Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Felix and the Frontier - Part Six

Felix and the Frontier is a story told in six episodes, posted serially by me, your beanstalk-climbing host, Cheeseburger Brown.

Related reading: Simon of Space, Free Felix, Life & Taxes

Coming up next:
Welcome to Mars! concerns the first manned mission to the red planet, and the uncomfortable surprise that awaits Earth's heroic astronauts upon their arrival. Don't miss a single chapter! The story starts serializing the week of September 10th.

Preview follows:


It rains.

The drops are an ammonia hydroxide and hydrogen sulfide solution. They stink like egg farts and leave streaks of yellow stain striping the gatehouse dome. Never the less Felix is enchanted, refreshed, and grateful -- this situation is infinitely preferable to the waystation he's just left.

The early morning sky is an opaque ceiling of wooly cloud. Thunder groans.

Felix and his tiny twin have emerged into woods, though it is immediately apparent that the area is more farm than forest: the tall, web-leaved trees are planted in widely-spaced rows, stately lines extending in every direction with measured precision. The foliage is blood-red, the floor a packed bed of rust-coloured moss.

The hybrid homunculus steps up to the nearest plant and inclines his little head. "Hello," he squeaks. "We represent Solar life. Our names are Felix, and we come in peace."

Felix shakes his head. "That's a sapling."

His staff turns to look at him with an inquiring expression.

"You can't talk to saplings," Felix explains. "They're just plants. All they do is grow and breathe."

The staff cocks his head, blinking as rain runs down his face.

"Those rowboats didn't equip you with much in the way of brains, did they?" asks Felix drily.

"You can teach me, Big Felix. How does one recognize a sapling?"

Felix shifts, still faintly repelled by the hybrid thing, then shrugs. "Well, the height and the simple bifurcation pattern of the gross structure suggest phototropism. Note also the extensive vascular root systems, indicative of immobility. Finally, the sapling resembles the surrounding phenotypes in most respects save size, which tells us they are likely juveniles of the same species."

"Juveniles are small."

"Usually, yes."

"Am I a juvenile Felix?"

Felix pauses, considering this, his eye caught for a moment by a platoon of ants moving out over the gatehouse dome for a maintenance sweep. "That is a reasonable analogue," he says, looking down again. "Though we differ in terms of genotype, our phenotypes have achieved a kind of parity via a fusion of disparate technologies. The relationship is not entirely dissimilar from that between a Zorannic Man and a Human Being, I suppose."

"Human Beings are wet and fragile."

Felix can't help but smile. "That's true. We are their robust cousins...you and I. We have been engineered for durability so that we might explore situations too toxic or rarified for Human Beings."

The little twin hesitates, his expression thoughtful. "Are you my parent?" he asks.

"Um," says Felix. "I suppose I might be, yes. You are patterned after me, though without the bulk of my memories or my facility to apply the Secret Mathematic. We are...relations, to be sure."

He blinks. "What do we do now, Big Felix?"

Felix looks around. The clouds are becoming pale, a star's ruddy glow on the eastern horizon glimmering between the trees. The air is warming and an ammonia mist is rising from the moss. "We explore," he says...

To read the complete novella get it for Kindle!


Tolomea said...

I'm going to say some critical sounding things so I'll start by saying I like this concept and I think it will work better in the long run than anything more along the lines of what I was expecting.

But I don't like the delivery so of the concept so much. Now that our "something wicked" is revealed, I find it somehow disappointing.

The chapter is quite fine at the level of the Felices ongoing exploits, my problem is at the larger scale. This is a major point in the large scale plot and it just doesn't hit like that.

What we have is total indifference backed with vast resources. When you get right down to it this is far scarier than malice backed by superior tech, but in a less emotional way.

Subsequently it doesn't have the emotional kick that comes with malice. So the story feels anticlimactic.

If you wanted to improve it, I'd suggest making it scarier. I don't think you want to make it dark as that creates a fake malice. Perhaps some suspense and shock. Currently it's quite predictable. By the time we get to the radio telescope, given everything that's come before, the rest of it is pretty obvious.

