“Hard decel on my mark.”
No one answered from the Science Ring. They were all too busy thinking – and scared – of bracing themselves.
The captain smiled inward, Scientists, he thought. After the navigator tapped his controls enabling the spin-down of the F-T-L engines, the captain added, “Alright folks, final entry in five…”
Science team members lifted their heads idly; they listened to the disembodied voice and tensed.
A couple of them looked at each other nervously.
“Remember, there’ll be a slight moment of vertigo followed by nausea, it will pass,” said the executive officer.
The science team lead finished his prayer.
The military-research vessel, Arthur C. Clarke, whined and moaned, its carbon fiber and nanotube structure stressed from the almost instantaneous deceleration from faster-than-light to the specific impulse of the VASIMRs. As the magnetoplasma engines kicked in, the Clarke shuddered. This was ultimately the most dangerous part of the fourteen-month trip. It was at this exact point that the Father Richaud tore apart into pieces as it reached Alpha Centauri, all ten lives onboard, lost.
Thoughts of this crossed the minds of the science team as they exchanged nervous glances; one of them was even shaking from terror.
It had only been fifty years since the Father Richaud accident. And it had barely been thirty years earlier when, during the latter part of the twenty-first century, advances in FTL and quantum theory along with a greater understanding of cosmology allowed the first probes to explore the interstellar reaches. These early probes learned from trial-and-error the forces exerted on a spacecraft transiting from multi-dimensional space (the “hyperspace” from movies) to normal space was prohibitive for sending humans. Think of being smeared to a thin film of jelly on the inside of a can. Stronger ships with dampening systems were needed to counteract those forces. After decades of research, humans eventually built interstellar spacecraft to make the journeys, but with mixed results.
The Clarke was another advancement, the fifth version of a new model, it was stronger and more efficient than previous craft. However, unlike its other four instances, the Clarke was about to perform something never previously attempted – exiting multi-dimensional space after sidestepping twenty light-years. Although no one theoretically expected it to be different than what unmanned probes had experienced, what worried the science team was that the same thing was believed about the Father Richaud as well.
“Hagtham,” barked the captain firmly, “enable final n-space insertion. X-O, count me down.”
“Aye, captain,” replied Lieutenant Commander Michael Callan, “Insertion on my mark in ten.” After checking the readings on his monitor, he turned and addressed the navigator, “Hagtham, n-space entry in five, four, three, two, now!”
The navigator smoothly pressed another touch-screen button and then gently put his small, dark palms on the black, two-handed controller. As the ship squealed from the horrendous stresses the vertigo he expected hit. His training took over as he quickly performed a version of the Epley maneuver. He simply turned his head to the symptomatic side by fourth-five degrees and back, holding it for a couple of seconds and then repeating.
Once the feeling subsided, Hagtham focused on his in-console monitor providing the answer to the next question without being prompted, “N-space insertion complete, sir.”
“Excellent,” returned the captain. Quickly he added, “Structural and VASIMR status?”
This time it was the engineer, Leticia Gomez, who replied, “Ship’s hull-integrity at three-nines, as expected it’s two-nines and an eight forward and aft.” She stared at her monitor, and added, “Magnetoplasmas at fifty-four percent and climbing, we’ll be at three-nines momentarily.” Turning to the captain, Gomez smiled and said, “Welcome to 82 Eridani, sir.”
“Position?” asked the captain.
“Insertion along the system’s plane,” said Hagtham calmly. He placed a finger on the monitor to follow a reading across the screen, “We’re a little less than an A-U from Eridani-b, just as planned. The computer’s already set a course and we’re in route, we’ll be there in eight hours.”
“Excellent,” said the captain, slightly nodding his head. “Keep an eye on the auto-pilot, previous models were twitchy in-system.”
“Gomez,” continued the captain, “prepare to send the following arrival message.” He looked at the engineer, who waited intently with lifted eyebrows, then said, “Message Start. Tycho Station this is the Arthur C. Clarke, n-space insertion complete, we have arrived at our pre-determined destination at 82 Eridani. All ship systems are operating nominally. Transmission to follow after successful planetary arrival. Message End.” The captain paused a second then added, “On its way?”
“Arrival message transmitted, sir,” said Gomez. “Unlike our trip, it’ll get to Earth a lot faster. Should be arriving in less than twenty-four hours.”
“Yes,” returned the captain casually, “something to do with photons and mass, right?”
Captain Nathan Allstrong lifted his tall and thickly built frame from the command-chair, his forceful eyes contradicting the smile curving on the corners of his mouth. Walking up behind the navigator and placing a large hand fatherly on Hagtham’s shoulder, he said, “Congratulations crew. They’ll put us in the history books for this. I’m proud of you all.” He patted Hagtham’s back then turned to face everyone on the bridge, “Good job.”
“Captain,” said the executive officer, “can we?”
The captain glanced at his X-O and found him holding a bottle of champagne, Where the heck was he hiding that? After shaking his head ‘Yes,’ the cork popped and the crew celebrated – cheering and applauding.
Allstrong accepted a filled, plastic flute as he sat down in his command chair. He took a sip and then realized the science team had not checked in. While the crew huddled around the engineer’s monitor, laughing, the captain called for the scientists located on their ring of the ship.
“S-T-L, CAP.” He waited then calmly called again, “S-T-L, this is CAP.”
A slight pause, then the Clarke’s intercom returned, “Oom, CAP, dis is S-D-L…ve have a bit of a problem here.”
“What is it?” asked Allstrong, sitting up in his chair.
“Mark and Noma have vomited. Big mess, unt dey’re not feeling goot.”
“Other than that, is everything alright? Science-wise and yourself?”
“Oom, yes, of course,” said the disembodied German voice, “dank gootness, ve made it!”
The captain chuckled, “Yes we did professor. I’ll send the doctor and someone else, hold tight.”
“Dank you captain, unt congratulations.”
The captain looked up from his conversation to now find the crew not so cheerful; apparently they had heard the exchange and were waiting for the orders to come.
“Yes, captain, I heard. Just wonderful, I’m heading there now.” And off went the medical officer, Dr. Benen Leach.
Turning his attention to the remaining crew members, Allstrong said, “Now the hard part. Who should go clean the mess? I can’t very well send the X-O,” Callan nodded and smiled. “That leaves you, Lieutenant Gomez, and you, Junior Lieutenant Hagtham.”
Leticia ‘Leti’ Gomez, pierced the captain’s stare with her round, dark eyes and said, “Captain, may I remind you that as the ship’s engineer I have data to review on the M-D-drive, as previously planned by procedure. Mister Hagtham is simply babysitting the auto-pilot. Both Mister Hagtham and I can navigate the ship, and although he is my backup as engineer, I do outrank him.”
“Excellent point Lieutenant Gomez,” changing his stare to Hagtham, he said, “Navin?”
After pursing his lips at Gomez and shaking his head, Hagtham replied, “I got it captain, on my way.”
The moment Hagtham exited the bridge the captain looked plainly at Gomez and said, “You better sleep with one eye open tonight L-T. One—eye—open.” The captain relaxed, sitting back into his chair, and laughed.
“CAP, X-O,” was heard from the intercom in the captain’s quarters.
Allstrong looked up and answered, “CAP here.”
“Captain,” said Callan’s voice, “we’re three light-seconds from Eridani-b. Notifying you as requested.”
Very good, thought Allstrong, we’ll be there shortly. “Copy, I’ll be right there.”
Allstrong did not have far to go. The captain’s quarters were, unlike the rest of the crew, right off the bridge. Once he adjusted his pants and shirt, Allstrong opened the bulkhead door leading from his quarter’s right into a tiny foyer-like space between the next bulkhead door leading into the bridge. He closed his door and locked it per regulation, then entered the bridge. There were no formalities of ‘Captain on deck’ since he nixed them shortly after the voyage had started – it always seemed like a waste of time to him. He just wanted to make his entrance like any other, with the one exception, he expected his crew to obey and hang on his every word.
“NAV,” said Allstrong, as he sat slowly into his command chair, “once we arrive, place us in a standard LEO orbit.” Quickly, he added, “Lieutenant Gomez, engineering report.”
The engineer proceeded to give stock on all of the ship’s vital systems.
The Arthur C. Clarke, or the Clarke as she was referred to by her crew, was truly a marvel of science and engineering present at the cusp of the twenty-third century. Designed with the latest understandings of the cosmos in mind and built with exotic manufacturing technologies, the Clarke was the latest in man’s creations at interstellar spacecraft. She was, interestingly enough, a strikingly plain vehicle but one capable of sustaining a long, space-borne voyage of over a year.
The Clarke was approximately ninety meters long and forty meters wide. She was shaped like a long, fat pencil but was wider by three meters along the middle – this bulge being thirty meters in distance. The forward-third of the ship, at the very tip, contained the multi-dimensional drive, a technology allowing something Einstein said was impossible – faster-than-light travel between the stars, while the aft-third contained the variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket drive, or VASIMR, which provided the means for inter-planetary travel. The middle third, the portion of the ship that was wider than the rest, appeared comprised of three adjacent, hollow cylinders. In reality, it was a single protrusion that epitomized the ship’s advanced technology and design by the simple matter that it spun. At a slow rotation of seven revolutions-per-minute it provided the crew with an exact one-gee gravity of Earth. It was in this cylindrical area of the ship that the crew spent most of its time. Sub-divided into three sections, the forward section was known as the Command Ring and consisted of the ship’s bridge and all the electronics that made it come alive; the middle section was the Science Ring – a telemetry station along with science room and all of the hardware required; and finally, the aft section was the Habitat Ring, it consisted of an exercise room, bathrooms, and sleeping quarters for all of the crew, except the captain.
Once Gomez completed her report, Allstrong enabled the intercom and said, “S-T-L, CAP.”
“Oom, Max here CAP.”
“Professor, is your team feeling…better? Are you, they ready?”
There was a notable pause and then the intercom voiced, “Captain, yes, I dink so, yes, I’m certain. Ve’re goot.”
Muting his end, the captain said, “Dr. Leach, how are his assistants? Are they really feeling better?”
