Friday, July 29, 2022

FOR ALL MANKIND: A WHAT-IF FOR SPACE NERDS

What if the Soviets had reached the moon first?

Back before the heady, early days of the space program and NASA, Americans and their glacially slow government were shocked into entering the space race by the Soviet launch of their space satellite Sputnik in 1958. Three years later, in 1961, President John Kennedy vowed to send Americans to the moon by the end of the decade. NASA accomplished that goal in an incredible nine years, landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969.

Believe it or not, the “space race” between the U.S. and the USSR pretty much ended there, and in the Seventies and the early Eighties era of glasnost (openness) both countries turned to other matters. The push for manned exploration of space lost momentum, especially after the Challenger shuttle tragedy.

But imagine for a moment that things had gone differently. You’re a young’un or a teenager (like I was) in the summer of 1969, glued to the television watching the first man stepping onto the surface of the moon. But it’s June, not July, and his name is Alexei Leonov, not Neil Armstrong. He sticks the red Hammer and Sickle flag of the USSR in the gray dust of our beloved satellite and claims it not for all mankind, but for the greater good of Marxism. That’s the opening scene of Apple TV Plus’s For All Mankind, a high-concept alternate history of space exploration created and written by Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander fame, along with Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi. The three also serve as executive producers, with production handled by Sony Pictures Television and Tall Ship Production. Since the show requires a fair amount of production in the way of effects and set design, it needs all that backup.

The opening scene, with everyday Americans watching glumly as the Russians win the moon, was a real hook for me, because I remember that broadcast from the moon vividly. And I couldn’t figure out as I watched For All Mankind, why everyone was so unhappy until the last killer moment. Moore gives you a hint, of course, by sticking up a title card with the date (I think it was June 26) in front of the scene, which I knew was “wrong,” but the shock of the twist hit hard.

Once the Russkies land first, President Nixon and NASA and its astronauts must decide whether to go ahead with their planned launch in July. But Tricky Dick wasn’t about to let the Russians get the better of him. So the race is still on, not only to land on the moon, but to establish a permanent presence there. To mine its resources (first water ice, then lithium). And, eventually to use the moon as a launching pad to Mars. At each stage of the race, conflict escalates. Indeed, it becomes increasingly inevitable. Those agreements that were made to demilitarize space and declare it an international zone in our past are never made in this version of history. (Although at one point, the USSR and the U.S. are forced to divide the moon into distinct territories to avoid outright war.)

What is ironic about this is that Nixon’s once mere grudging support for the space program (because it was Kennedy’s baby) becomes enthusiastic as space becomes yet another theater of the Cold War. Resources flow to NASA (that in the real course of history were denied), new astronauts are recruited (including a whole new class of women), the Apollo program eventually launches up to 75 flights (the real-life Apollo program ended at 17, running from 1961 to 1972), new rockets and shuttle designs abound. The military sticks its nose in, too, sending Marines to the moon (where, no surprise, incidents arise) and arming shuttles with missiles. But, what the heck, the Republicans love it! (While Democrats aren’t so sure.) By the 80’s, new President Ronald Reagan is a huge fan, and the solar system is the limit.

But this is just the plot framework for the character development that is the heart of the show. (Season One covers the Seventies, Season Two starts in 1983 and Season Three works around the 1995 landing on Mars.) We meet the major characters we will be following as the show progresses in Episode One: Astronauts Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman), their wives, Karen Baldwin (Shantel VanSanten) and Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones), Chief of the Astronaut Office Deke Slayton (a real character, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, played here by Chris Bauer), Mission Control officers Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt), Larry Wilson (Nate Corddry) and Bill Strausser (Noah Harpster). In a seemingly unrelated segment, we also meet a young Mexican girl, Aleida Rosales (Coral Pena), crossing the border illegally with her family. (She later goes on to become a senior NASA engineer.) Finally, we meet the annoying Nixon Cabinet officer overseeing the space program, Thomas Paine (Dan Donohue).

