The young man shivered again. It was cold again tonight and no matter how many clothes he wore, he just couldn't seem to stay warm more than half the night. He wondered for the millionth time tonight about the wisdom of pursuing his doctorate in astronomy. There were hundreds of other brilliant young genius's all vying for his position here. And although he was very lucky to be here, here he was junior to everyone, including the eight resident cats. All he got were the boring and unglamorous jobs. Tonight he was assigned to take two routine spectroscopy readings each of a few dozen stars that just happened to be moving a little faster than their neighbors. Nothing special about any of them really, he moped. The whole thing involved some obscure theory about a star’s apparent velocity and mass, related to its surrounding dark-matter. Or was it spin instead of mass? He wasn’t sure and hadn’t paid enough attention to this particular assignment to care much.
Shivering, he looked at his watch. Time again. He pulled out the visual plate of the second reading on the twelfth-to-last star for the night. The visual plate was used to compare with the digital spectral photos and to verify nothing had obscured the reading. Using the old style visual plates meant that each one had to be exposed for a specific amount of time. He wished the lab had more up-to-date methods for the visual recordings. Talk about archaic technology! This was stone-age technology, he complained to himself. Why couldn’t he have gotten an assignment at a more modern facility? And to top it off, it was pretty boring, too. The long exposure times were what used up the night, not the number of readings. Waiting between plates was a pain. Not enough time to go somewhere warm or to do anything else, but far too much dead time to suit him.
He looked at his watch. Time again. He pulled out the second visual plate of the pair. He wished again the lab had more current methods for the visual recordings as he went through the tedious step by step process to develop the plate. When he was done he set the plate up where he could examine it. He looked at the plate and cursed. There was a smudge on the plate that wasn't on the first visual plate. Just his luck! Now he’d have to redo the plates and it would cut into the little time he squeezed out of each shift to do his own pet research. He considered ignoring it and claiming he hadn’t seen it, but they'd just find it in the lab the next day. And then, besides getting into more hot water with that prick of a lab-supervisor, Kyushi; he'd still have to redo the plates the next night.
He looked through the eyepiece with irritation, just because, and realized that the smudge on the plate was a visible star in the sky. He looked at the first plate again. Definitely nothing there. He looked at the previous plates, still nothing there. Excited, he looked back through the eyepiece. At this magnification through the scope, he was sure the smudge had moved minusculely from where it had been in relation to the other background stars on the plate already! He felt a thrill of excitement. It was close! Relatively speaking. Or moving pretty fast! Or both! Why, he may have discovered a new comet, or perhaps a near earth asteroid. Excitedly, he turned on the video recorder and then took several more extra visual plates and a spectroscopy sample before his watch dictated he continue with his routine.
Cheerfully now, he took the rest of the readings and visual plates assigned to him. His coldness was forgotten as he imagined the envy of fellow students as he named his own celestial body. He rushed through the rest of his work in a daze. He took another look at his object before his shift ended. It was already named by the time he finished his required work. Krause-1. One, he chuckled gleefully, because this was just the starting point of his career and he would surely discover many more astral bodies.
When he finished his work, instead of pulling out his data on his pet project, he spent all the free time left at the end of his shift looking at the flickering light. Part of that time he was happily setting up and developing more visual plates for extra evidence of his own minor planetoid. After taking several more visual plates of the object, he decided to get some extra spectroscopy readings. Maybe he’d be able to tell something about its composition. He took the readings in several spectral ranges besides visible light and then decided to take some spectral readings in the infra-red. He kept precise notes on “his” object’s movement in the sky before his shift ended. Shoot, not only could he chart a new body, he’d tell them what it was made of. He was forced to stop when the dawn shift chased him out about 3 am. But he contentedly took his treasured plates and spectral readings off to analyze them.
A variety of colored suits and vehicles swarmed around the gigantic burning ship. A large part of the forward sections were simply not there. Its improper Emergence from Worm-space had sliced the missing portions off cleanly at the moment the repulsars failed in the drive. Severed fuel and oxygen lines had been almost immediately ignited by the arcing power grid as pieces shorted electrically.
Veta stared at the view in the vid. Because of the disaster, she and the rest of the bridge crew had been kept on the bridge since Emergence, bless Galeta’s Acts of Faith. They were kept in readiness in case escape became necessary. It seemed unreal. It always did, she thought. All seen on a vid, it never seemed quite real. More sisters gone into Galeta’s keeping. As she watched, a soundless explosion erupted from one side of the huge ship turning into a flaming geyser of flames. Another flare up. E-Ops, Emergency Operations, had been struggling to control it for most of a cycle. It was mostly their vehicles and personnel floating about waving appendages and trying to direct Maintenance crews and bots to where the need was greatest.
