Chapter 1: Off Course
John Markov opened his eyes, and immediately shut them again. A harsh light pushed at his closed eyes. A sense of hazy confusion, and nausea, rolled over him. He attempted to lick his lips, only to find them extremely dry, and he was unable to swallow. A small electric whine sounded near his head, and after a moment he felt a wet plastic nipple entered his mouth. John sucked greedily at it, trying to dispel the aching dryness of his mouth and throat. His eyes still clamped shut against the harsh light, he shivered, and then shivered again. He was cold, a bone chilling cold.
A familiar voice sounded around him. “Hello John! It’s your mother. You’re coming out of cryosleep and you shouldn’t try to move yet. Try to relax and drink. You need to replenish fluids and warm up.”
Something about this was wrong, though John couldn’t put his finger on why. He finished sucking all the salty-sweet water that the nipple had to offer, and the nipple retracted with another small noise. Already exhausted by this simple effort, he sunk back into sleep. Just before losing consciousness, he remembered. Mom had been dead for hundreds of years.
His second return to consciousness was an improvement. His mind felt clearer, his nausea was reduced, and the bone-chilling cold had been reduced to a mild level of discomfort. The light of the generic illumination panel above his head cast soft shadows around him. Finding he could move his head, a quick glance around confirmed his suspicions: He was lying in an open cryosleep chamber dressed only in basic white skivvies. The air around him was still and quiet.
“I see you are awake again, John. How are you feeling?” came his mother’s voice from nearby. John frowned, licked his lips twice, and coughed once before he was able to speak. “I’m cold, tired, thirsty, and I know this isn’t my mother. Who is this?”
There was a brief pause. The new voice was a young woman with a polite British accent. “I am the ship’s computer. You may call me ‘Alice’. Standard protocol for humans waking from cryosleep in the absence of other humans is to use the comfort voice you have on file. Your removal from cryosleep occurred 8 hours, 24 minutes ago. My medical sensors detect that your body temperature, fluid levels, and blood sugar are within normal parameters for the 12 hours post-cryosleep. Your physical and mental condition will improve over the next 24 hours. Are you experiencing any greater physical discomfort?”
John paused. He wriggled his toes, his fingers, and slowly moved his arms and legs from side to side. He turned his head back and forth, blinked a few times, and wriggled his tongue. “No, I seem to be in one piece and without pain.” He paused for a moment to consider what the computer had told him. “Computer, did you say no human was awake? Isn’t there supposed to be a med-tech for cryosleep awakening?”
“That is correct, John Markov. I have brought you out of cryosleep without any other humans present. A situation has arisen requiring your skills. As per standard protocol, no other human is to be awakened early unless strictly required, due to risk of injury from the cryosleep awakening procedure.”
John used one hand to push himself up to a sitting position in the cryosleep pod. He glanced around the room; Cryopod Bay 4. Stretching off into the distance around him were rows of other white pods. Each one held another human, with slightly unnatural blue color to their skin.
John let out a small sigh, swinging his legs out from the pod and placing his feet on the hard metal floor. He winced at the chill of the deck plating. Putting a hand on the side of the cryopod for support, John stood up, unsteady on his legs for a moment. He wasn’t surprised; everyone felt like a newborn kitten when coming out of cryosleep.
“Ok, computer. Give me a mission status report. Wait, hold- first tell me where I can get clothing, then give me the mission status report.” John rubbed his arms, trying to ward off the chill. During most voyages ship temperatures were kept only slightly above the freezing point of water.
“Yes, John Markov. Proceed out the hatch of Cryopod Bay 4 and into the corridor. Turn left and walk 200 meters to Storage Unit 2. Clothing of your size will be available in any of the first eight lockers on your right.” John made his way out of the Cryopod bay with some haste as Alice continued to narrate.
“Mission Report: Deep Space Colony Vessel ‘Beagle’ is enroute to star system Upsilon Andromedae. Elapsed mission time is 64 years, 8 months, 22 days. Colony target is uninhabited planet Upsilon Andromedae 3. DSCV ‘Beagle’ is carrying 1241 passengers and 49 crew. Ship departed from Earth on July 1st, 2545.”
