Natural Selection Part 3 (Darwintine Story Chain)

A menacing squid above a dark landscape on which 3 human skulls are visible

This is part 3 of Natural Selection, FtB’s Darwintine Festival story chain.

Part 1 is at The Bolingbrook Babbler
Part 2 is at From the Ashes of Faith
Part 4 will be at Impossible Me
Part 5 will be at Pharyngula
Part 6 will be at Pervert Justice

If you enjoy being part of our community and appreciate the work we do here at FreethoughtBlogs, please consider making a donation to our legal defense fund.

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Patricia stood perfectly still just inside her cabin, ear pressed against the door, listening. The chaotic yelling rose to a crescendo, then slipped into a more structured cadence; it sounded as if someone had taken charge and was now rapidly firing commands to others, who in turn barked at their underlings, and so on until it seemed some order had been brought to all the chaos. Human voices were soon drowned out by the sounds of heavy machinery and equipment being dragged or driven toward the eastern fenceline. A helicopter landed briefly, then took off.

Patricia unlocked the cabin door, and stepped outside for a look. Colleagues on the science team, whose cabins were clustered nearby, had done the same. One by one they drew together and proceeded eastward. No one spoke a word as the group moved steadily toward the locus of all that clamor, until what they saw stopped them dead in their tracks.

An all-encompassing spectacle splayed out before them, the likes of which no one on earth had ever seen. The backdrop consisted of several large swaths of torn cyclone fencing and strings of barbed wire strewn haphazardly over the rocky hill just beyond the encampment. Security teams carrying automatic weapons and heavier artillery had taken up positions on the slope, while a phalanx of armed guards had begun spreading out along the camp’s north and west borders.

The southern border of the site provided natural protection of a sort, in the form of a wide outcropping of rock leading to a sheer dropoff of several hundred meters. The rocky canyon below housed a winding feeder stream, leading to the Yukon river somewhere in the distance. The fencing along the cliff’s edge, rather than keeping anything out, had been erected mainly to keep people in, lest anyone be inclined to take a rambling stroll after dark.

It occurred to Patricia that this was the only thing all that fencing was good for now: keeping everyone nicely kettled up together, in the remote Alaskan wilderness, with strange and powerful predators for whom barbed wire and steel mesh were mere playthings lurking outside. Gosh, what could possibly go wrong with this whole fish-in-a-barrel scenario? Patricia chuckled to herself, then snorted. A morbid sense of humor had always helped her keep her wits about her in life-threatening situations, and there sure had been quite a few of those in recent years.

Someone shot her a sharp elbow to the ribs. Seems not everyone could see the hilarity in anticipating their own imminent deaths.

Really, though, it was the astonishing tableau before them that held the science team utterly transfixed. An enormous, soaring tent structure had been erected next to the fence breach. The back and sides were gray and opaque, but the entire front-facing wall was comprised of clear plastic sheeting. A large and bulky metal slab stood solidly in the center of the space, and on it, lashed down tightly with heavy steel cables, an enormous creature struck out wildly at its surroundings with its few partially unsecured tentacles. A tech crew in head-to-toe hazmat suits were busy making notations on tablets and setting up equipment against the far wall, careful to give those lashing tentacles a wide buffer.

And as if this scene were not intense enough to burn itself permanently into the minds of those on site, it was all blazingly lit up by telescoping towers of blindingly bright lights.

“Over here!” shouted a voice from the direction of a smaller structure pitched against the larger chamber. It was Dr. Emily Kimura, gesturing toward the huddle of stunned scientists to come join her.

Inside the smaller space, several techs were just finishing the setup of two large screens: one displayed a high-resolution livestream of the captive creature thrashing violently against its restraints, and the other an array of outputs from various monitoring devices as they came online. But the most unsettling element in the room was the sound. Captured by a microphone hung just above its head, the creature’s vocalizations were routed directly to a pair of speakers that hung near the screens. At first it sounded like any large animal might under extreme duress, although no recognizable species came to mind in a room full of animal experts.

As the group shuffled behind a long table and settled into seats, the sound suddenly shifted into a distinctly human voice and began to repeat, “Lo siento, pero el no es apto para la nieve. No puedo seleccionarse.”

“Oh okay, it’s Spanish now, is it? Well that’s new, but not exactly helpful!” snapped Dr. Robert Stavinsky, a limnologist who did his fieldwork in the freshwater lakes of Mexico and Central America.

“What’s it mean?” asked Dr. Sheila Brach, an astrobiologist out of Yale.

