Johnny Mack Hood
Copyright © San Diego, CA 1999
by JOHN M. HOOD Jr.
The small dead moon had drifted for untold eons through the blackness of interstellar space. It had been torn loose from its parent billions of years ago by a simple accident of two stars passing closer to one another than was probable. It had followed a wide hyperbolic arc as it left its companions, now in disarray because of the unfortunate meeting. At first it had moved rapidly, too rapidly. Its fate was sealed. It was destined to be one small object in the untold billions of such vagabonds that wander unseen and unseeable among the stars. The gravity of its mother star had slowed it slightly and its path had become straighter as it crawled through space light years from home deflected only slightly now and then as it passed within a few light years of the nearer stars. How many slight twists or turns it must have taken could never be known and its speed was constant in local space now at about 35 kilometers per second. Now at last as the Universe itself approached middle age a star in its path began to brighten perceptibly. This bright speck was still a light year or more distant but the feather touch of its attraction was felt and the velocity began to increase by microns per hour.
Eventually it entered and passed through the Oort shell of comets and dust, the larger of which even though billions in number were still separated by immense spaces. Finally it entered the Kuiper belt, a collection of icy and rocky objects which from time to time actually were invited into the inner sanctum of the system by the powerful influences of the outer gas giants to become gorgeous and much admired comets. Our 400 km rocky/metallic orphan was about to join a new family. Would its name be Rogue, Armageddon, or Apocalypse perhaps?
CHAPTER 1 - Jupiter Station
Mace drifted out of dreamland and reached for the Velcro zip to let himself out of the sleep sack. Today was special. He had been here at SETI Station for ten years. Today was an anniversary, as if anybody really cared. Ten years to the day - God, it had taken twice as long to get this station on line than had been planned originally. It was a large and complex operation, nobody could deny that, but there had certainly been trouble enough. What with the supply packets being delayed, sometimes canceled now for the last five years, it had been a struggle. But today was special because the crew had planned a special party to celebrate the passing of a decade here in orbit around Jupiter. They were all alive and well, all one hundred and six of them, and that was an accomplishment in itself, and besides the equipment was nearly in place and routine operations were about to begin, at least on the phased SETI array.
Marcy announced herself at the door to Mace's tiny cubicle. "Hey, John Macefield, you are the guest of honor. The watch is off and you are due in Rec."
Mace knew that they had to have their fun even at his expense. He didn't feel especially proud of what they had done. It really had taken twice as long as planned and maybe it was all in vain. What made it even worse was that conditions back home had deteriorated over the past year or so. It now seemed almost obscene for them to be consuming such extravagant resources on what most people would judge to be a frivolous quest.
"I'm coming Marcy. Give me a mo for a shower."
Marcy pulled her self into Mace's tiny cubicle, the largest on the station, he was the director, and perched near the portal to his shower bag. Marcy was of small stature, most of the personnel were. She had a great figure and couldn't have weighed more than 40 kilos. It was almost a given that the smaller framed people seemed to prosper in the near weightlessness of the space environment. Two minutes later Mace emerged naked and blown dry, and proceeded to pull on his jumper. False modesty about ones body had long since been forgotten in the space exploration business. Experiences aboard the old shuttle program with men and women living in space in tight quarters for extended periods had put an end to those kind of sensitivities.
Marcy had come out here to SETI Station six years ago. The wait had been a long one to join Mace before she had qualified for a spot of the crew but she was now one of the most experienced of the crew. Mace was a plank owner, the only one who had been here since the start. Marcy’s love for Mace had never waned over the years but somehow it had not seemed right. They would, after all, go home some day and who knew how it might turn out under those circumstances. She had managed to keep her feelings from affecting her work or Mace's. It wasn't too hard. She had the enormous responsibility of the life support systems. They had been state of the art when the station was begun, but ten years is a long time. And she had needed to devise an endless series of patches and Rube Goldberg fixes to compensate for the improvements and replacements that they had expected from Earth but which never seemed to arrive. Marcy Jones was a tough gal and she could bear a lot both in her technical world of hydroponics and in her aborted emotional life. Still, wouldn't it be glorious if --.
CHAPTER 2 - History
This odyssey had begun over twenty years ago. John Edmund Macefield had just been released from the Navy Astronaut corps. There had been talk about establishing a Jupiter station. This was a drastic turn of events. The Moon station was just beginning to function and some rather spectacular results were coming in from their large telescopes. The official view was that the Moon Observatory and Mining facility, MOM, was the real frontier and that keeping that station operational was the primary function of The United Nations Space Agency, UNSA. Macefield had considered applying for duty at MOM but it turned out that he didn't have the necessary qualifications. Also an acquaintance of that he had met at a meeting of the Astronautical Society in July, Helmut Weiss, had just been named head of the station on the Moon. Mace was not particularly fond of Helmut.
Macefield had tried his hand at a number of jobs after leaving the space program. He was a generalist; he didn't have a high skill in any particular area. There was no doubt that he was a damn good pilot and he had proved himself in innumerable situations. He had even tried a stint as commercial airline pilot with the intercontinental rocket routes. He found, as innumerable pilots before him had, that flying a commercial plane was two or three minutes of real interest, if not panic, interspersed with a few hours of utter boredom as the computers guided the vehicle from its departure to its destination. He had spent ten years knocking around looking for something that would take the place of what had once been a great adventure, the “space program.”
Well, the space program had gone into hiding, blending with the wallpaper. Going into space, living in space, was pretty humdrum these days. The thing about living off the surface of good old Mother Earth was that it was very uncomfortable and your movements, as well as other options, were distinctly limited. There was not much sex, if any, and not much to do when you were not working. The scenery, at first bizarre and fascinating, soon became very boring. It seemed sort of - well - black and white.