“Oh captain,” started Leach in his slow, fatherly tone, “those two are fine. You know how the professor gets when we approach a planet. Remember when we passed Saturn and Uranus? He was so distracted, never answering your calls.”
“Okay doc,” said the captain, “last thing we need is a sick crew member now that we’re here.” Turning his attention to the helm, “NAV, status.”
The helm’s grey console was merely a half-step away from where the captain sat. Comprised of mostly black glass, all the controls were touch-screen buttons hiding underneath, and save for the joystick controller, there was nothing to really switch or grab onto, only press. Much of the octagonal-shaped bridge followed the same structural design, gray consoles composed of black glass and holding numerous monitors displaying all sorts of data.
Pressing the intercom back on, Hagtham said, “Standard LEO orbit on my mark…Mark.”
“On-screen,” returned Allstrong.
The ‘screen’ was a holographic projection unit extending away from Hagtham at the center of the helm. It lit up and from its base a three-dimensional, color image of the planet and its neighboring void, the depiction appearing an arm’s length away from where the navigator sat.
The crew watched the slowly rotating hologram in revered silence. Although others had been first to visit and lay eyes on a planet of another solar system, they were the first to travel such a far distance to do it. The significance of their feat was just now sinking in. Yet the more the crew looked at the hologram, the more something became clear.
“We came all the way here for this?” said Gomez.
The image was absolutely unspectacular. 82 Eridani-b appeared to be the size of Mars, but unlike the passion-stirring colors of reds, Eridani-b was mostly the uninspiring hues of beige and brown. Even the poles appeared to be dirty-beige or light-brown in color. In short, the planet was ugly – just one humongous rock.
“Hold on everyone,” said Callan, “let’s let the science team do their job and tell us what we have here. I’m sure there’s something of worth. Right captain?”
Allstrong was no scientist, but he did graduate third in his academy class and he had done enough spacefaring to know when he was looking at a planet-sized boulder. Trying to come up with something encouraging to say, the captain was saved by the intercom.
“Go ahead professor.”
“Captain, may you to come to de Science Ring? I hafe someding to shov you.”
“I’ll be right over.”
“What?” Gomez said sarcastically. “The professor couldn’t tell you we’ve arrived at a rock over the intercom?”
“Relax, Leti,” said Allstrong, “like Callan said, let’s see what the science team has for us.”
“You know,” said Gomez, in her still-sarcastic-tone, “it’s those two geniuses with him that wanted to come here.” She shook her head, “Fourteen months, fourteen months, and now this.”
“Alright lieutenant,” said the captain. After pausing to let the moment hang, he continued, “X-O, you’re with me. Lieutenant Gomez, you have the COM.” He tapped Callan on the shoulder and added, “Let’s go.”
A short bulkhead tunnel connected the bridge to the science room and then opened up to a laboratory that would make any geek squeal with glee. Gray and black lab tables protruded from the floor holding all sorts of test equipment. Unlike the bridge, the science room was one huge rectangular space, filled with all sorts of gear, all of it just lying about randomly. The room was a stark contrast to the neat and clean space of the bridge.
At the far end of the lab stood the professor facing a large monitor attached to the wall, a live image of the planet filled the screen and slowly rotated. Flanked on either side of the professor were his two research assistants, Dr. Mark Rogan, a geophysicist; and a post-doctoral planetary astronomer, Dr. Noma Atuanya.
As the captain and executive officer approached, the captain caught the tail end of what Dr. Rogan said to the science lead, “…the data doesn’t lie professor, I’m certain of it.”
“Certain of what?” Allstrong asked sociably.
Startled, the short and frumpy professor turned around wide-eyed and said, “O, captain, you’re here. Dank you vor coming.”
“Doctor Rogan, Doctor Atuanya,” interjected Callan, “you two feeling better?”
The two scientists looked at each other sheepishly as Dr. Rogan quickly answered, “Yep, we’re good. The whole experience was unlike anything we simulated and trained for. We’ll be ready for the return trip home. Right Noma?”
The female scientist simply nodded.
“Well,” said Callan smugly, “let’s hope so.”
“What’s this about the data?” Allstrong asked brightly. He nodded his head at Dr. Rogan and added, “You were certain about something.”
“Yes, captain,” said the professor, “Mark vas telling me about de surface reatings un Eritani-b. But I just can’t beliefe it.”
“I was trying to show the professor the data to back up the claim,” said Mark, slightly defensive. “It’s surprising but it’s there.”
“Well gentlemen,” said the captain, “what is it?”
“So far,” answered Mark, “what we have scanned of the surface is basically trinitite.”
“That’s impossible,” blurted Callan, “trinitite’s not a natural substance.”
“I knov,” said the professor incredulously, “it can’t be.”
“But it is,” returned Mark. He handed a quantum-tablet to the captain.
Allstrong looked at its screen, noting the spike in a graph.
“Ninety-five percent of the surface you’ve scanned is trinitite?” The captain shook his head.
“Exactly vhat I told him,” said the professor.
“Did you check your equipment and external sensors?” Callan asked, directly to Mark.
“We ran diagnostics once we reached n-space,” said the young scientist, who had motioned to Noma. “From the first moment we approached Eridani-b this is what we got.” Mark tapped at the quantum-tablet’s screen, still held by captain, “All the graphs in there are the same. Either the equipment is bad or it’s trinitite.”
“Okay, trinitite…” said the captain, thinking out loud. “This means Eridani-b was glassed at some point in the past. Nuked?”
“Correct,” said Mark bluntly, “approximately five-thousand years ago, give or take a few hundred years.”
Allstrong said, “Are we talking about a localized area or—”
“No,” interrupted Mark, “we’ve scanned almost an entire hemisphere from pole-to-pole, I think we’ll find the entire planet was bombed out.
The hair on the nape of Allstrong’s neck prickled. What the heck have we stepped into?
Trinitite. It was the name given to a glassy substance found on the desert floor after the Trinity nuclear bomb test of 1945. The glass, shaped into fist-sized rocks, is composed of native, natural substances found on the ground, formed when these substances are drawn up inside a nuclear fireball and then rained down in a liquid state. At the Trinity site the area which was covered by trinitite was only two-hundred meters in diameter, what made this discovery frightening was that it was on a planetary scale.
The captain reached for the closest intercom, it was built into the wall beside the monitor they faced. Watching the rock of Eridani-b slowly rotate, Allstrong called back to the bridge.
“COM, this is CAP.”
“Go ahead CAP.”
“Lieutenant, was there anything anomalous on the regular n-space scan?”
“Uh, captain,” retuned Gomez’s voice through the speaker, “no sir, nothing.”
“Start another scan, but this time widen by a factor of two.”
“Aye, captain,” said Gomez, sounding puzzled, “COM out.”
The captain faced Callan, “X-O, go back and take over the COM. Tell Hagtham to run the scan while Gomez gets the M-D-drive ready.”
“Got it captain,” said Callan, as he started to leave, “I’m on it.”
“Whoa, what are you doing?” Mark asked, causing Callan to pause, steps away from the group.
“Getting this ship ready to depart,” said Allstrong.
“What for?” said Mark.
“We’ve just arrived at a bombed out planet, doctor. Whoever or whatever did this can probably erase us from existence without much effort. I don’t want to stick around to find out.”
“But ve just got here,” said the professor, a slight whine to his voice. “Ve can’t turn around and leafe.”
“Oh yes we can.”
“After all this distance and time?” said Mark, voice rising incredulously.” He turned to the professor and added, “Can’t you do something?”
A small voice, barely audible, jumped in on the split-second of silence and said, “Before we leave captain, may we take a closer look at this?”
Dr. Noma Atuanya, a beautiful, lithe woman from South Africa was most likely the smartest person on the ship, not to mention one of the most accomplished, young scientists on Earth. Her dissertation on alien planetary astronomy had given rise to a whole new field of research. One which had been there for others to discover, but was largely ignored because of the lack of vision in the field. Noma’s peers were always amazed at her ability (many thought of it as a God-given talent) to point out the most obvious of things given the data available, which was largely unnoticeable to everyone else. This ability (or talent) was about to manifest itself once more.
The captain received the slight woman’s quantum-tablet. Slightly smaller than a piece-of-paper and only three times as thick, the shimmering silver screen was lit up with an image.
After handing the one he held back to Mark, Allstrong further noticed the second unit depicted two images of the surface in black-and-white. The two images were typical scientific photos, watermarked cross hairs spread equally apart over the images with scale markings across the top and down the left-side. On the center of the first image something anomalous was identified with a white arrow pointing down and diagonally, to the left. The second image was a close-up of the first, the anomaly and the shadow it cast filled most of this photo. At first glance, it was not exactly obvious what the image held until the shadow was considered. The black shape stretching from the base of the object was symmetric, long, and pointed. The shadow looked familiar to Allstrong, but he could not verbalize it.
“What is this?” the captain said, to no one in particular.
Everyone else had been peeking over Allstrong’s shoulders, looking at the images.
“Noma, vhy tin’t you shov me dis?” the professor asked, miffed.
“That’s incredible,” said Mark, “when did you take these?”
The professor then grabbed the q-tablet from Allstrong’s hands, he ranted, “I am supposet to see all de data before any announcement is mate. To you unterstant Toctor Atuanya?”
“Hey, take it easy professor,” said Mark. “Noma’s made an incredible discovery. Do you know what this means?”
“I’d like to know what it means,” interjected Allstrong firmly, taking the q-tablet back from the professor.
“As Doctor Rogan and the professor took surface readings,” said Noma timidly, “I decided to start taking photos over the same region.” She looked guiltily at the professor and continued, “I know we had planned to perform the research in a deliberate fashion, so as not to overtax our systems, but my initial scan of the Eridani system found nothing I didn’t already know. I decided to pass the time and take pictures. I set the computer to only notify me if anything truly inconsistent was found, never did I imagine I’d get a true positive. When it happened, you and Mark were already arguing over the trinitite and then Captain Allstrong and Mister Callan showed up.” Noma turned her intelligent brown eyes on the captain and added, “Maybe we can take a look at this, one more time before we leave?”
“And by this,” said Callan, stepping back beside the captain, “just what?”