P.S. despite initial reservations lil Felix is cool.

sheik yerbouti said...

The dead robot cities remind me of Bradbury's depiction of post-war humanity. Very eerie. Also, the reunion at the end put me in mind of post-meteoric Siberia with Lallo and son... but with a better ending.

I suspected that LF might be somehow obliterated once BF came to appreciate him, and I'm glad to see you didn't totally get rid of the little guy. What a wonderful and unexpected relationship you've brought about in the midst of tragedy! I get the feeling you're drawing on your own experience as a dad here :)

Thanks for delivering yet again.

wv: zittvkrm (the call letters of an all-acne television station?)

Ray Merkler said...

Excellent as always. I have a question, though: Why didn't the Goliath robots destroy any of the gatehouses further away from the Fluff?

Teddy said...

Tolomea, what's more frightening, an angry dog or a tornado bearing down on your house? I find this fleet of adaptive colonizers to be DISTURBINGLY frightening in their automated apathy. They remind me of the Borg back before the Queen when they were supercool - this mysterious force in the universe, seen as evil because their actions are ultimately destructive, but they're really just carrying out their programming. I've always compared the Borg to weather, and I'll easily extend the analogy to this - a destructive wave coming to wipe us out, but not necessarily intending to do so.

But don't worry. Simon and Jeremiah will assuredly save the day. Perhaps Tim will be there too, it would be a great time for him to pay penance for his destruction of Sol. And I really can't wait for Simon to meet Felix! You know it's got to happen.


Mark said...


Felix is one brave MF.

This reminds me of the Enterprise being flung to the farthest reaches, where they become the first Federation representatives to encounter the Borg, which adapts to their weapons, absorbs their technology, and continues its assimilation of entire planets and species.

That's where the comparison ends, of course.

Another great one, CBB. I hope Solarkind figures a way to combat this threat.

I loved "the Felices" every time I read it. Also, you're very good at relationships in your writing. Simon of Space, some may forget, featured some very emotional scenes.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Tolomea,

Thanks for your comments. I'm not sure I precisely nailed this one either, though upon my re-read this morning I felt better about it than last night after finishing it.

You're right that it's trickier to goose the audience cerebrally than viscerally -- at least, I think that's a part of your critique. This is definitely a more intellectual menace: one that dawns on one as a chilly realization rather than a punch in the jewels.

Ramping up to an intellectual reveal is a dodgy process, in my experience so far. If the set-up is too dense I'm telegraphing the plot; if the set-up is too sparse half the audience is left wondering what they missed.

My final challenge was not to -- so to speak -- blow my load in one fell swoop. Since this is a subject we'll be returning to, I wanted to keep some angles of the Solar-Goliath interaction unrevealed or merely implied, so save some ammo for future tales.

Dear Sheik,

Little Felix was originally plotted to die, but I grew attached to the wee feller and just couldn't pull the trigger when the time came.

Dear Ray,

The Goliath enterprise had not yet appreciated existing Solar technology as any kind of threat. While it moved against the colonizers (active leading edge), the rest of the network didn't rise to notice until it was connected to Felix, and even so was not destroyed until Felix proved himself dangerous.

Dear Teddy,

Weren't the Borg cool before they were ruined? For a brief, shining moment the Federation had a foe that was truly frightening. And then...well, and then the "decentralized" Borg gained a leader and everything went rapidly downhill as they devolved into just another shade of Romulan or whatnot.

Ever since they castrated the Borg I've wanted to create an enemy in their conceptual image who would not be diluted or so easily tamed.

Cheeseburger Brown

sheik yerbouti said...

Teddy: it's not penance, it's restitution. Either way, that would be cool. I'd love to see our disparate cast of characters united for this effort... we shall see.

And yes, this is infinitely more disturbing than an intelligence which at least offers the potential for reasonable discourse.

Ray, good question -- though perhaps somehow a few probes/gatehouse-builders got through and hit those worlds afterward...?