Veta hoped they had managed to seal off most of the rest of the ship. Usually the automatic seals worked. Galeta grant they have. If so, other than where the myriad smaller pock marks scarred the surface of the craft, the rest of the cabins and quarters should be intact. But the bright light from the fires had been a shrieking beacon of their presence here. A beacon for any of the Enemy within several light-cycles to easily see. It had raged tremendously until several smallish, in relation to the ship, blasts had been set off by E-Ops to “blow out” the candle. Veta could see the lasers flickering over the shell of the ship. Sealing leaks of atmosphere and fuel or other combustibles. The ship had lost a great amount of its fuel, possible a quarter or more she estimated.
In the weightless vacuum of space, the small flares of light were occurring less and less often. Veta sighed. Galeta help them all if the Enemy sees this. She knew Recon would already be scanning the surrounding space for them. But, one of the Enemy’s favorite tactics was to leave one lone small scout-ship in a system on automatics with its pilot hibernating. The pilot would sleep until a sensor triggered by a signal or a flash woke them to examine what had set off the wake-up call. Once awake, if the Enemy pilot discovered them, they would send for a strike force by a Transmission through Galeta’s worm-space. She shuddered at the thought that the Enemy sent blasphemous Transmissions through worm-space just as they sent their sacred messages. The Enemy may make that Transmission immediately or slip away quietly to a location where they could send for it. Once they sent it, Transmission ripples, much like the Emergence ripples, would give it away and warn the Flight.
She knew that was one of the main dangers that Recon was scanning for. Transmission and Emergence ripples. When ships committed Transmission, or the holy Act of Insertion or Emergence, space-time “rippled” like a stone thrown into a pool. Veta had heard others discussing the ripples and saying that they were actually ripples of dark energy that escaped the worm-space with the Jump. The ripple actually carried the dark force with it that pushed all matter apart. That meant the ripple was similar to a gravitron wave, long lasting and not very prone to decay even across light-years.
If the Enemy were to show up suddenly, it would be those myriads of interconnecting ripples that would tell Recon how many and where the Enemy were. The fighter squadrons had launched as soon as the Flight had Emerged, blessed be Emergence in all its Forms. They were out there weaving and patrolling ready to respond instantly should Enemy ships begin to drop out of worm-space anywhere within range. Veta shuddered, her torso shaking. Galeta protect us from the blasphemy of the Enemy. She hoped the burning would be out soon, very soon. Being so deep into Enemy space was frightening.
Garret was sure the design would never work. He held up the prototype and looked at it critically. Something was still not right, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Disgusted he flipped it across the desk. Damn stupid little plastic gadget. He pushed his glasses back up on his nose and leaned back in his chair locking his fingers behind his dishwater-blond head. How did he ever get stuck in a job like this? Nothing he did really mattered, or made any difference. The Corp boys fed them all a lot of rah-rah, but there was no meat in Life-with-the-Company. Making the Company rich by designing the latest plastic version of a telescoping coat hanger just wasn’t very exciting. The fact that it was a telescoping laser pointer with a built-in remote control for a digital projector didn’t really make it any better.
He had never really done much exciting in his career, he reflected. Oh, he liked to go on remote hunting trips and wilderness hikes for the thrill and sense of adventure, but work-wise, he’d been too cautious and careful. He’d always gotten a solid, dependable, steady job. That was a Sawyer family trait. His dad had one County job his whole life. Maybe he needed one of those contract jobs. You were only there till the engineering phase was done, then you had to move on. But they often did some pretty exciting engineering. Not this boring shit.
“I wish something big would come along.” He whispered to himself. “I wish I could be doing something exciting.”
He looked up startled as the door flew open and Jeremy Rudstein strutted in. This wasn’t the excitement he had in mind. “Don’t you have that figured out yet? I swear, you better get on the stick or we’ll sack your ass.” Jeremy was an asshole who was related to the big bosses somehow. Almost everyone who lasted the five years to get vested in the retirement plan here was. They were either related or a toady.