Ed Baldwin is a pain who will forever regret he didn’t land Apollo 10 (which he commanded) on the moon to beat the Russians. This would have violated orders and probably gotten him and his partner killed, but he’s a former test pilot so those things don’t really figure. Gordo Stevens drinks too much and cheats on his wife, a pattern he eventually passes on to his son, Danny (played in Seasons Two and Three by Casey W. Johnson). Gordo’s first tour of duty on the moon base Jamestown is a disaster—he freaks out and causes the injury of another astronaut—but he later makes a solid comeback and eventually dies a hero. Baldwin, on the other hand, must suffer the indignities of growing older and facing the possibility of his own irrelevance in a young man’s game.

Personal tragedy also strikes the Baldwin family, a fact that plays into Karen’s search for meaning throughout the show. In Season Two, an Elon Musk-type entrepreneur, Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi) recruits her to snag talent for his company, something she’s quite good at. And suddenly the race for Mars is a three-way battle between private enterprise, NASA and the Russians.

In Season One we meet the first class of female astronauts in an episode titled “Nixon’s Women.” Despite pushback from NASA and the male astronaut corps, Nixon is adamant after the Russians show the smiling face of the first female cosmonaut beaming from the moon. According to this alternate history, NASA calls back several pilots from an original Mercury 13 group of women recruited and trained along with the Mercury 7 astronauts but dismissed and never allowed to go into space. (The real story is that 13 women were indeed put through the same training as the Mercury 7 astronauts by a private businessman, William Randolph Lovelace II, in the early Sixties. Despite lobbying Congress to be part of NASA’s program, they were rejected. One of the 13, Wally Funk, eventually went to space on a Blue Origin flight in 2021 at the age of 82, making her the oldest woman in space.)

Daredevil pilot Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) was one of those originally trained, and she stays at the head of her astronaut class, with Ellen Waverly (Jodi Balfour) right behind her. Token Black “AsCan” (or astronaut candidate) Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) gives them a run for their money. But the most surprising name on the AsCan list is Tracy Stevens, Gordo’s wife. She gave up her pilot’s wings when she got married and had two children, but now she sees her chance. She struggles, but she refuses to give up. And, though for political reasons she’s sometimes given some slack, she eventually earns her astronaut pin legitimately.

But the most interesting character of all for me is flight engineer Margo Madison, a quirky, socially awkward nerd who is fiercely dedicated to NASA and the space program. She has no life. She sleeps in her office. Her only real friend is her Russian counterpart, Sergei Nikulov (Piotr Adamcyzk), who may like and respect her, but who is being forced by his Communist superiors to squeeze her for technical information to enhance his own space program. Their relationship comes to a head in Season Three, with dire consequences.

Some of what happens in For All Mankind is admittedly over the top. I can more easily forgive the tendency to overdo it on the action front, because, truly, a lot can go wrong in space. As astronaut-turned-Chief of the Astronaut Office Molly Cobb says, “Space is an unrelenting bitch!” And Ron Moore is never one to shy away from piling on the problems to keep his viewers watching.

I have less patience, though, when the characters’ personal problems descend into soap opera hysterics. Karen Baldwin, in particular, makes some big errors in judgment in Season Two. That whole arc lowers the standard for the show by a substantial ick factor.  The writers go off on other tangents that aren’t worth exploring, too. Stick to the point—we’re talking about space here, after all, and the people that explore it—and the show flows much better.

The first three seasons of For All Mankind are available to stream on Apple TV Plus now. The show has been renewed for a fourth season according to the announcement made at ComicCon June 10.

Cheers, Donna

 

 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Morgan Selwood - a real top gun

 



 In the last couple of weeks we've had posts about 'top guns' and top guns they were, indeed. But I doubt any of them could beat Morgan Selwood.

She's a Supertech, which is a nickname for a BI – a biological intelligence. You might call her a cyborg, but the 'human' element is very much to the fore. She is an enhanced human with a super computer in her brain and she's capable of controlling a battle cruiser by herself. As it happens, she's also a gun pilot – when she gets the chance.

And she does, in most of the books she's in. In Morgan's Choice she impresses her captors with what she's able to do with one of their stolen shuttles and in Morgan's Return she has to battle with another Supertech.

This is a scene from Kuralon Rescue. Chet, Toreni, and Jirra are in small freighter Trader's Dream trying to make their escape from Kuralon but they have been intercepted by a J-43 patrol ship, which is shortly joined by a J-500 Hunter, a heavily armed cruiser. Fortunately, Jirra was able to contact Morgan earlier and she has just arrived on the scene in the luxury yacht, Vulsaur. Here's what happens next – slightly edited to remove extraneous bits.

