Enclosed Ecosystem Writing Prompts and More: PSIF and NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo is fast approaching, which means all around the world, writers are scouring the internet for inspiring writing prompts. Many of them will bite off more than they can chew in an attempt to turn those prompts into realistic and scientifically-plausible stories.

Well you’ve come to the right place. I have prepared a few writing prompts with a list of scientific problems you might need to consider as you write. If you lack the scientific training, never fear, expert advice on writing with authenticity is available in the new book, Putting the Science in Fiction. My own article in the book will talk you through creating realistic Enclosed Ecosystems and Life-support systems, and the following prompts will have the same theme.

Gone rogue

Prompt 1: Gone Rogue

  • An object with a powerful gravitational attraction passes through our solar system. By all calculations, the perturbation will eject Earth from the solar system, making it a rogue planet, destined to drift through the emptiness of space for the foreseeable future. How much time does humanity have to prepare before the great freeze sets in? Would your characters hunker down and try to survive, or leave the Earth behind? Either way, you would need a habitat capable of sustaining human life indefinitely.

Considerations:

  • On a frozen planet far from the sun, the atmosphere would soon freeze and fall out of the sky, and all flowing water will solidify, making solar, wind, and hydroelectric power useless. About the only source of power and heat will be from natural gases and fuels, fission or fusion, and geothermal power.
  • With the freezing temperatures and plummeting atmospheric pressure, your enclosed ecosystem will need to be insulated and shielded from the cold vacuum by thick walls or built far underground.
  • The larger the enclosed ecosystem, the less likely it is to collapse. This will require a variety of animals, plants, and microorganisms to sustain the atmosphere, provide food and nutrition, and recycle wastes.
  • On the plus side, all of Earth’s resources have been cryogenically preserved. A scavenger in a hardy enough space suit might just be able to find edible food and usable supplies, assuming they aren’t all covered by meters of oxygen and nitrogen snow or rendered useless due to thermal stresses.

Lock Down

Prompt 2: Lock Down

  • Your characters are stranded in a large fallout shelter as nuclear war rages outside. How many people can it support and for how long? What will they need to survive?

Considerations:

  • The facility will need some way to remove the radioactive fallout from the air if it is vented in from outside, or a means to recycle the carbon dioxide within the facility and replenish oxygen. Plants under grow lights can help with this.
  • Water vapor might quickly wick away into the porous concrete of the shelter. Putting up plastic sheeting and having a condenser of some kind will keep this valuable resource from being lost. Alternatively, people in radiation suits can go in search of food and water, but only sealed containers can be trusted not to have been contaminated by nuclear fallout. Read my previous post “The Science of Killing your Characters,” for some background on radiation poisoning.
  • The power source will need to be self-sustaining, but the sun might not reliably penetrate the now-pervasive clouds of ash. Wind, hydroelectric, or nuclear power may be your only viable sources or electricity. Gasoline for generators would need to be scavenged on a regular basis.
  • People forced into close quarters can do unexpected and terrible things, especially after the trauma of the apocalypse. An established leadership, laws, and consequences will help limit keep chaos at bay. Conversely, love and relationships will blossom in time, but they can bring their own complications.

Mass Balance

Prompt 3: Mass Balance

  • Rather than a costly endeavor of launching building materials into space, your characters plan to build a space station by send a single, small rocket with a few crew to intercept an asteroid. There, your character will mine the raw materials to build a much larger and sustainable space station. What type of asteroid will they need, and what can they build with its components. How will they convert it to a usable form? What is their overall goal?

Considerations:

  • To sustain a large space station, mass balance needs to be preserved, meaning your characters can’t just throw things out the airlock without a means of replacing it. Otherwise they will run out of materials quickly. Luckily, they have an asteroid to pick apart, supplying water and thus liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel, as well as all kinds of common and rare metals. Things like plastics and some specialized components must be strictly recycled.
  • The type of asteroid is important. A C-type asteroid has a relative abundance of water and carbonaceous minerals, but has a scarcity of metals. Carbonaceous minerals aren’t all bad, especially if it can be used to synthesize carbon nanotubes, graphene sheets, or used as a component of soil or fertilizer. S and M-type asteroids have more stone and metals, respectively, but less water.
  • An enterprise like this one will require a lot of power, especially if there is smelting to be done, water to convert to fuel, or high-tech computers to manage it all. For a power source, they will need something sustainable and replaceable. Solar arrays are a likely candidate, but it will provide less power the further away from the sun the space-station gets.
  • Heat can accumulate in an enclosed ecosystem, even in the cold of space, especially if there are all kinds of heat generating people and equipment around. A radiator system can help collect the heat inside the station and release it as thermal radiation out into space.
  • Air circulation and filtration will be required to filter out floating debris and contaminates, capture water vapor, and prevent stagnation in micro-gravity.
  • Lastly, some type of artificial gravity may be required to prevent the long-term health effects of micro-gravity. See fellow PSIF contributor, Jamie Krakover’s post, as well as my previous post on “The Science of Gravity.”

Putting the Science in Fiction

Science and technology have starring roles in a wide range of genres–science fiction, fantasy, thriller, mystery, and more. Unfortunately, many depictions of technical subjects in literature, film, and television are pure fiction. A basic understanding of biology, physics, engineering, and medicine will help you create more realistic stories that satisfy discerning readers.

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Putting the Science in Fiction brings together scientists, physicians, engineers, and other experts to help you:

  • Understand the basic principles of science, technology, and medicine that are frequently featured in fiction.
  • Avoid common pitfalls and misconceptions to ensure technical accuracy.
  • Write realistic and compelling scientific elements that will captivate readers.
  • Brainstorm and develop new science- and technology-based story ideas.
  • Whether writing about mutant monsters, rogue viruses, giant spaceships, or even murders and espionage, PSIF will have something to help every writer craft better fiction.

Putting the Science in Fiction collects articles from “Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy,” Dan Koboldt’s popular blog series for authors and fans of speculative fiction. Each article discusses an element of sci-fi or fantasy with an expert in that field. Scientists, engineers, medical professionals, and others share their insights in order to debunk the myths, correct the misconceptions, and offer advice on getting the details right.

Much of these scientific considerations in this post apply to all sorts of unique and interesting scenarios, like a sudden ice age, a super volcano eruption, an expanding sun, or settings like Arctic research facilities, Mars, or the rings of Saturn, to name a few. I encourage you to come up with your own and share it with the rest of us. Leave comments, ask questions, and let us know of some scientific considerations I may have missed. If these prompts weren’t quite what you were looking for, check out #PSIF on Twitter or click here throughout the month for more prompts by PSIF contributors.

Additionally, you can now enter to win a copy of Putting the Science in Fiction from Writers Digest. Enter the giveaway below!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

While it’s easy enough to write a compelling story without doing your research, it will always lack something. Hard science fiction adds an element of awe, the knowledge that such astounding, beautiful, and seemingly magical things might actually be possible. It inspires scientists and readers alike to put their imaginations to use in the real world, to bring what was once science fiction one step closer to reality.

So until next time, Write Well and Science Hard.

The Science of Aging and its Fictional Cures

Aging

Author’s note: This article was originally published by invitation in Dan Koboldt’s Science in Sci-fi blog series. See the original article here. If you are interested in more Science in Sci-fi, check out Putting the Science in Fiction for expert advice on writing Sci-fi and Fantasy with authenticity. It will be published in October 2018 by Writers Digest, with a foreword written by bestselling author Chuck Wendig. You can pre-order on Amazon, just click on the cover image to be redirected. I will have an article published in the book.

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The Science of Aging and its Fictional Cures

All things age. For non-biological objects, it is a matter of entropy and oxidation (see “Aging Properties” by Gwen C. Katz in Putting the Science in Fiction). While life is not immune to these effects, it has the ability to replenish itself, repair damage, and theoretically exist indefinitely. So why don’t we live forever? This article will explore the science of biological aging and debunk some of its misconceptions in fiction.

 

Myth: Death by Old Age

“So-and-so died from old age.” We’ve all said it or heard it before. But can age really kill you?

Ultimately, aging does not kill you, but makes you more vulnerable to other things that will. As time goes on, our physiological integrity weakens and cells no longer act like they should. Muscles weaken, metabolism slows, and we all become a bit more sedentary, leaving us at risk for accidents, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and coronary artery disease. Similarly, DNA repair slackens and increases the risk of cancer, the immune system becomes erratic and can lead to autoimmune diseases, and the brain loses it edge and degenerates. All together, the chance that something will kill you every year is over 1000x more likely in the elderly than in children.

How to get it right:

Here are some of the most common causes of death:

Heart disease

Cancer

Stroke

Lung diseases and infections

Accidents

Diabetes

Alzheimer’s

Kidney disease

For the most part, the incidence of all of these causes of death increases with age. In other words, age is never the cause of death, but age-related diseases are. Similarly, “death by natural causes” is commonly used to describe the death of an elderly individual, since these causes are common enough to be considered natural.

 

Myth: There Exists Such a Thing as a Life-Force

There persists a notion that life is some ethereal force that courses through us, able to be sucked away by the first succubus/incubus that lures us in. Aging, therefore, would be the waning of such a life-force.

As far as we know, there is no ethereal energy that perfuses all life and makes it work. In fact, life can be manufactured by going online, copying the genetic sequence of a simple organism, synthesizing the DNA in a machine, and injecting it into an empty husk of a cell. This artificial “life” will then proceed to live on its own as shown by an experiment performed in 2010 by Craig Venter.

How to get it right:

All life has a few things in common, though there are exceptions to the rule. The standard definition of life is an entity that can grow, reproduce, undergo metabolic processes, and sense and interact with the environment. From this definition, metabolism is about the only thing that can be considered a life-force that can be given or taken away.

There is some truth to the concept though, as mitochondria, the energy producing organelles in most of our cells, do lose some of their efficiency as we age, and are implicated in many age-related diseases. Similarly, there do appear to be factors circulating through our body that affect how we age, and these can even be transferred from one person to another. Parabiosis is an experiment wherein two animals are surgically connected, allowing them to share blood. The older of the two animals will show signs of improved cognitive performance, muscle development, heart health, cellular regeneration, and properties that typically deteriorate with age.

The circulating factors thought to mediate this effect are certain inflammatory molecules (cytokines), small packets of intracellular materials (exosomes), some mitochondrial proteins, and many others. Interestingly, some of these are the same factors that promote systemic health following exercise. So unless you plan to surgically attach yourself to your much younger friend, or are currently a succubus/incubus, exercise truly is the best medicine.

 

Myth: The Elixir of Life and other instant cure-alls

Fiction often portrays the cure of aging as an easy fix, often restoring youthful vitality and vigor over the course of just a few minutes. Such an elixir smooths wrinkled skin, increases muscle mass, darkens silver-white hair, and eliminates all ailments associated with age. If only it were that simple.

Many researchers agree that aging is the result of mutations and other damage that accumulate over time, causing cancer, affecting metabolism, protein turnover, the immune system, the endocrine system, etc. A cure to aging would need to reverse all of this damage. Among other things, this would require replacing the lost connective tissue in the skin and removing it from areas where it has been produced in excess, like the muscle. It would need to revive cells that have already died, and kill cells like cancer. Additionally, the cure would need to remove lipid plaques from the vasculature, amyloid plaques from the brain, and fix every type of damage down to individual proteins and DNA mutation. And by most depictions, all of this would occur over the course of a few seconds to minutes. While this may look visually impressive, it would be impossible. The changes that occur with age are just too numerous and widespread to be reversed.

A fictional remedy like small nanomachines would have to constantly change shape, be physically capable of reaching every crevasse of every protein and condensed DNA strand, retain the information of what to fix and how, and somehow produce and store enough energy to complete the task. Even if it could somehow do all these things, fixing the accumulated damage would not be instantaneous, nor would it be visually apparent for at least a day or two. Similarly, gene editing never shows immediate effects, whether by taking years off your appearance or, if so designed, transforming you into a werewolf.