No, he had to admit, he knew several hard working, decent guys who thought up most of the Company’s good ideas. They were kept around, too. Scuttle-butt was it wasn’t only because they were brilliant, but mostly because they were already vested. That made it cheaper to keep them than to cash them out of the Companies’ profit sharing plan. But he knew he’d never make this last year to vesting. They’d already started giving him loser projects that were sour from the get-go. When he couldn’t make them work well or turn a healthy profit, they jumped on his ass. All the projects he’d been assigned this past year were in-the-hole budget-wise when he got them, or they started with such a lousy idea that no one was able to sell the crazy gadgets once made.
He figured he was “marked” to be forced out. This way, they could fire him for failing to perform. Once he was fired, all his pension and bonuses reverted to the Company to be shared by the remaining employees who were vested. Again, almost everyone who was vested were relatives or toadies. They were also the very Bosses that would fire him. There was a lot of self-interest in that. But it was standard operating procedure here he’d discovered. He kept telling himself he could quit in a heart-beat, but to be honest, the dozens of small contrived failures had added up to make him fear that he really couldn’t make it somewhere else.
“I’ve just about got it, Jere.” Garret lied. Then, he rationalized, “You know . . . they’re not going to market this till after Christmas, and it’s too soon in the year to tool up to make it now. What’s the rush?”
“You just worry about your deadline, not someone else’s. Besides, where’s that report on your budget for the execs that I asked for yesterday?”
“Jere. You just gave it to me yesterday, and you said you wanted that product out first.”
“Well, you’re taking too long on that piddly little gadget. If you were any kind of an engineer, you’d have had it done by now.”
“I’m doing what I can,” Garret responded defensively.
“Like I said, ‘Get on the stick’, or start looking for a job somewhere else.” With that Jeremy turned and slammed the door shut behind him.
“God! I hate you.” Garret said to the closed door. He turned and looked at where the plastic prototype lay on the desk. The design they had started with and gave him just wasn’t going to work. If he stayed late tonight . . . again, he thought wryly, he could do a better job from scratch. They’d given him the dang thing designed half backwards, and kept claiming that it just needed a little tweaking to make it perfect. Obviously, it was someone’s pet brain-fart. Rolling up his sleeves he pulled up a new clean design sheet on his computer. Better get started.
"Have you seen this, Mr. President?" The speaker entered the Oval Office waving a folder, strode across the room and tossed it onto the desk. Then he took a long drag on his cigarette.
The President looked at his Secretary of State noncommittally, then he glanced down at the file, recognizing it immediately. "I've seen it, Bob. Are you sure it's authentic?"
Bob began to pace nervously across the room, puffing his cigarette, as he spoke. "Well, the pictures and the spectral readings are definitely authentic. There's no doubt about who took them, when and where. The only questionable part about it all is the analysis by the science types."
"Is that all the information we could get?"
"I’m afraid so. If the student astronomer had reported it right away, we might have gotten more, but in all probability, it would have been ignored. Even the experienced astronomers would have expected it to be a minor asteroid or a new comet. Notable, but not a critical discovery." Bob crushed out his cigarette.
"It's been double checked of course?"
"It's been quadruple checked, Mr. President.” Bob Farington tapped out another cigarette and lit up. He was a chain smoker who always blamed it on the stress. “Every scientist we've shown the astronomer’s spectral data to says, ‘It’s burning rocket fuel.’ They say that light was from a mix of gaseous oxygen, hydrogen and methane that was burning. They are all definite on the spectral lines. When, we tell them we took these pictures just inside the orbit of Neptune, they say ‘Impossible.’”
Bob puffed his smoke a few times, then went on, “The physicists say that it’s so cold that far out from the sun that molecular oxygen, hydrogen, and methane would freeze out there. Apparently if it freezes, the gases will separate out of the mixture into layers of separate gases, because they all freeze at different temperatures and have different specific gravities. Basically they’re saying that a mixture such as the one they are seeing can’t naturally exist if it’s frozen. To top it off they say that even if it could, it still wouldn't burn by itself if it were frozen. The frozen phase structure is nearly impossible to ignite.”
Bob sucked on the cigarette again. “They say that if it were a natural fire, it would have to be volcanism, but it has the wrong spectral lines. They say there's nothing natural to ignite such a fire out there. So, they conclude, we have to be mistaken.” He rubbed his head wearily with his free hand. “The only thing the scientists all agree on is, the only way for this mix of burning chemicals to have ever occurred is by design."
“Design?” The President raised his eyebrows and made a show of waving away the smoke.
