barked. “Firing.”
Thick beams of light leapt toward the moonlet, followed by a volley of photon torpedoes.
“Raise shields,” Picard ordered. “Data, ETA to moonlet?”
“Five minutes, sir.”
Picard gritted his teeth, watching helplessly as the Romulan disruptors hit the moonlet, throwing up geysers of rock. Seconds later the torpedoes impacted. Great fractures spread across the surface, and then the moonlet exploded. A shower of debris hurtled outward, striking the orbiting ships. Those that survived the initial pounding were destroyed microseconds later by the shockwave which spread into space.
The warbird sped through the debris, rushing toward Debri and the Enterprise.
“Incoming signal, sir.”
Worf piped the transmission onto general audio. “The Romulan Empire formally forbids a Debri alliance with anyone other than the Empire.”
The transmission ended.
The Romulan warbird changed course to go around the Enterprise.
“Keep us between that ship and Debri, Data. Worf, lock phasers and torpedoes. Forward shields at maximum.”
Both officers moved to comply. “Hailing frequencies.”
Picard paused a moment, then: “Romulan warbird, cease your attack. Do not approach Debri.”
“They're locking onto us,” Worf reported.
“Firing on us, or further attacks on the Debri, will be considered an act of war,” Picard said. “Cease your attack!”
“They're firing!” The disruptor blast punched across space, going wide, barely missing the Enterprise.
“Return fire, Worf.”
Worf did so. Miraculously, the first shot destroyed the warbird. The blinding flash filled the bridge for several seconds. Finally, the viewscreen showed only a dense field of stars and a drifting cloud of debris that had been the moonlet.
Picard and Riker turned to look at Worf. “That was too easy,” Riker said.
“Call Mr. Dengus to the bridge,” Picard said. “I'm afraid we have some bad news for him.” He turned back to the viewscreen. Seven hundred innocent people had just been murdered. Including the Pope.
And once again, it seemed, the universe was without proof of God's existence.

Five days later the Enterprise came out of warp at the edge of the Bible Belt.
Captain Picard sat in his Ready Room, looking through the day's reports on his terminal. The door chimed. “Come.”
The door opened and Mr. Dengus stepped into the room. He stopped in front of Picard's desk.
Picard looked up. “We'll be arriving at your planet within the hour, Mr. Dengus.”
“Very good.”
“And Starfleet has granted your request that we take His Eminence's body back to Earth, to be buried in his home town.”
“That was his wish.”
“Also, the Romulan Empire has issued an official statement that the warbird at Debri was renegade, acting on its own.” Picard studied Mr. Dengus intently, apparently watching for a reaction.
“Of course,” Mr. Dengus said. “Standard procedure in the game of espionage, so I understand.”
Picard nodded. “We were incredibly lucky in destroying the warbird. Her shields weren't even raised. Almost a suicide attack, don't you think?”
 Mr. Dengus shrugged, and nothing further was said for several long moments. Then: “Captain, thank you for
 your assistance these past few weeks. Things would not have gone so swiftly without the aid of you and your ship.”
“I was just following orders.” There was a little irritation in his tone.
“Is something wrong, Captain?”
Picard turned off his terminal and leaned back in his chair. “I've been thinking over what happened at Debri.”
“I noticed in ship's records that His Eminence sent a brief, scrambled transmission to a Listening Post along the Neutral Zone, immediately after your arrival onboard.”
“That's possible. His brother captains a trading ship that runs supplies to the outposts along the border. They hadn't spoken in several months. Its a matter of record.”
“Yes. One of the outposts reports that a Romulan warbird on patrol near that Listening Post left the area, shortly after the Pope made his transmission.”
Mr. Dengus shrugged. “Coincidence.”
“Perhaps. It's also a matter of record that several persons directly under the Pope have made numerous visits to the Empire, over the past decade.”
Mr. Dengus nodded. “Yes, we've managed to convert a small number of Romulans. And others in the Empire are very interested in Catholicism, and Christianity in general. We're quite proud of that.”
They stared at one another in silence for a short time.
Then: “Do you have an accusation to make, Captain?”
“Mr. Dengus, if I had an ounce of solid evidence that you and the Pope had conspired with the Romulans, I would have thrown you in the brig as an accomplice in murder days ago....But I have nothing, other than suspicion. I can't even imagine a motive.” He sighed and stood. Went to his window and looked out at the stars, arms folded behind his back.
Mr. Dengus turned to leave. At the doorway he hesitated, then turned back to Picard. “Captain, have you ever wondered why, in all your travels, in all the explorations of the Federation, we've come across countless stories on countless worlds, of a Supreme Being, every one of whom had a corporeal Christ-figure at some time in history, but there has never been any solid proof? Nothing to say that here, definitely, is concrete proof that God exists? No fingerprints.”
Picard turned to face Mr. Dengus.
“You can trek through the stars for a million years and you'll never find such proof. And do you know why? It's because God can't be found in that way. He won't allow it.”
“What of the artifacts the Debri found?” Picard asked.
Mr. Dengus smiled. “The artifacts never mattered. In time, they may have been proven false. But now, now, when Christianity is dying, the Debri have emerged to save it. The Galaxy's legendary skeptics have been transformed, as have all the people who managed to see the things in that cavern, before its destruction. Their miraculous transformation will be a testimony to God, and word will spread. Interest in Christianity will flare like never before. And more importantly to you and Starfleet, Captain: after the attack, the Debri will be more likely to ally with the Federation rather than the Romulans. Everyone wins.”
“But the Debran artifacts might have been validated, your case strengthened–”
“But they might not have. God doesn't need proof, Captain! The leap of faith, in the absence of physical proof, is the best proof there is. That is what God left at Debri, not the artifacts.”
He turned and left. Picard faced his window and the stars once again.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Star Trek: Final Requiem