It was just two years after he had given up flying and astronautics and was marking time in an engineering job in Thousand Oaks that he happened to run into a very charming young lady at a meeting of the Astronautics Society in San Fernando, Marcy Jones. As far as Mace was concerned it was love at first sight. They spoke to each other over coffee in the corridors and found these meetings mutually pleasurable. Maybe this was a beginning that he had never dreamed of. His thoughts had seldom turned to romantic interests. But fate had taken a hand and their futures were inextricably entwined, and they had little time for personal involvement from that day on.
Marcy had originally been involved with the Biosphere Three experiment over in Arizona. After the Bass Brothers experiment had ended the government had financed a full scale effort to explore the possibilities of a long term enclosed environment that would survive in deep space for ten, twenty, one hundred years. New techniques had been developed to explore the effects of long-term exposure of plants to cosmic rays and to the possibility of their surviving the absence of critical trace elements in the production of plant foodstuffs.
It was during this meeting during the plenary session that Dr. James Watson, Head of UNSA, announced that there was planning in the works for an international space station near the orbit of Jupiter. The purpose of the station was to search out signs of life, and particularly intelligent life, on planets orbiting suns other than Sol. Enough work had been done with Earth based telescopes to assure that a fair measure of success would be achieved using telescopes and antennas that could only be mounted from a space station and at a location far from the electromagneticaly noisy environs of the Earth and Moon. Both Mace and Marcy jumped at the chance to approach Watson with a request to make application for participation in the new project.
They were both given applications to fill out but it was a foregone conclusion that they would both make the cut. Watson had already researched their backgrounds and had pulled a few strings to make sure that they would in fact be at this conference. There the right age, they had the background needed, and Watson had a hunch that the two of them working together would make a great team. They were not the only ones. Hundreds applied, and the testing and selection procedures were rigorous but Mace and Marcy sailed through the lot. Their enthusiasm for the project was infectious and actually served to push the doubtful ones into the go go camp. The hundred that were eventually chosen had no doubt who was going to be captain and they were all for it.
The planning and building of the SETI Station was certainly one of the major engineering miracles of the 21st century. The structure would house a minimum of one hundred personnel for as long as was required to carry out the station's mission. It was entirely self-supporting with both nuclear and solar systems energy systems. Hydroponics would furnish all the necessary food and oxygen regeneration. Regular supply packet rockets would provide the materials for the station's major construction projects; the gigantic phased radio array for listening to the radio emissions of other worlds and the extensive optical interferometric telescope system for detecting and imaging planets around nearby stars.
The work on the ground had gone on literally for years with Mace and Marcy in the thick of it. Mace had made two trips to the Jupiter position with several of the modules and had an intimate knowledge of how it was all going together. The trouble in this intensive flurry was that Mace and Marcy had little time for each other. They both hoped that would change when the project finally got under way.
CHAPTER 3 - Celebration Time
"Mace, half the bunch are in rec waiting. Let's get a move on."
Mace snapped, "I know what's up. I wish we didn't have to do this. If the god damned UNSA had kept their part of the bargain we might have been relieved by now and this party could have been held on good old terra firma celebrating the triumph of our relief. Maybe they would have found the fucking aliens." Mace was annoyed partly from just plain ten years of tight confinement and partly from what seemed like an endless series of problems that never seemed to be quite solved.
"Mace, calm down. This is to be a happy day.
Nothing is wrong and we would all like just a little celebration for whatever
Mace couldn't argue with that and they pushed their way out of his cubicle and into the narrow corridor that lead out of the dormitory module into the dining and recreation module. Normally each day began with their exercise routine but on rare occasions they skipped it for those red letter days that they cooked up to replace the holidays that they so much missed from home.
The rec room, which also served for dining, could "seat" fifty. It was designed in such a way that even though there was no real up or down, only the one percent G at the wall from the spin of the station, by convention people ate and conversed with one another as if there was gravity. They all pointed the same way. There was a sense of up and down.
Harold shouted out, "Hey Mace, still alive. I thought ten years would have done you in. Don't they say that one year in Jupe is equivalent to seven on Terra?"
There was a ripple of laughter. Mace smiled. He looked out at these people. Most of them were pretty dammed good. In fact he loved them. None of them had been here the full time but they were all good and most of them had left a lot behind.
"Hal, how can you say that? You saw me six
hours ago. How did I look then?" He laughed. Harold laughed.
Harold was division chief in charge of the phased array construction. He and Mace had been partners in one of the most exciting construction projects ever undertaken for the past seven years.
Mace looked around at the group gathered in this rather cramped area. Where was Alex Krakovsky? He and Alex had not always got on that well but he was vital to the project. He was Division Chief for the astro-interferoscope construction - "telescope" to most.
"Mohajo, where is Alex? Is he under the weather?"
Mohajo Hingi looked a bit embarrassed, "Hey chief, Alex had to go out to tweak the number four. He's OK. He will be sorry to have missed the party."
Everyone knew that Mo was lying. Alex had harbored a deep grudge from the very beginning. He had always believed that he rather than Mace should have been placed in charge.
Ellen spoke up, "let's have our special treats and get on with the party. Here's to Macefield Macefield the best boss within a million miles." She raised her bulb and they all laughed and drank. The libation was not too bad. Wheat had been one of the most successful of outer space food sources and there had always been a surplus so the distilling of whiskey and the making of a kind of beer was not too surprising. The lack of proper hops led most to prefer the whiskey. There was not a lot of it but there was certainly enough for the party of the decade.
Mace looked around as he sipped his watered whiskey and thought, these people are the best there are. By God, I hope we can do it. Maybe we can make a real difference back home even if we never see the place again.
