15 Eunomia

Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

David Erwin, the lone human inhabitant at the Eunomia mining station in the asteroid belt, was just suiting up to make his rounds when his door chime sounded. Erwin shook his head in mild frustration. Robots never seem to get it. He had instructed them hundreds of times to just enter his quarters without waiting for authorization, but they never do. He hypothesized that some early programmer must have gotten into trouble when a robot interrupted someone important at an inopportune moment, so he wrote “etiquette” code that couldn’t be overridden, except in emergencies. Well, at least in this case, hearing the chime was a good sign. It meant the robot at the door didn’t consider this visit an emergency. “Come in,” he instructed.

The door slid open, but the robot didn’t enter. It was Rector, the leadbot of the Delta team. “Excuse the interruption, sir” it said in a polite simulated male voice, “but we encountered an artificial object in tunnel K-13.” Rector paused, waiting to be prompted. Erwin said nothing. He continued to suit up as though he were alone. Rector decided to continue, “I believe, sir, that it is an ancient extraterrestrial spacecraft.”

“Fine,” replied Erwin as he sealed and secured his helmet. He gently pushed off the far wall and drifted toward the door. He grabbed Rector’s arm, and scrambled onto its back. He attached his retaining clips to Rector’s shoulders. “Okay,” he said, “take me there.” Walking or driving was not an option in the microgravity of Eunomia. You had to fly. And robots were much better at it than humans. So it was best to leave the transportation to them.

They passed through the airlock, and navigated through a myriad of tunnels and shafts. There was never a question of Rector getting lost. It had the network of tunnels programmed into its memory, which were updated every hour, so it knew every inch of this asteroid. But it made Erwin wonder. What would happen if Rector chose to abandon him here in this tunnel? Could he find his way back to his quarters before his oxygen ran out? Probably not, he concluded. Fortunately, Asimov’s three laws of robotics made that scenario impossible. Rector’s forward thrusters fired, bringing them to a full stop 50 feet in front of the artificial object Rector had mentioned.

Rector’s robotic mining crew had continued to excavate around the object. Approximately twenty feet of it was exposed. Rector’s assessment had been correct, it was a spaceship. Erwin could identify the bow, and the forward viewport. Since Eunomia was at least 4.45 billion years old, these travelers were ancient visitors indeed. He unclipped himself, and flew toward the ship’s viewport. He used his light beam to illuminate the inside of the ship. There were four beings inside; all dead of course, and fully desiccated. Apparently, he thought, the cold vacuum of space can prevent decomposition indefinitely. Erwin wondered how space faring beings like these could end up entombed miles below the surface of a nondescript asteroid, orbiting a run-of-the-mill star. Oh well, he decided, that’s for the scientists back on Earth to figure out.

Erwin pushed himself back from the ship. “Okay Rector, I’ll notify headquarters. Instruct your crew to finish digging it out. Then put it in the yard with the rest of alien ships. These things are starting to become a nuisance.”

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The Supaida Snare

Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

The SS Furai was traveling at warp three through the Supaida Sector on a survey mission to look for planets that were suitable for human colonization. A decade earlier, an unmanned probe had passed through the sector and reported numerous habitable planetary systems around two Type G stars, and four Type K stars. Each of the star systems all had at least one terrestrial planet orbiting in the habitable zone, sometimes referred to as the “goldilocks zone.” The Furai’s mission was to determine if any of the planets meet the criteria for human colonization; the plant-to-animal biomass ratio had to be 98.5 or higher, and no indigenous animal species could have an Intellect Potential (IP) above 64.2.

The first two star systems they surveyed were non-viable due to exceptionally high concentrations of animal mass. They were approximately one hour from the third system when the ship unexpectedly came to a dead stop. Fortunately, the inertial dampeners responded instantaneously and prevented any serious injuries. “What the…,” snapped the Captain? He pressed the intercom button. “Chief, why have we dropped out of warp,”

“I don’t know, sir. The warp engines are still on-line. They’re straining like hell too. Did we hit something?”

“Unknown, Chief,” he replied. “Shut down the engines until we figure this out. Ensign O’Toole, any idea what stopped us?”

“Sensors readings are normal, sir. Nothing unusual in the electromagnetic spectrum. Graviton activity is typical. Charged particle density is low. Huh, this is unusual. The quantum chromodynamic sensors show a tiny spike in the strong interaction color confinement. But it’s barely above background. I can’t believe that has anything to do with our situation.”

“We need to be sure, Mister O’Toole,” responded the Captain. “Take a science pod out, and have a look.”

Fifteen minutes later, O’Toole reported in. “Captain, I’m approximately 10 klicks aft of your position. I’ve adjusted my sensors to detect baryon waves. It appears that you are caught in a 2D matrix of some kind. From here, it looks like a large net that extends for light years in the Y and Z directions.”

“Mister Kline, did the probe report this phenomenon?”

