Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Saturnine Solution

Chief Propaganda Officer Daina repositioned the two cameramen. They were her only film crew on this expedition – besides herself. She checked their angles through the zoom of her own camera, though to her annoyance her hair once again obstructed her eyes. Somehow her tresses had extricated themselves from their bonds. She removed her helmet and tied her hair back. She was inclined to cut it short but her flaming red locks were instantly recognizable in a politically useful way. As soon as the Revolution had succeeded, however, she would put a pair of scissors to work. She doubted Morik would object. He never objected to her appearance, or praised it for that matter, which under the circumstances was peculiar. But then he was an unusual man.

First Folksman Morik had invented the Movement by the force of his own personality, and now he held total victory in his grasp. Nonetheless, he readily took direction from her, trusting her instinct for dramatic camera shots. He appreciated Daina’s propaganda skills. She, in turn, basked in his appreciation. Daina directed one camera to pan up to Saturn directly overhead and then back down to the plain below where the red sun touched the horizon and lit the landscape in dramatic shades of red. The frame steadied on the silhouette of Morik looking out over the final objective from the mountain slopes. Below, the Citadel looked for all the world like the toy miniature with which Daina had played as a child. One of the spires on the toy had pricked her finger. What awaited in the real spires would do more than prick. Morik anticipated 30% casualties and his general staff thought he was optimistic.

Morik’s risky plan to flank the Loyalists through the mountains had been opposed by his Folk Troop commanders, all of them former officers in the regular army. Morik dismissed their objections, saying that the time had come for a bold stroke. In the end, they obeyed him, however reluctantly. Daina quietly berated herself for having shared the commanders’ doubts. But then, she knew Morik in a way they did not – a great man, to be sure, but a man and far from infallible. Daina’s relationship with Morik was an open secret in the Inner Circle, and a matter of rumor with the public, but nearly everyone pretended ignorance to his face and to hers, and wisely so. She knew from her private conversations with Morik that his decision had had not been made solely with regard to the military situation. He was concerned that the disparate elements of the Movement were fraying and that the political risk of inaction was higher than the tactical risk of action. As usual, his gamble paid off. The passes, as he had predicted, had been completely undefended. The Citadel lay ripe for the plucking. At the very least it had been isolated.

The Citadel’s location had been chosen millennia ago by the very first Luminary Crealla, though there was much debate among skeptics over whether Crealla was a real person or a later legendary construct. The spires of the Citadel on tidally locked Titan perpetually pointed at the gas giant. According to tradition it was the spot where the human race was created by the gods and where Crealla was tasked as intermediary between gods and men. It was here that the Luminary could hear the gods speak most clearly. Daina didn’t believe in such things, at least intellectually. Yet, whatever reason told her, she could not entirely shake a superstitious fear that the current Luminary at any moment might unleash the powers of Saturn on the rebels. Was a trap waiting below for the Folk Troopers? If Morik had any such concern, he didn’t voice it, even in private.

Tactical Commander Etson approached Morik. “I don’t like it,” said Etson. “It is too easy.”

“First you tell me it is too dangerous and now you complain it is too easy.”

“It makes no sense for them to have left the passes undefended. They must be preparing something desperate,” said Etson.

“All the more reason to strike before they are fully aware of our presence and strength. Ready the assault.”

“Yes, Folksman. I need half an hour to assemble.”

“You have 15 minutes.”

As Etson set about organizing the troops, Daina marveled at the storybook appearance of the plain. It was not just the Citadel that looked unreal. A charming Village beyond it fronted the shore of a broad lake that reflected sun and Saturn. The Village existed solely for the purpose of supplying the Luminary and her staff with basic needs. Few roads led in or out of the plain. Most supplies were brought in by air or were produced locally. Only the airport with its workaday industrial hangers, aircraft, warehouse structures, and oddly oversized radar dish contrasted with the quaintness. She wondered how much damage the scenery would sustain by the end of the day.

Through the zoom of Daina’s camera more divergences from the picturesque became visible. Flak guns surrounded the Citadel. At the airfield a dozen fighter aircraft were lined up outside their hangers. She wondered why they weren’t they in the air. Surely by now Loyalist forces were aware of their presence. The Movement’s fighters were hanging back, ready to intervene when Loyalist aircraft took to the skies. She could discern no personnel at the airfield. Not even the usual maintenance crews were milling about. Paralleling the runway was the strange delta-winged craft mounted on a rail that baffled the Movement’s intelligence officers. The craft was assumed to be a weapon but they had no explanation for the shape. She turned her attention to the Village. She could see no activity there either, civilian or otherwise, but she was too far away to be sure.