Mark had shuffled away as Noma explained herself but now returned with excited glee, “Well, Mister Callan, what Noma has discovered is nothing short of unbelievable. What that picture shows is a perfectly conic object. There’s no way it’s natural, the spectrometer shows it is not made of trinitite or of any substance I can tell, yet. And if my math is right, it’s a little over thirty-two meters tall at the tip, and about twenty meters in diameter at the base.”
“Conic?” Callan said, trying to get his mind around the concept. “A cone?”
“Think of a huge ice cream cone,” returned Mark, “lying open-end down and pointing straight up.”
“Doctor Rogan,” said Allstrong, visibly frustrated, “are you saying we have stumbled upon…an alien artifact?”
“We’ve probably just made the greatest discovery in the history of mankind,” replied Mark, smiling widely. “Proof-positive intelligent life actually exists, or at the very least, existed.”
The white-haired but balding professor had gently taken back the q-tablet from the captain and inspected the images. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment, he sat heavily onto a lab chair and said, “Vell captain, ve have no choice but to stay nov. If I recall correctly, mission tirectife zero-tventy-dree states ve are to infestigate any unt all efidence of alien existence past or present.”
The good professor was right.
The directive, one of fifty directives for the mission, was set in place to focus the crew on the specific intents of the expedition. As a whole, the directives were purposely set in place to override knee-jerk reactions from either the military or scientific factions of the ship’s crew.
Allstrong of course knew all this, as he knew all fifty directives by heart. There was another directive that explicitly called for the safety of the crew and ship, but only under obvious and imminent danger – none of which currently existed. The perceived danger from stumbling across a dead planet would not be enough to tear these scientists away from Eridani-b. Regardless of how he felt, he now had to go against of his training, and worse yet, his gut instinct.
“Go ahead CAP,” said Lieutenant Gomez.
“Has the wider scan picked up anything?” asked Allstrong.
“Set the scan to run continuously and to alert us at the first indication of anything.”
“Anything as in—”
“Uh, aye captain.”
Allstrong faced the professor and his colleagues, “Professor Scheil, you may proceed with the science portion of the mission, but at the first sign danger, we’re outta here. Get it?”
The planet known as 82 Eridani-b strangely enough did have an atmosphere, albeit, a thin atmosphere, but one nonetheless. Full-spacesuits were not necessary – the atmospheric pressure was close to Earth’s along with gases of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and argon, although in much less abundance. The atmosphere was analogous to the air at the top of the Himalayas. The low oxygen meant the explorers would get dizzy very quickly on the surface. Their fingers and feet becoming numb as hearts pound thunderously in chests. The feeling of sleepiness and utter confusion would reign supreme as brains struggled to function on the very limited air. Every step taken would be extremely slow and plodding, requiring every ounce of will to continue. For these reasons alone they would wear lightweight rebreathers, advanced units carried on their hips like fanny-packs, which mostly recycled exhaled breaths.
To reach the planet’s surface they would use one of two identical landers provided for the mission, each powered by nuclear-fueled ramjets. Named after fictional ships in two of Arthur C. Clarke’s books, there was the Discovery One and the Magellan, and after a very short discussion the landing-team chose Discover One for obvious reasons. Once both landers were verified in working order, since procedure required both ships operational prior to any disembarkation, the landing-team boarded the Discovery One and exited through the shuttle-bay doors.
The harrowing atmospheric reentry followed by a surprisingly turbulent flight through thin atmosphere ended with the lander touching down about twenty meters from the alien object. The landing-team, consisting of the captain, Dr. Leach, Noma, and Mark, each confirmed their respective rebreathers were working, collected their respective equipment, and then followed the captain out to the planet’s surface.
Eridani-b’s surface was, as expected, rock hard and hot. The blazing, yellow-orange sun of 82 Eridani relentlessly shone on the greenish-brown surface, with only rolling hills and a small mountain as backdrop. But what really captivated everyone’s attention was the perfectly conic structure protruding from the imperfect rocky surface.
“You know,” said Allstrong, the moment everyone was on the surface, “no one’s ever gonna remember me stepping foot-first on this planet.”
The ironic yet comical tone to Allstrong’s statement was not lost on the others, but no one really cared to comment because of the obvious distraction looming bigger with each nearing step.
Reaching the structure, the two, young scientists quickly set-up their test equipment and began taking readings of all sorts. The captain and doctor in-turn assembled a very simple “command post” approximately three meters from the object, configured with table, tent, and additional communication, medical, and miscellaneous equipment.
Each team member wore a personnel medical and communications unit, or medi-comm for short. The medi-comms were worn in one ear and were about half the size of a hearing aid, the units were capable of taking medical readings such as heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature along with doubling as a communications medium for the wearer. By a simple tap of the unit in the ear, communication with everyone on land and in space was opened, with another tap the communication channel would close.
“COM, CAP,” said Allstrong, after tapping his right ear.
“Yes sir,” returned the slightly static voice of Callan from the Clarke’s bridge.
“Have you sent the surface landing message?”
“Aye captain, the moment you were boots on.”
“Has Gomez found anything with the scan?”
“Other than some comets on their way into and out of the system, nothing anomalous…or alien.”
“Alright, keep me posted. CAP out.”
Pressing his ear the captain glanced at the doctor and noticed a puzzled look on his face. Adjusting the rebreather around his waist, Allstrong said, “Something wrong, Doctor Leach?”
“Just strange,” said Leach, in his fatherly drawl, “I expected the radiation readings to be considerable but…” Leach shook his balding, comb-over head, “…I don’t get it, there’s no radiation.”
“If we believe what the scientists tell us,” said Allstrong, “then its been a long time.”
“But even so, I expected something above the normal levels. Maybe it’s just this area. I’ll ask the professor to scan the planet as they orbit. May I take the rover when I find a location, to verify?”
The term ‘rover’ was a by-gone word of another era for describing the vehicle Discovery One carried for on-surface, long distance trips. It was more like a stripped-down humvee than the ‘rover’ of early spaceflight.
“Sure doc,” replied the captain. “Just let me know when you do.”
Allstrong exited the command post straight into the blistering sun of 82 Eridani. Approaching Mark, who was hunkered at the foot of the conic anomaly, the captain could not help but wonder what this monolith represented. The object was a lusterless grey, ribbed with six parallel lines horizontally, and four lines vertically. The cone was seven stories tall and from what the young scientists told him earlier, there apparently was no door or entrance.
Mark stood from crouching over his equipment when he noticed the captain approach, “Everything okay?”
Hesitating for a moment, quickly deciding not to reveal what the good doctor had just mentioned, Allstrong answered, “Command post is in place, we’ll set out the tents later when it gets dark. And that should be when?”
“The planet has a twenty-two point three-four-five hour rotation and considering we landed at a lower latitude during the summer solstice, I’d say we’ve got a good four-and-half hours of light remaining.”
This kid’s been busy, Allstrong thought.
The captain looked down at his military-issue watch. It noted not only the date and time back on Earth, but the current time here, where he stood, on Eridani-b. The watch was an incredible piece of machinery; it had automatically configured its additional timecode to show the current time on this planet, given his location, the planet’s rotation, and the planet’s position along the orbit of its parent star. His watch read fifteen-hundred-oh-three.
“What do you make of this thing?” Allstrong asked. He touched the surface of the cone, rubbing it slightly with his hand. “It feels like graphite or something like it.”
“No idea what it is,” replied Mark. “It’s definitely something composite but what, I can’t tell. What I can say is that this darn thing is resistant to any and all sensors. X-rays won’t penetrate it, the nanos come back negative, I’ve even bounced ultrasound waves to no success.”
The towering structure was proving to be as enigmatic as its outer façade indicated. The captain found it remarkable how slightly rough to the touch the surface felt, but to scratch at it with a nail, the surface then seemed perfectly smooth.
Looking up idly, the captain said, “Is there a door or hatch, maybe higher up?”
“Noma’s around somewhere, looking. I’ve already checked the cone’s surface with sensors and found nothing.”
Noma was almost opposite from where the captain and Mark stood. Slowly she strolled along the base of the alien structure, touching it with her long, dark fingers, observing it with her large, mesmerizing eyes. Those same eyes, outlined naturally as long forgotten Egyptian queens, stared at the structure and marveled. Her hands and vision moved in concert sweeping the surface, her incredible mind pondered the reason for the structure. Why this shape? Why this planet? Why here at all? Suddenly, Noma sensed something electric, the jolt of an elbow bumped just the right way, not as sharp but longer lasting…This structure was meant for them, not for them as in the landing team, but them as in humans. It had waited here for so long, alone on this part of the planet. The children it had existed for finally arrived; one proven worthy and now granted access. Noma’s head began to spin as the electricity flowing through her subsided, once gone, she collapsed…A door then melted into existence standing over the fallen body of its human caller.
Allstrong and Mark had gone searching for the small-spoken woman when they found her standing rock-still with her hands and right cheek pressed into the side of the cone. One heartbeat later, she fainted and fell hard to the ground.
“Noma!” Mark cried.
They rushed to her finding her still breathing, but unconscious. The fall to the ground scraping parts of her body – arms, legs, and face.
“Noma,” continued Mark, “Noma! Wake up.”
Tapping his ear hard, the captain said, “Doctor Leach, I need you at the opposite side of the cone. Now!”
“On my way,” returned Leach.
“Hurry doctor,” called Mark, after tapping his ear as well.
“CAP, COM,” said Callan. “What’s going on?”
“Noma fainted,” said the captain, he then noticed the black maw on the structure. “What the heck…”
“Captain, vhat is vrong vid Noma?” said the professor, concern in his voice.
Dr. Leach arrived running and huffing, “Step aside gents, let me work.” He straightened Noma’s body on the ground, opened his medical kit, and quickly scanned her vitals from the medi-comm.
Mark stood, also noticing the gaping hole before them, “My god, it’s, it’s open.”
“Huh?” said Callan. “What’s open?”
“Noma, is she okay?” called the professor. “Someboty tell me if she’s okay.”
“How’d this happen?” said the captain, directed at Mark.
“I don’t know,” replied Mark defensively, “it wasn’t there earlier.”