There were one hundred plus people aboard SETI Station. The crew was divided into construction, operations and research. Operations were probably the most important division since its efforts determined whether the occupants of the station lived or died. Op people ran all the routine machinery: the hydroponics, the electrical plant, the recycling of air and waste, the production of water, the communications with Earth, the handling of incoming and departing cargo packets. It was originally figured that the engineering and construction people would do their job of building the two gigantic devices and then return to Earth, leaving the maintenance to the operations gang. It had not worked out that way. So much had not been delivered since the troubles on Earth. The construction people had stayed on, improvising and building from scratch what was needed. There was not one person on SETI Station who did not believe that what they were doing was the most important task ever to be undertaken by the human race.
Ten years ago, in 2040, after a preceding eight years of designing and planning, the first flotilla of deep space shuttles had departed for Jupiter to set up SETI Station. John Macefield had been aboard that fleet and had seen the initial assembly of the skeleton of what they now called home. It consisted of 22 cylindrical containers, each outfitted with its own functional suite, assembled into what appeared to some to be a string of sausages gone wild, some units in strings and some clustered in bunches. The habitat and the life support systems had been first and the first two years had concentrated on establishing a robust and redundant life support system to provide for the arduous work ahead without worry about from where the next meal or even the next breath would come. It was clear to the planning and engineering division of the United Nations Space Agency that if life support was not 400 percent and relatively free from possible crisis that nothing else would ever get done. You could not fight for your life and build the most ambitious pair of research instruments that the human race had ever conceived.
Gerhard Krauss, the head of the SETI Station project with the title of Special Director under the Vice Chairman of UNSA, had successfully argued that the search for signals from nearby planets that might indicate other intelligent life in our local galaxy, the Milky Way, was a program of undeniable high priority. The argument that such signals might provide not only the spiritual inspiration that we were not alone and that there were unlimited frontiers but perhaps even practical suggestions imbedded in their signals that might lead the world out of its worsening social ills. These goals were in addition to possible clues about technologies not even guessed at. Could there be artificial gravity, faster than light travel? Were we just in quarantine? Is that why we had not been visited? This last question, of course, had no relationship to the no-brain cults that had claimed literally millions of abductions in the last sixty years and had reported "flying saucers" by the thousands. None of that had ever been shown to be anything other than the mass delusions of a population slipping inexorably back into the dark ages. Dr. Krauss's hope had been that real results from SETI Station would effect a turnaround, a sea change, as it were. Perhaps it was a fool's dream that seven billion people's beliefs and attitudes would be affected by the adventures of one hundred hardy souls 800 million kilometers away from home, the Earth.
Marcy Jones pushed herself over to Mace as the crew was beginning to disperse. Most of them had a meal and a sleep period ahead of them before they were due to go back on duty. It had been discovered long ago that work was the best recreation. Even though everyone had one day in seven completely free the other six days were spent twelve on and twelve off. This sounds like a lot of work but in fact a lot of the twelve on was inactive, attention only, watching instruments. The EVA activities were arduous and the personnel involved got extra time off to compensate for the very high physical exertion required outside the station in the assembly and testing procedures.
Marcy said, "Mace you promised to review the ponics today. It's important. We have a problem that needs some help from home."
Mace was not happy. He did not need a problem. "Ok, let's go." It was peremptory and just a bit rude.
Marcy smiled. She knew exactly what he was thinking and she hated to have to do this to him but there was no help in it. "Mace, we are short a whole raft of trace elements needed for a really good system and you know it. I want you to see what it is doing to some of our crops."
Mace hadn't been into the hydroponics facility for a long time. He actually hated the heat and moisture and the feeling of walking, or swimming actually, through a tropical jungle. Somehow the crisp stark blackness and whiteness of space had come to be his milieu. Maybe he could never really go back to Earth. They went through a one meter diameter tunnel into what had become a storage room and out through another tunnel that led through an electronics bay module where some of the powerful computers were housed that would analyze the signals coming in from their phased array. Marcy manipulated a lock in the side wall of the module and led Mace through another tunnel into another materials storage module and across to another lock. This opened into a string of modules, five actually, that housed the "gardens" of SETI Station. This was a very important place. Mace knew that. This was where all of their food was grown. They had long since given up the idea of eating meat. They didn't need it. The beans and wheat and corn and other vegetables gave them everything the human frame needed. Marcy was talking to him. He had drifted off into his own inner thoughts.
"I'm sorry Marcy. What? I guess I am a bit pensive today and not really on board. Sorry."
"Mace, I said that these broad leaf plants are showing signs of chlorisis. Also we've been getting some stunted varieties of wheat and oats. We have got to have some trace minerals. Please understand that we have to put a high priority on them in the next shipment."
Mace came around, "Sure Marcy, I see the point. How serious is it?"
Marcy said, "We are not going to starve. Everything is doing pretty well but we really need for things to be as near perfect as possible. We really don't know how things may drift genetically. Please put it on your list - near the top." She smiled and looked up at him out of the corner of her eye, maybe playing at the coquette a little.
Mace knew what she was doing and forgave her for it. This was her world, and it was an important one not only to her but also to all of them. "Look, Marcy, I know what this means. I will do the best I can. Just remember that the last packet came in over six months ago and I have had nothing but equivocation from home since then."
Marcy flushed. She was worried, not that they would starve, but that maybe Mace really would begin to come apart under the strain of over schedule by a factor of two, over cost by a factor of two, under supplied by a factor of two, four - six. Who knows now where it might end?
