Winterwolf III

Noiselessly, the two jaws holding the first pellet, nicknamed the Bald Eagle, unclamped and withdrew, the hydraulic pistons powering their ductile muscles being emptied of all air. As the cylinders withdrew slowly, the pellet came loose, for a moment just hanging limp in space before a trigger went off deep within its titanium heart, igniting the secondary boosters. Directing itself downward and transmitting the coordinates of its location every second to the Winterwolf, the Bald Eagle started its gentle descent into the atmosphere of New Chance IV.

*

The Tesla coil went dead. One moment, there were sparks, and then the next, the ladder was gone. Hundreds of miles above its zenith, the sky was graying, turning slowly from a deep hue of green-blue to a pale shade of gray. Like a blot of ink on flimsy paper tissue, it was spreading, eating into the sky, a deadly flower blooming to herald the coming of a blighted spring, a malformed foetus come to disrupt a tradition of beauty. The faint odour of ozone was thinning, gradually but steadily, even as the temperature in a large hemisphere around the coil began to drop. Communication around the tower went limp with it. The sparks couldn’t permeate the airs anymore as gusts blowing within their invisible veins turned neutral, dampened infinitely, and were goaded no longer to swing or lunge. A sulfurous stench was becoming prevalent, too. A dragon was coming.

*

To call the Bald Eagle a pellet was stupidity. Tip to tip, it measured 89 feet, more than ten-times the wingspan of a full-grown Earthborn albatross, and from its helm to tail, 11 feet. Calling such a thing a pellet was derogatory, pejorative even, and some would say it was absolutely warranted. Its body was curved like a bow’s, although not quite as heavily, and its underside was pocked with miniscule half-gouges and textured rough. As it accelerated through the dense atmosphere, the gouges prompted the construction’s shell to wear off in slivers at first and then as shards and then as chunks of metal, exposing flasks of combustible chemicals. As the temperature reached magnanimous proportions, the flasks’ lining tore off and set the liquids on fire, which in turn set off small explosives positioned in a ring. Each detonation blew out hundreds and hundreds of pellets of thorium-232, each of which had been “activated” only moments earlier with an electron laser. At the end of the next 24 months, the thorium would decay into protactinium and then to the highly radioactive uranium-232, and New Chance IV would be blanketed with death.

The time-period of two years was chosen to provide the rebels with a chance to relent and surrender, at which point the Winterwolf would send down lead-secured rescue-ferries. At the same time, for each day that they postponed their decision, tens and then thousands would die, and future generations forever doomed to evolutionary insufficiency. It was first thought this could be achieved with full-scale war, but the rebels’ ability to construct cyborgs from decapitated body parts would significantly reduce attrition on the battlefield. Instead, two cyborgs had been kidnapped and their memories extracted, and the Earthborn learnt of the Tesla coils. Simply destroying them wouldn’t do – more would come up. Instead, shutting them down permanently and causing significant biological distress would cripple their beloved New Chance one and for all.

Winterwolf II

Snapping him out of attention, suddenly, was a long-toned beep from the semi-AI monitoring CE34’s upgrade. “Warning! Sentience encountered!” the screen displayed in bold, green lettering. CE32 didn’t understand: 34’s quantum compiler had activated itself even though the activation sequence had been carefully subtracted from his pseudo-memories. Within 32’s bulbous silicone head, a small screen lit up adjacent to the fronto-temporal module, while a projector readied the binary encryption for “Interesting”.

 *

There was a sudden tug, and the entire Winterwolf jolted itself out of its monotonous stupor. Alarms blared and red-blue strobes went wild, but on the upper bays, their light was visible from behind the hinges of loose-fitted doors, the sounds through ventilations shafts. On the bay areas, like at all times, darkness prevailed. Fanderay, though, was unperturbed. He picked up a communicator – it was jammed. White noise. With a grunt, he turned away from the deck and strode to Bay 32, where the last cyborg maturation was being performed. “Is everything all right?” Oh, yes. The upgrade’s on track. “Good, good.” What was the disturbance? “Oh, nothing. We’ve crossed into the flux belt. Assault’s… what? Four minutes away.” Alright.