How to get it right:

Fortunately, there are some drugs and lifestyle changes being explored that have been shown to increase lifespan in mice and other mammals, though the effect is relatively mild. Some of these longevity enhancers have negative side effects, however, like testicular atrophy in the case of Rapamycin. Similarly, caloric restriction doesn’t sound like something I would do voluntarily. Even taking such measures, an indefinite extension of our lifespan may not be possible without something to extend our telomeres, the condensed DNA at the end of our chromosomes that gets shorter with each cell division.

Of course, your fictional characters might choose to skip over the cure, and abandon their aging bodies all together for something far more durable. They have merged them, body and mind, with machines. For more info, see Edward Ashton’s post on Immortality in Science Fiction.

 

Myth: Agelessness and the Fountain of Youth

Since reversing aging seems unlikely, the only other option would be to make your character ageless, resistant to the wear and tear of time. However, like wizards and elves, the ageless being is completely fictional.

The most common source of damage within the cell is the act of living itself. While metabolizing our food and consuming the oxygen we breathe, the mitochondria occasionally produces a small amount of oxidants, which then oxidize proteins, DNA, and lipids. DNA polymerase, which is responsible for copying our DNA during cell division, can slip or make a base-pair mismatch. Our immune system, which functions primarily to rid us of invading micro-organisms, can get overzealous and damage other cells caught in the crossfire.

Also, let’s not forget that life is just complex chemistry, and sometimes damaging chemical reactions will occur at a low frequency that are impossible to prevent, like the hydrolysis of DNA. Another major cause of the accumulating damage is the environment. Background radiation, toxins from our food or water, and the aforementioned microorganisms can interfere with all manner of biological processes and inflict direct damage. Eventually DNA damage accumulates, leading to cellular dysfunction, and ultimately death. To be ageless, one would have to resist all of this damage.

How to get it right:

Not all beings are created equal, however, and many creatures that have found a way to subvert the effect of time.

Take the “immortal jellyfish” for example. It is said to live indefinitely by reverting back to an immature polyp state. Unfortunately, humans are quite a bit more complex than a jellyfish. Such a state of immortality would be like taking the DNA from one of your cells and cloning yourself. Your clone would have none of your memories and be a distinct organism. Another creature, the naked mole rat, has extraordinary DNA repair capabilities and connective tissue factors. It looks nearly identical at year one as it does at an impressive 30 years old, which is to say it looks rather hideous all its life.

The Icelandic clam, the Greenland shark, and some other sea-dwellers have been known to live as long as 500 years, partly due to its resistance to oxidative damage. Somehow, I don’t think their natural environments would be compatible for us, but the secret to their longevity may one day be translated to humanity.

If a means to become ageless is developed during your lifetime, chances are you won’t be able to use it. Your unborn children, however, might be more fortunate. The most likely method will be to modify our progeny’s’ genetic code to enhance cellular repair, telomerase activity, antioxidant enzymes, and other processes shown to prolong life in animal models. Only then would human biology have a chance at resisting the ravages of time.

 

Conclusion

Life is complex; so many parts need to come together to keep it functioning, and if one thing falters, so does life end. Gerontology is the study of how those complicated parts of life fail over time. The Somatic DNA damage theory of aging alluded to in this article is just one theory of many. Other theories include antagonistic pleiotropy (i.e. that which makes us strong early in life, makes us weak later), disposable soma theory (i.e. keeping the body young isn’t the best allocation of resources), the replicative senescence theory (i.e. telomere shortening), rate of living theory, other damage accumulation theories, as well as some theories proposing we are programmed to age and die, often for the “overall prosperity of society.” There are still numerous theories of aging which haven’t been conclusively proven or disproven, and until we know the real cause, finding the cure will be all the more difficult.

“If there is one thing a Gerontologists understands, it is complexity,” said Dr. William Hazzard, a renowned gerontologists, at a 2018 aging symposium named in his honor. And while there is currently no cure for aging, there are things we can do in the meantime to slow it down. Dr. Hazzard, an 81-year-old academic who took the three stairs to the podium in one leaping bound, asserts that the best medicine is to “keep moving,” to “keep learning,” and above all, “embrace the totality of the experience.”

 

Until next time, Write Well and Science Hard

Icarus Drowned- A SciFi Short Story

Icarus Drowned

Author’s Note:

The inspiration for this story came while writing a blog post over a year ago. After nearly a year of submissions, I was unable to find a home for this story in either pro or semi-pro markets. I guess not all stories are destined for publication. Still, I really enjoyed writing this story, and I hope you will enjoy reading it. I present to you the Science Fiction Short Story, “Icarus Drowned.”

 

Icarus Drowned

By Philip A Kramer

 

Ron Kasey fastened the buckle of the harness across his chest and grunted at the tightness of it. He frowned and tried to shift to a more comfortable position, but the harness was unyielding.

“Why am I wearing this thing, again? You said I’d be going three kilometers an hour max.”

A sigh was just audible over the coms, one he had heard many times in his flight simulations over the past few months.

“In the state of Washington, seat-belts are required by law,” Laura said, her voice heavy with resignation.

A few muted chuckles filled the coms.

“And in space?”

“We’ll talk about that after another forty tests.”

Ron puffed out his cheeks and breathed out slowly.

He was a test pilot, not a scientist, so it was difficult for him to reconcile the snail’s pace of research with the theoretical speed of the small vessel in which he sat. When he’d earned his wings in the Navy five years ago, he never would have guessed he’d be strapped to the pilot seat of science’s greatest achievement. All of his coworkers were more qualified, certified geniuses all of them, but they lacked the proper flight training.

Ron squinted at the display in front of him.

The large hanger was crawling with people. Some hauled away coolant lines that leaked a white mist from their nozzles, while others disconnected power cables. Laura stood in an observation room above, separated from the noise by a thick pane of glass. She regarded a tablet computer in the crook of her arm even as the other scientists in the room sat in front of large computer monitors.

“Engines?” Laura asked. The professional coolness of her voice brought an abrupt silence to the coms. From the deference of the other scientists, Ron found it hard to believe she was the youngest among them, not much younger than him. She had proven to be more than just a genius; she was a natural leader.

“Fore and aft-engines nominal. We’re a go in T-minus five minutes.” The voice came from Reggie, the man seated nearest Laura. An old red tie held together the loose collar of the man’s button-up shirt. It was a special occasion, the Engine Specialist had told Ron that morning, and it was his lucky tie.

The hum of the engines was just audible from where he sat in the cockpit. They had the presence of restless steeds eager to start a race. The days of propellant driven rockets and shuttles were behind them. This was a chariot, its twin engines harnessing the same force that moved planets. Helios One, the first of its kind, was named for the Sun god who rode his blazing chariot across the sky.

The vessel was spherical but for the three landing struts and the two engine blocks mounted on the outer hull. While the design greatly offended Ron’s sense of style, he conceded that a sleeker and more aerodynamic construction would be pointless in the vacuum of space.

The Helios One was not much bigger than the cockpit of the C130 Hercules cargo plane he’d flown in the Navy. Unlike a plane, his view of the hanger outside was through a single large monitor. Beside it, a separate monitor displayed his telemetry and systems data. The pilot’s interface was also something he’d had to get used to. The traditional two-handed yoke was gone, replaced by a small knob of a joystick on the arm of his chair. He gripped it between his thumb and fore-finger as he had done hundreds of times before. The one thing the simulations hadn’t prepared him for was the crushing sense of uncertainty.

“Coms?”

“Green lights across the board.”

Laura continued running through their pre-flight checklist as the minutes passed, and all stations reported green lights.

“Three kilometers an hour,” he said beneath his breath. “It’s just three kilometers an hour.”

“Repeat that, Helios One,” The coms officer said. “We couldn’t hear your last transmission.”

“I said I can’t wait to see how fast this thing can go.”

Laura lifted her gaze from her tablet.

“Speed is relative. If you mean acceleration, I imagine the upper limit will be determined by how many Gs your body can handle. Accelerate too fast and it could compromise the integrity of the chariot.”

It could have been his imagination, but she seemed far more distressed by the latter possibility.

“Good to know,” Ron said, distracted.

“You won’t feel anything at the speed you’re going,” she said, perhaps detecting his unease. “Well, anything besides the weightlessness and vertigo. Let us know if it gets too uncomfortable.”

So much for reassurance, he thought.

Ron remembered this from the months of orientation and flight training. The fore-engine was a graviton generator. It created a local gravitational field above the chariot. He could change the location of that field with a touch of the joystick, making Helios One ‘fall’ in any direction he chose.

The aft-engine had another role. According to Laura, it opened a hole to another dimension. He’d gone slack-jawed when he’d heard that for the first time. That dimension, she’d explained, was simply a place beyond our own three dimensions, a place the graviton preferred. Small holes to this dimension were all around him at all times, sucking up gravitons. These dimensions were the reason gravity was much weaker than electromagnetism.  By gathering these small dimensional holes in one place, the aft-engine effectively negated the gravitational attraction between the chariot and Earth. Helios One and everything inside of it would become weightless and far easier to move.

He cut short his review of the ship’s systems when the countdown reached the one-minute mark. His mind raced. He wasn’t ready.

That minute, however, felt like an eternity, long enough for him to realize he had a very simple job compared to those in the observation room.

“We really should have performed a christening. It’s bad luck to launch a ship without breaking a bottle of champagne over the bow.”

“It isn’t a ship,” came Laura’s distracted words. “And it doesn’t have a bow.”

At the ten-second mark, he powered up the aft-engine. The contents of his stomach were the first to feel the change in gravity. An uncanny sense of falling made his hand stray to the vomit bag tucked conveniently in a pouch beside his seat.

He brought the engine up to 90 percent power.

“Gravity at one point two newtons per kilogram and holding,” he said and swallowed the taste of bile. At nearly 10 percent gravity, he could barely tell up from down.

The countdown ended.

“Helios One, you are cleared for launch,” said Reggie.

Launch was a generous word. After flipping a switch on the dash, Ron slowly fed power into the fore-engine.

The gentle sensation of weightlessness and then falling upward played havoc on his senses, as his eyes and inner ear argued the facts. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to picture himself hanging upside-down from the jungle gym at the urgings of his young niece. The memory helped him forget where he was for a moment until a slight groan of metal preceded a loud chorus of cheers over the coms.

Ron opened his eyes and regarded the external camera feed. The chariot was off the ground and steadily rising.

The first manned chariot had launched. Humanity had officially mastered gravity.

Elated, Ron could almost ignore the lunch roiling in his gut.

“We have liftoff.” Reggie said, his usual tone-less baritone had become an enthusiastic tenor.

“One point eight kilometers an hour, vertical bearing. Altitude three meters and ascending,” Ron said, mechanically reading off his vector as he was trained.

“Roger, Helios One. Achieve and maintain altitude at thirty meters,” Laura said.

He didn’t make it to thirty meters.

“Control, my fore-engine is registering some efficiency loss, can you confirm?”

“We see it, Helios One. Hold position.”

Ron eased off the power and held the joystick in place, but the engine’s efficiency continued to drop.

“Helios One, I’m calling an end to the test,” Laura said.

“What’s wrong?” Ron asked. He glanced from the status displays to the camera feed. A few figures in bulky silver suits and helmets appeared at the hanger door holding fire extinguishers.

“We need to rule out a fire. You are cleared to land.”

The horror of being trapped in a small vessel with a fire was something he’d never experienced outside of nightmares.

“Roger, Control. Bringing her down,” he said, his voice quavering.

Soon the engine’s efficiency fell below the level required to keep the chariot aloft.

“This isn’t shaping up to be a soft landing,” Ron said when he saw his speed of descent increase from 1 to 2 km/h. At that speed, the landing struts would buckle, resulting in millions of dollars in damage. It could delay the program for months. Laura knew that too.

“Ron,” Laura said, failing to use his call sign. “Increase power to the aft-engine. One hundred percent.”

Ron complied, even as another engineer reminded her that they’d never managed to sustain complete zero gravity. It was their only contingency plan.

As soon as the power was at full, the meager output of the fore-engine began to slow the weightless ship.

It looked like he would be able to set it down smoothly after all.

The camera feed flickered and then went dark. Simultaneously, an explosion and a chorus of screams sounded in his ear, nearly deafening him. Then all was silent.

Ron squeezed his eyes shut and braced for impact.

Nothing happened.

After a few seconds of weightlessness, he cracked open one eye and then the other.