Yet another Star Trek fan fiction. I'm starting to think I spent way too much time writing Star Trek stuff. This one is a sequel to the original series episode Requiem for Methuselah. I wrote this one in 1999.


Star Trek: Final Requiem


Data watched impassively through the shuttle’s forward window as the ruddy brown planet grew larger. For the 6,813th time he wondered why he’d been compelled to steal the shuttle and come to this planet. But the compulsion, like the previous one that Dr. Soong had left within him, offered no explanation. He’d been reduced to a prisoner in his own body, watching as it performed actions against his will.
Had he been human, he decided that the appropriate emotional response would be rage. Mingled with fright and trepidation, perhaps.
His mutinous fingers stabbed at the controls, initiating a landing sequence. Maneuvering thrusters took over from the impulse engines. The shuttle swooped down through a light smattering of clouds, made several course adjustments, and the thrusters shut off. The shuttle coasted over a dry, cracked seabed, skimmed over craggy mountains, came in low over a dusty desert. Finally the braking thrusters fired and the shuttle gently settled to the ground beside a crumbling castle.
Still feeling like an outside observer, Data watched himself stand, exit the shuttle and pass through the heavy oak doors of the castle, which were ajar. The castle was empty. He walked through dusty halls that were a chilly 9.65 degrees Celsius. There was no illumination, so he adjusted his eyes accordingly. Purposefully he wended his way through a maze of passages until he came to a closed door. Beyond the door he found a musty bedroom, spartanly furnished. Adjoining the bedroom was a laboratory, the various scientific instruments neatly organized. Along the far wall stood a human-sized metallic arch, with an attached control panel.
Data crossed the laboratory and positioned himself at the center of the arch. His fingers danced over the control panel. A flash of light engulfed him, and he vanished.

Captain’s log, Stardate 47553.7:
Starfleet Command has authorized us to exceed the new warp speed limits in order to search for Mr. Data, who has stolen a shuttlecraft and headed for an unknown destination. We suspect that he is once again under the influence of an overriding directive installed by his late creator, Dr. Noonian Soong.