He shut the door quietly behind him and walked back to the deck, to drown himself in the faint blue.

 

Winterwolf I

A Tesla coil stood alone in the middle of a vast desert, the manganese-rich pink-red dust characteristic of the planet whipped around its splayed feet by incessant winds. The coil itself was actually a tower a mile high, and halfway to its top, a series of coaxial superconducting rings were held in position by nanotube scaffolding. At the tower’s peak was a forking: through each prong flowed electric current at a very high voltage, resulting in highly energetic sparks rooted in each prong “climbing” up and up, like a moving ladder. At the very end of the fork, they arced out and disappeared, but not before strongly ionizing the air around the Tesla coil. The ions were then guided by the planet’s strong magnetic field around the planet; the stream of flowing charges, as it were, was used for radio-communication, and had been installed there by the rebels. There were thousands of such Tesla coils strewn around on the surface of New Chance IV.

*

The ship cruised in its path around the planet, the pale orange-hued orb dominating the view from the viewing port through which CE32 stared. His mate, CE34, lay lifeless on a reclined chair behind him. Wires embraced his torso and pelvis, culminating as plastic-sleeved cables that disappeared into the floor. There was an occasional faint beep that each coincided with the completion of a data-feed cycle, a monstrously long series of 0s and 1s that compiled into strange cushioning memories. The past wouldn’t have to come crashing into their minds, they were told, and CE32 was responsible for “maturing” all cyborgs from 28 to 37. CE34 was the last. The sequence would halt, however, only when the pellets were triggered off, sent plummeting into the planet’s upper atmosphere.

A few bays to his right stood Doriant Fanderay, commander of the Winterwolf. His view, uniquely, was an endless dark blue, the perfect stillness of black made impossible by the light of some distant galaxies. The countdown was already running, but Fanderay paid the timer little attention; just the cursory glance to ensure everything was running fine. His mind wandered, reached out to fill the yawning emptiness he saw ahead: once the planet’s atmosphere was contaminated, the last outpost of the New Chance would be eliminated from the race to history. Humans and machines alike would be suffocated, strangled, and forced to yield to the ultimatum, if not to the ultimate. And then, the Earthborn could return to the status quo of 2051. It didn’t matter – not to the many billions back home – that the synthetic race they had strived to conceive now awaited death at their creators’ hands.

Plays of the day

Patronages are important. I say this because my science-blogging endeavour has come a long way in terms of receiving appreciation, being the basis for which impressions of me (good or bad) are registered, and representing my interests as well as mindset in a fairly balanced way: such wouldn’t have been the case hadn’t it been for the First Patron. Thank you.

*

One thing I realised today was that “greatness” in journalism is easy to come by because most journalists – in whatever capacities – are as close to doing moderate good as they are to doing immense bad. In fact, I correct myself: not greatness but notoriety. However, irrespective of all the appreciation or ignorance of the people toward this aspect, I’m not sure all journalists are aware of it. Even if they are, how is its knowledge changing them?

*

The British parliament recently passed a law that does three important things:

  1. Offers protection to peer-reviewed publications that contain articles reviewed by one or more experts and that contain backed-up claims disputing existing evidence
  2. Offers protection to conference proceedings and reports thereof for the same reasons as above
  3. Shifts the burden of proof from the claimant to the party defending the disputed evidence and requires the latter to prove that it has been “harmed” by the claim

Obviously, this law goes a long way in protecting and, very likely, encouraging debates within and without the scientific community.

Do such laws exist in India, though? Or are debates in the country not big enough yet to warrant such protection?