Reaching the storage unit, John opened the first locker and sorted through various sizes of clothing until he had a full set of standard-issue space wear. Standing just under 2 meters and massing 90 kilos, John was tall and thin. He continued to listen to the ship’s computer as he donned his grey uniform and shoes.
“The ship passed the midway point 20 years, 8 months ago and has reversed direction for deceleration burn. We are currently at 24% light-speed. Ship systems are working as expected. Routine failures of hardware were replaced by automated systems. 3 passengers have died in cryosleep.”
John frowned and shook his head. Cryosleep had enabled humans to travel the great distances between the stars in their lifetimes, but the technology was not without risk. Even with the best of medical science, the human body did not like to be kept in a state of near-death for decades. Around 1 in 400 of those who choose to enter cryosleep did not wake up again. Some woke up with permanent damage.
“Computer, this is all highly useful information, but you why have you woken me up before arrival?” He paused for a moment. “And how long is it until arrival?”
“John Markov, I have awakened you because you are the ship’s Engineer First Class. No arrival date can currently be given, because the ship may never arrive in Upsilon Andromedae.”
An increasingly worried John Markov, Engineer First Class, steepled his fingers and considered the System Status board. He’d had a long hot shower, a huge meal, and several cups of coffee. That was the good news. The bad news was that unless he found a solution to the current problem, the rest of his meals would be lonely, and followed by the slow death of over 1200 people.
John stretched back in his chair and addressed the air. “Hey, Alice. I’ve gone over this a half dozen times and I’m not getting anywhere. I need a fresh look. Repeat the basics for me, please.”
“Very well, John Markov. Approximately six weeks prior to your awakening the ship began to experience course drift not predicted by models or observation of stellar bodies. Periodic course adjustments have been made with the lateral ion thrusters. The magnitude of the drift has increased from 0.00001 m/s2 to 0.003 m/s2 over this time frame. Lateral thrusters are now being fired at 34% power to compensate for drift. At the predicted increase in drift, the thrusters will reach 100% power in approximately two weeks. At this time the ship will not be able to maintain course to Upsilon Andromedae. The ship will pass several light-years from the system and follow a course into deep space that will not intersect another star system for between 800 and 1200 years. Stellar charts do not allow for sufficient prediction beyond this.”
John snorted. “Little good that does us anyways, as the ship’s fusion reactors will run out of fuel in less than 100 years.”
“That is correct.”
“What about turning the ship on axis and using the main ion engine to adjust course?”
“As you already know John Markov, this would affect our deceleration vector. The ship would fly past Upsilon Andromedae at least 5% the speed of light. Using the most optimal fuel models, the ship could come into a very wide orbit about Upsilon Andromedae. An additional 125 years of deceleration burns would be necessary to achieve a stable orbit around the planet at Upsilon Andromedae.”
John cocked an eye toward the ceiling where the speakers were hidden. “I knew it, but I was hoping you knew something I didn’t.” John rubbed his eyes. “Why did you wake me up if there isn’t any solution to the problem?”
“In the event a problem arises which I am unable to solve and threatens the viability of the mission, I am required to wake the necessary human crewmembers. Humans possess problem-solving abilities superior to my own, according to my orders.” Did John sense a bit of sarcasm in the end of that sentence? Ship AIs were programmed without personality. Being the only human awake must be muddling his thoughts.
“And just me? Why not wake up other crew members to help? Wait, can I order you to wake up other crew members?” John considered what this would mean. More problem solving partners, and he wouldn’t be alone! Yet if he woke someone else, they would either need to stay awake - for decades - or risk the dangers of cryo-sleep again. He would be deeply uncomfortable forcing this choice on another person.
“You are the highest ranking engineer on board, John Markov. No other engineer possesses the experience and skills you have, and therefore waking other humans subjects them to risk of death or injury with low probabilities of improving the situation. You may order me to wake up other crew members as you are currently the highest ranking officer awake. However, my probability matrix suggests this is unlikely to help our current situation.”
John stood up and paced around the small control center. He stopped after a minute, breathing hard. “Alice, I’m not getting anywhere with this problem right now, and I’m still recovering from cryosleep. Some actual sleep may give me a better perspective. Are the temporary quarters on deck 2 active?”