The packets were unmanned supply ships launched from the LEO space station on their long journey to Jupiter. Normally they would be given a high energy orbit and could be expected to arrive within about five months of launch. Lately, because of economies forced by deteriorating conditions on the Earth, they had been put into low energy trajectories that depended on a boost from Mars, Venus, or Earth itself on a second fly by. This meant that needed materials, even though available at LEO would not arrive for at least a year or more. Worst of all there just weren't enough resources available for the normal six launches per year. Considerable agonizing had gone into replanning the whole project back on Earth. It had been decided that the crew on board should stay on and that the construction should proceed at a slower pace. This was viable since the life support system was adequate for this stretched out schedule. It was hoped that mining on the moons of Jupiter might supply some of the badly needed materials but these plans had not worked out. The manned explorations that were attempted in the last few years had produced very little. It seemed that it cost more to go down to the surface of Ganymede, Europa or one of the other moons than to go home for supplies. About all that was available was water. They needed water but they also needed a lot more. The nuclear and solar power systems aboard the station supplied all the energy needed but it was the subtle things that seemed to pile up over the long run, like Marcy’s trace elements for the ponics facility.
The last real information from Earth, transmissions came in every day but often did not really reveal what was actually going on, seemed to say that SETI Station was of little importance these days to either the public or to most of the various heads of government. Only the small cadre of old timers in UNSA were totally devoted to the success of the project and were the ones who kept the packets coming, however infrequently. Jupiter had faded into the background for most. Who really could care about the hundred plus out there so damned far away? There were millions right here on Earth in desperate need. You can't feed hungry people on stories about life on SETI Station. It hadn't got to total abandonment yet but the project was most certainly on the back burner of every government on Earth.
Still, SETI Station was a real "place" inhabited by real people who had real lives with real purposes. In many ways this small band was better off than their Earth bound kindred were. They had the advantage of living on the edge where each was vitally dependent on every other person in their small world. The size of the group was typical of the size that human communities had evolved over a period of a million years. Even though they were a culturally diverse group the confinement for years at this distance from their home planet had forged a bond that made them a race unto themselves - or at least a clan, Clan Jupiter. This did not mean that everyone loved every other person unequivocally. Some hated their neighbors or their fellow workers. Others were indifferent to one another, but they were all of the same clan and none of them expected to see their old home very soon.
Alex Krakovsky had graduated from the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics at the age of 20. He was considered to have been the best student to have ever received the optical engineering degree equivalent to a masters. When the planning and construction for SETI Station reached the stage where a team was needed for the design and construction of the gigantic interferometric telescope Alex was a natural. He had written letter after letter to the United Nations Space Agency deluging them with references and recommendations from his colleagues. There was no question about them knowing of his existence. While he had waited out the long interval after his graduation, hoping to get out to the rim of the solar system, he had been employed at Russia's largest observatory where he had designed and implemented a number of clever innovative improvements to the phase correction system for the 10 meter.
Surprisingly, what finally determined his selection was the simple fact that he had married well right after leaving the Institute. He and Natasha had been a couple for the last two years of their studies and cemented the relationship with marriage on their graduation. Her field was math, chaos coding in particular. Her skill could probably be crucial to the untangling of any possible signals that might be received on the large phased array that would constitute the ears of SETI Station. Getting two critical skills for the price of one swung the deal for Alex.
They had arrived at SETI Station aboard a packet three years after the construction of the station had begun. Natasha had learned some mechanical skills and took up a technician's post awaiting the time when there would be something on which she could exercise her mathematical skills. Life in twenty-two cramped metal sausages with one hundred others of various nationalities can be wearing. And the fact that Alex was the only man she had ever known began to prey on her. It is not unusual for these teenage romances to begin to fray when one enters the late twenties or early thirties. She and Alex were growing apart. He was absorbed in the sophisticated high end work on the new telescope while she had nothing to do but routine daily chores, usually associated with the life support system.
The fact that neither she nor Alex could admit that things were not as they should be between them and the growing discontent that Alex felt with the limitations of his work began to alienate Alex from most of the rest of the station's personnel, especially the director, John Macefield, who Alex felt was technically incompetent for the job.
Alex had called his EVA crew together just before the party and informed them that they would be going out to number four on the telescope project. They would have to skip the festivities. He had nurtured his grudge for years. This little soiree was not something he could stomach.
"Arrogant" He muttered. "What could he have been thinking? It has been too long. We could have had it all going two years ago. Incompetent."
He and his crew were suiting up in the EVA module. The two women and three men in his group knew better than to comment on his ruminations. They knew Alex Krakovsky's beef.
When they had run through their check lists. George called out over his intercom, "OK Alex we seem to be all set."
"Pump down and open up" said Alex.
The lock swung open and the six exited into the void of space. It never failed to take one's breath away to see the giant planet hanging overhead. It was a bit like narcotics. One could drift gazing at the planet and maybe forget to come in from the cold. Alex rallied his crew and roped together they headed out along the perimeter of the module toward the telescope. Eventually they had to leave the relative comfort of the smooth round walls of the station and launch out into the void toward the spindly X structure that constituted the interferometric telescope that had been designed to view the unviewable, the planets circling the nearest neighbors of Sol.
The telescope was actually attached to the station but because of the requirements for extreme stability and isolation from vibration the attachments were long and had carefully designed active systems to cancel out any influence from the normal motions and vibrations of the station. These active isolators were controlled by lasers that canceled vibrations to better than one one-hundredth of the wavelength of light in the telescope structure. During the adjustment and alignment phases of work these systems were normally turned off and the personnel could actually touch and work with the gigantic mirrors and their associated optics and electronics. In normal operation, which was planned to begin in the near future, the giant array of mirrors, four of them at the ends of a four hundred meter X, would be carefully phased and oriented to gaze at a single nearby star known to have planets. Each of the four twenty meter mirrors had a resolution of better than 7/1000 of an arc second. The CCD arrays in the detector system displayed the target system at a resolution of about 1/100 arc second - enough to see planets if the blinding light of the mother star could be effectively blocked out by the interference produced by the four mirrors. The theory had been proven on Earth, but this was the first large-scale attempt to get practical results on a significant number of planets.
The six space suited workers had separated. Four had jetted out to the four mirrors and Alex and Chin Su had secured themselves to the central optical assembly. Alex carefully opened the control panel and turned on the service display.