“It means, ‘I’m sorry, but he is not suited for the snow. I cannot select him.’” It was Dr. Emily Kimura, projecting her voice over the moderate speaker volume and the buzzing among the group. “I have some new information to share–”

She was cut off by an abrupt break in the repeating Spanish loop and the start of long, overlapping low- and high-pitched tones that seemed to bend and stretch, on and on, and echo with cavernous reverberation.

Stavinsky flipped his pen in the air and let it land on the table with a loud pop. He crossed his arms, rolled his eyes and said, “What the hell could even make a sound like that?”

“That’s easy,” Will Stokes, the cephalopod guru, replied to the question Stavinsky had thought to be rhetorical. “It’s whale song.”

“What?! Whale song?!” Stavinsky was becoming more and more exasperated–and exasperating–by the second, demanding constant attention while contributing nothing of use. “Well, what’s it saying?”

“I don’t know, Bob. I don’t speak whale,” Will quipped right back at him. That broke the tension in the room, as a bevy of world class scientists, exhausted from a grueling day of travel, challenged beyond anything they had ever encountered before and terrified of the ramifications of what they had seen, broke out in raucous laughter. Even Stavinsky cracked a smile and shook his head. He had walked right into that one.

As the laughter died down, the creature again altered its vocal emanations and began huffing, interspersed with low growls and throaty moans. The camera feed showed it struggling and twisting against the steel cables, seemingly in an effort to project these low-frequency vocalizations in multiple, distinct directions.

“Jesus Christ,” Patricia said, stunned. “Those are bear sounds.”

“Are you sure?” asked Will, sizing up Patricia over the rims of his glasses. He knew her only casually, and thought bird migration was more her thing.

“I’m positive,” she replied, sensing the creeping doubt among her colleagues. “I did an internship for BT studying polar bears, not too far from here actually, over the Canadian border. I had to learn to distinguish polar bear sounds from black and brown bears, because their habitats overlap and any misidentification would muddy the data.”

Will nodded, and the others seemed less unnerved if not overly impressed. Regardless, it was now established that Dr. Patricia Gorman knew more about bear sounds than anybody else there.

“Well, what are they saying?” joked Sheila Brach. “Do you speak bear, Dr. Gorman?” The room was roiled again with laughter.

“Ooh, I know!” Stavinsky shot back, “It means ‘listen bear, you can’t take the snow? Then I cannot select you!’” More laughter.

Patricia stood up as the snickering finally died down. “I know this will sound highly implausible, but…I guess I do speak a little bear.” She expected more howls of laughter, but instead she had their full attention. “Those sounds are like warning signals. Warnings to other bears, to stay back, to go away.”

Dr. Emily Kimura now stood and cleared her voice to speak. Despite her bubbly personality and disarming grin, she could exude a calm, serious and authoritative stature that was downright magnetic. The room quieted, and all eyes were on her. Patricia had not seen this side of Emily in their brief time together: the natural leader, who effortlessly commanded the attention and respect of a room filled with extremely accomplished scientists, most of them many years her senior.

“For all of us,” she began, “Every thing we thought we knew about the history of life on earth, from biology to geology to evolution to genetics to… to… we don’t even know what else we’ve yet to consider, has been turned upside down, in a single day. It’s a lot to take in.” Emily paused for a moment to let the enormity of the new reality begin to sink in.

Patricia leaned forward on her seat, mesmerized. My god, she’s magnificent, Patricia thought. She’s up there flying without a net. There’s no handbook for this, no S.O.P. you can simply follow when you’re in charge of dealing with a walking, talking, deadly cephalopod. 

Emily still held the room rapt. “We don’t have time to waste, so let me get right to it. Questioning alternative explanations, demanding robust evidence, subjecting our work to peer review – this kind of rigorous skepticism is the cornerstone of good science, right?”

Heads nodded and mouths mumbled agreement.

“Skepticism is absolutely critical to what I’m going to ask of you, though not in the way you might think.” Emily paused, scanned the faces around the room, then pressed on. “I must ask you to turn that skepticism inward, on your own area of expertise. I need you to question all of the foundational principles and assumptions you have been working under, and doubt them. Doubt them hard. Look for any chink in the structure that holds all of our knowledge about life on earth together. Because something we are absolutely sure of, something we all truly believe we know without a doubt, turns out to be very, very wrong. And we need to find what that is, or we’ll never get ahead of this thing.”

Just then, Brandon’s face appeared in a box on the data monitoring screen. “Sorry to interrupt, Dr. Kimura. I’d like to give everyone a download on new information we’ve acquired.” Emily gestured for him to continue.

