Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer
Jill and John relaxed in the cockpit, as their ship streaked toward the asteroid belt for their long awaited weekend getaway at the Ceres Lowgrav Resort and Spa. Although Jill was looking forward to being pampered for a few days, she was also in a reflective mood. This thing with John was working out rather well, she mused. Sure, he had been a self-centered jerk in the beginning, but he had come along rather nicely over the past year. That’s when it dawned on her, and without thinking, she simply blurted it out, “Do you know that this is the one year anniversary of our first date?” Instantly, she regretted it. She glanced sideways to gauge John’s reaction.
“What’s that? One year, you say? Hmmm.” Then dead silence. John’s brow furrowed.
Jill thought: Oh God, I’m such an idiot. John wasn’t ready for that. Look at him. He’s worried that I’m moving too fast. I’ll bet he’s thinking that I’m expecting a marriage proposal or something. What am I going to do now?
John thought: One year ago. God, that’s about the last time I had the ship in for service. And now, here I am, heading off on a billion mile trek. Who goes off on a trip like this without having the matter-antimatter balance checked? If the injectors diverge by more than point one percent, the whole ship could explode. Damn, I’m such a moron.
Jill thought: Oh no! Now he’s getting mad. I can see it in his expression. I’ve totally blown it. He’s probably going to put me off on Mars. And I wouldn’t blame him. He could have anybody he wanted. But stupid ol’ me had to get too pushy. And just when things were going so well.
John thought: I didn’t even check the oxygen tanks in the escape pod. What was I thinking? I could get us both killed.
Jill said, “I’m so sorry, John.”
“What? Oh, no Jill. It’s not your fault. It’s mine.”
Jill thought: Uh oh. I’ve heard that line before. He’s getting ready to break it off. He was probably planning to do it on Ceres all along. I just sped up his little plan, that’s all. What a creep! How could I have possibly thought that he was mister right?
John thought: Whoa, what just happened? How did she know I was thinking? Oh God, I hope I didn’t think something out loud again? Damn, I need to be more careful. If I accidently call her by her younger sister’s name at the wrong time…
“I hate you,” Jill cried as she ran back to the cabin area.
John thought: Shit. Did I just say her sister’s name out loud?
“Computer,” asked John, “were you monitoring the flight deck audio? Did I say something to make Jill angry?”
“Beats me,” replied the computer, “I’m not sure that exchange fit any definition of a conversation.”
“I didn’t think so either. But clearly, I pissed her off. I need to go back and apologize.”
“For what, specifically?” inquired the computer.
John shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll come up with something. Take over the controls. If I play my cards right, there may be make-up sex in my future.” John headed aft, with a bit of a bounce in his step.
Computer thought: Wow, so this species represents the crowning achievement of Earth’s natural selection process. Evidently, evolution has a sense of humor.
Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer
“Sir, it’s either artificial, or a new form of celestial object,” reported the Essex’s science officer.
“Explain,” probed the captain.
“It has about one quarter of Earth’s mass, squeezed into one-sixteenth of its volume. Its average density is 23.5 grams per cubic centimeter. That’s higher than the densest natural element in the universe, osmium.”
“Interesting. Can we send down a landing party?”
“Affirmative, but it won’t be a cake walk. The surface gravity is one and a half times Earth’s.”
“We’ll keep it brief. Have geology send a team to shuttle bay number two. Put us in low orbit, Mr. Donner.”
However, as the ship neared the planetoid, a large iris in the base of a crater opened up, revealing a subterranean cavern. “Tractor beams locking onto us, sir,” reported the helmsman. “We’re being pulled in.”
“Full astern,” ordered the captain. But it was to no avail. The ship was dragged beneath the surface, and the iris closed.
“We’re being scanned, sir. They’ve accessed our main computer.”
“Lock down tactical. Secure all primary command functions.”
“This is odd, sir,” reported the science officer. “They are only accessing our personnel files. Should I attempt to terminate their link?”
“No, that seems harmless enough. Maybe they are just trying to find out who we are. But see if you can gain access to their computer. Let’s see if we can learn something about them too. Security, assemble an away team.”
“Eye, sir. But we’ll need full environmental suits. The atmosphere outside the ship is 25% hydrogen-cyanide, 10% methane, and 65% nitrogen.”
“Understood. Lead the team, Commander. No visible weapons. Let’s try to look friendly.”
Two hours later, the bridge crew watched the main viewscreen as the away team lumbered across the alien deck, clearly suffering from the burden of the environmental suits and the excessive gravity. As the men approached the far wall of the subterranean bay, a door opened. Seconds after they bravely walked through, the door closed, severing the comm link with the away team.
Days passed without progress. All efforts to communicate with the missing men had failed, as did their feeble attempts to break free of their captives. Their one ray of hope was the link to the alien computer. Apparently, the aliens didn’t consider the earthmen a threat, as they allowed them unfettered read access to their computer. However, making sense of the alien technology was nearly impossible. A team of linguistic and programming experts worked tirelessly trying to decipher the alien language. To make matters worse, the high gravitational field produced an unrelenting drag on the crew’s physiology, as well as their spirits.