***

"Are you there, Jirra?"

Vulsaur, with Morgan at the controls. Jirra could have screamed with joy. But it wasn't over yet.

"We've been intercepted by the J-43. Shift drive's destroyed, one main engine gone, environmentals damaged."

"Understood. Oops, looks like the J-43 has seen me. I'll get back to you."

The J-43 moved sideways, then fired three missiles. Promolus appeared to know what she was doing. Jirra had seen that maneuver before. Enemies had little time to react and the way they moved was usually predictable. Jirra almost felt sorry for the captain. Vulsaur fired two intercepts and destroyed the third missile with energy blasts. Fragments vaporized on Trader's Dream's shields, providing a short-lived light show. If Promolus wasn't worried now, she ought to be. Vulsaur fired forward thrusters, slowing down. Morgan had probably given the patrol ship a chance to retire with dignity. For a moment, Jirra thought the gesture had been accepted, but then the J-43 jagged sideways again. The new blip on the proximity display explained that.

Jirra guessed the newcomer was the J-500 even before the display confirmed. They thought they'd trap the arrogant civilian in the middle, did they? Jirra chuckled. Two ships against Vulsaur with Morgan Selwood at the helm? Still no contest.

A movement beside her made her glance around. Chet, still in the silver survival suit.

"What's happening?"

Grinning, Jirra gestured at the screen. "The J-500 is coming to play. They think they can finish off a civilian yacht. Although I think the J-43's captain may have some other notions."

"A civilian yacht? How can it be a match for a Hunter?"

"That's a lot more than a civilian yacht. It's fast, maneuverable and bristling with weapons. And Morgan Selwood is at the controls."

Chet shook her head. "Against two ships?"

"You don't know much about her, do you?"

"Not a thing. Except a few stories about the Yogina and Ravindra."

Vulsaur had a flexibility the other ships did not possess. Morgan had built her with flexible nozzles on her thrusters, so she could move diagonally more easily. The J-500 fired four missiles at Vulsaur's stern, the J-43 fired three missiles at her bow, attempting to stymie and maneuver. They must have thought they had her. Morgan destroyed the bow missiles with counter missiles. She fired her upper thrusters, dropping the ship. Three of the four stern missiles exploded on Vulsaur's shields in a sparkling display of writhing blue energy. Vulsaur dodged beneath the fourth, which could not match her change of direction. The J-43 was exposed. Promolus tried desperately to avoid, dodging sideways. Too late. The missile impacted the patrol ship's bow. Debris poured out with the pressure of the air venting into space. Jirra almost cheered. If they had any sense, they'd back off while they still could.

Vulsaur had slipped in behind the Hunter. Morgan fired one missile, waited until the counter missile came back from the J-500 and fired a second missile before dropping beneath the ship.

"Wow. She's good, isn't she?" Chet said. "Or is that the ship's systems dodging at the last minute?"

"Both. Morgan overrides the systems so she can leave her dodge to the last possible moment."

Chet stared. "She's better than a computer?"

"She is a computer. In a way." Jirra pointed at her head. "She has a computer in her brain. She's quite capable of handling all the systems on a battle cruiser on her own."

Chet was silent for a long time, absorbing that information as she watched the three ships in their deadly dance. "Why hasn't she blown them apart?"

Jirra glanced at Chet. Siena had asked a similar question, phrased in a very different way.

"What's Morgan like?" she had asked.

"Incredibly smart, a brilliant engineer—"

Siena had waved a hand. "As a person. I know she's not really a person, but you know what I mean."

"Yes, she is really a person. I think if you painted her skin brown," Jirra had raised her own arm to illustrate, "she wouldn't be any different to us. Apart from her eyes, and contact lenses would hide them. She's a wonderful dancer and she can be lots of fun."

"Because although she's got that computer in her head, she's a living, breathing, woman with all the same emotions as you and I. She probably thinks they're just doing a job and doesn't want to kill them. But I don't think the Hunter is listening. And I think the captain isn't thinking straight. If he proceeds with that vector, he'll impinge on the J-43."