“First, I am sorry to report that during the engagement with the creature tonight at the east perimeter, we lost a guard, S2 Salvador Alonzo. Two others were seriously injured, but they are expected to survive the encounter. What we’ve learned is that this creature kills with a single tentacle by directly piercing soft tissue, like just below the ribcage, then makes its way back and upward along the spinal column and under the skull until it makes contact with the cerebral cortex. Then it quickly retracts. The body cam streams, autopsy footage and other data are being downloaded via secure satellite link to your location as we speak. We were able to obtain DNA samples from the creature and they’re processing now. As soon as this or any other information becomes available, it will be directed straight to you. If there’s anything else we can provide, please let Dr. Kimura know. I know the task in front of you is monumental. We are all counting on you to figure this thing out. And unfortunately there isn’t a lot of time.”

BT’s signal went to static, then flickered out. Emily picked right up where he left off.

“Time,” she said, “might be our biggest problem. We don’t even know how much or how little time we have, to come up with meaningful answers to the questions we’re facing here.” Emily lowered her voice in volume and pitch, sounding almost conspiratorial. “And it is only a matter of time until the U.S. government is on to exactly what we’re doing here. Once that happens, our ability to operate here will be severely curtailed.” Or worse, she thought, but didn’t say. “BT has very good relationships with the feds of course. But once they start asking the right questions, it will mean they’ve already got surveillance up and running, or we’ve got a mole leaking our intel. At that point, even BT won’t be able to hold them off.”

Emily paused and took a deep breath, just to let the likely consequences of US government involvement sink in. She didn’t need to expound on that point. These were smart people; they would figure it out.

“Any questions before we get to work?”

“Yeah,” said Stavinsky, “What’s this about a mole? You mean right here, in this room?”

“With any operation of this size and importance, there’s always a leak,” Emily said matter-of-factly. Patricia’s scrunched up forehead signaled her puzzlement and disbelief. Emily locked eyes with hers and repeated, “Always.”

A guard entered and made a beeline for Dr. Kimura, who had taken a little longer to linger over Patricia’s eyes than was strictly necessary. “What is it?”

“Dr. Kimura, there’s a snowstorm headed our way. The first squalls are predicted to hit at 0 six hundred hours, with high winds and blizzard conditions expected. Our generators should still run, but the satellite link will likely be severed until after it clears out.”

“Thank you,” said Emily, and turned to face the group. “Any more questions? No? Let’s do this.”

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Part 4 will be at Impossible Me
Part 5 will be at Pharyngula
Part 6 will be at Pervert Justice

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Again, if you appreciate and enjoy our work, please consider a donation to our legal fund. Any amount is appreciated, and every dollar helps. All proceeds go toward paying off the legal debt incurred in defending (and winning!) the SLAPP suit brought by Richard Carrier against our blog network and others, including PZ Myers personally. (You can read all about the suit here.)

Free speech isn’t really free. Sometimes defending it requires a serious commitment of time and money, and it especially requires people like PZ Myers and his co-defendants who are willing to make those sacrifices to fight for it. Too often, voices are simply silenced when the targets of suits cannot marshal the considerable resources needed to defend against them – even when, as in this case, the defendants are virtually certain to prevail as a matter of law. It is no small thing: both the SLAPP suits themselves and the fear of being targeted by one imperil First Amendment rights for all of us.

We truly value your being part of our community. Please kick in a few bucks if you are able.

Questions for Secretary of State Nominee Antony Blinken.

Roots Action is an online activist groups that I happily allow to exist in my inbox: I find their messaging educational and their activism worthwhile. In case you are unfamiliar with them:

RootsAction is an online initiative dedicated to galvanizing people who are committed to economic fairness, equal rights for all, civil liberties, environmental protection — and defunding endless wars.

(More info at this link.)

Today they sent me an exemplary missive regarding Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Of course all such nominees are subject to Senate approval, so Roots Action has helpfully drafted questions for Senators to use when they query Mr. Blinken during the vetting process. These are questions that elected officials in any functioning democracy could, should and would demand be answered to the public’s satisfaction before handing over a set of keys to the kingdom. Which means these inquiries are highly unlikely to be asked, or even considered.

But that doesn’t mean that such email campaigns are not worth your click. For one thing, when a sizable enough number of constituents bombards your Senators’ offices with a single concern, some poor staffer is duty-bound to bring it to his or her attention. Unless the Senator in question is, say, Bernie Sanders, this particular collection of emails will have the effect of pissing them off. I mean really irritating the shit out of them.