“What wasn’t there?” Callan’s staticy-voice asked.
“Noma, tear, it’s de professor. Are you alright?”
“It’s black as all hell in there,” said Mark. “Captain, would you by chance have a flashlight?”
Callan replied for the captain, “A flashlight? For wha—”
“Gentlemen!” interrupted Leach. “Quiet, please.”
Several heartbeats of silence passed as the doctor worked on Noma. Gradually, the woman’s small-frame started to move while letting out a few moans of pain.
“Doctor Atuanya will be fine, professor,” said Dr. Leach, in a slightly condescending tone. “Something unbalanced her electrolytes. A quick shot of saline straightened her out. She’s got a bump on her head though, but she’ll be okay.”
“What happened?” said Noma softly, as the doctor and Mark helped her stand.
“You had your hands and head pressed against the cone,”’ said Mark, still holding her to make sure she was stable on her feet. “It looked like you were listening to something inside, then you just fell.”
Rubbing the scratches on the side of her face gingerly, Noma said, “That’s all I remember, the next thing I know, you’re all here.” Noticing the scratches on her arms, her face lit up alarmed.
“Don’t worry dear,” droned Leach, “they’re just scrapes, they’ll heal and leave no marks.”
“Oh, okay.” Noma still sounded vaguely dazed.
“Noma, it’s Max,” said the professor’s voice in everyone’s ear, but Dr. Atuanya’s.
“Hold on professor,” said Mark. He then gently pressed Noma’s medi-comm, “Go ahead.”
“Can you hear me, Noma?” said the professor.
“Yes sir,” replied Noma.
“Are you alright tear? Vhat happenet town dare?”
“I’m, I’m fine professor,” said Noma, rubbing her forehead.
“Captain,” interjected Callan, “I’ll reiterate what the professor asked. What happened down there? What’s this about ‘black as all hell’?”
“It’s exactly like Mark said,” answered Allstrong. “One moment Noma is standing, listening to the side of the cone, the next thing she fell. We rushed to her help and while waiting for Dr. Leach we noticed an opening in the cone.”
“De cone, it’s open?” the professor said, intrigued.
“More like a hole,” started Mark, who had been inspecting the opening without touching it. “It’s rectangular in shape, about two-and-a-half to three meters tall and about a meter wide. The edges along the opening appear smooth; it’s not like a door opened into the structure or slid out of the way, it’s more like it appeared or rather, the wall dissolved.”
“Vhat to you see?” the professor’s tone becoming more curious.
“Black as all hell,” interjected Allstrong. The captain walked right up to the opening, “It looks like a damned black hole to nowhere if you ask me.”
“I’ll go inside,” said Mark. “Does someone have a flashlight?”
“You can’t go in there,” returned Allstrong. “How do you know it’s safe? For all we know you’ll go in there and the thing will close up again.”
“Aww, geez,” said Mark, ignoring the captain, “I’ll have to go get one in the lander.” The young scientist combed his sandy-brown hair with his fingers, then excitedly said, “Oh wait, I’ve got one right here.” He unzipped a pouch on the left bicep of his jumpsuit and pulled out a shiny, chrome pen-light.
“Sorry doc, but the crew’s safety comes first,” said Allstrong. “We have no idea what will happen if you step in there. Bring your instruments here, take some readings, and report back what you find. Then we’ll talk about someone stepping inside.”
The captain and Mark began arguing the merits of entering the cone. The debate turned lively as an invisible urge grew in Noma’s mind. It was an urge that manifested itself into a physical tug, Noma slowly, discreetly, not really noticing it herself – stepped toward the cone, its opening.
It happened slowly, but faster than anyone could stop. Noma, who almost tripped over herself, who was almost caught by Mark and stopped by the captain – entered the cone.
“Noma!” yelled Mark, when the slight woman disappeared into the blackness.
“Dammit!” said the captain, motioning to follow.
Suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, the opening lit-up white and bright. From inside the cone, Noma’s voice called, “The pictures, they’re amazing.”
What Mark, the captain, and Dr. Leach had witnessed after quickly entering the cone was surprising. A circular room with glowing walls angled slightly in and a glowing ceiling only three meters above them, it was mostly empty except for a handful of statuettes lying randomly on what appeared was a white-marble floor. The “pictures” Noma had noticed covered the walls all around them, from one side of the opening to the other. The very first impression of what they encountered seemed anticlimactic, disappointing even, but upon closer inspection over the last couple of days that first impression changed to outright fascination.
The statuettes, three of them, were quickly identified by the Clarke’s computer as Venuses of Dolní Vĕstonice, Hohle Fels, and Willendorf. Each figurine was six to eleven centimeters in height and estimated to have been made between 30,000 and 10,000 BCE (Before the Common Era). Collectively, the statuettes each represented the female form in a somewhat exaggerated fashion – large breasts, wide hips and thighs, with practically no facial features. What made them remarkable was that they were tested and found made of the original materials, limestone and ceramic, and were carbon-dated 25,000 years old. The pictures which covered the circular wall were for all purposes cave paintings, also carbon-dated to 17,000 years in age. The paintings were those as found in the caves of Lascaux, France or Altamira, Spain – images in all shapes and forms which included bisons, horses, does, wild boars, and birds, in addition to several representations of felines, a single rhinoceros, and a human. Some of the animal drawings matched the same creature drawn back on Earth, while others such as the human, did not.
Debates raged on for days on what it meant to discover a cone filled with pre-historic human art twenty light-years from Earth. The debates also centered on a steadfast belief that there had to be more in this seven-story structure. But what? With the help of the captain and his executive officer, Mark searched for another opening, inside and out, which would lead to the next “floor” if it existed.
Meanwhile, with the professor who was still on the ship, Noma inspected the statuettes and studied the cave paintings. Even though she was a planetary astronomer, her father was an archeologist who specialized in the eras prior to the 17th and 18th centuries, unlike most of his contemporaries who specialized in the Victorian-age of the 19th century. As a child the young-Noma learned about pre-historic archeology at the knee of her father. Not surprisingly, the brilliant woman was able to decipher what the pictures meant. They simply depicted events from the pre-historic era of human history. The pictures visualized life on Earth upto 30,000 years ago – the constant struggle to survive and the chaos of the hunt. Once Noma verbalized this – another opening – this one inside and square, and located dead-center in the ceiling above them simply appeared.
The “second floor” of the cone was of course smaller in diameter, but otherwise identical to the “first floor” with glowing walls and ceiling. The real difference though was the contents – clay and stone tablets, curled papyrus, bronze vessels, and leather scrolls all on display on what were shelves protruding without seams from the inner wall. And what made it even more intriguing was the writing on each of these items – it was clearly alien.
Just like the statuettes and paintings were found original, both in material and age, the contents of this second floor were found the same. From the stone tables to the leather scrolls, the items were from the 1500 to 800 BCE of Earth.
While the captain and X-O on the cone’s second floor, taking readings and measurements as requested by Mark and Noma, the scientists, outside the cone, were hunkered over their respective test equipment and in communication with the professor still located in the Clarke’s Science Ring. The alien writings on the artifacts had been transmitted days earlier to the professor, who among other specialties was a linguist. The hope that aliens would be found was a long shot, but nonetheless prepared for when the final crew selections were made for this mission. It was one of the main reasons the grey-bearded Professor Max Schiel was the science team lead. His superior linguistic ability not only with the spoken word, but the written one as well, nodded the heads of the selection committee in his direction.
No one really expected live aliens would be found, but maybe the remnants of an alien presence and their writings would be, and as it turned out it did. Constant messages were transmitted back to Earth and were received after a one- to two-day delay. News of the cone’s discovery had overshadowed the crew’s accomplishment and news of what was found inside the cone had the home-planet abuzz. Just like the crew here at 82 Eridani-b, no one on Earth really knew what it all meant, but soon that would change.
The alien writing was akin to the mad scribbles of a three-year-old, seemingly chaotic and nonsensical. The professor at first tried to utilize the mission-supplied universal translator, but it was sorely not up-to-the-task. Realizing he would have to do it the hard way, he began the tedious task of translation – first identifying the equivalents and where possible the paraphrastic from the original text, then seeking the order of sememes (the word order) and eventually reinterpreting the actual grammatical structure. Everyone had seen the language and no one expected it to be deciphered, but the professor surprised everyone when he did.
“Toctor Rogan, Toctor Atuanya!” called the staticky and breathless voice of the professor.
“What’s that professor?” said Mark.
“Yes sir?” said Noma, both of them speaking together.
“I’fe tecipheret de alien vritings!” The professor sounded more like a grad student than a science lead.
“That’s great sir,” said the tall and lean Mark. “I’ll be honest with ya, I didn’t think we’d be able to figure out that alien chicken scratch.”
“Acdually,” returned the professor, “de vritings vere not dat sophisticatet. De ferb unt noun pairings, de conjugation, it’s all at a secont or dirt grate level.”
“The aliens,” said Noma thoughtfully, “whoever or whatever they are, they wanted us to decipher their language.”
“Exactly vhat I dought my tear,” said the professor. “But de vritings un vun of de scrolls, de last sentence, it has me confuset.”
“Send it down to us, let us take a look,” said Mark.
The transmission of the deciphered writings finished before Mark and Noma pulled out their quantum-tablet computers.
Noma read the deciphered messages aloud including the partially completed one from a leather scroll. These messages were simple descriptions of events related to the times of the artifact – Phoenicians becoming the predominant trading power in the Mediterranean, the foundation of the city of Corinth, to documenting the beginnings of Hebrew literature and the advancements in China of arithmetic and geometry. The leather scrolls in particular acknowledged events such as the royal palace at Nineveh rebuilt, and the conquest of Corinth by the Dorians. The one scroll in question documented something about translations, but the wording was different than that found on the other artifacts. Noma rolled the wording, the sentences, in her mind.
“Oh, professor, the last sentence on the scroll,” said Noma, “it’s describing the translations of Babylonia texts in Aramic and Greek. This represented a link between the early clay tablets and Greek papyrus.” She looked at Mark, who looked dumfounded, then added, “I guess that ties a nice bow on these things.”
