Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Hama Blags Da!

MAYBE IT’S the whiskey talking, but I really miss Chris Toma. I know that sounds stupid. I never even met the guy. But I feel like we connected, him and me, in some small way, over his data-packs. I spent 18 months going through them all for my book and when you do that, when you dig in and really root around inside ‘Toma-world’, well, you can’t help but appreciate what an immense character he truly was. A real astronaut’s astronaut, if that makes any sense.

Luckily for me, he’s also got a great way with words. So my role as his official biographer is an easy one. His data-packs (all 3,000+) make terrific reading. Understandably, it’s the so-called ‘Lazarus Log’ (LO 415 S) that most people want to hear about. That’s where he laid out his audacious plot to, as he put it so eloquently, “beat this damned death thing if it kills me”.

We all know he made it. Kind of. And it’s all in the book (which I’ve almost completed, by the way). You’ll have to buy it to get the full story, but my Eurasian publishers - Schoost and Hogg – have asked me to scribe a brief advance summary to send out to newspacks, e-mags, casts... stuff like that. So that’s what this is: a bit of a sketchy overview of Major Chris Toma’s pioneering GravWav outer-stellar and exo-planetary explorations, touching on his discoveries in the Cygna Delti system (and on the surface of XP.5 Orthen in particular). And, of course, his incredible antics as a space cuckoo.

Like I say, I’ve had a few whiskies. Last weekend, I attended his memorial service over on NASA Hill, overlooking the ruins of Canaveral. That was an emotional send off. Twelve years have passed since we last heard from him. He has been declared dead, finally.

Toma always hated 20th Century music, so he would have loudly disapproved of the choice of song for his committal: ‘You Only Live Twice’ by Nancy Sinatra. But I thought it was an inspired selection. So inspired that I had a couple drinks to celebrate. Something I wouldn’t normally do. So, like I say, again, this might read a bit wonky. But bear with me. I’ll try.

OK, then. Ready? OK.

Major Toma was just 68 days (Earth time) into the surface exploration of Orthen when the data-pack containing his fateful LO 384 Y Log dropped onto the GW pad in Houston. As is still the case now, gravitational wave communications were a purely one-way entity. Just like GW partition travel, it’s a one-way ticket. We got our messages from the action man, but we just couldn’t send any back.  So NASA was unable to give Toma the bollocking he should have expected for veering so off-map with his language.

He revelled in this. He had fun with it. Even when he had bad news to share:

“Hello humans! Can you hear me thinking? I assume you’re seeing everything I’m thinking? Good. Well, Houston, it looks like we have an actual problem this time. How d’you like that?

“Look up here, man...” at which a bio-report flashed onto the reader in the form of a pale red overlay. “I’m in danger. I’m not quite right at all. Am I?”

Too true. These bio-readings were way, way off kilter. Radioactivity readings rested within the margins of safety, thanks to his Russian-made suit, but Toma’s cellular make-up had taken a massive, irreparable hammering. And it was getting worse. Skin cancer, of the most aggressive kin, was the bottom line. It was all over his bio-report, plain as day.

“So what happened is this. I gaffer-taped up the joints on my suit, because the helmet monitor wasn’t happy with what it was sensing. And it seems I might have been a teeny bit too late with all that, I’m sorry to say.

“To cut to the chase, my lovers,” he said, “I think I might have got some Orthen dust stuck in the ribbing under my left boot - well, both boots. And it’s worked its way through the perma-layers, like Orthen dust is wont to do, and it’s hit my skin. And we always knew that wouldn’t end well. The dust here, man, it’s not good. Not good at all.”

Toma went on to concede how, back in the Ranger with his suit removed and boiling in the de-rad tank, he found himself absentmindedly brushing dust from the bottom of his bare feet with an ungloved hand: “Like I was a kid at the fucking beach. Except this wasn’t sand. It was the horrible, grey dust of doom that kills anything that dares land on Orthen. Oh shit. I’m a goner...”

He was right. The Columbus VII Orbiter (which continues to return data signals from 220 miles above Orthen) had already sampled and scanned the surface material for us. And it’s totally toxic to any and all non-Orthens. Chris knew that risk and the decision to go ahead and land was entirely his call. Like I say, he was an astronaut’s astronaut. In his own mind, he had to go down there.

On landing, he reported to Orthen’s dominant species, as is accepted etiquette for galactic explorers these days, and received a timid but not-unfriendly reception from the host species. The locals were incredibly curious about his ‘smiley face’ suit patch. They spent hours and hours examining and measuring it, cross referencing the decal’s round, black eyes with his own.

But after a day of that, they let him go. He set up base in the Ranger, sortie-ing out for scientific forays once a day. The planet just carried on its business, as if he wasn’t there.

These Orthen natives, we have learned through Toma’s logs and the Orbiter’s observations, are Class V Humanids with moderate to mobile evolutionary markers. Broadly speaking, they’re at the stage we humans were at around the 15th or 16th centuries.

They present something of an anatomical anomaly. Biological analysis reveals artificial genetic modification (most likely Raphide), pointing towards extra-planetary occupation somewhere down the line. But in spite of that, their organic arrangement is unique among the 407 Humanid species recorded galaxy-wide to date. The brain tissue is split across three nodes within an enlarged chest cavity, while circulatory organs (heart, liver etc) occupy glandular cavities within four upper limbs. There is no heartbeat, just an irregular rotation of body tissue.