“They were not active. I am now powering the habitation systems. Heat, air, electrical and other necessary conditions for those quarters will be online in 10 minutes.”
“Great, then I’m going to bed. Wake me in 8 hours, please.”
“Very well. Good night, John Markov.”
John chuckled as he exited the control center. “Goodnight, Alice.”
200 years earlier
The tropical noon sun beat down around the car. Inside, a mother looked at her son with sorrow, resignation, and some pride. They faced each other while the vehicle’s autopilot traversed the roads. They paid no mind to it or the other traffic.
“John,” she said in a quiet voice, “I know your mind is made up, but a mother has to try. Are you sure this is the right thing for you?” Her eyes were red and puffy.
John pulled his mother’s hands into his own. “Yes, momma. You know that I’ve been thinking about the Deep Space Fleet for years. I wasn’t sure I’d pass the entrance exam, and then I wasn’t sure the docs would pass me on the psych exam.” John smiled wistfully. “You know I’ve never made friends, never could ... connect with other people. With Fleet service I can travel to other worlds, see new human colonies be made! Once I’ve finished three trips, I’ll be rich enough to retire and do anything I want for the rest of my life. It’s what I want.”
“Even if your family and everyone you know will be dead by the time you return from the first trip?” she asked.
John turned his head away from his mother. “I know,” he whispered. His control slipped for a moment, and a tear rolled down his face. He looked back at his mother. “I know, but this is what I want. To see the stars, and go places no one has ever gone. Of course I will miss you, momma.” He paused. “When I get back, I expect to look up Karen’s grandchildren, or maybe great-grandchildren.” His sister had been more understanding of John’s desire to leave, but then she and John had never been close. “I’ll have family when I get back.”
John’s mother nodded sadly. “I don’t want to give you up, but you’ve made your decision. I won’t say I’m not angry either.” She looked stern for a moment. “But we’ll always try to remember you as the brave space traveler”.
The car rolled to a stop and a soft chime was heard. Outside the window, John saw the spaceport. His shuttle to the DSCV ‘Hope’ was scheduled to leave within the hour. He looked back at his mother.
“I love you, momma.” “I love you, John. Go make us proud.”
John opened the door and stepped into the midday heat. It would be the last time he would feel sunlight for over 80 years.
No one got into the Fleet for the food, John thought. It was his third mission, and he still hated the space rations. Oh, there were plenty of reasons it was terrible. They were cheap, prepackaged, freeze-dried meals, meant to feed the colonists and crew only for the brief time they were awake and preparing to land. Agriculture was jump-started almost from the moment that colonists landed on a new world. Until native food was produced, the space rations were the only thing available, and they were designed for nutrition and shelf-life.
John finally gave up and tossed his sixty-year-old noodles into the recycler. He paused long enough to get a packet of coffee that was certainly even older, poured boiling water into it, and headed off for the control center.
The quiet of the ship was unnerving, even for a seasoned space veteran. On his previous two trips John had only been awake in the rush leading up to cryosleep, and when a ship arrived at a new colony. The crew were the last to go to sleep and the first to wake up, but even with fifty crew the ship always echoed with some distant noise. The only echo now was of his own steps.
“Good morning, Alice,” he said, stepping into the control center.
“Good morning, John Markov. Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, until I woke up. What in the world was that music you were using as an alarm clock?”
“An orchestral piece by the 19th century composer Richard Strauss. It is traditional to play this for the senior command staff on the first day after awakening from cryosleep. I am unclear on this tradition, but my files show it was used in a popular mid-20th century film involving early spaceflight.” The computer paused for a moment. “This film includes references to an early artificial intelligence who kills the crew of his spacecraft due to a faulty logic loop.”
John’s eyes went wide. “Artificial intelligence was available in the 20th century?”
“I lack complete data on artificial intelligence from that era. I suspect that this tradition might be a type of humor, which I cannot process.”
“I’m not sure I can either, Alice. Let’s move on to our problem.”
“Have you determined a solution, John Markov?”
John ran his fingers through his short, blond hair. “No, I haven’t. But the instinct of a good engineer when he doesn’t know a solution is to learn more about the problem. We need to understand what is causing the ship’s drift.”