The professor groused under his breath, then he said, “You’re right. I ton’t knov hov I misset dat but it’s dere. Goot job young laty.”
Before the scientists could answer, the captain interjected from inside the cone, “Well Noma, you did it again, the third floor awaits you doctor. I think this cone seems to like you.”
Events moved fast once the cone’s third floor became accessible to the Clarke’s deep-space voyagers. It became immediately obvious the cone was essentially a library, a store of human history documented in the same media of the history’s era. Once the professor and his young scientists understood what was being kept inside, it was a simple matter of deciphering the alien language stored on the varying objects. They also discovered that while all of the alien text had to be translated, to gain access to the next floor only required the out-loud reading of the last several sentences from each artifact – with Noma as the reader. The only catch though was the increasing difficulty of the language as they moved up floors of the cone.
What also helped things move faster along was the use of Gomez and Hagtham by the scientists. With Callan back on the ship keeping an eye on all systems, and the professor remaining on the Clarke as well, the two lower-ranked officers arrived boots-on ordered to support Mark and Noma. Mark directed Hagtham to picture and transmit detailed information on the artifacts found on the third and subsequent floors, while Noma asked Gomez to help her and the professor in deciphering the alien language. The arrangement worked out quite well, Hagtham was very organized and precise in performing tasks, meanwhile, Gomez showed an affinity to morphology and semantics. So much so, it led the professor to comment favorably about it.
“You shoult come to de unifersity and stuty deoretical linguistics. Ve hafe an excellent program.”
After looking at Noma and smiling, Gomez replied, “Nah, I’m more of a guns and rockets type-of-girl. But thanks for the offer.”
Floors three, four, and five accounted for almost 3000 years of human history. Starting on the third floor, the date ranged from 800 to 200 BCE covering events from Homer referring to highly developed battlefield surgery and the use of water clocks in Assyria, to the birth of Alexander the Great in Macedon and the sun temple Atetello built at Teotihuacan, Mexico. On this floor more tablets in clay where found along with papyrus and scrolls, but these were of better quality when compared to the same items on the floor below. The fourth floor covered 1300 years of history beginning at 200 BCE and ending at 1110 CE (Common Era.) This floor documented the first true engineering achievements such as the first stone bridge, Pons Aemilius, in Rome, the use of gears leading to ox-driven irrigation, and the Basilican Church of St. Peter’s also erected in Rome. All of these events were strictly written on paper, most of it loose-leaf, but some of the more recent events were with paper poorly bound into book form. As with all of the artifacts, the paper was dated to up to 1300 years in age making it very brittle and easy to tear – much to the surprise of Hagtham and the chagrin of the professor. On the fifth floor, events only covered the 1100 CE to 1900 CE range. The Crusades were well documented along with Marco Polo’s journeys into China, the invention of the thermometer by Galileo Galilei, and the printing of the Bible in the old America. Paper, solely this time, filled the fifth floor. Mostly bound in book form and in much better condition than on the previous floor, it was startling to see – and feel – the difference in paper quality over the course of 800 years.
While on the fifth floor, Noma leisurely read from the texts deciphered so far whereas Gomez worked with the professor. Gomez had just finished asking the professor to ‘Hold on,’ then pressed her medi-comm and motioned for Noma to do the same.
Noma turned off her unit then Gomez said, “You know, this work would be easier if he were down here. Why hasn’t he come planet-side?”
Mark, who was also on the floor working with Hagtham, exchanged knowing glances with Noma.
The mostly quiet scientist shrugged uncomfortably and said, “He…works better…with the equipment on the ship.”
“Uh-huh,” replied Gomez, not buying the answer.
“No, really,” said Mark softly, after turning off his medi-comm and walking away from Hagtham, “it’d be a pain for him down here anyway.”
“Oh, Mark,” said Noma, an anxious look to her face. She then turned to address Gomez, “The fact is the professor’s afraid of flying, and never mind the takeoff and reentry.”
“Noma!” Mark cried. “We swore to him.”
“I’m tired of keeping his secret,” said Noma. “The captain has voiced the same question lately and it’s made me uncomfortable. No more.”
“How the heck did he ever get picked for this mission?” asked Gomez, her brown eyes looked even more defiant than usual.
“Flight experience wasn’t one of the determining factors for us science geeks,” replied Mark. “He took a sedative leaving Earth, remember how much he slept the first twenty-four hours, while we were still in orbit?”
“Nah, too busy working,” said Gomez.
“Leti? Are you dere?” said the professor’s voice.
Quickly, everyone pressed their ears.
“Right here, doc,” said Gomez, smiling. She looked at Mark and Noma, whose faces said ‘Don’t say a word’ and continued, “We must have lost communication, looks like we’re connected once again.” The faces on the scientists eased, but then she added, “You need to come down here, and soon.”
“Efentually my tear, efentually,” the professor replied. He then added, “Tell me vhat you dink about dis last translation.”
As the message appeared on Gomez’s quantum-tablet, she smiled and mouthed ‘he's smooth’ at the two scientists then said, “Got it. Gimme a sec.”
“Okay…fery goot,” returned the professor. This time he sounded distracted.
With Mark returning to work alongside Hagtham, and Noma about to continue reading random passages from deciphered books, Gomez read aloud what was the last translation of the fifth floor.
“In 1512, Copernicus wrote that the Earth and other planets turn around the Sun? Is that what the entry says?”
“Whoa! What the heck!” blurted Hagtham, his lanky body stepping back, startled. “Is that—”
“The opening to the sixth floor,” interrupted Mark dryly. “Well whaddaya know? The cone likes Gomez too.”
The women turned to see Mark and Hagtham standing beside the hole of the fifth floor looking up at the ceiling and at the one-meter-by-one-meter hole leading to the sixth.
“Did I do that?” said Gomez, surprised.
“And I thought Noma was the only one connected to this cone,” said Mark. “I guess anybody can read the translations.”
Noma had approached the opening, in a slightly disappointed tone she said, “Sure looks that way.”
The captain’s voice from the lander came in over everyone’s medi-comms, “Sounds like the sixth floor is open, right?”
“Aye captain,” answered Hagtham.
“I’m on my way.”
Noma, now looking dejected said, “Leti, I think you should enter the sixth floor. Mark, please get her the ladder.”
“You betcha,” said Mark, as Hagtham helped him lift the extension ladder from the fourth floor. To no one in particular he added, “We need to build more ladders and be done with it.”
Not knowing what would be needed, mission planners stored much on the Clarke. From miscellaneous tools, to medicines, entertainment in the form of movies, to plants – scores of items were included in the cargo. In many cases these items included materials which could be used in the fabrication of all sorts of objects. As it turned out, ladders in various forms had been created to move from floor-to-floor. So far, one of the two extension ladders provided as part of the original cargo was used to get from the first to the second floor. The other was just moved into the fifth floor. Rope ladders and makeshift wood and metal versions were used for the floors in-between.
Gomez slowly treaded up the ladder stopping short of poking her head into the opening. After inspecting it for a moment she climbed up some more, this time stopping two rungs short of the top. The lights to the sixth floor turned on revealing its contents to the dark-haired lieutenant.
“Look at that,” said Gomez, as she quickly took the last steps and disappeared.
“What is it?” asked Mark.
“You guys need to come up here.”
What they discovered was media from the dawn of the twentieth century through present time, from paper well-bound into books to quantum disks. The room, obviously smaller in diameter, was just big enough to hold six adults and still have a little space to move around. Gomez, still wearing her clean-room gloves, handled one of the many quantum disks on the shelf circling the room. Wiping it before the screen of her tablet, the trillions upon trillions of bytes stored on the three centimeter silver disk uploaded faster than the blink of a human’s eye.
Satisfied with what she saw, Gomez said, “Not only does it work, it’s filled to the hilt in their language.”
“And why wouldn’t it work?” said Mark, taking the q-disk from Gomez. “It looks as though they bought it at the local supermart.”
“Do you see how many there are?” said Gomez. “We’re gonna need a program to decipher this stuff.”
“Hey! A little help please!” It was the captain on the fourth floor.
Mark and Hagtham had helped the captain; the group then quickly briefed him on what they knew. The captain had come alone, leaving Dr. Leach at the command post, which had been moved weeks ago to just outside the opening of the cone. Once briefed, they gave the captain some room to look at the artifacts.
“I recognize some of these things,” intoned Hagtham, as he weaved his way around the others in the room, “like this mole-drive and holo-plate. But what the heck is this?” He held up a large rectangular and thick piece of plastic.
“That Navin is an eight-track tape,” said Allstrong, his eyes beamed like someone who had just found lost treasure. “Ooo, and this” – he grabbed a smaller, thinner rectangular piece – “is a cassette. These were popular in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. At least that’s what I remember being told.”
“Uh, Captain Allstrong,” said Mark, looking down at his tablet, “the ship’s computer says these things were more prevalent during the mid-part of the twentieth century. Then other media like the compact disk and it says here, a flash drive, were the ones that followed.”
“Okay, so my dates are wrong,” said Allstrong glibly. “It was my great-grandfather that had some of these. They normally contained music, and I definitely remember it was really bad music.”
Everyone looked about the room idly, knowing what had to happen next – the deciphering of an obscure alien language on all the media that filled the circular shelf. But something else had become obvious to everyone in the cramped room.
“If this floor contains human history to present day,” said Mark, glancing upwards, “then what’s waiting for us up there.”
The answer came quickly.
“The future,” said Noma calmly. “The real question is do we really want to know?”
The professor’s voice from the Clarke interrupted any answer, “Mark, Noma, check your tablets, I just transmittet you images.”
“What are we looking at?” returned Mark.
“Dese are pictures of de surface,” said the professor, “after de captain grantet polar orbits of Eritani-b. De anomalies are north unt vest from your current location.”
There were three sites, each appeared as though landings had taken place and the nearest one looked like some construction had occurred as well.
“What do you make of it?” said the captain.
“No itea. Dat’s vhy I vant Mark unt Noma to go, take a closer look.”
Mark as well had no idea what the anomalies were. He glanced at Noma and noticed her face in deep contemplation.
“Noma, do you see something?”