The camera feed was blank, but he was still receiving system data. The only thing missing from the continuous stream of information was his current telemetry.

Have I already touched down?

“Control? I am experiencing a computer malfunction. What is my current vector?”

No answer.

“Coms test. Do you read, Control?”

Ron cursed and tapped his headset.

Remembering the engines, he scrambled to cut power and prepared himself for the sudden restoration of gravity.

Again, nothing happened.

Ron knuckled the side of the consol. The system reported zero power to the aft-engine, but he was still weightless.

Impossible.

When a few seconds of scratching his head yielded no solution, he reluctantly unbuckled his harness. The moment he shrugged out of the network of belts, he began to float away from the pilot’s seat. A bout of queasiness inspired him to bring along the vomit bag, just in case.

Ron grasped the edge of a monitor and pushed off toward the airlock door.

When he opened the door, he froze.

There was only one window on the chariot, and it was attached to the outer airlock door.

Through the window, there was nothing but darkness.

He finally got the chance to use the vomit bag.

Minutes later, when he finally returned to his seat and buckled the harness, his mind was churning more than his stomach.

Space. He had to be in space.

It made sense. The chariot made a wormhole somehow, and now he was floating in some distant part of the universe. He thought his first venture into space would have been more awe-inspiring, more momentous, more… intentional.

There was only one problem with this theory. Through the window he hadn’t seen a single star. Even if he had somehow made it into intergalactic space, he should at least see some galaxies, right?

There had been nothing but blackness. No, that wasn’t quite true. It wasn’t completely black. It was more like a dark shade of gray, like the color of the blank monitor.

He sat forward so quickly, the harness squeezed the breath from him.

The monitor. It wasn’t dead after all. It was showing him an active feed of the outside of the ship.

He unbuckled his harness once more and leaned close to the monitors. There was something out there.  It took a moment to locate the controls for the lights in the cockpit, but as soon as he did, he turned them off and squinted at the screen.

There was definitely something out there. Four somethings. They weren’t pinpoints like stars, but bands of light that stretched from starboard to port, too straight and evenly spaced to be natural.

Alien starships.

Ron breathed out a calming breath. He shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

He turned to another monitor, one with a screen that nearly blinded him in contrast. Columns of data greeted his trained eye. He located a settings option for the cameras. Choosing the contrast setting, he toggled it up to maximum.

The bands of light above the chariot grew even brighter. They were like no alien battle cruisers he’d ever seen, though his experience was admittedly limited. Ron squinted at the screen, his eyes focusing on several dim blotches around and beneath the chariot. They were like distant, colorful nebulas, though some of them had very sharp and defined edges.

Then one of the nebulas moved. It was fast, streaking by just below the chariot. He nearly banged his head on the ceiling as he leapt back in shock.

Once seated, his eyes darted from one nebula to another. Most were still, but some shifted in place, occasionally changing shape. Faint though they were, the shapes looked familiar.

With a sinking feeling, he increased the brightness setting.

The shapes resolved themselves.

The bright bands of light transformed into fluorescent tubes on a ceiling crisscrossed with rafters. The nebulas became workstations, tanks of liquid nitrogen, and people moving about a large, open room.

He had never left the hanger.

Ron took a long, deep breath. He wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or terrified.

It appeared he was hovering just above the heads of those milling around on the floor of the hanger. The image was still faint, as if light had difficulty reaching him.

The hanger had changed since he’d seen it last. Coolant tanks were on their sides, papers were strewn across the floor, and from the reflective glints of glass on the floor, the window separating the observation room from the hanger had shattered. The observation room itself was nearly full of people, but he couldn’t make out Laura among them.

He took off his headset and confirmed it had power.

“Control, this is Helios One. Do you read?”

Silence.

Whatever had caused the destruction, it had knocked out the coms.

He needed to get up to the observation room.

It took a few minutes of vigorous chin rubbing before he remembered he was currently sitting in a spaceship.

He secured himself in his seat, but his hand paused over the engine controls.

The fore-engine hadn’t registered any temperature fluctuations, but he was still wary of fire. If he gave it just a little power, perhaps it would be enough to move around the weightless chariot.

What was the alternative? He doubted they knew where he was or how to go about reaching him. If he did nothing, he would die from dehydration in just a few short days. Of all the problems they simulated and contingency plans they’d gone through, nothing had prepared him for this.

He brought the fore-engine up to one percent of max power. When the temperature gauge remained stable, he increased it to five. Satisfied, he angled the joystick forward.

He began to move. The motion was so slow he had to stare at the video feed for several seconds to make sure he was moving at all.

As he approached the observation deck, the faint shapes of people in military uniform came into focus.

They weren’t the men he’d seen guarding the hanger, but military medics. They tended to the injured, all of whom were wearing lab coats.

Ron felt sick. It was not the queasiness of zero gravity, but one that tightened his throat and knotted his stomach. He was responsible for this.

He drew closer and recognized Laura sitting on one of the rolling chairs. A large red knot marred the surface of her smooth, pale forehead. She was waving away the medic who was trying to shine a light into her eyes.

The medic gave up and turned his attention to another of the scientists who was being lifted onto a stretcher. It was Reggie. Blood soaked his shirt and lab coat, making it difficult to distinguish his lucky red tie.

Smashed computer screens, toppled chairs, and sheets of paper littered the floor. There was no glass inside the observation deck from the windowpane; it had all fallen into the hanger below.

An explosion had done this, but not just any explosion. He had seen wreckage like this before when his C130 had lost pressure at high altitude. Decompression had yanked open the cockpit door and upended everything and everyone not bolted down or buckled in. Some kind of explosive decompression had occurred in the main hanger.

As he drew closer to the window, he could no longer deny another growing suspicion. He cringed as he eased forward, far enough that the chariot would have made contact with the frame of the window, but nothing happened.

Ron bit his lip. Either the chariot had become intangible or he now occupied a space so small, nobody could see him.

Laura had told him once that the holes leading to the gravitational dimension were microscopic, each occupying an area less than a nanometer. As impossible as it sounded, he suspected he had fallen through one of those holes. It would explain the darkness; he could only see the light that hit the small space he occupied.

Laura raised her head and looked out over the hanger. Her features were contorted in pain and regret, making her almost unrecognizable.

She thinks I’m dead.

“Laura,” he said over the coms. “I’m right here.”

She didn’t hear him, and her gaze swept right past him.

He was just another mote of dust in the room.

After a moment, she stood, steadied herself with a hand on the wall, and left the room. Ron watched her go until the door to the observation room swung shut behind her.

Ron looked at the other scientists. They were not in any shape to help him.

He pushed forward on the joystick, and the ship began to move again. He was still a bit skeptical about fitting through the window, but he easily flew into the room and over the heads of the medics.

The door that separated him from the hallway beyond was made of metal and painted a dull gray. He pulled back on the joystick as he approached, slowing the chariot.

The holes to the gravitational dimension were everywhere, Laura had said, they floated around him, passing through him, soaking up the gravitons that his matter generated. Surely that meant he could pass through the door too.

His lack of confidence in this half-cocked theory caused him to slow even more as he drew closer to the door. If he was wrong, he hoped he would bounce off of it harmlessly.

Every dent and imperfection in the door’s surface became more distinct as he approached. His jaw dropped when he spotted a glossy labyrinth of spirals and whirls. He was looking at someone’s fingerprint.

Ron closed the remaining distance, falling within a canyon formed by the gray paint as it had dried.

When he struck the door, he felt no resistance, but his view from his camera went white, nearly blinding him.

The screen dimmed a few moments later, and he stared mutely at the empty hallway. He wheeled the chariot around to view the door he’d just come through. A perfect, cylindrical tunnel was the only evidence of his passage, so small as to be imperceptible by someone walking by. The edges of the tunnel glowed white hot but quickly faded to a metallic sheen.

While it didn’t go quite as he had planned, he had made it through the door in one piece.

To be safe, he fed more power to the fore-engine and drifted closer to the ceiling. He didn’t want to accidentally bore a hole through someone if they walked into him.

He drifted along the ceiling, weaving around light fixtures and fire sprinklers. He didn’t see Laura anywhere, but he knew where she had gone.

Something constricted in his chest when he saw the door to Laura’s office closed. In the Navy, he had been used to closed doors, to keeping his opinions to himself, to following orders. As the lead researcher, Laura had ultimate say in every aspect of the Helios project, but she had always kept an open door policy. She did not tout her rank, her intellect, or shun the opinions of others. To see her door closed meant there was something inside she did not want her staff to see.

Ron piloted the chariot forward until he was a hair’s width away from the door. This door was made of wood, and the valleys and canyons of its surface looked like some vast, alien world. He worried he might set the door on fire if he tried to phase through it, so he steered into one of the canyons and squeezed into the narrow gap between the door and lintel.

The darkness was nearly absolute, and the brightness of his camera feed was already turned up to maximum. He weaved his way through the dust, which looked like some wooly forest full of tangled vines and large, flat leaves. Here and there, the ghostly skeletons of mites peered back at him. Their huge, bulbous bodies looked more alien than anything he’d seen so far, and their large mandibles looked capable of cracking his chariot in two. He was dust even to them.

He managed to navigate to the opposite side of the door, following the light from the room beyond as if it were the blush of dawn on the distant horizon. When he finally emerged into Laura’s office, he swallowed hard at the sight of her.

She sat hunched over her desk with her head in her arms. Her body heaved in great, wracking sobs.

Guilty for having intruded on her privacy, Ron considered turning back, but she was the only one capable of helping him.

For a long time he watched her, discarding innumerable and half-formed ideas until only one remained. He needed to talk to her.

Eventually, he dragged his eyes from the camera feed to his on-board computer. If visible light could barely reach him, why would radio waves be any different? His communications equipment was built to radio Earth from Pluto if necessary; surely, it was strong enough to amplify a weak signal.

Ron increased the gain on his receiver.

One moment, the telemetry data on his monitor was gone, and the next it began to populate, displaying his current vector. He pumped his fists into the air.

Connecting to the internet was harder than he’d anticipated. Had the techs known how often he Googled the words they used in casual conversation, they would have dedicated an entire monitor to the task. Minutes later, he finally gained access. He toyed with the idea of sending Laura an email, but doubted she would check it any time soon.

The homepage was that of the Department of Defense and prompted him for his password. He ignored it and ran a search for a web-based calling application he’d used previously overseas. He looked up the number for the Gray Army Airfield facility and typed it into the application.

The dial tones sounded in his headset, and then the phone began to ring.

He held his breath.

“You have reached Fort Lewis. If you know the extension of the person you are trying to reach, please dial now. If you would like to be connected to the operator, please hold the line. Calls will be answered in the order they are received.”

He let out his breath in a loud sputter.

A jingle played over the line and Ron idly unstrapped from the pilot seat to float around as he waited.

“Operator, how can I direct your call?”

“Yes, oh thank god,” Ron said, scrambling to return to his seat. “I need to speak with Dr. Laura Kessler, it’s an emergency.”

He considered telling the operator everything, but he guessed the man was not privy to the research taking place at the base. He might think it was a prank and hang up.

“I can forward you to her office, but I see here she also has an emergency number listed, would you prefer that?”

The emergency number seemed appropriate given his situation, and he told the man so.

“Who should I say is calling?”

“Lieutenant Ron Kasey.”

“Hold please,” he said, and the jingle began to play again.

Laura was still slumped over her desk when the call came. Ron couldn’t hear anything, but saw her lift her head, blink, and then reach into one of the pockets of the white lab coat. She took several deep breaths before answering.

He could imagine the words now.

Hi, Dr. Kessler, I have a Lieutenant Ron Kasey on the line for you.

What? Is this some kind of joke? She would say.

No Doctor, no joke. He sounds quite handsome and charming, if I do say so myself. Do you want to take the call?

That does sounds like him. Yes, please put him on.

His imaginings were whisked away when he heard Laura’s voice come over the line.

“Who is this?”

“Well hello, Doctor. That test was quite the doozy, huh?”

“I’m not kidding, who is this?” She sounded angry now.

“Of course…” he said, continuing as if he hadn’t heard her. “I think I’ll skip the harness next time. I think my chest is covered in bruises.”