Jean-Luc Picard strode onto the bridge. As he headed toward his command chair he glanced at the small star on the forward viewscreen. From this distance, on the very edge of the system, the star was barely larger than the sprinkling of background stars.
“This is his destination?” Picard asked, standing beside his chair, hands on hips.
Riker stood. “Yes, sir. The Omega system. Long-range sensors show that he’s landed on Holberg 917G, the second of three planets. There’s a Code Red quarantine beacon here, so we can’t go in any closer. No explanation given by the beacon, but Code Red means there’s a mortal threat in the system.”
Picard crossed his arms on his chest and tapped thoughtfully at his lower lip. “What is Data doing here?” he whispered. “And how did he make it past the planetary defense system?”
Riker cocked his head. “Sir?”
Picard tugged at his uniform, then strode toward toward his Ready Room. “Join me, Commander,” he called over his shoulder.
Riker followed and waited as Picard settled himself behind the desk.
“What I’m about to tell you cannot go beyond this room, Wil.”
“Understood, sir.”
“About 75 years ago, an earth man named Flint died on Holberg 917G after a very, very long life. He was nearly 6,000 years old when he died.” He waited for the shock to fade from Riker’s face. “During his long existence, he was known as Alexander the Great, Methuselah, Brahms, Da Vinci, and others we can only guess at. He was unarguably the greatest mind that ever lived.”
Riker smiled. “I think Lt. Barclay might argue that point, sir.”
“All jocularity aside, Wil, he had enormous creative powers. When James Kirk first met Flint, Flint actually pulled the Enterprise from orbit and shrank it. Kirk eventually set all to rights, as usual. He also learned that Flint was dying.”
“Kirk, sir?” Riker had a fascination for the first captain of the Enterprise.
“Yes. At Kirk’s request, Starfleet allowed Flint to live out the remainder of his life in privacy. At his death, he promised that the fruits of his mind would be made available to humanity. When we’re ready for it. Starfleet knows there is a treasure trove of technology on Holberg 917G, but Flint sequestered it behind an impenetrable defense system. Starfleet’s playing the waiting game, wondering when and if Flint’s technology will be made available to us. So they’ve classified this system as Top Secret, to discourage treasure hunters and prevent fatalities in attempting to penetrate the defense system.”
“So what is Data doing here of all places?” Riker asked. “And how did he get past the defenses?”
Picard smiled. “My thoughts exactly.”
Just then Worf’s voice came over the intercom. “Captain, there is a temporal disturbance on Holberg 917G—”

