Tuesday, November 18, 2008

One More Time

The sun was just setting, touching the horizon but the street lights were already burning and downtown Memphis had a just rained-on brightness about it. Deep colors reflected from wet sidewalks, streets, and standing puddles. The radio was filled with static as they announced the assassin had managed to wound Ronald Reagan after all.

This news, the wet pavement, the approaching darkness and an already long day behind the wheel caused James Bonham to search for a place to stay. The "no vacancy" signs were glaring everywhere it seemed and he wished he had planned his trip a little better.

On a side street, away from the flow of traffic, tucked away among a stand of ancient oaks, Bonham saw a small hotel with a small, nearly invisible sign, a large, white-pillared front porch that looked as if it belonged in another time, and a tiny parking lot devoid of cars. Bonham pulled in, parked and got out, walking across the gravel to the front door he wondered where the asphalt had gone.

Inside, the lobby had the overstuffed look and musty smell that made Bonham think of the Victorian era. No color TV in the lobby, no sign of telephones, and only a few lights that could have been gas rather than electric.

Behind the ornate front desk was a clerk who looked as if he belonged to that same era. He wore a vest, had long, slicked back hair, and a pocket watch on a chain. At least Bonham assumed that there was a pocket watch at the end of the chain.

Renting a room took no time. There weren’t many but almost all of them were vacant. The lack of a big, neon sign, the lack of easy access to the Interstate, and the old, rustic look conspired to keep the tourists away. Bonham didn’t care. He just wanted a place to sleep for a few hours.

When he had paid for the room, the clerk said, "If you’ll wait for a moment sir, I’ll by happy to help you with your luggage."

Bonham shook is head and said, "That’s okay. I’ve only got a small duffle bag."

He walked back out to the parking lot and saw that the clouds were gathering to rain again. He was suddenly glad that he had stopped. When he had his duffel bag, he walked back into the hotel and found the elevator.

It was certainly out of place. The doors gleamed like buffed aluminum. Above the door were ruby numbers that somehow reminded Bonham of a computer, or rather the computers he’d seen in the movies.

As he stood there inspecting the doors and lights, the doors opened and Bonham automatically stepped back, out of the way for the occupants. But there was no one on the elevator.

On the panel by the door, Bonham saw buttons numbered one through six but the hotel hadn’t looked tall enough for six stories. To the right were rows of unnumbered buttons.

Bonham had the urge to see what was up on the sixth floor so he pushed the top button.

There was no feeling of movement. The door opened at once and Bonhan expected to see the lobby again. But, instead, there was a brightly lighted corridor that was carpeted in a white shag. Bonhan stepped forward and looked both ways. Nothing but bright, white corridor. He couldn’t see the ends but what he could see was bright and seemed to glow with a white light.

Bonham, confused, stepped back and pushed one of the unmarked buttons. The doors closed and then opened immediately. The corridor was gone, replaced by sunlit green. In the distant were trees and the sky was such a deep blue that Bonham was lured out of the elevator. He didn’t notice it shimmer briefly and then disappear, leaving him standing in an open field in the middle of nowhere.

Before he realized that he was standing in an empty field, he noticed something hovering overhead. It made no noise and it didn’t look like any helicopter he had ever seen. It just hung in the air, silently, stealthily.

A man appeared to his right but Bonham hadn’t seen him approaching. He said something in a language that sounded familiar but Bonham couldn’t quite understand the words. It was like seeing a billboard through a thick fog. He could almost read it but he couldn’t quite decipher it.

The man was short, stubby, bald, and wearing a one piece suit that had a metallic sheen.

As the man continued to talk, Bonham pointed to his ears and then shook his head. When it was clear that Bonham was not going to respond, the man reached out and took Bonham’s elbow, moving him forward.

At the same time, the craft descended and touched down on the grass. There was no wind from it and no noise. Bonham allowed himself to be led to the craft and when a door opened, he climbed in, never wondering why he was allowing this to happen.

They lifted off, climbed up and through the windshield he could see a small city. As they approached, Bonham noticed there wasn’t a straight line anywhere. The walls of the buildings were curved, the windows were round and the doors oval. Nothing stood over three stories and all had been painted in pastels with wide greenbelts meandering everywhere.

They landed on a rooftop. Without any direction, Bonham stepped out of the craft. The man said something but Bonhan still couldn’t understand.

