The Novel I Probably Won't Finish = Ch 1

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Originally published 31 March 2003 at

The children carried one storage cell between them, struggling up the hilly path under the battery’s weight. Their mentor brought the other three cells, following behind. A clear night, the mentor thought, should make for a good signal.

His helpers, his future replacements, giggled as they tugged on the cell in opposition, trying knock the other off balance. Andrew shuffled his feet to avoid the cascading rocks knocked loose by the children’s play. "Stop that, they’re not bricks and you’ll damage it if it falls. I need you two on good behavior if you’re going to learn."

"Sorry, Andrew," the two answered in chorus. The waning moon was just rising, glowing fiery orange on the horizon. Up ahead, the radio shack glowed, illuminated from within by a lantern.

Andrew’s helpers stopped at the shack’s door, but Andrew continued past along the path. Underneath the dish, he pulled the stick out of the cabinet latch and swung the doors open. The box was about as tall as each of the children, and Andrew knelt on the ground to explain.

"First lesson: Four batteries will last all night, but if you use fewer you start here, at the upper left."

Andrew lifted the boys’ battery and connected the battery clamps to the terminals. A gauge built into the cabinet housing, previously invisible, glowed happily under current as it’s needle bounced between fifteen and twenty.

"Hooking them up is easy," he said, pulling a jumper cable from the door-mounted rack. "Black end goes to the black post on the battery, red to the red one. DON’T connect a battery to itself. Chain the batteries together until you have then connected in a loop. Remember how I showed you with the small cells?"

From the shack, Jim watched his equipment pulsate as Andrew taught the boys his trade. They waited too long, he thought, with a sigh. John, Andrew’s helper, was gone now, and it’s tough to teach two at once. Jim doubted Andrew would be around much longer, either, and with the apprentices so young there could be serious problems if something unexpected happens.

Jim’s meters showed constant current, so he yelled out the window, "you about done?"

"Go ahead," Andrew called back.

With the toss of a few switches, the receiver tubes glowed with power, and the teletype machine clattered to life. The machine rattled off a test line, practicing all it’s characters, dinged, and sliced the paper off. Jim examined the piece, noting it needs both a new "R" and a "4" machined soon, but they was good enough for another few weeks.

Out at the dish, Andrew continued his lessons.

"After the batteries are up, Jim turns on his equipment, and we can power up the tranciever. Go ahead."

Greg, the closest child to the breaker, had to put all his weight into the switch for it to click into place.

"Oooh!" the boys exclaimed as flecks of green flame licked off the edge of the dish and flew into the sky. As he squinted, Andrew could follow the glowing beam from the dish out into the cosmos.

"Hm....that’s not good. Stay here."

He shuffled over to the cabin and leaned on the open windowsill. "St Elmo’s Fire tonight. Operating frequency will be down to get a good signal, and I’m sure there’ll be auroras later."

Jim studied his meters briefly. "We should be fine, with four batteries running. I don’t have many outgoing to do, so I can catch some sleep through the incoming. If I can keep 600 baud, it should be fine."

When Andrew returned, the boys were sitting on the battery cabinet, warming their bottoms.


They dismounted simultaneously and stood at attention.

"The glow is good and bad. It’s good for tonight, because it means you can see what the dish is doing. Stay away from the dish – under power, it’ll kill you. Normally you can’t see the beam, but the air is more rarefied than usual tonight so the power makes it glow. Even when it’s not glowing, there’s enough power there to burn you good. On the other hand, the glow is bad, because it creates interference. Don, what’s interference?"

"When you talk the long ways," he muttered, "innerference slows down the talking."

"That’s about right. Bigger numbers are better, but Jim says tonight we might only get six hundred. On a good night, we can hit fourteen, sixteen thousand. We’ll get into it more later, but tonight we’re just going over the mechanics."

Andrew crawled under the dish and sat cross-legged in front of the dish’s controls. One boy squeezed in on each side.

He swept his hand across an engraved brass plate mounted to the underside of the dish. "I’ll show you how to read this later, so just watch for now. Tonight we’re going to start with Darkstar One."

Andrew pulled both levers to center, and the dish swung down to the horizon, directly south. Finding the day and time on the brass chart, he clicked each lever to it’s assigned position. The dish rocked with each click, slowly maneuvering to the intended focal point in the sky.

A light above his head glowed yellow, so he moved the dish back and forth one or two clicks along each axis lever until the yellow faded and the green light began to burn.

"On a good night the yellow will go all the way out, but as long as the green is on Jim can get a signal."

