Authors: Karl Kofoed
Having finished its exploration of an extra-solar gas giant Lalande A, documenting a strange civilization living beneath the clouds of its giant blue spot, the crew of the giant space ark Goddard must now return home. Their route takes them past Lalande B, the second of two Jupiter-sized gas giants orbiting a red dwarf star. But as they pass by it they see something strange; an artificial ring, which compels them to investigate. Once more Alex Rose and Mary Seventeen are called upon to use their shuttle to investigate and find themselves caught up in another strange adventure of discovery.
After that harrowing mission the Goddard must now return home, 10.5 light years away, to bring the news of their discoveries to Earth. When they arrive ... if they arrive ... will they be welcomed as heroes? Or will they find their home world changed by conditions they can only imagine? The answers prove even stranger than the mission itself. Rather than ending their voyage their journey among the stars may be just beginning.
© Karl Kofoed Design March 10, 2012
4638 Woodland Ave
Drexel Hill, PA 19026
Cover © Karl Kofoed 2012
The right of Karl Kofoed to be identified as the author has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.
Electronic Version by Baen Books
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s consent in any form other than this current form and without a similar condition being imposed upon a subsequent purchaser.
Any similarity between the characters and situations within its pages and places or persons, living or dead, is unintentional and co-incidental
When Alex Rose opened his eyes, he was staring at the familiar white shell covering his and Mary’s bed: cocoon, communication module, and bunker to survive a space catastrophe. But there had been no catastrophes on the faster than light ship
mission to the red dwarf star Lalande. Not that there hadn’t been close shaves. Within the great blue spot on the ancient star system’s inner gas giant, the planet they called Bubba, an alien race older than the earth had built a habitat, a giant glowing egg that had nearly been the grave of one of
shuttles and its crew.
He sat up. Mary Seventeen was in the shower stall, steaming her slim body. He could hear her humming the old Martian favorite, “Sands o’ Love.”
“Good morning, Captain Rose
,” said the computer. “
Shall I prepare your usual breakfast
“Not too hot this time!” He knew the computer was testing his health, but Alex allowed himself to enjoy the illusion of being waited on. “And hold my calls for an hour,” he added, trying to sound serious.
“Understood, Captain Rose,” said the computer.
Mary appeared at the rounded opening to their egg and peered inside. Her wet platinum hair hung in tangles and she was wearing a sheer nightgown Alex hoped no other man aboard the
would see. “May I sit on your face now?” she asked politely.
“I need a shower.” It had been a while since they made love and he wanted it to be perfect. “But hold that thought. I’ll be right back.” He smiled engagingly and jumped off the bed toward the lavatory.
As he brushed past Mary she grabbed his rear and squeezed. “You’d better.”
The push of her hand sent him sprawling onto the polycel foam floor. He landed softly and got up. “Good this biocylinder doesn’t pull Earth gees.”
Mary sat on the bed and crossed her legs, letting the robe fall open enticingly to reveal most of her genetically perfect features. “You were going to shower?”
It was the fastest shower he’d ever taken, and when he’d toweled enough he burst out of the lavatory naked.
“A lot can change in five minutes, Alex,” said Mary. She was dressed in a flight suit, standing next to Connie Tsu and Tony Sciarra.
Alex ducked back into the bathroom and slammed the door. “Hello?” he yelled. “Did I use the wrong door? Is this the roto-mall?”
“Sorry, Alex,” shouted Connie through the thin white plastic door. “Mary tried to warn you, but the noise of the shower ...”
Wrapped in a large towel, Alex emerged from the lavatory. “What?” he demanded.
“Commander Stubbs has a plan,” said Tsu. “He wants a meeting.”
Sciarra sat down on a spindly bedroom chair and held up a hand defensively. “Don’t complain to me, Alex. I haven’t had a break since I joined this crew.”
Tony wasn’t exaggerating. As chief radar officer, Sciarra’s services had been required on every leg of the Lalande mission, and his radar modifications had helped make two missions a success. Any other time, Tony would have had Alex’s complete sympathy. But standing half naked in his own bedroom and craving long overdue sex, Alex wasn’t feeling very appreciative. “If you guys would just wait in our com room ... on the OTHER side of the house ...!”
Tsu and Sciarra waited in the foyer downstairs, Tony leaning against one wall sucking on a toothpick while Tsu stood at the window staring thoughtfully at the spring flowers blooming outside. Connie turned as Alex and Mary came down the stairs. Tony straightened up and smiled at Alex. “Sorry for that break-in, Alex,” he said. “The door was ... open.”
“I bet no one closed it last night,” said Mary, looking at Alex scornfully.
Alex sighed. “I was so sleepy I ... anyway, what’s this about?”