James Kirk materialized outside the double gate of the castle. He and Leonard McCoy looked up at the high buttresses, the three tiers, each higher than the last, and the large central dome. The castle seemed unchanged after eighteen years.
And the scowling, grey-haired man who stepped through the doors to greet them seemed hardly to have aged a day. Kirk held out a hand, but the man ignored it. “Flint,” Kirk nodded. “You look...remarkably well.”
Another, younger man stepped through the door to stand at Flint’s side.
“You expected a decrepit old man, hunched over and hobbling with a cane, I’m sure,” Flint said gruffly. “But I assure you I am very near death. Doctor McCoy’s diagnosis eighteen years ago was correct.” He nodded to McCoy. “You may scan me, if you wish.”
McCoy took out his medical scanner and ran it across Flint’s chest. “Terminal atherosclerosis,” he said, reading off the data. “Imminent renal failure, advanced colon cancer...” He shut off the scanner. “You’re a walking textbook of gerontological disorders. How is it that your outward appearance is so healthy?”
Flint smiled. “You wish me to reveal my secrets? Despite our brief time together so many years ago, I think you know me better than that.”
“But isn’t that why you called us here?” Kirk asked. “To hand your knowledge over to the Federation before you die?”
“Perhaps,” Flint said vaguely.
The young man standing at Flint’s side coughed, drawing Kirk’s attention. He couldn’t have been more than twenty, with slicked-back jet black hair, a rather large nose, and deep inquisitive eyes. His mouth was little more than a line in his face, with a playful smile dancing at the corners.
“I fear my manners haven’t improved with time,” Flint said. “Kirk, this is Noonian Soong, a student of mine.”
Doctor Soong?” McCoy asked. “The cyberneticist?”
Soong nodded. “The same. Though I deny that I’m the shame-filled outcast the rumors would have you believe. “
“I’ d heard you were young, but I had no idea...”
“He’s come to me for...obvious reasons,” Flint said, studying Kirk.
Kirk tried to hold back the painful memory of a beautiful young...woman...whose awakening emotions had destroyed her.
“I see you still carry the pain, Kirk. And the love. As do I.” Flint pounded a fist to his chest. “In here.”
Kirk was silent.
Flint motioned toward the door. “Gentlemen, shall we go inside?”
They walked through the castle’s double-doored portal. “Tell me, Captain,” Flint called over his shoulder. “Where is the illustrious Mr. Spock? I had hoped he would be with you.”
“He’s away playing ambassador to the Klingons. Helping to negotiate a treaty.”
Flint led them down a hallway and into the same recreational room in which he...and Rayna...had entertained them eighteen years earlier. The ancient golden piano still occupied a corner of the room. But the pool table had been replaced with an enormous oak table, which had been laid out with the delicacies and sweet meats of ten different worlds. The four of them sat down and picked at the food as they exchanged polite conversation and the two Starfleet officers brought Flint up to speed on current events. During the meal Flint experienced a prolonged bout of coughing, during which his napkin came away with blood on it. He waved off McCoy’s concern. Another time he stopped talking in the middle of a sentence and stared blankly into space for several long moments before resuming as though nothing had happened.
When everyone appeared to have had their fill, Flint stood. “Soong, if you’d be so kind as to regale the good Doctor with some of your delightful quatrains, Captain Kirk and I have some matters to discuss in private.”
Soong nodded and turned a mischievous grin on McCoy. Kirk followed Flint down the hallway, through Flint’s tidy bedroom and into a laboratory beyond.
“Kirk, a life as long as mine has been gives a lot of room for creativity, and over the years the mind builds up a huge impetus for invention. There are insights in here,” he tapped his head, “that could revolutionize the Federation. New sciences, corrections to the fallacies of existing sciences. And some of the devices I’ve built would amaze you.”
Kirk looked around the room, searching among the neatly arranged scientific apparatus and the open textbooks.
 “You won’t find anything in here, Captain,” Flint said. “My masterpieces are...elsewhere.”
“Yet for all your vast intellect,” Kirk couldn’t keep the bitterness and sarcasm from his voice, “you couldn’t keep her alive.”
A look of rage, quickly suppressed, crossed Flint’s face. “I can’t deny that. But Soong is good, very good. With what he’s learned from me, he will succeed where I failed.” Flint touched a knob on an apparently blank wall and a door popped open. “I must insist, Kirk, that everything you see and hear from this moment on will be held in the strictest confidence.”
Kirk agreed uncertainly.
Flint went into a small room and wheeled out a gurney, upon which lay a man who appeared to be unconscious.
Kirk cocked his head perplexedly as he studied the man. “Soong?” he asked. For the man looked like an older version, perhaps ten years older, of Soong, but with oddly pale skin. Kirk remembered that day, so many years ago, when he’d discovered a room filled with failed versions of Rayna Kopek. “Soong is an android? Is this the only failure, or just the latest in a string?” Then Kirk noticed the vaguely Starfleet-like uniform, and the insignia. His perplexity deepened.
“Soong is human, Kirk, flesh and blood. I didn’t construct this one,” Flint said. “Soong did, in his own image. Or rather, he will. This is an android from the future, Captain. Who, it might interest you to know, serves aboard the Enterprise. A month ago, he came to me unexpectedly through one of my inventions—a time machine, of sorts. Soong doesn’t know of this android’s existence.”
“Why?” Kirk asked.
