The universe is not only strange but stranger than we can imagine

Hunger Star

The world of Dr. Edward Wolfe

(Dr. Edward Wolfe, Fellow Level II of the Skellig Michael Institute, expert in SocioCybernetics*, is the protagonist of Project Maldon and Hunger Star. Here is a quick look at his world.)

It’s closer to the end of the 21st Century than the beginning. Trends that were evident in the early decades have  accelerated– the fragmentation of nations, the rise of extremist religions, massive social dislocation as robots and AI entities take over more and more jobs. The divide between rich and poor continues to grow, and even to accelerate.

Who’s in charge here?
Artificial Intelligence entities (AIs) have been developed, and four of the most advanced ( Big Red, Lao Tze, Solomon and Helen) are generally given most of the credit for keeping humanity from total disaster, by expert juggling of scarce resources, brokering of  fragile agreements between nuclear-armed power blocks and, it is whispered, a clandestine policy of assassination targeting those judged to be destabilizing influences. If anyone — or anything — is truly running the show, it may be these AIs.

Long life — for those who prosper
Medical sciences are thriving. For those who can afford the treatments, life can be prolonged many years, perhaps a century or more. No-one knows except the Elders (as they have been dubbed) — and they are not telling. The wealthy can also afford the genetic engineering needed to breed “super children,” offspring endowed with intelligence, athletic skills and good health. Auto-immune diseases such as arthritis can be arrested and reversed with tailor-made medicines. Experiments with enhancing and storing the elusive thing called “consciousness” on machines are underway. Chip implants, prosthetic limbs and sense organs have given those who can afford them near superhuman powers of recall and perception. In every way, the borders that used to define what it is to be human are becoming blurred.

The high frontier is opening, but...
New materials and techniques have made space travel and colonization feasible. Humans have gained a real if precarious foothold in space, with outposts on Mars, a nascent asteroid mining industry, and a scatter of permanent, near self-supporting colonies on the Moon.  Several large orbital habitats serve as jumping-off points for outward bound missions — and as lifeboats, should conditions Downwell** spiral out of control. But space travel is still expensive, fatal accidents common and enabling technology in the early stages of its evolution. The promise of outward expansion is there, but it will take time to fulfill. The question is, does humanity have time?

The Die Back lurks
Despite progress in some areas, there is a growing sense of crisis. At the heart of the crisis is the world’s runaway overpopulation. Everyone agrees there are far more people than the tormented planet can sustain– but no-one agrees what to do about it. How to bring the population down to sustainable levels? Who decides who should not reproduce — and maybe who should die? With famine, disease and violence stalking the favelas and suburbs, with the wretched of the Earth washing up at the locked gates of walled communities, with conflicts flaring on every continent, the Die Back (as it has come to be known) seems all but inevitable.

When and how The Die Back starts is a matter for earnest debate and hysterical pronouncements. But few doubt that it is coming. Soon.

 

*SocioCybernetics:  the science (some say art) of computer-assisted social engineering. The Skellig Michael Institute is universally acknowledged as the leader in SoCy, a discipline sometimes described as the most effective way ever invented of meddling in other people’s affairs.

**Downwell: abbreviation of “down the gravity well.” A somewhat derisive term used by spacers for Earth.

 

She arrived about four in the morning — a half hour before the missiles

(Excerpt from Hunger Star, Chapter Three)

Wolfe speaks to one of the few survivors of the nuclear attack on Tehran, and learns his wife Omaha may still be alive.)

“Omaha is dead. She died at Tehran of course.”

“No, my friend, there you are mistaken.” Merridew shook his hooded head slowly, painfully, from side to side.

Wolfe heard a roaring sound like the surf, coming from somewhere inside his own head. “What are you saying?”