Bob grinned wryly and put out the half-finished cigarette. “They all concur that it’s artificial. They say someone mixed up some rocket fuel out there past Neptune, and then ignited it.” Without the cigarette, he began to pace again.
"What about another country?" Bob could hear the hope in the President’s voice as he turned and looked out the window of the Oval Office.
"We tried that angle, but the Russians aren't in good enough economic shape to put anything up right now. Plus with their political problems . . . ,” Bob shrugged dismissively. “And, according to their top rocket gurus, they never did before. And that's the truth, as near as we can tell. The Chinese could have done it, but they don't have the technology to get out that far yet, or to even sneak one by us in the first place. We know where all their toys are. And the Europeans would be too proud of getting one up there to keep it a secret, besides the fact that we can see their launch pads anytime we want. No. Even the wildest scientists don’t believe that anyone on Earth could launch something, and get it out there, without the rest of the world seeing it through our telescopes.” Bob paused and stared out the window of the Oval Office with the President. A dog was playing on the lawn under the trees. The President hated dogs. Who would bring a dog here, he wondered?
"No, Mr. President.” He went on after a bit. “There doesn't seem to be any possible terrestrial origin for this thing. And . . . it’s too big!"
"Big?” Startled, the President turned towards his adviser. “How big is too big?"
"Well, considering the length of time that we know it burned, and how brightly, and assuming that it was only carrying fuel, and no payload. . .” Bob paused, “. . . it would have to be about the size of the Pentagon. Including its parking lots!" As an after-thought Bob added, “But it’s probably even bigger.”
After a pause came, "You're certain about the size?"
"That much is certain! The next takes some conjecture.” Bob started to take out another cigarette. He caught the President’s hard look and decided against it. “From here on, there’s a lot of ‘ifs’. Now, ‘if’ it burned everything it carried, that's a lot of fuel. ‘If’ we had that much fuel in space, and ‘if’ we didn't have to land it on a planet; we'd be able to move something about twice that size all around this solar system for a hundred years."
"My God! That is big."
"Now you’re getting the picture, Mr. President. And that's with our technology and that’s assuming it started burning full. What if it was only half full when it exploded?” Bob began to pace around the room. “This makes anything we've ever done in space pretty small potatoes.”
The President shook his head, “So the heavy launch rockets we have today aren’t even close?”
Bob shook his head and went on, “Some of our advisors are concerned even more, because our military guys have added in their two cents, which is . . . anything that big, obviously comes from a long ways away. Interstellar!” he quickly added as the President’s shocked response showed on his face. "Apparently the NSA agrees, Jim. “
“Intersteller!” The President pondered the implications. Then looking at Bob he said, “And we’re the only ones who are aware of its being out there?”
“As best our intel can determine, yes.”
“Good. Hmmmm. Yes, that is good.” The President sat silently deep in thought for almost a minute. His Chief of Staff stood patiently, he was used to the President doing this whenever he had a problem to figure out. Then the President went on, “We need to keep a lid on this, Bob. We don’t want to word out there for the Russians or Chinese, or even our European friends, to be able to make contact with them before we do.”
“Yes sir, Mr. President.”
“If we can establish contact with them first, we could reap the first benefits, and profits, of a tremendous treasure trove of new technology. Even if they don’t give us the technology, once our scientists see what they have and start making measurements, I don’t doubt but that we’ll figure out much of it on our own. Of course, we’ll want to establish a diplomatic mission with them ASAP.” Bob listened dutifully as his boss and friend rambled on with plan after plan.
When the President paused, Bob interjected, “Our economic partners will be a greater threat to discovering our secret than either the Russians or the Chinese. You know who stole our last fusion break-through and began to publish findings before our physicists could claim it.
“Yes, you’re certainly right about that,” the President grimaced. “We need to maintain the utmost secrecy. But we need to do that while we have astronomers searching for our aliens. Obviously, we just select a small cadre who can be trusted. And,” he stressed the word, “we need to make sure that we haven’t been suckered by somebody’s brilliant hoax. Besides beating everyone to them, we need time to verify that we really do have aliens out there before we make an announcement to the public that turns out to be wrong. My administration, and our party, would feel a lot of repercussions if we fell for this and it turns out to be a hoax. We need to avoid embarrassment, just in case.”
“Yes Sir. Elections are next year and the embarrassment will not go well with the voters.”
“Yeah.” The President mused a bit more. Then he said, “And in case it is real, I don’t want to panic the public either. There are lots of voters out there who are going to feel that anything like this that shows up, is the work of the devil. I think that panic is going to be a major concern, Bob.”
