Prometheus Unbound


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Prometheus Unbound

(Originally cyberpublished September 2000 at scifidimensions.com. All rights reserved.)

The dark-haired man sat at a dinner table made from smoky glass. He wore a soft shirt of blue denim, and jeans that still carried a few traces of wet sand, almost dry now, at the heels. His shirt was embroidered in white thread with a small emblem of the Orion class starship Libra, which was the ship’s name over a pair of scales. He was in his early thirties, though his friends told him he looked young for his age due to his athletic build, or perhaps his youthful energy.

He did not sit at the table to eat; he was too apprehensive to be hungry. He held a computer pad in front of him in one hand and tapped a metal stylus thoughtfully against his cheek with the other. His steely gray eyes focused on the pad in deep concentration, oblivious to all else. He found it difficult to start writing even though he knew he was running out of time. He sighed with impatience, and then lowered the stylus to the pad's screen to jot down:

To: Earth Space Administration

From: Steven Dessler, Space Propulsion Design Specialist

Date: 10/16/2499 (estimated)

Subject: Urgent message for Earth

A year ago today, the Libra arrived in orbit of planet Triumph. Ever since we arrived on its surface we have flourished. There is no limit to what we can study, or create, or challenge ourselves with; and yet in less than an hour the surface of Triumph will become unlivable for the next ten thousand years, and we will all be dead.

Seen from above, the house he lived in was shaped like a thick crescent moon with its outer curve following the bend of the nearby beach and its points directed inland toward the Island Mountains. It was tallest in the middle, tapering to ground level at its points and edges, and it was rounded like an airfoil, its external surface formed of a single sheet of a resilient glass-like material, for the lifesaving purpose of minimizing the damage done by the fierce typhoons that careen across the vast oceans.

The living room where he sat, which doubled as a dining room, was the inmost slice of the crescent. The half-moon shaped inner walls and the uncarpeted floor were made of the dark colored and rich smelling wood of the native coniferous trees. The room felt airy and spacious. He had an unbroken view of the sky from one horizon to the other through the rounded transparent outer wall - he could see with equal ease the Island Mountains to the east, the sky above him, and to the west the sun getting perilously close to being extinguished by the ocean. The room was sparsely decorated - not many luxuries yet exist on Triumph - yet it still managed to have a woman's touch.

Behind him, to the south, were the kitchen, a well-stocked pantry, and a small arboretum with a carefully tended collection of non-tropical Earth plants. Above these rooms, reachable by a spiral staircase on the south end of the living room, was a guest bedroom and bath that were used by friends who visited on occasion. A second spiral staircase on the north end led up to a small sitting room and a den with computer and communications equipment. Underneath those were a large bathroom and master bedroom.

The door to the master bedroom slid open. A radiant woman stepped through it into the living room - her white silk robe clinging her curves, accentuating her figure. She had the bright eyes of a saint, and the pursed lips of a sinner. She reached up to the back of her head to let her auburn hair cascade luxuriously all the way down her back to her waist. Her eyes, as green as emeralds, spotted Steve across the room, and she smirked. She sauntered up to his side, silently, untied her robe's belt, and let the robe fall completely open. She wore nothing underneath.

“Is this what I have to do to get you away from the computer, Steve?” she teased.

Startled, Steve looked up at her. She was grinning like a Cheshire cat. His eyes traced the sinuous lines of her well-built figure and explored her delights. He had seen it all before, but she was always pleasing to look at, and even more so now that her body glowed softly with patches of orange light from the setting sun.

“I can't join you yet, Aurora,” he said. “You know that. I have to finish this.”

“I'm just giving you incentive to finish quickly,” Aurora said with a wink.

He tried to force his eyes back down to his computer pad, and failed. “If you don't close that robe, your incentive will become a distraction, and I'll never finish!” He was not angry. Despite his best efforts to prevent it, his lips widened into a smile.

“Just making sure I've still got it.”

“You do, sweetheart.”

Smiling with satisfaction, Aurora closed her robe and fixed her belt. She bent down, gave him a quick peck on the lips, and said, “I was just about to make some coffee for myself. Would you like some?”

He nodded. “Love some. Please.” As she headed towards the kitchen, Steve turned about in his chair to add, “And thanks. For breaking the tension. I've been nervous as hell over this message.”

She mouthed the words, “I know,” and entered the kitchen.

The sun's glare was on Steve's computer pad, so he said out loud, “House, please polarize west wall fifty percent.” The sun's rays dimmed to a tolerable level. He got back to his work.

An asteroid of unknown mass struck the Libra. The sensor pod was obliterated and the ship spun around so that its main mass driver faced the surface of Triumph.

The timing was unfortunate - now that the year is up, the automatics activated the mass driver in order for it to fire propulsive fusion charges in its effort to return to Earth. Worse yet, the charges are detonating too far away from the ship - a rapid series of fusion explosions is hailing down on the surface of Triumph. The asteroid damage must have caused the malfunction.