"OK" he said. "Give me the feed from numbers one and three. Are we lined up on P51?"
"Yes." said George.
"Give me Two and Four. One and three look Ok." Alex snapped. He was not going to let party time inside delay this. He may not be the one in charge but he was going to make this work. "They are not in Phase. What the hell is going on?" Alex was exasperated.
George said, "I think maybe we have a bad laser in four. It's radiating but may be drifting in frequency. We can try replacing it."
This was it. The big effort to get the system on line would have to wait for the laser replacement. Unfortunately the needed part was due in with a half dozen of its siblings on the next packet - whenever that might be.
The six space suited figures rejoined and headed back to the relative comfort of the station. From the telescope site the station looked fragile and small. Few could resist a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach when facing at this distance the only home they had so many millions of kilometers from Earth. One could not help wonder if this thin shell of metal and machinery could really sustain life for long.
Alex was in a lousy mood when he found Mace in the central control module. "We will not be able to get the scope on line without a replacement laser in number four." His manner was peremptory. "How was the party. Sorry."
Mace knew what he meant, "It was OK. I didn't think it was necessary but people need to let down once in awhile. Listen, I got word. The packet did get off from LEO station. We'll have it in 3 months."
Alex exploded, "Three months. Shit. Find some other way. Isn't there another system we can pirate? We can't keep this thing off line any longer."
Mace knew that Alex was justified. This was a crucial move that they were about to make. This telescope had to be operational as soon as possible. "I am going to check around. How about bringing in the faulty unit. Maybe we can get something out of it with some help from engineering."
Alex pushed out without comment. He didn't have the expertise to tear the complex laser system down and look for the flaws. The station was really not equipped for it but a lot of problems had been solved in the last few years that none could have guessed would be possible.
After Alex left, Mace called Medina in engineering. "Medina, do you think you could take a look at one of the phasing lasers in the scope?"
Medina was one of the people on this station of which it could be said that if he had not been here none of the rest would have either. A lot of the crew had taken to calling him "Scotty" after the 20th century science fiction character. Most wished wistfully that he could come up with a way of beaming them home. "Up" they already were.
"Mace, I don't think we have a worry. I'll take a look at it." Medina looked at Mace's image on the comm system screen and raised an eyebrow. "I guess Alex is not in such good spirits."
"That is an understatement. But what's new?" said Mace with just a trace of exasperation. He could not let these emotional issues rule him. It was too important to keep things together. He had to be the rudder and the stabilizer for these remote lost sheep. If the news from Earth had been better. If the packets had come on schedule - Ah yes, If...
Rodney Bingham also did not attend the party. Rodney was short and slender, not over 160 cm. He was raised on a farm in Mississippi. And the small Christian sect that his parents had belonged to did not believe in drink. There were a lot of things they did believe in but most of that seemed irrelevant to Rodney as he was growing up. Rodney never did get the habit of drinking alcohol or smoking. Well, no one much smoked in his community, but where he came from there were a lot of people that made there own white lightening from the grain they raised on their small plots. Not much had changed down there in the last two hundred years. Rodney got the breaks though and managed to get a degree from Ole Miss in agriculture. He had been intrigued by what you could do with proper seeds, light, water, and lots of carbon dioxide.
Rodney had pretty much put on the sophisticated veneer of the college grad to cover up the country boy and had great hopes for getting into some kind of scientific farming. That veneer was just a little thin it turned out, much to the horror of the SETI Station people ten years later. Little did he realize that he would wind up farming 800 million kilometers from home. With him it turned out to be just luck. He had been working in the university lab with a group of plants that were being tested for the SETI Station habitat. The UNSA people had come and had been impressed with the lab's work. When they tried to recruit for duty out around Jupiter only Rodney out of the 15 people, professors and grad students, had the guts to actually say he might just like to try it out. He didn't have a girl friend, never had. Girls just didn't seem to notice him. His round face, actually broader than it was long and with the small black mole at the corner of his mouth, gave him the look of a cartoon character. His mouth was wide and he had cultivated the habit of wearing a perpetual weak smile.
The problem with Rodney and with the UNSA selection process was that it was not discovered until much later that Rodney didn't really know enough about genetics or the excruciating balance of trace elements that went into maintaining a balanced environment for a long period of time.
Rodney entered the ponics area to do a little routine maintenance while the rest were celebrating. He pushed his way down the long rows of wheat and tomatoes and began to pick out the plants that had passed their prime and were due for recycling. He had an armload when he arrived at the end of the module. There were chutes at each end of all the modules that led to the recycling system. He unlatched and lifted the red lid and shoved the yellowed and wilting plants in. Sometimes he used the chute with the green lid at the other end of the module.
Five minutes later as Rodney was securing his equipment from his rounds Marcy entered. "Hey, Rod. You missed a good celebration. Julie asked about you."
Rodney colored briefly, "Yeah, well I had some stuff to do." He carefully avoided the reference to Julie. He had concluded some time ago that he was not the dating or marrying kind. He was not particularly interested in men either - not that there were not some same sex couples aboard, much to his disgust. He had thought a lot about this and although he was not a Bible thumper he sincerely believed that what it said about intimate relations between members of the same sex was absolutely right. He had no idea what sodomy or oral sex was, in fact had never heard the terms more than a half dozen times in his life, but he did know that he did not want to know any more than he already knew. He also didn't know much about the Devil, if there was one, but he must be involved in that dirty business if he did exist.
"I guess I am off now Marcy. I've got to go and get a meal and some shut eye."
Marcy smiled and turned aside, "Sweet dreams, Rod."
That stuck in his craw too. Sweet dreams indeed. He seemed only to have nightmares on the rare occasions that he did dream. With no further comment he exited the module.