Now doesn’t that mere thought alone warm your little black heart? Click here, and ruin a Goldman Sachs puppet’s day!

Second, I am a very big fan of taking actions that shift the Overton window. It is certainly in need of a hell of a lot of shifting, especially after conservatives have spent the last several decades on a singular mission to convince us all that people like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are godless communists. There is no question this effort has worked out splendidly for conservatives.

Yet in more recent years we have finally witnessed “fringe” ideas enter the mainstream from both the right and the left. For instance, Medicare for All is not yet seriously on the table, but it no longer gets you laughed out of the room, either. Lowering the Medicare eligibility age, as Biden pretends he wants to do, would certainly be a shift in the same direction. Even more promising, a public option/Medicare buy-in has picked up traction, too. If enacted, I predict this would drag the Overton window toward the single payer point much farther and faster than many now envision. That’s because a Medicare buy-in would never be restricted to individuals: here in ‘Murikka where Corporations ‘R People®, big business buy-in to more affordable employee health coverage could topple the private insurance industry with lightning speed.

Meanwhile, poor Mr. Overton must be nearly dead now from all that punching from the right. Not very long ago the violent overthrow of Congress at the direction of the US president by a bunch of badly dressed mooks sure seemed like a pretty fringe idea. Yet here we are.

The Roots Action email campaign is set up so you can modify the text before it gets routed to your Senators, and I took full advantage of this opportunity. Roots Action’s message is serious and well-documented, though still outside of more mainstream discourse. So is mine, but in the current political environment I’m quite sure I sound like a deranged lefty berserker. Good. Because you know what? It takes an awful lot of little pushes to budge that fucking window.

Why not help kick it a little.

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(My added text is right up front; the Roots Action text is below the cut.)

Subject: Questions for Antony Blinken

Dear [Senators Schumer and Gillibrand]:

War profiteering used to be universally reviled as the evil that it patently is. And yet now, it’s in the job description of the Executive Branch to shill for US “defense” companies like a bunch of used car salesmen. Incentivising the spread of war, violence and weapons around the globe for obscene private profits should not be the business of anyone, much less the United States government. Quite the opposite, in fact. Why, one might think the Executive Branch works on commission, rather than remuneration from US taxpayers. And yet here we are, with a man perfectly emblematic of this problem, nominated to head the State Department.

I have some questions for you to ask Mr. Blinken, but perhaps you could start with asking this one of yourself: Wouldn’t it be more accurate to rename the US Department of State the US Department of Sales? And while you’re at it, please think about how you might use your considerable power to dismantle the system that enables war profiteering and all of the evils that flow from it. Here’s a thought, and I’m just spitballing here: if US weapons manufacturers cannot enrich their shareholders without using the US government to ensure they are the preeminent arms dealers for the entire world, perhaps they should all be run as nonprofits?

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[Read more…]

MLK Day 2021: A Time to Break Silence.

Black Lives Matter

While the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” are perhaps his most notable and oft-cited works, it has become my habit on this day to highlight another. Delivered on April 4, 1967 at Manhattan’s Riverside Church, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence reveals King as his fiery and ever-eloquent self, though as a wiser, wearier man than he was just four years earlier, sitting in that Birmingham jail cell.

With the Vietnam conflict raging at the time, King directly linked the profound injustices of that war to many other injustices in our own society – injustices which remain to this day. I wonder what King might say of the Black Lives Matter movement, and of the protests sparked by the police murder of George Floyd, if he were alive today. Of course, we’ll never know. But for me, one overarching message that the movement for Black lives delivered loud and clear to white America is that it is not enough to personally reject racism. If we are not doing the necessary anti-racist work, we whites are failing as human beings. Especially after reading Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, I get the feeling that King could not agree more.

Silence is complicity.

This work was urgent then. It is just as urgent now. That fact is as infuriating as it is heartbreaking. Let us use it, then, to rekindle our own sense of urgency, and to redouble our anti-racist work.

Speaking as a die-hard atheist, I would be remiss if I did not address King’s repeated references to religion. First, as I’ve noted before,

King tethers these to his eloquent defenses of secular ideas of justice, compassion and love to make the same case; in this way they function to bolster his arguments (for the religious-minded) instead of standing in for them.

Second, as a die-hard anti-theist, I’ll take any opportunity to point out that Christians don’t own every virtue- including forgiveness.

Speech below the cut.

[Read more…]

A visit from jolly old St. Poe!

Readers with memories longer than my own may recall my post a few weeks ago, in which I proffered a flawless, airtight, exquisitely logicked explanation as to why President Dickhead ordered only 100 million COVID vaccines for a country of 331 million people, and then I dared readers who disagreed with my hypothesis to – and I quote – “fight me.”