Toma described the mysterious nature of his alien hosts better than I ever could: “I can’t tell you why,” he wrote. “But I can show you how. They were born upside down. Born the wrong way round.”

They have nominal skulls which contain no vital organs – just an oversized optic nerve array which links stereo rhomboid oculars with the central brain node buried in the torso. Typically, the Orthen humanids enjoy a generous lifespan of 180-200 years (Earth equivalent). But as Toma revealed to huge excitement back here in 2084, it doesn’t necessarily end there...

“Holy crap, these guys get two bites of the apple!” he wrote in his LO 384 H log. “At least, some of them do. Some of them get to rise again, like Jesus or something, and have a for-real, real-deal afterlife. They each know from birth who will get it. Needless to say, the ones who don’t get to be born again are mightily pissed off about that.”

More facts were saved for the data-pack. Here’s Toma’s summary:

“The Orthen humanids fall into two very distinct camps. The Caprins live standard 200-year lives and then die. The Hamas are physically identical to the Caprins until the point of physical death, when they transfer to a meta-spiritual existence.

“At that time, all physical presence is lost, but memory and some character traits are transferred to a new out-of-body plane of conscious existence. Nobody seems to know if it’s any fun or not, but it’s as close to the human concept of an afterlife as you’re ever going to get. And these upside-downer people are totally nailing it.”

All attempts by Caprins to emulate the Hama rebirth have yielded nothing. Bitter wars have been fought as a result. Neither society is permitted to mix with the other. They’re pretty easy going, on the whole, but the afterlife situation has tethered undeniable tension to the surface of Orthen.

Toma: “Local mythology insists this spiritual second innings never lasts longer than 12 years (Earth equivalent), but the Caprins still want what they see as their fair share. They’re very jealous about it.”
Toma continued in his log: “Both Hamas and Caprins share a kind of cathedral, more like a Romanesque villa, I suppose, in the centre of Ormen, close to the coastline of the planet’s primary land mass. Interestingly, neither society knows who built the thing. It’s just accepted that it was always part of the planet. Like the death dust. The structure is divided into two wings, and neither party is permitted access to the other’s territory.

“Here, and only here, can the Hamas communicate with their departed family members. For several centuries, these messages from beyond the grave, so to speak, have also been broadcast live via primitive loudspeakers across the holy ground surrounding the villa. I think this might be so the Caprins aren’t encouraged to harbour any more resentment of their Hama neighbours than they have to. But it’s just as likely that the Hamas are showing off.

“You’ll often hear the Hama song of the reborn outside the great villa doors, broadcasting to the great outdoors. The ‘Hama Blag Sda’, as it’s called. I think that means something like ‘Hama, returning for duty.’”

With anxiety descending, Toma must have felt like those Caprins. Nursing his own decaying body, thanks to the deadly dust of Orthen, Major Toma would have been contemplating his own mortality. Caprins died – Hamas lived again. It seemed so unfair. And now he knew he was dying, he wanted ‘in’, too. But if the Caprins, who at least shared the Hama biology, couldn’t grab a slice of immortality for themselves, then, really, what chance did he – a human, from Earth - stand?

This weighed heavily on his mind in log LO 415 T:

“Well, I’m dying too, Houston. I can’t get around that. And just like those Caprins, I’m going to have to lump it I guess. What’s frustrating is I think I’m pretty close to understanding how it might work. You’ve seen how Columbus VII reports elevated GravWav signals from the Orthen surface at the point of a Hama physical death? I don’t know how that works into the situation. But it must mean something.

“If I had a little more time, then I might turn that understanding into a plan. And maybe, just maybe, I could then work out a way of jumping into a Hama corpse, or something, and buying another 12 years for myself. If I could only get a dying Hama spirit to raise a metre then stand aside for me...”

“But. Damn it. My bio-data reckons I’ve got no more than a few days left. And I don’t know how much of that time I’ll be fully conscious. So I’m going to go and do some deep thinking. And if I get any bright ideas, I’ll make sure you hear about it. And if I don’t, well, I guess this is goodbye. So, goodbye. And thanks for all the fish.”

That was the last coherent log we got from Major Toma. There were other short missives, spanning a couple days, but none of them made too much sense. There was more rambling about GravWav manipulation, some religious thinking-out-loud and much complaining about the moondust which was about to cover him. But most of the time, the web of pain wrapped tightly around his skin kept him silent.

As NASA waited for Major Toma’s sad and inevitable death, Orthen’s radio silence, so to speak, was deafening. Until that fateful moment when his bio-data finally flatlined.

At that instant, Columbus VII picked up some unusual chaos 220 miles below. There was a commotion breaking out on the planet’s surface. Caprins were going crazy, dancing some kind of alien jig, a strange non-circular, non-linear fiesta involving all four upper limbs. They were hammering violently on the gates of the Villa of Ormen. The Hamas panicked and tried to slam the gates shut. Barricades were erected and fires were sparked. Pandemonium.

The Orbiter’s intuitive instruments honed in on the melee. The villa loudspeakers were blaring out across the holy ground, as always. But, this time, the voice sounded distinctly non-Hama:


Then this:





Originally published in "47-16: Short Fiction and Poetry Inspired by David Bowie" (Penny Dreadful Publications, 2016).