“She was right beside me when the strike came. They took us to the same hospital.” Sir Mark croaked, a mirthless cackle. “We were at a party you see, an all-night bash. At a suburban home, organized by one of the more liberal mullahs of my acquaintance. I persuaded her to come, meet some connections. Normally I doubt she would have showed up, but she was in overdrive — she’d just completed some hush-hush task or other and it had gone well. So she arrived about four in the morning, all aglow. A half hour later, in came the missiles.”

The room had turned hot and suffocating, a cramped, claustrophobic oven. Wolfe realized he had to leave immediately, get out into the cool air before he was sick. “You’re sure she was alive after the attack? I mean, you must have been in terrible condition. Maybe you were delirious?”

“Oh no, I was all too lucid. It was Omaha that was delirious. We were in the same ward for three days. I remember it well; she kept raving about getting back to the Institute at all costs, telling Helen what she’d found. She was taken out by the first UN ambulance convoy. I assumed she’d made her way back.”

“Jesu come quick, what happened to her?”

“Less than no idea. Ask Helen, she should know.”

Songs of sadness from The Lost

(Excerpt from Hunger Star, Chapter Two) 

Wolfe and Morgan, his cyborg lover, arrive on Earth from the Institute’s headquarters in high orbit. As they leave the spaceport they become aware of an eerie, ceaseless noise.

The trip down the gravity well was blessedly uneventful: a brief stopover at Orbital Three, the massive UN. space habitat, a leisurely glide across the blue and white splendor of the globe and so down onto Runway F at the Kilimanjaro space facility. Wolfe and Morgan, legs wobbly in the relentless gravity, which was somehow more engulfing than the spin at Orbital, endured the formalities of arrival with what patience they could muster. Those completed, they emerged into the hot African sun and blinked about. A confusion of foreign smells, spicy, exciting and rank crowded into Wolfe’s nose, making him blink.

A dull roaring noise came faintly to his ears, a distant rhythmic sound as of surf on a distant beach. Except that there was no beach within hundreds of klicks.

They hailed one of the small, brightly painted electric carts which flitted about the huge port and gave the driver the name of their hotel. With themselves and their meager luggage aboard they darted off into the teeming traffic. Wolfe asked the driver, a tall, bald African with tattooed cheeks, about the odd noise.

“It is The Lost, good sir and madam, the hungry, hopeless ones. They camp around this island of plenty and sing songs of sadness to Auntie Lean because they cannot share its happy destiny.”

“Why can they not?” asked Morgan.

The driver made a gesture signifying resignation. “They have no money, no skills, no tribe, no tomorrow. They are The Lost. Their destiny is to suffer.”

“Are there many of them?”

“As many as the stars in the sky.”

Wolfe visits the bazaar

(Excerpt from Hunger Star, Chapter Six)

It was a few minutes before eight when Wolfe ventured into the bazaar at Stanley Park. On his shoulder was a guard monkey named Brian, a modified rhesus, equipped with narco-tipped spurs on legs and wrists and flash-bonded to Wolfe. Any attack, so the Celestial Hope security experts assured him, would bring a furious response from Brian. The monkey also ported a homer and a small camera. Signals from both were monitored by the Celestial Hope team.

The bazaar was a twenty-four hour a day affair which covered three hundred acres, an endless, flood-lit, rain-soaked warren of small, well-secured booths with small windows, reinforced doors and security devices. Guard animals of various sorts, chemically spiked for aggression, stared at the passers by with baleful red eyes from perches or kennels. Everything that the mind could imagine could be bought or sold here, as well as some things most minds shied away from.

Despite its baleful reputation as the violent heart of a brutal city, the bazaar was crowded, even at this hour of night, as ordinary-looking people went about their private errands with the bland innocence of fish swimming through and around a school of sharks. Some of them were thrill seekers in search of the unwholesome pleasures of the bazaar: husk humpers, gooheads in search of a spray or two, even a handful of curious business people here for a taste of illicit excitement. Others worked the bazaar, manning the twenty-four hour booths or servicing the patchwork infrastructure. Wherever humans congregated, for whatever holy or hideous purpose, the maintenance crews of civilization — plumbers, electricians, garbage collectors and so on —  were on call.