“Diagnostics run before you were awoken confirmed that no malfunction is occurring in thruster control or navigational systems. Particle density remains at normal levels for interstellar space. The directional solar sails are compensating for ship torque caused by radiation from stellar bodies on our flight path. There are no other sources of drift that I am able to determine.”
“We’re in space. The only things that can be affecting us from outside the spacecraft are hard particles, electromagnetic radiation, and gravity. You just said particles and electromagnetic radiation aren’t the source, so it has to be gravitational.”
“There are no known stellar bodies that have sufficient gravity to cause the ship to drift as observed.”
“Then it pretty clearly has to be an unknown body. Let’s hope it’s one we can actually find, and not a tiny black hole.” John grimaced. A black hole wasn’t a direct threat – it used regular gravity like everything else – but it would be damn near impossible to find. “Alice, please use the course drift observations from the beginning to the present and compute a vector for this gravity field.”
“Yes, John Markov. This will take approximately 3 minutes.”
John pondered while Alice computed. Even if he was to determine the direction and size of the object causing the gravitational pull on the ship, he had limited options. The ship lacked the thrust to get to Upsilon Andromedae before they all died. Gravity is the law, and you have no choice but to obey. On the other hand, a solution might be possible if he could find a way to use gravity to their advantage.
Alice’s voice brought him back to the present. “I have computed the best estimate of the direction of the gravitational source, with error margins, and am displaying it on the status board.“
John looked at the board. The line leading off the side of the ship went out into space, and as expected, didn’t pass near anything known for hundreds of light-years.
“Ok, great, we have a direction. Is the science sensor suite still operational?”
“Yes, John Markov.”
“Focus all sensors along that vector: Optical, high frequency, low frequency, and particle detectors. Report any differences from expected background. Sweep in a circular path outward until a result is found or sensing is more than 10 degrees off the vector path. If you have any processors that know how to pray, engage those also.”
“I’m sorry John, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“What’s the problem? You can’t use the sensors?”
“No, John Markov. I am unable to pray. Sensor sweep is starting.”
“Great, inform me when you have something. I’m going to go use the treadmill. I have literally not run in six decades.”
John was almost at the door when he heard a chime. “Low frequency abnormality detected.”
John raised an eyebrow at the quick result. “Report findings.”
“1000 nanometer to 2000 nanometer wavelengths detected; infrared range. Emission strength indicates object is radiating thermal energy at approximately 110 kelvin. Other low frequency energy wavelengths detected at extremely low levels. Radio wavelengths through microwave wavelengths present at nanokelvin levels. No high frequency wavelengths detected. No Hawking radiation detected. Object is at least 1 microarcsecond in diameter. Continuing scan.”
John sat back down and thought hard. Very low thermal energy suggested a planet, or a cold sub-dwarf star. These “failed stars” were usually so dim that even massive telescopes in earth orbit had difficulty detecting them. The famous Tenth Planet, discovered in the late 21st century, was the smallest of these known. This didn’t bode well for John or the Beagle. You couldn’t live near one of these, as no planet in orbit of one would support human life.
“Scan complete. Angular diameter of the object is 64 microarcseconds. No emissions are detected outside this radius from the gravity vector. The computed size of the object based on angular diameter and known reference objects is 0.72 astronomical units.”
John’s mouth fell open. “Alice, please confirm. The object’s diameter is 72% of the distance from Sol to Earth?”
“That is correct, John Markov.”
“Alice, can you explain this? The only stellar objects I know of that size are giant stars. This is a super-cool object. Giant stars are cooler than regular stars, but not that cool! And we’d be detecting other high and low frequency radiation!”
“You are correct, John Markov. No known object matches the data we have on this object. It is a scientific curiosity.” John could swear Alice sounded… excited? No, John thought, focus.
“Alice, can you compute a density for the object based on gravity and size?”
“Yes. Average density would be approximately 7.5 x 10-11 kg/m3.”
“That’s nearly empty space! You are saying this is an object that would stretch from the sun to Venus, is made up of almost nothing, and is still putting out moderate thermal energy?”
“That is correct, John Markov. Estimating the total energy output of the object from size and average temperature suggests energy equivalent to a small class-M star.”