“We told you, a meeting,” grumbled Tony. He opened the door and stepped out into the artificial sunshine.
Alex scoffed. “Our briefing last night, the one that couldn’t wait until we all got some sleep, was a waste of time, then?
That was how long ago? Four hours? Now what?”
“You’re preachin’ to the choir, Alex,” said Tony. He studied Alex briefly through his antique sunglasses and grinned.
“Stubbs didn’t want to wake you ’til you had six hours of sleep. It’s been six hours.”
Alex sighed. “Not enough.”
“Boo hoo, Alex,” said Connie. “I had down time inside that egg. Didn’t get any sleep there, either.”
Alex looked the shuttle pilot over. She looked fit enough for a person who’d nearly been cocooned forever on an alien planet. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Do I look okay?”
“Well, of course. I mean ...” Alex shrugged. “You’ve been through hell, Connie. I’d expect ...”
“I’m fine, Alex.” Connie studied his face, clearly sensing disbelief. “I’m fine!” Without further comment, she walked past him out the door. Tony laughed and followed her down the sidewalk.
Mary paused and squinted up at the great cylinder that arched overhead. Alex watched her gray eyes trace details he knew only her augmented eyes could see. “How’re the farms doin’, Mary?” he asked.
“Mrs Rose to you, Mr Rose.” Mary smiled. “Actually...the speedwheat’s being harvested.” She glanced at Alex and grinned. “I’ll bet Johnny’s proud of that. He helped develop it. The Terraformers are introducing a form of it on Mars next year.”
“In greenhouses, I’ll bet,” offered Alex. “Give it another thousand years and you might have real crops there.”
Tony frowned. “Terraforming Mars is an experiment, Alex. Whether it works or not is secondary. Call it an inevitable step to the stars.”
Alex smiled cynically. Tony was spouting the standard corporate argument, but neither Alex nor Mary agreed. To them all that the terraforming effort had produced was cloned slaves in the name of progress.
The corporate justification for cloning held that because ’normal’ humans couldn’t be relied upon to implement the long term effort, clones were essential in making Mars a habitable world. The millennium project, they said, required new and bold steps. The scope of the Martian terraforming effort had mesmerized mankind, and no one objected as armies of specialized humans were created. To help rally support for the effort, some clones were designed as showpieces. Mary was a prime example. There were many kinds, but the Sensors, Mary’s kin, were among the oldest. Living communication devices, their genetic sensory enhancements and cybernetic implants made them invaluable in the colonization of the solar system.
Alex had met the Marys at their compound on Mars and won their approval. It had taken him quite a while to realize why. Now, as he walked down the boulevard toward the circular Master Control building, he knew all those things were now meaningless. All that mattered now was the
, a twelve hundred person microcosm of a solar system eight light years away. Here, in a cylindrical world full of explorers, scientists, experts, and professionals of all disciplines, Alex and Mary weren’t an odd couple, they were central to the mission. Some even called them heroes.
“I guess the meeting’s at town hall as usual?” said Alex, walking briskly down the sidewalk past the boxy two story homes. There was nothing elaborate about them. Most of the apparent detail had been stamped into the prefabricated polyfoam that made up nearly everything on board.
The doors to the circular building slid open as the group approached. “Ladies first,” said Tony. He paused, stepped to the side and bowed graciously.
Tsu walked past Sciarra as though he wasn’t there. “You’re damned right,” she whispered.
The big screen dominated one end of the large circular room filled with concentric rows of techies manning consoles. In the center of the room, under the domed holographic projection area, stood Commander Stubbs, talking to Professor Baltadonis and Captain Wysor. Wysor spotted Alex and pointed. After smiles and warm greetings, the Captain indicated a place at the rear of the control room, the official observation post for visitors and the cameras of the ship’s public video system. In a few long strides the gaunt Ganny Captain was next to them. “Coffee’ll be here soon,” he said. “Can ya’ survive?”
“If there’s a sweet roll involved,” Alex answered with a cordial smile.
“Thi’ ain’ the food court a’ Gannytoon, lad,” snapped the Captain, stroking his unruly gray beard. “But we’ll try to cat’r t’ yer needs, best we c’n.”
“How’s the ship holding up?” asked Alex, looking around. “Looks like everybody’s busy.”
The Captain turned and pointed to the screen. “There’s a plan t’ use the sonde sittin’ on that egg to pop the igloo.” He directed them to a group of chairs. A white tabletop slid out from the wall as they approached. An officer arrived with a jug of steaming coffee and a tray of cups and condiments. The brew itself was an approximation of coffee, renewing Alex’s hopes that the cylinder’s greenhouses would eventually be providing the real thing.