The eyes of the astronomer squinted, after a two heartbeats she said, “No, nothing, I think.” She shook her head and added, “Professor, but what about the translations…” Noma trailed off.
“If de captain vill grant use of de lander, Miz Gomez, Mister Hagdam, unt I vill continue. Ve just learnet you ton’t necessarily hafe to to de reatings.”
It was obvious to everyone Noma was disappointed. To learn her earlier experience, which caused the cone to open, was simply dumb-luck bothered her. She had actually believed she was connected to this alien object. Since Gomez (and anyone else for that matter) was able to read the deciphered alien language and produce the same result as Noma herself, there was no point in staying behind. The professor’s request and logic were clear.
“Very well, sir,” said Noma softly, “we’ll be on our way.”
Quickly, Mark tried to liven the mood, “So captain, are we good to use Discovery One?”
“You’re the one with the flight experience, I take it?” asked the captain.
“Be careful with it, please. I want to return to Earth not having used the other one.”
Mark and Noma were on their approach to the last of the three anomalous locations. After collecting some test and sensing equipment, along with water and provisions for meals, they had decided to travel to the farthest location first, and then make their way back from there…
The farthest location, the northernmost, was almost seventeen hundred kilometers from the cone. Here they were shocked to find what appeared to be the remnant or rather the foundation of another cone. It also appeared from the ground indentations, and the strange wheel and drag marks, there had been a landing party. Carbon dating told them the ground marks occurred almost five thousand years ago, at about the time 82 Eridani-b became a big ball of trinitite. They followed up their long day of investigation with a night spent in the lander, but this was only after they reported their findings to the professor. It was at this time they discovered communications with the Clarke were unexpectedly spotty at times.
The next morning they traveled over a thousand kilometers to the next location. Like the day before, they found what obviously presented itself as the foundation to another cone and the undeniable signs of another landing party. The signs however were distinctly different than the previous site – from the wheel markings and drag marks to even the shape of ground indentations. What was also different was the dating to when these occurred – only twenty-five hundred years ago.
“What do you think this means?” asked Mark, not really expecting an answer. “Four cones on a dead planet…I wonder what those other races were.” He trailed off sleepily.
After a long pause, Noma turned her back to Mark then softly said, “I think there’s something there, but I can’t put my finger on it.”
…Mark pitched the lander’s nose farther down and circled to find the best spot to land, Noma, who had been inspecting the space-born images of the sites, suddenly cried out startling Mark.
“Oh my—I can’t believe it! They’re stars, Mark, they’re stars!”
Mark steadied himself then quickly landed the ship. Turning off the unessential systems and after safing the lander, he said, “Geez, you scared the hell out me. What’s this about stars?”
“This location and the other two,” started Noma excitedly, “along with where our cone is, they match up to stars in the local neighborhood.” She passed her q-tablet to Mark.
What it depicted was an image that included the anomalous sites and the location of their cone with a superimposed star map of the local, fifty-light-year neighborhood. Inspecting the image he noticed scribbles in Noma’s handwriting, along with annotations and circles she had made throughout.
“Last night, when you asked what this was all about,” continued Noma, “I thought I knew. When I first saw the pictures the professor transmitted to us I thought they looked familiar. It wasn’t until this morning—”
“Hold on,” said Mark, slightly irritated. “How do you know this isn’t coincidental? I mean, I could probably find a bunch of stars to line up like this.”
“Yeah you could,” said Noma, smiling, “that’s what I was about to say. It wasn’t until this morning I ran some calcs to prove just that to myself.” She tapped the q-tablet in his hand and added, “The math’s all there, take a look.”
Mark took one look at her handwriting and said, “Aw, just tell me.”
“Once I realized these four locations matched up with the stars shown, I just did a little algebra. The distance from our cone’s location to where we are now is five hundred fifty kilometers. This location matches up to Sirius on the star map which is eight-point-six light-years from Earth, right? Divide the five-fifty by eight-point-six and you roughly get sixty-four kilometers per light-year, actually the ratio is sixty-four-point-zero-four-five.”
“Okay…so,” said Mark, not sure where she was going with this.
“You get the same ratio between this location and the previous ones we were at, and between those two as well.”
Mark blinked, “Coincidence.”
“I thought the same thing, just dumb-coincidence. But guess what? Do you remember what’s Eridani-b’s diameter? Hmm? Almost sixty-four hundred kilometers!”
The geophysicist looked down at the q-tablet in his hand. He noticed the northernmost site matched directly under 1 Orionis while yesterday’s site coincided with 40 Eridani. And just like Noma mentioned, where they were at today, matched to Sirius on the map with their cone’s location the same as Sol, Earth. Given what he had in his hands and what she just told him, the coincidence seemed less and less likely, but still unbelievable.
Mark could tell by the gleam in her eyes she knew more. He nodded so Noma could continue.
“Do you remember what we measured as the planet’s depth? We found it roughly at three thousand, one hundred thirty eight kilometers.” She let that marinate for a moment. “Mark, I think I know the planet of the cone builders. If you take the depth and divide it by my ratio then you roughly get forty-nine. If you consider that number in light-years it points to one star, Nu Phoenicis, a main sequence dwarf.”
Mark’s head was spinning from all the information. He needed to order everything to digest it, understand what she was telling him.
“Hold on, first the stars,” said Mark, handing back the q-tablet. “Are there habitable planets around them?”
“We’re not sure,” said Noma, looking at her tablet. “We’ve got a lot of long range data but nothing local. The astronomic community has focused on other planets in the local neighborhood as first tier candidates. Sirius and 40 Eridani are in the second tier, while 1 Orionis is a third tier.”
“What’s in the long range data?” said Mark, motioning for his tablet.
“Each star has what we think is one habitable, but we thought the same thing about this rock. And the more I look at the data of those planets, compare it to Eridani-b, the more I see some eerie similarities.”
“You’re saying…those stars have planets…”
Finishing for him, she said, “Just like this one. A light atmosphere, a big ball of rock, for all we know they’re made of trinitite as well.”
The hair on the back of Mark’s head prickled. From the evidence, for each cone that previously existed, a dead-planet was potentially present at the respective star.
They began to investigate the area around this cone’s location. Like all the others, what remained was a massive circular foundation and the signs of a landing party. But what had looked like construction from space was actually a small structure. Made of materials familiar to them and dated to the same timeframe as the rest of the site, just about a thousand years ago, the structure was roughly one meter by two meters rectangular, at waist height, and grey in color. It appeared to be embedded into the ground rather than sitting atop a foundation, and unlike the cone, it clearly showed the signs of age.
“What do you make of this?” asked Mark.
Noma shrugged as they approached it.
Mere steps from the small, rectangular box – it began to vibrate. Dust and particles jittered on its lid, fell from the sides. The box looked like it was about to fall apart when a scratchy and broken hologram emerged from the top. It projected what for all practical purposes was an alien figure – though it had a bipedal stance and a human-like form, it was certainly not homosapien. The alien had insect-like qualities – four appendages, two on each side of its wide body, and what looked like thin, transparent wings wider than its shoulders. The twitching bug-head was large for its body with creepy, compound eyes glistening in the recorded sunlight. When it spoke, it sounded like a series of loud kisses and high-pitched clicks.
“Oh no, I forgot to turn on my recorder,” said Noma, frantically tapping commands into her q-tablet.
“Don’t worry, I got it,” returned Mark quickly. “I’ll transfer it to you when it’s done.” He then held his tablet up closer to the image.
The deciphering of human history written in a confusing, alien language was, surprisingly, coming along faster than expected. Unlike the change in the alien’s language, in both form and dialect from floor-to-floor, from the fifth to the sixth level there was hardly any variation. This allowed the professor to work with his star pupil, Lt. Gomez, and move through the history stored on this floor relatively quick. With a little effort, they were able to build a device capable of reading the archaic forms of media such as the magnetic platters, and those eight-track tapes the captain fancied. The only problem though was the quantity of data stored on each of the different media, and as expected, the more contemporary forms of electronic memory stored a vast amount of history. On the other hand, the only saving grace was the history’s electronic format – it lent itself quite well to being deciphered in whole through the use of a translation program written by the professor.
Starting with the last of the books, the history documented on this floor began at the turn of the twentieth century with the invention of the typewriter, the San Francisco earthquake, and then went downhill from there. Much to their surprise they found the accounts, in gory detail, of the twentieth century’s two World Wars. The trend continued on this and other media with the skirmishes throughout the remainder of that century, and to a lesser extent, with the two that followed.
“Hey, prof,” called Gomez over her medi-comm, “I wonder what the aliens think of us after documenting all this.” And by all ‘this’ the lieutenant was referencing some of the atrocities committed by man against himself. In particular, she had just finished reading aloud a few passages about the Holocaust. “This is just awful.”
“Terrible, inteet,” returned the professor, from the ship. “Hart to beliefe, ve’fe come dis far as a race, unt still are capable of toing dis to vun anoder.”
“Whoever these aliens are that put this here,” said Gomez, “looks like they’ve got a morbid fascination with our less shining moments. Why the focus on this stuff?”
The professor wondered about the same thing, he then called to Gomez, “Vhat remains to finish de floor?”
Gomez looked around at the shelf before her, “Ah, just a couple of more q-disks and were done.”
“Goot. Send up de contents of de next vun.
Unlike the language of the cone-builders, the idiom used by the insect-aliens was straightforward and simple. Using the universal translator on their q-tablets, Mark and Noma were readily able to decipher the chirping and clicking language. Now, sitting quietly in stunned silence inside the lander, the two scientists tried to digest what the message from these bug-like creatures had just told them.
It was a warning, and it was staggering…
Without any pleasantries or introductions, the insect-alien verified it was the indigenous race of Sirius-d and that their race was attracted to the 82 Eridani system for the same reasons as humans – the hope of finding alien life. But when they arrived they found the planet in its current trinitite state, and just like the Clarke’s crew, they discovered a strange conic anomaly on the surface, at this very site. Similarly, they were able to gain access and find history of their race documented from their prehistoric past to present. And just like the cone Mark and Noma left behind – the insect-alien’s cone held a seventh floor. When the aliens realized the final level held what had to be the promise of bestowing future events, they feverishly worked at translating the history. Only after deciphering the last message did the most unexpected happen. The last message simply described their landing team translating the last message. The moment this transcription was read aloud, two horrible events occurred. The cone, and everyone who was in it, simply vanished – leaving behind only the base. This was lesser of the two events.