“I wasn’t sure at first, but then I realized, I arranged for him to come here, so near to my death. You see, I wasn’t sure what I should do with the bulk of my knowledge when I died, because my wisdom tells me that humanity is not yet ready for it. So: should I pass it on, at the risk of humanity mis-using it, or should I destroy it and hope they eventually discover it on their own? It was quite a puzzle for me. And then a month ago I found Data unconscious on the floor of my laboratory and I had my answer.”
“You’re not going to give Starfleet anything, are you?” Kirk said accusingly.
“On the contrary, I’m going to give the Federation everything I know—just not all at once. You’ll get some today. But when I die, a defense system will go up around this planet, so warn Starfleet not to come here.”
“But what about the rest?”
Kirk watched as Flint tapped a place on the side of the android’s head and a hatch flipped upward, exposing a network of circuits. “I’m going to give Soong a chip to implant in his creations, a chip that will compel them to come here once the Federation reaches the first of a series of scientific crises that I know are coming, and to which I, of course, have the solution.” Flint picked a circuit up from the table. He snapped it into place at a juncture in the android’s neuropath. “The circuit I’ve just implanted contains instructions, and conditions that must be met, so that this android may gradually reveal my knowledge to the Federation. He is virtually immortal, so my problem is solved.”
“But what if Soong doesn’t want to implant your circuit in his creations?” Kirk asked. “Or suppose it’s years before his creations are realized, and he forgets?”
Flint put his arms behind his back and started pacing. “I sought Soong out several years ago, during a brief sojourn back to Earth. He was barely out of his teens then, a wunderkind, living in the shadow of his own failed potential. His colleagues regarded him with a mixture of pride and shame. He was a solitary man, like me. It didn’t take much to convince him to come here, away from the watchful eyes of his critics, and continue his research with me as part colleague and teacher. We’ve made a lot of progress, yet even the combined might of our intellects have been unable to construct a positronic brain that won’t decay after a few days or weeks.”
“You’ve continued your experiments?” Kirk said, enraged. “Did the death of Rayna teach you nothing?”
Flint continued, ignoring Kirk’s outburst. “But after studying Data, I know where we’ve gone wrong. And knowing the nature of our error, Soong’s error, I’m not sure he will be able to construct a working positronic brain.” He held up an information diskey. “So I’ve put Data’s schematics on here. I’ll give it to Soong. He won’t like himself for taking the disk; he’ll think it’s cheating. But he will take it. He’ll tinker around on his own for awhile, and who knows—maybe he’ll succeed on his own. But he’ll use this as a last resort. Either way, a positronic brain will be constructed. And the price for this information will be that Soong implants the chip in Data’s brain. Bringing him back to me so that I may pass on my knowledge to the Federation through him.”
Kirk’s mind was reeling. “You’re talking about a closed temporal loop. The old question of the chicken or the egg.”
Flint nodded. “However it happens, the positronic brain originates with Soong. And he will implant my chip, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Kirk shook his head. “This is why I hate time travel. Damn paradoxes.”
Flint went into a violent coughing fit. He doubled over and fell to the floor, clutching at his stomach. Kirk bent down and gripped Flint’s shoulders with concern. He flipped open his communicator. “Dr. McCoy—”
“No,” Flint gasped, his coughing subsiding. “I’m all right.” He got shakily to his feet.
“Yes, Jim?” McCoy’s voice came through the communicator.
“Never mind, Bones.” Kirk closed the communicator.
“Thank you, Kirk,” Flint said, the color returning to his face. “Thank you for keeping my secret all these years, and letting me finish my life in peace.”
Kirk looked at his feet, feeling shamed. “I didn’t keep your secret, Flint. I had a duty to tell Starfleet. But I asked them to leave you alone, and they have, although they’ve kept an eye on this system, to prevent you from falling into the wrong hands. We’re no longer the barbarians you seem to think we are.”
“Well, then I at least thank you for the way you handled my case with your superiors.”
Kirk nodded. He pointed at Data. “Does Soong know?”
“No, and he never will. And I trust you, Kirk, to at least keep this secret from your superiors. I believe your Prime Directive or some such other philosophy demands it. Telling Soong and others would have an influence on future history.”
Kirk nodded slowly. “I’m inclined to agree.” He studied Flint in silence for several long moments, as Flint closed the flap on the android’s head. “Why did you ask me here, Flint? We didn’t exactly part on the best of terms. You no longer need your privacy. You could have requested Starfleet to send someone else. Why me?”
“Because, Kirk, I know the pain you’ve lived with over the years. It never goes away. It’s always lurking in the deepest corners of your mind, coming forth in the darkness of the night. I’ve felt such pain a thousand times over the course of my life. No man should have to live with it even once. And I know I’m partly responsible for your torment.” Flint headed toward a door on the other side of the room. “I never buried her. I kept her body in my laboratory, foolishly hoping that someday I her.” Flint held up a cautionary finger. “She won’t be staying. You understand that I must send her forward with Data, because I used his brain as a guide to restore hers.”
Kirk’s heart began hammering as he followed on Flint’s heels. He knew what was coming, but he didn’t dare hope.
Flint put his hand on the doorknob. “My gift to you, Captain: an easement for your soul. You’ll know that she’s still alive, somewhere, and hopefully in that knowledge you’ll find peace.”
Flint opened the door. A young woman stepped into the room, her eyes gleaming with life. She turned a radiant smile on Kirk, and his heart soared.
Flint passed away a day later, at sunset.