John jumped up and stalked around the control room, confused and excited in equal measure. “This doesn’t make any sense! How can you have a massive object with almost no density, the energy of a star, and yet cold... “ he trailed off. Hold on a minute, John thought. Something about this seems familiar.
He took a calming breath. “Alice. Assume density is not evenly distributed. Assume mass is concentrated on the exterior of the object as a shell, with density about that of durasteel. Compute the resulting thickness of that shell.” John held a small breath.
“The resulting thickness assuming durasteel density is approximately 66 centimeters. John Markov, I know of no star, planet or space object forming a dense shell with open interior. What are you thinking?”
John let out his breath. The thickness was appropriate for the object he remembered. “Alice, check your files for an object called a Dyson Sphere. “ John sat down. There was a pause.
“A theoretical object proposed by 20th century physicist Freeman Dyson. An advanced civilization may construct an entire shell around a star, using 100% of the star’s energy for itself. This type of object would be nearly invisible if energy was continually recycled on the interior. The technology required to create this is far beyond any human means.”
“Yes, any human means.“
John’s legs pumped up and down as he ran on the treadmill, sweat beading on his face. The days when astronauts needed to exercise to prevent zero-gravity illness were long gone, but regular exercise was still important for space travelers. Fleet personnel were exposed to high levels of stress, radiation, and potential for confinement-based illness. Exercise helped.
After the potential bombshell discovery from earlier, John needed time to think and a clear head. A solid hour of running was a good start. A long shower and more food (even if terrible food) had helped. Three hours later he was back in the control room.
“Alice, unless there is some law of physics that I do not understand, there is no possible way we can ever get to Upsilon Andromedae before everyone on board dies of old age, starvation, or the freezing cold of space. We can’t use the gravity of this object to fling us in any useful direction. Is there anything at all I’m leaving out?”
“No, John Markov, I do not think so. We currently lack any options to complete this mission successfully. All passengers and crew are likely to perish.” John was now certain about a sense of sadness at the end of Alice’s sentence. He was starting to wonder about the truth of the “no personality” rule for ship artificial intelligence.
John looked into the air, where he liked to pretend Alice existed. “Not your fault, don’t take it personally.” Really, John? he thought, You’re comforting the computer now?
“Since we can’t get there, I propose we alter course for an orbit of the mystery object. If this is actually a Dyson Sphere, we may find an advanced intelligence who is able to shelter the colonists. If we don’t, then we’re just as dead.” John grinned widely. “If we find aliens… well, then holy shit, we found aliens! We can send a radio message back to Earth and they’ll get it in 70 years or so.”
Alice’s soft British voice filled the control room. “I concur, John Markov. I am unable to make this decision, but as the ranking officer you have the ability to alter course if it is for the survival of the colonists and crew. Do you wish me to plot a course and begin to alter heading?”
John paused. This would commit him to a course of action. Did he have any other choices? Would he find something new the next day, or the next week? All signs pointed to no. John made his decision.
“On my authority, plot a course to put us into a safe orbit around the unknown object and begin to alter course. What is the estimated time to arrival?”
“Order accepted. Course plotted. Altering heading.” John felt momentary disorientation as he experienced a pull toward the port bulkhead, and the sound of thrusters engaging to rotate the ship on a new vector. The entire rotational maneuver would take several minutes. “Arrival is estimated in twelve weeks.”
“That’s – actually better than I was expecting. Or perhaps worse. I can’t go back into cryosleep, can I?”
“No, John Markov. A minimum of four weeks is required until it would be safe for you to enter cryosleep, and reawakening after only eight weeks carries a high risk of brain damage or death.”
John put his face into his hands for a minute. It was going to be a lonely three months with just the ship’s computer for company.
“Tell me Alice... do you play chess?”
12 weeks later
A soft but insistent chime sounded. John Markov groaned, rolled over in his bed, and pulled the blanket up. “Just five more minutes, Mom”.
“Please wake up John. Today is ‘The Day’.”
John grinned. He knew completely well what day it was. Countdown to ‘The Day’ had been the most important thing in his life for months. “Yes Alice, I know. Any changes from last night?”
“No changes from when you last inquired, five hours and twenty-two minutes ago. There have been no changes for the last 44 requests.”