The devastation done to the planet is already extensive and severe. The ecosystem of Triumph is doomed, and all colonists along with it. It is perhaps a kindness that the path of the explosions intersects with the colony. We know that help from Earth is impossible. We knew the risks. Now we pay the price. Farewell.

“Here's your coffee,” Aurora said cheerfully, gingerly handing a hot cup over to Steve. She sank down on a nearby sofa and carefully sipped at her own cup. It was twilight outside, and she noticed a bright star overhead that moved with steady patience. It could only be the glint of the sun off the Libra.

“Thanks,” he muttered. “So how was your day?”

“Great!” she said excitedly. “I discovered eight species of plant and two species of insect today. Triumph is a xenobiologist's dream!”

He smiled into his coffee cup as she described her discoveries. He loved how enthusiastic she got about her work. She seemed so alive.

“Oh, but I'm distracting you from finishing the message,” she said.

“It's done.”

Her eyes widened slightly. “May I read it?”

“Sure. There's still some time left before I have to send it up to the Libra for transmission to Earth. My pad will beep when it’s time.”

Steve handed the pad over to Aurora. As she read the message she frowned, and her face grew more puzzled. “This isn't...?”

“A Declaration of Independence?” he offered. “No,” he sighed, “and I had such good ideas for that too.”

“Then why?”

“If Triumph openly declares its independence from Earth,” he said, “there's no telling what Earth would do. They could send troops to take control of the colony.”

“Of course,” she said thoughtfully, “and if you tell Earth that Triumph has become a dead world, sending a ship to examine the scene of the accident would not become a priority for a long time. And if they are convinced from your report that the disaster was only an accident, they won't send troops to investigate.”

“Precisely. Though to convince them we also need the Libra’s computer to transmit a record of an authentic explosive disaster. I’ve planned something, but it may be a little dangerous.”

Aurora pursed her lips in thought, and then was distracted by something to the east. “The mining bots are finishing work on the Monument,” she said with interest. She stepped up to the transparent wall that faced the Island Mountains and tapped it with one long fingernail. A black door polarized into sight. She slid it open with a gentle sweep of her hand and stepped outside. Steve followed, taking his computer pad with him.

They were in Aurora's flower garden, which was snuggled against the inner curve of the crescent house. Both terran and native flowers thrived here. A gardening bot, only about knee high, was busy watering the plants it sensed needed moisture. It swiveled its tiny head to look at the intruders, but recognized them as its mistress and master. It turned back to its work.

The twilight’s retreat from glorious night was nearly complete. A few stars seemed displaced, or missing, yet the constellations were recognizable as those seen from Earth. Mighty Orion scaled the mountains.

In the distance, against the nearest mountain and lighted by several bright spotlights, was the Monument. The colossal statue was carved out of the mountainside by a full week's work of several dozen mining bots temporarily set aside for this purpose. It looked like a god who had been chained to the mountain and had just broken free, his noble face expressing the most profound joy and exultation.

“Prometheus, unbound at last!” Steve intoned. “The Titan from Greek myth who had given the gift of fire to Man, only to be punished for the deed by Zeus. He was condemned to be chained to a mountain to have his perpetually regenerating liver eaten out by a bird every day for the rest of eternity.”

“I hate the ending to that myth,” Aurora said with feeling. “I've always felt sorry for Prometheus. It feels good to see that he's been set free.”

The Monument was almost finished. Mining bots drilled and sanded at the few remaining rough areas.

Suddenly Aurora giggled. “Apparently the artist decided Prometheus didn't need a loincloth.” Her eyes widened. “He's so... so...”

“Don't even say it,” Steve growled.

“...Impressive.” She turned to Steve with a smirk. “Artistically, I mean.”

As Aurora looked back at Prometheus, Steve stuck his palm out in front of her eyes to block her view. She squealed and batted his hand away. He was satisfied with his revenge and started to laugh. She chuckled as well.

After they calmed down, Steve said with a straight face, “Do you think Earth will fall for my ruse?”

Aurora considered his question silently for a moment and carefully chose her words. “Yes, I do. If Earth culture is still like what we left behind when we went into cold sleep a century ago, they’ll believe a disaster long before they believe a success. We'll be the biggest disaster story since the Titanic.

Steve smirked.

“Their fiction was dark and depressing. They had lost the ability to believe that a free people can cope with challenges, and that happy endings are possible.” She paused, and then asked, “What do you think, honey? Are happy endings possible?”

“Do you mean happily-ever-after?” he said. “No, I don't believe in happy endings; I believe in happy moments -- the special times our freedom makes possible for us.”

Aurora smiled and her eyes glistened. Steve put his arm around her, sharing the moment.