Others had come to the bazaar to deal. Some, like Wolfe, were buyers, looking for custom pharma, proscribed genes or slaves. Others had come to sell: their services, their organs, even themselves. Since entering the bazaar Wolfe had passed a half-dozen booths offering cash up front for indentured servants. Ten, twenty and thirty year terms were on offer. To his amazement, the inviting, glass-paneled consultation rooms in the front of each booth were thronged. Perhaps it was just a shill, models paid to bring innocents into the booth. Or perhaps people were desperate enough to sign away a decade or two of their lives — or their children’s — for some ready cash. It was a sobering thought.

Wolfe wonders why

A depiction of a base on a hostile and barren moon. The moon's Earth-like planet rises in the background. The small colony is equipped with two rovers for astronauts to use for exploration of the surface. - Elements of this image furnished by NASA

What might they find on Luna? Other than bureaucracy and vacuum.

 

(Excerpt from Hunger Star, Chapter 1)

Wolfe sometimes wondered why he was doing this — leaving whatever passed for home behind, taking off in a metal cylinder to start a new life on an airless moon.  He had never really thought of himself as the hardy colonial type. Yet, recalling the surge of exaltation he had felt when launch was imminent, he knew he was committed to the expedition.  What might they find on Luna? Other than bureaucracy and vacuum of course… Lava tubes snaking below the surface. Water ice in places where the sun never shone. Craters that could be roofed over and pressurized. A refuge and maybe a new home, if not for them then for their children.

 

The Hunger Star from Orbital One

Industrial area at night

“You and I see a nova, an amazing cosmic event. Frightened, ignorant people see Auntie Lean’s eye peeping at them from Die-Back land.”

(Excerpt from Hunger Star, Chapter One)

Wolfe floated across the room towards the viewing port and looked out in never-failing wonder. Below him, or perhaps out from him was the Earth, an immense living teardrop of blue, green and white trickling down the dead cheek of endless space. Above the globe, stitched against the eternal night of space, was a brilliant, glaring white star — the Hunger Star.

It had blossomed into luminous being three weeks ago — the very night the United Nations had officially announced huge rice and grain shortfalls for the coming year, the result of new crop infestations and eccentric weather patterns. According to some commentators, its appearance had triggered the global food riots that followed the announcement, as terrified people the world over looked into the sky and saw their own doom written there in the supernova’s white, malevolent glare. From that night on, despite official attempts to rename it, tame it with a technical tag, the supernova had been known as the Hunger Star.

It was so bright Wolfe blinked as he looked at it, trying to somehow grasp the immensity of the titanic forces that had been unleashed unthinkably long ago and far away, sending this stream of light washing across the galaxies to terrify the sentient creatures on a small, lonely planet. It was impossible; the thing was beyond the scope of his mind.

At the crumbling edge (Epigraph, Chapter 1)

Dangerous_Cliff_Edge_(2258425643)

Epigraph, Chapter One, Hunger Star

 

Since the Skellig Michael Institute was founded, its mandate has been to preserve civilization at all costs. We’re trying.  And at the moment, to be brutally honest, we’re failing. SocioCybernetic [1] analysis shows that our interventions have slowed, but not reversed the drift toward economic, political and environmental breakdown.

 Our race is now at the crumbling edge of a very high cliff. One step more topples us into the gulf of a new dark age, or even total extinction. The Dean and Governors have therefore elected to safeguard civilization by establishing our permanent headquarters in lunar orbit. This is a prelude to permanent colonization of Luna and, in due course, points beyond. Let us be very clear on one point: relocating HQ to lunar orbit does not mean forsaking Earth. We will work harder and more diligently than ever to head off catastrophe on our home planet. Our Luna initiative is the moral equivalent of taking out insurance, not of abandoning a sinking ship.