They walked to a door way, down a flight of stairs and into a large room filled with people. Most were dressed in a variety of the metallic cloth, some looking like togas, some like jumpsuits, and a few looking as if the wearer had just wrapped the material around him or herself. All were bald, both men and women.

It looked as if he had entered some kind of cocktail party with everyone jabbering in a foreign language. He was handed a drink but he was reluctant to sip it, suddenly worried about the intentions of his hosts.

A woman in a short toga walked up to him and lead him to the window where he could look down on the street. If it hadn’t been for the strange buildings, Bonham would have thought he was back in Memphis. That was the first time he’d thought about the city since he’d stepped out of the elevator.

The woman said something and seemed to smile. Bonham, of course, didn’t understand. She waited and when he didn’t move, she took the drink from his hand and took a sip.

Bonham did understand that. She was telling him that there was nothing wrong with the drink. So, he took a stip. It tasted something like lemonade and was cold. He took another, deeper drink and said, "This is crazy."

The woman nodded as if she understood and then pointed to the street.

Bright sunlight was in his eyes. He blinked and held up a hand to block the light.

"Good Morning, Mister Bonham," said the desk clerk. "You gave us quite the fright last night. You should be more careful on the stairs. The doctor gave you something to sleep and said that you would wake up about now. How do you feel?"

Bonham felt the cobwebs thin a little but enough to realize that the clerk was talking too much. Telling him too much too fast. The first question should have been how do you feel and not some nonsense about stairs.

"I didn’t fall on the stairs. I don’t remember any stairs. I took the elevator."

Ignoring that, the clerk continued, "The doctor said that everything was okay. Nothing broken, only a bruise or two."

"I was not on the stairs."

"Yes, sir," said the clerk. "Are you planning to stay the night? You missed the check out time..." He chuckled. "Not that it matters. Everything is on the house."

Bonham took a deep breath and decided not to argue. He sat up, realized that he felt fine and said, "I guess I’ll move on."

"Splendid. We’re sure sorry about your fall. We’ve been meaning to fix those stairs. I hope this hasn’t inconvenienced you." He stood up, looked at his watch and then slipped it back into his vest pocket.

"I wasn’t on the stairs," said Bonham quietly, to the clerk’s retreating back.

He felt rested and knew that it had to be something in the drink. Bonham grinned at himself. He’d take anything from a pretty girl and do what she asked, regardless of the consequence. All she had to do was smile at him. Someday he’d learn better.

He got up, saw that he hadn’t taken anything out of his duffle, not even his shaving kit. So, he got it out and brushed his teeth, and then put everything back.

He left the room and down the hall he found the stairs and had to admit they looked treacherous. Near them was a wire enclosed elevator that looked as if it came from the same turn of the century world that made up the rest of the hotel. It didn’t look remotely like the one he had seen the day before.

Downstairs the clerk made a final attempt to convince him about the fall. Bonham ignored that, got his receipt that showed a credit to his credit card and left the hotel.

In less than fifteen minutes, he was back on the road out of Memphis. Late in the afternoon, it began to rain again.

He thought about the hotel and the elevator ride into a field and realized that a fall made more sense. Elevators didn’t take you to open fields near strange cities. It had seemed so real. He could smell the cleanliness of the air. He could taste that strange drink which was about the last thing he remembered. The woman who had taken a sip of his drink but hadn’t been affected by it.

No. It wasn’t just a fall. He was sure.

The rain was coming down harder now, just like yesterday. The entire sky was dark, except for a bright band near the horizon, just like yesterday. And the radio was reporting on the attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan. Just like yesterday.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A New Dwarf Planet

This one I missed. I was scanning the Internet the other day and for fun, I thought I would see if some of those sites that still talk of nine planets in the Solar System had been updated (No, they haven’t), when I discovered that the number of dwarf planets had increased by one. It seems that the object, once called Santa, was now named Haumea and was the latest of the Kuiper Belt Objects (aka Plutoids) to reach dwarf planet status.

This is a strange one for a couple of reasons. First, Mike Brown and his Caltech team said that they had discovered it in December 2004 while looking at images taken on May 6, 2004. They published an online abstract on July 20, 2005 and were going to announce the discovery at a conference in September. Before this got much farther, Jose Luis Ortiz and his team at the Instituto de Andalucia in Spain said that he had found the object on pictures they had taken in March 2003.

Brown learned that Ortiz had accessed his, Brown’s, observation logs, and Brown thought that Ortiz had done that so that he could backtrack to his own images. Ortiz denied that, but did admit he had accessed the logs, simply to be sure that they weren’t observing an object already cataloged.