“Ron?” Her hand shot up to her mouth.

“That’s me.”

“Wha- Are you okay?”

“Yes, with the exception of the aforementioned bruises.”

She was standing now, turning in circles and clutching a fist-full of her dark hair.

“But the chariot. It exploded. I saw it.”

“It was an implosion, actually,” he said. It was the first time he’d ever been able to correct her, and he savored the feeling.

“Where are you?”

“Right in front of you.”

She took a step forward, looking confused.

“Are you down in the hanger?”

“No, I’m… hold on a sec.”

Ron peered down at the dash.  If some light could get into this little trans-dimensional bubble of his, he might be able to get some light out. If he could make his tiny chariot visible, just a dim spark, she would believe him.

He found the controls for his floodlights and turned them on.

The screen went white, and Laura cursed over the headset.

Ron dimmed the lights and the screen resolved into a much clearer picture of Laura, arm up to shield her eyes.

It appeared light had no trouble finding its way out.

“Sorry, my fault,” he said, dimming the lights even further.

Laura lowered her arm, blinking up at the far upper corner of the room where he hovered.

“Ron? Is that you?”

“It is.”

“Are you dead?” She asked.

“What? No.”

“Are you sure?” She took a step forward, her expression torn between amazement and skepticism. “Because you look like a little orb of light. Isn’t that how ghosts are supposed to look?”

“Laura, I am alive,” he said, stressing each distinct syllable. “Now concentrate. I need to get out of here.”

“Where is here?”

He paused, steeling himself. She was either going to think him very stupid, or uncharacteristically perceptive.

“I think I’m in the gravity dimension.”

She shook her head.

“That’s not possible,” she said.

Stupid it is then, he thought glumly.

“The gravity dimension is unidimensional. Matter can’t exist in one dimension,” she said in the same voice she used when he was being particularly incompetent in a simulation.

“Well, how else do you explain the zero gravity and my size? You said the gravity dimension was small, right?”

“It just isn’t possible,” she said, her voice much more uncertain now. “Tell me what you see.”

Ron looked around the chariot, frowning.

“Everything looks the same as before the test, except very little light is entering through the aft window. I’m only able to see you after cranking up the brightness of the monitor.”

She hadn’t taken her eyes from him until he mentioned his ability to see her. With the hand that wasn’t holding the phone, she self-consciously smoothed her hair flat and wiped away the moisture from her cheeks.

“And there’s no gravity?”

“None. The aft-engine isn’t even powered up. I can move around a bit if I feed some power into the fore-engine.”

She was closer now, her arm lifting slightly as if to cup the chariot in her hand.

“I wouldn’t do that,” he said hastily, and her hand stilled in the air. “I tried to phase through a door earlier and ended up boring a hole right through it.”

She lowered her hand and took a step back, still visibly shaken.

“I can’t believe you’re alive. I thought I…”

“You couldn’t have foreseen this,” he said.

She let out a long breath.

“I have to tell the others.”

She made for the door, and he wheeled the chariot around to follow her.

The observation room was empty.

“I saw most of them being carried off on stretchers,” Ron said when he had caught up to her. She stared at the destruction before her as she gingerly touched the rosy welt on her forehead.

“It was supposed to be a simple test,” she said, numbly. She visibly shook away her thoughts and leaned over the window frame to peer into the hanger below. A few techs in lab coats were cleaning up the area.

She called one by name.

The young tech, Steven, glanced up at her and then jogged over to the stairs to make his ascent.

Steven stopped just inside the door, his chin dropping as his eyes locked on the glowing point of light hovering before him. Ron silently berated himself for not cutting the lights. It was too late for that, he supposed. He dimmed and brightened the floodlight several times in quick succession.

“Dr. Kessler? You uhh… you have a fairy hovering over your shoulder.”

She smiled.

“That would be Ron,” she said.

Great, he thought. If he made it out of this alive, he would never live down the fairy jokes.

“I was saying ‘hello’ in Morse code,” Ron said.

Ignoring him, she waved the tech over and pointed at one of the monitors. He approached warily.

“Get this powered up and keep an eye on his telemetry data. If we lose contact, I need to know where to find him.” She then pressed her finger against a piece of paper taped to the wall beside the monitor. It contained a long list of names and numbers. “And I want you to call all of these people and tell them to get here as soon as possible.”

The tech blanched as he stared at the names of NASA’s Chief Scientist, Engineer, the Deputy Administrator, and no less than three four-star generals.

Laura left the tech to his unenviable task, taking the stairs down to the hanger floor.

Ron met her down in the hanger, gliding over the window frame and descending. The remaining techs in the room caught sight of him and gawked, many of them backing away until their backs were against a wall, or they stumbled and fell.

Laura surveyed the remnants of the broken window on the hanger floor. A moment later, she looked around for him and, seeing him, approached.

“You said it was an implosion and I think you’re right. If you suddenly shrank to the nanometer scale, all the air you displaced would have rushed in to fill the void. But it’s impossible to shrink matter to that scale without causing a thermonuclear event. I think your apparent size is just an illusion. You are simply staring out of a very small hole in space. But I still don’t see how matter can exist in the gravitational dimension, not unless…” She frowned. “Not unless you somehow pulled our own three dimensions in there with you.”

“What does that mean?”

“Ron, I think we’ve created a singularity.”

Ron swallowed.

“I thought singularities compressed matter.”

“That’s just it,” she said. “We don’t know how singularities work or if they exist at all. Do you know what this means? We may finally know what happens at the center of black holes. Matter isn’t compacted into an infinitely small space, it gets forced into another dimension. This is groundbreaking.”

“But how did it happen to me?”

“When you powered up the aft-engine, it gathered the ambient gravitational dimensions like it was supposed to, but we’ve never moved something so heavy, so when we tried, it put so much pressure on the weakened fabric of space that it folded inward, collapsing into another dimension.”

A smile tugged at one corner of her lips, and she shook her head in wonderment. The techs in the room had gotten over their fear of the hovering orb of light and were now nodding to each other in understanding. Ron pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I’m so glad this amuses you. Can we get to the part where you tell me your genius rescue plan?”

“Have you gone outside?”

Ron snorted, but her expression remained serious.

“I don’t have my EVA suit yet, I was only just measured.”

“You aren’t in space, Ron. You said it yourself, when you tried to go through a door, you put a hole through it. That means matter can still travel from one side to the other, so there’s nothing to stop air.”

Ron hadn’t considered that.

“Are you saying I could jump out the airlock and reappear in the hanger?”

She cringed.

“You should test it first. Light and air might be able to move freely, but anything larger? Let’s just say I don’t want to see what happens if you try to squeeze through a nanometer sized hole. Try throwing something out the airlock.”

Ron rarely heard uncertainty from her, which didn’t bode well for the plan. He turned the lights on in the cockpit and unbuckled himself from the pilot seat.

He hadn’t been in the airlock since moments after he lost communication with Control. The room reeked of vomit, and the bag containing the mess still floated around the empty room.

Through the window, he saw the dark expanse that had greeted him earlier. Now that he knew he wasn’t in space, he saw the truth in the darkness. If he let his eyes adjust, he could just make out the plane of the floor and ceiling of the hanger, the latter crisscrossed with rafters and long, fluorescent lights.

“Ron? Are you still with me?”

He shook himself, realizing he’d been drifting there for a long, silent minute.

“Yeah. I’m getting ready to open the door and toss something out. You might want to tell the others to evacuate the room. I don’t want to peg someone.”

He heard her telling others to gather in the observation deck and make themselves useful there.

He took a deep breath and tapped the control panel beside the door. The touchscreen display came to life. Sure enough, it reported normal atmospheric pressure on the other side of the airlock. Ron tapped the green button and a series of metal gears whirred inside the round door, terminating with a soft click. He braced one hand on the frame of the door, and then twisted and pulled on the handle. The door eased open without incident, and he released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.

He gripped the handles just inside the door to keep from drifting out into the empty void. He looked around for something he could throw, but the techs had removed all loose items from the chariot to prevent them from floating around in zero gravity. So instead, he grabbed the closest thing to hand and lobbed it out the airlock.

“Alright, here it comes,” he said.

The object tumbled end over end until it encountered something about twenty feet away and disappeared in a bright flash.

Laura cursed.

“Are you alright?” Ron pushed off the frame of the door and twisted around in midair to fly back to his seat. Not bothering to buckle himself in, he turned the chariot around to get a panoramic view of the room. “What happened?”

In the far corner, spattered against the concrete wall, was a smear of gore.

Laura jogged over from her shelter inside the hanger door to get a closer look.

Halfway there, she visibly recoiled and held the back of her hand to her nose.

“What’s that smell?”

“Chicken parmesan,” Ron said guiltily.

She stared uncomprehendingly at the point in space he occupied. When realization hit her, she visibly gagged then took two quick steps away from the mess.

“Why the hell would you throw that?”

“It was the only thing I could find.”

“Oh my god,” she said, making a chocking sound. “It’s on fire.”

Some of the shredded paper from the vomit bag was smoking and sputtering with flame.

Ron winced. That couldn’t smell good.

She ran for the large double doors that comprised a large section of the far wall. A small door was set into one of these larger doors, and she pushed through.

The grounds outside were wet from a recent rain, but just beyond the darkened pavement of the runway, a field of grass glittered with raindrops in the light of the setting sun. The grass continued into a large field that descended a low slope to a small reservoir. Even the dim facsimile of the scene through his monitor did nothing to diminish its beauty.

When he met her outside, she was coughing. He waited to speak until she once again held her cellphone to her ear.

“What now?”

Laura squeezed her eyes shut as she rubbed her temple.

“I don’t know. I’ve never dealt with anything like this before. The science just isn’t known. We may have to wait for the rest of the team to arrive.”

Ron grimaced. He wasn’t looking forward to days of waiting. He could be dead from thirst by the time they finished with their meetings.

Laura was no longer observing her surroundings. A wrinkle had appeared between her eyes and her gaze was unfocused.

“This is my fault,” she said, so softly that he had to adjust the volume. “I told you to bring the aft-engine to full.”

“If you hadn’t, I would have crashed into the floor, and caused millions of dollars in damage to the chariot.”

“But you would still be here.”

Ron blinked. Did she just imply she cared more for him than the chariot?

“I’ll let you make it up to me. Buy me a drink after you get me out of here.”

A smile touched her mouth and she pointedly avoided looking at him. After a long, silent moment, the smile faded.

“A drink…” she said, the word trailing off as if she found far more meaning in it than he entirely intended. “That’s it.”

“I don’t follow,” he said, but her feet were already in motion, and a determined glint shone in her eye.

She jogged down the gentle slope, her lab coat billowing out behind her.

When she stopped near the bottom, she held out a hand.

“Your drink,” she said triumphantly.

Just beyond a lip of concrete, was the massive reservoir, murky and slightly green with algae.

“I was thinking of something pint-sized.”

She looked around until she spotted him trailing behind her.

“If that bag had truly squeezed through a nanometer sized hole, it would have been unrecognizable,” she said, then grimaced. “Well, at least more recognizable than it was after going through your big mouth. The hole must have widened a bit to allow the matter out.”

“So you can send me water?” he said, understanding. “If it widens, you’ll be able to get me more than just a drop at a time.”

“There is that, I suppose, but I was thinking of getting you out of there instead. If we fill your little balloon until all of the matter wants out. The hole should expand in all directions until the entire chariot emerges.”

“That’s it?” he asked. His despondency evaporated.

“It’s something, right? Something worth testing?”

She wasn’t confident in her plan, he could see that, but for having just discovered trans-dimensional travel, she knew more than anyone else. He trusted her.

Ron steered the chariot over the calm water until he hovered right above it. Orange clouds floated on blue sky in the reflection of the water.

“In the Navy, they teach you not to fly the aircraft into the water,” he groused. “Here goes nothing.”

He plunged down into the murky depths.

The monitors went dark and he cranked up the brightness of the floodlights.

Ron’s mouth fell open at the sight that greeted him.

Rotifers with maws of bristling cilia sucked in swarms of darting algae. The algae were everywhere and seemed to converge on him, their long flagella whipping back and forth. Studying them closer, he realized they weren’t drawn to his light, but being pulled in by a rapidly growing current.