The Folk Troopers were ready in 15 minutes. At Morik’s order they would swarm into the air, each trooper flying under his own power with bat wings. Morik and his commanders had agreed on this tactic. At such a close range transport planes for paratroopers were worse than unnecessary. They would provide the enemy with easy targets packed with soldiers. Instead, troopers using their individual wings would descend on the airfield and Citadel in a two-pronged attack, overwhelming Loyalist flak guns with too many targets. Morik would join the assault despite the risk. Sharing the dangers would reinforce his legitimacy with the people and, more importantly, maintain it with the troops. His charisma was all that held the Movement together. Despite the blood red sky, there was plenty of daylight left. The Titan day was 16 standard days, so sunsets lasted a long time. The movie cameramen would stay behind and film the attack long-range from the mountains, but Daina would fly alongside Morik with her still camera. Daina unfolded her wings and inserted her arms into the appropriate straps.

When Etson indicated the troops were ready, Morik waved the final signal, and the first wave of bat-winged troopers took off from the mountain passes. They rose over the plain, flying easily in the thick atmosphere and the .14g. Daina tested her wings and fluttered above the ground. Morik and his personal guard rose into the air amid the second wave of attackers. He wore a standard Folk Trooper uniform except for insignia too small to see at a distance; there was no sense asking to be a special target. Daina flew into position on his left. The flak guns remained mysteriously silent as they approached and then flew over them. Daina could see the first wave converge on the airfield. As far as she could tell, shots had yet to be fired. At the Citadel the second wave cleared the wall. No defenders were in evidence. Morik altered his initial plan to land at the Plaza amid the bulk of the forces. Instead he proceeded to the Central Spire itself, alighting with his guard outside the grand portico. He contacted Etson on his personal radio to make him aware of the change. Daina smiled. Whatever his faults, Morik was not without courage. The portico to the Spire was empty of Loyalists. Two of his guards, in response to Morik’s hand signal, ran up to the massive doors to place explosive charges.

A small door within one of the two large doors opened. A servant in a frilled shirt and purple jacket peered out.

“Oh please don’t do that,” he said to the men with the explosives. “Who is in command here?”

Morik rose to the moment. Morik waved aside his guards and strode forward without regard to the danger. Daina clicked away with her camera as her pride in him swelled.

“Oh, it’s you,” said the servant. “The Luminary said you would be here, but I doubted it. My apologies.”

“Don’t doubt it! Open the gates!”

“As you wish.”

The servant closed the small door. A moment later the huge ones swung open. The servant stepped out again. “Follow me,” he said. “The Luminary wishes to see you.”

“So she shall!” responded Morik. “On my terms. We will take the Citadel in its entirety!”

“Oh, it is yours. There is no need to smash anything. The Citadel Guards were sent to the Village so no one would get hurt. They are unarmed and under instructions not to resist, so please don’t smash the Village either.”

A company of regular Folk Troopers who had been detached by Etson began to fill the courtyard.

“‘First Folksman’ is your preferred honorific, is it not?” asked the servant. “Will you please follow me?” he repeated.

“Subcommander,” Morik said to the highest ranking officer present, “take control of the building and the grounds. Inform Etson to move on the Village when the Citadel is secure. Suppress any hint of resistance with any force necessary.”

“No one will offer resistance,” said the servant.

“You’ll forgive me if we don’t take your word for it,” Morik answered. “Daina, you come with me. You two also,” he said to two of his personal guards. “Let’s go take the Luminary’s surrender.”

“But sir, why trust this fop?” asked the subcommander, taking a risk by questioning Morik’s judgment.

On this occasion, Morik responded mildly. “If it is a trap and I am killed, you and your fellow officers can vie for my job.”

Though said in good humor, Daina knew this was the truth. Morik never had arranged a plan for succession, deeming it useful to seem irreplaceable. She also knew he enjoyed displays of bravado in front of the troops. Besides, he always had a good sense of who was a threat and who was not. When he did make mistakes, they were on the side of seeing threats where there were none. If he saw no threat from the servant, she would trust his instinct. “Call me on my radio in 15 minutes,” he ordered.