The Hunter raked Vulsaur with energy weapons from its flank. The yacht's shields sparkled with a brief blue glow. A missile followed. That wasn't silly. The captain expected to weaken the shields and pierce with the missile. But Morgan dropped the yacht out of the way seconds before impact. This time, she set Vulsaur up at right angles to the Hunter's underside. Three missiles, each sent within seconds of each other, slammed through the Hunter's shields and into its engines. The shock waves from the explosion rocked Trader's Dream.

Chet cheered, both fists raised above her head. Jirra knew Morgan Selwood wouldn't be doing that.

The Hunter continued in a straight line. With the main engines gone, so was the power to the thrusters. Jirra leaned forward. "Grief. If Promolus doesn't shift her ship soon —"

The ships collided in absolute silence, the hulls bending and crumpling and twisting under the pressure. The smaller ship's shattered nose rose over the Hunter's bow. The larger vessel split the J-43 down its underside, until the Hunter reached the engines. The explosion tore both ships apart.

***

That's a space battle, so different from what would happen in atmosphere. That is, not like the attack on the Death Star in Star Wars 😀.

Find out more about the Morgan Selwood series here. 

 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

CAPTIVE (The SurvivalRace, book 1) - CHAPTER 28

Last week's episode ended with Max trying to make sure Addy will be taken care of after he leaves her behind in the Tuniit village. Little does he know that Regan is on the hunt for him and Addy and, as you'll see in today's episode, isn't far behind.

 

An abducted cop and a gladiator prisoner must learn to trust each other with their lives…and their hearts…to escape their alien captors.    


Catch up reading on CAPTIVE here for free: Chapter 1  Ch2  Ch3  Ch4  Ch5  Ch6  Ch7  Ch8  Ch 9  Chs10&11  Ch12  Ch13  Ch14  Ch15  Ch16  Ch17  Ch18  Ch19  Ch20  Ch21  Ch22  Chs 23&24 Chs25&26  Ch27

 

CAPTIVE

Chapter Twenty-Eight


Regan knew exactly where he’d start his search. The conduit system to his left, engulfed by steam and darkness, away from the stench of the main incinerator plant, and out of view of the control booths made a perfect hideout. Now if only Ferly Mor would stop talking to these damn workers and unleash him, he’d get on with his job.

The gray Hyborean reached down to unhook Duncan’s leash before his own. It’s about damn time.

“Where are ye headed, lad?” Duncan called from behind.

Regan didn’t answer. Why the hell did Ferly Mor bring Gramps anyway? The old guy had been pissing him off since they left HuBReC with his nonstop talk and nervous behavior.

It agitated him. And he hated being agitated.

If they hadn’t been with a master all day, he’d have decked the old man hours ago.

As Duncan followed him through the maze of steam pipes, Regan thought about slugging him here, but through the white fog, something caught his attention: an unsightly structure of wood, metal, and other scraps pieced together to form a little hovel. This shit hole was the work of human hands.

A twinge of disappointment shot through him. Surely it wouldn’t be this easy. He would have preferred a challenge. Something to sharpen his skills for the survival race.

He reached for his sword but felt smooth thermal suit. Ferly Mor hadn’t armed him with a weapon. It didn’t matter. His hands were lethal.

He slunk to the shack and touched the doorknob.

“Shouldn’t ye knock first, Regan?” Duncan shouted.

Regan turned his annoyed glare on the old man. “Why would you give up our element of surprise?”

Duncan’s shifty eyes looked everywhere but at him.

“Uh-huh. Thought so.”

“Just dinna hurt the lass.”

His pathetic pleading boiled Regan’s blood. Redirecting that energy, he forced down the door.

A thin, old man in ratty clothes jumped from his chair, a book in hand. “What’s the meaning of this?”

“You see a girl? This tall,” Regan held up his hand to his chest, “long hair, pregnant, and a body that screams ‘fuck me.’”

The old guy looked from Regan to Duncan then back to Regan with distrustful eyes. “There’s no one here.” The man clutched his book in both hands. “I live alone.”

“She was with a man. Dark hair, weird green eyes, scrawny ex-gladiator. They escaped HuBReC in a garbage truck.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Nobody’s been through here.”