And fight me some did! Tho I swear, at the time of this bloody savagery, I had already come up with even MOAR flawless, airtight, exquisitely logicked explanations with which to BURY ALL YOU MOTHERFUCKERS. (In the sweetest, gentlest, most loving and respectful way possible of course, unless you explicitly and enthusiastically consent to liking it rough, and provide a safeword.)

But then a couple things happened. First, I got distracted. Not like oooh!-look!-shiny!-distracted. More like… overwhelmed with medical issues you would not want to hear about (and related calls and conferences you would not want to hear about either), and getting swept up in certain holiday-oriented rituals and festivities including incredibly foolish undertakings of my own (un)doing that sure seemed like super easy and fun ideas at the time haha and yet remain unfinished to this day and now require both international shipping (to New Jersey) AND specialized superpowers which alas, are among those I do not possess.

And second, I remembered something very important about Death to Squirrels. And that is, unless you agree with me, YOU ARE WRONG BECAUSE THAT’S HOW THIS BLOG WORKS.*

So that should have been the end of it, right? I mean, unless and until one of us again finds it mildly amusing to speculate – to the death! – on the exact nature of President Dickhead’s neural misfirings.

But not so fast! For in the wee hours of this very morn, at 3:29am local/EST to be precise, we were gifted with a new and… distinctive contribution to our epic battlethread. It purports to originate from one heretofore unheard of “Christina richards,” and is copied-&-pasted here, unedited, and in its entirety, from my unapproved comments feed because (a) I kinda want to know whether Christina richards is for real or not and I honestly cannot tell, and (b) either way, it’s fucking hilarious:

[Read more…]

I know why Trump ordered only 100 million vaccines, and now YOU can know too!

Via our good friends who write The New York Times morning email brief:

Once Pfizer delivers its first 100 million vaccine doses to the U.S., the country may not get another batch until June. That’s because the Trump administration passed on a deal last summer to secure more shots, and the European Union bought them.

Pundits are punditing, opinion writers are opining, and Democrats are… doing what Democrats invariably do: wasting time and money on the same failed strategies and messaging that lost them seats in the House and will almost certainly cost them control of the Senate.

But as far as I can tell, precisely no one has plainly stated the reason behind Trump & Co.’s decision to cut off the country’s access to Pfizer’s COVID vaccines at 100 million. Okay, so maaaaaybe the New York Times did? I wouldn’t know; I didn’t click their link because hello, New York Times.

But I will tell you the reason. Don’t you want to know?

[Read more…]

It’s Winterfest at Freethought Blogs!

Childlike drawing of house, trees, snowy hills with a bright sun streaming up in the background and a track of footprints, and a banner that reads "Winterfest Fundraiser, FreethoughtBlogs, December 5, 2020."

Today the Fun is Fantastical and Free at FreethoughtBlogs! We’ve got a deliciously diverse lineup of offerings for you to explore and enjoy. What’s your pleasure?

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PZ interviews briefly some Rock Star FtB bloggers! You can put a face (and a voice!) to the names of your fav writers here, and maybe discover new faces and places you will really enjoy.

Megan Rahm of From the Ashes of Faith

Dr. Sarah of Geeky Humanist

Giliell of Affinity

William Brinkman of The Bolingbrook Babbler

TD Walker of Freethinking Ahead

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Our new story chain, “A Martian Odyssey” – the adventure has begun!

arid, reddish, martian landscape.

Part 1 by PZ Myers at Pharyngula transports us to the wild world of our future, where an isolated, conservative Earth has for centuries turned her back on her weird and wonderful offspring now populating the solar system… until now. How weird are we talking? Well, why take 10 million years to terraform a planet into an environment fit for humans when you can quickly whip up a little radical genetic modification to planetform the human to the environment instead?

Part 2 by Yours Truly here at Death to Squirrels picks up with three of PZ’s strange characters – a Marsborn and two Spaceborn – facing a profoundly consequential decision: what to do about Earth. Iris Vander Pluym, having ZERO experience writing fiction except for that one chapter in last month’s story chain, naturally decides to kill one of them off straightaway.

Abe Drayton now has Part 3 up at Oceanoxia, and now it’s up to William Brinkman at The Bolingbrook Babbler to bring it home! (I’ll post an updated link for Part 4 when available.)

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View our Winter Photo Gallery at Affinity! This collection comprises submissions from FtB bloggers and readers in our community – including YOU if you send a photo or ten to affinitysubmissions@gmail.com, and the Affinity collective likes your work!