Picard and Riker hurried onto the bridge.
“A second temporal disturbance, Captain,” Worf reported. “Exactly 20 seconds after the first, if that’s of any significance.”
Picard looked at the viewscreen. “Both centered on Holberg 917G?”
“Yes sir.”
Picard and Riker sat down. The bridge sat in silence for several long moments. It seemed there was nothing to do but wait. When Worf’s console began bleeping for attention, everyone turned toward him expectantly. “It’s the missing shuttlecraft, sir. Departing the planet, on a rendezvous course with us.” He paused for a moment. “Commander Data requesting permission to dock in 5 minutes.”
“Permission granted.” Picard stood and headed for the turbolift, motioning for Riker to follow. “Shall we, Commander?”

The shuttlecraft settled to the hangar floor. A few moments later the hatched swung open and Data stuck his head out. “Greetings,” he said cheerfully to Picard and Riker, who stood nearby. He stepped onto the deck. “Captain, I must apologize for my recent behavior and the theft of the shuttlecraft. However, there are mitigating circumstances. My actions--”
“Were not your own, Commander. We suspected as much. Are you all right?”
“I am fine, sir,” Data replied. “And...I have a message for you. Not for you specifically, but for the Captain of the Enterprise.”
Picard raised his eyebrows, curious. “From whom?”
“James T. Kirk, sir.”
“James T. Kirk?!” Riker asked incredulously.
Data nodded. “The message is simply, ‘Hello.’”
Picard smiled, nodding appreciatively.
“I also have a solution to our current warp speed problems, sir. Courtesy of Flint. High warp speeds can again be achieved without risk of damaging the space-time continuum.”
“Indeed,” Picard said. “It seems you have been busy, Commander. I look forward to your full report.”
“I am afraid a full report will not be possible, Captain. My awareness of events ends shortly after I entered a castle on Holberg 917G and resume after I exited. Though my internal chronometer tells me 33 days have passed, I have no memory for that time period. Any knowledge or messages I contain were entered into my memory without my awareness.”
“33 days?” Riker said. “But you’ve only been gone four days, and—” He suddenly fell silent, gazing beyond Data at the shuttle hatch. A stunningly beautiful woman had appeared from within the shuttle, and stood silently gazing around the hanger.
Data turned and took her hand, helped her down onto the deck. “Captain, Commander,” he said. “This is Rayna Kopek. She is...a relative.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Are books too damn long these days?

I don’t like long books. I don’t like to write them, and I don’t like to read them. Unless it’s a Robert Jordan (R.I.P.) book, I try to avoid reading books that are more than 150-200 pages long.

By long, I mean pretty much anything over 100k words. The shorter the better. I like the standard definition of novel sitting at 50k words. Seems like a reasonable length in which to tell an entertaining story.To me, anything far above that is just excessive.

Lately, I’ve developed such an aversion to long reads that I now browse the young adult section looking for science fiction books as often as I’m in the adult section. Young adult books are usually shorter, and the story moves faster. They’re just generally more entertaining and don’t require a large investment of time to read. And over the last few years, I’ve noticed an irritating trend: adult science fiction books being repackaged and marketed to young adults. The adult science fiction books are appearing in the young adult section. Irritates the heck out of me.