Coffee was no small issue for Alex, nor for the 1200 plus members of the
crew. Although he knew that fruits, vegetables, and a stable ecosystem were a priority, his sentiments were solidly with those who saw real coffee as a first priority. But he knew that even using the best of growing techniques there wouldn’t be any beans for months. He had to content himself with the brew he described as “an outside shot at something resembling a breakfast drink.” But now Alex picked a foam chair and sat down, his attention focused on the control room screen, not on the steaming drink in his hand.
The image that loomed over the control room was a live feed from the outer shell of Howarth’s egg, but it could have been a still picture, or even an artificial one. The surface the igloo shaped alien construction sat on was smooth, flat, and glowing brightly. Alex had already decided that the structure was an effort to repair the hole his ship
had made in their mission to rescue the trapped shuttle
. But that was just a guess.
“What are we looking at? It looks the same,” said Mary to the Captain.
He smiled broadly. “Somethin’ afoot,” he said. “Stubbs’ll explain, I’m sure.”
Johnny Baltadonis approached them after helping himself to coffee.
“How are you, this morning, Johnny?” asked Mary. “Homesick for Mars?”
“Aren’t we all?” Johnny wiped away a tear. “Don’t you miss the other Marys?”
“Not at the moment.” Mary shrugged.
Stubbs was last to join the group. He nodded to an aide nearby and a transparent curtain rose from the floor, creating an instant, soundproof enclosure. Stubbs faced the control room with his back to the others inside the glass enclosure, his attention on the main monitor that dominated the far side of the control room. Finally he turned, examining the group one by one, and shook his head in dismay. “That scene hasn’t changed for hours. Our seismic data from the probe tells us something’s going on under that igloo, but we haven’t a clue. We’re learning nothing with those sondes.”
“You said as much last night, Commander.” Mary said. “Nice to know things haven’t changed, I suppose.”
Stubbs turned and looked at Mary. “Collectively, this crew amounts to a city full of experts. These folks are the best Earthcorp could come up with.” His eyes moved to Alex, sitting beside Mary. “Pardon me for venting, Alex.” Stubbs examined Alex’s face. “You know, I didn’t mean to evade your question last night.”
Alex stroked his chin. “You mean about what’s next on the mission plan?”
“Exactly.” Stubbs nodded and faced the control room again. “In a way we have completed our mission, established that there is advanced life, perhaps even a technological civilization on Bubba.” The Commander assumed a military stance with his hands clasped tightly behind his rear. He pointed his chin toward the screen. “They’re sealing the hole under that igloo and we are out in the cold. That sensor is useless.”
“Not altogether,” said Johnny. “Howarth’s egg is an artificial structure. We know that. Like all artificial structures, it must be maintained. If they’re fixing that hole we made, we’ll know it sooner or later.”
Stubbs shook his head solemnly. “While we waited on the surface for you to rescue
we saw no activity,” said Stubbs. “Outwardly, it is a shell. The samples we collected proved to be nothing more than hollow silicates, a matrix of gas traps that glow when charged, like neon bulbs.”
“Excuse me, Commander,” said Alex. “You started to talk about what we’ll do next?”
Stubbs frowned and nodded. “I don’t know. Maybe we should return to Earth.”
“What?” Professor Baltadonis’ jaw dropped when he heard his Commander’s words.
“In a way our mission is accomplished,”explained Stubbs. “We know there’s life. That’s what we came to find out. But we don’t know if we can get home again.”
“I’ve been wondering that,” said Connie Tsu. “What will the date be when we get home? Will our families be waiting for us?” She had gotten up and was now standing just a few feet behind him. “Will the gee-pulse engine work any time we want it to?”
Stubbs faced her and smiled. “The man with that answer just went back to his post,” he said, walking to an empty chair.
He sat down carefully, reminding Alex that less than a month earlier the Commander had open heart surgery. Alex watched his old mentor lean back in his chair and take a deep breath. Despite his ailments and the strain of the mission, he still looked fit.
Stubbs’ eyes met Alex’s. “As Commander I have to look at the big picture. Are there opportunities we’re overlooking?
Certainly if there’s business undone here we should do it before we leave, don’t you agree? But, to be honest, Alex, I am eager to know if the gee-pulse will work. Our techies have concerns. But everything looks good.” He looked at the control room. “We won’t know if we’ll get home until we try.” He put his hands on his knees, about to rise.
Alex held up his hand. “Take a few minutes,” he suggested. “Relax. Have a coffee.”
Stubbs smiled appreciatively and leaned back in the foam chair. “Oh, a tea perhaps. You’ll be glad to know that the coffee production is, by all accounts, promising.”
Tony Sciarra was still watching the screen in the control room. Suddenly he sat up straight. “It’s getting smaller!” he shouted, pointing at the screen. “I’ve noticed it a while,” he added. “Thought it was my imagination, but it’s shrinking. I’m sure of it.”