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Brute Orbits

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Brute Orbits

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Author: George Zebrowski
Publisher: HarperPrism, 1998

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Generation Ship
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High Crimes Call for High Punishment

It is the twenty-first century. Convicts are sentenced to asteroids that move in ever-widening solar orbits, timed to return when their terms run out. But a few ambitious administrators discover that small "errors" in velocity can rid them of selected groups altogether: the hardcore violent, the mentally defective, and especially the political dissidents. Enduring the black vise of interstellar space-time, these human rejects--men and women mixed together--create their own Darwinian societies, struggling to survive.

Back on Earth, a handful of sympathetic and curious scientists have not forgotten these lost citizens. When a technological breakthrough makes it possible to overtake these scattered asteroids, a courageous team sets out to go where none has willingly gone before. What they discover in these "brute orbits" is both provocative and moving--a startling vision of humanity you will never forget.


The Rocks

These brute orbits, along whose ever-lengthening ways so much humanity was exiled, were a reproach to each generation as it looked skyward, day or night, and knew that every direction was a receding prison of human outcasts whose guilt was measured by their distance from the Sun. Although invisible except to sensitive detectors able to see the burning beacons, these islands of human skylife loomed larger even as time threw them farther into space.

One hundred years out, the transgressors against their own kind were long consumed, and the habitats were now home to the innocent. Fifty years out, the condemned still breathed, making a life for themselves and their children. Five to ten years out the habitats were cauldrons of strife, as order struggled to rise from the hatred and dismay that the convicted carried away from the Earth.

But it had begun unexpectedly and with different ends in mind, this use of distance as a better prison wall. The asteroid later called "the Iron Mile" came in from the outer solar system as both a surprise and a harbinger. It crossed Earth's orbit, swung around the Sun in a flat ellipse, rushed out, and was captured by the Earth as a second companion. That portion of humankind that knew enough to understand what had been averted was relieved, but worried about future threats. Many others, when they heard of the danger that had passed them by, felt vaguely that it was only a reprieve; too many transgressions still waited to be punished.

The lessons and opportunities became clear: A loaded gun pointed at the labors of human history was intolerable. The terrifying vision of what might have been had the nickel-iron mass struck the Earth spurred the finding of a foothold on the intruder.

Humanity mined the Mile and grew its permanent base. Near-Earth outposts became easier to build with these resources. The heavens had spared the Earth from being hit, and had also saved it the political bickering and economic cost of bringing an asteroid close. An uneasy gift of ground both quickened the industrial expansion into the solar system and prevented disastrous surprises.

A dozen Earth-orbit-crossing asteroids that might have one day struck the planet were, one by one, brought into orbits around the Earth and Moon, and mined by a metal-hungry world using machines manned by small groups of specialists and convicts. Later, when these first twelve asteroids had been exhausted, they became way stations and habitats, useful for scientific research and human colonies.

As the number of mined-out rocks grew, they began to be used as prisons by a world that was running out of patience with criminal behavior. The consequences of Earthside prison building from violence and the threat of violence, together with high start-up costs and endless budget increases, finally outweighed the economic benefits to host communities. Beguiling alternatives beckoned in the mined-out rocks, offering irresistible parallel benefits; and the rocks were immediately available.

"We can make the criminals disappear from the face of the Earth," whispered the wishful, "--and we can start tomorrow!"

"Lock them up and throw away the key!"

"Recycle the scum in the fusion torches! It's cheaper."

"Make them disappear, but don't trouble us with how you do it."

"Judge Overton, do you consider the Rocks to be cruel and unusual punishment?"

"Not at all," replied the Chief Justice of the Orbits. "Think of them as sheltered islands, where life goes on."

"But the isolation from humankind..."

"They have enough humankind with them."

The more sophisticated said, "We must create a generational firebreak between the socially damaged and the newborn, and we must do this worldwide. We must start over by raising people not to be criminals--but first we must gather all the serious threats and separate them from us."

The inmates in the Orbits would need fewer guards, and this would minimize abuse. As much as possible, the prison colony would police itself. But this model quickly went astray, even as architectural grace was achieved.

The first asteroid was excavated to provide a maintenance level near the outer crust. Ship docks were fitted at the far ends. Sophisticated audio/video devices were installed to monitor the criminal colony, and social scientists were given access to these panoptic observation points. It was only a matter of time before the inmates learned that they were under constant observation, even in their most private moments, in the name of knowledge that would advance the ideals of criminal justice. There was a rash of suicides. The whole story got out through the guards, which led planners to conclude that there was still too much contact between the inmates and the outside. Some psychologists concluded that curiosity about the lawbreakers produced an irresistible need for surveillance.

The first breakout from the Orbits was accomplished through a break-in to the service level, the taking of hostages, and a crash landing of a shuttle in the middle of Lawrence, Kansas, burning a large section of the city. Public outcry and discussion was split between sympathy for all who died and vigilante hatred of the surviving convicts who escaped into the state and caused even more havoc until they were recaptured or killed.

The Lawrence disaster led directly to the planning of timed orbits for the rocks. As one by one Earthside prisons began to fail for reasons of economy, inadequate psychological management, and planning that seemed immune to improvement, the increasing cost of technology in the orbits also came under fire. There was too much technology and no end to the costs. Lunar prisons were hotbeds of corruption and possible disasters if the inmates ever seized the lunar mass launchers and hurled objects at the Earth or any of its planetary or orbital colonies.

Copyright © 1998 by George Zebrowski


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