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Creativity for Skeptics — a conversation about secular creativity with TD Walker of Freethinking Ahead. This is the event I’ve been looking forward to most this month. I’ve long loved exploring the topic of creativity, but I find the writing of so-called experts and thought leaders tends to be chock full of flaming woo. As an anti-supernaturalist this is off-putting and disappointing to say the least. I can assure readers that whatever my own process(es) may be, supernatural forces play no part in them, and I would like to learn more about what’s really going on within myself and other artists.

I’m definitely watching this just as soon as I finish…painting a dress for a 6-year old. What? Hardly a big deal since I painted my sofa.

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Gaming!

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And finally, I’ll let PZ take it away:

“Did you know this will be the one-year anniversary of our legal victory over the Pissant of Evil? Several of the defendants will be gathering to celebrate that happy event!”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzbTXTvMpaA&feature=emb_title

Aww, man! Pissant of Evil was totally gonna be the name of my new fake socially-distanced band! But there goes PZ ruining everything again AS USUAL… 🙄

I kid! I kid! Our illustrious Dr. Myers bore the burden of the infuriating SLAPP suit(s) with the same wit and brilliance he does everything else. And for readers who may not be aware, that includes an enormous amount of work behind the scenes at FtB, from tech support to his laissez faire approach to management issues (which I am 100% convinced would be MUCH easier if he simply ran things like a typical tyrant) to herding the proverbial cats – in this case a large litter of curious, opinionated, godless, passionate, lefty bloggers – better than any human I have ever seen. It takes a lot of (mostly thankless) work to make this place a reality, and by far the brunt of it falls on PZ Myers. I’m sure I speak for FtB comrades and readers when I say: THANK YOU. We are very grateful for this place. And all of your arduous work, even through difficult times, is genuinely appreciated.

PZ especially deserves our congratulations for taking on the fight for freedom of speech, and triumphing for himself, his co-defendants, and all of us.

If you can spare some coin to help with the legal costs incurred when you need to fight “Pissants of Evil,” please give what you can via our PayPal.

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A Martian Odyssey, part 2 (fiction).

Part 1 of our story by PZ is here.

If you enjoy our writing and the work we do here at FreethoughtBlogs, please consider a donation to our legal fund!

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A Martian Odyssey, part 2

Nothing prepared Key for this moment. Neither their formal education nor diplomatic experience qualified Key for the operation the Spaceborn were now proposing. They felt unprepared in other ways, too. Jimin’s sudden disappearance added more weight to an already weighty mission, but that wasn’t all. Key, like every Marsborn, knew next to nothing about Earth.

The children of Mars were abandoned by Mother Earth so long ago, the primal wound had healed over, even if the scar ran deep. Marsborn schoolchildren learned only that the once-strong bond of interdependence between the two planets had been severed cleanly by Earth’s own hand. She had cut the cord with such ferocity and finality there was nothing for her burgeoning progeny to do but erase all but a diaphanous vision of her. Except for her occasional looming into range of its ground-based scopes and solar eclipses, Earth had become utterly inconsequential to the Marsborn.

Not so for the Spaceborn. The distance from Martian gravity required by the Spaceborn had provided another kind of distance as well: a perspective quite literally above it all.

When Earth withdrew itself from the colonizers, she did not go quietly. Instead, every station, satellite, probe and craft within her impressive firing range was blasted into spacedust. Collectively, these were host to legions of unsuspecting Spaceborn. And the Spaceborn, for all of their disparate lifeforms and cultures spanning the solar system, still held one thing in common: a long memory.

Spaceborn schoolchildren learned early and often of Earth’s unprovoked massacre of their peaceful and productive ancestors. Spaceborn casualties of that horrific event were honored on day 500 of the Martian year, the number representing the approximate number of vessels lost. And the first such event marked the official, permanent system-wide sync to the Martian calendar and the end of Earth time. Ancient Copernicus exonerated one more time, the world no longer revolved around Earth.

Unsurprisingly, keeping the memory of Earth’s violent treachery alive among generations of Spaceborn had some repercussions. For one thing, whereas the Marsborn viewed Earth as a non-entity, if they even gave the blue dot any thought at all, the Spaceborn viewed Earth quite differently: as an enemy. The disparity caused no small amount of friction between Marsborn and Spaceborn, as every so often it gave rise to conspiracy theories that had to be quickly quashed, lest someone act to destroy the enduring relationship between them. However, it was not lost on the Spaceborn that Earth could easily have done considerable damage to critical installations on Mars, perhaps even put an end to the colonization project for good. Yet Mars survived unscathed, while the Spaceborn nursed their wounds and mourned their dead for centuries. Whenever sparks began to fly, cooler and wiser heads had historically prevailed. For the most part, all that remained between them was a healthy, mild suspicion right alongside an abiding respect, driven in part by amity and in part by mutual benefit. It was an arrangement that kept everyone on their best behavior.