I don’t know who is right here, but I do know that in the end, Brown’s team named the new object for the Hawaiian goddess Haumea. On September 17, 2008, the IAU said that this name had been accepted. This would seem to be proof that the IAU had accepted Brown and his team as the discoverers.

The second strange thing is that Haumea is elongated. It is not spherical, which means that it falls outside one of the criterion for a dwarf planet. They are supposed to be able to reach equilibrium, or, in other words, have a gravitational field strong enough to pull it into a relatively spherical shape. Since it rotates on its axis about once every four hours, it’s spinning faster than any other known equilibrium body in the Solar System, so this might account for its strange shape and allows it to slide past this idea that dwarf planets must be relatively spherical.

This is not to mention the size. It’s about 1150 km in diameter or about half the size of Pluto and Eris, a little smaller than Makemake and about twice the size of Ceres.

Like two of the other Plutoids, Haumea has a couple of moons, named Hiiaka and Namaka. Hiiaka was discovered first and is thought to be about 310 km in diameter. Namaka is smaller, closer to the planet, and was discovered not long ago.

There are quite a number of other objects that are being considered for dwarf planet status, including one in the asteroid belt, Vesta, which would join Ceres as the only dwarf planets between Mars and Jupiter. And there are discussions that one of the Trans Neptune Objects, something like two light years from Earth, is the size of Mars. Once the observational data are complete, it will be interesting to see how the IAU handles that. Will we get another class of planet that accounts for those at the edge of the Solar System, out beyond Neptune?

They’re still trying to decide if Charon meets the criterion for dwarf planet. Charon might not be orbiting Pluto, but the two of them orbit a central point not unlike a double star, and if true, then Charon would fit the definition of dwarf planet and its status would upgraded.

As I say, there has been quite a bit of change to the Solar System in the last few years. Planets demoted, dwarf planets defined, and the possibility of a Mars-sized object halfway to the next star, which might make an interesting way station if we get to the point of launching interstellar flights and it’s on the right side of its orbit... a bit of science fiction to brighten our day.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Planet of the Apes

(Blogger’s Note: I had hoped to contribute more to this blog more frequently. My plan was to list science fiction conventions, review books and movies, put up short stories, and maybe tease with the beginnings of a novel or two. Unfortunately, mundane world events conspire against me on this. I will attempt to write more from now on... but I make no promises. Thanks for checking in occasionally.)

The other night I was watching Planet of the Apes and I suddenly realized that Chuck Heston and the boys should have known they were on Earth the very first night there. Once they got a look at the night sky they might have suspected that it was Earth but once they saw the Moon, they would have known the truth, which ruins the big ending.

True, early on we’re told that there have been clouds each night, but in the day there is no evidence of this total overcast and in one scene we see the sun setting, some scattered clouds to give sky color, but no evidence of that total overcast. Not to mention that the Moon had be seen in the daytime.

And, remember, this is Earth so we can’t postulate some kind of a natural phenomenon that forms each night to obscure the stars and the Moon. Nope, this is what, in science fiction, we should think of as a fatal flaw. Everyone pretending that the planet is something other than Earth, but the very first time they, meaning the astronauts, saw the Moon, they would have known they truth.

This reminds me of something that Isaac Asimov once said about Alien. Everyone who reads science fiction understands the big flaw in that film... Why not put on your spacesuits and see how well the alien breathes in a vacuum...

And, while I’m on this kick, why not mention the big problem in Starship Troopers. Remember the fort they find with the humans inside slaughtered? And then they’re attacked by flying bugs? If you face that sort of a threat, and you’ve built a fort, why don’t you put a roof on it?

Or what about Pitch Black? Here’s a planet that has three suns and once every twenty years, they all align so that the planet has night. So what happens? Creatures that can’t tolerate the sun come out and feed on everything that dwells on the surface. But what sort of environmental pressures would encourage such a species to develop? I mean, they can only live out of the light but the light is only gone once in every twenty years. It seems that such a species would fail to evolve, given the environmental pressures and they certainly wouldn’t be able to take down everything that can live in the sun.

Anyway, I wanted to mention this, and while I believe I’m probably not the first to think of it, I did make the connection on my own. As a writer, I try to anticipate the questions the readers are going to ask and try to provide answers for them. Unfortunately, in Planet of the Apes, there really is no way to answer the question about the Moon. But, if they see it, then the whole scattering scene at the end collapses.