Dean’s keynote address, Skellig Michael Congress

 

[1] SocioCybernetics: the science (some say art) of computer-assisted social engineering. The Skellig Michael Institute is universally acknowledged as the leader in SoCy, a discipline sometimes described as the most effective way ever invented of meddling in other people’s affairs.

Daemons of the Die Back (Epigraph, Chapter 2)

ANgel of death

The times reek of doom.

Epigraph, Chapter Two, Hunger Star

 

The horsemen of the Apocalypse return

The four Daemons of the Die Back are essentially the horsemen of the Apocalypse in modern clothes. They have each captured a secure place in the popular imagination, with net clubs, holo shows and all the trappings of celebrity: strange confirmation of the power of archetypes.

Most accessible is the rollicking Lord Boom, the broad-shouldered, weapon-toting daemon of conflict, who wears a necklace of human ears and makes black jokes even while he aims his flamethrower.

Father of plagues
Next comes the sinister Dr. Tic-Tac, pock-marked father of plagues that destroy families, towns, cities almost overnight. He comes in silence, cloaked, wearing the beaked mask of the medieval plague doctor.  He departs with glowing eyes, followed by a parade of sullen ghosts.

Alien yet omnipresent is The Roach, who symbolizes the gnawing vermin of the world, the rats, the mice, the insecticide-resistant mites that destroy harvest after harvest. Insect-faced, beetle-winged, he flits from farm to field to granary, devouring all in his path.

The left eye of famine
Finally comes Auntie Lean, the gaunt spirit of famine, whose left eye now looks out — so billions of wretched people believe — through a hole in the blanket of the heavens. Auntie Lean’s Hunger Star portends the final cataclysmic crop failure, the day when nothing is left in the warehouses, nothing on the store shelves, nothing to sustain the hungry billions that roam the depleted seas and uplands of ravaged Gaea. It is significant that of the four daemons, Auntie Lean is the most familiar and the most feared.

Henrikus Grobius Jr. Daemons of the Die Back. A collection of essays on modern apocalyptic themes. Skellig Michael Press

(View on Amazon and download free sample chapter)

The Doomsday Swarms (Epigraph, Chapter 3)

 

businessman with gas mask watching TV

Who are they? 
Thousands of pious pilgrims, lunatics, penitents, con artists and saints, ill-fed, ill-clothed, red Latin crosses stitched on the backs of their ragged shirts, their only law that which the swarm’s arbiters choose to impose. Such swarms are constantly forming, disappearing and reforming, wandering across Europe, down to the Balkan Front, sometimes even to the borders of the Holy Land.

What are they seeking?
Some are massacred, some dissipate like mist on a hot morning, others persist for years.  What are they seeking, these armies of displaced people who join the Swarms? Salvation? Adventure? A sense of family? No-one can say with authority.  The Doomsday Swarms are a phenomenon not seen since the Middle Ages. What they portend  is anybody’s guess.

The Doomsday Swarms,  Signs and Portents, William Wanstall, Skellig Michael Press

(View on Amazon)

The Die-Back as entertainment (Epigraph, Chapter 4)

dead_fish

 

Where will the ultra-rich go if the Die Back finally comes?

Most have contingency plans of one sort or another: retreats to well-stocked hideaways in Tierra Del Fuego, year-long parties unfolding in small island fortresses in the Caribbean. The Die Back, their attitude seems to say, is not about the demise of anybody who is anybody. Certainly not about their own.

Consider the words of Hugo LeBlanc, aesthete and heir to one of the world’s great bottled water fortunes: “The Die Back will be a spectacle my dear chap, a tragic entertainment of huge proportion and several years duration. It will be the ultimate artistic event, Gotterdammerung in real time. I, for one, intend to have a front row seat and to savor the event to the utmost. It is the least I can do for the immense cast of unfortunates who have been thrust upon the stage to act out their dismal roles.”

Tap dancing the Pale Rider

Episode Three of Grave Dirt Under Your Fingernails, Educational Holo Series

 

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