He looked back at the Monument. “This is a fitting symbol of our freedom. We've broken free of the chains of Earth politics. Mars never could; it was always under the watchful eye of Earth.”

“I hate politics,” she said. “It's all bickering and divisiveness. It's one big reason I left Mars.”

“It's also a reason I left Earth,” he said. “Hopefully our posterity won't have to deal with Earth politics for a long time. If they can build their defenses to the point that they can remain an independent nation, perhaps they can hold on to their own ways in peace.”

“I hope so,” Aurora said. “I think you are missing part of the meaning of the Monument.”

“Oh?”

“It isn't just a political statement,” she explained. “Look carefully at the expression on his face. The chains he snaps aren't the ones attached to the mountain; they are the ones inside his soul. He looks like he has escaped cynicism, helplessness, and despair. It's almost as if he could snap his physical chains any time he wanted to, but couldn't until he had freed himself inside.”

Steve looked intently at Prometheus. “Sweetheart, I think you're right,” he said to her. “I hadn't noticed.”

“You're a brilliant engineer,” she said. “You even designed the mass drivers the Orion class starships use. But I'm a scientist. I make my living through careful observation.”

Steve was about to protest, but the computer pad he carried under his arm beeped loudly.

“It's time,” he said solemnly. “Do you want the honors?”

“No, honey,” she said. “You wrote it. You should send it.”

Steve tapped at the pad's screen. “It's sent,” he said. He tapped the screen a few more times. “That leaves a final instruction to give the Libra.” He hesitated with a moment’s doubt, but then he confidently held the pad out in front of Aurora as if he was proudly holding a door open for her.

Aurora smiled broadly, and tapped the screen gently with one fingernail.

Steve knew his profession well. The signal activated a malfunction he had arranged for the Libra. A small explosion on the ship caused it to go blind, just as if an asteroid had hit its sensor pod. The ship slowly spun, but its propulsive end rotated safely away from the planet. Its powerful mass driver hurled fusion charges many kilometers distant - too far away from the ship to generate propulsion.

Steve and Aurora watched the planned disaster safely from below. Bright flashes of light, one after another, appeared high in the sky over the Monument. It was the most expensive fireworks celebration in history.

Steve pressed Aurora tightly against his body with his strong arms, and kissed her, enjoying the sugary-soft taste of her lips. The gardening bot looked up at them, not comprehending what they were, and then realized that the single object in its vision was actually its master and mistress. It was reassured that all was well.

A particularly bright flash in the sky that sent out glowing petals of debris signaled the end of the fireworks display. The Libra was no more.

“Perhaps I should go to the Town Square and say a few words," Steve said. "The others will be expecting me at the celebration.”

Aurora, still in her white silk robe, shook her head and said, “Oh, no you don't. That can wait. You're joining me in our bedroom. After all, I've seen how impressive you can be."

They returned to their bedroom to celebrate their freedom in private.

END

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Mark,

This is a very interesting symbolic science fiction tale (almost a parable) of what accepting a philosophy of reason is like. The parallel to Galt's Gulch actually is appealing.

The semi-erotic part seems a bit forced on considering the whole context, but the following phrase more than makes up for that to me:

She had the bright eyes of a saint, and the pursed lips of a sinner.

Wonderful characterization. (This image would have become even more powerful - extremely powerful - if the background of the story were religious in some manner, contrasting it against a philosophy of reason where the "bad girl" daughter or lover is the wild card in the pack for the fuddy-duddies.)

I was pleased to read this. You have talent.

Mark

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This is a very interesting symbolic science fiction tale (almost a parable) of what accepting a philosophy of reason is like. The parallel to Galt's Gulch actually is appealing.

Thank you. The story can easily be read this way. To my mind, it's a tribute to (rational) optimism and the wonders it may open up for oneself.

It's also a tribute to happy endings in stories. I was getting tired of the "Outer Limits" style SF story in which nearly every story ending has some element of horror and pessimism present, as if this is the only way to create a "serious" SF story.

This image would have become even more powerful - extremely powerful - if the background of the story were religious in some manner, contrasting it against a philosophy of reason where the "bad girl" daughter or lover is the wild card in the pack for the fuddy-duddies.

That's an excellent point, and partly given what I had in mind when I wrote that line. I was thinking about the rejection of the mind-body dichotomy. By describing her in that way, I was asserting that she was a whole being, mind and body. I agree that it would have been particularly effect in a story in which religion was involved.

I was pleased to read this. You have talent.

And I was pleased to read your comments. It feels good to have one's creative work understood so well.

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  • 4 months later...

thanks for a great short story. thanks for the happy ending. reminds me of rod serling

you selected the necessary elements to convincingly convey the concept.

a g/f once asked me if there was Anything that could get me off the computer.

then a friend came by with a new humvee, some time later, and let me drive it, so i immediately messaged her to report that a hummer could get me off.

your scene has been replayed here more than once, believe me...

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