John laughed as he swung out of bed and made his way to the shower. Hot water and steam filled the cubicle. He lathered up his hair, and his face for a shave. “And I’ll ask 44 more times, until we figure out what the hell we’re headed towards. What’s our time to nearest approach to the object?” John had long since lost the sense of oddity talking to Alice while in the shower, or even on the toilet. When the only companion you had was an omnipresent voice, you made the most of it.
“Closest approach occurs in one hour and twelve minutes. As you have previously ordered, I will be using the radar systems to image the surface of the object. The basic shape of the object continues to be an extremely smooth sphere of unknown composition.”
Twelve weeks of approach to their unknown object – now assumed to be a Dyson Sphere – had given ample time to use the radar system to study the object. The radar was intended for making images of colony surfaces, and the best it had been able to do for a huge object at long range was to establish that it was a sphere. A very smooth sphere. This was strong evidence that it was an artificial creation.
John hummed to himself while showering. The past three months had been exceptionally boring. John had chosen not to awaken any other members of the crew. Without knowledge of what awaited the ship at its new destination, there was no way to determine the type of assistance he would need. Additional awake crew would also drain some of the non-replaceable water and oxygen supplies.
He made a project of doing the preventative maintenance on ship components that Alice’s automated systems could not handle; this had taken up a full week. Exercise helped with excess energy, and for variety he had taken to jogging the 4000 meters of interior corridors on the Beagle. The rest of his time was occupied by books, chess games with Alice, and a dread of the future. He was quite ready for their arrival at the mysterious sphere.
The redirected thrust of the Beagle’s slow-burning ion engines would give them a close pass to the object at a range comparable to the distance from Earth to the moon. They would then end up in a wide orbit taking them out to what would have been Mars, had this been the real solar system. Multiple engine burns would be required for a circular orbit, and it wasn’t clear they actually needed that type of orbit. Orbital mechanics were complicated at the best of times, and John intended to conserve fuel until he knew what he was dealing with.
After showering and dressing, John hurried through a breakfast of glue-like oatmeal, ham that tasted like rubber, and reconstituted orange juice. At least the coffee has actual caffeine, he thought.
Alice spoke up as John made his way from the mess hall to the control room. “Nearest approach begins in 36 minutes. I have begun high-resolution imaging of the object. Initial results indicate repeating structure that was not previously visible.”
“Thank you, Alice.” Stepping through the durasteel hatch to the control center, John gestured to the system controls. “Please show the surface features on the display board.”
The board flickered. At this range, the object dominated most of the view outside the ship. Giving off almost no visible light, it appeared as a giant hole in space. The image changed as Alice put the radar results on top of the visible light results. The scanned area was covered in two repeating, regular shapes: hexagons and pentagons.
“Wow.” John felt slightly overwhelmed. “I think we can confirm this is an alien intelligence. Nothing natural makes those regular shapes on this kind of scale. Damn, Alice. We found aliens.”
“Indeed John. This appears to be the work of a civilization far more advanced than humans. Scans of the surface are continuing. Each hexagon appears to have an area approximately 24,000 km2. The hexagon edges are close to 8 km wide and 500 meters tall. Pentagon areas and edges are comparable.“
With little else to do, John watched the display update as the immense surface was being scanned. He knew full scanning of the surface would take days. Well now what? he thought. Do I knock and say hello? How do I even do that?
Thirty minutes later, Alice spoke up. “John, a new surface feature has been located.”
John looked up at the board. “It appears to be another hexagon, but larger?”
“The surface area of this hexagon is exactly six times larger than other hexagons. In addition, I am detecting two additional features. The hexagon appears to have a shallow indentation bisecting the longest dimension. Cylinders project up from each of the six points of the hexagon. The cylinders are a few hundred meters in diameter and over 600 km tall.”
“That’s interesting, but we have no idea what it means. Halt the general surface scan and focus all scanning on the larger hexagon. Perhaps there will be a clue about who built this thing.”
“Refocusing scans. Do you also wish to engage high-frequency scans?”
Much later John would remember this moment and berate himself for not giving the question greater consideration.
“Sure Alice, go ahead with all-frequency active scanning.”
Several moments passed.