For my part, I'd like to know how the alien colonizers could be so quick as to destroy the transmitter "at the heliopause" (i.e. a random spot on a giant sphere likely 100 AU in diameter) within minutes of recognizing its signal. If they have that kind of transit time, then wouldn't they reach the Neighbourhood long before Simon was even born?

Somebody needs to warn the King's Fingers. Perhaps they won't think so badly of Solars after all (unless they associate the messenger with the tragedy, which of course is possible).

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this one. Thanks for not killing LF.

Simon said...

I was greatly satisfied with that closing effort. I, too, started to develop some affection for LF and was glad not to see him snuffed. As soon as it became apparent that the first world was deserted - or razed in some way - I began to suspect that that world's undoing would end up being the Something Wicked. Still curious, of course, about what did in the Goliaths (assuming there are no vestiges of their civilization), but the immediate concern is how to stop the colonial advance.

The mindless, implacable enemy is terrifying in there being no way to plea for leniency or harmony. How, then, to battle it??

I was put in mind, a little, of The Neverending Story, where The Nothing was consuming the world in which the story was set, and only Sebastian had the power to restore things to the way they were by naming The Queen.

Unfortunately, in the Neighbourhood, the Queen already has a name.

Looking forward to Mars!

mandrill said...

Ooh, shivers. You should bottle that Mr. B, you'd make a fortune. (I understand that in a way that's what you're trying to do.)

What I want to know is what happened to the living Goliaths? were they terraformed by their own colonizers?

Orick of Toronto said...

the real "something wicked" will be what destroyed the Goliaths. One of their former slave races, say, that was enthralled by the mind control powers of Goliath but found a way to rebel and kill them off.

Then we start: Star Control II !!!! :) Man I loved that game.

Orick of Toronto said...

ok silliness aside, while I enjoyed this chapter, I can see why some people are feeling a bit let down. my impressions:

1. We have known about The secret math for many stories now. It has always seemed vaguely omnipotent. It's a bit difficult to accept 'something wicked' is a truly dangeourly threat without buildup of something equally powerful.

2. The sense of danger isn't as great in this chapter as in chapter 2. Felix was physically injured to near death with only his torso and head left. Grantly LF was nearly killed but he isn't the main protagonist in this story. Perhaps if both of them were harmed grievouly. It would make the sense of danger greater. Maybe even to the point of them depending on each other to survive. It would also serve for an opportunity of bonding.

3. the machines did not see as relentless as they could have been. Perhaps I read it too fast but it seemed a bit abrupt that they identified Felix as threat, destroyed the gatehouse, then... left?

On saving all that, this story has been particularly great. I mean you can expand on this story line and have a whole novel easily.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Sheik,

Regarding rapid remote response at the heliopause: I can't say a thing without spoiling further Goliath fun. I hope it doesn't stick out as too sore a question mark in the story.

Dear Simon,

I hadn't been thinking of The Nothing, but now that you mention it I admit that I certainly am fold of that book (the movies, I felt, more or less missed the point by making Bastian a cute, shy kid instead of what he was in the original German: a red-faced, selfish glutton -- as rendered, the first movie is robbed of its moral meat and the second movie is virtually nonsensical).

Dear Mandrill,

To be candid, I haven't thought up what's happened to the Goliath race. I'm sure it'll come up, though.

Dear Orick,

Thanks for your notes. Keep the astute criticisms coming -- Orick, Tolomea, anyone -- they'll worth their weight in gold to me.

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

Part of what makes the Goliaths so frightening in my mind is their ability to adapt to the Secret Mathematic. If (should I say when?) outright war happens, I can see the Goliaths repeatedly adapting to everything the Executives (and the Equivalency...I have a feeling that only combining the two will give them anything remotely close to a fighting chance (being excessively parenthetical is fun)) throw at them until they're able to weild something equally as powerful against Solarkind.

Is it safe to assume that the Goliaths have our good friends in the Local Fluff hopelessly outnumbered? If so, it'll take nothing short of a miracle to save the galaxy. Perhaps Name will help out...it's either that or Simon pops back up through his time travelling.