“I think it’s working, but it’ll take forever at this rate.”

“Move deeper. The water pressure should push the water in faster.”

He did and then looked around the cockpit as if expecting the hull to buckle under the pressure. The chariot always felt like an aircraft’s cockpit to him, but now he couldn’t shake the image of the bridge of a submarine.

Even as he watched, the algae flickered out of existence, sucked into the expanding dimensional rift. As it grew, so did his field of view. Soon, the algae were little more than specks flying toward him, moving too quickly for his eyes to follow.

“You closed the airlock, right?”

Ron cursed and leapt from his seat. Rocketing back to the airlock, he caught himself on the frame of the door.

The darkness outside was not nearly so pervasive. The flood lights on the front of the ship illuminated a thick fog. Small patches of water pooled on the side of the ship in the zero gravity, condensing along its cool spherical surface. As he watched, the puddles grew, merging into one another until the hull shimmered under the eerie glow of the fog.

Then rain began to fall, though falling wasn’t accurate. Rain converged on him. When he stuck his hand out the airlock, rain pelted it from every direction. In the zero gravity, it clung to his spread fingers like an alien, gelatinous mass, slightly green with algae.

He stared in fascination until a glob of the stuff hit his face and resisted several attempts to wipe it away. A chill crept over his skin and he blinked away visions of drowning in a helmet made entirely of clingy water. He wiped his hands on his jumpsuit and closed the door of the airlock.

“I’d like to formally change my call sign,” he said, voice raising in pitch.

“To what?”

“Icarus,” he said as he looped a strap of the harness over his shoulder.

“The guy whose wings melted after flying to close to the sun? Is this some kind of philosophical nonsense about falling short of the Helios chariot?”

“No. It’s because he fell into the sea after his wings melted and drowned.”

“Pessimism? From you?” She said, sounding genuinely surprised.

“I’ve tried all sorts of new things today:  trans-dimensional travel, trying to stomach zero gravity, asking you out for a drink. Why not pessimism?”

It was quiet, even the drumming of water on the hull of the chariot trailed off into the heavy silence.

“Ron, I…”

The lights of the cockpit dimmed momentarily. His eyes flicked to the data monitor and saw an alert flashing in large, red letters. The communications relay was down. In hindsight, he wasn’t surprised. Those delicate electronics were on the outside of the ship. They were shielded from wind, the vacuum of space, and perhaps a little rain, but they were not made to be submerged.

Water enveloped the camera, and the shallow rivulets warped the view of outside. Then a flurry of bubbles appeared. The water was flowing in even faster.

A peculiar sensation started in the pit of his stomach, and then his whole world fell out from beneath him. He was whipped back and forth in his seat until the loop of the unfastened harness slipped from his shoulder and he fell forward. When his world stopped moving, he was lying on the floor of the cockpit.

Gravity had returned.

Dizzily, he rose to his feet and stumbled over to the airlock. It was just as dark outside the small window as it had been when he first entered the gravity dimension, but this darkness was murky and oppressive. He pressed his nose to the window and peered around. The shimmering surface of the reservoir was nearly thirty feet above him. He was back.

It was too much to hope the chariot was buoyant.

He could wait for rescue, but it was just a matter of time before the water shorted another critical system. Flying out of here was as dangerous as waiting. He did not want to return to that other dimension.

He turned and closed the inner airlock door, trapping himself in the small room. The pressure of the water beyond the door made opening the airlock difficult. It took several minutes at the control panel to override the safeguards.

He kicked off his boots and unzipped his jumpsuit, dropping it to the floor. As an officer in the Navy, he was no stranger to frigid waters or great depths. He planned to ease the door open and let the airlock fill with water, then swim to the surface.

The moment he turned the lever, however, the force of the door opening sent him careening into the back of the airlock. His head struck the unyielding metal and a white light filled his vision.

The next thing he knew, he was coughing up water and shivering on a bed of soft grass. When he heaved out the last of the water in his lungs, he sucked in air that tasted of fresh-cut grass and the crisp air that follows a spring rain.

He blinked and was greeted by a pair of bright blue eyes. Laura had pulled him from the water. She had brought him back.

“Champagne,” he wheezed, when he caught his breath.

She let out a small laugh and sniffled. Her cold, trembling fingers came to rest on his cheek, and beads of water dripped from tendrils of her dark, wet hair.

“Yes,” she said. “I’ll buy you that drink.”

He shook his head.

“It’s bad luck to skip a christening.”

 

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading “Icarus Drowned.” If you have any thoughts about the story or questions about the science, please leave a comment below or send me a message. Remember to follow me on twitter @PhilipKramer9.

Until next time, write well and science hard!

The Science of Exobiology

Space rocks

So you want to introduce a new lifeform in your fiction. There are many reasons to do so. A sentient humanoid can provoke your reader’s sympathy and relatability, while a vile, brainless, and flesh-eating slug can put your readers on edge. If done sloppily, however, skeptical readers will find the flaws in such a creature, and that disbelief will undermine any of your attempts to draw them into the story. You can blame biologists for always taking the fun out of your unique imagination, or you can choose to awe them with the many ways you manipulate biology into something terrifying or beautiful. After all, there are millions of weird and wonderful species on our own planet, some far more alien looking than what sci-fi authors have conjured up over the years.

anemone

“Fish and anemone,” picture by Philip Kramer at the Seattle Aquarium

Here are the things you should consider when making a new species:

 

What is life anyway?

To breathe life into your creation, you should first understand what life is. The standard definition of life is an entity that can grow, reproduce, undergo metabolic processes, and sense and interact with the environment. This simplistic definition has led to some interesting debates. A virus for example, can do little to none of these things outside a host cell. Is it a living thing? Crystals too can take in energy and materials from their environment and use it to grow and reproduce. Is a crystal alive? Alien life will also likely defy some of these rules.

So what might life on another planet look like? This field of study is referred to as exobiology and astrobiology.

 

All life is a product of its environment.

Everything about life, down to each protein or strand of DNA, was selected for over the course of millions of years. If an organism died before passing on its genetic material, the next generation would not inherit those characteristics that lead to premature death. This is evolution, and because of it, nearly everything about you has a purpose and function.

True, there are some things that appear to have no function except to give scientists headaches. These things exist because they can, or because they did not provide an evolutionary disadvantage. For example, many of the glycoproteins coating each of our red blood cells have no apparent function. Others, like the Duffy antigen, are used by the malaria parasite to infect cells. As a result, many individuals whose ancestors were from malaria-prone regions do not express this antigen. The simple rule is this: evolution will select against adaptations that negatively affect a species’ chances of survival and procreation, but any adaptations that improve those chances, or don’t change them at all, will persist.

On Earth alone, evolution progressed down millions of branches depending on environmental pressures. Many of those branches ended when these evolutionary experiments failed or the creature was overpowered by another creature attempting to take over the same ecological niche. As humans, we adapted our opposable thumbs from grasping tree limbs to avoid predators on the ground and reach food high in the canopy. We became bipedal to facilitate running and giving us a height advantage to spot both predators and prey when traveling across the ground. When intelligence improved our ability to hunt and forage, we dedicated much more room and energy to developing it. For other animals, they took to the air, or stayed in the water, and evolved talons, teeth, and scales to defend themselves. Any change to the fictional environment would make your creatures change accordingly. If the atmosphere was just a little thicker, for example, like the one on Venus, instead of birds with wings, you might have puffer-fish like creatures that fill an air-bladder with hydrogen or oxygen to float around. If your creature lives in dark caves like Astyanax mexicanus, a Mexican cave fish, they will probably have no eyes, or at least not ones that function.

 

Familiar or strange?

Going out of your way to creating an entirely original and strange lifeform may not be necessary. In fact, some scientists think life can only come in a finite number of forms. So it is possible that alien lifeforms share characteristics with us or other life on our planet. Darwin’s Aliens, is a new theory suggesting that there are only a handful of ways biology can evolve to deal with its surroundings. Yes, even biology is beholden to the laws of physics. Take the eyes as an example; there are only a few ways a creature might focus light from its environment onto a cluster of light sensitive cells. Evidence suggests that eyes evolved independently on dozens of evolutionary branches on Earth into something that looks and operates very similarly. The number and placement of those eyes on the head are also no coincidence, allowing a large range of vision without taking up too much space and energy in the brain to process that information.

Just because alien life might look familiar, doesn’t mean it can’t be strange. You can still be creative with your alien. In fact, it is very unlikely aliens will look too similar or identical to life on Earth. Since we exist because of a series of random genetic mutations and environmental coincidences (like ice ages and the particular tilt of our planet caused by the moon), it is very unlikely a species from another planet will have experienced the same evolutionary history.

Designing your lifeform.

The simplest unit of life as we know it is the cell. Alien life will most likely be composed of cells too, as it is the natural progression of simple to complex life, and allows each unit to carry the genetic information required for it to grow and replicate. Your alien can be a single cell, or a complex lifeform composed of two or more of these units working together for mutual survival. This partnership also allows some cells to specialize in certain tasks (defense, digestion, locomotion, etc.) to make tissues and organ systems.

Here are some of the features and organ systems most complex life should have:
Size- No matter the planet, there will be gravity, so your lifeform’s proportions will likely adhere to the square-cube law. This law, while by no means strict, describes most of the complex terrestrial life on Earth. In simple terms, it describes the relationship between volume and surface area of a creature. As a creature grows in size, its surface area does not increase at the same rate as its volume. As a result, larger animals must have thicker limbs to support a greater mass, a circulatory system to deliver nutrients and gasses through its body, and methods to dissipate heat through its lower relative surface area. Increasing an insect to the size of a cow would make its exoskeleton heavy, and its spindly limbs unable to support the mass of its bulbous body. Additionally, it could no longer rely on it tracheoles and hemolymph to diffuse oxygen throughout its body.

bug

“Pillbug,” by Philip Kramer, (edit of picture)

Skin- Often the largest organ in the body, it is the last barrier between living flesh and a harsh environment with no regard for living things. Making a sentient slime the primary host of a hot, water-poor planet like Venus would not only be impractical, but evolutionarily impossible. A type of lizard with scales that reflect infrared and are resistant to sulfuric acid rain, however, would be far more likely. If the planet is cold instead, fat deposits or thick fur will serve as good insulation.

In addition to a physical barrier, the skin can also serve as an optical defense or lure. Lizards, butterflies, encephalapods, and many other creatures disguise themselves with their surroundings, make themselves look menacing, or lure in other creatures by appearing to be harmless.

 

fleattle

“The Fleatle,” by Ian Dowsett

Skeleton and muscles- In some cases, the skeleton can take place of the skin. This is known as an exoskeleton. While it can provide protection from the external world, it is not very deformable, and weighs too much on large creatures. Additionally, such a skeleton would limit growth, and occasional periods of molting would make the creature vulnerable to injury. An internal skeleton provides more joint versatility, structural support, and anchorage for ligaments and tendons. Add muscles, and the creature will be able to move through and manipulate the environment around them. The means of locomotion will vary depending on its evolutionary environment, allowing for wings, fins, tentacles, or feet and hands. The type and position of joints is going to alter the function of the limb. For example, the elbow and knee are terribly weak joints (the fulcrum near the end of lever), meaning it takes a large amount of force to move the limb. Why would evolution do this? While the arms and legs are weak, their length away from the pivot point means they can move at incredible speeds, ideal for running, climbing, and throwing things. By contrast, relatively small muscles in joints used for crushing and raw strength, like the jaw, can allow bite pressures of over a thousand pounds per square inch in the hippopotamus, alligator, and hyena.

Tim's alien

“Gra’Sugra” conceptualized by Tim Kramer, illustrated by Joseph Martin

Brain- The nervous system, a means by which creatures control their limbs and the movement and function of other organs, can be simple or complex. For complex creatures, they come in two major types: centralized and decentralized. A central nervous system, like our brain and spinal cord, control all peripheral communications. A decentralized nervous system, like the octopus, has multiple little brains that can act independently of one another, or coordinate with each other without sacrificing intelligence. If your human explores encounter an alien starship, chances are the alien creature will have a complex nervous system, for how else would they have constructed such advanced technology.