*

On the bus home from The Hindu, there was a pin-drop silence for about 20 minutes, between Saidapet and T Nagar. No heckling, shoving, jostling, jouncing, shouting or clamouring of any kind. Peaceful. The people around me – sitting and standing and some dangling off the foot-board – could have been thinking of family, friends, some rest. For me, it was the perfect time to think of the technology with which an alien race might possibly defend itself against human invasion, the weapons being containers injected into the planet’s upper atmosphere that fall apart during “re-entry” and release radioactive dust.

Given that, what could the others have been thinking of? Family, friends, some rest?

The turtle walk

Last night, I saw a just-hatched olive ridley, measuring no more than 6-8 cm in length, swim back into the ocean after being set on the sand by a worker. Because of the turtles’ choice to lay eggs on the beaches off Chennai, there is a significant chance that the eggs will be sniffed out by dogs or poachers, and the young ones killed for their meat. Instead, these conservationists, the turtle-walkers, patrol a 14-km stretch along the coast every night during the egg-laying and hatching seasons. When they find hatchlings, they are guided into the ocean by setting them down on the sand, shining a torchlight at them from close to the water, and ensuring they follow the light and don’t strike land again – although this practice is most obviously for the entertainment of the volunteers/onlookers invited to walk with them.

The olive ridleys lay their eggs in the months of February and March, which means the hatchlings will be out after a 45-55 day incubation period just before the hotter days of summer are on. Higher temperatures (over about 35 degrees Celsius) are likely to kill the unhatched ridleys because microbial activity associated with decomposition of the eggs kicks in. At the same time, the gender of a newborn is determined by the same incibation temperature: if between 31-32 degrees Celsius, the clutch is solely female; if between 29-30 degrees Celsius, the clutch is a mix of males and females; if below 28 degrees Celsius, the clutch is solely male. I suspect some degree of antecedence in this pivoting about a temperature to ensure the birth of solely females as global temperatures rise. This conjecture is predicated on the assumption that each male olive ridley can mate with multiple female ones.

Red dots mark major nesting grounds, and yellow, the minor ones. (Image from Wikipedia)

Another interesting, and temperature-related, thing about the olive ridleys is the location of their major nesting grounds: the western coasts of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Mexico, and along the eastern coast of India (along the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean). There are other sites off Angola, the Congo, and Indonesia as well, but the major ones lie between the Tropic of Cancer and the latitude 15° south of the equator. These are warm climes. On a related (and opposing) note: one of the turtle-walkers suggested that the laying of eggs occurs during nights and before high summer, when the ambient temperature is lower overall and significantly lower after sunset. When asked why the ridleys choose sub-tropical regions for nesting, the walkers conjectured it could be so because these regions are historically their birthplaces. That seems too simplistic an explanation. Moreover, with regions farther from the equator becoming warmer over the last five or so decades, we’ll soon see if ridleys nest on newer grounds.

(When I run a Google Scholar search for if migration patterns of the Ridleys have changed over the last few centuries, almost nothing comes up. If patterns haven’t shifted, then the birthplace guess could be true. If the patterns have shifted and become more diffuse… well, have they?)

Apart from these factual dwellings, the turtle walk is a brilliant experience even though the chances of coming across any eggs or the ridleys themselves are low. Though the walkers themselves patrol a 14-km stretch, the nighttime volunteers pace a 4-7-km stretch from Neelankarai in the south to the Besant Nagar beach to the north. As the western facade gradually evolves from sites of gorilla urbanism to early-rising fishing hamlets, the bay to the east remains relentlessly unchanging, although as the night grows older, the strong landward breeze gradually weakens. Crabs (of the family Carpiliidae) are also a common sight, with as many as hundreds at a time visible scuttling along the shoreline. Another added bonus is for amateur stargazers: the skies, if they’re clear, have far more stars on display in the dead of night, far removed from bright terrestrial sources of light, than would be visible at any time of any day from even a kilometre inland.

And even if you end up having a 4-km stroll doing nothing at all, the sight of a dozen olive ridleys at the end swimming back into the sea could make your day.