“Do you know who I am?” Most people trembled when he sneered. This guy didn’t. Dumbass.

“I know your type.”

“Then stand out of my way while I search this dump.” Regan strode through the tiny one-room shack, taking in the knickknacks, books, decorative weapons, and kitchen knives hanging on the wall. “What’s behind this door?”

“Bathing room.”

Regan ordered Duncan to keep an eye on the scrawny old man while he checked the bathing room.

“Have ye seen the lass?” Duncan asked. “Her name is Addy. Is she well?”

“What did these folks do to warrant a posse?”

Regan stepped back into the living space. “That’s not your concern.”

“Well, I haven’t seen anyone in months. You say they escaped in a garbage truck? Supposin’ those two fools got themselves incinerated?”

The whiskey bottle on the counter ignited red-hot anger in his veins. He punched the old-timer in the jaw. The man sailed through a stack of books before crashing to the floor.

“Regan, are ye mad? What’s gotten into ye, lad?”

Grabbing the tattered man’s neck and waistband, he heaved him from the floor and into a wall. “I hate liars.”

Duncan gripped his shoulder to stop him, earning him a hard shove. “Stay out of this, Gramps.” He turned his attention back to the worthless piece of shit. “Tell me where they are, and I’ll let you live.”

“I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know these people.”

If the old-timer’s rapid blinking and sweaty temples didn’t give him away, the scent of fear oozing out with his blood did. Inhaling the glorious scent, adrenaline exploded, awakening Regan’s inner beast.

“Perhaps you need your memory jogged.” Twice more he punched him in the head.

“Stop, lad. He said he doesna know.”

Regan let go. The man slid down the wall and crumpled to the floor.

“Oh, but he does.” Regan crouched and used the man’s ratty shirt to wipe the blood from his knuckles. “I won’t let up until you tell me what I want to hear.”

The man hacked, and then spat in his face.

Instead of wiping it off, he beat the crap out of him until the body went limp.

Breathing hard and pumped up, every fiber in his body tingled. He felt awesome. Powerful. Alive. Life didn’t get better than this.

Duncan paced the tiny room. He wiped sweat from his brow. “Is he dead?”

“Do you care?” Why the hell did he have to babysit the old coward?

“Regan, this is no’ the survival race. You canna go around killing innocent people.”

“The hell I can’t. Your master wanted an alpha gladiator to track the female and the loser who took her. If he didn’t want me to do things my way, he would have just brought you. Of course, you couldn’t find your dick with two hands and a lightstick.”

“Hrumph. Well, how are they going to be found now? Ye clobbered the man. Ye dinna find out if they were even here. They could have been incinerated. They could have escaped from the dump truck. They could have come through the plant but never seen this man.”

“Shut up. Do you know why I haven’t killed you yet?”

“Ye keep telling me it’s because I make the finest whiskey in the universe.”

“You mean this?” Regan snatched the bottle off the counter and threw it to Duncan who caught it clumsily.

He examined the bottle, eyes widening. “This is my mark etched into the glass.”

“How do you think this asshole got it?”

“Addy.” He closed his eyes and hugged the bottle. “Ye were here, lass.”

Regan rolled his eyes before squatting next to his victim. Fisting the bloody man’s white hair, he jerked his head off the floor. “Where are they?”

“Please,” Duncan rushed over to the man. “The lass may be in grave danger.”

Could Duncan be any more annoying? The way he carried on, you’d think they were looking for Tess.

“They left.” The old man gasped for breath. “Through the cooling vents. I don’t know where to. They wouldn’t tell me.”

“See, was that so hard?” Regan let go, and the old man’s head dropped to the floor with a thud. He turned to Duncan. “Take the bottle to your master. I’m sure he’ll recognize it and know we’re on the right track. I’m going to check out the cooling vents.”

Regan stepped over the mess that was the old man and followed Duncan out of the house, but not before stuffing a kitchen knife into his boot.


#


Uh oh. Will Regan or his master know to search the Tunitt village? If so, Will Max or Addy still be there? Find out in next week's episode or read the full story now at your favorite retailers.

 

K.M. FAWCETT 
Romance with a rebel heart  
 
 
 

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