“Yes sir. We don’t want to stir up the Public until we are sure it is legit.” Bob pulled another cigarette out, and lit it up.”
“Well then, what are you waiting for, Bob? Get your tail out there and get as many teams of astronomers working on this as you can. We need to be the first to make contact. I’ll appropriate the funds, you just get the astronomers.” The President coughed and waved both his hands then. “Now get out of here and take that confounded cigarette with you.”
Demitri sat on the short wall by the Astrophysics Building despondent. Here I am the premier, the premier mind you, astronomer in Russia; and they cannot even spare a few hundred thousand rubles for the most significant search for new gamma ray sources since Hubble. He looked down at his rejection letter again and read, “The Ministry regrets to inform you . . .” Bah! They were funding Popov. That peacock! He was getting the money because he had found a new detection method for planets around even more remote stars than before. Not for the discovery of those, no! That would make some sense, except that Popov did that last year. No, it was because now several thousand more stars were automatically being searched and their gas giants noted. It was quantity not quality those morons in the government understood. Hmmmph. Miserable little man. Cretin.
His mental diatribe was interrupted as a large man stopped in front of him. Demitri looked up at him. He was large, both in height and girth. He was standing only a few feet away and was staring at him. This must be someone who recognized him from his pictures in the media, of course. “If you want an autograph, give me your paper. I am busy thinking,” he brusquely snapped.
“No Mr. Sakharov. I am not here for an autograph.”
Demitri appraised him again. This man apparently knew him well enough to pick him out on the University’s grounds. Moscow University was quite large and the Sternberg Astronomical Institute, just a small part of it. He had a long heavy grey coat, well made, and a fedora sat on top of a very short haircut. His gloves and scarf looked quite expensive. Demitri’s own clothes were a little ragged on his professor’s salary. His thin physique and long hair and beard made him quite the opposite of this man. The hat was an outlandish affectation he thought snobbishly. Nobody wore fedoras these days. He must be somebody with money who thinks the intelligentsia will cater to him. Hmmmph. “Well, I am busy. I must get back to work,” he stood up to move away.
The man raised one thick arm to block him and said, “You just lost your gamma ray funding, Demitri. But I have something that will obtain for you very much more funding.”
That captured his attention and piqued his interest, but he was angry at this peasant’s brazen approach. “”Who are you? What is it that you want?”
“I am Ivan Bogaevskaia. In some circles, I am as famous as you, Demitri.”
“Stop calling me Demetri. I do not know you. What is it you want,” he demanded again peevishly.
“To make you even more famous than you are. Here, take this,” Bogaevskaia handed Demitri a data chip.
“What is this to me?” He started to throw the disk away petulantly.
“Don’t throw it away until you have seen it. I am offering you the chance of a lifetime first. If you are not interested, Popov will be.”
That incensed Demetri. “Do not mention Popov to me.”
“Look at it, Demitri,” the big man said reasonably. “It contains secret information about something the American astronomers have just started trying to find. What they are after will open the deepest coffers of the Kremlin for you. The government will give you an entire astronomy program to run just so you can search for it too. Your gamma ray sources can easily be funded somewhere in the midst of these other ‘efforts’. They will beg you to take more rubles.”
“If this were true, why do you need me?”
“Why, because you are the most famous astronomer in all Russia. They will only want the best to do this search for Mother Russia.”
That flattered Sakharov. Popov indeed. “True, I am the best. What is this thing the Americans are searching for?”
“Look on the chip. If I tell you, you will not believe me, but the data there will show you the information, with names and dates, that will help you verify it is truth. Then, you decide.”
“My time is too valuable for a guessing game,” Demitri replied haughtily.
The large man ignored him. “If you are interested, contact me. I have more proof of what the chip says. You will need it to get your funding. If you are not interested, as I said, Popov will be.” With that he turned to leave.
“Wait!” Demitri called. The large man looked back. “What is in this for you?”
“I collect a finder’s fee from you. Every month, a little bit goes my way. You hire a couple of my accountants, and you are not even involved.” He smiled a confident smile and walked away.
Demetri stared after him. Bloody gulag hell! Demitri realized suddenly, he was one of the Russian mob. He had to be. He swallowed. Did he even dare to say no, whatever was on the chip? But, more to his concern, could he chance that Popov would say yes? He shook his head. He would have to ask who this Ivan Bogaevskaia was. It sounded like a name he almost remembered. That could be bad.