ForC

Centralized nervous system- “ForC” by Ian Dowsett

 

Drude

Decentralized nervous system-“Drude” by Ian Dowsett

 

Metabolism and digestion- Biology is a huge source of entropy, bringing far more chaos into the universe than order. Life gets its energy by breaking existing molecular bonds and using that energy to create new ones. But we break far more bonds than we form. As humans, we must consume dozens of tons of food over the course of our lifetimes just to maintain our relatively unchanged size and shape, and perform comparatively low-energy functions.

The source of molecular energy a lifeform uses can vary. On Earth, most life gets its energy from breaking down simple carbohydrates, fats, or proteins. These in turn were formed by other lifeforms. Chances are the circle of life will come back to plants, who ultimately get their energy from the sun to form carbohydrates. In areas that lack sunlight or are too inhospitable for plant life, ecosystems revolve around other root sources of energy. Deep under the ocean at hydrothermal vents, where temperatures can reach higher than 400 degrees Celsius, the base life form are extremophiles (Archaea) which can use non-organic compounds to synthesize energy in the absence of sunlight. These in turn feed larger crustaceans and nematodes.

Morning Glory

Morning glory pool at Yellowstone. Many colors attributed to extremophiles. Picture by Philip Kramer

It is also possible, that aliens will not find humanity or other forms of life appetizing unless they evolved similarly. We have very specialized enzymes for very specific foods, like glucose (D-glucose, not L-glucose), amino acids (L, not D), and fats. If an alien predator does not utilize these same substrates, we will not taste very good or sit very well with them.

Waste disposal- On that topic, waste disposal is another must for complex organisms. It is impossible to digest, utilize, and recycle 100% of ingested food. At some point, toxins, and metabolic waste will need to be eliminated. Intestine type organs to digest and absorb, a liver to detoxify, and a kidney to filter our liquid waste, are common features of most complex life on Earth. Some creatures, like birds, reptiles, and most fish release both solid and liquid waste and reproduce through a single orifice called the cloaca. The aliens in The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide series, have such an orifice, much to the amusement of all the authors in the series.

TPATG alien

Alien from The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide series, illustrated by Stephen Lawson. Note: over-emphasized cloaca.

Reproduction- Life is complex, therefore it requires a lot of genetic information to maintain and recreate it. No matter what your alien species, they will have a genetic material (could be DNA, or some silicon-based version of it), and a method of reproduction. It can be an asexual species that creates clone-like copies of themselves like many starfish, or it can reproduce like humans and most other animals with two or more members of the species contributing genetic code.

starfish2“Starfish,” by Philip Kramer, (edit of picture)

Or, like slugs, they can be hermaphroditic, possessing both male and female reproductive organs.

 

slug1

“Seattle slug,” by Philip Kramer (edit of picture)

Circulation and respiration- The need for a way to distribute metabolic substrates and facilitate gaseous exchange is necessary for all large and complex organisms, including plants. The lungs and/or gills would need high surface area to facilitate the transfer of gasses. In smaller creatures, diffusion is sufficient, though rudimentary tracheoles, a heart, and hemolymph are present in many insects. Aside from supporting metabolism, the circulation is an ideal medium to support an internal defense against invading organisms. Most animals have a complex immune system supporting many types of specialized cells. Any alien coming to Earth would not have the adaptive or innate immunity required to repel local microorganisms. We would also have no defense against alien microbes.

Senses- Like locomotion, the senses will be defined by the environmental medium and ecological niche of the creature. Vibrations travel through air far better and faster than they do through a medium with little to no compressibility like stone or water, so many terrestrial creatures will likely have ears. Assuming there is light to see by, aliens will also have a type of eye, though it may see different parts of the spectrum. Tiny hairs, like those on insects, could improve tactile awareness, and receptors for aromatic molecules can provide a sense of smell. Humans have far more than five senses, so there are plenty to choose from to make your aliens as aware or unaware of their surroundings as you want. If, for example, your aliens only see in infrared, your space troops could use a special armor to disguise their heat signature.

Samuel“Samuel,” by Ian Dowsett

Mechanical augmentations- Aliens with a computer driven intelligence or mechanical augmentations are an exception to many of these “rules.” They will need energy, but this can come in many different forms, and they will not need to digest or dispose of waste in the same way. Despite the differences, however, they would have needed an intelligent biological host or a biological predecessor to design them. Seeing as how mechanical lifeforms are far more resilient, they will likely be the first interstellar visitors we encounter.

The tide

“The Tide,” Conceptualized by Tim Kramer, illustrated by Joseph Martin

Conclusion.

Congratulations, you have now made an imaginary lifeform and, ipso facto, you now have imaginary godhood. Don’t let it go to your head. Even a novice biologist will likely be able to undo all your hard work. But you have one thing going for you. Give your creatures all the things required of life, make it beholden to the laws of physics, and a product of its environment, and even those pesky naysayers won’t be able to prove its nonexistence. If you are still having trouble, take a page out our own planet’s ecological history. There are many millions of species with unique features, functions, and evolutionary trees, right here on Earth. With a little bit of research and imagination, we can all be amateur exobiologists.

 

Until next time, write well and science hard.

The science of suspended animation

Stasis2.png

I sold my first non-fiction article!

Back in January, I got in contact with Tony Daniel, the senior editor of Baen books, sent an article proposal, and signed a contract. Around the same time I won the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story award. I think it took him a couple of weeks to realize he was communicating with the same person in the two different email chains. This article was originally going to be posted last month, but he felt it was best not to publish it the same month as my short story “Feldspar.”

Here is the link to the article on the Baen website: “Stasis: The Future of Suspended Animation.”

For this article, I managed to get an interview with Dr. John Bradford, the COO of SpaceWorks, who is pioneering the development of suspended animation techniques with NASA for future human expeditions to Mars.

Here is the full, unedited interview:

Me- “How long could hibernation theoretically be sustained?”

Bradford- “One initial comment that is a bit of semantics, but we like to always clarify. On the term ‘hibernation’: We can’t actually make people hibernate, so prefer terms like “human stasis”, “torpor inducing”, and “metabolic suppression”. Maybe in the distant future through gene therapy/modification, this can be achieved, but right now we are focused on artificially inducing a hibernation-like state via cooling and metabolic suppression. So, we are trying to mimic hibernation, but not achieve it.

We are in the process of evaluating how long we can sustain the low metabolic state. This will ultimately have to be determined through testing, but since we are starting with current practices for Therapeutic Hypothermia, we have a lot of data to evaluate on what is occurring in the body over short 2-4 day periods. Longer periods of up to 14 days has been achieved, but data there becomes much more limited. We also look at animal hibernators as sources of understanding (and inspiration). Bears are a great model since their core temperature doesn’t drop to the extreme conditions most hibernators experience. They can be in torpor for 4-5 month periods. In summary though, we don’t know what the theoretical limit is yet. For our approach, it would not be measured in years. We can benefit a lot in terms of space travel if we can achieve just a few weeks, but ultimately we are looking to achieve months.”

Me- “Are there any plans to test human hibernation in the near future?”

Bradford- “Eventual human testing is on our roadmap and plans. NASA’s NIAC program is not funding us for any medical testing though, only to evaluate if this is possible, identify how we would do this, and quantify the mission impacts if it is feasible (engineering analysis). However, we are getting inquiries from a few investors and looking at non-governmental funding sources to start some specific testing. Note again that we do have medical data from subjects undergoing TH over short periods already, but those were not controlled tests.”

Me- “What is a major medical/engineering hurdle that will have to be overcome before this technology can be implemented?”

Bradford- “I get asked this question a lot and my answer probably changes frequently depending on what aspect I’m currently working on or problem I’m trying to solve. There are certainly challenges, but we are coming up with a variety of solutions or ways to mitigate them, either via a medical approach or engineering it out. The ability to initiate human testing will certainly be a milestone – fortunately I hear from a lot of people that want to volunteer! Transitioning to space-based human testing would be the next big step.

Lastly, I’d say we believe human stasis represents one of the most promising approaches to solving the engineering and medical challenges of long-duration spaceflight. With this technology, a variety of new options can be introduced and applied that address major human spaceflight medical challenges and risk areas such as bone loss, muscle atrophy, increased intracranial pressure, and radiation damage. System-level engineering analysis has indicated significant mass savings for both the habitat and transfer stages. These savings are due to reductions in the pressurized volume, consumables, power, structures, and ancillary systems for the space habitat. This capability is potentially the key enabling technology that will ultimately permit human exploration to Mars and beyond!”

To read the full article, including other interviews, and to learn about the science of suspended animation, click the image below:

 

stasis article

Link to Baen article: http://www.baen.com/stasis

“Feldspar” is now published

I’m happy to report that “Feldspar,” the story that won me the 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award, has officially been published on the Baen website, where you can read it for free!

Baen webpage screenshot.png

Screenshot of the Baen main page’s listing of “Feldspar.” Click the image to be redirected there.

Here’s the blurb they wrote for the story in their newsletter:

“In the future, a gaming company is accomplishing what governmental space agencies tried and failed to do: they’re slowly making Mars suitable for human habitation. But to do so they’ll need the help of a team of gamers back on planet Earth. One such gamer is Blake; his remote-controlled rover is Feldspar. But not all Martian exploration is done from the safety of an ergonomic chair in front of a computer desk back on Earth. Astronauts still make the dangerous trip to the Red Planet. And where human space flight is concerned, things can go very wrong very quickly. Now, Blake and his intrepid rover are all that stand between one astronaut and certain death in “Feldspar,” the grand prize winner of the 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award.”

Last month I flew to St. Louis to attend the International Space Development Conference to receive the award, and to meet with Baen editor, Tony Daniel, and the contest administrator, William Ledbetter. I had the chance to meet with several other authors at the conference, including the runner up, Stephen Lawson, and the third place winner M. T. Reiten. Baen also published Stephen’s story, Bullet Catch. It is a story stuffed with fascinating characters, science, and suspense. It is well worth the read.

Group photo

From left to right: M. T. Reiten, Me, Stephen Lawson, and Bill Ledbetter

Tony surprised us with a request for an interview at the conference to discuss our short stories and our backgrounds. You can listen to the interview below, which was aired on the Baen Free Radio Hour Podcast on May 26th.


The talks at the conference were amazing, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a huge nerd. I heard talks on space elevators, space beacons, space medicine, planet colonization and exploration, Mars simulations, and new ways to harvest asteroids and solar energy. I even got to share the award banquet with Linda Godwin, a former astronaut and recipient of the Missouri Space Pioneer Award. Needless to say, I came away from it with all kinds of new story ideas.

Linda Godwin presentation

Presentation by Linda Godwin

I don’t believe my own acceptance speech was recorded, but I’ve transcribed it for you below. To hear the introductory speech Tony gave, listen to the above podcast.

“Thank you, Tony.
It is an honor to receive this award as both a writer and a scientist, and to be here at this amazing conference.
I’d like to thank all those who helped make it happen, especially my family and friends who gave me valuable feedback on the story,  Bill Ledbetter, the contest administrator, and all the judges who chose my story from all the other entries. It couldn’t have been an easy decision. Finally, I would like to thank Jim Baen, for the impact he had on science fiction, and the legacy he left behind.
It would be difficult to find a scientist here who was not in some way inspired by science fiction. I think we’ve all dreamed of a future where traveling to space becomes no more routine than getting on the bus to work each morning. The part of me that’s a writer can only dream of this future; it’s up to the scientist in me, in all of us, to make it a reality.
Thank you.”

Last but not least, I got to explore St. Louis with my girlfriend, Megan. First on our to-do list was to RE-explore the City Museum. The last time we went, we lost a large number of our photos due to a cell-phone malfunction, so we had to re-document the amazing place. We felt like kids again.


Now for my regular readers, I’m happy to tell you that I’ll be getting back to my regular science in sci-fi posts. I have a big one planned for next month, so stay tuned.

Interviewed by my alma mater

WhywelearnSo this was a first. A couple weeks ago I was interviewed by my alma mater, Auburn University Montgomery, for their article series titled “#WhyWeLearn.” Click here to view the article they wrote.

For those of you who are interested in how I came to love both writing and science, I posted the full interview here. Enjoy!