“Sir,” reported the acting security chief at the beginning of day seven, “roll call revealed that another six crewmembers are unaccounted for. We still can’t figure out how the aliens are doing it. I’ve required all off duty personnel to hunker down in the assembly area, and posted a 24 hour guard.”
“Good thinking, Lieutenant,” replied the captain. “Mr. Carib, any progress with the alien computer?”
“A little, sir. We’ve stumbled onto the copy they made of our personnel files. They’ve compiled a table listing all 354 crew members. We appear to be categorized by gender and race. Linguistics thinks that they can decipher the table headings soon.”
“Excellent. Keep me posted.”
Several hours later, Carib‘s face turned ashen-gray after reading the translation. Spotting his ensign’s reaction, the captain asked, “Let’s have it, Ensign.”
“My God, sir,” replied Carib’s trembling voice. “The alien table, sir. It’s a dessert menu.”
Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer
Jennifer surveyed the interior of the sleek two-person starcruiser. “Nice ship, Larry. What did you say you paid for it?”
“One point five on Giarcslist. That’s 50% under market.”
“Wow,” she replied as she added an emphasizing whistle. “What’s the catch?”
“There’s no catch. I’m just an excellent negotiator.”
Larry could feel her laser eyes of doubt boring through his mendacious grin. “Oh, okay,” he relented. “It’s an Arcturian ship. Strictly voice command.”
“But it accepts standard galactic too, right?”
“Well, not at the moment. But when we get it back to Sol, I can get a translator module installed.”
“We’re more than seven thousand light years from home,” Jennifer pointer out. “Are you planning to hire an Arcturian pilot? Because if you are, you can let me off right now. Those reptiles smell awful.”
“Relax, sweetheart,” Larry replied as he pulled an object from his flightsuit’s vest pocket. “It came with a ‘Larousse Arcturian-English Pocket Dictionary’.”
“What’s that? Is that a book? Are you kidding me? A paper book? That’s it; I’m taking a cab home. You tell that salesman to redock this instant.”
“Really, Jennifer, you need to take a sed. Besides, he’s already docked with another customer. Look, just sit down in the co-pilot’s seat. I’ll just warm up with a few simple commands. How hard can it be? That’s my girl. Now, just buckle up, and enjoy the view.”
Jennifer reluctantly engaged her harness, but folded her arms in a stern ‘I’ll do it, but I won’t like it’ posture.
“Look at that,” said Larry pointing out beyond the cockpit’s panoramic forward port. “The Messier 4 Globular Cluster. Four hundred thousand stars. Beautiful, isn’t it. A quick tour, and then straight home. You’ll see; it’ll be fun.” Larry quickly leafed through the dictionary and found the warp commands. The book had seen better days, he conceded, but he couldn’t let Jennifer see him struggling. He slid his index finger down the badly stained page searching for the correct phrase. “Ah, here it is,” he guessed, “warp one. Okay, here we go.”
Swallowing hard, he gave the three word command, “Whöle. Êeesh. Ick¢.” The tiny ship lurched forward at maximum warp, straight ahead into the globular cluster. Larry, who had been standing, was thrown aftward, into the canted bulkhead. Cursing himself for forgetting to activate the inertial dampeners, he clawed himself forward into the pilot’s seat. Jennifer was screaming hysterically. Stars streaked past them like a meteor storm on steroids. In the distance, Larry spotted a stationary dot of light that was getting brighter by the second. Realizing that he only had seconds to avert the collision, he ripped into the dictionary looking for the ‘All Stop” command. Finding it quicker that he could have dreamed, he frantically yelled, “Kähs-Oope¢.”
Larry slammed head first into the viewport, as the ship came to an abrupt stop a mere one hundred thousand kilometers in front of a boiling red giant. “Dammit,” he moaned as he checked his forehead tentatively for blood. Then, turning his attention toward Jennifer, he asked, “Are you alright, Honey?”
In shock, Jennifer stared at the behemoth orb hovering directly in front of the ship. Solar prominences large enough to engulf several dozen Jupiters, danced around the periphery in ultra slow motion. In awe, she exclaimed “Holy shit,” and the tiny ship lurched forward at maximum warp.
Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer
“So, Sergei,” asked mission specialist Clark Zander, “How’s it look?”
“Not good, Clark,” replied Tsiolkovsky as he removed his helmet. “The meteorite punctured the aux tank. I was able to shut off the transfer valve, but we lost 60% of the fuel in the main tank.”
“Can we still take off?”
“We have enough fuel to escape Mercury’s gravity, but not the sun’s. We can’t reach Earth on our own; they’re going to have to come pick us up. Let’s call Houston.”
Zander and Tsiolkovsky contacted Houston and explained the situation. Unfortunately, a rescue ship couldn’t reach them for six months, and they only had enough oxygen for four. Both men somberly considered the most obvious solution, that there was enough oxygen for one of them to live eight months, but neither man was willing to suggest that option aloud. Finally, Zander broke the ice, “Look Sergei, there must be a way for both of us to get out of this alive. Can’t we stretch our supplies somehow?”