Gha. The speculation is half the fun of reading this stuff. You'll have me running options through my head for weeks, and in the end I'm sure I'll still be surprised.


Sheik Yerbouti said...

I shall take you at your word, CBB.

Re. the sense of danger, I kind of see where Orick is coming from... then again, to me, it would take a thousand Zorannics just to combat the colonizers on one planet. I don't think we Solars have that kind of resources, though perhas Pish and his kind will be numerous enough to begin dealing with the threat...? Jeremiah seems to think otherwise, though one wonders to what kind of power source a human mind would have access in the heat of battle. Curiouser and curiouser...

gl. said...

fantastic. i actually had to stop reading at "And so dawns the darkest day of Felix's long life" and come back to it later, because i knew i was going to have to steel myself against an emotional onslaught.

thank you for not killing little felix; i had reservations about him, too, but after you melted my heart when he asked to hold big felix's hand, i was afraid you were going to go kill him and the cliche was going to suck.

i hatehatehate that you ended where you did. it's like the end of angel season 5. the only thing that consoles me is that i'm pretty sure it will be resolved or furthered, even if only in passing, in some other story.

gl. said...

(oh, i meant to mention that being able to witness big & little felix acquiring a new language -- and that it is one based on elements -- is really, really neat. "how delightful!" as little felix would say.)

sheik yerbouti said...

In a moment of boredom I went back through The Rich Dance, because I thought I remembered something. Were these the "Round Ones" that name remembers?

Also -- and this may be an ignorant question -- are we to draw from this tale that the ants on all colonized worlds (e.g. Annapurna) were actually mini-robots... or is this just for the initial portal construction? Do the initial ants arrive in the probes, reproduce, and build a gatehouse?

I'm also a bit confused as to the role of the colonizers. It seems that the "Goliaths" colonize every world they see, whereas the Solars/humans are a bit more specific, but perhaps I've misinterpreted that.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Tomas,

Indeed, the approaching front of Goliath colonization is likely wider than the whole of the Local Fluff. Solarkind outnumbered? Oh yes!

Dear gl.,

Fret not: Felix will be back. After all, I did have to end it somewhere.

I'm glad you enjoyed the language acquisition passage...it was certainly a highlight for me.

Dear Sheik,

You may or may not recall a passage in Tim, Destroyer of Worlds in which Tim muses that differentiating the real birds from the engineered birds flying around the dome roofs is virtually impossible.

Similarly, I don't think most folks could tell an engineered ant from an organic one. Both have a role in terraforming and, to a certain extent, both hang around after the fact.

On an average mature Solar world we might expect up to a quarter of the animal biomass to be organic ants, with a sprinkling of engineered ants. No one "kills" the engineered ants when their work is done, so they're left free to become part of the ecosystem.

Like organic ants, they are simple mechanisms -- basically little carbon machines. The only real difference is that engineered ants take instructions from sentient races with the means to communicate appropriately, whereas organic ants take instructions from no one but the world and their queens.

In short, the engineered ants have some extra algorithms up their sleeves for building Solar artifacts but are otherwise almost identical to their organic sisters and, left to their own devices, make the same sort of living.

Organic and engineered ants cannot reproduce with one another, however. Their germ-lines remain isolated.

About the colonizers: I think the Goliath approach is appropriate to their level of power as a civilization -- any planet will do, because they have the resources for any kind of engineering desired. Solarkind, on the other hand, is relatively new at this.

I don't want to go into too much detail about Goliath technology so as to not spoil future reveals, but I will say that while the Solars are a young Type II civilization (on the Kardashev scale) the Goliaths are/were at a borderline between an advanced Type II and an emerging Type III civilization. Thus, their ability to manipulate energy is orders of magnitude more sophisticated than anything available to the members of the Panstellar Neighbourhood.

Cheeseburger Brown

Simon said...

Damn... a simply enquiry about the Kardashev scale really CAN lead to too much lost time on wikipedia.

One fringe benefit of the increased intermission between stories here is the greater opportunity for discussion and speculation. Like gl., I too found the language discovery to be one of the highlights of the chapter.