The science officer quickly accessed the records. “Captain, according to the logs, Earth lost contact with the probe before it surveyed this corridor. It was presumed lost. However, since the probe had mapped 95% of the sector, Central Command determined that it was not cost-effective to send another probe to complete the survey.”

“What? Protocol requires complete sensor mapping before manned vessels can enter a new system. This is…”

O’Toole’s voice interrupted the captain in mid sentence. “Sir, I’m picking up a huge flux of fermions. The density is increasing fast. It’s off scale. Sir, it looks like the signature for quark matter. But I’ve never seen it this intense. I’m transmitting the sensor data to Lieutenant Kline.”

“Put it on the main viewer, Mister Kline,” ordered the captain.

The viewscreen at the front of the bridge showed an unmagnified image of the Furai entangled in a faint 2D network. Suddenly, a glowing semi-transparent anomaly three times larger than the ship entered the field of view. It moved toward the ship and began to encapsulate it with long string-like filaments similar in appearance to the 2D net.

“Damn. Red alert,” shouted the captain. “Raise shields. Charge the hull plates, maximum intensity. Tactical, bring weapons on-line. Target that creature and fire everything we have. Helm, full impulse power, and initiate a barrel-roll, maximum sustainable RPM. Chief, I need warp engines, now. If we can’t break free of this web, we’re all dead.”

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The Oort Cloud Turnaround

Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

The colonization vessel SS Godspeed was the first super-sleeper ship to leave the solar system. The 1032 human passengers, and 4000 or so assorted farm animals, were destined for the Gagarin settlement on Rigil Kentaurus II. The Godspeed was currently halfway through its 16 year journey when the command computer aroused twelve of its crew from suspended animation. The ship was about to initiate its thrust reversal maneuver, so that it could begin the process of slowing down. The procedure was relatively simple: shut down the engines, detach the massive meteoroid shield at the bow, rotate the two mile long cigar shaped ship 180 degrees, reattach the shield to the aft end (now the new bow), and restart the engines. The four powerful engines were mounted on the sides of the ship, and would be located behind the shield during the four hours it took to turnaround the ship. However, “nonessential” areas of the ship, such as the cargo holds, and the hibernation bays, would be “exposed” to the meteoroid field of the Oort cloud for almost the entire four hours. Relative to the sun, Oort cloud objects are essentially stationary, but at the ship’s current velocity (over 300 million miles per hour), objects pass through the ship in nanoseconds. Two holes, an entrance and an exit site, simply appear instantaneously. The task of the twelve crewmen was to disperse throughout the exposed areas of the ship to patch the holes as quickly as possible, and repair any transit damage. The computer would handle the actual turnaround.

Shawn Houck velcroed himself to the wall so he could put on his boots. “Not bad for eight years without shaving” he said as he rubbed his stubby beard. “Hey, I guess you heard, six people died so far.”

Ben McNamara secured his helmet, and drifted toward the hatch. “They estimated nine to twenty for the whole trip. So I guess six isn’t too bad at the halfway point. Well, unless you’re one of the six. Okay, I’m ready. I’ll meet you in cargo bay three.”

The two men were floating next to the crated farm equipment when the alarm sounded. Shawn released a canister of blue gas. “I got one,” he yelled as he saw part of the gas cloud migrate toward a small hole in the exterior skin. He fired his control jets and drifted toward the escaping gas. Ben went in the opposite direction. Both holes were patched in a few minutes, and the men joined up again. “Looks like we lost the transmission on that tractor,” Shawn said as he pointed toward the tiny spheres of pinkish fluid drifting out of a hole in a crate.

“Well, it’s better than seeing blood balls,” replied Ben with a hint of anxiety in his voice.

“Oh great,” Shawn replied. “You’ve jinxed us for sure. We might as well paint bull’s-eyes on our chests. Ah hell,” he remarked as he did a quick estimate in his head, “we still have a trillion miles of to go before we’re behind the shield again.”

“Remember we’re traveling at half the speed of light,” said Ben with a smirk. “You need to take space-time dilation into account. Add another 250 billion miles.”

The alarm sounded a second time. “Oh Great,” said Shawn as he released another canister of blue gas.

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Europa's Subterranean Secret

Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

The unmanned Marius Lander (in honor of Simon Marius, the German astronomer who named the four large Jovian moons, and claimed to have discovered them before Galileo) successfully touched down on the icy surface of Europa. After a quick systems check, and notification to Earth Command, the fully autonomous probe began to deploy the scientific instruments that it had carried for six years and four billion kilometers. Of course, there were the unanticipated, but inevitable, glitches (e.g., recorder anomalies, electromagnetic frequency shifts, disrupted communications, etc.). These issues were either fixed, or successfully “worked around.”

The first mission objective was to launch the Nuclear Powered Thermo Boring Probe (NPTBP) as the prerequisite for the exploration of Europa’s subsurface ocean. It was estimated that it would take the NPTBP at least thirty days to penetrate Europa’s five kilometer thick icy crust.

