The Curmudgeon


Saturday, April 17, 2004

Planetary Survey No.6: Catapulting Cities of Selsat One

The two warring moons of the planet Sigma Selveti are inhabited by the pale-skinned, spiral-fingered race of the Moids, who abandoned their world for its satellites some forty-three centuries ago. They can hardly be blamed for doing so, for Sigma Selveti bears the scars of their ancestors' rapacity even now, and is likely to bear them always. The oceans which once covered sixty per cent of the planet's surface have been reduced to cracked and desiccated plains, which leak poisonous steam; the only pure water to be found is at the polar ice caps, where life continues in the humble form of the Selvetian zumb, a type of algae which spreads outwards from the edge of the pack ice and gives each pole, when observed from space, a thin purplish halo.

The Moids are highly skilled at astronomy and both moons bristle with telescopes, while the inhabitants boast that a sand-grain cannot shift nor a pebble roll on the Home Planet without their instant knowledge. Of course, the Moids of Selsat One say that the telescopes on Selsat Two cannot distinguish a mountain from a sand dune, while the observers on Selsat Two opine that their counterparts on Selsat One are hard put to tell the Home Planet from a crater in their own lunar surface; but in fact the level of technology on both satellites is virtually the same, though the short-term aims towards which the technology is employed tend to diverge considerably.

The long-term aim has not changed on either moon for four thousand years. The Moids are obsessed, almost to the point of necrophilia, with the planet on which their race originated and which, against all reasonable hope for even millions of years henceforward, they still consider their rightful home. Despite their immense potential for making astronomic progress outside their own system, every lens which is built on either moon is instantly conscripted into the continuous vigil over Sigma Selveti. The original evacuees, the last inhabitants of the planet proper, thoroughly indoctrinated all their offspring with pathological nostalgia, which was passed on meticulously from generation to generation, until within a few hundred years the cult of the Return Home had become an all-embracing religious doctrine, demanding no adherence but the strictest, no faith but the most fervent.

At first the Selvetians colonised only Selsat One, the innermost moon; but only half a millennium later, both moons housed thriving communities dedicated, with equal and increasingly acrimonious determination, to the Return Home. In the beginning, this mutual dislike arose purely from the competitive spirit, as the Moids vied to re-colonise the planet first; but when methods started, as was inevitable, to diverge, the recriminations began in earnest, with each moon accusing the other of having betrayed the faith.

Selsat Two, the outer moon, put its resources into powered flight, in the hope of rediscovering the now forgotten technology which brought the forefathers of all present Moids to their new home; while Selsat One concentrated on an entirely new line of research, namely the building of a vast bridge from the satellite to Selveti itself. To this end, the government of Selsat One has commissioned gigantic skyscrapers to which a floor is added each generation, thus solving simultaneously the problem of potential overcrowding.

During the last few years, the aircraft of Selsat Two have reached the stage of evolution where, though still unable to carry Moids as far as the Home Planet, they are perfectly capable of making the short hop necessary to travel from moon to moon. Accordingly, as soon as the orbit of Selsat One brought it between Selsat Two and Sigma Selveti, causing a planetary eclipse on Selsat Two, the government of Selsat Two accused Selsat One of perpetrating an act of malicious spiritual deprivation upon the people of Selsat Two by blocking the latter’s view of the Home Planet. War was declared, and the space planes of Selsat Two began to embark upon bombing missions.

For the first seven months of the war, these raids were a great success, abbreviating countless buildings on Selsat One, sending tons of masonry crashing onto the Moids in the streets below, and causing disruption to both daily life and the sacred cause of the Return Home. The situation was quite serious, until the scientists of Selsat One had the idea of slinging huge elastic nets between the buildings. These now cover the whole moon like a wrapping of black gauze, and serve to protect the populace from both bombs and falling stone. The enemy retaliated by using ever larger and heavier bombs, whose weight enabled them to break through the netting, but also meant eventually that no spacecraft could take off from Selsat Two with more than one bomb on board. Meanwhile the nets on Selsat One continued to grow in strength and elasticity; and at present, after fifteen months of war, they no longer confine their activities to merely keeping harmful objects away from people in the street. It is becoming increasingly common for the squadrons of Selsat Two to suffer losses owing to rebounding masonry which, dislodged by the explosions, falls into the nets and immediately bounces back up again to cause a hazard to fliers. As the generals on Selsat Two become more infuriated with the war’s lack of progress, and send larger squadrons to do more extensive damage, the hazard only increases, since more falling masonry means more bouncing masonry, and the larger number of bombers merely serves to provide a bigger target.

Recently, Selsat Two has been experimenting with timed devices, set to explode in the nets and rupture them; but this tactic also has its problems. It is by no means easy to gauge precisely when the device should go off once it has left the spacecraft, and most of them tend to explode harmlessly in mid-air when either half-way down or half-way up. A fortnight ago, a timed bomb was catapulted right into the middle of a formation of spacecraft and, thanks to the perfect timing of fate, destroyed every machine; and last week an exceptionally large one bounced right up into a cloud and blew up a bomber which was taking cover there. It rained warm water and spacecraft components for half an hour afterward.