Jesus Maria Medina was absolute king and dictator of two complete modules, ten percent of the entire station. These modules contained the shops where almost anything could be fabricated, provided the materials could be had. Medina and his crew could produce anything from a sophisticated high speed CPU for the many dozens of computers aboard that controlled and regulated their lives and provided the computational means for accomplishing their missions to large simple metal structures and motors for carrying out the heavy work of the station. It had been realized early in the planning and design that unforeseen contingencies would arise and SETI Station would be too far from home to get much help. In fact, the packets that arrived, erratically now, were dismantled by Medina and his motley crew of metal benders and shaped into the new largely unanticipated parts that were needed for the huge antenna and the scope. They also had responsibility for the maintenance and repair of the life support and operational portions of the station.
Medina had returned to his lair with the faulty laser and had turned it over Chen Shu his optics guru. Chen said, “No problem, Medina. These things are just fancy light bulbs. I'll have it rebuilt in a week at most.” Medina knew he would and left it at that.
Fred Sommerville left the party in very high spirits. The antenna structure was nearly finished - his masterpiece. He had spent not only the ten years here in orbit around Jupiter but the preceding five years on Earth absolutely devoted to designing and making operational the largest array of receiving antennas that had ever been conceived. In order to convert the frequency bands desired and to have the exquisitely narrow receiving beam needed that array had turned out to be over a kilometer in diameter. The individual receiving dipoles were of a variety of lengths arranged in a pattern that allowed the entire array to receive on the crucial bands and to scan in angle over a large solid angle, nearly one quarter of the surrounding sphere of the starry heavens. Basically the antenna beam pattern covered the Milky Way and was lozenge shaped.
Fred asked his wife Marilyn, who was also his chief tech, to suit up for a final inspection of their delicate spider web, "Hey, my little sweetie, this is it. We may be able to fire up the system tomorrow. Want to have a last look."
Marilyn didn't specially like the pet names even though she really loved this man. First of all she was older than he was and second she felt she knew as much as he did about the system. She felt more like the senior partner than the chief technician but she was able to overlook his diminutive allusions most of the time. "Fred, my one and only, I am your slave. We go."
They suited up and exited from the access module together. As they rounded the curve of the module and had the giant planet to their backs the almost invisible spider web of the antenna array confronted them. The array had been located nearly three kilometers from the station to avoid interference and any possible warping caused by radiated heat or mechanically transmitted vibrations. Connections to the station were maintained by high capacity fiber optic links and minute ion jets located on the array - four thousand of them, controlled attitude. The antenna had its own power photo vees and extensive on board electronic processing for steering the multiple simultaneous beams. It was strange to imagine these immense narrow receiving beams sweeping the void in a blink of an eye from the enormous and absolutely stationary device.
Marilyn nearly wept as they drifted slowly away from the station; "It's really going to work. Isn't it?" There was a child like fear in her voice as it came over the suit radio.
"Sweetheart, It is going to work. We are going to talk to the stars. Well, not talk to them but at least listen to them." Fred tried to reassure her. The trouble was he was feeling much the same fear that she was expressing.
They drifted slowing out until they were within a hundred meters of the center of the array. From here they could see the lace work of the supporting structure. It was rigid. It had to be. But it was also extremely light and delicate. They felt as though they were looking out through a gigantic glittering spider web that, from their vantage point, covered nearly half the starry sphere. Nothing could touch it. Nothing could harm it. It could float here for a thousand years and listen to the music of the spheres. Fred's thoughts turned to Kepler's music of the spheres and Hindemuth's interpretive symphony began to run through his head. He wondered how the real music of the spheres would sound when they began to tune them in. It had not been difficult to wait for the fruition of this experiment. In a sense they had all eternity. Whatever voices they might hear would come from sentient beings long dead or from beings not having the slightest suspicion they were being spied upon. It was daunting but at the same time it imparted a strange feeling of power and of infinite quiet patience. Who could converse over distances of tens to hundreds of light years? No conceivable living creature. We could only listen and hope that somewhere sometime someone had spoken.
"Fred, let's go in. I'm not up to it. It's scary. The job is done and I have decided I don't want to be outside anymore." said Marilyn. She began to jet toward the station being very cautious to keep her jet power very low so as not to splash the array with the minuscule amount of ejected gas.
Fred was surprised. Marilyn was tough and smart. This was unlike her but he felt a little of her awe too. They say that familiarity breeds contempt but it was impossible to feel anything but profoundly humble in the presence of the power of this instrument that they had built. And oddly that power was entirely passive - the simple passive power of listening - carefully and patiently. He followed her back toward the station.
SETI Station was impressive but looked a little ridiculous too. It looked like two gigantic strings of sausages, ten in each string lying parallel to each other and connected across the ends by two more, twenty two in all. Each unit was hauled here by the specially designed fusion powered Mantis packets. Mantis had been used only for the large bulk cargoes. They were efficient but took much longer for the journey and were ferociously expensive to build. Only two were built and neither was now operational. Both were back at LEO, presumably in mothballs. The problem was, of course, that FP engines were not only efficient and hot but also very expensive to run. After the 22 modules and the early crews had been delivered they had been retired. Mantis was a fabulous machine but could not become space borne from the surface of a large body like the Moon, Ganymede, Io, or Mars; not enough thrust. Its utility was limited to heavy cargo transfer between space habitats like LEO and Jupiter Station.
Early plans for Jupiter Station included replenishment of essential gases, hydrogen and oxygen from one of Jupiter's moons. For this purpose two of the small packet ships had been modified to serve as robot ice mining devices with engines capable of landing and taking off from either Io or Ganymede with a ton of ice. The ice mining drills and transporters took up a large fraction of these "ice" ships cargo capacity. Initially this equipment had been left on the surface ready for the next sortie but after the loss of an entire suite to a large moonquake smaller units were built and were carried to and from the moons. It was a hazardous operation and no one wanted to risk this fragile strand of their lifeline. Water and air were carefully husbanded aboard Jupiter Station.