Interviewer- Beck Phillips, AUM Strategic Communications and Marketing

Q1. You started in English and left for Biology. What made you want to switch?

Like so many other freshman, I still hadn’t figured out what to do with my life. I wanted many things, but one passion stood above the rest: writing. It takes a lot of practice and dedication to become a professional writer, and I planned to make it there eventually. In the meantime, I went in search of a work-study position at AUM. I admit, the idea of spending all day in the library for both work and school, was idyllic. Unfortunately, no such position was available, so I accepted an opening in the biology department. I’d always found science interesting, so it wasn’t surprising that I took to my responsibilities with a lot of healthy fascination and curiosity. In setting up labs and helping biology professors with various tasks, I was introduced to Virginia Hughes, who was an instructor in the Clinical Laboratory Sciences program. For days I helped her use the microscope camera to take pictures of blood cells for a hematology atlas. My interest piqued, I investigated the program. In addition to hematology, they taught immunohematology, microbiology, immunology, chemistry, and many other clinical subjects. For someone who loved many scientific fields, it was immediately appealing to me. Within a few weeks, I had applied to the program. Science, I decided, would be my career, but writing would always be my hobby. At the time, I couldn’t have foreseen how important my writing would be to my science career.

Q2. But you never gave up your love for language and writing?

Writing has been my passion since high school, when I decided to write the story I had always wanted to read. Those creative muscles couldn’t be exercised with science alone. I still had stories to tell, experiences to share, and an imagination that needed to be let out on paper every now and then. So I wrote. At first I wrote short stories, but then a story that was too large came along. After my first novel, I started another, then another. I was addicted. For me, writing was a way to communicate those complex ideas I couldn’t quite vocalize, to exercise my imagination, and to hopefully inspire others.

Q3. Did your professors here encourage you to do both? How did you avoid being
“pigeonholed”? Did anyone here at AUM help or encourage you?

For a long time, I kept my love for science and writing separate. When I took creative writing classes, I focused on writing, and when I took my science classes, I focused on science. Then one day in my Writing Fiction class, Jeffrey Melton, my instructor, gave me the advice all writers will eventually hear: “Write what you know.” And I knew about science. I wrote a short story about a crime scene and a clever detective who used forensic science to identify the true perpetrator. The story was well received in class, and I decided that perhaps writing and science could somehow mesh together. This concept became even clearer in my science classes, when I was required to write reports and papers, and give presentations. The mechanics of writing and the ability to tell a good story are just as important to communicating science as writing fiction. My main source of encouragement was Melinda Kramer, who, as both my mom and an AUM employee, cultivated my love for science and writing and knew exactly where I could find the resources I needed.

Q4. How did your time (and the people) here at AUM help prepare you for your
future and your career?

I owe my success in writing and science to so many at AUM. The instructors in the Biology department deserve most of the credit. Sue Thomson, took me in as a work-study student, and gave me every opportunity to learn new things and pursue my interests. Ben Okeke gave me my first research experience and taught me about biofuels and microbiology. When I joined the Clinical Laboratory Sciences program, I was introduced to Kyle Taylor, who taught me all about microorganisms and disease, and gave me even more research opportunities. To this day, I still use the laboratory practices and techniques I learned from Kathy Jones. I owe many of them thanks for writing the recommendation letters that played a large role in getting me into Grad school.

Q5. You were sort of a pre-cursor to STE(A)M (science, technology,
engineering, (arts), and math) — how valuable has your work in each field
been to the other?

My experiences in each field have been immediately applicable to the others. The broad scientific background I received at AUM gave me an advantage over my classmates in Grad school, many of whom came from highly specialized fields. My interest in hematology, immunology, and biochemistry culminated in many successful and highly cited studies in my dissertation lab. My background in writing and the arts has allowed me to communicate my science and create effective figures for my publications and presentations. I use math daily to perform my experiments and to analyze data. I have consulted and beta-tested new technologies for clinical research, and have been called on to perform troubleshooting and repairs for those instruments. No skill has been wasted. The true test of this was perhaps my short story entry into the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story contest. The contest seeks scientifically accurate short stories set in the near future, and is co-hosted by the National Space Society. My story was about a rover operator living in San Francisco, who finds himself in the terrifying position to save the life of an astronaut on Mars. I was not qualified from a mathematical, engineering, or technological standpoint to create a 100% feasible story, but if there was one thing the sciences taught me, it was how to do research. I spent months investigating every aspect of Mars and rover technology that might be relevant to the story.

Q6. How do you apply your talent for writing to the field of science?

Writing scientific grants, publications, and reviews require the use of descriptive and persuasive language. With the current state of scientific funding, a grant must be interesting and comprehensible to stand out among all the rest. I have personally applied for and received two grants for personal funding and have been involved in many large institutional grants that have been funded. My writing experience has been invaluable to the writing of nearly 20 co-authored scientific publications, which have been cited over 200 times. The same can be said for the role of science in my writing successes. The science I learned from AUM, grad school, and during my time as a biomedical researcher, routinely serves as fodder for my stories. I currently maintain a writing and science blog that advocates for the use of accurate science in sci-fi.

Q7. What goals do you have for yourself in the future after winning this award?

The Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest was the first short story contest I’d ever entered. To say I was surprised to win is an understatement. Receiving even the slightest bit of validation for your craft does wonders for your motivation. There are more contests to enter and no shortage of stories to tell. In the near future, I hope to publish my first novel. All of this would be impossible without the help of the writing and critique groups I’ve joined, and the continued support of my family, friends, and former teachers.

Q8. What advice do you have for current and future AUM Warhawks about their
academic choices?

Never let go of the things that make you happy. Life gets busy, and often you have to set your passions aside, but if it is truly something you love, you will find time for it. Be it writing, painting, music, culture and language, eventually that hobby will make you stand out from your peers and give you the advantage.
Additionally, there are far more opportunities out there than you may realize. If you’re intent on pursuing one career path from the moment you enter college, you’ll miss out on some amazing opportunities. Take the time to learn about the world, and soon you’ll discover your place in it. That is, after all, why we learn.

Writing Update- The 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest

Feldspar

I am pleased to announce that my short story, “Feldspar,” won the 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest. It is an honor to be chosen as the grand prize winner from such a pool of talented finalists.

The contest.

Baen books describes the contest as follows:

“Since its early days, science fiction has played a unique role in human civilization. It removes the limits of what “is” and shows us a boundless vista of what “might be.” Its fearless heroes, spectacular technologies and wondrous futures have inspired many people to make science, technology and space flight a real part of their lives and in doing so, have often transformed these fictions into reality. The National Space Society and Baen Books applaud the role that science fiction plays in advancing real science and have teamed up to sponsor this short fiction contest in memory of Jim Baen.”

If you follow my blog, you can tell why this contest came to my attention. I am a scientist, but my narrow field of research only satisfies a small portion of my fascination for science, space, and innovation. I decided some time ago that the only way I could make a real difference in science (beyond my own research) was to write about it. With any luck, my stories will inspire other scientists to invent what I do not have the time, intellect, or resources to create on my own. Winning this contest means a lot to me.

As the winner, I will be professionally published by Baen Books sometime in June. This will be my first professional publication, so it’s kind of a big deal for me. Along with publication, I will be given a year’s membership to the National Space Society, free admission to the 2017 International Space Development Conference in St. Louis, an engraved trophy, and tons of other prizes. Needless to say, as both a scientist and writer, I am most excited about attending the ISDC conference in May. It will give me the chance to speak to leaders in the field of space development about topics such as living in space, the space elevator, planet colonization, and innumerable other topics of mutual fascination. A previous Baen winner was able to sit next to Buzz Aldrin at lunch *cue two months of giddy excitement*. With any luck, I may be able to discuss my own scientific research and how it could help prevent the muscle atrophy associated with low gravity. I hope to come away from the conference with many new contacts as well as exciting story ideas.

The story.

“Feldspar” is the story of Blake, a lonesome rover operator in the city of San Francisco. With the help of the gaming industry, space exploration has boomed, and Mars has become the largest sandbox game in human history. Over a hundred rovers prowl the surface of the red planet, harvesting regolith for smelting. The iron wire they receive in return is used to 3D print any object these gamers desire.  But they aren’t the only ones on the red planet. When Blake comes across the footprints of a NASA astronaut over a hundred kilometers from the Eos Basecamp, he becomes her only hope of staying alive.

My thanks.

I’d like to thank Bill Ledbetter, the contest administrator, Michelle, the “slusher of doom,” and all the judges, including author David Drake, for choosing “Feldspar” from the slush pile. I worked on “Feldspar” for months, gathering feedback from friends, family, my writers group, and even my uncle Wade, a NASA employee. I appreciate their valuable feedback. This was my first short story contest, and it gives me hope that there is a place and perhaps a need for my unique voice in the world. I will diligently continue my writing, hoping that my vision for the future of space exploration will inspire scientists to make it a reality.

Links to award announcement.

Locus

File 770

Baen

The Science of Time Travel

time-machineLet us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If as we follow the arrow we find more and more of the random element in the state of the world, then the arrow is pointing towards the future; if the random element decreases the arrow points towards the past. That is the only distinction known to physics. This follows at once if our fundamental contention is admitted that the introduction of randomness is the only thing which cannot be undone. I shall use the phrase ‘time’s arrow’ to express this one-way property of time which has no analogue in space.

-Arthur Eddington. The Nature of the Physical World (1928)

Time travel features heavily in speculative fiction. It provides a useful means of foreshadowing and helps to heighten suspense as the characters try to avert a looming disaster or manipulate the future for their own ends. It appeals to all of us who have ever experienced guilt or loss and want to go back and fix it. It is rife with unintended consequences and can trigger exciting conflicts. However, it also provides a great source of frustration for writer and reader alike as they try to contend with the plot holes, paradoxes, and skewed logic associated with tampering with the fundamental laws of our universe.

In this post, I will address the most common problems and paradoxes associated with time travel, and then discuss the science that could make it possible.

Causality.

Cause and effect. That is how the universe works. Nowhere in nature can an effect cause itself, which is to say that energy cannot spontaneously manifests itself to perform an action. Thermodynamics and all of Newton’s laws require a cause and effect, but time travel inevitably breaks these laws.

Like the Billy and Rubin comic above, if the Professor succeeded in going back in time to stop Billy from building a time machine, he would then have no time machine with which to make the journey. Traveling to the past, for even a few seconds, can violate causality and initiates all kinds of paradoxes.

Grandfather paradox.

There is no better example of a causality violation than the Grandfather Paradox. If a time traveler kills his own grandfather before he meets his grandmother, the traveler will have never been born. Most disturbing of all, are the implications for “free will.” If the traveler sees his grandfather, he will be physically incapable of killing him, for doing so will prevent his own existence. Imagine a knife that physically cannot interact with a person, because if it were to interact, it would prevent its own interaction. *Mind blown*.

Butterfly effect.

A term used in chaos theory, the Butterfly Effect is coined after the concept of a gentle disturbance in the air caused by a butterfly’s wings, which eventually leads to a hurricane.

Some writers insist that any disruption to the timeline will “heal,” and all will be set back on course, but this is unlikely. If the person went back just to witness an event, they talked to no one, and received no more than a passing glance by others and were quickly forgotten, then I could see the future not changing… much. But even if something small happens, like the traveler buys a slice of pie from a street vendor, it could initiate a chain of events that divert the future substantially. What about the person who was supposed to buy that slice? That person might then continue walking to find another vendor, and chat with friend he met on the street. If that friend subsequently misses a trolley and arrives late to work, failing to smile at the woman who would have been his future wife, then generations of people will have ceased to exist in the future, and all of their actions, and achievements, will have been erased… just because of a slice of pie. This is another example of causality, and every major and minor moment in our lives can be traced back to equally minuscule events.

Foresight and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Time travel isn’t the only thing that violates causality, it can also be violated with foresight. Having knowledge of a future event can allow the future to be changed, but is it really the future if it can be changed?