As the NPTBP maliciously melted its way through the ice, Earth scientists were busy analyzing the plethora of data being transmitted from Marius’ extensive instrumentation package. To say the least, the data was puzzling. Tidal fluctuations were less than ten percent of the expected 100 meters. This was interpreted to mean that the moon must be a rigid solid; with a modulus of elasticity five times higher than tungsten carbide. Then the seismology data came in. No evidence of moonquakes. Seismologists could not explain how close approaches to Ganymede and Io did not produce gravitational instabilities in Europa’s structure. As if that weren’t enough, the Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and Ground Penetrating Sonar (GPS) packages revealed that the ice layer was only about a kilometer thick, and it abruptly terminated at a smooth spherical surface. Neither instrument could penetrate beyond the one-kilometer deep interface. At day six, the NPTBP encountered an obstacle at 987 meters.

After much consternation, the Mission Commander authorized the Boring Team to exceed the thermal design limits of the probe. Although the probe had been designed only to melt through the ice, in theory, the “business end” could be heated to over 2000°K. When the thermocouple indicated that the probe tip reached 1341°K, the probe began to move downward. However, after a few minutes, telemetry data indicated that the probe was in freefall. A few seconds later, it abruptly stopped. The NPTBP no longer responded to Marius’ commands.

After a great deal more debate, the Mission Commander authorized the Oceanographic Team to lower the tethered Hydrobot down the hole bored by the NPTBP. When the Hydrobot approached the depth of the original obstruction, its forward looking camera revealed that the NPTBP had melted a hole through solid metal, at least one meter thick. In addition, the camera revealed an empty chamber immediately below the metal interface. The scientist could see the NPTBP lying sideways on the “floor,” approximately 20 meters below. The Hydrobot was lowered an additional 18 meters. That’s when the monitor began to show an irregularly shifting image as the camera was being jostled about. Seconds later, there was an image of a large yellow eye with two parallel, black vertical slits, presumably dual pupils. A pair of green eyelids blinked from opposite sides of the eye. Suddenly, the monitor turned black, except for a quickly shrinking white dot in the middle of the screen.

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Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

Circa 2086, the war with the Epsilon Eridani System was currently on hold, as leaders from both worlds were attempting to negotiate a truce. However, most of Earth’s military advisors were against a truce, because the Earth Alliance was clearly winning the war. Our technology was far superior to theirs. It was best, they said, to destroy the Eridani’s ability to wage war while we had the advantage, rather than give them the opportunity to regroup and strengthen. What the Eridani lacked in technology, they made up for in aggressiveness. They would be back if they were not destroyed. But soldiers only fight the wars; politicians start and end them.

While the negotiations ebbed on, the Earth Alliance continued to patrol the solar system. The stealth scout ship Casper was assigned the volume of space between Earth and Venus from zero degrees to minus thirty degrees. Normally, a pretty quiet sector. The Eridani almost always attacked Earth from above the ecliptic, most likely because their star was located in the northern hemisphere. They were considered aggressive, but not very imaginative. While the two-man crew of the Casper patrolled their sector, their proximity alarm sounded. “Hey, Commander, look. It’s an Eridani ship. What’s it doing in here?”

“Good question Lieutenant. Let’s follow it and find out. Keep the cloak engaged.” They tailed the Eridani ship to a small asteroid. The Eridani had constructed several large ion drive impulse engines in one quadrant of the asteroid. “What data do we have on this rock, Lieutenant?”

After consulting the ship’s computer, “It’s called 2340 Hathor. It’s an Aten Type asteroid. It’s approximately 5.3 kilometers in diameters, a mass of 200 trillion kilograms, and average orbital velocity of 30.7 kilometers per second. Oh, damn. It’s scheduled to make a close approach to Earth on October 21, 2086. That’s in two months. Do you think those bastards are going to attempt to change its orbit so that it hits Earth, even while they negotiate a peace treaty?”

“Apparently, Lieutenant. Notify Earth and request instructions.”

Two hours later, Earth responded. The celestial mechanics concluded that based to the photographs of the ion engines, a burn of 18 hours was required to produce an intersect orbit. If the full burn was completed, Earth would not have time to alter the new orbit before impact. A battlecruiser was being dispatched, but wouldn’t reach their coordinates for three days. Their orders were to continue monitoring the asteroid, but if the Eridani ignited the engines before the battlecruiser arrived, they were to attempt sabotage, at whatever cost.

The engines ignited the following day. “Well, lieutenant, our moment of truth has arrived. I’ve been thinking of options. Unfortunately, the only sure fire way to stop them is to park next to their fuel tanks and overload our reactor. What do you say?”

“Well, sir, I have three kids on Earth. I’d prefer to have them die of old age, rather than by a comet impact. I say, let’s do it.”

On Earth, Steven Patterson was walking his dog just before sunrise. As he looked into the western sky, he saw a bright star appear near the horizon. It was nearly ten times brighter than Venus, but faded quickly. “What the hell was that?” he wondered aloud.

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