Except for the linking end modules each set of ten modules rotated at two revolutions per minute in opposite directions to overcome the precessional forces of Jupiter's gravity. It resulted in a gravitational force of about O.01g at the outer wall that constituted the floor in most of the modules. The modules were each 20 meters long and 5 meters in diameter. The residential sections had an access passage down the middle a half meter in diameter and the individual compartments, six in a ring, opened onto this passageway. Each compartment was about two and one half meters square at the wall and had headroom of two meters. It looked like a slice of angel food cake, the ceiling being only a half meter wide. For couples two of these compartments were combined with walls removed either longitudinally or radially, whichever way the individuals desired. Each link of the sausage could accommodate 36 crew with a lounge in the middle. There were a total of four that could then theoretically accommodate 144. Except for the senior personnel who had their own private facilities each lounge also contained the shower and toilet facilities for the crew occupants of that module.
The rest of the station consisted of one end module, non-rotating, as central command and EVA and another at the other end for shop facilities. It too was non-rotating. Five of the modules were hydroponics for food and air recycling and the remaining for electronics, metal and electronics fabrication, computers and a two-module section for food preparation, exercise and social activities.
As Marilyn gazed at this structure, her home away from home, tears blurring her vision, she could detect the rotation of the ten-segment strings even though there were few distinguishing marks - no windows or protrusions. She couldn't help but wonder if those four rotating joints at the ends would last forever even though they were superconducting magnetic bearings, which allowed no contact, even at micron distances. This might be her home forever or for however long she might have the luck to live. But how long can machines last?
CHAPTER 4 - Water Worlds
The laser had been replaced and the scope was considered to be nearly operational. Mace had gathered most of the principals in the special control center set up for the operation of the scope. Alex was in charge. This was his baby. They had spent ten long years getting it together and now that it was about to be brought on line jealousies and animosities seemed to fade into the background. It took a crew of six to operate and control the system.
"Ready?" said Alex.
"OK on all four systems." answered the control console tech.
"OK. For a start let's set up on number one as planned, Peg 51. It should be an easy one," said Alex.
Gently the control commands were given and the ion jets began to turn the array the few degrees required to make its axis precisely aligned to Pegasus 51. This took over an hour and when the star finally appeared on the monitor screens a brief cheer went up from those present.
"Hold enthusiasm," said Alex. "We're not there yet. Let's see if we can get interference."
In fact it took another three hours of tweaking before they finally got the central field of view to darken and obliterate the blinding light of the star. The light was not really gone but it no longer was falling on the detector array that defined the central field of view. The next task was to activate the rotational mode which would allow the scopes working together to scan the space near Peg51 for the accompanying planets that they already knew were there from the evidence of delicate Doppler measurements made decades earlier on Earth. With luck they would get a series of portraits of the actual planets themselves - dim and smudged but with some real detail to be pored over both here on the station and by scientists back on Earth.
Pegasus 51 did indeed reveal its family as anticipated. The large inner planet was easy to see; half the mass of Jupiter but so close to the star that its appearance with an optical imaging system was considered to be tour de force for the system. This was a far different matter than detecting slight Doppler shifts in the optical spectrum achieved from years of routine observations. A cheer went up from the assembled group.
Alex frowned and squinted over the console operator's shoulder at the panel, "Let's see if we can fish others out. Let me in. I will do now." the operator vacated the seat and Alex took charge of the controls. "To see small planets at great distance is very hard," he said, brushing the controls oh so gently.
After what seemed ages the screen began to give hints of other objects. After all, the giant antenna had to rotate 360 degrees around the axis defined by the line to the star before even one image would be recorded and with the image processing available several rotations would be need. This giant spoked wheel could not simply be spun like a roulette wheel. Eventually three more very dim spots showed themselves at distances equivalent to Sol's planets Venus, Mars and Jupiter.
The chore now was to feed the light from those planets through the spectrograph. George, the tech who had done the lion's share of the instrumentation on the telescope, was ready with the input controls for an attempt to analyze the atmospheres of the smaller planets. It wasn't long before he looked up from the traces on his scope and smiled. "I think we have one. First try. How about that."
Mace was grinning ear to ear, "Which one?"
"Second one out, the Venus one." George had isolated the spectral bands for water, ozone and carbon dioxide, the necessary products of and requirements for carbon based life.
Mace turned to Alex, "Alex, it's your baby and you should give it a name. Who knows, it may have a baby living there - maybe millions of them."
Alex was flushed. This was almost too exciting for him. All these years. All this waiting. All this isolation and privation. "I have to call it Natasha. She is my love and this planet is planet of love for Peg 51."
Natasha, who was present of course, blushed and started to protest but Mace waved her to silence, "No, Alex is right. It is his privilege. We may all get more planets than we can possible think of names for. You are the first but I am sure not the last to have their very own planet."
The innocence of this obvious hubris escaped them all. A small group of humans more or less stranded at the outer fringes of the solar system which stood at the outer fringes of the galaxy were going to name the planets of the universe!
"Natasha it is," said Mace as he pushed himself to the passage leading back to the control center. "I am sending a priority message to UNSA. Maybe that will shake them up a little and get us a little kinder treatment."
George and Alex turned back to their work with considerable enthusiasm. They still had two more planets to scope out and they had begun to feel like masters of the universe. What was special about this giant instrument was that even some surface detail could be made out at the resolutions available; nothing like the "canals" of Mars but a few splotches at least.
Mace sent copies of the images to Earth, LEO, and MOM, the Moon Observatory and Mining facility along with enough words to constitute a good press release. Just imagine, another water world.