Teddy said...

Same here regarding the K-scale and wikipedia. I think there's a couple things that it ignores, though. Sure, we use more and more power every year, but this may be as indicative of the same infrastructure expanding to support a burgeoning population as it is of advancing technology. Also, in modern society it is important to CONSERVE energy and make the same amount do more by making more efficient tech.

That the Goliaths are nearly level three scares the CRAP out of me. Notably, the wiki page says that a typical III society is able to harness the power in a large quantity of stars OR EVEN A GALAXY. They're powerful...

I sure did enjoy the references to Dr. Who, though.


Tolomea said...

"Part of what makes the Goliaths so frightening in my mind is their ability to adapt to the Secret Mathematic."

I read it as them adapting to the specific things that Felix did with the mathematic, not them adapting to the mathematic itself. We haven't yet had anything that would indicate to me that the Goliaths possess something equivalent to the mathematic.

Also I'm very curious as to just how equivalent the equivalent mathematic is.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

teddy, I guess I'm not enough a Who-head to notice (you've finally out-SF-geeked me)! Where were those references?

And yeah, things seem pretty hopeless against this particular foe. 'Twill be interesting to see how things progress in the future.

Teddy said...

In the wikipage for the K-scale, check under Type IV civilizations in the section on "Literature describing different Kardashev Types".

"Most races pray to lesser beings than the Time Lords"

...ooooooooooh, that's cool


Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear all,

The new story should start tomorrow (Tuesday 11 September). Sorry for the delay -- I had a busy weekend!

Cheeseburger Brown

sheik yerbouti said...

aaaand it's up already! Woohoo!

Teddy, thanks for the pointer; that does indeed make sense. Of course I personally wonder how the daleks advanced quickly enough into Type IV to be a threat to the Time Lords, but then again, there's a lot I don't know.

Sith Snoopy said...

Dude! Loved the ending to this, except now I'm worrying about how Big Felix and Little Felix will get out of this, LOL!

I heard that people think the ending was kindof anticlimactic. Personally, I enjoyed it. I wasn't expecting something necessarily outright evil. And this makes sense to me: a colonization engine run amok.

But maybe I enjoyed it in spite of the "grand enemy" just being an engine running amok because I was so involved in Felix and Felix's adventures, LOL!

I loved how every time they got stuck back in the trash one of them said "Bother", LOL!

I hope you return to this story so we can see what happens.

That and I'm still chomping at the bit to find out what Mr. Miss ends up finding at the center of all the weird anomalies.

Ok, will get to the new story soon. Got chores to do tonight first. :)

Thanks for an awesome story, Dude!

indrax said...

I'm coming in late but I really liked this.
Felix is totally awesome.
Felix is totally awesome.

My take on the Wicked is that a large swath of the galaxy has been rendered industrialized but dead. Given that intelligent life is somewhat common, the Goliath colonizers have probably encountered it before and obliterated it. This is not the first war they have fought automatically. Which makes it seem likely that they were designed to destroy any civilizations they found, by default.
That's enough malice for me.

Some nits:
Early on, when he was using the gates to hope around, I wondered why he would have to be the only one exploring. You talked about it in 5, but I think it could use some more justification. It really seems like more than a one person job.

Why all the bipeds? It seems like you've got some explanation in mind for that.

I wouldn't expect Felix to be so defeatist for want of a few ants. Given his abilities and a place to hide, he should be able to construct whatever technology he needs. That little moment seems out of character.

Stephen Hamilton said...

Loved this story. I respect the fact that there seems to be a fair bit of research done to furnish the details with a high level of realism (relatively speaking...it is still science fiction, no?).

However, I'm not sold on little Felix just yet. He seems useful as a device to make Big Felix more likeable, but Little Felix reminds me just a touch of Jar Jar Binks...

Keep up the good, nay, great work.

Buddy said...

Liked this story very much. Can see a sequel where two opposing "friendly" forces are in conflict - fight them, or join them (i.e. adapt the biochemistry and physiology to the invader's environment).