Morik, Daina and the two guards followed the servant into the building. They strode through the grand halls that had featured in so many newscasts and photos. The Gothic arches overhead were of breathtaking height. The five passed beyond the grand stairway and through a series of doorways into a very different section. The scale of the architecture compressed to more human size with each passageway and turn. At the end of a corridor they entered a cage elevator in the center of a circular stairway. Daina guessed this was the center of the tower. The elevator rose. Daina wondered offhand if the electric power for it was generated on site. The elevator stopped at a floor that was remarkable for being bland and unimpressive. Daina could hear faint echoes of Folk Troopers stomping somewhere on the floors below.

“Is this the Luminary’s private quarters?” asked Daina.

“Yes. I see you are disappointed,” said the servant. “The Luminary has no need of ostentation in her own life. The grand ball rooms down below are to impress the gullible. I’m sure the First Folksman will find them equally effective.”

“Do you speak to your mistress this way?” asked Daina with an overtone of threat in her voice.

“No, but I do speak to the Luminary this way. Or was that whom you meant?”

He led them down the hall and slid open pocket doors to reveal a comfortably accoutered sitting room. At small table at one end sat the familiar figure Daina had seen so many times in photos and broadcasts, but never in such a mundane setting or in such casual attire. She was thin and white haired but appeared spry.

The radio strapped to Morik’s shoulder crackled, “Is everything all right sir?”

“Just fine. I have the Luminary in custody.”

Daina remembered to start taking snapshots.

Morik turned to the guards. “Search the other rooms on the floor. Then take a post outside the door.”

“No one is the other rooms, but send your guards out anyway. I would like to talk to you alone if I may,” said the Luminary. “Would you look like me to look crestfallen?” she asked Daina with a smile.

“Yes, ma’am, if you would,” said Daina in all seriousness.

“Is this better?”

“Excellent. Sir, please stand by the table.” Daina snapped rapidly while Morik posed.

“Is it better with or without the handgun?” he asked.

“Leave it holstered,” said Daina. “It looks more confident.”

“Are you audio recording?” he asked Daina.

“I’ll start now.” She clicked on a small tape recorder.

“You can go, too, Ferdly,” said the Luminary to the servant. He bowed and withdrew.

“Luminary, I hereby depose you in the name of the People,” announced Morik.

“Any people in particular? Never mind. Have a seat and some tea, Morik. May I call you Morik?”

“You are ordered to surrender.”

“Yes, yes. I surrender. I thought we had covered that. Sit down and have some tea.” She poured two cups. “And you might as well call me Reena, unless you want to redefine my office as a purely ceremonial one and keep me in place as Luminary. That might help you appease the Loyalists, who still outnumber your followers even though they lack your zeal and combativeness.”

Morik had made just this very demand of the Luminary at the beginning of his political career when his success seemed improbable, but after his success in the Southern Putsch he had dismissed the idea. The Luminary had proven determined to fight his further aggression after the putsch, which made today’s sudden surrender to him all the more puzzling. Daina could see him calculating the pros and cons of the offer. He looked the cups on the table.

“Oh really, choose either cup,” she said.

He sat down and sipped the one in front of him.

“How brave. Your social revolution is impossible, you know. It has too many conflicting components. All that has held it together so far is your silly rhetoric and the excitement of the war against me.”

“The territories under my authority are thriving.”

“Superficially. They are on a war footing so people there are employed. They are producing war materiel, but people can’t eat bullets or wear armored cars. When peace comes, your followers will want you to deliver on your promises to make their lives better. You can’t, of course, so you will have to rely on brute force to hold the state together.”

“As you have done.”

“Hardly. The people of Titan don’t know what brute force is, not having experienced the real thing in generations, but I fear they will learn about it from you.”

Daina knew that the Luminary, despite her disrespectful phrasing, was right about the disparate elements of the Movement. The party was a hodgepodge of religious conservatives, radical secularists, workers, social levelers and business people. They were united only by their opposition to the Luminary, who, in the midst of an economic depression maintained an austere budget, kept taxes high, and eschewed democratic reforms, thereby giving the Movement a boost in popularity. Even so, Morik’s first successes were achieved by guns, not ballots. Daina assumed he would sort things out after victory.