But the most significant consequence of the Spaceborn worldview was the overarching priority to never again be attacked – unaware and undefended – by Earth or by anyone else. This would mean, among other things, that the Spaceborn would oversee the development of advanced defensive technologies as well as some slick artillery of their own. But after a thorough analysis following a deep dive into Earth’s history, the Spaceborn had come to a conclusion as unexpected as it was unavoidable: wielded properly, there was one weapon superior to all others, in all places and all times. That weapon was information.

With the Spaceborn maintaining all of the routes and communication channels connecting the farthest inhabited moons to the inhabitants of Mars, there were ample opportunities to develop and deploy information collection technologies along the way. Over the centuries, the Spaceborn inevitably became the keepers of inconceivably vast troves of information obtained via a virtually undetectable surveillance network. Sharply honed bots and algorithms continually trolled through endless seas of data, and when called upon, would instantly deliver a state-of-the-art, up-to-the-minute dossier on anything in the solar system that moved. Including, of course, anything that moved on Earth. Or Mars.

In a small meeting room in Wei station, Key began to methodically absorb and analyze what facts he could from the scene in front of them. Here were two struggling Spaceborn who said they had just attempted a rescue and recon mission at the Martian pole, the site of an Earth vessel landing. This was a fool’s errand, doomed from the start, as any Spaceborn or Marsborn could tell you after one look at these hastily slapped together prosthetics. Key knew, from many long, late-night conversations with Jimin, that the same Spaceborn technology that enabled the successful colonization of distant moons could easily enable two non-adapted Spaceborn to travel the Martian surface for a brief mission, or even a long one, should this be deemed a high enough priority.

And what, Key mused in his mind, could possibly be a higher priority than an Earth vessel landing at the Martian pole, the station going dark, their own diplomat sent on a stealth recon mission and having not been heard from since? 

And what about these two Spaceborn? Key studied them carefully. When their ridiculous mission failed – if there even were any mission – why seek out Key? Matters such as these would most certainly be of interest to those at much higher levels of the collective than a career Marsborn diplomat and these two apparently expendable Spaceborn. They were underequipped for a pit stop on the planet, much less a rendezvous with a brutal Martian winter, and terrain populated with bandits and giant bugs. Not to mention a potentially hostile Earthborn landing party.

But the most troubling question to Key was why the Spaceborn had kept all news of an Earth vessel landing on Mars a secret – for a week. Two months, if one counted from the nanosecond its launch trajectory was picked up by Spaceborn surveillance systems. That would instantly render a report to the highest circles of Spaceborn governance. Who else knew?

Ditya made a gentle, barely perceptible motion with her head. The message, though, conveyed without words, came through unmistakably: yes, we know what we are asking of you, and we are deeply sorry, but you are the only Marsborn we trust with this.

“I have…concerns,” Key said cooly. “And questions.”

Afia locked eyes with them, and said, “We understand. You don’t know us. We don’t know you. But here we are. And unfortunately, we don’t have much time.“

Ditya began to wheeze a bit now, the weight of the Martian atmosphere crushing the fragile membranes that supported breathing just fine at zero G.

“What you need to know about me is this,” said Key. “I would fight my way through the planet’s core for Jimin.”

For a moment, Afia and Ditya seemed more at ease. Key clarified, “Not for the Marsborn, not for the Spaceborn. For Jimin.” They continued, “What I need to know from you is everything that has happened from the time Spaceborn systems fired up the alert on the Earth vessel’s launch trajectory, to this very minute. And I mean everything.”

Afia spoke gravely, “Yes, we agree. There is no time to waste. We have fitted our transport with an encrypted channel to Ditya and myself only. We can begin to brief you as soon as you are underway.”

“One more concern,” Key said as all three moved toward the exit. “We are all at a complete loss when it comes to the Earthborn, after centuries of isolation.”

Ditya’s voice found its strength again, and let go with a wry chuckle. “Key,” she said, “I can brief you on anything you want to know about the Earthborn.”

“Now how would you know anything about that?”

Ditya seemed to grow smaller and more shrunken by the minute, yet she had now taken on an air of gravitas, speaking to Key as if he were her student.