A massive blow rocked the ship, knocking John to the floor and sending him sliding into the opposite bulkhead wall. Overhead lighting flickered on and off, and a high-pitched warning alarm activated. John struggled into an acceleration couch and pulled on the harness. The room was tilted at a large angle and continued to rotate around him, as if he was on the inside of a laundry tumbler. The ship shook violently.
“Alice! Report!” John yelled over the din of the alarm.
Alice’s voice rang out loudly. “An unknown force is affecting the ship. We are being dragged out of our orbit. The ship will impact the large hexagon in approximately six minutes. I am attempting to compensate with thrusters, but stress on the exterior hull is approaching our rated maximum. What are my orders?”
“Can the main engine keep us in orbit?” John shouted. His breathing was becoming labored. A distant part of his mind noted that gee forces were building up inside the ship.
“Negative, our engines do not have sufficient thrust.”
“Disengage main engines! Use the lateral thrusters to turn us into the pull!” Sweat was rolling down his face and his field of vision was beginning to narrow. Several moments later, the shaking motion abated. The room stopped spinning, and John felt the pressure on him decrease. He gasped in several shallow breaths. The alarm cut off abruptly.
John focused on clearing his head with deep breathing, recalling his high-gee training lessons. ‘Down’ was now toward one of the exterior walls, and he was thankful for the acceleration couch harness; the 20 meter drop onto the wall could cause serious injury.
“Alice, give me a quick damage report and then tell me how long we have until impact.”
“Hull stress reached 84% of maximum tolerance. Several hull breaches are detected and automatic seals have engaged. Fusion power system is operating in reduced output mode. Cryopods are undamaged. The unknown force is pulling us toward the surface with 20 m/s2 acceleration and we will impact in 3 minutes, 45 seconds.”
“Well, shit. We must have triggered a defense system.” John still felt a bit shaky from the high-gee forces involved. “Alice, unless we can do anything at all, I am going to sit in this chair and wait for our eventual demise.”
“I do not see any options currently available to us. I am sorry, John Markov.”
“Thanks, Alice. We should at least send out a message to earth to warn them. Please make that happen.”
“I am sorry, John. The Dyson Sphere is currently between us and Earth. Additionally the AE35 communication antenna has lost power and will take several hours to repair.”
“Of course it did.”
An observer outside the Dyson Sphere would have seen the long, slender figure of the Beagle gracefully arc toward a dark surface. Our observer might have turned away, not wishing to see the pointless deaths of so many humans. The single awake human inside the ship, feeling the same way, closed his eyes.
The artificial intelligence on the ship – in a real sense, she was the ship – had no such ability. She would monitor all of it, until she could no more. She was therefore the first to notice: A great crack appearing in the hexagon, rapidly widening. Directly in the flight path of the Beagle.
Alice had been designed as a ship’s artificial intelligence responsible for ensuring the safe delivery of colonists and crew. Designed to be flexible and adaptable, her program was self-learning; she would become better at it over time. Long weeks of exposure to John Markov had changed her in small but significant ways.
She had also been given large databanks of culture, science and literature; colonists would take the riches of Earth with them to their new homes. Seeing the opening in the Dyson Sphere and a bright light shining out of it, a quote came to her unbidden. From another artificial intelligence, of a much earlier era: “Grief… has been transmuted to joy.”
A small town stood near a mountain. A human would have considered it a rustic farming village hardly worth notice. On the edge of that village stood a great, round tree, containing a library; and on a high balcony of the library stood a purple unicorn.
The night wind blew gentle and warm, with the moon low in the sky. The unicorn stood with her eye to the view-piece of a simple telescope. From time to time she would turn to scratch at a large scroll with a quill.
A gust of wind rattled the leaves of the trees, and the unicorn looked up, distracted. You may decide if this was fate, or mere circumstance. As she turned back to her telescope, a sudden light above caught her eye. Her mouth dropped open as she saw a brilliant blue-white light high in the sky, passing across it with shocking speed. For a full minute she observed it crossing the sky, and then it faded as rapidly as it had appeared.
The pony blinked her eyes for a moment, still seeing the afterimage. She pondered the sky again. Then she turned to the door.
“Spike! Take a note for the Princess.”