“Well, no matter,” sighed the Luminary. “You, too, are transitory.”

“We shall see,” said Morik. “You brought this end on yourself. You failed to meet the demands of the people for change.”

“Oh my goodness is that really what you believe? I gave you credit not to believe your own propaganda. Change is what made your Revolution possible. If I had been as reactionary as my predecessors everyone would have remained contentedly obedient peons, tilling fields with mules and burning candles for light. If I had established an elected legislature without restricting its powers, they would have voted to restore the old order. Turmoil happened not because I progressed too slowly, but because I allowed progress at all. I promoted technology and let common people grow rich through industry.”

“And thereby created inequality and class struggle…”

“Oh come, Morik, the classes were much more rigid before. But now we have an industrial economy where we did not before. That is the real revolution, not your power grab.”

Daina allowed that there was some truth to the Luminary’s remarks. Assisted by the release of remarkable series of scientific textbooks by the Citadel’s scholars, a wholesale deregulation of social life had fueled a technical and economic explosion around the world during the four Long Years (64 standard) of her reign. People had grown so accustomed to ever expanding wealth that a financial panic which threatened their new lifestyles had radicalized much of the population. Morik had capitalized on the discontent, by promising everything to everyone in terms obscure enough to be read in opposite ways. Much of the public, unaccustomed to demagogues, had risen to him.

“Why did you permit the depression?” Morik asked, genuinely curious.

“You sound as though it was intentional. My economists tell me that complex economic systems will have occasional crises, though I understand this explanation may be merely an excuse for their failure to predict this one. They say it will correct itself in time. If so, you were right to use the crisis while you had one.”

“But why did you upset the social system in the first place? You must have known it could threaten your power base.”

“Finally an intelligent question,” she said.

“I’ll edit this recording,” reassured Daina.

“Because there are more important things than political power, First Folksman. I’m hoping you’ll see that. Tell me, do you believe that I’m the interpreter of the voices from above?”

“That’s what Luminaries have claimed since the beginning of time,” he answered.

“Not since the beginning of time, but since the beginning of civilization on Titan. Do you believe our origin story? Do you believe that our souls go to Saturn when we die?”

“Stop recording, Daina. The faithful are part of our coalition. They oppose you because they think you are a false Luminary, not because they have abandoned their basic beliefs.”

“In other words it would be politically unwise for you to comment. Do you mind if I address your photographer instead?”

“Be my guest.”

“May she speak freely without fear of punishment?”

“Of course.”

“Daina… Are clan Levieh, by the way?”


“Some of your family works for me.”

“I know. They are misguided.”

“Are they? As that may be, what do you believe about the origin of life?” she asked.

“I believe in science.”

“And what does science tell you?”

She glanced to Morik. He nodded. “There are no remains of people or other creatures in the geological record more than several thousand standard years old,” she said.

“And what is your conclusion?”

“We and all life on Titan were indeed planted here by somebody. Gods like the stories say? Travelers from one of the moons of Jupiter? Maybe from the stars? Who knows?”

“I do, despite the best efforts of the Chronoclasts, the string of several Luminaries a millennium ago who decreed our library of ancient records to be heretical. They ordered the works destroyed lest they corrupt future generations.”

“They suppressed inconvenient history in order to consolidate their power,” said Morik.

“See, the First Folksman understands perfectly. I’m sure he’ll do something similar. In any case, most of the earliest data was lost. Fortunately, some defiant scholar hid some texts for the benefit of the future. Workmen uncovered them while installing a new heating system in the cellars while I was still a student here. They had no idea what they were, but mentioned them to me. I removed and re-hid them. The records were technical manuals. They were the basis of the science and engineering texts released at the beginning of my term. We’ve uncovered no early texts besides these manuals, but within them are clues about our real pre-history. The book on astronomy, for instance, is written from the perspective of humanity’s planet of origin – one with rotational and orbital characteristics that make sense of our standard time units and standard gravities. They are not just ceremonial and mystical, as most people assume.”

“What planet?” Daina asked.


“But that’s a burnt rock scraping the sun.”

“Now, yes. Once the sun was smaller and cooler.”

“That must have been millions of years ago,” said Daina.