I’ve also begun turning more and more toward the “classic” science fiction and fantasy books, pre-mid-seventies. The average science fiction book was a lot shorter back then. And since, in most cases, they’re not too dated, they’re still good reads, and take a lot less of my time.

One of the reasons I decided to go the self-publishing route is that I don’t want to turn out the massive tomes that the big publishing houses seem to require, a requirement that appears to have been put in place in the mid-1970s (see below). I’d rather write two or three 50-60k-word books a year than one well-padded 100k+ book. I’ve got a very short attention span, and by the time I hit 50k words, I’m pretty much bored with the idea and ready to move on to my next project. I don’t think I can muster enough stamina to stay interested in an idea for 120k+ words. Maybe I have ADHD or something, but if I were forced to write a book that long, I’d probably never finish anything.

Here is my evidence in support of the upward trend in book length over the decades. These are actual word counts for books that I consider representative of the science fiction and fantasy genres over the last four or five decades.

I, Robot  (1950)   Isaac Asimov   69,000 words
Foundation  (1951)   Isaac Asimov   67,000 words
Foundation   Isaac Asimov   66,000 words
The Dying Earth (1951)   Jack Vance   53,00 words
Solaris  (1961)   Stanislaw Lem   67,000 words
Waystation  (1963)   Clifford D. Simak   70,000 words
The Eyes of the Overworld   (1965)   Jack Vance   65,000 words
The Book of Three  (1964)   Lloyd Alexander   47,000 words
Tarnsman of Gor  (1966)   John Norman   67,000 words
The Masks of Time  (1968)   Robert Silverberg   81,000 words
Across a Billion Years  (1969)   Robert Silverberg   64,000 words
Ringworld  (1970)   Larry Niven   104,000 words
Rendezvous With Rama  (1972)   Arthur C. Clarke   71,000 words
In the Ocean of Night  (1977)   Gregory Benford   102,000 words
Midnight at the Well of Souls  (1977)   Jack L. Chalker   124,000 words
The Sword of Shannara  (1977)   Terry Brooks   229,000 words
Lord Foul’s Bane   (1977)   Stephen Donaldson   161,000 words
Startide Rising    (1983)   David Brin   138,000 words
Cugel’s Saga   (1983)   Jack Vance   105,000 words
Star of Gypsies  (1986)   Robert Silverberg   151,000
Weaveworld  (1987)  Clive Barker   201,000          
Araminta Station  (1987)   Jack Vance   194,000 words
Hyperion  (1989)   Dan Simmons   169,000 words
The Eye of the World   (1990)   Robert Jordan   302,000 words
The Real Story  (1991)   Stephen Donaldson   51,000 words
Virtual Light  (1993)   William Gibson   85,000
The Engines of God  (1994)   Jack McDevitt   132,000 words
The Time Ships  (1995)   Stephen Baxter   161,000 words
Perdido Street Station (2000)  China Meiville   226,000

You can see the trend. The word count starts in the range of 60k average in the 1950s and rises above 100k in the mid-1970s and into an average of 150k and above in the mid-1980s onward. The word counts just march steadily upwards, with a rare back-step. Nowadays, the reader is hard-pressed to find a book below 150k words. For me as a reader, if a book is that long, that's one strike against it. The early writers of science fiction were so prolific not only because they probably wrote faster, but the books were about one third the length they are today.

I may be wrong, but I think attitudes toward short books have changed as well, so that shorter books are now regarded as somehow inferior to, or as having less literary validity than, longer books. But would anyone dare to claim that the likes of Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg are inferior to modern-day writers? Robert Silverberg is both a “classic” science fiction author and a modern-day author, and his novels have followed the upward trend in length.

I think one of the trends of this new age of digital publishing is going to be shorter books. They take less time for the author to write, and they’ll probably be more entertaining for the reader, since shorter length will probably equal faster pacing. I think those unwieldy multi-thousand-word counts were forced on both the writers and the reading public, and they’re quickly going to fade away.