Back in the radio shack, Jim’s teletype had already begun to click – faster bauds take longer to negotiate, but the slow speed for tonight got a signal almost instantly. Jim adjusted the rate, disconnected and reconnected, and pushed it up to 820 baud.

"I’ve got it," he called out the window.

"Good – now we start the clock."

The final lever, at it’s maximum, was pulled down to it’s lowest point, ratcheting loudly. Immediately as Andrew let it go, it clicked up once, and five seconds later it clicked again with a loud THUNK. The dish rattled slightly.

"Remember when I taught you how the sky moves?"

Don interrupted. "We’re moving, not the sky."

Andrew smiled. "Exactly. But the satellites are moving too, to stay in the earth’s shadow, so the dish has to follow them. The big spring moves the dish like the hands of a clock, to follow each satellite as long as possible. When Jim says he’s done, we point at a new satellite and start the clock again."

Darkstar One carried very little news because it belonged mostly to the Pacific island region. Jim pulled off transmissions as the teletype cut the sheets off, glancing over inconsequential stories about local politics on a chain of islands, checking their obituaries, and watching for locally-destinationed messages.

Four bells indicated the end of transmission, so Jim hit the ’move’ button.

The ’move’ button did nothing more than blink a blue light and run a buzzer at the dish controller.

"The rest of the night is like this. Blue light, move the dish, reset the clock. Now, we’re on to Darkstar Two."

DS2 required a bit lower speed, so Jim adjusted accordingly. The news was loaded with text, but still very little of any importance. Obituaries came next, but before he could finish a personal message came across.



George had been Tom’s apprentice operator for many years, operating out of a very busy municipal area in Europe. Tom had long been a friend of Jim’s, if only via the satellites, often exchanging all-caps stories of their lives through Earth’s umbra.

Jim watched for Tom’s obituary to print, and then tore the paper recklessly to read it closer.



A hundred forty-four...Jim was barely half that. Nobody in Jim’s age-bracket had died, not for forty-some years. Once they pass thirty, longevity is all but guaranteed, and the later you were born the longer yet you’ll live. Jim had once been told, based on charts and graphs, that he might surpass Tom’s age three-fold yet.

As the teletype continued it’s clattering, Jim watched the apprentices roughhouse underneath the dish. He wasn’t sure if they were the fortunate ones instead – their lives might reach twenty-five years, and only if they’re lucky. Jim had already watched four generations die, due to his supposed "luck" of genetics.

Four bells and the tearing of paper signaled Jim to press the ’move’ button, and the process began again. Darkstar 3 covered Australia, one of the most populous countries. After twenty minutes of Aussie news, Jim dozed off.

Under the satellite dish, Andrew reclined on his elbows to watch the sky. He positioned himself so the moon would be behind the dish. At his age, even the reflected sunlight off the moon’s surface burned a little. He’d read a book about satellites once, an old book before the daylight became dangerous. Back then, the book said, for only two days out of the year, six months apart, sunlight disrupted satellite reception. Back then, satellites, computers, everything worked all year round.

Jim dreamed about the day. He was able to go out in the light now, but without anyone else around it wasn’t worth it. He dreamed about being eight again, playing in the grass and running through the woods with his friends and classmates. In his dream, it all happened at once, not over years like it did in reality: he heard the reports, how Mercury had disappeared, Venus was moving, Earth was moving, something was wrong. TV would go off the air every couple hours, until it finally went off all together. Nemesis was here, orbiting the Sun, it’s gravity lensing the Sun’s light and radiation and burning the Earth’s surface with each pass.

Jim was immune; before Nemesis, he might have lived to a hundred. Not spectacular, but still a great deal better than the average. He was resistant to cancer, resistant to heart disease, resistant to most effects of aging. As a child, he put on sunscreen as ordered, even though he knew his grandfather worked in the sun all his farming days and he lived longer than anyone Jim knew. The Sun couldn’t kill his family, Jim understood. They thrived in it.

Cataclysm forces genetic diversity, and as time passed Jim saw humanity thinned out. People died at fifty, then forty, then thirty, and then in their twenties. They lived just long enough to have children, keep the race going. However, a select few exceeded even their own predicted lifespans. They were like Jim, equally immune, equally immortal.

Four dings brought Jim to waking. He pressed the ’move’ button and glanced out the window. The apprentices were sleeping near the warmth of the battery cabinet, and Andrew was staring at the sky.