“We could probably ration the food and water, but not the oxygen. No, Clark, our only hope is to get off this rock, and meet them halfway.”
“I’m game. Any ideas?”
“Yeah, a matter of fact, I do have one. It’s a little hair brained, but it just might work.”
“I may regret this, but let’s hear it.”
“You know those UV foil blankets keeping the neutrino receivers from overheating; there are hundreds of square miles on them. I was thinking that we could sacrifice a square mile’s worth to construct a solar sail. Once we get into space, we can deploy the sail and let the solar wind blow us toward Earth.”
“How do you plan to build the support structure? We don’t have tubing to construct a framework. How can you prevent the sail from collapsing?”
“Simple, we rotate the sail like it was pizza dough. It’ll flatten out under its own CF. Then all we have to do is synchronize the ship with its rate of spin so we don’t foul the rigging. It won’t be easy, but I think we can pull it off.”
“Sure, what the hell. It beats my plan of clubbing you on the back of the head when you fell asleep,” replied Zander with a broad smile.
Two weeks later, the return module lifted off from Mercury’s surface. Once clear of Mercury’s shadow, they fired their port control jets and began to spin the ship like a top. When they hit 72 RPM, they released the carefully folded sail. As the sail began to unfurl, conservation of angular momentum caused its rate of rotation to decrease. The ship began firing their starboard jets to match the sail’s slowing rotation. It was touch and go a few times, but the sail eventually spread out like a giant parachute, rotating at a modest 0.6 revolutions per minute.
Zander monitored the telemetry data. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he announced, “The sail is generating twenty pounds of pull. Our acceleration is one quarter of a milligee. I think it’s gonna work.”
Under the full force of the bloated sun, the improvised solar sailing ship moved outward. In the interplanetary yachting world, the maneuver was known as “running before the solar wind”. After a minute, they had moved a modest five meters. After an hour, they had covered eighteen kilometers. After a day, they were 10,000 kilometers closer to rescue, and still accelerating.
Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer
“Damn, there’s nothing there. I don’t like this one bit,” said NASA’s Jim Mason to his fellow astronomer. “Based on the perturbations to the orbits of Neptune and Uranus, the computer says the damn thing has 45% of the mass of the sun.”
“That’s impossible,” replied Jed Simpson. “We’d be able to see a star that big. Even a dwarf star that died ten billion years ago would still be omitting in the infrared. And, if it were a black hole, Chandra would have picked up x-rays as it gobbled up Kuiper belt objects. Let’s face it Jim; it’s some kind of dark mass.”
“Dark mass? You mean Baryonic? Are you nuts?”
“No, no, not dark matter, dark mass. I mean some kind of super-Jupiter that didn’t go nuclear.”
“Well, that’s just stupid,” snapped Mason. “All of a sudden, the four fundamental forces don’t apply to your super-Jupiter. Are we supposed to ignore a hundred years of proven science? What’s next, the Earth is really flat? Let’s stay focused Jeb. There has to be a good reason that we can’t see anything.”
“Okay,” replied Jeb, raising the ante. “Maybe it’s stealth technology. Some alien race is attacking us using some gigantic invisible spaceship. How about that?”
Missing the sarcasm, Mason latched onto the idea. “Hmmm. Okay, let’s follow that path. But, it doesn’t have to be an invasion. Maybe it’s just a natural progression of an alien technology. For example, could it be a Dyson Sphere? Maybe they didn’t intend for it to be invisible. They just made it so efficient that energy doesn’t escape. We can calculate its coordinates from the effects on the gas giants. All we have to do is aim the Hubble II at it and see what’s there.”
A few days later, the Hubble II revealed that the anomaly was a Dyson Sphere, approximately forty million kilometers in diameter, which was probably surrounding an M2V red dwarf.
When the giant sphere crossed Jupiter’s orbit, it launched thousands of massive spaceships, which swarmed through the asteroid belt like angry hornets. As the weeks progressed, the sphere continued on its way past the sun and out of the solar system, but the spaceships stayed behind. Then, one by one, the spaceships left the asteroid belt and flew toward the sun; stopping just outside the orbit of Mercury. They would only stay a day or so, and then return to the asteroid belt is steady fashion.
The two NASA astronomers, along with seven billion concerned Earthmen, watched the extraterrestrial caravan for months. “Why don’t they answer our transmissions?” asked Mason. “Surely they know we are here. What do you think they are doing?”
“It’s obvious. They’re constructing another Dyson Sphere. They are probably autonomous construction ships. There’s no one there to answer us.”
“But if they are building a Dyson Sphere near Mercury’s orbit, won’t that block out the sun. The Earth will freeze.”
“Oh, we won’t have to worry about that,” replied a somber Simpson. “The asteroid belt only had 4% of the mass of our moon. There isn’t enough material there to construct a Dyson sphere. It’s just easier to get to. Eventually, they’ll need more raw materials. They will have to dismantle all four inner planets, including the Earth to get it. I estimate we only have a couple of years to figure out how to stop the invasion.”