"Please, let us have a bit of order. Courtesy is demanded. Dr. Watson has a serious responsibility and his request is serious and justified." Sir Henry Bolton, the UK member was speaking. It didn't matter. Voices were raised around the room. Arguments ensued. Vladimir Prokoff, the chairman, banged his gavel repeatedly and finally restored some order.
Prokoff turned to Watson and said, "Dr. Watson, it is my sad duty to tell you that no matter how good may be news from SETI Station we have no more resources to dispense. Half of us here have no financial support from our governments for even our own living expenses and if not for generosity of our hosts we as individuals would indeed be in difficult circumstances." Watson could hear plainly the tragic tone in the Russian's thick accent. Russians wallow in tragedy.
CHAPTER 5 - The Moon
The Moon Observatory and Manufacturing facility was located on the far side just over the limb as seen from earth. The location allowed communications and data transfer to Earth by a simple series of moon based relay antennas instead of the necessary maintenance of relay satellites. It was also located near the polar cap where a deposit of water ice had been found at the bottom of an eternally shadowed rim of a nearby crater. This water and the permanent high power nuclear generator allowed the base to be nearly self sufficient for rocket fuel propellants and water for hydroponics and air.
The site was on the floor of a very small crater, not more than 20 kilometers in diameter. the facility resembled a series of molehills. The rounded domes that protruded resembled the floor of the crater itself. A few hundred meters separated these from each other. A few were as far as three or four kilometers from the largest. The large dome of "mooncrete" was readily identified as headquarters and primary habitant. Some of the outlying had telescope mirrors and antennas in view. The tracks of the moon vehicles were clearly etched in profusion between the structures giving evidence of human habitation and activity.
Dr. Helmut Weiss was director and chief of astronomy. Under him was Hal Morgan, mining engineering chief. The two of them ran a 25 person facility with most of the bodies answering to Morgan. There were five women among the complement, two of them astronomers, two in life support and one a moon runabout driver for the mining operation.
Mining had been primarily for Helium-Three for fusion power sources on Earth. This continuing supply of fuel for those generators had assured MOM would stand at the top of the priority list for UNSA activities. Packets left the moon for LEO on a regular monthly schedule with a cargo of He3, returning with whatever supplies could not be had or generated on the Moon. These packets were small since their cargos were light and of extremely high value. It was a little like shipping diamonds only much more valuable by the kilo. There was room in these shuttle rockets for three or four persons if part of the cargo space could be appropriated. The trip to LEO was uncomfortable but of only a few days duration so little was needed for life support.
The astronomical facility consisted of a fifteen-meter and four one-meter optical telescopes and a high gain wide band microwave antenna for data transfer from SETI Station. Extensive computer facilities had been installed at MOM for preliminary analysis of the SETI Station data.
Big Boy, the fifteen meter, was devoted almost entirely to very deep space research. Objects, early Universe galaxies for the most part, of less than ten billion light years distance were generally of little interest. Already Weiss and his small crew had turned up several interesting lensing objects that were giving them unprecedented data on proto-galaxies estimated to be about fifteen billion light years distant.
On Thursday, the 13th of February of the fifth anniversary of SETI Station, Emily Jarret had reported routinely to Weiss that she had logged a new object on one of the one-meter scopes whose job it was to search for Earth orbit crossing objects in the inner Solar system.
"Dr. Weiss, I have an object on number three that we haven't seen before. I don't think it is of interest. Its proper motion is very small. It must be very far out." Jarret clearly remembered this brief conversation five years earlier. She was talking to Weiss from the building adjacent to the one-meter installations via the intercom net. Weiss was in the admin offices at the time, five kilometers away.
Weiss had grunted, "Very well. Log it into the data bank. If it's beyond Neptune we can check it later. Thank you." He broke the connection and turned back to the images displayed on his screen from Big Boy. He ruminated. What massive object could do this? It was a very absorbing and important piece of data.
Weiss had forgotten this obscure asteroid observation but Jarret had not and over the years she had kept track of it. First of all it had a very peculiar orbit. It did not seem to be the usual comet dragged in from the Kuiper belt by the gravitational forces of Jupiter and the outer planets. Second it was moving at a very high velocity for an outer solar system object and third it was very large. The albedo was low but she had deduced it was at least one hundred or more kilometers in diameter. This put it in a special class. So far it appeared that it would indeed cross the Earth's orbit but might not even be a very good display for groundlings since it did not show any signs of comet behavior. There was of course no danger to earth. Its track was well established. Jarret's observation had been largely forgotten except those in her own logs kept on site. She noted casually that it had passed Jupiter's orbit.
The intercom broke in again, "Helmut, this is Hal. I've been going over our logs at the packet launch port. We are due to have three coming in during the next week. We won't have cargo for any of them for at least a month. You'll have to let LEO know."
"How many are in the bays now?" Weiss asked.
"We've got four on board now and with three more we will be over crowded." replied Morgan. "I'll have to divert a crew to disassemble one and put it in storage."
"Have we fuel for that many?" asked Weiss.
"Yes. No problem there." Morgan said, signing off.
So many little rocket ships, Weiss said to himself. We are becoming the big interplanetary spaceport.
The little packet rockets were computer controlled and landed tail first on the pad that served as "spaceport". After which a dolly trundled out on the pad, extended its arms, gently grasped the stubby shape and rolled it into the hanger bay assigned to it - all of this without the immediate presence of human help. Don't worry, the crew was watching every move from the control center. It wasn't safe to place your body too near these little ships until they had been defueled of whatever residual fuel was still in their tanks. It was hard to imagine that these little ships could ever be of any real use beyond the hauling of light cargo they now carried between the moon and LEO. Helmut had long ago completely forgotten the bit of news that Jarret had delivered years ago. Helmut was a very good scientist but he did lack certain people skills.
continue Chps 6-10