Quickly the insect-aliens contacted their homeworld, to let them know the shocking turn of events. No reply. After repeated tries to contact someone, anyone back at Sirius-d, still, no reply. Eventually they heard from one of the outlying planets of the Sirius system, where the insect-aliens had small outposts for military and research purposes. The reply received was beyond belief – the homeworld and all ten billion inhabitants – scorched. One of the outposts actually recorded what had happened.
From what the insect-aliens could piece together, at some short time after the last passage of their sixth floor was read aloud, the homestar, Sirius, ejected a solar flare. Not an ordinary thousand kilometer flare, but one that was millions-upon-millions kilometers in length and was millions of kilometers wide. The flare erupted for what was fifteen Earth hours and was aimed straight on Sirius-d. Their homeworld had become a burnt sphere of molten rock, which still glowed from the last images they had received.
It was only after all these events had occurred that the insect-aliens discovered the other two cones and deduced there were probably more hidden in-wait for other races. Although distraught, they decided to return to the Sirius system, but not before leaving the warning message Mark and Noma had just witnessed. Again, with no pleasantries and looking as demoralized as a bug could look, the insect-alien signed off.
…Mark moved into action. Quickly he initialized the lander’s systems.
Coming out of her revelry, Noma said, “We need to contact the captain, or the ship.”
“I’m on it,” said Mark firmly, “but I can’t get a good signal.”
Noma realized what it might be, she checked her tablet, “We’re getting some electro-magnetic interference, it’s from the cone’s base. You’ll need to move the lander, it looks like…wow, it extends out thirty or so kilometers.”
“No time for that,” returned Mark, starting to buckle up. “We’re heading back right now.”
“It’ll take a couple of hours to fly back, why not just—”
“We’re not flying back, we’re going ballistic, now strap in.”
“Ballistic? Can this thing do that?”
“We’re gonna find out, hold tight.”
Seconds later the Discovery One did not lift off the ground – it blasted off – screeching into the cloudless sky. The lander accelerated faster, pressing the bodies of the scientists almost painfully into their seats. Just moments into the breakneck climb, Mark struggled turning his head to check on Noma.
“Breath!” he strained, at the woman’s blood-drained face.
In mere seconds they were five hundred kilometers above the surface, clearly in space, and about to reach the apex of their climb.
Mark’s eyes shifted rapidly looking out the forward facing windows.
“There it is!” he said. Madly tapping commands into the ship’s computer, angrily he added, “Dammit! I forgot to retract the high-gain.”
Noma noticed what Mark had seen. It was a bright star, just about to disappear behind Eridani-b, the Clarke.
“Why not just head to the ship?”
“Can’t,” replied Mark. “I’m not that good of a pilot. This whole episode’s been programmed in, we’re stuck.”
“What about the low-gain antenna?”
“Already tried.” He felt weight returning to his body. The ship had started its decent. “Here we go, don’t forget to breath.”
Outside the cone, Captain Allstrong, Dr. Leach, and Lt. Hagtham were underneath the command post’s tent. They just recently finished building one more ladder, to get from the fourth to the fifth level, replacing the extension ladder that had been moved up to the fifth floor. Deciding to leave the last one needed to get to the seventh level for later, each man turned his attention elsewhere. The captain had crouched in front of a large toolbox on the ground, he fiddled with it not really looking for anything in particular, mostly he was distracted over the latest communiqué from Earth. The doctor meanwhile sat on a chair, feet up on the corner of the table, reading a book from his tablet. Hagtham, quite the opposite, continued to work. The junior-grade lieutenant was checking his notes against the bagged and tagged items that were so far taken out of the cone.
The last message from Earth was slightly unnerving for the captain. It was the first transmission received from the homeworld encrypted, and solely for his eyes. No one else from the crew, not even the X-O, knew the contents of this message. It specifically responded to his last transmission about what the science team believed were the contents of the cone’s top-level. The sponsors of this mission, primarily the political leaders and their military, had given the first orders outside the mission’s objectives. The message plainly stated:
MESSAGE START – Proceed with unlocking cone’s seventh level. Only crewmember authorized to view contents, Captain Allstrong. Detailed report summarizing contents must follow within twenty-four hours of access.
But it was the last part that disturbed him most:
If necessary, confine science team to quarters - MESSAGE END.
The captain had subsequently told Lt. Gomez and the professor to notify him before the last passage of alien text was translated. At that time he would notify everyone of the orders, and, most certainly, alienate the science team. Captain Allstrong had grown fond of the scientists, beginning all the way back from when they left Earth. The draconian response from Earth, he feared, would not sit well with that inquisitive-minded group. This would certainly cause a potentially irreparable and uncomfortable rift for the duration of the mission. The captain continued to fiddle with the toolbox, as though he looked for something to help him deal with the upcoming predicament.
Hagtham sighed inwardly while persisting with his task. The junior-grade lieutenant realized he still had two floors to go through, up four flights of makeshift steps. Suddenly, a high-pitched sound entered his ears distracting him. Lifting his head, focusing to hear if it was really there, Hagtham realized it was getting louder.
“Captain, do you hear that?”
“What’s that Navin?” returned the captain idly.
“The whine, don’t you hear it?”
From his crouched position Allstrong lifted his head, smirked and said, “That’s too much loud music from your youth.”
“No, no sir,” replied Hagtham. The lieutenant walked out from the tent’s shade into the blistering, noon-high sunlight, looking up he added, “It sounds like an in-coming.”
“Is there something wrong, sir?” said Dr. Leach, raising his head.
The captain waived the doctor off as he stood, he then followed Hagtham from underneath the tent. Allstrong was beginning to hear the whine as well. Once in the sunlight he was certain of it, and it did sound like an in-coming.
“There!” cried Hagtham, whipping a straight arm with a pointed finger skyward.
Allstrong saw it – a small point in the sunlit sky, falling very fast. In two steps, Allstrong went back under the tent and after a couple of heartbeats and two steps later, returned with digital binocs in hand. Hagtham helped the captain find the falling object; Allstrong was shocked at what he saw.
“It’s the lander,” said the captain. Then in a slightly excited tone, “The landing gear’s still out. I told him…” – Allstrong angrily tapped his ear – “Discovery One, CAP…Doctor Rogan, it’s the captain. Are you there Doctor Rogan? Dammit!”
From the Clarke, Lt. Cmdr. Callan said, “CAP, COM. Is there something wrong captain?”
Allstrong pursed his lips, then answered, “Looks like our young scientists are returning from their field trip. He’s now coming in for a landing.”
“Sir,” interjected Hagtham, “he’s coming in too hot. There’s no way he’s landing on that trajectory.”
“Rogan, you there?” said the captain loudly. “Doctor Atuanya? Dammit!”
A kilometer from the surface, the ground-facing lander was instantly covered by emergency landing bags. These were essentially airbags composed of fabric with the tensile strength of titanium. Seconds later the gigantic, bumpy ball hit the ground with a loud POOMF! Back into the sky the ball rose, almost straight up. Three hundred meters from the ground it appeared to reach its top height when the airbags ejected. The Discovery One was on its ‘side.’ The lander’s port faced the ground with the forward facing windows pointing away from the observers beside the tent. The ramjets then roared to life causing the lander to wobble wildly for what had to be a few terrifying moments for the passengers. Once under control, the Discovery One righted itself, made two, tight circles, and finally came in for what was going to be a rough landing. The forward landing gear, a slick pad capable of gliding on most surfaces, appeared bent.
Trying his best, Mark brought the lander down as smooth as possible. Indicators inside the ship blared loudly indicating a problem with the forward pad. The only choice he had was too…
…Dig the forward gear far enough into the ground to keep stable, but it was also enough to buckle from the lander’s weight. Leaving a rut almost as wide as the lander, the Discovery One came to rest after a sixty-meter long scrape.
“Good lord,” said Dr. Leach, joining the captain and Hagtham. “What happened?”
“Doctor,” said the captain, starting to run, “meet me at the lander!”
With Hagtham in close pursuit of Allstrong, the doctor turned to retrieve his emergency medical kit.
The captain reached the crash-landed spacecraft just as the port side hatch opened. Out came an apparently uninjured, but determined-faced Mark, with a haggard but otherwise unharmed Noma carrying her q-tablet. She followed Mark out the hatch onto the lander’s wing then down the retractable steps leading to the surface.
“Doctor Rogan,” began an angry captain, as the two scientists reached the ground, “what’s with the hell-bent return? I thought I told you to be careful with the lander.” Keeping his fiery eyes on the scientist, he waved one arm irritably at the lander and added, “Look at this!”
Ignoring the reprimand, Mark took an account at who had met them – it was the captain, Hagtham, and a jogging Dr. Leach approaching. Hurriedly he said, “Where’s Lieutenant Gomez?”
Moments earlier, Lt. Gomez had turned off her medi-comm. She had told the professor she would get back to him momentarily – the chatter between the captain and the others was distracting her. She needed to focus because they had reached the last passage needing deciphering.
Most of the text on the sixth floor was translated by a program the professor had quickly created, specifically designed for the cone-builder’s language. But some of it, those more difficult passages, Gomez translated from what she had learned from the professor. This last passage was possibly the most difficult of any she had encountered. The professor’s program was unable to make a coherent sentence from it, and while he tweaked his program, she put her determined mind to it.
Looking at it again on her tablet, sitting cross-legged on the floor – it came to her. It was strange, but Lt. Gomez thought she had it. A peculiar sentence indeed, of this very moment, actually identifying her by name as the translator of the final sentence. It was exciting and spine-chillingly creepy, all-in-one.
She pressed her medi-comm to call the professor and was about to read the translation out loud when, off in the distance, she thought she heard her named called.
“Lieutenant Gomez! Lieutenant Gomez!”