“My dear,” she said softly. “I am old, and I have played many roles in my lifetime, official and unofficial. And what I know about the Earthborn could fill a gas giant.”

Key was stunned. The door slid open and transport guides swiftly slid the Spaceborn into waiting gel couches. They would finally have some relief from the Martian gravity, and soon enough they would feel at perfect ease in orbit. Afia and Ditya were sure of that, but of little else. This trip to the Martian surface had been an enormous risk, and nothing had gone to plan. What awaited them once that airlock opened in orbit was anyone’s guess.

Key made their way to the transport without being noticed by anyone who knew them – they hoped. Once strapped inside and cleared for departure, they heard Afia’s voice, crisp and clear. “Key, are you ready? We can begin the briefing shortly.”

“Yes,” they replied. They were eager to get started.

“But first, I’m afraid I have some bad news. Ditya has…died, Key. She’s dead.”

“I – I don’t know what to say,” Key replied.

“It’s just that she gave everything. She risked everything…” Afia’s voice trailed off.

“How did it happen?” Key inquired.

“That’s just it, I don’t understand,” Afia’s tone was strained with anxiety now. “Ditya was fine when we locked in for the jump to orbit. All her vital signs had stabilized, and the gel sensory web indicated the all clear. But when we arrived at the station and the airlock opened, she was… lifeless.”

“I am so sorry,” Key responded. “We can put the briefing off for a bit if you need some time.”

“No,” came the answer. “This mission was the culmination of Ditya’s life’s work. It is imperative that we continue.”

“Very good, then,” said Key. “I am standing by.”

__________

Part 3 is here, by Abe Drayton at Oceanoxia!

Veterans Day 2020: Fun, free and low-cost ways to honor U.S. vets.

Today is Veterans Day in the US.

Here are some things you can do for the veterans of our wars:

Veterans for Peace™.

Veterans for Peace™ is a coalition of military veterans and their allies whose mission is threefold: exposing the true costs of war (economic, environmental, human casualties, PTSD & suicide, social); building a culture of peace; and healing the wounds of war, at home and abroad. VFP is at the forefront of our most pressing issues – see e.g. this open letter from veterans to recently activated National Guard troops – and on the right side of many others with which it stands in solidarity. Current National Projects include:

It offers many ways to donate and participate meaningfully in making a better world, not just for veterans but for everyone.

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Wounded Warrior Project®

Because America’s Owners believe themselves entitled to the sacrifices made by these men and women and their families, VA programs are chronically underfunded and veterans benefits are perpetually on the chopping block. Until we can fix that problem, Wounded Warrior steps in with counseling, job resources and material support for veterans and their families. Even if you cannot donate funds, there are all kinds of opportunities to donate time. You can also stay on top of WWP’s news by signing up for their emails. If you’d like to keep on top of precisely how and where the U.S. government is failing veterans, just sign up for their weekly e-newsletter here.

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Contact Your Representatives and Senators.

Call them up and tell them exactly what you think of cutting veterans benefits so that the planet-polluting corporations who benefit from the sacrifices of our soldiers and their loved ones can pay low-to-no taxes! Email your congresscritters a little note telling them to cut the defense budget in half and fund universal single-payer health care with mental health parity! Demand legislation requiring that all companies benefiting financially in any way from our wars be run as non-profits! I am sure you can think of numerous hilarious and fun things to say!

Put those congresscritters’ numbers on speed dial and bookmark their sites. The least we can do to honor our veterans is get ourselves on a whole bunch of anti-lefty government watch lists – today.

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[excerpted, heavily edited and updated from a pre-FtB blog post.]

BREAKING: U.S. Army Coming Soon to a Street Near You! UPDATED.

Multiple notifications popped onto my screen yesterday announcing that the Loser-In-Chief had fired his defense secretary Mark Esper. I was working on something else (and also trying and failing miserably to observe a news blackout for personal reasons*) so I didn’t dig any deeper than the headlines.

But my mind kept on poking at me with a big stick and asking “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” For sure, the reason would be sad, funny, fascist, illegal, counterproductive, enraging, ridiculous or some combination of those. However, this morning as I looked over a few of these notifications before deleting them, our Liberal Media™ informed and enlightened me further only with something about Commander Cheetohead bashing Esper on Twitter. Which, okay, ticked A LOT of those boxes if not all of them but did nothing to shut up my shouty, stabby stick. And It’s not like I was going to click on actual links to read actual stories! I got shit to do, people.

Enter The New York Times to save the day! (Not really.) From this morning’s Times email briefing:

[Read more…]