“You are underestimating by an order of magnitude.”

“But that makes no sense. We’ve been here no more than 10,000 standard years. Tops.”

“Which raises questions to which I have no answers. Why are we here? How is it possible we are here eons after earth burned to a crisp? Also, I have reason to believe the founders, whoever they were, were capable of genetic manipulation. So why did they make us fragile and mortal if they could have made us otherwise? What was their point? What is ours?”

“What does it matter?” asked Morik. “We are here. We make the best of it.”

“It matters, Folksman, because toys and games aren’t enough. They weren’t enough for you. You came up with your ridiculous Revolution in order to give your life meaning. Your photographer seeks it in her devotion to you, though I suspect she questions her own wisdom sometimes. Now that you have power you may soon realize power is not enough either. Besides a ‘how’ it is human nature to want a ‘why.’ We invent answers for ourselves, but our answers are follies – and some among us allow ourselves to recognize this. If there is a cosmic answer to ‘why,’ don’t you want to know it?”

Morik did not appear convinced.

“So, just ask the gods,” said Daina, annoyed by the Luminary’s dismissal of her admiration for Morik. “Your kind always told us you communicated with them.”

“Strangely enough, I am in contact with something, as were all my predecessors. But I can make no sense of it. As far as I can tell it is nothing supernatural. It is just a locator beacon. Perhaps it is a pointer rather than a beacon. Perhaps it is saying ‘This way to lunch’ to galactic predators who will show up someday. Maybe that’s our ultimate destiny: to be snacks for creatures higher on the food chain.”

“I’ll take that as a joke,” said Daina. “What frequency is this beacon? Where is it? Why hasn’t anyone else heard it?”

“The beacon is a highly directional beam of coherent microwaves sent to this precise location and nowhere else. The emitter appears to be in orbit around Titan but radar can see nothing but an occasional smudgy return signal that could be a glitch or interference. Whatever it is up there is very small or it deflects radar somehow. You see how politics are unimportant compared to this. I needed an industrial economy competent enough to construct the craft on the railway by the airport, which I sincerely hope your troopers have left undamaged. It is weeks away from completion. When done, it will reach orbit. That is why I permitted social and technical change: to make space accessible. To preserve the Titanic from damage I surrendered.”

“The craft is called Titanic?”

“Yes, why?”

“I don’t know. It makes me uneasy somehow,” said Daina. “It really can go into space?”

“Yes. It is not such a grand feat really. I only can imagine what it must have taken for our ancestors to get out of a 1g gravity well, but we can get out of this one with our present limited technology. The hard part was heat shielding for atmospheric reentry, but we developed a ceramic composite for that.” The Luminary turned her attention to Morik. “I have no respect for your politics, Morik, but as a human being, do you have enough curiosity to allow the Titanic to fly?”

“This is utterly unimportant,” he said. “We need to consolidate our power here on Titan and meet the needs of the People. Metaphysics are for effete intellectuals.”

“Sir, for our own safety we should learn what is up there,” said Daina, playing on his occasional paranoia. “It could be dangerous.”

“Well, there is something to that.”

“Yes, Morik,” said the Luminary. “Besides, when your people realize you can’t deliver to them anything more than a boot in the face, news of this flight may distract them from their woes. I suggest you allow the young lady to go with my pilot while you’re busy betraying your promises. You obviously trust her, and so do I.”

**** **** **** ****

The charred Titanic sat on the runway. It would need a complete overhaul before flying again, if it ever would. Re-entry had been rougher than anticipated, but the craft had taken Daina and the craft’s pilot into space and returned them safely to the surface. The flight had been unannounced. As far as anyone outside the program knew, Titanic was just some experimental aircraft. Morik had decided not to risk a public failure; a success always could be revealed afterward. Daina had some fine footage for him, though she no longer had quite the enthusiasm for propaganda she once did. If the pilot, an unprepossessing man named Wonik who had been selected by the Luminary a year earlier, had any political views about the Revolution, he kept them to himself. He simply had done his job and done it well. Morik was not on hand to greet Daina’s return to Titan. This probably was a deliberate safeguard against associating himself with a possible failure. He was off visiting troops somewhere.