Prophecy is a common plot device in Fantasy novels. If a seer or prophet sees the hero’s future or reads their fortune, what will happen if that hero decides to do something completely different? If the hero changes the future, was it ever the future to begin with? What is to stop a person from just sitting down and not doing anything if they learn of their future? If that future depends on them performing an action, yet that person refuses to do anything, how can that future exist? This is the Idle (or Lazy) argument. For example, if a man learns he will die by being hit by a bus, that man can refuse to leave his house, thus preventing the future. I have seen authors stretch the limits of believability by having the hero walk into situations, saying and doing exactly what the prophecy says they will, even though they know exactly what fate awaits them.

This only works if the prophecy aligns with the main character’s own motivations, or if they are somehow duped into causing the situation they were hoping to avoid. We call these self-fulfilling prophecies, wherein the hero makes something happen because he or she believes there is no avoiding it, or because they want it to happen. For example, there is a prophecy that a castle will be invaded; so on the day of, the character leaves his guard post at the gates and flees the city. The enemy notices this new weak point in the castle’s defenses and decides to invade.

The science behind time travel:

Paradoxes aside, it should be noted that time is very strange. Some scientists suggest it is nothing more than a product of our minds trying to make sense of the universe. Time can go faster for some, and slower for others, all depending on how much gravity is around or how fast an object is travelling.

Black holes.

Time is inherently linked to the three dimensional fabric of space. Therefore, a force that can condense that fabric, can also affect time. Gravity is such a force, and a black hole is a near infinite supply of gravity. If it were possible to survive the spaghettification (gravity literally stretching you out) associated with entering a black hole, you would most certainly be crushed by the pressure of the mass surrounding you. There is a theory however, that a zone exists around a black hole where the centrifugal forces of its spin counteract the forces of its gravity. Thus, time would be slowed (possibly even reversed), but you would not be pulled into the center.

Special relativity.

Satellites in orbit are actually experiencing time a little slower than we are, largely because of the speed at which they circumnavigate the globe. Einstein introduced the concept of special relativity, which basically states that, while nothing can travel faster than light, light will still appear to travel at light speed, even if the light source is traveling at close to light speed. So, depending on your reference frame, time will move differently based on your speed. This time dilation can make a person’s 300 year journey near light speed feel like 20 years. This is probably the closest humanity will come to “traveling though time,” but it is a one-way ticket. Traveling faster than the speed of light, theoretically, would reverse the flow of time. Most scientists maintain this is impossible, because it would violate causality.

Quantum mechanics and the Many-Worlds interpretation.

Some writers have gotten around the causality argument by suggesting that time might be like a river. If a significant event disrupts the flow of time, it can branch off into another stream, parallel to the first, creating two different timelines of different pasts and different futures.

Based on observations of quantum entanglement, and particle-wave duality, it is clear that, at the quantum state, an object can be in two places at once, and doing different things. Physicists have since theorized that any and every action creates a parallel universe, in which the opposite action was taken. These infinite worlds can be very similar to our own or very different. While this concept doesn’t quite offer up a solution to time travel, if proven true, it can help eliminate many of the causality paradoxes associated with it.

Conclusions:

Because there are so many theories regarding time, its nature, and how to travel through it, there is no correct way to portray it in speculative fiction. I would advise, however, to thoroughly outline your book if it contains elements of time travel. For many readers, time travel paradoxes are indistinguishable from plot holes.

What other considerations should writers take when writing about time travel? Did I miss a theory? Leave your comments below.

Rest assured, if time travel is possible, I will travel back in time to this very moment to ensure that I got everything right…

…nope. No Phil from the future. I’m a little disappointed, actually.

The science of enclosed ecosystems

billy-and-rubin-ecosystem

Earlier today I did a guest post for fellow blogger, writer, and scientist, Dan Koboldt. I came across his blog about a month ago. He and I share the same mission, to promote the use of accurate science in sci-fi. But rather than do all the background research on his own, he wisely seeks out professionals in related fields and asks them to write about scientific misconceptions in sci-fi and how to get it right. Since my own lab work concerns cellular respiration, I offered to write a post for him on enclosed ecosystems, and he generously agreed. You can see the original post by clicking on the graphic below:

ecosystems-and-life-support-in-scifi

Enclosed ecosystem and life-support systems in sci-fi

A Closed Ecological System (CES) is a broad term that encompass any self-sustaining and closed system in which matter does not leave or enter. These artificial habitats can be built in space, underground, or underwater, but no matter where they are, chances are they are closed for a reason. Whether it is an underground bunker in a post-apocalyptic setting, a distant planet in the early stages of colonization, or a spacecraft carrying the last remnants of humanity, the environment outside is not hospitable. To ensure long-term survival, the occupants must maintain a well-balanced air and water system, a continuous food supply, and a reliable source of energy.

So far, no artificial enclosed ecosystem has successfully supported human life for long periods of time. Even the astronauts on the International Space Station get regular supply runs and have to exchange personnel. The largest CES was Biosphere 2, which sustained 8 crew for 2 years; however, they had to resort to some extreme measures to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in normal ranges, and many of the plant, animal, and insect populations died off.

Creating and maintaining a CES is difficult, as many fluctuations or imbalances can cascade into environmental collapse without continuous monitoring and support. Here I will discuss a few of the misconceptions about Enclosed Ecosystems and Life Support systems and suggest ways to get it right in Sci-fi.

Myth: Waste is useless and should be disposed of.

You see this in many sci-fi stories set in space; the airlock door opens and a stream of garbage is ejected into the vacuum. This might be acceptable for short-term missions, where all the supplies needed are carried along, but for an ecosystem intended to last for a long time, being wasteful is not an option. It is a matter of mass balance. In most situations, it won’t be possible to obtain resources from outside the enclosed system, so if your characters are ejecting waste of any kind out the airlock, soon there won’t be anything left. By the same principle, if some waste product cannot be recycled, it will build up and eventually consume all of the precursor materials.

Getting it right

When creating a life-support system for a fictional crew, they must adhere to a strict recycling policy. Most solids, such as plastics and metals or glass, can be melted and recast into any number of shapes. Of greater importance is the conversion of gaseous, liquid, and solid wastes into breathable air, drinkable water, and edible food. Solid organic wastes such as material from dead plants, animals, or their excrement, contain large amounts of nitrites and nitrates, phosphates, and other inorganic compounds that serve as fertilizer for plants.

Having a ‘living soil’ or cultured hydroponic system is also necessary, as bacteria, like those found in the human gut, are great at breaking down complex organic molecules and making them assessable to the roots of plants. So far, there is no easy way to convert waste, carbon dioxide, and water into an edible food source, outside of a biological system, such as a plant. Such plants can be consumed as food, and the cycle is repeated.

Myth: Water evaporates and condenses, but the total amount doesn’t change.

You hear this often in terms of a large environment like the Earth, where water rises from the oceans and falls again as rain, and it is true for the most part. Only a few processes create or break down water, but in a small, highly balanced environment, they can make a huge difference. Water is made and destroyed in biological systems during condensation reactions and hydrolysis reactions, respectively.

But the most significant of these reactions occurs in the mitochondria, the ‘energy’ producing organelle in nearly every cell. In the mitochondria, oxygen receives 4 electrons from the Electron Transport Chain and is reduced to water. Yes, nearly all of the oxygen you absorb through your lungs is converted into water. The reverse happens in plants, where water is hydrolyzed into oxygen during the construction of carbohydrates during photosynthesis.

Getting it right

The balance between animal and plant life on the ship should ensure a stable supply of water, but water can be made and eliminated artificially if there is ever an imbalance. Electrolysis, breaking water into hydrogen and oxygen, can be accomplished with a little electricity. That processed can be reversed by burning hydrogen in the presence of oxygen. A means of storing oxygen and hydrogen or water should be in place to deal with small fluctuations. Humidity and condensation can cause severe damage to electrical systems, especially in zero gravity, where air currents can become stagnant. This also increases the risk of mold. Cold surfaces or specialized air filters can trap the water vapor and return it to storage.

Myth: Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, while animals do the opposite.

Unfortunately, the biochemistry isn’t so simple. Oxygen is not converted into carbon dioxide in animals. As I already mentioned, nearly all of the oxygen you absorb is converted into water. Carbon dioxide is released from the breaking down of metabolites like sugar, proteins, and fats. This takes place in the mitochondria. In plants, oxygen is made when both carbon dioxide and water are converted into carbohydrates like glucose during photosynthesis. This occurs in the chloroplast in plants.

food-water-and-air-cycles

Another misconception is that producing oxygen is all plants do. In reality, plants have mitochondria too, and they consume oxygen and carbohydrates and produce carbon dioxide and water. When the lights are on, plants tend to produce more oxygen than they consume, but without light, they will suck up the oxygen as hungrily as we do.

Getting it right

Even as little as 1% concentrations of carbon dioxide can cause acute health effects such as fatigue and dizziness, but even higher concentrations (7-10%) can lead to unconsciousness, suffocation, and death within hours. To control fluctuations in carbon dioxide, CO2 scrubbers can be used. However, carbon dioxide is an intermediate step in oxygen and carbon cycles, so this artificial means to lower carbon dioxide may cause downstream effects on plant growth and lower oxygen concentration. This occurred accidentally in Biosphere 2 when carbon dioxide was converted into calcium carbonate in exposed concrete.

Materials like metal oxides and activated carbon can be used in CO2 scrubbers and then the carbon dioxide can be released at a later time. Large variations from the normal 21% oxygen is more easily tolerated than variations in carbon dioxide, but long-term exposure to greater or lower concentrations can lead to many acute and chronic health effects. Adjusting the amount of artificial or natural light available for photosynthesis is an effective means of controlling oxygen concentrations.

Myth: Energy must be produced within the ecosystem.

No closed ecological system is completely enclosed. If it were, it would soon succumb to the laws of entropy, making it a very cold and dark place. Something has to enter the system, and that thing is energy. The energy driving the weather, the currents, and the very life on this planet is coming from the sun.

Getting it right

Most common energy sources:

  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Water
  • Geothermal
  • Gas
  • Fusion/fission

The first four examples are the only types applicable in a completely closed ecological system, since energy can be moved into the system without any exchange of matter. A major drawback, however, is that the habitat can’t leave the source of the energy. A spaceship powered by the sun will have a hard time operating in interstellar space.

Any technology that requires the use of combustible fuels or fissionable (uranium 235 or plutonium 239) or fusible (Hydrogen 2 and 3, deuterium and tritium, and helium) materials will have to be resupplied on a regular basis, so they are not suited for long term ecosystems. By nature of their bi-products, they cannot be reused for more energy, but they have the benefit of being disposable and can be used as a form of thrust in spaceships without upsetting the mass balance.

Other Considerations for Environmental Control and Life Support.

Ecosphere.jpg

My year old Ecosphere. Going strong except for a slight algae overgrowth (The lab decided to keep lights on around the clock this past month).

Size- Closed ecological systems can come in all shapes and sizes, but the larger the better. Larger ecosystems, like the Earth, can sustain much more life and complexity and take longer to collapse if poorly maintained.

Nutrition- The nutritional demands of a human are more than getting the right amount of calories. There are many essential trace elements, minerals, amino acids (9 of them), and fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6) and nearly everything that is classified as a vitamin, that cannot be synthesized by the human body. Until these things can be synthesized by machines, a complex ecosystem of many different plant and animal life forms would be required to maintain optimum human health.

Temperature regulation- Heat will build up rapidly in most enclosed systems, even in the cold of space, especially when you have heat generating electronics around. Heat needs to be dumped back into space as thermal radiation, usually a high surface area radiator that circulates a fluid capable of picking up heat in the interior and then dispensing with it outside. The opposite may be true in the deep ocean or underground, where heat may be drawn out of the enclosed system, and insulation will be necessary.

Air circulation- This is particularly important in zero G space, where hot and cold air will no longer rise and fall, respectively. To prevent air stagnation, humidity fluctuation and condensation, air needs to be well circulated. Filters are also necessary to remove any particulate matter such as skin cells or microbes.

The human element- Most enclosed ecosystems designed to support human life have not lasted nearly as long as they were intended to. Why? Because they failed to factor the human element into the equation. People get lonely and fall in love, personalities clash and people fight. Close quarters and a limited food supply can cause even the most patient and respectful of people to lose their temper. In Biosphere 2, the eight crew were barely on speaking terms by the time they exited, and two of them got married soon after.