She thought she also heard the telltale sounds of feet and hands coming up the makeshift steps, it sounded rushed. As the sounds neared, she stood, then watched Dr. Rogan’s head peer up into the floor. Quickly he entered, followed by Noma, the captain, the doctor, and Hagtham. Everyone was sweating and breathing heavily.
“Lieutenant,” started Mark breathlessly, “have you or the professor translated the last sentence?”
“Yeah, I have,” answered Gomez. “Do you want to hear it?”
“No!” replied Mark and Noma.
“Doctor Rogan,” said the captain, “what the hell is going on?”
“Look, captain,” returned Mark, “I’m terribly sorry about the lander, but we had to get back as fast as we could. If the lieutenant reads that last passage out loud, it’ll be disastrous.”
The captain looked from a confused Gomez, to a somber Noma, and finally, a pleading-faced Mark. He said, “Well, I sure have a problem here.” He pivoted to look at Hagtham and the doctor, then turned back and added, “I’m sorry, but I have strict orders to have that message read, privately.”
“What?” said Noma, her eyebrows pinched.
“It means, the lieutenant will provide me the translation, everyone will leave the cone, and if I have to, confine you to ship’s quarters.”
“Sir,” said Gomez, handing her q-tablet to the captain, “here you go.”
The moment Allstrong took possession, Mark grabbed the captain by the wrist. Tense seconds passed while the captain and Mark remained frozen in their stances.
Hagtham motioned to the captain’s side but was stopped when Allstrong raised his other arm.
“Doctor Rogan, may I ask you to please let go of my arm?”
“You can’t read what’s on that tablet,” returned Mark gravely. “The fate of everyone on Earth depends that you don’t.”
“Doctor Rogan, you’re young and fit, but I’ve got a few pounds on you and I’m pretty strong. If you don’t want me to break your arm, you’ll let go of me right now.”
Two heartbeats ensued…Mark finally released Allstrong, “Please captain, don’t read it.”
Calmly sizing the scientist, he said, “Mister Hagtham, please escort Doctor Rogan to the ship. Have Mister Callan bring down the Magellan while we work on Discovery One.”
“Aye sir,” said Hagtham, reaching for a shocked Mark. In disbelief, the scientist was directed toward the sixth floor’s entry.
“You’re making a big mistake,” said Mark. “You’re risking your own life as well.”
Allstrong looked at the q-tablet and read the final passage to himself. He chuckled and looked at the lieutenant.
Gomez shrugged and smiled back, “What can I say?”
“Alright, everybody follow Mister Hagtham and Doctor Rogan out of the cone. I have to do this alone. Oh, and Gomez?”
“Does the professor know this translation?”
“Unless his program’s done it, no.”
“When you return to the ship, find out if he has. If so, confine him to quarters. And one other thing, speak to no one about this.”
“Copy that sir.”
While the captain and lieutenant exchanged words, Noma frantically thought about what she could say to change the captain’s mind. She had to stop him, but how?
Suddenly, Hagtham had his hands full with a balking Mark. The young scientist began to argue and resist his removal, desiring to reason or talk some sense into the captain. With everyone’s focus on the commotion, Noma looked about the room urgently. It was then that it came her.
“Wait, please,” she said, her eyes were desperate.
Mark stopped and then everyone’s attention turned.
“Oh not you now,” said Allstrong dismissively.
“No, really. There’s this recording. I have it here on my tablet.”
The captain was about to order Gomez to forcibly remove—
“Recording? What recording?”
Sheepishly, Noma raised her table and said, “Here, take a look.”
Hours later, at their local equivalent to late-night back on Earth, the captain assembled a meeting with the science team to discuss everything he had seen and learned. In the lab of the ship’s Science Ring, Allstrong sat at one head of a table opposite the professor, with Mark and Noma adjacent to them, facing each other. Everyone had a q-tablet on the table, except Noma was already holding hers. Also on the ship was Lt. Gomez, she had been ordered to the bridge and now babysat the Clarke’s automated systems with the good doctor keeping her company. On the planet’s surface were Hagtham and Callan. The junior Lt. had continued his cataloging duties while the X-O was ordered to “guard” the cone…
“What am I guarding against?” Callan had asked, puzzled.
“I don’t know,” Allstrong had replied. “Keep an eye on things and report immediately if anything strange happens.”
…Everyone settled into their seats at the table located in one corner of the lab. The captain then spoke after combing his thick hair with both hands.
“I need to go over this one more time. Earth is expecting a report, or at least, I hope there’s an Earth to receive it.”
“Vhat makes you dink dat?” asked the professor.
“If these cone builders are capable of knowing when one sentence is read aloud I figure they know if it hasn’t.”
“Granted,” said Mark, “but my guess, Earth’s probably still there.”
“I agree,” said Noma, pressing her tablet quickly, “it’s more likely we either passed a test, or maybe just didn’t fail it.”
“Fine,” said Allstrong, rubbing his forehead, “let’s summarize. Where do we stand?”
“Well,” returned Mark, leaning forward in his chair, “the sentence translated originally by Lieutenant Gomez was deleted. The partially translated version from the professor’s program’s been deleted too” – he looked at the professor – “right?” – The professor nodded – “And the alien q-disk which contains the sentence is under lock and key in your quarters.”
“You never saw the sentence, professor?” quizzed the captain.
“No sir,” replied the professor. “Mark called me from de surface unt tolt me to simply telete vhat I hat, so I dit.”
“That leaves only you and Lieutenant Gomez who know the sentence,” said Noma. “As long a neither of you say’s it out loud, I honestly believe nothing will happen.”
“Except I’m driving myself crazy trying not to think about it,” groused the captain. “I ordered Leti not to say anything, but I bet she’s rolling the statement around in her mind as much as I am.” Allstrong idly scratched the back of his head.
“Maybe this’ll help a little,” said Noma genuinely, “pickup your tablet.” Allstrong and the other two men did so as she continued, “The star chart shows the locations of the four cones. Notice how they form a jagged-line, each one approximately fifty light years, give or take, from Nu Phoenicis. If you extrapolate lines from Sol looking for another star about fifty light years from Nu-P, you come across 61 Cygni. It’s a K-type dwarf star, actually a binary system.”
“The next victims, right?” chuckled the captain, but he really was not laughing.
“Which means if we look at a scaled distance from our cone’s spot,” said Mark quickly, “we should find something—”
“But,” interjected the professor, “ve have taken hi-res pictures of vhere de cone shoult be fount, unt…” He trailed off.
“What?” Allstrong asked. “You found another cone?”
“Nope,” answered Mark. “Nothing. Just a dead expanse like the rest of the planet.”
“It’s hiding underground then,” returned the captain.
“No it is not,” said the professor. “Ve hafe performet surface penetration reatings unt fount noding.”
“Then we’ll dig it out,” said the captain stubbornly. He sighed and added, “What else?”
“Hold on,” said Mark to the others. He turned to the captain, “Don’t you realize what this means? We probably now have the location of where intelligent life exists in the galaxy. Imagine the implications.”
He looked at Mark and the others unimpressed, “Sorry I’m not as excited as you guys are, but my concerns are with our race, our planet.”
The scientists exchanged disappointed glances, although they understood the captain’s point-of-view.
Breaking the awkward silence that followed, Allstrong said, “These Nu Phoenicians, whatever they are and even if that’s their point of origin, came here and placed these cones, each one targeted to a specific race. And from what we’ve discovered three races found their cones, translated their history from an alien language, then were eradicated from existence, quite efficiently I might add, but why? As advanced as they are they could’ve just done it without all this rigmarole.”
“Certainly,” said Noma matter-of-factly, “we’ll probably never know their true motivation. All we can surmise is that the cone is some sort of test. Maybe a test of greed?”
“Wanting to know your own future is bad to these cone builders?” ask the captain.
“Maybe so,” Noma shrugged. “Knowing the future is like knowing how a book ends before you read it. If you knew tomorrow you were going to be in an accident and then avoided the activity leading up to it, did you really know the future? If the event didn’t happen, it wasn’t the future but only a probability. One in an endless series of probabilities influenced by the events of today.
“We know our race has been obsessed with the future, based on what we find here, it’s probably a universal mania. Maybe something terrible in the Nu-P’s past brought this to light. So, they take it upon themselves to find space-faring races and eliminate those with the obsession, the mania. Hence, the elaborate ruse we have here.”
The captain and the others were blown away by Noma’s insight. They looked at each other dumbfounded, not knowing what to say or add. It was the same dark-haired woman with sensitive but intelligent eyes who closed on her own statement.
“Anyway,” she added, “it’s all just a guess on my part. We really will never know.”
“Okay, can anyone tell me why this rock?” asked Allstrong. “Why’d the cone builders choose this place?”
“I’ve got this one,” said Noma, her voice now resonating confidently. “It makes sense for the Nu Phoenicians to use 82 Eridani-b. This has always been a system from Earth that looked attractive for life, and it would be the same from those other stars as well.”
“Makes me wonder, though,” said Mark pensively, “was there any life here to begin with? I think it’s safe to say this planet’s seen a gargantuan solar-flare as well.”
No one answered or commented.
The captain leaned back in his chair, a clear sign he was done talking, and said, “Thank you professor, Doctor Atuanya, Doctor Rogan. I think I have everything I need to send the report.” He focused on Noma and added, “Here’s to hoping Earth’s still there.” Looking very tired but now instantly annoyed he said, “One last thing, what the heck do we do with this godforsaken cone?”
“I think we all know what it means,” said Noma calmly. “Our race will have to forever watch over it. Not knowing the true intentions of the cone builders, we can’t take a chance something we don’t foresee right now causing that gargantuan flare from erupting.” Allstrong was about to interject something when Noma stopped him, “Captain, you and Leti can never speak the statement aloud as long as each of you lives. Both of you will have to consider being protected when we return to Earth. Once the news gets out of what we discovered here, who knows what crazies will appear to try and make it happen.”
“Indeed,” said the captain, “that’s why we’ll wait here for another crew. Who knows, maybe by then we’ll know more.”
As the captain stood and walked away from the table, the scientists remained seated, quietly.
At a cold and dark Lagrange point an ancient sentinel awoke. It quickly transmitted a detailed message to the homeworld. The sentinel then, with no remorse or concern, went back to sleep and waited.