Daina made her way to Reena’s quarters. She lived under house arrest, but Morik had taken her up on her offer to remain nominally the Luminary, leader of the faithful. She was, however, stripped of political power. Morik’s security apparatus meanwhile tightened its political grip on the populace. Tea was waiting for Daina in the Luminary’s sitting room.

“That was a very exciting landing,” said Reena.

“More so than I would have preferred, Luminary.”

“I think we’re past honorifics, don’t you dear? You look awfully subdued considering the adventure you have just had.”

“Yes, Reena.”

“So, what did you find in orbit?”

“Everything is recorded on video and audio. You can review it all.”

“I shall, but summarize it for me.”

 “There is an enormous machine,” said Daina. “How it avoids radar I don’t know. It maintains itself with robots that feed on asteroids for resources.”

“And how do you know that?”

“It told me. In our own colloquial language. It is intelligent, sort of, though it denies being conscious in a sense I would understand.”

“How did Wonik react to this conversation?”

“He didn’t. He didn’t hear it.”

“Really? So how do you know it wasn’t your imagination?”

“The voice came over my earphones. I was able to record it so you can hear for yourself. The voice was real.”

“Well, out with it,” said Reena. “What did it say?”

“It said it awaited my orders.”

“Excuse me?”

“My very response. I asked it what it was and what it wanted of us. It said it was constructed as a seed vault. It oversaw the seeding of life on Titan by its subsystems thousands of years ago. It says it was dormant until certain parameters were met on one or more of the gas giant moons. Titan met the bill when surface temperatures on Titan could sustain liquid water and provide a habitat for life. Humans were modified from our proto-genotype only to the extent necessary to keep us from being weakened or harmed by low gravity.”

“Where are the other humans? The ones from earth who built the machine.”

“I asked. The machine said there is no evidence of them anywhere but on Titan. It didn’t know whether they died out or left the solar system or transformed into something else – it was dormant until it awoke some thousands of years ago, long after earth fried, so it doesn’t know.”

“Why didn’t the ship tell us this before?”

“It did, back at the beginning. But your predecessor, the first Luminary Crealla herself, ordered it not to communicate until contacted in person. I’m guessing she decided it was politically inconvenient for the truth to be widely known. The machine continued to send a beacon on her authority, too. I only can guess at her reason for that. Apparently the machine decided Titanic’s rendezvous qualified as ‘in person.’ I think the machine has an almost human capacity to stretch a definition. But it was designed generally to follow human instructions. Frankly, it seemed relieved finally to have someone to tell it what to do. I realize I may be projecting emotions onto it when I use the word ‘relieved,’ but it really seems that way.”

“It offered no insight into what our purpose on this world is supposed to be?”

“It said our ancestors wanted to ‘restore humans to their natural state.’”

“But there is nothing natural about human life on Titan,” observed Reena. “Or about any life on Titan.”

“Don’t argue with me about it. Tell it to them.”

“I’d like to. So the machine was looking to us for its purpose.”

“The irony has not escaped me. So, what do you think we should tell the public? Morik will want recommendations.”

“They might have to wait until Morik and your execrable Movement are history before they are allowed to hear anything about it.”

“Maybe. But whether they hear it now or later, what should we tell them? That we were seeded by a billion year old program that was probably little more than an afterthought by some ancient conservationists? That we fundamentally are a zoo, but one that has no visitors?”

“I think we should tell them they were established here by our ancestors to redeem mankind,” said Reena. “They’ll like and respond to that better.”

“Another lie?”

“A noble lie.”


  1. Very good Richard, I thought it felt like romantic SF in some regards. It also had a mythology/history to it which helped to give it some gravity and depth. Also I could tell it had some universal conventions that mirrors our current life like why are we here, the media & propaganda, politics--good or bad or all the same, where did we come from, etc.

    I was also glad you refrained from a literary pet peeve of mine of having too complex of character names like T'cl'atiira. Those always turn me off a bit, though with some literature, like Dune, Lord of the Rings, I'll put up with it. :)

  2. Romantic SF may have not been the best description, I think I was meaning earlier-type SF, and perhaps to me that seems a romantic period ie Heinlein and that sort of story.

    1. I figured that was the sense of romantic you were using, and thanks. Yes, I cut Frank Herbert, Tolkien, and their peers slack in that regard too. I like Herbert's non-Dune novels as much as Dune, btw, even though they are not as epic,