The blue light stirred Andrew. He recentered the dish, lifted it to Darkstar 4’s location, and greenlighted it’s signal. The dish’s aurora undulated as Jim negotiated communications.

Jim swore at the console, bringing Andrew to offer his assistance.

"S’wrong, Jim?"

"I got no signal. You’ve got it focused, right?"

"Green light, hardly any yellow. I could tell you were communicating, but you’ve got nothing?"

"I’m sorry," Jim said. "I didn’ meters here show a strong signal from Four, but there’s nothing there."

"Maybe send something, see if it goes."

Jim wheeled his seat over to the teletype’s keyboard. He sent the plus sign three times, then a few protocol codes, then escape. "TEST MESSAGE PLEASE IGNORE" he typed. The satellite sent back, "MSG OK".

"It’s answering fine," Jim said to Andrew.

"Well, where’s Antarctica at?"

"We will try them later. Let’s go to Darkstar 5."

Both knew that loss of communications with Antarctica could not possibly be good. The southernmost continent was the last stronghold of technology, shielded and maintained ninety degrees off-axis from the sun’s rays. They position the satellites, maintain the network, and are the only people able to study the Earth’s predicament accurately. Jim hoped that the satellite data was erased accidentally, and Andrew hoped that they just had transmitter problems.

Darkstar 5 was Jim’s ’home’ satellite, serving North America. This late in the year, however, it’s the furthest away, requiring the finest tuning of the uplink.

News was spotty, nothing important, but after the news came the mailrouting. Personal messages streamed down from the sky on the satellite beam, dinging and cutting after each transmission. Jim glanced through a few messages as he sorted the notes into recipient piles. Cousins on the coasts, parents in the mountains, children in far-off lands; all wrote little notes to their family in Jim’s area. They announced marriages, deaths, births, travel, amazing stories and uninteresting anecdotes of daily life. He particularly took the time to read the steamy letters from a distant lover to a local butcher, a man who gives Jim special treatment to ensure his wife never sees the messages.

Two bells, one bell, then two again indicated the end of incoming messages. Jim rolled his chair to the machine’s keyboard, hit escape, transmitted a few characters, then escape again. The satellite was ready to receive messages.

The first message was from the butcher to his lover, the next from a mother to her son, the third from the village lawyer to the beneficiary of an estate. Jim’s keying continued for over an hour. The stories of his neighbors’ lives clacked and clicked through his fingers, into the keyboard and out into space. The eastern destinations would have to wait a day to get their notes, pausing during the day, waiting until nightfall comes, bringing the return of the satellite window.

The boys had woke from their nap, and joined Jim to see his progress.

"This sends the words into the sky?" the younger asked.

"Yes, that’s the simplest explanation. It turns the letters on these keys into something machines can understand, so the machines can get the letters to the right place."

"Can it send them anywhere?"


"To the people on the moon?"

"Sometimes, and sometimes we can talk directly to them if we point the dish right at the moon. Their day is different than ours, so we can’t always find a time when it’s both night here and on the moon."

The older boy piped up. "The moon people aren’t monsters, are they? I read a book, but I think it was just a story to scare kids. The moon people were green, with weird eyes, and claws--"

"No," Jim interrupted as he typed. "They’re just Earth people, ones who moved there long ago. People made it all the way to Mars, too."

Andrew appeared at the window ledge. "How we doing, Jim?"

"Not bad, maybe a half hour."

Andrew swept his hand at the air, gesturing towards the apprentices. "Give Jim some room, let him finish. You two can help move the dish the next time."

The boys scampered out of the radio shack, and Jim quickened his wpm.

Jim closed his upload with another escape sequence, had the satellite check for any late new messages, and dropped the connection.

Fieldsat Three was next in line. Andrew positioned the dish, and the apprentices combined their strength to set the master-spring lever.

The transmission started with a bell, a loud ’clack’, another bell, then another ’clack.’ Each clack was a hole-punch, perforating the end of the recording paper for insertion into a ringed binder. Only important messages were worth storage, so Jim watched the output intently.

Two blank lines fed, then a line of dashes. Two more blank lines, and then the message began.

Andrew heard the urgency in Jim’s voice when he called Andrew to the shack.

"What’s wrong, Jim?"

"It’s war." Jim shook his head. "War, somewhere on the south continent."

He lifted the recording paper, trying to read it without tearing it off. He didn’t recognize any of the city names, but he figured it must be in the north due to discussions of deserts and water.

The machine slid its blade across the paper, then dinged and clacked to starting a second page. The first part fell loose into Jim’s hands.